Sunday, April 20, 2014

C is for Chainmail

A series on games I wish I'd played more of.

In 1996, I was pawing through a mound of used gaming books at a favorite store [1] when I came across a buried treasure: one of the last printings of the famous [2] mediaeval wargame Chainmail.

I had played historical wargames in the past, mostly in the form of "simplified" board variants. [3] They were interesting, but somehow not satisfying.  I had also once or twice looked at the Warhammer system from Games Workshop [4] but although it looked interesting it seemed like a little too much of an investment.

But this...This old booklet, with its silver cover and the plastic binding coil, looking as though it had been put together by extremely dedicated amateurs, was a piece of history that any D&D player should know about - this was one of the roots from which Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson developed the first versions of Dungeons and Dragons. And for one dollar, there was no way I was leaving it in the bin!

So I bought the book, took it home, and read it over.  The rules are short and to the point, and my first read through was done in less than an hour [5] - at which point I was seriously enthused.  The rules weren't exactly simple, but they were as simple as possible, using a fairly basic mechanic that you could see had been logically extended to nearly everything you needed to do in the game.

I immediately got down on the floor with "glops" and push pins to try a quick battle between highly generic medium foot. [6]

Unlike many games which are very specific - focusing on battles of the First Punic Wars or the Third Crusade's Assault of Jerusalem for example - Chainmail is a set of generic rules for simulating real or imagined battles from the mediaeval era, and as such the real complexity comes in when trying to figure out which of several unit types is the closest match to whatever forces you're trying to represent, and an additional level comes in if you need to modify the unit with additional weapons etc.

Things of course got even more complicated if you started involving the various fantasy creatures or the heroes which formed the real centerpiece of the game.

This last bit seemed a bit daunting, but since the mechanics themselves seemed straightforward I was confident we could work something out, perhaps gradually building up tables that by consensus we agreed to abide by in building armies.  But my first run through with a couple of relatively small forces of exact equivalence convinced me that it should be quick and easy to run games with the system.  My next logical step, therefore, was to dragoon my brother into trying a slightly more ambitious scenario with me.

We played, argued briefly over interpretation of a rule [7] and ultimately ended the game with no resolution.

But I was hooked.

I had searched for years for a wargame that was straightforward enough to initiate new players with ease, but seemed sophisticated enough to offer actual rewarding play. I looked forward to organizing many games, perhaps even some kind of tournament campaign with my gaming buddies playing different parts in the internicene wars of some crumbling fantasy empire.

But alas it was never to be.  We had ongoing RPG campaigns, and ever-swelling list of obligations in our encroaching "real lives" and apart from a couple of abortive battles that I somehow managed to rope people into we never really played the game.

This is a shame, because the game itself seemed like the sort of game I could actually get into - unlike the ruthlessly serious historical wargames or the various editions of Warhammer.

I no longer have the rules, though no doubt they still live somewhere among the gaming things I left behind in Canada.

But I often think: Man, I wish I could get a real game of Chainmail going...

1. Friends will probably remember this store as being occasionally managed by Odin himself.  This was when they had the location in a strip mall on Pembina Highway, which I admit is a strange place for Odin to run a business.  Surely some place in Gimli would have been more apt?

2. In the circles I travel in. I'm aware that most people would probably be scratching their heads or furiously googling at this point.

3. The next person who promotes a wargaming system to me with the claim that it's "simple" will be punished. There's no such beast.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing - I've seen games that are quite reasonably organized - but please, let's be realistic.

4. The one that over the space of about 3 years completely ruined the iconic gaming magazine White Dwarf, turning it into little more than a figures catalog.  Yes, I am still bitter.

5. There aren't many games for which a single reading of the rules is sufficient to really understand what's going on.

6. I was working with one of those cheapo short-pile carpets, so the push pins stuck in quite satisfactorily, and the "glops" are beads of coloured glass that we were using for counters in another game.

7. If I recall, we consulted the rules to find that the rule we were in disagreement over was in fact written in the confusing and apparently irrational way it seemed, and we actually did agree that it  shouldn't be that way, and so in my first ever game of Chainmail with someone else we came up with a house rule.

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