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

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Activation – More Dithering

It often occurs to me that a blog can be kind of a mixed blessing. For example, if I really can’t make up my mind about some element of wargames rules, it would be more dignified – and I might well look a little less foolish – if I did my dithering and thinking aloud off-blog. On the other hand, I invariably get useful input via the Comments, and that more than makes up for the discomfort of being seen to blunder about in real time. People are very kind – maybe they take pity on me.

Having oscillated between hot and cold on the subject of the Victory without Quarter ECW rules for some time now, and having gone so far as to do a fair amount of amendment and rewriting of those rules, the announcement that once again I am not happy with some aspects of them might generate a range of reaction somewhere between mild eye-rolling and total indifference. So the fool can’t make up his mind – so what’s new? 

My concerns with VwQ are mainly about the activation rules. I’m really still not very happy with them – not even with my own revamped version – and they get a mixed press on TMP and elsewhere. Taking the core activation system out of VwQ might be likened to removing the nervous system from your favourite cat. The results are unpredictable. You might not like what you are left with. Might be better to think of something else to do instead.

As a last ditch effort to stop short of a completely fresh start, I’ve been doing a bit more reading about activation approaches, to see what else might just fit with the rest of VwQ. I have been revisiting all sorts of games. I liked the activation rules in the latest version of Ross’s Hearts of Tin rules, and these formed the basis of some further scribblings of my own, and I had an exchange of thoughts on this with Martin. As it happens, Martin recently purchased the John Curry reprint of Donald Featherstone’s Wargaming Pike and Shot (first published 1977), which is not the first place I would have thought of looking for ideas on activation. Martin’s enthusiasm encouraged me to buy my own copy, however. Well, well.

It's actually a pretty good book. The bulk of it consists of scenario descriptions of battles from the Renaissance and 30 Years' War period, but a new bit of this revised edition is a summary of some previously unpublished rules used by Don, and there is a discussion of turn sequences which uses a simple activation rule (or, as Don calls it, motivation – which I rather like) – it involves a fair amount of dice-rolling, so it might be a bit labour intensive for my taste, but it looks interesting. I haven’t tried it out yet. Naturally, I couldn’t just use it as published, so I’ve started by meddling with it and tweaking to fit with my own games better. What follows is not Don F’s rule, but it is influenced by it and is not unlike it.

Let's start with a slight detour. First thing you need for this is some easy way of identifying units which are part of the same formation, or which all report to the same commander. A while ago, when I was under the spell of Sam Mustafa’s Fast Play Grande Armée, I adopted a very handy idea of his, which was to put coloured markers on the bases of units which were brigaded together, so you could see the breadth of an individual general’s command at a single glance. Naturally, once again, I fiddled with the system until it looked like this:

This is a Napoleonic example – here you see some labels waiting to be cut out and attached to unit bases. This is a collection of leaders and units from Maucune’s Division, which you will see has the distinguishing colour of yellow. The brigades are identified by the colour of the inner square. Thus it is very easy to identify all Maucune’s units (yellow outer square), or all the units which report to General Montfort, who is one of Maucune’s brigade commanders (red within yellow). These labels are much smaller in reality than they appear here – I laminate them, cut them out and attach with a smear of BluTack. [OCD on the battlefield.]

Right, you may be thinking, this must be leading up to something. There is obviously some reason why we might wish to identify higher formations in this way. And you will be correct - at long last, we come to the ideas about activation.

1. A brigade should consist of between 3 and 8 units. If a higher level of organisation is suitable for your game, a division may comprise between 2 and 4 such brigades.

2. When the player takes his turn, he nominates one of his generals. In a big game, he may have a choice of nominating 1 of his division commanders or up to two of his brigade commanders – decide for yourself how this would work.

a. For the nominated general he now rolls 2D6 for each unit in that general’s command for which he wishes to issue an order – this is where the coloured labels come in handy, so you don’t miss any.

b. A natural roll of 9 or more activates the unit – give them a counter or something – they are under orders for this turn.

c. Otherwise, adjust the dice roll as follows:
i.          For a good general, add 1
ii.         For a poor general, deduct 1 – sort-of-OK generals require no adjustment
iii.        For a good unit, add 1
iv.        For a poor unit, or one with heavy losses (shaken, whatever...) deduct 1
v.         For each complete 6 inches (or whatever you fancy) that the unit is distant from the general, deduct 1 (for hexes, this would be “for each hex beyond the first...”)

d. If the result is 4 or more, the unit is under orders

e. This continues until all units under the general’s command are activated, or until one fails the test, in which case no more units are tested. This means that it is important to take care over the order in which units are tested for activation – go for the good guys who are near at hand first – one failure and that’s your lot for this general on this turn.

3. The activated units now move, fight and all that stuff, as you would expect. End of turn.

4. Then the opposing player nominates one (or maybe two) of his generals, and so on. And that’s it, really. It may involve too much dice throwing, I'm not sure, but it has a few ingredients which appeal:

a. It’s simple, and easy to understand

b. Restricting activation to a single general keeps the game focused and ensures a quick rotation of turns

c. The fact that you can choose the general gives more direct control – less of a random element than a card system, for example, but some bad luck with the dice can still make life difficult.

5. And, as an add-on, we propose that any general who is a casualty has to be replaced, but should be replaced by an officer who is one degree worse. 


