Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Portable Wargame

My copy of Bob Cordery’s “The Portable Wargame”  arrived some time ago.  I’ve been following Bob’s progress with this for a while now and it’s been interesting.  Bob clearly thinks very carefully about how he designs game mechanics and what ought to go in and to an extent, which is almost more important, what should be left out.  The result has been an elegant beast indeed.

First impressions? A very nice clean piece of book design reminiscent of Charles Grant's "Battle".  Clear text with decent margins so that the text has room to breathe on the page and is sharp and easy to read.  It is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs which are surprisingly crisp for a print on demand publisher, I was very impressed with that.    My copy is a small hardback about A5 in size.  The rules look straight forward and the worked examples are clear.  I haven't spotted any typos in my read through.  This may sound like a strange point to harp on, but for a print on demand book I was very impressed with the print quality.  I got the hardback and the quality of the binding is very good indeed.

The book itself is broken into a couple of different sections;  a history of gridded wargames, an explanation of the various pros and cons of using squares versus hexes, a potted history of the development of the Portable Wargame and two sets of rules, one set for the late 19th century and a set covering from roughly the Great War to the Korean War. .

It should be borne in mind that the rules for both periods are interchangeable.  There is a great deal of commonality between the two and that it will be in the details (like handling tanks,etc) that the differences become apparent.  This approach should be familiar to players of Commands & Colours or the Black Powder stable of games, where games share mechanics across periods.

These are simple rules, meant to be played on a gridded play surface that isn’t huge.  The whole project began when Bob found an old chessboard and began to think what sort of wargames he could play using it as a small handy play surface. Consequently, the rules are simple and quite abstract. You won’t find finely grained distinctions between Bren guns and Spandau’s here, but you will find horse, foot and guns (or artillery, infantry and armour in the Second World War variant) with each occupying its own niche in the battle plan.  The result is quite like the sort of broad strokes approach taken in the 1956 British Army war game and a couple of professional wargames rules I’ve read.

Curiously enough, probably one of the best sections of the book is a two page spread on the author’s “principles of wargaming”.  It is an absolutely fantastic resource for anybody with an interest in designing wargames because it brings a great deal of clarity of thought to the process. The author is someone who has thought deeply about his subject and I think it repays study. Bob Cordery is a retired teacher and I think his background in education shines through, because he tackles not only how rules are constructed, but also how they are used.

The Portable Wargame is exactly that, aimed at a small playing area (a chessboard would be perfect - the rules are drafted with the expectation of an eight by eight playing field) and small forces. Depending on what scale you use, twenty to thirty figures is a perfectly respectable army. This means that you can raise a number of forces for not much more than the price of a pint. In fact, the author discusses a number of different ways of representing units using multi-based figures, single figures and outlines some options with regard to casualty markers and roster systems.

The dice are all six siders, so realistically no special equipment is needed for this game, no templates or special dice. Just some figures, a board and a few small pieces of terrain are all that is required.  The turn sequence is equally simple, fire artillery (this is simultaneous), then dice for initiative, the acting player then moves and shoots and then play returns to his opponent.  The result is a stripped down, elegant game that cracks along at a swift pace.  There is a card activation mechanic which can be used by players wishing to play solo.

Also included in the rules are two worked examples of games, one set in the Sudan in 1883 pitting Egyptians against Mahdists and another on the Eastern Front in 1943. Each game is completely described, turn by turn, so that you can see the rules in action.  Briefings and orders of battle are included for both battles so that you can replay them at your leisure.  If you need a few more scenarios, you could do a lot worse than check out Bob’s blog at where he has described a couple in detail.

In conclusion, these are simple rules that cover a lot of ground. They will repay attention to basic tactical principles (economy of force, maintenance of aim, concentration of fighting power, etc) and give a good game in an hour or so on a small board, which was exactly what they were intended to do.

A worthy addition to the canon.

Addendum: It should be noted, in the interests of full disclosure, that Bob Cordery, the author of these rules, is a friend of mine.