Swimming Against the Tide. A Vision of Insanity?
Well, we had an intriguing, exciting, even astounding game of “Boer War Rules” (whatever they may be called), last evening. In many respects the eight or so of us that crowded around that tiny 6’ by 5’ slice of Natal found ourselves almost as spectators, watching as a battle developed before our eyes, watching as a bit of history came to life before our eyes in a remarkable fashion, and it presents me with a real conundrum.
There are times when writing a set of rule that a few basic ideas take on a life of their own and just really (accidentally) hit the spot in a way that is quite incredible. When Nick and I first threw a few ideas into the pot and ran our first game of what was then called DMZ, the absolute genesis of Lard, we all sat back and said “Bloody Hell, that really works”. And now we have that same unplanned “Wow!” factor with the Boer War. Thus far the rules stretch to four pages of “firm ideas” however we have seen as the playtests continue that there is really something quite…..”right” about them, for want of a better word. However that in other ways means that there is potentially something quite wrong about them as well. Let me elucidate.
As usual when developing any set of rules I start out doing lots of research. General histories are fine for the backdrop, but I have been reading a lot of tactical detail stuff, drill manuals, contemporary reports, regimental histories and the likes in order to get a feel for the tactics as they were actually applied. This is what Paddy used to call “Tactical snippetting”, the art of understanding what really happened by looking at the smallest details culled from numerous sources and pieced together like a jigsaw in order to comprehend the reality of the battlefield (for anyone daft enough, like me, to be interested in the concepts behind this see Ardant du Picq’s ‘Battle Studies’).
Once I have that data I then attempt to distil that down into the key issue or issues that require modelling. In this case it is really the difference between Boer and British tactics, i.e. the way they operated on the battlefield, and from this the British wave has emerged as the real key to this conflict. Each battalion forming a succession of waves that attempt to push forward, and once they stall subsequent waves come through and take up the fight. I mentioned some of this on Lard Island News last week, so I shan’t repeat all of that. Suffice to say that I then look at weapon ranges, rates of movement, rates of fire, accuracy of fire, effect of fire and, using a framework based on ground scale and time scale I attempt to apply those results in order to produce a plausible model of conflict.
Boring? Not to me. However I do see that for many average gamers this level of attention to detail could be beyond the pale. Indeed, this is precisely why I do this; so they don’t have to. By the time any set of our rules are published this degree of minute detail is barely noticeable, rather like the chassis of a car, the average driver may well know it is there, but they don’t want, or need, to see it. However like the tests on a new car design to make sure it is all working properly and safetly, they sure as Hell benefit from that fact that these stress tests have been done.
In order that they, the gamer don’’t have to, I have crunch the numbers and check the tolerance. If you want to know how the Scots attacked at Paardeberg, and how that differed from the Canadians attacking at the same battle, well I have crunched that through. If you want to know how Ian Hamilton’s broad front attack at Elandslaagte differed in its effect from Hart at Colenso or Hildyard on the same day, all very different, then rest assured I have put that through the machine to try to ensure that what happens on the tabletop replicates what happened in reality.
So, I hear you cry, what’s the problem? Well, across the playtest games now completed the thing that is coming through loud and clear is that, despite the obvious fine-tuning that will be required throughout the development stage, the basic engine that we have developed is working, and it is working with an alarming degree of success when it comes to modelling the realities of the Boer War. Good tactics pay, poor tactics are punished, that should (to my mind) be a given with any set of rules. But this is more than that.
The rules have sufficient granularity to allow use to watch how battalions actually fought; the succession of ranks coming on in waves, the shocking effect of accurate Boer fire, the demands on the leaders to keep their men fighting, the inclination of the British to close to about 800 yards and then lie down and suffer under the African sun. There also is the inflexibility of the British command system. Like the real battles we have seen friendly fire at Talana Hill, last night we saw the British artillery advance too far forward at Colenso and pay a grisly price, we have seen Barton refuse to advance his Brigade to support success, we saw Hildyard’s men stall around Colenso village under Boer guns, we saw British heavy artillery silence the Boers in Wylie’s Fort only to come under fire from other Boer gun positions that would fall silent and then pop up again to continue the fight. The inertia of his men, self-preservation their natural primary objective, making them inclined to go to ground and die by inches. What is illuminating is that these have all mirrored with an alarming accuracy real events, and indeed has happened without the scenario being manipulated in any way to attempt to achieve that end. Like the real battles we have seen men of different units swept along through sheer force of their commanders’ will and, here’s the key point, we have seen the British player go through a painful Hell in an attempt to push on through intense fire.
