Thursday, 25 April 2013

Being There

When my mind drifts back now, it is images rather than a coherent narrative which present themselves to me: mist rising from horse lines in the thin keen wind of a morning by the Danube; long marches, the men ankle-deep in mud behind creaking wagons, as the beech and ash woods of Germany enfold us; a hill-top in Northern Spain, when snow fell below us in the valleys but we lay on dry, iron-hard ground under the stars; grizzled centurions lashing at the transport horses, yelling at the legionaries to put their shoulder to a wheel that was spinning as if in mockery of their efforts; a boy with blood oozing from his mouth as I rested his dying head on my arm and watched his leg kick; my horse flinching from a bush which parted to reveal a painted warrior, himself gibbering with terror; the sigh of the wind coming off a silent sea; the tinkle of the camel bell across desert sands. Army life is a mere collection of moments.” (Augustus, Alan Massie)


How do we remember our wargames? Do we remember them as “a mere collection of moments” experienced from the eye’s view of a small metal figure? Do we remember them as a game played with friends in a social environment? Or do we remember them as a competition, consulting rules and charts to find the result?

I’d wager that each of us probably remembers all three of those, perhaps at different times or stages of our hobby. I certainly do. But the games I remember best (or, perhaps, the ones I like to remember most clearly) are the first type. These are the games which I’m immersed in the battle, thinking along the same lines as one of the combatants, measuring myself against the challenges on the table and (just possibly) gaining an insight to what it might have been like to be THERE


I can see some of you smiling and shaking your heads as you read this. You’re thinking that I’m indulging in wishful thinking. Perhaps I’m even deluding myself. Miniature wargames are governed by rules, and the gaming element of the hobby relates to the action on the tabletop. It’s certainly true that outside of the rules there doesn’t necessarily need to be an additional context or theme which influences the players. And, many of you might argue, isn’t wargaming like many other activities in this regard? For example, you can go to the theatre, watch a play, marvel at the set design, be impressed by the costumes and follow the playwright’s message – and that should be enough for a good evening out.

Yes … perhaps …

But as any stage actor will tell you, the thing which really lifts a performance is the audience and their reaction to what’s happening on the stage. It’s the “buy-in”, the participation, the energy of the audience’s involvement and reaction which drives the actors on. The two are reciprocal, but a theatre play without an audience is just – well - a rehearsal.




Creating a theme and a context in a wargame, whether within or alongside the rules, is a bit like trying to get the theatre audience to become drawn into the drama of a play. I thought about these sort of ideas a lot last year. In particular, I tried to think of different ways I could, when running a club wargame or helping to run a participation game at a show, try and immerse the players in the context and theme of a game.

The route to immersion in a wargame, the road to “being THERE”, starts with the rules and the parameters of the game you’re playing. It’s here that the roleplaying hobby has a head start on wargaming. Roleplaying games are strong on theme and setting. They have to focus on world-building and setting because the visual aspects of terrain, scenery and miniatures are very often absent. The setting created in the roleplaying game is a key element of the fun and enjoyment – a strong theme really helps when the only other items you may have as a player are pens, paper, dice and imagination.

And for this reason, some of what follows originates from the roleplaying side of the gaming hobby. Some …. but definitely not all. I don’t want to turn the wargames I play into a roleplaying game – the colour of Centurion Valerian’s eyes (hazel), or OberGefreiter Zeigler’s dexterity at leaping from high walls (not the best since he was wounded on the Somme) isn’t going to matter at all. For much of what follows, less is definitely more.

The intention and hope is to try and capture the essence of a wargame’s theme, or to highlight some aspects of the setting which possibly, just possibly, might change the course of a raid, an assault or even a bigger moment of military history. 

 
Of course, all of this is very, very personal. I am definitely not saying that consciously and deliberately trying to create a particular context, theme, and a sense of a particular time and place is necessary in a wargame. Nor am I suggesting that the ways I’ve used are in anyway a blueprint for you should do it. So much is dependent on you – as a player or as a gaming umpire. What you think is enjoyable and fun and what your players want are the most important issues to focus on in this journey.

But with that caveat aside, here’s my own (very personal) list in seventeen easy steps, of what we’ve tried in our club and what’s worked for us: 


1. In a Galaxy, far away – try and imagine the world of your wargame, through history books, novels, old photographs or the dozens of ways of visualizing the world and the game you wish to create. It doesn’t matter if you are dealing with a real environment from dark Age Britain, or the planet Iago VII. If you want to immerse players into a game, you first have to think yourself there. 



