Thursday, 7 April 2022

How I write a Chain of Command game report

I've been asked several times how I put together my after action game reports for Chain of Command. Someone even remarked that the pictures were so free of gaming paraphernalia like measuring tapes and dice that I must re-enact the game afterwards and if that wasn't so, what sorcery was at play? A comment after a recent report on our Many Rivers to Cross campaign suggested there would be interest in a blog post on how I actually do go about it. So, this is it.

Firstly, I want to say that I don't think there is a right or wrong way to do these, exactly like there is no right or wrong way to paint your miniatures. You do what works for you and so this is not an attempt to tell people how they should do it, this is simply me explaining how I choose to do it.

From the beginning my aim was to create the sort of reports that I would enjoy reading. I like to follow how a game progresses and be able to understand what the players are trying to achieve and how they are going about doing it as the game unfolds. Ideally I'm able to gain a decent grasp of how the rules play out in the context of a game, particularly if I'm not familiar with them. 

While it helps to know the rules I'd like to think there's a way to write reports where a knowledge of the rule set is not essential. If the reader has a reasonable understanding of warfare during a particular historical period and the rule set tries to reflect that in its mechanics and outcomes then I believe you should be able to follow what's happening in any game set during that period. 

So, where do I start? Well, at the risk of stating the obvious - I need an opponent. Which means the first thing I must acknowledge is that without the patient cooperation of Dave, my regular opponent, none of this would be possible. I think it goes without saying that if you want to document the game in some detail it requires the willing involvement of both players.

The next key element is an organised space to play and record the game. The vast majority of our games take place at Dave's house and the set up for the games room is simple enough - a 6x4 table with the terrain for the game: 

The other important piece of furniture is a side table. This is an essential for me whether I'm photographing the game or not. I just don't like my miniatures tables cluttered with rulers, dice, reference sheets or, far worse.... cans, cups and food wrapping (I can't believe how often I see this in photographs of games at shows and conventions). Nothing breaks the immersion more and the same applies when it comes to photographs for the blog's game reports. The best way to avoid that is to have a side table for all those various bits and pieces. Let's be honest, that's where they belong.

We light the room with bright lights which helps considerably with the photography - three ceiling lights using 24W cool daylight bulbs (that's 100W in old money).

I make notes and take photographs each phase and the best way I've found to do that is using an iPhone. Photographs are taken without a flash and using the iPhone's built-in camera (hence the importance of good lighting in the games room). I take a lot of photographs, both wide shots of the table so that you can see unit movements in the context of terrain and the other units in play, and then I take close-ups to illustrate specific information about things like where units are positioned in relation to terrain/cover, casualties or the line of sight of key weapons. On average I take about 200 photos per game. 

I tend to take pictures in small series that tell the story of the phase - if one unit fires at another then I will photograph the firing unit and the target unit, perhaps also adding a wide shot to show both units and their positions relative to each other. If the result of the combat is of note then I take an 'after' shot of the target unit with casualties removed, wounded leaders marked or shock recorded.

The notes are made using the iPhone's Notes app. This has the potential to be the most time consuming part and the one most likely to interfere with the flow and enjoyment of playing the game, so I try to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible. The picture below is a screen shot of the start of my notes for the report of the third scenario in the Many Rivers to Cross campaign which you can read in full here

I make a few opening notes to include pertinent details like force morale. In the case of the game below I have noted the respective starting strength of all the German units, as that is relevant to the game.

Each phase I record the result of the command dice. I then record each action and any combat results. Looking at the example below I use a capital letter to record the side whose phase it is (in the case below it's a G for German and a D for Dutch). 


You'll notice that these notes include words like Mitrailleursgroepen or Obergefreiter. I don't write out those entire words each time. To help speed things along I use the Text Replacement feature of the iPhone keyboard to add shortcuts for the most commonly used words. These include common game mechanic terms such as 'deploy'; non English words like the German rank 'Feldwebel', or, technical names for pieces of equipment like the Carden Loyd carrier. I'll update it for each campaign to reflect new pieces of equipment or unit types.



Several game events don't require notes and can be recorded using photographs, like the positions of the jump-off-points. Essentially the photographs back up the notes and vice versa.

It takes a bit of discipline to remember consistently to make notes and take photographs. Keep in mind that we don't stage the games for the blog - first and foremost we are playing the games. I'm simply recording what happens for the blog. We are both quite competitive and often it's easy in the heat of the moment to forget to make a note or take a photograph. That said, after producing more than seventy of these AARs, I rarely forget and Dave is so used to the process he will remind me if I do.

Once I get home I try to compile the notes and photographs in a draft form as quickly as possible. I've found it best to do this sooner rather than later, while the game is still fresh in my mind.

