I have been an avid war gamer since I was in the 8th grade and played many tactical, operational and strategic games of all sizes. I’d like to say that had the TOCS (Tactical Operations Command System) and MASL (Macro-ASL) system came during a flash of brilliance, it would be less than truthful. The design actually came gradually through playing various games that tried to accomplish novel things, such as a macro game for strategic movement and another system for resolving the battles at a lower tactical level, and from games that attempted to offer some degree of fog-of-war or double-blind systems. I dabbled with miniatures and was intrigued with the double-blind games that I had been in; however, the mechanics and the need for a judge who had to orchestrate the game made it unwieldy to play and incredibly slow. I also happened to find a macro-miniatures campaign that covered a large area as tiles that mapped to miniatures maps that could be set up on a pong-pong table. Awesome concept, but I didn’t have the room, the players, and I didn’t want to be the judge. But these concepts, along with a double-blind version of a Market-Garden Hells Highway game made me think that with the right architecture and design, that a macro double-blind system could be produced that didn’t require a judge.
Now to put this into perspective, this is in the early 1980s and the PC wasn’t going to become prevalent until around 1988, so I’m a little ahead of the technical curve. I started writing double-blind judges on the VAX mainframe and convinced the Company that I needed a monitor and modem at home to ‘work’ from home… wink, wink. I was able to simulate and experiment with double-blind concepts by modeling them, crudely that is. As a new Engineer that was determined to light the world on fire, not like a pyromaniac, I mean… as a developer, I was struggling with how not to become another ‘wage-slave’ to an employer and was looking for a product that would be easy to develop that could be sold to a customer with deep pockets. Problem was, I had no product ideas and no intended customers, so I wasn’t even in any of the four quadrants of a marketing quad chart. So my first thought was to create a game system for the US Army and Marine Corps that would be a scalable double-blind game that could be used to teach cadets about how to operate as a team in a battle space that had limited intelligence. Not only would they need to collaborate and establish a command organization, but they would have to issue and draft orders to subordinates to carry out. The idea of two systems, one for the Commanding Officers that comprise the HQ staff of a Division or Brigade, and another for the Field Commanders that represent the Battalion and Company commanders that would have to follow the orders and conduct the battles. Since the battles would be farmed out to subordinates, the command staff would be in the dark until reports of the battle made it back up the echelon. Perfect! I now had the product concept, I just needed to determine how best to model it. My gut feeling was that miniatures was not the solution.
When the Squad Leader game system came out I quickly how simple it was to play and it did a reasonably good job modeling Company to Battalion sized battles as well as modeling the weapon systems. My opinion of the canned scenario cards was perplexing because of the need to ‘balance’ the battle so that each side could win the scenario and that they had too much of an omniscient view for such low level action. The fact that the scenario card could be studied and analyzed could never be accomplished in reality, except after the battle had been fought, as no commander has the ability to study the battle in that detail before it starts. In order to teach cadets, the system had to have limited intelligence and a high degree of uncertainty at both the Macro-level and at the combat-level or the game system isn’t modeling reality. By designing a system that allowed counters on the macro-level to seamlessly map down to Squad Leader counters and then to map the scenario results back into the macro-level game was fundamental for success. Now I not only had a business plan, but a design concept and an understanding of what the product had to accomplish.
I then started modeling the concepts with really small maps and regimental size organizations and realized that they resulted in amazing scenarios. This allowed the understanding of the basic game mechanics and macro-game battles to Squad Leader scenario mapping. My first attempts at a full Macro-Game turned out to be of the wrong scale or resulted in the center of gravity of the operation being congested into too small an area, which made the game not fun. I realized that the operation being modeled had to fit certain scaling conditions that allowed game play to be fluid. When I created the Operation Market Garden – Nijmegen module it was the right size and had objectives located all over the map, it was the perfect battle to model. It also was a good game to teach cadets how to perform airborne operations; from planning the flight plan, drop zones, subsequent drops, objectives, and logistical aspects of defending an airhead. The time period was now 1983 and I had my first real playable prototype of a game model.
I had met Ken Guerin when we had worked for the same company and both of us were avid gamers. A few years later, we each worked for different companies that just happened to be in the same building… small world. During lunch we would talk about MASL and worked out many of the rule details for the MASL Master Rule set so that they would apply to any module produced for the system. Ken has a deep understanding of a lot of game systems and we worked out a very good system that mimics real life capabilities without sacrificing the speed and quality of game play. If you have to ‘work’ to play the game, it isn’t designed properly, and it certainly reduces the fun you could have playing it. So first and foremost, TOCS-MASL needed to be fun, so much so, that its all you’re thinking about in your spare time. At some point the Advanced Squad Leader system came out, which was a better model for combat than the original Squad Leader series. The biggest design change came from modeling Chapter-E so that every rule in it was accounted for in the TOCS-MASL system. This was accomplished resulting in the system known as TOCS-MASL WWII rules today, allowing any operation to be modeled in any theater from the Spanish Civil War, WWII to the Korean War. It was at this time I started to switch my marketing towards the commercial gaming market because it would appeal to the ASL players as the long awaited evolution step after HASL modules to a fully operational-level game system.
MASL went through a series of play tests whenever I could find Advanced Squad Leader players. Eventually Ken and I teamed up again to take this system into the end zone. In order to prove the system out we created several modules that helped flush out the rules and charts. These systems were virtualized with an open source game engine, but we found too many quirky aspects that were interfering with the quality of game play. The engine was good enough to play test with, but would never be ‘product quality’. We then modeled the 80 Infantry Division’s Advance to the Moselle during the Lorraine Campaign as it drove towards the Rhine River. We realized immediately that this module was a great introductory module to teach players how to move and fight, force a river crossing, establish a bridgehead, bridging rivers, and finally the breakout and exploitation.
Together we made some significant progress, such as decoupling TOCS from MASL so that the modules are now games onto themselves by allowing players to use either the CRT or to use the MASL rules to play scenarios to resolve battles. Virtualizing the game allowed continual play test online. We then split the rules into TOCS Basic Rules, WWI, WWII rules and the game module rules. The MASL rules (Chapter-M) were split off from the TOCS system and are an addendum to the TOCS rules and are specific to mapping TOCS battles to ASL scenarios and mapping the results back into the TOCS system. We also have started development on two more modules to round out the Western Front. The Utah Beach has the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions performing a disorganized night landing behind Utah Beach, followed by strategic bombing and a naval bombardment at dawn with the seaborne invasion occurring immediately after. That’s the easy part. Moving inland off the beaches into hedgerow hell country through harassing interdiction fire against enemy territory infested with weapons nests will prove to be more difficult. The Scheldt Estuary module pits Commonwealth troops clearing the estuary to open the port of Antwerp to relieve the logistical supply problems. This module teaches players to advance against a heavily fortified area, planning a seaborne invasion combined with an amphibious assault across the estuary.
Forming Brick Mill Games,LLC was the next logical progression for completing these product designs. We have several WWII modules in various stages of development, two are in active play test and two are being implemented, with two WWI modules in the design queue. The major effort now is to put the final touches on the rules and charts and to focus on the TOCS gaming engine so that game play is enhanced by its capabilities. The engine must allow Commanding Officers to focus on playing the game and fighting the battles and not fighting with quirky aspects of the engine. Stay tuned for further TOCS and MASL progress at Brick Mill Games.