Saturday 31 January 2015

New Year’s Day Parade

One of the things that has been said, over the years, about this blog is that it cannot be a proper wargames blog because there are so few pictures of my toys on it. And it would be a fair criticism, both of my camera skills and my ability with a paintbrush.

Of course, the blog is designed to consider more the idea and concepts behind wargaming, rather than pictures of wargames real estate. Where else, for example, could you find such considerations of the use of models in rules, or the ethics of colonial wargames? Still, it might just be worth trying to convince any passing viewer that this actually does connect, in my life, anyway, with some wargaming.

Another issue is that I am on record as having written that I do not like painting, and this is true. Painting, to me, is a necessary chore to be done before a wargame. However, for someone who does not like painting, I seem to spend a lot of my time doing it. Actually, the purpose of this post is to show off the painting that I achieved in 2014. Not, I hasten to add, because it is particularly good, nor because the camera ability is up to much. My hope is the one will obviate the other and you will simply receive a nice, if somewhat blurred, impression of what I have done.

First, a general view of my New Year’s Day parade. Of course, the review was not carried out on New Year’s Day precisely. This is, after all, a militaristic dictatorship, and in keeping with most totalitarian regimes, it ran late. Not that the above bases were not finished by New Year’s Eve, of course. It was just that the propaganda unit was not charged up until well afterwards. Still, in keeping with the rules of dictatorships the world over, I have simply decreed that the date of the parade was New Year’s Day, and run with that.

Now, you can perhaps see the reasons why I am rather over-pleased with myself. In the photograph there are 116 bases of soldiers. Yes. One hundred and sixteen. For me and my painting speed, that is a lot.

From the left, there are five bases of Early Persian Immortals, and then two of cavalry. Next are the Macedonians in all their glory, thirty three bases of them. Then the Later Persians, another thirty something bases (34, I think, but I am not going to count them again). Finally, to the right, are forty two bases of Indians, including twelve bases of those pesky chariots.  

Now, there is one thing. A Polemos: Greeks army is twenty bases. So, by a bit of dodgy maths, I should have five armies, and nearly six. So how come there are only three armies in the picture? I suppose the true answer is that I simply painted what was in the box, which in each case was a Baccus 6 mm, 15 mm ground scale DBM army (which are no longer produced). I actually have a load more Macedonians, but I am sure you get the idea. The rational answer is that with the rules in development I like to have a fair bit of choice about what goes into an army, so I tend to ‘over paint’ to coin a phrase.

Now, for those of you who can stomach it, some more detailed views:

The Early Persians flanked by the Companions and then other Macedonians. I painted the Immortals because you cannot really have an Early Persian army without them, even though they were not at Marathon.

A slightly fuzzy shot of some slightly fuzzy Macedonians.The pike blocks are sixteen figures to a base, which is a huge number for me.

Some equally fuzzy Later Persians. They would, of course, make up the numbers with Hoplites, as, indeed, so would the Macedonians. Still, the rear ranks seem to be in focus.

Finally, some of the Indians. The blocks to the right are those chariots. Remind me not to try painting such again. Not only were they fiddly, but I almost permanently attached myself to them with superglue.

Overall, I have calculated that I painted 768 objects last year, plus, in fact finishing off two Roman villas and a Roman marching fort. I have not counted infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants separately because, I fear, that counting the finished bases  is sufficient obsessive / compulsive behaviour for one year. Nor, in fact, do I have any idea how this quantity compares with previous years, because firstly, I did not count, and secondly, I cannot remember.

I suppose you are all now (those of you who have made it past the dodgy pictures; I suppose I should practice a bit more) wondering what this year has in stall. Well, I am not wholly sure that I know myself, but it does involve Seleucids, and a return, hopefully, to the doubling project for my Roman era armies. I did briefly flirt with the idea of Punic Wars, but the estimable Mrs P advised that I probably had enough on my plate as it was, what with work, commuting, rule writing, painting and blogging all going on.

Which reminds me, I wonder if I could create a mobile painting table for use in the car, when stuck in traffic?

Saturday 24 January 2015

The Edge of the World

A comment a post or three ago by Mr Foy raised a question to which I gave a probably too short an answer, so I thought I would have another go here. The question was about the ‘edge of the world’ syndrome. In case of point, it was about how Mr Foy’s  original Napoleonic Peninsular campaign had focussed on the Army of Portugal, assuming the other fronts were simply ‘busy’, and then finding that this was not sufficient for the needs of the campaign. In short, the edge of the world was not where the conceptual edge of the game was to be found.

