Wednesday, 8 November 2017

What do we need to see in a set of rules?

I just had a really interesting conversation with Alex from the Team Yankee Facebook community and it was actually so interesting for me because it's probably the first time I've put into words the different things that I believe I need to see in a game before I will buy into a game.

I thought I would offer it up to the community as a whole for a discussion on it.

For those of you who are not aware, Team Yankee is a Cold War wargames system produced by Battlefront, using a new(ish) system that Flames of War has been completely rewritten into, which has had the majority (or at least an over indulgent slice) of the community up in arms due to a perceived divergence from historical acceptability and a claimed over-abstraction of reality into a set of rules that bear small resemblance to historical occurrence... or at least that's the argument from at least one side of the community.

Ambrose T Burnside
Despite the beauty of the miniatures on offer I had concerns about buying into Team Yankee when I started seeing all of those photos out there with peoples solid walls of tanks lined up and moving across a table. In the real world this has never happened, could never happen and will never happen unless somebody as inept as Ambrose T Burnside was suddenly resurrected and given command of an entire Soviet Armoured Corps, conveniently placed across the battlefield from an Italian or Spanish Napoleonic army (or else some other army renowned for showing the enemy their heels)... which of course will never happen!

I probably don't need to say this but the quality of miniatures that so many of us crave can now be met, along with an ever diversifying and dizzying supply of art materials to enable the dedicated among us to, after some graft, produce some beautiful pieces of work that just look amazing on the table... but is this plethora of beauty aptly supported by the games systems that are supposed to be supported by these miniatures?

An image of wargaming beauty...

So, this raises another question; 'just what is it we need to see in a set of rules before we will commit all of this artistic endeavour to them?'

Now, I was around for the Wargames Research Group days in the late 70's and 80's when a group of crusty ol' duffers sat around a table and decided that all wargaming should be done for the purpose of historical simulation, drew up lengthy tables of numbers and grammatical punctuation and spent the whole day chewing on cucumber sandwiches, debating the wisdom of invading Russia (or the Soviet Union) in the winter (or as one could more conveniently say; their Christmas holidays!)!!!

Apparently those that Pol Pot left alive
were never taught about grammar
A worthy aspiration to be sure, but as dull as ditchwater and if the rose tinted spectacles of the past are removed and the big stick with 'reality check' written down the side applied sharply to the back of ones head, we have to admit that these methuselahs probably did more damage to wargaming kudos than Pol Pot did for democracy in Cambodia!

However those dark days of autocratic, modifier toting, number crunching geekdom are behind us now, and modern manufacturing techniques, the relative skills of miniature sculptors of all scales and a whole plethora of art materials has enabled something akin to art, crafts and beauty entering the dark closets of us wargaming anoraks out there as we constantly rub our sweaty palms up and down our pant legs as we browse through (web)page after (web)page of miniatures!

So what about the rules then?

One categoric fact needs to be stated before I go into this, and I feel that this needs to be stated right at the start for the simple reason that far too many people use this throwaway comment when this particular subject is being discussed and/or debated, and that, ladies, is: 'Well we have to accept some level of abstraction in the rules!' YES! Of course we must expect a degree of abstraction in the rules that we game.

Abstraction is the first point, chiefly because this is such a bloody blindingly obvious thing to say that even the three blind mice could have left their three blind white sticks on the three blind mice trap and calmly went back about their incredibly three blind way through any given three blind conundrum you decide to throw in their three blind way would be able to see this! Anybody and anything can see this! Even a blind thing that is so ridiculously blind that it spends all of its time being blind, eating blind food and sleeping blind sleep you blinding bloody idiots!

OK rant over! Abstraction isn't just an obvious thing to point out it is in fact so fundamental to the writing of a set of rules that one could actually say that its the skill of abstraction (and not the abstraction of skill) that a smooth, fun, pseudo accurate set of rules relies on. This then could be said to be one of the key pillars in determining which rules are rugged enough to stand up under a cursory scrutiny. No abstraction =  No rules. Fact!

How far can abstraction be taken  before a game is reduced to farce and becomes nothing more than an exercise in rolling dice against each other with little regard to statistical probabilities? I suppose the question is; at what point does abstraction force on us a loss of historical or genre flavour?

