Thursday, 21 October 2021

Reflections on wargaming

The BBBBlog is now over 200 posts old. Most of these are routine reports of tabletop battles. While I try to make them entertaining and informative, I don't go in for much eye-candy, so they don't have particularly wide appeal beyond readers interested in the conflict in question. However, occasionally I have mused on more general wargaming topics. Some of these general posts have attracted very high readership and generated lots of fascinating discussion among fellow wargamers. Until now, though, whereas a battle report would be easy to find by means of the blog labels (either the name of the war or the year of the battle), the general interest posts would not.

I have now rectified this by adding a label, 'Reflections on wargaming'. Here are the topics I've addressed to date under that label. I hope you'll find something among them to interest you:

Reasons NOT to refight historical battles. Arguing against my own preferred format produced tons of really good comments on multiple forums. The updated blog post links to these.

On the virtues of IGO-UGO. Prompted by having spent too much time sitting around doing nothing in big multi-player games where only one player acts at a time.

Wargaming one-sided wars. An attempt to counter prejudice against gaming conflicts perceived as one-sided walkovers.

Changing situations mid-game. Remarking on how scenario designs that include some significant change in battle situation tend to present more interesting decisions than more straightforward line-out punch-ups. (This was illustrated yet again recently with our Hegyes and Gitschin refights.)

Studying classic battles. Some thoughts on different ways of approaching history to obtain insights and understanding of the events.

V-E Day games ... and granularity. On the need to represent time, troops and terrain in due proportion.

Get out there and wargame! I am regularly saddened by wargames forum members who state that they wargame solo (or rarely, or never) because they have been put off going to clubs.

Airing some prejudices: on one-dimensional vs 2-dimensional games. Oh, this was a good one, really set cats among pigeons. Basically explaining my prejudice against any pre-Napoleonic games.

Wargames: how much "war", how much "game"? A nice thoughtful post that hasn't had as much attention as I think it deserved. Discussing how people's choice of game is influenced by the different things we want from our games.

Victory conditions in wargames. I think this might be the all-time most popular BBBBlog post.

The appeal of miniature models. A snippet about why models rather than just cardboard counters.

The Quest for the "High Quality Gaming Experience". Or, "life's too short to waste playing lame games with jerks".

It's not about winning - it's just losing I can't stand. One year I kept track of how many games I won or lost, but really that's not what it's about. (See "Wargames: how much war, how much game" above.)

Further reflections - added since this post was first written:

In praise of looong games. Musing on the virtues of large, protracted, all-day or even all-weekend games, versus my usual diet of compressed 3- or 4-hour evening bashes.

"At that point we called it" - who cares if we don't finish the game?  One of the most popular RoW posts to date, debating whether and why it matters if a game isn't fought to a conclusion.

Replaying scenarios: pros and cons? On why it's worth fighting the same battle again and again.


Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Reasons NOT to refight historical battles

I am an avowed historical wargamer, dedicated to recreating historical battle situations on the tabletop and then seeing how players' decisions and fickle dice make them turn out. I find this immensely satisfying in several ways and it is definitely my preferred wargame format. However, my impression is that among my fellow wargamers this is very much a minority sport. People may make a special effort to depict a particular battle for a convention game, but on a routine club night or home-hosted game most seem happy with something non-historical: perhaps a points-based competition game; perhaps a cunningly devised tactical puzzle that may or may not have some historical inspiration; perhaps something entirely unscripted beyond fielding whatever armies take the players' fancy on a given evening. And that's without even counting all the fantasy and science fiction armies alongside the 'real' ones.

I've been involved in some rather good non-historical games myself in recent weeks. Therefore, rather than harp on tiresomely about why everybody should change their ways and do what I usually do, in this week's meta-musing I thought I'd ponder on the many good reasons for NOT refighting historical battles but doing a non-historical game instead. Here are some I could think of, in no particular order.

Preparation time

Researching a battle and turning it into a playable scenario takes a lot of time and effort. Not everyone has that time to spare, not everyone enjoys it, and not everyone will find the results worth it.

Terrain challenges

Historical battlefields are generally more complicated than the average wargames table, particularly in terms of hills and valleys, which can be difficult to portray. Even an extensive terrain collection can find itself stretched and run out of roads, or streams, or mountains, or villages. Then there is the set-up time required for faithfully representing a historical battlefield in detail. Especially for a club night when time is limited, that can be a serious limiting factor.

