Saturday, 3 June 2023

The Creative Wargamer

Wargamers are, usually, rather creative people, I think. Certainly, the wide variety of games and ideas I see around suggest a lot of creativity is around. I do not necessarily only mean in the painting of toy soldiers, however. The creation of terrain items and nice battlefields is certainly a form of creativity, of course. The writing of rules and running campaign games, the making of scenarios, and the investigation of and generating playable games of the most obscure parts of the history of human conflict are surely creative occupations.

As you might have guessed I have been reading again. This time it is a non-wargaming book which I picked up for two reasons. Firstly, The Estimable Mrs. P was determined that I read something else apart from history and philosophy and, secondly, it was cheap.

Eagleman D., Brandt, A. The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. Canongate: Edinburgh, 2017.

The first author is a well-known neuroscientist while the second is a composer. I confess I approached the book with a little scepticism. Neuroscientists are well known, in philosophical circles at least, for a certain ‘nothing but-ness’ about their views. For example ‘human thought is nothing but brain activity’. Philosophically, let alone theologically, this view fails, although explaining why would take me rather far afield from creativity, let alone wargaming.

It turns out I need not have worried. Apart from a series of brain scans showing how much less interested in experiences that are repeated our brains become, the discussion is really about what I suppose I would call a phenomenology of creativity. Essentially, the authors have three models of how the creative mind works: we bend, we break or we blend things to make something new.

There are manifold examples. The first is the Apollo 13 crisis, where Earth-bound engineers had to figure out how to get the crew from the stricken mission back safely. This took a lot of ingenuity, ranging from recalculating and reprogramming rockets to lashing together a carbon dioxide scrubber so the crew did not asphyxiate. The fact that they returned safely is a remarkable testimony to human creativity.

Juxtaposed with that example is Picasso’s Le Bordel d’Avignon, which scandalised the art world in the early 20th Century. Picasso undermined the whole of the realist art tradition of the West in that painting. In later years it was recognised as a masterpiece.

The two events have in common human creativity, of course. Neither came out of nowhere. The engineers had a complete manifest of every item aboard the spaceship. Picasso started with a series of realist sketches. Neither work came out of nowhere; both showed astonishing creativity.

A while ago I had a trot through classic wargame texts, some by Featherstone, some by others, and one of the comments asked whether there was any value to reading them today. I sort of prevaricated, but I think I might have got close to the answer. These texts tell us, roughly, where wargaming has come from, and, therefore, they are valuable. I think I said at the time that the questions they pose are still valid, even if our answers might differ.

That is, of course, where human creativity comes into the wargaming world. As our context changes, so do the answers to the basic questions of wargaming change. At least, for historical wargaming, more information, more historiography, and different points of view appear, and suddenly our old ways of doing things feels less appropriate, and less comfortable. To innovate is to be human, and so we set to work again to create something that satisfies this new view of the world.

We do not approach a wargaming subject from a vacuum. There are many tried and tested methods that, unless we have been wargaming in a bucket for years, we will know, or partially remember. Then, with these tools in hand, we address the new problem; our solutions may vary, of course, and, often, we come up with many solutions and have to try to find the best one. There are plenty of ways of fighting a wargame; there are plenty of ways of writing rules. One of the points the book makes is that some ideas will be too radical to catch on, some will be only slight evolutions, and some will be both noticeable and acceptable.

As a slight aside the book suggests that the imperfect memory of humanity is an aid to creativity. We cannot slavishly follow the previous solution because we cannot remember it in detail, so we have to make up a slightly new one. Computers, it is noted, have perfect recall and do not need to create a new solution. Therefore computers are not creative in the way that humans are.

So faced with a new problem we perform, albeit unconsciously, our blending, breaking, and bending operations. We break down the problem into smaller bits and solve some of them, then reassemble with some other ideas to see if it works any better. We might throw large parts of old solutions overboard as unworkable or too complicated. We might blend in solutions to other problems because they look a bit like this one, even if their context is different (physics does this a lot, by the way). And so on.

If we are being creative we come up with many solutions, many ways of solving the problem or achieving the task, and we have to pick one to try out. If it does not work too well, we have a load of other things to try and see if they fix the new problems we have developed. And so on.

