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.

Friday, December 06, 2019

One-Hour Wargames

I have avoided reviewing the rules One-Hour Wargames (OHW) by Neil Thomas for quite a while for one simple reason: just reading through the rules it felt like they were not for me. If you have read through any of my reviews you know some of the factors that I favor, but you might have also noticed that my tastes are getting "simpler". The question is: is OHW too simple?

OHW has three main sections: discussions about how warfare changed over time; wargaming rules on how to represent those changes over time; and wargames scenarios. If you read enough comments on OHW you will quickly see that many of them are about the scenarios, and generally they are all positive. I will touch upon that, but mostly I want to focus on the rules, as this is the area that I avoided all this time.

Rules Overview

OHW is not one set of rules as much as it is a set of core wargaming rules with nine variants to reflect the different periods of warfare that the book covers: Ancients, Dark Ages, Medieval, Pike and Shot, Horse and Musket, Rifle and Sabre, American Civil War, Machine Age, and the Second World War.

Let's start with the basics. A typical game is played on a 3' by 3' board with units occupying 4" to 6" of frontage, using six units per side. Each period has four different unit types that are broken down into one predominant type and three supporting types. Which unit type is the predominant one, what types are allowed, and what the characteristics of the unit types are is what provides the period's 'feel'.

Army composition is broken down into 3-4 units of the predominant type, and 0-2 units of each of the supporting types, up to a maximum of six units. Scenarios in the book can modify the army size – some armies only have four units – and there are random tables to determine exactly how many of each type you receive for a battle. Note that, if you are playing the scenarios as the author intended, you will have random force composition and will not be allowed to select your army composition. However, nothing stops you from choosing nor will anything 'break' if you do.

As a side note, this 'four unit type' model fits with his other book Wargaming Nineteenth Century Europe 1815 - 1878, which uses ten and five unit armies, so there is nothing to stop you from using those random force selection tables to include scenarios with those additional force sizes. Just consider that your board size may have to change.

Movement is fairly straightforward. There are three movement speeds – 6", 9" and 12" – and no changes due to terrain (other than +3" for road movement), turning, charging, interpenetration, etc. Terrain effects are largely impassable versus no effect on movement (by unit type). Turning is at the beginning and/or the end of the move (at only the beginning of a charge) and is an unlimited pivot on the unit's center point (limited to 45° for charges).

A key concept with these rules are that a unit can only move or shoot in a turn. There are no exceptions for skirmishers, vehicles, etc.

Shooting and Hand-to-Hand Combat are very simple. There is only one modifier to the die roll and that is a combat factor that applies to the unit type. For example Knights and Warbands roll a D6+2 while a Skirmisher rolls a D6-2, and so on. Shooting ranges are either 12" and 48", regardless of the period played. Combat is handled by the attacking unit (Shooting or Hand-to-Hand Combat) rolling a D6, adding their unit's modifier and inflicting that many 'hits' upon the enemy unit. When a unit has taken 15 hits it is eliminated and removed from the board.

There are a few modifiers to receiving hits. Having a terrain advantage can halve the number of hits received, as can having heavy armor (indicated by the unit type). Contacting the enemy unit's flank or rear will cause double the number of hits. Other than that, there are no modifiers.

So that is movement and combat, the core elements. There is no command and control, nor is there any morale. 15 hits and out is about it.

Where's the Beef?!?

I have to admit, when I first read the rules, that was my thought. Way too simple. I mean, I understand Neil Thomas' passion for stripping down rules, getting rid of complexity, and emphasizing the need to get to a decision in a reasonable amount of time, but this seemed like a bit much. So I passed judgment without actually playing the rules, skipped to the back and read the scenarios, and consoled myself that at least that provided enough value for money.

It was while I was skimming over my library that I saw an old title by Charles Stewart Grant entitled Programmed Wargames Scenarios that I decided to revive an old project: trying to develop a programmed opponent that I could write down, send to another player, and they could use that program to game solo. You can read about my thoughts and experiments on that idea in the links below.

I am still working through the idea, but the core of the solution was to try and scope to programmed opponent to a specific side or a specific scenario using a specific set of rules. (Charles S. Grant took a broader approach and thus had to keep his programming at a strategic level.) I liked the scenarios in OHW, so it made sense to use one of them, hence my last blog post's project of creating a gameboard for scenario #8. I had also resolved to (finally) actually try the OHW rules and I felt that playing the scenario would help me get a feel for it, so why not use the rules that were intended for it? Two birds with one stone, and all that.

