Monday, July 12, 2010

"Oh for a Muse of fire"

Chasing a Will O'Wisp of the Mind

I have this vague wargame idea that I want to pursue but I have a slight problem, I can't quite grasp and define it so every time I try to translate it onto the table, it slips away and the result isn't quite right. It has something to do with compression, illusion and imagination vs constant scale and reality.

As an "historical wargamer" I have at times in the past been unduly concerned, not to say obsessed, with questions of scale and player point of view in a search for realism in games, not new topics by any means. I have noticed over the last few year, with some emotional discomfort I might add, that my interest in facts and impartial history has waned and was, perhaps, never quite as strong as I had believed. In gaming terms I have come to accept that I have no real desire to re-create the great battles of history or spend hours reading detailed accounts of battles and campaigns, analyzing what happened when and why. At first this rather confused and worried me but eventually I realized that I was still fascinated by memoirs and accounts focusing on the experience as well as the fact of battle seen from various levels. I've never been much of a role player so that approach does not call to me at all and neither do man to man skirmishes. Since I still enjoy playing wargames, I started to look at why some were more enjoyable for me than others. At first I thought it was just an increasingly lazy mind that has led me to favour certain types of simple games but then I noticed something else, as well as glossing over details, they tended to break a rule of reality in wargames and offer the player simultaneous multiple points of view as well as usually providing drama and a good storyline.

It seems to me that when we examine our own memories, they don't tend to adhere to a constant scale or view point. Time and space collapse into memorable highlights and things we have learned afterwards become inextricably interwoven with our own memories. This phenomena can be even more pronounced when we read memoirs since there is no time lapse for us between entries. Perhaps a grueling 2 day march is compressed into one brief entry followed for us moments later by a dashing battle sequence in which we receive mostly the actions observed by our writer backed by a small bit of hearsay. What was perhaps a 10 minute firefight followed by a brief advance with the bayonet gets turned on its head with the firefight being dismissed with a few words while events of the brief but more memorable (and probably enhanced) charge occupy several paragraphs thus looming large in our vision of what has happened. This is why rules such as Charge! and The Sword & The Flame can be so satisfying, they tend to convey that distorted sense of reality that can be more real to our emotional beings than the actual facts.

That's just about enough for now but I want to lay a couple of games before you for contemplation. Some are more primitive in concept than others but they all contain an element of operating simultaneously on more than 1 level and of representing more than meets the eye.

The first is based on Shambattle (click on the link to view Phil Dutre's inspirational exploration of the original game straight up). This is Richard Larsen's game using a 3d version of the Shambattle map with a distillation of Joe Morschauser's rules and 40mm glossy toy soldiers by Britain's, Scruby and myself (just the 2 Sepoy units).

Its taken me a while to figure out what made this game so inspiring for me. The first bit was obvious, his figures which I had seen and fallen for the previous year, were the perfect fusion of two old favorites Britain's old toy soldiers and the elegant 30mm wargame figures that adorned Charge!. The game itself was quick, exciting and decided by the plans and tactics of the players, not their knowledge of the 1/2 page set of rules, and at first I thought that was it. Thinking more carefully about it now I can see another element. No scales or organizations were laid down but the opposing armies were composed of around eight 20 man infantry regiments with cavalry and artillery support or about a reinforced division. If one tried to puzzle out the scale based on troops and rifle ranges, the British fort and the Egyptian base town might have been 3 - 5 km away from each other BUT it felt much bigger. As the armies launched attacks, fought out the engagements, fell back regrouped and tried again, you got the sense of troops marching across the hot desert for hours, of deadly fusillades, gallant charges and fierce street fighting.

The next game was one I originally did in the 1980's based on the 1794 British invasion of Guadaloupe. I don't have a picture of the original but here is the 2007 reprise of it.

( thank you e_t for the photo, Gary's ships and terrain, my troops and boats, rules Morschauser Meets MacDuff)

The table, representing the island, was originally divided into 3 tactical zones (the British landing site, Ft Fleur d'Epee and the main city) theoretically separated by miles of jungle. Borrowing an idea from siege games, players made day long 'strategic' moves (including 'yellow jack' attrition) switching to tactical moves when necessary (an assault on the fort etc). A practical solution but an intellectual one, having troops "teleport" through the jungle didn't give that feeling of time and space. When I resurrected the game (above), I condensed the miles of ground onto a single tactical table. Troops marching between areas had to go the whole way. It might not have felt like as large an island as Guadaloupe but as the French columns trudged turn after turn up the back road, to me the game seemed more satisfying even though the ground scale of the whole did not match the scale where tactical actions broke out.

