VIRTUAL WARGAME: Real Figures – Grids, COVID & Gaming


Words by Charles Kirke Photos by The Author

As the lockdown(s) continue, here’s another very useful approach! Ed.

INTRODUCTION

Why is that man talking to himself while staring at all those sticky labels? He must be bonkers… It’s obviously the lockdown. Poor fellow. 

‘Poor fellow?’ Rubbish! This is wargaming, but not as you know it, or at least not as we knew it before March 2020. The small club to which I belong decided (as maybe many clubs have done?) not to be put off by the fact that we could not meet in the same building to wargame. We decided to meet electronically and, to make it more exciting, we were going to include all present and past members in our invitations to play no matter where they are living now. We have had people joining us from all over the UK and one (so far) from the USA. It’s been a remarkably positive outcome of the lockdown and shielding situation.

At first we played electronic versions of board games designed to be played over the Internet – games like Terraforming Mars – but dyed-in-the-wool figure gamers like me wanted to play the real thing. So after a bit we did, using meeting software (Jitsi Meet in our case but there are many others that will deliver the goods). This article sets out some of the basic principles which we discovered in creating and setting up virtual games, in the hope that fellow figure-gamers will be able to use them without quite such a steep learning curve as the one we experienced.

 

GETTING GOING

The batting was opened by one of our members who had been inspired by Bob Cordery’s remarkable little book The Portable Wargame (gosh Mr Cordery is getting a lot of traction in this issue! Ed.). It’s designed as a set of ‘simple, fast-play wargame rules’. There are a number of key principles set out in his books which we have freely adapted. The breakthrough, for me at least, was discovering that all Bob Cordery’s games are designed to be played on a gridded playing area. It was immediately obvious that, where you have a grid, you can give each grid square or hexagon a unique label. So if all the players know the grid and its labelling system it did not matter where in the world they were playing as long as they were linked electronically. A designation of, say, grid square ‘C6’ would mean the same thing to all players. But of course The Portable Wargame (TPW) goes much further than that, giving advice and instructions on creating wargames including general rules and principles and specific variants for two different eras, one late nineteenth century and one for WWII. 

The member who led the opening game showed us how enabling these rules and principles are by setting up and umpiring an American Civil War battle using rules adapted from TPW. We are now playing through a series of games set after an imagined French victory at Waterloo. The current strategic situation is that, with Wellington seriously wounded, the Allies are withdrawing towards the Channel coast under the (un?)inspired leadership of the Prince of Orange. Will the Austrians and Russians advancing from the east reach France in time to turn this situation around? 

Enough of war stories. What about designing the nitty gritty of the rules to be used over the Web? Here are a few principles which we have derived, standing on the giant’s shoulders of Bob Cordery complemented by our own experiences. Here are some of these key principles, after which comes the story of a battle in North West Belgium along the Allies’ withdrawal route to the Channel Coast.

 

THESE ARE MY PRINCIPLES...

All these principles are important, but they are in no particular order. The first is Scale. How large an area does a grid square represent? This will give an idea about the distance a unit can cover in a single move and how far their weapons will reach. We went for a rough distance of 300 x 300 yards per 3.5 inch grid square for a divisional level game. This means a unit move distance per term of two squares for infantry and three for cavalry over a notional turn length of 10 minutes. Infantry can fire only into the next grid square and the maximum effective range for artillery is six grid squares. The cloth is approximately 48 inches square. If all this doesn’t work for you: change it!

Next, Simplicity. It is difficult enough playing a game where the players have limited vision of the battlefield without having complex rules. But what needs to be in the rules to reflect the period being played, and in how much detail? Do you need, for example, where firing ranges are short, to have separate firing and melêe combat phases? Can they both be modelled satisfyingly in a single action? When cavalry attack infantry can it just be assumed that the infantry have a good chance of forming square in time, or do you need to have a process for testing for failure or success? 

We decided to wrap all forms of combat up in a single calculation: the usual combination of dice throw and modifiers according to the situation. Similarly, following Bob Cordery, terrain is all or nothing: the whole square is either wooded or not, marshy or not, built up or not, and so on. All measurement and movement is counted through the sides of the grid square and not across the corners. A unit’s strength and fighting power is represented by a designated number of removable figure bases: poor units have three, average ones have four, and the few elite ones present have five. Each unit’s fighting power degrades with losses that are easily seen, even via a webcam, by the number of figures or bases present.

For what it is worth, our club simplified our Napoleonic rules for the game described below down to just seven pages of A4.

Third, Marking. As the playing surface is gridded, then the identity of each grid square needs to be easily visible to everyone via a webcam of some sort. We found that the grid needed to be clearly marked in each square so everyone knows where on the battlefield they are looking. It appears a bit odd at first sight but each of our grid squares has an individually numbered sticky label in the same position in all squares (for us, top right hand corner). This is illustrated in the photo of the Prince of Orange carrying out a reconnaissance in force.

Each player is given a sketch map of the terrain before the game with the same numbering system on it so they can match their map to the battlefield on which the figures are standing. Note that North is at the top of the diagram (below) and the French enter from the South and the Allies from the North. The hills are continuous across their mutual boundaries. 

