Saturday, 25 June 2022

Plots, Structures and Interactions

I have written here before, and I still think that I am right, that a set of wargame rules is a set of interacting models. The trick is, in writing rules, to get each model functioning correctly (I am assuming that we are talking about historical rules here, but the same applies to fantasy and science fiction, and also role-playing games although the human interaction factor is higher there). Once each model is refined enough, their interactions have to be worked on.

This all sounds a bit high falutin’ and theoretical, so I shall try an example. For an English Civil War game, we need a model for movement (i.e. how far does an infantry unit actually move in a time period?), shooting, close combat, and for morale. These models need to be consistent across all arms, so infantry can face up to cavalry, artillery can behave as we believe artillery did behave, and so on. When you analyse a set of rules by this criteria you have quite a complex set of models, working on their own and interacting.

It is no wonder that rule sets throw up oddities. The complexities only multiply when you add in scale models and terrain. The game has to look and feel correct, whatever those terms might mean in practice. A bunch of musketeers charged in the open by an equal number of cavalrymen should find themselves in trouble, shouldn’t they? A lot might depend on the relative morale of the two sides, of course, on training, on the confidence of the troops to charge or to hold their fire until the last minute, and so on. It is little wonder that recent rule sets have given up on trying to quantify all of these factors, and opted for a straight dice roll with a few modifiers.

You may well be sitting, nodding sagely in agreement and wondering why I have raised the matter again. It is a fair question. I have perpetrated a few sets of rules in my time and commented on the fact. It is in my mind at the moment because, as I noted last time, I needed to write some rules for naval wargames in the Anglo-Dutch Wars period.

The numbers reading blog posts on naval matters tend to show that anything maritime is a big yawn to most wargamers, but if that applies to you, please do not stop reading here. I promise the rest of the post is of relevance to land-based wargames as well.

Writing naval rules brought to mind that, as well as the models outlined above we need to add extra models to the movement rules. Sailing ships were dependent on the wind, and that adds another element to the rule set. In my earlier rules, I tried to avoid explicit rules for tacking, but the wind proved to be impossible to ignore. It just matters too much for sailing ships.

There is thus a minimal number of models which any rule set needs to cover. Rules for movement in power armour are not necessary for World War Two rule sets. Rules for tank movement are. However, often, it has seemed to me, that the more complex the models used for some aspects, the simpler the models are elsewhere. The most egregious example I can think of is a set of WW2 rules, the name of which I do not recall, that had no morale model at all. Even as a young and green wargamer, it seemed a bit odd to have a complex paragraph or two on fire and movement and nothing much on whether the soldiers would hang around to fire (or be fired at).

Some rule sets like the DB* family wave morale away into combat outcomes and re-integrate it into higher formation and the losses accruing to that formation. Thus wings or divisions (or whatever they are called in period) run away at a certain point. This is a little predictable, I feel. The Polemos rule sets I have written have army-level morale, but it comes with a bit of randomness. Armies could and did run away before they needed to, or stand and fight when most sensible observers would have expected them to have chosen discretion over valour.

I suppose that there is only so much complexity or only so many interacting models that we, as wargamers, can or want to cope with. Perhaps this goes with age. I am much less prepared to put up with fiddly accountancy and endless tables than I used to be. Or, maybe, I have just realised that accuracy (whatever that means) does not map onto complexity.

After all, if, as I argued last time, we play wargames to tell entertaining stories, the narrative flow is surely interrupted by having to consult a good, big book of rules and find the right page. Granted most rule sets come with quick play charts, but even so. If the story is the thing then we require something that moves the narrative on, rather than stalling it. Throw a dice, consult a table and chortle or despair over the outcome.

In fiction, each scene is supposed to show something about the characters or move the plot along. In wargames, we do not have a great deal of discovering stuff about the characters on the table (even in RPG) and so the plot is the thing. The driver is the specific scenario, of course, the terrain, balance of forces, objectives, and so on. This might be why straightforward destroy the enemy army wargames get a bit dull after a while. We have to care about the story, and want to know what happens next.

As such, the rules and mechanics, the models, and their interactions are necessary but insufficient conditions for an enjoyable wargame. While wargames can have higher or lower stakes for us, in terms of running campaigns, for example, if, ultimately, we do not care which side wins in terms of outcome, even if as solo gamers we are neutral in the matter, the plot is the thing; the rules need to facilitate but otherwise keep out of the way.

