Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Is bigger always better?

I was once told by another wargamer that he thought that only battles fought with at least a thousand figures per side were 'proper' wargames. His basic premise was that unless there were loads of figures on a huge tabletop that was covered in 'realistic' scenery, your enjoyment of the experience was considerably reduced.

I am sure that there are a lot of wargamer out there who would agree with these sentiments ... but I am not one of them. In fact, over the years I seem to have found that I am gravitating towards fielding fewer figures on a tabletop that is limited by the size of my toy/wargames room. (My table can be extended to cover an area of 6' x 4' [180cm x 120cm] but is usually set up to be 4' x 3' [120cm x 90cm].)

Yesterday's battle is a case in point. A total of sixty three figures were fielded on the tabletop, alongside four cannon, a machine gun, two gunboats, two passenger steamers, and three sailing craft. The terrain fitted comfortably onto my 4' x 3' tabletop and was put together from Hexon II terrain hexed tiles, some Hexon II mountains, a Hexon II fortification, three wooden native huts (from a toy Safari set), a resin quay bought in a souvenir shop in Croatia, and a load of Sugarcraft palm trees that began life as cake decorations. The bases for the trees were made from Fimo™.

I thoroughly enjoyed fighting the battle and – judging from the comments I have received – quite a few people enjoyed reading the battle report I wrote about it.

I suppose that I could have fought the battle using more figures on a larger tabletop, and that I could have spent hours – if not days or weeks – preparing a far more detailed terrain over which to fight ... but would I have enjoyed it more? I doubt it ... just as I doubt that I would ever have got round to fighting that battle if it needed all that pre-battle preparation.

It is my personal opinion that what makes for an enjoyable wargame is the story that unfolds as the battle is fought. Donald Featherstone advocated what he called 'narrative battles' in a chapter in his book WAR GAME CAMPAIGNS, and this is what I try to achieve in my games. The scenario should make sense and should explain why the battle will take place. It should also lay down the constraints under which the protagonists are going to have to fight. Having set the scene, the battle then unfolds in an understandable context ... and it is here that I think a major part of the enjoyment comes for me. I feel as if I am creating history, even if it is a fictional version of history ... and that is not dependent upon huge model armies and super-realistic terrain; it is dependent upon my imagination.

26 comments:

Bluebear Jeff said...

Bob,

In the Theatre we call it "the willing suspension of disbelief".

Put another way, the audience knows that what they are watching is not real and is rehearsed; but what they willingly accept is that it is real and evolving for the first time as they watch it.

In wargaming, we know that everything is artificial but we can willingly relax and pretend that we are actual battlefield commanders and that the "fight" on the table top means something.

And, yes, I agree with you that many "small games" with few figures can be very very satisfying.


-- Jeff

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Bluebear Jeff,

I suppose that part of the problem is the differing levels of 'willing suspension of disbelief' that wargamers exhibit. Some show great willingness and others show very little.

All the best,

Bob

Dr Vesuvius said...

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Dr Vesuvius,

For some reason I do not understand, your comment comes up as blank when I use the 'Publish' option in Windows Live. This has happened once before and all I can surmise is that there is some intermittent fault somewhere.

I have tried to get it so that other readers can see what you wrote, but have so far failed. I have therefore copied and pasted your comments below:

Agreed. The "story" of the battle is what I wargame for.

That said, I can sort of understand your "thousand-figure wargamer". He's aiming for "willing suspension of disbelief" by way of visual similitude. He wants something that looks like a real battlefield with thousands of combatants so that he can get the feeling of being a battlefield commander.

On the other hand, your "small" games accept that the figures and terrain are only symbolic, giving you a top-down view more like what a battlefield commander would see on his map-table if he was plotting unit positions. So you too manage to get into the general's head, albeit via a different route.

As an aside, I would argue that 90% of the wargames you see played at clubs or tournaments falls right in the middle of those two approaches and fails to deliver the proper battle-like feel on all counts.


You make your point very cogently, and I suspect that your final paragraph is very true indeed! It is one reason that I have never been a long-term member of a wargames club and why I do so much of my wargaming solo.

