Pied Piper Rules: 1hr Wargames by Neil Thomas

I recently ordered the Neil Thomas wargame book "One-hour Wargames: Practical Tabletop Battles for those with limited time and space" published in late 2014. I wanted scenario's. The book is a combo of beginner's rules and 30 scenario's. I skipped the rules. What do I need rules for? I'm a seasoned wargamer. I own at least twenty intermediate or advanced rulesets and played about sixty, quite few by the way, because many wargamers I know own a hundred and played hundreds.

It's cheap. My Kindle e-book was 9,70 USD, about 8,50 euro. The scenario's are good, and digital, so I can on my smartphone easily find a scenario and a basic set up for a quick battle with one of my advanced rulesets. So: even without the rules this book is useful.

Last weekend I checked the rules and I must say they surprised me, in a positive way, as good, straightforward quickplay rules for introductory games or a swift hour fun. I like his approach.

He starts with an observation which is very true: the wargaming ideal is 

a table measuring 8’ x 5’, and featuring hundreds of beautifully painted 28mm metal wargames figures. Such games look magnificent, and are a tribute to what can be achieved after years of effort spent amassing and painting a huge collection of wargaming material. They cannot however be described as practical for everybody: massive financial expense is required (at the time of writing, a single 28mm unpainted metal infantry figurine costs just over £1); painting hundreds of figures takes a vast amount of time; and logistics can make such games impossible.

200 figures on a 6x4 table is still too many on a giant table. His 'practical' alternative is

"a genuinely small tabletop (3’ x 3’); appropriately sized armies (no more than 100 figures per side); and games that can be completed in about an hour, allowing for contests in the evening after school or work.

Despite easy rules, the game must be challenging. So:

"The battle scenarios included after the rulesets allow for a variety of encounters, all of which ca"n be fought using any of the rules included. They are intended to show that there are many more types of wargame than the basic competitive encounter, when two armies face each other over an essentially open battlefield, with no context provided and with the sole aim of eliminating as many enemy units as possible. Such battles can be most enjoyable, but are rather basic; more variety eventually becomes essential, and certainly provides for a more challenging (and hence rewarding) wargame."

His beginner's advice is to look for the 1:72 scale plastic figures made by Airfix and other manufacturers, cheap, light, transportable, very compatible with model railway accessories, "allowing the wargamer access to terrain features of exceptional quality".

In fact his simple-quick-lightweight-scenario's included-approach is the same as the Perry Brothers, who recently published their Travel Battle. I quote from their "Travel Battle" description:

It is intended for gamers who have limited space (...) The two terrain boards are designed to be placed together on any edge, giving the potential for 16 different battlefields (...) The simple rules system should allow a game to played within an hour

Just like the Perry Brothers he mentions that his system can be played with unpainted (1/72) miniatures: "It is, for example, common to see Second World War British infantry rendered in a khaki-coloured plastic, with their German rivals featured in an appropriate shade of grey." He prefers a painted army and gives the usual beginner's tips how to give 1/72 soft plastic armies a basic paint job. I like that approach, this approach might indeed convince people with just a casual interest in wargaming and no time and money to collect large armies to give it a try with two cheap boxes 1/72.

So, is "cheap & easy" a new trend in wargaming? In fact it's a revival of the once hugely popular DBA 'movement', famous for one hour quickplay on a 90cmx90cm board with 50 miniatures each.

Game overview

What are his rules?

Thomas devised in fact one basic, simplified wargame system with era variants. He uses a system with 4 troop types:

  • infantry
  • a shooting unit type, like artillery/archers etc
  • cavalry (chariots, knights, hussars, tanks, etc)
  • and a period-specific fourth troop type
    • for example the Ancient rules have besides infantry, archers and cavalry the class of 'skirmishers', the P&S rules have 'Swordsmen' and 'Reiters' and the WW2 rules have infantry, tanks (the cavalry) anti-tank guns (artillery) and mortars (long range artillery).

All units have 15 hit points and hits are scored with a single die. For most eras Thomas uses a simple modifier system: "add +2 if the attacking unit is cavalry, -2 if the unit is skirmishers, hits against units in woods are halved", etc. The WW2 system is the most advanced because it has a simple 4x4 crosstable. Movement and shooting range depend on unit type: and that's all.

It's more or less DBA without pips, very easygoing rules, on a single A4-sheet, based on unit archetypes, with a loose rock-paper-scissors-approach. Alternate turns/I go, you go. Nothing simultaneously. Classical. No rocket science..

A typical game is played with 4-6 units on large (10or15cm/ 4 or 6 inch square or rectangular) bases. Thus you can make 'diorama bases' with a group on it. Like Impetus, below

Thomas describes and explains his simplified approach accross the book. For example, about the Ancient he writes that having just four unit types :

inevitably rules out some troop varieties such as horse archers, scythed chariots and elephants; it does however give some approximation of ancient battlefield activity, and allows for interesting challenges in the coordination of disparate troop types (...) In particular, there is absolutely no prescription of how many figures should constitute a given unit. (...) 

This serves to avoid pedantic and unnecessary edicts concerning unit frontage, and precisely how many figures should be crammed onto each base. The game relies upon the use of alternate turns, with one player moving, shooting and engaging in close combat, followed by the second player. This is far more manageable than the option of having both players act simultaneously, and is somewhat surprisingly more realistic.

