Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday, 9 September 2019

Some history with your wargame, sir? - one lump or two?

Gilder vs Griffith: Gettysburg on the telly - a Type (2) game?

I was pondering a gentle conundrum from my experience of wargaming during yesterday morning's walk on the beach. Naturally, I couldn't just keep it to myself...
I guess that most of us started off in the hobby with a handful of soldiers and a couple of books or magazines, and we got fired up by the published photos of other people's efforts, and we maybe visited a local club, and we probably filed away a vague ambition that one day we would fight Waterloo (or Cannae, or Gettysburg) on our very own tabletop. And quite right, too - what could be more reasonable, or motivating?

I had a total sabbatical from wargaming for a period of maybe 12 years, and then from about 2001 until a few years ago I usually played solo, which is OK to a point, and I took the opportunity to try out some gaming situations that might not sit too comfortably in a social context. I played some very unbalanced games and some very long-winded ones - sometimes cued by a campaign narrative, and I tried some experimentation with sieges, computer-managed miniatures rules, various things. In a solo session, it is instructive and entertaining to see what happens in a game that would not necessarily be optimal for a social get-together. This is not to claim any particular advantages in having no mates - it is merely making the point that solo games do work, but have to be approached in an appropriate way.

Of course, historical scenarios are always appealing. I believe, however, that it's necessary to approach them with some caution. During yesterday's beach walk, I was trying to consider the various flavours of this.

(1) A deliberate walk-through - a demonstration, maybe for a public event, or even TV (which is what we had before YouTube). By this I mean that the tabletop proceedings are entirely scripted, there is no randomising element, and the presenters are normally not given any freedom to depart from the historical narrative, though they may, of course, make reference to decision points and possible alternative courses of action which were available to the original participants. Typically, these events are very luxuriously presented, and have to make allowance for the fact that the audience is going to include:
* true enthusiasts, many of whom will feel the need to disagree with just about any aspect of the scenery, the OOB, the recorded facts, the uniforms, the figure scale, the personalities etc etc.
* people who are casually interested in the topic, and are keen to see it demonstrated - these will normally be less difficult.
* those who have no real interest (they arrived with their brother, or kids, or boyfriend, or just came in because it is raining), but may enjoy the spectacle of the set-up - these people can be alienated within about three minutes if the presenters forget about them.

This is such a specialised sort of event that it probably falls outside the scope of what I was thinking about. I have, on very rare occasions, been involved in such things - usually as a gopher or box-carrier, and the pressures are mostly connected with logistics, rehearsal, thorough research, professional-standard presentation.

(2) A game scenario - an actual game, played competitively with rules. Such games are usually subtitled as a re-fight of the original. The scenario may be fudged a little, to give each side a chance of winning, or to simplify some tricky aspect of the real battle. Typically, play will start at some key point (not necessarily the beginning), and it may be limited to some localised part of the action (the Russian left flank, the second day, whatever). The design of the scenario will reflect the rules and the game-scales in use, and may also show traces of personal (sometimes patriotic) bias. There are likely to be some scripted events within the game - thus your Waterloo-scenario game will feature the arrival of the Prussians around tea-time, and it is a safe bet that there will be a lot of fighting around La Haye Sainte.

(3) A game, based loosely on a historical event. It may be that the generals are given their original OOBs and allowed to set up as they choose - any degrees of freedom are possible - for example, the game may feature some what-ifs, to explore what would have happened if the background to the battle had been different. The essence here is of a game which has some similarities to a historical event.

That's probably enough to be going on with. In both of (2) or (3), the players are starting the game with some information which their historical counterparts did not have.
* What actually happened, and why - there may be a tendency to follow the history, even if it is a dumb thing to do (I write with some sorrowful experience here); if we decide to do something else, the reasoning behind our choice will still reflect some unrealistic level of knowledge, or received analysis. The scenario rules themselves may be tweaked to fit the history.
* The players, having turned up specially for the day's event, know that they are here for the Battle of Waterloo, for example (which the original soldiers did not), thus it is very unlikely that a preliminary contact between skirmishers will be followed by Wellington marching his army off the table towards Antwerp.

