Saturday, 4 November 2017

On Writing Rules

I have, it seems, somehow committed myself to writing, or helping to write, two sets of wargame rules. One is my own Wars of the Counter Reformation set, which I need for the Armada game and campaign. The other is the recently mooted Polemos: Thirty Years War rule set. I confess that I feel qualified to write neither.

Of course, if we ever felt qualified to write anything, we would never achieve much. I doubt that Tolstoy felt particularly qualified for writing War and Peace and yet, somehow, he did. There is, however, a problem, at least with the Thirty Years War: most of the information about the war is not in English. I do not read any other language and, in fact, a historian would have to master a forbidding quantity of European languages to be able to read a reasonable proportion of the available documentation.

This does not really bother most wargamers, of course. Mostly, all we want to do is bung a few (or a lot of) figures onto the table and play a game. Historical accuracy does not seem to matter that much. Indeed, it has to be said that most wargame rules exaggerate some aspects of a war or period, at the expense of others. It is the only way to make an interesting game.

I have, as most of you are probably aware, perpetrated a few sets of rules in my time. I had a hand in Polemos: English Civil War, and wrote Polemos: SPQR myself. I make non claim that these rules are accurate portrayals of the periods in question. In a sense, they cannot be. A long time ago I mentioned that a battle narrative is like describing a house – you can describe all the bits but you cannot see them all at once. Thus a rule set is going to have to try to describe a bit of the battle.

For PM: SPQR I tried to write the rule set from the perspective of the general. This led to someone commenting that the player had to ‘micromanage the big stuff’. I was quite pleased with the comment, which I think was intended as a compliment, because the general’s perspective what what I had aimed for. To some extent I suppose I succeeded.

Any piece of writing is not so much finished but abandoned by its author. Wargame rules are no exception to the rule, I think. I could have read much more, thought much more, tried out many more rule ideas and combinations, and done much more play testing. What the outcome would have been I do not know. Certainly if, now, I rewrote the rules they would be very different. I am not about to launch at that task, however.

A few things would stay the same. My ‘Wars of the Counter Reformation’ draft, which I have just typed up, retains some of the features of the Polemos series, particularly some of the bits I like, such as the order system. It also has more than a small debt to the DBR system, flawed though that rule set seems to be. A few original thoughts might even have sneaked in. If readers of the blog are fortunate (or unlucky) I might post the draft as it is.

There are, of course, many things that are problems in writing rules, especially in pinching bits which you like from other sets and cobbling them together. Firstly, of course, there are different troop types. For the English Civil War we coul deal with a very limited number of different sorts of troops. The number of interactions between arms was limited. Admittedly we had to perhaps exaggerate some differences to make an interesting wargame. There are always going to be design decisions and compromises. The main one in PM: ECW is related to cavalry and, specifically the difference between trotters and gallopers. I think I would refine that now, although I am not sure how.

Similarly, in PM: SPQR I had to design around skirmishers. Skirmishers, in the ancient records are present in sometimes vast numbers. As I was attempting to design Polemos: Age of Alexander it became clear firstly that the historians record thousands and tens of thousands of skirmishing type troops. Secondly, it became cleaer that they had very little impact on the outcome of battles. There are a few battles in the ancient world where they did have an effect, but they were mainly due to ambush, terrain and / or silly decisions by generals, such as ‘let’s march out into the desert without much water’. So skirmishers, while present, are weak, and I think they should be.

These sorts of decisions are balanced by others, of course. As I think I note in the ‘Designer’s Notes’ in PM: SPQR, ancient battles were won by men with pointy sticks. Cavalry (as Alexander demonstrated) could be effective, but mostly, they were not. Similarly, in the ECW, cavalry were more able to win battles, but still, really, needed to be part of a combined arms activity; either that or get lucky.

And so we come to the Wars of the Counter Reformation. One of the problems is, of course, that aside from the French civil wars, there were not that many battles. The wars were, with only a few exceptions, wars of siege and counter siege, naval operations, raids, and the vast drain of money and resources that these things needed. The wars were mainly won and lost by financial exhaustion and the refusal of countries to supply more men and material.

Any rule set for the period, then, has to be largely a function of the imagination, of what would, could or might have happened. Whether my ideas are right or not is impossible to say. The Armada did not land. The Dutch and Spanish armies only occasionally came to blows away from siege warfare. It could have been different, but the data as to what might have happened does not exist.

On the other hand, no-one can prove me wrong, either….


  1. Remember that Joe Morschauser’s in his "How to Play Wargames in Miniature" published in 1962 wrote in his preamble, and I paraphrase: There is no such thing as a new rule in wargaming rules - they have ALL been done before". So don't fret too much about duplicating effort - it's how the rules is applied that makes all the difference.

    1. Aye, there is little that could be said to be original, although I guess a bit as to how the rules are stuck together. After all, the idea is to enjoy the game...

  2. 'Of course, if we ever felt qualified to write anything, we would never achieve much.'

    This speaks to me, although perhaps not quite in the manner meant. Given my specialism, I should be uniquely qualified to write a set of rules for the Viking Age, and yet I have failed at every attempt. There is always something that niggles too much, and does not quite work. The compromises made between historicity and playability are just too much of a compromise to satisfy. I wonder if there is a point where you know too much, or perhaps I do not know quite enough about rules writing and/or Viking warfare. Either way, it is fascinating to contemplate on a Monday morning as I ease into the week's work.

    1. Ah, you are probably over-qualified for the job, or at least, need a clueless rule-writing partner in crime.

      And also, probably, you might need to stop learning about the period, at least until the rules are done. If I knew when I wrote the rules what I know now, they would have been different. It seems that a rule set is an attempt at a snapshot of my present state of knowledge (or lack thereof, of course).

    2. I like the idea of the rules being a snap-shot of a state of knowledge. It's a useful way of thinking about the writing process generally.

  3. Given your statements about the nature of battles of the Wars of the Counter Reformation, might the answer be in scale? By that I mean: could it not be more about the provision of supplies and securing allied funds more than 'men with pointy sticks'?
    I know nothing of the topic, so feel free to discard the comment wholesale.

    1. Aye, possibly. But a wargame campaign set about who can go bankrupt last might be a bit boring. Or, I suppose, an Elizabethan version of Monopoly.