(first published in WSS magazine, but that's long gone, so I've stuck it on here instead).
FOUR LEGS ON MY GAMING TABLE (and it’s still rolling along)
This article deals with a simple, but sometimes perplexing question. What makes a good wargame? It’s a subject that concerns me, because ever since I can remember I’ve always wanted my wargames to be better, and by that I really mean more enjoyable for me. Most players end each game with an exchange of handshakes and a polite ‘Good game!’, but what do those two words actually mean?
Like many, I spent my formative gaming years (the early 80s) reading articles in Military Modelling magazine and looking at the photographs of the games and miniatures I saw their inspired me. They just looked so much better that the games I was playing, on my parents dining room table, with a green cloth, step-hills cut from thick cardboard (unpainted) and a few hedges made from cut-up pan scourers. My Airfix miniatures looked bad (I was 10, so painting hadn’t progressed beyond basic daubing) and the games always ended in arguments (and often tears) over the rules. We were young (and nobody had invented the Play Station or the Internet) but, 35+ years on, the principal remains the same. How do you create an all round better wargaming experience?
Well, I have divided it into four simple guidelines. These are the four legs upon which my wargaming table is (metaphorically) supported (the non-metaphorical ones are made of solid wood, not imaginative concepts).
LEG 1. THE MINIATURES (your toy soldier collection)
You can’t really play wargames without a toy soldier collection, and that means collecting and then painting them. There are those that try to do without, by just borrowing forces, but I’d argue they are passers-by, guests at the party, spectators. They aren’t actually doing a hobby, just observing and borrowing somebody else’s - just as you can’t really claim to be much of a motorcycle-enthusiast but never actually owned or ridden a motorcycle.
Fundamentally, wargaming is a hobby of collecting and painting. What you collect is a very personal decision. It is, after all, your money and time at stake, but I’d say what it actually is doesn’t really matter that much, it’s all the same. Fantasy, Sci-fi, Steampunk, WW2, Hundred Years War, 3rd Indian Frontier War, the Carlist War(!) the collecting experience remains exactly the same.
If you are anything like me, then planning the next army or project is when it really all begins (and is an enjoyment in itself). Looking at which miniatures are available from whom, how many men you need for a battalion, how they will be a based, uniform colours, etc. I can spend hours doing this stuff, not buying or painting a thing, but just pondering. But, usually pondering is where it stays. I don’t instantly commit, because long experience tells me that is fatal. Too many periods appeal to be able to do them all. A new project needs some ‘cooling-off’ time. Of course, everything is exciting to start with, but are you still so keen after two weeks or a month? If so, then maybe then the wallet can come out.
This ponder-time is my method of avoiding the infamous wargamer’s ‘butterfly effect’ - we all know it. It’s too easy to jump in the deep end, spend money and simple wish you had the army that inspired the purchases. Odds are that in a few weeks time, if you have already moved on to next ‘big plan’, you would never have finished the first one anyway. Shelve it for the future.
We live in a society in which buy things and shopping are the number one leisure-pastime. We no longer shop out of pure necessity, we do it for pleasure and the experience and (I would argue) as part of what society tells us we need to do to become more prosperous and thus happier. Buy things, spend money. This social pressure extends to wargamers too. Buy things, and then buy more things. It doesn’t matter whether you need it, or will even use it, buying is an end in itself. We all do it, because buying things is pleasurable. It is called the ‘thrill of the new’. Each new thing, be it a house, car, 40” plasma screen TV or ‘1808 Prussian Jager company in campaign dress, in open skirmish line, reloading!’ actually makes you feel temporarily happier. It does. But, it’s transient and you can over do it. We all have a lead mountain (to greater or lesser decrees), but buying stuff does not make you a wargamer (it makes you a shopper) any more than simply owning a fast car makes you a racing driving.
