Thursday, January 10, 2013
The search for the Perfect Ancient Wargame...
When I got back into miniatures wargaming about eight years ago I had only a vague idea of what I was letting myself in for. I imagined that I would paint some figures, find a set of rules, and achieve a comfortable wargaming stasis.
The rules set that accompanied my first forays into figure purchasing and painting was Classical Hack by Phil Viverito. I joined the yahoo group, asked for advice, then ordered the rules and figures for the 2nd Punic War at the same time. "I'm off!" I thought.
Three months later, with two small armies painted and a couple of games under my belt, I got an uneasy feeling. How on earth, I wondered, can it be right to allow a unit attacked by two others the chance to score twice as many hits as a unit attacked by only one? One on one the maximum hits were three vs three; two on one the maximum hits were six vs six. It didn't make sense to me. I tried to get around it by writing house rules. Then I gave up.
Next up was Simon MacDowell's Legio, which a fellow ancients enthusiast was modifying. I was very keen on this and had lots of ideas about how to reinvent the wheel. We engaged in lengthy email discussions. Some months later, I realised that I did not really know what I was talking about, did not yet have enough figures for the game, and did not like two of the key mechanisms in the set, namely dicing for control and the variable move distance.
During this phase I also ordered a number of other rules and downloaded a few free or community sets: DBM, Armati, a diceless one, the Crusades set Shattered Lances, Hoplon, and some I now forget.
By now I had been introduced to another ancients gamer who lives a couple of hours north of me, and he showed me DBA, DBM, and Strategos. I joined the Society of Ancients and we both ordered a copy of Strategos II.
Around this time I discovered a new boardgame called Commands and Colors: Ancients and grabbed that. I joined the online community and spent a year or two playing countless Commands and Colors games live using VASSAL or solo at home. I was a member of boardgamegeek, wrote some reports, took photos of the game with miniatures, partook of spirited debates and so on and so forth. I won a couple of competitive but gentlemanly online tournaments and started to think this was the best game going round.
But there was a problem with Commands and Colors that nagged at me: it was much better played online or as a boardgame than it was played with miniatures. Sure, it looked nice, but half of the units hardly moved at all during the battles, and it slowly became apparent that the attraction of Commands and Colors was not after all playing out an engaging alternate history, but the thrill of how you handled your cards, positioned your units, rolled your dice and bluffed and outwitted your opponent. There were great depths to the strategy, but no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, the reality was that that strategy did not have much to do with what I was encountering in Livy, Caesar, Polybius and Plutarch.
And on the home front now we had a daughter. It was a harder to commit to online tournaments. I could play, but not every week or two. I began rationing the tournaments I played in and quietly slipped out of the scene. I commenced looking for other games to play, ones that I could jump in and out of in better sympathy with domestic rhythms.
I started playing a bit more Strategos II. Of course, I was playing every few months with my mate in Osaka, but I began giving it the odd go solo at home. I'd write up a report for the yahoo group, or for boardgamegeek, and I started to see how well it played and how well it reflected what I was reading in the ancient historians. I became enthusiastic, as is my wont with these kinds of things. There were grand discussions on the yahoo group. I learned a lot about how to approach the primary sources. I wrote a review and an article, I bought the newest edition, Lost Battles. I started a blog, began photographing, recording and writing about games. I began playing other rules sets occasionally, in desultory fashion: Basic Impetus, Ancient and Medieval Warfare, Ancients D6, Warhammer Ancients. I had PBEM games.
It was good, but it all lead back to Lost Battles. In Lost Battles I could see the narrative. The story of how the game unfolded struck me there more than it did anywhere else. Everything made sense, was plausible, and could be explained in real terms.
As I played more I organised a couple of multiplayer online games of Lost Battles, mainly to teach people the game, but also to see how it worked with a chain of command superimposed. The game and its multiplayer rules sort of worked, but participants got a bit annoyed about the limitations of the format and some players didn't get the rules very well or decided they didn't really like the set after all. There was perhaps a little frustration or bad feeling, and that was the very opposite of what I was trying to generate.
It wasn't the multiplayer success I was hoping it would be.
By this stage we had three children and it was increasingly difficult to find time to pursue hobby activities at night. The number of solo games I was playing dropped off, but there was a big push on the boardgame version of Lost Battles, and I got excited about it. I wrote a review, played a number of games, had a good time; but without the spectacle of playing with figures I couldn't quite get into it as much. It didn't scream at me to take it off the shelf.
I found when I did play with miniatures that I had played - almost to death - the scenarios I had the figures for. I fiddled around with some rules changes, tested a friend's low-luck variant in a couple of email games and thought about how I could get a campaign going. Again, there were periods of enthusiasm, but I couldn't sustain it as I had previously.
I decided to freshen up. I got Warmaster Ancients and Hail Caesar and played a few playtest turns of both. I tried looking at Field of Glory again and promptly looked away. I went back to Commands and Colors for a game or two and was reminded anew that it was fun and skillful but just not really that good as a miniatures game. The amount of effort it took to set the game up and move the figures around was disproportionate to the reward. And I couldn't find a story in it that could rise much above the game mechanisms. There was both too much inaction and too much action. It was out of kilter; unbalanced. I couldn't get a plausible 'game-as-alternative-history' story out of it unless I was prepared to make things up or play sub-optimally. It would always come down to "and then X card was played and some good dice rolling got side Y home," because that's where the interest was: how and in what way the cards were played, how you exploited the weaknesses of your opponent, and whether the dice supported your play.
So, there I was. As far as Lost Battles was concerned I'd run out of scenarios to play solo, I couldn't get a campaign started, development of the VASSAL module had stalled, I was out of steam, and other alternatives were not quite what I was looking for.
In view of this I decided to challenge myself to write some rules of my own that would work with non-wargamers. I'll give it a go, I thought, and try to see things with new eyes.
The whole project was stimulating, and in doing it I developed a better understanding of what designers must do, and how they must target certain things at the expense of others.
What I see now is that there is no perfect wargame, and no "comfortable wargaming stasis". There is no one game that will be right for all situations. Rules will grab me for a season at different times, and for different reasons. Their immediate appeal will wax and wane, but if they are good I'll keep coming back to them, seeing them again from different angles, with different ends in mind, and hopefully with new understanding of what they are trying to do, and of what can be reasonably expected of them.
It's taken me a while to reach this point, but it has been a wonderful journey through a world that is part history, part alternative history, part mathematical framework, part participatory drama. It has been experienced alone, with friends, with strangers via a computer, and with kindred spirits across the wargaming spectrum.
Long may it continue.
But if I could find perfection within a wargame (we can always live in hope...) what would it look like?
I think I'd see it in those moments within games when all is balance, excitement and potential, in those times when something echoes history so keenly it jolts us, when the satisfaction of a plan well made, a move well executed, or the observation of a brilliant, mournful, heroic, tragic tabletop action fills us with a childish delight in play allied to an adult awareness that this world we create, this little space that is ours, where this cinematic, dramatic need to enact stories on our tabletops is fulfilled is - in its very fragility, in its practical uselessness, in its capacity to lift our spirits, reveal aspects of ourselves to ourselves and heal the little wounds of the long day - something that is worth doing, worth recording and perhaps even worth a little celebrating.
And if you can't have perfection, I've found that rolling double box cars to order makes a pretty good substitute!
And for readers (if anyone has got this far, thank you!) do you have a perfect or close-to-perfect set? What do you see as 'perfection' in a wargame, and what will mar one? Have you found a comfortable stasis, or are you too something of an itinerant?