Wargamer’s Notebook 9

I sat down the other day and looked through my pile of recent rulesets and listed a number of factors that seem to be gaining currency as ‘modern’ mechanisms – the various approaches the have used to cope with shifting design, playability, historical and commercial requirements. Whether they will progress (in the same or amended form) to become standards remains to be seen, but I like the way things are developing, in the main. They may not be doing it fast enough for me, but the advance is steady; evolutionary rather than revolutionary. One immediate irony is that these designs are out there, improving rule standards, while the navel gazers at WD have done little constructive in this vein, despite this being one of their ‘missions’. Of course they might claim, being huge talents, that they’ll leapfrog all this mundane stuff and stun us with a miracle. Eventually. We look forward to it.

So, here we go. And just in case it isn’t obvious, I am playing Devil’s Advocate here. So while some of the views happen to be not too remote from my own, they represent a basis for discussion and consideration, not a reason for heated personal abuse.

1. Historicity. While there is often a marked difference between intended content and actual, a number of recent rule sets have at least set out to put more history into their mechanics. As I said last time, this is an entirely good thing. There are enough solid gaming mechanisms that give us all a sound basis for enjoyment, playability and competition (if desired) but even so, many of these need either tweaking or replacing to simultaneously generate equivalent, or greater, historical value. It is good to see most designers at least aware of this movement, even if they come up short, or is this just a return to the hobby’s roots?

2. Fast Play. DBA and Phil Barker can safely give themselves a pat on the head for bringing this much needed advancement to the hobby – now emulated by a sizeable proportion of sets coming onto the market. The chance to play a game to a guaranteed conclusion in a couple of hours, or even less, is way overdue. DBA (hard to believe it is five years old already) seems to have appealed for three or four main reasons, as far as I can discern. Firstly, it appeals strongly to the competitive, tournament gamers (the opposite end of the spectrum to my interests) as they can have at it quickly, on a small table and with minimal terrain and troops. Armies are deployed in a fashion not dissimilar to Magic card tournaments – the style of deck equating to the style of army – “Okay, I can take this Teutonic Army with my Assyrians by doing x, y and z.” And even if he fails it hasn’t taken long and he can play five more games that day. I think DBA has long since left the domain of realism, it just happens to work well as a game with a historical veneer, but that doesn’t mean the positive aspects can’t be adopted for historical games – many have tried this with varying success. Secondly, DBA (and more so DBM/DBR) enable club gamers to get a full game finished in an evening. When I was a club man twenty years back, this never actually happened. Usually it involved chatting, setting up, moving three or four turns and just getting into action as it was time to leave. Thirdly, it has encouraged smaller armies, which is a wholly good thing, not least for speedier play. The chance to build armies, where before you would have built units, is good from the economic (fewer figures = cheaper armies, but many more of them, so I’d guess more figures are bought overall), historical flavour and variety angles. Finally, it has sired a whole second generation of rules that, even if they don’t always deliver, seem at least to be aware that fast play is the way ahead. At least until the next sea change of opinion.

3. Simpler Smaller Systems. This links closely with point 2 as, generally speaking, the move to fastplay requires systems that are either less complicated, attempt to cover less detail, take less time to implement, are simply more elegant and compact, or all four. This trend has made designers sit down and say, right, how can I make this six or eight hour game last half (or a quarter) of that time? It may mean you have to give up some element of play through downsizing, or restrict scope through command and abstract out levels of detail, or it may mean you have to give up lengthy morale systems and other time consumers in exchange for quicker versions. Whatever, for every set that comes out with lean and mean mechanics, many now starting to be driven off cards (following on from the excellent Battle Masters by Milton Bradley), there is another that clings to the dinosaur ‘chart for everything’ mentality – Chef de Bataillon may be a remarkable piece of work, and the games are, I am told, entirely playable but many people could bring up a child or two in the time it takes to read and play.

