I suppose one of my earliest wargaming memories was the desire to run a campaign, the idea inspired by the fact that the very first wargaming book I ever discovered was Wargames Campaigns by Don Featherstone when I was 11 years old. As I type this, I can still picture the book and recall its smell as I gazed with awe at toy soldiers being used “properly” for the first time. That was 1974 and in the intervening 42 years the desire to lift my games to another level with a campaign setting has never left me.
One of the great joys of Chain of Command has been the Pint Sized Campaigns which and the accompanying campaign handbook, At the Sharp End, which provide a series of linked scenarios fought out over a campaign ladder. We have enjoyed researching, writing and playing these, indeed the rules were written with the campaign system firmly in mind; the six scenarios in the main rule book being designed specifically to allow the action to progress as the fighting moved from No-Man’s-Land, through the outpost line and main line of resistance and on to the ultimate objective.
Naturally we were keen to produce something equivalent for Sharp Practice, but the ladder structure of WWII, replicating so effectively the warfare of the mid-twentieth century, was not appropriate for the wars of the black powder era and, let’s face it, Sharp Practice is not about replicating historical actions but about creating a rip-roaring story line full of colour and colourful characters.
As a consequence, the campaign handbook for Sharp Practice was going to need to be very different. The system had to allow the freedom of movement of the 18th and 19th centuries as opposed to the more formal lines of defence of WWII. The campaigns created would need to involve the type of missions which one reads about in fictional accounts or sees on television or film. The system needed to allow interaction between characters over long periods, with friendships and fortunes made and lost and sworn enemies encountered. This then was an opportunity to replicate the dramatic world of historical fiction.
Of course, that is easy to say. The truth is that the success of At the Sharp End is based on the twin-foundations of simplicity and brevity. Most of us (all of us maybe?) have experienced campaigns which begin with fanfares and grand plans but fizzle out and die as they are too long or too complicated. Since the days of Tony Bath’s Hyboria campaign the world seems to have changed. We all have far less time on our hands and we want our hobby to be simple enough so that we can concentrate on the joys of gaming. As a consequence I believe that for a campaign to be a success it must be short enough so that the players can see an end and simple enough so that issues such a book-keeping are avoided. As such, my objective was to produce a campaign system where you could print the map out on a single sheet of paper and fit all if the book-keeping onto the other side of that sheet.
With that in mind, I set out to create a system of manoeuvre and movement which was simple enough to use and allowed the players to manoeuvre freely, but without the requirement of measuring movement rates and keeping track of distances. In fact the solution here was based on the principle of “effect rather than cause” which tends to guide me in al of my game design. The best way to describe this is to use the simple question of “What do they know?”. A good example of this would be a naval wargame where a player is told You have just suffered 23% hits on your front turret and it is out of action for two turns”. In reality the ship’s Captain would only know that his front turret has stopped firing, all the rest being Game-Speak.
Taking this principle, and then studying maps of the 18th and 19th century, it is very easy to see that a commander of a force would have limited information regarding terrain and when ordering his march for the day he’d say something like “We march towards Brussels today, passing through Genappe this morning and then into the farmland beyond in the afternoon”. No mention of miles, just a general but perfectly clear plan which his staff officers could then implement.
What was more, what I was keen to emphasis was that Sharp Practice is a skirmish game and the forces involved were small ones. Such a force would be sent on a very specific mission, along the lines of “Go to X and do Y”; it would not be manoeuvring freely across the countryside, but would have a route to follow and would generally keep to that unless a relatively minor diversion was required such as moving through the hills to avoid an enemy outpost. As a result, the force commander would only really know the route he was to take in order to achieve his mission and the terrain to either side of that. This then allowed me to create a format based on a chess board, or at least a portion of it. Take three adjacent rows on a chess board, with the central row being the route to the objective, the two rows on either side are the terrain away from the road into which the column might move on a slight diversion.
Of course, the road which the force is to take is unlikely to be as straight as the row on a chess board, but if we accept that the road has somehow been picked up and pulled straight, as one might do with a length of rope, then you have a very neat means of creating a format which is easily managed. Each square on the chess board is a length of road five to ten miles long, the squares to either side of the road represent the terrain you meet if diverting from the main path. Let’s look at a section of map here and see how that would work.
Right, so we can see that the road here is winding all over the place, but what we can see clearly is that we can construct our map on the chess board quite easily. In the bottom centre square we have Southville, in the square to the left we have wooded mountains, in the square to the right woods. We shift up a row with farmland in the central row, mountains to the left and more farmland to the right. And so it goes on. Northville has woods to the left and farms to the right, then the road runs through woods with hills to left and right. It is quite easy to imagine Captain Fondler leading the Light Company of the West Sussex and issuing order to say that “This morning we shall keep the mountains on our left and march through Southville before moving into the open farmland to the North and heading towards Northville”. Indeed, such an order is entirely in-keeping with the period of warfare we are seeking to replicate.
