God Cannot Abide Complexity

Götz von Berlichingen
Götz ‘Er kann mich im Arsche lecken’ von Berlichingen.


I believe it was Götz von Berlichingen (pictured above) in John Arden’s play Ironhand (an adaptation of Goethe’s original drama about the man) who uttered the memorable line “God cannot abide complexity”.

Götz is an interesting if thoroughly obnoxious character whose history merits further study. I have to say though that I agree with him about the whole complexity thing. If he ever said that – which he probably didn’t. Although he is credited with inventing the insult “lick my arse” – and that’s not to be sniffed at.

Anyhow, as far as I’m concerned, Phil Barker and Richard Bodley Scott’s ruleset Hordes of the Things was a cracking example of rules that were relatively easy to master, but which delivered a game that rewarded skill and subtlety at the highest level (it also rewarded the throwing of lots of sixes, but most rulesets do that). I’ve never really seen the need for anything more complicated when it comes to tabletop battles.

Even Hordes could perplex the newcomer though. I fought my first ever game against a near-legendary Australian wargamer called Thomo the Lost, who almost certainly let me win. In the process though he gently pointed out that I might do better if I grouped my units together in future, rather than deploy and move each one separately – I’d need a lot less ‘pips’ per turn if I did that. A genuinely nice man, Thomo, and by easing me into the game he ensured that I’d come back for more rather than run screaming from the room!


Iron prosthetic hand worn by Götz von Berlichingen.


Rules are truly a minefield for the newbie with little or no experience of gaming. Obvious points can be missed. Complexities are rarely grasped at first sight. Of course there are those players – we’ve all come across them – who have minds like finely tuned clockwork mechanisms, able to compute and model and project at a mere glance. Sadly my mind doesn’t work like that. It’s more like a wheezy old Atari that’s been left in the garage during a particularly damp winter. Hence the need to avoid unnecessary complexity wherever possible.

If simplicity is the keynote in cobbling together a basic ruleset for hex wargaming – my current project – then affordability is another important goal. Having invested in some Hexon scenery recently, I’ve discovered that they have a series of hex-based rulesets available for free on their website. While these rules look pretty good, they’re clearly the finished article rather than a starter set. I may ‘mine’ them for ideas, but I doubt I’ll adopt them.

One of the reasons for that is the affordability issue. I have lots of armies consisting of around twelve to fifteen bases or ‘elements’ – a legacy of my Hordes and DBA background. I don’t want to have to invest in lots more units for each army, simply so that I can mass them in groups as per the Kallistra rules. Those rules use several bases per hex in order to (a) produce a nice ‘mass battle’ look on the tabletop, and (b) to allow for logging of casualties by removal of bases.

Now the whole casualty-logging business is a topic in itself, but after a lot of faffing around my preferred solution is to attach a small D6 to each unit and use that to register current unit strength, to log losses caused by firing and melee, and so on. When the unit takes a hit, you flip the die accordingly. When you move the unit, you move the die with it. This approach is simple, it’s cheap, and it works a treat. And – most importantly – it enables me to continue using my favourite old armies without having to rebase or expand them in any way.

Doubtless it’s not the most elegant solution, and – like the use of a hex-based battlefield – it certainly won’t appeal to every wargamer. Personally though I don’t find it too obtrusive – it does the job with the minimum of fuss. And, of course, it avoids complexity. Götz von Berlichingen would almost certainly approve!


Bases with Dice
Using dice to show unit strength.



Hex Enduction Hour…

My Hexon Terrain


Meanwhile, back on the table top, I took delivery last week of a box of Hexon modular terrain from Kallistra.

The setup pictured above uses about two thirds of the tilesets from their basic starter box set. Currently we’re limited to using a medium size dining table for games. Plans are afoot for building an extension, which will allow us to install a nice big wargames table when it’s complete. Until then, small is beautiful…

The plan is to use this for working on my “beginner” level hex-based wargames rules, which I’ve been mulling over for a while now. I’ve opted for a hex tabletop because my gut feeling is that it’s easier for people new to wargaming to grasp rules wherein movement, firing, combat, facing etc. are addressed without the need for complicated measurements, wheeling and turning, and so on.

