Oy, Reisswitz, Where’s My Spanner?
We had an interesting discussion on the TooFatLardies Yahoo Group in the last day or so where the concept of wargames rules as a “tool box” was the subject of debate. Two sets of our rules take what is, I think, quite a different approach to most tabletop gaming rules in that they draw on the original Kriegsspiel rules for inspiration. In I Ain’t Been Shot Mum and Troops Weapons & Tactics Nick and I took the clear decision when writing them to avoid lengthy lists of factors for things like spotting and firing and to return to the same system used in the very first true wargames rules; to allow the person running the game to make the decision whether the shot fell into the category of Great, Okay or Poor.
My reasoning here can probably best be described by using the results of a recent study of golfers and their putting. After careful analysis a scientific panel came to the conclusion that golfers are better off not crawling about on their hands and knees trying to size up exactly how and where to hit the ball because, believe it or not, their brain has already done the calculation for them as soon as they walked up and looked at the ball and its lie.
In wargaming terms this can best be described by saying that almost every tabletop situation can be lumped into the three pretty instantly recognisable categories, Great, Okay or Poor, without obliging the gamer to trawl through a list of plus and minus factors in order to come to the same conclusion. What is more, to attempt to attach a numerical value to each one of a countless list of external factors that can influence an outcome is in itself something of a futile mission. How much smoke has been fired? How badly is the firer’s vision impeded by the fact that it is approaching dusk and the sun is low on the horizon? How much cover is created by the dozen thinly spaces trees that are between the firer and the target? How many absurd plus and minus factors can a sane person want on the potentially voluminous list in the interest of attempting to pre-judge every potential situation?
By reverting to the absurdly simple von Reisswitz system we potentially liberate ourselves from the drudgery of tables, and, possibly just as importantly, we create the tool box mentioned at the top of this piece, which allows each individual gamer to create his own version of WWII according to his perception of conflict. By this I mean that a dozen different people are free to apply the rules in their own way, using their judgement so that the resulting game then provides them with a game that conforms to their understanding of the conflict, rather than forcing them to accept our interpretation of it.
Does it work? Well, as always beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For some the system is liberating, it encourages them to think about the real tactical situation rather than simply apply a preconceived list of modifiers that may, or may not, be relevant to the specific situation. Indeed this is where our strap line, “Playing the period, not the rules” comes from. To others the system is abhorrent; only “80% complete” as one gamer quite famously said. Of course the answer is that the system suits many, but not all. But how different is that to any set of rules?
It is undoubtedly true that the rules do depend on the gamer having the balls to make decisions based on having an opinion on WWII conflict. To my mind expecting a gamer to have at least some knowledge of a period is not an earth-shattering position for a rule writer to assume. Indeed in many of our rule sets I have intentionally included large sections describing how troops actually operated and fought in order to provide that basis of knowledge that even for the uninitiated will suffice to get them playing. However, unlike shoving Pixies and Faires around a table, IABSM and TW&T are unashamedly historical games written for historical gamers who want to gain an appreciation of warfare whilst enjoying a game that is fun to play but also being historically plausible in not just the end result, but throughout the game as it plays out.
I should say that not all of our games use this Kriegsspiel approach; gamers of Through the Mud and the Blood, for example, will not recognise any of what I have written above as that game uses far more traditional mechanisms in order, one hopes, to achieve the same end, but it is my hope that I Ain’t Been Shot Mum and Troops Weapons & Tactics do go some way towards pushing the boundaries of wargames design and showing gamers that there are alternatives to prescriptive, dry systems that dictate how the gamer sees the subject.