Category Archives: Rants and Commentary

Rules Preferences and Bias

I’ve been reading through a series of ‘reviews’ of war-games rules recently and I find it actually difficult to actually establish whether the review actually helps me or not.  If I regularly listen to a film critic I establish a relative position to that reviewer which enables me to understand how the film will be for me.  If they hate romcoms but I love them, then I can always take their negative reviews about the latest romcom with a pinch of salt.  Unfortunately for rules reviews I haven’t been able to find a person who reviews regularly and  consistently applies a coherent review.

This isn’t to say that there are not well written reviews or overviews out there, but that I’m not able to understand the personal prejudices that the reviewer is bringing to their review.  Since most people seem to only write a few reviews, and those are so infrequent it isn’t really possible to establish a comparative position.

Another gripe is that quite often reviews are book reviews as opposed to actual rule reviews.  I’m happy for a book review but I wish people would reserve actual judgement to write it as a rules review until they have a few games under their belts.  If there are rules issues or confusions please get resolution before putting the comments to print, as sometimes it’s just the reader who’s being a plank, and not the rules writer.

So what are my preferences and personal dislikes.  I might as well try and identify what I like and look for within a set of rules as well as what rules frustrate the hell out of me.

I like dice.  I’m quite happy to throw a lot of dice.  I like the tactile feel of them and enjoy the sound of dice being rolled.  I enjoy the variability which they bring to a game to remove the absolutes.  I’ve worked for much of my adult life in statistics and prefer throwing more dice than seeking to simmer it down to less dice thrown less often.

I like big units.  Even that I appreciate is subjective.  I would love to get as close to a 1:1 realisation as possible but have lots of units on the table as possible to achieve large scale actions.  I acknowledge that these are two arguments which are contrary to each other.  So I seek a compromise.  At present I’m happy to work between 1:10 and 1:20 figure ratios, so that I can get Napoleonic battalions to around 32 to 48 figures and possibly achieve a Divisional level game.  The alternative is to go down the DBA/Black Powder/Sword and Spear/Armarti non-defined unit sizes and stuff as many figures as I like to a base.  I do get disappointed by the 12 figure battalions in 1:50 Napoleonic games since the Old Guard just looks wrong.

I like some friction.  By this I want there to be turns when I can’t get to move everything in my army.  I’m always interested in seeing new mechanisms to attempt to introduce this into the game.  This can be introduced through a variety of means such as  in the form of cards (Commands and Colors, Maurice, Longstreet), or through dice activation (Republic to Empire, Chain of Command, Sword and Spear, Black Powder and its derivatives).  I find it odd that there is an expectation that everything in an army will move every turn, even if it is the most inept, poorly trained, poorly motivated force known to man (even more so if I’m the one leading it).

I like at least a passing nod to history in the mechanics and lists.  I’m happy with a certain level of abstraction to keep the game moving but when the game becomes more about playing the mechanics as opposed to using mechanics to drive a battle I think that we’ve left the war-game bit behind.  Unfortunately it’s often the odd micro rules which get abused which destroy any sympathy I have for the rules since I know that as soon as I step outside my warm comfortable zone of players I’ll meet some of those who play the rules and not the game and use every mechanism without any consideration or sympathy to the history which it is attempting to represent.  These players exist in every wargaming group I’ve had the pleasure to be a member of but their tendencies are better contained by some rule systems compared to others.

I like appendices and indexes.  After I’ve read the rules and started playing I want to be able to find the appropriate rules again without having to hunt through the book.  I consider this a complete waste of time and leads to lots of frustration by myself (and I’ve witnessed in others) especially when we’re trying to learn a new set of rules. Given todays technology creating indexes is so easy that there cannot be any excuse for not including them.  Their need is all the more critical in those poorly structured rulebooks where rules for given circumstances are distributed in a seemingly random manner throughout the book.

If I ever hear a games designer (posh name for rules writer) again telling me to Read the Bloody Rules (RTBR) after I’ve sent a question through to one of their forums when their rules don’t contain an index I’d like to stuff their rules somewhere indecent.  Rules writers and their publishers owe it to the players to try and make the learning of their rules as painless as possible.

I also like quick reference sheets for many of the same reasons.  For the facilitation they bring to a game why not include them except out of complacency? To suggest that players won’t need them can only suggest that the rules are so ridiculously simple that we probably don’t even need the rules to start with, or that we’re unlikely to ever play the game again after the first catastrophic attempt to play them.

