Monday, May 23, 2011

Checking Out Chainmail, Part 1

Last week I posted about wanting to read through the Chainmail rules to see what I could make of them. Having finished an initial read-through, I have to say that I am impressed. I am looking forward to getting some minis out on the table and running some games. In the meantime, though, I'm going to go through the rules here and tell you what I think of them.
At the time I wasn't sure that I wanted to do a full page-by-page reading of the rules, but I've changed my mind since actually going through them. There's a ton of information there! There's also a fairly robust system for wargaming.
This reading is based on the 3rd edition, 7th printing of the rules that was published in April 1979, according to the copyright page. The 3rd edition was copyrighted in 1975, so this edition is four years after that date. Presumably, it incorporates some rules changes and/or clarifications that were developed over that time. I don't have access to any prior versions of the rules, so I'm going on what I've got here.
The book is 45 pages long. Pages 1 through 3 are the title page, copyright notice, and Table of Contents respectively. Page 4 shows a couple of pictures of figures on a gaming table. The Introduction starts on page 5 and runs through page 7. We then have the "Chainmail rules for medieval miniatures" from page 8 through 24, "Man-to-Man Combat" rules from page 25 through 27, the "Fantasy supplement" from page 28 through 39, and five appendices with combat and reference tables on pages 40 through 44. Page 45 shows a listing of products from TSR.
The Introduction is fairly dense with information. It begins with a one-paragraph description of wargaming as a hobby and then launches right into the requirements for a game:
In order to play a wargame it is necessary to have rules, miniature figures and accompanying equipment, a playing area, and terrain to place upon it. There can be no douubt that you have fulfilled the first requirement, for you have purchased this set of rules. Your troops can be any scale that you desire. The playing area that the battles are fought out upon should be a table rather than the floor. It can be from a minimum of 4' to a maximum of 7' wide, and it should be at least 8' in length. These sizes will assure ample room for maneuver. There are several methods of depicting the terrain features generally used for wargames, such as hills, woods, rivers, roads, etc. (p. 5)

So here we see the basic list of equipment. Apparently the authors assumed that players would have dice on hand.
It's interesting that here they say that the miniatures used can be any scale, while later they will recommend using particular scale figures for the game. It's also interesting that they insist on a playing area of at least 4' by 8'. This is a fairly large area for a basic skirmish, but is definitely good for a larger action. I'm thinking that a board that large will definitely "assure ample room for maneuver," but it may also make for lots of maneuvering and wheeling without a lot of fighting. I'll have to see how that plays out in practice.
In the descriptions of the methods for constructing terrain, we see suggestions for piece terrain, modular 2' by 2' boards, and a sand table. The latter is described as the most complicated and realistic option. Having seen the way that wargames terrain has developed over the last 35 years, I'm going to respectfully disagree with the authors here.
The authors next turn to the different ways that players can select their forces for a game. They suggest the following:
  1. Use a historical battle and choose the forces to match historical accounts.
  2. Choose sides by points.
  3. Have the forces assigned by a neutral third party.
  4. Map based campaigns determine the forces. "... worked out from a 'campaign' situation where larger armies are moved on a map until hostile forces come into contact." (p. 6)
What's most interesting in the determination of forces, though, is the way that they interpret "balance." In most current rules sets for wargames, there is an overwhelming emphasis on playing games balanced by having equal forces on both sides. The authors here specifically say that shouldn't necessarily be the case:
Playing ability and terrain must also be taken into consideration, however. If, for example, the better player is to receive a 300 point army, it might be wise to allow his opponent to select 50 additional points worth of troops in order to balance the game. Similarly, if one player decides the kind of terrain the battleground is to be composed of — or the historic terrain favors one side — the side with such a terrain advantage should probably have a considerably weaker army. (p. 6)
So when determining the balance between forces on the table top, it is important to consider the relative playing ability of the players. Curious, and definitely a different take on balance.
The remainder of the introduction talks about the abstract nature of wargaming (scaled movement and representation, randomness represented by dice rolls, and so on), morale, and determining victory conditions. For the latter, "it is up to the parties concerned," (p. 6) but the following options are suggested:
  1. Play until one side is down to a particular percentage of its original strength.
  2. Play until one side is completely routed or destroyed.
  3. Play a set number of turns for points assigned to particular troops or terrain features.
  4. Play to match a particular historical objective.
The first and last are the most realistic in terms of historical gaming. The second is generally the option that I have seen most wargamers use. One side is beaten when it's wiped out. The third is similar to the objective and victory point systems we see in games like Warhammer. What is interesting, again, is the amount of variety that they've managed to suggest in a very small space.
More than anything else, the Introduction stresses that these rules are about creating options. They do not insist on being absolutely specific, because they want people to be able to use the rules in as many ways as possible. As they say in the last paragraph,
With no other form of wargaming — or nearly any form of game for that matter — is the player given the scope of choice and range for imagination that miniature warfare provides. You have carte blanche to create or recreate fictional or historic battles and the following rules will, as closely as possible, simulate what would have happened if the battle had just been fought in reality. (p. 7)
Although I can't really speak to the accuracy of the rules for historic recreation of a battle, they do have plenty of variety and a broad enough scope to cover a huge variety of historical periods, game sizes, and types of action.


  1. I've been doing a lot with Chainmail this year, I'm looking forward to seeing what you discover going through these pages.

  2. The sandtable is suggested as being the most realistic because you can precisely recreate the terrain of a specific battle.

    You would use water to moisten the sand and then sculpt the contours, hills, roads, and waterways from a scaled map reference. Once dry, the sand would hold these shapes. Then individual trees, shrubs, bushes, etc. would be stuck in to represent the exact dimensions of such features. Followed by walls,tilled fields, buildings, and other man-made structures.

    Though, obviously time consuming, this allowed the wargamer to create individual battlefields based on military maps.

    Modern scenery may look nicer, like Games Workshop photos, but it is very abstract with regard to representing a real battlefield. A premade forest or generic hills can only approximate the contours and areas of a map.

  3. At various times I've thought about how useful a sand table would be for gaming. Unfortunately, I've moved way too many times in my life for it to have ever been practical. A sand table wouldn't go too well in an apartment.