Sunday, 6 February 2011

The portable wargame: Comparing the current version with DBA … and getting some interesting ideas as a result!

Thinking about the design process I have been through to get my portable wargame to its present state, I began to compare certain aspects of the current version – particularly the movement rates, weapons ranges, and combat resolution systems – with those in DBA to see if there was anything that I could learn from the comparison. The reason why I chose DBA is that, as with my portable wargame, DBA uses a square playing area and it was possible to equate each grid square on the chessboard to an area of 300 paces by 300 paces on the DBA playing area.

The first comparison I made was the movement rates used in both sets of rules. It is my understanding that in DBA, Units in ‘Good Going’ move at the following rates each turn:
  • Spears, Pikes, Blades, Bows, Warbands, Hordes, Artillery, and War Wagons: 200 paces (or the equivalent of just under one chessboard grid square)
  • Elephants, Knights, Heavy Chariots, Auxilia, and Psiloi: 300 paces (or the equivalent of one chessboard grid square)
  • Cavalry, Light Chariots, Scythed Chariots, and Camelry: 400 paces (or the equivalent of just over one chessboard grid square)
  • Light Horse and Light Camelry: 500 paces (or the equivalent of just under two chessboard grid squares)
These can be compared with the movement rates for Units in the rules I am currently using with my portable wargame:
  • Field Artillery Units are able to move one grid square each turn (or 300 paces)
  • Infantry, Machine Guns, and Light Field Artillery Units are able to move two grid squares each turn (or 600 paces)
  • Cavalry and Command Units are able to move three grid squares each turn (or 900 paces)
This comparison would seem to indicate that the movement rates I am currently using are somewhat faster than those used in DBA. I realise that the comparison is flawed because I am not comparing like with like … but it does encourage one to pose some interesting questions. Should I reduce the movement rates I am currently using? If I do reduce the movement rates, should I allow diagonal movement as well as orthogonal movement?

I must admit that I had been considering making similar changes before I made the comparison with DBA. They would simplify the rules somewhat and would also bring the rules into line with those Richard Brooks wrote for SOLFERINO IN THIRTY MINUTES, which were also originally designed to be used with an eight squares by eight squares chessboard. However, making such changes would also slow the whole game down, and I will have to deliberate long and hard before I make such a decision.

I then went on to look at the weapons ranges used in both sets of rules. If one uses the ‘equate each grid square on the chessboard to an area of 300 paces by 300 paces on the DBA playing area’ ratio outlined above, the weapon ranges used in DBA are:
  • Bows: 200 paces (or the equivalent of just under one chessboard grid square)
  • Artillery: 500 paces (or the equivalent of just under two chessboard grid squares)
The weapon ranges I am currently using in the rules for my portable wargame are:
  • Infantry (Close Combat Weapons): one grid square (or 300 paces)
  • Infantry (Firearms): two grid squares (or 600 paces)
  • Machine Guns: three grid squares (or 900 paces)
  • Light Field Artillery: four grid squares (or 1200 paces)
  • Field Artillery: six grid squares (or 1800 paces)
  • Fortress/Siege Artillery: ten grid squares (or 3000 paces)
These seem quite reasonable when compared to the movement distances currently used and the long ranges of more modern weapons, and do mean that whatever its position on the chessboard, no Unit – even a Fortress/Siege Artillery Unit – can fire at every grid square on the chessboard.

I then examined the ways in which combat is resolved in both sets of rules, and found that they use very different methods. This is probably due to the fact that in the rules I use with my portable wargame, one method is used for Artillery fire, another method is used for Firearms and Machine Gun fire, and a third method is used for Close Combat. In DBA, one system is used to resolve all forms of combat. Such a disparity in the methods used to resolve combat makes any meaningful comparison very difficult, but this is hardly surprising when one takes into account the very different historical periods both sets of rules cover.

One aspect of the DBA rules that has no equivalent in the rules that I use with my portable wargame are the ones relating to the deployment of Units at the start of a battle. In DBA these are illustrated by the following diagram:

This can very easily be translated to the chessboard as follows:

I think that this has possibilities for ‘one off’ battles fought using my portable wargame, but would not be suitable for battles fought as part of a mini-campaign/campaign in an afternoon.

So what have I gained from making these comparisons?

Firstly, that it is possible to design a wargame that will work within a restricted space. DBA and HOTT showed the way, and I have followed … although it is worth noting that as far as I can see, Joseph Morschauser was far ahead of everyone else in showing that this was possible when he wrote his RULES FOR A ROSTER SYSTEM ANCIENT WARGAME and GRIDDED WARGAMES articles back in 1967.

Secondly, it has given me pause for thought regarding the movement rates I am currently using … and this will be occupying my thoughts over the next day or two. Should I change them or should I leave them as they are? Perhaps a short play-test might be in order to resolve the matter.

Thirdly, laying down some rules for deploying Units at the beginning of a ‘one off’ battle might be a useful adjunct to the existing rules, especially as it would be so easy to adapt the ones already used in DBA. Again, this gives me some more food for thought.


  1. An interesting comparison.

    I presume you would shorten ranges if shortening movement in order to preserve to relationship between them? or would you alter that dynamic? (allowing more shots st an enemy as they approach)

    It seems to me that having shorter moves increases the number of decision pts for players and increases the ability to react to enemy plans as they develop. Whether that is good or bad is of course largely a matter of preference.

    One additional comparison with DBA came to mind though. It has an intermediate combat resolution between no effect and destruction. Something it shares with the Battlecry system if I have understood that right (I don't have a copy myself).

  2. Ross Mac,

    The comparison was an interesting exercise. It gave me a yardstick by which to examine my own design as well as generating some thoughts on how that design could be improved.

    At present I have no intention of changing the weapon ranges if and when I do reduce the movement rates. As you say, this would give the each side the ability to use their firearms before coming into Close Combat range, which would be more realistic for a mid/late nineteenth century setting.

    Shortening the movement rates would mean that the battles will probably last longer and - as you say - would give players more time to react to what their opponents are doing. This is no bad thing, and I am increasingly of the opinion that this needs play-testing.

    At present I have no intention of changing the combat resolution systems I am using so that step changes are possible between 'no effect' and 'destruction', but it is something that I am considering for a larger-scale, operational version of the rules that will use a much larger grid. This is still very much at the 'thinking about it' stage of development, but would seem to be a natural 'next step' from the work I have done on the portable wargame and previous developments of Morschauser's rules that I have written.

    Thank you very much for your feedback; I value it very highly.

    All the best,


  3. Making moves shorter ought to make the board feel bigger. Just a thought.

  4. Just some thoughts about how to generate terrain for your portable wargame:
    Write the name of a piece of terrain, a forest for example, on a piece of paper; do this for each piece of terrain (the number of pieces of terrain being determined by the number of squares). (You can tailor the list of terrain to suit the battlefield, a desert for example.)
    Shuffle the pieces of paper then take off the topmost piece of paper in the pile; place the piece of terrain, which is written on the piece of paper, in the first square then do the same for the rest of the squares.

  5. Mike,

    A good point ... and one that makes even more sense when you think about the ratio between number of squares on Joseph Morschauser's original gridded wargame board (144) and the number of squares on a chessboard (64) i.e. a ratio of 2.25:1. It would make sense, therefore to reduce all movement rates by approximately the same ratio.

    All the best,


  6. Paul,

    A nice, simple, and very workable idea. Thank you for sharing it with me (and the other blog readers).

    All the best,