08 April 2023
Sepoys & Soldiers
Words by Brian Cameron
In Miniature Wargames, issue 469 we mentioned a game Maharatta at Salute run by Martin Gane. The rules for the game were written specifically by Brian Cameron and I asked him to share his thoughts on the subject. The rule system is available in the downloads section along with the Quick Play Sheet. Ed.
For this article I’m going to consider table-top battles with model soldiers which may involve two or more people and/or may be played solo. I’ve previously described my way of playing games solo (see issue 449. Ed.) so I’m not going over that ground again.
Many of my games are table-top battles with model soldiers which may involve two or more people and mainly set in the ‘horse, musket and artillery’ period which I enjoy the most, largely because the interaction of the three arms provides (in my opinion) an enjoyable game setting.
I think it’s important to establish what one wants out of a game – this is the basic starting point for everything I design. I think we may all know vaguely what we want to achieve but – as with anything – it’s worth writing it down: this certainly prompts me to think more clearly about what I want to achieve and how I intend to do so. This is my current list:
- Capture the character of the particular period (I’ve no interest in a generalised horse & musket set of rules unless it’s for a ‘toy soldier’ game – which I like, don’t get me wrong)
- Scenario based games with forces not necessarily of equal size; make use of all edges and corners of the table as entry/exit points.
- The objectives of each side set the criteria for success or not.
- There should be the space to manoeuvre (I see too many games where troops stretch form one side of the table to the other and there’s no option except to stand there or advance straight ahead).
- A battlefield which has sufficient terrain to pose
- a challenge.
- The possibility of flanking moves, new units appearing and perhaps using dummy ‘units’.
- A concept of a battle plan and orders which sets an army in motion at the start of the game and which requires effort by the commander to change.
These points apply to all of my games:
- Reasonable people who want to enjoy the game but also want it to fit their view of history. Competitive behaviour by people who only care about winning is responsible for ruining many games which descend into acrimony.
- Games are about making decisions: the rest is just process (and often tedious), clever though mechanisms can be at times. I thus think that as many aspects as possible should be about making decisions which have consequences.
- The game should reflect the essentials of the period in which it is set; a player who understands the basics of warfare in the period should not be at a disadvantage to someone who knows the rules inside out.
- Simple mechanics also make it easy to pick up a game and not have to keep referring to the rules even after a number of games.
This is also important to me, otherwise I might as well cut up bits of cardboard and play on a piece of paper with the terrain scribbled on. So, I think that:
- The game should look good.
- The figures should spend most of their time on the table, not back in the toy box as casualties.
- Counters to mark eg disorder or casualties should not detract from the visual aspect of the game so use appropriate markers, eg wounded figures for casualties, the position of an officer figure to indicate whether a unit is advancing, etc.
Please note that I’m not advocating figures and terrain being of the highest standards, just that it should be pleasing to my eye.
It’s amazing the influence that Don Featherstone, Charles Grant and a lot of the early pioneers have had on how rules are written over the following 60 years. Indeed, the term itself: ‘writing rules’ – rather than ‘designing a game’ – implies a rather different approach, at least to my mind. But many games still take the same approach: scales, unit sizes, orders, movement, firing, melee and morale. In part this is inevitable as there are certain aspects of any period which need to be tackled but, surely, not always in the same old ways.
For example the main effect of fire is on the enemy morale so could the effect of firing be to test morale rather than losing figures? The casualty rates in many periods are much lower than those you’ll find in many wargames.
THE BASIC APPROACH
My approach to a new period or project is to get a good picture of the period, preferably from the view of all sides but that’s often difficult. For example, for a recent Northwest Frontier game I found that, not surprisingly, little from the Pathan point of view. Then it’s down to analysis: what are the important aspects that give that period its character?
INSPIRATION FROM ELSEWHERE
In recent times I’ve found it thought provoking to look at how at how board games approach design, particularly transferability (how often have you struggled to understand a set of wargame rules?). There’s often specific mechanics for each player option and they need to be easy to learn and operate: that is an essential for a board game that is intended to have a wide appeal.
