"I like geography best, he said, because your mountains & rivers know the secret. Pay no attention to boundaries."
Brian Andreas, Story People: Selected Stories & Drawings of Brian Andreas
I write this at the end of a summer holiday which has seen my wife, son and I walk coast to coast across England along Hadrian’s Wall from Wallsend to Bowness On Solway. We managed the feat (feet?) in 8 days and walked a total of 116.4 miles, which was a good effort for the 40-somethings who are my wife, Carol, and I but is pretty impressive for my son, Levi, who is 9. We do a lot of walking as a family, although south Lincolnshire is not blessed with terribly challenging (i.e. hilly) terrain, but this is the first time we’ve done a consecutive day walking holiday. We like walking because it gets us outside in the fresh air, but also because on a long walk you get a lot of thinking time away from screens and electronic distractions. Some of that thinking time I used to observe the field boundaries – hedges, ditches and walls – which we walked beside and crossed.
It struck me quite forcibly that most, if not all, wargames rules have got hedges, ditches and walls completely wrong. Most rules, my own included, include two elements regarding such linear obstacles. Firstly they slow movement across them – halving movement, or forcing a figure to end his movement immediately on the other side of the obstacle, for losing an entire turns movement to be placed on the other side for example. Secondly they provide some advantage in melee and/or shooting combat. Following my observations I’m not convinced that either of these is correct.
In an urban environment, where most of us live, hedges can be modest metre high privet affairs and fences equally inconsequential. For these features the common rules probably suffice, however in the countryside the nature of these obstacles is very different.
The dry stone walls I encountered in Northumbria and Cumbria were built to keep livestock in, and those livestock were cows. Cows are big beasts ad can put a lot of weight into a push, consequently the boundary walls were between 5 and half and 6 and a half feet high and at least 2 feet thick. Loop-holing these walls for shooting through is not practical. There is just no way anyone carrying even a modest amount of kit could get over one, certainly not in a “turn”, and a half move is nonsense. You go through them at gates or over them at stiles any not any other way. The same is true for cavalry – no Hollywood wall leaping should be allowed. Yes, steeple chase horses and hunt horses can jump linear obstacles, but these are exceptional beasts and certainly not the mounts for run-of-the-mill cavalry.
Wild hedges are not neat affairs, on the walk I encountered many in excess of 7 feet high, over two feet thick, with an addition two feet of dense (and very prickly!) vegetation and/or drainage ditch on either or both sides. These are very formidable barriers. They are completely impenetrable to large animals and passible by a person, if at all, only with the greatest difficulty and after a long (and painful) hack through. Moreover, they are virtually impossible to see through, let along fire an accurate shot though.
It is not just people or animals that would have difficulty moving though these walls and hedges. I can’t see too many vehicles enjoying the experiences (particularly of the hedges) either.
So what happens in a (company level or smaller) wargame if we prevent movement though linear obstacles apart from through clearly marked gates and stiles? Well, my post-walking experience is that you get a much more challenging game. An ambush along a walled road becomes a truly murderous experience. Small forces can hold off much larger numbers by defending a few key gates. Tactical decisions become more challenging for all players. Go on, give it a go.
More on how this and other walking thoughts have influenced my revised Border Reivers rules next post.
This article was written exclusively for Orcs in the Webbe and was first published on the 30th September 2014.
You can read Matthew's previous Tankard Tales by clicking on the maroon tag just below and to the left.