Saturday, 9 December 2017

Sandwich Anyone?

Sometimes, when you are a bit of an omni-reader, as you have probably guessed I am, synthesis appears, as if sprung to life as smoothly as the meshing of gears on an Austin Riley. One such meshing has just happened, and so I am dashing along here to tell you all about it.

Of course, it being about matters maritime I very much doubt if anyone is going to be particularly interested. There is something very odd about naval wargaming, in that very few people actually seem to be interested in it at all. Given that Britain has a ‘great naval tradition’ and that the Unite States still has, I believe the biggest and most powerful navy in the world, this seems a little strange. Various navies and nations, over the years, have taught us that geo-political and strategic power is often most usefully and easily projected by naval forces. In short, the dictum of the British Empire still applied: If in doubt, send a gunboat.

Yet I can verify, in my own blog statistics that if I write a post about matters naval, the number of hits (which is never great at the best of times) crashes. For example, whereas a post titled ‘Project Wargame’ got over 230 hits, one updating the world on my Armada project got about 80. I admit that this is neither a scientific sample nor a statistically convincing one, but it does strike me as being a little, well, odd. Are naval wargames so unpopular?

Out there in the blogosphere of wargame matters things seem to be similar. Few posts on blogs that I occasionally look at seem to mention matters maritime. It is, of course, entirely possible that naval wargamers have better things to do than blog about their projects, rules and battles, but it does seem a bit weird, not to say, landlubberish (if that is a word).

Now, each wargamer to their own, I concede. But I did, a few years ago, have terrible trouble establishing anything very much about the navy in the English Civil War. There was, at that time, one book on the subject I believe, and it spent most of its time proving that the navy had won the war for Parliament. I suppose that you need a radical hypothesis like that when you are attempting to show that something largely un-regarded in fact mattered.

The navy did matter in the ECW, as I am sure that some of you are aware. Without it being in Parliamentary control the Royalists could probably have made a better fist of the war than they did, with increased access to foreign imports of, say, gunpowder (which they often seem to have been short of) and mercenaries. Some supplies did get through, of course, especially after Rupert captured Bristol. Henrietta Maria, of course, is famously the only British Queen to have landed in the country under naval bombardment (and she went back to find her dog, as well). But have you ever tried to find wargame models of naval vessels of the 1630’s? I do not believe they exist.

Now, the symbiosis of my reading matter came about in this wise. I read History Today magazine and, in November’s issue there was an article on the Battle of Sandwich. I am sure that you all know that this was fought in 1217 between the English and the French. William Marshall, the English Protector of the infant Henry, was struggling to contain a French invasion and baron’s rebellion.

The English had made a fairly good start in defeating the French and others at Lincoln, and so, in order to carry on the fight, the French needed some reinforcement. This was collected by the French Queen (I don’t think she did it personally, mind you) and dispatched. The English got wind of this and intercepted the French fleet, somewhere off Sandwich and Dover. Either good fortune or a nifty bit of sailing gave the English the upper hand (or the weather guage)and the invasion fleet was defeated. The French already in England were thus left with little option except to return home.

On my shelf I have a book by Susan Rose called ‘England’s Medieval Navy’. It is a nice book, with plenty of colour illustrations giving a good impression of the very little that is really known of medieval ships, shipping, mariners and naval warfare. Having the book available was a happy accident and I have just finished it. The point she makes is that naval operations in the medieval period were, largely, logistical, in support of or, in fact, landing armies. Thus Berwick Upon Tweed was an important harbour for invading Scotland, and the Channel ports, on both sides, could be vital targets for raids and jumping off points for invasions. Only a few full blown naval battles occurred, of which Sandwich / Dover was one.

Whether Sandwich was a battle ‘more important than the Armada’ is a judgement I do not feel qualified to make. The author of the article was fairly sure that it was, claiming that if the French had succeeded, England would have been a fief of the French crown and history would have been different. Possibly, but the English barons were a fairly fractious lot at the time and France itself was the victim of a fair number of collapses of Royal authority through the medieval period. History would have been a bit different, perhaps, but it is a bit hard to see Sandwich as being that decisive.