I don't have the troops!

I was going to make this a reason, but on reflection, no wargamer worth his salt would accept that. Not having the troops isn't a reason for not fighting a battle, it's a reason to buy more troops! (And until then - use proxies.)

We're doomed, so what's the point?

A significant proportion of historical battles were one-sided affairs which are bound to end in a more or less crushing defeat for the historical loser. I've seen that offered on several occasions as a reason not to touch the Franco-Prussian War at all, for instance, because people have a prejudiced view of it as a walkover for the Germans. Understandably, while a "damned near-run thing" like Waterloo (to paraphrase Wellington) is enduringly attractive, the destruction of Napoleon III's army at Sedan is less popular with gamers, even if clever victory point schemes can make it possible for the loser to "win".

But the [insert favourite regiment, tank, etc] was just so awesome!

We all want to field the cool kit or the funky fun units, even if they never actually made it onto the battlefield. I have seen six 60cm Karl mortars on the table, which was perhaps overdoing it, but I can see the appeal. And among the competition gamers, I have seen niche stuff like T34/57s or double-mounted archer camelry go through phases of tremendous popularity because their tabletop effectiveness far outweighed their historical footnote status.

Never mind the historical battles, I want to fight a campaign

And as soon as you start making campaign decisions, you will inevitably change the shape of the resulting battles. I have quite a lot of troops in 1891 uniforms they never fought in, including an entire (small) Portuguese 1891 army, all painted purely for campaign purposes and necessarily only ever used in non-historical games.

What if ...

... the Aztecs fought the Samurai? (Or whoever.) Or if the D-Day invasion had been aimed at the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy? It is quite natural to think about armies that never met and wonder which would have won, or for armies that did meet, to consider battles they might have fought if they'd made different strategic decisions. Non-historical what-if games let you explore those questions.

All that button-counting is just annoying and trivial

Among us historical types there is certainly a tendency to obsess over details that, while fascinating to us, can seem irrelevant to others. The player who just wants to have a game doesn't really enjoy being told their tanks are in the wrong camouflage scheme, or any other such unhelpful "advice" aka smug derision of their harmless amusement. In that respect, historical devotees sometimes do our own cause more harm than good.

All that historical detail actually gets in the way of the game

We historical scenario designers can get too carried away with our Great Work, too in love with all the esoteric detail we have discovered, too eager to incorporate every last precious nugget of our arcane knowledge into a 3-hour bash. The game may drown in a plethora of scenario special rules and infinite variety of confusingly nuanced unit differences. (Guilty as charged, m'lud - I know I've done this at times.) A game "inspired by" a historical situation but with all the clutter stripped away may be a much better game than an excessively faithful recreation.

I just want to put some nice armies on the table and have some fun

There is a lot of aesthetic pleasure to be had from beautifully painted figures on a finely crafted layout. Who cares if this lot in their 1809 uniform are next to some others in anachronistic 1815 garb, and are fighting an army that was actually their ally, so long as it looks good and the game is exciting?

Why limit your imagination?

With a historical battle, there are so many limits on what the game can include and what can happen. Throw off those shackles! Play Fantasy, Science Fiction, Pulp, Alternate History! Mix periods, mix genres, create crazy cocktails to delight your gaming palate!


Well, that's it. I've pretty much persuaded myself. Time to throw out those nerdily researched historical armies and splash out on more orcs, space marines and steampunk machines. Goodbye accurate orders of battle, hello cunning calculations of 400-point armies. Roll those dice for random terrain, missions and deployment, and have at thee!

