Saturday, 2 September 2017

Rules, Generic Rules and Periods

As avid readers of the blog will be aware, I do not have a great deal of enthusiasm these days for generic rules. The rule sets I have written have been for specific periods, or even sub-periods. For the record, I have written or help write rules for the English Civil War (or War of the Three Kingdoms, or British Civil War, or whatever we are calling it this week), the Roman Imperial era, (First Century BC to First Century AD) and some rules for Ancient Greeks from Marathon to after Alexander. The latter have not been published and, so far as I am any judge, will not be. These are all in the Polemos series published by Baccus. I have also written some rules for the Elizabethan Anglo-Scottish Borders, called ‘Shake Loose the Border’ which were published as a magazine article quite a while ago.

Now, I have also mentioned using both DBA and DBR. I also possess a copy of DBM, although I think I only ever played it once. DBA is a good rule set, don’t get me wrong, and I enjoyed it. DBR is not so good, in that it does seem to mess up some of the basic troop interactions (I have not seen DBR 2.0, admittedly). They are both generic rule sets that go both around the world and across the centuries. Granted DBR is a bit more specific than DBA, but the range of cultures is huge.

This brings me to one of the problems I have with such sets, a distinctly wargamer’s problem. I used to take note of army lists, and one of the things you can do with DBR, as I think I mentioned once, is to make up 100 army point armies. This works quite nicely for Western European powers. You get armies of between ten and fifteen bases, and I can live with that.

Where it fails is for other cultures. I dug out my DBR 100 AP lists the other day. They date back to the time when I must have had a great deal more time than I do today, as they cover more or less every list in the army list books, some of them more than once. What I do notice, however, is that the less ‘advanced’ a culture is, at least in its means of killing other people, the more bases the army has. The Inca, for example, hit thirty three. The Pueblo Indians hit thirty or so as well. The problem is that some of the cultures listed surely cannot have fielded that many soldiers compared to the twelve of a full Western army.

A long time ago I was a member of the DBM email list, and very interesting it was too. I had a break from it for a few months and then came back. In the meantime a new edition had come out and all the competition gamers (an occupation which I cannot get my heads around, neither then nor today) were discussing lists which were termed ‘WoC’. It took me a while, several weeks I think, to work out that the reference was to lists like the Incas, and the acronym meant ‘Wall of Crap’. The rules had been changed such that the most effective competition armies were those with many, many elements. An Inca army at 400 army points was, literally, a wall of poor troops stretched across the table. The idea was that an opponent, fielding say a small but quality army of French Medieval, simply would get overrun. The bases would go down to lucky dice rolls and overlapping. The losses to the Inca (or whatever other WoC army was being fielded) would be huge, but their wings (or whatever they are called in DBM) would still be a long way from breaking. The idea was that they were impossible to defeat.

As with DBM, so with DBR: an Inca army is a tough proposition because there are so many of them. I, of course, also found them a tough proposition due to the number of bases I had to paint. I think it was the DBM Inca who broke me, Renaissance wargaming wise. Actually, the Estimable Mrs P. thinks it was the Aztecs who broke me, and given what I have recently found in terms of semi-painted figures, she might be right.

So that is one thing, and I suspect it is a problem with any rule set that uses a points system. Granted the idea is to provide ‘balance’, whatever that means, between different armies, but it does seem to skew the systems as well.

Another problem that there is with these sorts of rule sets is that they do cross both the centuries and cultures. At any given time there is a wide variety of cultures co-existing on the planet. They do not all fight in the same way. Similarly, there are different cultures that succeed each other in a given area. Again, they do not fight in the same way.

This is a problem which can be solved in two ways, it seems. First, you can create highly specific rule sets of given era / culture combinations. I am considering such for the Wars of Elizabeth, for example, and have written some, as described above. The alternative, as someone mentioned in a comment a week or two back, is to self-consciously write rules to deliver a generic, high level view of a wide variety of eras.

Either of these approaches is fine, it seems to me. But we do have to be clear as to what we are doing. Polemos: ECW will not, in my view, do for Elizabethan wars. I do not think that simply tinkering with the edges of the rules, adding troop types and so on will cut the mustard. The fifty odd years that separate Elizabeth and Charles I is sufficient to cause problems, at least at the level I would like to model.

