Over the past few years, I have been following the Burden of Command Twitter handle and am really interested in what they are doing on it. Their Project Lead is Luke Hughes and I reached out to him a few weeks ago and asked if he’d be interested in telling us what Burden of Command is, how it works and what we have to look forward to. Luke has done a fantastic job with this Guest Post and I am pleased to be able to share it with our audience.

What if many of the design innovations in ​tactical board games​ could reach the computer screen in a new design? That’s Burden of Command.

In this guest blog, humble thanks to​ The Players’ Aid,​ I’ll introduce you to Burden of Command and its specific mechanics using the prism of board games. I have played historical board games since childhood starting with Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg and the original Squad Leader. It is of personal importance to me to draw on their great legacy, as well as their continuing creativity. I do not claim the games referenced here are the definitive ones, only that they were my most key influences.

Burden of Command puts you in the boots of a US infantry company Captain in World War II. With the advising and playtesting guidance of noted military historian John McManus, we follow the historic Cottonbalers through their duties from Morocco in 1942 to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in 1945.

You’ll lead not only on the battlefield but ​off​​ in an extensive interactive fiction story campaign much like you might encounter in a class computer RPG (e.g., Baldur’s Gate, Shadowrun’s Return, The Banner Saga, etc.). Our intent is not only to have you grapple with some of the command realities the historic commanders had to experience (think of HBO’s ​Band of Brothers​) but also to build your empathy for your men. Then, when you make tactical decisions on the battlefield, you pause to think personally about the lives of the men whom you are now putting at risk. In other words, you’ll feel the “burden of command.” Is it right sending Lt. Dearborn up the hill in ‘45 when he has served you loyally since ‘42? He’s more effective (though you do worry about his Stress)… but maybe that green Lt. Thompson should learn to carry his weight…but his inexperience risks the men… maybe…

You get the idea.

However, let’s start on the mechanics with the more familiar board game terrain of tactical battlefield leadership. John Hill’sSquad Leaderand its remarkably successful descendantAdvanced Squad Leaderfrom MultiMan Publishing, are the ‘ur’ inspiration for Burden of Command with their emphasis on small unit leadership. Leaders are key units (especially the 10-3’s !) acting to critically improve squad performance. As well as keep them from breaking under enemy fire due to “Morale Checks” (MCs).

Please watch this recent two minute ​tactical teaser,​ many design elements should be familiar from SL/ASL but you might notice some more modern aspects. And yes, Lt. Thompson behaves inadequately at the end in a way you never would 😉

I hope you noticed that leadership actions expend Command Points (CPs). This modern euro “Limited Resources” mechanic is seen in more recent Conflict of Heroes (​CoH)​ f​rom Academy Games and Band of Brothers from Worthington Games. If you’ve played CoH you’ve agonized over how to spend them: “should I aid that critical attack?”… “revive that at risk spent unit?” In Burden of Command, these CPs are tied to your individual leaders on the battlefield, just like in Fields of Fire (FoF) by designer Ben Hull from GMT Games. This means each of your Lts faced his own personal command struggle as to where and how to allocate his precious CPs. Further, where you move your Lts with their limited CPs will be key, just like leader placement in SL, ASL and for that matter admirable Combat Commander​ (CC) from GMT Games and Chad Jensen.

Chad went with a command range to define which units a leader controls. After some design tests in a digital context, Burden of Command opted to embed your leaders in a classic formal chain of command. So for example, a given Lt. like Dearborn commands a specific set of squads, namely first platoon. As Captain, and company commander, you can influence your Lts performance by directly assisting them or their squads with your own CPs. Where you put yourself on the battlefield may be pivotal. Not only is having a formal chain of command more analogous to real command, but in the design spirit of Burden of Command we hope you develop emotional attachments to specific platoons and their units, as they take casualties on your behalf, and as they develop battlefield Experience (XP), and Trust (a mechanic improving their Morale) for their Lieutenant. As a canny Captain you’ll come to know when and where you should and shouldn’t use Dearborn and his first platoon.

