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

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Tweakle Tweakle Little Star (1) - here we go again

Not a lot of wargaming going on here at present, what with one thing and another. There are still a number of related activities I can involve myself in at odd moments – fettling figures, a bit of painting, redrafting (yet again) my plans for progressing the Artillery Project, background reading – all that – but only a few actual battles of late. One thing I still enjoy very much is sitting down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a pencil and an A4 jotter, and scribbling down ideas. Recently I’ve been (yet again) doing a bit of going-back-to-basic-principles, partly because it’s fun, partly because it often helps reaffirm the faith, and partly because it sometimes generates new ideas, or at least turns a faint light on some old ones. Partly, I guess, it is also because it has become such a familiar activity that it is comforting to get back to the same old thought processes. Maybe it's a time-of-life thing - if I catch myself always wearing the same old sweater when I do it I'll get some more clues.

For a few years now I have been using Commands & Colors: Napoleonics as my main rules for miniatures, as people who read this blog will have noted ad nauseam, and this has produced a few changes for me – none of them bad, I hasten to add, but all worth understanding for what they are, and worth bearing in mind.

First and most important change for me has simply been the use of a published rule set, with the package of advantages this brings, and with the consequent behavioural discipline it imposes (unaccustomed as one is to discipline).

Big advantages have been, quite simply, that the system is widely used and extensively tested, it works, and it gives games that are fast and mobile and more enjoyable than most of my wargaming has been for years. It’s hard to argue against that, really.

The discipline, and this is more serious than it may sound, is that I have had to get used to keeping my hands off the rules. Leave them alone. They work. I’ve never had a set of rules, ever, which I have not eventually ruined by attempting to improve them; once the supposed improvements used to be in the direction of greater realism (the Great Blind Alley of Realism, especially given my own feeble grasp of what realism would look like); later they were in the direction of simplifying or speeding up the game (to overcome the tedium introduced by the earlier attempts at realism), but they almost all failed because I did not understand the fundamental fact that game design is a real skill (or science, if you will), and a simple tweak will usually have an unforeseen downside where you hadn’t expected one. So for C&CN, thus far, I have managed to avoid tweaking a working system, and my new belief set includes this as one of the doctrines. The game works, and – broadly speaking – leaving it untweaked also works.

Good. So what is the pencil and paper for, then?

Well, in the last 12 months or so I have hosted a number of games with visiting players who were completely new to wargaming (Lord help them, coming here) or else were experienced, sometimes very much so, but had not played C&CN before. Their reactions were interesting, and served to highlight, and sometimes confirm, some of my own.

The complete novices all found the game straightforward enough, after some initial coaching, to be able to follow the narrative of the battle, rather than struggle with the rules themselves. That is a terrific strength. No-one, as far as I know, was frightened away. The experienced guys all found it interesting – sometimes not quite to their preferred taste - and understood the game readily, including its differences from and similarities to other games. I think there have been four such visitors in the 12 months, and they all – to a man – produced some well thought out suggestions for tweaks to the rules afterwards.

Which is, of course, exactly what my own reaction would be. Some of these suggestions would make the game more like other games with which they were more comfortable – that’s absolutely fine; in some cases I had considered some of this stuff already – some of them were decent ideas but, in the interests of preserving the untweaked rules (which work, let us remember), I disregarded them. Some of them, though, hit the odd nerve…

If I am to be absolutely honest – and this does not compromise my faith – there are a couple of aspects of C&CN which still don’t feel quite right for me, and my requirements are evolving a bit. This is going to be an unfair, unbalanced presentation of some ideas, and I hasten to emphasise that my first choice and my intention is to continue to use the game as published, so please don’t anybody feel moved to leap to Mr Borg’s defence.

1. The Command Cards which handle activation and provide occasional tactical opportunities are central to the game; they are a very large part of the “short, fast turns” philosophy which keeps the game moving, which makes it work so well, so it would be real heresy to take a dislike to them. However, there are occasions when the challenge, the main thrust of the game, becomes a struggle with the damned cards rather than a tabletop battle involving miniature soldiers. Also, if I’m going to be really picky, it’s very hard to justify some of the cards in terms of what they represent in a real battle. It’s nice when the artillery can suddenly advance quickly, or fire a lot more effectively for one turn, for example, as the result of the right card turning up, but why did it happen? What on earth does the Short Supply card represent? (This card is usually removed from my pack – regard it as a Scenario Variant if you prefer). I occasionally wonder what other activation approaches would work, in the absence of the  Chance Cards, which sometimes can seem to be faintly reminiscent of some kind of Waddington's game [shrieking noises offstage…]

2. To me, there is too much obsession with the published scenarios which come with the game. If I were spiteful I might suggest this shows a lack of imagination among the players, but my own view is coloured by the fact that I play solo much of the time (Maximilien No-Mates Foy). A two player game must give both sides a worthwhile chance of achieving something; the scenarios appear to concentrate on providing this balance as a priority, sometimes at the cost of a slight distortion of the historical context. Fair enough. Another advantage of the published scenarios is that they start with the armies present, set up (and looking good) and just out of artillery range, ready to go. They avoid types of action where C&CN, untweaked, does not work so well: bringing up reserves – including off-table reserves – or making large strategic moves on the table.

