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

Friday, 10 May 2013

Degrees of Abstraction

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 for playtesting.

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 Wales, during which there were lengthy periods when some parts of the armies were left stranded by the original card drawing system.


  1. Two thoughts com to mind about VwQ issues:

    1) the card draws - while the 'end of turn' not being specifically defined is good, I prefer a slight shift ... having been on the bad end of this card more times than I care to count. When the 'end card' comes up - stop, count all the cards drawn so far by which side they were from, if the total favors one side over the other then the OPPOSING side gets to move One Brigade of their choice, then end the turn. If both are equal then turn over more cards until one side's card comes up and that side gets to move the one brigade more. This will at least permit a bit more mobility in each turn and do some to compensate in those turns where one side gets all the cards (happened to me in person in three games in a row - turned me off the cards system completely)

    2) activation, especially of a brigade in line or marching in a column : any card drawn from that brigade (as in a single unit) may 'pass up' the move to one 'unit' in the brigade. This will allow leading units in a column to move and permit laggards in a line to 'close up'. It does mean that units in a brigade now have more of a 'wild card' approach - though it could be limited to brigades that have kept within a certain distance of each other (so that 'split off units' must remain so separated)

    1. Thanks for these - interesting. The first point suggests that there was some dodgy shuffling going on!

      The second is especially interesting - I hadn't thought of it in that form. It is less extreme than what I had been thinking about - i.e. in some conditions (yet to be defined, maybe scenario-based - maybe during the first couple of bounds, while the armies are some distance apart, or throughout the game for any unit which is out of its own shooting range or charging distance of the enemy) a unit card counts for all the brigade it belongs to, or at least all those bits of the brigade that are not separated from the main body by more than 12".

  2. Yes i do remember that parts of the armies were left stranded until their card turned up and I recall that my Roundhead forces had a very good run of activation cards before the Royalists could move. Agree that more generals would help.
    Have you given any thought that if a general/brigade/unit rated impulsive have to move when card is drawn??
    Since our bash I have increased !!!( more infantry & Cavalry & mobs of clubmen) my ECW armies, fancy a rematch sometime?
    cheers Old John

    1. Hi John - differential reaction to cards depending on status of unit is another interesting idea. I've been re-reading various other card-driven games, including TooFatLardies' "Le Feu Sacre", to see if a hybrid system would work. LFS has some extra cards which are specific to that set of rules, but otherwise there is a card for every general or leader of a detached force.

      I would love another battle - I'll email you.

      Cheers - Tony

  3. Part of me would have liked to have responded with a 2,000 word essay on the topics of compression, abstraction and the evils of consistency but luckily for all of us both brain and fingers objected so I'll just direct you to the intro to chapter 4 in Charge!, a book which continues to increase in sophistication and effectiveness as I age and learn.

    Limiting things to the final and concrete question of cards. I have used them in my own rules off and on since the early 1980's at least. I'm not overly fond of the early turn end regardless of the known world being full of unknowns. If used, I prefer units to at least be able to respond to nearby enemy if the turn ends without an orders, acting on the Colonel's initiative if you like. Shooting at least or possibly charging sword in hand if a suitably trained cavalry unit (I try to avoid the G and T words when possible regardless of their usefulness.)

    In any event, I have tended towards 1 of 2 approaches. a) Cards per Brigadier equiv. with units not formed up or too far away having to pass a die roll to move or b) cards per unit but allowing several units properly formed together and aligned to activate as one.

    Good luck!

    1. Ross - thanks for this - I have received a couple of emails on broadly similar lines, notably from Louis C and Peter Hayes. Louis gave a general outline of an approach which came from Peter, while Peter supplied a more detailed sketch.

      In VwQ, artillery are not normally placed in brigades (though they could be) - there are two ARTILLERY cards in the pack which can activate all the guns of both sides as a sort of brigade, so artillery are not covered by the Crick-Hayes tweak.

      The idea is that the C-in-C owning a non-artillery unit whose (single unit) card is turned up may opt to apply it to a group which can be more easily recognised on the tabletop than described here. The activation can be passed along on what Peter calls a "daisy chain" principle - from the unit drawn, activation can be passed from unit to unit within the same brigade, but the maximum physical spacing is 6" - thus the whole brigade may be activated on the one card if each of them is within 6" of another unit in the same brigade - the activation spread cannot "jump" more than a 6" gap between units.

      The limitation is that the brigadier himself must be part of the daisy-chain (i.e. he must be present and within 6" of one of the affected units), and - most importantly - the only permitted orders to such a group are MOVE and MANOEUVRE - CHARGE is not allowed, and neither is HOLD (which has rallying and reloading implications), though a unit may be ordered to make a zero MOVE. No firing is allowed - the idea is that this group option is to be used only for deployment and movement, not combat. The individual units in the group may be individually ordered to MOVE or MANOEUVRE, and they may not perform any action which is not permitted if they are currently Shaken or Routing. The brigadier himself may move as normal.

      I feel that the description here is not great - the idea seems intuitive and sensible, though I haven't tried it yet. If the C-in-C opts to activate only the named unit, of course, he may give it any of the full range of available orders, as normal.

      Having mentioned the brigadier, I might add that I have adopted another useful tweak suggested by Harry P and friends, which is that, though an Officer may move and issue orders in the same turn, he may issue orders only from a single location - thus he may move a bit, issued orders to adjacent units, and move a bit more, but he may not stop elsewhere to issue orders that turn.

      This all looks very useful, and thanks very much to all have contributed thus far, but I need to sit down and try to improve the wording!

      Oh - and Ross - the 2000 word essay is a must - please go for it!

      Regards - and thanks - Tony