You could also, I imagine, really go for a generic rule set covering, say, 1500-1800. This would model the basic interactions and flow of the battle. I dare say it would be quite interesting if you could get it right.  But you do have to accept that specific period flavour will be missing.

Most wargamers, and most rule sets seem to ignore the argument above, and I dare say most wargamers will continue to buy cross-cultural, cross-era sets because they are easiest to use, and enable jumping around across periods and continents. But I do think there is cost to doing this, and it is not one I am particularly willing to pay.


  1. Thanks for that really interesting post.

    I am still thinking about most of the substantive parts, but I have one quick comment about "WoC" armies in real-life; they should be the least effective of all because of the way cohesion works: when a small but significant portion of an army breaks and runs, (i.e. if it isn't divided into genuine discrete units), then the rest of the army will simply run even if they haven't been contacted by the enemy yet. I much prefer the DBA approach of just having bigger "horde" elements, it actually sees to model the effect much better (and it would be better still if those hordes were counted as actual losses).

    And why will the Greek-Persian rules not be published?

    1. 'cos I don't think we'll ever get around to it...

      I think Phil Sabin in 'Lost Battles' uses a 1:9 ratio between elite troops and mobs. I can't recall his reasoning at the moment, but it seems like a good basis.

      It seems that the question comes down to fixed numbers of bases against points systems, and I'm veering towards the former. Points systems do have some odd effects.

  2. Back in the late 60s/early 70s, I published a "April Fools Day" cersion of The Courier magazine. One article was a set of rules: One Million years BC to 1 Million years AD. It was essentially a large chart covering missile from thrown rocks to futuristic laser beams. One onely had to add/subtract the factors to arrive at a value which when compared to your opponents value determine the winner. I think a rock had a +1 and a Hydrogen bomb had a 10^6!

    1. Now that I like. Suitably generic and yet totally realistic at the same time.

      I suppose to make it a modern wargame you would need to add a deck of cards somewhere.

  3. I am one of those that have written an Ancient set of rules covering lots of eras. I wrote them to play out all the Peter side's historical scenarios from 3000BC to 1500AD on a 2'x2'. So they are equivalent to DBA, or more like DBM with 100 points. i am up to Heraclea. I have no idea is they work paast 700AD. I have no pretensions they are anything but a broad brush ruleset to get about 10-15 units on each side and have a go at playing historical battle in under 30 minutes. and, as you say, will be easy to remember as I move though the ages. Although i have changed the rules a lot twice! I do like period specific rules and have written one or two, but not for ancients. I have written a rules set for WW2 but only really play late war as I don't think they really capture the earlier war as well as I would like I can well understand the aversion to non-period specific rules.

    1. I'm not meaning to say that cross-period rules are somehow unworthy, as long as we acknowledge what we are doing. Things do change - the Saxon select fryd differs from Roman legionaries.

      I think what I am really objecting to is rules developed for one period which are then re-badged as for a different period with just a bit of chrome added. It might suit the writers and the players, but is bad historiography and hence, in my book, bad history and bad wargaming. But I am probably in a very small minority.

    2. Taking a core mechanism and re-using across multiple periods seems to sometimes work, so long as you do not really just add chrome, but rebuild the rules around the new period and the core mechanism. But for every set of rules where this does seem to work there are those, as you indicate, where they take the core mechanism and just apply some different period lipstick, I mean chrome.

    3. Oh,indeed. Polemos takes a few general ideas and then hones them for a given period. that is not a problem, even for me - I'm not that creative.

      The issue arises when a rule writer decides that ancient and medieval warfare is just like renaissance warfare, just with gunpowder replacing bows. I have news. It wasn't....

  4. Nice article, but it did leave me feeling a little down to learn we wouldn't be seeing an Ancient Greek Polemos. Surely given the name of the game family, Polemos, it'd be the most suitable for publication!
    Life outside of wargaming trudges on and presses on all sides though, I suppose.

    1. Sadly, life is the problem (and work is the curse of the playing classes).
      I have a few ideas as to what might be done...