Friday 31 July 2015

The Quest for the "High Quality Gaming Experience"

I had the privilege earlier this week to be an invited guest at a wargame of Koeniggraetz (1866), the huge climactic battle of the Austro-Prussian War. Our host Andrew had based his game on my Koeniggraetz scenario from "Bloody Big European Battles!", but doubled it in size: twice as many troops and units, on a table twice as long, and twice as many game turns. With Andrew's beautifully painted armies on an attractive layout, this made for a magnificent spectacle, and he had assembled a convivial team of players and provided generous hospitality. Six hours of driving for 9 hours of entertainment proved to be time well spent as it was a most excellent day all round.

This set me to musing on the ingredients required for what a buddy of mine describes as "the High Quality Gaming Experience". Or as he has also been known to say, life's too short to waste playing lame games with jerks (or words to that effect). This is a philosophy I fully embrace, and I'm happy to say that most weeks I manage to live it. Here's my recipe for the HQGE:

The Terrain
The Troops
The Venue
The Rules
The Scenario
The Company

The Terrain
Under which heading we may also include paraphernalia - all the markers, tools, charts, dice etc the game requires. Terrain and paraphernalia must first and foremost be functional, enabling us to play the game we want to play. But above and beyond the functional aspect is the aesthetic one. A few $$ on terrain can go a long way: hills, trees, buildings etc are more versatile than the armies themselves, as you can use most terrain items bar the most specialized for a very wide range of battles. I see too many games at the club, or even at conventions, where the effort devoted to terrain is perfunctory at best: an unadorned piece of green felt serves as a forest, another token bit of cloth with some crest lines drawn on it gets called a hill. These do the job, of course. But realistic scenery brings the game to life. I have made it a rule to buy some terrain items every time I attend a convention. Invest in terrain!

The Troops
These are what presumably attracted most wargamers to the hobby in the first place, aren't they? The reason why we're here: model soldiers. Most of us love to see a finely crafted diorama base of lifelike miniature figurines, faithfully representing some or other famous regiment or incident. As with terrain, so with troops, function comes first, and many's the wargames table that has been contested by lead soldiers painted shoddily or not at all. Does it matter? In one sense, no - we can fight battles with blocks of wood or bits of cardboard and they will work just fine - but attractively modelled armies add so much to the spectacle.

The Venue
We all use what space we can get. It may be a village hall or similar multi-function venue. It may be a cloth thrown over the dining table to stretch the tolerance of one's significant other. But every wargamer's aspiration should be to have their own dedicated War Room, large enough to accommodate an extensive table, a lavish collection of armies and terrain, and a number of generously-proportioned wargamers. This room should be replete with military-themed decorations - paintings, maps, medals, headgear and other militaria. Martial music in the background doesn't go amiss. Ready rations for the troops and a beer fridge also enhance the experience.

The Rules
As another wise friend once told me, our games are primarily about making decisions. A game in which options are very limited, in which actions have to be resolved slowly and laboriously, and in which each turn feels much like the last with no interesting decisions to make is a poor game. A good game is one where the situation changes and presents players with significant new choices every turn, and where the game mechanisms are sufficiently easily grasped and memorised that it can be played at 2am by tired dyslexic innumerate wargamers who have had a few drinks. Many many games fail these tests. This was a major motivation to develop "Bloody Big Battles!".

The Scenario
Similar considerations apply here as for the rules. A simple line-'em-up game is fine as far as it goes, but if we seek the High Quality Gaming Experience we can do better. Whether historical or invented, a scenario should offer some distinctive challenges, and should give all the players interesting things to do and some choice of ways to do them. I have cited Bob Mackenzie's fine essay on "Scenario Design" before, and here I shall do it again. I took Bob's lessons to heart, and I hope this shows in my scenarios in BBB and BBEB.

