Monday, January 21, 2008

Play the game, not the rules

All wargamers can, I would think, relate some story of an unpleasant gaming encounter that was marred by an opponent whose win at all costs (WAAC) attitude sucked any fun out of the occasion. What is shocking for me is how often this seems to occur. In wargaming as in any other fundamentally social hobby much of the enjoyment to be had is achieved through interaction with other gamers, exchanges of ideas and of course the challenge and excitement of the match itself. And indeed there is nothing wrong with competitiveness; it is a fundamental foundation of the whole thing. What I cannot understand is the attitudes of those who allow themselves to lose sight of the fact that it is just a game and should be fun and fulfilling for all parties involved. I think to a great extent much of the problem can be found in the nature of the rule sets we employ and the attitudes and habits that they encourage in their users. It seems to me that far too often we wargamers define our experience as hobbyists by those rule sets and that this can be detrimental to not only our enjoyment of all aspects of the hobby, from painting to playing, but also to our general outlook and attitude towards that most time consuming of our leisure activities. Let me be more specific, and in starting an example: the army list.

The army list, the force roster, the approved codex! The army list is a tool that is present in some form in many of the most popular wargames of our time whether you be contesting an ancient battle for the survival of Rome, hitting the Normandy beaches or crushing some orcs it is likely you will have a force roster to hand showing in great detail the choices you made for your army and therefore their legality in the often complicated restrictions enforced by the rulebook. The specific reasons put forward for the requirement of army lists by rules is varied, generally it is the creation of balanced opposing forces; though guiding the player towards a historically or thematically accurate force composition is commonly espoused too. The problem I find though is that in most cases the army lists fail on both counts, firstly as a tool for enforcing a balanced game and secondly for enforcing historical accuracy. The problem? their mere existence encourages players to attempt to distil the now limited choices available to them into ‘the perfect list’. You can see it every day in any GW shop you care to walk into, a young player enthused by the hobby has saved up enough cash for a box of his favourite little warriors and picks them up from the shelf for purchase – immediately the squawking starts and from all round the shop cries of “No mate don’t buy those, for the same points value you could get +1 leadership etc with a unit of these” or “Those guys are rubbish under the new rules” or “you’ll never make their points back in a game”. Very soon you find you are playing a game of lists, a game which if you are not careful can be won or lost on force composition alone. Unrealistic, unbalanced and downright unpleasant force compositions are so much more irritating to see employed when they can be smugly declared to be within the rules. In essence if someone does not want to play fair and have a game that is enjoyable for all they won’t and army lists are hardly a hindrance to them.

But anyway I digress somewhat from the initial thrust of this post and it is thus: over-adherence or unthinking deference to the tenets or affectations of a particular ruleset can be most detrimental to enjoying our hobby. Army-lists encourage us to build and paint an army which may not be so much of interest to us, constantly updated rules make our hard work in preparing troops an exercise in futility as unnecessary obsolescence is injected into the hobby, badly thought out rules or a reliance on a mess of special rules reduces our enjoyment by enforcing silly battlefield results or limitations or impelling us to employ questionable tactics to win. This combination of factors is in part why I have made a conscious effort to remove myself from that group of rulesets which is designed primarily around the competition or tournament wargame. There are many often less popular rulesets around that offer a very different experience to that which I am used to in the context of my personal wargaming history. These generally seem to fall into the historical category and emphasise either re-enactment of real engagements or the use of random army creation tables to construct a force for an engagement. Of course real historical engagements rarely involved equally balanced forces and I have found this to be in fact extremely conducive to a fun wargame. Real world generals are never able to select the quality of their forces – they must work with what they are given and very exciting it can be too when you find yourself in the final turn, clinging on with your army close to skedaddling.

All rulesets have their ups and downs though, no exceptions. I think the art comes in selecting those parts of a ruleset that you enjoy and that seem to you to create a good game and go with them. Far too often we take the rules as gospel when in fact we should be using them as a structure, to be diverted from or changed as necessary to above all make sure that what we are doing is at all times fun and never a chore.

In any case I have gone on about twice as long as I wanted to and said about half as much as I planned, such is life. Happy Wargaming - Have Fun!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

And then there were Saxons...

Four of my 28mm Early Saxon Raiders by Musketeer Miniatures.

