Convergence: Using Counter Games as Miniature Campaign Platforms

When you think of historical miniatures (or tabletop) wargaming, the tactical level of combat is the first thing that comes to mind. Because of the nature of the hobby and the size limitations imposed by the model armies and terrain, individual battles are pretty much the mainstay. Yet this is not entirely true. One of the more intriguing aspects of tabletop gaming is conducting off board campaigns, and then transferring battles to the tabletop when they occur.

The reasons for such undertakings are twofold. First, it forces the player to think about the future when tabletop forces collide, vice going for proverbial broke at game end. I call this TSS, or Tabletop Suicide Syndrome, and a good example comes from one of my wargaming mates to whit, “Any cavalry left standing at game’s end has been seriously mal-utilized.” The second reason is as a simple battle generator. One can only play Waterloo so many times before boredom sets in, and if you are unlucky enough to play 1806 Prussians against Napoleon’s Grande Armee you really have only one tactic available – DIP, or Die In Place. Yes the French were that good and the Prussians that bad. How bad? Even if one Major Harry Paget Flashman (VC, KCB, KCIE) commanded the French, the odds would still be heavily in their favor. Operational maneuvering could result in a generated battle a bit more even.

There are generally three ways to run a tabletop campaign. These include a gamemaster (or GM) creating his own system, using an already published set of campaign rules such as those Kip Trexel wrote for EMPIRE so many moons ago, or use a cardboard counter and hex board game as a substitute. For my money, the latter is the best way to go, so let’s discuss using Kevin Zucker’s Napoleon at the Crossroads by OSG as a case study. The game is part of a series of operational Napoleonic simulations that began with Napoleon at Bay back in 1978, and continues to this day. Standing the test of time, they seem tailor made for the miniatures campaign concept.

Equipment Loadout

For a good campaign to work you need three things, wetware, paperware and gameware. The first translates into a dedicated GM to organize, administer and run the campaign, the kinda churl who actually likes doing stuff like this more than he does pushing lead or pewter. More importantly, you need a group of dedicated gamers who are willing to play til conclusion, and devote the time and resources not only to participate in miniature battles, but in the notional campaign itself. Communications skills are paramount, so cheat sheets on how to write orders and reports, as well as the mode of communicating and schedules are a must.

On the paperware side of things, you need to have an accurate order of battle and I would suggest that be down to battalion and battery level if possible. The reason is while cardboard games normally have divisions and counters as the standard unit in play, on the tabletop the rules may specify battalions. You need to know what those division counters contain to translate their symbology into tabletop units. The boardgame sees only the 1st Division, V Polish Corps, but that formation may include non-Poles, elite units, light infantry, attached artillery from Saxony and other things. The order of battle should also indicate strength, because yes, it does matter. Fortunately, Google has more or less digitized the Public Domain planet, so various General Staff and similar pubs – the German (think Friederich’s Geschichte der Befrieungskrieg, der Herbst Feldzug) particularly recommended – are widely available and definitive.

Then one needs the gameware, or in this case Napoleon at the Crossroads. The game is campaign level and covers the 1813 campaign from 14 August to 25 October; with each turn three days and each hex six km across. Each strength point equals 3000 soldiers and thus most units are divisions, corps plus counters representing the commanders who led them. This means 280 double sided counters, one 22 x 34 inch map and a host of accessories such as March Tables that show where every counter on the board sits on nine different dates. This means the GM has nine different start dates for his campaign. Given this covers the battles of Grossbeeren, Katzbach, Dresden, and Dennewitz all the way through Leipzig, that’s a lot of flexibility.

Obviously the game has all rules necessary for conducting a campaign for scenario generation. Using a system based on so called Administrative Points, there are sections covering weather, supply, command and control, attrition, reinforcements, replacements and even political events that crop up from time to time. The beauty here is while everything is available so you need not start from scratch, you can actually cheery pick which rules you want to use and which not. Because ultimately the campaign system is about producing tabletop battles, and not actually winning the campaign per se, tossing attrition rules to make a simpler game will not have as great an impact. It also cuts down on the administrative duties for the GM, given that if a table indicates attrition has destroyed 1 strength point, this means 3000 lost souls have to be accounted for on the tabletop by removing figure stands or entire units. The 1812 Russian campaign eg, Zucker’s Highway to the Kremlin, could be especially hideous.