Really? REALLY? 
This loss of 'flavour' is where, I suppose, the first of my 'pillars' of a good rule set lays. It is, I believe, the 'aesthetic' that will initially attract any given geek (and I use this term loosely of course. In fact so loosely that it encapsulates a diversity of character ranging from the old Prussian military aristocracy, English science fiction authors (H.G Wells for those of you who are unenlightened) all the way down to the disgusting sweaty 12 year old acne ridden gimp that is too embarrassed to take his unicorn out of his mothers walk in wardrobe!). It is the aesthetic that initially reaches out and says "Oi! You! Come and deliver your dice to the table as if you were the living left hand of God itself!" If the aesthetic doesn't meet your approval its likely to be a game you will bite your thumb at (Mercutio: Romeo and Juliet) shouting "Jog On!" (Simon Pegg: Run Fatboy Run. See what I did there? Diversity of culture never hurt anybody right? Well, unless you live in the Belgian Congo of course, you may be in trouble for liking Simon Pegg out there!).

Just because...
Think about this for a moment. Picture yourself at a convention or your local club. How many tables have you walked past without stopping because 'you aren't into Western games' or 'Ancient games' or Naval games'? As a moderate, reasonable and equitable person a lot of us would likely check ourselves at this question and say 'Damn! I should really have checked out the rules first, just to see if its something that I would play', but lets face it, in a modern age time is precious, and certainly too precious to be playing games that don't deal with your first love! (be that history or Sci Fi/ Fantasy) No, we just wouldnt. If it isnt our 'thing' its already on a loser!

A game that may just have some flavour!

Where aesthetics are concerned, I think it may be fair to say that its the overall aesthetic that draws us to a game initially but its the narrative function that keeps us coming back for more.

Now, narrative function all of a sudden makes a wargame sound more like a Hollywood feature film script. Absolutely no substance at all unless you are prepared to pay top dollar...  but lets face it; until very recently in the wargaming world it was the independents that initially blazed the trails. The Indies that trialled new rule mechanics and attempted new ways of combining abstractions... Just check out Flintloque by Alternative Armies or Rapid Fire or Gruntz if you want proof of this statement!

Now of course we have all the Corpocrats and their boxed games with only marginally tested rulesets and a half life of less than a Crisp Sandwich!

Damn straight!!!!
Can anybody remember Rogue Trader when it was vogue? How signal it was as a ruleset and how it opened up an entire universe? EVERYBODY knew Citadel then, and everybody with even the vaguest stirrings of a Sci Fi fetish had played games of it. I myself had myself whooped on a number of blood soaked occasions! Warhammer Fantasy was already hitting 3rd Ed. when RT was released so there was already a pretty strong grass roots following but just as it was then the same is true now. A grass roots movement that supports a set of rules is how a REALLY good set of rules grows, because its the community that is the benchmark and safety check for how a set of rules is developing.

Now witness the collapse into farce that 40k suffered after 5th edition (ironically coinciding with GW's separation from its own community and relying on the white collar criminals (sorry, of course I meant community conscious wardens of the company who have absolutely no interest in targeting games at 7 year olds and targeting prices to their parents pocket - In  fact this does make me think that wargaming 40k and demanding to be taken seriously is a bit like reading the Sun and expecting a place on the Executive Board) to develop all of these wonderful (cough, splutter) rule sets that (along with an utterly insane pricing model) caused so much resentment in its own core market.

Has Flames of War gone the same way? Well in my considered opinion (and I'm not claiming to know much less than everything but much more than anything) it isn't too late for the Flames guys to fix things. I don't necessarily think that the TY system is a bad one, I haven't played it yet so I obviously have no right to comment and in any case ANY changes will draw criticism from someone, but so long as the game is served and by extension the wishes of the community they will, I hope, be in rude health for the future. It would be a crying shame to lose Battlefront to the siren call of Form under Function

But I digress;

A game possibly lacking in flavour?
What I mean by a 'narrative function that serves' is not in fact films by Harvey Weinstein but is more a reflection of how smooth the gameplay of a set of rules is. A measure of how much of your willing disbelief you are prepared to suspend for the short term in order for a game to be completed and pretzels successfully thrown at all losers. How interesting does the recital of the facts prove to be, although this particular point is perhaps more to do with the difference of whether you find more identification with a corporate negotiator or if you fit into the shoes of a used car salesman! Just how much of a storyteller are you? The enthusiasm that naturally bubbles to the surface following a really good, interesting and gripping game however is very difficult to fake, and it will of course rely on a plethora of factors, such as how much you like the people you are gaming with, how lighthearted the company is, and whether or not you have had your morning ablutions... there is nothing worse than the results of an entire game resting on a constipated die roll!.. and maybe nothing more gripping? But when all is said and done however can we at least agree that a bad set of rules will rarely generate any excitement much less the enthusiasm to talk about it to all whose eardrums look ripe for a bashing!

