|Proper Old School - the early pioneers were all different sizes, as you see|
One of the characteristics of Old School wargaming, as we grew up with it, was that everything appeared on the table. You want skirmishers? – no problem – there they are (mind you, the rules don’t work too well for them, and it takes so much time to manoeuvre them that we normally ignore/forget them after Bound 4). You want a honking great model of La Haye Sainte on the battlefield? – there it is (yes – agreed – it takes up the same space as the city of Brussels on the tabletop, but just look at it, and you can get an entire Division in the farmyard, too).
As we all got more and more enthusiastic about reflecting every known (or suspected) aspect of warfare in the game (mostly Napoleonic in my case, and the words National Characteristics still cause me to shudder), so we found it harder and harder to finish any of our games. Speaking for myself, my growing interest in looking for new approaches and greater pragmatism came from my frustration at finding that the widely accepted, latest forms of my hobby didn’t actually work very well. I remember being embarrassingly close to tears trying to get to grips with the latest version of Halsall & Roth’s rules (as used in the national championships – I only bought the very best...). I realised that this was no longer fun – at least not to me. I became very interested in the reasons why board war games seemed to work better, without people coming to blows, or taking their troops home in disgust.
Many years later, after my wargaming sabbatical, I got myself involved with more modern rulesets, and a lot of what I read made a whole lot of sense. Dr Mustafa said that in a big wargame it was impracticable to fuss about with skirmishers, for example – it was a distraction, something which in any case would be beneath the attention of an army commander. In his Grande Armée rules, the idea was that, surrounding the main columns and other formations on the tabletop, there were invisible little clouds of light troops, scrapping away. They were abstracted – a new word for me in this context then – and only existed by implication. They appeared as adjustments in combat calculations, and as “SK” numbers associated with the parent units. This seemed a more businesslike approach, though I did have a few slight traditionalist pangs. Just a minute – I actually enjoy fiddling with skirmishers – and what about all those lovely voltigeurs and people I’ve painted and cherished? What are they going to do? There does seem to be a slight tension here – if we agree that a particular style of skirmishing was an important characteristic of the Napoleonic Era – something, in fact, which served to make it different from the Seven Years War – is it OK to remove Napoleonic skirmishers from the miniature battlefield?
Hmmm. This wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped.
Out of all the reading, scribbling and reconciling necessary compromises, I came to terms with the fact that I probably needed at least two sets of rules for each period. One was for big battles, where the emphasis was on speed of movement, simple-but-robust mechanisms and games which were capable of being played to a conclusion in a sensible amount of time. The other would be for smaller fights, where it was required to consider a more detailed level of tactical behaviour, where forming lines and wheeling and deploying skirmish troops were still appropriate, and even necessary.
My decision to start dallying with the English Civil War – something over a year ago – required a whole new dose of considering available rules. After a lot of reading and soliciting of advice, I plumped for Victory without Quarter as my main rules. The game scale and general philosophy fitted well with the list of personal likes and dislikes which I had built up over the years. Having reached the point of actually playing some games, I now find I have the familiar two-level situation – I have a home-brewed adaptation of Commands & Colors to handle the bigger battles, and I have VwQ for the smaller stuff – my proposed provincial, North-country ECW campaigns will certainly throw up games for which C&C is too blunt a tool, and for which it becomes necessary to worry about which direction units are facing, how they are formed up, the advantages of march columns on roads, the exact point in a charge where the defenders got off a volley and all that.
My relationship with VwQ is still evolving. The only time I have used the rules in anger (grrrr!) was when I visited Old John in
North Wales last year. We
found that the game was fun, but there were some chunks missing (dragoons
didn’t work properly, no advantage for a flank or rear attack, no explanation
of how artillery should be treated in a melee, for a start). Concentrating on
positives, I spent some time adding extensions to the rules – suggestions came
from various sources, including Harry Pearson, even some ideas from Clarence
Harrison himself (the originator) - and I have reached a fairly robust version
The one area which still bothers me about this game is Activation. Broadly speaking, the game uses cards to activate units – there is a card for each, and there is also a card for each commander at brigade level or higher. Drawing an officer’s card allows orders to be given to any of his subordinate units which are within shouting distance, which allows some decent progress to be made when moving troops about. Last year, Old John and I found that – as often as not – drawing a card for a single unit would produce no effect at all, certainly no movement, since advancing a single unit without the rest of its brigade was usually not a great idea. I’m still tinkering with this, which remains the one weak spot. I have even given thought to having cards only for brigades and higher formations – single unit cards being dropped. John and I had certainly deduced that any group of units which was expected to move anywhere had to be provided with an on-table brigadier.
I hope I’m not anywhere close to going back to the research phase. VwQ is designed to support the smaller type of game which I expect to feature a lot in my campaigns – my commitment to these rules, albeit expanded and tweaked, is such that I have based my troops to suit (which is not a problem – whatever rules I use can handle these bases) and have even produced (and now tested, honest, Clive...) a computer-managed version to facilitate solo play. Maybe copious provision of generals is the answer, maybe the single-unit activation cards are a bad idea, but – whatever the answer might be – I have a faintly worrying recollection of our game in
during which there were lengthy periods when some parts of the armies were left stranded by the original card drawing system.