PLAYING DEFENSE (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

A major selling point of a fair number of wargames is that both players get to be the attacker. I'm speaking in the overall strategic or operational sense, the roles the players are assuming, rather than the fact that on each player's combat phase, they are the attacker and their opponent the defender. I'm talking about the grand, sweeping maneuvers, the bold plans, the desperate gambles: the attacker, dynamic, lurching ever-forward. Whereas the defender is pulling back - trading ground for time, plugging holes in the line, and taking their lumps.

Advance versus retreat, action versus reaction, energy versus inertia. The former has an elemental, almost childlike appeal: who doesn't want to be the brilliant general on the cusp of triumph? The latter is a harder sell: who wants to be the schmuck shuffling soldiers to and fro as they try to forestall the inevitable?  It's no wonder that games where these roles are more rigidly defined - player one always on the attack, and player two always defending, hoping and working for a chance to land a counter-blow - are often seen as being less appealing than games where the roles can switch.

But me? I like to play defense. I like to be the schmuck whose resources are stretched thin. When and where to give up ground, and where to hold, how to plug the lines and when to risk letting them break: that's the stuff I find the most exhilarating. Let the enemy speed their divisions across the hex grid, let them try to turn my flank. I want to carefully build a big, stubborn wall to frustrate them, make them fight for every inch, then yield up a hex-row or two as my troops fall back to better ground.

There are fewer decisions when you're the defender. Moment-to-moment, unit-by-unit, you're not moving as often or as far. I want to preserve my forces, so unless the game requires it, I'm not going to be making as many attacks. The attacker is making a greater number of tiny decisions that feel big; the defender makes a smaller number of big decisions that feel small.

Maybe that's part of what appeals to me: the economy of my decisions. The attacker moves a dozen pieces at once, launches a dozen assaults, and all that together, all that sound and fury, is their turn, their move, their go. I move a single piece, silent and calculating, and its ripples are felt all throughout the line. My decisions are strategic; the attacker's, tactical.

Oddly enough this dichotomy is most apparent in my designs in This Guilty Land and the upcoming The Vote, which aren't wargames in any traditional sense. In both games, one side - Justice in This Guilty Land, Equality in The Vote - is doing things: building support, shifting public opinion, working toward a better and more egalitarian society. The other side is digging in its heels. It doesn't need to really do anything, doesn't want to do anything, and in a certain sense, doesn't have anything to do, at least not in the way that their opponent - the attacker, if you will - does. They are doing less on each turn. Indeed, their most important decisions are usually on their opponent's turn - when to block and with what. In The Vote especially, your primary focus as Supremacy is going to be taking actions that put cards into your Reserve so that you can block what Equality is doing, and you're not going to be taking that action every turn. (You're also going to be working on moving through the deck, which might involve choosing which cards to discard from the Display - so exciting!) Some turns, you're just going to be lying in wait.

This is historically accurate and makes for an interesting simulation of progress and intransigence, but is it satisfying in the ludic sense - is it interesting and engaging to play that side? Well, I obviously think so. Folks who don't find playing defense to be compelling, however, might want to stay clear.


  • So, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


  • Yes, the feigned retreat is something to be wary of – worked well for Hannibal and Napoleon as well. At the same time, if you don’t seize a real opportunity when you have the chance, it is folly – that was MCClellan’s problem. Telling a trap from a windfall is an important skill, and whether or not you were right of course is only known in retrospect.

    Tom Russell

  • Your description of your play style reminds me of the English under King Harold at Hastings, where they just stood there defying all the Norman attacks. Finally the Normans feigned retreat, and when the English broke ranks to pursue, the Normans turned and cut them down.

    So don’t get fooled when you see what appears to be a counterattacking opportunity but is only a trap!

    Eric Brosius

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