Wednesday, October 21, 2015


In 1871, the victorious Prussian army parades in Paris.

I’ve been dabbling in game design of various types for a few years now, ever since a house move  unearthed a box load of half-realised, half-completed (and in some cases half-baked) ideas for a variety of table top games, both war games and RPGs. One thing had changed since I had filled all those notebooks with scribbles: the ability to self-publish games as downloadable PDFs. Yay, I didn’t need a publisher! I immediately set about producing my first game, Vectis, a hex-and-counter war game of a hypothetical French invasion of the Isle of Wight during the Napoleonic Wars. There was no real rationale behind this scenario, other than it sounded quite fun. 

The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, an 1871 novella by George Tomkyns Chesney, began the genre of invasion literature and was an important precursor of science fiction.

Producing this first game sparked a memory of a story I had read some years before. The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer was a novella published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1871. Despite its age it remains a remarkably good read, which is probably why it was included in the Michael Moorcock-edited anthology Before Armageddon, wherein I discovered it. 

An unconfirmed photo of George Tomkyns Chesney

The story, written by a serving officer in the Royal Engineers called George Tomkyns Chesney, told of a successful German invasion of England through the recollections, many years later, of a volunteer who fought at the key battle near the Surrey market town of Dorking. Actually, the nationality of the invaders is not once stated, but they do speak German, which sort of narrows it down. Anyway, if you haven’t read the story, do so immediately: it’s out of copyright so an internet search should take you to a free Project Gutenberg version of it.  

I won’t go on about the importance of the story as a piece of literature, though I could at some length as the impact it had was quite fascinating. Suffice it to say that Chesney’s very clear style of writing coupled with his high degree of military knowledge give a fascinating glimpse of how this imaginary conflict might have played out. Wow, I thought, this is just crying out to be made into a game! So, that’s what I did.  

I started out with the same rules engine I had used for Vectis, which I had based on some corps-level Napoleonic rules published by Wessencraft a LONG time ago. Of course the rules needed adapting to accommodate advances in warfare, which mostly boiled down to both rifle fire and artillery fire being more deadly.  

But even before I started trying out the modified rules, I needed two credible armies. This required a lot of historical research, some repeated readings of Chesney’s story and a bit of conjecture. I based the German Korps on a Prussian Army List from the 1870-71 war. For the defenders, I expanded upon the few regular British regiments specified by Chesney, using Army Lists of the period (assisted by googling regimental histories) to come up with a credible mix of units garrisoned in vaguely the right part of England during that period. I could find no Army Lists for the militia or the volunteers, so I’m afraid I just made up the battalion numbers for these two forces. 

Map for Dorking 1875

Next I needed a map. Luckily, the 1871 Ordnance Survey maps for England were available as an online resource, unluckily not as downloadable files, so I printed the relevant ones out sheet by sheet, stuck them all together and then set about simplifying them to a hex equivalent. I wanted the basic unit of the battle to be the battalion, and set the scale accordingly. A key element of the battle would be the ability of the invaders to penetrate the defensive positions, so the battlefield needed sufficient depth (North to South) to give some meaningful objectives for the German side advance to. The breadth of the battlefield needed to be enough to give some options for manoeuvre. Chesney’s description of the battle concentrates on the sector between Box Hill and the eastern end of Ranmore Common: I widened the front line to Brockham in the east and a little beyond Westcott in the west, resulting in a pretty much square battlefield. 

Past experience gave me an idea of the right number of units to contest an area of this size. Referring back to the research, these numbers equated to a bit less than a German division and a bit more than two British divisions. To make the German division full strength I would need to increase the British numbers too, and that would make the battle a tad too cramped for my liking. But hey, this was a fictional battle, I could invent my own rationale! So the Germans, I argued, had left a regiment behind to guard their supply lines, while the British had thrown an extra brigade from another division into the mix when it became obvious the hammer blow would land at Dorking. 

Next the game mechanics. I started with my Vectis rules engine. But warfare had moved on and what worked nicely for Napoleonics was just too simplistic for the 1870s. The main infantry weapon was now the rifle, and artillery had advanced considerably. In Vectis, units hit by artillery fire would only be disordered: in Dorking, they might well be blasted away altogether. So I added a rifle fire phase, where infantry or cavalry units not engaged in melee could pour fire on an enemy unit within range. I also made artillery fire more deadly: equalling the score needed to hit a unit would disorder it, exceeding it by enough would destroy it (if it was out in the open: one benefit of cover would be that units couldn’t be shelled out of existence, only disordered). But just what sort of score would count as being “enough”? Here I was able to differentiate between the two sides, as there is little doubt the Germans had the better guns. So German artillery, depending on calibre, needs to exceed the “to hit” score by 1 or 2 to destroy a unit in the open, while regular British artillery needs 2 or 3. 

