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

Friday, 6 May 2011

Compromise in Wargames - (1) Space, and Very Small Houses

Two beautiful examples of the accepted appearance of a Napoleonic wargame – and very nice too

So I’m just starting to get my ideas sorted out – my milk bottles in a row, as my grandmother used to say – when De Vries emails me and disrupts everything. Milk bottles all over the place. No, he says, you can’t classify everything under the three headings – Space, Time and Probability – because this skips over the most fundamental factor of all, the figures-to-men ratio in the game.

Well, I had intended to include this (let’s call it the “figure ratio”) in the Space section, for two main reasons. Firstly, the “look of the thing” (which, for me, is very important) requires that figure ratio and ground scale in the game are sensibly related, so I have great difficulty separating them and, secondly, I spent quite a lot of time considering the distortions that figure ratio can produce in my discussion of Grand Tactical wargames, and I felt I didn’t have a lot more to say.

De Vries being the man he is, our exchange of ideas got briefly into the realms of Monty Python, but I believe we both think we won the argument. I agreed to spend more time on figure ratio, but I’m going to include it under the heading of Space anyway. Fifteen all.

The Pythonesque bit might as well feature very early in our trilogy – regard it, if you will, as a preliminary cartoon. One approach to fighting a battle for which you haven’t got enough soldiers or enough table area is to fight a much smaller battle – less units on a scaled-down but representative battlefield - and use your usual rules. I’ve done it myself – it can give an enjoyable game, but it will lose something of the original. That may not be a problem, but it should be borne in mind. If your cut-down Waterloo gives the French one regiment of cuirassiers and one battery and a few infantry battalions, it becomes tricky to decide just how to use them. You can certainly play the game, but – apart from certain identifiable bits of terrain – the game has less and less to do with Waterloo as you decrease the numbers of units.

The alternative might be to try to keep the numbers of units up, but have, say, in extremis, one figure in each, and do drastic things to the ground scale. In my view this works rather better, but it looks pretty silly – at this point there’s no point having the soldiers at all; since they are simply representative tokens, cardboard counters would be just as good, and might even look less embarrassing. Devotees of Risk and Campaign and maybe of Battle Cry may be growling at this point.

Now for the cartoon. We debated fighting Waterloo at a 1:100,000 figure scale, with a ground scale of about 1 foot equals 4 miles. Naturally, at this scale terrain features and buildings could be ignored, and each army would consist of a single figure. 3” alternate moves, and if they get within 1” of each other you roll 1 dice each. Highest wins. If it’s a tie, roll again. Loser buys the beers. De Vries was quite proud of this – the game may be adapted to any period or size of action you wish, it does away with the need to do all that painting and so on. He also claims it is extremely portable, though I’m not sure what he means by this. To keep him happy, I promised to include a picture. The point of this, apart from a bit of a giggle, is that extreme distortions of scale change the game beyond recognition. Now perhaps we can get on.

Waterloo at 1:100,000

There’s a vague crossover point between diorama and wargame. The look of the thing versus the playability of the game – where and how do you compromise these? The ultimate diorama, for me, is the model railway – everything is faithfully reproduced, on a 1:1 figure ratio (as it were), at very strict constant scale (HO, N), and it is forever June 1954 (or whatever). The trains do move around, and in real time, though the cars and pedestrians are definitely frozen (once again, note that this means that a still photo will be much more convincing than a movie). I did once visit a wonderful exhibition of an N-gauge West Highland Line (that’s Scotland), in which they had taken some liberties with the length of the runs between stations, but in general it’s all faithful, constant scale.

What about wargames? Childhood games, crawling around the carpet with Herald and Timpo soldiers (in my case), were definitely 1:1 skirmishes. The individual soldiers usually had names, and the game was greatly enhanced by the addition of the odd hedge or corn-stook from my farm set. At one point, I reluctantly had to give up an ancient carpet with a floral border which had been very useful as a jungle – probably for quite a few generations. In its innocent way, this was role-play. It’s intuitively natural to do it that way, I think. Left to myself, I doubt if I would ever have thought of having a figure ratio other than unity, or a ground scale different from the 1/32 or whatever it was that was implied by the figures themselves, and the fact that Crescent Toys’ 1/32 scale 25 pounder did not sit well with the 1/50 or so Dinky tanks I had was only a small cause for regret.

Even for adults, including normal, non-wargaming adults, visualising anything beyond a limited action with a small number of named individuals and the odd Johilco tree is tricky. Look at the Sharpe stories and films – look at just about any war narrative you can think of, and you see that same comfort zone. If you are going to portray the Battle of Talavera or the D-Day landings in a novel or a film, make the battle itself a background, and zoom in on the actions of the key individuals – it’s easier to get involved with individuals. Anything else and it starts to become a documentary, not to mention prohibitively expensive. The look of the thing is still very important, as anyone who watched the old BBC “War and Peace” series, with Borodino acted out by 12 men and a cannon, will be aware.