I used Google's Blogger and set up a 'New Post' in the design software. The first thing is to cut and paste the raw text straight from Notes into the draft post. The notes will be in their rough form but here it helps to have used the text replacement ability on the iPhone because it means less work to do expanding the notes into proper sentences later. 

The next task is to populate each event of each phase with one or two photographs. Occasionally, if a game has had a long series of phases at the beginning where the attacker is moving forward but the defender has remained concealed, I may abbreviate the events of several phases but otherwise I tend to stick to a phase by phase account.

All of the photographs are in the photo library (I use a Mac and so all the iPhone apps talk to each other and all the photos are automatically transferred to the photo library via Apple's Photo Stream). The original size of each is about 3MB so I edit them first before uploading to the blog. I pick the ones I want, crop or adjust them if I think necessary and then put them in a separate file. I then compress them all down to a more manageable size. This can be time consuming as I don't use all the photographs that I have taken and some will need editing before I put them in the blog post. The one advantage of taking lots of photographs is that they also tell the story of the game and they do it chronologically, so if you find your notes are not complete the gaps can often be filled by looking at the photographs - another good reason to do it while the game is fresh in your mind.

With the raw notes in the draft and each note followed with one or more photographs I then have a basic structure that is the raw timeline of events. That then gives me the framework around which I can write a more comprehensive narrative. To be honest while I'm compiling the notes and pictures in this draft form I am already starting to think about the narrative arc of the report. 

What do I mean exactly when I say 'narrative arc'? I've worked in the film industry for more than 25 years and in some ways I look at a game report much as you would a film script - as a piece of creative writing. All films follow some sort of narrative arc, with the 'arc' the pivotal moments of drama in the film towards which the story builds and around which the narrative unfolds. This applies as much to documentaries as it does to fictional drama. It's very similar to the classic structure of a three act play:

First, you have the set up - here we establish the characters, the world they live in and their relationships and towards the end of that first act the main character has a confronting incident.

Second, you have the confrontation - here the main character deals with the incident but typically finds themselves in an ever worsening situation, one they cannot resolve without rising to the occasion to tackle it in new ways or by acquiring new skills or knowledge.

Lastly, you have the resolution - this is a high point of drama and action where the protagonist confronts the incident and works to a resolution, often emerging wiser or better than they were previously.

I think you can see how this narrative arc can apply to many wargames. Invariably I find that I can identify one or two defining moments in a game, if you like, these are the confrontation of the second act. The ways in which each player attempts to deal with those defining moments is the story's dramatic arc and forms the third act, the resolution.

So the first stage of the game report is to create the set up -  to set the scene for the readers - what is the scenario? what are the victory conditions? what forces are being used and in what sort of terrain? what has happened in previous games to influence what is happening now? The game then begins and early on there is a confronting incident. Well of course there is, after all no plan survives first contact with the enemy! That could be the loss of a key unit, the death of a senior leader, the surprise appearance of an anti-tank gun etc

That set up leads to the confrontation, where both sides begin deploying and fighting for supremacy over key objectives and so the game ebbs and flows as each sides seeks to react.

Finally we have the resolution, probably a moment when one player makes a decisive breakthrough; it could be the exploitation of a moment of good fortune with an aggressive move, or, the execution of a surprise deployment that's enough to tip the balance of the game and eventually see one side emerge victorious. Sometimes it is simply the stoicism displayed by one player to ride through a rough patch to remain in the fight and attain a result that looked unlikely earlier in the game.

I have to say this is the bit I enjoy the most, it's the crafting of the story of the game. In many ways it's like playing the game all over again, but in order to do it justice I need to have as much material as possible to pull it all together, without that it's hard to produce something meaningful. 


25 comments:

  1. Thank you, that's really informative and reassuring that one could do the same given your excellent guidance.

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  2. All good points, my pet hate is as you mentioned the placement of rulebooks, dice and gaming aids etc, on the gaming table.
    cheers John

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    1. Yep, it's always bugged me. Why make beautiful terrain and miniatures only to spoil the effect?

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  3. Excellent article once again!

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  4. That's an impressive amount of work, and it feels like it has almost become a separate aspect of the hobby, like when people focus on terrain, or painting figures.

    Colour me impressed at the attention to creating the narrative. As someone who has written a handful of novels I admire the focus and quality of the end result. Thank you for sharing these wonderful ideas.

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    1. Thanks Ashley. Funny thing but I've never looked at it like a separate aspect of the hobby, but now you mention it, I think you hit the nail on the head. In all honesty I focus on it just as much as I do other separate aspects of the hobby like researching history, painting miniatures and playing games so it makes perfect sense to see it that way.