From a wargamer’s point of view, it would be a nice battle to fight. It would be different, visually stunning if you can get the heraldry right, as the ships were brightly painted and bedecked with banners, and even the rules would be reasonably straightforward, as the fighting was similar to that on land. The only drawback that I can see is that there are few, if any, suitable wargame models available.

I did once, a long time ago, read an article on medieval naval wargaming advocating using half-walnuts for the cogs. I have no idea if it would work and my modelling skills are not up to it. But it would, at least, be something different to try out.


Sandwich anyone?

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Unintended Amusement

Occasionally, out in the Internet and associated social media platforms, most of which I avoid like the plague, one can come across the odd gem that just, simply, tickles one's humour buds. Admittedly, this does not happen very often, and it happens even less often in wargaming circles. Wargamers appear to be a fairly serious bunch. We take our pleasures without smiling, on the whole.

Still, sometimes some of the stuff I write and post, and a few people read, gets posted by some kindly soul, to the ‘Utter Drivel’ message board on The Miniatures Page. Now, I do not, in general, read TMP, although I did have a very, very, peripheral hand in setting it up in the early days. I certainly do not frequent its message boards. On the occasions I have looked, it has reminded of nothing but the flame wars which used to characterise most of the old Usenet news group.

Anyway, I can see in the statistics for the blog when a link to it has been posted, and I usually drop in to see what it is and what a different set of people think of my deathless prose. It does not particularly bother me one way of the other, of course. I have seen and heard of enough abuse on the internet to know that, unless it is illegal, it should be ignored.

A few weeks ago I blogged about ‘Method in Wargaming’, and it sparked a degree of interest in the comments, and also got a link posted to the ‘Utter Drivel’ site. Part of what was posted included the sentence

“About half of my occupation is doing fairly silly things with reading stuff around education, theology, science and philosophy.”

This actually elicited very little response, but one comment did nearly make me fall off my chair laughing, and alarmed my colleagues at work (for it was my lunch hour). The comment, in full is:

“The guy needs to read about Science, requires definitive assumptions and data. Only sad folk can usefully comment on things they don't understand. Try making useful comments on napolinic drill without understanding drill manuals or studying human capabilities.”

I could, of course, make comment on the English, spelling, capitalisation and grammar of the post, but that is not what amused me. Unfortunately, we have had to become used to the poverty of modern means of expression and accuracy of the written word.

What made me laugh, and out loud too, was the non-sequitur, suggesting that I need to read about science (I beg your pardon, ‘Science’) when the sentence quoted quite clearly states that I was reading about the subject.  Furthermore, I reflected that perhaps I need to contact my alma mater and ask if they wish to rescind my first degree and PhD in physics. Or maybe I simply need to reassure the clueless poster that I do know something about science, have read more science than you can shake a stick at, a fair bit of philosophy of science to boot, and that science does not consist of ‘definitive assumptions and data’. Only people, believing something called ‘scientism’ as a matter of abuse, think that. It is a view which is heavily popularised but largely ignored in academic circles, and in fact should have died out no later than the 1960’s.

I have spent, perhaps, rather a large number of words over a trivial incident on a trivial forum over a trivial blog in a small, un-regarded corner of the Internet. It did amuse me for a few seconds, and probably only did so because it rather tickled my sense of the absurd. But I suspect there might be something a bit deeper going on, which does affect historical wargaming.

I find, in my teaching work, that people are finding it harder and harder to understand text. Now, we all come to texts with our prejudices intact, and that means that we read a text in a certain way. In this case the text could be anything – a historical source, a secondary source, a set of wargame rules. For example, when Polemos: ECW came out we discovered that people were rallying routed troops, and doing so, under the rules as they read them, very easily. Unfortunately, this was read-through from other rule sets where it is perfectly possible to rally the routed. It is just that in PM: ECW you cannot do it. Somehow, people read the text they think is there, not what is in front of them.