4. Morale Systems/Lack of Modifiers.. I could quite happily live the rest of my life without running my finger down a long list of morale modifiers. I’ve been doing it on and off since my first ever game and I don’t want to do it any more. From experimentation, I have found that I can handle up to half a dozen tops, but I’d prefer just a couple, or none. Can it really be that vital to get a +1 for having the regimental mascot with the colonel? Aren’t the vagaries of battle a little more wide ranging than that? In the future I feel we will see a move towards even more realistic, and faster, systems that incorporate aperiodic models, and we will probably see the last of rallying rules. Thank goodness.

5. Basing. This is a key factor, and one that indirectly affects the next four points or so. It can also, as I have recently found, represent a real headache in deciding how to proceed with your army building. Unless you have a specific ruleset in mind, which you intend to stick with, it is a nightmare deciding how to base your figures. I say this as someone who will not re-base under any circumstances – I put a lot of effort into my bases and I do not wish to rip them up and start again in three or five years time. So, a requisite of modern rules is that they work with any existing base systems – even two or more different ones in the same battle. We can at the same time, thanks to proximity driven mechanisms, say goodbye to overlaps, 2:1 gang ups, and judicious ‘nudging’ to get the maximum number of figures into contact.

6. Casualty Removal. I think this old chestnut has been around since the earliest days. I don’t like it, I don’t see any real need to do it now, and it causes such confusion, figure damage and table mess that one wonders how it ever gained long term acceptance. Worse still is the odious habit of putting polo mints or ‘caps’ on figures’ heads. And of course we can all live without counting up figures for every shot or morale calculation. So, the newer rules that allow a unit to stay at ‘full figure strength’ throughout the game are the ones for me. We can track the unit’s status in any number of ways, including rosters or markers and, increasingly, PC software, on which more in a later column.

7. Stands. Always a system favoured by American rulesets, and effectively used (masquerading as elements) in the WRG Horse & Musket set, it seems, generally, that we are progressing towards stands as the basic unit rather than single figures. The downsides are that it doesn’t always allow those separate skirmishers we all love, and it can often mean a line of lovingly painted figures are in the back row, partly obscured. The upsides are many – nice to handle, easier to move, they look good, they aid quick visual scanning for strength if required and they allow your figures to be grouped in fixed dioramas.

8. Units. Even more radical, and something I endorse in the right circumstances, is forgetting all about counting stands and figures, and using the unit as the basic element. This doesn’t mean the figures are all stuck on the same base, just that we never use a lower administration level than, say, battalion. The result of this, and I understand the drawbacks completely, is that the unit feels like a boardgame counter and its figures become representative rather than having ‘usable’ voltigeurs. But for the big battle, where you have corps sized units in play, the trade off may have to be that the battalion is the smallest unit you can consider – granting speed benefits among others. Almost invariably, this approach also means….

9. Combat Factors. Another inheritance from boardgaming, but one that has been used in a few recent sets, quite successfully at times. The entire unit is rated for combat, morale or anything else considered appropriate. The rating may be numerical (as in Danskin’s Lion of the North) or built into the combat system (DBA). Combat, morale, command and even army cohesion can all be driven off this system. It also may mean….

10. Rosters. Now if it wasn’t for number 18 below, I would guess this is the most controversial development. Like many of you, I hate bookkeeping with a vengeance. I don’t mind planning a battle at the start and jotting down a few orders, arrows or directions. I will even happily tick off boxes on a pre-prepared roster (as in many boardgames). But I do not like having to look up which unit is which morale class, or what it is armed with, before using it, I really dislike logging individual casualties (“that’s another 43 on the archers”) and I loathe writing orders each turn. Whatever, if I am not going to tolerate casualty removal, rosters may be a necessary evil. In most cases though, the same effect can be attained by using unit markers (casualties, wheels, rocks etc) with the drawback of that slightly strange ‘Just Married’ car look to the battlefield as units walk around, trailing all sorts of debris.

11. Unit Size. This is harder to pinpoint. To generalise, I suppose there has been a move towards very small units (DBA influence and benefits again) and 1:50/60 and 1:100 are becoming increasingly popular – again, used as ‘markers’ it hardly matters and you still have the figures. Behind the scenes are the big battalion boys who will never drop below 36 figures (lest they appear as wimps?!) which trend seems as strong as ever, and given the visual impact, rightly so. But in recent months there has been a course correction and the 4 to 6 stand, 16 to 24 man unit is much in evidence. Not sure any of this matters greatly as it is a matter of taste. I solve it by having 1:100, 1:50, 1:33, 1:20 or 1:1 armies depending on what looks right for the battle or period in question.

