The Last Hundred Yards Designer’s Notes: Intro, Initiative, and Activation Cycle

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What Am I Doing Here?

Throughout history, a multitude of authors have penned their thoughts regarding warfare on everything from waxed tablets, scrolls, books and electronic media.  Some of these documents emanated from the minds of generals, some from high political persons, some from civilians and some from those that suffered through the utter horror, chaos and unbridled cruelty of combat with men equally confused and terrified, but dead set on killing those that threatened their own survival.

It is the experience of these latter souls that The Last Hundred Yards and other tactical level games seek to capture and render into a board or computer game.   More precisely, what we attempted to capture with The Last Hundred Yards was best expressed by a writer recommended by a good friend.  In writing about the nature of combat at the level of company commanders, platoon Leaders, squad leaders and their men, John Keegan wrote:

What battles have in common is human: the behavior of men struggling to reconcile the instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honor and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them.  The study of battle is therefore always a study of fear and usually of courage; always of leadership, usually of obedience; always of compulsion, sometimes of insubordination; always of anxiety, sometimes of elation and catharsis; always of uncertainty and doubt, misinformation and misapprehension; … above all, it is always a study of solidarity, and usually disintegration; for it is toward disintegration of human groups that battle is directed (Keegan, The Face of Battle, 1976).

I am sure others have captured the nature of close combat at least as well, but after reading this and many other accounts of combat, several things stuck with me over the years I have been involved in gaming.   First and foremost:  Battle is very confusing at the bloody point of contact with an enemy.  By confusing, I mean wall-eyed, ear ringing, teeth rattling, confusing. Time appears to warp. Some actions appear unnaturally slow, while others may seem nearly instantaneous.  Information is extremely limited, especially at the squad or platoon level.  Unless an identified enemy group is four square in line of sight of a platoon, or actually firing at or charging the platoon, the platoon’s members will simply do what they were last told to do.  Those troops will only deviate slowly, if at all, from their ordered mission.  If they act in a way contrary to their mission orders, it is typically as a result of their commander perceiving, and reacting to, a mission threatening event.  Are they acting cowardly?  No. Most are extremely courageous just to remain there.

Things at a tactical level often happen very quickly and they happen simultaneously.  The smaller the level of battle, the faster things tend to happen.  For instance, a pair of soldiers in a foxhole may be wide awake and prepared.  But, they may be looking at the motion caused by a bird in a thicket to their right when two enemy soldiers move quietly by from a set of trees thirty meters on their left.  The entire sequence could have easily transpired in a matter of less than five seconds.   Similarly, a tank crewman may see the shadow of a superior tank through the trees to its front just in time to start and escape detection before the superior tank can engage.  Again, the event, from spotting to escape, could take place in less than thirty seconds.

Units in combat, unlike a game player, do not possess the great “eye in the sky.” They do not have complete knowledge of where things are or what is happening.  This has always bothered me about tactical level games and it is one of the goals of LHY to at least give the “eye in the sky” cataracts.  

Why we do what we do in The Last Hundred Yards – In this and subsequent monthly “why we do what we do” articles we discuss the various systems and mechanics used in The Last Hundred Yards. This first article discusses the Initiative System and the Activation Cycle used in The Last Hundred Yards.

Initiative System

The Initiative System in The Last Hundred Yards is designed to represent the swings in momentum that can occur during small unit combat. This momentum is similar to the momentum that can be observed in team sports like college football. It’s the team that acts and has the momentum that dictates the pace and direction of play, and the team without the momentum can only react.  Momentum can be a fickle thing. One moment your team has everything going its way, then, all of a sudden, the momentum swings to the other team, usually due to some event or mistake like a fumble or interception. It’s very much the same in small unit combat.  The attack is progressing well, but there’s a sudden disruption – the leader is wounded, a unit gets lost, an unexpected mortar attack or a sudden enemy counterattack – and the momentum is lost. The best combat leaders, like the best coaches, adapt and adjust their plans and actions to the circumstances at hand until the momentum is regained.

