Saturday 27 January 2018

Recoil or Ricochet?

Further to the questions raised about the Gauls and tribal foot in Polemos: SPQR on JWH’s Heretical Wargaming blog, which I wrote about last week, there were also questions raised about the meaning of recoiling in games and how this might relate to what happens on battlefields. This is not of course unique to the Polemos games, many rule sets, both ancient and modern, have some concept of recoiling from the enemy.

What then is a recoil? The basic idea seems to be along the lines of a unit being attacked and flinching away from the enemy, usually in a rearward direction. We do read, from time to time, in battle reports such sentences as ‘the guard flinched from the hail of shot’, or ‘the cavalry recoiled from the steadfast foot’ or something of that nature. The idea seems to be that the human beings concerned, collectively, attempted to reduce the potential harm to themselves by removing themselves from proximity to the harmers.

In general, in a wargame, this is handled by a recoil. A unit is moved back a certain distance. This, at least in more modern rule sets (I’ll pick a set at random, one that I know, say PM: SPQR) that the base of troops recoiling moves backwards by the depth of the base, perhaps losing their orders should they have any and breaking the continuity of the larger body of troops of which they were a part. This has the effect of removing any support they could have provided for colleagues in adjacent bases and, possibly, of opening them up to fighting at a disadvantage because those bases are now overlapped by the base from which the recoilers have removed themselves.

Thus, I think we can safely conclude, the recoil is a game mechanism which shows the effects of being on the losing side of a combat, although not catastrophically or irretrievably.. But it is a wargame rule mechanism. Criticism of the mechanism can suggest that firstly, the distances involved are too great. A base may well move back the distance of the width of the unit, but that is not the depth of the base. There could be some discrepancy here between the base depth and the depth of the unit as deployed. This is usually rationalised as the base depth as the distance over which the unit has ‘control’ (whatever that means, hence the scare quotes); the depth of the men deployed is a whole lot less.

Given that, the recoil a base depth, breaking any formation, seems rather a large penalty for the adjacent units. They are now much more exposed and vulnerable than they were because their friends have just flinched back a sizeable chunk of geography. This, of course, can have knock on effects and the whole group of bases can, in theory (although given the vagaries of dice rolling, probably not in practice) , be recoiled a base depth, hence yielding quite a lot of space to the enemy.

Nevertheless, from small advantages greater advantages can grow. A unit flinching away can cause, ultimately, the collapse of the whole body of which they are a part. This, surely, has to be represented somehow. Furthermore, I think it is reasonably fair to say that troops in other than larger bodies have more flexibility. Skirmishers, for example, are more or less expected to do something like recoiling as a matter of course.

My view on skirmishers is still evolving. I am less convinced than I was that ancient (or even early modern) skirmishers formed up in dispersed skirmish lines, reminiscent of modern troops. Modern troops adopt this formation for very good reasons, mostly dispersal to minimise the effects of machine guns, automatic weapons and, especially, high explosive artillery fire. None of these apply to ancient warfare. Thus, I think that skirmishers tended to be in unformed but fairly close formations, with groups of men sent out to throw javelins at the enemy, and then run back. The unit formed a safe place for them to run back to and have a bit of a breather while someone else had a go.

A skirmish unit, therefore, is much more likely to recoil a base width or so (DBA has a ‘flee’ move, after all) than a unit is a formed body. So far as I know this sort of distinction is rarely made in wargame rules (guilty as charged). However, I realised that I have, inadvertently, come up with a solution.

The model we are after is that a unit in a formed body might be narrowly beaten by the force in front of them, and be forced to carry on fighting at a bit of a disadvantage, but is not forced back far enough necessarily to break the continuity of the body of which it is a part. Some advantage is to be given to their opponents, but not a free hand. On the other hand, isolated or skirmishing units might wish to fall back further out of harm’s way.

