Sunday, February 27, 2011

Something for the Awkward Squad

I didn't mean for Hearts of Tin to be so complex.

 Not that its complex as wargames go but still, there are 7 pages of definitions to get you started and 8 pages of rules for playing, rules full of exceptions and different cases. That's not likely to be a problem for even a moderately experienced gamer who wants to look them over but its not really what I had in mind going in. I had been thinking of a simple game without a lot of detail and exceptions to distract the gamer from the job at hand.

I remember a man and his son who signed up for a French & Indian War game that Rob & I staged at Cold Wars a few years back using With MacDuff to the Frontier, if anything a simpler, more intuitive game that HofT.  Not only were neither of them familiar with history beyond a bit of tv or movies and had no concept of units or formations but even rolling dice was a  new experience that had to be explained to them. They seem to have had a good time at least and signed up for a 2nd game ( maybe it wa a case of the devil they knew?).

When I look at the basic rules in Charge! and the rules in Featherstone's Battles with Model Soldiers, both look to me like something that someone could pick up pretty easily, especially if they have either some interest in history or have seen an ACW movie or Sharpe etc. The trick is probably having a simple situation and an objective which makes sense rather than just lining up and going at it.

Morchauser's original rules also look easy to pick up, possibly even easier since each "basic unit" or stand is a playing piece. (which is why the stab I took a couple of years ago at a set of intro War of 1812 rules for non-gamers were based on them).

What do these rules have in common?

1.They are clearly structured with simple choices, unlike either life or history.
2. They follow a clear turn sequence even if in some cases there are initiative rolls to see who goes first.
3. There are a minimum of crucial details. For example, there are rules for infantry, cavalry and artillery but not for a dozen varieties of each.
4, When the dice are rolled, usually for combat, the results are clear, immediate and fairly intuitive. For example in Charge!, the number rolled on the die is the number of enemy that are hit, the high roller in melee kills his opponent.

The absence of details and special cases don't necessarily make for a better re-creation of historical warfare but it does mean that you can focus on the main point, making the most of your troops capabilities to defeat your opponent by better strategy or better luck.


Relax, this is not about changing Hearts of Tin (ok not at the moment at least). Whether they make the game better or not, the added complications in HofT keep worming their way back in for a reason. Still, I've noticed that I don't often use any of the neat extras in the rules, and occasionally wonder whether rules defining formations etc are really necessary or if such things should flow naturally from the rules (as in you can't shoot through someone so putting your elements side by side makes sense. For a while I reduced melee distance to contact to make the difference between shooting and a decisive attack more clear, after all 2 of my stands in melee contact cover an area 50 to 100 yards deep from back base to back base. It made me want to reintroduce different musket ranges though so I went back to Morschauser's Melee distance. A grid would help......)

 Lately, without justification or cause that I can think of, I have been thinking about what I would do if, a non-gamer, a neighbor perhaps, came by, saw the soldiers and asked about my hobby and wanted to try a game. What could I do that would be fun and make sense? 

With a dozen choices to hand, it shouldn't be difficult and I could probably wing it but I don't think I'd want to start with a dozen pages of rules or have to try to remember which rules I'm not applying today.  Since I did do my stint as a boy scout, it seems to me that it wouldn't hurt to be prepared. It should be a simple game with an objective, it should be a situation and period that a new recruit might relate to and it should be possible to go from an introductory game to a full scale one without throwing everything away and starting over. 

Prince Valiant is one obvious starting point. Anyone who enjoyed LOTR or Arthur or The Eagle etc etc or who used to read the Prince Valiant comic strip, should be able to relate. The rules are simple and fairly intuitive and have been easily picked up on occasions by kids and relative newcomers as well as by more experienced gamers. I just need a simple, makes sense scenario in my back pocket. Perhaps the ambush of a wagon with a rescue party..

For someone who can't relate to anything older than the 20th Century, I'm at a bit of a loss. I could do a Morschauser game with 1950's Khaki vs Tan armies but theoretically I'm  using Cold War Commander for these guys and that would mean relearning as opposed to just adding rules. Perhaps I could prepare a stripped down version with 1 move per unit instead of command rolls.  A project for another day.

