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Back of Beyond Campaign.  Initial musings from the umpires!

“Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Rob’s views

We have completed 4 turns and a set up turn so we are a third of the way through the campaign. My initial ambitious plan for a 24-turn game to be reviewed after 12 turns but soon after starting the campaign I came to the rapid conclusion that 12 turns should be the limit – famous last words!

This has been a bit of a roller coaster ride so far and with the benefit and luxury of hindsight I have been probably a bit too ambitious for my first serious wargame campaign. I have dabbled in the past with campaigns, but my main experience has come from role-playing campaigns in my teenage years. In all fairness getting out a hex map brought back some very happy memories from that period.

As mentioned in my first blog I wanted to give our club players a very different challenge to our usual wargame fest of fighting to the last man on the table top or avoiding the 10.30pm moment in our Friday night games where it is often said “it’s 10.30pm so I better charge!”

I wanted the players to think about the bigger issues that generals face to achieve their strategic goals. Each player was set 5 goals to achieve in the campaign and hopefully they have put together a Strategy to achieve them. They also need this strategy to work on operational level. Although I must confess after 4 turns, I am struggling to see some player’s strategic plan! Operational this is also a challenge as some players have already discovered that troops do not always arrive where they were instructed to go and have fought battles they have not planned.

In my first blog I talked about why I choose the period and how it has captivated me. I believe it has also captivated several of the players and has encouraged many of them to dig deeper and research the period. We have discovered that the British Army used Model T Fords with various guns added to them in the region. The Royal Navy were extensively involved in clashes with red naval forces in the Caspian Sea.  This also coincided with articles on the Back of Beyond era appearing in various wargame magazines. It is an area of the world that we in the west rarely look at and have little knowledge of. We had a great deal of fun learning more.

A British Model T Ford in Palestine

What have I learned about campaign running?

Either start small or have help! As a reminder in this campaign, we have 11 core players and 4 non-core players in different roles all moving independently over a large A1 hex map.  All the books I read on wargaming campaigns suggest that this was not the place to start. However, if you want to do this size of campaign do not do this solo. I have been very fortunate to have the support of Phil Sibbald our newly appointed Club President and a true wargame veteran.

The Master Campaign Map - trying to kept track of everyone's moves

He has been fantastic from the start as was Noel another former club member in pulling together the initial campaign rules and table top rules. However, as the campaign started, to have someone sense check decisions and discuss players orders and results has been invaluable. Even more so having a second umpire at the table top battles – more of that later!

One thing I would recommend is a set up turn or trial turn. I had a set up turn which was used as an exercise for players to buy their core army, work out where they would be deployed within their holdings and deploy their spies. This allowed players to get their head around how to buy troops, their army organisations, the restrictions that were imposed on their army and how the order system I set up would work. This also helped players avoid mucking up their first turn which can be very dispiriting and can cause an immediate loss of interest. However, this also created lots (and I means lots) of feedback for me as an umpire.

The sheer number of questions that came at me on all aspects of the campaign was a complete shock. You need to find the time to respond to these to ensure players are engaged and there has been some great ideas that have flowed from these questions which have enhanced the campaign. Avoiding locking down good ideas and encourage this engagement but be prepared to commit the time to deal it.

Although hard work the more questions you have the more engaged your players. In this campaign my fellow club members have been really engaged and it has been great to see them talk about the campaign at club evenings and watch the interaction between them.

I had to issue rule clarifications and additions almost on a daily basis to start with which helped fill any glaring gaps in the campaign rules and ensured that the players became more involved from the outset.

With the first turn my plan was for players to encounter neutral areas before encountering each other, again allowing for players and the umpires to get to know the system and avoiding silly errors at the start. My planning came a bit unstuck when we did have a battle in turn 1 and I had not placed enough neutral places in between some players.

I also created a campaign Journal which is issued with the turn results that has campaign news written as much as possible in the style of the time – it can be a little un-PC! This creates more engagement and amusement. It also allows the umpires to spread true and false news and allows the players to make their own news to help them achieve their goals.

Front page of one of the early addition of Journal

However, one thing I did not spend enough time on was working out how we got from campaign moves to a table top fight.  The table top layout and deployment rules were not created before we started the campaign. My wise co-umpire did forewarn me, but I failed to take up his advice. These were rushed and not properly tested which has resulted in many changes, as frankly the first system failed miserably on the first battle.

