I have been musing for a while about how wargamers treat rules. When I returned to historical wargaming after a break (the usual reasons – role-playing games, young ladies whose interest in battles was limited, getting a job and so on) I found that the terrain (so to speak) had changed. Before historical wargaming was Ancient Rules 6th edition by WRG, Renaissance rules by George Gush (also WRG, of course), Tercio and the like. After it was all DBA, DBM and the impact was spreading.
It took me a while to get my head around what was going on. This probably was not helped by my lack of interaction with other wargamers. As a long-distance commuter I could not manage a club evening, and weekends were spent doing things I could not do of an evening, such as spending time with my family. Still, slowly I got my head around what was going on and joined the DBM email list.
What was going on there rather surprised me. The content related to competitive gaming was high, which I had never encountered before, but the arguments generated over the rules and the interpretation of the rules were, shall we say, intense. This, to me, was a rather remarkable observation, but reflection upon it suggested rather strongly that it was linked to competition gaming and gamers, some of whom were trying to wring every ounce of advantage for their chosen troops that they could, despite such aspects as common sense, historical accuracy and what the rule actually said being pointed out to them.
This whole set of arguments went rather against my grain. I had never, so far as I could recall, really read any rules in such detail. I regarded (and still regard) rules as being a guideline as to what can happen on the table. If you will, a set of wargame rules is a grammar of wargaming, yielding a sort of playing field upon which the concepts of a particular wargame can be played.
I dare say that in a competitive game rules have to be much tighter, and interpretations much more closely regulated. I do recall a set of such regulations being circulated which, if I am any judge, were as long as the original rules. It does rather, in my view, point to a problem and that problem is not just my total lack of competitiveness.
The problem is that, just as a grammar can only provide guidelines, so a set of wargame rules can only provide the framework for a battle. It is impossible to write a rule set which covers every possible contingency on the table. Under pressure, it seems, from competitive gamers, DBM attempted to do so, but it was a thankless task. Changes to the rules were made, of course, each of which caused howls of rage from those who felt themselves hard done by and demands for more from those who benefitted.
Thus, when I came to write some rules myself, I rather reacted against the whole idea of comprehensive and precise rule sets. We relied on the common sense of the players and the friendly and non-competitive aspects of wargaming. These are, I think, much more widespread than the ‘rules lawyer’ approach I had encountered. That is not to say, of course, that it does not come with its own problems.
I am still a bit surprised that users of wargame rules tend to stick to what they see as the letter of the rules, rather than the spirit. As noted, a wargame rule set cannot (I think it is a logical cannot) cover every contingency and the user of the rules will have to interpolate a set of interpretations between what the rules say and what is on the table. This, of course, will vary from player to player and is usually where arguments start (an advantage for us solo players, of course). But the writers of rule sets can only go so far in specifying what happens. Even DBM, which tries to do so, lands up with convoluted sentences which say something like ‘X’s recoil from Y’s unless supported by Z’s or flee unless condition A or B pertains.’ At which point the wargamer realises X is fighting a Y and a Z and condition C applies which is not covered.
Overall, I reacted against such rules and just gave general outlines of what was to happen. This meant, of course, that the rules were deemed unsatisfactory by many who were used, perhaps, to the apparent comprehensiveness of other rule sets. So be it – we did not write Polemos for comprehensiveness or competitiveness. We did write the rules to provide what we thought was a reasonably historical game, putting the players in the position of historical generals. Whether we succeeded is, of course, a matter largely of taste.
The other point pertains to changing the rules. I have recently had reason to rethink the skirmishing rules in my Counter-Reformation rules (I am still pondering, by the way). Having recently been reading Oman, the point has recurred that horse archers went down to steady infantry archery, as the range of the latter is longer. Under the rules as they stood, horse archery skirmishing range was 4 base widths while foot archery range was 2. The horse archers were pretty well immune from foot archery.
This does not seem to be a problem in the ancients’ rules (because foot archery was not a great feature of the armies of the time, I suppose) but it does seem to be one in the later period. So I have reduced horse skirmishers range to two base widths so the archers can shoot back. On the other hand, I have reduced mounted charge ranges as well, as, as you might have seen in one of two of the Reconquista battles, the gendarmes can charge (3 base widths) and can catch unwary horse archers. So that has been reduced to 2 base widths as well.
There may well be unexpected consequences of this, which I am only just starting to explore. But the rules do seem to be fairly modular, so tinkering with one of the models should not have too much of an impact on others. But isn’t tinkering with rules more fun than arguing about them?