Valour & Fortitude – an interesting approach to rule writing

This month’s Wargames illustrated (No 418) features an intriguing set of Napoleonic wargames rules. The rules themselves come in an 8-page supplement; the magazine features three articles based on them: one is an interview with the author, Jervis Johnson, and the other two set out a scenario and show how it played out in a demo game. The rules are a venture of Perry Miniatures and can be downloaded for free here. What is intriguing about them is not how they play (which I haven’t tried, and I’m not sure I will), but how they are written. The brief was that they should be no more than four pages long. In the booklet the four other pages are taken up by the front cover, an introduction by the author, a Q+A and Easily Missed Rules page, and the quick reference sheet.

The pedigree of the rules is unimpeachable. Jervis made his name at Games Workshop, including the writing of the classic Blood Bowl. His helpers and play testers are a Who’s Who of British wargaming – including Alessio Cavatorre and Rick Priestly, as well as the Perry Brothers. This group is responsible for such classics as Bolt Action and Black Powder, amongst the most popular rules systems here. According to Jervis, the initiative came about because he was fed up with leafing through rulebooks to try and find and check particular rules. This means not just engineering the rules tightly, but setting them out and writing them concisely. It’s not a new idea. Phil Barker of Wargames Research Group developed his DBA system for ancient warfare in 1990 on the basis that it would cover one side of A4. And these rule writers like their systems to be comprehensive – not leaving key things unsaid (alas all too common – my frustration with the Iron Cross system, for example). Writers often assume the answers to be obvious – but in fact much time is wasted looking for rules or explanations that aren’t there.

Some of the ways in which this objective has been achieved might be considered trivial. The font is quite tight and the page quite big (slightly under A4) – though there is proper paragraph spacing and use of headings. There are no pretty pictures or examples of play. These might sound trivial – but the extra space taken up by pictures does come with a cost. Examples of play do have a practical value – but they can be kept out of the main text. The approach is the exact opposite to that taken by Sam Mustafa in his Honor system (of which I have Blucher, Lasalle II and Rommel). The page size of these is small, the font large and there is quite a bit white space; there is a scattering of pictures (though not as many or as big as some rules); there is a lot of explanation and there are quite a few play examples. This makes the rules easy to read at the first pass. But it does make it harder to look things up mid-game (though a decent index helps). This makes an intriguing contrast – as Sam’s rules also major on basic simplicity, and nothing being included unless it really adds value.

There is no doubting that V+F is a tough read at first pass, though the language is simple and clear. I am reminded of Phil Barker – whose rules were tight but often had to be read several times over – but they are not nearly as bad. A lot of the Q+A and easily missed rules section boils down to “Yes, the rules really do mean that”. Another device might be seen as a bit of a cheat – quite a bit of the system is moved to “special rules” specific to the units involved. This includes such basics as squares, skirmishers and open order. But the core rules do stand as a coherent whole – and the idea is that (like Black Powder) they can be used to cover a vast period – the 18th and 19th Centuries at least – so the core rules should not contain period specific items. The special rules themselves take up no more than a page – though the focus is really just the 1813-14 campaigns in Central Europe (No British, for example). This is actually good design. I have tried to tackle Phil Barker’s Horse, Foot, Guns rules – which have a similarly large period ambition (though at a higher scale). While these are also very simply engineered at heard, they are so clogged up with period-specific features that they pretty much unusable in the original form. I rewrote them myself for use in Napoleonic games.

Jervis’s approach to rule-writing in V+F has a strong appeal to me. I am something of a rules-lawyer, I’m afraid. I really, deep-down want the game to be played out according to what the rules say, and will argue points if I really find it important (though I hate the use of loopholes). So having a set of rules that is tightly written and simple is something I like. When writing rules I do watch the page count. I knew that my house rules for Iron Cross had failed when they ran to 8 pages! I do aim for more like 12 pages than four – but then my scope is a bit wider. My systems are quite tightly period-specific, and I feel need for a little explanation and the odd example.

