Saturday, 10 May 2014

Bit of a ruminate.

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There’s blog called ‘Polemarch’ (I think I've mentioned it before) whose author regularly poses some penetrating observations and questions about aspects of our hobby. It’s an excellent read (so go and do so), but it does make you think, so be careful. He’s posed a good one today (usually does), but, rather than comment on his blog and take up valuable space, I’ve done so here.

I think there’s a difference between what a wargamer expects his armies/rules to achieve and what is historical fact (or as near to it as we can get). Unless we’re going to go scenario specific then we’re bound to accept a certain amount of generalisation if only for sanity’s sake.

In the great days when ignorance was bliss, ACW rules were essentially Napoleonic rules with longer weapon ranges and so called Ancients covered just about anything up to the horse and musket era. The hobby thrived, obviously, but the emphasis was on game rather than simulation. Now we’ve moved well into the simulation era (and maybe out the other side in some cases), and most (?) gamers expect their rules to reflect the period they’re supposed to represent. That’s not unreasonable, but two things can happen: the gamer takes the rules as gospel (oh God, another convert!) or rejects them because they don’t conform to his/her own impressions of the period. I maybe ought to say imaginings of the period because, although we’re pretty much the same animal as Alexander’s or Napoleon’s soldiers and share the same nature, we’ve certainly been nurtured differently – food, lifestyle, education etc. So, we can only really have a reasonable grasp of the environment of a campaign or battle rather than an intimate knowledge based on experience. This includes re-enactors who spend short periods ‘in character’ and then retreat to their double-glazed, centrally heated homes with all mod cons. 
Even reading first hand accounts is fraught with pitfalls. When I write my memoirs of my experiences as a Cold War Warrior, you can bet your granny’s false teeth they’ll be sanitised and I’ll be a thoroughly good chap. Nevertheless, for about 99.9% of wargame periods we have to rely on the written word for historical information (and that includes translations of varying accuracy for most of us) with all its bias and axe grinding - Hofschroer seems driven to reduce the British involvement in the 1815 campaign to simply providing the oranges at half time.

I think the biggest challenge is bringing character to a period, beyond the simply physical capabilities of weapon etc. (though you still have to be very careful with this), by introducing the morale aspects, be they national characteristics or the abilities of commanders. Just to use Napoleonics as an example, I’ve banged on about Austerlitz a couple of times in the past, so why break with tradition? Normally (if there is such a thing as normal in this period) Russian troops are strong in defence and hard to defeat and Austrians are . . . well, just Austrians: not particularly inspiring, even though they did beat Napoleon – O.K. once. However, here’s a quote from Robert Goetz’s “1805:Austerlitz” (pp207-208):

“ . . . the fighting on the Pratzen Heights demonstrated the mismatch between the armies, pitting some of the weakest battalions of the allied armies against some of the best of the French Army. Despite this, allies held the French back for a surprisingly long time, demonstrating a toughness and resilience for which they rarely receive credit. . . . . Finally the Austrians of Jurczik and Rottermund performed better than could be expected of a force that was half composed of raw conscripts”

Couple of caveats. The Russians broke, but the battalions involved had acted as rear guard for part of the allied armies for the previous several days and began the battle tired and under strength. The Austrians retreated in reasonable order, but were fighting under the nose of the Tsar and his staff so had an added incentive.

Although this cuts across most of the accepted Napoleonic standards, it can fairly easily be modelled in a set of rules, but would they become so cumbersome as to be unusable if every eventuality were to be covered?

So, ignoring the influence of the cinema (God forbid), armed with huge amounts of information of often questionable quality, some zealot will eventually want to translate this into a set of rules. The problem here is that rule writers are not necessarily the best historians and vice versa. I read lots about a period and have never gamed a period I wasn’t interested in historically. However, I’ve always felt that, apart from (very) occasional bursts of brilliance, my home-grown rules are a bit ‘clunky’ and lack polish. Conversely, I know a luminary of the wargaming fraternity who, although not the brightest star in the academic firmament, can’t half write a good rule or two. That’s not to say I’m an historian, but you get the drift.

The solution for me is to find a set of rules that satisfy my ‘near enough’ criteria and get on with it. If I find something unbearable, I can give the rules a tweak.

For those who’ve read too much and have a headache, here’s a picture of a Dixon ACW figure with a Redoubt head. I like much of the Dixon range, but I’ve always found their heads a bit of a challenge aesthetically. This one was too good to waste, despite the hand cannon:

13 comments:

  1. Fine post, Gary! Polemarch's blog is always a great read, isn't it. I think you've got the balance just right - reading around the subject, taking your time, aiming for the rule set which represents what you think is likely to have happened (including all attendant prejudices, historical and cultural impediments and so on), and then tweaking the rules if you think the results are slightly "out". Sounds like a recipe for a really great approach to gaming. Kind of what I do, anyways!