All this is perfectly acceptable - a fine time will still be enjoyed by all - it would be naive to expect any unreasonable correspondence between the battle and the game. The game itself is the thing.

What has intrigued me recently has been my own involvement in designing such historically-based game scenarios. My usual starting place is looking at someone else's scenario, and deciding I'd like to improve upon it, to give a different size of game, or to correct (perceived) distortions in the field or the troops, or to produce something more suitable for my house rules. I admit that I do not need a particularly convincing excuse to get involved in this, because it is the most enormous fun - books all over the dining table, with index cards stuck in key references - Martinien, Oman, Elting & Esposito, Dr Nafziger, Uncle Tom Cobley, and masses of online searches. Sheets and sheets of scribbled notes. I have a terrific time, getting stuck into this kind of thing.

The resulting game may not be perfect, admittedly, but it will certainly have engaged a lot of sincere effort to produce it. The thing which has struck me is that it may be a reasonable game, but if I take part in it myself I find I can be distracted by all the things which I have thought about during the research. In short, a designed scenario is maybe more satisfying for players who have had less previous involvement!

I've always seen a strong appeal in the situation offered by Howard Whitehouse's Science vs Pluck game system (set in the Sudan Wars), whereby players are each given just as much knowledge of the military situation and of the rules as they need, and a god-like umpire who knows everything there is to know (or is authorised to make it up on the spot) runs the game. I have no direct experience of such games, but I can see how that would make sense.

Anyway - none of this is any problem at all - it may be a small argument in favour of the game designer being the umpire rather than a player - it's worth thinking about. What intrigues me about this is that the designer's previous work on the research may actually give him a disadvantage in the game, which seems counterintuitive!

Fortunately it wasn't a very long walk, so that is as far as I got with my ponderings. Here are some gratuitous beach pictures.

Early morning vapour-trail graffiti - Scottish saltire?
In it's day (when it was still working) this is reputed to have been the smallest working harbour in Britain


  1. One of the things that has always puzzled me about the attitudes of wargamers is that the "dyed in the wool historical gamer" is only too willing to lump anything outside their narrow margins as "fantasy" and as often as not sneer about it.
    They themselves proceed to refight Waterloo with free deployment / early Prussian arrival / release of the Old Guard and not surprisingly reach a different conclusion.
    The worst somehow take this as support for their notion that they are a military genius.
    At what point does a refight of a historical battle become fantasy (or "faction" if you prefer, that is fact based fantasy as in "alternative history")?
    Once you depart from the historical course of events, it's no longer Waterloo.
    I think it's a basic aversion to "just making things up", yet while sneering at imagination-Nation fads, they will happily field full strength King Tiger battalions. So what is going on there?
    The problem with wargamers is that it's a very broad church in search of a common belief or even just a sermon they can agree on.
    My experience of refights is that if you arrange deployment in light of your research as well as adding in various things like terrain and arrival of reinforcements, it tends to follow the original, unless you have perverse players who insist on transferring Rupert's cavalry to the opposite wing or similar.
    It doesn't however always give a good game; that said neither does lining them up to an equal points total, nor in my experience playing out a campaign generated battle.
    I think what gives a good game is the shared belief system of the players; it's not what you play but who you play it with. This transcends the scenario (or lack of one) and explains the rewards of solo play, as you only have yourself to please.
    It took me many years and unpleasant experiences to realise the simple truth that you need similar minded individuals to achieve a rewarding game.

    1. Neil - you seem to have come up with rather more conflict surrounding this topic than I had in mind - I'm sorry if you've had some abrasive experiences. To chime with your phrasing, I think Waterloo stops being Waterloo as soon as you roll the first die - maybe as soon as you put it on a tabletop. It's possible to think too hard about this. I have considered it for a while, but have never had an actual argument about it - though I have, of course, harboured some private thoughts about the validity (or the play value) of some historical scenario or other.

