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HEXES AND COUNTERS

Mary Russell

There is something immensely, elementally appealing about laying out a battlefield map made of hexes, tracing the shape of a ridge from hex to hex with the tip of your finger, contemplating the importance of this city, its nearness to the river, and pondering the effect of this clump of green circles that signify a consortium of trees. Then the edges of the map are populated with cardboard troops, each side forming its line. If they're new to the topic, maybe the players recognize a few of the names on the counters or the places on the map, or if they're immersed in it, maybe they recognize all of them. It's the history that draws us in, after all.

Then you take your first turn. Perhaps you have two or three dozen units on your side and, in certain types of wargames, that means you have two or three dozen units to move on that first turn. A single unit, a single move, usually isn't terribly important. All other things, including terrain, being equal, there's not a huge difference between moving Regiment A into hex 1211 or moving them into hex 1311. The single move, in isolation, means nothing. But all those little meaningless moves when taken together creates an advance, a posture, a challenge, a narrative.

And likewise once the two lines are in collision for the first time, the results of a single combat, the elimination of a single unit or the taking of a single step loss, when taken in isolation generally isn't terribly important. It doesn't matter in the long-term whether I rolled a "5" or a "6" on this combat. That one engagement won't decide the battle; it's the sum of those engagements, the attacks made down the line, the offensive and its counter, that's what matters.

And yet, perhaps this one defeat in this one hex is what might weaken that flank or sector. Maybe if it had gone differently, the eliminated or reduced or retreated unit might have been free to shore up another hex, to prevent a defeat there, and suddenly there are little holes in the line, then bigger ones, then a yawning gap that invites the enemy to charge forward toward an objective.

Every move, every combat, it matters, or rather, it can matter. They're sort of like the butterfly effects that fascinate economics gamers, sometimes seemingly insignificant decisions that shape the possibilities to come. And like certain kinds of economics games, hex-and-counter games can sometimes have a sort of fragility to them. This is particularly true of battle games, where you're unlikely to be rebuilding units that you've lost. If you lose your left flank, your left flank is gone, and you don't get anything in compensation for that loss; warfare doesn't have a catch-up mechanism. You have to deal with the consequences, and you're probably not equipped to do so; suffering a setback in a wargame only makes those setbacks more likely. Your possibilities narrow.

I find that the game itself often narrows. On the first turn, I might be concerned with, and projecting my hopes and fears upon, the entire battlefield. But as the game nears its end, the focus ratchets in on a handful of hexes or units upon whom the fate of the battle and the game rests. Will I take the final objective hex I need for victory or inflict this crucial elimination on my opponent? I have other units, and so does she, but they don't move much in that final turn - they're no longer going to effect the result. That doesn't mean, in a historical simulation context, that they've gone home for the day; presumably they're still slugging it out, still marching. It just means that the game has shown us what is important, or rather, that we, through the sum of all those little moves and little attacks, have discovered what story we were telling, and where it was taking us.

The structure of the game gradually becomes constrictive, and suddenly it matters very much whether Regiment A is in hex 1211 or 1311, and suddenly everything hinges on whether I roll a "5" or a "6". The broad sweep of the thing becomes intensely intimate.

Oldschool hex-and-counter games on the whole are not particularly efficient; as Rachel Simmons once wrote, you are asking the players to make lots of little and insignificant moves that only accumulate meaning in aggregate, rather than asking them to create that meaning and narrative with the movement of a single piece. It is a barrier to entry, and there are fresher and more innovative ways to approach the problems of maneuver and of kinetic warfare. There is a reason why there is a whole class of wargamers who have never nudged a counter from 1211 to 1210, or calculated odds before rolling on a CRT. And certainly in my experience it's those more novel approaches to historical gaming that have been responsible for the success of our little company.

But I sometimes do still feel the pull of these old-fashioned games, and naturally the very things that I find fascinating about them are the very things that make them inefficient and that keep other folks away from them.

1 comment

  • This a very fascinating piece, it remembers me the philosopher Spinoza in some approaches. However who, at HS, is the historical researcher? I feel there is some nice surprise behind this theme … aka History.

    Enrico Acerbi

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