I like good illustrated examples.  Where a rule is likely to cause confusion I like to see a clear and well illustrated example.  I’m happy to pay extra for the page count if it removes confusion and ambiguity.  If possible why not include the premise behind the rule to illustrate what it is attempting to achieve? This would help in those moments of ambiguity where the rule doesn’t cover the players can attempt to interpret the intent to resolve their confusion. (This can always be followed up with other players or the writer on the appropriate forums later).

I like good ‘after care’ support.  Some writers are fantastic at supporting their rules where as others seem to need the aid of an ouija board to communicate with them.  The Too Fat Lardies provide excellent support and quickly respond to questions posted on their forums.  Sam Mustafa has an excellent website providing support to all of his Honour rules in the form of extra lists, scenarios, calculators etc.  Great Escape are always quick to respond via their forums.  We are fortunate that where there is a gap enthusiastic players often step into the void but this is a dangerous path as it is entirely dependant upon the good endeavours which can quickly fall apart when those individuals head off to pursue other interests.



The Curious Dilemma of Wargamers – (A light hearted look at something few wargamers ever acknowledge)

There is an Elephant in the room

Or acknowledging that there is a problem

I expect that I am similar to most wargamers in that I have multiple projects on the go at any one time. Maybe like me you also have many projects which were never quite finished which are languishing in that purgatory zone of almost finished projects, there are also some which barely got started, and others which are your real passion and focus. However there are always more glittering projects out there to lure us in, and how many of us are really able to resist the temptation? Of course if we hold back and ignore those ‘voices’ and rationalize the decision we should in all honesty resist, but how many of us are that strong (or even take the time to rationalize what we’re doing)?

As wargamers (please allow me to generalise) we tend to focus our ‘rationalization’ on the visible aspects of the implications of our hobby such as storage issues or lead piles for painting. We are perpetually seeking means to store our massive collections of painted figures/unpainted lead (please delete as appropriate) – planning garage or attic conversions, larger sheds, or even moving house. At the same time we are also trying to work out how we will ever get them all painted. I appreciate that many tell themselves sweet little lies that they’ll be able to finish them when they retire, but how many of us in all honesty will ever live to 150! What we all seem to avoid dwelling upon is when are we ever going to play with these figures?


Quantifying the Problem

I assume that I’m not alone in having a limited amount of time to commit to wargaming. How I spend that time is then constrained by the demands of family life. Whilst I’m able to fit reading into odd free minutes here or there, my painting time is slightly more constrained to where I am and whether I have sufficient time to actually achieve anything. My gaming time though is really constrained. Previously I could plan to get to about forty club evening s a year, this year due to my wifes work commitments this number has been reduced. Gaming colleagues face other constraints imposed by their own working situations with shift work curtailing their opportunities quite significantly. On top of the weekly sessions I can probably count of one weekend day a month for either shows or gaming.

Now this might sound like a lot of game opportunities but think what is actually represents for your various collections of soldiers. How many armies do you actually have? How many armies are you working towards completing? Now do a simple calculation, divide the number of armies by the number of games which you are likely to have this year. This gives you the average number of games which each of your armies will be played with in the next year. Now, I admit that I’m stating the bloody obvious, but how many of us actually quantify this thing which we all diligently avoid asking? Now consider that we all have favourite armies and rule sets, so we bias the number of games which those specific armies get played with, the unfortunate thing is that this reduces the likelihood of us ever playing with the other armies. Consider your own collection, how many boxes don’t even get opened in any given year? How much invested time and effort is that simply languishing away in a box gathering dust? What are we actually holding onto those figures for? Do we kid ourselves that rules for those armies will become the vogue again and we can pull those armies back out of retirement? I have armies for Slaughterloo which haven’t been touched for over a decade but I am still loath to get rid of them. Do I still hold onto them for fear of realising the loss I will have made on the figures as the figures have little value in todays wargaming market (is it ever likely that we’ll see a resurgence in interest in fantasy Napoleonics?). Do I have that much storage space available that I can afford to simply let these armies consume shelf space?

There are of course certain armies which we hold onto for sentimental reasons. I have an old Games Workshop Dark Elf army which dates back to around 1983. This was the first army I started collecting all those years ago under the guidance of Mike Carson (then Captain Carson) in the embracing confines of the Duke of Yorks Royal Military School wargames club. I have managed to let go of many armies through my life, but this one is a keeper even though it may only see the table once a year. There are many other armies which I have been seduced by over the past four decades which don’t have that sentimental hold though, so why do I still hold onto them? Do I believe that they will suddenly acquire significant second hand value, that they will become ‘collectable’ and desirable to figure aficionados out there? It does happen, every so often something seems to catch peoples romantic imagination, and suddenly in a rare incidence specific figures become the current ‘must have’ and increase in significant value. But who am I kidding? Whilst I might see some early classic figures rise in value, why would I ever expect the same to happen to my second edition plastic Games Workshop lizardmen figures? Games Workshop through their effective release strategy of making anything old redundant in the new version of the rules has all but made any second hand value for these figures little more than scrap value. I can understand their business strategy; I just can’t understand my reluctance to part with these figures.

