Saturday, 21 May 2011

Simple Campaign Games

One of the pleasures of being a solo wargamer, aside from the lack of arguments, is the ability to fight out campaign games. Campaigns vary is scale and ambition, as do ordinary tabletop battles, but there is a degree of satisfaction in having a series of linked battles coming to some overall conclusion.

Over the years I’ve had a number of good campaign games which I can now look back on with a nostalgic glow, and I’ll comment on a few here.

First, and most ambitiously, I ran an internet based campaign called 1618-Something. I don’t think the site exists any more (I can’t find it anyway) but it was based on the board game Machiavelli. If you’ve not played Machiavelli you have missed out, but I translated the basic idea to a map of Europe at the beginning of the 30 Years War and recruited players from across the world to run the countries. The battles were fought out by the players themselves, or by me as umpire.

The results were wildly unpredictable and occasionally hilarious. Sweden got knocked out by Russia. A French fleet landed up in the Baltic. An alliance of Steppe Peoples lost to the advancing Russians. In India (yes, my megalomania ran that far) various invasions and battles took place. My favourite one was one I fought where the highly unpredictable rockets took out one general. Just before his army collapsed, rocket fire was returned at the opposing general, who was also removed. The result was the collapse of both armies, and me spending the rest of the weekend chuckling over the player’s reactions.
Another aspect of the game was the newspaper, the ‘Ankara Advertiser’ which existed to provide a platform for me to provoke and make fun of the players. A suprising number of submissions and battle reports were sent in, showing that a lot of the players wanted to get their stories out there too.

After about 2 years of game play, however, I became both overworked and over ambitious, and the project collapsed, largely under its own weight. As this was run through the old DBM-list from Stanford, I guess that more modern communications technology would make running the thing easier. But I’m not going to be the one who finds out; it was a lot of work.

Having accumulated all sorts of odd DBR armies (100 points – the only way to play DBR sensibly, I found) I looked around for something else to do. Having just got Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai Sourcebook, and having the Manchu, Chinese and Koreans to match them, I set up a very simple invasion campaign game. Two Samurai armies invaded a river valley from the sea, opposed at first by a Korean army, which was later reinforced by the Chinese and Manchu. This worked, as I recall, rather well, with the Samurai forcing the Koreans back in a series of battles, but then being heavily outnumbered and unable to recover their losses quickly enough, the combined Samurai remnants were unable to hold their positions and were forced to retreat.

Again, this campaign seems to reflect the importance of including, even vaguely, some sort of logistical consideration in a game. It doesn’t have to be a major one, but if the Samurai had remained at full strength I don’t think the combined might of the others would have overcome them.

Another effort I made was with the Italian Wars, based vaguely on Machiavelli again. In this, however, I realised that I had to slow the sides down. After all, the French invaded in 1494 and the Spanish did not really arrive until 1500 or so. So for this I had a method of activation. Each month, each side (there were several – French, Milanese, Papal states, Spain etc) drew a card, and they needed a heart to do something. The something could be anything – sending ambassadors, raising an army, dispatching the army, and so on. This slowed the game considerably, which would have been frustrating face to face but was fascinating (and a lot more realistic) solo.

By the end of 1496, the French were in Milan and besieging Genoa, while the Spanish were just starting to arrive at the southern tip of Italy. One of the interesting aspects of this campaign is that there were no battles at all. I think I gave up because it was by no means clear that there ever would be. I’d set the game up sufficiently to make the Italian states swap sides to avoid such an outcome. A good solo campaign then, but a bit of a disaster if it had been face to face.

So, where does this ramble lead to?

Firstly, as you may have guessed, I’m as fan of campaign games. They do lead to an extra dimension, some ‘depth’ to the on table battles. I suppose that, in fact, they add to the back story of the tabletop activity, and even, in some cases, seem to take over and develop a life of their own.

Secondly, campaign games seem to work better solo. Maybe this is because I prefer solo, or, more likely, I suspect that if you have a live player, the temptation is always to get the models out and play. Sitting around with maps and diaries does not count at terribly exciting.

Thirdly, there needs to be a brief word of warning. Once upon a time, I drew a beautiful map of an island, with four countries, an interesting back story for each, some leaders with carefully drawn out characters, trade and agriculture rules and economic activity and so on. When all this was done I thought ‘wonderful! Let the battles commence!’ Unfortunately, they didn’t; all the countries were too peaceable for that. All that work never generated a single battle. I believe those four nations are now a federal state with the GNP of Switzerland….


  1. Wonderful post.

    I've only ever run solo tactical engagements (infiltration/exfiltration). I will have to try a larger scale conflict.

    The Hearts-activation is a great method.

    Thanks for this. :D

  2. Great post, really interesting. I've never managed a very successful solo campaign. They have failed for one of three reasons;

    1. I became dissatisfied with the tactical rules/set-up I was using at the time

    2. I became dissatisfied with the campaign rules to such an extent that I preferred to tart again rather than continue.

    3. Real-life intervened so decisively that by the tie rsumption was possible, I'd rather lost the thread of it all...

    It is good to hear that some gamers make it work!