12. Formations. The logical extension of the ‘unit’ approach is that for grand tactical games some rules have taken to dispensing with formations altogether. No need to decide whether to form square, the rules will work out whether you have managed it or not and you stay put in a ‘representative’ column. In this sense the units start to become markers on a battle map more than units to be micro- deployed. The other aspect is to dispense with battalions and have brigades as the lowest level of manoeuvre element but, sometimes, to continue using the same figures. Frankly, I am not a fan of the latter as a battalion always looks just that, and can’t pass aesthetically for a brigade, in the same way that one tank can’t represent three. As for the former, this is one of the more radical jumps and, believe me, it takes some getting used to. I doubt it will gain much support hobby wide in the short term, but as it is almost a requirement for fast play ‘command level’ grand tactical systems, we shall see what transpires.

13. Command Control. In an ideal world this subject would have been covered in depth here, but not wishing to take over the entire issue, this will have to wait until next time.

14. Multi-Sided Dice. I like rolling six sided dice. I think it comes with the territory, perhaps even in ones genes. You can never top rolling three sixes with percentage dice, and certainly not those ‘orrible d4 pyramids. However, as clever as we can get with the cuboid old faithfuls, there are design benefits from moving to multi-sided dice. After a trickle that has gone on for years, these systems are starting to appear in numbers and I think we will need to get used to them.

15. Historical Theming. Howard Whitehouse is the current published master of this technique, but there are others waiting in the wings. The idea is to take a few key elements of warfare, to emphasise their impact and build the rules around recreating them. What can result are excellent, atmospheric rulesets like Science vs Pluck or Old Trousers. I think this is mainly because the change in approach allows one to concentrate not on the plethora of rulesets that have gone before, but instead on new mechanisms with which to simulate your chosen period. It also makes you focus like nothing else I know.

16. Variable Movement. I would guess around 90% of rules I see still go with fixed movement rates, the classic being 6″ in column. There are so many reasons to avoid this – far too much advance knowledge and control is sufficient for starters – that I applaud virtually any set that gets around the problem. Few do though, and fewer do it well, and we await one that works.

17. Variable Bounds. Not new, still trendy and potentially important, but can they ever function?

18. Grids. In the right circumstances, I think we probably need grids or something similar that has the same effect. Those recent games that have proposed them (primarily CJ Lane’s Napoleonic Gaming with Hexes) are on the right track. Woooh. All sorts of people running for makeshift weapons to brain me. Okay, calm down. I think there are more rules problems in the movement and measuring areas than almost anywhere else. Grids solve these problems nicely – gone are the embarrassing antics (weird wheeling, measuring musket range and stopping outside it, those rules that require you to guess ranges – great if you are an engineer, bad if you still work in Metrimperial or have no talent for this ‘skill’), and they can add a much needed chaotic ‘grainyness’ to movement rates. They also have benefits in the melee and firing areas as there is little problem over deciding who is fighting whom – the proximity mechanism mentioned above. Ironically, many of us already have a ready made grid on the table – terrain squares or hexes are ideally suited to such a system – and even if you don’t have these, there are other ways. Watch this space.

That should be enough to be going on with. Probably forgotten half a dozen points….

My show highlights of the year have once again passed by in the shape of The Other Partizan in August. As seems to be the norm, the day was another hot one but blissfully cooler than the sauna-like conditions of 1995. If I can make two observations, I thought the overall standard of games slightly lower than usual, with a couple of iffy showings to offset the traditionally good top end, but the organisers had done an intelligent job heading off the potential overcrowding. That said, it’s still the best show you can attend in the UK, and given recent lacklustre reports on the games at Historicon, perhaps even the world. What more can I say? It always seems a long wait until May for the next Partizan, but this year Messrs Macfarlane, Baldwin and friends have decided to put on a fantasy and science fiction show in February next year which I will try and get to, work permitting. Meanwhile, you can check out the professional club newsletter and show reports on the new Irregulars web page, or wear the Partizan t-shirt. Whatever next in their bid for world domination? Corporate entertainment? Executive boxes above the Perry game? Sponsorship? Stock market floatation? Channel 4 coverage? Painful schisms, with the smaller hall spinning off to set up its own show?

