Friday, 17 November 2017

'Old' Doesn't Equal 'Old School'

I have recently invested in a couple of issues of Miniature Wargames, specifically nos. 413 and 415. I bought 413 because it had the first in series of articles by Jon Sutherland, supposedly concerning his overhaul (or 'reinvention') of a set of 1980s rules called Hoplite Warfare. The particular attraction here was the tag that Jon was intending to 'breathe new life' into a set of old school ancients rules. This is exactly the kind of thing I am currently involved in, so I reckoned seeing how someone else did it would be a good thing.

No! Definitely not Old School.

I was to be sadly disappointed. The problem can be easily summarised - the rules Jon was working on were not 'old school' to begin with (they were plainly over-complex and brain numbing), and Jon's development of them, whilst simplifying them a good deal, inevitably wasn't at all old school either. Jon, along with editor John Treadaway, had mistaken 'old' for 'old school', a sad mistake for two such experienced wargamers.

Hoplite Warfare was published in the 1980s. The alarm bells should have rung straight away, because of course no old school rules were published in the 1980s. By this time, the simple 'playing with toy soldiers' approach of genuine old school rules had been replaced by the foolish idea that complication approaching the barely understandable (and occasionally going beyond this into the la-la land of the unplayable) was how sophisticated wargamers did their thing. This process had been started in 1969 with the publication of the 1st edition of the WRG's War Games Rules 1000AD to 500BC ('WRG Ancients' to you and me), and it gathered momentum through the seventies, eighties and into the nineties. Only in the 21st century have we mostly come back to our senses, a process ironically started by the good old WRG with their DBA rules (1990). So note: just because a set of rules was published in 1969, that doesn't necessarily make them old school.

It is actually pretty easy to define what old school rules are - just open a copy of Featherstone's War Games, or Grant's The War Game, or Terry Wise's Introduction To Battlegaming, or Young and Lawford's Charge!. Old school rules are very simple, with a simple structure that is usually move - fire - melee, combined with IGO - UGO (or in other words, players take it in turns to move and fire, but usually melee simultaneously). Abstraction is minimal, the rules are intuitive and easy to understand, casualties are recorded by removing figures. Six-sided dice are used throughout. Modifiers to die rolls are minimal, morale rules likewise, command and control practically non-existent.

The really interesting thing here, at least from my perspective, is that no matter how nostalgic some of us get about these old rules, playing with them in the here and now generally leads to unsatisfying games. One major problem is that they tend to be too simple. They lack the subtlety and granularity of successful modern sets; that is, the ability to bring out all the important aspects and nuances of a particular period whilst remaining fundamentally straightforward, a quality which characterises the best contemporary rules. This emphasises the basic mistake Jon Sutherland and John Treadaway are making - 'breathing new life into' or 'resurrecting' old school rules for our present times would generally mean making them a bit more complex, not reducing their complexity as Jon is doing with Hoplite Warfare

Interestingly enough, I bought issue 415 for a very similar reason to that which tempted me to purchase issue 413 - an article on an 'old school' project, this time by Andy Copestake. The editor chose to call this a 'Retro Project', but fortunately Andy quickly demonstrated he had the right idea about all this old school stuff. At the epicentre of 'old school' stand the toy soldiers, and what we do is play with them. The main rules Andy mentioned were Charge!. And Andy started his article by noting that old school seemed to be back in vogue, which is hardly surprising as most wargamers these days are proud to announce that what they are doing is 'playing with toy soldiers'. 

If old school wargaming is back in vogue (which it most certainly is), it would be best to have the right idea about what 'old school' actually means. I hope I have at least partly put the record straight in this post.

More proper wargaming soon!


Jonathan Freitag said...

"Old School" can be a slippery notion to grab since it can manifest itself differently to different people. Perhaps, "Classic" would be a fitting term for these old rules? As in the evolution of most things, advancements and refinements are part of the natural progression as we build upon what others have accomplished.

I agree that "Old" does not necessarily equal "Old School."

Interesting topic!

Peter Douglas said...