Science has mostly captured the moral high ground of knowledge. ‘Scientists have found…’ is a sentence which often starts a news story. Yet science is an interpretative scheme or, if you will, a certain way of talking about the world – a small part of the world, in fact. Other forms of knowledge are still possible, including historical knowledge and knowledge of wargame rules. It is just that, too often, our pre-judgements about what is there get in the way. This, too, happens in science, where a given interpretative scheme is pressed beyond its limits until it collapses, but the scientists who have worked upon it refuse to believe the evidence of collapse presented. Scientists can even adjust, invent or modify their results to prove their point. It is a human activity with the usual human flaws attached.

The point is that nothing in human knowledge, broadly defined, is that certain. Hypotheses in science are universally under-determined. Nothing, in fact, can be tested exhaustively. Similarly in history the next document might be the one that shows that King Arthur defeated the Norman invasion in 1066 and reigned in secret for decades, or indeed that England has been invaded successfully many times since 1066. Historical hypotheses are, perhaps, a bit flakier than some scientific ones, but all human knowledge is contingent, everything we think we know might be wrong and (in fact) quite a lot of it is.


This has, sadly, become quite a serious post. The upshot is that no set of wargame rules is ever going to be definitive. I suspect that we already knew that. The other outcome is a plea for careful reading. We all make mistakes, but in the age of the Internet we can parade our ignorance in public and that is probably not a great thing to do, in general.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Philosophy of Small Things

As promised, I shall now attempt to ponder small figures and why people, such as me, like to use them. Why put up with the sneering of ‘biggers’, as Terry Pratchett might have put it? What is the point? I suppose there are as many answers as there are wargamers who use figures of such stature, but I shall try to outline the world according to me.

Firstly, in my experience, space is an issue. I returned to wargaming having got married, and we were living in a one bedroom shoebox, which was all we could afford. Fortunately, the Estimable Mrs P and I were quite friendly, but there was not a lot of space left for hobbies. The options rapidly became 6 mm and 2 mm figures. Samples were sought, and my aesthetic advisor suggested 6 mm because they looked more like people than the 2 mm blocks. Decision made. My first wargame table was a two foot by thee foot piece of chipboard, and the battles were fought out on the floor (oh, what knees I must have had in my youth!).

One reason for 6 mm wargaming is, therefore, the need to be able to have battles in confined spaces, and make them look like battles. This is another interesting factor. I am used to 6 mm now, and 25 mm demonstration games, no matter how exquisite, look like skirmishes to me. Conversely, someone noted somewhere that 6 mm battles did not look right. What we are used to modifies our perceptions quite radically, it seems.

Secondly, there is the option to fight big battles in a relatively sane space. More distant battles certainly, can be fought, realistically, on a normal sized table with a lot of troops on the table. I have to admit that it does look rather good, even if the sheer quantity of work entailed in doing it dwarfs my paltry painting efforts, not to mention the cost. This sort of thing does show exactly how big a ‘real’ battle must have been, and how difficult manoeuver and command was. It also illustrates why, for example, one wing could collapse and cause little more than a ruffle of interest on the other, at least for a time. The dynamics of armies is an interesting and rather little thought about subject, I suspect.

A reason, I believe, for the writing of DBA was to encourage wargamers to buy two armies that were matched. The idea was that, as the armies were only twelve bases, two armies were within more or less everyone’s budget, and so there would be less excuse for ahistorical match-ups. To an extent this worked, at least for a while, but I do not see much diminution in the ahistorical battle perpetrated at some show tournaments. Perhaps that was too big a task.

Anyway, if two armies of twelve bases in, say, fifteen millimetres scale is good for the budget, then two at 6 mm is even more of a bargain. This is not because (as someone told me once) 6 mm figures are ‘interchangeable’ or ‘flexible’, but because 6 mm figures are, per base, cheaper. You can, in fact, experiment more with them. You can build more armies and have much more variety of battles than if you were landed with an army of biggers. Maybe I am a flibbertigibbet, but I do like to try the odd, unusual and obscure in my wargame periods. As I have previously observed, my 1618-Campaign could hardly have got off the ground in any other scale. The third reason is cost, therefore.