In The Last Hundred Yards, Initiative is determined at the beginning of the Game Turn by a die roll during the Initiative Phase. A player may receive a beneficial die roll modifier provided he had the initiative (e.g., the momentum) the previous game turn.  The player with the highest adjusted initiative die roll gets the initiative and is the Active Player for that Game Turn. So, what does it mean to be the Active Player with momentum? First, because the Active Player has the initiative in the current Game Turn, he will benefit from any initiative die roll modifier in the subsequent Initiative Phase in the next Game Turn increasing his chance of maintaining his momentum.  In addition, he can conduct actions with all of his units, while the units of the Non-Active Player may only react to the actions of Active Player’s units conducted within their line of sight (LOS). For instance, when firing, a unit of the Active Player may fire at any enemy unit in its LOS, but the Non-Active Player’s units may only fire at enemy units that conduct actions within their LOS.  When maneuvering, any or all of the Active Player’s units may maneuver, while the Non-Active Player’s units may only maneuver in reaction to enemy units that conducted actions in their LOS. An attacker with the initiative (momentum) can press the attack, but it can be really tough when the momentum is lost. In this case, the attacker must temporarily adjust his actions until he regains the initiative. It’s good to be the Active Player and have the momentum in The Last Hundred Yards.

Activation Cycle

The Activation Cycle is the heart of the game, and is based on the premise that “where there is action, there’s a reaction.” This is certainly true in combat, and this is the basis of almost all small unit actions. Combat at a small unit level is primarily about fire and maneuver. Almost without exception, any fire or maneuver action in LOS of an enemy unit will certainly draw a fire or maneuver reaction in return and set off a chain of reactions. The Activation Cycle in The Last Hundred Yards is intended to model the initial actions of units possessing the initiative and the resulting reactions.

In each Activation Cycle, the Active Player, having won the initiative, selects and activates a platoon, or possibly two platoons if conducting a Combined Activation, and any supporting units. Combined Activation is determined by a die roll at the beginning of the Activation Cycle and if successful allows the Active Player to activate two platoons together – simulating a coordinated attack. The Active Player then conducts fire, maneuver, assault or recover actions with some or all of his units. It is important to note that in The Last Hundred Yards each unit is limited to a single action or reaction per Game Turn. Once the Active Player has completed actions with units of the activated platoon(s), he Calls for Reaction from the Non-Active Player. The Non-Active Player may react by conducting fire, maneuver, assault or recovery reactions with his units in reaction to the Active Player units that conducted actions in their LOS. Once the Non-Active Player has completed his reactions, he now Calls for Reaction from the Active Player.  The Active Player could then react with any of his units to units of the Non-Active Player that conducted reactions within their LOS. Players continue to alternate reactions in this fashion until both players have finished reacting, at which point, the current Activation Cycle ends. The Active Player may then activate another platoon, beginning another Activation Cycle. This process is repeated until all the Active Player’s platoons have been activated.

To illustrate how the Activation Cycle works, the following narrative follows Lt. Murphy (representing the Active Player) commanding the 2nd platoon (the Activated Platoon). The actions of the 2nd platoon followed by both the Non-Active (enemy) and Active (friendly) Players’ reactions constitute one Activation Cycle.

Lt. Murphy has been tasked with securing an important road intersection. Having advanced to a position along the edge of a wood line approximately 200 meters away, he’s had the intersection under observation for several minutes. He sees that the area around the intersection is fairly open, consisting primarily of fallow fields. The farm near the intersection is typical of those found in eastern France consisting of a sturdy wooden farmhouse and a few out buildings surrounded by a stonewall. It appears that the farmhouse is uninhabited and he instructs the 1st squad to cautiously advance and secure the farmhouse (initial friendly maneuver action) while he holds the balance of the platoon in reserve to provide cover fire if needed.  After maneuvering to within 75 meters of the farmhouse, enemy MG fire suddenly erupts (enemy fire reaction) from one of the out buildings and the 1st squad goes to ground.  The 2nd squad, still in the wood line, immediately opens fire (friendly fire reaction) to suppress the enemy MG position.  In return, the 2nd squad immediately suffers enemy small arms fire (enemy fire reaction) from the farmhouse.  At the same time, Lt. Murphy notices an enemy squad maneuvering (enemy maneuver reaction) to a position along the stonewall.  Lt. Murphy responds by calling for company mortar support (friendly mortar fire reaction) against the farm and sends the 3rd squad along the tree line to the left to try and outflank the enemy (friendly maneuver reaction).

In the example narrative above, the Activation Cycle of Lt. Murphy’s 2nd Platoon ends with the 3rd Squad’s maneuver reaction as neither player has any further reactions.  If there were other platoons in this mission the Active Player would select and activate another platoon and the Activation Cycle would be repeated.

Initiative and the Activation Cycle are key elements in modeling Small Unit Behavior during combat in The Last Hundred Yards.  In the next article we will discuss Fire and Maneuver.


