A Cowboy Conundrum

Many, many years ago I had the pleasure of getting to know the Skirmish Wargames Group and playing in their 54mm western gunfight and later mountain men games and they remain some of my fondest wargaming memories. In subsequent years the club I belonged to at that time got into the period and a campaign set around the fictional Dardenell County flourished for many years.

Like all good things, it came to an end and I sold off all my collection and haven’t really gamed the period for many years. Then, on a whim, I picked up some nicely painted gunfighters at Hammerhead (BC – Before Covid) and then acquired some buildings through my good friend Gareth Lane and the germ of a ‘side period’ was born.

Of course time has moved on and with it wargames rules styles, hence the title of this piece, should I dig out the old rules and try and remember how to play or embrace the ‘new world’?

Just a casual browse at a show or via Google and one can see there are a number of alternatives out there. Dead Man’s hand by Great Escape Games, Gunfighters Ball by Knuckleduster Miniatures, Fistful of Lead by Wiley Games, The Rules With No Name by Wargames Foundry, and Dracula’s America by Osprey to name but a few.

Through the agency of some local wargamers I’ve been able to play a number of games of Fistful of Lead and even done a re-write version for our own multi player cartel games. My kids bought me a copy of Dead Man’s Hand one birthday because I was waxing lyrical about what fun western gunfight games were and so Dave and I have been able to play several games of that.

In keeping with the modern trend, both sets utilise a deck of cards to activate figures which by default becomes quite a random affair; the deck in FoL is a standard deck, so easy and cheap to obtain, the deck in DMH is a custom deck available only from Great Escape Games, so not so cheap but it does have some cool special events on the cards. FoL uses D10 die, DMH uses D10 & D20 die.

The upside to both sets is that they are simple and easy to learn, which results in a fast play style of game – the first time Dave and I trialled DMH we got two games done and dusted in an evening. The mechanisms are straight forward so don’t require much thinking about and the random nature of drawing cards is very appealing to those who like the conceit of ‘friction’ in their games or to those who just want to ‘have a laugh’.

The downside is, that despite the very best of intentions, they don’t have any real western gunfight feel, not even a Hollywood one and as a game both are completely luck driven.

The lack of feel, for me at least, is the decision to just have generic weapons – pistol, rifle, shotgun, which means that the nuances of the period are lost; the difference between cap & ball revolvers and metal cartridge, the speed of reloading a Colt compared to a Smith & Wesson, why certain gunfighters preferred double action revolvers, the different ranges of carbines and rifles (repeaters and single shot). Also the wide variety of characters in the period, and, in fairness, in film, are reduced to a small selection of stereotypes all behaving in the same way which doesn’t do justice to some of the fantastic modern sculpts there are out there, you just end up with Team Blue v Team Red ๐Ÿ˜’.

The luck or random element is obviously apparent in any game, that’s why it’s a game, but when the random is the driving force and luck is the sole arbitrator the end result can tend to reduce the player to a spectator in his own game and negate any planning or playing skills he/she might have. In the several games I’ve played with both sets I’ve seen a guy with a shotgun miss the target at point blank range with both barrels (yes I’ve seen ‘Unforgiven’ but remember the first barrel hit), two gunfighters at close range both miss (remember, gunfighters, not random cowhands), characters move into and around buildings like they are ‘The Flash’ and so on.

Now I completely get why rule sets have developed in this way, players can get to grips with the mechanisms quickly, no period knowledge is required, the game cracks along, players have a laugh; and don’t get me wrong, I’ve had quite a laugh playing both sets (in a good way ๐Ÿ˜ƒ). But……..

Having acquired more figures and more buildings Dave and I recently asked ourselves the question, “is this it?” Not a good question for a wargamer to be asking himself ๐Ÿค”.

To try and move us forward I suggested to Dave we give the original Skirmish Wargames set a go, knowing full well a bit more effort would be required to play the game. The rules are late 70’s and reflect wargames rules thinking of the time; play is simultaneous based on each character having a written order for the next phase (by order I mean a couple of words – Draw, Walk, Turn & Draw), each character has a set of numeric abilities for pistol, rifle & hand to hand plus an overall experience (Professional, Average, Novice), shooting is based on a % roll against a calculated chance of success which gives a level of damage and everything else out of the ordinary has a % chance of success.

Given the extra effort required the game went remarkably well, we rattled through a lot of turns, a couple of characters were shot down, there was a panic when Dave ran out of ammo (shots are counted) and was messing about swapping guns, a character knocked himself out vaulting a fence and opening a window and crossing a room actually took time. It wasn’t perfect though, the movement was slow and the nuances of the shooting process meant that a lot of bullets were wasted but we still enjoyed the game.

So, we are still in a bit of a quandary. Do we go quick and dirty and to hell with the perceived ‘realism’ or do we go with a bit more detail and the ‘effort’ of doing stat cards so we know what each character is armed with and how good he is? With regards to detail, isn’t that what the hobby is all about? and I don’t have a problem with stat cards, I think it lends a level of player involvement to any game. I’m pretty sure the guys at Skirmish Wargames did an addendum that negated the orders aspect and streamlined the process a bit but dammed if I can find it ๐Ÿ˜’ keep looking I guess.

So that’s it. We’re going to give the Skirmish Wargames set another go and take a bit more care over the character stats – we randomly generated for the first game and it gave some very strange results which we thought skewed the game. Look out for our next attempt soon ๐Ÿ˜€