The Ballbusch Experience: Generic and Generalities

The inspiration for today’s post comes from a conversation with HoP’s own Thuloid.  As is to be expected from such a superior mind, he drops profound sentiments so frequently that they at times escape his notice.  However, I find no shame in picking up these pearls of wisdom and taking them for my own use.  Today’s question, put simply, is: What are the mechanical requirements for making a game with proper flavor?



Most wargames can be stripped by to a couple of mechanics.  I roll against my unit’s combat value and if I exceed it I damage your unit.  Alternatively, I roll against your unit’s defense value, or some roll on some table cross-referencing my unit’s ability to attack against your unit’s ability to defend.  Following from this, I could write a set of rules the whole history of human conflict that span no more than two or three pages.  The result is a complete abstraction, but on the highest level of observation there is no functional difference between Sumerian archers shooting at each other and tanks shooting at each other.

So long as the situation is balanced so that we do not have a case of clubs against cannon the system used to attack and the system used to defend matter little so long as you can chart the ratio of relative effectiveness.  40K proved this by adopting a Sword-and-Sorcery rule set (which was itself adapted from a set of rules for Medieval games) to science fiction.  Power armor versus a laser gun or plate versus an arrow is the same thing, all else being equal.

This is what leads us to ‘generic’ rules sets.  Most, if not all, popular rules sets are very generic despite the varnish.  With minor alterations Flames of War now officially covers the whole of the 20th century.  Warhammer’s pseudo-medieval rules were happily adapted to sci-fi, RPG, and skirmish games.  (Advanced) Dungeons and Dragons’ “D20” system has been applied to any and every setting under the Sun.  This works because these rules at their core supply a simple tool kit that the play can modify to his heart’s content.

The natural inclination then, is to start at the general and work down.  As a result, most rules are generic with some amount of trappings to tie them to a specific setting.  Which then begs the question, why not just write a completely generic set of rules.  And I don’t have a good answer to that.  Do for wargaming what GURPS did for RPGs.  Create something that covers everything.  This was something of the approach designers took way, way back in the 70’s, but it has long since been abandoned.

Let’s say, for example, you want to write rules for the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.  A bizarre incident by any standard.  Politics aside, what’s involved in wargaming the conflict?  Really, it comes down to the interaction between formed, linear European foot and loose formations of close-combat fighters.  If the infantry line holds its nerve, the charging warriors will be cut down in detail if not, the line will be cut to pieces.  Similar observations can be made about the fighting between the Ottomans and Holy Roman Empire a few decades earlier, the British and Zulus a century later, and the USA and Indians in the interim.

How do you make this into a game?  The common approach is modify a set of mid-century ‘Horse & Musket’ rules.  The problem is that there isn’t much in the way of horses or muskets involved.  You could build from the ground up. focusing on the asymmetry.  However, this might lead to a set of rules that boil down to ‘1-3 Hanoverians panic, Jacobites win’  (as at Prestonpans) ‘4-6 Hanovarians hold, Jacobites lose (as at Culloden).


Ha!  Rolled a ‘5’  Game over Scotland.

The ground up approach is much more fiddly.  And leaves a lot more room to argue with the author’s view of warfare be it historical or fictional.  Take the Perfect Captain’s Hoplomachia.  These are rules for Classical Greek warfare.  Completely pure and unsullied by any considerations beyond the clash of hoplites.  I applaud such singular dedication to capturing a moment in history.  I also happen to disagree with the Captain’s interpretation of hoplite warfare, but no one wants to hear about that.  The more general approach avoids arguments over minutiae (either with others or yourself).  Once you plant you standard and declare ‘a turn is five minutes’ or ‘this mechanic represents X’ for better for worse, that’s the hill you’ve chosen to die on.  The generic and general allows hand-waving of inconsistencies.

This isn’t limited to historical games.  Famously, the fluff for 40k has next to nothing to do with how the table top game plays out.  I have read impressive attempts to contort the facts of the rules in order to have them match the game’s background.  The result is absurd claims as a space marine figure is one man, but an ork figure is fifty; an the like.  Clearly, this is wrong, Warhammer is written on a 1:1 scale and attempts to argue otherwise (even at times by the authors) is doom to failure.  However, there is no grounds scale and no time scale.  Within the game’s reality what, exactly, rolling on a ballistic skill table, rolling strength vs. toughness, and rolling to save represents is open enough to interpretation that almost anything could be happening.


