Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Go ahead you can laugh all you want, but I got My Philosophy.

The Halloween game had been a great success.  It's fair to say that it was, by its nature, towards the less serious end of the wargaming spectrum.

Let's think about that for a moment.

Some gamers, many in fact, might call it "silly" and argue that it wasn't *real* wargaming at all.  To an extent, I'd have to agree with them.  We're not reproducing any real historical or hypothetical future conflict.  We weren't trying to gain a greater understanding of the dynamics of vampire on Hillbilly violence by running a detailed simulation.  Many of the rules were written to be played for laughs, like the ability of some Elder hill-folk to make a pinning attack against younger enemies by verbally berating them at length and in detail for their shoddy, dissolute ways.  Or the fact that the deadliest sniper in the game was a teenage girl whose teddy bear acted as her spotter.

Put in terms used for other forms of entertainment like books & TV, it was clearly a Comedy.  Or at least a comedy-drama (never a Dramedy - that word is an abomination and must never be allowed to make it into the dictionary!).  But a comedic novel is still a novel.  A comedy TV show is still a TV show.

We can be all worthy and intellectual and spend our TV viewing on nothing but Serious Dramas where everyone looks constipated, with maybe a few documentaries on obscure European monarchs or 17th century pottery.  But every now and then, everybody wants and needs an entertainment that doesn't tax the brain too much and makes you laugh, or at least smile wrily.

Thus I would argue that the Comedy Wargame has its place in the hobby.  While my general wargaming tastes to tend towards the lighter end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want ALL my gaming to be as off-the-wall as the Hillbilly games.  Other games I do, like the Paradiso modern day stuff, may have light-hearted details like a rebel leader nicknamed "The Green Pig", or a neighbouring nation named, appoximately "Rat's Ass".  But on the whole the core of the games are played straight, and are my small way of exploring modern combat, whether between semi-modern militaries, against insurent rebels, or street level violence between criminals and law enforcement.

(The VSF gaming is also spread out along this comedy-drama spectrum.  The more outrageous elements are obviously quite silly, like the SpringenPanzer, bouncing across the battlefield on its four pogo-stick legs.  But on the whole I'm a lot less whimsical than most other VSF players, and the games I play seem to be comparable to those of the Very British Civil War crowd, fundamentally grounded in real-world technology and tactics, with a little light-hearted nonsense as seasoning.)

The reason I'm discussing this is that the wargaming media channel The Beasts Of War are running a series of articles on gaming the current conflict in Ukraine.  Needless to say there's a certain amount of backlash, with some commenters arguing that the author shouldn't be gaming a war that's only just (hopefully) coming to a close.  Personally I think it's a valid and interesting subject, which can be approached in different ways.

The author of the articles advocates a serious, respectful and scholarly approach, using the game and associated research as a way of increasing general awareness of the real-life conflict.  I'd agree and support this approach wholeheartedly.  But does that mean that the wargamer isn't allowed to have "fun" gaming such a conflict.

The other, slightly more dangerous approach, would be to go down the "black comedy" route.  One of the way we as human beings process and deal with the most horrible aspects of life is through comedy.  Done right, it's not so much about making light of the horrible situation, but instead picking out the ridiculous and absurd elements so that we can use them to help rationalise what's happening and understand it.  While I would never run a Ukraine game with the same outright comedic tone as the Hillbilly games, the situation there has some obviously black comedic elements that could be picked out - the myriad of small paramilitary groups, some of whom may be at odds with others on their "side", the non-existent Russian troops in the conflict (The BOW articles' author mentioned that Vladimir Putin recently awarded a battle honour to a Russian Army unit for a Ukrainian battle that Russia officially denies any involvement in!)

Of course, you can have your cake and eat it if you shift the setting of the conflict to an Imagination.  Simply changing the names and filing off the serial numbers seems to take a lot of controversy out of modern gaming.  Or you can take situations and elements from the real-world headlines and transplant them to a totally different setting to disguise the source.  Paradiso might have a province that is largely culturally Spanish (where many of the people feel closer to Culo Raton, for some reason).  Some planned move toward Anglicizing the country further might prompt local separatist paramilitaries to declare independence.  Culo Raton might respond by NOT sending a couple of brigades of non-existent troops who totally don't wear any insignia, while numerous paramilitary units formup on both sides of the brewing conflict, using a mixture of modern and obsolete equipment.

Would such a game still be morally questionable to those who object to a "straight" gaming of the Ukraine?  If not why not?


