A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Grand Tactical Game - Ancestry

This started out as a reply to a comment from Pjotr, but there's enough in here to justify a separate entry, I think. This is just to try to explain what my kick-off point is, and what scope and limitations I wish to set myself. I find that if I think about something long enough then it becomes obvious to me what I'm talking about, and I find it surprising when everyone else just rolls their eyes - so maybe a brief scene-setting is a good idea!

The draft of my proposed "MEP" (grand tactical) rules is already pretty substantial, because I've been thinking about this for a while, but there are areas where the bits don't hang together too well yet. As a random example, it occurred to me just this morning that, since I am using alternate moves and the bounds are long (1 hour on the clock), I'd better have both sides firing artillery simultaneously at the end of each player's movement - similarly for skirmishers. This is different from my main Elan game, and comes about simply because, intuitively, an hour seems an awful long time for the non-moving side to sit without doing something hostile. That sort of thing keeps cropping up.

One big given is that, whatever I produce for MEP, it will have to fit with my existing Élan rules, and have to fit with them well enough to share army data on the computer and integrate with a single campaign system. This means that, to the guys who say to me, "Why are you messing around with your own rules? - you should just buy General de Brigade (or whatever)", I have to say that, in most cases, I have bought them. I buy rulesets regularly - mainly to borrow ideas. I haven't got enough time left to start all over again, and I am too old and sad to throw away the accumulated experience (and labour) of all those years. It doesn't mean these guys aren't right, of course!

I have read (though never played) the Polemos rules. Like most commercial sets, they are thorough - maybe too fiddly for me. The feeder games for my own rules are many and varied - I probably can't even remember where some bits come from! Most recent influences have been The Big Battalions (for combat mechanisms), Le Feu Sacre (mostly for the use of blinds and scouting), Grande Armee and it's Fast-Play offspring (for ideas on command rules and all sorts of things, but mainly for the realisation that rules don't have to be super-detailed to give sensible results) and, most recently, Howard Whitehouse's Old Trousers for general inspiration and for the elegant idea of having a single number associated with each unit which is used for everything. I have also, I must remember to mention, come up with the odd idea myself, but this collection and blending has been going on for so long that I now have difficulty sorting out where the ingredients came from.

It is possible that our favourite recipe for treacle scones is the one that Grandma got out of the Housewives' Friend in 1932, but it actually doesn't matter now - the recipe is just the one we use. This is too folksy to be one of Foy's formal laws, but it has the same sort of weary resonance!

In a week or so I'll start setting out some basic concepts and some of the mechanisms I have sketched out this far. I will - sincerely! - be very grateful for all views on them. If I can fathom how to use Google Docs without forcing everyone to have an account (or, alternatively, find some other file sharing service which will work reliably), I'll store the developing MEP draft in some form that you can download from the blog. As it shapes up, I hope it provides some interest and - at the very worst - it will give a collection of ideas that you might wish to avoid in your own games!

One final thought, before I forget - I am not a big fan of multiple morale tests, they can slow things down to a disastrous extent. I have a fond memory of my cousin (who, sadly, is no longer with us) one night at about 2am, after half a bottle of wine, slowly shaking a dice cup with a vacant grin on his face, trying vainly to remember which of the endless, bewildering stream of tests he had been about to carry out this time, and why. Having said this, I also must put in an apologetic reminder that the ultimate form of MEP is to be computerised, and the computer will happily slap a morale test on the end of any action you like, without any fatigue at all, though the players may get tired of being asked whether there is a general fighting with the unit, whether they are in cover, etc. The point is that sometimes a computerised game can handle stuff in the background which would be onerous otherwise.


  1. I sometimes worry that one day, I will perfect all of my various rules and be able to resist experimenting when the next "clever" idea comes along. What would I do with the free time?

    Computer assisted? oh dear. Having played a number of games as plebe I have 3 major objections to the ones I played: the delay and confusion in providing input to the system (along with the interesting fog of war result of the computer guy mis-hearing or making a typo - micro chips or barcods on the stands
    along with scanners, preferably built into the table :) would help, the system being a black box, it was hard to decided if one had been subject to an extreme random event of if the designer had radically different interpretation of history etc or something was just a glitch - obviously not the same sort of problem when you are designing your own and last and most important, I missed the experience of rolling the dice! Not everyone would miss that and of course one could always design a system to let players roll and just feed in the results.

    btw, its far from perfect but I've started using it when you upload to google docs its best to click the "do not convert" button. There is a share option that allows non google people to download the file.


  2. In fact the computerisation works well for me. I am the proud owner of 2 commercially available computer-managed miniatures games, and I don't use either of them. I have "Follow the Eagles - Tactical" (I think), which is so-so, but I had a small difference of opinion with the originators and I don't use it on principle. I also have "Iron Duke" which is far cheaper, far more flexible and generally more friendly - yet I haven't tried that seriously either.

    Apart from the inflexibility (and implied threat) of a sealed "black box" system, there is a common mistake that designers make: because they can't help it, because they were trained that way, they write nice, Windows-style GUI systems in Visual Basic or similar, which require some poor dedicated sod with a mouse to read a screen full of nice coloured text, select things, click on radio button, click visual buttons etc. Wrong. Too much distraction - first off, the classy interface between the operator and the machine is completely cancelled out by the totally useless spoken/misheard interface between the players and the operator; secondly, this is a miniatures game - everyone is supposed to be looking at the action on the table - the computer is a major nuisance. My house-built system is a very simple data-capture system which runs on a net-book which can be handed from player to player as necessary. The only entries are single key-touch y/n type responses to direct questions, plus unit numbers where necessary. That's all.

    In my experience, there's no way back - once used to the convenience of an automated system (provided it is, in fact, convenient), I find that all the remembering stuff and mental arithmetic of a dice game exhausting. My 8-year-old son became interested in my games recently, and so I put together a very simple dice game for him, to get him some experience. When we were an hour into it, he asked if we could play the computerised game instead, since he found the dice a distraction. It is possible, of course, that my simplified dice game was dreadful...