Saturday 25 February 2017

Outside the Wargame Wall

All of them are in tears,
The ones who really love you,
Walk up and down,
Outside the Wall.
Some hand in hand,
Some gathered together in bands,
The bleeding hearts and the artistes,
Make their stand.
And when they’ve given you their all,
Some stagger and fall, after all,
It’s not easy, banging your heart
Against some mad buggers wall.
                                                Roger Waters, Pink Floyd: The Wall (1979)

There is a certain amount of peace which is available once you have admitted that you have hit the wargame wall. Admitting there is a problem is, perhaps, part of the solution. I have given up worrying about hitting a wall, but that does not mean that the wall has vanished. I think it is still there, I am just trying to stop it having any power over me.

The estimable Mrs P has, in fact, banned me from wargaming, unless I really want to, until the end of the month. This might seem a very odd thing to do, but it does have its advantages, namely in stopping me worrying about it. If I’m not allowed to wargame, then the Wall has no power. I’m sure there is an interesting study in psychology going on there somewhere, but I’ve no idea as to what it might be.

I think part of the problem here for me is that of identity. Life is hard enough, perhaps, without having to shed part of who I am. I have been, one way or another, playing with toy soldiers since, ooh, well, pretty well as long as I can remember. It is a part of who I am. If someone said to me ‘who are you?’ part of my reply would probably include that I am a wargamer. It is not the whole story, of course, but it is a part of my identity.

One of the problems with the Wall, then, is that hitting it throws my identity as a wargamer into doubt. A wargamer is someone who wargames, paints figures, reads rule sets and so on. If some or all of these activities are in question or doubt, then my identity as a wargamer is in question. The answer to ‘who are you?’ becomes more problematic.

Of course, I have not always been a wargamer. I mean, when I started playing with toy soldiers that is what I did. I think I started with the Airfix ‘Beachhead Assault’ - German infantry, British paratroopers and a command post and gun emplacement. The gun fired matchsticks, as I recall. Somehow the British always ‘won’, although I cannot recall what winning consisted of.

As with many of my friends we progressed through various sets of Airfix soldiers. Extensive collections of plastic warriors paraded their way across our floors. Somehow history and contemporary events got muddled up. The Russians, as I remember, usually got brigaded with the Germans (no doubt to the chagrin of the originals, the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact notwithstanding). I also remember energetic discussions as to whether the Ancient Britons or the Romans were the good guys or the bad guys. Mind you, that is something that continues to some extent in modern historiography.

I found, as did most of the rest of the wargaming world, books by Charles Grant and Donald Featherstone in the library, and devoured them. The world of my imagination expanded to include 15 mm figures; much was the family hilarity when it was discovered that the Miniature Figurines shop in Southampton was on the edge of the city’s red light district. I was warned to be careful about what models I brought back (I was far too young and na├»ve to know what that meant).

And so things progressed. I played role playing games at college and university – they were smaller than wargames, after all. But I returned to figure wargaming, perhaps via the Flashing Blades route, which I mentioned a while ago here (OK game, great setting).  I re-arrived in wargaming with the English Civil War.

The point of this ramble through memory lane is not any claim to interest or uniqueness of experience or route, but simply that wargaming is part of my identity. It is not just a hobby, I submit, but it is part of who I am. For example, I quoted Santa Anna to the estimable Mrs P last night (something like ‘poor Mexico, so far from heaven and so close to the United States). ‘How did you know that? Are you an expert on that too?’ No, I am not. But it happens that I read it while I was reading about the war. I don’t remember when that was: probably around the time I visited Texas, and went to the Alamo. My visit there was one of the oddest I have experienced at a historic site, but to explain why would be to digress too far.

Anyway, I do not think that I can just stop wargaming, or being a wargamer. Perhaps you can never stop being a wargamer, you are just an active one or a passive one. If you hit the wall, you do wonder what happens next but, I suspect, for many for whom wargaming is a primary hobby, there is no way of becoming a non-wargamer. It is always there, dormant, like a volcano, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation.

Of course, this is all subjective. It is my experience, my way of dealing with the wargame wall (or of not dealing with it, we shall see).  I have these experiences, this view on my identity and how I might or might not be willing to change it. There are very likely other ways of dealing with it, although the experience of hitting a wall seems to be more widespread than just me.

I have a few days left of my enforced sabbatical. After that I am supposed to do something, wargame wise. I’m not sure what it will be, but I am starting to form a few ideas, incoherent as they may be. I am still thinking about Hussites, but I am not sure that creating a completely new army without foes is a great idea. I am reading Richard Vaughn’s Charles the Bold, and that is another army of interest. I might go back to the Spanish doubling project, and I did discover a box of GNW Poles in the cupboard as well. The future lies open; I wonder if I can grasp it.