Nothing is new here.  ‘What on Earth is a hit point?’  Is a question that goes back to the birth of the modern era of gaming.  At some point, rules have to introduce mechanics.  By their nature, game rules are arbitrary.  Whether or not this detracts from the game depends on the skill of the writers and goals of the players.

Scale is another factor.  On the army level things tend towards the generic.  Armored melee fighters seek to fence with their opponents and can be expected to outclass other foot.  All are well trained, equipped to the highest standard their society allows, and perceive themselves members of an elite.  For the commanding general, does it really matter if these are Roman Legionaries, Viking Hersir, or Swarbian Serjeants?  All would operate differently, but in the context of a larger engagement all would have the same effect within their milieu.

Once you start to get down to the battalion or company level you’re really going to see the nuts and bolts of differences in training and tactical doctrine.  That’s also where the real writing challenge comes in.  How do you express vast differences not just in fighting ability, but maneuverability.  Better soldiers aren’t necessarily better fighters, but better able to operate.  Wars and battles are generally settled by who “gets there the firstest with the mostest.”  The major difference between the Napoleonic Wars and the Seven Years War was massive improvements in the training of company level officers.  Companies and platoons because capable of limited independent action.  This, in turn, made armies more maneuverable.  Translating that to the table top means playing with movement rules and order systems, which are normally not the main focus of a game.

And here we find the true heart of the matter.  Wargame rules tend to certain around the act of violence (i.e. combat) rather than the result (degrade command and control) or even the goal (compel the opposition to leave the immediate area of operations).  Therefore, rules flow towards generalities because shooting a guy is shooting a guy.  However, commanding a horde of nomads on the Ponic steppe and commanding an infantry battalion on the Western Front are two completely different things.


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  • The Warlock

    Great article, I’ll take some Scotch whiskey 🙂

    I think 40k’s scale has oft been rationalised as “It’s a snapshot of the battlefield, a much larger battle is taking place off-board”. While it does assist in immersion- particularly with flyers hopping on and off the board, most of the black library fiction I’ve read has either been:
    a) Full scale invasions, with the typical ‘snapshot’ of the battle being where the movers and shaker are.
    b) A focus on small groups of individuals with a focus on everyone as the conflicts are noticeably smaller in scale.

    Where it falls down is when a squad acts as one unit, but you have 7 bolters, 1 plasma pistol& power fist sgt, 1 plasma gun and a missile launcher within said squad- who fires what and at whom? Not only that, but the ‘All or nothing’ approach to armour piercing. Age of Slipshod gets this right with Rend, where it gives negative modifiers to armour saves (as did its predecessor, WHFB with anything S4 and over started reducing armour) to represent the ability of certain weapons to open up a knight like a tin of beans.

    Closing non-sequitur: If Bob Ross was a stereotypical gangster, would “happy little birds” become “happy little boids” or “sleepy little fishes”?

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      While the 40k battlefield is too crowded, I find the scale semi-realistic for the sci-fi battlefield. Clausewitz described battle as thousands of individual duels. Modern war is this to the nth degree. A ‘battle’ can now stretch over hundreds of miles the involves innumerable small actions by platoons and companies. 40k does model that.

      One of the issues that comes up for modern strategic planners is how to achieve mass when any concentration of men and material will invite an enemy to deploy WMDs in response. You have to spread out and 40k is spread out.

      The issue comes in I think because it is stuck between scales. A 40k battle in ‘game reality’ is probably over in ten minutes. There isn’t time for air support, and frankly your two platoons aren’t going to warrant priority air support anyway. Of course, 40k also takes place t danger close, so loitering air assets would probably be comfortable engaging ground targets on the standard 40k battlefield.

      The squad as single unit is a little odd as well. but much of the individuality of 40k was lost to scale creep.

  • Von

    “Which then begs the question, why not just write a completely generic set of rules. And I don’t have a good answer to that.”

    I do. At least a partial answer.