All the best,

Bob

David Crook said...

Hi Bob,

This is very thought provoking stuff and I agree with pretty much everything you have said - especially in connection with the 'narrative battle'.

I honestly believe that any of our games will never be all things to all people (by which I mean some will enjoy the 1,000 figure epic whilst others are happy with DBA sized actions) but from my own perspective using a dozen or so bases of figures a side - or even blocks - is 100% acceptable. As long as the action being played out 'feels' like the history we have read or even our interpretation of what that history must have been like then it really does not matter what you use or in what quantity.

I plan to fight some of the larger actions of the Napoleonic Wars using blocks and will tailor the historical forces to the collection of blocks I have. It will feel right to me and although it will offend the 1,000 figure purist I see little real difference in what we are attempting to recreate.

Vive la Difference! I say - but I cannot ever see me painting such vast quantities of figures or even taking part in any such game going forward - simply because I have no interest in doing so.

Both ends of the 'numbers' spectrum are abstract representations of the armies we are using so it is 'horses for courses' in terms of choice.

That is my 2p worth.

All the best,

DC

Phil B said...

It really depends on the situation. It is nice to have a table full of figures but similarly we can have a good battle with a handful of bases (such as DBA for our ancients campaign).

I'm following the development of your rules with interest and it proves that you can have a fun, enjoyable (and tactical) battle with a handful of units each side.

As someone else said, its a suspension of disbelief anyway. No gaming table could allow the space and figures required to truly represent an historical battle (and the bases wouldn't have nice square lines either!). Once you accept that the bases you use (as detailed or not detailed as you chose) are merely tokens to denote the troops under your command then you can worry less about the numbers of troops and focus more on the strategic and tactical use of those troops to win your battle.

The Ferrymen said...

Bob,
Considering that most of us can't focus on the same project for long without getting distracted -- which can be easily verified by a scan of wargamer blogs -- setting up a battle that takes more than one session to complete is really tempting fate. I bailed on my last huge game after a week -- just lost interest. From now on I will scale it down to one day battles, and hopefully play more games.

Your Portable Wargame rules and Memoir '44 variants are a step in the right direction, IMO.
Regards,
John

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

David Crook,

Thanks for your comments.

I am convinced that it is our 'mind's eye' that we stimulate when we play wargames, and that we 'see' what we want to 'see'.

In reality it may be a wooden block or a base with some figures on it, but what we 'see' is a company or a battalion or whatever we want it to be. Our imaginations enable us to 'hear' the sound of the drums, the tramp of the feet, and the shouted orders ... or even to 'hear' the rumble of tank tracks and the sound of tank engines!

The 'narrative' is a vital part of the process of 'suspending disbelief', and I suspect it is one reason why imagi-nations are popular with quite a few wargamers.

All the best,

Bob

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Phil B,

Thanks for your kind comments about my efforts to design simple, fun, and enjoyable wargames.

You are right in what you say in your comments, and I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote in your last paragraph.

All the best,

Bob

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

The Ferrymen (John),

I have taken part in some very large wargames (I think the largest non-figure wargame was a Megagame with more than 100 participants and the largest figure game featured several thousand figures per side) and they can sometimes feel as if they were not worth all the effort that was put in to setting them up. In the case of wargames that have huge numbers of figures to move, I seemed to spend most of my time measuring and moving figures … and doing very little else!

The exception to this is the Megablitz games I have taken part in. Usually they have ten or more players per side and large numbers of figures and vehicles, but because each base represents a battalion (which means that whole divisions can be moved in a matter of a few minutes) and turns represent two hours, it is possible to fight battles that last three or four ‘game days’ in a day. The order and combat systems are also quite quick and simple to use and require very little in the way of record keeping. These rules were designed to put the players in the role of army or corps commanders, unlike many rules that purport to do this but actually require players to make very low-level tactical decisions.

My ‘Portable Wargame’ and ‘Memoir of …’ rules are designed to achieve a similar aim, namely to allow the players to concentrate on the important decisions a commander would make, and not to get bogged down in the minutiae that so often seems to ‘clog up’ other sets of wargame rules.

