Monday, 6 December 2010

Battle Reports

Bob Cordery was kind enough to make a comment on my last blog about how he enjoyed my battle reports (or "AARs" - After Action Reports - as they are becoming known). As I don't get that many comments and as I have an hour on the train this morning it seemed to me that it would be an appropriate subject on which to pen a few words.

Well, when I say "pen" I really mean pound the keyboard, but you know what I mean.

The first piece I ever had published in a wargaming magazine was a battle report written by me and my friend Derek when we were probably 14ish. It was for the Wargamers Newsletter, and was a skirmish level WW2 game using Hugh Walter's Paragon Group rules. We played the game specifically to write it up for the magazine. Many of the German soldiers names (all the figures had names) were made up from selecting words at random almost from a German/English dictionary. If I recall correctly one of them rejoiced in the name of Leather Armchair, or something similar.

I don't know if anyone got anything out of the article, although I believe it got us on the list of contributors to WN that ultimately led to the Moor Park invitations and hence our memberships of WD.

It was a move by move, blow by blow, account, typical of that period. The only exceptions to that approach were the Old West Skirmish write ups written by Ian Colwill, Steve Curtis and Mike Blake. They were dignified with a unique type face and beautiful hand drawn maps and character portraits.

Battle reports tend to be characterised by a severe lack of literary style. There was a fashion for "From the Annals..." type cod-saga style writing in Slingshot which it has to be said were toe-curlingly awful. These days it is more a case of a move by move account so that you can almost set the figures up and re-fight the game like a chess problem. Once you look at blog-based battle reports these tend to be of this type, lavishly illustrated with move by move photos. A publishing friend of mine remarked this sort of thing is completely unpublishable on paper simply on the grounds of cost, so this will continue to be an internet phenomenon. For those of you who follow links you'll be aware of Phil Steele's P.B.Eye Candy blog, where he does an excellent job of annotating the pictures so you can really tell what is going on. Plus they're often of my toys, so that aways cheers me up.

On the whole I'm not a big fan of move by move battle reports. It's sort of putting a biological text book up against Shakespeare's love poems. One tells you exactly what is going on, whilst the other makes you know how it feels.

Actually I could never write poetry, and I'm not a big fan if it doesn't rhyme, but hopefully you know what I mean.

So what I try to write is a battle summary and get into a couple of paragraphs what both sides overall ideas were and a quick outline of how both of these came unstuck. The other thing is that despite my best intentions I always forget part way through to either take the picture or make the appropriate notes. It was so much easier when we all used order sheets.

So I don't entirely approve of the mainstay of most wargaming writing. I suspect I may not be alone in this, but I fear I may be. Am I, metaphorically, a cricket fan who doesn't like match reports?

Perhaps, except when we're stuffing the Aussies.


  1. To quote myself from my own blog; "I always find AARs problematical, because on one hand I want to here about the action, yet on the other they can be a bit dry to read. I'm reminded of that scene in Red Dwarf where Rimmer recounts his past games of Risk with a blow-by-blow account of the dice rolls."

    So while not disapproving of the things as such, I agree that writing style can range from dire to dismal. OTOH though it's nice to see the toys being played and having the context of the game explained. It inspires ideas.

    However, if Shakespeare were alive today I don't fancy the chances of him writing wargame AARs

  2. Ashley,

    What you say is wise and toi thep oint. If I'd remembered that scene from Red Dwarf I'd have quoted it myself.

    I think a lot of the problem is that people don't think about what they write. I suspect there isn't a lot of re-reading and "polishing" goes on with AARs before publication.

    Any how writing about events such as games is tough for the professionals. Read Lynne Truss' "Get Her Off The Pitch", which is her account of how she became a sports reporter having been the Times' literary editor. It's a funny book.

  3. Hear! Hear! That man.. I also try to make AARs much more general, alhtough I tend to find them sufficintly tedious even then that I prefer the photographic approach, hoping that photos might act as something just vaguely inspirational, or at least of some interest.

    Kind regards

  4. Are we building momentum here? A wave of sentiment that will sweep the poorly written AAR from the hobby....?

  5. I tried to encourage battle reports, as editor of Slingshot, as they are very much an entry point to writing articles, and I reasoned it would expand the author base over time, as authors built confidence. And of course there were the Battle Day reports, which being thematic did give a point of compare and contrast.

    My view is that, when they work in their own right, they can be very readable. What authors need to realise is that the reader needs to have learned something by the end of the article, and the most likely point in Slingshot is going to be how a particular ruleset plays or possibly (this is more the case for an enclosed community like White Dwarf's audience) how a particular army plays within a ruleset. Unfortunately most reports are a run through of the action as pseudo-history, or pseudo-fantasy, or pseudo-SF - which is just useless.

    For me the ideal report has both sides talking through their thinking turn by turn (I admit this would not work with Risk). WD used to do this a fair bit (when Paul Sawyer was editing). Peter Garnett recently wrote such a report on the FoG PC game, for Slingshot. I really don't rate the game but thought the report was great. But actually it's the only one in Slingshot in the last few years I've really liked (and it wasn't in an issue I edited, btw).

  6. Wow! A comment nearly as long as the blog. I get the "entry level" article argument, (after all that's the point I made about My First Article) - I just wish people had a bit more imagination and, perhaps, did the things they were told at school. eg Read back what you've written. Use the odd metaphor. Try to be original.

    I think the trap is the "turn by turn" approach. You need an attempt to describe the full sweep of what is happening.

  7. Hi Graham, it's not just the sweep of what's happening. Knowing that the Romans are winning the battle, or even that there's a flank charge which has turned the course of the battle, still isn't really enough (for me). The question is, how did the interaction of decision making (on both sides) and the gaming system (mostly, the rules) cause this to happen. To that extent, if the game is organised as a (small enough to be reported) series of turns then it makes sense to me that this be used to structure the report. But the emphasis needs to be not (just) on what happened, but why.