Friday, May 20, 2011

Musings on simplicity, grids, units and terrain

Not all games should be the same. There, I've said it. So why is it that every time I experience a good idea in practice I seem to get this urge to make everything conform?   Ah well, time to go lie down in a dark room for a while.

I talked about simplicity for years and was engaged by discovering Morschauser  but as I've said many times, it wasn't really until I took a hand in Dick Larsen's Morschauser/Shambattle game that I discovered what it really meant. Its been a struggle of decades of conventional wisdom vs the light of conversion ever since.
Tom launches a counter attack at Enfilade. I don't think Richard's pose is a response as GM.

The simplicity of Bob's Portable Wargame, is one of the really attractive features. Like Dick's game, it captures the broad strokes but allows players to focus on tactics in the general sense and on the principles of war. Sometimes this means a sacrifice of period detail and the temptation is ever present to start adding things in. The ability of the rules to accept modification is another strength but doing so calls for great caution or the very simplicity that was the original merit soon becomes lost. The trick is to figure out which bits are really crucial for the period, (and here one generally needs to look past conventional wisdom and public perception to avoid unnecessary clutter which often works in counter-intuitive ways) or which add critical flavour.  The addition of squares for LittleJohn's 100 days outing is a prime example of how to do this. He might have added a brand new mechanism for cavalry against squares but that would have added complexity, or he might have adjusted the combat strengths on the assumption that infantry  would normally form square so the tactic could be "factored in" without bothering the player but that would have left out the iconic image of the British squares at Waterloo and lessened the appeal. Instead he made a simple tweak using existing mechanisms and came up with a simple solution which appears to work well. 

A simple basic framework, easily customized for specific situations, that's been my ideal for decades.

Grids of one sort or another can be a tools to enable simplicity. Simple games can also be designed without grids while grids can also be used as a tool to enable some sorts of complications.  It can be hard sometimes to separate two different aspects of a game which each contribute something, like grids and simplicity. 


Its always easier starting from scratch and without outside constraints.  One could, for example, if adopting a hex grid, mount one's troops on hex shaped bases.  However, past experience has shown me that 
introducing brilliant ( ie wierd) new basing systems is ok if you are just pleasing yourself but they tend to leave one's armies playing against themselves.  

In the gridded games that I've played so far, I've been able to arrange things so that 1 unit and only 1 unit fit into one grid space and only 1 grid space.  I've also played in situations where adjacent units might support each other but where they were not linked in any fashion.  Portraying  say, a Roman Manipular Legion vs a Macedonian Phalanx starts to add interesting questions. The Maniples are easy, regardless of proper numbers and proportions, each grid area of Romans is a unit and works independently as usual. The Phalanx is trickier, to get the right feel, adjacent units need to feel tightly locked together. A series of traditional 25mm ancients on 60mm x 40mm bases deployed in a honey comb pattern with each centered in a 100mm wide hex, is just not going to look right, even if the rules work ok.  A 60 mm  wide square grid would work but you might be the only person with such a grid. Here's where starting with fresh organization and basing options would be a big help (as would  getting clever).

It also gets tricky if one wants to play a game where a "unit" doesn't fit into 1 grid area, perhaps a battalion if using big figures or a small grid. Easy enough with squares but tricky with hexes or off-set squares if one wants to avoid staggered lines or columns. Nothing that ingenuity or force of will can't over come, but a challenge. 

One of the reasons these things are mulling about in my mind is that much of my terrain is over tired and in need of replacement but I've been holding off, not only until I had time and space, but also until I made up my minds on scales and on what sort of games I want to play over the next 10-30 years. Since I've been dabbling with grids over the last year, it makes sense to include that aspect in my planning. 

The following factors need to be considered:

a) not all of my games will be gridded but some will be,
b) its easy to play a non-gridded game on a subtly gridded playing surface,  it is much harder to play a gridded game on a non-gridded surface so if the basic table is not gridded then I need to be able to overlay a grid including onto hills and woods,

c) since only 1 of my regular opponents uses a grid, there are benefits to using a matching grid,

d) there may be benefits to having more than 1 grid option but I don't have room for more than 1 set of hills so if I have one grid or no grid on the basic table surface, other grids will have to be supplied on a cloth which can be laid over hills. In the past, such terrain has worked better with multi-figure bases than individual figures, and even better with 25mm and smaller troops. 1/72nd plastic on multi-figure bases are ideal. There can also be an issue sometimes as to exactly where the hill starts but if anything the grid should help that.

e) I don't have room for a lot of duplicate of buildings so each scale and period must be adaptable to any grid that I am likely to use for that size and period. 

I haven't made a final decision yet but the 2 main options are:

A Square Grid.

1) Laying a 5" square grid onto my painted board and carrying on with plans to cut some spare 1" boards into vertical sided contours based around a 5"grid. 
Like this, sort of, but finished to match the table, and with rounded hill corners.  

