Why Fog of War cards?

One of the new concepts in ‘Command Decision Test of Battle’ is the ‘Fog of War’ cards (FoW). I’m not sure which is more controversial, the points in ‘Test of Battle’ or the ‘Fog of War’ cards? In a previous article I discussed ‘Test of Battle’ points and how it all came about. This discussion addresses perhaps my favorite aspect of ‘Command Decision Test of Battle’.

The reasons I put the FoW cards in the game has to do with my view of combat--these cards embody that spirit and, more specifically, how combat is not like chess. Some view combat strategy and tactics as a pipe smoking event--study the board and make your move. This might be true for grand strategy but for the grunts in the field it is hardly a fun time. With all the noise, dirt, exhaustion, confusion and fear, it’s a miracle we ever have a clear depiction from victor or vanquished. Yes, we are playing a game, and our little men are good soldiers and always obey their orders, but I want something else. No, I don’t want the noise, dirt, exhaustion, confusion and fear, but I do want to model the impact. I also wanted to model the bravery and initiative of a select few. I almost forgot, did I mention situational awareness? Some of us think soldiers have a clear picture of what’s going on around them. Perhaps at times they do, but that distance is far shorter than we might think. In addition, with all this information, it’s a miracle they can make clear decisions about this information. For me, the simplest way to model all of this is with the FoW cards.

Some criticize the cards as not being random. Granted, they are not truly random, but they are quite a surprise to the opponent when one is played. More importantly, these cards are not modeling random events. In my readings there are countless events that influence a battle, some of which might be labeled random, but most of these events were caused by soldiers doing there jobs or going beyond the call of duty. I define a random event as something outside of human control, like the weather. Weather can be predicted, but these predictions are always suspect. FoW cards model something else--they model an action which is usually not at the same granularity as the rest of the game. Moreover, they model things that could happen which are based on some historical anecdote.

Here’s an example: an I&R (Intelligence & Reconnaissance) platoon is sent out to do its job--recon. In doing its job, it discovers an enemy regimental staff meeting. Without thinking of the consequences, the I&R platoon begins firing on the staff meeting, killing or wounding most of the officers, making this regiment unusable for several hours. Is this a random event? No, it is not random--the I&R platoon was sent out to recon, and then it finds a big prize and takes advantage of the situation. At several points in this chain-of-events officers and men made decisions that had a favorable results for the I&R platoon--this was not a random event. ‘Fortune favors the Brave’, and this I&R platoon was certainly brave and took advantage of the situation.

The above was a general account of an action in Normandy--now I’ll be a little more specific. During the battle for Guadalcanal the Cactus air force was running out of fuel. The previous days had been hard on Henderson field--between the bombings and the nightly bombardments. Fuel was becoming scarce, so scarce that sorties were about to be limited. Then someone remembered they had dispersed and hidden a secret stash of fuel, so flight operations could continue and the Japanese could be kept at bay for a few more days. If you don’t know the details of this account you might write this off as a random event, but looking into the details we can see people in charge made conscious decisions which led to having this precious gas. What appears to be a gift from the gods was just old fashioned planning.

The point of these 2 stories is to help illustrate my view of the FoW cards. These cards model events that did happen but can’t be easily included in any set of rules. The first event isn’t really modeled--it would be too powerful and would almost certainly decide our games. It was described to show how a small number of men can have a decisive impact on a battle. One way of looking at the FoW cards is they model officers and men making decisions leading to other decisions which finally produce some form of reward. Remember, without this motivation and improvisation many events would not happen.

Among the capabilities of the FoW cards are the ability to transform and/or alter most every rule in the game. Additionally, there are cards which give stands special enhanced abilities. Most of us could come up with valid anecdotes of actual events that these cards portray. Combat is not always predictable, but neither are the FoW cards. You can make the case FoW cards are more predictable than any single action, and I would agree. We have, however, a limited ability to create the almost unlimited events that happen in combat. Yet I have opted to include some of these events and made the text of the FoW cards somewhat generic and flexible.

