Saturday, 10 February 2018

Crocodile Infested Streams

If you look in some older wargame books, you will find some calculations as to how far a person can walk, across country in, say, fifteen minutes. This is then used as a basis for calculating how far a unit of troops can move in a similar amount of time. The answer is, of course, far further than a unit of troops would actually move in the given time. Thus is is massively reduced, along with some hand-waving sort of argument that, due to the requirement to keep in line, the troops actually had to move rather more slowly than individuals would.

Here, as my regular reader will know, we try not to do hand waving sorts of arguments, or, if we do (and we all hand wave from time to time) we do try to acknowledge that we are wafting our limbs around and look at the reasons for that. The point here, in terms of movement is, of course, that shifting five hundred men across the countryside in anything like a coherent manner is a whole lot more difficult than we might imagine. This applies even if the men involved are trained to do it.

I am starting to suspect that the dispersed nature of modern troops and warfare has a bigger impact on wargaming older periods than I imagined. It is a truism I have heard that, under pressure, people often tend to bunch up. Modern warfare make bunching up a disaster – a bigger target for weapons of all sorts is created. Thus a lot of training goes into making the soldiers move in a dispersed manner. It is safer. On the whole, of course, these considerations do not apply to anything much before the invention of modern high explosive artillery. Troops were in rather tight formations to aid command and control before the mid-nineteenth century (say; let’s not be picky).

Moving a battalion of infantry from the English Civil War across country is not an easy matter. Terrain is rarely entirely flat. Frequent halts have to be called in order to dress the lines. On the other hand, the accuracy of ranged weapons was low (for reasons I will come back to in another post, hopefully) so the slowness of the advance, and, for that matter, the density of troops, did not matter all that much.

Then there are other problems. A unit of pikemen, for example, needs coherence to be effective. Dispersed pike, for all the arguments I have occasionally seen to the contrary, are useless. On its own a pike is merely an eighteen foot lump of wood, slightly unmanageable. In my view, people who think that you could ‘fence’ with a pike have never tried hefting wood around. The power of pike is in the unity and order of the mass, not the individual. Hence, I suspect, the comment that you see in the sixteenth century and beyond, that to kill a pikeman is to murder an innocent man.

Terrain is rarely simple. Even our garden has folds in it, enough to cause a pike block to pause and redress its lines. Hedges are impassable, woods a disaster, although the same people who argue in favour of pike fencing also seem to think that pikes are perfectly capable of being used in a wood. And that brings me, roughly speaking, to an explanation of the title of this post.

In some of the Polemos rules, bases trying to cross streams have to roll. I forget what the criterion is, but they can, in fact, fail to cross the obstacle. This has caused some amusement, and comments along the lines of the title here – are there crocodiles in that stream?

At the end of the lane up which I live there is a stream or, in the local language, a beck. It has been tinkered with by humans over, I imagine, the centuries. Just last year, a whole load of work was carried out to reinforce the banks to stop them collapsing, manage the flow to stop it undercutting the banks and remove some trees, to stop leaves clogging it up in the autumn.  This is, then, a heavily managed landscape feature. Nevertheless, I would submit that five hundred people attempting to cross the stream would firstly, be thrown into some disorder themselves and, secondly, do a fair bit of damage to the banks.

On the face of it, a single person could cross it stream, although the banks are fairly steep, with the only problem being wet feet. A unit say eight deep is a different proposition, I suggest. By the time the fourth of fifth is clambering across, the banks would be collapsing into the water, the mud would be stirred up and, as troops with heavy equipment are more clumsy than your average hiker, a few, at least, would simply fall in (much to the amusement of their comrades, I imagine).

 This trouble is for a feature that is man managed, canalised. How much more difficulty would an unmanaged stream offer. The canalisation of the flow means that the banks are solid (more or less) and the flow is even. There are no bankside boggy bits or hidden pools. The undergrowth is cut down. And so on. It is quite possible to suppose that an ancient tribal unit, for example, could hesitate at such a crossing, or at least find that it takes a while. You might dispute the (I think) one in six chance of that happening, as in the Polemos rules, but it is really a bit hard to suppose that it is unlikely, that a unit will pass a stream with only a slight delay, as in most rules (at least, the ones I can remember).

Finally, of course, we should remember that the Scottish pike charge at Flodden was disrupted by a hidden ditch. The cohesion was lost, the units opened to the English bills. The slaughter was frightful, to the extent that most later sixteenth century Scottish armies refused to cross the border at all. Even small terrain features can have a big effect. The case of crocodile streams most recently commented on was a refight of the battle of the Sambre. The stream disrupted the Gallic attack. Perhaps a refight without the stream would be instructive (as would Flodden without the ditch). Caesar and the English could find life a lot tougher than they did with the terrain features present.