In my later, but still formative, youth, I was lucky enough to meet a brilliant, inspiring wargamer by the name of Nigel Stillman (hi, Nigel if you’re reading). It was Nigel’s approach that opened my eyes to what wargaming as a hobby could be. An evening with Nigel’s Romano-British collection for a skirmish game against the invading Saxons showed me his themed terrain collection and brilliant home-made terrain boards, with wattle and daub huts, crop fields in strips, ruined roman villa and temple still under construction, his knowledge of the period, his own theories on the warfare and tactics, his own set of rules to reflect this and (and this startled me) the fact that he had no TV in his house. He had deliberately got rid of it, so it could not distract him from his passion, his wargaming project. That’s extreme, but serves to make a point, wargaming isn’t like chess or even board gaming, which are pastimes, wargaming is a hobby. It is a demanding hobby at that, it requires your effort and time. Nobody gives it to you all wrapped up in one easy box. For it to be good, you have to build it (literally with glue, paint and sticky-back plastic). That is its great strength, your games are your creation, unique and personal to you and all the better for it. Nigel showed me that just collecting miniatures did not make the hobby, and that a more holistic approach would reward me with far better games.
We (people) are creatures of habit, literally. What we do everyday effects the way our brains work, how the synapses link up. The more you do something, the more the brain comes to expect it and then reward you for it. It is part of how obsessions and addictions start, I think (I’m no expert). Given my job, I write a lot. Getting started seems dull and daunting, but after a while (20 minutes these days) mostly the hours start to fly by without my knowledge, because my brain now expects, recognises and rewards the process of punching the keyboard (like right now). It must be the same with painting miniatures, the more you paint, the more you’ll want to paint. Getting started is the hard bit, it seems dull and daunting. Stick with it, you’ll soon get the habit and gradually you’ll come to love it as the process subtle re-shapes your brain. It is the same with anything, I guess it’s how medieval stone masons build cathedrals, chipping stone all day for years on end. Their brains came to expect it and then to love it, doing it made them feel happier. If you want to finish those lead mountain armies, get a habit. Paint, force yourself to, after a few weeks you’ll start to want to, then you’ll feel happy just doing it and it won’t seem daunting at all, just pleasant. Remould your brain. I’m always happy with a paint brush in hand, I hate having nothing to paint, and I finish my armies because I try to paint something most evenings (it is far better than TV - I do have one despite Nigel’s example).
Finishing your armies also touches upon another issue, which is the standard of painting. Quantity, required for gaming, and quality are different ends of the scale. I am a wargamer, and whilst I appreciate a nicely painted toy soldier like anybody else, one beautiful general or one nice unit does not make an army. I need hundreds of miniatures to recreate battles and so, painting everyone of them to a very high standard is just impossible. Beautifully painted large armies aren’t something a single individual can have (if he’s doing his own painting that is). Military modelling, competition-style painting and weathering are fantastic to look at, but if you want to get models on the tabletop, then some compromises must be made.
I like to play with nicely painted toy soldiers (who doesn’t), but they don’t have to be world class, they have to be good enough to pass muster from 3’ away. Individual model painting (for competitions, etc.) and army painting are, I think, two different hobbies. Mine is the later. There are a few remarkable souls that manage both, but given we can’t all be that talented (not every footballer is Lionel Messi or Ronaldo, but millions still play the game and enjoy it), just accept the compromises as a necessary requirement of actually getting an army to the tabletop. You can always go back later and touch-up, re-work, re-weather, etc. But, firstly, get it done, get paint on lead (or plastic or resin). Painting an entire army requires so much time anyway, that simple techniques, short cuts and an ability to endure (then come to like) repetition is a must. Try seeing it like this. You’re not Lionel Messi and are never going to be, but you can still be a good journeyman pro in the Blue Square Beever Homes League 3, that is an achievement.
|Batch painting, how to finish an army, 101...|
LEG 2. THE TERRAIN (the table you play on)
What I said above also applies to your model scenery collection. Often neglected in favour of more miniatures (to not paint), I treat my terrain as a separate army project. I plan it, find it, buy and build it, and then I add to it over the years - and years is the important word here. Because of the efforts required, wargaming is a hobby of long term commitment. Not that commonplace today in our disposable world, toy soldiers are for life and so is the terrain they fight over. I hope to be still playing over mine in 30 years time, so I want it to be good, and so it’s worth the time and effort.