Last but not least is one of my 54mm Colonial games from about 10 years ago. The influence of the Major General is evident.

The game used a combination of player mission briefings and impassible terrain to encourage the players' imaginations to accept that the train from New Durban (hidden behind the far mountain) in one corner of the table, ran for miles through a mountain pass and across the veldt to the Hubley Mine, that a handful of troops were whole regiments and that locations such as the Mine, the Kraal, the Mission and the Rebel camp were hours apart, not just outside rifle range from each other. I still don't know exactly why, but it seemed to work, it certainly worked for me as GM and was enjoyed by the various players. (except possibly Sean, the young Midshipmen in charge of the train who panicked and left the civilians at the mission to be captured by the Emir's Bashi Bazouks after they had driven off the Nku khu warriors).

It strikes me that these wargames have something in common with model railway layouts like the one in Miniature World in Victoria BC. That display manages to compress 6,000 km into a continuous display of 50 or 60 feet that takes you from coast to coast and through time. Sleight of mind one might call it.

Now, how do I translate these thought into a wargame project? I had once started work on a 15mm Siege of Quebec game but the figures are long gone. I can envisage a Prince Valiant layout with the Count's castle in one corner, the Saxon chieftain's lair in another and all sorts of adventures in between, but what I want to work on is my 19thC British & American 40mm toy soldiers. The scene is set, the war of 1812 merged with the Canadian Rebellions, the so called Aroostock War and the Oregon Crisis but how should the games be designed and structured?

Or perhaps the question could be asked: "Can this wargames table hold the vasty fields of America?" (sic)

(Note: Please click on pictures for a larger copy.)


  1. Ross,

    It is important to remind readers that clicking on the photos brings a much more complete photo to the screen (instead of just the edge of it).

    And I don't know why your site seems to be the only one that truncates photos this way.

    Finally, I do hope that you are continuing to take it easy for a while.

    -- Jeff

  2. Jeff, yikes! When I look at the site it shows the pictures nicely centered on the blog, just filling the column. I wonder if its a setting? I'll have to ask if others are having this same problem.

    and yes doing my best to take it easy though I think I need more gentle activity to lessen the brain activity and frustration! Started painting in occasional 15 minute bouts. Thanks for the reminders.

  3. Fascinating post. What the three games seem to have in common is that the terrain, even though wildly out of scale, dominates the narrative while imagination stretches the distances, so you get the detail of localised fighting but it feels like it's in a much wider landscape than is literally portrayed.

    Touches of the Land of Counterpane perhaps, and echoes of childhood, battling over flowerbeds or bits of furniture. Works for me.

  4. A good thought Steve, I think the small units in a large(ish) landscape rather than wall to wall troops may be part of it too. (so much for Big Battalions).

    Just hope I can come to understand the principles well enough to reproduce it reliably.

  5. Interesting post. I think there's something worth pursuing there. The idea of "compressed scale", where distance on the tabletop is not the same scale everywhere, I think is one of the keys to getting that feel of space. Small building footprints, as the Major-General Rederring talks about, as well as smaller footprints for terrain features (or even compressed front to back, like scenery flats). Sectioning off the table, whether by using terrain features to break it up or by arbitrary sections can also be used to compress scale. I also think smaller units are part of it. The more I have played, the more it became apparent to me that large units meant more likelihood of the table edge becoming an artificial constraint. Anchoring a flank on some feature is one thing, anchoring it on a table edge I'm not so sure about (you could rationalize it; but then what happens when the number of figures crowds the table nearly everywhere?).
    A lot if it is down to personal choice. Trying to define what makes for fun games is utlimately and individual decision.

  6. F-B, yes, when we refought Lobositz with full Charge! units in 2009, even the 20 foot table was pretty crowded, it was more a case of making a hole than choosing to go around a flank, well except where the "Prussians" tried to refuse a flank. Not always a bad thing as it felt like a bigger battle than it really was but you definitely got the feeling that all of the maneuvering was done before the game started and we were just determining the result. Still a very fun game mind you.

    A strong argument for small figures or map moves I guess if one wants to see more than the crunch but as you say personal choices and tastes are crucial in deciding what "works" and of course as the old ad used to say "some days you feel like a nut, some days you don't"