The Game

I decided to break out my DBA medieval armies and give it a go. (The gameboard was designed for units of that size, after all. Plus I could test out my system for tracking hits. It worked great.) I was going to play it straight ... except I wanted to use a grid. (So sue me.)

I threw the forces forward and tried various actions to see their effect and I realized that the game was surprisingly tactical. Moves mattered. Exposing your flank got you crushed. Knights hit hard, but they did not automatically run over units. This was Chess with a random die roll. This did not play out as I expected, where both sides would line up, and you would simply throw dice adding up number with no thought or enthusiasm. The guy with the better die rolls eventually won – as is true with most games – but there were definitely consequences for bad decisions.

Afterwards, I wrote a blog post on my Solo Battles blog about my ideas for using OHW for a programmed opponent. One of the asks was for others to try the program out and provide feedback. A gaming buddy asked me to write a programmed opponent for the same scenario, but for the Dark Ages variant of the rules.

The Rules Variants

So, I started looking at the Dark Ages variant and I noticed how Neil Thomas modeled the changes to warfare through time. In my initial reading I thought the model only changed subtly. "In this period X unit type gets +2, but it is the Y unit type that gets that bonus in the other period."

No, actually it was not really subtle. Basically a unit type determines the combination of: movement speed; offensive power; defensive power; and frequency of appearance in an army. 
  • As stated previously, a unit type can either have a 6", 9", or 12" movement speed. 
  • Offensive power is represented in rolling a D6-2, D6, or D6+2 for combat, whether you can attack in Hand-to-Hand Combat and/or Shooting Combat, and – if you can shoot – what the range of that attack is (either 12" or 48").
  • Defensive power is represented by taking all or just half of the number of hits your enemy rolled against you.
  • Predominant unit types have a chance for more units in the army (3-4), than support types (0-2).
Again, it is this combination of factors that distinguish the unit types, and it is the combination of allowable unit types that distinguishes the period's army.

I should note that, although the author talks about playing armies from one period against an army of another period as a possibility, there are no changes to the rules about technological superiority of one period over another. In this regard OHW is like DBA philosophically in that an army's power is relative to other armies within the same period. (Of course, this idea is ignored in DBA much of the time...)

Rules Ratings

Using the review system from before, here are the game ratings for One-Hour Wargames (OHW).

Drama – do the rules create tension during play?

Generally speaking, this game is about attritional combat with no effect on units until the unit is destroyed and removed from the board. As the average roll is 3.5 hits and a unit takes 15 hits before it is destroyed, units will generally break after five turns, or one-third of the game length.

Drama comes from the scenario, how you match up units, and how you maneuver units in order to concentrate combat power to wear down your enemy faster than they wear you down.

These rules rate 2 out of 5 in Drama.

Uncertainty – are there enough elements that introduce uncertainty into the game?

The two primary mechanics that create uncertainty are: the roll to determine your army composition and the combat rolls made throughout the game. There are no other significant chance elements. That is okay though, as the author has simply stripped away other chance elements and boiled them down to these two. If the math is the same does it really matter if it takes three rolls (to hit, to wound, and to save) versus one roll? Some people would say yes, but I am not one of them. I am skeptical of the probabilities in most game rules anyway.

These rules rate 3 out of 5 in Uncertainty.

Engaging – do the rules allow the player to make meaningful decisions that lead to consequences?

This was actually the area that surprised me the most. I thought that the game would be a die-rolling contest, more so than other rules, and that the games would degenerate into troops lined up beating on one another until someone broke. (Which, by the way, describes many DBA games.) Given the core rule that you can only move or shoot, and that you cannot break away from hand-to-hand combat, when you choose to engage is critical, especially as combats are multi-turn affairs. When you commit, you commit.

If you can out-maneuver your opponent and hit their flank or rear (or they make a mistake in their maneuvering) you can eliminate units very quickly in comparison to frontal attacks. Additionally, if you can control advantageous terrain, you can take very little damage from your opponent, allowing you to tie them up twice as long as normal. Simply throwing your troops in headfirst is not likely to be a winning tactic.

These rules rate 4 out of 5 in Engaging.

Unobtrusiveness – do the rules get in the way?

No. Obtrusive have lots of exceptions for special cases. These rules have few such special cases to worry about.

These rules rate 5 out of 5 in Unobtrusiveness.

Heads Up – are the rules playable without frequent reference to a quick reference sheet?

Basically you need to memorize the stats for four unit types, but given that both sides use the same types, this is not really an issue. Stats may change as you switch from period to period, but within the period being played, everyone is the same.

The majority of my test game was played without the rules being nearby. Once you get the hang of the rules, you will only access them to refresh on stats before you start a new game.

