My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

One Hour Wargames and Other Rules by Neil Thomas

The one constant in my gaming is that if Neil Thomas produces a new set of rules, I purchase it. In a way, it is sort of strange because I have not played that many games using his rules. So – other than the obvious answer that I was once a rules junkie – why do I consistently buy his rules?

It seems like there was also some aspect that clicked with me. I am pretty sure that it is because I like getting into the mind of the game designer, and Neil does a very good job of putting his gaming philosophy to paper. His rules are "book first, rules second". Now a lot of authors include some potted history in their rule books. It feels like fluffy filler and it typically is. But with Neil it is more a narrative on my why he finds the subject period different from all of the other periods he has written rules for. Sort of "this is why you should game this period; this is how I think it should feel".

Okay, so he pushed some buttons with me. So why don't I use his rules? Is it that the backstory is good, but the rules are bad? Kind of, but not quite. Maybe my own backstory explains it better.

I started wargaming playing Avalon Hill board games as a kid in the early 1970s. I got tired of playing solo – plus my brother and parents had stopped indulging me after about one game apiece – so I needed opponents. I quickly discovered their magazine The General (it was advertised in every game, after all) and in the back were the gamer "classifieds". As it turned out, there were not only AH board gamers within 25 miles, there was a whole group of them. That group introduced me to more board games beyond Tactics II and Afrika Korps, but also to miniature games and role-playing games.

Now gaming clubs in the 1970s were nothing like what I see today. Back then our society was not nearly as mobile as it is now. Although we had not quite gotten to the point where people were no longer employed for life by a single employer, that stability made for clubs where people might have miniatures not only for a single army, but several members of the club might have to bring their collections in order to fill out the order of battle for our monthly games.

Our monthly Napoleonic games typically had at least 10-15 people playing in a single game. Often we would pre-plan large battles and that might bring out players from North, Central, and South Florida and there would be thousands of miniatures on the table. Our annual Waterloo game (the last one I played) had over 10,000 miniatures on the table.

The rules were Column, Line, and Square, which required players to position each stand (typically representing a company or 1/2 squadron) and write orders for battalions and squadrons, and sometimes even detachments. So your level of control was pretty low. Given that you can really only control less than a dozen maneuver elements comfortably, each player pretty much represented a Brigade Commander. So that was my reference point for a large part of my wargaming childhood. You maneuvered battalions, worried about their formations and the physical placement of companies, and your command level was pretty much that of a Brigadier (or possibly a commander of a weak Division). Naturally, as I look at other rules it will always be compared to Column, Line, and Square. That is just how it is. (Except ancients. That would be compared to WRG's 5th Edition, until I ran into DBA, then all ancients and medieval rules would be compared to that.)

So back to Neil's rules. The first set I bought were his ancient and medieval rules. I liked the articles in Slingshot magazine that referred to his AMW rules, and sought out each of the issues that contained them. But I quickly came to the realization that, although they were similar in scale. i.e. that the player represented the army commander and his forces represented an ancient army, but Neil's rules used four times the number of stands as DBA and thus I could not play them (at least without some serious rule tweaking and fudging). So I set them aside, never to be played despite knowing I liked the ideas behind his rules. (With no PIPs, it seemed less luck-oriented.)

The second rules I bought were his Napoleonic rules. These felt familiar in that each unit represented a battalion of infantry, regiment of cavalry, or a battery of artillery. The problem was that the player represented the equivalent of a Corps commander, but with a command the size of a Brigade commander. What my days wargaming as a kid taught me is that your units can be down two "levels" from the level of command. Anything more means you are probably going to get bogged down in details of the game and the game flow will get mired. What do I mean by "levels". If I represent a Brigade Commander then down two two levels is Brigade → Battalion/Regiment/Battery → Company/Squadron/Gun Section. So if I command a Brigade I should not be worried about the placement or activity of anything less than a Company. Because Neil's smallest autonomous unit is a battalion/regiment/battery, then I can represent two levels up, or Battalion → Brigade → Division. Now Napoleonic Divisions were semi-autonomous; there were a number of smaller battles in which two Divisions fought one another, but they are not going to be the names of battles that you are familiar with.

The problem is that Neil's army lists in Napoleonic Wargaming did not represent the composition of a Division; it was more like a Corps or Army. Look at any order of battle and you will see that any commander a player could represent that would have Guards, Line, and Militia would not be a lowly Division Commander, but at least a Corps Commander. So the army lists did not match the level the player was truly playing at, which is a Division. It may have made the games more interesting by allowing you to have all of these different unit types, but it made it ahistorical, or at least abstract.

