Disclaimer: all of the following is, of course, simply my opinion of magazines and journals and their content, and the entertainment or practical value of that content. You may not agree, and if so, sound off. That said, I also realize that my own battle reports do not always meet up the the ideals I list below.The subject of writing battle reports (or after action reports - AARs) was raised a few months back on the Old School Wargaming forum on Yahoo and I did an entry in response, and I recently ranted a little more about it on the Solo Wargame forum, with regards to battle reports in magazines, so I thought I would elaborate a little more here.
The subject came up due to a open forum question about whether I was a subscriber to Lone Warrior magazine and if not, why not. I had subscribed to that journal (I hesitate to call it a magazine, and it is more substantial than a newsletter) for several years, but after awhile I found myself disappointed after I read each new issue. There was usually at least one interesting item, but it often seemed that there was rarely anything usable. Having read a number of back issues from MAGWEB (when it had been up and running), it seemed like the content of the journal had drifted over time.
I know this is starting to sound like a knock, but it is not intended to be. Lone Warrior actually did pretty good for basically being written by a small core of the subscribers in what is a very niche part of the wargaming hobby, which many might consider itself niche. Where this is all leading is that Lone Warrior (LW), like another wargaming journal I tried out, Classic Wargamer's Journal (CWJ) both were comprised largely of one type of article: battle (or campaign) reports. And that is where this entry's subject comes in.
First off, one wonders whether battle reports should even be fodder for a wargaming magazine or a journal. Generally, one's games are pretty personal and the ability of the author to convey the sense of "being there" is usually pretty limited. That is why, for me, a battle report that is simply a narrative has little value.
So, what constitutes a good battle report - one that would get me to read it? Consider the following elements:
- Game Mechanics
A good narrative (story) makes for interesting reading. But, unless you are looking for a little historical fiction at whatever level the author is writing at, a good story is just not enough. As I am a competitive sort I am always looking at the decisions gamers make at critical points in a game. Why did you advance into range there? What were you thinking the result would be before the move? Was your thinking correct? What should you have done or considered first? As I am also an inquisitive sort that looks at battle reports using rules I don't know, narratives typically tell me nothing about the rules themselves because a narrative itself should probably be "rules agnostic".
So, does a narrative have a place in battle reports? Yes. From the reader's perspective anything that helps you "get into the game" is positive. That said a narrative does not need to be a fictional account of the characters on the table top, it can be of the players itself. I have seen more swings in a battle from the player's morale being broken than from a mass rout by the figures on the table. Sometimes recording that actually helps the reader understand just why it all fell apart. Of course, if your opponent's read your blog, you might not want to say "It was at this point my opponent burst into tears like a little girl."
Maps are incredibly important for helping the reader understand the action, especially in a very fluid game where it is hard to keep track of who is where. For example, in Flames of War a doubling Fast or Light tank could move 32", which is pretty darn far on a standard 6' by 4' table. So a reference like "the Stuarts on the left flank doubled" on one turn might be "the Stuarts attacked on the right" the next turn after having moved 32" + 16" in the course of the two turns.
So, maps help the reader understand the lay of the land, what might be challenging in a scenario, where action occurs from turn-to-turn, and act as an aid in re-creating the action for themselves.
To me, including the necessary information for the reader to recreate the action for themselves - publishing the necessary scenario information - is what sets Battlegames and Wargames Illustrated apart from the other magazines and journals. In Battlegames you have Charles Grant's Tabletop Teasers and in Wargames Illustrated you usually have a historical scenario for Flames of War.
Sometimes just describing the scenario, if it is a standard mission, is helpful for those reading the report but who do not play the rules you used, as they can get a better sense as to why the players might have made specific decisions during game play.
Pictures have always been an interesting topic for me, as I am never sure exactly what I should be taking a picture of. I used to take pictures of just the whole board, so the reader can get an idea of the entire battle. But then I got suggestions to add "action" pictures that focused in on a specific part of the battle, so the figures could be seen better. I admit that with some of my earlier battle reports, you couldn't really tell what happened from turn-to-turn unless you were flipping back and forth between the pictures. (That lead me to once try a stop-motion picture sequence to show off a battle.)
One thing I do not like is using stock photographs of battles, but not of the one you are describing. Either show an overview of the battle or show a specific combat up close. Beyond that, I am not really sure what works.
A friend of mine used to say about the rules Column, Line, and Square, "Don't look at the mechanics of the rules, look at the end results." I like it when a battle report points out how the effects of a game mechanic elegantly reflects (our perception of) how it is "really supposed to be". Also, a discussion of tweaking the mechanics is always thought-provoking and interesting, even if I don't agree with the change. For those that don't know the rules and are curious about how the play, mechanics discussions usually help. That said, referring to the mechanics over and over in battle report after battle report can get tedious, for both the reader and the author. Maybe it is best to write a one-time review of the rules you use and provide a link in your battle reports. Food for thought...
Being an analytical sort of guy it naturally comes out in my writing. I also like it in the battle reports that I read. A lot of it is "what if?" but the main thing is that it leads to discussion. One of my most popular battle reports (by page view count and comment count) was Königstiger versus Strelkovy. This generated a lot of comment on this blog and on the forums where I posted the link. A lot of it centered around the flaws in my analysis but it was still good discussion!
So, there you have it. My favorite elements to a good battle report. You can be the judge on my ability to meet that bar. I know that I often do not include all of these elements, which makes me question why bother doing it if I am not going to do it right.
While writing this blog entry I decided to look back and see how some of my battle reports did, in terms of page views and comments. Here is a list, as of 20 November, 2011.
As I review the list above, something becomes quite obvious: pageview count is directly related not to the quality of the battle report, but to how widely you publicize the battle report in other forums.
Well, now you have the list. You can judge for yourself how many times I myself didn't meet my own exacting standards!