I’ve always been impressed by the rules used in Bill Banks’ 3W Ancients hex-and-counter game. I found it fiddly to use in practice – small hex sheets and even smaller punched counters – but the rules themselves were fun and seemed to give realistic results. My own rules will likely take a lot from the Bill Banks rule set.

Setting up the Hexon layout wasn’t too much of a chore, and I’ve already ordered a few additional pieces.

As you can see from the photo, I haven’t flocked the hexes yet, and the scenery is bog standard rather than specific to a hex tabletop. I’ll probably have a go at adapting and/or making suitable scenery, but if that proves to be less than successful I’ll no doubt end up buying even more bespoke stuff from Kallistra. Their products are not the cheapest, but I feel they’re worth the price.

When I’ve finally arrived at a workable rule set I’ll upload it to the blog to see what people think.

Incidentally – in case you didn’t know – Hex Enduction Hour was the fourth album released by The Fall back in 1982…



A Cunning Plan

“Am I jumping the gun, Baldrick, or are the words ‘I have a cunning plan’ marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this conversation?”


How do you introduce a newbie to the wargaming hobby?

Or, more to the point, how do you get them started in a way that won’t put them off for life?

This question came up for me recently, as I settled into married life with a partner who – coming from a more traditional gay milieu/sensibility – had no particular interest in the world of military history or wargaming. On the other other hand, we had already spent many hours playing cards and the occasional (non-military) board game together, so I thought that there might be a glimmer of hope after all on the wargaming front. Maybe I could get him involved in this wonderful hobby of ours…

But how to go about it?

After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to see how he’d fare with Richard Borg’s game Battle Cry, which I reviewed on here a few years ago (you can find the review by clicking here).

Why Battle Cry? Well, one of the things I believe newbies find very difficult to grasp – I know I did back in the day – is the whole business of measured movement, turning, facing and formation change as dealt with in the conventional table-top wargame. For people brought up on grid-based games like draughts (checkers) and chess, the complexity of the movement on the table-top can be disconcerting and counter-intuitive.

Battle Cry, on the other hand, uses a simple system of hex-based movement. It doesn’t bother with facing, formation or zones of control. And it only presents the newbie with three troop types to get his or her head around – infantry, cavalry and artillery (plus generals, to add a fourth). The effects of terrain are pretty straightforward, and the liberal use of cards to determine the player’s options each turn ensures that the game is fun and throws up continual surprises.

At the same time, Battle Cry acclimatises the new player to the notion that re-fighting old battles can be fun, and gets you both over that awkward moment when you have to explain that you’re going to be playing with toy soldiers. It’s a sort of wargaming lite, introducing many of the key elements of ‘the real thing’ without frightening off your potential new recruit.

So how did it work out?

Even better than expected. Battle Cry has become a favourite shared pastime, and I’ve just introduced my partner to a new set of rules I’m working on for hex-based ancients/medieval warfare. These new rules use Battle Cry as a starting point, but as they develop and grow the aim is to gradually incorporate a roster of different troop types, zones of control, unit facing, morale etc. etc. I will probably include and build on ideas culled from a number of sources, including Richard Borg’s own ancients games, the old Ancients hex game published by 3W, and other ideas gleaned from the internet and elsewhere.

But I’m planning to introduce these things gradually, step by step. The idea is to start simple, and build on an initial shared knowledge base in such a way that the games remain fun and above all stress free.

I’m hoping to share these stripped-down hex rules on here as they develop.

So there you have it. It’s never too late to gently ease someone into the wonderful world of wargaming. All you need is a cunning plan…!


Private Baldrick

Publish And Be Damned?

The Scream

This blog post is going to be a bit of a rant…

Nowadays anyone can be a publisher. The inexorable rise of print-on-demand and budget printing outlets, combined with the dominance of internet sales in the retail sector, has broken down the barriers that once made publishing the preserve of a privileged few. Fundamentally this has to be a good thing. As with self-publishing and blogging, the new media give us all a chance to find an audience.

But every silver lining has a cloud. The downside of the publishing revolution is that anyone, regardless of whether or not they have the requisite skill and patience, can throw together a book and put it on the market. We’re probably all familiar with cheap paperbacks whose contents have been word-processed rather than competently laid out, whose typos run into double or triple figures, and whose photos are a muddy blur.

