Monday, February 21, 2011

Re-creation, Recreation and Organizing Your Wargame Armies

No wind is a good wind if you don't know what port you want to sail to.

One of the joys and troubles with this hobby is that it has so many facets and expressions and  can be so many different things to people.  It can make it a little hard to focus and choose, especially for those of us with weak minds or wills.

I remember a e-discussion years near the end of the last century which was touched off by the inclusion of some scfi-fi and fantasy events at HMGS events which had been reserved exclusively for historical  miniatures games. One of the participants declared that as far as he was concerned, someone who played board or computer wargames which recreated battles was in the same hobby as himself but that some one who played sci-fi miniature wargames was in a completely  different hobby which only looked similar. It seemed to me that if I sat at a table with a board-gamer, we would have little if anything to talk about unless we shared an historical period in common but that I could probably find lots in common with the scifi gamer, painting techniques, scenery, and possibly rules mechanisms and even tactics (unless he only played a single system and that was one of those which generally made ordinary tactics irrelevant otherwise outflanking and supporting fire are as valid with space marines as they are with terrestial ones). The inescapable conclusion  was that it would be possible for me and this other fellow to face each other across a table, playing a miniature wargame and for us each to be indulging in separate hobbies as we did so. (Apoligies to those who have heard or read me relating this before.)

One often hears the old Simulation vs Game dichotomy thrown about during discussions of the complexity of rule mechanics and all too often being used pejoratively to denigrate  the other fellow's game. Lets talk instead about re-creating a battle as opposed to indulging in a recreational game inspired by a battle, things that can be done using the same rules. I have my prejudices, but I use both approaches. I want to look at some of the implications of the different approaches on basing and organizing a wargame army.

I'll use a simple example, a game based on the small action that is known as the Battle of Chrysler's Farm. In one version of my ideal world, I would have a simple and reliable set of rules which I am completely satisfied with, and an ample collection of suitable glossy toy soldiers, organized into standard units as Red Army and Blue Army. Before staging a battle I will re-read 2 or 3 accounts of the battle, study the orders of battles and maps as well as events and setting, then turn to my table.

If going the recreational gaming route, I see that the British have 2 regiments of infantry that seemed to have particularly capable plus a few light troops and artillery and that they are defending a defile which is about twice the width of their force. The table is quickly set up with river on one side, woods on the other plus a few gullies and ravines. After pondering that the Americans were able to fight their way through the woods, I change the solid forest into patches of woods with clear spaces in between. I then deploy 2 red regiments of elite infantry, 1 on the left, 1 on the right, put a light infantry  company in the woods, add a gun in the middle and a gun boat in the river.

Turning  to the Americans, I see that they have 8 regiments of infantry, YIKES! looking closer, I see that they were understrength and the over all numbers were only 3 times the British force and that not all should start on table. After due consideration, I deploy 5 units of Blue infantry on table supported by a squadron of cavalry and a gun which will arrive on turn 2. Another gun and a 6th regiment are scheduled to arrive later in the game. Simple and done! It just remains  for my opponent to show up.

A close examination will show that the organization of the troops is not quite right, the scale might not be accurate when we start assessing musket and artillery fire and who knows about time? But, I would predict that the resulting battle would be hard fought and exciting and would not be surprised if  the end result mirrored the real thing.

So what would be different if trying to re-create the battle? I would need to decide on an appropriate ground scale for converting the map to the table rather than eyeballing it. If I use a scale of 6" on the table equals 100 yds on the ground, the battlefield will fit nicely on a 5'x6' table. It's just a casual one-off game at home so no terrain is specially made and the result isn't perfect but things were roughly in the right places. This would be pretty irrelevant if musket and artillery ranges are off so I double check that under the rules, artillery could place themselves in the appropriate historical positions on table and hit targets that were in their historical positions and that infantry can fight from roughly historical positions. If not, there may need to be rules adjustments or the table changed. I also checked that troops could cover the ground in the number of turns that equated to the historical time taken. If all checks out, I can turn to the troops.