Over the years, I have come to accept that a rectangular group of two dozen painted model soldiers looks like a battalion. It doesn’t, of course, but the wargames I was raised on made that convenient assumption, and I’ve become brainwashed. It occurs to me as I write this that maybe there’s a distinction there – subconsciously I have tried to make my battles look, not like real battles, but like Charles Grant’s battle games from 40 years ago. I hadn’t thought of that before, but that is maybe as real as it gets.

I’ve absorbed the 1:33 figure ratio, 20 yards to the inch (1 pace = 1 mm) standard-issue game to the extent that I now regard it as normal. It’s a package, and the choice of that package is dictated by how much room we have available, how many figures we have, and how it looks. There it is again – how it looks. Although a 24-man battalion is blatantly unrealistic anyway, we get strangely agitated if, having got the frontage of our bases correct, we feel the figures are standing too far apart to conform to the regulations and tactics of the day. The look of the thing – that’s absolutely central to all of this. Probably, if we were not constrained to fit in with extant rule sets, the sensible approach would be to do this back-to-front – work out your ground scale for reasons of practicality, decide the size of the figures you wish to use, decide aesthetically how closely you wish to group them on correct-frontage bases, and then work out the de facto figure ratio as a last step. To complete the loop, you are probably then committed to basing your rules on the unit rather than the individual, which gets us a bit away from Charge! and similar games. It’s a constant source of surprise to me that all these factors dovetail into such a tight set.

I have no experience of proper skirmish gaming – I should probably have a go sometime. I have a faint (and very unreasonable) feeling that it’s a bit too closely related to my crawling-round-the-carpet days – something I prefer to think I have grown out of, or – literally – risen above, but I’m sure I would find it enjoyable, maybe even liberating!

Around 1977 I spent some time helping dear old Peter Gouldesbrough to perfect his Napoleonic game using the new-fangled 5mm troop-blocks from Minifigs. When I first saw these, and understood what Peter was trying to do, I was really quite excited – the battles looked like 19th Century prints, or would have done if it wasn’t for Peter’s horrible Plasticene hills, and it was like a skirmish game on a vast scale. At an intuitive level, this potentially felt like the right way to do things. That was still early enough in my own wargaming career for me to be able to start all over again with the blocks, and I did consider it briefly, but decided against it for a number of reasons, any or all of which may not stand up to scrutiny (with hindsight):

(1) Already in 1977 the moulds were starting to break up, and I was very nervous about being dependant on the continued production of a single range from a single manufacturer. Makers come and go like the flowers of Spring, and fashions in figure sizes were changing rapidly at that time. I think Heroics or someone had already started producing 1/300 or 6mm figures, which worked out dearer than buying the blocks, and (more seriously) were not really compatible by size.

(2) The little figures were a bitch to paint convincingly. Peter’s figures were not very well painted, and that didn’t enhance the game.

(3) The small size had a lot of advantages, but there were also some very real visibility issues, some of which were a source of much hilarity. It was very easy to lose some of your troops. On a number of occasions one of us would overlook an entire brigade of dark blue troops on Peter’s dark green table. It puts a new dimension into Command Activation. To get round this, the brigades would be accompanied by coloured labels which helped the game but pretty much destroyed the spectacle.

(4) This probably has a lot to do with Peter’s areas of interest, but the blocks lent themselves well – probably too well – to formational micro-management – a lot of time was spent checking for correct intervals in a column of march and so on, and tracking the movement of individual companies with a ruler. To make this easier, of course, we also had 30-second bounds, but that is a topic for the next instalment. Let’s just say that the games were not rivetingly fast.

Having said all of this, I look wistfully now at pictures of 6mm set-ups like Fabrizio’s Torgau Project and I can see the very strong appeal of such an approach. Even 2mm is interesting...

On rare occasions I have seen big dioramic displays of battles in museums – hordes of tiny figures on a realistic battlefield. I have not yet managed to see Siborne’s masterwork in London (are there two of them?), but it’s on my list of things to do before I snuff it. I find these things just wonderful – to simply stand and stare and think “Wow!” for a very long time is guaranteed to make me into a 10-year-old for the duration (though no-one, of course, may be able to tell the difference).

I’m not going to get sidetracked into a repeat discussion of base sizes or frontages, other than to mention – yet again – that one issue with big figure ratios is that the unit depths tend to get out of whack with the ground scale. If you group your figures so that the frontages and the unit sizes are correct then you are likely to find that you have to produce a cover story about the need to allow for intervals and manoeuvre space to justify the unit depths. Maybe this is a big argument in favour of the back-to-front calculation method I mentioned earlier?

One area that has intrigued me for years is the effect of the ground scale on scenery. Again, this is all obvious, but we tend to overlook it. I was brought up (so to speak) on photos of wonders like Peter Gilder’s Waterloo terrain, and such things add greatly to the enjoyment of a game, but we run into a problem as a result of the mismatch of the vertical and horizontal scales. If I have 1 inch tall men (near enough 2 yds = 1 inch) and a 20 yds = 1 inch ground scale then the ground scale is 10 times the vertical – your figures are 1/72, and your horizontal scale is 1/720, which is less than half as big as 1/300. This means that Hougoumont should really look like this:

At 20 yds to the inch, the fact that a division of the Old Guard could comfortably stand in the orchard of Gilder’s La Haye Sainte is a problem. The fact that our innocent little farm building with the detachable roof, which is a satisfying visual match for the figures, occupies the same area as Candlestick Park, or that the beautiful 28mm scale village we bought from In the Grand Manner is as big as Sheffield on the ground plan – these are distortions. Such scenic items are perfect for skirmishes and dioramas, but beyond that we have to be careful.