    The most commercially successful wargaming company is the one which introduced the heaviest, most ‘closed’ branding. While the Warhammer rules CAN be adapted and adopted extensively, the company which writes those rules attaches them to a defined intellectual property and a proprietary range of miniatures, and ‘closes the gates’ to the extent that it prefers to pretend that other applications for rules, other contexts for wargaming, and other producers of wargaming rules and paraphernalia simply do not exist.

    Success – and the company in question is commercially successful, staggeringly so when compared to the rest of the wargaming industry, becoming a publicly traded household name with a high street presence – breeds imitation, so that’s one reason for writers of rules to pal up with makers of models and do what GW has done.

    The cultural limitations of the individuals involved provide us with another reason. The people currently making wargames in this ‘golden age’ of ‘post-GW dominance’ have still come of age during the period of GW dominance. They are still used to Successful Wargames being these ‘closed’ endeavours with proprietary rules and accessories.

    The only person with an incentive to write ‘generic’ rules is a person who has nothing to gain from the selling of proprietary miniatures and accessories, AND the imagination to conceive of a generic rules system, AND sufficient sales chutzpah to make the endeavour profitable in a world where the customer base is still heavily entwined with various ‘closed’ brands, still looking for that ‘closed’ and neatly-parcelled experience.

    I’m not sure why historical gamers don’t write generic rules. If I had to hazard a guess it’d be something along these lines.

    A historical gamer is likely to be a period buff, and therefore operate under a cognitive limitation similar to that imposed by closed branding. What they want is a game which simulates access to ‘their’ period. A generic system isn’t aligned as strongly with their interests, and therefore not as attractive an idea – either as a consumer or producer.

    Rampant speculation over: it’s all about limitations and incentives. It’s also worth noting that, for all that we middle-aged Internet blowhards live in an age of unparalleled variety, the kids coming up are still going to the Warhammer shop to buy their Warhammer: Subvariety models, and they do their Warhammer talk there. It’s a step from there to the blogs and the forums. It’s a step from THERE to the system-agnostic community. Think about the search terms they’re likely to use: “space marine forum”. Think about the moderation that is likely to exist in an environment like the Bolter and Chainsword: heavy-handed, compartmentalised, branded along the lines GW introduced, and with the ever-present admonition to “stay on topic”, that topic being “the Games Workshop hobby.” We’re our own thought police.

    Closing thought: never drink vodka if they haven’t even bothered to make the label look Russian. This goes double if the label looks the same as the one on the turps bottle.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      You’ve nailed down the issue from the speculative-fiction perspective (further proof that on HoP the comments are oft better than the posts).

      With historical games you do see a tenancy towards generic rules pre-1500. Most sets for ‘ancients’ claim to cover 3000 BC to AD 1500. This may be due to lack on information. Surely Sumarian spearmen and Swiss pikemen operated differently, but we really don’t know how. Or due to commercial considerations few people are going to buy a set of rules for the Battle of Morgarten.

      Even Saga with something as universally recognizable and ‘cool’ as vikings had to expand to zombies and the Crusades.

      ‘We’ are very much the fringe of an already fringe hobby, and that is important to remember. Even here a 40k post is going to get a lot more traffic and comments than one about any other subject.

    • Thuloid

      I think it bears remembering that D&D nearly wrecked itself by a)becoming the standard generic, and then b)trying to move away from that with a radically different edition (4th). A minor company that made D&D supplements suddenly took over the market.

      • *cough” Kings of War.

        • Thuloid

          Right. GW actually had a precedent for losing control of a scene, but didn’t pay any attention.

          I think their best shot to recapture would be something parallel to D&D 5th — a relaunched Old World with stripped down (but not AoS stripped-down) rules, and general feel and models in a somewhat Oldhammer mold. Large regiments back to 12-16 dudes rather than 40, crazy monsters (but not foot-high $130 ones), full on nostalgia trip with rules modernized enough to be fun. But to do that they’d have to hire actual talent rather than firing everyone worth a damn.

          • I reckon I’d play that.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            While far, far from perfect and in many ways inproved upon by later editions both WHFB and 40k ran better with smaller units and armies. Since we’re rolling for figures individually the game should maintain the individual feel. Which, I suppose AoS did, but it seems a radical new direct rather than a return to form.