3. I have become more interested in using a wider board, with bigger armies. This appears to justify some changes in the Command and activation rules, if only to cope with the changes of scale.

4. I have recently developed a C&CN-based game to fight battles in the ECW. It still needs a little polishing, but works well enough to trot it out for visitors without fear of embarrassment (hopefully). One side effect, though, is that I have got into a habit of trying tweaks, refining or undoing them, then trying something else. I suppose the whole idea of an ECW variant is just an excuse for a mighty tweakfest, but this mindset is old and familiar and habit forming, just at a time when I thought I’d grown out of that stuff.

5. Leaders. Mustn’t be rude about Leaders in C&CN, because the game was fine-tuned by people who know what they are doing, but the Leaders are a bit limp, aren’t they? They feature in a couple of the activation and combat bonus Tactical Command Cards, but otherwise they are all the same as each other (no unseemly star or ranking system), they do not relate to any army structure (real or imagined), and they provide no combat or rallying advantages to troops they are attached to. Their main real functions are to help stop people running away and to avoid getting killed (since they count as Victory Banners in their own right). I know that there are some mooted changes for Leaders coming in a future C&CN expansion, but this is the one area where I might well have a go at some gentle tweaking before long.

6. Sieges. I am keen to get back to developing my incomplete (beta-test? dormant? stillborn?) Napoleonic siege game, and it makes sense now to use C&CN for the tactical-level actions within the sieges, and thus it makes sense to develop the one-day-per-turn part of the game in a manner which is consistent with (or is an extension of) C&CN. I feel tweaks a-plenty coming on.

OK – Leaders aside, I am not proposing to make any dramatic changes, but I have been amusing myself thinking what other approaches to activation might fit with the C&CN combat and movement systems. I have had to address this on a couple of occasions already – during my solo Peninsular campaign, for example, there was a battle which was fought end-to-end of the table, which doesn’t fit well with C&CN’s arrangement of Centre and Flanks on the Section cards; I improvised (borrowed) a dice-based system which worked well enough. The world carried on afterwards without lasting damage, and I didn’t feel particularly dirty, though I may not have rushed out to tell anyone at the time.

I’ll write a further post (maybe two) on some of the alternative ideas on activation I’ve been scratching at – for possible occasional use with the other, standard C&CN mechanisms. These are not working solutions, by the way, just more navel gazing. The value, as ever, if there is any, is intended to be in the scenery along the way rather than the destination.

Some of these ideas have already been distilled (or at least warmed up a little) in email exchanges, which I always find worthwhile – if you have contributed to these, and if you have offered some original idea which I claim as my own in what follows, then you have my undying gratitude and humble apologies. Prof De Vries - this means you.


  1. I think having played the rules as written for over a year you are in a good position to implement the tweaks you feel are important. It's a far cry from reading the rules and thinking up changes (I'm guilty of that).

    I'm not familiar with CCN, but if you do make tweaks, you should implement them one at a time and give them at least three (or five, or more) games to really see the effect that tweak had. Statistically speaking (I took a class in college, so I'm an expert, you see ;) you need a sample size of at least 30 games (occurences?) to determine a change's effect. That doesn't seem practical, but give it a few games at least. You description of how you're handling your ECW variant seems the worst way to do things, if I read that correctly.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go download the CCN rules to see what the fuss is about.

    1. I'm quite impressed with my own success in leaving the rules unchanged - a new, rather calm, approach. Mind you, I don't use the official Spanish Expansion rules - I developed my own Spanish rules before the expansion was released, so I have stuck with my own - they are, in truth, very similar, though I don't use the "guerrilla rule", which I believe is fun, but looks a bit like Waddington's again. I have explicit guerrillas if i need them, and they have their own tweaks.

