Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

What History? The Markerdom Of Tin Armies


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(top to bottom; left to right: Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Jack Scruby, Don Featherstone)

Before a recent game, Brent Oman and I were talking about flags, unit identification, and wargaming. He commented that he thought gamers seldom used flags and specific unit identification or markings in games, because many gamers simply didn’t care, and treated the various combat units and figures as generic infantry and cavalry and were only interested in their value-their mathematical worth-in the game , and little else. There were a few exceptions, of course, the Imperial Guard, or, regrettably, SS units, but, on the whole they were just game pieces and nothing more.

This is a great loss for historical wargaming. Wargamers assign units specific names, but, other than a few units, the identifications have no meaning in the game or to the gamers that distinguishes it from any other unit. The units are interchangeable and each is absolutely equivalent to any other unit of its type. They are demoted from being representations of any known historical unit to being an anonymous game piece and no more. Even worse, we (and I include myself) have all been too prone to leave officers and units unnamed, or we just make them up. Once again, we sever the connection with history. In an odd sort of way, the potted histories of fantasy and sci-fi units created by GW have more “history”, albeit repetitive, derivative, and stupid “history”, than our historical units possess. Our units become mere tin markers devoid of any distinguishing traits for the gamers involved, other than a generalized type, and possibly technology differences. This may suffice for the drab anonymity of later periods, but certainly not for a period involving flags, horses, and honor.

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We often hear of the great joys of the “Old School” war-games, which, one has to admit, are usually exaggerated by time and hagiographic memories, but we mistake what made them so good. It wasn’t the dully simple rules, the spring-loaded cannon, or the crude figures that made these games so memorable, but the fact that they existed in a narrative. They fought in a world where an imaginative and fun story was being told. Scruby understood this with his Mafrica games, and Don Featherstone, ever the man with a good story (which were sometimes true) exalted in the joys of a tale well told, including in the games he played. Stevenson and Wells interests in wargaming were solely a good tale. This required units to have singular personalities, and for officers and leaders to have a colorful backstory and fleshed out character. What has been lost in too many modern historical miniature wargame designs is the substitution of the quantitative, the calculated, the CRT, the deadly earnest, and the accountant mentality, for the creative, the Kiplingesque tale, the irrational, but true events of real life, the sense of a narrative.

It has been a great loss to the hobby and made for too many largely commercial, determinately simple minded, sterile, and ultimately boring war-games. No wonder so many young people have run off to fantasy and Sc-fi in the delusion that they are more imaginative, though, in truth, they are even more derivative and predictable.

Good Historical war-games should always tell stories, not be some mathematical equation, and risk-free assessment based on some old Avalon-Hill CRT (3-1 or nothing!). They should entertain on the basis of events and the drama that unfolds, not some sterile all-too-certain calculation. History, at its best, is facts told as instructive stories. History, in itself, is a cracking good story!

That was my initial premise in Piquet all these years ago, and remains the same in Die Fighting to this very day. I am heartened by the recent directions that Sam Mustafa has taken in developing new aspects of the narrative game, and Brent Oman’s FOB developments. Both are using cards, as I did in Piquet, to create true narratives and games that ring of drama, and echo what we read in the historical accounts. Richard Borg has had great success with some aspects of this idea, as has Richard Clarke at TooFatlardies.

The way out for historical wargaming is through the door created by Stevenson, Wells, Scruby, and Featherstone that stresses the narrative over the mathematical, and the experience of the story over some meaningless”Victory”. This does not mean the rules cannot be sophisticated, but it may mean historical gamers might be well served to look in different directions, the pieces on the table must be more than mere tin markers. Our gaming is vastly improved by giving them personalty and individual traits.


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This led to my epiphany, after labeling each of my units and, more importantly, my officers, as I described in may last Blog entry “Crafting Special Units.” I have decided to try to reintroduce history, and historical appreciation, of units and their abilities during a given war in a far more specific way than in the past. I also want the units and the commanding officers to have distinctive and continually developing traits, personalities, and quirks. I plan to overlay this on my preference for creating fictional battles for the armies to fight as opposed to simply refighting historical actions. Not that these changes will preclude refighting some historical engagement, but that they will reinforce history in the fictional scenarios that are created.

The first step in this process is clearly labeling every unit, and giving an actual historical name to every command stand figure in the game. At the very least the gamers should be made familiar with the names of the units and the real names of significant leaders in a given period.

Next, I plan to institute a new process for commanders and units ratings in games. Instead of just random rolls determining a unit’s worth, only corrected by a generalized national plus or minus correction from the Period Template, I intend to create a list with unit by unit corrections from historical reports. If a unit is mentioned positively, it will get a plus 1-2, if pejoratively, a minus 1 or 2. If the unit is either not mentioned or has a mixed record, there is no correction and a straight roll on the template is made. In some periods this will be the vast majority of units. This rating shall be done from scratch for each of my WSS, and, eventually, Great Northern Wars, and FPW armies.

