Wargaming => MBX => Topic started by: Rattler on 3 November 2009, 10:25:13

Title: MBX FAQ and overview
Post by: Rattler on 3 November 2009, 10:25:13
Rikki Tikki, for his Global Thunder MBX had made a nice FAQ which I think deserves a re-post here. It is a bit outdatd from the tech POV (the FAQ is 10+ yrs old and technology has changed A LOT since when it was conceived) but accurate and helpful in the general aspects. I have edited a bit to reflect the new times on the internet.


            1. What is an MBX?
            2. How does an MBX differ from a CPX?
            3. Do I need CPX experience to play in an MBX?
            4. What do I need in order to play?
            5. Are MBX games just for military buffs or can anybody play?
            6. As a newcomer, will I hurt my team's chances of winning by playing?
            7. How much of a time commitment are we talking about?
            8. How much e-mail can I expect to receive per day, or per week?
            9. What if I am offline for an extended period?
            10. How does a typical MBX unfold?
            11. How fast is the pace?
            12. What are some typical MBX scenarios?
            13. What is the history of MBX gaming?
            14. Is there any sort of agreed-upon format for MBX games like there is for CPX games?
            15. Are there tips that can help me manage all the e-mail traffic?
            16. Are there any tips to help deal with all the different graphics formats out there?
            17. I am interested in starting my own MBX. Where do I start?

1. What is an MBX?

MBX stands for Mail Battle eXercise, which is a double-blind umpired wargame based on the somewhat more common CPX (Command Post eXercise), a type of wargame real life militaries play for training purposes. Both games attempt to do the same thing: simulate the experience of command from inside a command post which is where most modern combat is controlled (not on the actual field of battle). Unlike a CPX, however, which is usually played in a single day at a frenetic pace in real time, an MBX is conducted at a more leisurely pace over e-mail, typically for a period of several months. Thus, an MBX can explore the details of battle in a way that promotes in-depth discussion and careful analysis among the players as opposed to testing quick reactions under pressure.

    1.1 Organization

Players are generally grouped into two opposing teams with each team assuming the role of a headquarters staff. Someone on each team is usually elected to be the overall commander (also known as the side commander, C.O., Commander-in-Chief or CINC) who acts as the team captain, while the other players assume the role of the subordinate commanders. Each subordinate usually controls some portion of the team's forces, though some players may elect to take on a staff position instead of a command, such as the team's Operations Officer (S3, in charge of planning) or the Intelligence Officer (S2, in charge of researching info on enemy activity and troop strength).

    1.2 Umpires

All MBX games have at least one umpire, or Gamemaster. The umpire represents the level of command that is both immediately above and immediately below that of the team. That is, he presents the overall mission to the team by issuing objectives and timetables from above, while faithfully executing the team's tactical orders on the battelfield from below. The term "Gamemaster," or GM, is often another name for umpire, but it should be pointed out that the meaning of the two terms is slightly different. "GM" refers to such aspects of the game as creating the scenario, writing the rules, settling disputes and other administrative chores. "Umpire" usually refers specifically to resolving combat. An MBX can have several umpires, each overseeing a different type of combat or perhaps a different geographic area -- but there can only be one Gamemaster.

    1.3 Lurkers

Often an MBX will allow non-players to observe the game, (or as we say, "lurk,") by having them copied on a team's e-mail address lists. Lurkers can usually choose to be either single-sided Lurkers or Dual Lurkers. Single-sided Lurkers only get to see the orders and communications from one team, while Dual Lurkers can oversee both sides. One advantage to lurking on only one side is that you are still eligible to play later on if you like, assuming there is an opening.

    1.4 Playing by turns

An MBX game is played in turns. It is important to understand that the term "turn" does not refer to movement occuring sequentially, as in "I go, then you go," (such as in a game of checkers), but rather in unison, whereby both teams huddle together and plan their moves, then stand by while the action takes place on the field of battle (more like a game of football). The rate of turns may vary during the game at the umpire's discretion. A turn may be executed every few hours or every few days, depending on the size of the scenario, the number of players and the amount of activity going on. Likewise, the length of time that a turn represents in game terms could range anywhere between a few minutes and an entire day -- again, depending on the umpire's workload at any given time.