A brief break from the main proceedings to quickly mention my brief sojourn in the world of Warhammer Ancient Battles. I only very recently tried out WAB - it was an attempt to try out a historical game which I knew was extremely popular and so was likely to be easy to get games going for. It seems a thoroughly solid ruleset yet suffering from the same weaknesses as its Fantasy parent (which are personal gripes and are expanded upon a little in the post below), which is not unexpected as the rules are essentially unchanged (minus the magic and dragons obviously). Generally bigger units and larger armies are seen than in fantasy (a good thing) however what struck me was the general unsuitability of the figure scale to the size of tables being used. Most games seem to be on the GW standard 6x4 foot table but with so many 28mm soldiers ranked up in units commonly 5-7 men wide table realestate is quickly filled. This leads to the hilarious site of a couple of hundred Roman legionaries advancing as a solid wall down the table so close to each other that they not only prevent the enemy army from tactical manoeuvring vis-a-vis flanking movements and the like (there are no flanks when you have set up cheek to jowl, table edge to table edge) but also prevent friendly units from manoeuvring. It looks silly, it is silly. Wargames are abstractions, they are designed to play well and give results that are pleasing and possible whilst allowing the opposing generals to, to some extent, employ tactics and strategy that influence or decide that result. When something such as the scale of the models or the size of the playspace becomes such a hinderence to the employment of strategy to the extent that fundamental elements of the generals arsenal such as flanking manoeuvres become impossible then something is seriously wrong. Wargames are not and will never be (while remaining fun) accurate simulations of ancient warfare but seriously I think we can do a little better.

Still I have to say I like WAB despite this, and certainly at smaller scales (less soldiers not less height as it were) or on bigger tables it can be great fun. Personally I have put it on the back burner for now while I concentrate on my American Civil War project, but who knows I may be back (If I can find the patience for painting all those models).

A 28mm Early Saxon Raider by Musketeer Miniatures. One of a handful I painted in November. A superior sculpt, Musketeer stuff seems very good indeed and they have a couple of great ranges for WAB.

A la gloire!

Finding your own way in the world of wargaming can seem a daunting task when you are brought up on a spoon fed diet of the "GW Hobby". With GW I always knew where I was when it came to opponents and miniatures and getting advice on all manner of things. I suppose in a way this is the greatest strength of Games Workshop's all in one policy when it comes to hobbying. They provide everything and so the gamer really needs to do little apart from buying, painting (actually from my experience a lot of GW gamers dont bother with this bit - but that shall be a later post) and turning up at a store or event where a game is more or less guaranteed.

This was not the case however when I decided to move away from GW. It is amazing what a bewildering array of diverse and compartmentalised sections the wargaming community at large presents to the new wargamer. It is hard to know where to start. Initially when I first decided to try historical gaming a couple of years ago I had a friend who was also interested (though less so than I) and so we discussed what we would like to do. For me I was able to split this into general periods of interest and game mechanics and possibilities that I would like to try. Firstly the game and what it would provide:

  1. Scale, Mass and Spectacle: Whenever I played Warhammer Fantasy, my game of choice up until that point, I was always struck by the great gulf which seperated the background art, story and fluff and the reality of what you saw when a game was played. The talk was all great armies and massive campaigns but the reality more often resembled an insignificant little skirmish. Even so called horde armies (which in my experience are very rarely actually seen played as hordes) were fielding maybe 200 models at 2000pts (the average game size in my experience). These werent battles but backyard brawls. This is an inherent failing of games played with large scale figures and not confined to Warhammer, but for me it just didnt sit well.

  2. Strategy, tactics and real generalship: Another constant irritation of Warhammer was the often ridiculous outcomes of battles and the crazy tactics required to achieve them. In Warhammer and indeed in the other GW games the levels of attrition suffered by the armies involved is patently ridiculous. It was rare to finish a game in which one or both of the armies were not completely destroyed. Now I know its fantasy but really no general would ever willingly fight a battle expecting the levels of attrition seen in Warhammer - how would he campaign if every battle completely destroyed his army (even in victory!). Furthermore the nature of the game encourages sacrificial units and total commitment of forces - in Warhammer there is no tactical reserve - if a unit is not in contact with the enemy he is not earning back his points.

