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


Monday, 5 July 2021

Writing Wargame Rules - Some Ponderings

 


For the last year or so I've been working on a set of home-made rules for the WSS. Things have gone a bit quiet, but they have not disappeared; they are undergoing a heavy re-write at this very moment. It's been very interesting; there have been a few disappointments on the way, and I've been reminded of a few things I should have remembered anyway. Overall, I've enjoyed it immensely, though this still depends on a belief that something decent will fall out of the end!

I contacted my good friend Stryker last week, to run some ideas past him. He is a sound chap - very sensible. Whereas I have a lamentable tendency to over-think stuff, and tie myself in knots (punctuated from time to time with complete changes of direction), I find him an invaluable support since he knows his wargaming, and he can take a look at something and notice that some bits of it are, in fact, nonsense - a gift which I never managed to develop.

So today's blether here is largely a result of mulling over my chat with Stryker. The cheque, of course, is on its way to him.

In the first place, I was keen to get involved in WSS miniatures gaming because I've always fancied the idea and the look of it - it seems like proper wargaming, somehow. It also - in theory, at least - seems to be a period which lends itself well to the rather stylised presentation which is necessary for toy soldiers. There is a good mix of horse-and-musket type arms, but there is a pleasing lack of fiddly bits - no skirmishers, no squares, no horse artillery, no attacking in column, and everyone moves about in nice straight lines. Ideal.

I have read a good number of published rule sets, and I decided that writing my own rules was an important part of the project, though there are enough options available to leave wiggle-room for giving up on the rules idea if necessary.

So I set out, early last year, to write a set of rules which would embody all the things I like, carefully avoiding the things I have lost patience with over the years. Terrific. I did a lot of sketching, and note-taking, and pinching of promising ideas from other sources. There was a lot of arithmetic, and experimentation, and it was all shaping up nicely. Life has obviously been strange, as a consequence of the pandemic, but I decided this would present an opportunity for an extended period of solo work, and I could make a really good job of the WSS rules. 

There have been some hefty changes of heart from time to time (see earlier...), but the basics of the game came together nicely.

Then there were a couple of playtests - these were handled by Zoom, which is better than nothing, obviously, but brings some constraints of its own. The playtests were approached with good humour and great fortitude by my collaborators, but I was left with the realisation that I had spent a lot of time developing a game which I didn't like very much! This, I guess, is a commonplace situation in developing rules, but it is disappointing when it happens.

In reality, of course, it's just another step on the "two forward, one back" path, or whatever variations on that theme are appropriate from time to time. I have been reminded of a number of important principles, which I really should write on a whiteboard somewhere. Some of them are so bovinely obvious that I am embarrassed to put them up here.

* Your rules should reflect the type of game you like, and also (of course) the period and the size of battles you are aiming for. [In my own case, I have gained a lot of benefit in the past from reading design notes by Frank Chadwick and Howard Whitehouse, who are particular heroes of mine.]

* You can playtest your rules on your own for as long as you like, but you will always attempt to play the game in the way that you intended it to work, and back-fit the rules in accordingly. This may come off the rails when you involve some outsiders!

* Proof-reading your own rules may improve the spelling and the punctuation and the layout, but you will always interpret them as what you meant to say (regardless of whether you have actually said it).

* Writing a proper manual before the rules have stabilised has some advantages, particularly if you are intending to play this game with someone else, but it adds greatly to the problems of version control and of making substantial change - the timing of the shift from rough notes and crib-sheets to a proper booklet is tricky to get right, and only becomes obviously problematic when you find you have done it wrong.

* I have, I regret to say, a passion for adding details and fiddly bits to rules, with the intention of improving them, but usually I just slow things down. I need a slap every now and then.

The last (Zoom based) playtest game we had was slow and turgid, and got bogged down in a long-range firefight which would never have happened in 1704, and which my rules did nothing to discourage or prevent. That was the klaxon signal for a major re-think, and I've been working on it since then. Some of the revisions have subsequently been revised, of course, but I believe I am now making good progress, though the re-write of the booklet is a major overhead. 