    1.5 Giving orders

Players give orders to the umpire as though the umpire were a subordinate immediately under their command. In a scenario in which a player who is given the job of battalion commander, for instance, it is assumed that during combat the player would be in contact with and give orders to each of the company commanders in that battalion. The umpire, in this case, would execute each of the three sets of orders as though he were acting for each of the company commanders in the field. At the end of each turn, these "company commanders" (as played by the umpire) will report back to the player any combat and sighting results, from which the players must assess their situation and give new orders on the following turn.

If any of this sounds complicated, it isn't. In practice the orders and reports tend to move back and forth rather fluidly between the player and the umpire in such a way that the player is hardly conscious of turns at all. Rather, he is merely reacting to reports and issuing orders accordingly, just as he naturally would in real life.

It is helpful, whenever possible, to provide the umpire (your subordinates) with some idea of your overall intent behind the orders. That way if a situation arises during the heat of battle which the umpire must react to quickly without consultation with you, he can act with initiative in accordance with your overall objectives (as any good subordinate would). Thus, "Move Alpha Company to Hill 21" is not as good as "Move Alpha Company to Hill 21 in order to observe for artillery fire in the valley," as the latter order will inform the umpire to make sure Alpha has a clear line of sight into the valley once the artillery is ordered to fire.

    1.6 Objectives

Game objectives are chosen by the Gamemaster and are usually issued as part of the mission brief for the team. These objectives are not always diametrically opposed, however. For example, the Blue team might be given orders to defend a supply depot in Town X against an advancing Red force, while the Red Force might be instructed to simply transit safely across the map, unaware of any supply depot in their path. It is not impossible in such cases for both teams to win their objectives, though perhaps by different degrees. This sort of complexity tends to reflect real-life warfare and often generates interesting battle results.

    1.7 Winning the game

MBX games are usually terminated when one side or the other has met their objectives, or when it is clear someone is about to. Due to the often complex nature of the objectives, especially when they are not diametrically opposed, determining the winner can involve a certain degree of subjective evaluation on the part of the umpire.

2. How does an MBX differ from a CPX?

    2.1. Duration and pace

While CPX games are usually played in a single long day, MBXs can take several months (or, as in one case, well over a year!) The demands on the players in terms of a weekly time commitment, however, are relatively small, such as an hour or two a week or so. There may be an especially hectic time of the battle, however, when the time commitment shoots way up. In this situation the umpire will generally slow the pace of the game to allow everyone to issue orders as necessary.

    2.2 Detail

CPX games need to compress as much information in the least amount of time, which means all extraneous details are eliminated whenever possible. MBX games, on the other hand, delve deeply into the details of warfare, sometimes to provide useful intelligence, or just to provide richness and color. Players often enjoy MBX games for this reason, as it allows everyone to savor the gory details of battle right down to the sound of a machine gun going off nearby or the smell of smoke and cordite lingering in the air.

    2.3 Discussion

Due to time pressures, CPX games allow little time for the discussion or debate of tactics. The more leisurely pace of an MBX, however, allows for a lot more exchange of opinions, particularly if the game draws players from more than one type of wargaming community. This can sometimes lead to rather heated and stormy debates in terms of tactics and even politics (though generally players are careful not to offend or insult each other). This is not considered a negative, however. Many people, in fact, (myself included) find these lively discusstions to be one of the more interesting aspects of MBXing.

    2.4 Scope

Due to the need to complete the exercise in a single day, CPX scenarios tend to be limited in their size. Since MBX games do not have this time constraint, movements of entire divisions can be gamed with just a few die rolls and a mileage table -- still too long for a CPX but fine for an e-mail game. MBX games can therefore involve a much bigger canvas. It is even possible in an MBX to move whole army groups without too much of a drag on the system -- while still keeping track of everything down to the platoon level (though this will make for an admittedly slower game than one that treats such mega-maneuvers as abstractions).