So let me try and rationalize my own situation.

This year I believe that I will likely get to my local wargames club about 35 times ( allowing for holidays, work and other family commitments), as well as occasionally the other player having to cancel at the last moment due to similar commitments. I will also likely play around a further 10 evenings through the year outside the club. I also can get along to around 5 of the clubs Sunday events. I am fortunate to have friends around the country who also run other wargaming events which I attend, so around another 5 day events. In straight wargaming incidents this is around 55 times a year. Now I do have a fair selection of armies across a multiple of periods and scales. Some of those armies I even play multiple rule systems depending upon the time available and the scale of the battle which we’re playing, so let’s try and keep this simple and suggest that I have only ten armies (now consider how many armies you really have….)

So 55 incidences spread across ten armies allows for each army to be played with a total of 5 and a half times a year. However the spread is never that even. Consider certain armies can only really be used on big tables for longer gaming sessions. 28mm Napoleonics using GDB or Republic to Empire (or dare I suggest Grand Manner) really warrant larger tables that aren’t really available in the space constrained club evenings. Also given the tendency for the games to take slightly longer just with the logistics of the volume of terrain and troops it isn’t really viable to consider these for my normal weekly games, so these will be constrained to the weekend and holiday events. Given that these are likely to be the larger cash investment passion projects which may have originally been one of the key attractions to wargaming it is unlikely that I could ever convince you to give up on these armies. So remove one army from the mix for consideration (but who really has only one large passion project?)

So let us assume that the larger army projects will probably take up half of our available weekend slots. That leaves around 52 sessions for our other armies. Now if your club is like ours then there will be various club campaigns running throughout the year. If we assume that each of these will consume 8 of our gaming sessions, and that I’ll be involved in three campaigns with only three armies, I’ve just committed a further 24 sessions, so now I only have 28 sessions to use the remaining 6 armies, so roughly 4.5 games apiece. Given my bias towards certain of my armies this means that my 28mm Hittites or my 28mm 30 Years War Imperialists will tend to see the table more often, let’s say 8 times each. Now I only have 12 sessions to spread the other 4 armies across for 3 games each.

This all of course assumes that you always use your own figures. I often play a game using a friends figures where they provide the forces for both sides. Usually it’s a period or scale which I don’t have figures for and they’ve prepared an interesting scenario to play. These probably account for a handful of games a year, but will reduce the number of sessions where you can use your own figures. However I find that I run similar games providing both sides figures so it probably evens out over the year.

OK, so this is being somewhat cold and clinical and definitely not in the spirit of wargaming but it does question our perpetual desire to expand the frontiers of our wargaming experience without really questioning when if ever we’re going to play with our new toys.

So with only a conservative 10 armies and a fairly large opportunity for gaming through the year some of these armies will barely see the table. Now consider how many armies you really have (you have to be honest). I recently did a list and found that I had a lot more (a lot, lot more). Many were armies which had seen a lot of use in years long since passed and do occasionally still make it to the table, however there are those which were bought as part of a club euphoria in response to the latest craze and no sooner had I painted them and played with them a few times than the craze had passed. Now they simply languish in their Really Useful box on my dedicated storage solution taking up increasingly valuable space.


Is there a solution? (or shooting the Elephant)

It would be wrong for me to suggest that I have the answer and have followed it diligently to find the wargaming nirvana which I’ve implied exists. In fact I am probably the person to not listen to and do the opposite to what I practice. However if I was to put some suggestions out there which I promise I will actually consider myself then perhaps these will help;

Ask yourself ‘Do you actually need to buy the figures?’