In summary, overall, leadership inBurden of Commandfeels most like:

In most tactical games fire on a target produces MCs. A failed MC leads to a dysfunctional or “broken” unit. Repeated failed MCs lead to elimination. By contrast, Band of Brothers (BoB) by designer Jim Krohn from Worthington Games, takes the radically different view that firepower does not destroy units it only ​Suppresses them. Suppressed units are combat ineffective but will ​not ​​typically surrender or otherwise be destroyed unless you cross the battlefield to engage in melee. In other words, BoB encourages you to apply the classic 4Fs: Fire, Fix, Flank, and Finish, rather than simply apply firepower. You can read a more elegant defense of this approach than I can muster in this ​essay ​by Jim.

For Krohn, MCs are not tests for destruction but tests of whether a unit will act. Suppressed units often don’t. In Burden of Command,​ we similarly use MCs to gate whether a unit can act rather than whether it will be destroyed. Your leadership focus will be to first cripple the opposition through Suppression and then flank (as Thompson should have in the teaser) and finally assault. You may choose to use your limited CPs(!) to improve the initial suppressive firepower or alternatively you might save them to lead the assault and help your men pass the critical assault MC (an especial test of men’s nerve). What will be your leadership style?

You can see a still frame sequence of such key MCs in the visual below. In the first frame, the assaulting Germans MC to see if they dare to cross to melee (MC: “Go Hand to Hand?”). They have just passed and have started to move out of the woods. In the next frame, Dearborn opens up with opportunity fire.. .the Germans are “Exposed” (high chance of casualties) but due to prior suppressive fire on Dearborn and his men, the OpFire is limited. The Germans pass the “Take Cover?” MC and press on. Now the moment of truth for Dearborn and his men, will they stand for hand to hand or flee?

A mini story in a nutshell, just like SL, ASL, CC, and BoB, but in this case with men you care about. In other words (pictures?):

Anyone who reads history knows that battles large or small are full of chaos. The downside for the player is they are not always in control. The upside is that inevitably good stories are created (“remember that time my last unit was about to die… went Berserk under fire and then, Sgt. York like, crossed the open to…”).

Like SL/ASL and in particular like the masterful leadership and chaos engine known as Combat Commander (CC), Burden of Command will have a library of classic events (e.g., Jamming, Berserk, etc.) as well as one off historical ones engineered by our fiendish writers! And of course the inherently chaos generating MCs tied to critical actions, as illustrated above where the Germans might have folded and taken cover, or Dearborn might have fled.

Additionally, Burden of Command i​s throwing an especially leadership focused chaos into the mix: “Friction.” Friction is that inevitable wear and tear of chaos on the delivery, interpretation, and execution of orders. Mechanically, in Burden of Command this is realized by “dice rolls” at the start of each turn for each leader. A given leader may randomly lose CPs long term…gradually eroding their ability to control events…until they take the painful decision to stop and spend a full turn on ​Assess.​ Assess is a leadership action which restores full CPs. Think of it like a ​CP ​​‘Rally.’ But, of course, battles are hardly convenient times to stop and Assess. How will you and your Lts manage the battlefield tempo, Captain?

For these reasons in terms of Battlefield Chaos Burden of Command:

A relatively recent simple innovation in wargames in general is alternating impulses. Manifested more recently in tactical games in Academy Games Conflict of Heroes (CoH)​ series. Instead of moving all units on your side, or even a command group, single units are moved in alternation. This creates implicit chaos by providing the opposing player a frequent opportunity to mess with your best laid plans! No plan survives contact with the enemy! Burden of Command employs alternating impulses, though your leader’s experience might help you maintain command momentum for several impulses.

