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

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Compromise in Wargames - (2) Time: Wellington, Wallace & Gromit

The more I thought about issues connected with time in wargames, the more I started to think that maybe there wasn’t much to say. There are some key decisions to be made when designing a game. Since it will not run, smoothly, by itself in real time (like a model railway), we have a practical need to replace continuous action/movement with a series of step turns, each representing an interval of time; perhaps these will be alternate turns, perhaps (if someone finds a way to do it) the intervals may be of varying length to suit the situation, the intensity of the action – however this is done, the compromise is similar. The shorter the intervals, the more closely we approximate to continuous action (like the stop-frame animation techniques used in Wallace & Gromit, my very favourite pieces of Plasticene). Very short turns will also reduce the problem of determining the exact timing of events (volleys etc) during the bound, but will also give a laborious, fiddly game. That is all pretty clear, but very short turns will also accentuate one of the great philosophical mysteries of wargaming – why doesn’t the real time represented by the elapsed turns add up to something realistic?

Here’s a quote from the Wargames Research Group’s then-shiny new Wargames Rules 1685-1845, published April 1977; bear in mind that these represented something of a change of direction for WRG, switching (correctly, in the cause of playability) to alternate turns, and abandoning their trend-setting combat factor table system:

Time Scale - Each bound can include action comparable with that possible in 80 seconds in real life. However, the bound overlaps both the preceding and succeeding enemy bounds, so that one friendly plus one enemy bound also equals 80 seconds. As this, multiplied by the likely number of double bounds in a game, gives an unrealistic duration for a real battle, we assume that each bound also includes a variable amount of delay. We therefore recommend assuming for campaign purposes that a pair of bounds represents half an hour.


This, remember, is from game designers and rule writers who were not noted for ambiguity or mincing their words – the same booklet specifies exactly how big a marsh is allowed to be, for example. If the WRG, no less, were as woolly as this about how time elapsed adds up in the game, then this is very serious recognition that the matter is not straightforward.

I’ve referred to this before in this blog, and the discussion generated a comment from Ross Mac which has played on my mind ever since. With a grateful doff of the hat to Ross, and with my own rather clumsy paraphrasing super-imposed, the observation refers to the Battle of Waterloo: something like a quarter of a million men spent a long summer’s day within a few miles of each other; any one of the infantry units could have marched right across the field in a couple of hours – so what the blazes were they doing all day?

To an extent, this demonstrates how little intuitive understanding I have of what a real battle was like. The only reasonable answer is that, by and large, most of them must have spent most of the day hanging around, doing very little other than being in position, implying a threat. Very obviously, all over the field, lots was going on, but any one of the participants in the ranks must have spent most of the day waiting – waiting for the ground to dry, waiting for the other lot to do something, waiting for orders, just waiting.

Another thing which I find difficult to fathom – though I enjoy trying to unravel it – is the widespread disagreement we find in accounts of what happened, even to the extent of published exchanges of umbrella-rattling letters between colleagues who were within a few hundred yards of each other. I am writing about the Napoleonic Wars here, remember, one of the best documented periods of history – an astonishing proportion of the survivors left eye-witness accounts, and yet there is still huge debate about what order events occurred in, who did what, exactly where they were and so on. There must be many examples we could pick on, but one which has always intrigued me in particular is my old chum Marmont’s career-spoilingly bad afternoon at Salamanca on 22nd July 1812.

Realising that the brigades on his left have got themselves out of order and left some gaps, Marmont calls for his horse, with the intention of heading out there in person and sorting them out, when he is wounded by a shell, which spoils his concentration more than somewhat. In his memoirs, Marmont (who has a little dignified ass-covering to do on the subject of his performance that day) estimates it was 3pm when he was wounded. Foy, who was less than a mile away, estimates it was between 3 and 4. Wellington, however, is said to have spotted this over-extension of the French left while he was at lunch, around 1pm, and sent orders to Pakenham accordingly, which makes it unlikely that it would have taken Marmont a further two hours to spot the problem. Basically, we don’t know. This seems almost impossibly strange to a 21st Century reader – in a modern context the exact moment the C-in-C was struck down would be known without doubt – order sheets would all be headed up with the date and correct time, there would be a paper trail a mile wide from which to reconstruct events, if need be.

