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Over a recent e-mail discussion I had with a couple of friends from the Maine Historical Wargaming Association, we came up with the not-very-original idea of trying to run an historical miniatures game remotely. We have gamed together before, but only a few times a year, as we live some distance apart (3 hours or so by car). We all entered into the spirit of the thing as an exploratory venture: none of us were sure if the technical aspects of it would really work, and we very nearly cancelled until we had them sorted out.
The good news is that we were, in the end, able to run an entire tabletop miniatures game on a Sunday afternoon using Skype, even though the players were not particularly any more tech-savvy than your average wargamer. The ultimate finding was that it is possible to play tabletop miniatures games remotely, even without particularly good Internet connections or a lot of fancy technical equipment, and to have fun doing it.
The game was run in southern New Hampshire, in an area that has OK-but-not-great Internet connectivity. This was where the table was set up, and where the game master was able to moderate the game, move figures, and roll dice. The camera was connected to a laptop, which was used to run Skype so that everyone could see it and talk to each other. The players were at two different locations in Maine, using an iPad tablet and an iPhone. The three were connected using a simple free Skype call, but the Internet connectivity in Maine was also somewhat limited.
The game was The Other Side of the Hill, which is a cooperative-play game designed to be run on a tablet in a normal face-to-face setting. The figures were 25mm in scale. It is not a serious Napoleonic game, but is intended to produce a Sharpe's Rifles-type adventure, where players play against the computer. (It is available from the Application of Force site.) The players take the part of British and allied commanders with small forces of light troops, tasked with scouting, skirmishing, etc. during the Peninsular War. The game master had used this system in normal table-top games before, although not with these particular players.
The scenario was a typical one for this type of game: the players are a single force with a shared mission: they have a list of places which must be searched, and they must then report back to their commander with whatever they have learned of the enemy. The tabletop is shown in the map below (this was sent to the players the night before the game):
The four objectives were the Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad, Villa Nueva, the Ruina de la Torre de Caballeros, and the Antigua Cuidad Romana. The forces were made up of a British component (detachments of the 60th Rifles and the South Essex Light Company) and a Brunswicker component (detachments of Oels jagers and Oels hussars). The British set up on the left, and the Brunswickers on the right.
The game is won or lost by achieveing scenario objectives and also by collecting other intelligence (details on massed enemy forces, captured despatches, etc.) which are not written into the scenario but introduced during the play of the game by the app.
Below is the view that players had of the table at the beginning of the game on the British side:
The Brunswickers set up like this:
(These images are quite literally the screen as seen by the players and game master through the security-camera software).
The equipment for this game included the game master's Windows laptop, and an Amcrest 1080p Security camera, as well as the tablet normally used to run the app during face-to-face play (for a paper-and-dice game, this would not have been needed). Players used their everday devices to connect (iPad and iPhone).
The Amcrest security camera was purchased for the price of around $40 USD from Amazon, specifically for playing this type of game. It took an afternoon of playing around on the part of the game master to get the camera and accompanying software installed and working. It has the benefit of being wireless, having a wide-angle lens, and being good in low-light conditions. (An ordinary web-cam might have served as well or better, but none were available on Amazon as a result of COVID-19 purchases driven by the rush to virtual commuting. You can't use the built-in laptop camera because it only shows your face, not the table!)
The camera was positioned on the long side of the table, about 18 inches above the table surface and about 3 feet away from it. The picture below gives you an idea of how the table itself was set up, using the wide-screen (and somewhat fish-eyed) overall view from the camera:
This fish-eye view is not used during play, which was conducted with the more limited "1:1" ratio view used to show the set up of forces, above. The game master could shift the view to the left, center, or right side of the table without moving the camera at all, just by using the slider (visible at the bottom of the set-up images, above). Panning and zooming did not need to be used, and the camera was not moved during play. This is important because the updating of views for players over Skype has a considerable time lag, and panning and zooming would delay play (and likely produce an unpleasant "Blair Witch" effect).
Notice that a backdrop was painted onto some spare cardboard, to give a lighter background to the tabletop. This is important because the table is not easily visible against the typical stuff found in wargaming rooms (in this case, dark wood panelling and brick). Depth is tricky to see when viewed through a camera, and having a lighter backdrop helped with this.
The playing area was a table about 5 feet deep and 7 feet wide - a normal wargaming table. The field was intentionally set up so that almost all parts of the table could be viewed without using additional camera angles. (It is a bit like a stage for a play, oriented so that the audience can see everything.) Benefitting from a viewing of the Perry's recent video on the subject, we kept terrain to a minimum, and player forces fairly small.
The British and their Brunswicker allies ended up winning fairly solidly, despite not meeting all of their objectives.
On the left, the British immediately encountered a patrol of French hussars, who were summarily despatched by the Royal American riflemen. The South Essex advanced into Antigua Cuidad Romana after exchanging fire with some Spanish bandits (presumably the target of the patrolling hussars) and commenced a search, only to find that they had walked straight into a French ambush. They were sent reeling back out of the town, and the rifles moved up in support. Eventually the town was cleared, and the British moved up the road toward the Ruina de la Torre de Caballeros. (They had to skirt around a major concentration of French forces - see below).
