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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.

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23 Responses

  1. Victor says:

    Your article sums up an approach that each rules writer must at some point accept, “How much realism do I want in my fantasy.” Your not “mad” just driven to provide an experience of what that particular time period offered in the way of challenges and successes. Some rules, like yours, offer the gamer a chance to use real tactics in order to win a battle and that provides a learning curve for the people who don’t know anything about the era. They then have a choice to either accept that learning curve or reject it and the ones who reject it will not like the rules. A rule I always follow when I write is to write for my self, if others like what I have written they will follow along. I think that is evident in how many people populate the yahoo group and look forward to your next piece of work.

  2. Chris says:

    Brilliant piece Rich.

    My take is if someone wants to abstract the historical realities, they may as well play chess with a fancy set of playing pieces.

  3. Max says:

    Rich

    A well thought out and relevant piece. The reason I play Lard games is that effort made to make me face the very real challenges that faced the commander on the day. They do and your description of the game makes me even more interested in getting to try these rules too.

    Max

  4. rgregory says:

    You’re becoming quite the blogger. These are some amazing posts recently. I’m really enjoying the process and waiting for my chance to get a peek.

  5. Stewart says:

    Rich

    Well written and interesting, Thank you..

    I had this discussion with members of my gaming group recently and unfortunately the majority were on the side of playing a game with nicely painted pieces. A wargame that attempts to replicate history within the limitations imposed by the tabletop is too far removed from their original Warhammer fantasy roots to be acceptable. Building the killer army is a key facet of a game’s appeal for them.

    On the other hand, I seek to do precisely what you appear to have achieved. My interest has always been to use wargaming as a tool to understand history.

    Rest assured there are those who do want these rules. Winning and losing are secondary objectives. Any rules that put me in the position of trying to resolve a tactical dilemma within a historical context are the rules I want on the table.

    Your piece is thought provoking and has guaranteed a sale. I look forward to trying them out.

    Stu

    P.S. I also just downloaded Ardet du Piq’s Battle Studies from Project Gutenberg.

  6. Rmako says:

    Great Stuff Rich,

    I hope you stay on this path as it is the one I most enjoy. At the end of the game, if one has not learned something about conflict in the period gamed, then one has lost out.

    Bob Makowsky

  7. Mike says:

    Rich,

    An interesting and thought provoking piece. You are (probably) not mad. “Keep calm and carry on.”

  8. MikeW says:

    That’s no blog … it’s an interesting, well thought out and thought provoking article.

    Really enjoyed reading it and seeing your approach to design. It’s also spurred me to start reading up on the Boer War. To date always been a WWII onwards gamer … or is that wargamer? … but you’ve got me thinking on what can I learn from this period/conflict. Any pointers on good books to go for?

    Cheers

    Mike

  9. Big Rich says:

    Thanks chaps for your comments, nice to get positove feedback.

    MikeW. There are quite a few general histories of the war, Thomas Pakenham’s imaginatively named “The Boer War” is one of the better ones. In truth I do not think that a definitive work has yet been produced on the conflict, and frankly is unlikely to happen as far as I can see.

    If you can get hold of the Times History of the Boer War that is very good, probably one of the best contemporary works with good maps. Hard copies are v.expensive, but apparently you can get it for a Kindle at about two quid!

    My research has led me down more expensive routes, the British Official History is about £160 but the maps in that are the best there are. The German Official History is an excellent read, something of a foil to the British version, but that cost me about £60 to import from the US. If you are in the US I would suggest this as a must. It will be cheaper there.

    When I produce the rules my plan is to have a potted history in there and a guide to the tactics as well as lots of scenarios for the battles up to the fall of Pretoria, so it should be a one stop shop for gamers looking to pick the period up as well as for older Boer War hands.

  10. MikeW says:

    Thanks for the leads – I already had Pakenham’s book in my sights and you’ve convinced me. With the Times History … got it for from here for free http://www.digitalbookindex.com/_search/search010hstmilitaryboerwara.asp
    There’s also a lot more digitised, related books at the same site.

    Cheers

    Mike

  11. Benito says:

    An outstanding piece of philosophy and 100% agreed with the content. In our club in Madrid, Alfredo is the most ferocious critic of the rules sets and 99% of times he’s absolutely right. We entered into contact with the TFL thanks to him, when a group of us decided to play WWI (we strated with another set of rules), he was not satisified at all and started his own search of a better set… until he foundMud & Blood.

    I reckon to be the guy that most resisted to the change, but after the second game I discovered that it was not only a “game” but a solid and well-built structure where to recreate with an astonishing level of accuracy the most subtle and fine details of the period, soemthing I never felt with the other set (tears coming form my eyes!!) .

    Since then I have become one of the most loyal fans of TFL. Please keep the very good work.

    PS: I cannot believe that after reading this I’m taking interest in the Boer period… project for 2012?? This year I have enough with Vietnam

  12. Sean says:

    One of the most cogent pieces of writing regarding wargaming I have ever read. I always enjoyed your articles in WI and though I am yet to play any TFL games (I am a RFCM gamer for my sins), your write ups on the Boer War have got me dreaming up giving it a go in 6mm like yourself. I’m off to order the Packenham book to tide me over. Well done!