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Telling Tales in Wargaming

Over the years, one of the things that has slowly come into focus in writing this blog has been the suspicion that most wargaming is storytelling. I imagine that there are two reactions to that comment. One could be ‘Of course it is, I’ve been saying so for years’, and the other might be’ Wargaming is a serious, grown-up hobby and I’m not telling you stories, just accounts of games.’

Both reactions are valid, naturally, but both sides might be willing to reflect a little bit more on wargaming, as in playing the games, as telling stories. Humans, after all, are storytelling animals. Telling stories, after all, is something that differentiates me from our cat. Stories are how we make sense of the world and receive and digest information about it. Even the most factual news is packaged as a ‘story’, whether we like it or not.

One of the interesting things about running this blog is the varying numbers of readers for the different sorts of posts. Before the botnets get to blatting the posts, which usually takes between a week and a month, depending on which networks are running, the battle report posts usually get fewer reads than the more abstract concepts and ideas posts. Of course, the naval wargaming posts take the lowest place, but battle reports are usually not much above them.

As a snapshot, the last four non-battle report posts have averaged about 68 reads per post. The last four battle report posts have averaged 54 reads. I am not sure whether the difference is really significant. Establishing that would require more work than I am inclined to devote to the topic, but the difference is around 20% in reads, so I suspect there might be some significance there.

My battle reports are part storytelling and part reportage. I tend to top and tail them with a bit of imaginative dialogue from some of the ‘participants’, especially if the wargames are part of a campaign. Then I tend to describe the game, with photographs and a description of the action. At the end are perhaps hints of the next games, and mostly there are not, simply because I have not thought about it yet.

The campaigns are, of course, narratives. In the case of the campaigns reported on the blog, they are self-consciously narrative. I create them not from moves on a map and careful calculation of resources after the mode of the famous Tony Bath Hyboria campaign of wargame legend, but from a storyline, and arc, with some troops and a map of an area.

The most satisfying narrative campaign has been the Armada Abbeys one, which also happened to be the first. These facts might be related, of course. But it did also satisfy the requirements, overall, of a story. It had a beginning, the landing at Whitby, and some plot development, through the battle of Guisborough. There were some plot twists, with the intervention of the Scots and the arrival of Spanish reinforcements. Finally, there was a satisfactory conclusion, with the final surrender of the Spanish forces in the North Yorkshire Moors. The overall tale is a pleasing one, to me at least.

Within the overall narrative arc, there are some key points, both campaign moments, such as when I realized that the Scots did not need to force the Tees bridge at Yarm but could try the next one along at Croft. There were also key points in the battles, such as the charge of the Scottish cavalry at Northallerton which meant that Don Carlos’ army was forced to make a difficult retreat (and was more or less destroyed as a fighting force as a result). There were some bits that I expected to be key points in the narrative, such as the defection of some militia at Guisborough, which did not turn out quite like that. On the other hand, the cavalry action at Mount Grace was a lot more significant than I expected, the resultant English fort dividing the Spanish armies and playing a part in the end of Don Carlos’ army.

The numbers looking at the blog posts, however, suggest that the stories, at least how I write them, are not as popular as the think-pieces. Granted, this blog started as think-pieces; the most popular post ever was called ‘Why I don’t Play WW2 Wargames’ or something of that nature. It was comparatively recently that I started wargame battle reports. Perhaps I am just not very good at them.

I do not know other bloggers' experiences of battle reports as opposed to pondering history and how to wargame it. Perhaps my experience is not representative, I have no idea. Blogging, after all, is a very personal thing; we blog, mostly, for ourselves. For me, the battle reports are convenient ways of logging my campaigns. If others gain ideas and interest from them then that is a bonus, not the point. But the relative unpopularity of my battle reports might suggest that other people’s stories are not as popular as our own.

Maybe there is another point lounging around here. I go to a show and see demonstration games and think ‘That is very nice but I cannot do that.’ The ‘cannot’ is a combination of the period, painting, scenery, cost, space, and all the other things that go towards deciding to stick with what I already have rather than launch into something new. It is quite likely to be the same for blog battle reports: ‘Very nice, but…’ Perhaps that is why they are relatively unpopular, plus the fact that that wargame has already been done in someone else’s story.