Taking the OB, I know how many men are in each unit but I need to check back that the units of toy soldiers take up the right amount of space if I have tinkered with ground scale while fitting the battlefield onto the table top. The historical troops would generally have deployed shoulder to shoulder in 2 ranks during the War  of 1812. That gives me either 21" or 22" per file depending on who you read but allowing for supernumeries etc 24" per file is an easy rule of thumb to work with and is close enough for the unit as a whole. Assuming 2 ranks, thats 1 foot per man. Taking the main body of the 49th Foot which fielded 304 men according to the reference in hand, it should occupy 300 feet which is 100 yards or 6" according to the scale used to lay out the terrain. Some of my 1812 units are based singly on 23mm wide washers, others are based 2 x2 on a 2" square  base. Either way that will give me 12 figures based 2 deep. I don't have the 49th dressed in greatcoats so I draw 12 red coated figures from the 41st foot and move on to the next unit, filling in whatever troops I have to make up numbers. If I were planning to refight the battle often or stage it in public, I'd want to paint up just the right units but for a casual home game, the uniform details don't matter so much.  Eventually all the units are sorted and place in the right places and I am ready to begin.

So, what's different, well the 2nd game probably took twice as long to set up and the units might look a little motley unless I did the prep work in advance and painted up the right figures but it will be a more accurate basis from which to recreate the battle as opposed to being just a game scenario. Depending  on the chosen ruleset, I may have problems if I had to play too much with the ground scale to get it to fit which would mean adjusting the rules or choosing another set. Obviously this is a small simple battle and the issues are multiplied 10 fold if seeking to refight the Alma let alone Waterloo.

Which is better? Neither in and of itself, its a hobby it depends on what you enjoy. So whats the point? Well it all has to do with the ongoing saga of how to organize and base my troops. If I could just ignore the re-create side which isn't where I get my real enjoyment, it wouldn't matter. Since I want to keep the option to do both, I've chosen a middle ground, I want to be able to fit small historical battles on my tabletop but I want to build average or standard units and adjust as necessary if trying to do a specific historical re-creation.
How to select the optimum organization and basing for my chosen scale of troops will be the subject of the next post.


  1. I've never been able to find a compromise to this particular problem that I've been happy with, every solution involves a certain amount of handwaving. In the end, I generally go with a rule of thumb strategy based on what fits with my conceptions of the battle or situation in question, which is by its very nature a caricature.

    As for basing, I shifted to single basing of all my large scale figures to avoid this heartbreak - sabots are good enough for me.

  2. "If I could just ignore the re-create side which isn't where I get my real enjoyment, it wouldn't matter."

    Isn't that the truth! I walk that same fine line and am perpetually tormented about basing and organizing. How many nightmarish headaches have I caused myself by changing both organization and basing of the same collection(s) multiple times...!?

  3. In recent times I've found myself drifting away from re-creating towards a more generic approach, but never 100%, so there's still always the risk of indecision and confusion.

    I'm not certain how much of this shift arises from laziness and the desire for an easier life, or from a sensible pragmatism borne of experience combined with the aspiration simply to play more games, which would be a little more virtuous :-)

  4. Conrad, individual is always the most flexible choice. I've sometimes wondered if I could just slow down and use moving 100's of individual soldiers as a sort of meditation aide.

  5. Steve, there is another aspect, an important one for me, if you don't deploy troops in the right start plan and follow the original battle plan, are you really re-creating the battle? If you do follow the script of the historical battle, do you really need the players? Most of the important decisions have been made once you have deployed. (Good for solo games though.)

    Once you allow the players to make their own dispositions and battle plans, it seems to me that a generic version of the situation is just as good and it doesn't matter so much if these 100 men are with this unit or that one as the player can change it anyway.

  6. Tim, its like picking at scabs, you know its going to bleed eventually but you just can't stop.