These rules rate 5 out of 5 in Heads Up.

Appropriately Flavored – do the rules 'feel' like they represent the period or genre being played?

This is where the author's work shines. I admit that I have not played all of the periods, but just looking at two period, Dark Ages versus Medieval, you can see how they would not only play very differently, but appropriately. Using these periods as an example, let's look at the predominant unit type for each period: Shieldwall Infantry versus Mounted Knights. Infantry move 6", are D6 in hand-to-hand combat (only), and take half hits. Infantry versus Infantry will inflict two hits per turn, requiring eight turns to break the other unit. Knights move 12", are D6+2 in hand-to-hand combat (only), and take all hits. Knights versus Knights will inflict 5.5 hits per turn, requiring three turns to break the other unit. That simple comparison will tell you that Medieval games will probably not require the full 15 turns to determine a winner while the Dark Ages games might well see more units surviving until the bitter end.

Despite the seeming generic nature of the rules, these really feel like they are trying to emulate the period they are designed for.

These rules rate 4 out of 5 in Appropriately Flavored.

Scalable – can the rules be scaled up or down – in terms of figures or number of units played – from a 'normal' game?

As the number of figures in a unit plays no role in the game – only the number of units matter – I won't consider that a factor. That said, these rules are designed to be played quickly and in a small space. They probably could scale up, and even have multiple players per side, but that is not the intent. (I will certainly give it a try some time.)

The main factor that might provide issues are tracking hits for each and every unit. Dice used to register the number of hits sometimes get picked up, knocked about, left behind when the unit moves, etc. Plus, they just look plain ugly on the table. Marker look a little better, but with 15 hits per unit, you are going to have a lot of them unless you with use markers with numbers, or have some system where one color counts as 5 and another counts as 1. Even so, they too can get left behind.

These rules rate 2 out of 5 in Scalable.

Lacks Fiddly Geometry – do the rules require fiddly measurements or angles?

The only angles in this game are 45º, used as the maximum turn before a charge and the arc of fire for most units that can shoot. Generally, most players can agree on that.

Measurements are in 3" increments, so again not too much of an issue. Plus, these rules are easy to convert to a grid.

These rules rate 4 out of 5 in Fiddly Geometry.

Tournament Tight™ Rules – are the rules clear and comprehensive, or do the players need to 'fill in the blanks'?

Let me start by saying that my preference is towards tighter rules, where everything is spelled out clearly by the author, not looser rules where the author leaves certain mechanics up to the individual players, gentlemen's agreements, and a roll of the die where agreements cannot be found. So a high value means 'tight' and a low value means 'loose'. If you like looser rules, subtract my rating from '6' and that would probably be your rating!

Although the author defines the different periods and unit types pretty sharply, he clearly intends that players develop their own modifications to suit their taste. An example in the Dark Ages variant discusses that to represent Viking invaders you could swap the Infantry units for Warband units, while Frankish force might better be modeled by swapping the Infantry units for Cavalry units. That said, I think it is not a good idea to muck about with the modifiers too much, unless you think you have the math right. Even adding a +1 to the combat die roll allows that unit to move in and take out a normal unit (on average) without being broken.

There are a number of things unexplained, such as what qualifies as sufficient contact for hand-to-hand combat. (At least it has simple rules for multiple units attacking a single unit straight.) But, for Neil Thomas rules, these are more clearly defined than all of his others. There aren't many edge cases when the rules are so simple.

These rules rate 3 out of 5 in Tournament Tight™ Rules.

Solo Suitability – do the rules have elements conducive to solo play?

There are no hidden elements to the game so that alone usually grants the rules high solitaire suitability.

Generally solo game mechanisms need to address the following questions:
  • Which units can act in a turn? In OHW all units can act in a turn, so this question is moot.
  • Which unit should act next? As OHW has all units move, then shoot, then conduct hand-to-hand combat, timing is generally not an issue. But, there is no mechanic for answering this question.
  • What action should a unit take? Generally this is the most important question that the solo gamer wants answered. Again, there is no mechanic for answering this question.
What makes OHW suitable for solo gaming is the lack of complexity in its rules. This makes for easier decisions, which in turn makes it easier to graft on solo gaming mechanics that will not significantly alter the dynamics of the game.

There is a chapter on solo wargaming, but it is largely a rehash of older mechanics from Featherstone, Grant, and Asquith that involve adding chance elements into the game to simulate decision making and the fog of war.

These rules rate 4 out of 5 in Solo Suitability.

Component Quality – are the components provided made with quality?

This is a new rating, meant primarily for board games and books, which addresses the quality of the physical components.

