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Chainmail: Battle for the Borderlands


It's always a pleasure to find new wargaming friends, especially when they fall in line with your own gaming ethos and level of dedication to crafting fun games. Eric Hoffman had been scheduled to be a game master at Scrum Con in both 2019 and 2020, but family illnesses torpedoed his intentions both times. It's no fun as a convention organizer to have to scramble to find a replacement GM at the last minute, but life often gets in the way regardless of best intentions, and I completely understood his situation.  

But having never met Eric, it was hard to know if it was a big loss to our con and its players who had signed up for his games. Now that I've had the chance to play with Eric a couple of times, I can definitively confirm that it was indeed a big loss, and now I'm really looking forward to him being able to run a game for folks at a future Scrum Con.

Eric finally did get to attend a Scrum Con event of a sort when we hosted our virtual Summer Invitational back in July, where I got to know him as a fun fellow player in the John Sears-run "Dungeon Scrum" session on that Saturday afternoon. It was clear he was somebody I would enjoy gaming with again.

A few weeks later it was exciting to get an invitation from him to play in a game he wanted to host, especially since it was Chainmail, to which the great Keith Sloan introduced the Second Saturday Scrum Club back in January this year (I actually had to confirm it was this year because after six-months of pandemic distancing, it truly feels like it was a couple of years ago now).

Like the Battle of Emridy Meadows scenario Keith created for his session of Chainmail, Eric also took his inspiration from the early annals of D&D lore. I'll let him discuss his inspiration in his own words below, but it was great fun, especially because I was teamed with several folks I already knew and liked--the aforementioned Keith Sloan and another good pal, Peter Megginson--squaring off against fellow Scrum Clubber Steve Braun and a friend of Eric's named Thaddeus (who himself turned out to be a fun, generous guy to game with).

I did feel going into Eric's game like I was about to earn some sort of wargaming merit badge: not only were we playing Chainmail, the first set of fantasy wargaming rules ever published, but we were using all sorts of out-of-vogue elements like written orders, simultaneous movement, and the fatigue rules. To top it all off, we would be playing on a sand table...you can't get much more old school than that! Level unlocked, as it were.

I can't wait to someday fenagle an invite to play face-to-face in Eric's basement on that gigantic sand table, but until then, Eric has this whole virtual wargaming hobby down. In fact, he executed at a higher level than anybody I've seen run a miniatures wargame online, with four cameras set up: one planted at a three-quarters down view on each player's side of the battlefield, one mounted on a small tripod that roamed to wherever the action was taking place, and another mounted by his computer for when he needed face time with the players. 

He also set up Google spreadsheets for players to record their written orders each turn, which then automatically fed into a master orders sheet that only Eric and his helpmate father could see when it came time to execute the simultaneous movement on the battlefield. Eric even taught me a new trick on Zoom by setting up "break-out rooms" where each side could gather to discuss and coordinate their strategy between turns with their teammates (I played on the side of the coalition of men, while our opponents were the forces of chaos).  

The game stretched to about four hours with nary a moment of down time. For five players in a virtual environment, it practically raced along to the final charge of cavalry that definitively turned the tide of battle. I was surprised at just how well the written orders and simultaneous movement worked, creating a lot of drama as we all waited with great anticipation to see what happened after all of the orders were executed. This is one area, in fact, where all of the technology (linked Google spreadsheets, breakout rooms, etc.) actually worked better than if we had all been in the same physical space.

I've asked Eric to share some of his thoughts, which I'll include below before jumping into the pictures from the day's game.

From Eric:

Some background on why I did this: 

For the past few years I have invited a group of 10-12 folks I know primarily from the Old School D&D writing/publishing/convention scene to my house on a weekend in August to game, eat crab cakes and pit beef, and generally hang out together. This year because of COVID we couldn't do that in person, but I didn't want to simply lose the year. We regularly play online RPG games together, so we scheduled some of those for the usual weekend. But one of the hallmarks of this gathering is a featured set piece or 
Chainmail or some other war game, so I set my mind to how we could conceivably do this virtually, and after some trial and error, arrived at this set up. It worked much better than I anticipated! I expected this to be a largely ceremonial game just to say we played on the sand table this year, but it ended up being fun for all, and so I've run it again and expanded to other gaming circles.

Here was my introduction sent to the players:

We will be delving into Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures in this event. That’s right, the game that started the movement that eventually led to the creation of Dungeons &Dragons as well as launched a plethora of lawsuits from the money-grubbing Tolkien estate!