Once created, this is the unit’s value in the game and every future game. It can only be altered by bad performance, or superior performance in a given battle. If the unit is wiped out, it can be reformed and re-rated with a suitable note made to its record. This status will require an assessment after every game/battle. Units that did nothing of note will be unchanged, others will be rewarded or punished as the history warrants. Each unit will have a card on a simple database, where a record is kept. Post-game evaluations will incorporate the feelings of the players, as well as the umpire’s assessment. There will be a slight variation for good day, bad day. A roll of 1-2 is a bad day -1 on rating die roll; 3-4 an average day no corrections; 5-6, an extraordinary day, add 1 more to the rating roll!

Over time, this will give real personalities and a wargame history to each unit ranging from unremarkable to admirable and even to scorn. I think this could add great fun over time to game play.

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The officers are another change I am experimenting with. My idea is to give an actual historical title and name to each officer/command stand in the game. They will then be given a rating that only varies by a set range depending on historical assessment. My present concept is to make it a simple 3 number range as described above.. Each officer will be rated by rolling a single 6 sided die. 1-2 equals a low rating, 3-4 a middling rating, and 5-6 a high rating, BUT each officer shall have different ranges that are based on history.

A Marlborough would be a 4 (low)-4(average)-5(High)in terms of DF’s command dice. Even on his worst day he’s pretty good. A Tallard would be a 1-2-3, even on his best day he’s average. General Cadogan may be a 3-4-4, pretty good, and average on his worst day. Some may rate out at 1-1-2! The best, which I cannot see ever granting, would be 5-5-5, and the worst a 1-1-1 , which may well happen. A “poor” roll of 1-2 will also trigger a second roll that will determine additional weaknesses, quirks, or problems with that commander’s actions; all based on historical texts. Therefore, a Charles XII could still be a 4 in command dice, but his aggressiveness as a leader might be prompted into rashness or foolhardy behavior. A Tallard rolling poorly could bring out his timid and lacksadaisical nature to a greater degree!

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Now, I can see the thought occurring to gamers, “Why would I ever take some miserable general, and not opt for my best available officer?” The answer is that you don’t get the choice! Either the King, Parliament, or the various national councils will choose who to command in a campaign or particular battle. My method for doing that will be making up the equivalent of baseball cards for each commander of any given army. The card will list their title, name, seniority, notable historical battles, and a short history of their actual career. It will also have their command dice range as described above, and any possible historical quirks, attributes, flaws, and unusual abilities. The Baseball card deck will be shuffled for each side and a draw for commanders and subordinate officers will be made. Each officer shall have a seniority number based on his reputation, and/or on his date of commission. The highest ranked is the commanding officer. The subordinates may be assigned to command the various brigades. Some officers will only be used as subordinates, other will always be commanding the entire army. Note this is by army in the WSS, as each nation had its own commander, that though subservient in battle field command, led the troops of his own nation. That is, English command English, French, French, and Austrians, Dutch, and Bavarians likewise. After each is assigned his role, the rating for the day of battle will be rolled to determine if they are on their game, or having a rough patch in their career.

Certain officers may have multiple cards in the command deck, increasing their chances of being chosen, or the scenario can stipulate a commander, and only the subordinates are chosen. Each army will have a range of commanders in their deck that ranges from “Oh, my God!” to “Hurrah!”. In lesser known armies (such as the Russian Army of the GNW) I may still have to create some fictional names, but that will be a last resort.

There will also be, in some decks, a few special commanders whose command will be limited to only certain areas of command. One I have in mind is Holcroft Blood of the British Army. He will not have an actual command, per se, but will allow some benefits to artillery he is near, in the form of extra dice. He may also allow the artillery some privileges during the initial deployment and even later movement! There are other commanders of horse, or specialized arms such as engineers, that may appear in the deck as they show up in my readings, or for a particular period. These will not count as a draw against the drawing army, but be a free addition to their army’s capability. I am open to other’s discoveries and additions to these officer’s “personalities.”

My goal with all of these experiments is to introduce more history in a narrative way to the game and strive to increase personality and historical fun and defeat the markerdom of our tin armies. When one reads Lloyd Osbournes’ description of Robert Louis Stevenson’s attic game in the winter of 1878 in Davos, one would begin to get the idea of my eventual goal. It is no accident that the first true recreational war gamers were writers by trade-Stevenson and Wells, they were the progenitors of the narrative wargame, because that’s what they did for a living, create narrative stories! After my experience at Getzcon this last September (see the September Blog posting) I am much encouraged that with Mustafa, Oman, Getz and myself all experimenting in Narrative Wargames that a true renaissance of the Stevenson, Wells traditions may be underway!

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