And, of course, horse and musket. Something set in a bit of history that they will have heard of would be good, preferably Canadian history but American will probably serve thanks to Hollywood and TV. It would be nice to say "We could play out the siege of Louisburg if you have an hour" but that's a bit much even if I could stage it so perhaps a version of Sawmill Village, little advance planning and a clear objective. Casting my eye over what is on hand, the American Revolution if I add some troops (Nova Scotia is one of the spots the Loyalist's landed), War of 1812 or the American Civil War comes to mind. My 1812 troops are on the cusp between units of single figures and elements and perhaps a skirmish using a simplified version of MacDuff might serve, its been at the back of my mind anyway. On the other hand, an intro version of HofT with each stand being a unit is attractive and perhaps even easier. The danger would be that I am getting lazy enough that I might start to prefer it as a standard game!  

Well, I have another full month of winter before the 2 feet of ice and snow outside my back door starts to melt, so lots of time to contemplate such things. 


  1. Ross,

    Having been put in exactly that position - I have used both Memoir '44 and Little Wars to advantage with non-gamers.

  2. When it comes to the hex/grid-free game, I've become very sceptical about the merits of simple horse & musket rules; I now suspect the one-page or back-of-a-postcard ideal is a chimera, because all it is is normal rules with any commentary or explanation stripped out. That potentially makes it worse for beginners not armed with the collection of assumptions and common understandings possessed by the experienced player.

    I can see why a boardgame like Memoir 44 would work and also a very intuitive toy soldier knock'em down game like Little Wars, as Mr Kinch mentions above.

    In practice I've never been required to introduce a complete novice to wargaming, so it's all hypothetical and I'll shut up now :-)

  3. I remember way back when we learned the initial "Johnny Reb" rules (not that I'm suggesting them -- no) . . . there was a simple "learning scenario" that we played like three times in an afternoon . . . and it was great! All I really recall of it now is that it featured the Louisiana Tigers.

    Again I'm not suggesting the "Johnny Reb" rules . . . but a simple "learning scenario" that can be played a number of different ways is probably a good thing to look for (whatever rules you pick).

    -- Jeff

  4. Conrad, I only know Memoir by reputation but it doesn't surprise me that it would be a good intro. Little Wars! Back to our roots. I do have a 4.7" on the shelf, and some original Britain's ass well as various plastic 54's but...., you're a better man than I Conrad Din

  5. Steve Most of the complete newbies that I've helped introduce have been in a group setting which is easier because they can watch or be coached by a team mate. I have done it 1 on 1 a couple of times though I'll be damned if I can remember what I chose.

    I think you're right about most 1 pagers. But, I can see the value of the well worn path of a stripped down intro game with a few basic troop types which can be built up on the same base. Bit of a make work project though.

  6. Good idea Jeff.
    A specially designed as a learning situation.

    On a side note, I remember a couple of us, veteran gamers all, trying out Johnny Reb 3 when they came out and stumbling through what felt like a 50 step charge sequence (it wasn't really). We decided it was probably a good set of rules if you took the time to learn them and played often but being lazy we stuck with Fire & Fury. I did have my Louisiana Tigers though!

  7. We abandoned "Johnny Reb" long before "JB3" came out. It was good for small actions, but bogged down rather seriously with large battles . . . too fiddly.

    I'll have to see if I can find that old stuff and look for that training scenario to see if I can send it to you for inspiration.

    -- Jeff

  8. Ross,

    I used the rules and scenarios at [ ] to introduce a dozen kids at my son's school. Matt keeps his rules simple and to the point, and inasmuch as his bases generally require only 2 figures, large forces can be raised pretty quickly. (I've used my ordinary 3-figure bases without undue problems!) The only problem I can see is that the rules tend to be an end in themselves; they are not generally a way of getting into a more detailed set of rules already used by others. They do, however, introduce a lot of basic concepts, such as formations, the effects of different weapons, the impact of close vs long range, etc., so I have found them very valuable.

    Best regards,


  9. Thanks Jeff, I suspected you had tried out an early version.

  10. Thanks for reminding me of that site Chris. Its grown alot since the last time I looked at it. (I think only had 2 or 3 games, its been a while....).

    I love the paper soldiers. I'm too big s clutz to cut 'em out and assemble them though.

    Anyway, they do show the advantage of designing a set of rules for a specific game, lets you keep them very focussed. He also tends to use a few fairly standard concepts which helps both design and the ability of players to pick up the next one. The 1 hit kills is reminiscent of Morschauser and nice and simple. Good site.