The next reason is related to space, but slightly different, I think. I do not have the time to have a large battle with hundreds of figures on a massive table. I have a life. A job. A “career”, if you want to be polite about it. I do other stuff, including reading about history, as well as other things. I have limited time to play wargames. As I have mentioned, twelve bases is about all I can manage. Some fast play rules help as well. But the idea of wargaming Waterloo on even a one base is one battalion basis fills me with the creeps, at least in terms of time, space and money.

Some people, of course, go mad. I suppose all of us, as wargamers, are probably, at some level, megalomaniacs. But few of us would go so far as M. Foy’s acquaintance who modelled down to the half-company. Well, maybe we would, but only with someone else to push the bases around. Such an exercise might be interesting for understanding drill, perhaps, or the evolution of how a battalion might constitute itself, but it seems a trifle over the top. I know Mr Berry once had a French line battalion one a one figure to one man display item, to show what could be done, but I doubt anyone is really playing wargames this way. It was, however, interesting for showing how thin a line, even 3 deep, was, and how close a column, that much vaunted attack formation, was to a line.

Finally, of course, you can attempt to us 6 mm figures as you would 25 mm. Put a few figures on a base and move them around as if they were on castors. It seems to me that you get, here, the worst of both worlds. It does not look much more than a skirmish, and the aesthetic qualities of the figures is not the same (not better or worse, just different). Wargame rules usually have to be butchered to enable them to be used as single figure removal is a bit tricky with the smaller scales. Not that I cannot think of a few rule sets that should not be butchered, of course…


I do not think that there is much of a philosophy of 6 mm figures to be had. Wargaming is, by and large, wargaming. What we have are matters of taste and context. I am not going to change, because I have too many small figures to make it worthwhile, and they suit me. Those with larger afflictions probably feel the same.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Vive La Difference!

In all my dealings on the internet, on blogs, on Twitter when I was a twit (a very brief sojourn, in my case, forced upon my by a course), via email and across the whole gamut of media, I try not to act with annoyance, irritation and certainly not in anger. The destructive effects of anger, trolling and so on are displayed on your screens every day, and I, for one, wish to have not part in that.

So I have thought very carefully about posting this article, and let the fires of, well, not anger or even mild irritation die down. As the residue is a mix of slight frustration and very modest exasperation is sufficient to motivate a blog post, but not, I hope, to cause any flame wars to erupt across the wargaming blogo-sphere, I will, cautiously, attempt to explain.

One of the blogs I keep an eye on (‘follow’ seems altogether too much like fan-dom for comfort) is MS Foy’s ‘Prometheus in Aspic’. It is, I find, interesting, both in the wargaming aspects and in the trips down memory lane. I am not, never have been, and never will be, a Napoleonic wargamer, but M. Foy’s occasional forays into English Civil War, attempts at campaigns and so on make for an interesting read.  

A recent post (as I write this) was on the very old Minifigs 5 mm blocks. I am, bless my little cotton socks, far too young to remember these, although I have heard of them. M. Foy, in the course of a trip down memory lane recalling a Scottish wargamer, remarks on the philosophy of using small figures, comments I will try to return to later.

The problem I have, which is the cause of my slight feelings of exasperation, at least sufficient to promote an outbreak of a sight as I read the comments, were notes along the line of ‘I could not possible paint anything that small’. Now, in some cases, including from the blog owner himself, this was dressed up as ‘I know it can be done but I couldn’t do it’, or words to that effect. Often these sorts of comments are wrapped up in self-deprecatory humour, along the lines of ‘I’m too old for this’.

Now, I am a 6 mm wargamer. This is a choice I have made, and I have been wargaming in the scale for about 25 years. My eyesight was never very good to start with, and recently I have, on my optician’s advice, started to swap between two pairs of spectacles. The alternative was ‘varifocals’, but I do not fancy reading (something which, some of you may have noticed, I do quite a lot of) with my head turned back at a funny angle. Can I assure all the doubters that it is perfectly possible to paint 6 mm figures very nicely (or, in my case, adequately) whatever the state of you eyesight.

The problem is that this comes round again and again in wargame circles. ‘I can’t paint that size’. What size brush do you need for that?’ and so on. I have seen and heard enough of it to be thoroughly bored by the whole thing (so why write about it? Catharsis, probably; I doubt I will change anyone’s mind). The point is that painting 6 mm figures is easy; it just requires a rather different technique from bigger figures.