Anyway, my Prinz Eugen rules are shaping up to draft version 0.8 (the production version, if such a thing ever exists, will start at 1.0!). I have made them a lot simpler, I have dropped some pet ideas because they slowed things down more than they improved the game. It is coming together, I think. This week I had intended to get some troops on the table to try some serious solo playtesting, but Real Life is starting to creep out of the shadow of Covid-19, so I am busy, but it is a necessary step, and it will go ahead.

I'll do some photos, as evidence of my resolve.

 

Separate Topic #1 - MDF Bases

Since Tony Barr has closed his East Riding Miniatures operation, I am wondering where to buy my MDF bases in future. For as long as I can remember, Tony has been so helpful and so quick to respond to requests that I feel more than a bit lost without him. I use odd-sized MDF bases - metric sizes, quite a lot of them, in 2mm thick for figure stands and 3mm for sabots and bigger pieces. I had a look at the Warbases website - maybe that is the thing to do, but I was short of time and found it difficult to find my way around.

Supreme Littleness Designs have done some nice work for me in the past, but I think Michael is heavily involved in doing scenery design work for other suppliers at present.

Simple question, really - I am in the UK - maybe the answer is "Warbases" after all, but does anyone have any strong recommendations where I should get my MDF bases now? All helpful suggestions welcome.

 

Separate Topic #2 - Evidence of Dementia? - The Vanishing Horses

I spent a few hours in the dreaded spare figures boxes last week, and eventually collected together enough good figures to draw up a plan to paint the French Napoleonic Guard Chasseurs à Cheval. The troopers will all be OPC Hinton Hunt, the command figures SHQ, cobbled to fit on Hinton Hunt horses (FNH3). All good - pleased that I've got that worked out at long last. Yesterday I put the collected castings into a little sandwich box, to label it up for the project, and was rather irritated to note that I had lost the extra HH horses I had found for the command. Obviously I must have left them lying somewhere, so I had a good search - the front of bookshelves tends to be a favourite spot for such things - no. Didn't find them, after a thorough look around.

Next obvious possibility is misfiling - maybe the horses got back into the spares boxes? No - it took a while to check, but they are not in there. There are, of course, lots of other wrong boxes they could have finished up in, but we are getting to the limits of possibility here. Anyway, I abandoned the search, hoping that I would remember what I had done with them. I couldn't have accidentally thrown them out, surely? Stop it! - I went to bed last night, determined to continue the hunt as soon as possible, and not really worried, but these things do niggle.

Today was a busy day; I had to travel into Edinburgh, and while I was sitting on the train, reading my book, I suddenly remembered very clearly that the extra horses had been put into the stripping jar, which is about 3 feet from where I was conducting the search, and is in direct line-of-sight (to use an artillery term). Problem solved. Well - one problem, anyway.


Separate Topic #3 - Blogger Blues

At present I am having problems with Blogger again - I just know it must be my own fault - something to do with Account Settings, but I haven't got to the bottom of it yet. For a start, I am unable to comment on anyone else's blog (well, in fact, there was one day when it worked...), and for another thing I can only upload photos into my own blog one at a time, which is tedious. I am sort of keeping an eye on things, but I wished primarily to offer my apologies to anyone who is feeling neglected - at present, Blogger insists on my leaving comments under my Gmail address rather than my official blog ID - can't do that, I'm afraid. I am thinking about this, but I'm hoping it heals up, which is what usually happens with Blogger issues.


34 comments:

  1. Topic #1. Have you tried Minibits (which is part of the Pendraken set-up)? They do a good range of metic sizes and different shapes.

    Topic #3 I often have problems commenting. "it" often rejects them. I've taken to copying what I type and turning it off and back on again and then pasting the comment back in. Usually works, though sometimes it just refuses to co-operate.

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    1. Hi Chris - thanks for this - not heard of Minibits - I shall check them out, but if my soldiers start shrinking to 10mm I shall worry. Blogger - I know it's me, but the Gmail address is obviously me (the person), and I can't publish anything under that ID. My family might trace me, anyway, and they think I'm in prison.