I am not sure. The considerations above will certainly not prevent me from writing blogs on my wargames, no matter how unpopular they are. As you might have noticed, I keep posting on the Anglo-Dutch Wars and they are hardly at the forefront of naval wargaming, let alone wargaming per se. But the stories are useful to me, as a record and also because I am, believe it not, human, and like telling stories.  

Saturday, 11 June 2022

A Little Scilly

‘The cavalry will advance and collect those ships, while the infantry will sail over there and make sure the clog wearers do not capture the islands.’

‘Um, general, those are ships and not infantry or cavalry. The cavalry are sixth rates, the infantry you describe are fifth rates, the Lion and the Unicorn.’

‘Captain, you are a sailor, I am a soldier. It is your job to translate my orders. Get on with it.’

‘Aye, aye, sir.'


You know what it is like, I am sure. You have a nice set of newly painted toys and you are itching to get them onto the table. But then a problem arises: you have no real idea what you are doing. Further, it turns out that you have no rules that particularly appeal to you. What is a poor solo wargamer to do?

Obviously, short of buying endless rules and engaging in indecision and procrastination, the answer is to sit down and write some rules and still get the toys onto the table. With the Anglo-Dutch Wars ships that is exactly what I did. I was somewhat dissatisfied with the rules to date, and so I stole (I beg your pardon, used as inspiration) the Eighteenth Century Naval Rules from Arthur Taylor’s Discovering Wargames book (which is many years old) for the sailing and weather rules, and my own bits for the combat rules. I find that I really do not like the endless accountancy that most naval wargame rules seem to require.

Next up was a scenario. Reading a little about the outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War I came across an incident which seemed to fit the bill, particularly as, as a first outing for the rules, the forces could be small. The Scilly Isles were a base for Royalist privateers in the late 1640s. They even had a court there for the disposal of prizes. As the principal commercial maritime power, this annoyed the Dutch considerably, and so, in 1651 or so (I forget exactly) they dispatched an expedition to the Scillies to recover their vessels.

This move did not go down well with the Commonwealth government, which was attempting to negotiate an alliance with the Dutch at the time (and which was being roundly snubbed to boot). The two governments had wildly different ideas about what they were doing. However, the Commonwealth believed that the Dutch were attempting to set up a naval base on the island, with the connivance of the Stuarts, and so dispatched their own expedition to stop it.

This is the start of my scenario. In real life it did not result in a shooting match but, in my world, it could have done. The first job was to create some islands in 1:2400 scale, and then I had to choose the forces.

The picture shows the game at about move six. The Dutch appeared on move two in St Mary’s Sound. They consisted of two fifth rates, Leeuw and Eenhoorn and four hoekers, sixth rates (which I did not get around to naming). The two fifth rates are mid-picture, two of the hoekers are nearest the camera, about to cut out some merchantmen, and the other two are just boarding some of the others.

The Royalist guard ships are hanging around the other safe passage out of St Mary’s Harbour, Broad Sound which runs south-east to northwest (hence, the camera angle is roughly from the north). The Commonwealth ships arrived on move five. With four sixth rates upfront and two fifth rates (Lion and Unicorn) nearest the camera.

The wind was force 4 during the game (it can change every eight moves) and blowing north to south (this changed slightly to NNE to SSW). Ships cannot sail closer than 45 degrees to the wind and cannot change course across the wind. This caused both sides a fair bit of bother during the game as the sea room is rather constricted.

The ships are mainly my new Tumbling Dice Anglo-Dutch Wars vessels. The Royalist cutters and some of the merchantmen are Hallmark, the rest are Tumbling Dice. Each smaller merchantman counts as one point for the side that holds it at the end of the game, the big ones count as two points. To capture a merchantman a ship has to come alongside, wait for a move while the merchant is boarded and then move off when the merchant can then move. Captured merchantmen will immediately surrender if shot at or boarded by a different side.

The aim of the Dutch is to capture and escape with as many merchantmen as possible. The Commonwealth's aim was to prevent the Dutch from landing (which they have no intention of doing), capture merchantmen and, if at all possible, defeat the Royalists so the Commonwealth can capture the islands. The aim of the Royalists is to prevent their prizes from being taken or, if necessary, surrender to the Commonwealth ships rather than the Dutch.

