Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Published Portable Wargame: Part 1 of 4

My first in-person encounter with hex based miniature wargames came in the mid-70's when I visited a little wargame shop in Hamilton, Ontario while travelling on leave. Sadly I have forgotten the names of both the shop and the owner but he not only opened up the shop on his day off when he happened by and saw me with my nose pressed against the glass but we spent a good while chatting about wargaming and he showed me the handmade 3d hexes his  group used for their 25mm ancient wargames and talked about the advantages of a gridded game.

Fast forward to the early 21st C and I found myself playing hexed bases miniature games with my friend Ron, occasionally ones designed for it but usually just a conversion of our usual conventional rules to fit his geohex clad table, then a Hexed Hotz Matt and finally Hexon. For most of this past decade all of our games have been hex based. I was slow to convert my own table but by 2010 I was sometimes using a Hexed Hotz Matt (thanks Ron) for solo games at home and was experimenting more and more with cardtable sized games.

This was the setting into which Bob Cordery introduced his Portable Wargame. I had been following Bob's blog before I began to blog myself but something about the Portable Wargame caught me at an opportune moment when I was ripe for a small yet interesting miniature wargame played on a gridded playing field. As a long time rules tinkerer and writer I have gone on to work on my own style of gridded games, both large and small, but I have continued to follow and draw inspiration from the development of the Portable Wargame and occasionally bombard Bob with questions and comments even while I go my own way. When Bob announced the publication of The Portable Wargame I was not only excited for him but  excited to get a copy.

Even before I received my copy, I had decided that the buzz and the known qualities of the game justified my registering to give gamers who attend Huzzah! in Maine a chance to walk up and try their hand at it.  This may help explain my eagerness to actually try the published version and see what I had gotten myself into! So, this post will give a quick report on my first game, the second will review the book, the third will hopefully be a more  thorough game report and the last will be a go at the sudden death option.  
The Boer plan was to use their mobility to seize the town while sending fleet Commandos around the enemy flanks. The British plan was to mass most of the infantry against the town while using their sole mounted unit backed by an MG to block Boer flanking moves one one side while the artillery with infantry support held the other flank. 
Since my social day had been cancelled I decided to break out my old, rarely used, downstairs card table board that I made in 2011 and let some of the younger hounds out so they could play and keep me company. To ease storage issues I had removed the frame which was warping anyway and now one troublesome corner is on a permanent "high".  Luckily I was able to lay out a scenario that kept   the errand corner out of the way.

My initial instinct had been to break out my 1/72nd RCW troops but the 1/72 Boers got to me first. I haven't gotten around to painting up the remaining Esci British yet (give me a break, they've only been waiting 35 years...) but there were enough guardsmen to fill the gaps. I decided to go with all average troops and an even number of units since I had no idea of the relative balance between the mobility of the Boers and the resilience of the British infantry or the hitting power of the MG and artillery.

I decided that the game would be a simple meeting engagement with both sides trying to seize a small town. The initial idea was that a Boer Commando during the guerrilla phase of the 2nd war was out to capture some much needed supplies while the British were out to deny them. Then I realised that the Red coats indicated the 1st Boer War so I took away the Boer's artillery and decided to just to get on with the game without worrying about why the Boers wanted the town.

The Boers had 8 cavalry units plus a commander, the British had a field gun, an MG (looks like a Maxim but doubtless a Gatling), a cavalry unit and 5 infantry units and a commander. Each side had to deploy on the centre 4 squares of the 1st and 2nd rows of their side of the board. The rules were the basic Colonial rules without any of the options that are presented.
The second turn. At first the Boer plan seemed to be working but the British infantry  proved quite stubborn while the building walls seemed to be made of cardboard rather than something more bulletproof. (Maybe I should have left the roofs on?)
Everything went fine until the fighting broke out at which point I realised that there were a few minor points that I was unclear about and that, as simple as the rules were, I needed to keep checking on details such as ranges and kept forgetting modifiers. Obviously, until I have played a number of games, a quick reference sheet would be handy and will be essential for the convention  games.

I was also unable to find answers to some of my questions about details, such as whether or not artillery on a hill could fire over  friends. Luckily these sorts of things are generally no more than a slight check to seasoned gamers so while I have been periodically firing off questions to Bob who always answers quite promptly, the game did not have to stop for such minor details. Since I had deployed the only artillery on a hill I decided to allow overhead fire, not that it mattered when the gun crew was busy trying to break the record for rolling 1's and 2's.

Sometime units have been lost yet but the British have taken one of the houses and the Boers, with smaller units, are losing more men. At last they remembered their horses and started backing out of combat and unequal firefights in order to try and leverage their mobility to gang up on vulnerable British units. 
I knew from past experience that there was no way that I would record each turn properly with unit by unit results so planned to at least take a picture each turn so that I could remind myself of what had happened. Yeah, right.  Its bad enough that the family or Wreck room is the only one with less light than my wargames room making it hard to get usable ones but I kept getting so wrapped in the game that I often forgot to stop and pay attention to the younglings let alone take pictures each turn. Well.....I suppose that sort of forgetfulness is not such a bad thing, right Mr Kinch?

Several unusable photos later, the sun has set and when the Boer leader goes down the remaining Commandos decided that the game wasn't worth the candle. (In other words the Boer Army was exhausted and the British held the objective.)
Apart from the game having kept me rapt for about an hour and a half, it was a very useful exercise in exploring the rules. Several of the rules approach things from a different angle from what I am used to and it would have been easy to dismiss these instances as "wrong" but a few turns often showed that the design was having the right effect regardless of the approach chosen.

For example, all units have the same chance to inflict a "hit" in combat in a given situation regardless of whether the unit is composed of angry villagers armed with rocks or veteran regular infantry with magazine rifles. However, since some units can absorb more hits than others and some units are more likely to be able to choose to withdraw rather than taking a hit,  a tussle between those villagers and the veteran infantry is unlikely to end with a victory by the villagers especially if the infantry choose options that allow them to make the most of their ability to shoot from a safe distance.

Even with this simple test game, it was obvious that although the British tended to have luckier die rolls, the real problem was that the Boers initially made a battle plan that played into the enemy's hand. The cover bonus was insufficient to offset the ability of the British to concentrate fire on the smaller Boer units and drive them back or destroy them. Without a numerical advantage the Boers needed to be more clever than they were on the day and make a plan that either used their mobility to achieve local superiority or else drew the enemy into a trap.  Which is pretty much how the real wars worked out.

That's enough for one post. Part 2 will look at the book itself and briefly comment on the rules and options that are presented. After that will come some (hopefully) more thorough playtest reports including one game using the "Sudden Death" option.



  1. Ross Mac,

    Thank you for an excellent battle report. I look forward to reading your review of my book in due course.

    All the best,


  2. Good stuff Ross. Well done on bashing Brother Bojer.

    1. Never occurred to me that my Boers mght be beaten by that ragtag of Redcoats!

    2. Never occurred to me that my Boers mght be beaten by that ragtag of Redcoats!

  3. Ross,
    Splendid commentary on the Battle and lead up to it- well done! Good to see the Esci British in play- are your Boers 'Jacklex' ? Regards. KEV.

    1. Mostly Scruby Boers from Historifigs but there are some Jacklex as well, lovely figures!

    2. Mostly Scruby Boers from Historifigs but there are some Jacklex as well, lovely figures!