I have written here before, and I still think that I am right, that a set of wargame rules is a set of interacting models. The trick is, in writing rules, to get each model functioning correctly (I am assuming that we are talking about historical rules here, but the same applies to fantasy and science fiction, and also role-playing games although the human interaction factor is higher there). Once each model is refined enough, their interactions have to be worked on.
This all sounds a bit high falutin’ and theoretical, so I shall try an example. For an English Civil War game, we need a model for movement (i.e. how far does an infantry unit actually move in a time period?), shooting, close combat, and for morale. These models need to be consistent across all arms, so infantry can face up to cavalry, artillery can behave as we believe artillery did behave, and so on. When you analyse a set of rules by this criteria you have quite a complex set of models, working on their own and interacting.
It is no wonder that rule sets throw up oddities. The complexities only multiply when you add in scale models and terrain. The game has to look and feel correct, whatever those terms might mean in practice. A bunch of musketeers charged in the open by an equal number of cavalrymen should find themselves in trouble, shouldn’t they? A lot might depend on the relative morale of the two sides, of course, on training, on the confidence of the troops to charge or to hold their fire until the last minute, and so on. It is little wonder that recent rule sets have given up on trying to quantify all of these factors, and opted for a straight dice roll with a few modifiers.
You may well be sitting, nodding sagely in agreement and wondering why I have raised the matter again. It is a fair question. I have perpetrated a few sets of rules in my time and commented on the fact. It is in my mind at the moment because, as I noted last time, I needed to write some rules for naval wargames in the Anglo-Dutch Wars period.
The numbers reading blog posts on naval matters tend to show that anything maritime is a big yawn to most wargamers, but if that applies to you, please do not stop reading here. I promise the rest of the post is of relevance to land-based wargames as well.
Writing naval rules brought to mind that, as well as the models outlined above we need to add extra models to the movement rules. Sailing ships were dependent on the wind, and that adds another element to the rule set. In my earlier rules, I tried to avoid explicit rules for tacking, but the wind proved to be impossible to ignore. It just matters too much for sailing ships.
There is thus a minimal number of models which any rule set needs to cover. Rules for movement in power armour are not necessary for World War Two rule sets. Rules for tank movement are. However, often, it has seemed to me, that the more complex the models used for some aspects, the simpler the models are elsewhere. The most egregious example I can think of is a set of WW2 rules, the name of which I do not recall, that had no morale model at all. Even as a young and green wargamer, it seemed a bit odd to have a complex paragraph or two on fire and movement and nothing much on whether the soldiers would hang around to fire (or be fired at).
Some rule sets like the DB* family wave morale away into combat outcomes and re-integrate it into higher formation and the losses accruing to that formation. Thus wings or divisions (or whatever they are called in period) run away at a certain point. This is a little predictable, I feel. The Polemos rule sets I have written have army-level morale, but it comes with a bit of randomness. Armies could and did run away before they needed to, or stand and fight when most sensible observers would have expected them to have chosen discretion over valour.
I suppose that there is only so much complexity or only so many interacting models that we, as wargamers, can or want to cope with. Perhaps this goes with age. I am much less prepared to put up with fiddly accountancy and endless tables than I used to be. Or, maybe, I have just realised that accuracy (whatever that means) does not map onto complexity.
After all, if, as I argued last time, we play wargames to tell entertaining stories, the narrative flow is surely interrupted by having to consult a good, big book of rules and find the right page. Granted most rule sets come with quick play charts, but even so. If the story is the thing then we require something that moves the narrative on, rather than stalling it. Throw a dice, consult a table and chortle or despair over the outcome.
In fiction, each scene is supposed to show something about the characters or move the plot along. In wargames, we do not have a great deal of discovering stuff about the characters on the table (even in RPG) and so the plot is the thing. The driver is the specific scenario, of course, the terrain, balance of forces, objectives, and so on. This might be why straightforward destroy the enemy army wargames get a bit dull after a while. We have to care about the story, and want to know what happens next.
As such, the rules and mechanics, the models, and their interactions are necessary but insufficient conditions for an enjoyable wargame. While wargames can have higher or lower stakes for us, in terms of running campaigns, for example, if, ultimately, we do not care which side wins in terms of outcome, even if as solo gamers we are neutral in the matter, the plot is the thing; the rules need to facilitate but otherwise keep out of the way.