Now, you might be thinking "that really bothered you so much you did not play those rules?" Well, yes and no. I just did not use them for Napoleonics. I played them quite a number of times for the American Revolution, however. They played well enough, and as I use hit markers that blend well with the table (and therefore are not too much of a distraction when taking photos), I probably go to them more than I do, say, Black Powder. The rules seem to fit well with the smaller battles of the American Revolution where forces were often several understrength units under command of a single General. (Think more of Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, Camden, etc. and less of Brandywine, Saratoga, Monmouth, etc.)

The third set of rules I purchased was Introduction to Wargaming. I did not like the American Civil War rules (the retreat and rally rules were simply broken), the WW II rules were abstract skirmish rules that never clicked with me, and I was not interested in the other periods. They seemed like watered down versions of his Ancient and Medieval Wargaming and Napoleonic Wargaming rules. I wrote it off as being his first book of rules and intended as a true introduction to a neophyte. Good reading, but not for me.

Next came his rules Simplicity in Practice, which were published in Battlegames magazine issue 23 (which you can still buy as a PDF on Wargame Vault.) SIP was an interesting version as it changed the unit to a single base, whereas all of his other rules used four bases to a unit (except for artillery). As each unit was a single base, you could no longer represent unit formations, such as column, line, and square, which were a feature of all his other rules too. This was starting to feel like a Horse and Musket version of DBA, but without the PIPs. Like his other rules, however, he still used hits and hit markers to show unit degradation until its removal from the board. (Interestingly, however, units in SIP had 1/4 the hits that it had in other rules.) As I had Napoleonics and American Revolutionary troops based as single element units, I could try these rules out. And I did, several times. But they never really struck me. Something felt like it was missing. Maybe because it was more oriented towards pre-Napoleonic horse and musket armies, and to playing the Tabletop Teasers from Battlegames and older magazines. All of those scenarios really made you feel like you were a Brigadier General of an independent field force fighting on the frontier of the Seven Year's War.

Nonetheless, if you started to think of those battalions as bases within a Brigade unit, and thus you ran the Brigade as a unit (which is the scale that Age of Eagles is at), then all of a sudden you are a Brigade → Division → Corps Commander (two levels up) and those army lists in the Napoleonic Wargaming book makes more sense.

I bought Wargaming 19th Century Europe: 1815-1878 next and basically felt the same as I did with Napoleonic Wargaming. You are still futzing around with (battalion) unit formations, but your force lists were at the Corps and Army level. However, he had some really nice scenarios in the book, which definitely made it worthwhile. But overall, it still felt like DBA set in the Age of the Rifle. Not a bad thing, but you have to get past the abstraction of your command.

Finally, there came One Hour Wargames: Practical Tabletop Battles for those with Limited Time and Space (OHW). These rules were, by far, the simplest yet. They combined the simplicity of unit representation from Simplicity in Practice by having each unit represented by a single base, with a combat system that was the least complex yet: a unit inflicted a single D6 of hits, with modifiers, on the enemy and when 15 hits were reached, the unit was removed. That was basically it. No real discussion about what a unit represented and each period was limited to four unit types.

At first blush they are too simple. My mind cannot comprehend how I could find such a simple game enjoyable, at all. That said, I still have not tried them. Why? Mostly because I want to try a new "basing scheme" that allows me to play OHW, if they work out, along with SIP, and perhaps a DBA variant (all rules that use single element units). The idea is to expand on the idea of having each unit represent a Brigade, rather than a battalion, and that you assume the Brigadier and battalion commanders put their units in the proper formation, without you the player having to explicitly do so. Further, the unit should have a frontage of about 6" so that it is sizeable, easily visible, and be easy to manipulate.

I have decided to revive my old "dioramic bases" idea for 6mm troops – at least for a sufficient number of troops for this experiment – and create six British and British Allied Brigades and six French Brigades, set for the Hundred Days campaign (i.e. Waterloo).

Here is the 1st Brigade (von Butlar's) of the Brunswick Corps. I may add a little more grass and paint the Lieutenant Colonel Butlar a little more, but for the most part this is the effect I am going for. (This started life as an experiment in painting, actually.)

This next unit is sort of the 1st or 2nd Brigade of the 11th French Cavalry (Heavy) Division under Général de Division Lhéritier. I say sort of because the Division was mixed Dragoons (which I have in the rear) and Cuirassiers (which are in the front), not the Brigades. Oh well.

I have also noticed something with these bases when I hold the units out at arm's length: "spots" of grass start to appear. In fact that cavalry looks like it is riding through a field of spots. I need to work on that.