Another reason the cards are not truly random is I feel making the card play random reduces the impact of the card. In many of my games I’ve seen the loser remember his FoW card and giggle about its effect on his opponent. Here’s a guy who just lost but is still happy because he got to play a couple of cool cards--I like it. Isn’t the main purpose to have fun? No, the cards are not truly random but in my opinion the current system is better.

I’ve mentioned situational awareness with FoW cards--this is now not an absolute. If you think your enemy can’t get to you because of range or other absolutely predictable factors you could be in for a shock. There is probably a card that makes your definite knowledge not quite absolute. There are too many examples of FoW cards interfering with your absolute certainty of something happening, like a battalion commander knowing everything that can happen to his command?

Another design goal of the FoW cards was that any card that you draw can not hurt you. This isn’t absolutely true, but, in general, when you draw a FoW card it either aids you or impairs your opponent. Yes, you may draw a card that is of no use, but there are rules mechanics that address this issue. Remember, not all cards are of equal value--the reason being it depends on the situation. I’ve had in my hand a FoW card that allows me to issue another order but since I had a Regimental Commander and his staff I really didn’t need this card. Given a different circumstance, this card could be priceless.

One complaint I’ve heard about the FoW cards puzzles me. ‘Glenn, I think these cards are a horrible!’

‘Really? Have you ever used them?’

‘No! But I know I will not like them.’

If you have never used them at least once why not give the cards a try? If you still can’t bring yourself to use them, that’s OK.

Here are some other uses for the FoW cards. There are uncountable anecdotes about the fickle finger of fate changing the course of a battle. As a scenario designer you might need to write a special rule to handle some bizarre event. With the use of FoW cards you might not need to add a special rule. Instead, you might start a player with a specific card or cards. Also, you might remove some cards form the deck or make 2 decks and edit each deck. If you feel strongly a leader performed with extra skill you might start him with extra cards and allow him to hold extra cards. This is just a few of the ways you could use the FoW cards--I’m sure you could come up with more ideas.

My fascination with FoW cards goes back almost twenty years. No, they are not the current cards, but there were many similarities. Early in the design process of ‘Command Decision – Test of Battle’ we decided to have the FoW cards as part of the basic rules. The plan was to have two decks of 50 cards included in the game--this was the plan until the spring of 2006. At that time, we had all the bids on the costs for the rules book and realized 10 sheets of 10 cards each was not financially feasible. With this shock we had to add one more set of 10 cards and reduce the number of sheets to 6. Scenario designers may still make 2 decks but there is a limit of 30 cards per deck.

As a note, some of the original ‘Brain Trust’ were against the cards, but Frank and I made the decision and resisted all opposition. Others suggested we make the cards optional. I felt this would be a bad decision--a designer needs one set of rules not one set plus suggestions. I’m not against suggestions--that’s why we have the Forum--but as a designer we owe our customers a specific set of rules. Both Frank and I believe very strongly about this--there will only be one set of official rules. Of course any group can modify the rules for their needs, I always did.

Future Plans
I would like to see the FoW cards expanded. We plan on having a higher quality card and making them available as extra accessories. We also plan on expanding the cards with many of the campaign books. Benghazi Handicap will have a new sheet for the Germans, Italians and the UK.

Just what does FoW add to the game? In my opinion it adds a great deal for very little cost in extra rules. Most of the events on the FoW cards could have special rules instead but ‘geez’ at what cost? FoW cards add a small level of uncertainty and reflect small but significant events that did change part of a battle. In my experience the FoW cards add just enough of this fog. In the hundred or so games I’ve watched, refereed or played, only once could I say a card was the definite cause of victory. Yes, these cards give a certain advantages, but usually these advantages were offset by other events.

Using FoW cards changes the game, but, in my experience, it changes the game for the better. It adds a level of excitement and anxiety without adding many rules.