EXCERPT FROM APPENDIX 1 from Don Featherstone's Battles With Model Soldiers
(The book that got me started.)

"Nothing in these pages is a dictate, no word says you must or you shall do it this way. On the contrary, the book sets out from the very beginning to stimulate the reader to think for himself, and to use what he has read merely as a foundation for efforts and ideas which reflect his own temperament and character. Only in this way will he obtain maximum satisfaction from the hobby of battling with model soldiers."

-Don Featherstone 1918 - 2013

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dramatic Reconstruction

I struggle sometimes to explain why I like the approach of some games that are not "serious" simulations. Its not that its "just" a good "game". I've often said or written that I like my games to be  like a good historical film or novel, but I've never tried to elaborate since I've never really tried to pierce out why. Its certainly not  romance, character development or sub-plots.

There tend to be 2 besetting sins to some of my favorite games..

1st. They don't adhere to one viewpoint. The gamer can feel like a general directing over all strategy, but is also in the midst of the gun smoke and the cut and thrust of every melee. He fiddles with deploying troops from column but can step back and enjoy an over view of the whole battle, a view many Generals would have dearly loved. So, its not realistic.

2nd. They tend to rely on simple, direct mechanisms that in some way evoke real things even though they are just a game mechanics.  Take Charge! you control troops by writing out an order, they are just turn orders and there is no fuss about couriers or misunderstandings and blunders, but evokes all that. (and I've seen some blunders occur under the system, some even in my own handwriting!). Compare that to systems I have used/written where you draw cards or roll dice on a  chart to activate units. They may give a more "realistic" result but they don't  mimic any real process and I have seen too many occasions where the mechanism becomes larger in gamers' minds than what it is supposedly representing. In other words they start weighing odds, counting cards or indulging in similar irrelevant not to say inappropriate and un-general-like behaviors.

So where does the movie part come in? Well, I was thinking about a movie like Gettysburg. It includes us in discussions staged to show the thoughts of the General's and lay out their battle plans, it shows us over views of the battle so we get the feel of something big going on but then zooms in for a closer look at chosen incidents such as Little Round Top. More than that, it does it all without telling us what it is doing. The only background information is in the opening preamble or inserted in character's conversation or shown by the action on screen.

 Is the result an academic examination of the battle, what happened in detail and why? Hardly.  But do those who drop their critical eye, "suspend disbelief" and let them selves flow with the movie feel engaged, like they'd been there beside Chamberlain or that they had watched the battle unfold? Sure, for many of us, we do. For me, that's way the best games play out.


  1. A short but brilliant post that really strikes a chord with me. Thank you

  2. I second that wholeheartedly. There was a magazine article years and years ago entitled "Wargaming as a costume drama" which set forth a similar premise. While analysing exactly what I enjoyed about wargaming a few years ago, I reached the conclusion that it was the story of the battle, not the result. If there was a desperate cavalry charge, if there was a grand sweeping manouvre, if there were desperate last stands or the lone warrior holding the bridge against the horde, those were the wargames I enjoyed.

    I have a friend who used to game the American Civil War in 6mm. He was a highly analytical type and developed rules to give him the most realistic results he could get. His orders of battle were 100% accurate scale reproductions of the armies at the time of Gettysburg. The custom terrain was modular and perfectly scaled to 6mm, Because he was fighting with 6mm corps on the same sized table as other gamers used for 15mm games, the table included the wider area allowing realistic manoeuvres away from the battle line, which might only take up 10-15% of the tabletop area. It was the most realistic miniature wargame I have ever played, and gave meticulously historically accurate results.

    Which were as boring as all hell. I only played once or twice, but another friend of mine played with him week in week out. He said in the end the battles became like clockwork, realistic divisional attacks might bounce of the defensive line once, twice, but the third attack would usually break through, at which point the defender would pull back to his reserve line and they'd start the same dance again. Like I said, realistic results, but there was no game there, no excitement, no real story just the pure grind of throwing wave after wave of men into the firestorm.

    Each to his own, I suppose. I'll just be over here, charging those Russian guns with my cavalry. I wonder how many are going to make it there alive?