If you think about logically (and I realise logic has little to do with the “normal” scale prejudice I have referred to recently) then painting a belt on a 25 mm figure is no easier, and might be rather a lot more difficult, than painting a face and hands on a 6 mm figure. I trust that those who claim they could not paint a 6 mm figure have left the belts and gaiters unpainted on their own larger figures. Consistency is important, after all.

‘Ah,’ the reply might come, ‘but what about the eyeballs!’ This is often pronounced as if the 6 mm figure painter has never thought of it before. It is rather easy. You do not even attempt to paint them. You cannot see them; you cannot see them even in a real sized human at a few paces, so why try on a wargame figure?

Bizarre objection upon bizarre objection tends to follow. It becomes perfectly clear that the wargamer making these objections has no intention of being persuaded out of their point of view. It is not even as if the 6 mm wargame figure painter is attempting to convert them. There is no acknowledgement that an alternative way can be found. And that is very sad, for in my very limited experience of switching from 6 mm figure painting to bigger figures, painting the smaller ones is very useful in making better progress with the big ones. Learning a new technique is often a useful activity. Conversely, being closed to the very idea of a new technique seems to me to diminish the humanity of person closing the idea down.

Now, I do not wish anyone to get upset, throw teddies around, and denounce me to the wargame authorities or anything of the sort as a result of my comments. Hopefully, readers of the blog (which may include M. Foy himself, I’m not sure) will know that I am of the opinion that each wargamer can wargame how they wish, in whatever scale they choose. But I also think that there is a tremendous amount that we can learn from each other about wargaming – rules, ideas, scenarios and, yes, techniques of painting. Simply dismissing the experience of a set of wargamers through some sort of scotoma is unfortunate, to say the least.

Now, I hope I have not ranted. This post is meant as a mild reproof for those whose ideas of painting are perhaps a little stale, made more in sorrow than in anger. Wargaming is, after all, a hobby. If I get angry about it, the whole point is rather dented, after all.


And, finally, I have run out of words, so a discussion of the ‘philosophy’ of 6 mm wargaming will have to wait for another opportunity…

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Postmodern Wargame Rules

Once again I have been reading about postmodernism. My sins (in a previous life, of course) must have been really bad. Or possibly this is, in fact, purgatory. Either is possible. Douglas Adams did hypothesise that if anyone figured out what the universe was for, it would instantly be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable. His second hypothesis was that this had already happened.

One of the problem that I, at least, have, is trying to get to grips with what postmodernism really is. I suspect that the true postmodernist would rule the question out of court. Even to ask the question is to be insufficiently postmodern, I suspect. On the other hand, extreme postmodernism views the entire world as a construct, mostly of human language. As Alvin Plantinga once pointed out, on this basis a roomful of people not thinking about the Moon could make it disappear. Somehow, that does not happen. He also observed that not thinking or talking about it would be a tremendous and very cheap way of curing most medical problems.

Be all that as it may, the more serious postmodern philosophers take hermeneutics seriously. By this they mean that a text can have multiple interpretations. Each interpretation cannot be ruled as being wrong. I am not mad because my interpretation differs from yours. The problem is that this can land up in both smugness and relativism. Smugness because, of course, such things as the Reformation and the murder it evoked would not have happened if everyone was as smart and as tolerant as postmodern hermeneutic philosophers. Relativism because, so far as I know, no-one has come up with criteria for deciding which of the alternative interpretations is, in any sense at all, better.

Now of course we hear the cry in the distance ‘It is all relative!’ This is one of the claims of the late modern (and whatever comes after that) world. The problem here is that the statement itself ‘it is all relative’ is not a relative statement. It is an absolute. It is really saying ‘everything is relative except this statement’. The response of most sane, non-postmodern people who stop for a moment and ponder it is to rule the statement itself out. There have to be some absolutes somewhere, otherwise nothing, including the internet, would work.