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  2. Tony, this is a fascinating post on your rules’ writing and thinking process. I find myself nodding in agreement with much of what you say and share some of your trials and tribulations. Designing a set of rules as you see it is a reward ping undertaking. Now, get back to the version that was fun to play and liked. I am sure you must maintain impeccable version control.

    As for Blogger, it seems to be working as expected for me but that is no help or consolation to you. Maybe it will sort itself out. I would enjoy seeing the occasional comment from you.

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    1. Thanks Jon - I shall be back signing your visitors' book as soon as I've sorted out my ID crisis...

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  3. Blogger is always trying to 'improve' things !? - I just wish they would leave things that work alone .

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    1. Hi Tony - I guess they have improved Blogger a lot since it was first New Blogger - I'm not fond of the modern concept of testing things by bunging them in front of customers and letting them fall down holes. This was known as "pushing the villagers through the minefield" in my days in IT.

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  4. The joys of rule design! Agree with all your points. Sometimes you have to walk away, especially from some of the sacred cows you create and venerate.
    I'd echo the playtesting; the real test is when you pass over a copy without you being there to interpret what you meant.
    I speak as someone whose operational C20th rules have been in limbo for several years - I do however have great hopes of that nice Mr Chadwick's new set if they ever see the light of day.
    #1 Warbases - once you get your head around the ordering system it's easy and they do both Imperial and metric more importantly for you as you're in Scotland, they have opened a shop.....
    #2 Sigh! It comes to us all, I'd only worry it was dementia if you went to do it having forgotten you had already done it 10 minutes earlier!
    Neil

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    1. I've recently had problems getting the hang of unfamiliar rule sets that I was really keen to try. Sometimes, I believe, my problems are not entirely the aforementioned brain shrinkage, but also reflect the fact that the rule books are compiled by (and for) people who have played the game for a while - especially the previous edition, and who know what the author means. I had problems with "For King & Parliament" on first reading, since I was the only guy in the universe who had never played "To the Strongest". For me, a great educator is attending (I like to watch!) an actual game played by experienced chaps - sitting in on a Field of Battle (Edn 2) game with some veterans was a terrific learning experience, for example.

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  5. IMHO you would do well to speak to Warbases. Like you I use some ‘non-standard’ base sizes and I contacted them a couple of years ago to see if they could help. Their standard bases did actually meet a lot of my requirements, but in addition they designed and made a set of custom bases and movement trays for me (for group based 15mm figures in three different formations), including some very neat interlocking, irregular shaped bases for native troops. On top of this, they made me a custom game control board to my own design. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
    One thing to be aware of though is that they have just moved into new premises, so aren’t taking custom orders at the moment, but their website should tell you when that will change

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    1. Thanks Ian - I shall take some time to familiarise myself with their website. Recommendations like this are always useful.

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  6. I strongly recommend Martin at Warbases - and he will do specials quite willingly. I have had excellent service from him and Diane over many years.

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    1. Thanks Simon - I'll do some more focused reading!

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  7. Interesting to read about some of the pitfalls encountered when writing your own rules. I agree with your assessment of the WSS period being good for horse and musket games without the fiddly bits.

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    1. As they might say in Glasgow (though they don't):

      "See me?... See ma grannie?... See fiddly bits?... She hates em!"

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  8. Writing rules….aaaaarrrrgh. I am slowly weaning myself off this compulsion after the latest notion of one core rule set for several different periods…when will I ever learn? And as for creating an AI for solo gaming…a scream emoji would come in handy at this point. There probably is one but I’m averse to the buggers. I’m currently restricting myself to mild tinkering with other peoples rules <> or converting published ones to suit my hex fixation.

    War bases are really jolly good and are happy to do bespoke stuff if you contact them.

    Dementia - I was recently called downstairs to speak to the bloke giving us a quote for landscaping. When I got back upstairs ten mins later I could not find the pot of paint I’d been using for love nor money. Turned the room and eventually the house upside down, retraced my every move as best as I could remember. In desperation I got on line and ordered a new one - after which it reappeared on the corner of my desk…in plain sight. So it’s a toss up really, dementia or a poltergeist. I know which one is more likely on balance.

