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Friday, 10 October 2008

'Practical Wargaming'


I have just acquired (temporarily) a copy of Wesencraft's 1974 book, courtesy of my local library. This really is a genuine classic, with a set of well worked out but basically simple rules covering a number of periods, along with some great photos and some rather nostalgic stuff on terrain from the days when making one's own was often a real necessity. I have not had this book in my hands for many years (perhaps as many as 20), and I had forgotten how influential on my own gaming it has been.

I could hardly better this quote from the introduction as summing up my present philosophy of miniatures wargaming:

'I have always thought that a game played with easily understood rules that gave a result, played within a broad outline of a particular period, that gave enjoyment to both the winner and his unfortunate opponent, was to be preferred...' (p.8).

Of particular interest is that phrase 'that gave a result'. I particularly like rules that have the winning/losing conditions built in, rather than just suggesting that the result will usually be obvious after a few moves, or that you should spend half the evening totting up points to decide a winner. Built-in victory conditions commonly involves games based around a series of set scenarios, or an army morale system which results in one side clearly collapsing after a reasonable number of moves. Even simpler is the basic rule that when you have lost (say) half your units, you have lost the game. Such rules produce games with a beginning, middle and an end (like chess). First there is a jockeying for position, then the main fight commences, then as casualties mount careful decisions have to made about risk versus conserving one's forces, as each side (or one side) approaches its breaking point. How often have you had games that just petered out in an inconclusive draw, or resulted in some vague discussion about what might have happened if only a couple more hours were available?

The one major blind spot in the book is it's refusal to consider 'modern' (basically 20th century) wargames. Wesencraft's remarks here are rather inexplicable, especially considering that WW2 games were a common feature of gaming from the start. One need only consider the example of the Lionel Tarr rules and the famous 'Tank and Infantry Action on the St. James Road' from the book Wargames. But Wesencraft is insistent:

'With the coming of modern warfare, millions of men are involved and all scale is lost. Either one figure represents thousands of men, one tank dozens of squadrons, or one is forced to go back almost to square one and fight tiny local actions at company strength [...] personally, I do not believe it is possible to scale down on to a table 4 x 8 ft a modern battle...' (p. 15)

It seems the author's considerable ingenuity and inventiveness deserted him when it came to the end of the 19th century.

Revisiting these old wargames books (buying when I can afford to, borrowing when I can't) has a been a particular pleasure over this last year. My only problem is that at some stage the supply of old classics will dry up!


9 comments:

Snickering Corpses said...

Looks like a very interesting book, and it certainly has a good reputation among gamers.

I thought I'd make a comment on your last piece about modern warfare, however. As someone whose first passion in history for a long time has been WW2, I happen to like modern gaming quite a bit. But I think I can explain Wesencraft's remarks.

The key to what he means when he says "personally, I do not believe it is possible to scale down on to a table 4 x 8 ft a modern battle" can be found, I believe, in the first part of that: "With the coming of modern warfare, millions of men are involved and all scale is lost. Either one figure represents thousands of men, one tank dozens of squadrons, or one is forced to go back almost to square one and fight tiny local actions at company strength"

I believe what he's saying is that it's impossible to fight a whole battle, such as all of Kursk or all of D-Day, on a 4x8 table. Myself, I fight WW2 actions involving no more than a battlion max with my chosen rulesets. There are of course rulesets where a single tank represents a whole company/squadron, for fighting engagements up to divisional size. But even there, you'd be hard pressed to fit enough miniatures to represent, say, an offensive by an entire Russian "Front" against a German "Army Group" all in a 4x8 space.

I think where his arguments fail is not a lack of ingenuity, but rather a lack of interest in fighting smaller actions. Myself, I'm perfectly content to fight a few companies a side over some local town or terrain features and assume that entire divisions are engaged in similar struggles all around my little segment of the overall "operation". But I would tend to guess from the comments you quoted that Wesencraft was only interested in fighting whole battles on the grand scale.

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

I suspect that the advent of home publishing will always ensure a supply of the actual books - problem is, how many classics are there? :o))

Thanks for the review - I have his "Pike and Musket" book but have not been able to source this one yet - I will renew my efforts!

Bob Cordery said...

I am lucky enough to own a copy of Charles Wesencraft's book, and was looking at it very recently when I was thinking of designing a simple Corps-level game for next year's SALUTE. The rules are typical of his work - simple, easy to use, easy to learn, but capable of producing excellent and fun wargames.

Keith Flint said...

Thanks for the comments.

Snickering Corpses - I see what you mean, but one would be pushed to re-create Waterloo on a 8' x 4' table using Wesencraft's rules. Using, say, Blitzkrieg Commander or Command Decision, one could have a crack at a divisional level attack on a table that size (particularly with 10mm or 6mm miniatures), which is as big as (probably bigger than) the typical size of ancient or horse and musket battle played on the typical club night or home game. I just think he didn't fancy modern wargames.
BTW, love the nick-name!

Snickering Corpses said...

I do agree he probably doesn't have a fondness for fighting modern war. I suspect he would have lumped Blitzkrieg Commander into his "one tank = a bunch of tanks" quip as well.

*chuckles* As for the nickname, it has a backstory behind it that goes back prior to my return to wargaming, but it seemed appropriate for the wargaming as well. :)

Thomas said...

Is Charles Wesencraft of an age to have served in WW2, Korea or perhaps Suez? If he did that may be why he elects not to consider more 'modern' periods. A bit too close to home? That apparently was part of the motivation behind the 'imaginations' in Young & Lawford's 'Charge!'.

Keith Flint said...

Thomes, that's an interesting thought. I would guess he was of Don Featherstone's generation.

I hadn't really appreciated the point about the imaginary countries in Charge! Perhaps that explains the growth of such countries amongst Old School wargamers. They want to distance themselves a bit from real war and emphasise the 'toy soldier' aspect. An entirely honourable position which makes me think more favourably about such projects.

Keith Flint said...

Thomes indeed! Sorry Thomas!

Snickering Corpses said...

As an imaginary nation gamer, I'd add on the topic of why that they provide a much wider creative outlet than merely painting. You get to design, if you wish, not only your own uniform colors but even your own country, its rulers and vagabonds, and as much backstory as you may wish.