A good example is the Thunderbirds board game from Modiphius (don’t laugh, it’s a challenging resource management game with a fun theme for anyone who saw the TV series as a child). There’s an easy, consistent, mechanism for resolving attempts to deal with a disaster which needs no reference to the rulebook or any charts though there’s a lot of information on the various cards: something not easy to replicate for a battlegame.
For me, game design always involves compromise. Sadly, it’s rarely possible to squeeze in all the aspects that you’d like to include unless you want a set of rules the length of War & Peace which likely isn’t playable. So it’s down to listing the aspects which you think give the period its character and then rating each one as ‘essential’ or ‘nice to have’. However, realise from the very start that you’re unlikely to get much of the ‘nice to have’ list into the finished design.
In designing the game for battles in the 2nd Anglo-Mahratta war I did away with a lot of detail in order to have a fast moving game playable in a couple of hours. I did manage one item from the ‘nice to have’ list: a fun mechanic for the rockets used by the Mahrattas so that they have an erratic, unpredictable path as per history. So – let’s look at the rules.
SEPOYS & SOLDIERS
This was the title we settled on (after some discussion). A typical battlefield seems to have been about a mile wide and – with a six foot wide table – we end up with a ground scale of around 1 inch = 25 yards.
Martin Gane has a collection of 28mm figures so a choice of figure size was out: the basing varied slightly but all had multiple figures on a base. So the base rather than the figures was used for casualty calculation etc. It worked out that each base equates to roughly 75 – 100 men.
However, because each unit had a small number of bases in it (typically 3 – 6) units would have melted like snow in summer and – while battles such Assaye had a higher than usual level of casualties (around 25%) – it would soon have become more like 100% on the wargames table. So I made it that each base took three hits to cause it to be removed as a casualty. This was tracked by small counters (actually 1p coins with a PVC/paint/sand mix so that they blend in with the terrain).
COMMAND & CONTROL
This seems to be either something that’s ignored and the player is left free to do what he wants with his god-like view or an attempt at introducing friction via activation rolls or limited command points.
Traditionally in wargames, players were the general in command of a number of units; there weren’t any sub-commanders. Equally traditionally, players had a helicopter view of a battle, able to see and have units respond to everything without delay. This is unlikely in real life as bodies of troops, terrain and the smoke and dust of battle obscure much of the view and it takes time to decide on a new order, to send the order and for a unit commander to understand it and give appropriate orders to his unit.
The counter to this is that “it’s only a game” and that removing that control from a player means adding a whole new layer of rules.
I consider that there’s a balance to be struck; it can be fun to take the place of a real commander and have his ability and limitations but the latter can be problematical; it can be difficult and frustrating to play a ‘duffer’ (not for me! Ed.). And part of the attraction of wargaming, often used in boardgame adverts back in the 1960s and 70s, was “How would you have done in his place?!”, though presumably without his training and experience. Equally, it’s not easy to play a superstar general when most of us aren’t (I’m certainly not) and thus mechanisms must assist the player.
‘Command radius’ seems to be fashionable these days, whereby a player has more control over units within a certain distance of him and with a die roll being necessary for units over that distance to see whether/how they act. This is possibly a reasonable balance between game and realism. Also popular is to roll dice to see how many command points a general gets that turn. This compels a general to carry out those actions which he regards as most important but may leave units doing nothing when they have orders they should be following.
Most systems seem to work on the basis that units will stop if they are not under ‘command’ which seems to imply that they forget their orders from time to time though the intention is to represent ‘friction’. Checking to see whether a unit is ‘active’ that turn is also popular and though it does provide friction it always seem too random for me.
I initially disliked card based activation systems as many ended the turn before every unit had activated – see my objections above. However for Sepoys & Soldiers I went for a system which allows all units to activate in a turn but can represent the ‘friction’ of the battlefield – eg two units are advancing to a hill; a red card is drawn and the red unit gets there first; friction has, perhaps, delayed the blue unit. This also fulfils the objective of keeping both players involved. Saving rolls, do not – in my opinion – keep players involved: they need to be making an actual decision to do that.
To prevent players having too free a choice I combined this with the necessity to have a plan at the start of a game. To simplify things players are only required to draw a sketch and give each formation or unit and a codified order. To help players remember each unit’s order I produced some very simple counters; the appropriate one is placed next to the unit. Decisions then need to be made in the context of the unit’s current order or a new unit given by a commander joining the unit.
