Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Why Army Lists Suck!

Army Lists are more recent to rules than most people are aware of. They only really came into being with the advent of DBM style rules, and later manifestations as fantasy rules became popular with younger gamers. They are an easy way for a gamer to go to his favorite miniature provider and follow a recipe without either much knowledge of history, or understanding organization and structures of armies of a given period-he just fills the order, so to speak.

They are also complete and total balderdash!

Now, I have no argument with fantasy gamers using army lists-after all how many elves do make up a band? Who knows what dwarf armies had in the way of artillery? It makes sense that the author of the rules needs to tell you what his imaginary armies were like. Likewise, I have no problem with the tournament ancient gamer who plays DBM or the like, as long as they recognize that their needs are based on the fact that such games are about the tournament and the needs of the game balance, and have little to do with history. In a sense, such games jumped the shark when they went across periods, and huge geographical distances, to pose armies against each other that could never meet in the real world. They are, again, a form of fantasy. A fantasy sheep in history wolves’ clothing, so to speak.

Through most of military history prior to the late 1600s or early 1700s, the armies were largely made up of whoever showed up, and that could vary widely from battle to battle, and circumstance to circumstance. Many of the battles in all periods could be wildly unbalanced in the real world in either quality or numbers. Not so, with the Army List world. In most cases, army lists are not even a good average representation of armies of a period, but, rather, the aggregated average of only 2-3 of the major battles of a given army with a little fudge factor by the designer. Again, in the medieval and even Renaissance periods armies were pretty amorphous in size and make-up, and so some sort of argument might be made that the only way to do even in -period, historical, opponents in battle would be to agree on some mythical “typical” army after examining a few major engagements. So be it. I understand that that is one way to deal with gaming in a period in which standardization was not typical-just impose standardization upon the armies! That is-make it up! Just like Elven archers!

This becomes less defensible when you get to the Horse and Musket period, or later. These armies did have a structure that may be studied. There is no need to posit fantastical opponents from another time and place, they have many historical adversaries and great numbers of battles to study. None of the army structures are terribly hard to find out about or understand. One book on a period that covers the action on a tactical level and you’ve got it! Actual relatively accurate numbers in various units, at various battles, on certain dates can be found in 10 minutes. If you want a generic average of these formations, it is EASY to find and apply. There is NO need for an an extensive body of army lists! None!

Then why do they exist? There are several reasons that suggest themselves. First of all, too many wargames are not based in their design on true army structures-or even armies! They are division sized cock-ups of a few typical troops (usually those with the best uniforms) that fill a 4x6 to 4X8 table. They usually represent all three arms, but even then the army lists strangely over-represent cavalry and under-represent artillery. They are an artificial recipe that is more about working with the rules as written, than matching any historical mix. They have no true connection to historical structures-even abstracted ones. They have “command groups” that fit the rules and the table instead. They are a very effective mechanism for making some people think they are battling with armies, when the forces engaged aren’t even a minimum rear guard.

They also exist for forms of convention play, for the same reason as the ancient tournaments have them-and they are just as ahistorical-maybe more so, since the historical information is more readily available.

They are also a way for Historical Gamers to avoid reading or thinking about history-it can be put in a can and sold to people that have no real interest in history. They are really fantasy gamers that like their troops in historical uniforms. Just buy one bag of grenadiers, three of line infantry and a half bag of lights! Voila! An Army-just add water based paint! No history required-just eat your prepared meal and never think about whether it’s Soylent Green!

Now army lists are VERY popular with rule publishers because it can get you to that magic number of minimum pages, or fill out 30-50 pages with fluff that allows a price increase, but that requires no real creative effort. Writing rules is hard-any ass with enough time and a pocket calculator can do army lists-it’s just tedious. When a rule set gets to 150 pages and the majority of it is army lists-beware! When a rule set is 12 pages of rules, 30 pages of pretty pictures, and 100 pages of army lists-you’ve got a situation where you are paying a lot for stuff that isn’t used beyond the first look at the book, and actually gets in the way of the rules being used at the table. If a set of rules costs $30-50 dollars, divide that price by the number of pages of actual rules-not the army lists and other marginally useful material-and that’s what you are paying for ideas-which is supposedly what is being sold in a rule set. That makes any set with dozens of army lists (usually one to a page) a pretty expensive set of rules, and a very inefficient use of your purchasing dollar.

Now, I am NOT saying that suggested starter armies aren’t a consumer friendly thing, especially for the new gamer, the unread youngster, or the marginally educated, but when army lists become a requirement, the hobby has, yet again, committed to the Lowest Common Denominator in design, gaming, and historical inquiry. It’s a hobby that’s supposed to be about history and encourage thought while entertaining gamers and their friends-isn’t it?

Nor am I against giving a reasonable description of the make-up of armies in a period-just don’t tell me that the cliff notes for Huckleberry Finn are necessary to reading and understanding the book! Cliff notes are a thinly disguised cheat by those that don’t really want to do the work. There is some requirement for reading history in historical wargaming isn’t there? Not only the designer, but the gamer should have some basis for judgment beyond the contents of a rule book shouldn’t they? Is it too much to expect historical wargamers to have some grounding in history? So then let’s treat Army Lists for what they are, the equivalent of Lite beer, microwave dinners, fast food, and movies with “Awesome” explosions. They destroy the distinctions between fantasy gaming and historical wargaming. They also severely limit the historical miniature hobby in its creative development. Every game played becomes crammed into the preconceptions of the list-and the list has no reality-even an abstracted one. As they say of Los Angeles-there is no “there,” there.