Even more than collecting an army, collecting terrain requires a long term commitment to the hobby. By building a terrain collection, you are basically saying, I’m going to do this a lot. It’s worth the time and effort because I’m going to use these a lot. Now, everybody’s gaming time is different. Some people can play several times a week (oh we wish!), others once a week or fortnight. Some, once a year. I try to play as often as I can, but life, as always, does get in the way. In a perfect world I’d play once a week, a good game, lots of painted toys, etc. In reality it’s more like once every 2 or 3 weeks. But, what I miss in quantity I try to make up for in quality. If I can’t play so often, I want it to be good when I do.
Not collecting terrain is indicative, I thing, of another common wargaming malaise, which has been growing in the hobby over recent years. If you have miniatures, but nothing really good (or vaguely right) to play over, then I think you are suffering from a lack of ambition (and sometimes a lack of space as well). Way back when Military Modelling was my source of inspiration, I remember those wargames being impressively large. Armies clashes, and even though we know the number of models never matches the actual numbers, they still looked and felt like armies. These days there has been a gradual move into ‘skirmish’ gaming, popular because it demands less of the its players. It is easy. Well, when was easy better? I’m with JFK, “we do not do these things because they are easy, but because they are hard”. This lack of ambition has seen the rise of games involving very few miniatures, to be played over tiny areas with little terrain. Neither is good for the long term health of the hobby.
Now, I like a 2-3 model aside western shoot-out as much as the next man, but I would not call it the bedrock of my hobby. I like to see games with toy soldiers, armies of them. But conversely, I don’t like games with too many models for the table space (not to mention a popular set of 15mm WW2 rules that seem to positively push this approach). Filling a table with models leaves no room for manoeuvre, and movement is the key to creating drama in a game. Packed in from table-end to table-end, a wargame can be nothing more than a headlong attritional grind (usually somewhere in the centre of the table). Where are the flanking moves, the bold pushes, the retreats and withdrawals, the ebb and flow of battle? Lost in a mass of models so cramped all they can do is blindly be pushed forwards, and where the terrain is now just in the way of the fight, rather than influencing now the battle is fought. In those sorts of games, why bother with any terrain? A flat bare board would be better.
|Worth the time and effort... add to your terrain collection. |
LEG 3. THE GAME (the rules you play)
Being a games designer, this one is close to my heart. Rules, rules, rules. Much underrated but for me, these are the ultimate arbiter of how much fun I’m going to get from all the earlier hard work of painting soldiers and building terrain. Because, the best miniatures and terrain collection mean nothing if the actual end-result game isn’t much fun or very challenging.
As an exemplar, my WW2 wargaming reached just this point. I had large collections of painted models with years of terrain collected or scratch-built. I loved that part of it, adding new units, or a new ruined church, etc. But, when it came to getting it all out on a tabletop, the afternoons spent playing just weren’t enough fun for the earlier investment of time. The third leg was at fault, it had gone wobbly. The miniatures were good, the terrain good, the opponent’s good, but the rules (which shall remain nameless) were not. They ruined my hobby. The games didn’t feel right and were repetitive, predictable and, well, dull. So, it was time to change rules. I bought others, tried them once or twice, tried a few rules sets my gaming friends bought and ultimately decided the WW2 game I was looking for did not exists, so I wrote one (it became Battlegroup). The same process has been at work with my Crusaders collection. All the gear, models, desert boards etc, willing players, but no good rules that give me the gaming experience I want. So, I wrote them (and they became Soldiers of God).
Maybe I’m getting older and grumpier, but I cannot stand to play games with poor (or even average) rules. Rules which encourage a-historical behaviour, throw up too many oddities, or over emphasise the use of ‘elite’ troop types are my current ‘bet noir’. Also, I dislike rules which are too predictable, over simplified and encourage too many ‘no brainer’ decisions, so that I’m not making tactical decisions, just ‘playing the game’, because to try anything else would be just stupid. I also dislike games which feel like an academic exercise or a maths tests.