===***===

Update added 17/10/2021

I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of comment this generated – well over 100 responses on various threads on various forums. Rather than respond to them all there, let me provide one collective response here, with a big thank you to all who took the trouble to comment. The forums where these many thoughtful and fascinating comments are to be found are these:

[TMP] "ReasonsNOT to refight historical battles" Topic (theminiaturespage.com)

Reasons NOTto refight historical battles (pendrakenforum.co.uk)

»Topic: Reasons NOT to refight historical battles (thewargameswebsite.com)

Reasons NOT to refight historical battles (leadadventureforum.com)

The first thing I need to address is the old chestnut, “it’s all fantasy anyway” (aka the “Claudia Schiffer gambit”). I disagree with that, except in a trivial semantic sense. There is obviously a major category distinction between games whose divergence from actual history rests only on human decisions (and are in that sense “possible” alternative history) and those that involve things that never existed and cannot exist – magic, monsters, etc – and are thus “impossible”. (If you’d just made different life choices, Mike, you could have impressed Claudia …) Rather than use words like “fantasy” or “fiction”, how about if we talk about “explorations of history”? Thus:

-          - Refighting an actual battle is an exploration of the history of that battle;

-          - fighting fictional battles generated by starting from an actual campaign situation explores the history of that campaign;

-          - fighting fictional battles between historical armies (whether or not those armies ever met) could be regarded as explorations of historical weapons and tactics.

Having dealt with that, let me endeavour to group the respondents’ reasons into a few major headings.

“We know what happened!”

This includes the problem of surprise (or lack of it). Often the reason a battle took the shape it did is because a commander was deceived or ignorant of some major factor, be it terrain, enemy strength and dispositions, etc. It is hard to recreate that when players know what happened. Artificial constraints on what players are allowed to do are not entirely satisfactory – it is important not to make things too ‘scripted’, otherwise why bother having players? That said, it can be done, witness our recent games of Hegyes or Gitschin where one side’s strategic objective changes mid-battle. Player knowledge didn’t seem to prevent these being good games and decent depictions of the battles in question.

Another aspect of the “we know what happened” problem is that players can be unhappy of the refight turns out differently from the historical event. But if we allow (as I think we should) that people could have made different decisions – whether generals giving different orders, or private soldier choosing when to fire or whether to stand or run – then we should be OK with getting different results. In fact, seeing whether different plans (or even the same ones) could have succeeded or failed is part of the attraction.

And another: translating the history we know onto the tabletop is difficult, and “we all love a good scenario – but have probably suffered too many half-baked ones that didn’t quite work – which is why the basic two sides line up and charge format is so often favoured”. Well, I recognise the problem, but the fact that something is difficult to do doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t worth doing. When it’s done right it is so much better.

Tabletop representation

I already addressed the challenge of terrain. Others raised “depth of the battlefield and how many forces are packed into small spaces … it’s quite a shock to see the set ups for Dresden, Borodino, etc, where troops are piled on top of troops”. Or similarly, “Most sets of rules focus their command/unit representation too low to do a whole historic battle.” I suppose my answer to that would be that’s simply a problem of choice of ruleset – have you tried BBB? 😉

Arguments

People have different notions about what historically happened or could have happened, so historical refights can create disputes. Well, if these are constructive discussion, that’s interesting, isn’t it? And if they’re blazing rows, the problem is probably that you’re gaming with the wrong people, not a problem of the game per se. (Though as one respondent said, “it’s hard finding like-minded people”. In that respect I’ve been very lucky.)

There are not enough historical battles!

That’s a fair point: if you’ve gone to the trouble of painting your Bolivian army for 1880, you might want to use it for more than just endless refights of the battle of Tacna. That said, my own focus on the whole of the 19th century has kept our group entertained for the past decade and more, without having to learn new rules (we fight them all with BBB), and with no prospect of running out of battles any time soon.

Fighting smaller actions that never reached the history books

This was a good one. Particularly for skirmish-level games, a more generic ahistorical approach can be just fine, eg for pre-modern wars where records don’t exist, or for modern wars on such a scale that almost any skirmish scenario ‘could have’ happened (and again, not everything at that level was recorded).

It’s disrespectful

Some feel it’s disrespectful to those who gave their lives if we trivialise their sacrifice in a game, hence eg the appeal of gaming with ‘Imagi-nations’. I disagree – I have enough combat veteran gaming friends to think if it’s OK for them, it’s OK for me – but I entirely accept this as a reason for those who do feel that way.

“Modern sensibilities” were also mentioned, as in it being considered distasteful and insulting to suggest one nationality was inherently better than another. I suppose that could put people off recreating certain conflicts.

I’m just not that into history

People get different things from our hobby. Some are more into the craft element (the painting and modelling), or the social occasion, or the competitive aspect. Not everyone cares about the history.