The Company
In wargaming, as in life in general, we all need friends. To have just one regular gaming buddy is a good start. But if you rely on one friend, then there may be many weeks when because of holidays, or work, or family commitments, or all the many other possible distractions, you can't get together. Far better to have a group of like-minded enthusiasts, large enough that you can always muster a quorum, even if a few of you are away. For the past five or six years I have been blessed with a really great circle of friends who share my interest in C19 wars and my approach to games - fun first, history next, and winning or losing being of only minor importance. Because we fight multi-player games, our corner of the club is very welcoming, and many a passing visitor, ignored by the tournament players, has joined in a game of BBB; if a player or two has to drop out at short notice, the game still goes ahead and nobody is let down; multi-player games are also less confrontational than one-to-one, head-to-head clashes, and tend to defuse the chance of personality clashes and rule squabbles.

As well as my excellent home team, I also periodically have the pleasure of hanging out with Scott's high-caliber crew in the US. That's where my High Quality Gaming Experience philosophy derives from. I suppose it's an American approach, that willingness to pay a premium price for a premium product, etc, by contrast with the parsimonious attitude I used to have, of making do for the least cost. And as of this week, I now know yet another circle of erudite and amenable wargamers, a little closer to home than Virginia, and with whom I hope to have further wargaming opportunities in future.

The Key Ingredient?
So of our six ingredients, which is the key one? Terrain, troops and venue are all important, of course, but the first two can be improvised with simple pen and paper if need be, while anywhere with a table could be a venue. Rules and scenario are more significant, I suggest, as these are The Game, and a poor choice of rules can be an all-too accurate simulation of war (in the oft-quoted sense of being "95% boredom, 5% sheer misery"). But the vital ingredient? Solo wargamers may demur, but I believe it is the other guys (or gals) round the table who will ultimately determine whether yours is a High Quality Gaming Experience. Choose your friends carefully, and cherish the good ones!

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Battle of The Wilderness (1864), ACW BBB scenario - second playtest

I am euphoric! Last night five of my playtesters fought The Wilderness and universally agreed it was a brilliant game and a cracking scenario which we are all keen to try again. (See post about the scenario and previous playtest here.)

We used the revised version which is currently in the BBB Yahoo group files (Confederates need 2 objectives to draw, 3 to win). Day 1 the Union seized every objective except Parker's Store where Hill had pretty much stalled. Ewell had pushed north to Spotswood. Hancock was ensconced around Shady Grove Church and the Rebs felt badly squeezed.

Day 2, Longstreet arrived and the game changed. He smashed Hancock back to Todd's Tavern. Ewell briefly threatened the wagon trains at Culpeper Mine Ford but was fended off by Torbert's cavalry. On the last turn, 4 objectives were contested, meaning any result was possible. With their last push, Longstreet and Hill combined against the Union centre and took the two Brock Road junctions by the Trigg and Hickman farms. Then on the US turn, US cavalry divisions were in a position to take Parker's Store and Shady Grove Church. If both had come off, this would have made the game a draw; neither did, so it was a Confederate win.

The spread of objectives and the unit density on the table gives both sides plenty of options over where to attack (and both sides have to attack, which is always good for a fun game). Bags of replay value in this, and it has a very different feel, really seems to capture the flavour of the battle. Give it a go!

Monday 20 July 2015

The November Uprising - The Russo-Polish War of 1830-1831

I did consider titling this post "Wars I'd Never Heard Of (Part 94)". But while technically true, in that until this year I was unaware of the November Uprising - or at least, if I had heard of it, I had long since forgotten - such a flippant title would have been unworthy for a year-long struggle that mustered armies of 150,000+ and resulted in many 10s of 1000s of casualties.

I owe my newly better-informed state to Geoff Coe, who asked me to help him to create scenarios to wargame the largest battles of the November Uprising using the "Bloody Big BATTLES!" rules. The project appealed to me so I agreed. Geoff has done marvellous research, and shared with me the fantastic resources he has collected, including full orders of battle, detailed accounts of the actions, and wonderful contemporary maps - in fact, all the ingredients you need to design a scenario.