This was not the case then. There was no satellite transmission of accurate time, no time signal on the radio – the pocket watches of the day would also add a little inaccuracy. Most importantly, the mindset was different. People thought in terms of a day’s march, “about midday”, “late afternoon” – they would not have understood our modern-day obsession with spurious accuracy of time-keeping. So there is plenty of scope for disagreement between witnesses, in the midst of so much confusion. But there is something more – the confusion itself appears to be related to a certain subjectivity in people’s perception of the passage of time.

Here’s another, more famous quote:

The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.

Arthur, Duke of Wellington, from a letter to John Croker (8 August 1815), as quoted in The Waterloo Letters (1891) edited by H. T. Sibome

So what is he on about? Surely it is a straightforward matter to assemble an accurate account of a battle, even if it is complicated? There are a finite number of events, and each must have occurred at a known time. Time, very conveniently, travels only in one direction, there is only one of it, and it is the same for everyone. Is this true? [In what follows, I am not trying to labour a pun on the word “ball” – it’s just a coincidence!]

I had a long think about this. You can watch, or produce a decent written report of, a football match, for example, because there is only one ball, and the ball is the central point of focus of the game. If you asked each of the players involved to relate exactly what he had done during the match, none of the accounts would be the same as the report of the game, and this is because much of what they describe will have happened “off the ball” – running into spaces, making dummy runs, positioning themselves for a pass which did not come, and so on.

Further, the inter-relation between the individual events in these personal histories would be complex, and might only be apparent in retrospect. This is becoming more like a battle – radio commentators can make a very nice job of describing a live football match; commentating on a developing riot is a different challenge – it is impossible to identify the significant moments without knowing what is going to happen later – and there are too many balls in play at the same time.

Even if you can reconstruct everything that happened, and the timing, building a single, linear narrative of the whole thing is probably impossible, and we have already established that the individuals involved will have different recollections.

Considering my initial doubts, I seem – once again – to have expounded very little at great length. Last time we discussed this problem of tabletop time vs real time, we touched on the subject of Command Activation rules; one of the traditional things which go wrong in a wargame is that we waste an awful lot of time shunting all the units around, including the ones which aren’t actually doing anything. Activation rules are useful because they push you back to focusing on key areas, which removes a lot of the spaghetti from the Western.


  1. For some time I have been meaning to reverse engineer a battle. Taking the length of the battle and dividing by the number of turns I want to play to determine how long the turns are. In theory the activity that can be carried out in a turn can then be determined, sort of, by breaking the battle in time chunks of that size.

    Of course one needs to come up with game reasons not to attack with everything at once, and it would be nice to have a multi-step combat resolution that felt like all the things that go into a conventional game but take up next to no time, oh and an appropriate amount of response by the other side.

    I'm still stuck on how to figure how many turns I want play when I don't know how long they will be.......

  2. Mankind is possessed of a seemingly infinite ability to shape incident into narrative - people "edit" their story in order to make sense of it, in addition to making changes for other reasons. Or as they put it in House, "Everybody lies". Any group of people who present with identical narratives shortly after a violent incident almost certainly up to something.

  3. Everybody lies - except Wallace & Gromit. I must have another look at Pete Hofschroer's book about the Siborne Waterloo model, which I recall as a story mostly about lies and disagreement - some political, some genuine. I've occasionally picked at the Siborne letters, and at things like the squabbles between Napier and Beresford. It's fascinating, but you finish up none the wiser, and more cynical than you started. For that reason, I've still not spent the money on the new German and Hanoverian volumes of Waterloo correspondence - might be just more of the same.

    Length of turns (play time or real time - both) - my problem with WRG's limp explanation of how the soldiers should be assumed to be spending 96% of the time doing something undefined but not covered by the rules is simply that if the game was worth a damn, it would encourage the play generals to spend their time doing similar sorts of things to real generals. Maybe it's the players, then - if Napoleon had just sent the lot in at 9am they would have been finished by 10, one way or another. It seems the toy battles aren't like real ones. Maybe the WRG in 1977 didn't really understand what a battle was like, either? I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of "here is a very precise game, but we think that maybe a lot of other stuff went on which we have chosen to ignore". If I'm going to ignore something, I'd like a better handle on what it is!