2. Setting the scene – Convey your sense of the world you’re creating through the background you give to your players or opponent before the game starts. You don’t need an umpire for this, although one often can help. You can just fight over a flat table with very few features if you wish, but I feel that if you just leave it at that you lose the chance to try and create different memories of the game. Far better to set the scene – a specific time and a place, a context and a reason for battle. In historical games, this shouldn't be too hard – and very little goes a long way.

3. Who are your players? Are they simply platoon commander 1 and platoon commander 2? Or are they soldiers with a background, character attributes, a history, and personality of their own? 


4. Welcome to the War - ask your players to describe two things about their location at the start of the game. It might be a waterlogged trench, a besieged castle in desperate need to repair, a drab marching camp, or the basement of a factory under enemy fire. If you can get this before the start of the game, so much the better. You then have the chance to weave some of that into the game. If not, even the process of thinking about a background might help enhance the setting for many players.

5. Don’t suffocate the theme – Know when to draw the line between capturing the essence of a game, and processing it. I love the quotation above from Augustus that “army life is a mere collection of moments”. The author trails a series of almost flashing images, picking out something memorable about each scene. That’s all you’re trying to imprint in a player’s mind about the wargame’s theme. If you’re umpiring a game, you don’t need to package, process, measure and weigh each of those moments, making a separate rule for each one. You can add new rules covering one or two of these elements. But try and keep the mechanics simple, or even unspecified. Keep the “chrome” to a reasonably low level.  Don’t worry that there’s not a rule for each of the images you’re trying to create. (And believe me, I’ve got this wrong so many times as a snapshot of my extensive, slightly insane and thoroughly unlamented rules for the attributes of late seventeenth century Catholic armies demonstrates!) 


6. Bright colours on a dark stage – bringing the background of a wargame to life is about placing an accent on certain things, but not on everything. You want your players to react and focus on the bright colours. To do that you sometimes need to dull down other features. So you may want to concentrate on the background and character of the “Big Men” or leaders in your game. If you do that, don’t worry so much about the ammunition rules or featuring terrain which has its own special rules. Too much detail in too many places crowds out the best things in a game. Find your essence and bring it to the centre stage.  Alone. 



7. Think Cinematically – the pacing of a story in a film is all important. Try approaching a wargame like that and work backwards from what historically happened, or what you want to happen. Once you have thought about where the heart of battle is going to be, try and focus the terrain around it and try and ensure the moves leading up to it are consistent with the focus you’re creating. Always try and start the action early, though and get players rolling dice as soon as possible. An opening move artillery barrage, flank attack, melee or firefight is fantastic for jolting players awake and giving them an immediate challenge.




8. Can you bring the past to life? Think about whether you can establish a physical link with the past. Some of my most memorable wargames have been those when someone passed around (variously) an old helmet, a decommissioned rifle, a claps of medals, and an authentic field service notebook. Touching these items from the past, and sometimes even from the action being represented in the game, bring home the essence of the wargame more than anything else. They would have been remarkable moments at any point; the timing of seeing them right before the wargame made them even more so. If you’re not lucky enough to have authentic props, think about circulating an actual letter, battle report or newspaper cutting about the battle being recreated. Even simple things like a photograph of the battlefield (old or new) or a painting of the engagement can help. These work well in participation games. 






9. Being physically there – can you get your players actually there? In a tank, on a battlefield, in a castle? Whatever and wherever it is, you’ll never look at the wargames table or your miniatures in the same way again. 



10. Distant voices, still lives - You may not have an authentic, or historical replica, letter around, but that shouldn’t prevent you creating something similar as a scene-setting handout for your players. You may well be simply saying that the 2nd Company of the Loamshire Volunteers is ordered to advance on the Afghan hillfort and occupy until relieved. But phrasing the orders as a couple of letters written by Sergeant Gordon or Captain Lindsay can add a lot more. The letters could create an impression of the climate, the stress under which the soldiers are under, or of their elusive Afghan adversaries. If you’re short of time, just find a passage from a memoir or an account of the period and pass that around before the game starts.