    2.5 Detail

While CPX games tend to focus on the most basic of tactics -- mostly those having to do with maneuvering and firing, the extended timeframe of an MBX allows for added layers of command issues. Players are free to delve into such matters as logistics, loadouts for aircraft and ships, intelligence-gathering (solving intelligence "puzzles" can often be a game all by itself) and weather. MBX games can also involve fatigue, morale, human error, and other intangibles. While this added detail poses extra challenges on the players, it also adds realism and allows players to use their imagination and resourcefulness to improve their chances for winning. In the US-Malaysia MBX, for example, one player, who was tasked with defending an area that included an oil field, pointed out that it would be relatively easy to use the oil drums and the indiginous metal shops that would most likely be found in a large oil field to make a fugazi, a certain type of fire-bomb mine, with skills any torpedoman from any of the nearby patrol boats might possess. Because this idea was both plausible and took so few resources to put into effect, the mines were admitted into the game and the player now had a much sturdier defense than he would have had otherwise. (These homemade mines eventually did flush out a US special forces team operating in the area).

    2.6 Campaignability

While there is usually not enough time to model more than a single major engagement in a CPX game, MBX games can portray an entire series of battles, allowing players to play out an entire campaign. In TacOps MBXs, these games often take place across a series of linked maps, allowing the game to encompass an entire grand-scale battlefield. Thus, MBX games are a good tool for looking at operations, not just tactics.

3. Do I need CPX experience to play in an MBX?

No. Many people have played in MBXs without ever having played in a CPX. On the other hand, having CPX experience can be helpful, because CPXs are good training exercises for learning how to fight as a member of a team. Another reason is that the MBX may actually involve CPX play at certain times.

4. What do I need in order to play?

    4.1 Things that are essential

-- An e-mail account. Obviously, without e-mail, you're not going to get far in an e-mail game.

-- Time that you can set aside to play. This requirement is hard to predict, but you should count on reserving at least a few minutes a day, on average, to deal with incoming reports, generate new orders, and communicate with your teammates. It is especially important to let your team know if you are not available to play for more than a few days in a row. (See question 7 for more details).

-- A willingness to work as a team. This is one of the biggest differences between MBX (or CPX) play and the more traditional solitaire or email play. You won't ever directly control every unit on your side; in fact, you'll usually only directly control a small fraction of your team's forces. Thus, you must be ready to talk back and forth, coordinate, etc with the other players on your team.

-- (this is a bit oudated, file handling nowadays should not pose a problem anymore, R.) Be able to handle large file attachments. Map graphic files can often be larger than one megabyte (1Mb). Players without this capability will need to have a teammate compress or reduce the file somehow (WinZip (PC) or Stuffit (Mac) are very useful; or reduce the image's color density and number of pixels) then send it to you. These days, most people have computers than can handle this so this is usually not a problem.

- (also outdated, viewing maps is not a tech problem anymore, R.) A program to view the map files. These programs are readily available on the internet for free, and most people usually have some graphics capability that came with their computer. You will need to work out with your team what files work best on everyone's computer to arrive at a single standard format for your team. Usually GIF and JPG are best for cross-platform play, though if your team happens to be all-Windows users, BMP is probably best.

    4.2 Things that are useful, but not essential

-- A chat room connection with your teammates. While the MBX may or may not feature a real time CPX (ask the umpire if this is the case), having chat room availability can be useful for conducting "emergency" planning meetings with your team if sudden developments start happening and there is not enough time to get a consensus by e-mail. The preferred chat channel for most TacOps players is IRC (Internet Relay Chat).

5. Are MBX games just for military buffs or can anybody play?

In theory anybody can play. If you own or are familiar with the computer game being used to model the action, that should be enough to get by. If you don't own the game but have a firm grounding in basic military jargon and tactics, you'll have no problem. If you do not fit into either of these categories, you may need to get some quick tutoring in this area. The upside of this is that your teammates will have a definite interest in teaching you.

6. As a newcomer, will I hurt my team's chances of winning?

Having newcomers on one's team is usually not a deficit to team performance. For one thing, umpires are usually careful to balance the teams so that both sides will have an equal share of veterans and newbies. For another, newbies will usually not be commanding very large forces at first so any errors they make will generally not be serious ones.

In any case, you certainly do not need to be knowledgeable to have fun playing in an MBX. Interestingly, some of the most "junior" players often recount their game experience with the most enthusiasm.

7. How much of a time commitment are we talking about?

This should really be broken down into two questions -- How long will the MBX last, and how many hours per day or per week must a player invest? MBX games vary greatly in both respects, but as far as duration is concerned you can generally expect a game to run for a few months, at least. (The longest completed game to date, run by Bill Jennings, lasted well over a year!) Sometimes, of course, people will have to drop out over time, but they are often replaced by someone else along the way, so this is not usually a problem.