  1. Is this an impulse purchase? Was it simply seeing those shiny new figures painted up beautifully in that display stand whilst you have the cash in your pocket? How quickly can you get them to the table or will the interest wane as you realise that getting your figures to look like those in the cabinet will take an age? Do you know others in your club who you could play with or are you going to have to consider buying two armies? Ultimately ask yourself are you really interested in this army beyond this initial fascination? Have you been interested in this period prior to this and so this purchase would be a logical progression?
  2. Is this because of an enthusiastic friend? How often do you lured into a project by a friend? Those fateful words “wouldn’t it be great if we did…(you fill in the period), we could each get an army…” A couple of hundred pounds later and many more hours dutifully painting them up only to find that your friends enthusiasm was side tracked by another great project along the way. Now to either find another friend to play, or buy a second army.
  3. Is this because of a new set of rules which are all the rage? I’ve mentioned my Flintloque Slaughterloo armies, but I’ve also succumbed to other crazes, including Dystopian Wars, Warmachine, Secrets of the Third Reich, among others. The difficulty is identifying if this is a one night stand, or whether the game will stay the course of time. I had thought that Flames of War was going to be one such fad, but in our club at least it’s still going on strong all these years later, whilst Warhammer Ancients had a fair degree of traction for the best part of a decade right up until Games Workshop pulled the rug on Warhammer Historical and the game has all but disappeared. Ask yourself, does this army/period interest you beyond these new rules? Is your interest more that the game mechanics? If it is then the army will find life in other rule systems. My 28mm Ancients now have found a home in Clash of Empires and Hail Caesar, whilst my 28mm Russians from Secrets of the Third Reich have been fleshed out (so the speak) and used for Bolt Action. Some armies though are just too specific and therein lays the risk.
  4. Is this being driven by the lure of free figures? Beware the friend baring free figures.       Just ask a few friends in the Swindon and District (SAD) Wargamers. What initially looks like a friendly gesture soon becomes a costly investment as you seek to ‘finish off’ that free army. Both Paul Nettle and Andy Cummings have tales of the hidden cost of those free figures.
  5. Is this because you want to share a friends passion? All too often I’ve been introduced to a period by a friend. They have had a beautiful set of armies and their enthusiasm was infectious. Before I knew it I was looking at figure catalogues and visiting traders at shows working out an army. Step back and ask yourself whether you need to buy these figures to share your friends games? Quite often I’ve found that these friends are very happy for you to use their figures in the games as you are giving them the opportunity to play a period which they are passionate about. In a similar manner I can reciprocate with friends for those periods which I’m interested in and can provide the various forces needed.       I really enjoy playing 15mm modern games with a friend but I don’t share his enthusiasm and so don’t really need to buy an army (as I constantly keep reminding myself).       Equally I’m happy to run games using my 28mm Indian Mutiny forces and don’t expect anyone else to rush out and buy figures just to be able to play. Just how many Indian Mutiny armies does one club need?       How many versions of the Alamo or the European Legation in Peking are really necessary? If someone has a passion you can support it but you don’t necessarily need to follow it.
  6. Do I really need another army in this period? If I’m the only person with an interest in a period such as the American War of Independence then I should probably expect to end up buying two armies for the period to be able to get the games. However if the period is one of the broader periods such as Biblical or Classical Ancients the number of potential armies is almost boundless. Without applying some constraints the lure of new armies can pull us down a long dark road (one which I’m currently travelling so you are quite welcome to join me). I’ve tried limiting myself to matched armies such as Greeks and Early Archaemenid Persian but soon found myself justifying other protagonists such as Carthaginians, Libyans, and Italian States as I explored my enthusiasm for ancient Sicilian wars. My first Assyrian army soon expanded to allow for New Kingdom Egyptians, which soon ‘flexed’ to bring in the Hittites, the Sea Peoples, and most recently the Mittani. The question is do I need any more armies? What do the new armies bring?       Couldn’t I just use my existing armies and proxy them in to cover those which I don’t have? (Sacrilege I know but a point to seriously consider).


So what next?

Now none of these ideas are rocket science but simply a means to re-evaluate your investment decisions (an unfortunately cold term for what is fundamentally the decision to buy toy soldiers). As I said, I might talk a good talk, but I have only really just started to try and walk the walk. I’m not going to start a campaign t o change peoples minds and this defiantly isn’t something which I’ll get fervently passionate about. I will likely fall off this wagon more times than not, I am after all a wargamer.

Warren Gleeson is a recovering wargamer and has a large collection of armies which he irrationally still holds onto. He is easily persuaded by glitzy magazine advertising, TMP promotions, and more recently by Kickstarter funding initiatives. Please help Warren and others similarly afflicted like him. Don’t forward them any promotions for new ranges, don’t suggest new periods for the clubs next campaign, and definitely don’t feed them free figures.

OK, so who am I trying to kid? Ignore everything which I’ve said and fill your boots. Pass on those adverts and club campaign ideas, and don’t forget to send those free figures. I probably have room to store them somewhere, and I’m sure that I’ll play with them eventually, at least sometime before I die.