A while ago I posted about needing recoil markers, and some of you were kind enough to offer suggestions for what they might look like. I realised a day or two ago that they constituted the solution to this problem of modelling recoil. As the recoil was marked anyway (because I need to remember who has recoiled) I can recoil units without them necessarily breaking formation. This may well obviate the slightly odd situation I obtained recently where a base of pikes was continually recoiled and landed up half way towards their base line, still in combat but a long way from any friends or foes except their immediate enemy.

With the recoil markers, then, a unit which loses the immediate combat can be marked as being at a disadvantage for the next round of combat but need not (unless it decides to) recoil the standard base depth. The continuity of the unit is preserved and the odder results are removed. The only cost is another sort of marker, which I was using anyway.

Furthermore, as in the Wars of the Counter Reformation rules I have a sliding scale of two recoils being equal to a shaken, I think I can model the general decline of unit cohesion rather better than I have previously. I’m not sure. Playtesting will tell, I guess.

Saturday 20 January 2018

All Gaul

There exists somewhere in Western Europe a bit of rather depressed graffiti from, I think, the Second Century AD, along the lines of ‘It doesn’t matter what happens, the Romans always win.’ From that perspective, of course, the graffiti is correct. Things might have looked a little different a century or so later, but from the First Century BC to the Second Century AD (don’t let us get all politically correct over dating systems) the Romans carried all before them.

The reasons for Roman success are, of course, many and varied. According to their own accounts they did win more battles than they lost, but the historian has good reason to suspect that these accounts are a bit biased, with any losses being rather glossed over. A second reason is that the enemies of Rome were, in general, rather divided. This some Gauls cheered Caesar on in defeating other Gauls, who were their enemies. This probably made life a bit easier for the former, but ultimately they were subsumed into the Empire just the same.

Thirdly, there is the fact that Roman armies were professional. Thus they could be in the field earlier than tribal armies, and stay there longer. If the tribes were not to starve, spring planting and autumn harvesting needed to be carried out, and the manpower cannot both be in the field and on campaign. Further, the logistical capability of most tribes was not great. Supplying an army in the field was a major operation, which successive nations, armies and generals have failed to do down the ages.

All of this means that, over the three centuries of interest here, the Romans did, indeed, win. But it also makes things a bit awkward for the wargame rule writer. If the Romans win, then why bother wargaming at all? Indeed, it does seem to me that, despite all the interest in the Romans, the period is rather under-wargamed, often being dismissed as boring, as the Romans always win.

The topic has been brought to my mind by JWH’s blog, Heretical Wargaming, where the author has played a number of Romans against Gauls scenarios using Polemos: SPQR and ‘An Introduction to Wargaming’ rules. This has led to the question of whether the Gauls can ever win a wargame against the Romans. And that, of course, implies the question as to historical accuracy and what that might mean.

My first ever set of wargame rules was for ancients, and included a rather strange rule by which a Roman legionary, throwing a pilum, got an enormous plus on their dice roll. Indeed, for some time the pilum seems to have been regarded as a sort of super-weapon, which can disable an opponent and make them vulnerable to a sword thrust, even if not killing them outright itself. Slightly saner counsels have prevailed since then.

My second brush with ancient rules was DBM, on the one occasion I visited a wargame club. I was put in charge of some Roman legionaries awaiting the onslaught of a Gallic army. My co-general pointed to the Roman cavalry and said ‘They’ll win the battle for us; that lot,’ indicating the legions with a wave of the hand ‘are useless.’ The cavalry lost their battle and the Romans vaporised in about half an hour.

When I came to tackle SPQR I knew that there was a balance to be struck. The Romans should not be too good to win without breaking sweat but, on the other hand, they should not be so poor as to be mere speed bumps to a tribal charge. This is, of course, a rather tricky thing to pull off. The point, however, is that the Romans did not have it all their own way, but there must have been some purpose in dragging those legions over the whole of Europe and the Near East.

I am not claiming that SPQR does this balance perfectly or even, perhaps, adequately. But at least the problem has been identified. Reading the sources, mostly Caesar, Josephus and Tacitus, indicates a couple of things fairly clearly. Firstly, the Romans, while reporting their victories, do admit that they sweated a bit in achieving them. Secondly, that when the tribal armies won, they tended to do so from a position of ambush. Thus the Germans and the Jews both obtained startling victories from ambush.