It’s worth stopping to mention at this point that all features for Burden of Command are subject to change based on playtesting feedback and of course my design whims 😉

CoH also has a very recent innovation in cardboard chaos creation. Specifically, a “Push Your Luck” (PUL) mechanic around when units become “spent” (i.e., can’t do more actions). First pioneered in their Solo module and now a core mechanic in their third edition, players roll a die each time a unit takes an action. More difficult actions (e.g., moving a heavy machine gun) are more likely to make the unit “Spent,” easy actions (an infantry squad moves one hex on a road) less so. But the key is ​you never know when your unit will become spent​. It might come in the middle of a field. It might come right after your beautiful suppressive fire when you could make that key sprint. You can spend CPs to improve your odds..but they are Oh So Limited! If you think battlefield leadership is in many ways about taking gambles, then this elegant PUL mechanism is a lovely chaos story creator, and arguably a good realism generator. Given our leadership design obsession this is a particularly appealing form of Command and Control (i.e. leadership) chaos. Burden of Command will implement similar PUL mechanisms.

Overall when considering battlefield chaos, Burden of Command f​eels not only like CC but also like CoH:

Compared to the vast majority of tactical military board games, and tactical military computer games (e.g., Steel Panthers, Close Combat, Combat Mission, etc.), Burden of Command is arguably most distinctive for being a leadership RPG. Through an extensive interactive fiction (IF) story based on their historical events of the actual Cottonbalers, as well as other events in the careers of other WWII small unit commanders, you will chart your own leadership journey. This two minute ​teaser gives you a taste, though the decisions are very laconic for purposes of video presentation:

If you want more on the RPG side and how we craft your spiritual, moral, and tactical leadership journey through mechanics of ​Crucibles​ and ​Mindsets​ see this dev blog.

The arguable originator of providing a WWII tactical RPG experience was Ambush! by John Butterfield and Eric Lee Smith. As you moved across a tactical map events could trigger based on the hex you entered. Causing unexpected events (Chaos!), occasional choose your own adventure moments, and sometimes just atmosphere (an enemy meal left behind in haste in the building you enter). In Burden of Command a fairly sophisticated pattern matching engine — my background is in part AI — helps our writers trigger such events based on the hex you entered but also based on the actions you take (e.g., did one of your Lt’s just fail a key MC to assault? What might he or his men say or do?). In short, we provide a sophisticated scripting engine to create what we hope is a worthy descendant of Ambush!

Visually:

Across the long campaign our writers Allen Gies and Paul Wang have worked hard not only to create empathy for the men whom you lead but also to immerse you in the historical experience of being in the US Army in WWII. Professor McManus has not only advised, but actively playtested the Interactive Fiction in support of this.

The long campaign will also have some light RPG management mechanics. For example, we plan on implementing Stress mechanisms as pioneered so finely by Dan Verssen of Dan Verssen Games in his leadership-games (e.g., Hornet Leader, Thunderbolt Apache Leader, etc.). But since these campaign mechanics are ill defined, perhaps ​The Players’ Aid w​ill invite us back for a future guest blog!

Therefore, in terms of leading a company across an historical long war, Burden of Command feels like:

Before closing, it should be mentioned that one WIP board game that is sure to have an ongoing influence is:

Due to its designer being our scenario lead Steven Overton (also of Combat Mission scenario design as “Mad Russian”! I told you we had a heavy board game influence). We’ll have more to say on FTRE when it’s out and you’ve had a chance to play too.

It’s been a pleasure having this opportunity to talk to the “tribe.” I hope the Grognards amongst you will forgive me my no doubt myriad mistakes, and I look forward to further discussing what are the most credible mechanisms for modeling battlefield psychology. Come chat at our Twitter account which I run (@BurdenOfCommand; or our analogous Facebook) and, please, if you want to help us along, Wishlist us on Steam. We’d love to do many more campaigns across many theaters and wars. Feel free to suggest some!

Burden of Command, a tactical leadership cRPG or, if you prefer, a hopeful child of a remarkable board game tradition.

-Luke