In Praise of Hastilude

A medieval battle scene painted by Michael Perry. Knights fight fiercely to hold the drawbridge against an enemy assault.

or, The Undesirability of Modern Wargaming’s Most Prevalent Format

Hastilude is an old word originally encompassing the universe of mock combat, simulated warfare-as-sport. Derived from the Latin words Hasta (whence the Hastati of the front rank of Republican Roman infantry), or Spear, and Ludus, or Play, one may rightly employ it as a hoighty-toighty name for what we now call wargaming. However, I mean to use it as a name for a particular style of wargaming that is, unfortunately, less pursued today. While the term originally encompassed the medieval tourney, the popularity of the joust soon eclipsed all other forms of martial sport, and the term was restricted to everything except the tournament. And that is the sense I use it today.

Tournament play, that ugly beast of matched point values and supposedly “equal” armies, set out on a battlefield that is meant to favor no one, in an escalating ladder culminating in one winner seizing a trophy while the losers shred their army lists and return to the hell of spreadsheet min-maxing, is the kind of play that so many wargamers, if not most, focus on today. I do not like it. In fact, I loathe it, and I take its inferiority for granted. Nevertheless, a few words are necessary to explain why, particularly to newcomers that have never heard of another way.

Tournament style play in no way resembles the nature of real war, with its myriad complexities and variability. Unpredictability is minimized as generalship is reduced down to calculating statistical probabilities and the idiosyncrasies of a particular rule set and its ever-changing revisions, rather than the laws of war as we know them, a phenomenon known as Mathhammer among Games Workshop’s joyless serfs. Players do not act like real commanders who must safeguard their precious resources for the next battle, but rather as baseball managers in the final innings of the Game 7 of the World Series, where every body and soul is expendable and the world will be reset by the next game. Very often, there is not even an attempt at explaining what is being fought over, or how the two armies came to meet in the first place: the most that is attempted is a poker chip here or there to represent an “objective”, utterly meaningless except to the arbitrary rules of the match. It is the death of imagination and of meaning. One may as well play Monopoly or watch eSports on TV.

Fortunately there is another format that is purer, deeper, and more enjoyable than the tournament, and this I am pleased to call hastilude. It is the format of the original kriegspiel, by which real army officers attempted to simulate warfare over objectives of value, adhering to the laws of reality, fought with men who suffered fear, sickness, and hunger. Other modern terms have been proposed, such as the ‘narrative campaign’, though I think this name adds more confusion and injects unhelpful ideas about “telling a story” (that you’ve planned out in your head) rather than simulating a war (by which a story naturally emerges).

Hastilude is not a switch that you flip on and off, but rather the culmination of many different efforts, some tried and true and some the product of your own experimentation. I offer you a few suggestions to leave behind the tournament mindset forever.

1. Forget about Points

In fact, throw away the whole idea that armies can and should be equal, or that the abstraction of point values can really boil down the capabilities of a unit to a meaningful standard. Few battles fought in history were fought between exactly equal armies, and it would be a poor general that would not seek to maximize his advantages. Embrace the idea that one side or the other will have advantages. If it’s you, use them as best you can. If it’s your opponent, see it as an opportunity to overcome adversity.

Instead of matched play, think instead about scenarios. Come up with a situation that excites your imagination, taking inspiration from unique terrain in your collection, a real historical engagement, or a desperate situation from that novel you’re reading, and try to emulate it on the table. If you’re dry on ideas, pick up one of the many books of wargame scenarios, or pull one from an old wargaming magazine.

2. What are you fighting for?

Remember that real battles are fought for good reasons. Something of value must be captured; land must be gained; time must be purchased at the cost of blood to allow an escape or a redeployment; a road must be kept open to maintain lines of communication; a vital target must be destroyed.

The use of clear objectives gives verisimilitude, but also establishes a meaningful end to the game. Will your little plastic and metal men kill and die for the arbitrary accumulation of “victory points” or a meaningless boundary like turn six? No, but they may be willing to put it all on the line for the fabulous booty in the baggage train, or to buy their brothers a few more hours to evacuate the capital.

3. Name your Troops

Keeping with the idea that your toy soldiers represent real people who are putting their lives on the line, why not remind yourself of this every turn by naming them? If you are playing a skirmish game like Frostgrave or In Her Majesty’s Name, you can name them all. If you’re playing a larger game, you may only want to name your squad leaders or your knights. But even if you are playing a 6mm massed army game with largely indistinguishable individual miniatures, you can name your battalion commanders.