That leaves the British volunteer artillery… and this is a good place to talk about the volunteers. While the militia was a government-funded part-time force, the volunteers were privately-subscribed. You paid your dues, did some training in the evenings and hey presto, you were a volunteer. While Chesney conjectured that the government would issue what weapons it could to the volunteers, members were pretty much expected to equip themselves. The thought of volunteer infantry and cavalry, wandering around with minimal training and obsolete private weaponry, is scary enough: but there was also volunteer artillery. Quite where they kept their guns I’m not sure. Anyway, Chesney mentions that the volunteer artillery at Dorking was “heavy” so, assuming they would have outdated equipment, I decided they would be armed with 32-pounder smooth bore guns that had been in service in the 1860s. 

A 32-pounder smooth bore gun. This particular gun is 45 cwt (hundredweight).

It was mostly straightforward to make the volunteers the weakest units on the field – they have less Movement Points and lower Break values than other units, along with a penalty to rifle fire rolls. For volunteer artillery, though, I needed to introduce a separate firing table to reflect their reduced range and accuracy compared to the regular artillery. 

Another difference between the two armies was the cavalry. Firstly, British cavalry regiments typically had three squadrons while German regiments had five. How to reflect this? Luckily my research revealed that one German squadron would be undergoing R&R at any time, while the British would struggle to get all three of their squadrons ready for battle at short notice. So, if I used one cavalry counter to represent two squadrons, a British regiment would be a single counter while a German one would comprise two counters.  

Encounter during Franco-Prussian War

Another difference that my research threw up was that German cavalry tactics were evolving – certainly more so than the British. While they weren’t averse to the occasional suicidal massed charge, German troopers were increasingly willing to act as mobile infantry, harassing in small numbers before melting away.  

Dispersed Cavalry Table from Dorking 1875

Could this be simulated? Well, I wanted to try. In the end I came up with the option to remove German cavalry counters from the board and place them on a dispersal table with a corresponding dispersal marker. Dispersal markers could then be committed to the battle, effectively reducing the break value of the British unit they were placed on. Of course, this couldn’t be risk-free to the Germans, so the British would have a 1-in-6 chance of breaking a cavalry unit once it was committed to action in its dispersed state. 

The Martini–Henry was a breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle adopted by the British Army. The Mks I-IV were in service from 1871-1888 in the British Army but remained in service throughout the British Empire until the end of WWI. In 2010 and 2011, US Marines recovered at least three from various Taliban weapons caches in Marjah.

My final consideration was rifles. The British has a brand new one, the Martini-Henry Mk.1. Looking at its characteristics, this was very similar in range and accuracy to the German’s Dreyse. But the Dreyse was phased out during 1871 to be replaced by the much better Mauser. This made me think long and hard. Despite the advantages of high ground and cover, the British had a lot of weak units and inferior artillery. Inferior rifles on top of that could really skew the game balance. Also, I was mindful that I didn’t want too many different rules for the different sides in case it affected the game’s playability. So I did the responsible thing and utterly ignored the Mauser, which for a battle set in summer 1871 was historically fine as its arrival in service was delayed some time. 

The Dreyse 'needle-gun' rifle was the first breech-loading rifle to use the bolt action to open and close the chamber, executed by turning and pulling a bolt handle. It had a rate of fire of about 10–12 rounds per minute. It was adopted by the Prussian army in 1841.

Of course, none of this happened in such a cut and dried way: the numbers of units, the mix of units and the finer points of the rules were honed during playtests. Once I was happy that everything felt “about right” (a highly scientific approach, then), more play-testing ensued to come up with some victory conditions. What I wanted were conditions that would reflect the fact that the invaders needed to push the British off the ridge to the north of Dorking and also weaken their numbers enough for a later killer blow. So I added a meandering line to the map that traced out the key features of the ridge: the Germans would win points for each unit that ended the battle to the north of it, modified by a bonus for each British unit broken (and a penalty for each German one). Two key features in the centre would also earn the Germans points if they were occupied at the end of the game.