These rules come printed and as a Kindle eBook. I have both. The book is paperback with quality binding. However, it is not a lay-flat binding. Given the thinness of the book (just over 100 pages) it is capable of having a lay-flat binding. The quality of the paper and the legibility of the type screams quality. At $20 on Amazon, I think this book is a good value. Even when it was just for the scenario material, but I was happy with my purchase.

These rules rate 4 out of 5 in Component Quality.


There is much of this book that I did not cover, such as the differences between the periods, the scenarios themselves, and the notes on running campaigns. For the most part I review rules, not books. These rules are very accessible, in my opinion clear and understandable (more so when you break out the figures and try them), will possibly lead to disputes about terrain and 'just out' cases, and can provide a decisive game in a reasonable amount of time.

Will everyone like these rules? No! Every rules author must decide where to add detail and where to abstract them away and players will not always agree on where that line should be drawn. If you think that there is "no way" you could play a set of rules that have only four unit types, you probably won't like OHW, especially the Second World War variant.

If you like Neil Thomas' rules but find yourself tweaking them, you will probably not like these rules until you finish tweaking them. 

(Surprisingly) Recommended.


  1. If you keep posting on 1HW, I will be forced to give them another go! I did play a game against my daughter maybe 3 years ago (?) and did like the rules. I then formed a a plan to someday play out all the scenarios using the Ancient/Dark Age/Medieval rules (maybe 10 scenarios with each set of rules). They would use the rules unmodified. Or maybe with my rules if I couldn't hack the elegant but broad-brush 1HW rules :-) But I also have a plan to replay about 12 dark age games from another book and that plan was earlier than the 1HW one. Oh, butterfly, I hear you calling me! I agree with your review of the game. There is a lot of subtlety in there. If I did ever mess with them, it would likely be to only reduce the 15 hits and reduce the number of hits inflicted - there are a number of blog posts around with ideas to do that.

    1. What would you reduce the hits to and why?

    2. I would likely reduce hits to 3 per unit. Why? 15 hits is via a roster and I am not fond of rosters. I would likely play OHW on a 30cmx30cm table with DBA-based units (40mm wide). Rather than a roster, I can just use a couple of hit markers per unit. John A had a post on his blog page about 4 years ago:

  2. These are a superb set of rules and it’s easy to make adjustments for ‘house’ rules.

  3. Your review reminded me I have these rules and really should give them a try.

  4. I've used the rules and found them adequate. As you say, high dice wins.

  5. An interesting review. I don't really disagree with anything you have written and have found the stripped down scenarios very useful to get interesting games going when time and/or energy was short.

    I confess that I was annoyed that the army lists do not allow any 'army' to have all arms present, not ever, even if it was not unusual for say a Napoleonic force to have horse, foot, guns and skirmishers but that was easily amended for those who desire that as an option (eg for 6 units one can roll twice on the 3 unit list instead etc etc). I was also a little peeved at his insistence that the way I have wargamed for 40 years is Not Practical even though I have played on kitchen tables as well as big ones and continued to wargame even when pennyless. However, those are just words and insults to me and I can overlook them,

    I can see that how some people can enjoy how the rules play but personally I found that the removal of all overt tactical options beyond commit/don't commit, for all troops in all time periods, both bothered and bored me and led to games that I was hard pressed to make last 20 minutes.

    For some troops, eg Greek hoplites, it seems fair enough and where other troops used varying tactics historically one can argue that different tactics can be assumed to be happening without being shown explicitly.

    For example, an indecisive long range firefight could be represented by stopping your attacking unit just outside shooting range thus being a threat without bothering with the mechanics of rolling dice with little effect and you could say that firing at maximum range on the wargame table could represent an 18thC British style approach to marching up to pointblank range before firing or a bayonet charge for that matter without bothering to move the figures as that level of tactics is below the player's control as general and can be assumed to happen etc.

    Anyway, thank you for the review and thanks to Thomas for the collection of scenarios which I play regularly with other simple rules even though I also play many of the larger original ones that he has drawn inspiration from, when I have time and energy, and for the food for thought.

    1. Ps I should have added that thinking about ways to reasonably explain the lack of tactical choices and why its not as big a deal as I initially thought, only came to me after reading your post.

    2. Maybe given that I approached my first game using medievals, rather than Napoleonics or Austro-Prussian War, it made me compare it to DBA and how it is fought. It too is pretty much a commit/don't commit style of game. Also, I attempted some grand maneuvers with flanking and counter-flanking so I thought it actually removed the 'tactics' from the game mechanics to the game moves. Also like DBA, you are trying to match up your units to the opponents so that your attacks are favorable compared to theirs. Again, very much like DBA.

