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.