Re-reading this now, it seems to me that most of this is familiar anyway, and I’m not sure why it has taken Martin and me so much correspondence to get to this stage. I am not even sure that I shall go on to test it, though I have thoroughly enjoyed the development process. However, in a spirit of what I hope will charitably be taken as innocent enthusiasm, I offer it for your thoughts.


  1. I thought it might be safer (saner?) to comment here rather than on the chex game. There are three main stumbling blocks for me with activation/"C&C" systems.

    The first is when I think "how did this get done in real life?" "in detail, step by step?" then I realize that I'm making things up because this stuff was too mundane or obvious for people to write about 9 times out of 10 apart from Nolan galloping up or a casual reference to "So I ordered so and so to take that hill" or "I was ordered to".

    Secondly, I make the mistake of trying to relate them to real life. Questions like, "what is really happening?" "Have I ever read of a situation like this?". "More than once?"

    Lastly I make the mistake of injecting systems that are either labour intensive, counter-intuitive, or counter productive into a game. Then I get tired of it.

    So there is alot to be said for stealing other people's good ideas like Phil Barker's Pips that mean formed troops are easier to move than scattered ones and thus friction grows as the battle goes on.

    1. Ross - thanks for this. I agree - I recognise the process you describe. What did you make of this Featherstone-derived system?

      I still haven't tried it in a game, but I think I should. Intuitively, it feels as though it has more going for it than most such systems. The big plus, right up front, is that it uses the actual command structure of the army, which must reflect at least a bit the "how did this get done in real life?" aspect. It also starts off with a conscious choice of general, which seems reasonable, and the friction sets in only when the dice roll - a lot of this seems logical (and easy to remember - not an insignificant criterion...). Although I seem to have ended my post on a fairly downbeat, dismissive note, the system as described still looks a lot less flaky than the original VwQ system, which depends entirely on the quality of the card-shuffling(!), doesn't work if there are too few generals, or too many units, or if the armies start too far apart, or if someone gets stranded without a commander, etc etc. In fact, the VwQ system doesn't seem to work very often.

      My feeling is still that dropping this into VwQ, while still using VwQ's fighting mechanisms, would work. Only concern is that it might prove to be tedious, or confusing, or irritating, as you describe.

      My dalliance with VwQ thus far has been the stuff of comedy - I spend alternate weeks enthusiastic or fed up, and each latest state has a lot to do with adding fixes. In a weird way, it reminds me of an ancient Land Rover I once owned - I hated it and I loved it. Mostly I loved it when it had just come back from the garage. I hated it because that was far too often, it cost me an unjustifiable amount of money and wasted time to keep it running, and it was ****ing uncomfortable even when it was working.

      Because it would help solo play, and because it is a great help in identifying logical holes in rules, I have written a computer program to run VwQ. Initially this program was called VwQ plus a version number, but eventually my implementation of VwQ had so many patches and corrections and add-ons and replacements that I called it ARQUEBUS instead, and made a note that the core of it was VwQ. I think that is the way to go now - I think, even away from the computer, I have constructed a 30YW/ECW game called ARQUEBUS which is a collection of stuff, including some elements of VwQ. I didn't intend to get here, but I think it's a better place to be.

      The complicated, two-level command colour coding system is only of interest to me because I can see potential scope for this in my own Napoleonic rules. The normal ECW set-up in my house would be 3 or 4 brigades each side, each with a distinctive colour of little bead attached to the base. I am quite interested in little coloured beads - my local craft shop is not sure about me at all.

      Cheers - Tony

  2. Just typed up a long rambling answer and then luckily, the internet blipped. The conclusion was basically that it looks better than the VWQ cards which are too random for my mind. I especially did not like needing an order/card to shoot. It seems like a local self defense thing and getting guys to NOT shoot seems to have been the problem.

    However, I don't get the bit where one unit failing interferes with the next one testing, didn't get it in warhamster etc either so mostly just me.


    1. Hmmm. Hard to justify/reason something that I didn't think of and haven't tried. If the testing is done from closest outwards then the first failure gives an indication of how effectively the order was transmitted (or whatever).

      I don't get it either, but it is maybe as sensible as arbitrarily allowing a general to influence units 17 inches away and then carefully positioning all units within 17 inches. At least you can't play the system on this one - well, not in the same way.

      Will try it. No doubt I'll be dithering again next week! As things work out, I have zero time at the moment for wargaming, so pencil and paper it will have to be.

      Cheers - thanks - Tony

  3. Unless I've misunderstood your proposal it is basically the same as that used in Blitzkrieg Commander, where it works fine. BK also allows the same unit to keep moving etc on a progressively more difficult die roll, but one failure and that's it. Bloody Barons, the Peter Pig War of the Roses system also uses something similar. On the basis that there is nothing new under the sun there are bound to be others.

    Years ago I did something similar in Napoleonic games with an activation (for movement only) system I pinched from a set of ACW rules by Larry Bron, the Sword and the Flame man, dropped into Shako for the rest of the rules. In that case each commander rolls three dice and can move on anything below 16. This target is adjusted up and down in the same sort of way as you suggest with a specific (cumulative) penalty if the unit didn't move last time because of failing its roll. I seem to remember a game where a Bavarian contingent on the flank never actually moved at all.


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