Field Operations

So now it’s just a matter of playing the game and when enemy forces enter the same hex, everything stops and lead armies deploy, right? Well, no, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The GM will need to provide some maps that show terrain, cities, waterways, road network and scale. These can be hand drawn, any of numerous period maps digitized in the Public Domain, or even copies of the game map. Now, please respect copyright here, but whether you scan it yourself or snatch an image from someplace like Board Game Geek, most publishers are OK so long as you don’t sell anything. Personally, I like the latter. Set up the map with all counters deployed and snap an image, or use two images with only one side deployed at a time. In any case, you have given your budding Napoleons a starting point. And since Zucker normally puts only the commander’s counter on the map, and his units residing off map on a separate display, fog of war is achieved regardless.

Then you determine how you want to play this game in relation to scenario generation. In some cases I’ve seen the GM do it solitaire, play the game with a disinterested party then inform the on board commanders, or even everyone involved to play the boardgame portion at home or parlor, then meet a week later to play the tabletop combat. However, what I personally have seen the most is having the commanders take their initial map setup and send the GM Emails as to their movements, either hex by hex, or towards a certain point on the map, for each three day turn. The GM acknowledges receipt, makes the movement and informs the player-commander of anything that happens such as a bridge blown or scouts seeing Cossacks in a town where they shouldn’t be and so on.

Now this is where you can have some real fun, and why I like this latter option best. These players are not professional military staff officers like yours truly (which BTW got me shot by a sniper per the GM the last campaign I played) and so are bound to make miscues such as giving the GM their movement instructions, but not their higher headquarters player or nearby friendly commands. So as the GM, you don’t either. Then there is always tantalizing options when you realize that Polish lancers (who fought for Napoleon) have very similar uniforms to Russian Lancers (who did not), so obviously mistakes happen. Certainly players should be briefed on such parameters and proper formats and penalties for not meeting deadlines, but trust me, it won’t matter.

When opposing counters collide in the same hex, with nearby reinforcements able to march to the sound of the guns if the rules allow, the GM informs all participants that a tabletop miniatures game needs to be scheduled, and that process begins. Creativity when designing battlefield maps used to be a big deal but no more. No matter which hex a battle supposedly takes place in, Google Earth has a satellite shot of it, and in many cases the area has changed little. On the other hand there are cities like Hanau, which has grown so large it now covers the entire battlefield with city roads and houses.

After the battle is over, the GM translates the results into cardboard counter speak, with things like the assignment of lost strength points, retreat movement and so on. One thing he will not have to likely worry about is a fight to the death situation as I am amazed how much discretion appears when players realize that what they end up with may be all they have when the next tabletop battle is announced. Then the campaign portion of the process continues until the next lead and pewter conflagration.

Armistice and Taps

One might wonder why computer games might not be used instead to manage the overall campaign. With the exception of one game (maybe), there simply is no way to stop a computer battle and manually insert the numbers contrived from a miniatures battle into the software. When battle is joined in electron land, the results are the results and this might be very different than what happened on a terrain table. I personally have been hinting this might be a neat option for PC games, but as of yet no one has answered the call.

Fortunately, they don’t have to as the process above works, is fun and has a long history of success behind it. If you think it daunting, then try a small campaign such as Waterloo. Remember the SPI game Napoleon’s Last Battles? This is another Zucker designed game (the lad gets around a bit, doesn’t he) and is actually a quad game of four individual battles – Quatre Bras, Ligny, la Belle Alliance (Waterloo for all you Brits) and Wavre – where the counters represent brigades and regiments. But all four game maps can be linked together to produce a single campaign map where one can start at the border and see what happens. Because the area was so small and the timeframe so short, many campaign specific rules as noted above are not necessary, pretty well missing, and things are simpler. Or you can also try the enhanced OSG version titled Napoleon’s Last Gamble (wanna guess who designed it) if you’d like a bit more depth and detail.

Regardless, if you are fatigued with on the fly pick-up games or refighting Austerlitz for the 18th time, than a boardgame managed miniatures campaign might just be your cup of coffee (hey, I’m a Colonial). It does involve a bit more work, but believe me, it’s worth it.