The actual transmission of an order raises the issue of it getting to the recipient in a timely manner so we ought to dice to see if the messenger, aide or staff officer is delayed, however I’d suggest that this is only relevant on large battlefields. As the show game would only represent a frontage of about a mile wide I didn’t include the provision for messengers.
It’s sometimes argued that such mechanics deprive a player of a decision and his part in the game. I’d argue not; rather some realistic limits have been imposed on that decision: something which may make it more challenging.
SEQUENCE OF PLAY
This was taken care of by the card system. An ordinary deck of cards is used, one side is red, the other black, with each side given one card for each unit and general. These are then shuffled together and units move as the appropriate colour card is turned over.
It’s also necessary to use a card for each compulsory move eg a unit routs from contact but it may already have moved that turn. So the next card of that side’s colour must be used for that action. With a couple of such compulsory moves the other side would then have several actions in a row so giving them some momentum as a result of their victory, something which has proven popular with the players.
To my mind the main choice here is either a plain board and measured movement or a gridded board. Gridded boards have a long pedigree, back to Joe Morchauser’s book in the early ‘60s but really made an appearance when used for Peter Pig’s Square Bashing rules in the 1990s. Grids are still not widely used though there are various hex terrain systems which would facilitate their use; possibly they’re best known now through board-figure crossbreeds such as Memoir ’44 etc. I’d have gone for a grid for a display game but Martin has a plain cloth so we went for measured movement.
Back in the golden age of wargames, there were movement rates that differed from unit to unit depending on their nationality or quality. All of these were worked out on the basis of the drill book rate of movements. Sadly, few battlefields are as a flat as a parade-ground nor was it considered that units didn’t rush round a battlefield at full speed all the times. I wanted something that was easy to remember and represented an average rate. So all infantry units move at 8” per turn and cavalry at 12”.
FORMATION & DIRECTION CHANGES
This always seems to be terrifically complicated in many games in an attempt to be ‘realistic’. That might achieved if each unit is a battalion but here they are more like a brigade and most troops will be deployed in line (roughly for poor quality troops though ‘mob’ might be a better description). So there wasn’t a lot of need for anything on changing formation but that could easily be varied by quality – half a turn for good units, a full move for poorer one.
Changes of direction are another thing that seems tricky in wargames as units wheel on one end of their formation with all the attendant faffing about trying to measure curves, often accompanied by doubtful looks from a dour opponent. I went from a mechanism that I ‘stole’ from Neil Thomas’s One Hour Wargames. A unit pivots on its centre and then moves in the new direction. A limitation is that a unit can only do so at the start of an action but in writing this the thought comes to mind that possibly only being able to do so at the end of the action might be better so that a player needs to think ahead to what he might do next time the unit acts.
The real battles were fought mainly on fairly flat areas with virtually no difficult terrain so this aspect is ignored by the rules. If I wanted to add some rules for terrain I think I’d sum up the important characteristics of terrain as:
- Does it block line of sight?
- Does it slow or prevent movement?
- Does it offer some cover/protection against fire?
MORALE & NERVE
Morale tests have a long pedigree and one I very much agree with. My view is that morale is the most important factor in battles (I think some famous military chappie said something similar) and thus well trained troops who are confident will have a real edge.
I’m sure many will recall rules with morale tests with a page long list of modifiers which could take some time and effort to get through. Such mechanisms really don’t fit my ‘quick, easy to do and remember’ philosophy. So I went for an easy test, a simple dice roll, but with a number of tests to cover varying circumstances. As an example, if a unit is charged in the flank it tests once for being charged and once more for being attacked in the flank.
The rules use three grades of troops:
- Aggressive units such as the King’s regiments: well trained and confident, able to manoeuvre and fire well and willing to go in with the bayonet. They roll 3 d6 for each test.
- Active units such as trained Sepoys who are organised and trained in a European style. The Matchlock armed troops, rocket armed troops and artillery are also rated as active. They roll 2 d6 for each test.
- Passive units are the final type. They are there for loot rather than fighting. They roll only 1 d6 for each test.