This was a fascinating game. As I mentioned, the problems of wind and sail in a confined space made movement interesting. The rules kind of worked although I am not sure of the gunnery – it probably needs a bit more refinement.

The picture shows the key point of the game. Two merchants have been boarded by the Dutch and are proceeding, in the middle of the shot, to escape, although they will actually be recaptured by the Royalist guard ships shortly. Two of the larger merchants have also been boarded and are about to set sail to escape (the green counters show Dutch controlled merchants). Most of the Commonwealth sixth rates are sailing into the wind and exchanging shots with the Dutch sixth rates.

The main action is in the centre where the Leeuw, perhaps foolishly (and possibly as a result of my bad seamanship) has boarded another merchantman. However, the Unicorn has got to aft and has just raked her, crippling Leeuw.

For the rest of the game, the Commonwealth sixth rates recaptured the larger merchantmen while the Dutch sixth rates used the narrow channel to the north to escape. Eenhoorn exchanged broadsides with Lion and Unicorn, receiving one hit but inflicting two on Lion. The crew of the Leeuw boarded the merchantman they were in contact with and made off, while Unicorn sailed down on the Royalists and their prizes and the Royalists surrendered.

As the rules were new I do not think it was a bad game. Most of the gunfire was ineffective – it is done on matched rolls and the size of the vessel; the sixth rates did not damage to each other or any other vessel as far as I recall. The combat between the fifth rates did create damage, so that seems as it should be. The sailing rules took a fair bit of getting used to and frustration from this landlubber as the Dutch fifth rates could not turn to face the Commonwealth ships in time. We live and learn.


‘The governor of the Islands has offered to surrender to you, sir.’

‘Excellent. I can’t wait to get onto dry land.’

‘The Dutch ship has surrendered as well, sir. It seems to be sinking.’

‘Is that a bad thing for a ship?’

‘A little, sir. We’ll send some men and pumps and see if we can help.’

‘Is that necessary?’

‘Well, sir, it is a bit like having a waggon shed a wheel on a road on land. It gets in the way a bit. That ship is in the main anchorage and so it would be a bit inconvenient.’

‘You mean you want us to park there?’

‘Yes, sir, after a manner.’

‘Did you sigh captain? I distinctly heard a sigh.’

‘Must have been a seagull, sir.’

Saturday, 4 June 2022

A Painful Process

 ‘Are you still painting those ships?’ the Estimable Mrs P enquired one morning.

‘Yes. I’m just up to the bling.’

This elicited a snort from the spousal direction. ‘You don’t do bling.’

‘No, but the ships had quite a lot of it…’

As you might have surmised by occasional grumbling on this blog, the painting of the Anglo-Dutch Wars ships has not been proceeding quickly. It seemed like a fairly straightforward task – fourteen 1:2400 scale ships per side. Starting in February, I reckoned I would be finished by the beginning of April. It is now the end of May and I have just about staggered over the finishing line.

Do not get me wrong: this is not the fault of the models themselves. They are perfectly good scale models of the ships of the time. It was just that your humble correspondent had some problems, in particular assembling the models.

Sone tiny ship models come with sails on masts and little holes in the hull into which you stick the masts and hope that you keep them vertical; the Hallmark galleys and Armada era warships I have are of this type. Some of the ships are small enough to have the sails cast on; the Hallmark and Tumbling Dice little ships I have are of this type.

The Tumbling Dice Anglo-Dutch Wars ships which are the subject here, however, have cast on masts and sails to be attached using glue. The Estimable Mrs P was dispatched, on her next trip to the Post Office (which is in a hardware store, so it does make sense) to obtain some superglue. Fun and games ensued as I attempted to superglue the sails to the masts. The problem was that the masts, being vertical, ensured that the superglue ran down them and out of the joint before it could start to set. Hence, a lack of adhesion and much frustration from this poor modeller.

