Monday 1 November 2010

What do we Want from Rules?

What do we want from a set of wargame rules?

This is a slightly more complicated question than appears at first sight. Initially, it is obvious that we require rules that enable us to push toy soldiers around a table and obtain certain outcomes which are satisfying in a variety of ways. These ways could be intellectually, narratively or historically predicated.

By this I mean that the outcome of a wargame has to be intellectually coherent, that is, victory does not arrive via illogical outcomes or Alien Space Bats intervening. The game has to be coherent as a ‘story’ (I use the term loosely); there has to be some thread connecting the events. And the outcome has to be believable historically; if the French routinely stomp the English at Agincourt then most of us would probably conclude that there was something wrong with the rules.

Wargame rules can be regarded as the interface between a fictive world – that of the game – and the real world, that in which the players move, roll dice and eat crisps. A player states that he will make a move in the real world – ‘I will move the Imperial Guard to Hougoumont’. This speech-act triggers activity in the rules layer – how are orders transmitted, how far can the Guard move in a turn, and so on. Then, in the fictive game world, the Imperial Guard moves forward. The rules turn real world speech-acts into fictive world activity.

In this model, the rules are the transparent interface between the players and the game ‘world’. They provide the means by which the real world decisions of the players are interpreted in the game world. Of course, the interface acts the other way, as well, in that the rules transmit the outcomes of interactions in the game world to the players. If two bases collide in the game world, then the activity of the players is moderated by the situation on the table. The game proceeds by a complex of real world speech-acts, rules level interpretation and game world ‘activity’.

So, on this view, we want rules to provide the real – game world interface as simply and cleanly as possible.

Unfortunately, this desire for simplicity contradicts the desire for historical accuracy. Somebody once said that command and control structures in real life armies were to enable commanders to do things, while in wargame rules they were to prevent players from doing too much. There is a degree of truth in this as the rules strive to force or persuade the players to act (in the fictive world, of course) in a manner that can reasonably be interpreted as ‘historical’.

This of course, is where complexity kicks in. If I’ve learnt nothing else from re-enactors, I’ve learnt that controlling large bodies of men on battlefields is not a simple thing. A few people can interact and copy each other fairly straightforwardly. Even a corps de ballet can by lots of training and a bit of practice, do things in unison. But 500 men on a noisy, frightening, dangerous battlefield is a different thing. The problem then is, of course, that our intuition says one thing about the actions and reactions of the unit, while the reality of a large body of men is different. And then, if you put that into a wargame rule set, it is easy to get accused of historical inaccuracy.

So, I submit that writing wargame rules is not a simple or obvious activity, but one which attempts to convert one set of complex human experience – a battle – into another – a wargame. Having tried to write a few sets myself, I think that we can be forgiven for getting it wrong more often than we get it right.

And then, of course, there is that fact that a few hundred or so equally intelligent and well read individuals around the world will go through the rules with a fine tooth comb and either complain about inaccuracy or find a way of weighting armies to squeeze maximum advantage out of the rules, in ways not envisaged by the writers.

This is, I think, what ultimately kills normal ancients rule sets. Someone finds that Inca, or Vietnamese or something similar, exploit the rules sufficiently to be almost unbeatable on the wargmes table. I seem to recall that Inca in one of the DBM incarnations was unbeatable simply because no one could kill the bases quickly enough to win, while their own side was worn down by sheer numbers and the odd lucky dice roll.

That is not, I think, wargaming, but rules exploitation, and it cannot be laid at the feet of the rule writer. But, usually, the writer does get the blame.


  1. On the last point - I can't agree. What is the Inca player supposed to do?! It is a fault in the rules mechanisms surely?

    I think the answer lies in one of your earlier posts - the 'philosophy' one - in the underlying assumption that one set of rules will do for everything from Incas vs Mayans to Byzantines vs Armenians. Surely the 'tone' in your mentioning of Vietnamese and Inca - I presume you mean 'subjects likely to be unfamiliar to the average rules writer' - indicates this?

    Anyway, thank you for another extremely thought-provoking post!



  2. Fair point.

    What I think I mean is that the rules writer cannot make allowances for match ups such as Inca vs Medieval French, so if players wish to play such games, there is no guarantee that the results will be sensible.

    I'll concede that that is the fault of the rules writer - for trying to cover too large a period / geographical area, and the platers, for playing ahistorical games.

    I suppose it depends on what we, as players, want as games, which is a complex issue in itself, including such factors as what armies we've got painted. If I've got medieval French and you've got Inca, an a-historical game is better than no game at all.