    Finally…Blogger. I’ve no problems leaving comments but every post I make is becoming a nightmare of changing font sizes and issues with pictures and the space around them. Ruddy nightmare. In lieu of an alternative - none failbook platform I suppose we will just have to suck it up.

    PS I think you should change your blog picture to that absent minded amiable looking old cove in this post. Very calming. I think I’d have a pint of Guinness with him, or maybe by a horse off him if he was selling one.

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    1. For many of us, writing rules is a major part of the hobby, I guess, even if it is masochistic. I am a fan of Ross MacFarlane's, and he changes his rules frequently, which is fine. However, such an approach has to be considered on its own merits. On a much scarier footing, I had brief experience of George Jeffrey (and no, Jim, I'm not slagging him off), whose rules were in a constant state of flux. Here's a question - how much trouble would you go to, in order to acquire and master a set of rules which you knew were going to be rewritten within a few days?

      On the dementia front - when my mother was losing the plot I joined in the hunt one morning to locate a cup of coffee she had just made, and I failed dismally. Later in the day, I found 2 full cups of coffee in her fridge, so I modified my search techniques thereafter.

      My problem with the missing horses was that I was looking for a neat row of Hinton Hunt FNH3's - almost certainly all pointing the same way - I can visualise such a row very clearly as I sit here. I was not looking for a coffee jar containing multicoloured sludge - I had over-refined my search criteria too much. On one occasion I lost a book - searched everywhere for it - and eventually had to give it up, grieving for my loss. My wife found it within minutes, since she was looking for a book with a certain title, rather than a book with a certain title AND a red dustjacket spine (it was white), as I had been.

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  9. I've come at long last to the conclusion that the easiest way is to only write rules for games you intend to be involved in yourself. Saves a lot of headaches over trying to make your intentions clear on paper.
    Even so, you can't underestimate the value of having others help you playtest - it's amazing how many ideas that seemed brilliant to you don't survive contact with live players. I'm always reminded of that quote (can't remember which writer it was) "If I write something which I think is especially fine, I immediately take up my pen and cross it out."

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    1. Your own published rules, sir, are exemplary in very many ways.

      One thing that I am beginning to appreciate is that I can shorten my rules a lot by cutting out historical explanations, or justificatory essays, or anything at all that looks as if it might have been included to demonstrate my fine grasp of the subject. I can cut and paste these into a separate draft, and then quietly delete it when no-one is looking.

      At risk of annoying somebody (and I will), I have to say that one of the things I like least about Neil Thomas's books (for example - and there are a great many things about them that I like very much) is the trouble he goes to to justify his approach to certain game situations, occasionally going so far as to ridicule alternative views. I can understand why this happens, and have been guilty of it myself, but I don't think it's helpful, and carries a sort of passive-aggressive attitude into the hobby which is never in short supply anyway. Neil's writings are generally very good and very sensible - if he goes too far to mock opposing views then he damages himself a little. Echoes of Victorian debate. Or social media, I suppose.

      [Stand by for hostility/banter storm.]

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    2. Yes, I know what you mean. I try to avoid including the designer's notes in a set of rules (although I have been told by 'them as knows these things' that they are a necessity). They always read to me either overly defensive or like some kind of manifesto.
      Then again, I don't do social media either, so maybe I'm missing something.

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  10. Just a quickie here Tony - When Tony Barr retired I had the same dilemma having used him for many years exclusively. tried warbases and the service is first class, order back within 48 hours which surprised me as they are quite a big operation. Have you seen pics of the new shop? All the best.

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    1. I'll definitely check them out - thanks Lee. Last I heard, Tony B was looking for offers for his laser-cutter kit - madman that I am, I actually thought about it! Then I realised that there are H&S issues, ergonomic stuff to think about, potential customers to have to put myself out for, hard work and all that, and I remembered that I am mostly a lazy, selfish old goat who wouldn't be able to cope with being a business (having written frequently about others who struggled with being a business), so I decided to just be quiet and get back to my reading and painting.