I bought the Hoplite rules when first published and they are as bad as every thing else 80s! I like simple elegant rules that reward historical tactics., old school or new school.
Cheers, Peter

The Good Soldier Svjek said...

Old School = rules that don't make your brain hurt.

Keith Flint said...

Peter, goodness me! I hardly expected to find someone who actually tried to play the original rules. It is curiously reassuring to discover that they were indeed crap.

Ross Mac said...

I'll back Peter up as one played them against him.

Generally I agree with what you've written but having played or GM'd numerous Charge! games over the last 20 years, multi-player, 1 on 1 and solo, and keeping in mind that they were self described as late 18thC (ie not SYW despite the majority choice of figures) I think the sophistication underneath the rules is often underrated or missed entirely.

Rather than including rules that FORCE various tactics, the rules are written so that appropriate tactics are more effective without saying that anywhere except in the quick summary of tactics in the preamble...

I've some interesting tactical events happen because players ignored this. For example, one player had pushed his skirmishers into point blank range of an enemy line and been charged then asked abut evade rules. Simple was the answer, don't get so close and if you are 1/2 a move away secretly write the order to retreat at the same time as he secretly writes the order to charge! Or better yet, snipe at line infantry from a flank or from far away or from cover or send your infantry up against him. Dozens of other examples could be given.

The best that I can say is that experience at conventions have shown that it is a set of rules where people who have studied late 18thC tactics but have never played Charge! before can hold their own against, or beat, players who know the rules well but haven't studied the real thing. That's the sort of thing that changed my mind from a nostalgic affection for the rules to admiration for the cleverness, sophistication and knowledge of the authors. Not all old school rules do that but I'm sure its not the only set where the real value is hidden.


Peter Douglas said...


I am sure that most of us did things in the 80s that we're no proud of...

Paul Liddle said...

Ross nailed it!.

Natholeon said...

Great article Keith. I think you've hit the nail on the head as to what 'Old School' actually is.

Keith Flint said...

Ross, thank you for the very interesting response. I bow to your greater knowledge of the Charge! rules in this case. Mr Asquith will hear of no other rules for the period.

I have found recently it is tricky to decide whether a particular action should be forbidden in a set of rules, or simply made likely to lead to disaster. Sometimes a combination of the two can work in the context of a whole set of rules. The problem of making your intentions clear to wargamers who might use the set of rules but have no knowledge of your assumptions and rationalisations is acute.

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Your article and reasoning is entirely duplicated by Neil Thomas in his book "Wargaming Nineteenth Century Europe" which I'm reading at the moment... and I find it difficult to disagree.. the older I get the simpler I want, but I also need some "grit" in there to tie it to the period I'm playing..

"Simple rulesets are infinitely preferable to their more convoluted alternatives. They rely upon a great deal of prior analysis and interpretation, which is then distilled in a playable game. In so doing, essential detail is included, and peripheral irrelevancies removed. Designing a viable simple game is actually much more difficult than producing a complex product: the former has to identify only what is vital; the latter simply includes everything the writer knows".

Keith Flint said...

Thanks for that Steve.

Chris Kemp said...

"a process ironically started by the good old WRG with their DBA rules (1990)"

Dear Keith,

Credit should really go to Paddy Grifffith for His Moore Park Conference in the early '80s, which led to the Wargames Development movement. A by product was the idea of "One Braincell" rules that simplified actions down to the bare minimum required to achieve an outcome. Phil Barker was an enthusiastic adopter of the concept, which was a bold move on his part, given that he had a lot of intellectual and hobby capital tied up in his existing rules.

Kind regards, Chris.

Keith Flint said...

Thanks for that Chris - a most interesting bit of wargaming history.

Khusru said...

I also have a copy of the Hoplite Warfare rules. I had, and still do, Alexandrian Macedonian, Later Achaemenid Persian and Classical Indian armies in 25mm (MiniFigs for the most part) and these seemed ideal as they were specific for the period and my armies.
But, yes, it was overly complicated.

Prince Lupus said...

Every thing should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. (Einstein)