Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Yes, Prime Minister, we could send a gunboat…

This in two parts, first the introduction I wrote for the game, then the onside report.

This was the first rough and ready attempt at a game about running the British Empire. I’ve long been interested in 19th century colonialism and the varied interactions between the colonising powers and the rest of the world. Given the number of megagame try-outs that run at Chestnut, and my own 30+ megagames, I should mention that this is ‘just’ a club game. It also follows on from Peking Duck, my ’55 days at Peking’ game in looking at co-operative games rather than the more usual ‘stab each other in the back’ style of club games.

There’s obviously a number of approaches to a game on this subject. I could, for instance, make the players the Prime Minister and the senior members of the cabinet, possibly the heads of the army and navy. But I thought I’d try a different approach, one of making the players a group of senior civil servants advising the cabinet. I’m keeping things simple for this first run so there are no private agendas for each player though that could be built in to provide friction between players trying, simultaneously, to achieve a common objective.

The style of play is going to be that of talking the problem through and coming to a consensus to go to the prime minister. Cost was a factor but in the game this more to limit the use of the ‘send an army’ option. The most important factor for the players is British prestige. This will be boosted by defeating enemies, dealing effectively with revolts, standing up to threats (overt or schemes), keeping the empire secure and adding to it when the circumstances arise where such additions would be of benefit. The empire provides both access to raw materials and a market for manufactured goods the result of which is prosperity for those with a stake in the country.

Loss of prestige will result from the converse: defeats by natives, loss of territory, being out-manoeuvred by rivals, the disproportionate use of force (sledgehammer to crack nut) etc. This will be judged rather subjectively, as these things are, by the umpire. Should prestige be reduced to far then the government will fall and the players will be considered to have lost (and transferred to the Grimsby annex of the ministry for fisheries and agriculture…)

Crises arise mainly due to external factors but player actions will have consequences for the future. I’ll also juggle the order in which various incidents occur, increasingly so as the game proceeds and effect of player decisions ripples onwards.

I’m sure I need not brief extensively about the glories of the empire (i.e. I’m not going to) nor about its disastrous legacies (because, as far as the players are concerned there aren’t any). Just a few words about recent events on the eve of the start of the game in 1840. I’ve found a suitable map as a .jpg file which players can use. It magnifies to a reasonable extent so should be usable, otherwise reference to the map of the empire which proudly hangs in the home of every decent chap should suffice (or one could, if not a chap, google the bally thing).

Onside report of the session at the CLWG weekend

So how did it work? Not terribly well. A good comment from Jim was that he would have felt more engaged had he had a specific role with a particular view on the subject and that seemed to be shared. Given the game failed to engage the players I’d clearly made the wrong choice the approach.

The other problem with a game of this sort is the hindsight factor – some/all of the players roughly knew the course of events and the results of a number of the possible responses. I’d changed the timing but left the circumstances of each issue as per history. So there may be something to be said for adopting a similar approach to that I used for Barricades & Borders which was to fictionalise the countries. The problem about that is the amount of briefing required is huge even if one plagiarises a lot of history.

Another interesting suggestion was to change the location of various issues and the circumstances; it is vaguely possible to categorise the elements – a succession dispute, boundary dispute, a rebellion etc – so this might work. There’s a certain challenge is doing that but I’d have to ask myself whether it seems worthwhile. I suspect that my passion for the history of the period has led me into trying to make a game of something which isn’t particularly game-able and a game which brings players into conflict and generates its own crisis would be easier/better. But whatever the version, this seems like it may be a subject which requires more work and experimentation than I feel is worthwhile these days. My thanks though to those who took part.

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