After a bit of experimentation, an alternative was found, consisting of partly dried PVA glue held in place by my unsteady hand until the sails were glued sufficiently to hold themselves in place. This was a bit hit and miss, and occasional sails were displaced by ineptly placed thumbs while attempting to glue the next one in place, as well as some sails, apparently being firmly glued in place not being so, and requiring the application of more glue to strengthen the joint. Batches of four were as much as I could manage, with one set of sails per ship (there were four sail sets – mizzen, main and foremasts, and a bowsprit sail) per day. Painting, after that, was comparatively simple, although there was always the danger of loosening the sails while undercoating. Extra coats of glue were eventually applied.

Painting complete, attention was then turned to flags. Now at 1:2400 scale, flags are rather small, as you might imagine. Initial experiments of wrapping the flag around the mast worked (especially when I discovered that the flags were adhesive-backed) but looked, in all honesty, a bit off; there was no room on the flag for a bit that wrapped around the flagstaff. They looked OK, but even your erstwhile bad modeller was not too happy.

Next up I tried wrapping the flags around a bit of five amp fuse wire and then supergluing the assembly to the mast. This looked better and, using tweezers, I managed not to superglue myself to anything. It was still fiddly, however, and I needed to paint any sticking out bits of fuse wire in order to make it look like rigging. An improvement, but not gold yet.

Finally, I figured out that I did not need the fuse wire, and simply scored the flags, cut them out, folded them over (removing the backing paper was probably the most fiddly part of the operation), and then glued them directly to the mast using PVA, the superglue having glued its own lid onto the tube in a hissy fit at not having been used properly (either that or me not having wiped the nozzle sufficiently at the previous last use). Being light the flags took the glue very quickly so my wobbly hands managed the task quite adequately (for me, anyway).

Then, liking the look of beflagged ships, my eye fell on the smaller items which had been painted first: cromsters, yachts, and hoekers. The flag sheets came with even smaller flags, and, flushed with success from flagging the fifth rates and above, I scored, cut, and stuck even smaller flags to the little ships.

So now, I present to you, the fruits of my labour. Do not look too closely, but I think they will do for wargaming models. Dutch lights nearest, then Dutch capital ships, British capital ships, and then the British lights, somewhat obscured.

In other news, I was rooting through some of my deep storage boxes the other day and came across a castle, which I had made up and painted years ago. Having started to repaint (finish and/or start over) some of my 25+ mm ECW figures, I retrieved it, even though it is, in fact (as I recall) the Airfix medieval castle.

Here we see the offending article with the newest re-recruits in front. As I recall the figure top right is a Redoubt French Musketeer figure, and the others are old Wargames Foundry. All I can say is ‘En Garde!’

All of this has left me wondering what the point was. I had a plan, even though it was a bit vague for these ships and the big figures. I think it was to do with Corbie; somewhere I do have a figure who was slated to be the English ambassador who was being escorted to the coast with the vital treaty which would bring Britain into the war against the Spanish and avoid the English Civil War. And of course, there would then be a chase at sea….

Things move on, of course, and I am now considering an idea I saw years ago, probably somewhere in Featherstone or possibly in Setting Up A Wargames Campaign of an island-hopping amphibious imagination campaign. Have ships, will travel.

Saturday, 28 May 2022

Wars in an Afternoon

I suppose that this is a bit of a follow-up to the ‘Battle for England’ post. I have already admitted assorted conceptual issues with that wargame idea, so I will not revisit those, except to note my own reaction: ‘Conceptual problems in wargaming? Who knew?’

Be that as it may, there are various ideas floating around for similar sorts of actions/campaigns. I have already mentioned the Peloponnesian Wars as one, contingent on having a huge store of hoplites, of course. Another possibility that Nundanket mentioned was the War of Austrian Succession or even the Napoleonic Wars. However, I have neither the figures nor the expertise to take those ideas any further.

I suppose that anything that could be reproduced on a map could be transferred to a wargame table. There is, of course, the problem of scale and ranges. It might be a little difficult to reproduce World War Two on a wargames table (unless it was a very big one). Even the European theatres might be a bit tricky, although if you went for something like 1944 you could have NW Europe, E Europe, and Italy as your armies. It might work.

Moving back into my historical comfort zone, aside from the ECW and GNW, we could have a stab at the Thirty Years War – French, Dutch, Swedes, Hapsburgs, Spanish, Danes, assorted Germans, and so on. For those who like the exotic, you could also add in Poles, Transylvanians, and, at a push, Muscovites, and Ottomans. That too would require a rather large table, I think.