What’s the point? You won’t really learn anything

Some dismiss the idea that you can gain any deeper insights or understanding of a battle or period by doing refights. Hmm: perhaps whether anything can be learned from a refight depends on both the learner and the lesson? We all learn in different ways. A refight can be “learning by doing” – I know that refighting historical battles has imprinted them on my memory better than all my reading about them – and the better crafted a scenario is, the more we will learn from it.

 

===

 

I hope that’s a fair summary of the many points raised. Apologies to any to whose comments I haven’t done full justice – hard to reply to >100 in sufficient detail! Thanks again to everyone who engaged with my blog post and created such an interesting discussion.

Incidentally, I have now added a new label on the blog, “Reflections on wargaming”, which links to a few similarly broad-themed blog posts that have generated similarly rich discussions. Please do have a browse.  

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Sherlock Holmes and the Wicker Man

And now for something completely different ... as if our recent post-apocalyptic diversion into the Gaslands were not fantastical enough, this week Bruce's talented pen brought us some alternative Victorian SF/Fantasy in the form of his scenario for 'Sherlock Holmes and the Wicker Man'. I trust I don't really need to introduce the eminent detective, Holmes, but some readers may not be familiar with the classic horror movie, The Wicker Man. The film is about a Scottish isle whose inhabitants still cleave to old pagan ways, including the occasional human sacrifice to ensure rich harvests. In Bruce's spin on the plot, Sherlock Holmes is on the island in disguise, investigating the islanders' misdeeds, and summons his sidekick Dr Watson urgently, who arrives with five policemen. These valiant few have to sneak/fight their way past/through Lord Summerisle and assorted henchmen and villagers to rescue a captive from being burned in the giant wicker man.

Bruce's time in lockdown was not entirely wasted. His brush is as talented as his pen and he unfurled a splendid layout for our eyes to feast on. The ruleset was Osprey's "A Fistful of Kung Fu", which apparently uses the engine from the "Song of Blades and Heroes". SBH I was faintly aware of, AFKF I had never heard of, the rules engine I had never encountered but a jolly clever one it is. The basic mechanisms were easy to grasp; we learned their tactical subtleties as we went along.

Mark J and I found ourselves on the side of the old gods and their Hebridean worshippers. Dave T and Nigel were the forces of law and order and civilisation. I'll let the photos tell the story.

The magnificent Wicker Man complete with hapless 28mm maiden trapped inside him and bonfire piled up around him, cultist poised to light it. The Wicker Man is well over a foot tall.

The table seen from the point of view of Watson and the approaching bobbies. They had to get through the wood or orchard, past a couple of dozy cultist sentries. All the other enemies were busy with their pagan ceremony until the alarm was raised.

Some of the islanders. Could that master of disguise, Sherlock Holmes, be one of these? That one on the left looks dubious. Fine paintwork by Bruce.

Lord Summerisle conducts his pagan ritual, backed up by a cultist, his alluring sidekick Willow, and one of his three gamekeepers, oblivious to the policemen sneaking through the trees behind them ...

A big punch-up ensued around the central wagon. Watson perished there, as did a couple of coppers. Willow was wounded but got away, luring a policeman after her.

Holmes is revealed! He could easily despatch those two villagers, but he has more urgent business to attend to. He dashes towards the Wicker Man! He strikes Lord Summerisle to the ground! He scales the ladder and unties the damsel in distress! But ...


... a welcome committee gathers at the foot of the ladder as flames begin licking up the Wicker Man's timber shins. All the police have fallen or scattered. Only the dastardly Summerisle and his cohorts remain. Holmes's chances of survival look remote ...

Thus the game ended in a triumph for the forces of evil, and Conan Doyle will have to either start writing about a new character or resort to penning prequels. There will be a bumper harvest on Summerisle this year.

This was splendid good fun. From my (evil) side of the table it did seem like too hard a job for the goodies, so maybe Bruce will tweak it a bit before its next outing. (For another outing there must surely be - too much work has gone into the Wicker Man not to use him again!) But the game was at least as much about the journey as the destination, and a thoroughly entertaining ride it was. Bravo, Bruce!

