The Amsterdam Acid Test for Wargames, part II: One Step Beyond

Madness! But One Step Beyond!

Yesterday I played a game of Tercios. 30YW. We earlier tried Impetus Baroque together and I’m trying to master Maurice, a Sam Mustafa wargame. We have some more rulebooks at home. My opponent Eltjo and I scoffed that we wargamers are looking for the Holy Grail in wargaming. We’re on a neverending quest to find that ultimate quickplay ruleset that is historically correct and fun and an endless source for epic battling.

As blogged earlier, I’d like to have a toolbox for rule comparisons. Yesterday a fellow gamer asked me what I considered the ‘best’ wargame. There is no ‘best’ wargame. Some games are more social and perfect if you want a social game. Some are more historical and perfect if you want history. Others are very tactical and demand planning, skill, tactics. I like Risk. I like chess. I like Yahtzee. I like Go. Most of all, I like to have fun. It’s the same with my wargames. Black Powder is great for big, friendly mulitplayer battles. DBA is excellent for quick, small, chesslike games. Or tournaments. I can without problems play small battles with BP and big mulitplayer battles with DBA, but scope, atmosphere, rule mechanisms etc differ.

Can I compare wargame rulesets however in a more methodical and analytical way, without emotions, enthusiasm, fashion or prejudice steering me in wrong directions? That still remains my question. I think I made one step beyond.

A Topic List

Mr Nikolas Lloyd, from the blog ‘Lloydian Wargaming‘, player in Newcastle, Tyneside Wargames Club, blogged about wargame rules design. Read his full essay here. He designs his own rules. His list of ‘aspects of a good ruleset’ is in fact a good topic list for a criteria-based review. His topics:

  • Simplicity: “It should be possible to summarise the key rules on one side of one sheet of A4. (…)
  • Decisionmaking: “Wargames are not much fun if they involve decisions which are too easy or too rare. (…) To continue to be interesting, the game should require the player to make decisions, and these should be difficult ones. This way, if he wins, he will feel more satisfaction, since he will know that his decisions were good. If he loses, he won’t be blaming bad rules or bad luck. A defeat can be satisfying if it is clear that the winner won because of his skill.”
  • Historical tactics: “Players should be encouraged by the rules to use historical tactics, but not forced to. To deviate from historical tactics should seldom (but occasionally) end up with advantageous consequences. If players are forced to act exactly the way the generals of the period did, then all originality, unpredictability, and therefore fun, is stifled.”
  • Luck: “Luck will always play a role. Even in chess, a player may be lucky. Luck should not dominate, however. (…) A game design can be ruined by too many die rolls and too few.”
  • Relativity: “Many games take into account the effectiveness of units in absolute rather than relative terms. They say that very deadly units will be very effective, and weak units will not. This can lead to ludicrous results, even though it may at first seem reasonable. I have played a few games where if two deadly units clash, they both deal horrendous damage to each other very rapidly. Almost always, it is the relative deadliness of units which matters. Two powerful units meeting should not quickly destroy each other, and a mediocre unit should destroy a very weak one rapidly.”
  • Atmosphere: “The game should be different in kind from other games. Siege games, naval games, air battle games, WW2 games, ancients games, etc. should all use different mechanisms designed to capture the atmosphere of the confrontation. Too many games are too similar”.
  • Mastery: “It should be possible to learn the fundamentals in one game, but the game should take a long time to master.”
  • Tweaks: “Ideally, the game should be tweakable.”
  • Abstraction: “Simulation should be as direct as possible (…) I hit you, you try to parry, if you fail I damage you, but your armour lessens the damage. In D&D, nobody can even agree on what “hit points” actually represent.”
  • Known questions: “The players should be clear about what question is being asked when some game mechanism is enacted (…) A game designer should make it clear what questions are being asked. This will make the game so much easier for players to understand what they are doing, and the possible consequences of tweaks they might think to make.”
  • Clarity: “Many writers of wargames rules get too clever and try to show off with complicated language,(…) Also, many fail to give examples of play which properly illustrate how the game works. Writing clear rules is surprisingly difficult”.
  • Comprehensiveness: “A good system will have a mechanism or two which can be applied in a hundred different situations. For example, in some games, troops have a quality rating, and a test using that rating which can be used to see if they succeed in a given task. If a scenario requires some men to race to build a bridge across a river before the enemy does the same, and the rules say nothing about bridge building races, then the quality of the troops attempting the task can be compared and an answer reached.”
  • Speed: “A wargame must move reasonably quickly. In a real battle, decisions have to be made quickly. (…) A more complicated set of rules would have ways of combining the efforts of many troops, and of requiring some to run away.”
  • Scenarios: “The best sets of rules have some mechanism for creating scenarios (…) While of course I welcome supplements for games which add scenarios and the like, it is nevertheless a frustration of the hobby that with some systems, one has to buy several books before one can play the full game.”
  • I’m not sure yet if I agree with all his (many) topics, but at least his list is a good skeleton list for a more topical review of wargames. More comparative instead of “This is a battle report from system X and I liked it/didn’t like it at all”.