All the best,

Bob

Pat G said...

When camping and sometimes at home I play with these: paper troops cut out and stuck down on mdf bases. The table looks like this: flat wars

Nowhere near as nice as lead but they get the job done. For me at least, once I am into the battle, the markers, however beautiful, cease to matter.

Tim Gow said...

It is interesting that although we both keep buying toys, our understanding of what constitutes a wargames 'army' has been revised downwards. Clearly we have lots of 'armies' and hopefully more games. My own table is about 5x3' and I prefer to design and play games which fit this size. That said, it is nice to spread out once in a while....

Dr Vesuvius said...

Ah the legendary Blogger glitches strike again. Thanks for reposting my earlier comment.

Interesting what you said about Megablitz games. Once you break away from trying to recreate units on the table top and accept that a three figure stand is a semi-abstract representation of a company, suddenly there's nothing stopping you scaling that up to battalion, division or even corps level. I don't think it would take much to re-interpret the Portable or "Memoir of" Wargames to allow you to fight the whole Western Front on a coffee table.

Mike Whitaker said...

Bob,

Absolutely agree re narrative battles - that's part of what I was trying to get at with my review of War Game Campaigns, and also what I've been trying to achieve with the Operation: Squad scenarios I've designed (10-12 figures a side is hardly big!)

I'm not sure I agree re clubs: it surely depends on the club. Ours, sure, there's a bunch of folks playing systems like Flames Of War, where the 'scenarios' such as they are are very 'tournament' and lacking in... I guess, the word I'm after (wearing my other hat as a GM and writer) is 'plot'. But equally, some of us do try and do narrative battles with objectives and some sense of purpose beyond 'tournament points'.

There's a degree to which smaller scale actions are easier to script, if you're prepared to step a little further into the RPG elements of the hobby, too. 'Skirmish Wargaming"'s little collection of pre-scenario stories are wonderful examples of that, and indelibly printed on my brain even after 30 years. When it comes down to it, history as a whole, and wargaming as a subset of that, /is/ about understanding /why/ individual people do things...

On a related tack, I had someone complain because my Op; Squad scenarios didn't have victory conditions! Maybe I'm missing something, but when the briefing for the Allied side starts 'your mission is...', I can only assume they wanted hard and fast 'you must have N figures within X cm of Y" kind of things.

Ross Mac rmacfa@gmail.com said...

Most of what I might have written has already been written by others but led me add 2 observations.

1st. While I never thought that a cast of thousands was a necessity, it was my goal to participate in such a game. I have now done so several times and was glad I did but I'll also quite happy if I never do so again.

2nd My friend Ron & I have been playing some ancients using Basic Impetus and Table Top Teasers. Almost the first thing we did was convert the game to hexes, add some complexity and increase the sizes of the armies. The 2nd thing we did was to drop the added complexity and shrink the size of the armies thus increasing the enjoyment of the games as we begin to build a story around the series of games. (or series of defeats as we call them around here).
-Ross

Fitz-Badger said...

I'm another one who has gravitated toward smaller games. Not so much in terms of scale, I still like my 28mm figures, but in terms of number of figures, as well as table size, and time taken to play (and prep for a game).
Nothing against those who do enjoy big battalions and all. To each their own.
But for me, and apparently for quite a few others, either due to limited time or space or multiplicity of interests or just because they enjoy it, small can be beautiful, too. I'm glad to see people like you showing the rest of us what can be done in this regard!

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Pat G,

Amazing! I produced something similar (but nowhere near as nice to look at) a few years back so that I could fight small battles from the Chaco War whilst I was on holiday. The rules were a variant of HOTT.

As you say in your comment, once you start to fight your battle, the nature of the 'markers' ceases to be important.

All the best,

Bob

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Tim Gow,

How very true!

Is it a mark of maturity that we are both prepared to have lots of small armies so that we can fight lots of different battles ... or is it a sign of a magpie mind and an inability to concentrate our efforts on one thing?

As to fighting large battles ... I must admit that I am looking forward to my next Megablitz game, whenever that might be.