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  11. Another fascinating aspect of the wargaming hobby! I too am having a rethink and slashing my draft after another game with my son yesterday afternoon. My main thin has been to write rules for fun horse and musket game that are fairly simply and easy to commit to memory. Maybe two pages at most. Somehow, the version we used yesterday was five pages long and required a number of referrals, so back to the old drawing board as the saying goes. Still, good fun and mental exercise thinking through and rethinking everything. It forces one to pinpoint what sort of game one wants, what to emphasize, and what to deemphasize. Or. dare I say, ignore altogether.

    Best Regards,

    Stokes

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    1. My experience of starting to write new rules is now quite considerable, but my track record of finishing them off, using them regularly and even maintaining them is very puny indeed.

      I think I am quite good at cutting games down to a level where they are good for kids and for adult novices, and have found it interesting that these simplified games have often been amongst the most enjoyable I have been involved in. I think that says more about me than about the rules!

      All the best Stokes - take care.

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  12. This is a very interesting discussion thread by the way. Thank you.

    Best Regards,

    Stokes

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  13. When I read the section on rules writing I almost had to go back and check which of our blogs I was reading.....

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    1. I hope I haven't pinched your rules as well as your philosophy!

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  14. Good to read your thoughts.

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    1. Good day to you, young sir - I have robustly refused to think how much simpler everything would be if I had no friends! I did play solo for many years, and was always on the winning side, but it does get weird, and I would not care to get back to that state again, so playable rules are the thing, no question.

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  15. Like you, I've been writing and/or adapting rules since time immemorial. I would agree with most of your observations. In a set of rules you are writing for your own benefit, historical justification, etc is really unnecessary- you know exactly why you're doing it that way! I got a chuckle over placing them in a sperate document and then deleting it (presumably in the middle of the night) when no one is looking. :-)

    I DO think Designer's notes are important in a *published* rule set. Why did the author write yet another set of rules? What's unique about them, and what were they trying to accomplish?

    Blogger has been working fine for me. Are you using Chrome as your browser? If not, that might solve some of the problems working with Blogger.

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  16. Products for Wargamers is another (good) UK company for mdf bases. Also do movement trays. Good value and service.

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  17. Another most interesting, musing post Tony.
    Rules are a model. They have assumptions, a level of approximation and of operation. Like any model, the development educates the developer more than anyone else. It's a fun and educative process for that alone. Also, like any model, an Ockham's Razor approach is always a good idea. Dropping some of those 'pet ideas' sounds like a real win. All the best as you move to version 0.8.01, or perhaps 0.8.1 or even 0.9?!
    The problem with blogger could be to do with security settings of your browser. I have one browser (Safari on m Mac) that will not 'hold my log-in'. I used to mess about with the security settings, but now just use Firefox and have no problems.
    Regards, James

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    1. Hi James - thanks for this. One thing that has become clear to me is that my original belief (nay, suspicion) that all wargames were fundamentally similar in the engine room was more than a little off. The character of a game is affected a lot by some subtle nuances. An unambitious good idea added on can change the whole thing in surprising ways. I have now caught up with my playtesting, and am building up to Production Version 1.0 - I have decided not to go for the big splash in the media.

      As for Blogger, you may well be right, but I've used a couple of browsers on my Mac - mostly Firefox recently - and they all behave similarly at present. Some other oddities in the Google world have cropped up - the settings of my Google Calendar changed by themselves, including who could look at it(!), and my Gmail contacts database has a life of its own. I used to have problems which I suspect were because I was known to (and communicated with by) Google via a BT Internet email address, which seems to have been a problem with security certification amongst other things.

      There may be a glimmer of daylight - briefly, this week, I was able to access other people's blogs as my Blogger ID rather than my personal Gmail account name, and I actually left a comment somewhere, but I don't know why it was different, and have failed to replicate this. Working at it. It's OK.

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  18. Tony, they are a bit far away from you but I get all my MDF bases from a fellow here in Ontario who is excellent, though Warbases is much closer to you. Email me if you’re interested.
    Having never had the nerve to try and write rules, I salute you.

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