Tuesday 18 January 2022

In praise of loooong games

In my previous post I reflected on 'the luxury of time': spending all day on a game at a more sedate pace than the usual time-pressured Monday night at the club. Since then I have enjoyed an epic three-day wargaming weekend, prompting me to ruminate at more length on the virtues of such long games.

The three battles we fought merit reporting in their own right, so let me start by doing that. First up, some exotic oriental action: the Battle of Tai'erzhuang (1938) from the Second Sino-Japanese War. I do love the esoteric corners of history and, at least for parochial Brits like me, this certainly counts as one of those. I knew of the battle but knew little about it. CB introduced the game by describing the political and military background, the events leading up to it, the armies, their weapons and commanders.

 Chinese defenders were hidden in and around Tai'erzhuang (the town by the river). The first few Japanese invaders have emerged from the northern pass (bottom centre) and taken position on the hill above the town and in the village of Lan Ling.

This battle pitted two Japanese divisions against several times as many Chinese. CB 'bathtubbed' this, representing each division by a battalion, to turn it into a feasible scenario to fight with the O Group rules. No proxies today - he had painted up all the right troops and equipment. Some of the Chinese infantry had Chinese characters on their helmets. Japanese combat patrols were represented by standard-bearers flying the Rising Sun. As for the hardware, the Chinese had amphibious tankettes and Vickers light tanks in gorgeous 4-colour camo, while the Japanese had a nifty Ki-10 biplane, clumsy Type 89 tanks and - pièce de résistance - an SS-Ki flamethrower tank.

How it looks on the ground. A Type 89 nestles next to Lan Ling. Opposing Combat Patrols face off in the central no-man's-land. Ki-10 biplane loiters in the distance.
A couple of technical factors slowed the game down. This was only our second or third go with O Group, so unfamiliarity with the rules played a part. O Group is a one-activation-at-a-time set with provision for reactions by the non-phasing player, so really only one thing can happen on the table at a time. In any case, we were playing remotely with players in several locations, which necessarily hinders implementing multiple parallel actions. Consequently, after nine hours of play, the second Chinese battalion had arrived and was heavily engaged, but the second Japanese battalion was not even on the table yet. My first Japanese battalion was pretty much fought to a standstill and had no prospect of mounting any significant attack on the main objective, Tai'erzhuang.

Climax of the action. My SS-Ki does a terrifying 'warm-up act', wiping out a Chinese infantry company and their infantry gun dug in east of Tai'erzhuang. Plumes of smoke mark the devastation wrought by Japanese air strikes on Chinese columns in the open.
Regular readers might now be expecting me to whinge about playing only half a battle in the time in which we could have completed two BBB games. However, this was one of those that was more about the journey than the destination. The ruleset presented us with plenty of tricky tactical choices each turn - there were always more things we wanted to do than there were command points with which to do them. A patient and careful build-up and low-level initial skirmishing ratcheted up the tension as we fed more and more troops into the line. Then, when both sides went on the full attack - the Chinese reinforcements counterattacking from the west of the town while I sent in the flame tank and friends on the east - there was an explosive frenzy of firing dice, saving rolls, and accompanying groans of dismay or whoops of delight.


On to day two. This was supposed to be Waterloo, but a COVID-afflicted GM meant a hasty reshuffle of the schedule. Instead, I laid on a small BBB Hungary 1848 battle, Nagysalló. This is one of my mate Dave W's favourite scenarios and is the one I wrote up for Miniature Wargames in 2017. For background on the battle situation, see a previous AAR here.
Set-up positions: Austrians in the central village with two more brigades approaching along the roads from the left (south); Hungarians lined up ready to storm the village, with reserves behind them waiting to be unleashed to exploit success.

This is a small battle with about half a dozen units a side and lasting just eight turns. Face to face, with regular BBB players, we would rattle this off in two hours comfortably. Playing remotely, with rules-rusty players and no time pressure, we took all day. As Scott and CB knew nothing about the Hungarian War of Independence, I spent the first hour and a half just giving an outline of the course of the war, a more detailed account of the Spring Campaign in which this was the penultimate battle, and various discursions about commanders, armies, tactics, and situating the war in C19-C20 politics and history: the 1867 Compromise and 'hyphenation' of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the 50 'golden years' that followed until WWI, the patchwork of ethnic conflicts across eastern Europe ... 

Major punch-up in the centre. The Polish Legion's red czapkas are about to assault disrupted Austrians unsuccessfully. In the woods, Dessewffy's hapless division has accumulated all the possible medals - white fluff = disrupted, black = spent, brown = low ammo, to add to the green counter for being fragile.

Once we got into the game, it was patient stuff. With small numbers of troops, every decision becomes important and every die roll matters. The guys mulled over their options. I lent advice from a rules perspective. When it came to combat, I have the charts in my head and could have resolved it for them in seconds, but they wanted to work through the calculations themselves, which obviously took longer.

