Saturday, 13 June 2015

Battles and Sieges

I want to return to something that I wrote about a fair while ago, but which still intrigues me. The argument I put forward then was that wargaming, as a hobby, is unbalanced, because far more sieges were conducted than open battles and, as a consequence, many battles were, in fact, fought as a consequence of sieges.

Now, of course, I am not quite so naive as to think that I can get away with such a sweeping statement as that in the company of blog readers here gathered, but I do think it does stand some further examination. That examination is probably more to do with strategy than tactics and politics than wargames, but it still might just give us pause for a little though.

If we consider a war, then, mostly, wars are not about creating battles. One side or the other might consider a battle to be advantageous in its present situation. Thus Edward III tried to provoke the French to battle when it was certainly to his tactical advantage. Winning a battle can change the whole course of a war, as both Edward and Henry V found. Similarly, losing a battle can alter the complexion of a war, as the Swedes found at Poltava. This does not necessarily mean that the war is won and lost, but the whole, so to speak, momentum of the campaign. The war, the political situation is changed.

It is a fairly similar situation with sieges. The successful conclusion of a siege means that a general can point to a concrete success. Rather like a soccer manager who can indicate to the club owner some silverware, a successful siege-winning general can be fairly sure of keeping his job. Additionally, if we consider strategy, then most places that are besieged, at least in any considerable strength and with any significant tenacity, tend to be strategically important. Or at least, they become so; besieged cities can become political symbols as well as physical locations. Think of Stalingrad or Magdeburg. Would Stalingrad have been quite so important if it had been called, say, the Russian equivalent of ‘Smithville’?

The winning or losing of a siege, then, can have important military, political and symbolic consequences. For Magdeburg, even though the siege was lost and the place pillaged and burnt, that very fact was used as a rallying call for the Protestant cause, and played a part in bringing the Swedish state into the Thirty Years War. Of course, it is arguable that Gustavus would have got involved anyway, but even if the siege was not a proximate cause of it, it certainly was used for propaganda. The most important outcome of a military action is not necessarily in the strategic context.

Now, one of the things I wanted to claim (and which must be, of course, nuanced) is that battles and sieges often go together. In the English Civil War, for example, both battles of Newbury were related to sieges (Gloucester and Donnington Castle, respectively). A lot of the manoeuvring before Naseby was also to do with sieges, threats of sieges and the storming of cities (Chester, Oxford and Leicester). In fact, it is arguable that only when the New Model Army was freed from the responsibility of undertaking and relieving sieges that a decisive battle could be fought and the endless local actions, aimed at and around local garrisons could be bought to an end.

The point about garrisons is, of course, that they can control the local countryside and passing major routes. Armies tend to stick to roads. While they could, in theory, strike off across country, the progress they would make, let alone the loss of heavy equipment, supplies and the chance of getting lost mitigate against doing so, at least until a battlefield is chosen. Thus a garrison on a major route can cause all sorts of problems to the other side. Thus, while Basing House had a relatively small garrison of, I think, around 300 men, its capture was a major prize of the 1645 campaign because it opened up a major road to the west from London. If we consider that trade was important for raising taxes, and it was the taxes that paid the New Model Army, then we can start to see that even fairly modest forces could make a fair sized difference.

Of course, it could be argued that the ECW, being a civil war, was a special case. To some extent that is true, but you only have to look a t, say, Belgium and the Franco-German border to see the same sort of issues at stake. The fortresses at least could provide early warning of attack, and, by careful positioning, provide delay to any invader and a magazine to the defending forces. Again, while these places could be avoided or masked, they did control the flow of the campaign and proved to be, in some cases, important symbols for success of failure.

Sieges, however, from a wargaming perspective, are simply overlooked. They lack the glamour, the heroism, the pageantry of battles. We prefer to see our armies lined up ready to fearlessly pursue desperate deeds of derring do. We do not, usually, accept that our infantry, at least, tended to spend most of their time digging trenches and up to their knees in mud. A siege is not, in a word, romantic, not matter how important it is, nor how interesting or exciting the activities within a siege might be.

Perhaps one reason for this is that we often ignore the campaign context of our games. We might play single battles. We might run a narrative campaign, but our narrative still tends towards the romantic battle rather than the dour and pragmatic siege. Perhaps, too, we do not have rule sets for sieges which enable them to be concluded in a reasonable time. The Hyboria campaign abstracted them into a dice roll or two. This may be the only sensible way of proceeding, but it does seem to me to be a shame, given the importance of sieges to history.


  1. I think you may have the wrong end of the stick there Polemarch. I think you're absolutely right about the imbalance in wargaming regarding open battle and siege and there maybe something in the idea that battles are more romantic, but I think the explanation for the paucity of siege games maybe somewhat more prosaic than that.

    Most wargamers come to wargaming via a love of toy soldiers. We collect a few in childhood, we develop rules for them and move on from there. A siege requires digging, construction, sapping, etc - vital parts in the conduct of the business, all very hard to reproduce using toy soldiers. A wargamer can replicate a battle fairly easily, but a siege requires specialist terrain that can be altered to suit the circumstances.

    I think the toy soldier and the difficulty of getting appropriate terrain are likely to be significant factors in determining the number of siege games. A look at computer wargaming, which arguably handles that particular area very well, shows a plethora of siege games, Dungeon Keeper, Stronghold, Besieged, Boom Beach, Crusade, etc. Base defence is the bedrock of the Real Time Strategy section of computer wargaming.