All said, though, I am starting to like the idea of these big bases, and I think somewhere in a combination of Neil's rules – Napoleonic Wargaming (for the Army lists), Wargaming 19th Century Europe (for the scenarios), One Hour Wargames (for the simplicity of movement, and for the scenarios), and Simplicity in Practice (for the combat system) – there will be a game I play.

Until this project is done, though, I will probably continue to use Napoleonic Wargaming rules for my American Revolutionary games.


  1. The OHW rules are good, but it's the scenarios which make the game. We play the Rifle and Sabre rules a lot and really enjoy them with our own slight amendments. An expample would be making the artillery range 24 inches. We really want to try the 19th Century rules and the Ancients which I have.
    Do not worry to much about basing Sizes, as long as both sides have the same base Sizes that's fine for OHW.

  2. I like Neil's rules. They have an old school feel to them, but with some interesting mechanics. Also, they are quite straight forward. I have used them at several events for introductory games, and always to great success.

    Our club (ODMS) used to attend a local history fest at a museum, and we would set up public participation games to teach people about learning history through wargaming. We did some Civil War games two years in a row, using Neil Thomas' rules form his Wargaming: An Introduction - and kids (some younger than 10) were picking it up after a turn or two, and getting really interested. You can't say better than that.

    On the other end of the spectrum - recently I hosted some introductory medieval. (early medieval, or dark ages, as it used to be vogue to say) battles using the rules. Some of my players were newcomers to anything at all other than WW2, and others had played other ancient/medieval rules, but not Neil's rules. In all cases, my players picked up on the rules very quickly, and all reported having a good time.

  3. Do you know of a similar treatise on space wargames? I just bought the one hour wargames book from amazon and was amazed at how simple he could make a world war 2 game.. I am trying to "simplify" a mass spaceship combat system for Traveller, a Role Playing Game which has rules for starship fleets.. but I want to simplify it without losing all the flavor...

    Thanks very much for pointing me at his book, it looks very interesting.

    1. I also found out that Nordic Weasel Games has a Starship module based on his FiveCore system. They should be available on Wargames Vault. See this thread on TMP. Good luck Ronald!

  4. @Ronald: I don't know of a space combat set of rules that are like Neil Thomas simple, other than the original Battlefleet Gothic rules by Games Workshop, which I assume are pretty rare and thus expensive. Have you looked at and tried rules from Two Hour Wargames? They have a space combat title under the 5150 brand, but I have never tried them.

  5. @dale Ah, Cool! Just looked them up.. interesting.. I'm mainly trying to get a feel for the design aspect of starship and fleet combat so I can take the base Traveller High Guard/Classic Traveller system and trim it down to something that plays quickly, getting rid of all the details that aren't necessary for fun, but can be added back as the players desire.

    I'll be picking those up, Neil Thomas last section world war 2 was eye opening in how you can simp-lify it and still have a pretty decent game. I noted the comments about how it was TOO simple, but looking at Neil's and hopefully the system you pointed me at, I can start with a firm understanding of the concepts involved in tabletop wargaming.


  6. @Ronald: The best part of Neil's books, to me, are his rules of game design. I think his most thought-provoking rule was to be wary of "double jeopardy". This is where you reflect an element in your rules twice. The classic example is accounting for the target being in cover. First you get a penalty in the "To Hit" roll because the target is harder to see. Then the target gets an increased "Save" roll because he is behind cover. If you think about it, if the To Hit modifier is appropriate, then taking the penalty and making the roll means you have bypassed cover, so why should you get a benefit for cover in the Save roll? This is double jeopardy. LOTS of rules do this and some of the best game designers are guilty of it. (*cough* * cough* Rick Priestly *cough* *cough*)

    Some old, detailed skirmish rules I used to play dealt with that pretty well. One set simply had a hit location chart and if the spot was covered, you had to penetrate the cover before the target took the hit. If that cover was soft, it likely would automatically penetrate so... Concealment – the inability to full see a target – DID produce a hit modifier, but again, it was unlikely to affect wounding the target if you hit. All that said it had an additional rule that allowed you to place shots on specific locations. If you made the hit with the increased penalties (for choosing a smaller target, the part of the body you wanted to hit), then there was no location roll. Presumably there was no cover there either, so the hit would wound unless so form of body armor came into play.

    Ah, the days when I could wrap my brain around such detailed rules and contain it all! The folly of young men. ;)


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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 50 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ (although I have a townhouse in Houston, TX and a small home in Tucson, AZ) working on a contract for "the next two years" that is going on five years now. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").