My personal compromise for this is to use 15mm buildings with my 20-25mm figures. They are still too big, but it’s better (and they’re cheaper!). I’ve thought of using 10mm buildings, but at this point it becomes obvious that the men could not crawl in through the doorways, and a cavalryman is as tall as a church, which is a major offence against the look-of-the-thing criterion. This all makes a lot more sense to me now than it did only 3 years ago, when I was proposing to move to 15mm buildings, and was busy asking people if they thought it would look stupid. I can hardly believe how much I worried about this, but it was a big change for me.

My compromise – these men would be cramped in the 15mm houses

The approach, as suggested by Charles Grant and Charles Wesencraft all those years ago, is that a small cluster of buildings on the battlefield is intended to denote an unspecific built-up area occupying the same space. Unless it is a skirmish, the buildings can be moved around a little to make room for the action, and there is no question of arguing about exactly how many men can occupy a particular building (unless, of course, it is historically necessary). The men are either in a village or not in a village. How they deploy to occupy it is beneath the resolution level of the game.


  1. Odd you should mention Grant and that Jeffreys should have come up not too long ago. Both these gentlemen's Napleonic wargaming books were read before I had ever played a Napoleonic game and both dismissed figure ratios for discussions on unit frontages. Grant of course dismissing the depth issue as lass important than esthetics.

    I've never had the pleasure of dabbling in the 1:33 stuff, my own limited amount of Napoleonic gaming was done in 15mm with the WRG 1685 to 1840something rules with their 1:50, single rank battalions and painfully slow march rates.

    In theory I now try to adopt a Charge! like disdain for building from scales up as opposed to a practical approach, starting with the desired look and effect and writing rules to achieve that without looking too close at what is driving the effect but in truth, the time and ground scale debates haunt me, leading to rebasing and reorganizing. I keep a little spread sheet where I can plug in musket range and base width & number of figures per base and it'll tell me what the maximum and minimum number of men each size of base will represent, how many men per figure and how far they can march by road in an hour depending based on which interpretation of effective musket range you wish to espouse today. Damn that Grant! I'm just trying to play toy soldiers!

  2. Ross - I believe you are exactly correct - I think the main priority is to have a game that works nicely and gives sensible results. If the numbers and the Organisation & Methods stuff adds up too then that's a bonus, but the game is the main thing.

    My set up with bases and scales is a legacy of what I have finished up with over the years, as discussed elsewhere - at present I am happy with the fact that it gives me battalions which are based in four subunits, which works very well with CCN, which I am spending some time with.

    I'm intrigued by your spreadsheet. That really is nerdy enough for me to want to see it!

    In passing, I was a bit shocked by the fact that, though Minifigs 5mm blocks were the business in the mid 1970s, I was unable to find a picture, or even mention, of them online. Maybe I imagined it all, or maybe it was longer ago than I think.


  3. I once had 1 block of 5mm, I ordered a sample at the same time as I ordered a 25mm Gatling gun. For months I thought it was a bundle of bullets for the Gatling.

  4. That's brilliant - made me laugh out loud!

  5. I remember having an argument with a chap who decried my version of Little Wars because it didn't include a bonus for troops charging in column. After I shot the fellow with a nerf gun for his impudence, one of my cooler headed friends pointed out that troops in column were more effective in melee in Wells rules as written because of the sheer fact that the lads are -closer together-, which by coincidence makes them more vulnerable artillery.

    I enjoy CCN because the abstraction seems to me to throw more emphasis on the player and the plan, but this could be idle rationalising. However, I have been exposed to one or two high pressure situations over the last few years and my very limited experience of that would lead me to believe that any serious attempt to model such behaviour with toy soldiers will be a very dicey proposition.

    Which is not to say that it isn't enjoyable or worth doing, just that the approach has sufficient limitations that a critic is always going to find ammunition.

  6. Agreed - a game that "works" is more important than the molecular detail of why it works, every time. I'll get into stuff like the Ludic Fallacy and the shortcomings of mathematical modelling in the 3rd bit of this series - the things we don't understand and the things we can't measure frequently are much more significant than the things we can, and our attempts at scientific accuracy become meaningless, if well-intentioned. Footling, to use another of my grandmother's words.

    CCN is an excellent example of a game package that hangs together well - I am, as you know, a big fan, and it's the simplicity as much as anything which sells it to me. It would be easy for a game designer to get it wrong, though. Someone who read his BP Hughes but got hold of the wrong end of the stick might (say) give artillery an effective range of twice what it should have, which would change the game a lot.

    The package is the thing.



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