As a wargame example, I have tried a number of ways of creating a Thirty Years War campaign game. The problem is handling the complexity of the number of states involved and their relations. I have decided on a simplified version of the Holy Roman Empire game, and I am trying it out. It is still too complex, in my view. Quite how even six players could handle the cognitive load of it rather beats me, but the game is the game. It has a nice map. Even as I am playing it, I am pondering the processes and methods and how it could be simplified. Another iteration could well be in the offing.  

Saturday, 27 May 2023

Reflections Upon the Late War in Italy

After the Machiavelli campaign, I suppose I need to reflect on what I have learned from it. After all, it was something I had long had in mind, had not really planned, and launched rather quickly. So, how did it work out?

Firstly, I did enjoy it. I got five wargames out of it, all of which were different even if three of them involved the French. The support system does lead to some unbalanced games, but they did not always go to the largest army, so that seems to be a good thing. The terrain rolling system worked as well, as it should have done, having been in production for a while.

As far as the armies go, my DBR 100 AP forces just about managed, although I kept running out of gendarmes. I have eight bases which is just about sufficient for two 100 point forces, but, of course, with the supports, I was a little short from time to time. Something to be considered for the future.

As far as the rules go, I think I am slowly getting the hang of skirmishing. The first Papal States against Venice battle certainly proved to be a learning curve on that. The last battle too emphasised the importance of skirmishing correctly (and luckily). The disruption to the French gendarmes gave the Imperialists the edge. Speaking for the French, they are extremely destructive if they get into combat on their terms. Except for the Imperialists, the rest of the forces in Italy have nothing much to match the Swiss with and have to get fortunate to win the cavalry battle.

Strategically, the French won, although the forces were starting to range up against them. In part, the French were lucky in that the diplomacy rolls ensured that mostly they were left alone to pick off the autonomous garrisons. In the end, although French and Imperial relations were cordial, the temptation to attack the isolated French garrison of Milan proved to be too much. Similarly, the Spanish Neapolitans, needing to expand in a hurry, were landing up in confrontation with the Papal States. That could have been quite interesting.

Still, I think stopping the campaign at the point I did was the right thing. The struggle, as historically, would have been to turn back to French tide, trying to persuade the Italian states plus the Imperialists and Spanish to unite against them could have been tricky. I think the diplomacy table needs a few additional rolls to permit the breaking of friendships and alliances in terms of the strategic situation.

The initiative card method worked quite nicely, although poor Florence never drew a card for any movement. Mind you, everyone left them alone which could well count as a win in the period. As I said at the beginning, I was trying to limit the number of battles per move which could have been generated if everyone had moved every turn. That would have overwhelmed me, although the wargames could be rather short.

The movement system in Machiavelli is extremely simple and allowed for the campaign turns to take only a few minutes. If I regard a campaign game as being a generator for tabletop wargames then this counts as a success. Winter turns take a moment or two longer, because of counting controlled cities and working out where extra armies go, but that is a strategic exercise in itself. The Papal States, for example, reinforced the northwest, leaving their home states vulnerable to the Neapolitans.

Where next, you might ask. Good question. I have hinted at something relating to the Thirty Years War, and I am investigating maps. The problem is that Germany was such a patchwork of micro-states at the time that maps are a real problem. I have a couple, one of Germany from an old The Wargamer magazine, and one from an old Strategy and Tactics. This latter covers most of Europe but is ugly. The game with The Wargamer has been described to me as being beautiful but unplayable. Certainly, the components are as good as Machiavelli’s, but the gameplay is anything but clean and simple.

The real problem with a TYW campaign is in my own head, of course: the scope. Looking at the S & T map, my horizons opened to the whole of Europe. Looking back at The Wargamer map, it then feels a bit constrained. Yet the former does not, of course, have the detail that the latter does, and having read Peter Wilson’s book on the TYW, I think the role of Electors is quite important. These states are marked on The Wargamer map.

Looking around the web there is a Diplomacy variant map of Europe in 1600 which might work. However, one of the joys of the Machiavelli map is that you can tell the difference between a fleet and an army at a glance, which is not possible with pins. Add to that my aspiration to include more states than the seven given in Diplomacy and you might see why I am shying away from that again. After all, the Elector Palatine really needs to be represented as, after all, he started the whole war.

