The goldfish bowl

I often find it curious that our wargaming tables are effectively fighting in a goldfish bowl. We place our armies on the tabletop like two Siamese fighting fish waiting to strike. Both manoeuvre around this set field of battle with fixed borders and cannot leave the board. There is no retreat, only death or victory.

This is of course not very realistic or, dare I say, “historical”. Armies would rarely fight to the death: self preservation is nature’s first law. If a battle was lost, a good general would attempt a fighting withdrawal, trying to extricate the army as intact as possible from the enemy. There are numerous cases where an enemy would deliberately withdraw, such as with nomadic horse, to entice the enemy forwards into a trap. Such things are hard to reproduce on a 6ft x 4ft board.

I recall many games of the original Warhammer Ancient Battles (WAB) where I’d fight a battle and units would fall off the table (either in flight or pursuit) and simply be gone. There were some rules for pursuing units to return, but in a limited turn game (as WAB was back then; maybe 5 turns) their effect was minimal. I often thought how silly it was that a unit was simply gone or there was no option in the rules for a commander to voluntarily march his units off the table. However, the five turns would pass and night would fall on a game bringing the battle to a close.

Then WAB 2 came along and with it the abolition of turn length (I suspect for the benefit of tournament play). In the original you could get a result in five turns happily but you could never wipe out an entire opponent’s army (unless you were very lucky). But with no limited turn structure, you could fight until your opponent was completely eliminated, thus gaining maximum kill points! This led to some highly amusing “Benny Hill” moments, where to deny my opponent his maximum points, my units would run wildly around the table to avoid contact with the enemy.

We play games of war that should ideally reflect the realities of warfare, yet we are hemmed in by the limitations of our boards. The lucky ones will play on bigger boards with more room to manoeuvre. Yet I still find myself wanting a little bit more. Perhaps a game where the partisans/insurgents/terrorists have to inflict maximum damage on the enemy and then retreat off table while the enemy is still recovering, or where a battle/mission goes wrong and the objective instead becomes to extricate your forces with the minimum of further casualties.

Two exceptions come to mind, but there are probably more: the Black Powder series of games and War & Conquest. Both of these recent games have mechanisms for troops leaving the table and returning.

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