Wargamer’s Notebook 8

There has been something of a running battle recently on the Internet. The general gist was whether wargames rules, of any period, should attempt to simulate history or appeal as games first and foremost. Of course, there was a substantial middle ground of opinion, me included, who demanded the best of both worlds. This quickly rolled on to whether any rule system could ever hope to recreate military history. So why the heated discussion? Surely the game/simulation chestnut has been a core theme since the hobby started all those years ago? An obvious compromise that has been discussed to distraction? Well, yes and no. I for one think there is still some mileage in the subject, so I thought I’d re-raise some points in this and the next issue.

Point one was that everyone agreed that history is a movable feast. Depending on what books you’ve read, or how much research you’ve done and what interpretations you and historians put on events, most historical rule designers are starting out from similar, but discrete, starting points. Add to this many people’s fallacy of rules complexity equating to realism, whether or not to simulate friction (assuming you entertain the Clauswitzian paradigm) and the old ‘command level’ standby of whether you play private, captain or marshal (or all three), and we already had a heady brew.

Point two is that there is a noticeable tendency, evident both here and in the States, to champion a ruleset. By this I mean if you play, and often by extension love, Empire, DBA, Napoleon’s Battles, Fire & Fury, Armati, WRG (or whatever), it seems that many would die fighting for it. These hard of understanding individuals take any exchange on historical content as an assault on their favourite rule set (promptly digging their heels in…) and any constructive discussion devolves rapidly into ‘my set is better than yours’. Very helpful, I’m sure. Whatever, using ones own rule set to bash other people on the head is a fact of life: WRG are crap/great. My Mac is better than your IBM. My Porsche will take your Ferrari etc etc. Fine and dandy, but I can live without all this.

Point three is that there are clearly large number of gamers, which only slightly surprised me, who care little whether the game is historical or not – as long as they have fun. An interesting conclusion, and each to their own. I am however intrigued as to what keeps these gamers involved – it must be the winning… But seriously, I have been railing against this for as long as I have been reading rules. I can see why people enjoy gaming, goodness knows I’ve enjoyed enough games over the years, and thus I can see why some rule sets are designed (often unintentionally) as games first with history as a by-product. How can you claim to be part of a historical miniatures hobby when you know, and sometimes even admit, that your rules, scenarios and army matchups are about as realistic as a Jackie Collins novel? Sure, you have great fun with your fictitious match-ups and compositions, and equal point armies, but what really is the point? As far as I can see it is simply the chance to play a game with friends (and beer), much as one does Pictionary, Triv or Monopoly, that just happens to have historical models instead of plastic hotels. Is that the answer? Nothing wrong if it is, but fun alone is not enough for me. I want the history as well, and the balance of existing rule sets need some adjustment away from the playable to the historic.

Reinforcing this point is the huge success enjoyed by DBA and its offspring, DBM and DBR. Now as far as I can tell, ancients gamers encompass the least adherents to realistic play but they have at least embraced i) a radical and elegant system, ii) the chance to command with at least some restrictions and iii) much shorter games (and army building times). To me, DBA is still more a cousin of Stratego, plus dice, than a wargame. But it has its merits. Even so, if you see a sad old competitive battle in a back room somewhere, or filling a hall at Derby, sure as eggs is eggs it will be two argumentative, stern characters playing DBA Assyrians vs Normans, on formica, with a sandwich as a hill. It is a hackneyed insult, but one that still sadly holds true today. But, importantly, they are having fun. Presumably.

So then, the hobby is a broad church. It can encompass those that are playing fantasy battles albeit veneered with historical uniforms, those deluded souls that think DBA is a simulation rather than a clever abstract game, those that believe it was entirely possible for a commander to move all his men whenever he wanted to (and that they would fight on demand), and also, those that have read their history and love it, know that this what they want from the rules, and are either trying to take us there or are waiting for someone else to do it. I calculate this latter group could be as high as 1% of the total. On a good day.

So what I ended up with, to help rationalise this, is two scales – 0% to 100%. One denoting historicity, one playability. I don’t think either optimum is possible (yet) or indeed desirable, and it is probably for each gamer to choose the ratio he is happy with, but I do believe it is possible to get pretty high up on both scales at the same time. I don’t know of many current rulesets that do this, or indeed any that spring to mind, but we are getting there slowly through compromise, downsizing, faster playing rules, and evolutionary design advances like Tactica and Fire & Fury, or revolutionary like DBA. I suppose my question is, given the chance of playing a set of rules that gave you a believable historical result, perhaps with the excitement and feel (or as close as we are ever going to get) of having commanded a battle, and having a damn good time – wouldn’t you try it? This is all I ask. So given this problem, I suppose all I can do is come up with my personal view and request yours in response to see if there is, unlike the Internet, a consensus view out there. So here goes:

If I am going to play historical games, of any sort, I would like to feel that they have some semblance of reality – rather more than a patina of historicity so you can legitimately lay out model soldiers, but a little less than 100% simulation. Before you shout, I am more than aware of the subjective nature of historical accuracy. In fact, I question almost everything in history, but one has to plump down somewhere eventually. My main point is that no, I do not want a 100% accurate replay of Waterloo, in the same way that I don’t want a 100% accurate replay of any given cricket game. Why bother? – you know the outcome. Ideally, I’d settle for a 90%/90% game, or thereabouts. Accordingly, I would like the designer to take a historical view, hopefully quite close to mine, and create a game system that can produce results within a believable range of outcomes. This range would encompass the historical result but also permit a range of ‘what ifs’ on either side of ‘the truth’, whatever that is deemed to be. We also need to get round the thorny problem of hindsight – we all know the Prussians arrive, but did the commanders at the time? So Grouchy might arrive (slim chance), or Blucher might be late (possible), or the Cumberland Hussars might charge (who knows). Obviously, it is the designer’s call as to what he accepts as the basis of the system, and how wide those parameters are set, and how he implements them within the rules.

