Saturday 18 April 2015

The Problems of Campaigns

I do not know about you, of course, but I like campaign games. The idea of a campaign is attractive; a motivation for each battle is given. Personalities emerge, units become heroic and carry all before them in game after game. And so on.

There is, however, a problem with a given campaign game. I have been following with interest Prometheus in Aspic’s English Civil War campaign. It has been carefully planned, tested; the troops and armies have been lovingly assembled, and so on. The rules have been adjusted, the scenario tweaked and games have been played.

Now, here, unfortunately, is the rub. After two battles, Mr Foy has more or less defeated one side. As umpire, of course, he is throwing in some extra forces, having a final big battle and thus deciding the war. But I suspect that there is a bit of a twinge. With all that set up, do we not deserve a bit more return?

Here, I think, is one of the problems of a campaign game. We set it up carefully, thoughtfully. Enjoy the map moves and manoeuvres. Fight the battles. And one side wins. Often, it seems to me, in a campaign, one battle is enough to decide the outcome. I think it was Don Featherstone who remarked that in one of his ACW campaign games, after a couple of battles, one side was in no state to continue.

This seems to be a terrible down-side to a campaign game. In my own case, while Fuzigore is set up just to provide a narrative reason for a few games, the time I did set a campaign up ‘properly’, that is drawing maps, plotting moves and so on, it did finish in one, large and decisive, battle. All that work for a relatively limited quantity of gain. Perhaps I could have just placed the figures on the table and got on with it straightaway, as it were.

I think, however, that most real life campaigns, at least before the world wars, were similar. I cannot really think, for example, of English Civil War campaigns which had more than one or two battles in them. Marston Moor, for example, had the siege of York, and Rupert’s blast through Lancashire (I do not recall any battles there, though, a few places were captured and relieved), but the main event was the Battle of Marston Moor and that was pretty well that for the campaign.

So far as I can recall, most other ECW campaigns were of a similar nature. There might have been the odd skirmish before, perhaps a rear-guard action afterwards, but even when events did interlock there was not much in terms of continuous campaigning; even for something like the Cropredy Bridge to Lostwithiel to Second Newbury campaign, there were substantial breaks in the movement of troops, recruitment and reinforcement and, of course, some truly awful decision by assorted high commanders. There were, of course, a number of battles along the way, but the whole thing lasted from April to October and so the number of battles per month was not that great. A wargame reproduction of the campaign would probably have lasted about half an hour, and resulted in the Parliamentarian capture of Oxford at the beginning of June.

In the last paragraph, I might have exaggerated a tad, but the point might be germane. As wargamers, as people conducting wargames as our hobby, we actually want action. In real life (or history; the two do not necessarily correlate) often commander do not, particularly, want to join battle. Again, in the run up to Cropredy Bridge, the Royalist high command was actively seeking to avoid battle. The main action was to take place in the north and the aim of the Oxford army was to tie Waller and Essex up in knots, but not to actually fight. As it turned out, of course, Waller and Essex proved to be quite capable of tying themselves up in knots and were defeated in detail. Better cooperation could, quite possibly, have ended the war a year or so earlier.

I think there is also a question of scale, or scope, of the campaigns. Most campaign games seem to me to focus on limited areas, limited forces and limited objectives. Given these parameters, it is quite likely that the game will end with a decisive victory in a battle by one side or the other. In that sense, a campaign game is perfectly accurate: many campaigns in history were ended by a major battle, with perhaps a few extras along the way. Even the Waterloo campaign only had four battles, in three of which the major strength of the armies involved were not deployed.

Larger scope campaigns could remove the feeling of a lot of work going into a single battle. If we imagine a campaign of the whole ECW, then as well as Marston Moor and Cropredy, there would have been battles in Scotland, Wales and probably Ireland as well. While these are separate campaigns, they also interlink and become strategic drivers for further operations. Mr Foy has also run a Spanish Peninsular campaign which has not run out of forces, so far as I am aware, although the scope might be limited by having to invent the rest of Europe as drivers.

The problem with the bigger campaign is, of course, the increasing amount of work which might be required to keep it going. For some, like Fuzigore, this is not an issue, because I decided to ignore things like unit histories, the relationship between land, taxation and armies, and so on. I have a narrative driver or two and do not worry about the rest. The idea is to generate interesting (and not necessarily balanced) wargames with the minimum of fuss and bookkeeping. This may not appeal to everyone.

So, while I (and others) do recommend the campaign game as a way of keeping interest in wargaming and avoiding the lack of motivation in continuous single battles, campaigns do not come without a whole new set of problems of their own. But they are worth a go.


