Heretical Gaming is my blog about my gaming life, featuring small skirmishes and big battles from many historical periods (and some in the mythic past or the far future too). The focus is on battle reports using a wide variety of rules, with the occasional rules review, book review and odd musing about the gaming and history. Most of the battles use 6mm-sized figures and vehicles, but occasionally 15mm and 28mm figures appear too.

Friday 29 December 2023

Neil Thomas One Hour Wargames - Refighting the Scenarios

Over the last two years I have re-fought all the scenarios, 30 in total, contained in Neil Thomas' gem of a book, One Hour Wargames. Why a gem? Because Thomas has an absolute knack for simplifying but retaining the essence within wargaming, whether that be within rules or within scenarios. That isn't to say that he has necessarily divined the secret elixir of how warfare works, or the best way to represent it; rather, he divines what makes the most common wargames work and distills that.  I am going to try and learn from this scenario design and both for my original scenarios and my conversions of existing scenarios (mainly from magazines), I will try and use similar types of scenario outlines, mapping and terrain features, since they make it easy for both myself and anyone else using them to get a reasonably flavourful game, reminiscent of the source material, quickly to the table.

As well as the scenarios being great - I had played a smattering of them previously - they show, I think, an almost perfect minima of what a scenario needs to succeed. So a key part of the project was to use a very minimal collection of figures and terrain. I fitted everything into four quite small plastic boxes: one for each army, one for all the trees, and a final box for the other terrain. If I had been *really* optimizing, I might have got it down to three (both armies to fit in one box) or two (a further minimization of terrain) but I was putting in terrain for other games in the same box. 

Another part of the project was to keep costs down. I think the overall cost for all the figures you would need for this is c.£65 (at December 2023 Baccus 6mm prices). Obviously value is in the eye of the beholder but that seems to me like a pretty reasonable price.  Most of the terrain is home made or bought quite cheaply, so that wouldn't push the overall cost up too much either.  At the beginning of the project I made a list of all of the terrain I would need, and there was enough to give variety but little enough that it could all be prepared relatively easily: there are a relatively small number of hill, wood, marsh, urban and water shapes used. This also explains why I kept with the quite minimalist terrain given in the scenarios. I still wanted the games to look respectably nice, but didn't want to increase the time/effort/money costs too much by using real resources on the spectacle, past a certain minimum.  I think this would be true for all periods until the more tactical side of C20 warfare, in which case you will probably need to add a lot of scatter terrain into the mix, to break up lines-of-sight and killing zones and so on. So with very little being spent on rulesets or the scenario book either, there would definitely be no need to push past £90-100 all in.

I used two rulesets during the course of the project: Neil Thomas' Simplicity in Practice and Glenn Pearce's Polemos: Ruse de Guerre. Both gave really good games, although I enjoyed the RdG games a little more, on balance. They are a lovely streamlined set, and the mechanics of bidding for action points give lots of solo-friendly problems to solve. SiPby contrast needs, IMHO, a little work to make it work  so to speak, and doesn't have the same solo friendly qualities (as a minimum, use one of the modifications available to help sort out the melee rules). That said, for the beginner, they are probably a little more intuitive and they are great fun.

Those readers who have followed most or all of the battle reports will have picked up on certain themes that have re-occurred about the scenarios.
1.  I think that, on balance, the BLUE forces have slightly tougher assignments over the spread of the scenarios than RED forces.
2.  Scenarios which have implied 'time' factors are the ones most subject to a change of dynamics as a result of the use of different rulesets. If we think of a force consisting of x attacking a force consisting of y, a ruleset will have both a range of outcomes, a median outcome and a modal outcome, although no person alive, including the scenario and rules designers, may actually know what these are. If scenario events are expressed in terms of 'turns' then they must have a feeling for how long movement across the board takes and how long combats tend to take. The first is a relatively simple conversion - although indirectly we should probably think of command rules as additional 'movement constraint rules' and their effect is anything but simple to calculate; but the second is much harder to intuitively judge, without a lot of experience of the rules which are explicitly or implicitly in the scenario designers mind. Where this will be revealed is in how attrition-based the rules are, and how bloody the rules are. Attrition-based rules can, in theory, allow combat outcomes as quickly as shock-based rules (by setting the attrition levels high enough per turn); in practice though, attrition based rules tend to generate slower combat outcomes in game turns than those which are shock-based. As Neil Thomas' rules are heavily attrition-based, this is obviously an important factor. The rules in OHW are actually on the quicker side - as are Simplicity in Practice which I used for the first half of the game in this series - since the ability to deal attrition isn't diluted by losses; in some of Neil Thomas' rules this isn't the case, and attrition slows down as everyone takes losses. This can lead to surprisingly long games, given the simplicity of the mechanics and the small number of units compared to other games.
3.  One rough rule-of-thumb is to consider the 'actual strength points' in game terms. Rules which count individual soldiers as casualties effectively have '600' or so strength points per unit; figure-based units tend to have 10-50 strength points; Neil Thomas' rules often have units with effective strengths of between 8 and 16 strength points; Ruse de Guerre effectively has 2. Some of this strength can be rallied back of course, but even so - it points to a much quicker, more decisive game; whereas rules that have effectively 600 strength points per unit will still probably have mechanics which allow attrition at the rate of 1 of those per turn.  All of these differences have radically different implications for how many game turns combats will, or at least might, take.
4.  Allied to this is how easy it is for units to reduce the number of strength points of an enemy unit (in whatever form); rules which make it hard to remove strength points will be longer, rules which make it easy to reduce strength points will be easier. Simplicity in Practice makes it relatively easy to reduce enemy strength points, Ruse de Guerre makes it very easy.  This is basically asking how effective 'firepower' is in a given game. It is interesting to me to note that two sets which use individual losses, the Bruce Quarrie rules and the Carnage & Glory rules, are both noted as having particularly deadly artillery.
5. Also strongly related are indirect ways of reducing strength points, the most obvious way being through morale checks. The Polemos rules usually make reducing a significant percentage of an army's strength through failed morale checks relatively straightforward; and it allows for double and triple effects (i.e. to reduce strength at the unit level, formation level and army level). I believe that, although a bit quirky from time-to-time, the Polemos rules have the right here, bringing in both game uncertainty and more realism.
6. I don't think that the factors identified in 3 or 4 or 5 are easily calculable in terms of how much more or less time given changes will take, at least from human estimation alone. That they are fairly critical is obvious, however.