  4. Something of an analogy: suppose we want to 'game' a day of finals at a field-and-track tournament. Events are happening all around us: a 100m sprint, a long jump, a high-jump, etc. Since we want to simulate the whole day, we subdivide the day in turns that each take 10 minutes of real time.
    However, the individual athlete running the 100m will perform this feat in just about 10 seconds.
    Now we have a dilemma: do we spread out this action over all turns of the day - or do we allow the playing piece representing the athlete to perform during one turn only, and even that poses already some problems. And how do we prevent that playing piece from running 100m in every single turn?
    Granted, the analogy is maybe a bit far-fetched, but this time distortion in games is present everywhere. E.g. when playing a boardgame simulating the whole Pacific Theatre during WW2 (and each turn takes 3 months) - do you really need rules that can simulate Pearl Harbour?

  5. Phil - interesting analogies. The most explicit approach I've seen in a wargame which addresses this is in various sets of siege rules, in which there are two kinds of turn - 1-day siege moves (in which a whole pile of "averaged" things happen - artillery inflicts 24-hours worth of bombardment on the walls, sappers do something like an average day's digging, the garrison eat another day's allowance of food, various chance cards to do with morale and bad breaks are drawn) are occasionally abandoned temporarily when something specific happens (a sally, a storm, a fight with a relieving force), and the game "goes tactical", and turns for a while into a normal wargame with 15 minute turns or similar.

    There is only one kind of time, but the game divides into long vanilla turns and short jalopeno turns. Certainly, assuming each day included 0.08 of an assault would be very silly, but not unlike some of the assumptions made in commercial games.


  6. That vanilla and jalapeno thing is what Duffy had at his siege at Sandhurst, and then Bowden had in Empire that I talked about earlier.

    You said then you weren't familiar with it. Too bad because this is a big part of why it made such a big impact in the Eighties.

    I didn't like to see someone introducing real legal threats into the previously friendly world of wargaming and it made a splash for that at the time, with other people writing articles and comments in the magazines.

    It took me a while to buy the third edition to see what everyone was talking about. It took me a longer while to discover where he had lifted the time system from.

    He did further develop it though, I have respect for that part.

    Just have a problem with the high price and litigiousness, the pretentiousness and implied arrogance, all other expensive rules then were ten dollars and these are twenty-five! In a fancy box that looks like a French flag.

    This is even though I have many of his books and agree with a lot of what he says. I would buy another book by him and mostly agree, cavil a little here and there, especially at a flea market at 90 percent off so the price would be right for once.

    But, it is the best way I have seen to handle the problem of time, other than the George Jefferies thing, (and now I have an unforgettable word-picture of him thanks to your eyewitness accounts).

    A 'vanilla' turn on the field is one hour, and the French go first--you roll to see whether they are aggressive enough this turn to have three twenty-minutes periods, or the default two for thirty minutes each. There's the jalapeno part. Only the French can have three actions, everyone else two all the time.

    The opposition can answer, and there are opportunity charges or opportunity fire rules, for when your action here triggers the inactive side to be able to do this, if they want.

    There was also a campaign system for Empire by Kip Trexel that broke things up into 4-hour segments for the next level up, and had 24-hour days. It was meant to give a campaign of a week or two, or longer, to put the battle into context.

    This was largely for bookkeeping about hospitals, engineering, wounded, stragglers, supplies, march distance and rest, etc.

    I liked it and people still use it, but the trouble many have is that is gets too time consuming and too much to keep track of for them.

    Second common criticism is that he gave special factors for certain French and British units especially, but really across the board, which upset many with the unfavoured nationalities. Same also for generals, all rated for skill and personality in his opinions, down to every division. Each gamers' opinions can easily be offended by several of his chosen factors here, including mine.

    Then there was another version of the same system for the ACW with a whole new set of the same sort of judgments and factors.

    All that would be okay with me, but I just don't like the ten-sided dice, even if they are better. I like the feel and simplicity of 1d6.

    Also reading battle accounts after learning this system, sure enough the flow seems to match up pretty well.

    People's loud complaints about the Empire family are usually about the other things mentioned above, and not so much getting into the time problem or solution.

    The ACW version never did catch on much, here it was Johnny Reb vs Fire and Fury in the loud arguments.

    Among other things, the system was supposed to show why he who attacks with everything at once will pay a price, if nothing else from the fatigue points hurting his factors, tiring out the horses.

  7. Right - last time this came up, I made a note to dig my copy of Empire out of the back of the top shelf of The Other Cupboard - a manoeuvre requiring the use of a step ladder and some profanity. Of course, I forgot, but this time I have actually done it.