There is a power in naming things, even fictional people. They become real in some way, and, unless you are a psychopath, you become at least a little reluctant to lose them. Their perils and sacrifices become more real to you. If a character survives many battles, he will accumulate honor and glory and perhaps improved fighting or command ability. Others will rally to his banner and be inspired by his presence. And if he is felled by a stray shot, what a blow to the army! Or, alternatively, their noble death becomes a rallying cry to the army, leading them to greater acts of heroism.

4. Play Campaigns

Few things are more destructive to the verisimilitude of wargaming than having every battle become a war of annihilation, fought to the last unbroken soldier. It is rare for real battles to play out this way, and for good reason. Not only are soldiers generally reluctant to die in a hopeless cause, a good losing general wants to spare as much of his army and equipment as he can to fight and hopefully win the next battle.

The obvious cure to the megalomaniac, life-squandering wargamer is to have each battle be part of a campaign, with the consequences of the current battle having an effect on the next battle. Exactly how to do this is a topic for a longer article, but if your chosen ruleset doesn’t have guidance for you, there are a few things you should consider.

First, have each army suffer from attrition before the game begins. This means that, instead of fighting at full strength, some percentage of your army will be reduced, either with either units missing or units being reduced from full strength or both. The more casualties suffered in the last battle, the heavier the weight of the attrition multiplier.

Second, if your force was completely annihilated in the previous battle, you may suffer from a lack of intelligence on enemy strength or their movement, and thus be caught by surprise (lose the initiative/lose a turn) or suffer other leadership penalties.

Third, take into consideration objectives held or seized, and the length of the previous game, to determine if one or both sides has achieved any advantages. For example, a defeat by the defender in the previous game that nonetheless was dragged out over 8-10 turns may be said to have bought more time for the defender in the next game, and thus give them a few more entrenched fighting positions, or the ability to place advance units on high ground. If the objectives are resources, it may be that vital supplies like food or ammunition were lost, denying an army the ability to use their vehicles, or forcing them to withdraw to shorten their supply lines.

There are several excellent books on adapting any given ruleset to a campaign model.

5. ‘The Moral is to the Physical as three is to one’

Remember your Napoleon, and don’t skimp out on your preferred system’s rules about morale, break tests, fear checks, pinning rallying, and so forth. A big mistake commonly made by newcomers is to focus on wiping out the enemy’s troops, but in war, and in any rule set worth playing, you are more likely to scare the enemy away than kill him. They are often tempted to ignore all of the conditions under which a unit must test its morale in their eagerness to get the fight on.

Even among wargaming veterans, however, there is often something missed in the consideration between wounded and killed. Consider custom rules to factor in the morale effects (in the current battle), attrition affects (in the next battle), strain on your supply chain (in grand strategy) related to the evacuation and treatment of the wounded.

Likewise, think about how to simulate surrender and taking captives. Unfortunately many rule sets do not cover this at all, but it is a vital consideration if a true simulation of warfare is being attempted. Even very brave soldiers will surrender if their situation is hopeless, and gathering intelligence from prisoners (and the difficulties of guarding, feeding, and providing them with medical care) are important concerns of their captors.

These five points provide a good starting point for hastilude, though no doubt the list could be expanded in breadth and in depth almost indefinitely. I should be very interested in hearing your own suggestions, particularly with regard to house rules and existing rule sets that cover these situations especially well. Leave a note in the comments and share your own war stories.

6 responses to “In Praise of Hastilude”

  1. This article points out all of my biggest problems with wargaming.

    No real battle is fought on equal terms and no real army will fight till the death of every man is killed. Asymmetry is what takes wargaming from a game to a simulation.

    Also, I need a reason to play a game other than points. There needs to be a reason for these battles to take place or what’s the point. A good read and I agree wholeheartedly with it.

  2. Fantastic article. I believe there is a small typo in the title of bullet five (omitting a ‘to’), but this is splendidly articulated. Well done, sir.

  3. These are the solid reasons why I tend to lean heavily into narrative play of games. I want to know the “story” behind the actions not the math. Moreover the equal points value is fictional in battle. It is much better to make valiant effort with the tools you are given. More the victory to the commander who has less but achieves more.

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