  1. We'll skip over the over simplified version of Flodden (after all the Scots charge did break one English battle and everywhere else the fight was long and hard) and go to the main problem with the old so many paces per minute turned into wargame moves.

    In most battles, a man out for a stroll could walk the distance from one armies lines to the other side in a matter of minutes, say 10 or 15 if the armies are farther apart from usual and the ground isn't smooth. So why did most of the men in most battles spend most of the day just looking at each other and maybe watching some of their friends fight over there?

    The answers are many,complicated, often specific to the time and place, most "command and control" related, some are basic military principles (concentration, surprise, economy of force etc) but all are hard to capture in a game, especially one that starts from the ground up like some of those Old School rules. Its not long before looking at all the trees stops you from seeing the forest.

    A fun conundrum.

    1. Ah, well, the Flodden point was about hidden terrain, not an account of the whole battle. the whole battle is interesting and leave me thinking 'How did the Scots lose that one?'

      I think too there are psychological factors. few of us (me included) have experience of being in close proximity to others who are trying to kill us. Even modern warfare is, I imagine, very different from ancient or early modern. The ranges are much longer, for example.

      The best answer seems to be to find a balance that 'works' (presumably feels how we imagine it) and gives us the right impression. In itself that is quite hard, although the Old School writers knew how to achieve it, often. their justification is a bit iffy, however.

  2. I'd never thought of the effect of hundreds of men and horses on banks before. Very good point.

    I think the problems of perception come from two factors. One is thinking of a battalion as one or two dozen men. And I think the other is, as a society, a lack of familiarity with terrain, much less moving across it in formation.

    Slightly straying from crocodile infested rivers, a good walk shows how even small folds in 'flat' ground can hide a person stood up. Again I think we struggle with the idea of visibility because of our smooth tabletops. 'How can they not see them? They're in bright red coats stood out in the open.'

    1. I agree. we don't look at terrain properly. even small lumps of ground can hide things - other features and other people. It is most strange, sometimes - people can just vanish.

      The table top is an abstraction, of course. I suppose at some level the human world is fractal - flat at one level, full of folds at a lower one and so on (it doesn't go all the way down, however).

      Moving in formation is a lot harder than it looks for the uninitiated. It doesn't take much to learn it, but it isn't easy. Even as a cub it wasn't that straight forward.

  3. Ah, the crocodile-infested streams...
    Yes, my fault. I was going for mild humour, rather than criticism - the mechanic is okay, and as you indicate, crossings could be both difficult and (perhaps more importantly) unpredictable.
    One comment about the effects - it is calibrated as 1-in-6, but that is obviously per base. A group with a frontage of 3 bases has a 50& chance of being affected. If the depth is two or three bases, this makes stream crossing both difficult and chancy. Depending upon how the "group" rules re interpreted, this can also break up the group, necessitating new orders.

    As a question of mechanics, the only part I wonder about is the combination of effects. Polemos ECW already effectively has a randomness mechanic chucked into movement as a result of the use (or lack of) tempo points. I know that strictly speaking this is a command mechanic, but it ends up having quite an effect on movement. It does not have a crocodile test though, you just get the shaken level automatically.
    In Polemos SPQR, because movement is more predictable (once you actually get started), the randomness is shifted to the crocodile test. Whatever happens, the base is still going to take a shaken level when it does get across - which is the game representation of some of the effects of the above).

    1. Well, no criticism was taken; I'm not really responding to any critique, more trying to explain why such a sort of rule might be needed in the first place.

      I suspect that the SPQR result might be a little swingeing, but on the other hand, if you must attack across a water obstacle, you probably deserve what you are going to get. Maybe try it with just the randomiser; just landing a shaken terrain level is a bit predictable. But then the balance of persuading players the bridges and ford are actually important might take a hit.

      As for per base as opposed to per group, one bit of stream might be easy with a nice sloping banks and firm gravel bed, another might, I suppose be unpredictably deep with large pike ready to nibble the toes of unwary legionaries.

      Cross a stream? Just say no - you know it makes sense.

  4. The effect of terrain is certainly one of the huge differences between the two Polemos sets and the Neil Thomas set I was comparing to them (and also DBA); in the latter two, particularly the Thomas set, streams are fairly negligible in their effects - whereas in Polemos, streams are hard to cross, and very hard to attack across.

    1. Well, partly I think that might be because Mr Berry has an interest in geography and experience of handling larger numbers of people in a group attempting to move around. The upshot is that moving people is hard, even on flat ground. Doing so over obstacles is even more difficult. Even fairly minor seeming terrain features can have significance, I suspect.