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    1. Sticking to Napoleonics, I think the most accurate set is 'Valmy to Waterloo', but I don't think I'll live long enough to get more than a couple of games in. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading through them as I think they're pretty much bob on. I really like 'Shako' and I've been fiddling with them for years, adding bits and then ditching them. I'll never finish so my fall back rules are TFL's 'Le Feu Sacre' (with minor tweaks such as unit size and the use of skirmishers), not because they're the ultimate Napoleonic rules, but because they're playable and give what I think is a reasonably accurate representation of the period.
      It's not a flawless approach, but it works for me.

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  2. For me, having fun is primary, the correct level of historical outcomes is secondary. If one side had 100 12pdr guns and the other had only 10 6pdrs at a battle, then what is the point of playing if infantry and cavalry strengths are equal?

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  3. That would only arise if you were refighting an actual engagement surely? I can't see that one being particularly interesting. However, the 'fun' element is very subjective. V2W has many supporters, but I wouldn't want to play a full game of it. LFS is about the right balance for me, but I know others don't like it at all. It's horses for courses

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    1. Ah, but how can one place historical accuracy of result as the optimal, but then play fictional battles that never occurred? Is that not serving cross purposes? I have not played LFS, but I have seen the YouTube videos and, for me, it looks like either a nice skirmish level game, or one where the action represents a small part of a larger battle. In either case, it appears to work well.

      I happen to like Grand Armee for big battles, which few seem to be on my side about, but they work, give a worthy result, and don't require endless hours to play to a conclusion. By the same token, I am looking at Republic to Empire for future Napoleonic gaming with lot of figures on the table. I own Black Powder, but am not all that happy with "Warmaster Napolonics".

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    2. No, I meant you can play anything you like, but some historical scenarios would be just an academic exercise like, say the Siege of Richmond or the Battle of the Crater or maybe Rossbach.

      LFS is attractive because it does cut out a lot of the fiddly bits of close range fighting. It appears to have a lot in common with Rockerfeller's 'Champ de Bataille' of (I think the late 90's/early 'noughties'.

      'Grand Armee' is good and the fast play version isn't shabby either. I think the issue is to get a manageable set of rules to fit the scale of game you prefer. Knowledge of the rules helps a hell of a lot to speed things up. I've seen really large engagements fought with 'General de Brigade' wqhich I think are very labour intensive rules; really 1980's style. However, expert player whiz through a game.

      I think the strength of 'Black Powder' as a rule set is that it actually isn't so much a set of rules as a rules 'kit which can be adapted and expanded to suit the player's tastes. You can easily adapt them to any horse & musket war and make them as detailed as you want. On the down side, they can be a bit of a trap for inexperienced players who might find the adaptation part a bit of a bind/challenge and I think the supplements to date have been over priced and a bit of a wash out. 'Pike and Shotte' is pretty poor, I think.

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    3. For me, the adaptation of the Warmaster mechanic was just one step too far, with it now applying to nearly all periods of history, science fiction, and fantasy, etc. Will that prevent me from eventually playing it? No, I am purposely building my Longstreet armies so they can be used with BP, also. In a real sense, I compare BP with a DBA framework superimposed with the Warmaster combat mechanics.

      I am toying with the idea of giving Johnny Reb a go, but in 3mm as I can paint entire armies in one sitting. :)

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  4. I think you sum it up perfectly Gary, I love my Napoleonics, and have tried just about every rule set there is to get it bob on for the period but everything needs tweaks in the end as our own judgement and interpretations get involved. As you know recently we decided the game was the most important element and sacrificed some of the fine details to actually finish a game we did this using the Black powder rules yes we have a few tweaks, they are encouraged but now we have games that are good fun and for us that has become the most important aspect.

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  5. I like BP - very versatile. Thinking of using them for my 28mm ACW. Still F&F for the 15mm though.

    ACW in 15mm and 28mm? I ought to be sectioned!

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    1. Have you looked at Longstreet for ACW? It works in whatever scale and base sized, but I picked it up when it came out and am now collecting armies for it. I have played a LOT of F&F and have never been satisfied, tbh.

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  6. God how I hate Blogger at times!

    Yes, I know what you mean about F&F, it can cause some 'puzzlement'. I've recently got a copy of 'Fire Bell in the Night' which has some good elements that can be blended with F&F. This may be the saviour.

    I did think about Longstreet, but, other than the card element, I didn't think I'd be any further on. Overal I still like F&F - maybe for sentimental reasons ;O)

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    1. My club has played F&F exclusively, or nearly so, since they were first released, when we do ACW games. Some have tried Regimental F&F, but have since gone back to the original. For me, the operating of brigades as though they were regiments is silly, and a cop out from a design standpoint. But, I have always been a bit harsh on those rules, so don't mind me.

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