        • Von

          *cough*Pathfinder has production values, Mantic are the wargaming Poundland*cough*

          • Thuloid

            Bit of a dated opinion, I think. Limit your view to products released in the last couple years.

      • Von

        Third edition D&D, you mean?

        I don’t know if it’s “becoming the standard generic” that did it, but since I don’t know the noun to which the adjectives “standard” and “generic” are applying, it’s hard to offer a substantial rebuttal. :p System? I hardly think so, d20 was as good as industry standard thanks to all that OGL and so on. Setting? Well, maybe. I don’t remember third edition’s default setting.

        • Thuloid

          System. Yes, it was good as industry standard–that’s my point. Suddenly veering away into something modeled after an MMO was catastrophic.

          Slightly weird for D&D to even have a default setting. I suppose the earliest days (the old white box) sort of assumed Gygax’s Greyhawk, but that wasn’t exactly pushed. AD&D 1st and 2nd had no default. I don’t remember on 3rd.

  • I think there’s a lot of truth in what Von says. It could also have something to do with scale, and the fact that wargames use (perhaps must use?) physical counters. Miniatures are physical objects that have to be something specific. If you collect a whole army of detailed models of a specific type, you might start to want your rules to recognize their specificity.

    Even if you just have cut-out paper counters, the effort it takes in our time-poor society to prepare them I think would encourage people to use the same ones over and over, which in turn would creep towards specificity.

    I like how modern D&D editions (the last two or three?) explain hit points: your actual hit points are about equal to your CON score, but as you go up in levels you get more skillful and luckier, and the extra “phantom” hit points are wounds that would have been fatal but that you turned into a minor cut by virtue of your experience.

    • Thuloid

      Hit points were always explained that way. Gygax goes on about this for three rather lenghty paragraphs in the original DMG.

      I think you’re on to something about the effect of miniatures, though.

      • Cedric Ballbusch

        I seem to recall that from the DMG as well. Even that explanation remains a rather flimsy excuse for a game mechanic. Of course, if we’re playing hard-core old-school (A)D&D most characters will only have at best a couple dozen hit points. So, a few good whacks with a sword and your ninth level fighter is as dead as anyone else. Really it was second edition and on (not to mention other games that adopted the mechanic) when characters became ridiculously hard to injure.

        Even the concept of hit points as luck or skill runs into the brick wall of healing spells. If I wasn’t actually hurt, why are you curing my light wounds?

        • Thuloid

          A lot of things in D&D work best if one doesn’t think too hard about them.

          It’s hard to recall, given the way many modern RPGs (and video games) work, but healing was a bit of a luxury early on. Except at very high levels, a party might have enough healing resources to make up for one encounter that went badly, but not more than that. 2nd Edition pushed it a bit further, but 3rd was absurd on this front.

          Early D&D and AD&D really expected players to retire (perhaps for weeks) after clearing small areas of a dungeon, then come back with more resources (thus, a built in money sink). Plowing through in one shot was a high-level thing.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            Fair point. One forgets the bonus spells for high wisdom is a newish addition, and the for characters created under Method I high wisdom is a rare luxury.

            Back in the day my characters spent a lot of time resting, and tended to die often and horribly.

        • Yeah it’s not perfect, of course. But I think it’s good enough.

      • Huh, I don’t remember that. I played AD&D when I was 12 or 13 (just before 2nd edition) so it’s entirely possible I didn’t read whole chunks of the book.

        Hey did I ever tell you guys about the time I spoke to Gary Gygax online? He was doing a Q&A on a forum in the early 2000s where people could ask him something they always wanted to know. I asked him why he put scimitar on the very small list of allowed weapons for Druids in AD&D. He said it was to account for sickles and scythes.

        I just realised that many of you are Americans and you could have easily met the man in real life, and here I am showing off about a single online interaction. Still, was a kick to talk to him at all.

        • Thuloid

          Well, I used to live in Minneapolis, and have friends from south-central Wisconsin, the ancient stomping grounds of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, respectively. In both areas, the old guard certainly knew those guys. And many, many other people became acquainted with them through conventions and such over the years.

          I have a close friend who used to hang out at TSR hq when he was a child, as those were his parents’ friends. But no, I never met either of them.