The first outcome of our collaboration is a scenario for the battle of Ostrolenka (1831), in which 40,000 or so Poles resist an attempt by 50,000+ Russians to establish a bridgehead across the River Narew. As is so often the case, examining a historical battle has provided a complex, unique and fascinating situation to reproduce on the wargames table.

A range of 28mm figures for the November Uprising is in preparation by Steve Barber Models. This TMP link will lead you to previews of the first sculpts. Although BBB scenarios are normally intended for use with smaller scale figures, we have designed this one so that its 4'x4' can be scaled up to 6'x6', and movement distances and firing ranges scaled up by 50% as well. This enables it to be used with 50-60mm square bases bearing four 28mm figures each, making it compatible with the Steve Barber figures.

The scenario has not yet been playtested, but in order to let folks know about it - and about the figures in case you want to paint up an army for it - the draft scenario is posted on Flickr and in the BBB Yahoo group files.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

The Wilderness (1864) - a wild, wild ACW wargame!

Prompted in part by this discussion on The Miniatures Page, I got interested in the question of how to wargame the Battle of The Wilderness. This was a large, long and confused American Civil War battle. 100,000 US troops struck out through rough country to outflank Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and threaten Richmond. Despite being outnumbered 2:1, Lee responded by aggressively attacking the US force in the flank as it marched south. The battle was fought over the course of two days in an extensive wooded area, making it even harder than usual for commanders to know what was going on, and when they did issue orders, the difficult terrain meant the moving and fighting all happened in slow time.

Looking north over the Wilderness, criss-crossed by Jim's fine set of TimeCast roads.
In the distance Union wagon trains rumble across the Rapidan, while Warren's corps forms up around the Wilderness Tavern, preparing to receive Ewell's assault down the Orange Turnpike from top left of picture.

Folks on TMP were kicking around various ideas for hidden enemy movement, semi-random movement of friendly units, disinformation. But having read Rhea's magisterial book, I felt these didn't quite capture it. Yes, the terrain should make maneuvering difficult, but The Wilderness is hardly unique in having difficult terrain, and the armies weren't just blundering around blindly, they often had a reasonable grasp of who was where. My interest has always been in command and control issues, and I think it is at the command level that you find the key.

My reading of the battle is that although they knew they were heavily outnumbered, the Confederates - officers and men - remained confident to the point of arrogance. Thus they maneuvered actively and aggressively.

The Union forces, by contrast, were wracked by doubt. They were surprised when the first grey coats appeared, they worried where the Confederates would turn up next, they were apprehensive because they had suffered from Lee's miraculous maneuvering before, and they were anxious about Stuart's cavalry threatening their line of supply. Consequently they were tentative in the advance and precipitate in the retreat. Only Grant's iron will and fighting spirit held them together.

How to reflect this in a "Bloody Big Battles!" scenario? Vincent Tsao and I talked about it and came up with this approach:
- No special funky terrain rules for the woods, they were just Difficult Terrain imposing the usual -1 on movement rolls;
- Each turn representing 3 hours (the "slow time" effect)
- All the Union army rated as Passive, therefore suffering another -1;
- All the Confederates rated Aggressive in combat, with half the US units rated Fragile;
- A special rule for Grant, requiring the US to attempt at least one close assault every turn, otherwise Meade's caution is deemed to trump Grant's aggression, and Grant is removed from the game.

After much eager anticipation, we got to playtest the scenario this week. It was a riot. The game had a very distinctive character - artillery less of a help than a hindrance, the bayonet more use than the bullet - and really seemed to give the right feel. With four players we fought the entire two-day battle in two hours, with action all over the pitch, ebb and flow, and the issue in doubt to the last turn. Planning to fight it again in a couple of weeks - can't wait!

Current draft of the scenario is in the BBB Yahoo group files as usual.