Straight up, toe to toe slogging matches tended to go the way of the disciplined, well supplied and professional army that could, and did, relieve its front combat troop regularly. Tribal armies, which did not do this, tended to exhaust their front rank troops and lose. Thus, it seemed to me in writing, and still does on reflection, that the tribal armies either win big and quickly or lose, perhaps a bit more slowly but comprehensively. If the Romans can stand the first charge, then they are likely to win.

I have, of course, tried this out. For the Gauls and their ilk, the problem is in the timing. You have to get close enough to the Romans to charge them, without being too close to be advanced into. It is a difficult balance to strike, and, if you can manage it, victory, while more likely, is by no means guaranteed. For the Romans, the requirement is to break up the tribal foot into manageable portions and defeat them in detail, preferably without being charged.

I have no idea whether these options are historical or not, but they seem reasonably likely. A further advantage is that it does remove the view of the commanders of tribal armies as mindless beasts who only knew enough to wave their swords in the general direction of the Romans and shout ‘Charge!’ What we do know of tribal commanders is that they were no worse than the Roman generals, knew their troops and, in some cases, were trained by the Romans in command themselves.  The word ‘barbarian’ after all, simply means ‘non Greek speaker’.

As I said, I have tried this out a number of times and yes, the Romans usually win. The most spectacular victory for the Gauls was from ambush, where they not only won big, but practically wiped the Romans out. On most other occasions the Romans managed to grind out a victory, especially if they can dispose of the opposing cavalry first.

Historical accuracy is, of course, moot. But I hope that I have managed to obtain a balance between the ‘plus six because they are Romans’ camp and the ‘really the legions are speed bumps’ view. The generals on both sides knew their troops and, often, the enemy, and went about their jobs as best they could. At least we owe them the respect of taking their tactics seriously.

Saturday 13 January 2018

The Abbeys Campaign

Don Pedro, count of Vina Soro, turned away from his scrutiny of the coast and allowed a thin smile to grace his lip. Caught napping, he thought. Even from this distance he had seen the thin smoke from camp fires rising from behind the castle tower, but the blaze of the warning beacon was only just going up.

A man approached, feet padding on the deck planking. The stays creaked. ‘My Lord, the men are in the boats’.
‘We await your order, my lord.’
Don Pedro nodded. ‘One moment.’ He looked across the deck. ‘Father?’
‘My Lord.’ The black clad priest looked around.
‘Do you see that?’ Don Pedro pointed to the ruined abbey high on the hill over the harbour. ‘This evening, if God wills it, you will celebrate Mass there.’
‘The Lord’s will be done, my lord.’
Don Pedro glanced around. The men were truly in the boats, looking nervously at the shore and around them at the bulk of the ships towering over them. The messenger cleared his throat.
Don Pedro looked at him, at the shore and back again. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘Let’s go.’


The singing swelled in the evening sun. The chill of the wind was keener here, on the top of the hill. Don Pedro sat back and shut his eyes. In the sombre chanting of the Solemn High Mass his mind drifted over the events of the day: the scramble down the netting into the boat; the pull to the shore, with puffs of angry smoke from the battery on the harbour wall; the splash through the wavelets onto the beach. He could still feel the sand of England between his toes. He really must change his socks.

The English had not put up much of a fight. Only a militia unit in the village and a couple of cavalry squadrons had even really tried. From his position on the right, Don Pedro had watched with professional incredulity as the English troops from Whitby had failed to deploy properly and had then been thrown into confusion by a well-directed volley of arquebus fire from his own men, just landed on the beach. After that the English had just seemed to melt away, leaving the harbour to the armada. By lunch time the first of his ships had docked, unloading horses onto the quay for the waiting gendarmes, who would be very glad to resume operations several feet above the waves.