  • Thuloid

    It’s always interesting to find out what I might have said or implied. Good post!

    To this day, my favorite fantasy wargame system is Warmaster, precisely because command was everything. Undead really felt like a shambling, mindless horde–unable to act on their own initiative, but impossible to disrupt or confuse, and entirely reliant on their officers. Orcs were impressive in combat, but could struggle to get their unruly mob across the table in the first place. High Elves were few but surgical.

    Kings of War is a nice, clean system for pushing regiments around the table, but command has essentially been abstracted into a unit’s Nerve value. It’s amazing how many new players (WHFB refugees, largely) don’t realize this even IS a command value, and treat it as more like hit points–and then grouse a bit about how it’s not “realistic” compared to Warhammer’s individual model removal. Because six dudes out of an original forty standing around ready to charge again makes total sense.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Fantasy (sci-fi) wargamers tend to put far too much emphases on casualties. Perhaps because it is cinematic or heroic. A unit losses effectiveness due to fatigue and disruption (of which casualties are a part). Any formation will have no long be fit to fight long before everyone is actually dead or wounded.

      40% casualties in a single action represents staggering losses, and even for the victory might result in a court martial. Yet, we see that all the time in wargames. Warhammer (and many other games) abstract ‘friction’ in figure removal, which is fine; however we must remember the figures gone don’t really stand for dead men.

      Historical gamers have turned against figure removable of late. As a result most games use something not unlike Nerve to stand for elan, effectiveness, and general cohesion.

      On of the issue I have with speculative fiction games is that much of what he designers with to simulate is wrapped up in command and control, which the games then go on to ignore. What makes Tyranids or undead ‘different’ is a wildly different command structure from a human(iod) army.

      If you are a barbarian warlord (Orc, Avar, etc) your subordinates will be kings and chieftains in their own right and most ‘orders’ will be little more than strongly worded suggestions. On the one hand, your army is hard to control, particularly once the fighting has started. On the other hand, front line commanders will show a lot of individual initiative. So, rather than awaiting orders your warriors will immediately exploit gaps and follow up on successes.

      • Thuloid

        I suppose Tyranids should radically exceed any human army in cohesion as long as they’re in range of the hive mind–and be all but paralyzed outside of that. This could only be modeled well in a game in which orders had a chance to fail outright, or were otherwise limited.

        And this makes them nearly the opposite of Space Marines, who will continue to function almost regardless of how isolated they become, following their ancient combat doctrines and pressing forward, but on account of these tactics may at times not be very coordinated.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          A hive mind would presumable function much like standard wargames armies do. The ‘commander’ (if such a thing would even exist) would be instantly aware of everything his troops saw and every unit would obey every command without chance of failure.

          But, this would only work if orders for every other army had a change of being lost, ignored, or misinterpreted.

      • Von

        What do you think of SAGA in this context? On the one hand, individual figure removal and the emphasis on warlords’ combat prowess; on the other hand, fatigue points, and battle board mechanics creating command and control options, even simulating things like weather if you happen to be of the Rus persuasion. On the one talon (we’re all Genestealer Hybrids now, roll with it), the modern ‘theatre of rules’ tendency is in full flight with the emphasis on battle board interactions; on the other, those interactions elevate it above a mere scrum between hairy lads in a Northumberland field.

        • Thuloid

          I think it’s amazing. Fantasy-historical to be sure, but amazing. Start from the premise that everyone on the table is just a guy, divide into three rough piles of competency, assume weapon is weapon is weapon (unless it’s a really big axe, reaches much further than a spear, or shoots fire), and remember that people get very tired.

          The Irish are dicks, though.

          • I love the way the Irish play 😀

          • Thuloid

            You would. At least until they come out with an Australian battle board.

          • Well I suppose as a white Australian a large part of my cultural heritage comes from Irish Fenians who were shipped here by the English after their rebellion failed. So while I’m not personally (very) Irish as white Aussies go, I feel the echoes of the heroic tradition that those Fenians were consumed by when they rebelled. It pops up in convict ballads and stories about Ned Kelly etc.

            Wow I… should probably mention I’ve been reading a lot of Australian history seasoned with Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men lately!