Saturday 18 February 2017

The Wargame Wall

As I peruse the blog sphere and ponder the meaning of wargames, it seems to me that there is always something lurking in the background. Sometimes bloggers just disappear, perhaps for a while, perhaps for ever. Sometimes they admit that there is a problem and absent themselves from wargaming for a while. Some take refuge in Featherstone books, returning to declare themselves cured. But most of us, sometime, suffer from it.

I’m talking about the wargame wall: that moment when you hit the edge of your wargaming horizon, the end of your current wargame rope. When you cannot be bothered to get the toys out and paint them, or place them on the table. Even the idea of thinking about a wargame fills you with a curious feeling of dread.

The reasons for hitting the wall are probably as many and various as there are wargamers. Similarly, I suppose that the experience of the wall, and any strategy for getting over, around or through it are varied and multiple. Nevertheless, I think that acknowledging that the wall exists and that we sometimes hit it. Naming something somehow makes it less scary.

For me, I am currently, I think, en-walled. I have a game in my campaign to play out, but have not managed to get around to it. I have a Spanish army to paint, with the first few troops undercoated, but in the box they remain. I even have a stack of nice looking books about history to read, yet I have tended to choose something else. Somehow, wargaming seems a bit too much of an effort at the moment.

Seasonal effect of course can have an impact. Traditionally, as I understand it, in the UK the winter has been the wargame season. Most of the shows are between September and April, after all. When summer beckons so do holidays, trips out and gardening. That is not to say that wargaming does not happen, but that the time available is less. However, winter has its wargame problems. In my case, my study / wargames room is cold, unless I heat it, and if I heat it, then the family room is cold. To paint would involve moving the painting operation to the family room, and that seems a lot of effort for something I’m not that keen on doing at the moment.

Seasonal effects are, of course, seasonal. There are underlying issues at stake as well. Perhaps it is recent political events, but my reading of history recently has tended to suggest that most world leaders in history are rather stupid, definitely ill-advised, grasping and do not act with the best interests of the ruled at heart. A wargame, therefore, of, say Agincourt, is the upshot of a decade or so of real princely treachery, mistrust and power and money grabbing on one side, and arrant opportunism on the other. Similarly, seventeenth century Europe (and, in fact, the wider world) was led to disaster by princes who thought their honour and glory were worth much more than the lives of their subjects.

On that theme, I have just read a book on the Siege of Vienna in 1683. The remarkable fact is that swathes of Europe, notably some of Germany, Austria and Poland, came together to beat off a threat to Vienna, the heart of Europe. That this campaign was launched by the Ottomans for their own reasons – namely that foreign success staves off internal dissent – is somewhat beside the point. The fact is that Louis XIV and his allies saw it as a marvellous opportunity to chomp up bits of the west while the Hapsburgs were occupied in the east. And many people think that Christendom only collapsed with the French Revolution….

People are, of course, people. Louis XIV, for all his pride, honour and assumed glory, was probably no smarter than anyone else. He just happened to be a king, and to believe his own propaganda and the sycophancy of his courtiers. Thus central Europe nearly fell to the Ottoman Empire. Short term goals and ambitions sacrifice longer terms security all through history.

For those of you interested, January 30th also marked the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I. The Church of England regards him as a martyr, and some bits of it venerate him as a saint. On the other hand, recent historiography regards the Civil Wars as being largely his fault. I hope I do have a bit of a balanced view on this, but I probably do not. C. V. Wedgewood remarked that he might have been a wonderfully cultured figure as a noble, but he was a bit of a disaster as a king (or words to that effect). The C of E rather glosses over the fact that he was executed not for starting the first civil war, but for starting the second – the epithet ‘that man of blood’ referred to (mostly) scattered, bloody fighting in 1648. But we rarely use history in this sort of balanced way.

All of this has, perhaps, impacted on my wargaming. Perhaps I could be accused of overthinking it. It is a hobby. It is not meant to reproduce history. Historical events have happened and we cannot unpick them. Perhaps all we can do is remember them and work to prevent them happening again in our time. Maybe part of my wall is that, in certain interpretations and certain respects, I do see history repeating itself.

In all probability I need a game to cure my blues. As I said, I have one on the books, but have not got to it. Maybe I need to rev the heating up and get the toys out and chase away the dark clouds. But it would be interesting to know, from my loyal reader, if you have found a wargame wall and, if so, what you did about it. Maybe you are much better than I at separating current events, history and wargaming. 