With our map converted onto the more useable grid of the chess board we have a system which makes issuing orders simple for the players, and easy to track for the umpire, as the campaign is now being fought out over 24 squares on the chess board. To make things even easier, we created terrain tables for Northern and Southern Europe and North America, so if you don’t have a particular map you want to fight over you can simply roll up the terrain to place on your map.
The next step was to create a whole raft of campaign backgrounds so that each adventure will be completely different. In fact the rules contain 18 such narrative missions, everything from escorting a Lady to demolishing a bridge, covering the flank of a major force or arresting a treacherous spy. Each campaign narrative sees the two sides get very different briefings, sometimes these are in direct conflict, at other times they simply overlap allowing both sides to claim some degree of victory if they complete their missions. The ides where was that both sides needed to find the campaign interesting and challenging; it shouldn’t simply be focussed on one side as the heroes of the piece. The result, combined with the terrain generation system provides almost infinite combinations to make replay value very high indeed. In fact this was very high on the list of design priorities as I see each campaign as just one sub-plot in a bigger story.
I like the idea that in our first campaign Captain Fondler could be charged with escorting a spy through into enemy territory and then in the next mission he is charged with releasing that same spy from an enemy prison. The campaign system is designed with this replayability built in; as new characters are met and worked with, their is a system where some of them will become friends on whom our commanders can rely to assist them in future. So, Captain Fondler may well meet a Doctor in his current campaign, such random meetings can result from the colourful but subtle Random Events which occur from time to time, and at the end of the campaign it may be that Fondler has built up a rapport. Should that be the case, the Doctor will always be available for future campaigns, almost a Watson to Fondler’s Holmes. Equally, it is entirely possible that Captain Fondler will encounter opponents who become sworn enemies, such as Colonel La Rue of the Imperial Guard. The system encourages our Leaders to work with friends and to try to kill their enemies, making a whole series of short campaigns all the more enchanting and stimulating.
But what of the campaigns, how long to they take? The campaigns are designed to represent missions which take up to a week to ten days to complete. A very simple supply system means that time is limited if the men are to be fed. Generally a campaign will last between three and five actions, some being small skirmishes with outposts, other larger actions with a full force being used, so a real variety of games results. Where small outposts exist these will often find themselves fighting actions so as to buy time to remove supplies to avoid the enemy capturing them or so as to give the enemy a bloody nose so that they can escape. In this way even games which appear imbalanced have a real purpose, especially as our campaign world is not in a vacuum. That small garrison may well have been reinforced by a unit of cavalry seeking fodder or an artillery piece and its crew seeking shelter for the night.
And we mustn’t forget the King, or indeed the President. Behind the campaign system we have a back story which allows us to follow the long-term careers of our heroes. Ultimately you can see your character fall to the depths of a coward and be drummed out of the service or soar to the dizzy heights of a hero, showered with accolades and titles. The system tracks his reputation, his influence with the powers that be and his financial standing. However, increasing and maintaining his status depends not just on military success, but also in how he deals with the characters he encounters, his friends and even their impoverished widows.
What else can I expect? Within the campaign system the players have choices to be made about how they select the forces they take to achieve their mission; they need to consider the roles their cavalry undertake, as whilst they are the eyes and ears of their force, performing key scouting duties, they could also provide an effective rearguard or a reserve which could deliver the blow that destroys the enemy’s resistance. However, they can’t do all of these at once. Equipping your outposts with carrier pigeons or the most modern signal towers can provide you with advanced warning of enemy forces. Bringing a Doctor or even a Priest can save lives and help your wounded recover more effectively. In a nutshell, Dawns & Departures contains a complete campaign system which, most importantly, is fast and simple to use. Issuing orders for a turn will take a player less than a minute or two; the campaign “bookwork” takes the umpire a similar amount of time and the whole thing can be tracked on one sheet of paper from start to finish.
Dawns & Departures is 79 pages long and available in PDF format. For ease of reading on a table we have gone with a one column format and, for those who like to print our their PDFs we have gone with a low ink format with limited colour being used where it most enhances the presentation. You can find Dawns & Departures here: Dawns & Departures
As Historicon looms large on the horizon we thought it would be a great idea to organise a bit of a get together for fellow Lardies on the other side of the pond. One of the great pleasures of doing shows in the UK has been the opportunity to meet and chat with fellow wargamers