This is, on a smaller scale, a problem for wargames as well, not just campaigns. A cavalry unit pursues off the edge of the table. In game terms there are in some sort of ‘nowhere’ limbo. Similarly, a division is engaged in a flank march. It is nowhere until some mechanism permits it to appear suddenly, on a table edge. I suspect (although I am not a wargamer of this ilk, as you are probably well aware by this time) that this gets worse the more modern the wargame. In the World Wars, after all, most of the damage was done by artillery, and you would need a very big table (or a very small scale) to place the heavy gun batteries on along with the front line infantry.

Now, in my response to the issue I noted that most wargames do actually acknowledge some sort of external context. Even a simple ‘capture the crossroads’ sort of game gives a context. The crossroads are important to someone, and that someone is not necessarily part of the game. An even simpler ‘destroy the enemy’ has a context; that context may be simply that the other side is the enemy and is, therefore, to be destroyed, presumably for some larger purpose. Very simple scenarios such as these are, in fact, embedded in some larger wargame ‘reality’.

I recall, in the dim and distant past, one of the naval wargame books observing that while in figure gaming, it was fairly easy to identify an objective and fight over it (such as the strategic crossroads in the middle of the board) in naval wargames this was a fair bit harder, and usually was easier to identify in the context of a campaign game. Thus this set of islands, or the movement of this fleet in that direction is better placed in the context of an overall series of events.

The problem is that it is very hard to decide exactly how wide this context is to be drawn. In the Peninsular war example, we can start with the Anglo-Portuguese forces, then expand to the whole of Spain as the fronts were not independent. But then, of course, this starts to ask questions about, say, naval deployments and blockades, as well as the global assignment of forces between, say, the Spanish Ulcer and the invasion of Russia.

Now we can, of course, arbitrarily cut off the rest of the world. Any troops moving off the edge of the table are lost. In this case, beyond the edge of the table is limbo land, a wargame ‘nowhere’. In a campaign game the effects of other fronts, of grand strategy and a distant high command can be modelled with chance cards or with dice rolls giving reinforcements, demands for troops to be redeployed or removed or whatever. This can require a fair degree of imagination from the wargamer, of course. The fifth time that high command demands a battalion of infantry for another front, when you only started with four anyway might stretch our narrative credibility just a little.

I think, however, that this might give us a hint as to how we might handle this. A wargame, or a wargame campaign, is a narrative. That, after all, is part of the attraction of wargaming. Thus, we can, if we so desire, have an overall narrative of the bit of the world we are actually interested in, and, embedded within that, have a rest of the world narrative as well. This latter could be based on the historical world. Thus a major victory for the Spanish in the Peninsular could require the diversion of an extra corps from the Grand Armee to restore the situation, meaning that they are not available to invade Russia and thus, indirectly, leading to the problems that Napoleon had there. With luck, and a bit of imagination, the narratives can be persuaded to coincide.

Of course, with less historical context, we can make our narratives what we want. My Fuzigore campaign is a case in point. There is no “real” world context, so I can really make it up as I go along to get the next battle. Fuzigore also shows up the reverse side of the problem, however. I did (as recorded somewhere here) spend some time setting up the context of a local campaign, including more detailed maps, map moves, couriers and so on. All that effort and the battle, when it came, was so decisive that that was the end of that. One side triumphed, one side surrendered. And my carefully made campaign aides were stuck back on the shelf.

So I suppose that there is a balance to be struck, here, between the quantity of context required and the time available to the wargamer(s) to develop the game in that context. Fuzigore is, as mentioned, a virtually context free zone. The context that does exist is firmly in a scribbled map and my head. The more historical we go for, the more pointed the local and larger contexts become. Unless the campaign is set up fairly carefully, the players can be dominated by external events. Conversely, the French may triumph in Spain to the extent that Wellington simply remains at sea, looking thoughtfully at what might have been.

I realise that I have not supplied any solutions to the issues here, but I think that identifying such issues is a helpful thing to do. The edge of the world syndrome is something which does affect all wargames. My own solution is to deploy relatively small forces on the table, so the players can never rest a flank on the edge of the world. 

Saturday 17 January 2015

Serious Playing

For reasons I am still unsure about, I have started reading Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ‘Truth and Method’. My only defence is really that the choice was Kant, Heidegger or Gadamer, and I chose the middle length book. It is still a hefty 600 pages or so, but Kant was 700 and Heidegger a mere 500. In keeping with my experience of most continental philosophy, it refers to philosophers I have not (and probably cannot, for lack of language skills, let alone time) read and is high on the denseness rating. However, Gadamer keeps cropping up in my reading of assorted bits of recent writing, and in keeping with my reputation as the only postmodern wargamer, I thought I had better give it a go.

