Friday, December 6, 2013

Back to Basics...

I can remember the glorious battles of "the old days" (circa 1994 to when my airfix and esci DAK troops faced off against my Revell US GIs.  Granted, they were in winter dress but who cared at the time?  They had M1 Garand Rifles, Thompson SMGs, and .30 Cal MGs and squared off against some pretty serious looking German troopers with tons of firepower.  In my engagements they would battle for mountain pass objectives, strongpoints, and any other equally exciting goal I could dream up.  After playing a few games of "EPIC: Space Marine" with a friend, I went home with my tail between my legs (playing Space Marine against a Chaos Space Marine Army) each time but received further inspiration for my toy soldier battles.
My rules were a simple combination of fire and movement, with rifle-armed soldiers firing a 1D6 and hitting on a 5+.  Your LMGs rolled 2 dice.  Cover reduced your hit chances to a 6.  Rifle and LMG ranges were an easy 45cm and each trooper moved 15cm.  Artillery and mortars fired with the classic GW "Blast Template" and attacked everything underneath with 1D6, with higher calibers getting better potential for a hit.  Armor got saving throws and when I played "Squad Leader" I introduced defensive fire rules (bloody!  you can basically shoot at anything that moved in front of you).
I played out an "Omaha Beach" scenario on my bed with 1/32 scale CTS and Airfix toy soldiers with telling results.  (don't you love how a made bed looks like Omaha beach?  The row of pillows at the end of the bed where the blankets cover is the raised bluff where the "bad guys" are entrenched.)  The US won but at such a high cost they would have been pushed off the objective with a squad of Polish "guest workers."
That being said, many of us long for "that rules set" that out-does all the others.  A single set that we "feel" answers all our questions and replicates combat adequately.  That feeling is based on an intangible, philosophical set of perceptions of what we think combat is like (or ought to be like).  Our perceptions are based off our earliest experiences, our reading and research, and the experience and opinons of others, we socialize with.  We "grow up" in our hobby, trying out different rules sets until we find one we like.  We shell out our hard-earned cash and order rules set after rules set in the search for a "holy grail" of combat rules that does nothing more than replicate fire and movement on a battlefield.  We search for the best possible model that [we feel] accurately depicts the problem of a projectile hitting its target, and the effects of the projectile on that target.  Before you know it, you have a 3 foot stack of wargame rules next to your table and still - NO ANSWERS.
I would like to introduce a concept I like to call "Rules Shock."  The glorious times we live in afford us the opportunity to share ideas and purchase widgets on a scale never before seen in history.  I would argue that our hobby, the miniature and board wargamers of the world, have benefited from the internet and a global marketplace much more than most hobbies, with better access to goods, products, miniatures and most importantly, ideas.  Hell you can actually watch a US Army firefight with the Taliban from the comfort of your living room or office on YouTube, effectively bringing the world of combat to your home.
The only problem I can fathom now with all of this unprecedented "access" is a phenomenon that your workplace or profession might also be langouring under - information overload.  There is too much data out there and the emerging professions in the world are centered around analysis and people who can give you that clarity through the murk.  It's no different with wargaming.
In my search for the perfect rule set, I spent hundreds of dollars for rules sets, all of them great in their own ways, but none of them delivering that which I needed - clarity into the world of battle and the modeling of a combat situation or process.  All of my rules sets are different, yet all of them are for the most part the same.  You model a battle across a ground and time scale, you model the probability of your weapons hitting a target, and the effects of the weapons on the target.  In most cases, you also "model" the effects of the weapons on your toy soldiers which is something we call "morale." 
By now you're rolling your eyes but hear me out - the point's coming I promise.
Since our philosophies and ideas are shaped by our experiences, we're looking for a gaming experience that satisfies the expectations of those experiences.  My childhood and teenage years were filled with toy soldier and miniatures battles and the history of warfare.  I read everything I could get my hands on related to ground combat.  When I became an officer in the US Army, my experiences were shaped and molded by training, time around Soldiers and eventually real combat in a shooting war.  All of these experiences shaped and molded what I "thought" combat should "feel" like on the tabletop.  I still bought the rules sets but there was always something missing and I could never explain what it was.  Playing all kinds of different rules sets was and is still great.  It's alot of fun, but what the heck am looking for?  Then it hit me.
The satisfaction I felt as a child playing with toy soldiers was what I was after and there was a dissatisfaction with almost all of the rules out there because of my own expectations and perceptions.  As a child, I longed to be around the big guns, the rifles, the vehicles and the battles.  When I grew up, I wrote a letter to my mother from Iraq about how sick and God-damned tired I was of hearing these stupid trucks and tracked vehicles start outside every day and how I just wanted to wear a shirt and pair of mesh shorts around for a day and not shave for a week or two.  New experiences shaping my perceptions.
Rules shock with wargaming rules clouded my vision.  I played or bought one rules set to try it out.  Then another, and another.  Some were fun, some were not so fun.  Some were difficult to fathom for me.  In the end, I was looking to replicate the feelings I had as a child when playing with toy soldiers.  I dont think there's a rules set out there that can not deliver that for you, but for those like me who cant seem to find "it," here is a kind suggestion with our restless brains in mind:
Charles Grant's "Battle"
I received Battle in the mail last night, and read almost the entire thing by the time I went to bed, even with periodic and frequent interruptions from my wife, asking "how can you be reading and listening to me at the same time?
Charles Grant's wonderful book breaks down wargaming into what its components truly are -  models of a process.  He offers simple and refreshing explanations into his methodology for determining armor values in WWII tanks, as well as the potential "strike values" for anti tank fire.  The best part is all of it translates into a D6 or 2D6 roll which for me, harkens back to my days with the ESCI DAK troops fighting to hold the mountain pass for Rommel.  He also gives a great explanations for movement scale.  Like it or hate it, at least there is some mathematical basis for the rationale.  In "Battle" you move, then you shoot.  As simple as that.
I'm not saying "Battle" is the best thing out there.  I still want to play my Blitzkrieg Commander or GHQ or Flames of War from time to time, but what I'm really looking for is the satisfaction I got when I dared to recreate a battle on the tabletop (or floor, or bed or coffee table) as a youngster.  Battle seems to deliver on that promise, something that all of the myriad of rules written out there have not been able to do in their entirety.  I will play a few games and see what I can do, perhaps even expand on the initial vehicle offerings from Grant's book.  