          • Thuloid

            Bonus points if you actually mock up a plausible white Aussie battle board.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          I think SAGA works very well for what it is. First is the matter of scale. SAGA is not a battle per se, but rather a minor skirmish or brawl. Typical of the small scale violence endemic to Medieval Germanic culture and Gaelic societies up to the 17th century.

          In fights between a few dozen men individual combat prowess matters far more than drill (though we can have a long discussion on whether or not being a noble makes you a better fighter, as most rules seem to think it does) and causalities will have a greater impact since there is relatively little command and control to degrade. Fatigue matters regardless of scale, as does weather and other random events, so in that way SAGA strikes a good balance.

          I do not speak for the good people at Gripping Beast, but I submit that SAGA is not intended to be a simulation of a historical dark age skirmish. Instead it is a simulation of a semi-historical Icelandic Saga. Something along the likes of heroic historical fiction. In that sense things like Shield Maidens or Ivar the Boneless hacking through a dozen lesser warriors make prefect sense in the milieu.

          By the same token I find the rules for Bolt Action and Flames of War work very well if considered not a game based on WW2, but a John Wayne movie

          • Thuloid

            I’m certain you’re correct with SAGA, which is why it includes an entire faction that’s semi-historical at best (Jomsvikings). From my first taste, it immediately struck me that SAGA would have been a marvelous set of rules to base a Warhammer-y skirmish game on, for those who want AoS without the suck. Most WHFB armies even have roughly 3 tiers of infantry. Putting all those special rules on the battle board would make things so much easier to handle.

            But I’m firmly of the mindset that most fantasy/sci-fi games should start with a rough historical analogue and then magic/space it up. That focuses the design a bit. If the game doesn’t work without the magic and weird bits, maybe it just doesn’t work.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            Which is way 3rd Edition 40k still has adherents. While certainly not without many flaws, it is the closest to an actual Medieval battle as WHFB ever got.

            It only makes sense to start with the non-magic bits first since we know (sort of) how those things work you can make sure the game actually functions before adding speculation.

          • I guess in the dark ages it wasn’t so much that being noble made you a good fighter, but that good fighters could and did become nobles. Uoi just needed to be someone who could personally kick heads when needed, and was cunning enough to navigate simple hierarchies.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            Granted. My thinking was that we–wargamers generally, myself included–tend to make the cream of the military pecking order elite. Certainly being a member of a lord’s household means better equipment, better pay (if applicable) and better food. Plus you get a morale boost for being part of an elite. But, does being a Hearthguard or a palace sentry actually make you a better soldier?

          • Thuloid

            Probably in this sense, yes–training and experience. If your job is to fight for your Lord, you’re likely to get good at it. It’s been a while, but I remember some years ago reading about the central importance of the royal household in the military activity of Norman and Anglo-Normal rulers, and the best guesses as to why are as above–equipment, pay, food, training, experience.

            But that’s a particular social structure that may not have applied everywhere. In fact, given how well the Normans performed vs. others at the same time, likely they were somewhat ahead of the game.

    • Von

      Warmaster’s a gem all right, although I confess that my teenaged self couldn’t grasp the appeal of factions who weren’t High Elves and therefore needed a magic item to nudge their Leadership towards the acceptable. (He was a bit of an idiot, as we’ve discussed previously: he has been found guilty of being fifteen, and his sentence is having to have been fifteen.)

      I think when they say ‘realistic’ they mean ‘what I think medieval battles are like, my opinion being entirely based on Warhammer and protagonist-centred movies’.

      • Thuloid

        To be maximally fair, ancient and medieval chroniclers often present battles in an equally silly way: the enemy was totally destroyed by the hundreds of thousands, and there were none left– until, mysteriously, there came back in even greater force a few years later. Not so focused on single heroes, at least.

        I’m convinced Warmaster is perfect if you disallow the Crown of Command.

        • Von

          “You’ll play the Leadership value you were assigned by God and Rick Priestley, and you’ll like it!”

          • Thuloid

            We all have a hand we’re dealt in life; yours is an Orc general with Leadership 8.

  • Great article. I’ve got no answers, but wanted to say it’s a great read.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Thank you. Just an ‘attaboy’ is great encouragement.