The second chapter of the tome is about play, which rather surprised me. Continental philosophy, for all its claims to playfulness, has, in my view, a tendency to take itself far too seriously. I mean, someone like Derrida can claim, in a book, that the author does not exist and that all there is in the text. Does he really mean that? If so, I can just ignore his text, surely.

Still, Gadamer does talk about play, by which he means playing in its widest sense. In fact, he is trying to get a handle on art and the aesthetic, but I am going to try to ignore that for as long as possible. But already he has observed some interesting things.

Firstly, play is not about the players. Play is, in itself serious, and someone who is not taking the play seriously is usually called a ‘spoilsport’. The aim of play, albeit as recreation, is in itself a serious aim. We do not play (and children do not play) for frivolity. Play works because we lose ourselves in the play. Hence, a wargame works because we lose ourselves in the narrative, suspense and uncertainty of the game.

Next up, I suppose rather obviously, the play is part of the players, but is not the players. The game, clearly, would not exist without the players, or at least a player (fortunately for me, solo wargamers are not excluded), but the play is not subjective, that is, the game is not wholly a subjective experience of the player(s). The game is a presentation through the players, but not wholly of the players. I am sure this is a bit clearer in the original German.

A characteristic of play is its to and fro nature, even when there is only one player. Gadamer says that play is without strain, without effort and is experienced by the subject (the player) as relaxation. The structure of the game absorbs the player into itself. So, again, the wargamer is part of the game, not simply an external operative of the game. As a player, the game takes over and relieves us from the strain of making decisions.

I am not entirely sure I agree with that in the context of wargaming, as wargamers, of course, are constantly making decisions as part of the game. On the other hand, if we admit that wargamers as players of the game are absorbed in the game, then the decisions that have to be taken are decisions within the game and as such part of the play. I suppose we could easily get from there to the idea that no intra-wargame decision is a serious, and thus stressful, decision. Not metal widows and orphans are going to be created by out in-game decisions.

Now clearly, in a wargame, there are outcomes and, ultimately, winners and losers. This is a part of the to and fro process within the game. A move produces its counter move, and so on. As engrossed in the game, we can be a victor. That, Gadamer says, is the risk of the game. We have a freedom of decision within the game, but that freedom is limited by the game, and the game, or the other players, can out think us within the game and we can lose. If we do not make such decisions, we cannot play the game; we are not playing seriously if we refuse the decision making and the consequences thereof.

The consequences of this sort of view for wargaming should be, I think, fairly clear. It certainly seems to chime in with my experience of the hobby as a whole. It is a hobby, a recreation, for one thing, but something which is taken with great seriousness by its participants. I suppose that, say, football is another such example. It can be taken with great seriousness by its participants and by spectators, but it does remain, consciously, as a game.

However, it is probably with the seriousness in mind that we object, just a little, to describing the hobby as ‘playing with toy soldiers’. I have used the expression myself to remind myself that the hobby is a game, a recreation, and is not, in that sense, serious. But ‘playing with toy soldiers’ may be taken as an expression of not taking the play seriously, of being a spoilsport. I think the reasons the expression works as a reminder of the hobby aspect of the occupation is the various meanings of the word ‘play’.

Gadamer, for example, reminds the reader that the waters of a fountain can play, as can the sunlight on water, children with sticks and mud, and so on. Cats and dogs also play. These various meanings and nuances of the word ‘play’ inform our use of the term ‘playing with toy soldiers’ to remind us of various aspects of a wargame. As with the fountain, the wargame can be an aesthetic experience, and also a dynamic one. As with the stick play, the wargame has artefacts and can reduce to simply throwing mud at each other. As with animals and humans playing, the play can be part of the joy of co-existence (even for us solo wargamers – when I am grumpy with painting, the estimable Mrs P. will tell me to go and have a battle), and also, perhaps most importantly, the game is an end in itself, not something designed of some further or future purpose.

Saturday 10 January 2015

The Twelve Man Elephant

Now, I am sure you would agree that I am not one to grumble. I am, as I may have mentioned a few times, slowly getting to the end of painting Classical Indians. You know, the chaps who fought Alexander to more or less a standstill, so he took to floating down rivers rather than annihilating everyone on sight.

