Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A Personal History of Block Wargames

A modern version of the original Kriegsspiel troop blocks and rulers....

....and the rules for the classic Von Reisswitz version available from Too Fat Lardies.

This is not a history of the use of block type units for wargames - rather it is my own history of how the great block fest came about. The reason I am writing this is simply because I am at the very last stage of preparing the armies to cover the period 1700 to 1945 and so felt the need to 'wrap' the story up.

As a student of military history (as all wargamers tend to be) I have always enjoyed playing the game so beloved of armchair strategists of looking at a map of a battle and planning my own take on it. Moving formations over actual battle maps into contact with the enemy, launching great counterattacks that swing the tide of battle and foiling the plans of the great commanders is the essence of what a wargame should be about. For my own part I have always enjoyed map based games - I suppose that is why I am such a board game fan - but the difficulty has always been how to translate this into a table top game.

I have tried map games using figures but they do not seem to be as effective looking in my mind so I tend to shy away from the same. I enjoy figure games but have a somewhat old fashioned view on how they should be used - preferably large scale (42 to 54mm) or if not, then en masse (perhaps Messrs. Grant, Lawford, Young and Featherstone had the right idea after all about unit sizes!) with large units of figures. Therein lies my problem - I am a very slow and to be honest, unenthusiastic figure painter. Taking this painting dilemma and my interest in just about every war from Marlborough upwards (I am not even considering earlier periods at this stage - that is a whole different ball game!) meant that I never seemed to get any armies painted despite many attempts to do so.

I was first introduced to board games back in the late 70s and they were a revelation to me. Here was a medium via which I could fight just about any war or battle from the time of the Pharoahs to wars in deep space. I enjoyed playing them hugely but they were not wargames, at least not how I envisaged them. To be honest, there is only so much enjoyment you can get from pushing cardboard counters around and so I found myself thinking about how these games could be turned into games using models. I experimented with a few of these - the most effective of which was Napoleon by Columbia Games - but the results were not satisfactory. The problem was very simply that a base of figures will always look like a base of figures and so using a stand of 6 x 15mm French Napoleonic Old Guard Grenadiers to represent the entire foot component of the Guard looked plain wrong. Using figures to represent armies is fine but let us not be fooled by considerations of scale etc - you can call a dozen figures a battalion of 800 troops but it is still a dozen figures. Even the aforementioned Grant, Young and Lawford etc had units that although they were large are still only representational. I suppose then that a formation of lots of figures looks far more representative than one of a dozen or so - remember we are talking about representing armies here.

This was frustrating for me as there was no way on earth I was ever going to paint vast numbers of figures for any army, let alone for those extra periods I had an interest in.

My solution was inspired by a number of sources. Using blocks as counters in board games is not new and Columbia Games have pretty much made the market for such their own. By using blocks with rotating edges (typically a block will be numbered from 1 to 4 along each edge - this corresponds to the current strength of the unit so when it suffers a loss the block is rotated to show the current strength) a unit could sustain casualties and thus be degraded over time. This was more like it - essentially you have 3D units (the blocks) on a 2D playing surface (the map). 

Then came Battle Cry by Richard Borg.

I cannot emphasise enough how important this game concept has been to me. The rules felt like a wargame rather than a boardgame and I have seen many examples of players using the rules with models and 3D terrain very successfully. This was a proper wargame using models albeit on 2D terrain. Following hard on the heels of Battle Cry came Memoir 44 - the WW2 version, again with models, Battlelore - the fantasy version and then both Napoleonic and Ancients although these used blocks rather than models. Now here's a thing. If a boardgame uses 2D terrain and 2D units and a conventional figures based wargame uses 3D terrain and 3D units exactly where does a miniatures based boardgame or a boardgame based miniatures game sit? That is a question for another time though.

Coming back to Columbia Games (and more recently Command and Colours Napoleonic and Ancient versions) from early on I wondered about the possibilities of using blocks to represent units in a conventional wargame. This got me thinking about what a block actually represents and I came to the following conclusions:
  • A block could represent anything from a section to an army corps - just like the corresponding map symbol.
  • A block is essentially the same as a base of figures - without the figures of course!
  • A block can be as generic or as specific as required in respect of what it actually represents - and this is a crucial advantage for me over painting figures for a variety of periods.
Note that I have not mentioned Command and Colours Napoleonic and Ancients at this point. This is simply because they are effectively period specific (Ancients less so) and so would only be used for those eras unlike my home made blocks that are far more wide ranging. Also, they use specific imagery for unit types rather than symbols.

Taking all the bullet points above into consideration it was indeed heady stuff for me as the realisation dawned that by using blocks as a substitute for figures/models I could kill several birds with one stone. Using blocks for units with 3D terrain would be eminently suitable for my purposes - especially the sheer diversity of campaigns I would like to fight. I should point out that whilst the blocks are a perfectly viable alternative to figures they are no substitute for massed ranks of gleaming soldiery advancing towards the foe!

The blocks I now use are made from those from a Jenga style game cut into two and so are roughly 30mm by 20mm x 12mm. Originally I used them straight from the box and whilst they worked fine do not have the flexibility of the smaller versions - especially as I can use them in multiples and remove individual blocks when needed for casualties. I made up the labels for the blocks using MS Paint based on standard military map symbols and quickly realised that my skills were not up to my vision of what they should look like! I have produced a variety of types - command, infantry, cavalry, artillery, anti tank gun, machine gun, mortar, armour and wheeled vehicle. I decided not to go any further than this with troop types as I did not want the labels to become too 'fussy' to look at with multiple symbols or designations. After much experimentation, especially with the vehicles, I eventually settled on the designs and produced six identical sets in what are the main colours of recognition for varying armies - red, blue, green, grey, brown and olive.

Thus far I have only used the blocks for Command and Colours/Memoir of Battle style actions but given that they are of a uniform size there is no reason why they could not be used for conventional wargames - I am thinking of the DBA family here - and I fully intend doing so when the opportunity arises. I will also make use of Volley and Bayonet at some point as well and this is something I have wanted to tackle since the rues first came out back the early 1990's.

It has taken me roughly eighteen months to get to where I am now but it has been worth it. The battles I have fought over the periods I am interested in have been as exciting as any figure game although obviously without the visual appeal of massed armies of figures.

The pictures at the head of this post were picked for a specific reason. The original Kriegsspiel made use of blocks to represent troops on a 2D map. Essentially all I have done is to extend that idea to incorporate 3D terrain and so if it was good enough for the Prussian general staff to use blocks then who am I to argue? 


The Angry Lurker said...

It reminds me of simpler, easier times!

David Crook said...

Hi Fran,

Yup - just like me - easy and simple!

All the best (and hope to see you all at SELWG).


Chasseur said...

Ditto to Lurker! Also I am working on a Biblical Ancients campaign for this fall. Yes simple, easy, and loads of fun ... Jeff

David Crook said...

Hi Jeff,

I will be very interested to see that when it gets going - I always had a soft spot for the New Kingdom Egyptians.

All the best,