Moving further back, I have always felt that the board game Machiavelli could be a good foundation for a campaign. I have, sort of done it and it did work. The sort of covers the fact that I simply used the map, rather than the game mechanics to create the actions. Here, I suppose, we are at the border between a map movement campaign and a campaign on a tabletop like my ECW and GNW games.

The advantage of a campaign on a tabletop is that you do not have all the paraphernalia that a map campaign requires, first and foremost, of course, a map, but also tracking and locating issues. A disadvantage might be, as I discovered, a difficulty with what scale of game you are playing. This does not necessarily detract from the game per se, but it might from the experience of the game as a representation of the campaign. As I said before, this might bear further pondering, or at least some proper planning.

Moving further back, some of you might recall I wrote a fair bit about the Norman Conquest of England and its consequences a while ago. This could, I think, be reduced to a table-top campaign. The Normans could be across the Channel, the English would have a northern and southern army, and the Vikings would appear in the north. If the northern Anglo-Saxon army is fairly weak (or a scratch militia army) then Harold and the southern army would have to switch from south to north and back again, as they did historically. It might work especially if you had suitable ship models for the period, as both the Viking and the Norman invasions were amphibious operations, and Harold could have had a fleet.

With shorter ranges and smaller armies, it is possible that the ancient and medieval periods have a lot of opportunities for this sort of game. Alternatively, the simple campaign system in DBA could be adopted and adapted. My GNW game had sort of that concept in mind, but without as many bases for the armies. You could quite easily run something like a Hundred Years War campaign along those lines, with the English, French, Burgundians, Low Countries (they had a habit of rebelling), and possibly Spain and the Empire involved. I imagine in this case Paris would be the prize, although Joan of Arc might have something to say about that.

Moving further back still, a 'first man in Rome' sort of game might be possible. Take, for example, 69 AD, the year of the four emperors. Here you have a Gallic and German contender, the emperor in Rome, the eastern armies (big, but with a war to fight themselves), Spanish provincial armies, and so on. That would be possible, but again, strategic movement might get a bit cramped and you could need fleets, at least for the eastern army. Similarly, the Roman Civil Wars of Caesar and Pompey would need fleets, not least because Caesar got around a bit, from Britain to Egypt at least. You would somehow have to represent the general skulduggery and shameless courting of public opinion, as well as the possibility of getting generals killed as they tried to outdo each other’s conquests (Crassus, for example). Possible, but perhaps best on a map.

I suppose the general thrust here is that doing a campaign on a table in a day (or two) is fun, but not appropriate (or I cannot imagine it) for everything. Alexander’s campaigns could be done, I suppose, but he sort of fought linearly – Greeks, then Persians (several times) then Indians. This does not really require a map or a table with all the forces deployed, but a narrative approach working out what happens after a particular battle, and some thinking about what to do if Alexander loses.

None of this solves my conceptual dilemma, of course. Do I set it up as a representation of the campaign or war, or as a single complex battle and let it rip. Having landed up playing once as the latter, and once as a mix, it seems to me that the latter approach would work best, but I could be wrong. I do think, however, that a bit more preparation is required for running a campaign in an afternoon than I put into the ECW game. But that is the purpose of such pieces as this – thinking out loud about where the games should go from here.

Saturday, 21 May 2022

The Roman Invasion of Britain

 We all know the narrative, do we not? Julius Caesar invaded, beat the locals and then went home again, twice. Then, after this reconnaissance in force (and a few civil wars in Rome) the Romans came back under Claudius and stayed, defeating the ungrateful locals who rebelled from time to time, including Boudicca who, in spite of being a heroic woman, was still not a Roman and hence wrong, because she did not grasp all the advantages of Roman civilisation.

Anyway, after bringing the benefits of being Roman to these shores, the country settled down to building stuff in civilised stone to permit later archaeologists to speculate them, and also constructed a wall to keep the even less civilised inhabitants of the far north out. Eventually, of course, as is the way with most civilisations except our own, the Roman Empire collapsed, the legions left to defend the metropolis, and Britain entered the Dark Ages.

Well, it is not that simple, as you probably already know. Every aspect of the above ‘normative’ narrative has been questioned, one way or another. This does not, naturally, mean that it is still not propagated, most histories of Roman Britain at the more popular end of the market spin a tale like that, one way or another.

