Have you heard the one about the skirmishers who stopped a cavalry charge in the open? (My rules.) What about allowing troops on a hill to reroll saving fails, and again if in a hilltop building, and again if in a wood? (Yep, my rules.) Perhaps you have seen ‘anomalies’ in published rulesets, or even been guilty of a few yourself? Did you rage, pontificate, or celebrate? I believe that we wargamers tend to be more vocal about defects than about the strengths of rules, and 'errors' may be the best thing about certain games!
Refighting La Rothière (1814) in 6mm
Let’s take my recent Napoleonic refight of the Battle of La Rothière (1814) as an example.
On Friday 26 January 2024, Mal and Phil were the French, and Rob and Doug the Allies (Austrians and Russians respectively) during Napoleon’s desperate Campaign of France, in a really interesting historical scenario.
The French were outnumbered and on the defensive. Mal, however, decided to counter-attack Rob’s Austrians as they attempted a flanking move.
Mal duly confronted Rob (who had to cross two streams and a hill to attack the French) with Marmont’s and Victor’s corps, Milhaud’s cavalry corps, and the French Guard cavalry.
Mal thus gained local superiority against the Austrians, particularly in cavalry, and caused a Stoical Rob some frustration as a result – forcing his Austrians into squares, and particularly with his magical blue dice rolling.
But Mal’s right (and the French centre) was ripe for attack, which Doug did by pummeling the flanks of Mal’s units with this artillery from a hilltop vantage point, and advancing with his infantry – much to Mal’s displeasure!
Around 9:30pm, just as it seemed the French were winning, I brought on the Allied reserves after Doug rolled them in. I directed the infantry and artillery to the left of Doug’s position, leading with four heavy cavalry units. By end of play, the Allied reserve cavalry had caused the French artillery to retreat. While Mal had held back Rob’s Austrians, he had allowed his rear to be threatened by an Allied counter-punch.
I believe the game was enjoyable, and the rules perfectly fine, with the plausible (and historical) result prevailing, while allowing for uncertainty: delusion or sanity on my part?
Real Fun: A Wargaming Philosophy
During the La Rothière game, the French Guard cavalry was deemed too powerful by the Allied players. A few remarks were made about the lack of closing fire (unless an initiative point was used). Also, when the French artillery was mullered, should they have retreated or been destroyed instead? They may have been right! Then again...
Do we like rules when we win, but dislike them when we lose? How can we know what rules should be like? Can the perfect be attained, and if so, is it actually the ‘enemy of the good’? Indeed, when do we accept responsibility for defeat, as opposed to imputing it onto the rules (we are unfamiliar with)?
Coup de Grace are my 6mm Napoleonic rules, which have evolved somewhat over several years of play-testing. While they are not to everyone’s taste (and contain virtually nothing original) they do enable a ‘cinematic’ gaming experience – a largish game to be played on a club night – by sacrificing minute details, and even commonly expected elements – for the sake of player freedom.
Each game I put on is set in a historical context which I try to bring to the fore by balancing the scenario parameters, unit capabilities, or tweaking certain aspects of play, for the sake of a ‘good game’. It will not be a perfect game, but I am confident it will be ‘perfectly good’ (enough)…
My criteria for a good game:
1. Visually pleasing figures and terrain – Figures stay the same, rules may change. I love painting figures, and in all honesty, they are usually the main focal point of my games.
2. Simple rules easily grasped but not overly prescriptive - ‘covering all bases’ with exhaustive rules leads to confusion, further ‘necessary’ clarification or new rules, meaning infinite regress into pedantry and umpiring hell… while limiting player options.
3. Simulating command – Real generals made ‘bigger picture’ decisions by ‘rule of thumb’, they did not play by a rule book. Historical command was more intuitive the further back we go historically. Rules are parts of games – not the game itself. Players win and lose games...
4. Completing a game within the time available - things ought to happen in a wargame – a drawn game is fine – a game that never gets going is a failure!
5. Period feel is achieved by the appropriate level of abstraction: allowing simple actions or outcomes to represent more complex events at the desired level of focus, by eliding real phenomena into representational tabletop effects. So closing fire is not crucial… you already fired in your turn, and should have formed square!
6. Having a laugh – ‘wrong’ tactical results often end up allowing ‘right’ outcomes later on in the game; ‘correct’ rules very often end up leading to boring games. Which tend to exclude intuitive (but not forensically-minded) players from winning.
7. The overall effect – is more important than minor ‘discrepancies’. This also means that surprising events or ‘holes’ in the rules do not need to be rectified: they are catalysts enabling the entire game to work on the level of playability. (We should not try to nail jelly to a wall…)
8. A definite capacity - there is only so much time and effort I can devote to rules or games. This could mean there is a limit to how good they are - but it definitely sets appropriate workable parameters for making them as good as possible. It is what it is!
My rules philosophy has been influenced by DBA (simplicity, a set number of generic troops types) and Neil Thomas (the author of a number of thought-provoking rule sets, whose thinking might be likened to ‘Ockham’s Razor’ allied to astute historical rationalization), but I basically favour games which are inclusive and fun, while still being plausible.
I veer towards simplicity to allow more to get done in the available time, avoiding ‘complexity’ (actually micro-management or fuss) in favour of intuitive acuity, while retaining appropriate granularity and the right spirit of the historical period in question (based upon my reading and interpretation, of course).
Given the constraints of a club night and 6mm figures, as well as player tastes, the success or failure of my rules is open to question. But rules (or just our interpretations of them) are always evolving, through trial and error, exposure to feedback, and playing a wide range of games. Reasons not to change them are also valid, however. Rules need multiple trials to gain purchase on players (almost all new rules will confuse players the first few times). Given the sheer volume of new rules being published for all periods, it seems that no two wargamers can agree on the perfect set. But each wargamer can at least agree to have a go – which is at the core of our great hobby.
Criticism has its place – as advice, feedback and engagement - but it can also be ignored, and perhaps usually ought to be, in the context of perseverance. One wargamer's delight is another's dross. 'Consensus' about rules can be well deserved, because there are objective criteria to assess rules by, yet it never stops new rules from emerging or being adopted as the next 'best' thing on the subjective level. Rules alone however rarely make a game successful, and appreciation rather than criticism is in my opinion more fruitful for the development of the hobby, as well as fostering a culture of participation at the club level.
Eliminating all ‘mistakes’, ‘errors’ and ‘oversights’ is not the the purpose of wargaming, and should not put off any budding rules writers. Rules are ultimately tools which apply to both sides, enabling wargamers to use their skill and insight to do as well as possible - mistakes are inevitable! Yet, as soon as rules are primarily scrutinized for their 'inadequacies', new quibbles inevitably emerge. Soon enough there is nothing left of the original ruleset! There is therefore a case for retaining 'disliked' elements of games as part of the fabric of our wargaming experience. They can act like the friction of war that both sides might encounter. Nobody changes the rules of football or cricket. Someone is bound to lose (or win), no matter the rules, no matter their dice rolls!
Having put on dozens of games, in various scales, in periods ranging from French Wars of Religion to Sci-Fi since joining the club in 2016, and taken on board the odd criticism, I find it easier now to laugh with others at my rules’ quirks (for sake of irony and real value simultaneously). To be fair, I have had valuable encouragement and support from many of you, and been more than a tad individualistic in my approach. And while I'm sure I haven't pleased everyone, so be it! Because in the end these quirks don’t really matter – and may even be endearing hallmarks of their creator!