  13. Jan says:

    All I can say, Richard, is that you don’t seem mad to me. If I want a game without history, there’s always Catan and Carcasonne and cribbage. When I wargame, I want to feel that I’m facing some of the mental challenges, the tactical or operational challenges, that historical commanders did. I’m far more interested in learning about and exploring the battle and the campaign in question than I am in finding the mythical “evenly balanced game”. Punish me for mistakes, let me exult in my (minor) successes on their own merits.

  14. James Manto says:

    Rich
    You’re barking mad. Absolutely starkers.
    But I think you should carry on. Everyone thought Gallileo, Da Vinci and Tesla were nutters too.
    The Boer War is I think a maddening war to try and get a handle on in game design, and if you’ve got onto something than you ought to peruse it.
    Sometimes I want just a light and easy ‘toy soldier’ game and play simpler rules. But sometimes I want to face some tactical challenges and learn something, then I play a TFL game.
    James

  15. David says:

    A very good read. It sounds like you enjoy the rules and some or all your playmates do too. So the real question is how much are you prepared to lose by publishing the rules. I’m not saying you will lose but I agree that many people are looking for fair games rather than historical. For the record I have bought Sharp Practice and I intend on playing sometime in 2012/13 honest!

    David

  16. Karim says:

    Interesting article. We came to the same conclusion in our club. I guess Boer War battles that are the result of a mini-campaign could be more ‘fun’.

  17. I’d say go for it. I realize there is a business side to the question but in general I detest all pressure that says we have to conform and all do the same thing. There will be people for whom it is too painful or too tedious and others that will lap it up and enjoy going deep. Why should they be denied because they are fewer?

    I’ve had an itch for the Boer War since I could barely read thanks to a well illustrated book my grandfather left me. Published as soon as Pretoria fell, you know, when the war was over. (oops) . 30 odd years ago during my most intense recreating history period, I read everything I could get my hands on. The inescapable conclusion was that I could not relive the war burned into my imagination by that book and play an historical wargame. Its still waiting.

    -Ross

  18. John Ferryman says:

    Creative people need never worry about whether the mundane multitudes consider them mad. By society’s standards, they are — and damned lucky to be so!

    Great article; I enjoyed it very much.
    Thanks.
    John

  19. Graham Minshaw says:

    Well lets put the rhetorical question to bed first shall we? Mr Clarke is indeed mad. Mad as the March hare, as a box of frogs or whatever your local version of such sayings go. But, lets be fair, we wargamers areall are mad. What sort of person can take up such a time consuming and introspective hobby and presume self sanity? I know I can’t.

    Ultimately wargaming is a “broad church” and all strands of game design and philosophies co-exist in it. At times I really enjoy the “only a game” approach, other times the more historically accurate, it rather depends on the period. I really don’t care if it accurate or not when playing a knock about western gunfight game but throwing battalion after battalion of Kaiserliks at the accursed Prussians in Bohemia or skulking about with Durutti’s men (and women) in Spain is another matter. Where’s this heading?….well sometimes I think we simply think and worry too much about it all. If getting to the nitty gritty of Boer war tactics is what floats your boat then fine, go for it. TFL rules tend to play fast once written so even if that level of detail isn’t your bag it tends to lurk under the bonnet of the game engine anyway.

    Keep going Richard- I’ll buy ’em, and I have no interest in the Boer war- yet!

  20. Daz says:

    Rich,
    very thought provoking. I wonder, is this preference for history vs “game” age related? I’ve been wargaming for around 30 years. The thing is, I haven’t just been wargaming, I’ve been reading books too. I’ll use Napoleonics as my exmaple. You start of with general ones (Osprey, Chandler etc) which inspire you, so you get some figures with those great uniforms and want to play a wargame. If your interest in the period grows, you read more and those books are more detailed- memoirs, single books on entire battles, books on tactics, grand tactics and so on. And this is where you start looking for rules that reflect what you have read- or in my case, write your own. You won’t get to this point unless you’ve been reading, and reading takes time. Not all people will do this, and by definition many younger wargamers won’t have done it- not a criticism, just an observation. And as we parents know, the youngsters have most of the disposable income! So I can see that this leads to the relative size of the market. A minor slice of the market, in a minority hobby. Call yourself a businessman 🙂
    Having said that, Sharpe Practice was inspired and did successfully appeal to both markets, so it shows that it can be done!
    Daz

  21. Mick Scales says:

    This is a fascinating and thought provoking reflection Rich and one I thoroughly enjoyed reading. You encapsulate, for me, the thinking behind what makes a wargame worth playing. I take my figure painting to the best level I can, I try to make my scenery as realistic as I can – it’ll only be me that sees it, and I want rules that make me have to think and make decisions. What a difference TFL has made to my leisure time over the last couple of years. Many, many thanks.

    Mick

  22. Ivan sorensen says:

    Well said, and really enjoyed the article disguising as a blog post 🙂

  23. Jonathan Yuengling says:

    Richard,

    This was a great article. Something that would be a worthwhile addition to any magazine. I have done a lot of playtest and design for other companies, but I like your approach the best. Your rules and supplements read well and have pulled me back into wargaming.

    My mantra is that the rules have to feel right for the period. And your are spot on.

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