Saturday 11 February 2017

Reasonable Wargames

As I have noted before, it would be quite easy to lapse from being a wargamer interested in the history of the world’s conflicts, to being a cynic about politics and international diplomacy. Perhaps this is as a result of reading too much, or, indeed, of modern historiography (or at least, popular versions thereof) being too much of a surface reading. Often, it seems reasons for a ruler or country going to war seem too unimportant to justify the action.

As a slight aside, I recall doing, as many of us might have done, the Tony Bath thing and setting up a mythical continent in which to conduct our battles and campaigns. My continent was a small island, upon which ECW Royalists, Parliamentarians, Covenanters and Montrose Scots each had a country, with a capital, cities, towns and economies. There were, as I recall trade relations between them. After a lot of work, including drawing maps and creating characters for the leaders, I sat back and examined my creation. It seemed a happy little world. No country had a reason to make war upon another. The leaders all seemed like nice and reasonable people.

I rolled the map up and put it away. Clearly my imagination was too limited to start a war, there anyway.

Now, of course, I have learnt a bit of sense. My campaigns do not have such a level of detail. Indeed, they have more or less no detail at all. The maps are just blobs. There are no towns, no trade, and no economy. Rulers simply rule and direct their armies. International relations are determined by a chart with numbers from one to six indicating war to peace. Occasionally I might have a personality or two around the place, but mostly the people, from the poorest landless peasant to the Emperor are helpless pawns in the hands of an implacable fate, and a bunch of dice rolls.

It seems easier this way.

That does not mean, of course, that the destruction is any less. A unit that runs away in battle is likely to be lost totally. One of the notable things about ancient warfare, anyway, is that a campaign rarely lasted for more than a single battle. The losers lost, the winners won, and there was an end. Any further dispute usually was held over to the next campaigning season.

On this basis a lot of pfaff is saved in investing time and energy in maps and manoeuver. Ancient armies, particularly non-Roman forces, did not go in for grand tactical moves, feints and shimmies.  I dare say there were some, but mostly it was a case of getting forces to the battlefield (itself something of a major achievement), lining them up and charging the enemy. The outcome was in the lap of the gods, and depended on the bravery, or otherwise, of the warriors.

Thus, my ancient campaign system, such as it is, does not deal with the minutiae of scouting to find the enemy, logistics, flank marching and so on. It focusses on the day of battle, and what each side has in its forces. Recruitment, desertion and losses are abstracted but present. Thus, one of the Spartan King’s forces deserted in my 360 BC campaign when he joined forces with the Thebans against his co-ruler. No Spartan would countenance that.

As I noted recently, what is important in this is a sense of the logic of events, of the reasonableness, or at least explanatory intelligibility of them. Things do happen at random, granted. Auguries and events can change a general’s view of the world and how it will develop. But there is a reason for that, even if it a reason from a totally different world view from our own. A battle not happening on a give day because of a flight of birds is a reason, even if it is not one which yields to our present logic and understanding of the world.

Perhaps, then, to have a reasonably authentic feel to a wargame, the narrative intelligibility of the battle needs to remain largely intact. Generals may well have bad days at the office. Indeed, an innovative general, like Hannibal, Marlborough or Napoleon can become rather predicable and hence be out thought at the last by a rival who has studied their methods. Even so, this needs to be accounted for in the logic of the game.

The upshot seems to be something like this, a wargame, to ‘feel’ authentic, needs to be intelligible, in the sense that we, as the wargamers, can see what has happened and give an account of why it happened. This is a privilege which is probably not available to the participants in a battle. As wargamers we hold an overview of the battle which is not even available to the generals on the ground, no matter how good their communications, at least until post-WW2 battles (and even not then, mostly).

 A historian, too, wishes to give an account of a battle (at least, those who might be interested in battles do) but historians can simply claim lacunae in their sources and erect mystery barriers if they do not wish to advance reasons or guesses as to why the Tenth Foot ran away. Historiography tries to remain within the ambit of its sources. Wargames, of course, are expected to be completely explained within the game and the rules. Cause and effect here is necessary, within the limits set by dice rolls. History is rarely quite so cut and dried.

Thus for my island continent, the logic of the countries seemed to be against war. A rational mind could not find a reason for causing the chaos of conflict. I dare say that my fictitious politicians and generals felt very differently about it. As we found out again last year, politics and international relations are, in fact, rarely guided by logic and reason, or, at least, not by those human traits alone. Putting those into my campaign world proved rather more difficult than I expected. Fortunately these days I simply declare that a war is going on and have the battles (with full reasonableness, logic and intelligibility, of course) anyway.

