Idiot Rules: The Nuclear Option

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Over at Zone of Influence, Matt Kirschenbaum has a nice piece on what may be the ultimate in Idiot Rules, the “nuclear die” (“Roll a D6 for Armageddon”):

What I like about this mechanic is that it breaks the frame of the game. By forcing the player to risk something very real—not just prospects for victory, because every wargamer wins and loses lots of games—but the time and experience already invested in setting up and playing the game and all the potential play that still remained.

Most Idiot Rules try to keep the wargamer in line by threatening the possibility of victory in some way—don’t cross this line or your opponent gains x amount of Victory Points, don’t abandon this city or you forfeit y number of reinforcement steps. The gamer has, at times, a choice and can balance the possible cost against the potential benefit.

Contemporary and Cold War wargames need to include the nuclear, chemical, and biological aspect, particularly in any hypothetical NATO/Pact conflicts. Leaving them out detracts from the sense of reality, but to allow their use without any penalty is equally unrealistic.

Boom.

The solution, as Matt points out, is to put something more than victory or defeat at stake. When games model nuclear escalation via the “nuclear die,” players leave to chance the possibility that a strategic nuclear exchange can occur. Lob that tactical nuke if you must, or use that chemical or biological strike to bump up an attack to the next odds column, but if you do, there’s a possibility that it’s game over.

No winner, no loser, just finished. Pack the counters back in the Plano.

Given that it’s a fair investment of time and effort to set up a wargame and play through it, being forced to stop the game is a potent deterrent indeed. Only an idiot would risk it, which is a fair model of the use of nuclear weapons as well.

Idiot Rules: The Mighty Endeavor

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The tactical situation is dire and the course of action clear—pull back your forces to defensible terrain, shortening your supply lines and providing mutual support for your thinly-stretched units. But you can’t, because there’s an idiot rule in your way.

Wargames use idiot rules to prevent players from taking actions that are otherwise tactically sound and allowed in the rules, justifying the restrictions for historical reasons or to provide some form of play balance. After all, unless forced by the rules, very few sane gamers would throw division after division into Stalingrad or try to hold all of France in the face of a massive Allied invasion. Idiot rules attempt to enforce dictates from above the gamer’s pay grade.

Idiot rules can be subtle, offering rewards for following a particular course of action; games that use Victory Points as a means of determining the outcome of a game, for instance, can allocate a certain number of VP for control of locations that would otherwise be abandoned posthaste. Idiot rules can also be explicit, making certain sections of the map simply off-limits until a certain game turn or until certain criteria have been met.
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