So now I am veering back towards the The Wargamer map, using the national counters to represent armies. One of the problems of both the magazine games is that they attempt to cover both the strategic and the tactical. There must have been a trend at the time for this sort of thing, and it leads to enormous stacks of ordinary and elite infantry, similar cavalry, light artillery, and siege artillery. It all gets a bit, shall we say, unstable. So the plan is to represent armies (there is only a little fleet activity) with national counters and, possibly, allow the recruitment of siege trains. I will need some rules for besieging the various cities on the map, with and without a train, but apart from that it might work.

Saturday, 20 May 2023

The Battle of Milan

Fear not, gentle reader, if you are totally bored by this sequence of Italian Wars campaigns and battles, for this is the last of the sequence. As I might have mentioned, at the beginning of 1501 the French were within a whisker of controlling 12 cities, and in Spring of that year took Lucca. It therefore became clear to the other powers that whatever happened, if the game was to continue, someone had to stop France. This was a bit independent of their diplomatic relationship with the French, although that still bore some weight.

In the Summer 1501 turn the Neapolitan Spanish drew an initiative card, and swooped on Perugia. This was hardly designed to stop France, but I felt they needed to beef up their forces next winter and they were not strong enough to tackle the French armies in the boot of Italy.

Next turn the Holy Roman Empire drew an intitiative card, as did Naples and Venice. Neither of the latter were in any position to do anything against the French, so it was down to the Imperialists, even though the diplomatic table showed friendly relations. On the other hand, the French garrison in Milan was unsuppoted and the HRE could throw two armies at it. On a third hand, Trent was an autonomous garrison that had somehow survived this long, and that two was a tempting target.

Balancing things up I decided to go for an invasion of Milan. This is, of course, totally historically accurate: a lot of the Italian Wars were abogut the control of Milan. Thus one-and-a-half Imperialist armies faced off against one French.

When I dew up the army lists for this one I discovered a slight issue. The Imperialist list was based on the DBR list and had a lot of cheap Landsknecht pike. The French list had a lot of expensive Swiss pike. Thus a one point five Imperial army had 12 pike bases, against the French four Swiss pike. Having set the game up I spent some time pondering whether, both tactically and strategically, the French should simply withdraw.

The terrain set up encouraged me, as French commander, to persevere. The gap between the village and some enclosures was rather narrow, and I reckoned that half the Imperial foot would not get through, leaving my four elite Swiss pike against six ordinary Imperial. The cavalry battle was evenly matched, so it was, I thought, worth the risk.

As it turned out I was partially right. The Swiss landed up facing half the Imperial foot, plus a couple of skirmisher bases in the enclosures. The cavalry battle was, well, not exactly even. As the above photograph tells, the Imperial skirmishers, both foot and horse, caused a considerable amount of disruption to the French advance. Half the Swiss have been delayed, as have half the gendarmes. This latter was key, as after the usual standing and daring the enemy to charge, the Imperial cavalry did just that and hit the lead French gendarmes very hard indeed. Part of the problems, as well, was that the French had not deployed into line, so both lead bases were in jeopardy without gaining any benefit from being in column – gendarmes of the time charged en haye, as we know.

The result was a disaster. The lead French gendarmes were routed, and their general killed. The rest of the French cavalry fared no better, and the Swiss were starting to come under fire from the Imperial arquebuses, as well as the skirmishers. French morale dropped to withdraw, and so they did.

I did have a few wonderings as to whether the French should have committed to battle here. On the other hand the Swiss did not, historically, usually withdraw, as they got paid extra for battle days. The French gendarmes, too, were usually a bit gung-ho for action. Did they stand a chance?

I am sort of sure they could have done. Half of the Imperial infantry was going to find it hard to get into action. If the French had won the cavalry action they might have been able to hold the Imperial infantry with the Swiss frontally, while hitting the column from the flank with rallied gendarme bases. But we shall never know.