The Mons Graupius Example: Same Old Story, Different Books

I earlier found Shaun Travers blog who playtested 10 Ancient systems with the Callinicum scenario.

Today I found a ‘Mons Graupius’ comparison. Blogger JWH, who writes the ‘Heretical Gaming’ blog played the same battle (Mons Graupius, 83 AD, the Scottish last stand in the northeast of Scotland) three times with three different rulesets: Polemos, Neil Thomas Ancient & Medieval Wargaming, and DBA 3.0. He mentions the pro’s and contra’s, the virtues and vices of every system, like (about Polemos for example):
[Pro] “There is an army-level morale system with more alternatives than okay-defeated. The writing style is easier to understand than DBA
[Contra] “The extra subtleties in terms of command come at a cost in playing speed and ease of play. The subtleties in the combat system come at a similar cost, having a two-stage combat system and more than twice the number of factors of the other rules sets”

The combination of a topical review and a standardized battle with a pro/contra list should have added value. The test battle should be varied, not all infantry, or all cavalry, and with standardized situations, like “mediocre troops defending difficult terrain”, “flank attacks”, “elite vs poor troops”, “heavy steamroller cavalry vs prepared infantry” or “fighting while outnumbered”. Not that not the whole scenario should be historical or even ‘realistic’ (if you can say such of playing with little toy soldiers) but it should have some basic situations that in most wargames occur.

As said earlier, the battle scenario should be specific or a specific age. You can play Mons Graupius with different Ancient rulesets, but WW2 gaming is different and needs a different test battle scenario. I must analyze to which extent grand scale rules can be compared with smaller scale wargames.

Skirmish games are a different story, of course. I can’t compare Sharp Practice, a Napoleonic skirmish game, with Black Powder. But is it possible to compare Blücher, a Napoleonic corps-orientated game, grand tactical, quite generic regimental stats, with Black Powder, Napoleonic tactical battlefield wargame, with specific rules/sub rules per batallion? Can I play the same scenario with Blücher and Black Powder and make a meaningful comparison? Or, for Renaissance, play the same scenario with DBR and with Pike & Shotte? We’ll see.

Future Playtests

  • For Renaissance, I bought (or can borrow):
  • Maurice
  • For King, Parliament & Country
  • Field of Glory Renaissance
  • DBR
  • Impetus Baroque
  • Tercios
  • Pike & Shotte
  • The Kingdom Is Ours

With some friends, I can playtest these rules and try standardization.

Yes, I know it’s utter nonsense. Toy soldiers, you say? I’m mad. But sorry, I’m a lawyer by profession. We lawyers are always looking for the Holy Grail in law. Maybe that’s why I’m carried away so much by ‘the ultimate rule comparison’. If I’m not busy with ‘the most recent landmark case in EU competition law’ (my newest hobby) I compare and analyze wargame rules to discover the mechanics and hidden assumptions. One step beyond madness, it is.

Life is futile, but I try to find the art in it


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