The rules I play with have now become so important to me, that they have come to dictate which periods or theatres I’ll play (and thus what miniatures and terrain I’ll collect). The rules now comes first, the models and terrain then follow (perhaps I should have put this as leg number 1 then).
I have just spent too much time and money on getting legs 1 and 2 sorted to waste it in unimaginative rules. I want excitement, not arguments. I want drama and tension (sadly lacking in most game rules) and I want to feel like the game rewards me for making good tactical decisions, not doing what it thinks I should do. I also want the game to feel like the period, not a general set of rules that could equally apply to any theatre. Specific rules, detailed with good historical references will always win out over general (usually sold as ‘quick-play’) rules which only ever paint with a broad brush. Such rules are OK once or twice but then become repetitive.
I know the main obstacle to taking up new rules is the learning curve. Most gamers prefer to be told or shown the rules rather than read them and learnt them. I take a professional interest in game rules and mechanics, in all sorts of games, but to learn a game to the degree that you can play it is a bit of work. Accept that the first game or two will be slower than you’d like and that many rules will go by-the-board as you get the basics. But, over the course of 3 or 4 games the rules sink in and then start to become second nature. This learning curve can be fun too, because you can just try things, in the full knowledge that it is all part of testing the rules. Also, expect to lose the game (see below). When starting with new rules, it is not about winning or losing, it is about learning, so that in a game or two’s time you are ready to win. At first, you’re just in training for the main battles to come.
LEG 4. THE OPPONENTS (the people you play against)
The fourth vital leg to gaming is the people you play against. You can’t have a good game without a good opponent. By that I mean, somebody who is looking for similar things from the game as you, is a big help, so the rules are providing both players with the game they enjoy, not just one of you.
I don’t have a problem with opponents that play to win, or even hard-nosed tournament play. I expect it. In my youth I played football, rugby, cricket and hockey for my school (I was a sporty kid, if it involved chasing a ball I signed up). We always played to win, and so did our opponents (but mostly they did). Competition was expected, it’s part of the point, to be pushed to do better by others. But, the most important lessons taken from all that competitive sport were not about winning, that is the easy bit. It was about losing, and life’s difficult lesson about how to lose well. To be competitive is fine, but what isn’t fine is to lose badly. You should lose with the same good humour that you win with (some people can’t even manage to win well – there is such a thing as bad winner too!). Even if, inside, you are dying a little bit (you’re not actually) you have a responsibility to your opponent to lose with good grace and not ruin their enjoyment. Even when the fickle dice gods turn against you... just curse your dumb-luck inwardly, laugh outwardly and say ‘well-played’ to your opponent (you can cry or sulk in private when you get home).
What the more hard-nosed players forget is that, unlike competition on the sports field, wargaming is also a social activity as well as a game. You meet people, talk to them (generally about what you have in common, which is most obviously going to be the historical period you are about to fight). You get to spend time talking about (and listening to – conversations are two way affairs) something you like. That’s quality time in my book, talking about your hobby, your passion, with like-mind souls. The social environment is important, for most gamers it is the absolute arbiter of how much they enjoyed a game. Played with friends (or at least like-minded acquaintances) the hours fly past, you chat, you discuss the re-organisation of a Swedish cavalry brigade in 1681, even learn something maybe, and go away feeling happy with life in general. That’s why the human race invent games in the first place, way back when they where scratching noughts and crosses on a cave wall, to bring people together and socialise. Games are important to us, in all their forms (mostly obviously these days in sports and computer games, but our toy soldiers still count too). They give us common ground. Poor social behaviour (arguing, being overly picky, loss of good humour all count here) turns that ground into an icky quagmire, not somewhere anybody will what to return to soon.
For me, if all four of these legs is in place, stable and progressing, then your games are going to rewarding and you can truly claim it to be a ‘good game’. Otherwise, identify which of the four isn’t working so well, and fix it. Be it finding a new opponent (or even introduce a prospective player to wargames), change the rules you use (or write some for yourself) for something that better fits your requirements, buy or make those new river sections or hedges, or actually sit down in the evening (turn the TV off) and get down to work with those paints and brushes you bought. I think it might make you happier.
|Hard fought fun, but not life and death...|