The thing that I have struggled with is, as I may have also mentioned (I am sure I was not grumbling), are the chariots. Now, I have nothing against the odd chariot, except that they are somewhat fiddly wargame models with lots of bits, but superglue and tweezers can help with that. Nor am I moaning about the large quantity of horses to Indian chariots. After all, the Romans raced four horse chariots, and the fact that I can only fit one model and its horses onto a base has, in fact, just doubled the number of chariot bases available for the army.

No, the thing that does slightly perplex me is the number of figures on the chariot. I am sure this is not the manufactures fault, but a wargame tradition. The thing is, for a four man chariot, you get for men on the chariot.

Now, I am fairly sure that the response from the majority of the world is ‘so what?’ but I will attempt to explain. A fighting man in close order takes up a width of three feet, or thereabouts. At least, I think that is what the manuals say, at a minimum. I believe that using ranged weapons needs a bit more room. Now four men at a minimum of three feet each is, if I am not far mistaken, twelve feet.  And then you would need a bit more for the wheels, hubs, body of the chariot and so on. But let me suggest that the width of the chariot is, at a minimum, twelve feet.

Now, I don’t know about you, and I am willing to sit corrected, but that seems a little wide for a chariot. For one thing, the manoeuvrability of the vehicle would be a little unwieldy. For another, the weight of it would cause some problems surely. It would not take much for our four man crew to start to feel a bit of a sinking feeling. Furthermore, have a look at the nearest twelve foot wide piece of real estate you can see. How flat is it? What are the chances that, when proceeding at speed across it, a twelve foot wide vehicle will ground on something, even if the wheels are, say, eighteen inches above the ground.

I know that the sources say ‘four man chariot’, but do we really think that is what they mean? After all, one of King David’s sons is reported as having fifty chariot runners, but only the Prince and his driver were in the vehicle itself.

I have a similar sort of issue with some Burmese elephants that I have. They are, so far as I can judge, nice models of elephants. But I do question the twelve man crew. They are all sitting on, or dangling off, the elephant. Now I now that elephants are large animals and capable of carrying great burdens. But when you look at it from the elephant’s point of view: people dangling off me are, simply, going to annoy me, and they will impair my ability to move. I suppose the only advantage I might have is that they will get hit by the arrows first, so they might form a sort of ablative armour coating, but that is probably offset by mobility problems.

I have, of course, no evidence that these things are wrong, specifically. But they do seem a little unlikely, even if such a thing as a four man chariot or a twelve crew elephant are mentioned in the literature, or even depicted in art. The practicalities mentioned must make them less than useful weapon platforms in those forms.

What I suspect is going on is another instance of a bit of wargamer’s naivety with texts (where, in this case, text includes art). A twelve man elephant is an elephant with twelve crew. I think we can grant that. What that does not necessarily mean is that all twelve men crewed the elephant, in any direct sort of sense, such as riding upon it into battle. It is more likely, it seems to me, that there were, perhaps, four men actually riding the elephant, providing missile fire, a good view of events and the possibility of their steed treading on some enemies. The rest were probably deployed as light infantry to see off other skirmishers and to increase the harassing fire from their colleagues.

And my guess is that the same sort of thing applies to the chariots. All four men fighting at the same time seems a tad unlikely. Two or three on the chariot and the rest on foot seems much more reasonable (and seems to be how the Celts did it anyway). Most manufacturers, after all, do give skirmish foot figures for the six man Indian chariot. An eighteen feet wide vehicle does seem innately unlikely.

So we seem, here, to be a bit in the wargame myth world. I might find, of course, that I am inundated with evidence of elephants going into battle carrying battalions of Sepoys, or of chariots carrying a dozen men, but somehow I doubt it. I suspect that this is an instance of an understandable but distinct misreading of the text.

On the other hand, a four man chariot, or a twelve man elephant is probably what we, as wargamers expect. We cannot, in that case, simply blame the manufacturers for producing what we demand. I shall, of course, finish painting my chariots, and enjoy deploying them against to dastardly Macedonians. My Burmese elephants are currently pensioned off in the cupboard, but even they might, um, ride again, as it were.

But I think I shall have to admit that they are real beasts with mythical numbers of riders.

Saturday 3 January 2015

Traffic Jams and Chariot Tactics

I mentioned a week or so ago that I had spent a lot of time sitting in traffic jams. This is an unfortunate aspect of modern living, even in relatively sparsely populated parts of the country, especially while the world is working up to the frenzy of capitalist materialism we know as ‘Christmas’. To be honest, I think that Christians should ask the materialists for their festival back, please, but that is probably another post.