Our playtest group is made up of chaps whose primary interests differ hugely. Among us really only Panda and I have the Boer War high on our agenda, so you could see the horror on the players’ faces as they discover what this gritty, painful conflict was all about. There are no flags flying, no dashing charges to glory, this is a conflict that in many respects mirrors the pain of modern counter-insurgency campaigns; the frustrations of modern Afghanistan or Vietnam in the 1960s. It is a nasty war that needs to be won, and that means going through the pain barrier at each and every battle, but pressing on with resilience in order to achieve your objective, and then counting the cost in the butcher’s bill.
All of which begs a question; how much reality is too much? We spent a good hour discussing this last night and ultimately our conclusions were vague in most areas, apart from the one resoundingly uniform question, “Is Clarkie mad?”
One of the lads had a copy of one of this month’s glossy wargames magazine with him where a rule author discusses his design process and quite openly states that he doesn’t bother with ground scales as (I wrote this down as I felt it was worth quoting) “they involve so many compromises and adjustments as in my (his) opinion to render the outcomes almost meaningless” and he went on to propound the usual “this is a game not a simulation” mantra, dismissing those who preferred the alternative as “button counters”. Fair enough, it clearly represents his honestly held opinion. What struck me was that only yesterday I read an online account by another rules author where he discussed a set of rules that he was working on where he was applying a new period to a template used successfully for a different period of warfare. It seemed from what he was saying that in order to maintain the framework of the successful system intact historical reality was being “adjusted” to make the fit work. Quite where we reach the point where our adjusting reality becomes ignoring it I am not sure. However what these two designers were very successful in highlighting was that my methods seem to be entirely out of step with the current trends in the hobby. Which again begged the question “Is Clarkie mad?”, and probably suggested the answer is “Yes”.
I guess this comes back to the old debate about game or wargame. To me the hobby seems to be splitting into two distinct areas. The game played with toy soldiers purely for the fun of the game, and the wargame which attempts to model aspects of warfare. The former is great; nothing wrong with it at all. The latter is also great but aspires to do something slightly different to the former. Personally I am not keen on the term simulation as it suggests a dry interpretation of combat that attempts to deal with a million and one minutiae, and I am not convinced that is possible. I am, however, convinced that it is possible to model some aspects warfare within the framework of a game. Indeed I have long stressed my belief that in order to produce a good wargame a set of rules should combine both a plausible model of warfare and also be fun.
Which brings us back to the Boer War. Is the model of warfare that we are producing plausible? Yes, we certainly think it is. Is it fun? Ah, well that rather depends on your definition of the word. In some kind of masochistic sense I guess the term fun could be used, however the experience for the British player in particular can be extraordinarily painful. It is also informative and instructive; I am sure the lads in the playtest group have learnt much about the conflict through the games we have played thus far; but is this enough? With a set of rules is it sufficient to wish to provide a game which exposes the player to the range of issues other than just “fun”.
The truth of the matter is that no warfare is particularly fun while you are doing the stuff at the sharp end. That said some conflicts do have a veneer of gloss that makes them attractive to wargame. The panache of the era of Napoleon, the refinement and precision of the Age of Reason, the colour of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. In truth the Boer War cannot be viewed in the same way. Equally true is the fact that it would be much more comfortable to bend history to suit the cosy comfort of the ‘Line or Column’ approach which I discussed last week on Lard Island News. However that may well succeed on the fun side, but fail miserably when it comes to faithfully reflecting the realities of the conflict on the tabletop. I know which is more likely to produce a marketable set of rules with broad appeal. As so often in life, the truth is somtimes the least attractive option.
Maybe I am over-stating the case. What was interesting was that at the conclusion of the discussion of how similar the game was to having ones toe nails removed the question came up as to which was the next battle in the sequence we are fighting to relieve Ladysmith. The answer, of course, is Spion Kop. Now these lads are not Boer War experts, but they were all aware that as British military disasters go Spion Kop is up there with the best of them. “Well”, I said, “we can always have a break from the Boer War if you prefer”. “Not bloody likely, we want Spion Kop next week” was the reply.
Painful? Maybe. Informative, nail biting, stimulating? Yes certainly; for an hour we kept saying “Let’s stop here to discuss the rules”, and yet we all kept wanting “one more turn” to see what would happen. Fun? I’m buggered if I know now. Not in the sense of drinking ten pints with your mates is fun, or having a squirty flower in your lapel like a clown is fun, that is absolutely certain. But maybe there is another type of “fun”, like reading a great history book or watching something on the History Channel that informs us. Maybe in a great sea of trendy toy soldier games there is room for a small island that remains forever “wargaming”?
Or maybe they were right; I am just mad.