As you may surmise, I have been reading again:

Hoffmann, B. (2013). The Roman Invasion of Britain: Archaeology versus History. Pen and Sword.

This is an interesting book, although not without caveats. The main one is that it is more tending towards an academic tome, and sometimes the assumptions that the reader knows the locations of the sites of importance and the texts is a bit overwhelming. I suppose there are so many that a location map for everything would be difficult, but I did struggle a bit. Perhaps I should have broken out my trusty OS Roman Britain maps.

Be that as it may, Hoffmann is very interesting about what, exactly we know about Roman Britain, how it came into existence, how it survived and declined. I suppose she takes a more empiricist or reductionist stance: we know very little. By what she calls a ‘journalistic’ standard of evidence, we can essentially say that Julius Caesar came twice and went home again, for example. Precisely what happened while he was here, or why he went home again is largely unknown to us, unless we are rather credulous about Caesar’s own account.

And so it goes on. We know a little bit about the Claudian invasion, but not much, including such important details as where they landed. As Hoffmann point out (she is an archaeologist) archaeology cannot really help, here. We can identify Fishbourne and Richborough as early Roman ports, but not which was first, or even if one of them was first.

At the other end of the time zone, we can identify forts of the Saxon Shore. What we cannot do is deduce whether they were build as a defensive system or were an ad hoc response to various threats and defensive needs constructed at different times, and only came to have a commander later. Archaeology cannot tells us and the chronicles which could cover it do not say.

We are thus left with a bunch of plausible scenarios, stories we can tell about how Roman Britain came and went. Deciding which is the most likely and which the least is a tricky business to say the least. While evidence is being (literally) uncovered all the time, fitting bits of pot into a chronology is difficult and even then the stones might not tell us very much.

Are these conclusions as controversial as the blurb on the book claims? Probably not so much to anyone who has read a bit about the ancient world and Roman Britain, as I have. Nevertheless it is interesting and does stimulate the wargaming taste buds. As my loyal reader might recall I have, following the man himself ‘re-fought’ Caesar’s first British campaign. Julius lost. Hoffmann’s conclusion about the actions is pretty well the same, expressing scepticism about Caesar’s claims and noting some confusion about the chronology and geography of the campaigns anyway. She ends the chapter on Caesar’s activities by quoting Lucan: Caesar Territa Quaesitis ostendit terga Britannis (Pharsalia (5.572)). ‘Caesar came looking for the British and then terrified, turned tail’ Not exactly a ringing endorsement, more along the lines of ‘He came, he saw, he scarpered’.

I suppose a recurrent theme in the book is that of the Roman historians, who tended to be based in southern Europe and have their eyes on Rome, if not residing there. Their reliability regarding activities in and the geography of Britain, not to mention other far flung reaches of the Empire, are bound to be a bit dodgy. In a couple of paragraphs Hoffmann pretty well dismantles the Elizabethan and Victorian obsession with Boudicca. Tactius’ account became widely available in Britain in 1591. Hoffmann notes that it permitted some flattering comparisons for a female monarch menaced by a continental power. Similarly, the Victorians identified Boudicca as a wronged wife and mother, a heroine fighting for British liberty and justice, and certainly better than Queen Cartimandua who surrendered Caractatus to the Romans.

The point is that, probably, Tacitus was using his character of Boudicca more to speak about his own attitudes to women in power, particularly the mothers, sisters and wives of assorted Roman emperors. The revolt of the Iceni is visible in the archaeological record in Colchester and London. Tacitus also notes the destruction of Verulamium, but there is no archaeological evidence. Silchester, however, does yield such evidence, but is not noted by the historians. Boudicca seems to have headed west, not north.

As you might have noted, there is a lot in the book, which is of modest size for what is essentially, notwithstanding the title, a concise history of Roman Britain. I cannot cover it all here – the comments on the end of Roman Britain and the comparative uselessness of the Notitia Dignitatum are also interesting. Perhaps another time.

Saturday, 14 May 2022

How to be a Roman

My attention has slowly been turning back to the Romans in Britain. Actually, I am reading a very interesting book about the Roman invasions of Britain, and what we can actually know about it (‘not much’ seems to be the conclusion). I will almost certainly return to the tome when I have finished it, but, in the meantime, an itch for some Romans in action seemed appropriate.