As count of cities at the end of the year indicated that, even though France had lost Milan, they still held twelve cities and so had won the scenario. I did wonder whether to continue. The Imperialists would have to work quite hard to keep Milan and the Neapolitan Spanish were limbering up to have a go at the French in Naples and Bari, as well as probably starting a war in the Papal States. On the other hand the Florentines had done nothing and the Venetians were still licking their wounds, so I decided to wind the game up there, at least temporarily. I have the positions noted so it can be reconstructed when and if the whim takes me.

So, what did I learn?

There was a fair bit for reflection here. Firstly, the game was as basic as it could be, with stereotyped armies and province to province movement. I could have made it more sophisticated, but I do not think that would have made the strategic decisions different. The game did not have any random events (famine, plague), financial considerations or assassination which the original has. I might well try to develop methods of solo play along those lines, but it would really involve a lot more work with personalisation.

One of the good things of the campaign was that the strategic moves were fairly short. All I had to do was turn over seven playing cards and move a few units on the board. I noted one or two of the strategic decisions along the way. Then, if there were any conflicting moves, I just worked out the forces, multiplied up the army numbers, rolled the terrain and got set up. It kept the campaign rattling along nicely.

I am fairly sure that there is more to extract from the experience, and I will probably ponder and pontificate a bit more in the coming weeks. Until then, I need to find my Thirty Years War map of Germany...

Saturday, 13 May 2023

The History of the Countryside

Fear not, gentle reader, I have not decided to paint the blog green, although after reading the latest book, it might be an idea. Not that, after reading it, modern conservationists come out much better than the rest of us.

The book is:

Reckham, O., The History of the Countryside (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1989).

This is a 2020 reprint of the above tome, and very interesting it was too. The book is nicely written, with a good deal of wry humour and lashings of criticism regarding land use ancient and modern, with a special side issue of sarcasm for contemporary land improvement.

Still, I read it partly because I live in the countryside, as we all do (even those of you rooted in urban jungles: nature is closer than you think). Partly I read it to see whether I can improve my terrain modelling. The answer to the latter is, yes, of course, I can, but perhaps not in the ways I expected.

The countryside is a great deal more dynamic than we think. The book focuses mainly on England, and much of the evidence comes from certain parts thereof, but an overriding impression given is that the countryside has been changing ever since the end of the last ice age. Even before the arrival of Mesolithic humans, who are often credited with the destruction of much of the wildwood with which the country was covered then, the landscape was changing. In fact, Rackham is sceptical as to whether Mesolithic humans were present in sufficient quantities to change very much. As he observes, it is actually quite hard to burn down a wood in this country.

One thing that does stand out, however, is grazing animals and their effects on the landscape. Ancient and medieval people very sensible kept their valuable woodland (and it was really valuable) safe from their animals by building banks with hedges on top, and employing wood wardens to keep the woods safe and the banks and hedges in repair. The important commodity was, in fact, underwood, rather than timber. Underwood was used for all sorts of purposes, such as fuel, building materials for, for example, wattle and daub walls, fences, utensils, and so on. Timber, by which is meant large trees cut into planks and similar, was less in demand. Only church roofs and similar large buildings really needed enormous logs of oak for their construction and, in spite of Englishmen worrying to the contrary, the country never did run out of oak to build sailing ships.

Much of the timber did not, in fact, come from woods. The larger trees, particularly oaks, were to be found in hedgerows and woodland pasture, or on farmland. There was plenty of that. Hedges only became without trees when modern cutting techniques arrived, as hedge cutters by hand would cut around saplings, so more hedgerow trees survived.

Hedges themselves are interesting. Some parts of the country, what Rackham describes as ‘Planned Countryside’, those parts where open strip fields were the order of the day. These fields were large, farmed in strips, and unhedged. Hedges only came to these parts of the country later, as the open fields were divided up and enclosed with fences. The fences, of course, prevented mowing in their immediate vicinity and thus hedges grew up in a few years. It is only post-World War Two that the habit of grubbing up hedges and recreating enormous fields has occurred. This has negative effects on soil, wildlife and the landscape, as we probably all know.

Anyway, another interesting point Rackham makes is to the effect that many of us paint our tree trunks wrongly. We are used to fairly brown tree trunks and branches, with maybe a bit of lichen growing on them. Actually, before the era of acid rain, tree trunks were much greener, as mosses and a wider variety of lichens grew on them. Tree trunks could be practically green.

