Thursday, April 15, 2010

Of Horses and Courses

A long post with lots of opinion, no pretty pictures and few facts. It might be more interestimg to go read the Illustrated New Durban Times issue containing my first ever solo wargame and rules comparison.

I thought doing a comparison of these rules would be easy but while they all have very similar intent, they use such different methods of getting there that one is tempted to mumble something meaningless like "they all work so it all depends what you like". However, I will take a stab at highlighting some of the differences and what works for me and why I might choose one over another for a particular game. This would have all been much easier if the latest version of my own rules was so much superior to the others that there was no point in considering the us of anything else (grin) however it is more a case of pondering why I still have the desire to write my own after all. Perhaps a topic for another post.

To start with, for anyone not familiar with any of the rules (Charge!, Black Powder and With MacDuff To The Frontier"), without meaning to put words in any of the author's mouths, none of these are meant as heavy duty "simulations". They are all first and foremost rules to play games with toy/model soldiers which reflect history without trying to recreate every detail with dreary consistency. This means that the ends sometimes justify the means which may frustrate some process oriented people who want to "see the work" as it were.

In order to avoid any hidden bias, it might be best if I laid out my current thoughts on what the important features of a set of rules are. These are slightly different from what I would have said 10 years ago.
  1. Drama. This can be achieved in various ways but basically there has to be tension at some points, usually provided by periodic crucial die rolls with meaningful consequences.
  2. Uncertainty. This relates to drama but is not quite the same. War is an uncertain business and the wargame should be less deterministic than chess. There was a time, not long ago, when it was a major concern for me that a wargame general be unable to rely on his troops doing as they are told. I am less convinced now. In face to face games, your opponent's actions can throw huge unforeseen spanners in your works without any help from dice or cards. Now I worry that some games seem to contain so much uncertainty that the player is just trying to ride the wave rather than driving the action.  
  3. Engaging. I want rules to require me to make meaningful decisions throughout the game and for there to be relatively direct consequences.    
  4. Unobtrusiveness. I like rules that don't get in the way of the game so that players can think about tactics (in the non-technical sense) rather than about the rules and the game mechanics. Theoretically  the ulttimate version of this would the umpire controlled kriegspiel, but in a game, I'd rather know what the rules are. Ideally, a player who knows his period tactics but doesn't know the rules, should be able to out perform  someone who knows the rules inside out but doesn't know anything about the history behind them. I know some rules where the opposite is true. 
  5. Heads Up. A corollary of the previous preference is that I prefer to play without a quick reference chart in hand. I don't mind a quick check of a reference sheet or the rules now and again when I'm dealing with something unusual or at least not customary, a situation or troops type that I don't normally encounter and so forth but I hate having to consult one or more charts every time I shoot, check morale etc. To achieve this I am willing to sacrifice detail and force things into patterns.
  6. Appropriately Flavoured. This is even more subjective than the other criteria. I was going to say historically flavoured but if I was playing a game based on a novel or sci-fi etc I would want the game to capture that flavour. Generally, these days, I am happy enough if the game looks right on the table and gives 'appropriate' outcomes even if the game mechanisms look wrong
  7. Scale-able. It is very useful to have a set of rules that can be used for big battles and minor skirmishes between a handful of troops. 
So how did the rules stack up based on this very simple scenario?

Charge! definitely has drama and engagement.  It comes from 2 sources, 1st the combat results can stray far off the average and be very decisive or be a wash, for example, a volley of close range musketry will normally damage the target severely but sometimes a fistful of 1's will make it ineffective, like the French Guards at Fontenoy  while a couple of high dice can lead to breaking the enemy with a single volley like the British guards   at the same battle.   When you commit your troops, you take your chances.On the other hand, if you hang back at long range, with the best dice in the world, you opponent will need several volleys to break you and usually more but the opposite is also true. The choice is yours to commit or play it safe. The other source of drama comes from simultaneous written orders, sometimes your opponent can humbug you if you aren't successful in reading his mind as the game goes on.

They are also unobtrusive and heads up capable with many rules being intuitive and those cases where knowing the technicalities helps are few and generally minor. It doesn't take long to memorize  movement, ranges and combat.