Maybe I'll even write up a quick sample of those D6 rules I played as a kid.


  1. Great stuff here. I've been doing a lot of thinking about rules, etc on my blog as well.

    I will link to this post from my blog.

    1. Thanks, Itinerant. I wanted to get an overall discussion started and I'm glad I posted it.

  2. Nice post. We all reminisce about "the good old days" of gaming - I know I miss 2nd Edition 40K on the ping pong table in my parent's garage. Like you, I've spent a bucket of cash on different rules and minis in my time and am rarely truly satisfied with a game.
    I think kids are better natural gamers than grown ups. My 10-year old comes up with stuff all the time that I nit-pick to death but he is completely pleased with. The games he comes up with are certainly playable but I guarantee his recollection of them in 25 years will be much different than mine.
    As we get older, our wisdom and experience screws up the simple innocent fun. We're always trying to get back there which is why we still play with toy soldiers after all these years anyway.
    Good luck with "Battle" and I look forward to seeing your results.

    1. Ski,
      Isn't it interesting - the more you know about something - the less easy it is to pick up and game. How many people would take a company of panthers and game them in North Africa? Or have OCD to the extent where you can't game Stug's with schurzen on them because the schurzen didn't come out in that month of the war? All food for thought. I had to stop and look at what I was really after in my gaming.

      Turns out I was after the happiness and joy it gave me as a child.

      Battle looks like it could deliver that result without minutia and tedium. Thanks for commenting!

  3. There seems to be a growing throng of gamers looking for the more simpler game these days. I'm certainly one of them! I too have spent a small fortune on rule book after rule book simply trying to recapture the games of my youth.
    Good read, thanks for posting.

    1. Steve,
      I'm definitely one myself. Thanks for commenting - I'm glad you see my point. All we're really after is that happiness and joy we found when we used to play with toy soldiers. Perhaps it's simply nostalgia but for whatever reason we try to look for that in our rules. I'm not quite sure any rules set can match some of the grand battles I had on my dining room table simply because I was a child and that was as close as I could get.

  4. Good post. The advantage for me as far as the information highway is concerned is scenario research. Need to know the French regiments and their strengths at the Battle of Paris, 1814; there is a digitized book with that info on the internet.
    My favorite rules are old; Johnny Reb and Command Decision were first published in the '80's and Volley and Bayonet in the '90's. I'm very pleased with them and probably won't change my mind about them. I will play other rules if someone else is running the game.
    Good luck with Battle, it looks like a fun game.

    1. Mike,
      I hear you. The games from "the roarding eighties and nineties" (and a little before) seem to remain some of the best out there. The games today are all dice-heavy and more inspired by Games Workshop than actually inspired by....well...inspired by inspiration. Nothing bad against Black Powder or Flames of War, or BKC, but you have to find a game that delivers historically satisfying results that also lets you feel like you're playing with toy soldiers - if that makes any sense. Thanks for commenting.

  5. mmmm, reading and listening... yes dear :) Still think you can't beat CD3 for anything over battalion level mate

    1. Al,
      "yes dear" must be international language for answering the spouse! I am really looking forward to playing CD3. I own it and have not played it yet, but I prefer games where 1 stand is a platoon so CD3 is perfect for me.

  6. Steven - Yours is a very insightful posting - as are many of the comments in response. Before I continue, I should probably state that in many respects I come from the opposite direction to yours: I've never been a soldier - never particularly wanted to be one - and in 'real life' am apt to be more of a pacifist cast.

    Yet as a kid I was always interested in 'warry' stories, particularly historical novels, and creating battles using whatever came to hand (including marbles for missiles). Toy soldiers? I knew there were such things, but they seemed to belong to another world and time.

    So I never developed rule sets at that time, though have since. And one of those rule sets is a 1-point-five brain cell set that seems very similar to the kind of game you used to play in your young days. They are my 'Army Men' rules - quite different from the Command Decision and Panzer Marsch rules I play with my 1/76 scale stuff.

    I wonder if the experience we look for has less to do with the game mechanics and the 'technical' results they produce, so much as the sense of achievement, relief and perhaps loss as well, in successfully carrying a well defended objective; in holding on against all the odds in the face of a seemingly overwhelming attack; of pulling of a coup that transforms defeat into victory...

    1. Archduke,
      Very well said. You nailed it talking about the achievement, relief, loss, and sense of accomplishment carrying a well defended position, or holding on against all odds against a determined attacker. That's the stuff we seek in our games. Dare I say - even epic losses sometimes can be fun when they're memorable.

      So can we agree we play to achieve a feeling (or recreate a memory?), rather than seek a technical solution? If I'm honest with myself, I play wargames because I played with toy soldiers as a child and I still enjoy playing with toy soldiers when everything's said and done. Thank you for posting!