The more important question, though, is how demanding the game is on a per day, or per week basis. This too can fluctuate wildly. There may be times where your end of the battlefield is quiet for several weeks, and you need only keep a vigilant watch on your area in case anything changes. This would translate to checking your e-mail every two or three days (although once a day is optimal) in order to keep up on all the reports. If the battle gets hot in your sector, however, you will not only need to keep up on all the incoming data but issue orders as well, and in a timely manner. In these cases, you should be prepared for a fairly lively e-mail correspondence with the rest of your team and the umpire, with additional time devoted to actual planning -- e.g., studying maps, re-reading situation reports, deciding on a route of advance, and so forth. Should you be "off-line" for more than a day or two when your forces are engaged in battle, you may need to be replaced temporarily so that your team will be able to direct those forces before the game turn is over. (See section 1.3 for description of a "turn.")

Because MBX games vary so greatly in scope and pace, it is difficult to predict how many hours per day or per week you will need to invest. If this is a concern of yours then the best idea is to ask. Generally, the umpire can give you some idea of how demanding the game will be.

8. How much e-mail can I expect to receive per day, or per week?

A lot. When things start hitting the fan, some games can generate as many as twenty or more pieces of e-mail a day (though most days are not anything like this). Depending on the forces you are commanding, however, you may not need to pore over each and every report or piece of correspondence. Rather, just try and keep up on general events so you can be ready when things start getting hot in your area. In any case, you should be prepared to receive, and possibly send, large graphics files (for maps) on a fairly regular basis.

9. What if I need to go offline for an extended period?

Sometimes life gets in the way and we cannot maintain a constant vigilance online. If you are aware this may happen beforehand, by all means tell your team captain (CO) so he can brief someone on your situation and have them fill your place while you're gone. If you happen to be the CO, have your Executive Officer take over, and alert both the umpire and the rest of your team. Whenever you have to leave the game unexpectedly try to let your teammates know where you are at your earliest convenience. Players who leave games without word for long periods can be, however unintentionally, disconcerting and disruptive to your teammates. If the absence persists long enough or frequently enough, that player may need to be replaced by the CO or the umpire.

10. How does a typical MBX unfold?

Like CPXs, MBX games start with a planning stage. This is where teams organize themselves, discuss their mission and decide how they want to allocate their forces and responsibilities. Players then begin to submit plans to the umpire. The whole process can take anywhere between 2 weeks and a month, depending on the size and scope of the game.

Once the exercise begins (STARTEX) the umpire translates the player's orders into appropriate game commands which are entered into a computer game such as TacOps or Harpoon to determine sightings and contacts. Any sightings or combat results are reported back to the teams. On the basis of the new information in the report, the players issue new orders which the umpire again processes, thus beginning a new orders cycle, or turn.

While this sounds like a very segmented structure, in reality it often works out to be a fairly fluid process with a constant stream of information and orders going back and forth between the teams and the umpire fairly seamlessly. A report is issued at regular intervals called a situation report (SITREP) and sometimes with an accompanying updated map with overlays to keep everyone up to speed on the status of the current situation.

At some point, one team or the other will win (or the outcome will become obvious), and the game will be called. Players and umpires are then encouraged to write an After Action Report (AAR) describing their methods and tactics and any learning or conclusions that they have to share. This is often where the most learning occurs, since players will now get to find out what was happening during those times when the battle was raging and confusion and chaos obscured what was really going on.

11. How fast is the pace?

The pace of the game depends on many factors, including the number and size of the events that are being gamed, how quickly players submit orders and how quickly the umpire can move events along and get the reports out to the players. It is also a very subjective thing -- what one player considers fast, another might find leisurely. If you are concerned about how much free time you will have to devote to the game, check with the umpire who is running the game. You may find the time requirements to be very low, or very flexible. Keep in mind, however, that while an MBX is played by mail, the umpire may wish to push the game at a faster pace than is comfortable for most people to recreate some of the tension and chaos that is typical of CPX games.

12. What are some typical MBX scenarios?

Theoretically, just about any military scenario you can think of is probably gameable in an MBX, due to the game's enormous flexibility. So there may not be any such thing as a "typical" MBX. You may want to ask the umpire for a brief description of the scenario so you can get an idea what to expect before committing to such a lengthy event. For some idea as to the scenarios that have been played in the past, however, see the next question.