      What I do dislike, strongly, is the division of the hobby into factions who wish to shake umbrellas at each other. If I don't like how someone plays his games, then I shall not get involved. It is not my problem. I spent a number of years being gently mocked for my own beliefs, so I can do without much more of that. I don't care which particular faction the participants claim to belong to - I'm really not interested.

      I am much happier playing "made-up" games - preferably games that were spawned naturally from a campaign. I have never understood the clamour to dignify a game by applying a title which implies that somehow it is academically important to further our grasp of actual history. Is this part of the ancient problem of not wishing to be seen as playing with toy soldiers? Me, I play with toy soldiers and enjoy it very much - have done for years - do not worry about it. If someone wishes to criticise this, or make fun of it, then it is a shame they have nothing better to do.

      Thanks for taking the trouble to set out your thoughts - appreciated.

  2. AHa. Now you've brought up the whole aspect of what realism in the game actually means...Is it scale, movement allowance, command abstractions. As G says 'we're not here to have fun! We're here to play the rules!'
    Somewhere amongst all that twaddle, is a good game.

    I'm due over in Scotland soon by the way - must arrange to say call in and say hello, and see that fine beach.

  3. Sadly I lack a handy beach for cognition; I spent the first 20 odd years of my life growing up next to one.
    I think the point you made about having invested the time in researching a historical battle, means you struggle to enjoy it fully as being distracted is perhaps the key to what you get out of it.
    I remember recreating Cunaxa many years ago (one of the battles I seem to come back to again and again) with my school friend (we were in our late teens). I used my entire Greek and Persian collection and WRG 6th edition. I tweaked the scythed chariots to be "irregular D" rather than "A".
    The model opposite the Greeks failed to charge and was charged by the Greeks, spookily causing 1 casualty (as per Xenophon). My opponent got worried and wheeled the cavalry in front of the king, was charged and routed by Cyrus. In the following melee between king and Cyrus, the former was wounded and the latter killed. The other chariot charged Cyrus' rebels who routed; thus leaving the Greeks stranded in Persia.
    All immensely satisfying and unexpected, but it could have played out very differently with some different choices.
    As for playing with toy soldiers, I'm completely with you.

  4. I like the research and subsequent scenario creation, but I wonder whether I then play the game in a way that conforms with my perception of how the game should play out or how something should work and so the game goes according to plan and at the end of play, I think I have cleverly written a good scenario.

    I am guessing that if I put the scenario ‘out there’ likely, someone would break it straight away.

    As a case in point, I did a game that had an attacker enter the table on turn 1 with a force that included an understrength platoon of tanks. In my mind, the tanks would do what they did historically, that is operate as a group and my oppenent would decide where he thought they were needed most. My opponent took on the role of attacker and split the platoon to come on at extreme right and left corners of the table i.e. in game terms the platoon had been split into 2 and were operating 1200 metres apart!

    But tanks wouldn’t do that I thought, but felt unable to say. Perhaps my scenario instructions should have given a fixed point of entry for the whole platoon. My guest was playing in accordance with the scenario instructions, while I was restricted by unspoken intention.

    1. Classic irritant - if you have to spell out extra T&C to cover loopholes, or just stop people doing what you think is self-evidently out of scope, it's a real rigmarole. This is where an umpire comes in handy - the umpire would just look pityingly at your opponent, without speaking, and the tanks would immediately coalesce into a complete platoon, with no further messing about...

  5. The best thing about designing a scenario is the insight it gives you into the actual battle - much more in depth than just reading a single account!

  6. A very handy article to read as I am currently working on a scenario for an ECW game in early October (The Battle of Denbigh Green for Partizan Press' ECW Gaming Scenarios, Vol 2).

    I have to admit that when I am looking at historical scenarios, there are often conditions attached that seem to make the result a foregone conclusion, the historical result nearly inevitable. I ask myself "What's the point?". Why even bother playing the game. I think when coming up with a scenario based on a historical battle offering both commanders some flexibility in deployment, reserves, etc within the constraints of plausibility
    makes for a more interesting game/simulation. Researching those possibilities to include in a game is a fascinating side of this hobby.