Counter Culture: Counters as Tools

In our continuing examination of the physical culture of wargaming, we should stop and consider the typical wargame counter:

Unit Counters

It is a representation, a stand-in. It denotes a particular kind of force or unit or grouping manipulable by the player. People argue all day, in places where such things matter, about using representational figures or NATO symbols or made-up icons to depict different types of units, about whether the first number on a counter should be attack value or armor thickness or movement points.

Or perhaps the counter is a status marker, a chit that provides information about the state of the game—broken, suppressed, mired, impassable, out of ammo, out of control. Here be there trenches, dug into the map:

Status Counters

Standard semiotics stuff. Counters are signifiers. This is not a half-inch square of cardboard—this is a platoon of T-64s that has suffered damage but remains battle-ready. Nothing new here.

But in some games, counters also serve as tools to enhance gameplay beyond merely standing in for some object or state that the game wishes to portray.

The most common non-signifier use of counters in wargames is as randomizers of some sort. Take GDW’s Assault (1983), for instance, a game that did not ship with a six sided die. The scenarios in this game require each player to randomly determine which one of six Force Levels will be used.

Most one to six randomizations can be accomplished by, um, rolling a d6, but rather than assume that the player owns a d6 that can be used to determine which of the six Force Levels is in play, the game comes with twelve counters (six green for the U.S. player, six red for the Soviet player):

Rule 23: Scenarios

A. Force Levels: Each side has six counters numbered from 1 to 6. These should be shuffled face down and each player draws one of his own counters. […] The force level counter should be saved and shown to the other player at the end of the scenario.

So it’s not mere skimpiness on GDW’s part in not including a d6 in the box; rather, the ability to physically prove that you drew a certain Force Level at the end of the game is why the designers chose to devote twelve counters out of a limited countermix to this feature. What that says about gamer trust is a matter best left for another time.

Other games, including Lock ‘n’ Load’s recent World at War series, uses counter draws from an opaque cup to determine the order in which various formations are allowed to act. By giving most NATO formations two Formation Markers, as opposed to one for most Soviet/Pact formations, the designer has attempted to model the doctrinal differences between the sides. From the most recent rulebook in the series, World at War: Blood and Bridges (2008):

13. Order of Battle (OOB) Formations

Finally, the World at War system strives to show the superior offense [sic] punch, flexibility, and leadership of the Western armies. I do this not by artificially inflating their firepower but by giving them the chance (the probability) of activating more often than their Soviet counterparts.

In this system, as Formation Markers are drawn, they are removed from the pool of Formation Markers remaining to be drawn, so the use of counters to determine formation activation gives the designer the ability to create a probability model that would be difficult to replicate with dice, no matter how many sides they might have. Counters that end the turn or that create special events may also be added to the mix, giving the designer a fair bit of flexibility in portraying a situation.

Still other games use counters to represent random events, but most times, these could just as easily be replicated by dice rolls that are cross-referenced with a random events table. Again, often it comes down to the number of events and the kind of probabilistic model the designer wants. If you have a total of twelve random events, say, that you want to occur with equal frequency, you need to supply either a d12 (since rolling 2d6 will not produce an equal distribution of numbers) or use twelve counters drawn at random.

In Avalon Hill/MMP’s Advanced Squad Leader (1985), one novel use for the counter as a physical object, rather than a representative one, is in determining whether or not a vehicle can maneuver between two obstacles.

D2.3 Vehicular Bypass Movement (VBM): […] The vehicle is moving around the obstacle within the hex—not through the obstacle. Therefore, the interior of each hexside traversed must be clear of any obstacle depiction to the depth of an edge of a unit counter for VBM to be usable. Hold a unit counter vertically so that the entire thickness of the hexside is just visible along the edge—if the other edge touches any obstacle depiction, VBM is not allowed along that hexside.

Which, in practice, looks a little like this:

Clear as a country road

ASL is a game of delightful complexities, so one could imagine a rule that accounted for the differing widths of AFVs, from tiny AMR 35s to hulking KV-1s, and tables filled with average shrubbery depths around Eastern European village houses in a dry autumn, but instead, one counter fits all, an elegant solution to a problem that didn’t need to be overcomplicated.

Perhaps the most intriguing recent use for counters as tools, though, is the forthcoming Bomber Command, designed by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, whose efforts as game designer and graphic designer we’ve examined here before. Recreating the night bombing efforts of the RAF against Germany during World War II, Bomber Command has players literally drop counters onto maps representing target cities to simulate bomb scatter:

(2) BOMBING. Now the British player selects a number of 1/2″ bomb counters—usually 20, though this can be increased by taking on a heavy bomb load, or decreased if bombing at long ranges. The counters are divided between HE and Incendiary types. The player can choose any mix they want.

These are now dropped in one lot onto the map from a height of 18 inches. This should be from a point roughly above the aim point. Counters that fall into the countryside are removed from the game.

Playtest City Map for Bomber Command

I find this mechanic to be quite ingenious, and already on the ConsimWorld forum for the game, there are discussions about optimal grips for the counters to minimize unwanted scatter and tests of how various counter material types bounce off the map. This mechanic adds an entire meta-game to the main game, and this may well be the first modern wargame to be considered a dexterity game as well as a wargame. With luck, this game will get picked up and produced soon.

I wonder, though, if there will be studies done on the differing aerodynamic properties of clipped versus unclipped counters

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