As we have come to expect, there were a large number of excellent games on display in the beautiful Kelham Hall so, in ascending order, we have the superbly terrained ACW game that sadly remains anonymous because its players were in ‘buttoned up’ mode, second place goes to the outstanding medieval game put on by the Derwentside club which featured loads of rather well painted Old Glory figures and Hudson & Allen (the famous music hall act) battlements, but the winner of Game of the Month, with a quite an amazing display, are the League of Augsburg. Or Barry, Phil and chums, if you prefer. Their Battle of Almanza, 1707 was a riot of colour, linen flags and detail touches, and had some of the best rocky scenery I can recall seeing. Superb stuff.

The Internet has recently acquired MagWeb, a bold attempt to provide a whole range of wargaming and military history magazines on line. The contents list is impressive: Napoleon, Lone Warrior, Saga, The Zouave, First Empire, E,E&L, El Dorado, The Courier and many others – the idea being to have current and all back issues with text and graphics (just imagine that for a moment) as a huge resource that not only can be read at will, but quickly searched for that obscure article on 17th century hose ribbon you know is out there somewhere. This is a good idea, tempered only by three negatives: 1) They only have one or two issues of each magazine active at present, and there will inevitably be a looong timelag before it is all there. 2) Reading and browsing on line is not ideal (not least for the phone bill), so you’ll need to download and print out and 3) The service comes at a cost of $5 per month or $50 per year, which is simply not worth it at the moment because of the limited material. But in a few months time, when the owners have scanned and published till their eyes are bloodshot, this could easily be my most visited site on the web. I will keep you posted on developments.

Brother Against Brother is an interesting new set of ACW skirmish rules from the talented HG Walls people in the States. They are unusual in that they are very short, good value, well constructed, nicely produced and actually quite original – using a card system that they will want to get the most out of quickly. Why? Because I have a hunch that there will be a lot of card driven mechanisms sloshing around in 1997. With Piquet already on the market, Bryan Ansell’s systems creeping out steadily, and many more coming, I also know of a number of people with ‘ideas’ and card systems are much talked about at shows. This is good, since I really like them and one of them might crack it, and bad because they might be expensive (with the cards) and I will have to wade through them all to find the good ones. Where was I? Ah yes. BvB tackles company sized units with an emphasis on morale, unit cohesion and junior leaders. Our first game, featuring a pleasingly short learning curve, was an intriguing affair and the card system is interesting, if somewhat gamey. It does emphasise morale though, doing a good job of making units feel brittle, and as such should be applauded. What concerned us, and we will re-visit to find out why, is that the game takes around three hours to play, which is a long time for a skirmish. I’ll be back, as they say.

Advanced Armati is out, and looks to be an essential purchase if you play this increasingly popular set of rules. Far from being a cash-in, this booklet adds a lot of new rules and features, primarily in the manoeuvre department, and ties up a few loose ends from the original. The book also contains a number of new army lists, some interesting ideas for campaign play (with a number of scenarios to get you started) and, at last, the 30YW and ECW get some coverage – an inexplicable omission thus far. While it looks a little thin on the shelf, there is more in this package than many ‘basic’ rule sets and is well worth your money. Recommended.

The last month has been punctuated by the thud of little brown boxes on the doormat, sent as a right-left combination punch by both the Foundry outfits. The desired effect has been achieved, and once again I am left reeling by the quality of these wonderful figures. Foundry Mk I have finally produced their Napoleonic Austrian Uhlans which are well worth the wait. Not only do they fill the gaping hole in my 1809 army (sadly, no excuse not to paint it now…) but they have also proved very easy to convert to Brunswickers, both uhlans and officers, which I have duly done. Questioned as to the logic of this by Dave Thomas, I argued that although all things Napoleonic would probably emerge eventually (we can but pray for Russians, Ottomans, Oels Jagers, Portuguese and Poles), I wanted them now. They have even done slight head variations on the lancers at rest and have provided three horse types, which makes all the difference to those otherwise homogenous units.