    To my mind wargamers show themselves to be enthusiastic besiegers once the equipment to do so is there.

    1. Got hold of the wrong end of the stick?? Well, maybe; at least I have grabbed a stick which is some sort of progress,,,,

      I think that, yes, there are also practical problems with sieges, but I also think that a lot of the hard conceptual rules stuff has not been undertaken and, with some exceptions, sieges are simply not exciting enough for a two hour or so wargame.

      An assault or point defence might be a wargame. The whole siteing batteries and creating breaches bit, not so much, perhaps.

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  3. You and CK both make some good points, yours as to the importance of the siege in military history and CK in the reasons for the scarcity of siege games. I recall the old Chivalry and Sorcery rules of the 1970s, I think, had elaborate rules for paper sieges, calculating siege works, tunnels and saps using graph paper. There were also elaborate rules for food consumption and starvation. When I ran a medieval campaign, based loosely on the HYW, we had a lot of sieges, with a very simple model of town walls, using a variant of WRG rules. The sieges were actually assaults and always won for the attacker, because the geometry of the model allowed the attacked to mass missile troops on one section and weaken the defending unit before the ladders arrived. That was a defect in the rules. I often wish we'd slowed the playing of the campaign down and used proper siege rules.
    I suppose some genres of gaming favour field battles disproportionately. I can't remember ever seeing a Napoleonics siege game at a convention. Conversely I suppose almost all WW1 gaming counts as siege warfare, as you can't really play without trench models. However, most WW2 games are open country affairs, when fortifications and sieges were important, although often short affairs given the superiority of offensive fire support, such as at Cherbourg in 1944.
    Now I want to head down to the basement and make some proper fortifications for my 6mm Napoleonics!

    1. I guess we run into the same simplicity / accuracy / playability complex as any other rule set.

      When I wrote I did think of WW1 Western Front as an exception. It probably is one, due to the defensive capabilities of artillery and machine gun.

      If you do Napoleonic sieges, i think we need photographs, Some of the guns are quite big...

  4. I've been thinking about how to do a siege game for quite while. I think the key would be to have some kind of simple campaign system which covers attrition, the construction of trenches, mines, engines etc and the bombardment of walls. This campaign game would then lead to battles played with miniatures, such as storming the breach, sorties etc. I imagine the campaign game to be quite abstract, almost like a euro-style board game, like the old 'Mighty Empires' from GW.
    If I ever get around doing this, I'll let you know :-)

    1. I suspect that, just from your list, there is a lot of work here. But it might well be worth it and would certainly give focus to a campaign game.

  5. I'm quite an enthusiast for sieges - I even have toy fortifications, and I have the intention of polishing up the rules I have to the point where they give a game I can actually play with other people. Two things:

    (1) Prejudice - I quote Bruce Quarrie's "Napoleon's Campaigns in Miniature" - '[....] conducting a siege on a wargames table is an unprofitable and boring affair [...] and thus very rarely seen. What is required is a fairly simple set of campaign rules for the conduct of sieges "off table".'

    So that's it then - no more to be said. Well, in fact I disagree, but...

    (2) I do agree that "off-table" is the way to handle sieges in a map campaign - the timescale of sieges does not lend itself to weekly moves, nor laying out a siege game on the table while the map movement somehow goes on in the background (foreground?). In my recent Peninsular campaign I did algorithm-based sieges because of the timescale clash, and also because I was paranoid about the possibility of two simultaneous sieges.

    A siege on its own, as a game in itself, is a better prospect, though I think it is ideal for a solo project. It also requires a lot of scenario rules for how the rest of the world - supply, relief forces etc - fits in, given the fact that a relieving army can march a long way if the garrison holds out a while.

    I'm a big fan of sieges, though I'd feel better about this if my game was more complete and better tested!

    1. having never really conducted wargame siege operations, I think i disagree. A campaign should be the perfect place for sieges. It is possible that a weekly move is too quick, however. Armies simply do not move that fast, and geneals usually like to attend the next ball before issuing orders to move.


  6. I agree with the original article that sieges are under-represnted in wargaming compared to battles. I would love to find a good mechanism for gaming sieges. The game in the appendix of Fire and Stone looks OK but they doesn't get the full picture I'd like to create. I think this would only be possible in a campaign game even if the rest of the campaign were to be abstracted.

    1. So we can either have the siege and abstract the battles, or the other way around? I guess that as Mr Foy suggested, the interlocking time scales might not work too well.

      Is this the only problem?

  7. It is interesting that attacking forts and castles is often one of the earliest sorts of war game we plan as children whether with toys or in the backyard.

    I've participated in a few siege games over the years, usually using some variation of the Duffy sort of siege turns measured in days and tactical or assault turns representibg a handfull of minutes. It can make for exciting games but once its on the table it really becomes all about the bombardment, sorties and assaults. eg recent example
    Starving the plastic or metal inhabitants of some ancient town just doesn't seem to make for a very exciting game.

    1. I do remember childhood games or Roman forts and Airfix Ancient Britons, but no-one hung around to get starved. I think the 'romance' of siege wargames is probably in the assault, defence, not in the grim business of knocking holes in walls or starving people and waiting for disease to take its toll.

      Perhaps that is really why we do not like sieges: the unpleasantness lasts a long time.