Lastly, to my mind, they look and feel right for Horse and Musket gaming, especially if players refrain from using Napoleonic tactics in mid-18thC games even if the rules don't prohibit them. They also cater well to various sized games, I've played large games with over 1,000 figures on table in a game which was a bathtub version of an historical battle, small games with just over a 100 figures clashing in some minor action and games of every size in between.

Minor Quibbles: I have several minor issues with this venerable set of rules.  They don't cover campaigns on the fringes, India or North America for example, and don't stretch to include the introduction of minie rifles which would be useful for the Crimea and other campaigns which are otherwise straight horse and musket. These things are easily catered for by choosing troops carefully and adding minimal special rules for things like low morale light infantry, elephants or spearmen. Elite infantry is no better at storming enemy positions than regulars (or militia for that matter) they just withstand losses better (correction light infantry only) and are excellent in defence and firefights. I suspect this was on purpose to discourage unrealistic infantry shock tactics on fresh enemy infantry. Organization is something to ponder as well though the rules do state that those in the book are only suggestions and that players may use what they like. Experience confirms this but I need to sort one out as a full sized 40mm regiment takes up nearly 30" in line. Three such regiments would fill my table with no room for cavalry or guns. Rather than following Stuart Asquith's suggestion of downsizing the companies while maintaining the organization, I would probably call each "company" a "battalion" and use that as a scenario "unit"  (for example for the Sikh wars, each British "regiment" would have 2 sepoy companies and a "grenadier" company of Europeans and represent a Brigade.)
More seriously, much of the uncertainty is lost if playing solo and some thought needs to be put into finding ways around that.

Five Stars *****
Black Powder. These rules rate reasonably well for drama, uncertainty, engaging and being heads up. Within a few turns I didn't need to check on movement or shooting factors and would soon have had the rest. The morale chart might take a  little longer and there are enough special rules to be potentially troublesome if too many are used or if they are used too rarely. I also have some concern that there might be too much uncertainty due to the potential impact of single die scores and the high odds of failing command rolls. The latter could easily be addressed by just fielding more capable commanders but I was still left at times feeling that the die rolls were more important than my decisions.

The two small games that I have played are not enough to allow me to form a valid opinion of the flavour or the scalability though  suspect that they will feel better for mid sized games.  There is a certain generic block feel to the units despite optional special rules and I think they will feel best with multi-figure stands even thoigh they can be played just as well with singles. That leaves unobtrusiveness and I'm on the fence here as they are not intuitive the way Charge! is but at the same time the mechanisms are not so intrusive as to distract from the flow. I suspect though, that there are some important tricks to learn about getting the most our of your troops that have no real world relationship. I'm not at all sure how well they will handle table top teasers or campaigns where one wants to the same units to fight minor actions and big battles. I suspect they are flexible enough to be adapted to these sorts of things but, only more games will tell.

Minor Quibbles. Two games is not much to go on but it looks to me like attacking infantry will ALWAYS get the first shot. Even with smootbore muskets attacking rifled armed troops, the attacker will normally get the 1st shot and with the same factor. If doing the Crimea or Indian Mutiny, I will probably give Enfield armed troops a fire bonus on top of the minor range extension, probably an extra fire die but possibly just the sharpshooter re-roll. An even smaller quibble is that infantry who can form square MUST do so if charged by cavalry. So much for the thin red streak!

4 STARS ****  pending further playtesting which might drive it up or down 1 star.


With MacDuff To The Frontier. Well, sighhhhhh, it used to be all those things, I think, but it seems to have lost some of the drama, results being either too gradual and predictable or too minor. It still has high levels of unpredictability in minor things but mostly in a non-decisive fashion. The gradualness that has crept in, also robs the game of some of its engaging nature as decisons can take several turns to have an effect allowing the brain to go on auto pilot while you execute the plan.  Is it unobtrusive enough? I think so but its hard for me to judge since they are in my head. They definitely  work heads up for me. (even if I accidently change them as I go!) Not having thought much about it recently, I think I may have lost some degree of flavour as well over the last 9 years. Scale-able? It used to be, I haven't played enough of the current version to judge if that has been lost as well but I think not.