All this is actually a major digression from what I did want to post about - on Monday night Jonesy and our friend Andy came round for what's turned into a regular monday night gathering and we gave Neil Thomas's "One Hour Wargames" a try out. I'd picked up a copy a couple of months ago thinking it might be useful as a source of scenarios, and when I showed it to Jonesy the other day, it piqued his interest and he promptly bought the eBook version.  To try out the rules, he produced a number of card cut-out counters to represent the units, which helpfully had the relevent game stats printed on them (dice to roll in combat, movement distance etc)

We did a couple of battles with the Horse and Musket rules.  The first pitted myself against Andy in a hill defence scenario.  I was able to concentrate my massed infantry fire on his troops defending the hill, wiping them away in the first few turns, then managed to hold the position when his re-inforcements arrived.  The second battle, between Andy and Jonesy, saw identical forces on each side battling over a hill and a crossroads, both of which had to be captured and/or defended.  That turned into a real grindfest, a battle of attrition where Andy won by effectively shielding a couple of units for the first few turns so that they came to the attrition phase of the game undamaged, where their opponents had already taken 4-5 points each from other units.

I have fairly mixed feelings about One-Hour Wargames as a whole.  I'm generally a big fan of short simple rulesets (in the book each period's rules is spread over three pages, but printing out from the eBook version managed to reduce that down to two sides) and fast-play games.  Play felt at times very much like early DBA/Hordes Of The Things, where tactics consisted of putting your units into positions to spoil enemy units manoeuvring and concentrating your attacking power.  There's lots of stuff that's a little vague and while one gaming group might assume it clearly means one thing, I can imagine a different group interpreting it a different way.  For example, units turn by rotating about the centre at the start and end of movement.  But since you can't pass through other units (unless you're a skirmisher), does that mean that if you have two units directly next to eachother in side to side contact, does that mean that neither can turn, because doing so would "clip" a corner through another unit.  Jonesy ruled that yes that was exactly what it meant, and we went with it, but I can easily see another group interpreting the rule as only prohibiting major interpenetrations and handwaving away any minor clipping.  The strict interpretation could lead to the risk of micro-measuring, with one side arguing unit X can't move because it was pass through unit Y by half a millimeter or so (yes I heard such arguments in the early days of DBA).  Like most one-page rulesets, I think both sides need to have an easy-going, loosey-goosey approach to the rules in order for it to be a fun game.

I love that you can produce two armies for the game at a relatively low price that would then allow you to fight every scenario in the book.  It's something that I long wanted to do for the Charles Grant scenario books, going as far as buying several boxes of plastic napoleonic figures (which are currently lost somewhere in storage).  The rules themselves are obviously simple and generally did a good job, though I felt there were a couple of instances where one side ought to have been given some advantage but weren't, such as an infantry unit firing into the flank or rear of another.  I greatly admire the way Neil Thomas took on the rules design challenge of limiting himself to four troop types per era, but I don't think that does a terribly good job of representing some of the periods covered.

On the whole, I think if I was looking for a compact, short-rules wargame I'd rather play Bob Cordery's Portable Wargame or a DBx variant, though I do want to try out a couple of other periods and maybe play with some actual toy soldiers on the table rather than card counters.


The most interesting thing that came out of the One Hour Wargames playtest was that Andy didn't enjoy the evening's gamng.  He started out by saying "I'm just not a wargamer" which didn't make much sense given that over the years I've seen him play many, many wargames.

This led to a very useful discussion on what it was that he enjoys in games, what exactly he gets out of the experience.  I've said it before on this blog, as I've grown older I've become a great believer in finding out what it is that you enjoy doing, and then doing that thing a lot.  It seems like stating the bleeding obvious, but I look back over a lifetime of gaming and a lot of that was spent in unsatisfactory games because I was just going with the flow of what I thought the games had to be like.  The 1HW test was so minimalist it became a matter of pure tactics and game mechanics, which are both very jonesy, while neither are things that Andy enjoys.  There was no context to the battle, no natty uniforms on either side, no characterisation... and then Andy said the magic word when he said he couldn't get the story of the game. It turns out Andy is looking for the same thing I am from a gaming experience, to tell an interesting and exiting story of the battle.

We talked a bit more about other wargames he'd enjoyed and those he hadn't, and eventually decided that next week we'd have a game with the Hillbilly figures, slightly smaller than the Big Game but with a more light-hearted, story-driven tone that I think Andy will appreciate.

I can't repeat this often enough: Find the things you enjoy doing the most.  Then go do those things.  Your gaming will be all the better for it.


  1. The base line for all of this is something learned many years ago - whatever we do, however the hobby is embraced - it is all quite not real. It is play. It is a divertissement, an avocation, a refuge from the demands of the ordinary day. To those who say that they can't figure out how a university professor can play with orcs and hobbits, the response is simple, "Why not?" Or to look at the hobby in another way, a day without toy soldiers and war gaming is a wasted day.
    Best regards,

  2. I agree. To my mind the purpose is to have fun and the key is to define what fun means for you.

  3. The only way to be doing it wrong is if it isn't fun. That's when you know you're doing it wrong. Either the wrong rules, the wrong period, the wrong opponent, the wrong beverage choice - something. So change it up a bit, see if that helps. Keep changing until it is fun again. Then do that a lot.

    Great philosophy, Beats Nietzche hollow.