Arnhem (Crisis 2005)

During Crisis 2005 we ran a Free Kriegsspiel for the battle of Arnhem. There are no rules here, since we didn't use any! The whole design process was written up as an article in Wargames Illustrated 221 (March 2006), of which the text, as I submitted many years ago, is reproduced below. But first some photographs:

Arnhem 2005: The design of a participation game
Phil Dutr
é, Alan Huyton, Bart Vetters
“Schild en Vriend” Wargaming Group


Participation games are a major attraction of many conventions. Without a good number of well-designed participation games, a convention can be a bit bland, being reduced to nothing more than a shopping mall. However, participation games often fail to reach their objective in getting visitors to participate. The complexity of the rules, the perceived time investment, and the presence of so many other things to do and see during a single-day wargames convention all can be a major obstacle for recruiting enough players to make the game really work.
During the past years, our group has often run participation games, but with mixed success. Packing away at the end of a long convention day, and debriefing afterwards, we often felt disappointed that, despite our efforts, we had not succeeded in getting people involved. However, we had followed common wisdom: simple rules, visually stunning terrain, leaflets and books at hand to browse through, and acting in an outgoing and friendly manner. In other words, we were doing everything by the book. But, we were wondering: why go through all the effort of making a splendid game, when players do not want to spend time at your table? As a result, we ourselves were wandering off, browsing the trade stands, leaving an unmanned table. We also saw this same pattern happening at other gaming tables.
When our group had to decide what sort of game to design for CRISIS 2005 (held November 5, 2005, and organized by Tin Soldiers of Antwerp), we decided we needed a totally different approach. We were not going to make compromises on the quality of terrain and figures, but we probably should rethink the whole idea of what it means to participate in a game at a convention. If visitors could only spend five minutes at our table, why not design a game structure to take this into account?

Free Kriegsspiel

First, we had to think about how we could involve visitors in our game. Our experience during previous years was that using simple rules is not a factor. Potential players do not want to learn or read a new set of rules, no matter if it is only half a page. So the rules had to go, but what to use instead?
We found inspiration in the Free Kriegsspiel style of wargaming. Free Kriegsspiel goes back to the Prussian wargaming tradition of Von Reissewitz, and assumes an umpire is available to run the game. Players on both sides give orders to troops under their command, and the umpire decides the outcome of the actions as a result of these orders. The umpire might use a set of rules to make his decisions, or he might improvise, using his own experience and knowledge of the subject matter to present the players with a portrayal of a battle. It does not really matter what rules or what decision-making process is being used, as long as the decisions and results of action look consistent to the players. No effort is required of the players to learn rules.
We opted to use a variant, which we nick-named minimal-effort-free-kriegsspiel. The idea is that the player does not even have to give an order, but is presented by the umpire a number of options for a specific unit on the table: “With this unit, would you like to fire at the enemy hidden in the bushes, or would you rather take cover in one of these buildings?” Depending on the answer given by the player, the umpire asks the player to roll a few dice to determine the outcome of the action (indicating perhaps movement distance, casualties caused, probability to rally, ...), and the player can then move some figures or remove casualties on the gaming table. This also has the advantage that you can tailor the nature of the decision and outcome to the type of player, for example a youngster would enjoy knowing the details of a shot from a tank, whereas other players would be more interested in the strategic level.
The underlying framework is that in the time span of a few minutes, the player gets an overview of the action on the table so far, is presented by the umpire a few options for a specific unit, rolls a few dice, and is able to move a unit on the table. As a bonus, the umpire can entertain the player with a few historical factoids about the portrayed battle. All this should only take a few minutes, and the player is free to stay around or to walk away to another gaming table or any of the trade stands.
From the point of view of the umpire, he is the one guiding the flow of the battle. He decides what units are to be activated, what options to present to players, and how to resolve each action. In a way, his role to very close to what a gamesmaster would do in a Dungeons-and-Dragons-style roleplaying game.

Arnhem Bridge

Now that we had a framework in mind, it was time to start thinking about the game itself. Several issues had to be considered: 
  •  Do we use a historical battle or a fictional one?
  • Are players allowed to command either side or one side only?
  • Are we using one umpire or multiple umpires?
After some brainstorming on possible game scenarios we decided one night, in the middle of a 'War of the Ring' session, on the Battle of Arnhem, focusing on the British landings and their rush towards Arnhem bridge. The advantage was that most convention visitors would be familiar with this event, and as a result we could focus much more on the Kriegsspiel mechanics themselves. Also, it allowed us to put the German troops completely under umpire control, and have the players control the various British formations. We would then be able to use hidden set-up for the Germans, and have them appear out-of-nothing on various parts of the table, thus adding to the tense atmosphere of the battle.
We also decided to model the three historical major attack routes (Lion, Tiger, Leopard) of the real action on the table. This would in turn allow for multiple umpires to run the game asynchronously from each other, just in case the game was successful and many players wanted to participate.