11. Random encounters – Some rules already have mechanisms for random events. Some of my favourites are in Barry Hilton’s excellent “Beneath the Lily Banners” and in “Sharpe Practice” by Richard Clarke. But a random event is simple enough to work into any set of rules. I’ve my own selection for “Through the Mud and the Blood” and it’s taken shape over the years using examples from wargames we’ve fought, reading memoirs from combatants and from suggestions from friends. The art of the random event is to create an event which is unlikely to turn the game by itself, but which places challenges and opportunities in front of the players. No-one wants to play a wargame for a couple hours only to have their leading section obliterated by a stray artillery barrage in the last turn, however realistic that might be. Finding a wounded officer pinned down in No Man’s Land with information about the enemy’s dispositions or the location of the nearest tank  might be just the sort of information to orientate a game and help reinforce a theme. 



12. Make your table breathe – creating a setting, and a feel of being there, is partly a visual process. Making the table come to life is part of the real pleasure in wargaming. Whether it’s adding civilians, their animals, or their pots and pans, or just a folded miniature newspaper on a table in the town, each of these items helps create the illusion that the wargames table is a living, breathing location in which the game is taking place in. 





13. On the shoulders of Giants – some settings, like those from a favourite book or film, can be powerful and magnetic. They can be crossed-over without any real problem, once the setting and time period have been changed. Some of these seem to cry out to be replicated in miniature. Try setting Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in Roman Britian, with a perilous journey “North of the Wall”. Or try taking Dan Abnett’s Hinzerhaus fortress from Jago in “Only in Death” to the 19th Century North West Frontier. Chances are your players will not spot the cross-over (at least not at first). You can have a lot of fun mirroring the events of the book in a one-off game or campaign, with the book as a handy guide by your side. 


14. Carpe Diem - have a clock handy, or limit the game to a set number of terms. Very simple stuff (and an old trick, I admit!), but it’s amazing how time pressures concentrate the minds of the players. They have to hold out until nightfall when the relief column arrives. Tick, tick, tick …. 


15. Bonuses for great play – when great play reinforces the theme, reward it! So Colonel Volpone is an ardent republican, an associate of Robespierre and a Jacobin at heart? Allow the player commanding him an extra command initiative for commands given in a suitably dynamic and republican tone. Perhaps even greater rewards may be on offer for singing a few lines of the Marseillaise when charging the demi-brigade attack column into a melee. We’ve tried this sort of thing occasionally – the results have been a lot of fun, even if not always successful on the wargames table! 


16. Footprints in the sand – try and leave your players with a memory of the game. It doesn’t have to be fancy – just a blog post, or an email will do. It’s a great place to start the next game from. Before long, you’ve created a campaign with continuing characters.

17. After the guns fall silent – follow your characters’ history on past the wargame or the current campaign. Leave room for the players to pick up where they left off, or create the chance to follow on to another period. Once the guns fall silent in November 1918, will Corporal Beckton remain in khaki in some far-flung corner of the British Empire? Or will he return to the Corporation Tramway depot he left four years earlier when he volunteered for King and Country? Here’s some of the German and British “Big Man Exits” I prepared for the Bovington show last year. 


That’s my list. Have I left anything out? And above all, what would you add?

46 comments:

  1. One of the best posts I've read in a long time... unfortunately I've nothing to add.

    I've always tried to immerse myself into the 'world' of my own games, perhaps too much, to be honest. I was however heavily influenced by the dark side of RPGs early in my wargaming life though.

    I do think there is a lot to be said for having a coherent and over-arching narrative to the games we play though, whatever depth you choose for it and there is certainly nothing wrong in characterising the men in your 'army' either... even as far back as H.G. Wells this was done.

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    1. Thank you Jim! Thanks so much for your kind comment, which I really did appreciate.

      I really like your inter-war "alternative history" postings and themes (especially the one for the early 1930s). I think there's a lot wargamers can do with alternative-history sessions (the subject of another blog-post perhaps!), and again RPGs fit well with this. And in that alt-history territory, having a coherent, believable and over-arching narrative (as you do in your blog-postings) really does help orientate the players and keep the action grounded in plausible reality.

      Thanks again for dropping by!

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    2. BTW separate topic congrats on 400 followers definitely a milestone for a blog!

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  2. Great post, plenty of food for thought.

    Regards,
    Matt

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  3. This is without a doubt one of the best posts I have read in a long long time. I utterly agree that setting and scene are an important but often overlooked part of a game.

    I come from an RPG background - I've been playing games like Dungeons and Dragons for 30 years in paralleled to wargaming - so story, scene setting, mood and emotion are integral to the way I do things. The last time I ran an RPG campaign I used background music, sound effects, handmade props and handouts as well as miniatures and scenery to enhance the game experience. And I don't see any reason why the same theatrical techniques couldn't be used to enhance a Wargame.

