I wrote recently about having a level playing field in a wargame, and was quite rightly gently chided for my loose language. There are a number of aspects to this sort of thing, and , even though one of the early “famous” posts on the blog was about the wonders of unfair wargames, it is possibly worth having another look in this direction.
Firstly, of course, there is the problem of history. Real life generals do not often overlook their battlefield and think ‘they are about 100 army points down, so we will just wait around until they turn up’. The correct real life response is, in those circumstances, more likely to be ‘charge’. A fair fight is not what most generals are after, they want to win a battle, not fight fairly.
Now of course there are some points at which one army might not attack immediately, but hang around until the enemy is properly deployed. This might be, but usually is not, chivalry in action. Usually waiting for the whole enemy to be present is brought about by wanting to defeat the whole lot, giving no part of the enemy army the chance to fight another day (especially against your victorious army which might be a bit disorganised and tired after fighting the rest of the enemy army).
Now, a defender of a point system set of rules might well argue that, if you count up the number of bases and calculate the equivalent number of soldiers, it is quite likely that equal (say) four hundred point armies will have very different numbers of men, and thus one side, being outnumbered, has either been forced to battle or has overconfidently accepted the same. However, I think the point here is in the premise: generals do not, often, go around thinking ‘I may be outnumbered here, but my men are of higher fighting quality’. Well, they might, but do not often express it as such.
So the issue slowly resolves into one of wondering what the point of a point system is. Now, obviously, the point is to give a balanced game, one of the sort I have just argued never happened historically. A balanced game gives both side an equal chance of winning. After all, it is only a game and with would be a pretty sorry and sad sort of game and hobby where both sides did not have a chance of winning.
Furthermore, the defender of points based rules could argue, the points of an army are only, if you’ll pardon the pun, part of the point. There is arranging favourable terrain, choosing the structure and deployment of your army, having a plan, and so on. There is, it can be argued, a lot more to being a wargame general than just shouting charge and rolling some dice. You have to be organised, to have a plan, and so on.
That may well be so, but real life generals rarely have such luxuries. They may have a vague idea of where the enemy is, and they may even have a vaguer idea of what troops they have, but often it goes little further than that. The idea of an equal number of army points each side rather puts the cart before the horse. You have a fair idea (if you too have read the army lists) of what troops the enemy has even before you know where they are.
I suppose that I am drifting once again towards commending campaign games to the audience here, and that is certainly one way of tackling the problem of balance. In a campaign game you need to do the troop raising, organising and deployment thing but on a much larger scale. It might be that your main strike force is over there, and a blocking force must hold up the enemy until your blow falls. Hence, the delaying force might win, even though it is annihilated. And a jolly interesting wargame can be had in these circumstances too.
However, I do not think that we always need to have campaign games to have interesting and unbalanced games. After all, there are a number of books of scenarios out there which suggest unbalanced forces with different aims for each side. The side that wins does not need to be the side with the most hits, or that kills the greatest number of the enemy, or whatever. Achieving specific targets or outcomes can decide the battle more decisively than simply routing the enemy.
I think the problem for me, though, is that many of the scenarios I see are still fairly stereotyped. An attack – defence game is unbalanced, in terms of points, but the balance is created by the terrain, defensive fire zone, minefields or whatever. Somehow, as wargamers, we still grasp for the balanced, even when we are looking for the heroic or mythic; the last stand against the odds is circumvented by our sense of fairness, our sense of honour.
This is, I think, somewhat related to army choice. Power gamers, by definition, adopt powerful armies. Those who are in the other camp adopt weak armies, partly for the bragging rights. In these circumstances can there be balance in a wargame? What is the aim of the weaker army? Simply to do a bit better than the historical prototype?
As is usually the case, I do not have any really good answers to these questions, but that is not really the point. The point is that I do think that we need to ponder these things and apply whatever comes up as a consequence of those ponderings to our wargames. A straight ‘destroy the enemy’ wargame is, often, a cathartic undertaking in our lives: dealing out destruction to toy soldiers can make us feel a lot better. However, just doing that, game after game, can pall a little. As humans we are problem solvers, and simply defeating the enemy becomes a boring problem in the end. Real warfare is much more complex.