  3. Ease of painting and cost of miniatures: Well I am no great mini painter but neither am I totally without hope and I do like to feel I am making progress with a project and can finish one thing before I get the urge to start another. I wanted to move away from the larger scale miniatures (28mm) and move on to a scale that would be faster to paint and cheaper on the wallet. This would also solve the problem of mass and spectacle - I wanted my finished units to really look like regiments or brigades rather than half a dozen or a dozen men.

Secondly periods of interest; for me this meant one thing HORSE AND MUSKET! I have always had a keen interest in the Napoleonic wars and indeed further back to the Seven Years War and the War of Spanish Succession. However the real biggy for me, my real passion, is the American Civil War. I dont know when I really became interested in this period. It was certainly in my early teens and was greatly fostered by Bernard Cornwell and his Starbuck series and by a series of computer wargames made by a company called Talonsoft, the Battleground series (now available from I believe). These were a series of I go U go hex based games centred on some key civil war encounters, Chickamauga, Bull Run, Shiloh etc. They were rather stilted and old fashioned even at the time but they played brilliantly and had a wonderful stirring soundtrack by Bobby Horton. I am not quite sure what it is about the Civil War which so captures my imagination, maybe it is the closeness of it (it really was not that long ago at all), the great personalities or a wealth of other things. I am afraid I have become a total geek on this and my Civil War book collection is threatening to overflow the new bookcase that my girlfriend and I constructed a couple of months ago [not to mention my very expensive reenactors uniform :( ]Anyhow back to the wargaming, maybe I will blog more on this later.

As a compromise my friend and I decided to go for Napoleonics and we proceeded to look at rules. We lighted upon Sam Mustafa's excellent Grand Armee and decided to go for it. Now it was just models - the scale of which is unimportant in GA. I was all for reducing in scale and so we initially looked at 15mm and 20mm, both of which are very well served by figure manufacturers for the period. I was still unhappy however as even with the scale reduction the aim of creating believable or even semi believable units was not being served. This is just about the time I ran across Baccus 6mm and their diminuitive little men, I was pretty stunned. I had never even considered people were gaming with such small figures. I can imagine what some of the painting fascists I knew from my GW circles would have thought of such models. Anyhow I was intrigued and so ordered a starter army for the Napoleonic French (for roughly what it would have cost me for 2 character figures from GW!) I was stoked. When they arrived I was shocked how small they were in the hand but equally and in fact probably more surprised by how bloody excellent the sculpting and casting was. I thought they would be pretty shapeless little lumps. I was wrong. Despite my excitement circumtances conspired against me (I moved, I fell out with the friend who was to do this project with me) and I never painted them.

Fast forward to about a month and a half ago and I ran across these guys garrisoning my closet (having returned to Warhammer and the Warhammer Ancient Battles rules in the interim). That very day I decided to paint a unit and was surprised and pleased to be able to complete them in about 2 hours. Wow I could actually finish a whole army in 6mm in a realistic timeframe. I was hooked. Here is a pic of that very first 6mm unit. Dont laugh they are very small and were my first. There is a knack to painting small scales (which I hadn't got my head around when I did these) and I will certainly blog more on that later :)

A french infantry unit with deployed skirmishers on a GW 50mm monster base. For Grand Armee.

Thats as far as I got with the French - as soon as I had done them I knew what must be done. A new project just for me - no one else to put me off. Two armies in the grand scale so that I could fight the great battles of the American Civil War. Where I started and what I am up to in a coming post :)

Friday, January 04, 2008

An inauspicious start....

Every blog needs a beginning. A first post as it were. So here is mine. Its not very good but then again it is the first. Ta da.

Here is one of the last Games Workshop miniatures I painted (a 28mm Halberdier from their Empire range). Probably from about October 2007 which is just about when the rot really set in on my career in the "Games Workshop Hobby" [TM probably :( ]. I have been a wargamer for around 18 years (starting as I did around the age of 10) and the vast majority of that, apart from various sojourns from the hobby entirely, has been within the fold of the GW series of rules. I have found myself over the last few years becoming increasingly disollusioned with the whole thing though and for various reasons I have decided recently that GW is no longer for me. Anyhow I shall blog more on that a little later.
For now please enjoy a picture of a small plastic man's derriere.