Within a small community like the wargaming world, customers may be unwilling to complain about the quality of the product they receive. Even constructive critical observations can be construed as a personal attack, and the resulting fallout can turn into a vendetta that lasts for years.

Equally, criticism may be seen as an unwarranted breach of the ‘clubby’ atmosphere that pervades much of our hobby. There can be a great reluctance to call out poor practice, even when someone has paid good money for shoddy goods that should never really see the light of day.

Probably the worst example of this sort of product that I’ve ever personally come across is a paperback reprint of a ‘wargaming classic’ that I picked up recently on Amazon. Despite boasting two editors, and despite being billed as an attempt to bring the work of an important wargaming pioneer to a new audience, the poor production values on show made reading the book an ordeal rather than a pleasure.

I have rarely, if ever, seen so many typos crammed into a single slim volume – a particularly egregious oversight when detailed wargaming rules make up a significant part of the text, and accuracy is an essential (if basic) requirement. Apparently  neither editor thought it worth his while to proof-read the final draft prior to publication. Maybe neither editor is conversant with the spell-check and grammar-check functions included in every modern word-processing package, though that frankly beggars belief. A simple one-click solution would have eradicated most of the mistakes. One of the repeated typos is the (original) author’s own name – an unforgiveable error, in my opinion.

This haphazard approach to editing is reflected in the book’s amateurish layout and almost indecipherable photographs. The text appears to have been run through a word-processor and simply squeezed out the other side, with no time being spent on proper page layout or design. There are plenty of photos, but they are so poor as to be of little if any use. Still, at least they help to bulk out this very slim volume – maybe that’s the reason they’ve been included.

If this book was a one-off, perhaps the lack of skill and care would be more understandable. But it is just one of a series of re-prints, put together by someone who clearly cares passionately about the hobby and its history. Which, as far as I’m concerned, makes this slapdash approach to publishing even more of a mystery. Maybe the other books in the series are better produced, but frankly I don’t have any desire to pour good money after bad in order to find out.

The point is pretty simple, really. If you can’t take the time and effort to proof-read the text, if you lack the patience or the skill to lay the book out properly, if you can’t tell a muddy blur from a decent photo – then for heaven’s sake don’t impose on the rest of us by masquerading as a publisher.

Here endeth the rant!

Exploding Brain Clip Art



Campaign Maps – The Easy Way!

Part of the island of Nylandia

Wargame campaigns have been on my mind a lot recently, after reviewing William Silvester’s book on the subject.

I’ve dusted down my copies of Tony Bath and Don Featherstone’s ground-breaking books covering the same topic, and have been mulling over some of the possibilities.

All three books spend time discussing that first essential of any campaign, however modest or ambitious – the campaign map. In this regard, it’s surprising how little things have changed over the years. Don’s book was originally published in 1970, with Tony’s following a few years later (though it subsequently went through several reprints). William Silvester’s book came out just two years ago. All three books consider the various types of drawn or printed map that are available, and the options for measuring and recording map movement.

Back in the ‘good old days’ the possibilities for acquiring suitable ready-made maps were somewhat limited, and could be expensive. Old classroom maps of the biblical Middle East, tourist souvenir maps, and Ordnance Survey Maps were among the most popular (and, in the first two instances, rather quaint) options. Map movement could be recorded using plastic overlays and marker pens, or coloured pins, always bearing in mind that the map itself was valuable enough to be treated with respect and re-used again and again.

When it came to creating a map from scratch, particularly a map of an imaginary continent or other geographical area, drawing the map by hand was the obvious – indeed the only – option back in the day. Tony Bath famously created his mythical continent of Hyboria, where he fought out battles with other well-known wargaming figures like Charles Grant, in preference to re-fighting a purely historical campaign or using an existing historical map. He makes a convincing case for going down the ‘imaginary’ route (Setting Up A Wargames Campaign, page 7):

“Having at various times tried all three courses, I have no hesitation in saying that I believe the third, of setting up your own continent, to be far and away the best. With a world of your own, the limitations are only those of your own imagination together with a certain sense of realities. For instance, within the boundaries of my own continent of Hyboria existed armies and cultures ranging from the Ancient Egyptian to the 13th Century mediaeval enabling me to make use of the whole ancient-medieval period.”

