Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Solo Wargaming and the Campaign Journal

After wargaming with miniatures for around 20 years, and as it became harder for my group to meet regularly, I reached a point where solo wargaming became more appealing.  As I started to play solo more often, I found that I enjoyed the ease and freedom that comes with solo gaming.  This really surprised me, despite having gamed solo off and on since my start in the hobby.  I had never considered solo gaming an important part of the hobby, probably because I almost always had readily available opponents.

Though I would occasionally find gamers at conventions and whatnot, whose gaming style was not necessarily compatible with my own, I have been lucky in that the regular members of the groups that I typically gamed with were always quite enjoyable.  This is probably why I had never given serious consideration to solo gaming.  

As I mentioned above, as the years passed, it became harder for us to meet with the obligations of home, family, and career reducing the available time, and particularly in my case, the energy, to game regularly.  As multi-player games lasting late into the evening became less frequent, I began to tinker with solo games that might involve only 20 minutes to an hour of play and span several evenings.

Early on in my gaming, I came to embrace and enjoy the campaign, where the actions of one battle had implications in the next.  Unfortunately, campaigns are complex beasts to try to tame, and in my first decade of "serious" miniatures gaming, I only played in one full blown campaign that ran to conclusion.   

After a year or so of solo gaming, I came up with this idea for a mini campaign set in the Soviet-Afghan War, where a Soviet soldier is captured and begins to fight with the Mujaheddin.  His capture was with purpose as he was the son of a senior Soviet officer, and the original idea was that he would have some value in trade back to the Soviets.

I quickly began experimenting with loose campaign rules that evolved on the fly, and to allow the dice to direct the path of future games.  Instead of rigidly following the course of the original idea, he ended up fighting with, and eventually leading Afghans in battle.  I found need for character development, and for more characters in the form of leaders and officers.  I also found that I enjoyed this theatrical sort of semi-role playing element in the game, an extension or expansion of my tendency to immersively role play my forces in most games.  The campaign ended when he was killed during a Soviet attempt to capture him and bring him to justice.

At this time, I had a web site, and briefly considered sharing the campaign with others through my site, but I knew that in reality, the "story" lacked integrity.  There were a lot of very American actions by not very American soldiers.  I had a lot of fun with it, and explored new avenues of gaming, but the actual campaign lacked wasn't completely true to itself.  

I realize that any attempt to step into character within a game is a very subjective experience, but one can be more or less subjective, and I didn't try very hard to objectively "play" the cultural roles in these games.  What I did do was develop a concept that would become the basis for my African imagi-nation campaign a couple of years later.

Since that time, I've slowly worked on a series of campaign ideas that branch off from the original concept in varying ways.  My post-apoc campaign approaches the game map and narrative in a different way from my African campaign. The Cold War campaign that I've been working on most recently will be structured very differently from the first two campaigns.  I have additional ideas for a colonial campaign, set in China and the south Pacific, based on my old "Ponape" colonial games, and a WWII campaign inspired mostly by the book Company Commander.  Each will be a little different in approach from the others.

When I started my Cold War era African imagi-nation campaign, I had first envisioned writing a journal telling the story of the war through a series of after action reports (AAR) of the battles, maybe with a smattering of short stories offering background.  This was to be just for myself, as I had come to realize that I quite enjoyed this sort of thing with my Soviet-Afghan War experiment.

Shortly after starting my African campaign, I began a gaming blog, and though it took a little time to convince myself, I finally shared the first AAR of my campaign.  Very much to my surprise, it was relatively well received.  To be honest, I was quite shocked by the interest, and despite having really enjoyed a couple of somewhat similar efforts by other gamers (especially this) on their web sites, I completely expected my effort to be some combination of ignored and/or belittled.

It has now been something like thirteen years since starting my African campaign, and it slowly continues, with a series of new twists awaiting attention at this moment.  And, as mentioned above, I have added other campaigns to my gaming, set in other periods or genres of interest, varying mechanics of both campaigns and the manner of sharing them in each case.

In the last few years, I've become somewhat nostalgic about my own adventure in the hobby, and more recently, fascinated with the origins of miniatures gaming and the early efforts and accomplishments of the "founding fathers" of the hobby.  

Last year I picked up a couple of Don Featherstone's books and read them with great interest, being most impressed by the quality of some of the games presented in images from those days.  More recently, I've picked up some of John Curry's titles addressing the efforts of Tony Bath, Lionel Tarr, and Michael Korns.

Given the main focus of my interests and solo playing style, I relate most closely to the efforts of Lionel Tarr, but maybe the thing that has struck me as most interesting is in Featherstone's "Solo Wargaming", and that is the discussion of the campaign journal or diary.

In some ways, my blog posts following my African campaign are the fruits of re-inventing this wargaming wheel, but some of the suggestions in Solo Wargaming are of far greater wisdom and scope than my own effort, addressing use of the journal or diary as a tool in the conduct of the campaign.  Through the recording of notes and pre-battle planning, the journal becomes a tool, an active element in the campaign.

I have a folder of notes with many of these details from my African campaign, but they are in the form of abstract notes, tables, and scraps.  It never occurred to me to weave all of these bits into a a cohesive story of the game itself, broader than simply telling stories of the battles.  I might go back and do so, as much as I am able, though knowing that some parts of the process are simply lost, undocumented or discarded.