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    1. Lee, that's a really generous comment. Thank you. I'm glad you liked the post. If you can create a mood and theme in an RPG which brings the setting to life, I absolutely agree that we can do the same in a wargame on the tabletop. While RPGs and miniature wargames are always going to be different in some fundamental ways, the techniques to create theme , pacing and setting in each of those games may have a lot of similarities.

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  4. Outstanding post sir. This is the approach that I try to take with games, but I could never have expressed it as well as this. This is a superb guide.

    And I think I recognise that MO's tent you have a photo of there...

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    1. If I might indulge in a bit of shameless self-promotion, this is one of the ways that we remember games as it were - with the use of facsimile documents etc. http://gotflag.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/40k-medical-report-wounding-of-captain.html

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    2. Kieran, thanks so much for commenting, and its great to see you here again. Not shameless promotion at all, Sir!

      In fact, your blog and Colonel Scipio's are brilliant examples of how you can take a theme and run with it. I love your medical after action reports, and looking again at the post you linked to has given me more ideas about something I want to do in a game later this year.

      I'm so glad you liked the post.

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    3. You're very welcome, I always love to give games a narrative and this is quite probably the definitive guide to doing that. Without wanting to sound too gushing your miniatures and boards are so full of character, it's a bloody inspiration sir.

      Than you very much, I really appreciate that. Look forward to seeing what you do in that game...

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  5. Some fascinating and inspirational ideas!!!! I don't think anyone need add to this list??

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    1. Thanks Ray! I'm sure I can't have thought of everything! If I have, it's be a first(and I can't believe that!)

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  6. Excellent Post. i will come back to this one several times.

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    1. Thanks Chris. You already create some wonderful narratives in your scenarios and supplements, so in many many ways I'm following in your wake!

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  7. I could not or would not add to this list a great post

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    1. Thanks Andrew, I'm really glad you liked it.

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  8. Some great ideas there Sir! Having started as a roleplayer before I got into wargaming I often lament the lack of immersion in some games. I love coming away from a game having had a rich narrative experience and whilst I don't think you can ever quite get the feeling of actually being there you can certainly enhance the experience. I have tried a variety of approaches to help make games more involving - some of which have been more successful than others - and a lot depend on the willingness of the players to actually get engaged or even pay attention!

    Thanks for the post it's certainly provided me with some food for thought.

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    1. Thanks Al! Great to meet you at Salute, by the way - although all too briefly! I absolutely agree about a lot depending on your players. The only Golden Rule in wargaming is really "Have Fun". And if a narrative approach emphasising theme and setting doesn't work for your players, then a wise umpire gently drops those parts into the background. I empathise completely with those days, participation games or club nights when it's a hard slog getting that initial "buy in".

      That being said, I'm struggling to think of many (if any) wargamers who are uninterested in adding theme and setting into a wargame. Anything which brings the game to life is normally welcome. As with so many things, its a case of getting to know your players and not being too discouraged if things don't come off first (or second, or third.....) time!

      Thanks again for dropping by!!

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  9. That's a superb way of showing how to get even more out of our hobby Sidney! I think I need to read this a few times to absorb it all. Great post!

    Christopher

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    1. Thanks Christopher. It's just another way of making sure people have a great time gaming, and I'm very pleased you liked the post!

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  10. Top post Sidney, very thought provoking.

    All the best

    Airhead

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  11. Very insightful post Sidney. Your games already LOOK so amazing - coupled with this philosophy they must be a truly great experience. I find our Indostan games are the most satisfying when a good story has been told regardless of who won. Following some of your tips could help everyone's gaming experiences I think.

    FRank
    http://adventuresinlead.blogspot.com.au/

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    1. Thanks Frank! I love your blog, and the theme and essence really does come across in the games you play, particularly those from Indostan. There's always a really strong narrative and (just as important) a strong beginning-middle-end sequence to the games. That clearly must take a lot of work.

      Some of the games we're tried at the club using more of a narrative have really worked. Some haven't worked as well, and that's usually because I've stuffed too much chrome and background into the game. It's a learning process and hey, I've certainly not got all the answers! The only secret is to keep experimenting and not give up!

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  12. Christ almighty but this has made me think, a few and I say a few of these I do but you've gone that step further....excellent post sir.

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    1. Thanks Fran! Really pleased you enjoyed the post!

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  13. I don't have time to do this justice today. Except half a podcast in reply over the weekend!