Quite a lot of Rackham’s ire is directed at efforts to conserve the countryside. He is particularly severe on the ‘Plant a Tree in ‘73’ campaign. Most of the trees died or at least failed to flourish because no one bothered to look at which species of tree should be planted there. Oaks do not flourish everywhere in England, in spite of our national mythology.

The other thing which we should possibly note as landscape wargamers is the number of trees that were pollarded. In this, the tree was cropped, either to a stump or coppiced to just above ground level. It was then left to grow for a number of years before the process was repeated. This left tree trunks quite solid (for a pollard) with spindly growth above. Coppiced trees have what are termed crowns, roundish bits of solid tree, at ground level, and then spindly bits growing from that. The effect of both of these is to supply the rods and underwood that society needed until industrialisation came. Rackham notes that pollarded and coppiced trees live for a long time, while trees left to their own devices have a life span of a couple of centuries.

Rackham also explains that in England, ‘Forest’ does not mean what we think of as a forest – a thick load of trees. In medieval England, Forests were places where Forest Law applied. They might include a few woods, but were often more heathland, such as the New Forest. The aim of Forests was to grow venison for the tables of the King and his Lords. Apparently, if you received the gift of a haunch of venison you were really in with the in crowd.

There is, then, lots to think about in this book as a wargamer whose games often land up in England of various times. Certainly, I think my modelling of woods as woods could be improved with ditches and banks. And my hedgerows clearly need more trees. I imagine I shall lapse into lassitude and nothing will change, but there you are: a challenge to landscape wargaming.

Saturday, 6 May 2023

Balance and Bias

In a recent post, JWH of Heretical Wargaming raised the interesting question of wargamer bias, specifically solo wargamers being biased against a particular army, force or nation. This is an interesting question and got me thinking, as one or two of the comments in the sequence of posts on the Machiavelli campaign might have indicated.

I do not have a good answer to the question of bias. From a young age, for example, I was taught about Agincourt, Trafalger, and Waterloo, and hence might have imbibed some bias against the French. Similarly, my early life was surrounded by comics in which Germans soldiers shouted ‘Achtung’ or ‘Himmel’ rather a lot. As my education proceeded and the horrors of the Nazi regime before and during World War Two came into focus, bias against German armies of the period could surely have followed.

I am not sure that there is a lot I can do about my inherent biases. I can educate myself, reading about, say, French Napoleonic victories, both sea and land. I can certainly examine the achievements and limitations of both sides, or consider the relative exhaustion levels of national resources and so on. For World War Two I can look into the way that the British Empire, fighting for survival, used the colonies for resources, impoverishing the inhabitants for a war of which they knew nothing. Whether any of this would change my biases I am not sure. Given that I wargame neither Napoleonics nor World War Two I shall probably never find out.

Nevertheless, there is another issue which the playing of Machiavelli has raised. As I recall, from playing it with multiple players, everyone had a shout. We know, after a few games that in order to survive and have a chance some areas were important. Venice needed to grab the Adriatic, for example, and France the Gulf of Lyons. Other than these points the game was well balanced and every nation could potentially win.

Surprisingly, this is a bit of a problem. We are honed, perhaps as children, to seek balance. Everyone has to have a chance, at least roughly of winning. This is, often, drummed into us. As a review I turned up on the Internet remarked, possibly Machiavelli is too balanced. The author did not elaborate on the comment, so what follows is my interpretation. I think, however, it follows for wargame scenarios as well.

If a game is balanced, everyone has a chance to win. Victory and defeat, therefore, are dependent on marginal differences. In Machiavelli, for example, the ability to swiftly occupy certain sea areas makes a big difference to some states. These seemingly minor moves can have bigger effects later. If the Venetians do not seize the Adriatic early, they have to expend time and resources in capturing it later, which is awkward to do because only a limited number of fleets can be brought to bear on the problem. Thus the Venetian actions (or lack of them) in the first couple of game moves can lead to an irretrievable problem a bit later on.

