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

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Playing at War - Part 2 - The Ancient Game

Like everyone, I try to learn from my mistakes. My earliest attempts to fight miniature battles were, at best, well intentioned. They were fun, surely, but quite a lot of the interest was in trying to fix the bits of the game that didn't work - not unlike Stone Age man attempting to build a pocket watch. I found very early that the simpler games were often a lot more fun than more complex ones, that the more detail you tried to introduce the more you got bogged down in trying to cope with someone who wanted to do something you hadn't allowed for in the rules, or who had found some loophole you had accidentally left open.

This is a general problem, both in historical warfare and its tabletop simulation. The literature of war, especially its fiction, is full of cunning and the unexpected - bold strokes of improvisation which left a more traditional opponent floundering. If there had been a rule book, then a loophole would be just the thing. Wargames replicate this, and the position is made many times more complex in competition games, or in situations where the participants are determined to win.

I would be struggling to put a date on the evolution of Competition Rules. Probably around 1978 I bought a new Napoleonic rule book (Halsall & Roth, I think) which had been used for the British championships, and found it far too dense to actually play. We tried these rules a couple of times, and then ran crying back to the bosom of our Charlie Wesencraft games for comfort and reassurance - and aspirin.

At the time, wargames magazines were full of alarming stories of people turning up for games with armies consisting entirely of artillery, or camels (or whatever) - they had found a loophole, and had used their army points allowance (or whatever) to field an army which could not be defeated, but which gave a historically nonsensical game.

And good for them, I suppose. If Frederick the Great had one day turned up with an army consisting entirely of camels and swept his opponents off the field, this would be commemorated as a great victory and a stroke of genius. Frederick, however, was only interested in winning - he would not have cared that it would make a stupid game, or that Halsall & Roth would have to produce a new edition to specifically outlaw this latest horror.

So part of this, from the wargame point of view, depends on why we are playing. If we are mostly interested in winning, then either the game mechanism has to be dead simple, like chess, so that it runs like clockwork and gives no scope for working outside the rules, or else we have to have an umpire.

I am really quite a fan of Howard Whitehouse. His "Science vs Pluck" Colonial game (which I have never played, by the way) has simplified rule sets for the players, who also have only as much information as they need to know. There is a much larger rule set for the umpire. Now that is interesting. Kriegsspiel operates in a similar way - the umpire's word is all. If you try fielding only camels then the umpire says "No, don't be silly" and that's an end to the matter.

So this is certainly a viable approach, but the snag is getting hold of a suitable umpire, or even having the manpower available to nominate one. What about the clockwork rule set, then - can we move in that direction as an alternative?

I am not really a chess player. I can play, but I do not - like the definition of a gentleman accordionist. I realise chess is clearly not a miniatures game as we know them, but they are related somewhere along the line, and I believe there are some aspects of chess that wargamers can learn a great deal from.

Time for a short anecdote. Ho hum.

A long, long time ago, when I was at university, I shared lodgings with a guy whom I shall call Andy, who was an excellent chess player. By any normal standards he was extraordinary. As a schoolboy he had been a national champion, and he now played first board for the university team. I went with him a few times when he did exhibition games at local schools. I once saw him play two simultaneous games - blindfolded. I can't recall if he won the games, but I have to lie down for a bit when I think about that.

At the time I was an enthusiastic, if unaccomplished, player, and was excited by the possibility of improving my own game (by osmosis, maybe?). Forget it. Despite his commendable patience and his attempts to coach me, our games were just humiliating, and they stopped quite quickly. Indeed, I have played very little ever since.

For chess is a beautiful game, with an ancient dignity, and elegant, perfect rules, but it is brutal, and it affords no hiding place. No-one ever lost at chess because he was unlucky. If you are beaten in a series of games, your opponent is better than you. You are a plonker - live with it.

Simplicity is the key. Apart from the playing surface and the pieces, and a clock, there is no kit. There are no tape measures, no casualty tables or order sheets, no shellburst templates, no command chits, no dice. No-one argues about how the rules are to be interpreted, no-one is in any doubt about where any of the pieces are standing, or how far they can move. The rule set is simple enough to be carried in the players' heads - quick reference sheets would be regarded as a source of hilarity. No-one has ever cheated in a chess match - it can't be done. Actually, come to think of it, I think my dad used to cheat when I started beating him, but in general, at any level, it is played absolutely straight, without ambiguity.

The rules have been fixed for longer than anyone can remember - I have never heard of anyone complaining about them, or asking for changes. No-one has ever attempted to field a King and 15 Queens. Obviously it is very stylised, and whatever form of conflict inspired it has been abstracted beyond immediate recognition. It has a gridded playing area and alternate moves, and pieces which are considerate enough to move one at a time. Real warfare isn't like that, but these mechanisms work tidily and efficiently, and they deliver a crisp, watertight game which is robust enough to withstand even extreme, high-adrenaline competition. World championships, no less.

I am not – repeat, not – claiming that miniatures wargames should be like chess, or even that they should be more like chess; I am merely observing that chess is impressively free from many of the problems which beset wargames (so is table-tennis, I hear you mutter), and that there may be some aspects of it which we can usefully borrow.

More soon....


  1. Enjoying your blog very much... only just discovered it.
    Have a feeling we may have met at Claymore?
    Keep up the good work

  2. Thanks, Phil, appreciated.

    Yes - Claymore - I think maybe so - must have been a couple of years ago.



  3. Wonderfully written and expressed!

    Best Regards,