This is certainly the approach that most immediately appeals to me. Creating my own mythical continent, peopled with a mixture of ancient and mythical nations, has an innate ‘wow’ factor to it. The opportunity to give my various DBA and HoTT armies a run-out against each other, as part of an over-arching narrative, feels too good to resist. I’m planning to start work on this shortly!

So what options are there for creating my map, and for tracing movements on it once it’s been brought to life? My drawing skills are not exactly my strong point, and it would certainly be nice to produce something that has more visual appeal than a rough hand-drawn map. And working with a ‘physical’ map, drawn up on squared or hex-based paper – or using a square or hex acetate overlay – sounds like a rather messy option in this digital era.

In the past I’ve tried one or two cut-price computer-aided drawing packages (CADs), but I’ve found them a bit fiddly to use, and the results less than impressive. Nor has the end product solved the problem of logging and marking map movement as a campaign progresses. So I’ve got to thinking whether other options might be available – preferably ones that come in at a budget price.

The solution, it turns out, was close at hand all along. And I’m sure it’s one that has occurred to other wargamers too, so I certainly wouldn’t presume to claim any originality for the idea!

Like many other gamers, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the years playing the various incarnations of Sid Meier’s excellent computer game Civilization, with Civ4 my favourite version. Now, Civ4 happens to have a fantastic in-game editing facility called WorldBuilder. Indeed, one of the keys to the success of the game is the ease with which an enthusiastic community of online gamers is able to create new scenarios for the core game, and – crucially for me – new maps and worlds as an essential part of that. Over the last year or two most of my games of Civ4 have been based in worlds that I’ve either tweaked or that I’ve created myself from scratch.

Civ4‘s WorldBuilder – which comes free with the main program – may seem a little daunting at first, but with a bit of practice it turns out to be straightforward and intuitive to use. The results, once you’ve learned the basics, are visually impressive and highly flexible. You can build an island, a continent or indeed a whole world to your own personal specifications, then drill down to whatever level of detail fits with your campaign requirements. You can add production facilities, resources, fields, mines and buildings to your cities and their environs. You can build new roads and railways, surround a strategic location with a string of forts, or colonize an island to expand your nation’s borders. You can keep it as simple as you choose, or add layers of complexity if fine detail is your thing.

Even better, via a few mouse clicks you can go back into that self-created world any time you like to add or change its features and the location of the units depicted on it. You can mark the movement of armies, the capture or plunder of cities, the progress of fleets and supply trains, the stock-piling of munitions and the building or burning of villages, towns and forts. You can use the program to chart small actions or large – to monitor off-table movement in one small corner of your continent, to set and execute an ambush in a wooded valley, or to move whole battalions at the grand strategic level.

By opting to switch on the ‘grid view’, you have a built-in tool for measuring map movements, one square at a time.

Civ4 will also help with record-keeping, enabling you to save multiple copies of each map to give you a permanent record of your campaign. You can zoom in or out to print maps at whatever level you choose, providing you with a hard copy to work with, or a digital copy to add in to your virtual campaign diary.

Once you’ve got used to the idea of using Civ4 not as a game per se, but purely as an editor, it really does seem to tick all the boxes as a campaign and mapping tool. Note that this is quite distinct from playing Civilization with the world you’ve created in the usual way – what I’m suggesting means that you’re restricted to using it in WorldBuilder (i.e. ‘edit’) mode only. Each time you load the scenario you’ve created, you go straight back into the WorldBuilder to continue your campaign moves, edit the map and so on.

Whether you use one of the many worlds created by the online Civilization community, tweak a computer-generated world, or build your own new world from scratch, I would seriously recommend giving it a try. Retailing for just a few pounds, I reckon it’s a sound investment for the budding wargames campaigner!


Top of page: part of my newly-created island of Nylandia – an imaginary island created for a mini-campaign set in the Pike & Shot era. As you can see, this mini-campaign is going to be nice and simple!

Bottom: zoomed-in shot showing the Swedish port of Svalbard, part of Nylandia and the base of operations for Gustavus’s invasion force.


Civ4 Fanatics Forum – Creation and Customization Section. Everything you need to know to build your own world!