In retrospect, I wish I had recorded (somewhere, if not my blog) the thought process in building the campaign, the background and story-line, and some of the missed opportunities and prospective possibilities that didn't or haven't come to pass.  It might have been interesting in retrospect, whether for nostalgic purpose or pragmatic, to follow the evolution of my campaign(s). 

Expanding on the concept of the journal or diary, I also wish that I had kept a sort of log or maybe scrapbook of my gaming adventures from day one.  It would be interesting to look back at thoughts and images of those first efforts as I tried to first imagine rules for toy soldiers, and then those after I had been introduced to basic gaming concepts already created by those before me.

I may yet attempt to pull something together, allowing me to look back on it in ten or twenty years, but it won't be the same as visiting the thoughts of that 13,15 or 20 year old gamer, who spent much time trying to invent a hobby that others had already created.


  1. I feel ya. Your comment, "Though I would occasionally find gamers at conventions and whatnot, whose gaming style was not necessarily compatible with my own..." is the story of my life. Though that may say more about me than the other players.

    I will be interested to read any thought you have about Solo wargaming, as I too bite the inevitable bullet if I'm to continue with my hobby.

    1. The thing about solo gaming, assuming that the social element isn't the primary reason for your gaming, is that you can enjoy the core element or elements that bring you to the game so completely. You get to have exactly what you want from every game.

      In my case, it is the attempt to immerse myself in the setting, to try to see the conflict through the eyes of those depicted. To "feel" it, if you will. And, I find that the campaign is sort of like living the story in a good book.

    2. The social element is one aspect of my gaming hobby, but realistically it hasn't been the major aspect for many years.

      My blog is a fair indicator of what I enjoy doing, mostly designing variants of mecha, or other things.

      And as you know... I write fiction, so immersing myself into my worlds is my thing too, which is obvious when you think about it.

    3. For me, solo gaming is an passionate exploration. It allows you to explore the fabric of the game, such that the unorthodox can become the norm mechanically and structurally. Then there is the exploration of your imagination and creativity in developing the environment, story, and "characters". To support all of this, there is the exploration of history and science, offering background and filling in details as needed. And lastly, the exploration of the world that you create in the form of the game or games themselves.

      I took maybe a year just learning to let go of elements of order and structure in social gaming, that aren't needed in the solo gaming process. The solo gamer is free to only embrace elements actually needed to permit the game at hand. Also much of the solo process of the game can take place outside of the game table, brain-storming ideas for scenarios and environment, mechanisms for rules, and mechanisms to build or randomize events.

      Rules only need be complete enough to permit the game to go forward. And if you don't like a mechanic or find a flaw, you can evolve or completely change them mid-game if you like.

      You are free to create, unbound by the needs, expectations, or demands of fellow gamers. I find the solo process be very different from the social gaming process. For me, it is a more complete experience, and offers the creative joys of things like little like painting, or movie production/direction; I'm guessing that you will relate a portion of the writing process to it, but offer more, and dispensing with some of the burdens that might be found in those other pursuits.

      The first step in the whole solo process for me, is to find a subject that I am passionately interested in, and conceive the basic game subject. For me, this is usually the main campaign story-line. Then I like to come up with the vantage point through which I will see my gaming environment. This might be a character or characters in a game, a sort of narrator's perspective of a story line, or simply as the commander of each force in the battles/adventure.

      One of the first things I usually hear from social gamers, is that by playing both sides, there is no surprise. I don't find that to be the case. First, gamers at the table aren't often all that surprising, and despite playing each side, rules mechanics, and character/personality creation of decision makers for the side generates unpredictable events and surprises. Also, stay honest to the characters and events. When your favorite leader dies, let him remain that way. Maintaining the integrity of the game world adds tremendous flavor to the overall experience.

      Also, I want to note the term "character" is vague, varied, and potentially much more narrow or more broad than one might think of in gaming terms. A character can be leader with a simple disposition toward the aggressive; it might be an individual as well developed as a main character in one of your books, or it might be the mood imposed by a building or location in your world or on your table. It might involve role playing in your mind, or just a die roll modifier. It is what you need it to be to help drive the game and give it flavor.

  2. I have always enjoyed your campaigns, as well as your reflections on wargaming.

    1. Thanks Chris. I really appreciate that. I have to admit that I am still always apprehensive to share my thoughts about the hobby, as I know, or at least feel that I'm out on the fringe with respect to much of my approach to gaming.

  3. Perhaps it should have its own page with links to battles, where known, on the main blog. That way more than one side of the story can be told, or even have more than one page with events from various participants.
    I have been solo wargaming for much of my wargaming life. Sometimes busy, sometimes not. It isn't for everyone but those that enjoy slow, drawn out table-top adventures it can't be beaten

    1. Yeah, I've been wrestling with myself a little about the best way to present it. I don't want to make it too tedious to follow, nor too complex to arrange, though right now, the biggest thing is actually all of the problems that I'm experiencing with blogger. Initially it is probably going to follow more or less the same format of presentation that I've been using. Though that may well change, when I upgrade my computer.