Hardly homogenous are the first of the late Napoleonic Prussians which have just surfaced. There are no less than 33 types of line infantry and four of these come with eight different head positions. If my maths is up to it, that means you can even do big battalions with very little duplication, if, of course, that is your preference. It goes without saying that these represent excellent work by the Perries, as usual, and there are some amazing figures in here – really capturing that plain, businesslike, teutonic look. The most unusual figure is a poor chap who has been modelled with a cannonball emerging from his skull – gruesome.

Also new out are a range of Dacians and Sarmatians, which had me itching to try Tactica again or just because they look so good to paint up and display. But the piece de resistance, probably surpassing even their recent high of the Egyptians and Hittites, are the new Roman generals and Praetorians. These just have to be seen to be believed – the armour, robes, poses, facial detail and character are, without doubt, the best I have ever seen in this period. Imagine a marble bust of Trajan, Vespasian or Clavdivs, and there he is in 25mm, on a horse. They even have discernibly Roman noses. Go buy them now.

Foundry Mk II have been far from idle as well, and I have now seen the latest SYW Prussians (plenty of superb officers and subtle ‘hat man’ variations here), the Freikorps and, the best yet I think, the Cossacks. The latter consist of a bunch of shady individuals with whom you would not wish to be in the same room, let alone facing them on an opposing army. We get the lot – ruffians on ponies, eye- patched thugs with arm-length pistols and maniacs with blunderbusses. If I had to sum this batch up in two words, I would say ‘genuine characters’ and of course with plenty of utility, right up to the Napoleonic period and beyond. Quite brilliant work again from Mark Copplestone, who I see is, like me, a fan of the 119th Regt of Foot (or Royal Hatwavers). I sometimes dream of building an entire unit of figures waving their hats… Must have been a little known drill procedure.

For my pains, I have known Gareth Simon for a number of years and have followed, with admiration and interest, his building of the Pallas Armata publishing empire. For anyone that has been in Chad on missionary work, and thus has avoided exposure to these affordable little paperbacks, Gareth reprints, umm, extensively from obscure, fascinating and quite unobtainable historical archives, making them easily available to we mortals. I don’t care to think how many pages he has photocopied and laid out, but it must be tens of thousands. And we are deeply grateful – despite Gareth’s ‘unusual’ period choices, even I have about a yard of his excellent books on the shelf, the best one being Dodge’s Great Captains. You’ll note I am now reduced to quantifying my book collection by length – I find this far less depressing than measurement by either weight or cost. The latest PA imprints are available only through the Pike & Shot Society and include The Swedish Intelligencer, Monro’s Expedition and Aelian’s Tactics. Join up now and grab them while they last – P&SS: Simon Franoux, 8 Cawston Walk, Cheatham, Manchester M8 0EE.

Two books under the spotlight this month, one good, one not so good. The weaker candidate is the new biography on my hero, Sir Thomas Picton (Wellington’s Welsh General, Havard, Aurum Press) which, in parts, reads rather more like a Hello magazine ‘in-depth analysis’ than a serious historical work. Okay, so biographers are permitted a little more dramatic licence but there is far too much hinting at scandals and goings-on and precious little to back it all up. And as far as I can tell, there is little new here that wasn’t covered in Myatt’s excellent Peninsula General (David & Charles). It has some merit, and it’s a good fast read, but is really one for the completist only. Book of the Month meanwhile goes to Rene Chartrand’s Canadian Military Heritage, Vol 2: 1755-1871 (Art Global). Apart from England, Canada is by far my favourite country and I would, quite happily, move to Alberta tomorrow. Assuming of course I could ship my books and figures… This book not only provides an impressive selection of uniform plates from the very best in the field (Lelièpvre, Stadden, Embleton, Troiani etc) but also a potted history of military exploits north of the border. Of course there are the well known conflicts, but the rebellions of 1837/8 also make for fascinating reading. An excellent book, and on a related subject, if you can find one, I would also highly recommend Bodin’s L’histoire Extraordinaire des Soldats de la Nouvelle France (OCA).