As far as the course of the game was concerned, luck was against the Hungarians. The Austrians scored a couple of deadly hits with very high die rolls early on, which has a big impact in a small game. This was compounded by CB being less than fortunate with his reinforcement rolls, only getting one reinforcement into action before we finished. By contrast, Scott got exactly the right unit he needed (his cavalry) at exactly the right time to thwart CB's left hook that could otherwise easily have taken two unguarded objectives to achieve a draw. The end result was therefore a Hungarian defeat.


Game one was fought using Discord and game two via Zoom. For game three, Scott's naval battle, I had to have three laptops open: one on Discord, one on Roll20 (which allows hidden movement) and one just for all the charts and documentation.

Potential conflict zone: the Nicobar Islands. Grey boxes 'PRC TF' are my Chinese naval task forces; 'PRC Enemy' is detected opposition; the small hexagons E and 1 are neutrals.

Naval really isn't my thing. I don't do boats. My major objections are that absence of terrain makes tactical decisions much less complex and interesting, so they are essentially a dicefest, and that all the most interesting decisions happen at the campaign level rather than on the tactical tabletop. Scott's scenario addressed these objections most satisfactorily. We had terrain: the Nicobar Islands, over on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, where Thailand and Malaysia and Indonesia meet, near the Strait of Malacca. (Did you know the Nicobars were a Danish possession until they were sold to Britain in 1868? I didn't before this game.) The 'terrain' also included neutral vessels of various kinds, from cruise liners to freighters to a Russian spy trawler and a US warship. It was a campaign situation rather than a straight fight, an imaginary diplomatic confrontation between India (which administers the Nicobars these days) and China. Rob and I were on the Chinese side - him running the subs, me running the surface ships - trying to recover or, failing that, destroy a Chinese spy trawler that had gone missing among the islands. CB played the Indian navy, which of course turned out to have seized it, so the chilly diplomacy went hot.

Roll20 has a chat/whisper function that lets you talk to all players or just to the one you specify. As the exchange on right of screenshot shows, this was the point in the game where the Chinese marines had just choppered in and recaptured the trawler - but it wasn't over yet ...
The rules were from the venerable Task Force board wargame published over 40 years ago. Modern naval warfare is utterly technical, but TF makes this hideously complex business manageably simple enough to play. Of course, understanding your combat units' capabilities is still important, eg knowing which missiles have 2-hex range rather than 9. When matters came to a head and we were having to decide how many missiles to launch in each wave, and which vector they should arrive on, we needed a lot of handholding and walkthrough-talkthrough from our gamemaster. But that worked OK.

Anyway, most of the game was spent not shooting but just trying to find each other and not sink any neutrals by accident. The search rules are clever: an approximate detection tells you there is something in a 7-hex 'megahex', a significantly better die roll can tell you exactly where and what it is, and there is also the chance of a false report on a duff roll. Roll20 did a great job of the hidden movement and fog of war.

There were effectively four players: Indian, Chinese surface, Chinese subs, and neutrals, each with 3 or 4 task forces or commands. The player order varied randomly each turn. Each player activates a TF in turn until all have activated. Each TF rolls a die to see how many action points it gets, using these to move, fire, search, etc. Again, regular readers might expect me to complain here about only getting a quarter of the game. However, I found I had quite a lot to do, exchanging messages with Rob to report my locations and consult him about what we should do next, or responding to the GM asking me whether I wanted to shoot down a passing Indian helicopter. It was thoroughly absorbing. I wasn't able to stay right to the end, but we did manage to have a couple of reciprocal helicopter assaults on the trawler and a skirmish for control of it, before it was sunk in the subsequent major missile exchange.



Thus, after three marathon nine-hour remote online gaming sessions we had finished one game (the small BBB battle), sort of mostly finished another (the naval campaign) and half-finished another (the Sino-Japanese battle). But even though two of the three were inconclusive, I was left happy and satisfied and feeling this had been time well spent. Here are some of the reasons why, reasons which can be offered in praise of long games:

Learn more history! It was valuable having the time for full introductions to explain the historical context of the games. For many of us, learning about the history is a major part of the hobby, so acquiring this new knowledge was worthwhile in itself. Understanding the context also made the games themselves richer and more engaging.

Better aesthetics! For such a major event, GMs put extra effort into the troops and terrain and making the table look good. Even I broke out my nice Timecast roads instead of the functional felt ones. We took time out to admire each other's handiwork. CB's beautiful models were held up to the camera. I showed the guys Colin's handcrafted ship-mill.

More thoughtful play! We had the time to read scenario briefings thoroughly, to examine the situation from all angles, to consider our options and work out (hopefully) good plans. As the battle developed, we had the time to ponder before making decisions. (Except when CB's Indian admiral - an inspired creation - was telling us our Chinese helicopters had 30 seconds to turn away from Indian airspace or be shot down.) While there is something to be said for the Monday night adrenalin of having to crack on and make quick decisions, there is also something to be said for respecting and appreciating a finely crafted scenario, and for being able to engage in preliminary manoeuvring and preparatory fires, and for not having to launch a massed charge just because it is 9:30 and people want to finish in time to get to the pub.