      The ECW game development has gone a bit better than I maybe represented it - there have been a couple of occasions (particularly in the nippy area of the different schools of horse tactics) when I've introduced a change which was definitely not an improvement - for example, in my efforts to give Gallopers some simple advantages over Trotters in melee situations I managed to to introduce a rule change which unintentionally made it a good idea for the Trotters to attack first, to get round the rule, and we suddenly had the most aggressive, gung-ho Trotters ever seen - it only took one trial to drop that improvement. I am, by the way, not entirely convinced by your 30 trials rule, though it is interesting…

      What the use of board game rules has done to my approach is to reduce the time it takes me to reject new rule sets. I only need to get to the first reference to simultaneous moves, written orders, command ranges and/or one or two other features and the rules are back on the Some Other Time shelf in the bookcase!

      CCN makes a feature of having scenario-specific add-on rules, which is a very useful cop-out for those of us who might wish to tweak but deny they have changed the rules. I have add-ons to cope with bigger armies, to speed up mass deployment away from the fighting, but they are, of course, scenario specific!

  2. I have to admit being lazy with rules...if I like them I accept their little foibles. I love Fire and Fury, you could write reams about their shortcomings but they are my favourite set of rules.
    However, this hobby is about what the individual gamer wants to get out of them. This is what makes it so great I think. If you want to tinker with them go for it. As a solo gamer you only have yourself to please.
    As a lazy gamer I would turn up, play the game and get my fun from pushing the lead around the table and throwing dice.
    Phil's "Battle Game of the Month" is all about getting the very best from the rules for example. Its a highly readable approach even for a lazy gamer like me!
    In short, it is your hobby and unlike Football or Bridge you make the rules. Now I am off to contemplate fluff in my navel and paint my new French Guard Horse Artillery!

    1. One problem with active tweaking is the dreaded Version Control, which becomes more tricky as the years pass. I now have to write everything down, and have very organised folders (i.e. physical, paper ones) with the rules and the various revisions carefully organised. Though I have been playing C&CN for some years now (three?) I have also been putting a lot of thought into the ECW version, and there are occasions when I have to sit down with the original rule booklet before the visitor arrives and have a quick read - it is, as you know, bad form to suddenly announce half an hour into a game that you have been using the wrong rules, especially if the incident that reminded you is now in your favour if you correct them. Battle Game of the Month is highly entertaining and instructive, but developing and improving rules is evidently an important part what Ross/Phil gets out of the hobby - I would like to do that, but would be unable to keep a clear head on where I was up to.

      A number of people have told me of their enthusiasm for F&F - my only exposure was a home-hashed Napoleonic version sent to me by a very kind fellow who obviously understood what his shorthand notes meant, but I didn't, so it didn't go well - I must try again sometime.

      Having a full brain is becoming more of a problem for me - if I learn something new, I have to forget something old to make room for it. Sometimes the thing I forget is useful, such as where I live, or the fact I'm supposed to be meeting my lawyer at 10. Ochone.

    2. Version Control! Being in software development, version control is an essential step in the development process. One, it allows one to keep precise track of where one is and, two, it allows one to step back to an earlier iteration if the product goes awry.

      You made me laugh on reading your comment about using the wrong version of rules in a game. That struck close to home. Those accustomed to playing under v2.4 are sometimes blindsided by a new introduction under v2.5. Whoops, I forgot to mention that! It is easy to forget why a rule set went from v2.4 to v2.5 until that same situation crops up again in play.

      Luckily, I game with a reasonable and patient group.

  3. I've only just been getting into CCN and while there are some things about it that I share your qualms with, such as the vanilla generals, I do like what I've seen of it. I too struggle with the vagaries of the cards. For example, if all my cards are for Centre/Right and the battle is being decided on the Left, how do I rationalize that? I suppose there are ways, such as the ADC bearing the key orders to the Left flank got lost, or the Left flank sub commander is having a bad day, or whatever, but it does feel, well, gamey.
    And therein lies the rub because, as you say, we are tempted to tweak to achieve our idea of greater realism, which may not agree with someone else's. I suppose this is why so many Naps gamers use their own house rules, because they have their particular views of the period and how it worked.
    Another issue for me is my impulse to compare every Naps rules set with the first one that made an impression on me, which was an SPI monster game from the late 1970s designed by Frank Davis. A lot of people besides me love that game and it's hard for me not to want all other rules systems to be like it.
    That being said, CCN works, its simple, it captures the period reasonably well, and it's a lingua franca for gamers who might otherwise be lost to one another in the morass of other Naps gaming systems.
    I had another thought, but like you, my brain gets full easily these days.
    Good post.