13. What is the history of MBX gaming?

The TacOps MBX concept was first developed in 1995 or so, involving fictional countries and a division of forces on both sides spread out over some 20 interlinking TacOps maps (some map numbers repeated themselves). This was probably the first attempt on record at creating a TacOps campaign game. It was an ambitious project for its day but the rumors are that the project folded before ever getting off the ground.

In 1997, the first experimental TacOps MBX on record was run by a gamemaster (GM) known as Chimera, which featured two countries, also make-believe, each with about a brigade of forces spread out over 12 TacOps maps. Forces were chosen by a point system, in secret, so neither side knew what they'd be up against. Orders for both sides were open-ended, too, (basically each team was told to "defeat" the other side) allowing players to attack or defend at their discretion. In many ways, this game set the pattern for MBX games to come, leaving such legacies behind as the "Lurker" concept, and the notion of delivering information in the form of radio intercepts, as opposed to just your basic data readouts and sitreps/spotreps.

In the summer of 1998, Riki Tikki (that's me) ran what may have been the first combined-arms MBX, using multiple game engines such as TacOps and Harpoon to merge army, navy and air force elements into a single game experience. The premise for the scenario was based on a short story by Tom Clancy involving a Marine amphibious assault in the Southeast Pacific during a short war between the US and Malaysia, so in this case the game was meant to be a realistic portrayal of modern warfare. Very quickly, though, the story took its own path, as guided by the players, with all sorts of surprising twists and turns which generated a lot of lively discussion about tactics, operations, and political issues as well as certain "moral considerations" in warfare. This game expanded on Chimera's style of reporting to create an even more multi-sensory style featuring press releases, news stories, AARs, photos with suspicious markings on them, missives from ambassadors and so forth. Some of these items were introduced subtly rather than overtly, leaving the players to discover and analyze them on their own. The game involved dozens of players and lurkers from around the world and still stands as the largest MBX game ever played in terms of the number of participants.

Sometime after this, one of the players from the Battle of Brunei MBX, Nick Moran, went on to start a Harpoon MBX involving members of the Harpoon players' list (HULL). The scenario took place in the Mediterranean and featured a conflict between Turkey and Greece. Word has it that the game was never completed due to scheduling conflicts between the players and the umpire.

The longest-running MBX yet was completed in January 2000, which pitted an entire Soviet Combined Arms Army against a reinforced US Force XXI Division - and Bill Jennings kept track of the whole thing in terms of individual vehicles and squads. The style of reporting was more formal and realistic in nature than MBX games of the past. As of this writing we are still awaiting After Action Reviews from that war.

These are the known "big" MBX games to date. In addition to these there have also been a number of "mini-MBX" games that were played as adjuncts to a major TacOps CPX event. The typical premise for these games is for gaming out the relatively small recon skirmishes that occur prior to a major engagement between two large forces. The MBX format is particularly well-suited for this since it provides interesting and useful detail for the bigger battle ahead, and only takes perhaps a week or two to play out, due to the smallish size of the forces.

(AUTHOR'S SIDENOTE: Already in this short history of MBXing, we can clearly see a number of different game formats or "styles" emerging, with some games being extremely authentic in their reporting styles (sheer delight for the grognards), while others tend to sacrifice some of this realism for ease of play. While most MBX players seem to enjoy both styles equally, you may be among those who only prefer or feel capable of playing in just one type. If so, it would be a good idea to consult the umpire ahead of time to find out the kind of game you are joining.)

14. Is there any sort of agreed-upon format for MBX games like there is for CPX games?

Not really. Unlike CPX games which have developed their own language for efficiency purposes ("oo" for "orders out," for example), MBX games have no real set protocol. Thus, every MBX tends to be quite different from another, the main difference being the style of writing in the sighting and combat reports, which can often be a reflection of the personality or knowledgeability of the umpire. So there are probably as many styles or formats of MBX games as there are MBX umpires.

If you would like to know more about the format for an MBX you are interested in, ask the umpire before signing up.

15. Are there tips that can help me manage all the e-mail traffic?

It is a good idea to use an e-mail program that is able to sort your mail into different folders or priority settings based on what is written in the subject or address lines. This will allow you to get to the most important mails first and respond. (The latest version of Netscape has an e-mail program with this feature, and it's free.)