In this game we will be simulating a battle that may have taken place in the locale that would one day come to be the region detailed in one of the most prolific D&D settings, Module B2,
The Keep on the Borderlands.

In this endeavor we answer the question, “Why did they build a keep here?”

Scenario
The half-demon Necromancer Vahevala has raised an army of Chaos in the Borderlands, intent on driving deep into the civilized nations of Aquilia. A coalition of the nations of Men have come together in a desperate attempt to destroy Vahevala’s army before it can wreak havoc amongst the civilian populace.

This seems to happen at least once a generation, causing a disgruntled grognard to note on the eve of battle, “They really should build a Keep on this Borderland…”

Game Information
The objectives in this battle are simple. Both armies are intent on destroying the other at all costs.

Chainmail's
mass combat rules will be used with the simultaneous move system of initiative. Each player will submit written orders each turn for their units and the GM will act as referee, interpreting those orders on the battlefield.

A reliable connection to Zoom (voice and video) and a bunch of d6 are all that is needed. Players will split into two teams, each player controlling one “Battle” of their army.

You will receive a Google spreadsheet with four tabs within the workbook:

(1) Roster: Here you will find an overview of the units under your command and descriptions of some of the special abilities they may have. You will have to track your unit Fatigue on this tab during the game.

(2) Orders: Each turn you will issue written orders to each of your units by filling out the cells on this tab. You can discuss with your teammate what you would like to do strategically but each unit will act, according to the referees inference, based only on the written orders.

(3) Combat Tables: You can follow along here during the melee and missile phase of the game to get a true sense of the wonderful train wreck that is
Chainmail!

(4) Quick Reference Sheet: Here is a summary of most of the rules you may want to take a look at while making your decisions in the game. You won’t need to reference them in any way, the referee will do that for you based on written orders.

As you can see, Eric wasn't messing around. He had this thought through and lockdown. It was a real inspiration, and left me wanting to incorporate some of his ideas into my next foray into hosting and refereeing an online miniatures wargame.

The following photos were all screenshots, and reflect the various cameras Eric had set up for our game. About half of these pics are from the inestimable Keith Sloan, to whom I will forever be grateful for running the first game of Chainmail I've had a chance to play in.

A shot of everybody around mid-game. Top row: Joe / middle row: Eric (c.) and Keith (r.) / bottom row: Peter (l.), Thaddeus (c.), Steve (r.). 

The Chaos general's view at game's start.

The Law general's view at game's start. I played some Medium Horse Cavalry (#4) and Longbowmen (#3).


Eric's amazing sand table.

Initial advances.

Orc archers atop a hill.

Eric refereeing with his dad, moving troops according to the players' orders.



Keith, Peter, and I strategizing in a break out room writing our orders between turns.








Eric's dad, who helped keep the action moving by co-refereeing. I wish my dad was into these games!






...and this is where we called the game. My cavalry were mopping up the remaining enemy units at this point and there was no turning the tide of battle.

Here are the two units on the side of Law that I controlled.

Medium Horse

Longbowmen


Below is the master spreadsheet containing the written orders the players provided to the referees (Eric and his dad). We didn't get to see these during the game, but Eric passed them my way after the fact for posting to this blog for the curious. We stopped recording written orders in the final few turns only because it became clear that the remaining troops were going to stay locked in combat duking it out until a victor emerged. (Click the orders to enlarge.)



Closing Thoughts and Parting Shots

Eric put the "master" in game master for this event. He's inspired me to adopt some of his tools and techniques, and I just wish I had a basement set-up like his, if for no other reason than to be able to set up all of the cameras and basically leave everything in place until I could host the next virtual miniatures game. I was pretty proud of my two-camera set up for a couple of games I ran of Dragon Rampant this summer, with one camera mounted on my dining room ceiling fan to provide a perfect bird's eye view of the battlefield and another to get up close to the melee action, but in the end I think Eric's four-camera set up worked even better.

I truly do miss gaming with folks in person, but I'm impressed at how much fun can still be had when folks put their mind to it and find ways to game with miniatures remotely. Eric has found a way to bridge the gap better than anybody I've seen yet, and for that I thank and commend him.


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Comments

  1. Very cool! When is the next one of these?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great looking game and very impressive set up,good all round!
    Best Iain

    ReplyDelete
  3. A pleasing sight. A good game with plenty of pictures. Thanks' for sharing it

    ReplyDelete

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