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2 thoughts on “The Last Hundred Yards Designer’s Notes: Intro, Initiative, and Activation Cycle

  1. Hello Mike,

    Finally got around to reading this. I was struck by how similar your approachis to one I have been kicking around fir Napoleonic combat at the low tactical level, where the playng pieces represent companies or two-company divisions and the “maneuver units” are battalions. The action/reaction distinction is lso important in my approach, but I did not take it as far as you in the reaction to reaction to reaction nature of your activtion cycle. I may have to experiment with that. The problem I have is with representing the simulataneous movement of several battalions outside range of each other. That is, second lines and reserves moving forward outside the range of the forward units, and so not easily captured in the activation cycle. In your terms, units of the non active player moving up toward the contact. Does your system cover that?

    Good stuff. Looking firward to it!

    Take care


    • Peter and Mike,
      It’s hard to represent simultaneous movement with activation’s and randomized initiative. I see it as a timing issue as all units on the board (in LOS and not in LOS) have to be synchronized to the same turn. Movement, orders delay, execution and rate of fire need to be synched too. So how would you represent timing without using a structured turn sequence, initiative determination or activation?

      That means using turns as a timing mechanism for when a unit performs an action ordered in a previous turn. This is much different than activation. The division commander can give an order to his maneuver battalions but many internal factors and battlefield friction can generate a delay in game turns (not a die roll modifier for determining initiative). Better troops execute more quickly putting them inside their opponents “decision loop” as poor troops will have a delay and/or take longer (more turns) to execute.

      Example: A division commander leading from the front of one of his battalions could quickly give and change orders for that battalion but there would be a greater delay or reliance on junior commanders for the other battalions (think Alexander the Great leading his Companion Cavalry). If his opponent’s division commander is in the rear HQ he’d have a delay in getting an update on the situation and a delay in the execution of his reaction and orders because he is not at the front. This would leave him a step behind with the initiative going to the leader at the front without the need for an initiative determination turn. The commander at the front will be getting through his decision loop more quickly – unless he got killed or wounded.

      Determining the length of a turn used for timing would involve determining the lowest common denominator for action. For low level Napoleonic action (which I am not familiar with) it would be from 1-5 minutes. You might have 1 minute turns and every 5 turns is a movement phase. Units are designated as moving but are physically mutually moved every 5 turns. I think it really comes down to having the right balance between order execution, rate of fire and movement. Most games have a problem representing opportunity fire because the game turn length lets units move too far and rate of fire is abstracted.

      For the last 3 years I’ve been play testing a set of rules for 1:1 WWII tank-infantry combat using one second turns as a timing mechanism and a movement phase every five turns (vehicles move 25-50 meters per movement phase). I can use historical rates of fire, turret rotation and crew reaction times without abstractions. It is reaction based as the same turn any two units come into LOS or detect an action like moving or firing a reaction check is made. The result can be ordering to engage and shoot right away (order now but execute later) or a delay of a number of turns before the order can be given and is added to the execution time. Delays are caused from being suppressed/buttoned up, poor crews, battlefield friction and being flanked.

      First shot engagement times compare favorably to historical encounters. Players can shorten their aim time to get the shot off sooner but with an accuracy penalty. There is a fog of war built in because you do not know the exact turn you’ll be shot at. Units can cancel orders to respond to a new threat but there may be a delay. Delays are deadly and get you killed.

      The game proceeds with turn numbers announced sequentially. Any unit scheduled to fire for the turn does so. If no one is firing play proceeds immediately to the next turn. Every 5 turns is a mutual movement phase which speeds up the game. Depending on timing units may move out of LOS before being shot at, it’s not a die roll. You know exactly where a unit is every turn so no special opportunity fire rules are needed. There is no orders phase. Immediately after executing an order or firing the player immediately determines his next action and the amount of turns it will take to execute in the future. Players need to observe the battlefield and think and act like tank commanders and squad leaders.

      Play testing has proven that this solves the problem of over watch, opportunity fire and initiative determination. Better crews have a slightly higher rate of fire. There is no orders phase or movement plotting. I’ve played a basic version of this at conventions with new players and it’s worked out pretty well.

      In a three hour miniatures game with each side having 12-25 tanks we can get through 25-30 movement phases. Tanks will typically fire every 6-15 turns depending on crew training, rate of fire and any engagement delays. It’s pretty intuitive and eliminates many rule exceptions. The best thing is players are not sitting around waiting to be activated (or not) and sitting idle while he gets pounded.

      I’ll be at the GMT Weekend next month.

      Steve Hagarty
      Pleasant Hill, CA