It's about the journey, not the destination! In my usual BBB games the result does matter, and often much of the reward and excitement comes from the rush towards a tight finish. But in these epic games, although of course we were all trying to win, the fun was in all the decisions and incidents and episodes along the way. The Japanese flame tank's attack will live long in the memory, as will Scott's reportage of the skirmish on the trawler, and the Indian admiral's protestations at 'perilous and precarious' Chinese incursions.

Good times with good friends! Sometimes on a Monday night we are so efficiently focused on the game that the small talk is limited to a brief hello-how-are-ya at the start and a rushed goodbye at the end. In these long sessions with friends thousands of miles away there was time for interludes to freshen and empty glasses together, catch up on each others' real lives and families and mutual friends, and talk about things other than games. And good friends are even more important than good games.

On which note: until the next time, my good friends!


  1. I'm not sure I could cope with 3 back-to-back long games Chris, especially via Zoom which would certainly do my head in! When circumstances permit, a long days gaming with friends at a gentle pace with a convivial atmosphere is something to be savoured. Sadly real life means that this happens but a few times a year, but absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

    A good mix of games on show and as you say, the journey is often as important, if not more so, than the destination.

    1. Yeah, I was surprised at my own stamina - at the end of the third game I had to drop out because it was midnight and I had to work next day, but otherwise I felt fit to fight and would have liked to carry on. I think it was because the pace was so relaxed compared with the usual more frenetic Monday night excitement.

  2. Your stamina to do a series of such long remote games is very impressive. Being stuck to a screen all day during lockdown is what wrecked my neck and shoulder.

    The ability to consider and plan is a very good experience though. For our (much shorter) remote games we usually try and send the briefings out several days beforehand, so the player teams can do some pre planning, ask questions etc. They all said it enhances the experience, even if the actual remote f2f sessions are quite short. Being able to set everything up beforehand rather than lug it all to the club is also rather luxurious.

    1. Indeed, there is a pleasure all of its own in meticulously setting up a table in my war room at home so that it faithfully represents a historical battlefield and looks good too. And I appreciate it when players take the trouble to read a scenario beforehand and turn up with a plan. (I've been guilty myself of turning up without one and paid the price - see my Gitschin AAR!)

  3. Agree, if done well, I love long games. We used to put on 3 or 4 session long games with some large miniatures armies because we could keep the table set up in the basement.
    Or once a year we can get up to 13 players (yep 13) for an all day Kingmaker marathon session plus we always finish it!

    1. I'm torn. As the blog shows, I can enjoy a rich and absorbing long game. On the other hand, I've played enough games that were too long and dragged - dull scenarios, clunky rules, multi-player games with single activation where it seemed like you never got a go and when you did there wasn't anything interesting to do ... I guess short or long, a game needs to be designed well. Like your Kingmaker marathon, by the sound of it!

  4. I much, much prefer long, slow wargaming. For the reasons that you mentioned: more considered play, discussion of the game and related topics (some tangential ones too!) and just taking time to 'smell the roses'. My preference is to play a game over several sessions (having the luxury to leave it set up). I enjoy look at it, thinking through the 'what ifs' of future turns only to find it transpires nothing like that imagined!
    Regards, James

    1. Long and slow isn't always good, though. I have played 9-hour games inching incrementally forward that left me thinking they would have been much better distilled down into a 3-hour BBB game. That would have provided just as many interesting decisions, but in a more exciting way, and still had time for another two such interesting and exciting games in the other 6 hours. The opportunity cost of the wasted time can be frustrating.

    2. I think that you missed my point, Chris.
      It is that, related to your post, my preference (and I don't expect it to be yours or anyone else's) is to stage a game over several sessions, to take my time and 'enjoy the journey' as you mentioned above. It's the way that I came into wargaming, with a period in the middle of games constrained by a club evening (which I never really enjoying the same at all). Give me a weekend game or similar over several sessions anytime.
      I do agree with you that quick or slow alone is not the determinant of quality. One needs good scenario design and rules that 'work', at whatever level one is seeking to achieve that.
      I'm certainly keen to try your Bloody Big Battles, having recently expanded my interest in 'things Ottoman' to include the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. It will take me some time to get there though—painting is something else that I do slowly :)
      Kind regards, James

    3. No, I do take your point, James. Actually you make a good additional point about how, when a game is split over two or more sessions, you can have the pleasure of anticipation, reviewing the progress of your plan in the first session and contemplating options and hope and fears for the next.
      I hope you do try BBB and like it. As this post showed, it is possible to take your time over a BBB game as well!

  5. Thanks Chris - your after Action is epic! I look forward to our next “long” game!! Cheers, Scott

    1. Cheers, Scott! Huge thanks (again) for making it happen!


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