Friday, 1 October 2021

Austro-Prussian War: Gitschin (1866)

Time is a bit short this week, but it would be remiss of me not to give suitably honourable mention to the fine game Crispin ran for us at OWS on Monday. This was an Austro-Prussian War action, Gitschin.

It's an interesting battle because, not unlike last week's Hegyes outing, one side's mission changes radically halfway through. Once again it is the Austrians who have this awkward problem to deal with. They start the battle determined to hold a defensive line and halt the Prussian advance. Then, when they are already inconveniently heavily engaged, a courier arrives with the order to withdraw.

Crispin addressed this in scenario terms by requiring the Austrians to hold three out of four objectives on the defensive line until either Turn 5 or Turn 6 (determined by a die roll on Turn 6 to prevent unduly gamey actions by the Austrian players). If they fail, they lose instantly. After that, victory is decided by how many Austrian units manage to escape off their home road exits.

 

View from the southern corner of the battlefield behind the Austrian lines. Austrian columns can be seen marching forward to occupy the line against the Prussians who will march on at top of picture. More are off-camera in the distance to the right. Saxons will arrive left foreground on Turn 2. In the foreground is the town of Gitschin. The two roads leading off the bottom edge are the Austrians' escape routes. Buildings hand-crafted by Crispin.

 

John and I took on this difficult job, John holding the Austrian right while I commanded the left, including our Saxon reinforcements. The radical asymmetry in weapons and tactics soon became apparent. Initially our longer-ranged rifles and deployed artillery disrupted and delayed the Prussians' approach. However, as soon as they got close, skirmishers with needleguns demonstrated their superiority to Stosstaktik and devastated our ranks.

Nevertheless, we were still solidly in control of the defensive line by Turn 6, when we were fortunate enough to be allowed to withdraw immediately rather than hold on for an extra turn. Less fortunately, though, we had paid insufficient attention to the inevitable need to retreat eventually, so too many of our troops had ventured too far from home.

To make things worse, Dave W on the Prussian right unleashed a deadly volley of 11s and 12s. The critical one was against the Saxon Kronprinz brigade on our southern flank. This happened as I was trying to move it into Podhrad to enfilade the Prussian 6th Brigade. Had this succeeded, it was have seriously hindered the Prussian attempt to cut us off at Gitschin. Instead, the Saxons were cut down in droves, prevented from reaching the cover of the village, pinned in the open, immediately rendered Spent and therefore easy meat for the Prussian charge that inevitably ensued.

From that point it became a desperate scramble to escape. One of my Austrian brigades was too far forward to get back. The other had a chance but ended up driven into a marsh being gunned down from behind and unable to extricate itself. I did salvage the Saxon cavalry and Leib brigade, though, so we just needed one unit of John's command to escape for a draw or two for a win. His one possible infantry unit failed a movement roll on Turn 7, so on the final Turn 8 it all came down to his remaining cavalry unit. Could they manage a half-move and also avoid being mown down by the Prussian infantry nearby? Of course the dice blew it and they didn't move at all - Prussian victory!

Ignominious defeat! Crown Prince Albert of Saxony (that's me) about to be captured in Gitschin along with his artillery and Poschacher's battered Austrian brigade stuck in a marsh. Right of picture is the Austrian cavalry column, deciding - perhaps wisely - not to risk riding across the front of those nasty Prussian needleguns in the foreground.
 

Reflections:

Crispin's ready-to-(un)roll battlemat looked good and saved us valuable set-up time.

The scenario was ideal for a Monday night - not too many units, not too many turns, plenty of movement. It took under two hours to play.

Once again, having the mission and situation change mid-game made for a really entertaining challenge.

Likewise, asymmetrical armies generated interest as they force players to choose the right tactics to exploit their strengths and the enemy's weaknesses.

First principle of war is maintain the aim. John and I lost because we failed to do that: we focused too much on fighting the enemy in front of us and too little on making sure we had enough units close enough to the escape routes behind us.

Usually the dice even out, and I wouldn't say they were especially unkind to us this time either. However, sometimes one or two critical rolls really matter. The volley that stymied my Saxons' flanking manoeuvre was crucial.

I want some Austrian grenadiers!

 

The scenario is freely available in the BBB group files here. There may be more Austro-Prussian BBB action at OWS soon as I wrote scenarios last year for Trautenau and Soor which have yet to be played. These are in the files too.