Saturday 13 August 2016

Long and Short Period Rules

One of the things I have often banged on about here is that rules which cover a long period of time cannot represent a given, much shorter period, very well. Thus, I would contend that DBM cannot really represent a Romans vs Gauls battle in anything but the most abstract, bland and sweeping manner. The fact that it can even try is a testament to the utility of the rules, that fact that it is a allowed to do si is a testament to wargamer’s ability to accept something that is not chocked out with period ‘flavour’.

I recently commented to someone that sweeping rule sets have a place in wargaming. Given the above, the response was ‘OK, well, what is it, exactly’, and I have been pondering my response ever since. Not that I think I have a particularly original or clever response, but I do think that it throws up something to be considered, even if I cannot manage much about it.

Anyway, for what it is worth: history has both continuity and discontinuity. For thousands of years, until roughly the widespread use of handguns, battles were decided by men with pointy sticks. I know that this can, of course, be highly nuanced, and that the type of pointy stick can also be relevant. Further, of course, the pointy stick brigade can and were more or less ably supported by assorted chariots, horsemen, skirmishers, archers, elephants and so on. Context is important, naturally, but the fact is that most men on a battlefield at a given time had some form of pointy stick with them.

The pointy stick bearer is, therefore, a sign of continuity across history. We could, in fact, argue that pointy stick holders are still with us, that they did not vanish after about 1700 in Western Europe, but were subsumed into the musketeer with a bayonet. The combination of ranged fire and the staying power of the pointy-stick (or assault value, if you like – it depends on how you view the pointy-stick) combined to make the infantryman more or less irresistible. If we accept this argument, we have to accept that the bearer of a pointy stick, in all its guises, signifies continuity across military history.

The corollary to this, in terms of wargame rules, is that if we can get our rules for the bearer of a pointy stick right, across all ages, then we can have a go at creating a truly universal set of rules, valid for all time from Ancient Sumerians to the Ardennes and beyond. Of course, we recognise some breaks in this continuity. Gunpowder made people change stuff, as did the advent of the machine gun and tank. However, we can just then divide history into broad sweeps, such as ‘Ancient’ (to 1500), ‘Horse and Musket’ (1500 – 1875) and ‘Modern’ (1875 – present). Instead of writing one universal set of rules, we need three sets.

Of course, the continuity implied in this view of history also suggests that we only, really, need one set of rules, with bolt on extras which add to the basic set, say, gunpowder weapons, and then another add on automatic weapons, and then some extra bits for air power.  The idea here Is still that continuity is stronger than change.

A set of rules that covers a broad period, as described, is focussing on the continuities of history. The fact that a man from 1500 BC and one from 1500 AD is armed in more or less the same way, or at least is deployed and used tactically in more or less the same way, allows us to sweep history up into a few abstract categories. The man is the universal solider – PS(O) – and everything can be derived from him.

This does, of course, miss an awful lot of nuance. A Roman legionary was not the same as a French Medieval Knight. The world views of the two were poles apart. The details of their training, deployment, expectations and so on were simply not the same. At one level we can subsume them both into a ‘swordsman’ class, but at another we cannot. A subsuming set of rules is missing an awful lot of change as it focusses closely on the continuity of warfare.

We could ask whether this matters at all. A wargame, at the end of the day, is just a game. Historical accuracy is less relevant than having fun. If I like to play Vikings against samurai then that is my decision. I might even accept that it is ahistorical, a match up has no bearing on reality, but if the game is the thing, and I have fun, no-one is seriously going to challenge me, are they?

Of course, no-one is going to challenge anything in particular. It is a game, we do not have to grant history that much respect if we do not wish to. But the wargame is only then a bit of fluff, a romantic comedy at Cannes. There is no particular meaning to a Viking against Samurai match; it simply lives in a world of its own, cut off from any meaning.

If we wish to take things only a little more seriously, we have to have some regard to the changes that are implied in the less sweeping views of history. These are the things that make history to be history, after all. Prince Rupert’s cavalry did not behave like the Chasseurs a Cheval of the Napoleonic era. They did not behave like the Gendarmes of the previous century. They were, in short, themselves. Attempting to fit Rupert’s cavalry into a different category will simply result in bits being chopped off the original’s behaviour.

So, yes, there is a place for sweeping rules which emphasise the continuities across history. A solider in 1501 did not behave differently, particularly, from one in 1499, even though we might sweep the two into different eras, different rule sets. In which case a set of rules covering 1499 – 1501 would be more accurate, at least in some uses of the term ‘accurate’. But what they are will have to wait for another post. 