It is also vital that each unit is marked in as simple a way as possible so that everybody knows who they are (particularly the person who is going to be moving the models!). We use easy peal stickers on one stand per unit. These are numbered in sequence starting at 1, so that they can be identified at a glance. We found that simple numerical markings were much easier to find under pressure of time compared to ‘true’ unit designations (simplicity again). 

The fourth principle is Time. Wargaming over the Internet takes longer than face to face gaming. Even when everybody knows what they are doing and have had a bit of experience there are other factors that will cause small delays. For instance, difficulties in hearing what people are saying when they are speaking at the same time, or during temporary communications wobbles. Our rule of thumb after some practice is that we allow approximately 50% extra time, so a game which might be expected, say, to last two hours is likely to take about an hour more, and longer if there are inexperienced players taking part or dodgy Internet connections. So – at least to start with – don’t be too ambitious (see what I said about simplicity!). 

Fifth comes Engagement. In our first game the umpire shook all the dice and told the players what their score was. This was quick and easy, but it left the players feeling remote from the game. Subsequently the players shook their own dice and told us all what the result was. They reported that they felt much more engaged in the game by this very simple adjustment. It is strongly recommended that when the game is set up as much as possible should be done by the players: just because the umpire has the table and the computer camera(s) it does not mean that he (or perhaps she) should take the game over. Players also felt more engaged if each had their own troops within the scenario that they could manoeuvre under overall orders from their CinC.

Finally Clarity: the Scenario needs to be clear to everyone from the start. This includes the order of battle (including unit quality), the train of events leading to the battle, individual characteristics of the commanders (as appropriate), victory conditions and any special features such as ammunition resupply, timetable of the arrival of troops and the effects of particular terrain. So – having seen my principles – here is a brief summary of our first game, the fictional Battle of Pflinge, 30 June 1815. 

 

THE BATTLE OF PFLINGE

Scenario

After his great victory at La Belle Alliance, Napoleon is generating a new Grand Armée to face the slow moving Austrians and Russians. The Prussians have withdrawn from the war in the light of a promised bribe of (Austrian) territory. The Prince of Orange is in command of the Allied forces withdrawing (retreating?) towards the Channel Coast. Wellington is absent, having been seriously wounded during the crisis of the Battle of La Belle Alliance. The French advance is led by Marechal Reille and is lunging towards Orange’s army. Orange’s rear guard has turned to face the French with the intention of defeating Reille whom he judges has gone too far in advance of his main body. The balance of forces at dawn on 20 June is even, but Orange has two further divisions somewhere in woods to his rear which will tip the balance when they arrive… if they ever do.

Marking

Referring to the diagrammatic map from earlier, each square of the wargames mat is marked as above and an exact 2-D gridded representation of the battlefield has been circulated to the players (ours is downloadable). Reille is advancing up the page from Line N. Orange enters the table along Line A, moving down the page. Each unit is in a specific grid square and has a unique identity marked as above on a cut down post-it note.

The Battle

The French advance unopposed to Pflinge while Orange, following the principles of his hero, Wellington, sets up a reverse slope position behind the crest of the ridge (B2-6, C2-6), with his flank stretching to C11. 

At any point all players know where each unit is because both the units and the grid squares are marked. This advance is not consistent across the table and some get ahead while some lag behind. Under bombardment from the guns on the Allied ridge they pause and reorganize along line F. The most noticeable thing is that the French have shortened their line, concentrating on their left, and are threatening the defenders on the ridge. The Allies are more extended and have less depth. 

The Allied artillery are unlucky and cause few casualties on the mass of French troops advancing on them, while the French find it difficult in the crowded conditions on their left to deploy most of their artillery. The Allies accordingly advance to the crest of the ridge, their best troops (the reinforced Guards Brigade – numbered as Units 1 to 4) immediately in the path of the weight of the French advance 

The leading French brigade charge up the slope at the Guards and are rebuffed, but on their right, just beyond the end of the ridge a second French brigade hits a weak Hanoverian brigade and crashes through it. The crisis of the battle has come. There is no sign of the two infantry divisions in the Allied rear, and they never actually appear.

Orange, heedless of his own safety (yes, our rules do allow generals to suffer casualties) rushes into the gap in the Allied line. He has no troops with him but he hopes to inspire the Hanoverians to rally. He fails and is swept from the battlefield past Line A in their headlong rout. 

 Fortunately the Allies’ subordinate commanders are made of stern stuff and manage the ensuing withdrawal using the unengaged Brunswick and Dutch Belgian brigades on their left flank (B9-11 and C9-11) and relying on the staunchness of the Guards Brigade. Most of the Allies escape. The French claim victory. 

This game was expected to take two and a half hours but in fact it took four. This meant that we had to stop and dismantle the battlefield at just the time of the battle crisis – well my wife and I needed our kitchen table back! However, because of the grid and our careful marking of each unit’s position it was possible to resume the game one week later at exactly the point we had paused. This was another advantage (unexpected at the time) of using a labelled grid and numbered units.

 

HOW ABOUT YOU?

I hope that this article will make you think of playing figure games over the Internet and enjoy the experience. With any luck it is already out of date because all of us are already doing this! If not, give it a go! 


This article originally appeared in issue 455 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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