Anyway, having had a fair bit of time sitting in the car listening to classical music, feeling my nerves fraying and so on, I did recall an interesting paper I once read about the dynamics of traffic flows. The hypothesis was, as I recall, that a stream of traffic was modelled as a liquid which was compressible, but only up to a limit. Working out the mathematics of this (I do not think I ever understood the details) it turned out that there could be phase transitions in the flow, so that the previously flowing liquid became a solid, even though elements of the liquid were still entering and leaving the block. So it was, sort of, a dynamic solid, in equilibrium with the surroundings, but there for no readily apparent reason.

In my slightly fraught state, I also remembered my current struggles in painting classical Indian chariots. As you probably know, these are fairly large vehicles, with four or six crew per chariot. The Baccus chariots, for it is they with which I am struggling, for all the niceness of the model and cleanness of casting, I have really found difficult to assemble and paint. I am getting there, but having nearly attached myself to the chariot body with superglue, glued a chariot to my tweezers and then having to rebase the first batch because at four horses per chariot two chariots will not fit on a single base, these are never going to be my favourites.

Be that as it may, I also, while sitting in the dark on a flyover, with only a load of brake lights to admire, I recalled an article from many moons ago by Charles Grant in Military Modeller (just after ‘Battle’ had been forcibly amalgamated, and before MM reverted to being about military modelling, without wargaming). I think it was a regular column called ‘On Military Matters…’ or something like that, and it was about the tactics of using chariots.

The main point I think grant was trying to make was that chariots could not be lined up hub to hub and charge. Even over a short distance there would be sufficient roughness to the ground such that they would have to move around a little bit, and if they were deployed very close, that would inevitably lead to road traffic accidents. A pile up of chariots would be very messy even in peacetime. In a battle it would be disastrous.

Another point Grant made was in manoeuvring. Chariots need some room to turn. In a ninety degree turn, the ‘outer’ chariot in the formation has to move a lot further than the ‘inner chariot’, but even the inner chariot needs some room to move forward so it can turn. Again, the result of having a load of chariots deployed hub to hub, and then trying to turn the lot at once would be fairly disastrous.

Again, the model of the vehicles being a liquid which is compressible, but only to a point, comes to mind. If the chariots are deployed too close together, they can neither turn nor, in any sensible manner, advance. They chariot, more or less by its very nature, has do deploy in a fairly loose formation.

So, then, what was the use of a chariot? Three possibilities occur. The first is that they were used as a sort of heavy cavalry and charged the enemy headlong. As noted above, this seems a little unlikely if they were deployed in close formation, and would presumably be rather ineffective if a loose formation was adopted.

The second possibility is that of the chariot as battle transport. This does seem to have happened, as the Iliad is full of the heroes being driven to the fight, and sometimes their drivers (as well as the Homeric heroes) meet sticky ends. Homer does like his rather gruesome deaths of heroic figures. He is, in fact, a rather anti-heroic fighter. So the chariot as personnel carrier does seem to be a viable model.

The final possibility is that of the chariot as weapon platform. That is, as with the Indian chariots I am struggling to paint, the crew are armed with javelins and bows, and use the relative speed of the chariot to harass the enemy. I suppose the nearest analogy to this would be light cavalry and, as with the light cavalry, the chariot can have been rarely decisive. Indeed, I seem to recall that after the British had decided not to fight the Romans in pitched battles, they dispensed with everyone except slingers and chariots, and carried out what we might call guerrilla warfare instead.

The first model is the least likely to have occurred, of course, except, perhaps in the use of scythed chariots in the East. So far as I can tell, these were only once really successful, but I suppose that the commanders were ever hopeful that the circumstances may recur for their use. This leaves us with the other two models (which are not, of course, exclusive). The chariot as battlefield transport does seem to have happened, as both Homer and the Ancient Britons attest. The chariot as weapons platform is a bit more controversial, the question being whether it was stable enough to be so used. The answer seems to be that it was. So there are two possible modes of chariot use.

I guess that what this amounts to is that the reality of ancient warfare was rather different to our expectations. I suppose that is almost inevitable. But the point is that ancient warfare was probably a fairly slow and desultory affair, at least until hand to hand range was met. Chariots probably could trot around the battlefield loosing off bows and javelins, and perhaps occasionally stopping for the noble occupant to have a punch up with one of his opposite numbers.

But the thing is, how do we model this in our rules. I fear the answer is not terribly well.