Monday, 14 December 2009

Squares, Games and why I don't like Chess

There's been a renaissance in the last 5 years in square-based games. The "Red Square" games produced by Richard Brooks & Ian Drury, together with the work done by Bob Cordery has influenced quite a bit of what I've done in the last few years. Similarly Kalistra's "Hexon" terrain system encourages the use of zone-based rules systems. Personally I'm more a fan of squares (even off set squares) than hexes, as at least it makes the table look like a map rather than a hex grid.

Squares give you a number of advantages, - no need to measure, clear definition of what is fighting what, and freedom to use any basing system you want for your figures. On the other hand, I can't get away from thinking why don't I just design board games instead? Then I'm left with thinking that I like the aesthetics of the figures and the tactile nature of pushing them around, so I'll just go with the squares.

Recently I've been trying to have it both ways. I've been using Richard Brooks' English Civil War square based rules (published in WD's "Nugget" journal), called "Victory Without Quarter". However I play them without squares. Cunningly, I call my version "Victory Without Squares". (That only really works as a joke if you know the name of the original set of rules).

Any how, I achieved the non-squareness element of my version by substituting 4 inches for "square" everywhere it appeared in the rules. The first playtest was a complete shambles, but I have a working set now and have dealt with most of the problems that popped up because stuff was nolonger lined up. If anyone is interested in how I solved the problems, post me a comment and I'll e-mail them to you or something similar.

Which brings me to the BBC4 TV series "Games Britannia" presented by some chap called Benjamin Woolley. I caught up with the first one on i-Player. Woolley is a man who rhapsodises about being trapped in the house at Christmas and having to play boardgames.

Now it is traditional these days to regard that as totally horrific (same as you're not supposed to enjoy Christmas anymore), but actually it sounds brilliant to me. I've loved boardgames from small, despite having an older brother who always made sure I lost (he's paying for it now, - hasn't beaten me at a game for years). Anyway, what it means is you have a presenter who loves the subject, and that always helps.

The first episode covered medieval games (backgammon, nine men's morris, chess etc) up to about the mid Victorian era when chess pieces were formalised and snakes and ladders type games appeared. I found it interesting , - even if his belief that a game was unique because each side had different victory conditions struck me as odd. Has he never played "Escape from Colditz"??

I recommend a look if you haven't seen it, - there's another one on tonight at 9pm. However, it did remind me how much I don't like chess. As ever it was described as the "ultimate game", and one of the best wargames.

No it isn't. It's not even remotely realistic as a wargame. Where are the hills? What about the odd river or forest? Why can't I deploy the pieces where I want? Why put my cavalry behind my infantry?

The Great Commanders of history beat their opponents by how they deployed as much as how they handled their troops in combat. Ever seen offset deployment on a chess board? I don't think so.

Humph. It'll never catch on, I tell you.


  1. But chess is an analogy I often use when people ask me 'What is wargaming all about?' as the heathens seem to be able to grasp this concept more easily than the idea of playing with toy soldiers.
    My judgement is still out on squares, though I now they are in vogue amongst the WD glitterati but I struggle with the aesthetic more than anything. Having said that I cope with PBI by using unobtrusive dots at square corners as opposed to a full grid.
    I was going to ask you about what rules you intended to use with your ECW. I play Regt of Foote at the moment and I am very happy with them but would love to have a look at your developments on Victory without Quarter

  2. Chess is an abstract piece capture game masquerading as a wargame.

    The VwS rules are in an e-mail to you.

    Squares solve a lot of problems, leaving the rule system to deal with other issues. That's why they work in PBI, - all movement, measuring, line of sight is immediately simplified so you can put the rule complexity elsewhere.

  3. Hah. Well, it never caught on with me, although I refer to BattleTech as 'playing chess with pieces that can shoot at each other'. That seems to catch the audience's attention while boiling the subject down to something they understand.

    Who would have thought I would need to learn to speak in soundbites? I suppose that is a talent grownups have, though. Useful one, too.

    Hah. My captcha is 'guisca', a nonsense string of letters I immediately parsed into 'Graphical User Interface / Society for Creative Anachronism'.

    It's a sickness, I tell ya.

  4. Using chess as the lead in to discussing wargames enables us to veil our hobby in a wrapping of intellectual justification, even if we don't lke the game.

    Or something like that.

    I hadn't got "soundbites" down as one of the grat things about being a grownup, - I still think power tools beats that, - but whatever it is great to have you on board, Steve.

  5. Does a soldering iron and a VOM count as power tools? If so, then I agree. Thanks for the welcome.


  6. The soldering iron is definately a Grown Up tool. Excellent.