By now you are probably wondering where the wargame content is, or, probably, you have already guessed it and are about to stop reading anyway. Fair enough. I am, almost certainly, insufficiently postmodern for most postmodern tastes and not nearly modernist enough for most modernists. Mea culpa (hey, dog Latin; this is a blog of culture and taste).

Anyway, as those of you who read the blog more than once, and who are not Russian bot-nets who occasionally bombard the site with spurious hits, will know, I am attempting to perpetrate some wargame rules, both of them in areas about which I feel I know too little. This is, of course, highly postmodern. At least, most postmodern philosophers feel they can comment on anything without the need for understanding it. Hence the Sokal hoax, for example, which is one of the funniest incidents in fairly recent academic scholarship I am aware of.

My lack of knowledge apart, there is an issue of interpretation. Opinions in historiography vary, often widely. For some, the landing of Spanish troops on the shores of England would have provoked fanatic resistance from the inhabitants. There is some evidence for this. English forces were not as badly trained and organised as earlier historiography suggests. The regime did have loyal supporters, and English troops fighting on home soil might not have been as bad as their counterparts sent abroad.

On the other hand, who would really have wanted to take on the regional (or global; again, opinions differ over the might of Spain) superpower in the cause of a regime which had as its head an unmarried woman of a certain age without children? Not only that but Elizabeth was excommunicated and could appear vacillating. Furthermore, if Parma’s forces had got ashore, would the hardened professionals not have made mincemeat of the English trained bands? England was not the Netherlands. While earthworks could have been constructed, large-scale flooding as used to defend Low Country cities was not an option. The Spanish probably could not be bogged down in siege warfare until they went bankrupt again.

We thus have a problem of multiple interpretations. If the Armada landed, the English might have had a chance, or they might not. The case can be argued either way. There is no final evidence, in the form of the Armada landing, which could decide the case. We can become lost in a welter of conflicting opinion, all backed up by evidence of some form or another, all open to interpretation and re-interpretation.

As I have mentioned before, the problem confronting a wargame rule writer is that this sort of situation cannot prevail. We require greater certainty than the evidence can yield, and a more concrete basis of interpretation than historiography can give us. In short, we have to guess. We have to go way beyond the evidence and do things no historian would accept (I know there are historians who are wargamers; I guess they have to accept it was well).

All we can do is to write down our pre-rule writing suppositions. I think the English trained bands may have given a good account of themselves fighting in their own counties, therefore I have decided they will not run away as soon as they are shot at by the Spanish. I have, of course, only highly indirect evidence for this; in part this supposition is based on the fact that I would like to have a worthwhile wargame at all. But at least that presupposition is clear and my lack of evidence for it is stated. Someone can, of course, come along and challenge it but then, possibly, there is no way they can confirm their assumption and we will have really boring wargames.


Somehow, in postmodernism, reality still intrudes. Derrida wrote texts and expected people would read them, even though that activity was questionable in his eyes and what the reader was doing was potentially ambiguous. Nevertheless, Derrida’s texts exist. Nevertheless my ‘Wars of the Counter Reformation’ rules exist.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

On Writing Rules

I have, it seems, somehow committed myself to writing, or helping to write, two sets of wargame rules. One is my own Wars of the Counter Reformation set, which I need for the Armada game and campaign. The other is the recently mooted Polemos: Thirty Years War rule set. I confess that I feel qualified to write neither.

Of course, if we ever felt qualified to write anything, we would never achieve much. I doubt that Tolstoy felt particularly qualified for writing War and Peace and yet, somehow, he did. There is, however, a problem, at least with the Thirty Years War: most of the information about the war is not in English. I do not read any other language and, in fact, a historian would have to master a forbidding quantity of European languages to be able to read a reasonable proportion of the available documentation.

This does not really bother most wargamers, of course. Mostly, all we want to do is bung a few (or a lot of) figures onto the table and play a game. Historical accuracy does not seem to matter that much. Indeed, it has to be said that most wargame rules exaggerate some aspects of a war or period, at the expense of others. It is the only way to make an interesting game.

