EXERT 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

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Printed Portable Wargame: A Review.

Having started with a quick dipping of the toes into playing the Portable Wargame as published, I'll now have a quick look at the book itself. The full title is:

Rules for fast-play wargames on gridded tabletops 
by Bob Cordery

The book does provide the actual rules but it also adds a quick look at some of the history of tabletop wargames played on a grid, a look at various grid options and how the various options affect play,  some thoughts on game design in general, as well as explanations of why and how various elements of the Portable Wargame came about.

A work in progress. Contingents of 54mm Zulus and British are preparing for a test game. I'm going to need to use more squares in order to have room to manoeuvre. 
(That's the compulsory pre-game ceremonial dance going on in the foreground.)
The rules sections begins with a look at definitions and at various options that are available when setting up a game. This is followed by design notes. These are well worth reading carefully and revisiting as the notes make the actual rules  easier to grasp and implement and provide a guide if you ever find yourself with a situation where you aren't clear on how a rule should be applied or where there is no specific rule that appears to cover the situation or an unusual troop type.

At this point the two sets of rules are presented. Each of the rules sections is followed by a sample game with quite thorough descriptions of how combat is resolved. The first one is aimed at the late 19th Century including "Colonial" warfare, the second set is for the Early and Mid 20th Century.  However, the rules are essentially the same in both sections, there are only a handful of additions that apply only to the 20th Century version. The key difference is the unit capability charts when it comes to artillery and armoured units.   So if, for example you are looking at the transport rules in the late 19th Century section and wondering "Why would you bother?", check the speed of motorised transport in the early 20th Century version. The rules are the same, the capabilities of available units sometimes change.

I'm not going to go over the rule mechanisms in detail. You can check those on various other blogs including Bob's Wargaming Miscellany blog where the development may be traced or pickup the Kindle edition which is pocket change cheap, about the price of a coffee and tea biscuit here. Instead I'm going to write about some of the things that make the Portable Wargame different from many other popular rule sets.

The first thing is that it is not a attempt to create an illusion of capturing low level tactics and minor differences in weaponry.   Different troop types have slightly different strengths and weaknesses and unit quality can affect a unit's ability to continue fighting but that is that. There are no "national characteristics" either.  The rules are simple and low on chrome but do not be fooled into thinking that they are simplistic or naive.

The second thing is that you are in charge! You can't blame your failures or poor execution of a battle plan on poor activation rolls, card draws and the like. You need to take command and execute it, keeping in mind that there are no guarantees in combat and even the best plan can fail in execution but here you can at least try.

The emphasis is on the basics not minor tactics or exploiting complicated game mechanisms.  Winning a battle is about things like understanding and using the ground to your advantage, understanding and playing to your troop's strengths while exploiting your enemy's weaknesses.  Form a sound plan and execute it. Keep your objective in mind, maintain the initiative (not the turn by turn game initiative but make the enemy dance to your tune, don't dance to his), use an element of surprise to your advantage, whether setting an ambush or by simply doing what the enemy doesn't expect. Oh and best apply the K.I.S.S. principle.

Well that's my observation and opinion anyway.

One of my earliest Portable Wargames from a Mar 2011 blog post.

Now, is the book perfect? No, of course not! I would have liked it to have been twice as long!

My biggest observation is that while the sample games provide some idea for what sorts of forces might be deployed and what sorts of scenarios might be played, there are very few guidelines on how to proceed before the game begins. There are no definitions of exactly what a "unit" represents to use in translating historical orders of battle, no points or army lists and no advice on how to balance a scenario. Is every unit considered to be tactically equal? If historical forces were unbalanced numerically should this necessarily be represented by more units on one side or might it be considered that this unit of native spearmen represents many more men than the opposing unit of regular infantry with rifles?  

These things are no problem for veteran gamers who have the depth of experience to improvise armies and balance scenarios but I could see a novice gamer needing some help.  Perhaps there might be a future release along these lines if there is enough interest.

If anyone reading this has the rules and has been wondering where to go from here, I suspect that Neil Thomas's One Hour Wargame scenarios would translate well if you double the unit count and impose a grid on the map. I haven't tried it yet though so watch out for my next post.

Although I have several armies ready and able to try out the rules, I have been ambushed by some 54mm Zulus who are insisting that they be taken to Huzzah! in Portland, Maine, in May so that  they can take part in the "walk up and try out the Portable Wargame" event that I will be running on Sunday morning. (Please come and give it a go if you can, I'll feel silly sitting there by myself). I based up about 1/2 of my Zulus and am planning to try them out tomorrow so I will try adapting a OHW scenario for the Portable Wargame and we will see how that goes!

And just in case anyone doubts that I don't always use rules etc as intended. This was the Portable Wargame and vintage 54mm toy soldiers replaying Hook's Farm, also in Mar 2011. It probably wasn't all that portable but it was fun.


  1. Ross Mac,

    Wow! Thank you for writing such a wonderful review of my book ... and for the suggestions as to how it could be improved. (I may well include them in the follow-up book I am planning to write.)

    All the best,


  2. Good googly moogly, you got those Zulu's painted up sharpish.

    1. Well, I did but it was nearly 20 years ago, didn't realize it still showed so much, thought the dust might hide it........ The bases are a work in progress. They were singles in previous blog appearances.

  3. Hi Ross, What is your target unit composition for the Brits vs. Zulu scenario? I think I have plenty of 30mm to give this a go in 30mm...

    1. Hi Mike, the set up I liked best saw 6 Zulu units of 6 figures each, 1/2 with muskets and a house rule of -1 to shooting vs 4 infantry @ 4 figures, 1 cavalry @ 3 figures and 1 gun and crew. But the numbers of figures don't matter of course.