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

Friday, 17 September 2010

Playing at War - Part 3 - Pieces of Cardboard

I have always found it worthwhile to have an occasional sanity check. Not, you understand, because I have particular concerns about my sanity, but because it helps with understanding and prioritising things. If you take some everyday facet of your life from the shelf and have a look at it, and ask yourself "why do I do this?" then a couple of things may result - you may be comfortable with what you find, and you can gently dust it and put it back, or you may find something doesn't quite stack up, in which case you have learned something and you can decide what to do about it.

In the days when I was paid to work for someone else, there was a period when Time Management was the answer to everything. It didn't matter what the question was, the answer was probably Time Management. Like all panaceae exposed to too much light, it faded, once people realised that you can be as organised as you wish, but the rest of the world doesn't actually care what your priorities are - they expect you to answer the bloody phone when they choose to ring you. The theory is still sound, however.

One of the most interesting things that came out of the TM classes we used to run was the mismatch between what people spend their time and effort on and what they feel is important. Guys would regularly tell us that their families represented about 75% of everything that mattered to them, and yet they worked out that they spent less than 10% of their time on them. Without fail, attendees at the classes would be surprised at the analysis of their own lives, and would determine to do something about it - an intention which had normally been forgotten by the following week, by the way. Without any pretence at science or Great Wisdom, it can be instructive to use the same technique to look at (for example) what you get out of your hobby, whatever it might be, and try to attach some weights to the bits and pieces. The results will be very personal to you - a psychologist would have a field day with the results, no doubt, but that is not the point. You may then, if you wish, go on to make a list of things about the hobby which displease you, or which you would prefer not to have.

In my own pursuit of Napoleonic wargaming, I guess my personal breakdown is something like:

  • Insight gained from tabletop battles, as an extension of my study of the period 26%
  • Collecting, researching, painting & organising the armies 21%
  • Writing & programming rules 12%
  • The look of the thing - battles & collection 14%
  • Setting up & running (experiencing?) the battles 17%
  • The social side - battles & discussion 8%
  • Winning & personal glory(!) 2%
The spurious accuracy in the numbers is just because I felt obliged to ratio them down so they added up to 100! Things which I could do without include:
  • The guilt (yes, I think it is guilt) resulting from always being behind with figure painting schedules
  • Battles which run out of time before reaching a conclusion
  • Rules which are fiddly, or don't work, or waste time, or give me a headache
  • Clutter on the tabletop - spurious equipment and SHEETS OF PAPER (aargh)

From which I guess a profile emerges of a fairly solitary wargamer with anal tendencies. Your own numbers will probably be very different, that's fine - in my heart, I know that your numbers will somehow be better than mine...

When I first became aware of military boardgames, I guess I was faintly hostile, in an unspecific kind of way. There were Avalon Hill and SPI, and that was about it in those days. Here was I slaving away, tracking down unobtainable figures, painting them, and laboriously staging battles that didn't quite work, and there were people in the world who bought a complete game in a box - a game, moreover, with very little visual spectacle - and just played the thing without all the posturing and rigmarole which I was used to. What could possibly be the point of that? With my prejudices a little better focused, I avoided the whole subject. No way, thanks. Not for me. Maybe - at a pinch - a boardgame might allow a campaign to be managed, but the actual combat would have to be toy soldiers. Absolutely.

Eventually, someone invited me to his house to play an ACW board game he had obtained and wanted to try out. I think it was Chancellorsville, and I think it may have been issued with a copy of Avalon Hill's house magazine, "The General". Anyway, it was a game of relatively modest size and complexity and, a bit hesitantly, I went along to see how awful it was.

Well now. It did not offer the same visual pleasures as the miniatures stuff, and I wasn't too impressed with the badly punched counters or the rather flimsy paper map (for God's sake, don't sneeze), but the game itself was an eye-opener. The rules were straightforward and unambiguous, they used alternate moves, but you could see the movement and the strategic development right in front of your eyes, and all the things you had to remember to do had a little dedicated track on the board - the game ran like - like - like clockwork - yes, that was it. Like chess. The size and effect of terrain was obvious and intuitive. The game was capable of being completed in an hour, even if you were a novice.

I went home with my values shaken up and my mind whirling. If you could somehow develop the beautiful miniatures game so that it ran with the logic and the precision of the boardgame then you had the best of all worlds. Tick-tock, tick-tock. I think I have spent the subsequent 30 years or so with pretty much the same objective, and I still know that I am right. I looked at the gridded miniatures game of Joe Morschauser, which previously I had seen illustrated in Featherstone's books almost as an eccentricity, a fringe area. The game was interesting, but the appearance was too quirky, too chess-like, and in any case square cells are tricky. You can either ban diagonal movement, which seems a peculiar thing to do, or else you have to come to terms with old Pythagoras - diagonal distances are multiplied by the square root of two, which is not a handy thing to work around.

Boardgame style hexagonal cells seemed a much better way to go. Pythagoras was banished, and imposing a sort of crystalline structure on terrain did not seem to distort things very much - or at least the distortion introduced far more benefits than disadvantages. I painted hexes all over my tabletop (carefully preserving a plain side as a contingency!) and I was up and running. I chose 7-inches-across-the-flats, entirely because a based unit would fit comfortably into that. In fact 6 inches would have worked as well - sometime I may repaint the table with 6-inch cells (that's about 15cm), which will enable me to use commercially-produced scenic tiles and is generally more convenient. The disincentive is that I am stuck with a stock of hills and stuff to the current size, but they are probably due for renewal sometime anyway.

I was unaware of Jim Getz's "Napoleonique", which used hexes - if I had been aware of it, I would in any case have been put off by the clunkiest dice-rolling mechanism of all time. More recently, NapoleoN Miniatures produced their own rules, which use hexes, and which you can still download from their otherwise dormant website. Also, the little-known but interesting "Big Battalions" rules by Doc Monaghan, while there are no actual hexes, present all measurements in terms of "bands" (which vary according to your figure scale and the size of the battle), which is effectively the same thing as explicit hexes.

So that is why I use hexes. The implications for the game and its rules constitute a topic for another time.

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