  1. Running my own campaign is a bit like doing my own decorating, in that the faults loom rather larger than if I did not have a proprietary interest. I have never detected bubbles in anyone else's wallpaper, but I can never understand why visitors do not seem to notice them in mine. Doing it solo has a lot of advantages (if we gloss over the lack of social interaction - to some extent, posting the thing on my blog provides an alternative banter forum, which is pleasant). Solo means that it doesn't matter if the battles are one-sided, that I can cheat whenever things need it, and I don't have to keep anyone else happy. There are overheads, but I have never "done" a campaign that wasn't worth it for the enjoyment - even the lowest-level deliverables (1) an excuse for a battle without the need to balance the armies (2) something to think about in idle moments are good value.

    Biggest grunt elements are the book-keeping (unless you make it fun in some way), so I'm keen on keeping things simple, including use of spreadsheets and some simple record-keeping software, and the workings of intelligence and supply, which are big items in the planning and scoping of each campaign project and by which the campaign can stand or fall.

    Big bonus for a solo effort is that i can scrap it and start again whenever i like, and I can overrule show-stopping dice throws if it helps. I don't blog the things just because I am a sad extrovert (or not entirely for that reason) - if the progress of the campaign is visible then it encourages me to keep it moving, as well as keeping it visually interesting if possible, and gives an opportunity to get outside opinions on what I'm doing.

    Each time i do a campaign, i finish up with a list of things which i don't want to try again, but it is always entertaining, always worthwhile.

    Having had a good number of campaigns now, I would respectfully suggest that anyone who wants to give it a go should read Bruce Quarrie's Napoleonic campaign book in some detail, have a stiff drink and a really good laugh at how crazy this could be if you don't keep a sense of proportion, and then produce a cut-down version of their own. Weekly hospital returns are really boring - write this on the whiteboard. Also, the bigger the scope of a campaign, the easier it is to keep the divided forces in large enough lumps to make worthwhile battles.

    1. I think Tony Bath's stuff is along the same lines as Quarrie's; possibly not so heavyweight, but still way too much detail for the likes of me.

      I guess my concern is in the set up : play time ratio. i recall reading somewhere that a 1:6 ratio should be expected, and I'm not convinced that I see that in my case.

      I always feel guilty fixing the dice rolls to keep things interesting, though. I try to impose a 'what happened, happened' even if I discover i misread the rules, finagaled a favourite unit position so it won / didn't lose / get destroyed and so on.

      But I do think campaigns are good, for the reasons you give. They are just not the answer to everything.

  2. Polemarch,

    Finally I have the time to respond to one of your thought provoking posts.

    There is a constant tension between the expectations of wargamers and practitioners. Wargamers want to play a game that offers both participants some chance of success, that gives them a certain quantum of entertainment and that scratches that historical itch.

    Practitioners on the other hand, unless they are crazy, generally want to resolve a conflict as quickly and simply and with as little blood shed as possible. And who can blame them, unlike wargamers, they have real skin in the game.

    I've taken part in a number of campaigns - some of which were very successful and others which came to a halt under their own weight and internal contradictions. In my experience, those that have worked best have shared a number of characteristics.

    - a high degree of abstraction (none of Mr. Quarries working out the pounds, shillings and pence of the war chest)

    - a determined end goal - open ended campaign always seem to collapse under their own weight, a campaign with a defined goal (capture that town, occupy London, escort the convoy) has a much higher degree of success because player exhaustion doesn't set in. You can tell how much longer you have to go on.

    Campaigns with a time limit work for the same reason, there is motivation for the player to DO things.

    - The campaign is framed as a social endeavour and a group experience. There may be two sides, but there are multiple players on each side, so that they may talk to each other. This helps keep momentum.

    The antidote to the not enough battles problem is to pick how many battles you want to play and then cut your cloth to fit.

    Another great post, Polemarch. Keep them coming.


    Conrad Kinch

    1. Welcome back to the fold, Conrad.

      I think the first point about abstraction is right on the money. we could, in this day and age, use a computer to do the hospital returns, but really, why bother?

      Open ended campaigns can work IF there is a reason for them to be so, and there is a possible end point. In my case, it would be the re-establishment of the Roman Empire. A bit of a long term goal, I agree, but a specific one.

      Mind you, the best campaigns i have run have been limited time limited options ones. An ECW campaign in a valley, which ebbed and flowed up and down it, and a Samurai invasion of Korea, where the Korean army slowly got reinforced by Chinese and Manchu troops, while the Samurai didn't.

      Rats! Now I want to try another one.

      I'll keep posting while i can think of things to write about; comments are great, because they give me a way into another post....

  3. Campaigns are strange creatures. I have little idea why some of my campaigns have had extended lives while others died shortly after birth. My most successful campaign to date has been running for over five years now. The nations are controlled by the system and the players are generals who command troops on the table. Each player has a nation that they command and generate narratives about, but they also take command of other non-player nations when those are involved in the fray. So, basically it is a battle generation system with some storytelling. This works well.

