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A Fast Play Hobby

This little essay was designed as a magazine article - but, sad to say, it never got published. It was put together during my time writing Shadow of the Eagles, and is intended as a light hearted opinion piece with the odd serious point to make. It perhaps says something about my design philosophy when putting 'Shadow' together.



A FAST PLAY HOBBY


I have been reading a lot of wargaming rules recently, old and new. This is what tends to happen when you are writing a rule set of your own – there are so many ideas out there to contemplate, and so many procedures one might want to steal. I mean adapt and improve. Use for inspiration.


Anyway, during all this reading a phrase kept coming up – ‘fast play’. Also ‘quick play’, ‘fast paced’, ‘fast moving’ and any other form of words that means ‘not slow’. The interesting thing was that the phrases arose regardless of how complex or time-consuming the rules concerned really were. Many of the rule sets were much more complicated than the rules I myself am writing – and I have no intention of letting the words ‘fast play’ anywhere near my own work.


Look, I hate to break it to you, but wargaming with model soldiers, and especially historical wargaming with model soldiers, is not a fast play hobby. What words would I use to describe wargaming with miniatures as a hobby? Contemplative. Methodical. Sociable. Dare I say, intellectual? But let’s be honest – it’s time consuming. A particularly attractive aspect of the hobby is that it is creative, and that is generally not a process that happens quickly. Wargaming also requires a skillset which takes more than an evening to develop and then use – research skills, painting skills, preparation and planning. These are the elements of the hobby which I particularly cherish – and I know most of you out there do too. Okay, many of the elements of wargaming I have enumerated tend to apply pre-game. But we all know that the actual playing process itself is decidedly, how can I put it, measured.


Consider a WW2 game where a Tiger tank is being fired on. Shall we have a quick die roll and then it’s either a smoking wreck or ready to continue? I don’t think so. More commonly, after a brief but polite chat about how well the model is painted and its general provenance (who makes it, did you buy it online, what paints did you use, did someone else paint it), there will follow a bit of back and forth regarding whether plastic or metal kits are the best (“it’s the heft I miss!”). Only then will a considered consultation of the rules commence, accompanied by much page turning and chin stroking.


After 3 or 4 die rolls, a decision as to the future of the tank should be reached. A bit of discussion of the combat history of real Tiger tanks may occur. The 17pdr anti-tank gun model that is firing may well also undergo some scrutiny. Followed, of course, by a review of whether the rules really represent what would have happened ‘in real life’, and how the process compares to the different set of rules that the owner of the Tiger normally uses.


Yes, I know I’m exaggerating - but we’ve all been there. Our games are not a grim and workmanlike task whose sole object is that of reaching a conclusion in the minimum possible time – at least, not outside the world of competition gaming. All this sidetracking and chatting isn’t really getting in the way – it’s actually part of the hobby. See ‘sociable’ above. But even if we dispense with the banter, we will still find that the games themselves, the way we play them, and the way they are designed, rarely merit the adjective ‘fast’.


Consider the average contemporary set of rules, which will of course be designed (according to the introduction) for ‘fast play’. They will usually come in a large, bulky, hardback-format book - screw a leg into each corner and you will have a handy piece of living room furniture. Consider also the playing surface needed. Something considerably larger than a Monopoly board will be required, something more like 6 feet by 4 feet in size. Just these two things rather give the game away, don’t they? You’re in it for the long haul here my friend.


But this is all good. Because, despite the best efforts of the larger commercial enterprises involved in our hobby (God bless ’em), wargaming with model soldiers continues to be a bottom-up pastime. This is the hobby that we have created for ourselves, and apparently what we want is slow play. We will need a couple of hours at least for a decent game. Really, a whole evening would be better. Given the right conditions, a full day or maybe a whole weekend might be preferable.


Yes, if the words we use actually mean anything, wargamers don’t want a fast play hobby. One die roll and My Tiger/That Whole Unit is destroyed and removed? No thank you. That’ll be at least 2 tables and 3 die rolls please. It’s called ‘period flavour’ old boy. Video games can take days or weeks to complete, but they’re definitely an example of fast play. Click, click, click. Press and hold. In wargaming, the computer isn’t looking after us – we have to concentrate and contemplate, or we might miss that important rule that could make all the difference. We want to appreciate the moment of drama when the final handful of dice are rolled and the fate of that battalion of the Imperial Guard is decided. And we expect some banter as we lift the figures off the table with a wry expression on our face. Fast play – it’s just so unsatisfying.