The Brunswickers had an exciting time of it: spotting a party of French officers out scouting, the jagers shot most of them and the others fled. When searched, detailed enemy plans were found, identifying a major concentration of French camped between the Torre de Caballeros and the hill behind the Cuidad Romana. (In this game, that essentially establishes a danger zone for the British light troops which must be avoided). The detailed orders were sent back to headquarters in the care of a jager officer.
Another cavalry patrol - this time dragoons - attacked the jagers, followed up by a succession of detachments (mostly) from a Rhinebund force (Wuerzburgers - second-rate troops) and the jagers spent most of the game exchanging fire with (and ultimately killing) these, assisted by the arrival of a bloodthirsty (and unexpected) band of the local guerillas. Meanwhile, the hussars - after helping the jagers defeat the French drgoons - entered the church complex, only to find that the resident nuns had been killed by the French and gruesomely displayed above the altar. However distasteful, the objective had been met. The hussars proceeded to ride up the road toward Villa Nueva, only to be ambushed and wiped out by a detachment of Fusiliers-Chasseurs from the Imperial Guard.
Meanwhile, the Brunswicker Kapitan was approached by a group of what appeared to be aristocratic civilians, only to discover that it was an Exploring Officer and his aides travelling in mufti, who immediately demanded an escort back to friendly lines. This ended the game.
There are five levels of victory in this game: despite not meeting all four of their objectives (they scouted the Church complex and the Cuidad Romana, but not Villa Nueva or the Torre de Caballeros) the fact that detailed plans of a massed French force were discovered, and that the mission was ended at the orders of a higher-ranking Exploring Officer (and not by the malfeasance of the officers in charge of the mission) meant that a score of 3 out of a possible 5 was achieved.
The rumor of a stash of treasure in a cave near to the Torre de Caballeros, elicited from some of the local villagers, was not explored.
The pictures below show the table at the end of play. Note that the hussars are no longer in sight, having gone to join the angels (demons?) courtesy of Napoleon's Guardsmen, visible behind the church. Here is the right-hand side of the table:
And the left-hand side, with the French camp in the background:
The pace of this type of game is limited by the fact that, with not-great Internet bandwidth, the view that players have of the table comes at a considerable time lag. The game master was often describing things on the table which the players did not yet see (for a few seconds), and at some points they were caused to view the seat of the game master's trousers as he arranged figures on the tabletop. (While not life-threatening, this is not really something to be desired. A "Hello, Kitty!" patch is clearly in order!) The game needs to be taken at a moderate pace, to account for what players can and cannot see, and the game master must feed them information about distances and so on as they move their units and decide to make other actions.
While this sounds onerous, it was not really too bad: the game played at an acceptable rate, but perhaps somewhat slower than it would when conducted face-to-face. In the end, the game was completed in the space of between 2 and 3 hours, once all the technology was sorted out, which is typical for this type of scenario in any setting.
Establishing connectivity was somewhat tricky. Initially, we nearly abandoned the game because we could not get the tabletop view onto the player's devices. When trying this for the first time, expect a delay of an hour or so to get all of this kind of thing sorted out. We did turn off the player video cameras to save bandwidth.
We used a very simple approach in the end: the game master called one player on Skype, and then invited the second player into a group call. He then shared his screen, so that everyone could see the camera-views shown above and talk to each other. (Note that the game master has to invite all the players to connect on Skype - and they have to accept the invitation - before they can be joined together in a group call.)
We had wanted to use an online dice-rolling app which Application of Force has made available, so that players can see each other's rolls, and they get to roll their own dice (virtually). Because of bandwidth considerations, we ended up having the game master roll all the dice instead.
Players commented that having a sharper angle down onto the tabletop would have been better, to give a better sense of distance and a more typical bird's-eye view. This would require a more elaborate set-up than was used (a pile of boxes on top of a coffee table) but will be considered for future games. A tripod is probably a very good investment for this kind of gaming.
Image quality was not a major issue: players could see well enough to command their forces, assisted by a game master who could answer questions. In a game where players are making small adjustments to the position of units on the table, this could be problematic. In a game like this one, where formations and so on are less critical, it was not an issue.
The players agreed that this was - in a world of social distancing - an acceptable way to play a game, and that they would do it again. We did not expect everything to go completely smoothly, and it didn't. Being tolerant and willing to spend some time getting the technology functioning is important, but it worked out in the end. Once the game started, there weren't any annoying technology-related disruptions.
I think we can conclude that remote tabletop games are practical, even using a modicum of affordable equipment and normal online conferencing software. We were pleased with the overall result! There are many things to be learned - and no doubt we will get better at using the technology, especially - but we were able to pull it off. Our first attempt was, broadly speaking, a success!
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Written by Arofan Gregory, and copyright (c) 2020. All rights reserved.