      Given the average of 3.5 hits per turn, 15 hits per unit, and 15 turns the players generally cannot afford to putz around. You need some of those flank attacks in order to double the casualty rate, especially if faced against a defender take one-half casualties (because they are uphill).

    3. Having been humbled by the OHW in its entirety, if not by the rules themselves, I can assure both of you that you have passed into the first stage of analysis of the OHW totality. The game is not as much about the rules as it is about the scenarios. Most of the scenarios you can play 3-6 times, easily, discovering a new tactic each time. If you play solo, you get to discover for both sides. If you play with an opponent you may want to try what they try.

      I've played many of the scenarios 5-10 times, and especially composition can completely change your options. For example, if you do not have two Mortars, you just cannot take the town in Scenario #14. I've done a detailed analysis upon it, and with a dozen plays of the game, that's my conclusion - the hill is the only option with 0-1 Mortar Units.

      Bottom line is that each scenario is virtually a game unto itself, that has 9 different periods to play it in, and two different sides. The total possibility is approximately 540 games. If one insists on playing just one period [not that I know any gamers who do or can resist other periods] you are still in the realm of 60 different situations, not counting the force matrix which offers 36 possibilities or so between the sides.

      In any event, and with all due respect, you've both gone past scratching the surface, but there's more there than you have yet plumbed, so have fun doing it.

  6. Hey Dale,
    Welcome back - I hope your hiatus was restful.

    Glad you gave the rules a try, and I had the same mental reservations and history with them - dismissed them as too simple, would be boring, etc. Interestingly, now that I'm paying more attention, I'm finding that it is the more complex rule sets that are actually more predictable, repetitive and dull. There are reasons for that, which largely are the fault of gamers and their scenario design limitations [Ah yes, the bell curve]. Coincidentally, I just posted on this and the 30 scenarios from the book here:

    As for tweaking, I have listed all the issues that I think are essential and MUST be resolved if you don't want to argue with someone every single game over them, or if playing solo trying to remember your rules.
    This is one point where I am unforgiving with NT - he could easily have resolved almost all these issues, but didn't bother, giving it the "traditional British hand wave" that is completely unsatisfactory and just lazy.

    Scaling the game up...should be 5/5 actually. The key is that you scale up using multiple scenarios. Here, I show how I plan such a game using multiple scenarios:
    and here's the actual play of that game with 5 players:

    Here are two scenarios, three players:

    Here Three scenarios including the entire planning process:
    This was done for my original old gaming club, most of whom have been playing since the 1960s. As expected, they struggled with tactical concepts and staying mission focused - they are used to having most of their brain space taken up by loads and loads of modifiers that fill [no kidding] both sides of an 8x11" sheet of paper, amusingly called a QUICK Reference Sheet. And they like math - lots of math - the more the better and therefore the more realistic the game is since there's lots and lots of modifiers. OHW is an escape and a solution from all this dross. Still, one will tweak it.

    The most extreme game design comparison is between OHW and GW's Warhammer Fantasy Battles. The former has 3-pages to most of the rules, then a couple more pages of scenario setup, say 6 pages altogether. Maybe 10 if you read his design notes for the period and 30 scenarios. WFB has about 400 pages of rules or more, counting all the codexes / army books b/c you can't play without them. But, they have only 3 scenarios.

    Obviously, the one game is about the game mechanics and special rules hidden in the army books. The other game is about the 30 scenarios.

  7. Dale, regarding your uncertainty rating, I hope you will reconsider for the following reasons. 1) in some scenarios, units enter the battle in different locations depending on the dice roll, 2) random events cards can be used for solo play, 3) the composition of armies is determined randomly. I can never predict what is going to happen.

    1. I guess the question is: reconsidered to what? A higher rating or a lower rating? The reason I say that is because uncertainty is what some people like and therefore they want a higher rating, while other people want less and they prefer to see a lower rating.

      As for your three factors:

      1. I don’t consider scenario-specific rules when rating the ruleset overall.

      2. I don’t consider optional rules for a subset (solo play) of the rules when rating the ruleset overall. Further, I considered adding chance elements to act as a pseudo-opponent to be a lazy way of playing solo. If you want to see the sort of things that I do for solo play take a look at my blog Solo Battles.

      3. I did consider the randomness of the army composition in my assessment. I specifically call it out. That factor is why it garnered a rating of 3 instead of 2.

      Again, the higher uncertainty may be less desirable for some readers.

  8. Anonymous4:09 AM

    It's good, but doesn't 90% of the world use metric?


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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 58 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ working for a software company for the last three years. 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").