With that decided, the final and longest phase of play-testing broke out. This was a bit more scientific, as I needed a certain amount of statistical confidence to set the thresholds for the various outcomes of the battle. 

Obviously I’m biased, but I was really pleased with the balance of the game.  If the battle is going to be one-sided, it will be because of naivety from the British player. Standing around in the open when the other side has Krupps artillery is a Bad Thing – and so it should be. But sensible use of cover and some well-timed counter-attacks can give the defenders a real chance of prevailing.  

The game, resplendent with my very, VERY basic artwork, was sold as 1871: The Battle of Dorking for a number of years, and did pretty well really, both in terms of reviews and sales figures (all things being relative of course, not enough to retire on, believe me!). So when Mary emailed me to say Tiny Battle Publishing were interested in buying the rights, I was in two minds. I mean, heck, this was MY game! But then, Tiny Battle Publishing could bring a level of production to it that I never could, and produce a good quality printed version – again something I could never do. So, I agreed to work with Mary and Tom to revamp the rules. During said revamp I discovered an Inconvenient Truth: while the original story was written in 1871, if you check the dates in it (which I now did, belatedly) they actually correspond to 1875. Oops. Well, all I can say is that Chesney based the course of the battle on what he knew at the time of writing. This isn’t a simulation of an actual event in 1875, it’s an attempt to play out a scenario imagined in 1871. So I think it’s justified to keep the assumed equipment (and hence the rules) unchanged, even though the real-world Germans would definitely have been using Mausers by 1875! 

The Tiny Battle cover for Dorking 1875 by Tom Russell.
It has been great to work with Mary and Tom. They never sought to impose changes – they were consultative throughout, and the modifications they suggested were almost always improvements. 

Also, they brought Ilya Kudriashov to the party as the artist: his work is great, especially when compared to my efforts! 

So, Dorking 1875: The German Conquest of Britain is now available in all its Victorian glory from Tiny Battle Publishing. Hope you enjoy it!

Friday, October 16, 2015


Our newest recruits

Today we added three new games to our lineup-- WINTER THUNDER, OUR ROYAL BONES, and DORKING 1875.

First, we have WINTER THUNDER, an operational-level game on the famous "Battle of the Bulge. Designer Brian Train has substantially revised and streamlined his 2004 design, Autumn Mist, incorporating a newly-researched and more accurate order of battle with revised counter values and reinforcement schedule. The rules have been cleaned up and include an improved solitaire play system. There's even a drastically revised map with a different scale and treatment of terrain.  

Next, we have OUR ROYAL BONES: THE BATTLE OF BOUVINES, the next installment in the Shields & Swords series of medieval battle games from designer Tom Russell, who reunites with Alexander Krumwiede and Jose Ramon Faura, the artists responsible for Tiny Battle's Agincourt game We Happy Few. OUR ROYAL BONES uses the core Shields & Swords system to highlight differences in organizational structure and command control, and adds rules for captured nobles and elite heavy cavalry units. The French have a weak flank that must be protected at all costs, and the Coalition has a mass of powerful infantry units in the center. There are plenty of tactical choices to be made, and one strategic decision on which the whole battle might turn.

Last, but not least, is DORKING 1875: THE GERMAN CONQUEST OF BRITAIN, based on the genre-defining Victorian-era classic of alt-hist fiction, "The Battle of Dorking". Dorking's mechanisms are simple and straightforward, with important differences in technology and doctrine built-in and handled behind the scenes so that the players can focus on maneuver and attack without having to compute odds or round off factors. The turn structure is intermingled so that the players trade off phases over the course of the turn, keeping everyone interested and engaged in the proceedings.
Gallop or truck over to Tiny Battle Publishing to order our newest recruits.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

OUR ROYAL BONES AND SHIELDS & SWORDS (guest post by Tom Russell)

Our Royal Bones: The Battle of Bouvines is the thirtieth battle I've designed for the Shields & Swords series, which sounds like an awful lot, and you're probably wondering, where the heck are all these games at? Well, twenty-five of the thirty were designed for a single boxed game that should be coming out next year. I don't know about you, but a box with twenty-five battles from the ninth and tenth century sounds pretty cool to me.