(...)  Turning is instead depicted in a simple manner, by pivoting units on their central point. This avoids the complexity of wheeling manoeuvres, where wargamers have to precisely measure the movement distance of a unit’s outer corner. The difficulties of turning are instead provided for by only allowing evolutions at the start and/or the end of a unit’s move, but not during it. This reproduces the historical effects, but makes the tabletop process much easier (...)

The effects of terrain are also dealt with in a straightforward manner; so that only certain types of unit may enter a particular type of difficult terrain, but that these do not have their movement restricted after entry. This avoids the unfortunate situation of (for example) allowing all units to enter woods, but giving each different type specific movement penalties – a result that arouses all kinds of confusion in the heat of a wargames battle. My rules instead only allow skirmishers to enter woods, and not suffer any movement penalty in so doing. This is much easier to remember than the convoluted and distinctly unrealistic alternative – no sensible commander would ever have contemplated sending a hoplite phalanx into a wood, which is why I don’t allow any wargamer to do anything so daft either.

I haven't played it yet. I think I can imagine how it works, just no sweat move and roll a dice for shoot and combat. For normal pitched battles this would be too easy. Just like Dales Wargames said in his long review of Neil Thomas rules:

Finally, there came One Hour Wargames: Practical Tabletop Battles for those with Limited Time and Space (OHW). These rules were, by far, the simplest yet. They combined the simplicity of unit representation from Simplicity in Practice by having each unit represented by a single base, with a combat system that was the least complex yet: a unit inflicted a single D6 of hits, with modifiers, on the enemy and when 15 hits were reached, the unit was removed. That was basically it. No real discussion about what a unit represented and each period was limited to four unit types. At first blush they are too simple. My mind cannot comprehend how I could find such a simple game enjoyable, at all. That said, I still have not tried them. 

I agree and think that these rules are too simple for a pitched battle with similar forces on an open field. However the wargame feeling is very much enhanced by the scenarios and the unequal composition of the opposing armies. Thomas promotes 'imaginative scenario's': 

I have accordingly included thirty different games in this chapter, which can be fought using any of the rulesets included in this book. All are designed to be fought on small tables of 3’ x 3’, allowing for accessible encounters in all households; each can be played in one hour. Maps are provided with each scenario in order to facilitate their re-creation on the tabletop (...)

The sizes of each army are the same in nineteen of the thirty scenarios, but variety is always provided by varying the composition of each (...) players must roll a die and consult the relevant table below to ascertain the composition of his or her army (if identical armies are generated, players should re-roll their dice until distinct forces are created):

So, depending on the die roll, a player has more cavalry but less infantry or archers than his opponent. That's an interesting twist, the player gets a more or less randomized army and must make the best of it. Combined with the 30 scenario's this can result in interesting, varied games. I will for sure try this ruleset.

Other reviewers who tested the rules are positive: Tim from Tims Battle Blog commented:

The rules are great for basic demo/participation games or for just having fun. My kind of rule set!

Very thorough is The Stronghold Rebuilt who is busy trying/ testing all 30 scenario's with different the 1hrWG ruleset with some modifications and a few other rules, Stronghold prefers to use a slightly different scoring system, with more dice for a more balanced scoring, but in general he's content with the rules. A few Stronghold conclusions:

(Pitched Battle scenario) The game lasted 12 of the 15 turns allowed, and took 40 minutes to set up and play, including a coffee and biscuit break.For a scenario that is basically a head-to-head fight on an empty field there was a lot more maneuver than I expected. The rules are not perfect by any means, but are more subtle than you might expect, especially if you use squares.

(Double Delaying scenario) Again I abandoned the 1D6-2, 1D6 and 1D6+2 hits system in favour of a number of dice hitting on a 4+. The set actually has finer granularity than the original OHW rules, as it also has 1D6+1 and 1D6-1 rolls. 

(Surprise Attack Scenario) Once again the rules held up well, with the multiple dice hit system making combat less predictable than the system in the original rules.

Blogger Steve the Wargaming Addict concluded after one game:

The game is certainly very quick to set up in terms of scenario selection and units required, which is a big bonus.
I really like the random die roll to select the forces you have at your disposal. This makes things interesting for the player as you may not have the troops you would want to fulfil your mission. Ditto your opponent. 
The rules are incredibly easy to pick up and so are perfect as intoductory rules for new players to wargames. 
The game only lasted around 30 minutes, so in an evening you could get in around 3 games and make a mini-campaign if required. Nothing fancy but nice if you want to.
There are no break points for the units, so you could play on until mutually assured destruction almost takes place. In reality I think it becomes clear rather quickly when one side is beaten, as happened in this game.

Pied Piper Rules

I was looking for a simple set of demo rules for demo games. I'm 51 and grew up with Airfix, after modelling wargaming was a logical step. But youngsters nowadays grow up with computer wargames or the extremely expensive GW miniatures. Others play complex boardgames while thinking that wargames are overly complex, and that for playing you need a large collection of figures, expensive and difficult to order, and too difficult to paint.

I'm sometimes worried about the greying of this historical wargame hobby. I'd like to show the sceptics, the newcomers, the boardgamers, the young men who play X-Wing, Warhammer or 40K that a simple yet tactical wargame on a nice table can be good fun. 1hr Wargames might help and convert them. That's what I hope.

This can be a great ruleset to play at board game conventions, a demo at a board game shop or to entertain newcomers in the hobby. The Pied Piper of Hamelin- ruleset. Or maybe a set to entertain my own son, 7 years old now, I hope he will follow his father's steps. Time to dust off some very old Airfix boxes!