I have, as most of you are probably aware, perpetrated a few sets of rules in my time. I had a hand in Polemos: English Civil War, and wrote Polemos: SPQR myself. I make non claim that these rules are accurate portrayals of the periods in question. In a sense, they cannot be. A long time ago I mentioned that a battle narrative is like describing a house – you can describe all the bits but you cannot see them all at once. Thus a rule set is going to have to try to describe a bit of the battle.

For PM: SPQR I tried to write the rule set from the perspective of the general. This led to someone commenting that the player had to ‘micromanage the big stuff’. I was quite pleased with the comment, which I think was intended as a compliment, because the general’s perspective what what I had aimed for. To some extent I suppose I succeeded.

Any piece of writing is not so much finished but abandoned by its author. Wargame rules are no exception to the rule, I think. I could have read much more, thought much more, tried out many more rule ideas and combinations, and done much more play testing. What the outcome would have been I do not know. Certainly if, now, I rewrote the rules they would be very different. I am not about to launch at that task, however.

A few things would stay the same. My ‘Wars of the Counter Reformation’ draft, which I have just typed up, retains some of the features of the Polemos series, particularly some of the bits I like, such as the order system. It also has more than a small debt to the DBR system, flawed though that rule set seems to be. A few original thoughts might even have sneaked in. If readers of the blog are fortunate (or unlucky) I might post the draft as it is.

There are, of course, many things that are problems in writing rules, especially in pinching bits which you like from other sets and cobbling them together. Firstly, of course, there are different troop types. For the English Civil War we coul deal with a very limited number of different sorts of troops. The number of interactions between arms was limited. Admittedly we had to perhaps exaggerate some differences to make an interesting wargame. There are always going to be design decisions and compromises. The main one in PM: ECW is related to cavalry and, specifically the difference between trotters and gallopers. I think I would refine that now, although I am not sure how.

Similarly, in PM: SPQR I had to design around skirmishers. Skirmishers, in the ancient records are present in sometimes vast numbers. As I was attempting to design Polemos: Age of Alexander it became clear firstly that the historians record thousands and tens of thousands of skirmishing type troops. Secondly, it became cleaer that they had very little impact on the outcome of battles. There are a few battles in the ancient world where they did have an effect, but they were mainly due to ambush, terrain and / or silly decisions by generals, such as ‘let’s march out into the desert without much water’. So skirmishers, while present, are weak, and I think they should be.

These sorts of decisions are balanced by others, of course. As I think I note in the ‘Designer’s Notes’ in PM: SPQR, ancient battles were won by men with pointy sticks. Cavalry (as Alexander demonstrated) could be effective, but mostly, they were not. Similarly, in the ECW, cavalry were more able to win battles, but still, really, needed to be part of a combined arms activity; either that or get lucky.

And so we come to the Wars of the Counter Reformation. One of the problems is, of course, that aside from the French civil wars, there were not that many battles. The wars were, with only a few exceptions, wars of siege and counter siege, naval operations, raids, and the vast drain of money and resources that these things needed. The wars were mainly won and lost by financial exhaustion and the refusal of countries to supply more men and material.

Any rule set for the period, then, has to be largely a function of the imagination, of what would, could or might have happened. Whether my ideas are right or not is impossible to say. The Armada did not land. The Dutch and Spanish armies only occasionally came to blows away from siege warfare. It could have been different, but the data as to what might have happened does not exist.


On the other hand, no-one can prove me wrong, either….

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Scots and the English Civil War

I read, on someone’s blog that I have now forgotten the details of, a review of Alisdair McRae’s ‘How the Scots Won the English Civil War’ (History Press, Stroud, 2013). It was, I recall, largely an account of how bad the book was. Given that and the opportunity to acquire it cheaply, I was consumed by curiosity, and settled down to read it.

Recently, I supervised a final year undergraduate dissertation, which was an interesting experience. Without giving too much away, the project was the sort devised by a rather weak student who had heard the same word used in two different contexts, was thus convinced that there was a connection and pursued the said connection, in spite of all the evidence against such a link, the supervisor’s promptings that things needed thinking through differently, and so on.

Further, the execution of the project was on the lamentable side. Supervisoral suggestions and corrections to spelling, grammar and sense were ignored, and the project sailed on to submission riddled with errors and with more unreferenced quotes than you can shake a stick at. If you sense a little of the supervisor’s frustration here, you would be correct.