What of the rules themselves? They are designed to showcase Perry Miniatures’ gorgeous 28mm figures, and are for classic divisional-level games, with six or so battalions per player. They fit into the Lasalle space. The mechanisms are simple but flexible. For example in movement, figures can be moved in any direction, so long as they retain formation and no single figure exceeds the maximum move distance. The turn is simple I-go-You-go, Fire, Move, Melee. They suggest halving the distances for smaller scales or tables, or substituting cm for inches. In fact almost all critical distances are units of 3in, so a two-thirds scale would be easy to do – which would work well for my 18mm figures on a 6ft by 4ft table.

I have quibbles, of course. For defensive formations against cavalry the Austrians use Battalion Mass and everybody else the Square. The former is just an attack column with all its mobility – the latter requires a formation change and is immobile. In fact in this period the Prussians and Russians also used the Battalion Mass tactic instead of classic squares – and these seemed to have been no less vulnerable to cavalry. But they did require to be closed up, and probably weren’t that mobile when on full defensive. In fact I feel that all armies (including the French) could be given both special rules. That’s easy to fix. A bigger issue is that built-up areas seem to be treated as networks of Rorke’s Drifts, and readily defensible with just a quick occupation. This really misses how BAU combats worked. I prefer the Lasalle system, but I don’t really like even that. Most built-up areas simply couldn’t be readily “garrisoned” in the rules sense, and most fighting took place in the open streets. Well that’s a special hobby horse of mine that I haven’t seen any system at this game level deal with well. The huge over-simplification of movement and formation-changing won’t be to everybody’s taste (with similar simplifications to firing and melee) – but Lasalle makes similar compromises in the cause of speed and simplicity. It does keep the game flowing.

As for the rest, I would have to see how the rules play in practice – but I don’t plan to drop my attachment to Lasalle so this may never happen. Nevertheless the approach to rule-writing certainly has given me pause for thought.

2 thoughts on “Valour & Fortitude – an interesting approach to rule writing

  1. Enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
    I would not have been aware of these without your post (I gave up buying magazines many years ago as I concluded that I am not in the target audience. For me they are too light on detail and too heavy on promotion of a few brands of 28 mm figs).
    A skim of the rules brings me to broadly the same conclusions as you. I applaud the intention to produce a brief, simple set of rules. I applaud the lack of ‘filler’ ooh-ah photos (only one is included and it is functional). I applaud (with gusto) that they are free.
    They seem to be a clear (and no doubt workable and likely entertaining) set of generic brigade-scale rules. They are not particularly Napoleonic. With rules purporting to be for the Napoleonic era, my first pass is to look at overall mechanics (do they appeal to me), how they handle skirmishers and formations. These fall short on all these aspects (for me).
    It is interesting that, in a short space of time the rules are up to version 1.5. This likely reflects the tightness of deadlines for publication and a pleasing willingness to listen to feedback and the need for clarification. Despite those revisions, I could not find simple answers. How are skirmishers (squares, battalion mass, column, line) represented with the brigade bases? I strongly suspect that other questions would arise with a proper read and if I were to use them. I am left wondering whether play testers actually played the rules when such (apparent) gaping holes occur. (As an aside, I have seen far worse, in a set of rules that was the special, 30th edition—contradictions, mis-spellings (and stupid rules)!)
    I share your overall conclusion, if I interpreted correctly; short and brief is not necessarily better. These rules have adopted that maxim and seem to have done it pretty well—at the generic level. A more descriptive format is not necessarily worse (or better). What is essential is that rules are clear and easy to navigate. The reader/player can then read/use them and decide if they are they type of mechanic-game for him or her. Gaps and oversights will likely always occur. Here we differ; I am happy to put my own interpretation if something that I think is needed is not there and am always happy to tweak rules to suit myself.
    In the end, like you, it is a philosophical discussion as I won’t be trying them either! 🙂
    Regards, James

    1. Thanks James. I have a tendency to keep looking at rulebooks to answer queries, when filling in with a common sense answer would be quicker and often better. Hence I really like well-written rules! The WI article claims that there was quite extensive testing (albeit just with 1813 French and Prussian armies). But I think this was the usual gang of friends who often play with the writers, and not representative of other gamers.

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