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

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Playing at War - Part 4 - Hexes & Heresies

This will be the last in this mini-series of posts on my protracted ramble through the jungle of wargames rules. I intend to do something soon on my use of computers in miniatures wargaming - which may well alienate anyone who has not already taken exception to my use of hexes! - and I'll try to blog my progress with the development of the grand-tactical version of my game, which is in something like a beta-test state at present.

Hexes. Over the years I have often been surprised at the amount of adverse reaction they have generated. Not by people taking part in the games, more as a point of principle. I guess hexes may seem a little inconsistent with the otherwise Old School appearance of my battles, but in fact they are not that big a deal - the underlying game is still recognisable, though there are two important aspects which come directly from the use of the big hexes, which I shall attempt to describe. Bear in mind throughout this that I am always looking to fight pretty large battles - much of what follows would not make sense for a skirmish or very detailed tactical game.

If you are interested and you can get hold of a copy, I recommend you have a good look at Doc Monaghan's The Big Battalions Napoleonic rule book, which came out of the Guernsey Wargames Group. The rules are out of print now, I think - I have the 2nd edition, dated 2000. In parts they are themselves recognisably related to the TooFatLardies' Le Feu Sacré, which is no bad thing, but one central innovation (to me, at least) is the use of "Bands" to measure all distances. Bands can be changed to suit the size of figures, and also to suit the scale of the action. A band on the tabletop represents 250 paces - for 6mm-10mm figures, this is 3 inches; for 12mm-15mm it is 4 inches; for 20mm-25mm it is 6 inches. These measurements are all halved for very big battles. The bands introduce a sort of granularity into all measurement in the game - everything is expressed in terms of bands, so ranges and moves are rounded to the nearer band. This is not really so revolutionary - your own tabletop games will have everything rounded to the centimetre or inch, so there is an implied granularity already. If you think about it, the further step of drawing formal hexagons around the band-sized spaces changes very little. Doc Monaghan's son, the historian Jason Monaghan, described Big Battalions to me as being "a hex game with invisible hexes".

One area in which boardgames score heavily is speed of play. I have seen too many tabletop games where the movement was so slow that the players could hardly remember where they were up to or what they had been intending to do. The time-and-motion realism nerds in the 1980s broke their games down into short turns (sometimes as little as 30-seconds of "clock" time), so 2cm moves were not unknown, and we had the slightly embarrassing conundrum that a complete evening of labouring away at Quatre Bras or similar might actually be found to have ground through a grand total of 10 minutes of real time. Now, apart from the fact that I find 2cm moves tedious in the extreme (and this is, you will recall, all just my personal view), most self-respecting wargamers of my acquaintance are likely to fudge the moves in their favour by a little, and this "scentific error" margin is likely to be of the order of 2cm anyway, so you'd better have an umpire and a team of checkers handy! My big hexes remove this problem immediately.

Next - in my game, the hexes are assumed to be 200 paces across. Since the maximum effective range of muskets was rather less than this (and since officers normally forbade long range fire as a wasteful and disruptive distraction), this means that infantry can only fire into the next hex, and not very far into it, either. In common with Big Battalions and Sam Mustafa's excellent Grande Armée (and its Fast Play Grande Armée variant), I have taken the heretical step of making volley fire part of the Close Combat phase of my game, so it does not appear as a separate element. Artillery can fire, as can skirmishers, but actual formed musket volleys are simply abstracted as one of the unpleasant things that formed bodies of troops could do to each other when they got close enough to fight (or run away, as they frequently did). Yes, this is boardgame-like, and does represent a total lack of respect for the traditional Move-Missiles-Melee framework that is central to the Old School approach, but it doesn't actually change the game very much, apart from speeding it up - oh, and also removing the problem of deciding exactly when and how often in a bound the troops can fire. The combat effectiveness of troop formations in my rules reflects the amount of fire they can bring to bear, so that, for example, a battalion in line gains an advantage in combat for its greater firepower (especially when it is defending) - an advantage which can be reduced dramatically in wet weather, by the way.