      As for the narrative it almost begs to be told and I can see it forming as I'm putting the draft together. I think while we're playing I'm very focussed on mechanics and tactics, it's only afterwards when I reflect on how the game went do I begin to see how there was a definite narrative flow to the way things unfolded. I hardly need to tell you, there's a great satisfaction in writing it.

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    2. That was great! Thank you so much for doing it. I immediately found the difficulty that I had in doing this - not enough photos of a clean set up. Your experience in the film industry shines through. I had a sense of it when reading your reports, but couldn't put my finger on it, but when you said that the light came on! It is obviously just as much work (if not more) as putting on the game in the first place. I think my major problem is that 90% of my games are with 4 to 6 players, Getting one understanding player is tough enough, getting 5 - impossible. Thanks Again.

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    3. I once imagine I would be a director, but while that goal never came to a fruition I did end up writing my stories. Maybe one day they will be adapted for either the small or big screen.

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    4. Ashley, a film adaptation is a mixed blessing, be prepared to let go of your baby and have someone mutate it beyond recognition. By the time the new writer has written the screenplay, the director has imposed their ‘vision’, the producer has trimmed the story to fit the budget and the actors have ‘interpreted’ the characters you’ll be broken hearted. My best advice to people in that situation is often just to take the money and run.

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  5. Not surprisingly the 'secret' seems to be planning, preparation and perspiration – no wonder good AARs escape me. I think you also must credit your description of what you’re thinking and why you try the moves that you do. For me it is the clear discussion of the decision-making that engages me – reading how you get disheartened by a bad run of luck but then either sticking to your guns or coming up with a new approach to snatch a win from the jaws of a defeat – well sometimes…

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    1. Thanks Rob, yes I should have mentioned that, as I often like to know what other players are thinking and why they’ve done what they’ve just done.

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  6. Appreciate you writing this up. Pleased with the similarities I see to my own process, but probably not surprising since I look to your blog as the gold standard for battle reports, along with less active blogs like Tiny Hordes. That's a good trick with the text replacement shortcuts, I'll have to remember it. Keeping clutter off the table (or more accurately away from the edges of the gaming mat on a larger than 6x4 gamestore table) is something I try to keep aware of. One game I had a player insist on putting his drink in a then-unused portion of the table, and it just drove me nuts. I don't even think I was writing a battle report for that one, but I just couldn't believe it.

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    1. I get it! Why go to the trouble of creating good terrain and populating it with your lovingly painted miniatures to then have someone treat it as a giant coaster for their canned drink.

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  7. Ohhhhh - so the secret is that you work really hard at it! Your film background definitely shines through. I really enjoy making AARs as well as they serve as a fun reminder of games played; kind of a gaming history. But I just haven't done it lately due to the time required. Thanks so much for this insight into your process!

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    1. No doubt about it, there are no real shortcuts, like most things it’s just as much perspiration as it is inspiration (to paraphrase someone else).

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  8. This is a very useful post. The letter replacement in notes in not something I would ever have thought of doing but is genius.
    I do enjoy reading your AARs, they are the best ones available and the most enjoyable since reading Battle Reports in White Dwarf magazine in the 1990s. The problem with those is that whilst they got the narrative arc and photos done very well, they never got in to how the rules affect the decision making process which you have nailed without ever slowing down the narrative aspect.
    Anyway this post gave me a few ideas, so thanks!

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    1. Thanks and your not the first to mention how you enjoy the insights into the decision making process, perhaps I should have made more mention of that. The comments have given me great feedback and helped me understand what people get out of these, thanks again.

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  9. Excellent walk through of your process - thank you!

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  10. I hate to say "I told you so" but as i have been bugging you over several years now to write up your process and your readers will thank you. You felt that there would be very little interest! 19 comments says a lot (I know some of them are your replies) but I bet that there are many more of your readers appreciating this than reply. I am certainly going to try to do better using your methods.
    Thankyou again

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    1. Yep, you were absolutely right, the feedback and the number of page views since I published it certainly indicates the level of interest. You can certainly take credit for that and I’m only sorry it took me so long to realise!

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  11. Thanks for the post explaining the nuts and bolts of how you produce your AARs. You have the best on the internet as far as I’m concerned. 😀
    Hard for me to imagine taking 200 or more pics during a game. And I always seem to have a pic or two with dice in it.

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    1. Thanks Stew, that’s really nice to hear. I never thought I took that many pictures, it was only when I came to regularly deleting them from my phone and the iPhone asked me to confirm ‘do you really want to delete 200+ pictures’ that I realised quite how many I take.

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