    Other successful campaigns have taken the format of a series of 3 or 4 linked games. The end is always in sight so the players are less discouraged if things go badly, because they know a new beginning is in sight and they can do better in that.

    The campaigns I would most like to run are as much resource management games as they are battle generation systems, but they are much harder to keep going. I'm a big fan of computer games like the X-Com series where you command the whole of the organisation, recruiting troops and scientists, and deciding what to research first. You also get to command your troops in the field as part of the game. Thus, the computer game is much like a wargames campaign. Now, if I could only find the recipe for keeping such a campaign going with several players, then I would be set for life.

    1. There seems to be a range of styles of campaigns, from running a nation to a single campaign to a set of linked battles. I have run successful games from all of these, and also had ones which have ground to a halt before starting.

      Generally, I think the bigger the game the more narrative and abstract it needs to be. the more detail the more likely it is to get bogged down (at any scale).

      I confess I have pretty well dropped all pretence at recruiting, finance and politics. i don't really find these things in the ancient world, or even the early modern. Kings decided to go to war, or not. Most medieval and early modern states seem to have spent most of their time effectively bankrupt, holding the bankers at bay by bribery, threats and occasional refusal to pay. Bankruptcy was devastating for the country (briefly) but was relatively rare.

      Still, the idea of a campaign is to generate battles. I can remember failed campaigns fondly that did produce good battles, and good wargames which I wished were in a campaign context so they could be followed up.

      But if wishes were horses....

    2. You know, I was just thinking the same as Ruaridh regarding chances of a campaign being successful. I reckon my ratio of success with campaigns is about 50% - but what causes some to run and run and others to fizzle out in short order? I've never been able to fathom it. Sometimes they seize everyone's imagination and other times they just don't.
      And to make it worse, I often think it's the better organised ones that fail, and the ones where I'm winging it a bit that take off.

    3. I suspect that winging it might give freer reign to everyone's imagination, while trying to work out the supply of jam for the 3/55th light lancers might get a wee bit frustrating.

      The thing is, historically, generals don't seem to worry too much about, for example, supplies. they have people to do that for them and only get involved at real need or crisis, when authority is needed. The rest of the time they can concern themselves with marching their troops around and winning wars.

      Maybe as wargamers we have been worrying about logistics too much?

    4. Just getting on and playing could be the key to the campaign. I have so many ideas that never got past the planning stage because I tried to do too much. I'm not sure about winging it. For a solo campaign it could work really well, but with players trying to screw every advantage from each situation it could easily come a cropper. That said, a good umpire should be able to deal with all that without even letting the players know that they are winging it.

      Maybe, rather than suggesting that it is the level of organisation that is at fault, it is actually the drive for perfection that causes campaigns to fall by the wayside. To misquote my former PhD supervisor, there is no such thing as a finished, perfect campaign; there is a finished campaign or there is a perfect campaign. A campaign could easily include casualty returns, the need to create supply dumps and other logistical elements, and still be successful. However, the desire to get all of these elements perfect causes the campaign to become unwieldy and to falter.

      You may be right when you say that wargamers worry too much about logistics. It may also be that wargamers try to be officers at all levels of the army and that the problems come when the player tries to be both the field marshal and the logistics officer. I like the idea of a campaign where you can cut the enemy supply lines, raid their supply dumps and so on, but that may be more board wargame than wargames campaign.

    5. I think the issue of getting the level of command sorted out is an important one in all manner of wargaming situations. An old friend of mine used to fight massive tabletop battles, but his rules were chaotic because what he was REALLY interested in was detailed tactical formations, how fast units could march in a curve, how quickly they could form line from square, how many volleys per minute different levels of troops could manage etc. Although he was a sensible enough chap when you talked to him, he just couldn't let the details go - that was what he really liked, and his games didn't work.

      To me, the difference between a game working or not working is closely related to exactly that problem - which fun bits to leave out to make it viable.

    6. Hmm, I think a light might just have come on. Yes, you're right Ruaridh, it's me trying to get it exactly right that's the problem. It puts pressure on the players as well as me, whereas if things are a little looser, everyone is more relaxed and can let their imagination loose.
      Right, I think for my next campaign, I'll just make it up as I go along!

    7. I recall reading that a 6:1 ration between playing and preparation for a RPG campaign was recommended. A small amount of preparation is better than none, but better than huge quantities of unusable or never used parts.

      I think concentrating on one level is important too. PM: SPQR tries to focus on the general (as do other PM rules). it is a lot harder than you might imagine, and not everyone likes it.

      As to wining it, well, it probably does work solo, but possibly not in a group unless you all know / trust each other well, and are prepared to discuss possible outcomes. Maybe matrix games are a way forward for this.