Saturday 4 February 2017

All At Sea Again

The devoted reader of this blog might have noticed that I have an interest in matters naval. After all, only an idiot or a devotee would paint 150 ancient galleys with only a vague idea of how to use or what they were for. I have to also admit to further offences which should be taken into account by the court. A load of renaissance galleys, for example, and a whole pile of seventeenth century ships, augmented by occasional Napoleonic era warships and merchantmen. Oh yes, and some ‘armada’ ships, too.

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

All this introspection was sparked by an article in History Today (Vol 27, Issue 2, February 2017) on the British Civil Wars at Sea. The BCW did, of course, have a naval element. Anyone who has read anything about it must have noticed that, if only the story of Queen Henrietta Maria landing at Bridlington under fire and going back to collect her dog. You might also have read that Plymouth and Lyme were sustained in sieges by the navy, and that Hull, too, was relieved by warships.

That, however, is about it. In fact, there is only one book, as I recall, about the navy in the Civil Wars. I have read it, and I don’t recall its name or the author, and it is somewhat hard to find, but, among all the literature about the Civil Wars, one book is about it. It is not even, as I recall, a particularly good book. It works from the assumption that the King had a strategy of a three pronged attack on London, by the northern army, the south western army and the Oxford army, and, somewhat gleefully, describes how the navy bent back the first two prongs, by relieving Plymouth, Lyme and Hull.

Whether the Royalists ever seriously had such a strategy is rather moot, I believe. It is, first of all, a bit of a simple minded plan. Secondly, it rather ignores the distances involved, and the likely forces of opposition. After all, it is unlikely that the Eastern Association would have simply roiled over and let Newcastle’s army pass through, even if the EA army had been defeated somewhere in Lincolnshire. Finally, as both sides seem to have known from the outset, the Civil War was decided on the battlefield, not by besieging and capturing the enemy capital. As some contemporaries observed, this set the conflict apart from the European wars of the period, where sieges were more decisive.

What role, then, did the navy have? Firstly, we note that most of the navy, in the first Civil War, was Parliamentary. This led the Royalists into a problem, in that they could not, as a general rule, rely on imports of arms and personnel from Europe. Further, the merchants, of course, were mainly based in London and needed the access to European markets which was protected by the navy. Thus, their loans to Parliament were self-interested. The mere existence of the navy on the Parliamentary side had an immediate, if indirect, effect.

This changed somewhat when the Royalists captured Bristol, a viable mercantile port. Bristol ships could then compete with London, and an armed navy, of a sort, could be put forth. Of course, any ‘blockade’ by either side was as full of holes as a fisherman’s net, and ships had always got through, but the major ports could, naturally, handle much larger vessels and quantities of cargo. The Royalists always seem to have been a bit on the edge of a logistical crisis – at First Newbury they more or less ran out of gunpowder – and this was in part because of the lack of port facilities, and in part because of distribution problems: Gloucester was a nuisance, to say the least.

Parliament always had an Irish Sea squadron, as well. Partly this was to block supplies to the Irish Confederates, but it was also to interdict communications between Irish Royalists (and pro-Royal Confederates) and the Royalist port of Chester. Again, some troops got through, most notably Colonel Monk and his men. It could have been a lot worse for Parliament if the squadron had not been there.

The problem with all this, as a wargamer, of course, is that there are no decent fleet actions to be had. Even in the Second Civil War, when the Royalists had a decent navy under an active commander, they achieved little, and were basically shadowed to death by Parliamentary squadrons. Even though the strategic options were much wider – Rupert got to the Caribbean – there was not a lot of actual action. The wars were sets of ship to ship, privateer on merchant, small group fighting, rather than big pounding matches.

This is, of course, an area largely ignored by both historians and wargamers. There was nothing particularly exciting about it. There are, as noted, few books on the subject, although there is, according to the article, a forthcoming tome ’The British Civil Wars at Sea’. Unfortunately it is to be published by Boydell and Brewer, which means that us ordinary mortals will have to extend the mortgage to acquire a copy. That is a shame because most available sources have a distinctly Whig history approach to the subject – Parliament represented progress, the future, industrial revolution and empire, while the Royalists were backward looking, sentimental, feudal and so on. That does not, of course, explain why the navy mutinied in 1648….

Wargames at sea, in fact, seem to benefit from a small number of vessels being employed. Most write ups of naval games I have seen are of a few vessels, with different aims and missions. I could easily imagine a few Royal armed merchants attempting to get through to a Cornish port, harried by an even smaller Parliamentary squadron. Three to five vessels a side would seem to do the trick. Integrated into a land campaign the success, or not, of each side could be reflected in ammunition levels and weaponry of the armies. At least it would make the point that the Civil Wars did not all take place on dry land.