And of those thirty battles, ORB: BOB is easily in my top ten, maybe my top five, which is saying something! (Certainly it has the best abbreviation.) It was one of my favorite battles to design and remains one of my favorite battles to play.
The thing about the broad period of time that historiography has dubbed the Middle Ages is that an awful lot of the battles take the form of "this side lined up over here, that side over there, the two sides started bashing each other's skulls in until one side was left". And while most of the battles are going to conform to that broad structure in one way or the other, it's my job as a designer to differentiate them, to find what makes each one special-- a terrain feature, a force imbalance, a narrative element-- and then build the game around that. So, when a battle has a lot of meat for me to hang onto, it makes my job a whole lot easier, and this was certainly the case with Bouvines:

·    You have two very different command structures-- Phillip's French army against a motley collection of English, Flemish, Germans, and more. This let me reflect the limitations of a coalition army directly through the existing Wing Activation/Command Chit structure.
·    You have a weak flank on the French left. This gives the coalition player an instant victory condition to work toward-- possession of the bridge hex, cutting off the French line of retreat-- and something for the French player to defend against.
·    You have a force imbalance-- sort of. Both sides had infantry and both sides have cavalry, with the coalition having more of the former and the French more of the latter. The coalition infantry was pretty boss, and may have won the day, if not for...
·    ...the timely deployment of Phillip II's heavy cavalry reserve! When to deploy one's reserve is a problem that has vexed commanders for centuries. Too soon and they'll fizzle out, too late and they won't make a difference-- but do it just right, and it can be decisive. Ol' Phil did it just right. I was able to tie this key decision to the Initiative Marker. It's the hinge on which the whole architecture of the battle turns.

The great thing about all of these elements is that I was able to build the game around them without having to invent a bunch of new mechanics or special rules; they're all things that could be reflected within the existing structure of the system. There are some special rules for elite cavalry, rearguard units, and VP-rich nobles, but the point is I didn't need to reinvent the wheel. I could take the wheel I already had, fit it on the car, and get right to test-driving and fine-tuning without too many false starts. It made the design process fairly painless, and I'm all for painless.

As I mentioned, I also really dig this battle as a player. Now, before I go any further, let me say that I dig all the Shields & Swords games. If I don't dig 'em, I don't put them out into the wild. I am reminded of something the director Paul Thomas Anderson said about his sophomore effort Boogie Nights: "No one has to see this film more than me." However popular the S&S system ends up being, and I sure hope it's going to be, no one is going to have to play more S&S games than I do, and no one is going to have to play each game as many times as I do.

So, Stamford Bridge, A Hill Near Hastings, We Happy Few, Our Royal Bones-- I like 'em all. They're all fun, at least from where I'm sitting, and they all do what I want them to do. That is, they all recreate the historical situation to the degree that it is possible given the parameters of the series and the notorious unreliability of period sources. Stamford Bridge has that sense of narrative-- the surprise attack, the struggle to cross the river, the succession of Viking leaders, the last gasp of Orri's Storm. It does what a game on Stamford Bridge should do. A Hill Near Hastings is about the Normans hammering futilely against the static Anglo-Saxon line, at least until discipline breaks and it all goes to hell; it does what a game on Hastings should do. I like Stamford Bridge more than A Hill Near Hastings-- it's an inherently more interesting situation, and there's a lot more options open to both players. Again, to be clear, I still dig Hastings, and I'm not faulting it for not being Stamford Bridge. I figure if you're going to buy a game on Hastings, or on Agincourt (like We Happy Few), then you want to play a game about Hastings or about Agincourt, and that you're going to be aware of the limitations and peculiarities inherent in simulating that historical situation.

Whereas Bouvines, as recreated in Our Royal Bones, seems to be almost replete with possibilities while remaining historically viable. Yes, you've still got two armies lined up a handful of hexes apart from one another, but you have a lot more choices, some of which are highly contextual, and there's a greater potential for maneuver and experimentation. I've seen both sides squeak out a victory, and I've seen both sides clobber the other decisively. Both players must decide where and when to attack and to defend, where to be strong, and where to leave a weakness. Everything or nothing can depend on that cavalry reserve, depending on the choices the players have made up until that point, and afterwards. As a tense, competitive experience, it's aces. 

At least for me, anyway, and I did  design the darn thing, so there you go.

Note from Mary: Bouvines has very little to do with cattle, other than there may have been a few cattle, who may have been grazing nearby and possibly witnessed the whole thing, but wisely took their solicitors advise and said nothing.