The voices swelled in the gathering darkness. The first proper Mass for fifty years was reaching its climax. Behind, Don Pedro could hear a crowd of curious English people, townspeople from the port, crowding into the back of the shell of the church. The mayor, when he had come to make his peace, had explained that the place had fallen on hard times when the abbey had been dissolved. Now the people hoped for better things.

Well, maybe, and maybe not. Such hopes were beyond Don Pedro’s remit. So far he had done his duty to God, King Phillip and the Duke. There would be more and harder fights ahead, he had no doubt. But for now he could rest content with a good job done.


The picture shows the situation at the end of the action (a picture. Of soldiers. And on this blog, too. Whatever next? Some decent pictures, probably, but that won’t happen).

This is from the right rear of the English position. Whitby town is in the right foreground with the harbour to the right. The English command position and trained band camp is left middle. In the distance you can see the English cavalry and Sandeford militia fleeing. Sandeford (Sandsend, as it is today) is in the distance, and the second wave of Spanish has just hit the beach. The Armada is, of course to the right, in the sea.

This is the view from the other side. Don Pedro (with the yellow flag) is in the foreground just to the left of Sandeford. Sneaton Castle and the English camp is in the middle. The big red cannon in the foreground is the tempo marker. The English general is just beyond the blue coated fleeing trained band; he was trying to untangle the Whitby militia march column before it got taken in flank by the Spanish. As you can see, he failed.

The figures are mostly Irregular, although the untrained militia are Baccus. I am not sure of the provenance of the tempo marker, although I think it might be Baccus. The buildings are a variety of sources. I think there are some old Hovels cardboard buildings, some old Baccus resin ones (the hovels and one of the churches in Whitby), plus some Timecast Saxon buildings. The naval guns and crews on the harbour wall are Langton Napoleonic models. The Armada vessels are 1:2400 Hallmark. The harbour walls are Irregular's Aztec causeway, and the ship in harbour is Speaker in 1:1200, but I am not sure which manufacturer, Navwar probably. All of it terribly assembled and painted by yours truly.

And so to some pondering:

I was quite pleased as to how the game went. The rules, for all their incohateness (is that a word) seemed to work quite well, although there is some nuancing to be done. The Spanish showed a remarkable propensity to get and keep the tempo, which slowed the English reaction and deployment, and secondly a startling ability to throw a six when the English threw a one. On the other hand, they did show more aggression than the English. The demi-lancers refused to charge so, in the next bound, the Spanish sword and bucker men under Don Pedro’s command simply advanced into them and the demi-lancers fled (on a 6:1 roll). A similar thing happened with the staves also seen fleeing in the pictures. The only real resistance was from the Sandeforde militia, who held off the elite dismounted gendarmes for a couple of turns.

The nuancing of the rules is mainly in the army morale. I worked out a neat way of downgrading performance when morale drops without completely destroying the army, by the wavering level indicating that all advance orders are switched to hold. Thus the army hesitates when things seem to be going against it.

Anyway, I enjoyed it, although I confess that the battle was fought on the feasts of St Stephen and St John, not on Christmas Eve night. You might wonder about the campaign name. I have just invented this. The idea is that the next battle will be fought at the next dissolved abbey inland which is, I think, Guisbrough Priory. All right, technically it is not an abbey, but it was wealthy and one of the bases for the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Saturday 6 January 2018

The (First) Battle of Whitby

‘twas the night before Christmas,
And all over the house,
Nothing was stirring,
Not even a mouse.

Except for a wargamer and a few figures, of course.

With the estimable Mrs P. rushing around large parts of rural England like a mad thing, the scene was set for that rarest of all things in these parts, a full blown wargame. I realised, a few days before, that my role and function as ‘he who keeps the home fires burning’ entailed myself being in the large room stoking the aforementioned home fire.

This activity usually precludes pushing any metal around on a table. But astute readers will have noted, earlier in the year, the acquisition of a card table, for the purpose of playing wargames. Now the neat thing about card tables is that they, by design, fold up and are moveable. They also do not take up that much in the way of footprint when unfolded and set up (deployed, in this case, perhaps).

