B&T Warpath Chronicles Volume #8: Custom Battle Dice – How They Came to Be, Evolution, and Test Under Fire

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I started wargaming in the 1980s with the first edition of Jim Day’s Panzer. Convincing battle modeling has always been crucial for me. For a long time, I found the “to hit” process and also odds based combat result tables to be the ne plus ultra — along with 10-sided dice (I confess my love of exotic dice sprung from my D&D past!).

Then in the early 2000, my interest shifted to the bucket of dice approach. My experience is that when it is well conceived, its simplicity (1 piece : 1 die) frees the brain, allowing us to focus more on the narrative of the game.

From the very start, I wanted Bayonets & Tomahawks to be devoid of calculations. But I aimed for a battle system that could replicate each and every historical battle outcome of the French and Indian War. Dedicated research and perpetual evolution/streamlining (with many good ideas contributed by expert players) led to a custom dice system that is fun to use and delivers realistic results for that conflict.

Here’s the story of its development.

Flag and splatter

The first challenge was the fact that battles of the Age of Reason in North America were not attritional, contrary to Napoleonic, Civil War, WWI, etc. There are some instances where the winner would end up with more casualties than the loser. To simulate that, I decided that there would be 2 basic dice results: a “successful maneuver” result and a “hit” result. I opted for a flag symbol for the first one: plant your flag on the opponent’s ground so to speak. And a very graphic blood splatter symbol for the second (did I mention I’m a comics reader?)

In B&T, battle is a single pass of dice rolls: 1 die is rolled for each piece involved, then each player adds the number of flag and splatter results he got. The attacker wins if the sum of his results is higher than that of the defender.

Example: 5 attackers vs. 5 defenders. Both players roll 5 dice. The attacker gets 3 flags + 1 splatter and the defender gets 3 splatters. The attacker wins (4 total results vs. 3), but with a bloody nose as he suffers 3 hits against only one for his opponent!

Making it fit with French & Indian War history

For a while, all pieces used the same dice with an arbitrary number of flags and splatter symbols on it. It was simple and fun. Then I demoed my game to Marc Gouyon-Rety (Pendragon COIN designer). He floated an idea my way about having distinct custom dice for light and regular troops, to reflect the particular proficiency of each. He showed me the custom dice of the just released Star Wars Armada. It definitely inspired me, but I knew I’d need to dig in research for countless hours to adapt my basic system to something with more chrome and realism…

That summer, I spent a few weeks collecting the data of all battles of the French & Indian War, including those less broadly known. For each one I recorded more than 20 parameters (terrain, numbers of each troop types involved, detailed losses, etc.). It was a revelation: I saw some of my assumptions were wrong and I also discovered very interesting patterns. I now had a clear picture of the specific battle outcomes that my dice system would have to replicate. I combined that data with the theoretical outlook from my favorite book on the subject, Firepower: Weapons Effectiveness on the Battlefield, 1630-1750 by B. P. Hughes.

Cramming all that data in only 6 die faces…  

Now came the fun part of number munching and experimenting until I found how many flags and splatters to put on each die. There were conditional results by outlining the flag/splatter symbols on certain die faces, and I also integrated little letters that would account for terrain (settled or wilderness). It was a bit too much… My gamer friend Rami Sader was the first “victim” of that system and he sent me promptly back to the drawing board!

The benefit of a sound basis of data is that you can do many iterations of the system — just working on the tip of the iceberg. Because my prototype’s dice stickers are a nightmare to remove, I remember well changing the system five times or so until I got it the simplest it could be. Or so I thought…

“In a battle, people just want to roll dice.”  

This was excellent advice from Mark Simonitch, to whom I was presenting B&T at Montreal’s Stack académie event in May. I had just started explaining my battle system when he told me that it was too complicated (I confess there were 3 sets of custom dice and a table for conditional results). With a gaping mouth, I considered a fraction of second to explain why it was like it was based on my research. But I knew instantly he was right. We connected really well, and tried to find a solution. He mentioned the rich yet simple Command & Colors dice system. There followed a think tank during that event with Jean-François Tremblay, Félix Le Rouzès and Bob Mosdal. They pointed to the Star Wars Rebellion dice system. I studied the elegance of both of these concepts. Suddenly, the way to fix my battle dice became evident!

A rock-paper-scissors approach

The reason why I had previously ended up with 3 sets of custom dice and a conditional results table? I was trying to enhance or impair, depending of battle circumstances, the results each type of piece could roll. It was ok for simulation but resulted in poor game flow — and long explanations. I boldly went for more simplicity: back to a single custom dice type.

First, the flag became the basic and universal result (shared by all piece types). There are 2 die faces with it (1 in 3 chance). At that strategic scale, a flag represents a good maneuver, threat to supply lines, stealth, dash, outflanking, etc. In short: any positive action that wins battles without eliminating the enemy. So the more you have boots on the ground the more your base probability to win! Same old.

Secondly, based on the fact that some unit types are at their best against a specific target category, I decided that only pieces of the same type could inflict hits on each other. Regulars against regulars in line battles, light against light in skirmishes, etc. So there are 2 die faces with a splatter symbol. Each of these faces has different shapes added to the splatter symbol (square for regulars, triangle for light and circle for artillery). Example: a light piece must roll the splatter face that has a triangle symbol to achieve a hit. And that hit is valid only if there are some light pieces in the opponent’s force. When “incompatible” pieces fight each other, only flags will count. This does not mean that nobody was hit. It just means that there is not a sufficient level of casualty inflicted to significantly reduce the opposing piece. To sum it up, when a piece is used in a battle against a force that includes pieces of its own type, the probability of generating a result goes up to 1 in 2 (2 flag faces + 1 splatter face with the adequate shape). And in that instance, there is the possibility of eliminating enemy pieces.

Thirdly: a joker!  To add a little chrome, there is 1 face with crossed bayonet and tomahawk symbol. For a few piece types, it yields an additional possibility of effect (no effect at all for other piece types). Example: for Redcoats fighting on a settled space, that die face counts as a hit (now 2 out of 3 chances of battle result: 2 flag faces + 1 splatter face with the adequate shape + 1 bayonet and tomahawk face). After a 2 or 3 battles, the players will know this simple chrome by heart. It really delivers the last level of subtlety needed to portray these colorful French and Indian War battles!

Tested under fire

Leaving the beaten path to develop my own battle system was stressful in the end. Though I tested that last iteration successfully several times, I couldn’t get rid of a degree of self-doubt. What if I missed something again? I finally took the bull by the horns and double-checked the battle dice probabilities against the outcomes of all 20+ engagements of my Excel sheet above. Then I tested the dice repeatedly on major battles (10 times apiece): the historical outcomes always figured among the probable results.

The ultimate test was 2 intense days of B&T demos at WBC. The battle system proved straightforward to explain and it performed flawlessly. As a Franche de Marine reenactor, a devoted student of the Age of Reason and someone who likes fluid gameplay, I’m satisfied. I express my deepest gratitude to all those who helped me along the way!

Marc Rodrigue


Note: the keen observers will have noted 2 splatter faces with round symbol for artillery. I skipped that to keep the concept explanation to the minimum. More on this in the upcoming battle examples.

NEXT ARTICLE: Examples of 3 iconic FIW battles fought with B&T’s custom dice

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