Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rules and the eclipse of Generalship

Not now Agatha, you don't have the time and I don't have the energy...

Note: As you can probably gather, this was written some time ago.  I am quite a foolish fellow, but on occasion I listen to my mother who was of the opinion that if you can't say anything nice, once shouldn't say anything at all. 

Reflecting on this after the lapse of time, I think it stands up. If Mr Brown has fallen into the modern fault of criticising a cat because he is not a dog, I hope I at least have not fallen into the equally modern fault incontinently spilling words on the page without giving the matter some thought.

I got my latest issue of Battlegames in the post the other day and being a busy fellow I didn't get around to it immediately, but when I did it was a humdinger - readers may imagine if they will, Kinch at his breakfast kippers, the morning pipe clenched between his teeth, while Mrs Kinch berates the cat and pours the first cup of the day. The eyes flicker across the page of Battlegames and then at once the features redden, the neck thickens, the monocle pops from the eye socket at the sheer gumption of the man. Mrs Kinch silently damns Henry Hyde and prepares to weather another domestic tantrum.

But I digress...

There's a lengthy article in the current issue of Battlegames, "Rules and the eclipse of generalship - Are modern rule sets denying us the ability to actually command?" by a chap by the name of David C R Brown. Mr Brown is of the opinion that modern rulesets, specifically those that use command pips, the Warmaster system or card activation systems, deny players the chance to command because they interpose a variety of abstractions between the player and his troops. David Brown has written a lengthy and quite thoughtful article on the subject, he makes his points cogently - though I disagree with many, if not all of his conclusions and assumptions, I must commend him on writing an article that made me think.

The main points of the article were as follows,

1. Wargames must have accurate and credible command & control.

- Modern rulesets use abstractions such as cards, command pips, etc to regulate the process of command. These prevent the player from having the proper control of his troops.

2. Wargames must have accurate and credible combat mechanisms

- Modern rulesets use simplified combat systems that allow units to fight tirelessly.

3. Wargames must have accurate and credible terrain

- Modern rulesets ignore the micro-terrain features that are key to the conduct of operations.

These are all very fine as far as they go and I could argue the merits of each of these points for a many an hour; however I think that they are all based on a fundamental assumption - that such goals are achieveable without compromise in the toy soldier game.

We as wargamers enjoy collecting and playing with toy soldiers, but in many ways they dictate the nature of the games we play. We rarely play double blind games, the sort of game that Von Reissvitz advocated because then we wouldn't see half the lovely toy soldiers we've painted. We fudge ground and figure scale in order to play with toy soldiers that we like the look and feel of and so on. The toy soldier game from the point of view of realism is hopelessly compromised right from the very start.

That is not to say that something cannot be learned from it, particularly in relation to maintenance of aim, economy of force and so on, but these are also lessons that could be picked up in other walks of life. I know in the latter half of his wargaming career Paddy Griffith became completely disillusioned with the toy soldier game because it's inability to deal meaningfully with issues of logistics, limited information and communications. A significant portion of our correspondence was devoted to him telling me what a fathead I was on the toy soldier question.

Mr Brown's thesis is that modern rulesets have become obsessed with speed to the detriment of accuracy as expressed in his three points above. I think he may be right, but I believe that those points embody goals that are unachievable. I would argue further, but I'm beginning to feel that I am erecting a straw man argument and that would be unfair. I would also be arguing from my particular experience to Mr Brown general statements, which is an injustice to a well written article.

In brief, I would suggest that the nature of the model and the medium (moving toy soldiers across a model battlefield) make any attempt to achieve what Mr Brown hopes to almost impossible. I would also argue that achieving any of those goals would render the result extremely poor entertainment and of little use as a pass time.

Lastly and most importantly, I would say that command, even as experienced by the most callow subaltern, is vastly different from that felt by the wargamer, who plays for no stake, who submits himself to no discipline and does his campaigning indoors with a glass close to hand and that to expect anything else to is be unjust to a very rewarding hobby.


  1. In other words 'It's a game'

  2. Spot on, Officer Kinch! C'est un jeu du petits soldats, pas de guerre! Toys, not in any way, and Thank God for that, the real thing.

  3. Current? Issue 26, Ah yes current at the time of writing. Interestingly I just realized that the Dave Brown in question is probably not David Brown of General de Brigade.

    Enough waffling. As someone who once used to be a big proponent of such C&C mechanisms and is not any longer, I agree roughly with what he says. I think collectively that we have gotten a bit confused between carts and horses. The types of mechanisms that he describes are not necessarily bad in and of themselves but they tend to get many wargamers approaching things from the wrong angle and getting confused as a result. If wargamers, study their forces and what is known of the enemy, then study the terrain and their strategic goals or mission and then decide on a plan and deploy and maneuver their units in accordance with that plan then there is nothing wrong with mechanisms that get in their way. If, however, as seems more common, people study their hand or roll their pips then start figuring what it will allow them to do, then that is backwards to any sort of general's thinking. Its a topic I've been trying to avoid thinking about lately, otherwise the temptation is always tpo chuck the rest and go back to playing Charge! as faster and more realistic than most other rules.


  4. Gentlemen,

    It is a game and I accept that. However, that does not mean that I do not think there are things to be learned from it, I just think command is not one of them.

  5. The traditional way of doing command in wargames involved lots of writing of orders and made it an administrative bore, or more likely, we never bothered with command at all!

    The invention of DBx pips, card activations et al, is an IMPROVEMENT over what was before (ie nowt) and whilst it may not simulate command at least it has been an attempt to address the issue. We use a random card activation system in our Corps level Napoleonic games, and boy does it make you think!

    I think the author may be missing the point. And does he suggest an alternative/improvement?

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  7. Traditionally wargaming never had command at all, or revolved around a tedious lot of writing orders, which was very cumbersome.

    The invention of DBx pips, activation cards, etc, was an IMPROVEMENT on what was before (ie, nowt) and whilst they may not simulate command at least it was a genuine attempt to address the issue.

    I think the author of the article is missing the point. Perhaps he isn't old enough to remember how it was in the 1980s and earlier. But does he propose some mechanism or system that works and is enjoyable?

    We use a random card activation system in our Napoleonic battles, it certainly does make you think about what you are doing and the order you are doing it in!


  8. One of the mental exercises I do before one of our Napoleonic campaign games is to identify the Key Terrain. It can be one single feature, control of which wins the battle, regardless of anything else.

    The first time I used the concept, it worked and we routed the French guard from a fortified wood on a hill. I judged that the apex of the corner of the fortified position was the key and I ordered my ally to mass columns at it and swing round it, whilst I distracted his other flank. It worked a treat, even though it wasn't obvious at first.

  9. I think that in all of these things the aim of the game when publishing anything (and Mr Siggins is a past master at this) is to get a reaction.. so point one to Mr Brown... :o)

    W.r.t his article - seen it's type many, many, many, many times before (ZZzzz...?)

    My own view its that we are a broad church - we have our own views on the degree of "realism" we want in our games (within the boundaries you define so well ie. it is when push comes to shove a game)... but like you I hope to learn from the exercise, while being able to rationalise in my own head the route we took to get to the end point... it has to make sense....