In theory, a scenario could express these things in terms of real times and distances. However, since so few rules really try and do a good job of trying activity to time in an historically accurate manner, this technique also has severe issues (rules would often suggest that 2 minutes of tactical activity represented 15 times as much in terms of campaign-level activity; this indicates to me there is still much work to do in solving this problem, i.e. making scenarios rules-agnostic, and vice-versa).

Anyway, those are my thoughts about it at this time.  I have really enjoyed playing through them and doing this project and as a simple but great way of doing wargaming, they seem to have succeeded very well. Many thanks to all of those who have read these posts, and even more so to those who have taken the time to comment: would love to read any more thoughts any readers may have, or any questions on any aspect of it.


  1. Congratulations on gwtting through all 30 scenarios!

    I too found that playing the OHW scenarios with different rules did not truely reflect the OHW scenarios due to the attrition Vs distance Vs time ratios that are obviously different for rules differing from that in the OHW rulebook. But the scenarios are still fun to play regardless.

    1. Thanks Shaun! And yes, exactly right: just because a scenario plays differently doesn't have to mean it plays badly. After all, it would be just as true for a scenario based purely on historical data.

  2. Well done on making it to the end, and I admire your dedication to playing the scenarios as written. I can't resist the temptation to fiddle, particularly if using rules which are more 'decisive', I'd just have to reduce the turn length. I agree that they all produce good games, and I've been surprised how easy it is to use many of them model historical battles, with only minor terrain and OB tweaks. I've generally found adding some extra terrain features doesn't detract from the flow of the core scenario.

    1. Thanks Martin. I have followed your own OHW games and experiments with great interest and noted the success you have had in mapping a scenario inspired by one historical battle onto a different one via OHW. Salamanca to Barbarossa?!? Genius!

  3. What you have accomplished over the last two years is really quite an interesting study and Magnum Opus. I have enjoyed following along and often find myself nodding in agreement along the way. Thomas' OHW is a gem as you state. It represents one of the best values on the market in my mind.

    You played the scenarios using two different rulesets but not the intended OHW. Why?

    This is a terrific body of work and your replays and insights provided are useful to the curious and thoughtful wargamer.

    It would be a shame to see these huge efforts disappear or at least not given more type space. Have you considered aggregating these findings into one volume and perhaps self-publishing as a Player's Guide to OHW? I think the results would be fascinating (and useful!).

    Great job and I thoroughly enjoyed your two-year journey.

    1. That's very kind, thanks Jonathan.
      The reason I used other rules is simply that I prefer them; I had played the OHW rules a couple of times, and liked them - I remember reviewing them - but I liked the Simplicity in Practice rules more, so I went with them. I - and I think rightly - figured that *any & all* of Neil Thomas rules would work fine with the OHW scenarios, since the underlying logic is pretty similar. I switched to Polemos Ruse de Guerre mainly because I was using them for other, bigger games; and I think that it had something of the necessary simplicity, but with some useful command and morale rules - realistic and helpful for solo games. They did however stretch some of the scenarios in different ways, as we have seen!
      I will think about how I might collect all this stuff up and perhaps present it. I had already started to give a little thought as to how I might collect and collate some of the other stuff on the blog actually, so hopefully I will be able to do something.

  4. An interesting post and one that highlights the advantages of the superb OHW scenarios, but also the pitfalls too. I remember early on playing a game using Honours of War, where very quickly it became apparent that the attacker did not have a chance of taking the objective for a number of reasons. The most important ones were movement distances, where they could not close quickly enough before reinforcements arrived and then how hard it is to knock out or force troops in BUA's to retreat.

    So I learnt to use the scenarios as written as a basis for a game and then tweak the OOB, unit compostion etc dependent upon the rules being used. Another vital factor IMHO is being very au fait with a set of rules to make these tweaks almost second nature. You may not always get it right, but you will most likely avoid the situation I encountered above.

    1. Thanks very much Steve, and I think you are correct on all points. Understanding the time-distance-game turn dynamics are so important in getting scenarios right, to avoid one side's game being just a movement towards inevitable victory or defeat.