All the best,

Bob

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Dr Vesuvius,

I understand that this Blogger problem has affect other blogs far more than it has mine. In my case I was lucky enough to have a copy of your comment saved as an email, so 'cutting and pasting' it in was no problem for me ... especially as your comment was such a good one!

Being able to 'see' a unit on a tabletop as a company, battalion, brigade etc. is something that some wargamers have real problems with. I know of several wargamers who will use DBX/HOTT for all sorts of different historical periods but insist that you cannot fight 'modern' battles at anything higher than company or platoon level. They may call the company or platoon a 'regiment' ... but they still fight their battles at company or platoon level.

It would not be too difficult for my Portable or 'Memoir of' rules to be used to fight the whole Western Front on a coffee table ... and it is something that I might consider doing at some time in the future. Thanks for the idea!

All the best,

Bob

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Mike Whitaker,

For a long time I have found it very difficult to take part in a wargame where there was no ‘narrative’ or ‘plot’ (which is – by the way – an excellent word to use to explain the concept!). The ‘1,000 points per side’ battles that I used to see at wargames clubs were so artificial that they seemed pointless; even DBA contained simple campaign rules so that battle fought using the rules could be fitted into a simple framework of ‘why are we fighting this battle?’ and ‘who are we fighting?’

My experience of wargames clubs (other than Wargame Developments, which is not really a club as such) has been almost all bad … and unless I ever find one that is close by and has members who are not blinkered I suspect that I will remain a solo wargamer who sometimes fights battles against real opponents.

I must admit that I am not surprised that some people have complained that you did not include 'you must have N figures within X cm of Y’ victory conditions in your scenarios. We seem to live in a society where numerical values have to be placed on everything in order to assess one’s level of achievement (i.e. ‘get 5 or more GCSEs [including Maths and English] at Grade C or better’), and it is not surprising that some wargamers have succumbed to the ‘dark side’.

All the best,

Bob

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Ross Mac,

As usual you make some very excellent points ... and suggestions that are well worth following!

I particularly like the idea of linking games together so that a campaign ‘evolves’. This then creates a ‘narrative’ or ‘plot’ that both players have been party to and thus (to use a modern piece of jargon) ‘own’.

All the best,

Bob

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Fitz-Badger,

I must admit that as my eyes get older I have considered moving over to 28mm-scale figures (or even larger!) but would not go for larger units or table size.

I think that over the past twenty years people have generally had less time to spend on hobbies. This is due to range of influences, including the need to work longer hours, to commute further and/or longer in order to work, to spend time with one's family, to care for aging parents etc. Therefore smaller wargames that can be set up (and taken down) quickly and played within two to three hours have become much more attractive and – more importantly – are much more attainable than the larger wargames that are so often featured at shows and in the wargames magazines.

All I have done is to accept that these limitations are there and to try to work within them. If you and other people have found that helpful, that helps to make my efforts feel all the more worthwhile. Thanks you very much for your very kind comment.

All the best,

Bob

Mike Whitaker said...

Bob,

This article and comments have been ticking away in the back of my mind all week - I blame you (in the best possible way) for the resulting series of blog posts.

-- Mike

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Mike Whitaker,

I read your blog entries with great pleasure.

This is what blogs (and the Internet) should be about; exchanging ideas and information should be a 'force multiplier' where 1 + 1 = 3 (one idea added to another idea breeds a third idea).

All the best,

Bob

Bill said...

My sister once mentioned to my brother something about 1+1=2. His response (he is an astrophysicist) was that 1+1 can equal 3, for sufficiently large values of 1. We refused to let him explain that.
That being said, I have gotten very interested in your Portable Wargame. I am planning how to make 4" hexes from 1/4 inch mdf and will be buying 15mm colonial figures this weekend. When my wife asks, you will be blamed. :)

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

Bill,

I learned long ago not to ask physicists a question that sounded simple but which could have a complex answer!

Good luck with making you hexes. I cheated and bought Hexon II.

I would appreciate any feedback about the rules if and when you get around to using them.

All the best,

Bob