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    1. Mike, don't worry - thanks so much for the comment and for dropping by. I really enjoyed your first podcast as I mentioned to you last Saturday and I'll be listening to future instalments! I love the narratives you and Andy have created in your Dux Britanniarum campaign - they gave us a lot of ideas of what we might do for some of the games we hope to have going forward with the new "Raiders" supplement for Dux Brit.

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  14. Alot of food for thought here. I cannot add a single coma to your text. But if I have to choose the critical piece in your narrative it will be number 12-The table. At least me, if the table and the minis are not of certain quality level, my gaming experience drops to close to zero; therefore, the rest of the effort can be ruined if you don't achieve a good mark in 12. Just my opinion (...and my experience over the last 30 years of wargaming)

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    1. Thanks Benito - great comment! It's the visual theme which is probably strongest for me as well. There's so much you can do to the table - just small things - which can set the theme of the game. And, the more visual elements of theme you add in, the less you actually need to describe verbally or in a handout; the players' eyes and imagination are doing the rest for you!

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  15. Thank you for a great and thought provoking post, one of the best I have read this year.

    I shall certainly be using your comments and ideas in future scenarios and games.

    A big thank you.

    Tony

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  16. A wonderful post Sidney and what you say, shows through in what you produce on your blog. Sorry we didn't meet up at Salute, I did get over to the Big Red Spot for a very short while and also played Chain of Command for well over an hour, name badges I think next time.
    Cheers,
    Pat.

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    1. Thanks Pat. I can't believe you were playing "Chain of Command" and I never realised! I'm so sorry Pat - if I'd have known I'd have been over like a shot! Hope you had fun!

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  17. I have taken the liberty of posting a link to this article on my own Blog.

    See;
    http://dampfpanzerwagon.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/being-there-re-post.html

    Regards

    Tony

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    1. Tony, that's really cool. Thank you so much!

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  18. Hello Sidney, excellent post and absolutely nothing to add. Your list brought up the most memorable games for me in 30+ years of wargaming. As a young lad participating in my first game at some modelling show in Wembley, where the organizers really emphasized the narrative of an Australian platoon in the Vietnam war; one was totally immersed in the period and the game; and then on through various other games over the years which had many of the elements you've mentioned. All I can say is that you've given me loads of ideas here for our Austerlitz game (though I'm not sure I can get my hands on a original bicorn, we might be able to get the players to the battlefield itself).
    Many thanks.

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    1. Hi Mark - I'm really glad you liked the post. You're absolutely right regarding the memorable ones being the ones when you get drawn into and immersed in the game. Your Austerlitz game sounds phenomenal.

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  19. Wonderful post, Sidney! There's much food for thought. I'm going to be coming back and seeing what we can incorporate here. Our group was ancients-centric but now we're in Maurice. The thing that pulled us in are elements you described that improve a one-off game. Narrative, color, personality and all of the player-added background of ImagiNation. For us, it was a revelation, even though you've been doing this for quite some time.

    I just got a copy of Dux Britanniarum and fell in love with it immediately. I only have to paint up both sides year and then I'd like to put some of the 17 above to work. Thank you for your post and inspiration!

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    1. Monty, thanks so much! Its an interesting point about whether you can get the same amount of narrative, theme and immersion from a ancients setting as from a more modern, literary one. I'd wondered about this until we started play-testing Dark Age games with Dux Britanniarum, but after about 6 months of games I firmly came to the view that it was just as possible. I'm really pleased you like the game - the campaign system helps a lot with developing the narrative.

      Thanks again for dropping by!

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  20. excellent blog !!

    to my best blows!





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  21. Gracias! Thank you very much for dropping by and for the kind comment! I'm glad you liked the post.

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  22. Great posting it reveals the flaws in some historical games the lack of putting a story around the action to enhance the gaming experience. Plot a Napoleonic game off Unforgiven or 7 years after an early revolutionary battle in the Napoleonic years. Being fought over a similar battlefield from opposite directions.

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    1. Thanks Volley Fire! Wargamers come to the hobby from lots of different angles, as you say. I've no problem at all with wargames coming in all shapes and sizes....some with lots of theme and colour, others more dominated by the technical performance of weapons and a different group which are more competition focused. I've enjoyed them all, at different times in my hobby life. Long may that diversity continue! But you're absolutely spot on, I think, that there's lots of additional pleasure which can be gained by adding theme, and a sense of time and place to almost any wargame irrespective of what the main focus of the game happens to be! Thanks again!

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