My slow and rather addled brain (it is the time of year, honest) eventually managed to place two things together, and a plan was hatched to move the card table into the big room, thus enabling both the continuation of the home fire and opening the possibility of a wargame.

Now, some of you may recall that I have, for some time, been rebasing figures (and painting some as well) and writing rules for an Elizabethan period wargame, based around the question ‘what could have happened if the Armada had landed?’ Not feeling quite up to the normal suspension of disbelief that a full blown Armada landing in, say, Kent would entail, including the intervention of Alien Space Bats to remove the English and Dutch navies from the frame , I have gone for a rather smaller frame which does have the advantage of being, perhaps, a little more believable.

Of course, if the Armada had landed, we would be discussing very different scenarios, and a set of counterfactuals along the lines of ‘what if the Armada had not landed?’ This would have entailed the pondering of the English succession of Elizabeth had remained on the throne and whether that Shakespeare chap could have written any decent secular plays, given his employment as a propagandist for the Catholic Church. A discussion of the role of alien space bats in removing the English navy would have also been necessary.

As yet, the wargame has to be fought. I do have, however, all the figures, ships, buildings, markers and rules that I think I need. Indeed, a major industry recently chez Polemarch has been the manufacture of markers. I am a fan of markers. I like all the information required for the wargame to be on the table. I rather dislike having to keep tallies lists off table. Aside from anything else off table frequently seems to become on table, and scratty bits of paper become terrain features.

It turns out that I am even more pedantic than that. Not only do I dislike keeping rosters and other things on paper, I also dislike the recording of unit status and orders with bits of plastic markers, counters, casualty caps and other such items. A marker, it seems to me, should fit with the game. Sticking a plastic hat on a lovingly painted figure (or even one of mine) seems to me an aesthetic disaster, albeit a rather popular one.

My rules are, of course, based on the Polemos camps, although as yet they are inchoate and but a few scrawls on paper. Nevertheless, Polemos does require a certain quantity of book keeping. This is true even though I have attempted to simplify things, as I have removed training classes, which yields fewer combat factors and also any requirement for colour coding bases to tell us if they are raw, trained or whatever. However, tempo, orders, recoils, shaken and disruption due to terrain markers are all required. Thus the recent industry in producing markers of all sorts, the final set, a couple of tempo markers, have just been stuck to their bases.

For PM: SPQR (and, for that matter, PM: Age of Alexander) I have shaken markers consisting of a half width base with a casualty figure placed upon it. This is all right for Ancients, I think, but it does feel a little ghoulish. Thus I have made simple plain green painted markers. The recoil markers are half the width of the shaken ones; in the Wars of the Counter Reformation rules two recoils give one shaken result, so the recoils need recording and a certain amount of accounting needs to be done. The half-half width of the recoil markers gives a clue, at least.  After some comments about how combat shaken and terrain shaken are conceptually different things (I agree), I now have disruption markers for the latter, which are shaken markers but painted brown. I did not manage to work out what sort of terrain item I could place on them like a casualty figure, so I simply went for a different colour.

I discovered when rebasing the figures that I had a large quantity of single mounted officers and small infantry command groups. These are now the tempo points and orders markers. When the side rolls for its tempo points, a group of these are placed by the general’s base as a visual sign of the number of tempo points available. They are mounted on small triangular bases (actually a base width square, cut diagonally) and can then be moved directly to indicate to orders assigned to a particular base or group of bases, the point indicating, where appropriate, the direction of march.

Finally, after a play test, I decided I needed a marker to indicate which side holds the tempo. This matters as, in case of a bidding draw, the side which currently holds the tempo retains it. Previously, I had had to write it down, along with the tempo points, bids and remainder.  As I mentioned, I have just completed the tempo markers, in this case some nice, big cannon.

I now think that I have markers sufficient to contain all the information required to pick up and put down the wargame as necessary. This might not, of course, work quite as well for a face to face game when some information, like the number of tempo points to spend, might be required to be kept secret. However, for me, I think it works, and does not disrupt the aesthetics of the game too much. I shall find out in a day or two.