  1. Neil Thomas in his 1 Hour Rules book covers 9 periods from ancient to modern, with each getting its own set of (3 page) rules and with what amounts each time to only very small game adjustments on the previous game set.

    The question of whether he has stripped too much away so that the generic principles are too obvious will be answered differently depending on either ones own 'need' for complexity and flavour, or whether the period or rule sub-set is in ones secondary area of interest, so that some things either matter less or there is a lack of awareness as to what should and should not matter.

    I have two games in front of me (WWII Tactical) and they could not be further apart.One is for rivet counters and the other might best be described as 'themed'. I like them both. Convention might suggest that the more complex game is the 'better' game, though in fact, the themed , fun game is likely to hit the table more often!

    1. I think there was a time when complexity was equated to accuracy, but wargaming has grown up a bit since then.

      Overall, rule choice is a very personal thing, I think, and depends on what the individual thinks is important, the level at which their imagination works and so on. There is both change and continuity in warfare, as in the rest of history.

  2. This is a great read.

    I would suggest that rules only focused on a particular war may themselves generalize a lot. For example the armies in 1914 were very different to those in 1918 in tactics, movement, weapons, logistics, and command. Even the allied armies that landed in Normandy in WW2 operated differently a few months later with new tactical innovations.

    I am sure this is true of many wars and periods such as Roman armies adapting to war elephants.

    Some of the best things about rule sets that operate over vast periods or even just single war such as WW2, is the ability to find an opponent for game who knows the rules and has some figures ready.

    In terms of getting played, practicality maybe more important in a rule set than reality.

    1. I am fairly sure that practicality and widespread use is a major factor in getting games played. I also suspect that, really, we should have a rule set for each battle, as every one is different and might require different rules.

      On the other hand, there are only so many hours in the day. a rule set of NW Europe 1944-5 is the finest grain that most people really want to go to. If you have to factor in fuel supply for the Germans in the Ardennes, then some ad-hoc rule will do. Do we really need a rule set for the battle of the Bulge?

    2. Exactly.

      In many ways this all becomes a matter of taste. How much detail "you" want. I find too much detail exasperating but I know many enjoy it - as I did when I was younger and thought that the statistics quoted in books were real.

    3. I remember buying ever more complex rues and thinking I was getting closer to 'accuracy' or 'authenticity' or something like that. But then I started to wonder what these things were and why what i read did not really match up to what I played out.

      Over some years of pondering, reading, writing rules and so on, a blog was born...

      I don't have the answers, but there are some interesting questions along the way.

  3. Didn't DBM or DBA basically state that there is no difference between an Ancient Egyptian man with a pointy stick and a medieval man with a pointy stick? I'm sure it was in the design notes. It's a technocentric perspective on games design that is familiar to me from WW2 games where the calibre of the gun is more important than the man behind hit. Having these broad rules makes it easier to find a game, as Ben Cato points out. I can rock up to club night with my Vikings and be sure that someone will have an army I can face off against, even if it is not a historical match-up. The emphasis is definitely on the game rather than the simulation. It still lacks something though. The figures become pretty counters, rather than representing something more, and the period engagement is not really there.

    1. Yes, I have a nasty feeling that it appeared in DBM. I think it depends on what level we look at a battle with. that attitude might work for a DBA scale game, where the granularity suggests that men with pointy sticks are precisely that. If we zoom in, even only a little, we find that they are not just that, but there are additional foibles.

      And by zoom in I think I mean either in terms of time scale or in terms of unity activity. I'm not exactly sure, though.

  4. This talk of scale and recognising things for their detail or their function reminds me of a quote by (I think) Bruce Lee:
    -When I started out, a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick. As I improved I learned a punch was not just a punch and a kick was not just a kick. When I reached mastery I realised a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.

    Not terribly applicable here, but I like the sentiment.

    The point about each battle needing its own rules is a valid one. The work by Rachael Simmons bears this out: of course there are some similarities in the mechanisms, but each game has been thoughtfully considered and the rules tailored to express the designer's interpretation of precisely the conditions and environment of those battles in particular.

    That aside, there is something to be said for games that have more applicability beyond a single scenario/battle.

    1. I like the Bruce Lee quote; I'm sure there is something deep and meaningful in it.

      Each battle should need its own rule set, except that continuity does help us out a bit. We can often manage with just scenario based extra bits, which is probably good for everyone's sanity.

  5. It may also be the case that our favourite period needs 'stronger' rules, whilst a secondary period, which is also secondary in knowledge, passes more on being just a good game and happily we don't know enough to question that.

    1. Yes, a good point. I have a suspicion that in many cases, our idea of a authentic game in a period we know little about is 'like the first wargame I played in this period'. Mind you, that may well apply to our specialist periods as well.