Of course, it all came to grief when it was marked, and the supervisor, yours truly, was called upon to second mark it. To be honest, I think that to first marker’s judgment was positively generous given the work submitted and the plagiarism detected. A shame, I think; it was a nice original idea.

Returning to the book in hand (or, in my case, on desk), I think we have a similar situation. One of the ironies here is, of course, that I was reading McRae at the same time as second marking the dissertation. It is a nice idea, but lamentably executed. I find it hard to believe that a reputable publisher let it go out into the world in such a state.

First, the good things. The idea of writing a history of the English Civil Wars from a Scottish perspective is a fine one. I am not aware of anyone who has taken this approach, but it would certainly give a different perspective to the goings on in England, and, of course, due acknowledgment of Scotland’s own, very bitter, civil strife of the time. I do, incidentally, on my ‘unread’ book shelf, have a number of other tomes on Scotland and the English Civil Wars waiting to be read, so it is possible that such a history does exist, but that I have not read it yet.

The book probably tries to do too much. A general account of the Thirty Year’s War is given, apparently to show the experience of Scottish mercenaries in Europe prior to 1640 or so. Fair enough, but the narrative gets rather clogged up by this and a lot of it adds little to any other general history of the Thirty Years War. I suspect that it is, to put it politely, derivative of readily available accounts in English of those events.

The book then moves towards accounts of the Bishop’s Wars and opening moves in the English Civil War, followed by the raising of the Scottish Army and its despatch south. This has some interesting detail on the raising of the regiments but is rather light on the political and social, let alone religious, drivers and meanings.

The best bits of the book are the descriptions of the Scottish actions at the sieges of Newcastle, Carlisle and Hereford. This includes information that I have not come across before, although it is lamentably referenced and so impossible to follow up on. The chapter on Marston Moor is all right, but the author wants to credit the Scottish infantry with saving the day and also claims that Cromwell and his cronies stole the credit (which might be true). As with most battle accounts, however, it is mostly garbled – the siege accounts are much better and even include useful maps, although the illustrations of re-enactors re-enacting are less so.

The book also includes an account of Montrose’s campaign, including detail on Phillpaugh, some of which I had not seen before, and a brief account of Preston which rather fails to give credit to Langdale’s before any Scots were in action (if, in fact, any Scots did anything much at the battle except flee).

The book finishes with a few comments on Scotland in the 1650’s and Montrose’s sticky end, as well as a lengthy and unnecessary gallop through medical ideas of the seventeenth century leading up to the death of Hugh Fraser.

The subtitle of the book, ‘The Triumph of Fraser’s Dragoons’ is the reason for this last bit. The dragoons appear briefly in the narrative but, as the author admits in the Epilogue, there is very little evidence to be found of their activities. I suspect that this could be said of most units in any army of the time, so should not have come as the surprise it seems to have done to the author. On its own terms, therefore, the book is a failure. No unit history of Fraser’s dragoons could be written, no matter how nice an idea it might have seemed at the time.

Which brings us to the lamentable state of the referencing. There is a list of references and some notes, so the work aspires to some sort of academic pretension. However, in the notes a reference is to Barratt (2002). A crosscheck with the reference list yields ‘Barratt (2002)’. Not terribly useful. In fact, it is a lot worse than the student dissertation is just dissed above. Furthermore there are copious quotes from historical sources. These are unreferenced. In my book, this is plagiarism, even though the sources are 350 years old or so. As I said, I am surprised that a reputable publisher let this through. I know that publishing is a rather cash-strapped business these days and that editors and the process of editing is expensive, but these are schoolchild mistakes. There are, out there in internet-land, various free (and paid for) reference management software products. A few clicks of the mouse button can tidy this sort of rubbish up.


So a nice idea but badly executed. A shame – I think the author has something to say, and that something is interesting. Despite the blurb proclaiming his avid historian credentials, re-enactment, television appearances and ‘numerous’ articles in the press and magazines, I suppose he won’t be the last to find that writing something book-length is a very different beast indeed.