A key topic during the discussion was whether, ceteris paribus, the Old Guard would always beat a landwehr unit at Plancenoit. Many were quite happy with 100% success rate (shameless Francophiles in the main), others said (rightly to my mind) that nothing is ever certain, yet others pegged it as low as 70%. Given the situation at the time in that village, I think saying 100% is more than a little strong, but until that time machine appears then all we have to rely on are sources, perceived history and design skill. Yet even with the time machine, we’d have to rely on someone else’s interpretation… And having made your evaluation, you can set the rules system up so it models your views, and, if selling them, keep your fingers crossed that they appeal to others. And if they don’t, the buyer can always tweak them.

My other point is that I don’t think it is impossible, or indeed that much more work, to make a game that is highly playable into an historical product as well. You don’t even have to compromise the entry level of the game, the price, the fun, or even the speed of play, to facilitate this added value. It can all be moulded into familiar, and elegant, systems. And surely this would widen the market – perhaps those recalcitrant historians (or even the elitists at WD!) might start taking them seriously? I also find, in truth, that my primary source of enjoyment in gaming is not rolling dice, blasting attack columns, or even the (very occasional) win, it is a combination of the social aspects, decision making and, primarily, seeing the history unfold through the rule system, troops and terrain – the atmosphere is the thing. But that is me.

The final aspect, which started to emerge during the discussions, is direct comparison with history. Hard to believe we have shelves of books, and piles of rules, yet the two rarely ever seem to intersect. Going back to my point on setting your historical ‘truths’, it is an extremely interesting exercise to examine a game, even a Wednesday night pick-up, and then go and read a book on a comparable battle. What were the similarities? Did the game throw up anything unbelievable? Could the rules and dice have recreated the situations in the book? (this is often a straight mathematical exercise). Did the historical troops perform as your tabletop ones do? When, and how, did their morale crack? Were the commanders more or less able to do what you did? And so on. A useful, and fascinating, exercise I find.

Next issue a look at the role we can play in a game – can you really be a general or colonel, or are you just an agent of fate? – and some speculations on the ruleset mechanisms of the future.

With all this in mind, and the Summer weather frequently passing for March, there has been plenty of time to work my way through some rule sets to see how they measure up. The first one selected for play was the new set of Napoleonic rules from Partizan Press – General de Brigade. Now I need to be a little careful of what I say here as these were designed and playtested quite literally down the road at the Loughton Strikeforce club. Since I have not been a club man for almost twenty years, this was news to me. So what do we have? Well, on balance, a clear and comprehensive set that has been well produced and tested, which plays quickly (3 hours) and catered for all the situations that we encountered in our test game. But there it stops. If I can be frank, this is nothing more than a good set of ‘club rules’ spruced up for commercial presentation. It has no new mechanisms, little appreciation of period command and control, and some of the table outcomes have to be termed debatable at least. So on the rule scales mentioned above, General de Brigade scores highly on playability, substantially less so on history. But for many gamers, this will still be close to ideal. Your call.

Having unavoidably missed Fiasco and the chance to see the new Royal Armouries (rather impressive by all accounts), I found myself in something of a Summer show lull. With Partizan II weeks away, and needing an urgent fix of traders and games, I went off to the Norwich show for the first time. It was a blazing day, which can dissuade some, and I very much enjoyed what I found. A sort of medium sized show in most respects, but better than most in the field of welcoming hobbyists, only too keen to chat about their games, painting or anything else. There were a number of impressive games, a helpful staff and a sprinkling of traders including the Gripping Beast team who were doing good business with their excellent new ranges – the Highland Cattle had sold out, to my regret.

Talking of figures, I have recently been sent some Kennington Miniatures 20mm ACW and Napoleonic samples. Now these are really outstanding figures – crisp, well detailed true 20mms with some original poses and uniform/pack choices. The frock coated Union infantry (CW58) and the French general (NP5) are particularly good – as is the latter’s horse. So good in fact that I inwardly cringe when I see what is being produced today (in both variety and quality) compared to what we used to struggle with back in the seventies. Well worth a look if you have some holes to fill, or are starting a new period in this resurgent scale.

I mentioned White Dwarf last time as a valuable source for modelling and painting tips and inspiration which, apparently, surprised some of you. I can’t be alone in thinking that one should always look elsewhere for ideas and motivation to improve, surely? However, I can perhaps understand the resistance to the fantasy subject matter, so perhaps a back door route may work better. So, have a look at their recently released book on modelling – Wargames Terrain. Now this is what I call an inspirational work – page after page of useful advice, glorious photos and virtually all of it applicable to historical gaming, albeit with a few tweaks here and there. This is an excellent book from the talented boys at The Studio. Highly recommended.

You may not have noticed the new series of Longman historical overviews that have been sneaking darkly onto the shelves; sort of stealth books, if you like. Whatever their marketing approach, these are useful volumes and should be the first port of call for those starting a new period, or looking for a fascinating summary of an existing field of study. I have so far read three: Showalter’s Wars of Frederick the Great, Anderson’s Austrian Succession and Esdaile’s Wars of Napoleon. At the very least you get a different slant, a decent bibliography and closure of those embarrassing knowledge gaps. At best you also get an enthralling read and the related urge to go and design campaigns and armies. Read these at your peril then….