This will give me a grid of 168 squares (12 x 14) which can be easily ignored if not using the grid. This size will hold my 54mm units, 4 stands of 40mm 16thC or 25mm ancient troops, or a 3 stand regiment of 1/72nd ACW troops in line ( or a 9 stand Brigade if massed into a massed attack column).

2) Each grid square will be marked into quarters to allow a grid of  672 squares for RCW & WWII games with 1 stand per square or for 40mm skirmish games. This will be done with a smaller cross of a different colour.

3) When funds are available, a Hotz mat with 4" hexes will be purchased. Initially the cloth could be laid over hills but eventually as funds allow, Hexon hills could be added. There will be a contrast between hills and mat but it is workable.
Lentulus's set up with Hexon hills on an ungridded Hotz mat. 

Eventually a full Hexon terrain system could be added and used for plain or hex games and a squared cloth be placed over top if a square grid was desired.


B. Buy a Litko spray stencil and lay a 4" hex grid on my table and make my own hills and river etc using the stencil as a guide. I would still have the option of adding Hexon terrain. 

Now to mull over that and ponder the question of ancient warfare again. I don't anticipate much action until after Historicon unless I have a really good run on ebay.  We'll see how the War-chest survives that expedition. 


  1. Ross Mac,

    A very interesting blog entry. In fact, there are some bits of it that I could almost have written myself, being in agreement with much of what you have stated.

    All the best,


  2. It seems Ross, old chum, that you're on the horns of a dilemma. I sympathise, having been on the very same horns. I would hesitate to advise.

    I couldn't agree more about simple rules though. As my pal General Gorman put it once, "any game I can't play while plastered is too complex!"

  3. A dilemma? No, no my friend, choosing basing options is a dilemma, this is merely a choice of opportunities!

  4. Cracking post - the start should be made recommended reading for all newcomers to the hobby, not to mention rather older dogs such as me. I was interested that the Napoleonique rules, which originally seem to be have been closely tied in with the Der Kriegspieler operation, use small hexes merely as a way of making distance visible and simplifying movement - units do not fit in the hexes, so you can, for example, fire on the near end of a line. This is sort of visible in a picture from the DK catalogue on the Old Metal Detector blog at

    This doesn't really add anything to your discussion, but it breaks away from what, for me, had become an automatic assumption that any cells on the tabletop should be able to contain a unit. It is so automatic for me now that in a recent action I split an extra-large cavalry unit into two parts which could each sit in one of my 7" hexes (why, oh why, did I do 7" hexes? - I am doomed to cut my own hills for ever....)

    As a general point, to extend the tangential break-out, I was going to do a little dipping into odd bits of old rule sets on my own blog, so maybe some scans from Napoleonique and the later Napoleonique Encore (which - now I check it - doesn't show hexes!) might be a nice starting place. Napoleonique deserves special mention anyway for the unspeakably awful dice "combo" rolling system, but that's another story.


  5. Tony, Thanks for reminding me of those Napoleonique hexes, I never owned or played the rules but remember seeing them in a Heritage USA catalogue and being intrigued. (and for reminding me that hexes don't have to be used "all or nothing".

  6. In my gaming group, we've adopted 4" hexes for many of our in-house-developed games. 4" is not by accident the size of Kallistra hexes; I've acquired quite a lot of Kallistra terrain over the past 5 years.

    Anyway, some good rules of thumbs we've discovered:

    - 1 unit = 1 hex; and 1 hex = 1 unit. This works well for unit-sized games. 4" hexes provide the right looking footprint in many scales to 'full up' the hex with enough figures such that the visual appeal is ok.
    - Facing: allow for 12 facing directions. THis requires some additional rules for definig front/side/rear and firing arcs; but provides additional flexibility. We've also experimented with free facing, but that didn't work that well.
    - We've also used hexes for skirmish games (e.g. Wild West gunfights), and keep in mind that hexes can be used for measuring distances and movement, but for determining line-of-sight, facing. cover, etc. you can still use the individual placement of a figure inside the hex. This works well in skirmish games with 1-1 representational figure scale, where you have a lot of terrain features that are visually of sub-hex size.
    - With gentlemen players your terrain features do not have to match hexes exactly. If a hill scenic piece sort of covers a hex, then that hex is a hill, and the hill doesn't spill over in adjacent hexes.

    As for the simplicity of rules: yes - I think it is more difficult to write a good simple set of rules that captures the essentials of a period, rather than a complex beast that allows for every contingency. As for my own rules: if the whole ruleset doesn't match 2 A4s, it has not been made simple enough.

  7. Phil, thanks for the extensive comments and sharing of experience. I think the 1 unit = 1 hex idea probably gets the most out of the hexes and that's what we're going with for 18thC but our existing 60mm wide ancients bases are an issue. Maybe eventually we'll rebase to something non-standard that fits the hexes better but for now I'm experimenting with multi-hex units.

    We did try the 12 direction facing last week and liked it.

    Having agreeable players makes everything better doesn't it?