Alright! enough! Can they be fixed? Yes, I think so if I go backwards and rethink carefully. I dug out the original version yesterday, the Colonial one and it still looks pretty good to me, better than the F&IW version that I played more often and definitely better than the current version.

Is there a reason to fix them? That will take more thought though I'll probably work on it anyway out of sheer bloody mindedness.

Three Stars *** as some things still work and the game has some elements that I like.


So where does this leave my gaming plans? NQSYW  using the Prince August semi-flats will remain a Charge! game, I will use Black Powder for my AWI games both in 1/72nd plastic and 40mm metal (both multi-figure base projects which I had been planning to play using Morschauser Meets MacDuff ). A final decison is pending on my Universal Toy Soldier project (1830's - 50's 40mm). If I can fix MacDuff to my satisfaction, this is what it was really meant for, if not, I'll use Charge! for the particular flavour of individual toy soldiers over massed units.    


  1. MacDuff,

    Now this is very interesting. I have played all three rulesets you've mentioned and my guess would be I like BP the least, Charge the most. BUT, my first (beloved) ruleset: Napoleonic Wargame Rules by the Tunbridge Wells Wargames society, my favourite Old School rules written by G. Gush. will be resurrected once I get my Nappies sorted out. Now the interesting thing about these are: they take the best from Charge and The Wargame with some Featherstone thrown in. BEST of all: in the book "guide to Wargaming" by George Gush and Andrew Finch you get these rules extended into mid 19C gaming. See also my blog post of 18th Oct 2009:
    Thanks for the post, I enjoy a good read about the process and mechanics of our hobby.


  2. Thanks for doing the comparison, not an easy task. Thought-provoking indeed and, as I'd sign up to those seven criteria myself, very helpful.

  3. Ross, I really enjoy your thought processes in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the various rules.

    This has given me much to think about vis-a-vis my "Tricorn Wars" rules (which you got to play). Besides the increase in movement rates which I've already implemented thanks to your advice, I may need to examine some other factors.

    Thank you.

    -- Jeff

  4. Interesting and thorough.
    If I may comment, while having when it comes to 18th C. rules some practical experience of only 'Charge!', 'The War Game' and the WRG 1685-1835 set (which for me has the 'feeling' of a 'steamlined' version of 'The War Game'), did you consider 'The War Game'? With the exception of the artillery templates (which can easily be replaced by die rolls, ± 'Charge!'-fashion, and thus made consistent with musketry) I always felt C. Grant's rules superior to P. Young's ones (and more comprehensive / complete, with regard to morale, campaigns...) while both of basically of the same 'philosophy' and mechanisms.

    Simultaneous play thanks to written orders? With 'fair' / 'trustwhorthy' opponents (I prefer 'partners') they are more than an encumbrance...

    Would I play again I'd probably use 'The War Game' rules, artillery excepted, but would have the minis permanently based by 'companies' (6 infantrymen or 4 cavalrymen, in 2 ranks) and the 'cadre' included in them. According to my experience (WRG 4TH to 7th Ancients, mainly) it's far less of a chore to record the casualties than to move individually so many miniatures.

    Best regards,

  5. Thanks all for the comments,

    Pjotr, I see John Curry has the Gush/Finch book as a coming release, I'll have to pick up a copy,

    Jeff I think Tricorne would have rated well in all categories, it speaks highly of the rules that Tom who had never read the rules and is not "up" on the SYW but who has a good grasp of basic military principles was able to pick up the game and do well and enjoy the game as did I with 1 read and somewhat more background a knowledge than Tom.

    Jean-Louis, I will confess to a mortal sin, I have decided that I don't like the Wargame despite having never played it! Seems too finicky to me, the moves too slow and I don't like morale tests. (One finally got past my guard into the last version of MacDuff but I am going to chase it back out). I should really try a game with an open mind before dismissing it. Perhaps this summer.

  6. Ross,
    I guess you never played WRG Ancients 5th - 6th Ed.? Or never more than once....