Because of these considerations the Narrative Function represents the second pillar of a good set of rules for me!

The technical aspect of a rule set comes next for me. Pillar No.3. Essentially this is the nuts and bolts of the rule themselves. The pieces that make up the whole. The use of statistical probabilities to bring an abstract reality to the table top. It is very difficult to justify a set of rules that claim to mimic reality (and in this case I mean serve as a representation or in the case of Sci Fi and Fantasy games an mimicry of an historical event) if they have thrown all statistical probabilities out of the window... although one also has to bear in mind that if rule sets were written solely with the purpose of historical simulation in mind then if the statistical probabilities were adhered to you would likely have a very boring set of rules with very few casualties and an awful lot of people running away!

This is a difficult one because some good rulesets are very complex with lots of rules, and therefore lots of technical elements, whilst on the other hand there are also lots of simplified rulesets that abstract the majority of the technical quantification into meta-systems. Both types of rulesets can be very good, but sadly far too many of them are very bad with nowhere near enough forethought and play-testing to failure.

Fog of War?
Where this is concerned it should be emphasised that if the groundwork is done on the Technicals then the abstraction shouldn't matter because with the occasional exception of aberrant results the rest of the abstracted results are close enough to historical occurrence to maintain a players suspension of disbelief, so long as the aberrant results do not become the predominant result.

Despite me only addressing this in such a short fashion it is the Technicals that will cover processes such as command and control, fog of war, shooting, casualties, movement, morale and game housekeeping. It is these nuts and bolts that need to be really REALLY nailed down well if the rules have any hope of 'making the grade'

The final pillar for me, Pillar No 4. is the Rules Mechanics. What is the difference between the mechanic elements and the technical elements I hear you ask? Well, this is an arbitrary term of description chosen by me, but it does allow me to separate my own thought processes when I'm writing rule sets.

The mechanics is what stitches all of the technical elements of a game together resulting in how the game flows. We must have all played those games where all of those different rules were excellent and made so much sense but when you put it all together it was just a heavy and slow, unwieldy system? Right?

Some wargames are winners!!!
What about those systems where all of those rules that you read ALL seemed to make perfect sense and then when you played the rules they just flowed. Easily and without obstruction? Now THAT is a set of rules that has well chiselled abstraction at its core!

Abstraction is supposed to simplify reality... not break the rules of physics so for me when I see a common occurrence in a game where an abstraction routinely breaks reality, to me this is a real cause for concern and is very likely to diminish any interest I can work up for a game.

Where Team Yankee is concerned, with its habitual 'tank bricks' this is an extreme example of an 'abstraction fault' and I have to say that I was living in West Germany at time of the military exercises for Operation Lionheart and I have to tell you, at no time did I ever see, or even hear of British, nor American nor even West German armour bricks rolling across the German countryside.

hang on a minute....
Mike (McSwiney of Miniature Ordnance Review) has kindly taken the time to explain that this problem occurs because of the scaling of the game. Now this is a funny one because this is actually a VERY common practise in wargaming which I will go into in just a sec. Apprently the game designers decided that they would design a game with a 'sliding' ground scale that was more appropriate for 6mm to 10mm Miniatures but would instead use 15mm on the table.

Now admittedly this sounds like an obscenely stupid idea. A bit like making the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon fight the battle of Waterloo but replacing their armies a lot of Colossi of Rhodes!

British GPMG operator on deployment
However when you consider the games that you already play you may be surprised by what you find. A British GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun), a 7.62mm death dealing hammer of the Gods will go through a solid brick wall AND still be able to kill a man at over a mile and a quarter. At 1/100 scale (or 15mm to the rest of us yokels) thats a distance of 20 metres on the wargames table, or in this case a school gymnasium! Utterly impractical for wargaming purposes. A Thompson submachine gun had an effective range of 150m. At our scale of discussion thats a range of 1.5 metres... again utterly impractical. When you scale up to 28mm and start playing stuff like Bolt Action just think what that implies.