As I discovered on the first table top battle, a campaign can be the most brutal way of play testing of any rule system. My table top rules were on version 4 when we started after quite a few club games. However, after just 4 campaign turns, we are on version 13 – and will go to V14 for turn 5!

Umpiring campaign games have been much more challenging than a usual club game. Many of the players viewed these games very differently some were very competitive and other very timid. Some had read the ruled thoroughly and others had not.  To put this in context, in nearly all our club games knowing the rules is not important as they are always umpired by the game host and the umpire helps the players along to enjoy the experience – win or lose. Well, none of us like to lose….

With a campaign game that approach to umpiring was much more difficult to do and could rightly be seen as unfair to a player who had prepped well and had a plan but conversely if played as a strict competition game this could easily cause a player to leave the campaign that just wanted to have a some fun and a different wargame experience.

The first game in the campaign brought this stark reality home. It was a very tough game for me personally to try and umpire and with again hindsight this was down to the lack of guidance I had given on how the campaign should be played. Was this to be a competition style campaign or more like our club games. I think this is a key point to consider and discuss with your players before you start.

You also need to ensure you have fun as an umpire and decide what campaign you want to run.  I put the campaign on temporary hold whilst Phil and I discussed what type of campaign we wanted to run. We decided that we did not a wargame tournament but a campaign that was fun to play and we could umpire like we do at our club, give more novice players help and encourage sporting behaviour.  

There was also debate over whether these games should be attended by other players than just those involved in the battle. As this was a club campaign, I wanted others to come along and watch but preferably join in. We went with the latter and as a result I believe we have greater buy in from the players and as importantly we had some really good games.

To help us on the table top games we created a useful tool – the “Blunder Chart”. If any player, we felt was pushing boundaries or acting in an ungentlemanly way they would need to roll on the blunder chart which will result in something bad happening to their army. I am pleased to say it has not been used but has been waved about on a few occasions.

The Dreaded Blunder Chart

Another challenge in the campaign has been trying to arrange the table top fights within a sensible period to stop the turn dragging out too long. For turn 3 we failed to get the three battles planned arranged and we had to adjudicate the results.

We have fought 7 table top battles so far with hopefully many more to come. My next blog on the campaign will be my thoughts on tactics and table top fun.

Key Campaign lessons for umpires and hosts.

  1. Keep it small or have support.

  2. Work out how you want to play your campaign game – is it a competition level game or a more relaxed game.

  3. Do as much prep as you can on the campaign and table top mechanics.

  4. Have a set up / trial turn phase to get you and the players used to mechanics / rules and iron out kinks.

  5. On turn 1 try and avoid an early clash between players to allow the players and umpires to avoid silly mistakes and close any other loopholes or gaps that are found in your rules.

  6. Have a campaign Journal to create additional engagement and it is a great tool for the umpires to impart false and true news to the players.

  7. Have a plan how you get from campaign moves to the table top.

  8. Allocate more time than you think you will need to keep on top of the campaign and for organising table top games. Just to give you a flavour on time being spent. At the moment processing a turn for each player takes about 30 minutes to an hour alone. So with 15 players that is quite a bit of time

Marking the Players homework - These are the orders that need processing each turn.

Phil’s Thoughts

A few comments so far

From my point of view the campaign so far has been both very enjoyable and yet a relatively relaxed one.  Rob has put in such a tremendous effort, whereas and my contribution has been some advice, suggestions and support that Rob has very kindly shown appreciation of.

I have run a few campaigns over the years but none that approach the size and complexity of this one.

Both Noel and I did advise not to make things too detailed and complicated, but Rob never does things by half.  In any case he has overcome all the problems that have arisen with gentlemanly charm.

I endorse all the comments and observations that he makes in his blog but would highlight two in particular,

  • that the campaign should be run and played in the style for which the club is known i.e. enjoyment and not competition

  • that all campaigns evolve – it is not possible to consider and provide for all the possible situations that may arise.  The umpires are there to manage, adjudicate and smooth over any issues.

Finally, I think the club should show a huge round of appreciation for all of the hard work Rob has put in to making the campaign a success.  In my new role as “El Presidente” I will issue my first decree declaring Rob “A Hero of the Cause”

Below are the players in action!



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