Each umpire will run their game differently, but generally you can expect there to be some sort of protocol for sending orders, as opposed to general discussion or other e-mail subject matter that may be less than critical. For example, the umpire may require that any e-mail that contains actual orders must contain the word ORDERS or some other key word in the subject line. This helps the umpire designate this piece of e-mail from the hundeds of other mails he received that day. Umpires will usually try to attend to players' orders first in order to ensure they are executed and to prevent unnecessary delays to the flow of the game.

16. Are there any tips to help deal with all the different graphics formats out there? (again, this is outdated and should not be considered an issue nowadays, R.)

Find out what graphics formats your teammates can use. Settle early on the most compatible standard. It may help to designate somebody who has a fast connection and a good paint program as the "converter", who will alter file formats as needed for other players.
Windows comes with a basic Paint program which also allows basic drawing and editing of the map.

Macs do not have their own paint program but there are some down-and-dirty shareware Mac paint programs out there. One that is highly recommended is GraphicConverter, which, as its name would suggest, allows the user to convert the graphic into all kinds of popular formats, allowing for cross-platform interchangability.

If you find yourself in a group of Windows-only players, you can all use BMP format. Otherwise, GIF and JPG are the two preferred formats for cross-platform play (with GIF having a slight edge, according to a recent poll on the TacOps mailing list).

17. I am interested in starting my own MBX. Where do I start?

Bravo! The more umpires and the more ongoing games, the better! Several resources and experiences will help you. Namely:

    17.1 -- MBX experience.

You really need to play in, or at least closely observe, at least one MBX before starting your own. I firmly believe there is no way to grasp all the difficulties that must be overcome unless you have some background in the game's format and how it is run. This will reduce the risk of problems, or of wasting a lot of people's time as you struggle to learn what is involved and what players will expect from you.

    17.2 -- CPX experience.

While your game may or may not involve a CPX, there is a lot of learning that comes from playing in them that is directly applicable to running an MBX -- organization of teams, evaluating victory conditions, presenting scenario briefs, and most of all, working with other people as a team are all skills that are common to both CPXs and MBXs. Even better experience would be to umpire a CPX, if possible.

In brief, it simply makes sense to get a taste of running -- or at the very least, playing -- in a one-day multi-player wargame or two before getting into the kind of time commitment required by an MBX.

    17.3 -- Come up with a scenario.

The scenario is the single-most differentiating -- and interesting -- aspect of an MBX, the thing that will draw people to your game and invite discussion and provoke thought. If you are a military pro, you may have lots of situations you have wanted to game for years. If you are the creative type, great, you can probably create a nifty scenario from your own imagination. If you are neither of the above, there are scores of military stories, some based on real life, some not, which provide great what-if scenarios for MBXs.
For more tips on writing a scenario, see the CPX Umpiring FAQ at the CPX page.

    17.4 -- Graphics experience.

At the very least, you will need to be able to view the game map you are using in some format that is readable by other players. Also helpful is the ability to mark up these maps, using a paint program. Therefore, unless the premise for your MBX is very simple, some proficiency in drawing and converting maps is therefore almost a necessity.

Title: Re: MBX FAQ and overview
Post by: stoffel on 3 November 2009, 14:48:16
What about the website and the files on it, are they saved as well?

Title: Re: MBX FAQ and overview
Post by: Rattler on 3 November 2009, 22:07:05
Beg your pardon?! Cannot follow, what is it you are asking?


Title: Re: MBX FAQ and overview
Post by: stoffel on 5 November 2009, 19:39:22
There was a website for each MBX team.
Did it survive?

Title: Re: MBX FAQ and overview
Post by: Rattler on 5 November 2009, 20:10:20
for Global Thunder, yes: http://www.tacopshq.com/MBX/Globalthunder/index.html (http://www.tacopshq.com/MBX/Globalthunder/index.html)

For smaller engagements, it turned out not to be practical, mailining lists proved better. Sites (or blogs as shown in a recent experiment) only make sense if you have lot of material to digest ans re-digest. Any email program able to sort by subject for a small MBX will do (of cause, players will have to stick to the posting rules).

That´s what you asked?


Title: Re: MBX FAQ and overview
Post by: stoffel on 5 November 2009, 20:52:17
Yes, :)