The problem can, of course, be compounded by the actions of other players in a multi-player game. The Turks, for example, can set out to obstruct the Venetians; indeed, it is in their best interests so to do. The interactions are part of game, of course, but again, a turn or two delay at the start of the game can lead to problems later on. Given the game balance, these issues take on a bigger function in determining the game outcome.

Similarly, I suspect, many wargame scenarios are designed to be, in some sense, balanced. Even in a game with unequal forces, both sides have a roughly equal chance to achieve their objectives and, hence, win the game, whatever winning might be within the scenario. Given this balance of forces and outcomes, it seems to me that we are back with the Machiavelli balance problem: small mishaps early on can lead to major outcomes, even including defeat.

This is not bias, of course. In fact, unless you start to really analyse what is going on, you might well miss it. My suspicions about which areas are key in Machiavelli games comes from playing it with a bunch of physics and computing students. Analysis of what was important, which were the vital areas for each nation, came naturally to us. The thing is that this analysis and the subsequent actions of the palyers of various nations then added to the balance of the game. If I was Venice, I knew that seizing the Adriatic and, preferably, the Ionian Sea was in my best interests. So did everyone else, of course, and so the game was rebalanced in that sense.

Bias is a more systematic means of unbalancing the game. It seems to me to come in many forms, and can be really rather subtle to catch. This is further compounded by the balance of games and scenarios: if the games is so well balanced, an early marginally false step can have grave consequences later. Similarly, as the games in the Machiavelli campaign might have shown, in a well balanced game a bad (or good) dice roll can make a big difference. If the balance is so good the result can depend on a hair-trigger.

A case in point would the be heavy cavalry charges of my Italian Wars campaign. If these hit home, they are devastating. If they hesitate, and the gendarmes are counter-charged, the result is often devastating the other way. Similarly, I suspect, in World War Two games a lot depends on who reacts first. If it is you and your machine gun opens up, you win. If not, you lose. Again, this is not bias, but balance kicking in.

To start to answer JWH’s question, then, bias can be hard to distinguish from designed balance. If I favour one side by 60% to 40%, then I should see that in the game outcomes. But if my games results really depend on a single hair-trigger outcome at 50% to 50%, those results are going to be hard to distinguish unless I repeat the scenario a fair number of times. Even then, as I will have learnt about the scenario and the most optimal deployments and moves for each side, I may not be able to see if I am biased or not.

As it happens, I was concerned about bias against the French in the Machiavelli campaign. As, at present, their wargame account reads played two, won two, and they are within two turns of winning the whole campaign bias may not be a problem. However, in the wargames they have, so far, been lucky on the heavy cavalry charges. If anyone can figure out if I am biased, I would like to hear from you.

Saturday, 29 April 2023

The Battle of Lucca

As noted (or threatened) last time, the next Machiavelli campaign battle was in Lucca. Here, a French army had been transported from Avignon to the province of Lucca, supported by the lurking French army in Modena. The transport by the fleet in the Eastern Gulf of Lyons meant that the French in Lucca had one-and-a-half armies. As before, a dice roll decided that the Luccan army would come out and fight.

You can see a few other things going on in the turn in the picture, with the Papal army in Piombino, but French expansion is the main name of the game. Off shot there is not much else going on, neither the Austians nor Neapolitan Spanish are up to a great deal. French diplomacy has, in fact, ensured that they are friends or better with most of Italy, and what they are doing is picking off the autonomous garrisons. So far as I recall, this is more or less what would happen in a face-to-face multi-player game. The only difference is that by this time, those players who could count would realise that France is one city away from winning the game, and would probably agree to gang up on them and relieve them of a few cities.

Anyway, the Luccans decided to fight, and deployed their infantry on two hills with their cavalry, split also on the hills, behind. The French split into four columns, two of cavalry and two of pikes. The plan was for the infantry to storm the leftmost Luccan hill while the cavalry broke through the Luccan light horse in the centre. While the Luccan plan was reasonably sound, as French commander I thought the hills were a bit too far apart for mutual support.

Above you can see the game after the first few moves. The Luccan light horse have driven off a base of French mounted crossbowmen, but they are starting to return to the fray. The infantry columns, of Swiss fronted by skirmishing crossbows, are aiming towards the hill nearest the camera, which is crowned by arquebusiers and some sword and buckler men. In fact, behind them, there are two bases of gendarmes as well. On the far hill the gendarmes are starting to reposition themselves to challenge in the centre.