It is an absolute necessity to reduce the ground scale of a game to bring all weapons within the reach of a table. This is also carried over into the Artillery of a game.

Do we know any games out there where the majority of weapons in a game have practically unlimited range? If not why not?

However this Ground Scale Abstraction has its collateral problems and where Flames of War and Team Yankee are concerned, in my opinion its the tank bricks.

Now, there is a silver lining to this massive problem and that is the control of points values on a table. Apparently if you limit the points value of a game relative to the table size being played across the games can play very well. For me the jury is still out on the rules, at least until I play them. They look fun, I just LOVE the models, Ive been put off by the abstraction fails BUT with good control of the game it looks like it may be a winner. Time will tell.

So to summarise; for me there are four pillars that underpin a majestic set of rules.

i) The Aesthetic. Probably the easiest to get right, and capable of attracting a lot of new blood
ii) The Narrative Function. Based more on personal skills than ruleset elements but if it isnt achieved the game will likely die very quickly anyway no matter how good the next two pillars are.
iii) The Technicals. How well thought out and rugged each of the component parts of the rules are. If you cant get these right then the rules are as good as dead anyway
iv) The Mechanics. How well does it all stitch together? Have the abstractions that are written into the rules reinforce the technicals or detract from them?

The first pillar can be taken as a standalone element that may not really have too much impact on the following three pillars BUT the next three fulfil a circular function and if there is a break between any of them, then the rules themselves breakdown.

I personally have a problem when I see a break between the narrative function and the mechanics especially because when I see this I believe that the game isn't serving the aesthetic and if there is a break between these two pillars you will end up where Games Workshop is now, with their 4 page toilet paper rule sets.

So thats my thoughts on what has to go into a set of rules and what may make or break them.

What do you guys think?

Is there any room for a Bayonet in all of these postulations at all?

Fix Bayonets!!!!


  1. I really enjoyed reading that...very interesting (even if my brain now hurts a bit)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Jim. I've had a couple of comments concerning the overwrought diatribe. I was aiming for something with a broken t more comedy in than what I normally write but I do need it hard work to read myself so I think I may need to go back to my usual style and just add a flavour of sarcasm. That said however I think the points are interesting and enough. It's certainly got people talking which is a good thing I think :)

  2. Very interesting article, good thought – in part kind of difficult to follow with all the aspects - you obviously had to get out of your head – bunched together. :)

    For me there are three aspects that get me into a game: The models, the rules and the backstory.

    Most important are the models – if the models are awesome I can forgive “acceptable” rules and fluff.

    On the other hand – I will never buy into the game if the rules or the fluff sucks – no matter how beautiful the models are.

    Funny you brought up Team Yankee – it is a prime example for the second point: I love the models and the fluff, but the tank bricks are exactly what stopped me from buying into the game. It just doesn’t feel realistic.

    And that’s what I personally expect from the rules: Awesome, scenic moments that feel realistic.

    Good rules allow you to immerse yourself into the game and relish all these special moments you later share with your fellow gamers over a beer.
    Bad rules create hiccups that destroy this immersion, like “hey that doesn’t feel realistic” or just boredom while you wait until your opponent moves his entire army.

    Good rules are shaped around the game, bad rules shape the game to make it work. One example: There is a new version of SAGA coming, I’m actually looking forward to the new version – but one rumor horrified me.
    The rumor was that the leader of the warband won’t be able to take a unit into combat with him anymore, which might be beneficial to the gameplay. The idea of a leader charging the enemy while his men stay back is bad enough, but actually winning the combat against a group of heavily armed warriors would be even worse. That doesn’t feel like medieval combat anymore, but like Conan.

    I now heard he can take his men into battle, but only his personal guard – which makes it slightly less bad (“Why doesn’t the rest of my army follow me?” – “That would give us an unfair advantage Milord”). We’ll see…

    So, nice models, rules that allow you to immerse yourself into the game and a nice background – that is all I need.

    Lastly – to your question: “Do we know any games out there where the majority of weapons in a game have practically unlimited range? If not why not?”