Having reached this topic of using a gridded terrain in a tabletop game, there is one important development which is coming soon and which I'd like to mention briefly. Part of the perceived resistance to hexagons in tabletop games comes, I think, because it blurs what has become a potentially emotive divide between boardgame players and miniatures enthusiasts. I don't see why there have to be camps, but camps there appear to be. GMT Games are very successful market leaders in board wargame publication, and one of their biggest selling games is Commands & Colors: Ancients, which has many enthusiastic fans. Because of the form of the game, quite a few people use miniatures instead of the supplied unit blocks. Now this is getting really blurred - so much so that one poor soul in one of the GMT fora said "blocks are elegant and miniatures are for children - if the game was sold with miniatures I wouldn't buy it". So there! - rather sweet, actually.

GMT have been threatening to launch Commands & Colors: Napoleonics for some time, against a background of considerable excitement - and quite rightly so - it will surely be a splendid game. I understand that they are now hoping to issue it in November. There will certainly be many who wish to use it with miniatures, and I believe that this could be a significant moment in the development of our hobby - invaluable cross-pollination between boardgames and tabletop games, and - maybe - the widespread adoption of a handsome, tick-tock, best-of-both-worlds game of exactly the type I have been promoting for years. There are a couple of nice recent postings on the forthcoming game in one of my favourite blogs, Joy and Forgetfulness, which set out what one miniatures wargamer expects it to be like.

So - before I end - don't be too fixed in your ideas about hexagon-gridded miniatures games - in a couple of months you may be the only kid on the block who doesn't have them!

Having reached this stage, I propose to slow down the rate of publishing of posts on this blog. In my enthusiasm to get the thing going, I have been keen to create a solid foundation of material for people to have a look at, and also to attempt to give an idea of the style and range of subjects I hope to cover. If you have read any or all of what I have done to date then I offer my best wishes - if you like any of it, or even if you disagree, please do drop me a comment - I am always delighted to get them. I will continue to introduce new posts, hopefully at a rate of one or two a week, rather than the faintly hysterical stream of consciousness which I've produced to date!


  1. Interesting discussion. Just as an aside, I first encountered hexes for miniature gaming in the summer of 1976 in a hobby store in Hamilton Ontario. The store owner showed me how they hand cut 3" wooden hexes and covered the table in a 3d hex map and proceeded to play Roman vs Gaul games without rulers. I recall also that not long after RAFM used sell transfers for turning your wargames tablecloth into a hex sheet such as Hotz supplies now.

    I don't think the gridded (whether square or hex) miniatures game has ever entirely disappeared since its introduction in the 1950's despite being less common and having some dismissive opponents.

    One of the things I enjoy about the hobby is the wide range of options and the ability to think critically about what is right for one self rather than having to toe some arbitrary line.


  2. Ross

    I agree entirely with your point about individual choice within the hobby - why, we are even free to change our minds every week, and then change them back again! Over the years I have often put effort and enthusiasm (i.e. precious things - damn the money) into all sorts of things which I subsequently came to regret and undo, but I think that is my natural style anyway - I learn by skinning my knees.

    Being a disciple of some mainstream period and ruleset definitely has advantages - a little faith can spare you a lot of bruises, and also you are not forced to build all the armies for your games. But where's the fun in that?

    I always enjoy your own blog, which demonstrates exactly the freedom of spirit you describe, is invariably interesting and generally offers us a model for how it should be done. I am especially interested in your mastering your own figures.

    Regards, and thanks


  3. Hi, although this blog looks to have lots of interesting content, the white text on the blown-up stained-glass (?) background makes it very difficult to read - really irritating, to be honest. Apologies, but I thought I'd better mention this.

    Steve Gill

  4. Steve

    Erm - the blog template I'm using gives dark grey print on a white panel, with the stained glass only visible in strips at the side.

    I can appreciate that white text on the stained glass would be horrible - I don't think anyone else sees that - is there something odd about your browser?

    If you send me your email address as a comment I won't publish it, and will mail you back a screen-capture of what the template looks like on normal IE8 - sorry about the problem - unless Blogger is doing something odd, I don't know of anyone else who is getting this effect.

    I don't want us to get drawn into a techie discussion here (I'm not qualified, for a start!), but if the Blog is not readable to some people then I may need to change the template. The blog is getting many hundreds of hits, and yours is the first mention of a problem.

    Regards - and thanks



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