To pass a nerve test units needs to achieve one roll of 4+. Aggressive units thus have a roughly an 88% chance of success. A commander should feel confident that they are capable of most of their duties. Active units will succeed 75% of the time while passive units will only have a 50% chance of success. So if the latter have to take several tests their luck is very likely to run out at some point.
Again this has proved popular with players as it seems to work well but with the possibility of failure with even the best troops but a commander is asking for trouble if they ask for too much from passive troops. Provided good troops do not have to roll for seeing poorer troops rout, panic can spread among other poor troops but good ones will (likely) remain steady.
Generals can also re-roll a test for a unit they are with (though with a risk to their well-being) so careful positioning of a commander can be important.
The ground scale is small enough that musketry can occur over a sufficient distance (8”/200 yards) to make it worth separating from an advance to contact. If I’m using, say, an inch to 100 yards so as to capture a large battlefield (roughly a width of 4 miles on a six foot table) then I’ll usually resolve musketry and contact in one mechanism.
Each base rolls 1d6 and the chance of hitting varies not only with the quality of the firing troops but also the quality of the target unit. This may sound a bit odd but to my mind most of the effect of fire is a morale one. When I was researching the Indian Mutiny some time ago I was struck by how often troops might be pinned down by ‘the fiercest fire the unit had ever experienced’ until a general arrives, says something inspiring at which they rally and charge to contact. And then you look at the casualties and find that in the entire battle they had 4 killed and 17 wounded out of 300 men. And considering the quality of both firers and target has a redeeming feature – it works!
Poorer troops tend not to stand around under heavy fire but good troops will keep going. Even good troops may be halted by a failed nerve test but that’s the time for you as the general to ride up and say something inspiring and re-roll for the failed test.
Infantry Charges are also handled in a rather unusual manner – there are no melee rules. This is due to my theory that it’s rare for bodies of men to actually collide unless defending something like a village. The book The Red Badge of Courage (and particularly the 1951 film) shows the process with infantry very clearly. One side advances, while the other side is stationary and firing.
One of two things happens: Either the defenders feel that the enemy isn’t being stopped by their fire and start to fall back or even run away, or the attackers feel that they can’t keep advancing into that fire and halt and start firing. That (simplified) process seems common to many ‘horse and musket’ settings. Thus my preference is for a morale/nerve based system where the result of a charge is that either the defenders retreat or the attackers are stopped short of the enemy.
Cavalry Charges are another interesting situation where it’s difficult to understand the detail. The war gaming picture has long been of two bodies of cavalry moving into contact, coming to a standstill and hacking at each other. Described by one historian as the ‘Equine battering rams’ theory, he also pointed out that the physics was going to make an awful mess as horse and riders collide at speed.
It also fails to deal with the number of accounts of cavalry actions in which ‘sub-units’ – troops or whatever – fall back and rally, the action continues and most are still alive at the end of it.
So it’s back to more nerve tests: Cavalry will give way if they see that the enemy are coming on in a determined and well-ordered, manner or the attackers perceive that the enemy are holding fast and slow down to avoid a possibly fatal impact. This then sees a clash as both units become disordered as gaps appear and one side or the other eventually falls back or runs off as they perceive they will be overwhelmed if they continue.
So my mechanic for this runs as follows:
- A unit attempting to charge must test its nerve
- If the chargers pass their nerve test, the unit facing the charge must test its nerve
- If a charged unit holds its nerve then it stands in place and the chargers advance and make contact
- If the unit fails then it falls back or runs away
If the two units make contact, it’s resolved by each unit testing its nerve simultaneously:
- If both sides pass, or both sides fail, each side takes 1 hit
- Re-roll until only one side passes. The losing unit then falls back or routs.
So, it’s pretty simple to operate and there is some real tension as the players roll their dice. Most importantly for me, it captures my impression of what happened (even if I may be totally wrong!).
There’re obviously a few more bells and whistles than I’ve described but I hope I’ve explained my approach to designing a game and you find it interesting. I think there’s huge scope for designing your own games that don’t require getting to grips with the often 100+ pages of many commercial rules. I’ve long enjoyed designing games and tinkering with it as I play through various test games; it’s possibly the most enjoyable part of the wargaming hobby for me.
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