Adjectives in the English language usually depend on context – a murder can be dreadful, but so can the paint job on that Tiger tank. So ‘fast play’ needs a context. But ‘relatively fast play, compared to those dreadful rule sets from the 1980s’ is a bit cumbersome on a book cover. However, most notable present-day rules authors probably cut their teeth on those ‘dreadful’ rules. I’m going to take a deep breath and name names here. Newbury Rules had a series of densely printed A5 rule booklets that constituted their ‘fast play’ series. They were not fast play. The contrasting series of ‘advanced rule sets’ that Newbury published were quite horribly complicated and dreadfully slow, meaning the ‘fast play’ sets were only ‘fast’ by comparison. I look forward with impatience to a set of rules describing themselves as slow moving, complex and cumbersome. Like WRG 5th Edition Ancients, for example.


Gratuitous insults notwithstanding, we can see that this whole fast play malarkey has a lengthy history in our hobby. Perhaps it actually does mean something. What are we struggling to say? I would guess that simple might be what we are striving for. Or ‘straightforward’. Or ‘not too complicated please’. But even here we are on slippery ground. Rules that are too simple or too straightforward will not satisfy us, as I have already indicated.


Two more examples. DBA uses a 2 foot square board and you can complete a game in 45 minutes or less. Fast play? – yes, tick that box. But they are very much a Marmite set of rules. Do they really constitute ‘historical wargaming with model soldiers’? After thirty years, I think the jury is still out. A major obstacle is that each side always has 12 units, or ‘elements’. Always. Many gamers see this as a Bridge Too Far, leading inexorably to Monopoly Land.


How about Neil Thomas’ One Hour Wargames? An hour or less to play, and a three foot square board. My conclusion on those rules was that they were genuinely fast and straightforward, but much too simple. “Simplicity is at least guaranteed to produce enjoyment”, Mr. Thomas says in the introduction - a statement which, for me, the book goes on to disprove. The baby (in this case historical flavour plus what we might call ‘play value’) has been thrown out with the bathwater. Neil is also keen on the ‘set number of units’ rule as a means of simplification – his books on Ancient and Medieval wargaming, and his Napoleonic book, both specify armies with 8 units. This limitation makes no sense to me in an historical context. Once again, we are looking at the Bridge Too Far.


Fast play, therefore, is one of the great dead-ends of wargaming, along with the pursuit of ‘excitement’ and attempts to make wargaming a spectator sport. This conclusion applies particularly to historical wargaming. Next time you go to a wargaming show, stand next to one of the demonstration games for ten minutes and watch what’s going on. You may well have picked a game where nothing is going on, even though players are apparently present. But whatever is happening, it will not be ‘fast action’, a ludicrous description I read recently in the introduction to a rather complex rule set. You might find some laughter, occasional cheering and relatively fast action occurring at other tables, but these will be the participation games. Sorry guys, but chariot races, games with Lego men, or fights between sports cars with oversize guns may be great fun, but they’re not historical wargaming. They aren’t the hobby I’m talking about.


So, to conclude. I am not in favour of ‘slow play’. Rather, I am against unnecessarily slow play. I favour rules simpler than most of the well-known sets you can currently buy. I want sets that you can comprehend in a single read through, that don’t have unnecessary layers, that don’t create complexity just for the sake of it. But these things are, regrettably, value judgements rather than an objective standard. So, I’ll tell you what I want (what I really, really want). Rules writers must understand that they can’t write complicated rules and then pass them off as ‘fast play’; and players in general should appreciate that our hobby has an irreducible minimum of time and effort required. Decent games must be researched and planned, and will last for at least a couple of hours. You should savour the time and effort the hobby requires like a fine wine - including the banter and discussion. Most wargamers already know this. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, let us say farewell to ‘fast play’ – a meaningless marketing tag that is best ignored.


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