As my loyal reader might recall, I have done Caesar’s first campaign in Britain, and so his second was an option. On the other hand, Jules got a bit of a pasting there (apparently, a Roman poet wrote of Caesar in Britain ‘He came, he saw, he ran away’; ho, as they say, hum). So I thought it might be a nice idea to let the Early Imperialists have a go. After all, in the Sarmatian Nation games they have received a bit of a pasting, due mainly to bad generalship than anything else. At least Jules could argue that without cavalry he did not stand much of a chance.

Anyway, I flipped through the One Hour Wargames book and found scenario ten, which seemed to fit the bill. Here, an army is advancing along a road while the opponents try to delay them until the rest of their army arrives, on turns five and ten, respectively. The objective is to take and / or hold a town.

I confess I rather prefer my own rules rather than those in the book. I am a solo gamer and like things to develop slowly, with much sitting around contemplating the situation while sipping coffee. I suppose rules reflect the writer, and so my rules have fairly slow movement by comparison with some, and combat is not that effective. In ancient warfare there does seem to have been a great deal of hanging around waiting for something to happen. The rules, should you be interested, are available from the ‘Rules’ link to the right.

I recall from reading Goldsworthy’s The Roman Army at War that what tended to happen when some uppity natives rebelled against Roman rule was that the local commander gathered what troops he could and set off immediately to nip it in the bud. Often, I surmise, this was successful and nothing more was heard of the rebels, as they had already gone home when the army arrived. Sometimes, however, the local army got itself ambushed and received a good thumping, necessitating the Romans gathering an even bigger army to go and crush the rebels. This is the sort of arc which both the Jewish revolt followed and, so far as we can tell, the Boudiccan revolt.

So, the plan for the game was the Roman army advancing along their own road to take a native British town which is the centre of a rebellion, while the Britons, of course, try to prevent this. Initially the latter had three bases of chariots, three skirmishers and one light horse on the table, reinforced on turn five by two light horse and five tribal foot, and on turn ten by six more tribal foot. The Romans, initially on the road, advanced with a light horse base up front, followed by three cavalry, five auxilia, two bows, seven legionaries and then two cavalry bases as rearguard. Both sides totalled twenty bases.

As I said, things developed slowly, so the early photographs are a bit boring. The British lights of various sorts forced the lead Roman cavalry and general to deploy, but otherwise failed to delay anyone, and the Roman column proceeded sedately up the road towards the town, probably collecting British javelins to use as firewood later.

The picture shows the situation on turn 10, when the second tranche of Celtic reinforcements have arrived. The Celtic chariots have caused a little delay now to the Roman cavalry, but the light horse and the skirmishers have managed nothing so far against the infantry column. The first tribal foot are moving towards the Roman cavalry, which may or may not be a good thing, while the rest of the tribal foot, newly arrived, and reinforcing the town defenders and about to move forward against the column.

It all went rather pear-shaped for the Romans. I really should have moved the general across to deploy the infantry, but he was tied up with winning the tempo to charge the British foot (which they refused to do). The British foot sensibly refused to charge the Roman cavalry the first time, but went in when the chariots had produced a recoil result which left one base in range and isolated. A bad Roman dice roll meant they fled.

The march column incautiously moved within charge range of both the town garrison and the newly arrived tribal foot. Furthermore, the column started to take disruption from the British skirmishers and light horse. The head of the column stood no chance against the chargers, and fled, this causing a domino effect down the column until the first point where the skirmishers had achieved a halt result, there being a gap in the lines there.

The picture shows the end result. The front nine Roman foot bases are routing. Added to the one cavalry base routing off picture to the left, and the Romans are ten bases down, leading to an army rout result.

I suspect the Roman debacle was probably my fault. I was concentrating on getting the Roman cavalry into a position to charge the chariots, but the tempo point never let me and the Britons always managed to skip away out of range. The result was that I was unable to deploy the infantry, with predictable, disastrous, results. The front of the column, incidentally, was auxilia and so did not benefit from the legionarie’s extra tempo point.

I seem to have got the British tactics worked out, but this is not the first time that the Romans have struggled against tribal armies (there was a Dacian action as well). Skirmishing tactics can be very slow, but the disruption they can cause can matter. Interesting….