Our gaming table, constructed for 6mm figures, is based on the maps in the Rapid Fire Market Garden campaign supplement. Our 6 terrain boards each measure 120x60 cm, resulting in a total gaming area of 360x120cm. On top of these boards we put the basis-layer of the terrain, consisting of Bush-grass coverage for the fields and plaster mixed with black paint for roads and built-up areas. Where appropriate, hills were cut out of styrofoam and glued on the boards before the layer of grass or plaster was applied.

For the fields and general undergrowth we used various colour of flocking materials, applied in various patterns to give a nice and pleasing visual effect. The huge amount of trees were  constructed by using the tree armatures and clump foliage from Woodland Scenics. We spent a few happy nights putting these trees together by hand. Smaller bushes and undergrowth were made by gluing flock immediately onto the terrain boards.

Since the first and foremost rule in terrain building is to recycle as much odd materials as possible, tar roofing paper (normally used to make real roofs watertight) was used as the base for the railway tracks. The tracks were cut out from corrugated cardboard and long pieces of thin rope for the rails. Everything was then painted in a rust-brown colour.

Besides Arnhem, the villages Noord-Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Heveadorp, Heelsum, Wolfheze, as well as some individual farms and factories had to be represented. Our buildings were from various manufacturers, including Timecast and Hovels. A lot of buildings were from PaperTerrain and Fiddlers Green, which had to be cut out and glued together.

All figures (British as well as German) were in 1/300th scale, and came from the Heroics & Ros range. Figures were based on 3x3cm stands, each representing a single platoon, containing 6-8 infantry figures or a single vehicle. This resulted in over 120 British and 250 German stands.

Additional Bits and Pieces

With terrain and toys ready, some additional elements were needed for an interesting gaming table:
  •  Every battalion formation on the table was identified by a small flag, bearing its historical name. Since 6mm figures are sometimes hard to distinguish and identify from a distance, different coloured flags were used for both sides. 
  • All roads and villages also got little identification labels. This helped making the connection between the somewhat abstracted gaming table and the actual lay-out of the battlefield.
  • We used a notice-board, displaying actual photographs of the historical events. These were put up as the game progressed, and labelled and time-stamped such that they could be related to corresponding labels on the gaming table. The ever-changing display of photographs also gave the impression of an evolving battle for players coming back to the table after spending some time at other games or the trade stands.
  • After each player had participated in making a decision, he was awarded with a “medal”. These were actually little self-adhesive labels from Photoshop with a picture of an actual military medal (the Schild en Vriend VC!), which players could proudly sport on their jacket or sweatshirt in the convention hall.

Did it work?

During the convention day itself, after doors opened, we immediately recruited some friends to get the game going, and to create a little buzz around our table. We also put up some photographs of the parachute drops on the notice-board, to give the impression that “something was going on” right away.
During the day, we were often running the game with three umpires at the same time. Nevertheless, being with three persons also gave us the opportunity to take breaks or to visit the trade stands without an interruption in the game. We ran the game almost continuously for 6 hours, and players were always present, often returning after an hour or so to see how “their” unit was doing.
The 5-minute participation idea worked really well. A typical conversation went as follows: “Hi, this is a game about Arnhem. I suppose you’re familiar with Arnhem Bridge?” “Hum-mmm”. “Good. You can see the bridge here (pointing with a stick), the British have landed a while ago, and are now dispersed here and here (again pointing it out). Now, this battalion here has just taken some fire from German troops hiding in these bushes. They have the option of returning fire, or withdrawing towards this position over here. If you were their commander, what would you do?” “I think I would return fire”. “Sounds good, why don’t you roll a six-sided die, and that’s the number of casualties you inflict.” “It’s a two!” “Great, take away two stands!” Note that we did not have any formal rules written down. All dice-rolls, level of casualties, movement distances etc. were decided on the spot by the umpire at the hand. As mentioned above, this allowed us to focus on details where appropriate, or immediately zoom out to a larger scale when things needed to be speeded up. We effectively sometimes resolved combats between single stands, but also sometimes used a few dice rolls to decide the outcome of a large combat between entire battalions.
The game went on like this all day long, and the situation on the gaming table was the result of a whole sequence of little micro-decisions made by a whole series of players. As expected, some players stayed for just five minutes, others even hung around for more than two hours, but anyone could leave without disrupting the game anytime they wanted. We only had one rule: when a player stops by the table, explain in two sentences what the game is about, offer some options to him, make him roll a few dice, and make him move some figures.
Many players expressed that it was a refreshing experience. They could participate without worrying about how much precious time it would take them or without having to read all sorts of rules. But they had fun contributing to the battle and later coming back to see how things had gone. Apparently, the judges of the organizing club (Tin Soldiers of Antwerp) thought so as well, because at the end of the day we were presented with the “Best Participation Game” trophy. A great ending to a great day!

“Schild en Vriend”, which translates as “Shield and Friend” is an old Flemish battlecry, used in the rebellion of the city of Bruges against the French in May 1302. Legend tells that it was used to differentiate between the French-speaking (who could not pronounce the soft g-sound in 'Schild') and Flemish-speaking citizens of the city. Again according to legend, failure to pronounce the word in the correct manner meant almost certain death.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. I did even not realise at that time that there were "no rules" !
    Great stuff again.