    Well, yes there are those games and again good rules came in and saved the day. In Dropfleet Commander the weapons have effectively infinite range + your sensors allow you to see and identify a model as soon as it is put on the table. But infinite range and seeing something isn’t enough to actually track a fast moving target that employs active countermeasures, stealth devices or silent running let alone hit it with a warhead across thousands of kilometers close to a celestial object with bizarre gravitational forces. The rules don’t limit the range of the weapons – instead they add your sensor range to the “visibility” (heat, mass etc. + sensor spikes due to broadsides , increased speed, maneuvers, active scanning and so on) and give you a range at which your weapons can hit the specific target. Feels very realistic…

    Why do you make me write these long and seemingly endless comments?? SchlimmSchlimm ;)

    1. I really dont think I need to add much to what you have said here Joe. I totally agree with everything you've said... except about the models. Its great if a company provides awesome models for their game, but lets be honest; if they don't we can just go elsewhere to get great models can't we? Even for DZC the Resistance is a prime example of an army that you can kitbash from a hundred different sources, and the choice of miniatures is a LOT more limited at 10mm than it is at 28mm.

      As for the last point about the unlimited ranges. I have no idea why I didnt think about DZC for that one. Dave made a very VERY smart mechanic with his sensor arrays. Its part of the reason the rules are just so good for that game though right?

  3. Well I didn't read all of that- as soon as Workshop show up I just move away smartly. However to put you right about WRG they were designed PRIMARILY for tournament games and to cut out the endless tedious arguments at those horrible events. Up to a point they did this - though caused other arguments as well....The legalese was put in by Barker and O'Brian simply in respose to user questions and to cover holes which players would exploit give half a chance and bugger the actuality. Still use WRG once in a while . Umpires help but then that is true of much of our hobby despite the fact that 90% of our bretheren ignore the idea.
    Levels of abstraction of course will depend upon your personal line in the sand. Mine is the Twaddle that is DBA/R The least abstraction I can get away with without shooting people or getting messy is good. Abstracting for the sake of a smart games mechanism is not.

    Does the "game" reflect what happened in the historical period ? If you decide it does then you have a winner if not then its twaddle- simple Of Course for some that is a none starter becasue it implies reading a whole book which gets in the way of their dice rolling but that is their choice

    1. I think its likely that ALL games would benefit from having an impartial umpire. It would create so many interesting variables that you couldnt control. Especially the addition of Fog of War type stuff. As for the rest, well Andy you are obviously one of those guys that likes the historical simulation which is totally cool. Ive played both sides now and whilst I like the historical simulation side of things, and am more than happy to pack a cucumber sandwich for the day (sorry, I just couldnt help myself LOL) I also get a lot of pleasure from the quicker gameplay with mates, and one of the main benefits of this is that you can actually get games finished. I dont remember ever seeing a full sized battle ever getting finished using WRG rules.

  4. Ground scale's actually closer to 2mm to 3mm miniature scale... but you get the picture... ;) :D

    1. Absolutely do Mike. I think that 6-10mm would probably be a happy medium between scale accuracy and really good looking troops on table :D

  5. Time for a new blog-post, don't you think?! And in case you don't know what to write about: I would love to know more about the art of using pigments. I always thought it quite easy, brush pigments on, don't breath in more than half the container, fixate them, done... Seems I was wrong. Looks like shit most of the time and a far way from the subtle dusting I hoped to achieve.

    So what pigments do I use for what projects, how to apply, different options on how to fix them (pigment fixer, watered down white glue, others), which varnish (matt varnish seems to destroy the dusting effect) ... and so on.

    + How pigments work on 10 mm infantry, vehicles, buildings. Others

    If you instead want to write about new Polish tactics, like preemtive strikes by world class ski jumpers... I'm okay with that too.

    1. Fear not Joe. Despite the couple of months gap in my posts I have actually been flat out with all sorts of work. Ill be posting soon to let people know what Ive been doing... Ive done another complete Polish army BUT Ive been having to translate a couple of books and records to get information on them that is worth reading by those with a general interest... and thats on top of stripping down one of the rooms in our house and turning it into a dedicated hobby room, changing jobs and spending a couple of weeks in Poland... I need a holiday just to get over our holiday! :D