The above photograph shows the developing carnage in the centre. The Luccan gendarmes made it to block the French take over after the Luccan mounted crossbowmen had fled. The resulting clash was not pretty for either side. It led, in fact, to more than half the French gendarmes fleeing, some other changing Luccan gendarmes and some really bitter fighting between the remaining Luccans and a couple of French gendarme bases. Meanwhile, as you can see, the French infantry columns steadily approached the Luccan left (which is standing on a hill even if you can barely see it in the photograph) and the Luccan right is starting to chance its arm towards the centre.

It only got more complex and confusing in the centre, with charges and counter-charges against smaller and smaller groups of elements as the fight fragmented. In spite of their losses the French slowly gained the upper hand, but had lost a sufficient number of bases to cause an army morale check, which resulted in the army wavering and hence delayed the assault on the Luccan left. Not that the Luccans were unscathed, having lost their light horse (the remnants of which are fleeing off the top of the picture) but also some gendarmes, which put their morale in a fairly parlous state as well.

Eventually, the French got moving again and, just about, won the cavalry contest in the centre. While the remaining Luccan gendarmes rallied from their successful charges, the French general and another base charged again and this time won their combats, while the Swiss pike finally hit home on the elevated Luccan left. The Luccan sword and buckler men tried to intervene but were pushed back behind the arquebusiers who, even uphill, had no reply to the long pointy sticks (and, in fact, imposing deep formation) of the Swiss pike. The fleeing arquebusiers swept away their own sword and buckler men and the Luccan morale dropped to withdraw, and, in fact, only just above rout. Their general, who had been heavily involved in the cavalry combat in the centre and then in the infantry contest on his left, just about survived. If he had not it would have turned into a rout.

Still, it was a good game. The Luccan positions on the hills were reasonably strong although, as I have said before, Italian armies have no realistic answer to the Swiss in hand-to-hand combat. I did wonder if one of the recovering Luccan gendarmes could charge a Swiss column in the flank and what would happen if it did, but the angles, as it turned out, were wrong. The French had a tough fight of it indeed, although their tactics seemed to be correct.

Perhaps the Luccans should have had the courage of their defensive convictions and kept their gendarmes on the hills, inviting French charges, but uphill, and with the support of the Luccan firepower. Maybe, but the French are a two hit army, the gendarmes and the Swiss. Not contesting the centre would certainly have let the French focus on one or other of the hills with, probably, devastating results.

I cannot really blame the dice for this result. Both sides had good rolls and bad rolls. The French gendarmes fared poorly to start off with, better as the fight continued. Three deep Swiss pike, even uphill, are a handful, to say the least. No wonder that the Spanish answer, eventually, was to defend a ditch and wall against them using arquebusiers.

There are two turns left this year to see whether the other powers notice that France is on the verge of gaining twelve cities (they have, with Lucca which is now theirs, but the formal count is not until the winter turn). Once there the question is whether I finish the campaign then or carry on to see if the more advanced victory condition (18 cities, I think the next one is) is possible. On the other hand, this has beena rather successful game and I think it is transferable to other campaigns. We shall see.

Saturday, 22 April 2023

The Battle of Mantua

Spring, as we all know, rapidly turns to autumn. The campaign season, started with so many hopes at the start of the year when the forage is coming and the young men are getting feet itchy with the urge to visit new places, join up with the mercenaries and see the world, is now turning to the time when grizzled veterans grimly hold on to a few shreds of dignity and clothing, waiting for the deliverance of winter quarters and, perhaps, a little pay to tide them over the closed season for warfare.

Ah, yes, sorry, as you were. Autumn 1500 has come around in the Machiavelli campaign, and with it another Venetians verses the Papacy clash, this time in Mantta. The history, briefly, is that the Papacy attempted to seize Ferrara while the Venetians had already taken Mantua, with no resistance from the autonomous garrison. The Venetians invaded Ferrara in the last game and were rather rudely given their marching orders. Now, in the Autumn turn the Papal armies, safely ensconced in Ferrara and Bologna are assaulting the isolated Venetians in Mantua.