    It is true that I was not, and am not, familiar with Empire, but I do own a copy (like the joke about the gentleman accordianist?) - I bought it on eBay about 2 years ago. It didn't strike me as life-changing at the time. Looking through it now, I recall why it got filed away - it is very heavy going - the writing is, I'm sure, logically complete, but not likely to stimulate enthusiasm in the uninitiated.

    I remember also that when I read through this I was bit annoyed because the chapter entitled "The Hourly Round" promises that TTC (Telecoping Time Concept) is explained fully in the Preface, which is actually total crap, since the Preface only says in general terms what a great concept it is, and how any other approach falls way short.

    I promise I shall read the rule book again - if they have a double-level approach to time then that is potentially very interesting - as I remember, I was rather put off last time I looked because the game seemed rather to be structured for multiple-player games.

    I shall look to see if there is an idea in there which can be lifted out of what looks, to me, like a rather turgid rule set, though I am, naturally, nervous about some kind of writ being served on me!

    Thanks for getting me moving on this again


  8. No worries, because in a part of his arrogance he has said in print that if anyone makes any changes in his system, then it isn't Empire anymore, therefore you would be innocent, even though that TT thing above was specifically copyrighted ot trademark asserted or something.

    See Fire and Stone where Christopher Duffy mentions 'telescoping' of time--maybe eight years earlier.

    But here we are safe, calling it after foods. They never thought of covering that eventuality. Can I borrow the vanilla/jalapeno if I call mine habanero?

  9. Mekelnborg - it was in Duffy's book, and the much later Faltenian Succession derivative of Duffy's work in "Battleground", where I came across the idea. Thereafter it seems to be a commonplace in most siege games (not that there are many), including my own embryonic effort.

    I had heard of VLB (Variable Length Bounds), but that seemed to be more an item of faith than something you could use.

    The long move/short move idea seemed a simple approach to a practical problem, and it would not have occurred to me that it was something anyone could copyright - however, I'm sure that's just my naivety.

    Looking through the Empire rules last night, I was struck by the grandiose terms in which it promotes itself. I'm never sure about any form of marketing blurb which means that the product is still telling you what a great thing this is, many years after you have paid up and own it. Breakfast cereal packets do this, but I guess they are designed to attract your attention on the supermarket shelf, and we normally don't keep these packets very long, and not in the library.

    I almost digressed there.

    To prove to myself that I hadn't imagined it all, I found some of the TMP discussion of VLB - it's at


    and is worth a peek, just to get a glimpse of the kind of guys that poor old George Jeffrey was surrounded by and admired by at the end of his days. If anyone reading this was a contributor to that discussion, then they have my sympathy.

    My slant on this is that VLB doesn't work - you need to be able to predict the future to fix the duration you assume, and someone will change their intended action as it develops, so you have undamped feedback (or something). It might work for a single unit/person in a moronic adventure game, but the backside drops out of it when you have more than one player. There are even some minor wrinkles in Chris Duffy's approach - what happens when the assault starts at 5:30 pm, or whatever - or 4/7 of the way through the 24-hour move? - does the umpire ignore that, and start the short moves at the end of a full move, or is it necessary to have a partial move?

    Actually, the answer is right there in what I've just written - in Duffy's game there was an umpire, and it works if you have an umpire. Most things work if you have an umpire. Kriegsspiel always had an umpire too. Also, Duffy was a very smart guy, which is not necessarily true of some of the other pioneers.



  10. The answer in those rules is simply that the first one of the 30-minute tactical phases was skipped and you chose to launch the assault on the second one, which is perfectly feasible.

    If you dig for it you can find that other people have made rules later on which use bits of the empire-like way of doing things but simplify or change certain parts, and there are fans of those systems. Forgot what it's called, but somewhere in TMP it is explained.

    I'd like to check those out because I do still like it, but must change it. So I already do change it my way, but I'm not sure how these others have done it.

    The version out currently is called IIRC Revolution to Empire, fifty bucks, which I have been trying to read for a year, to figure out what's different, other than including the earlier wars.

    The promotional language is the same, and annoying, but he has certainly got a lot of my money, and since the VLB has fallen down, I do not have a better way of handling time.


To avoid spam and advertising material, comments are moderated on this blog, and will appear once I have seen them.