Saturday, 25 January 2020

Clutter and Encoding

It is probably just me, but I have noticed, looking around blogs and at a few wargame tables at the show I go to, that wargame tables seem to be developing a more cluttered aspect that I find helpful. I do not mean just the odd coffee cup of some dice (guilty on both counts, from time to time) but a whole load of various markers, pointers and other items aimed at keeping track of the progress of the game.

While keeping track of the activities and status of the armies and units is undoubtedly a good thing, the plethora of markers seems to me to detract from the aesthetics of the game, and it is the aesthetics which, to me at least, is an important part of any wargame. It is, I think, George Gush in his Airfix guide to the English Civil War who observes that an ECW wargame army looks like an army in a contemporary print, and surely that is a good thing. And I agree.

I really do not want to create a storm here (and doing so is fairly unlikely, given the readership of the blog), but does plonking down cards, unit names, casualty caps, large arrows indicating direction of march and so on really enhance our games? Perhaps they are regarded as being vital, important for enjoying the game, but is not the look of the thing just as important?

You might very well object that the idea is a fine thing, but practically there have to be such counters and markers because they are part of the game. I will happily concede that some sort of status symbols are required (and I do not just mean nicely painted figures) but do they have to be so invasive?

Upon thinking about it a little, and trying to get my poor addled brain into gear in the New Year, we do encode an awful lot of information on a wargames table. There are the toys, of course. These encode unit type, facing and location on the battlefield. The terrain itself encodes a load of information about objectives, cover, obstacles and so on. But clearly there is another layer of information which is not so simply encoded, such as status, casualties, orders and so on. Perhaps, too, there is another layer of unit identity, morals and so on.

It is this latter group of information that often creeps onto the battlefield via what I am generally calling ‘clutter’. I do not mean to be derogatory in that word. I mean ‘stuff to help the wargame which is not the wargame’, that is information that needs encoding but could be regarded as being intrusive. Writing ‘clutter’ is easier.

There are various ways of handling such clutter. As I have mentioned, casualty caps can record the strength of the units, arrows their direction of march. I also see that the idea of knocking figures over has made a comeback. Many years ago this was frowned upon as being childish (i.e. what we did with our Airfix figures but have grown out of now) and also potentially damaging to the hard work we put in to painting the figures in the first place. It is not for me to criticise, and I am sure those who do this do it gently, but it does not, to me, add to the aesthetic experience, nor does it really reflect how casualties were really inflicted on the battlefield (most casualties before the rifle were, I believe, inflicted during the pursuit phase). But it is still a means of encoding information on the wargame table.

Another means of handling clutter is to do it off the table. Rosters of casualties for each unit are kept. I used to do this when using WRG and Tercio rules, removing one figure for every twenty men tallied against the casualty list. This, of course, had the appearance of accuracy, but still suffered from the fact noted above, that most casualties were not inflicted until one side ran away. It did keep the clutter at bay, admittedly, but at some cost in bureaucracy. Until fairly recently I went down this path with the tempo points rolls in a Polemos game, and it rather annoyed me, as well as being a bit difficult to pick up the exact finish point when the game resumed the next day.

I am not claiming to have solved the problem, but I do think a little additional thought can conceal the clutter in a bit more aesthetically pleasing and less paper-intensive way. You might have noticed that I have started to use a big gun in my renaissance games to indicate who possesses the tempo. During the turn I have some officers, mounted in triangular bases (known as Single Mounted Officers or SMOs) which are placed next to each general to indicate their pool of available tempo points. This only works, I suppose, because I play solo, but I dare say inventive face to face players could find a viable alternative. These SMOs also double as order markers, the point of the triangle indicating the direction of march and the placing of the SMO relative to the base indicating the orders to the base or group.

Casualties have caused me to pause, and a bit more pain. As I have mentioned, I am not that happy about using casualty bases for shaken markers, although it works and it both aesthetic and. I suppose, accurate. But I have replaced them with plain markers, firstly, because it means I do not have to paint as many soldiers ( a good thing in my book) secondly, because I cannot find (or Baccus have not got around to producing) appropriate markers for every army I have, and thirdly because, in the Polemos rules, two different sorts of shaken are required, which I can differentiate with two colours of markers. I suppose if I were really sophisticated, I could paint each side of a marker in a different colour. I also have ‘recoil’ markers, to keep track of who has just lost a round of combat.

All of this has two effects. Firstly, it preserves the wargame table from bits of paper and plastic which are not directly wargame related, and secondly, it encodes a lot of information into the battlefield, which means that I only really need to look at the table and then I will know the situation when I come to pick the action up at a later date. I am not saying I have solved all the problems, nor that everyone should do as I do (perish the thought; the world would be very boring) but I do think that a little more effort and imagination could preserve the aesthetic integrity of a wargame a bit better than some games do at present.

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