The situation is shown in the photograph of central Italy. While the French lurk rather suspiciously in Mantua, the Austrians are poised to do something in either Terns or Milan, Florence lies rather supinelty between the advancing French and rampant Pope (erm, yes) the latter having taken Sienna and now about to besiege Piombino. As I recall from playing the game years ago, Piombino is rather vital to the interests of the survival of Florence, but they have yet to draw and activation in the game.

Anyway, the Papal armies are getting about a bit. Say what you like about those Borgias, they did throw themselves at any given project. And the conquest of Mantua was a logical extension after their victory over the Venetians in Ferrara and the subsequent surrender of the city to the Pope’s safe keeping. As the Venetian armies were now split, there was just one army against the might of one-and-a-half of the Papal forces.

The picture sees the action several moves in. The Venetians to the left have anchored their infantry on two vineyards, leaving their outnumbered cavalry to disrupt and delay the Papal heavies, in association with the stradoits. The Papal idea is, of course, to smash up anything and everything with the gendarmes before the final assault on the vineyards. Incidentally, the figures are a mix of Baccus, Irregular and Heroics and Ros.

You can see to the rear of the Papal army that their mounted crossbowmen have already been driven off, leaving their right flank infantry of arquebusiers and pike exposed to the skirmishing Venetian mounted crossbows. In the foreground the Papal crossbowmen are establishing themselves in another vineyard.

It is possible that the quanities of vineyards around impaired the judegment of various of the commanders. In fact, this time, the Venetian general did absolutely nothing wrong, again. He got his gendarmes into position and they charged home. A relief, I thought, after the debacle last time.

Unfortunately, that is as far as the Venetian success went. They lost almost every cavalry combat, even with the advantage of charging. Sometimes, as every wise wargamer knows, the dice just do not cooperate.

The photo above shows the situation a couple of moves later. The Papal army have reorganised its light horse and they are now facing off the Venetian mounted crossbowmen. The Venetian cavalry attack has stalled. One base has been routed, one is looking very rocky and another has won its combat (you can see the doubly shaken Papal gendarmes behind the crossbowmen) and has then run into withering fire from the said crossbowmen. With the disruption already caused by winning the charge combat, this base of gendarmes really did not cope well with being shot at by three bases of bows, and decided that a canter back to beyond the base line was in order.

With that, and the similar routing of the remaining Venetian gendarme base, the battle was more or less over. The Venetians attempted to resist further using the stradoit line you can see in the centre, but given that the Papal gendarmes had not charged into combat they quickly succumbed to the heavy cavalry and it really was game over.

So, another win for the Papal States over Venice. The Papacy, at year end, has added two cities to its total and, two victories over Venice. Venice is now looking rather weak, although, in the game, Venice itself is more or less impregnable. The other thing that has happened, of course, is the inexorable expansion of France. The army in Mantua was transported there by sea, supported by the Genoa army, although there was nothing to stop it. This was a strategic decision by yours truly, to get more French armies into the fray in northern and central Italy as quickly as possible.

As it is, the French now control eleven cities out of the twelve they need to win the basic Machiavelli game. Their diplomacy is going well; they are practically in alliance with the Neapolitan Spanish which removes any serious threat to their position in southern Italy. The Papal States are distracted by the war with Venice. Florence, as we noted, has not got moving yet. The only fly in the ointment is that the Neapolitan army from Sicily has just landed in Tivoli and is threatening Rome, which could start another war.

The winter turn saw the armies being reinforced, of course. The Papacy placed an army to protect Rome, while the French gained another in Avignon. The Spring 1501 turn saw the Papacy besiege Piombino while the French transported an army to Lucca, supported by their army in Modena. The plucky Luccans decided to come out and fight, so the next battle is 1.5 armies of French against an ‘Other’ Italian army.

Even the simple map and movement is causing me some strategic thought moments to pause. ‘Do I place an army here to block that, or there to attack there?’ sorts of questions. Similarly, I wonder during the battles whether the side apparently losing should withdraw intact to protect the city. None have so far, but that is because of the decisive nature of the heavy cavalry charges. We shall see.