Being A History of the Current Rules

Every wargame (every game, most likely) starts off as one thing, and gradually morphs into something else.  Every wargame designer will tell you that the game they set out to create is not the same game that wound up going to print.  Sometimes the changes are small; simple re-balancing of factions or units to allow for more fair (or accurate) play.

Other times, the changes can be more substantial.

In these cases whole game mechanics are tweaked, chucked away, or added.  This seems to happen to almost every set of wargame rules once it actually meets the tabletop.  When dice are flying and plastic armies clashing, you notice assumptions you had made don’t quite hold up in reality.  Sure, the effective distance of a Martini Henry rifle is 400 yards, but that means your tabletop will have to be 30 feet long or else your infantry units will be completely overpowered.  And sure, it seems great to let a cavalry trooper hack down 3 men at one time, but it can lead to dreadfully imbalanced battles.

Perhaps the most famous example of the changes that occur to rules throughout the creation of a wargame is that of H.G. Wells and his seminal 1910 rules set, Little Wars.  Wells notes that,

“There is not a piece of constructive legislation in the world, not a solitary attempt to meet a complicated problem, that we do not now regard the more charitably for our efforts to get a right result from this apparently easy and puerile business of fighting with tin soldiers on the floor.”

In fact, fully half of Wells’ book is simply a history detailing how his rules came about and the many issues he ran into while trying to make a realistic, fair and fun wargame.  If you visit The Miniatures Page forum on game design you’ll encounter any number of erstwhile wargames designers discussing the difficulty inherent in creating one that works well.  Often-times games go through 2-3 completely different iterations before being made public and sold.

In that grand tradition, I thought I’d discuss some of the issues I myself have run into while attempting to create a fun, simple wargame set during the peak of Queen Victoria’s empire (Gawd bless ‘er!).

The Travails

Initially I began taking down notes for rules because I wanted something quick to use with some new pith-helmeted troops I had just purchased.  The goal was something fast and simple; really just one slight step above the disorganized way children play with their “army men.”  I wanted something I wouldn’t have to remember a lot of rules for, or check a lot of tables or use a bunch of equipment other than 6 sided dice and a ruler for.

Something, frankly, that an 8 year old would be able to pick up in a few sessions.

In my more impressionable years I had been an avid player of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 miniatures game, so those rules (3rd Edition) seemed like an obvious place to start.  I wrote down a basic outline with each player taking turns moving, then shooting, then charging/fighting close combat with their troops.  I came up with some stats for the troops themselves and for their weapons and, voila! wargame complete.

Until I playtested.

I found that, when actually playtested, I didn’t like these rules at all for what I had in mind.  I didn’t want to have to consult a table to see if someone was wounded, or deal with someone that was partially in cover, or not be able to measure distance for an assaulting unit.

More importantly, I had come to the conclusion that the I-Go-You-Go structure of the game left it too disjointed and potentially boring for my taste.  Having to wait an entire turn while your opponent moves all their forces, then shoots with them, then charges with them essentially means players spend large blocks of time watching someone else play a game.

That’s not my idea of a good time, and it is one of the reasons I think wargaming (as opposed to boardgaming and cardgaming) is such a niche hobby.  Many wargames are so overly complicated and with such large chunks of downtime that they seem almost tailor-made to appeal only to the most hardcore and nerdy game players.  I wanted to avoid that problem as much as possible.

We All Go!

Aside from simplifying and streamlining the ancillary rules, the change that seemed most needed was a switch from each player having long turns where they used all their forces, to shorter, more intense turns that kept the action up and all the players involved.

After some reading I came upon the idea of twinned turns.  One turn could be broken up into I move; you move, I shoot; you shoot, I charge; you charge etc.


I made some re-writes, came up with completely new close combat rules (because I wanted something simpler) and, finally, the game was complete!

Until I playtested.

I realized many of the changes I had made didn’t fit well into this structure.  In the name of simplicity I had made it easier to kill enemies with ranged fire (no wounding roll, simply roll to hit and roll to save) but now whoever got the first shot off was almost certain to win.  Morale was also greatly simplified, but could now be used to disadvantage small units like cavalry squadrons or artillery crews.

I was also finding that the side with the most men, regardless of quality, was invariably winning.  This didn’t sit right; a cannon should have an at least equal chance against a charging unit of natives, not be overwhelmed every single time.

Again some changes were required.

Table to Board (and Back Again!)

My cousin has two adorable children.  Both are boys, one about 7, one around 9.  She brought them by one weekend and I spent an enjoyable afternoon teaching them chess.

What struck me about this was how easy both boys picked up (and took to) the game.

Within 15 minutes they had a passable understanding of the rules, and within 40 were playing a pretty good game and even giving me occasional spots of bother with well-made moves.  Thinking on this, I realized my game had to be more like chess.

The basics of chess are quite simple, the moves very easy to explain–even to children–yet it can take a lifetime to perfect the intricacies of play and strategy required to defeat a master opponent.  In this way it appeals to the casual player of games and the hardcore alike.

Even games that are a little more complex (with more moving parts) like Settlers of Catan can be learned and played in under an hour.  The rules for that boardgame are only 5 pages long.

So I decided to break up the turn even further.

Now players would take turns either moving, or shooting, or charging with just one of their units.  The strategic depth comes in deciding which unit to use that turn, and how exactly to use it (should I charge with my cavalry and risk casualties in a melee, or move my cannon into range but not be able to inflict casualties on my opponent this turn?) and the quick switch off of turns keeps both players engaged as they react to each other’s moves.

This is the game as it stands, with many more changes and playtests required before it is suitable for public consumption.

One of those playtests will be added here shortly, and I hope you’ll join in with comments and thoughts!

Published in: on July 9, 2011 at 8:18 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Yup! I’ve been tinkering with rules for 40 years. By the time I get them to be what I wanted, I want something different! But its fun and ones own rules tend to be closer to what you wanted than any one elses!

    Great stuff.

    • Ross,

      Absolutely! Seems like they never get any closer to being done…

      On an unrelated note, love the blog! Haven’t yet tried With MacDuff to the Frontier, but it looks like I may have to. And I’m not much of a hexes guy; how playable do you think Hearts of Tin would be using straight measurement?


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