    1. Thanks Michael - what was the SPI game btw? One house rule I often add to CCN games is the facility to exchange cards. The standard game allows you to a play a card and then not carry out the order, but it can be argued that gives your opponent a little insight into what you're NOT doing, and it's a very slow way of changing cards. As a "scenario extra rule" I like the facility to forsake your turn and, instead, discard say up to half (or whatever you set as the rule) of the cards in your hand, and replace them from the deck without your opponent seeing them. It's not very sophisticated, but it can rescue a disaster. On the other hand, it also does away with the classic excuse for defeat, which is not always a good thing.

      Cheers - Tony

  4. Hi Tony: I forgot to mention the title - Wellington's Victory (1976), a complete treatment of Waterloo down to the company level. I still have it. A visually beautiful game with a real miniatures feel. The cavalry charge mechanism was a thing of beauty. I hope to lay it all out and play it again before I die.
    Thanks the idea on the card exchange, that's helpful.

  5. Apart from saying "just so, smart man", I'll throw in a few random thoughts.

    1. Ammo card, not sure what it was meant to represent but its been quite fun/distressing (depending on side). I wouldn't use it solo. More to the point I can think of 1 or 2 examples of such behavior. Cryslers Farm 1813 one of the US infantry regiments ran low on ammo and retreated without orders to replenish. 1st Sikh war, into 2 different battles (Moodkee and Feroshah if memory serves British cavalry retreated without sposrent reason. In one case sone blamed an RHA battery which retreated to resupply as triggered the cavalry brigade to follow in error.

    2. We had real problems adapting the 3 zones to the sort of varied scenarios and table top teasers that we like to play so we replaced them with Generals Left and Right with a 3 hex radius and General Center with 4 hex radius. Their zones had no geographic significance but they could only use their card and only on units in their control. Units out of control could be moved on some tacticsl cards where no zone is mentioned. We use the same system with memoir but they have "on the move" notations on some cards that allow X units to move not fight in addition to ordered units. For earlier periods we just allow a player to discard any card that he cannot use and activate a unit "on the move" The latter being good for reinforcements esp. If a leader is killed tge VP is lost but he us immediately replaced with any unit.

    Ross (is there another BGotM or am I really Phil?)

    1. Hi Phil (I believe your name has been tweaked, so better just change it to fit)

      The left/right/centre in CCN feels like it's a reference to the layout of the battlefield, which seems like a military concept, and I guess it is, but it's really just a part of the army - just a way of limiting what you can do. There are other ways of choosing subsets, obviously, and one which always struck me as intrinsically wacky is that used in a Belgian(?) rule set called (I think) Grognards & Grenadiers. In this, the armies are each split into three colours - you can allocate units to red, blue or green by whatever means you choose - alphabetically, random, position on the table, anything. Units will be activated by dice, giving a random selection of colour - thus you can, if you wish, make your entire army red, but there will be approx 2/3 of the turns when you can't do anything (though, of course, it might be good when red comes up). I always dismissed that as silly, but in fact it is not especially so. If we are going to define a subset on the fly, then there are all sorts of ways of doing it - all units with an L in their name…

      I've had some battles where the Short Supply card had a big effect, and it's quite entertaining for the narrative - it's a particularly good way of getting that battalion of legere who have been holding that village all day to abandon it at the critical moment. Some of these were solo games, but it was glaringly obvious how to play the card.

      Your replacement of sectors with generals and chains of command is interesting - I'll read that over again and have another coffee. A couple of the better command systems I've tried start with a choice of general, and then units within his control.



  6. Since you are knee-deep in rules' revisions thoughts, what is your position on attacking defensive works or favorable terrain? We have found in our games that defensive positions seem to be too easily overrun or reduced by attackers. The attacker, although using reduced dice, strike first and often force the defender out or cause casualties.

    One could argue that the defensive position might not be properly supported (which may be the case) but even with support, the defender could be whittled down or pushed out prior to Battling Back.

    1. In CCN terms (which are probably paralleled by many other rule sets) the defenders of such a position don't get killed very quickly, but a determined series of attacks (and one of the skills in CCN is to relieve attacking units which become too small to hurt anyone with fresh ones, which can) can whittle them away. The real bummer is when they get a retreat flag, so that they are temporarily dislodged from the position. In such a case, they rarely if ever get back in. Putting a commander in with them helps, and I've also given thought to allowing troops in a village or a redoubt to ignore one retreat flag - potential snag is they might become impossible to shift. I've never actually tried it, but I should. Another potential snooker in CCN is attacking squares on a hill with cavalry - at times it is impossible to hurt them without bringing someone up to shoot them a bit - I realise this is a different situation, but can offer a similar impasse.