Saturday 25 January 2020

Clutter and Encoding

It is probably just me, but I have noticed, looking around blogs and at a few wargame tables at the show I go to, that wargame tables seem to be developing a more cluttered aspect that I find helpful. I do not mean just the odd coffee cup of some dice (guilty on both counts, from time to time) but a whole load of various markers, pointers and other items aimed at keeping track of the progress of the game.

While keeping track of the activities and status of the armies and units is undoubtedly a good thing, the plethora of markers seems to me to detract from the aesthetics of the game, and it is the aesthetics which, to me at least, is an important part of any wargame. It is, I think, George Gush in his Airfix guide to the English Civil War who observes that an ECW wargame army looks like an army in a contemporary print, and surely that is a good thing. And I agree.

I really do not want to create a storm here (and doing so is fairly unlikely, given the readership of the blog), but does plonking down cards, unit names, casualty caps, large arrows indicating direction of march and so on really enhance our games? Perhaps they are regarded as being vital, important for enjoying the game, but is not the look of the thing just as important?

You might very well object that the idea is a fine thing, but practically there have to be such counters and markers because they are part of the game. I will happily concede that some sort of status symbols are required (and I do not just mean nicely painted figures) but do they have to be so invasive?

Upon thinking about it a little, and trying to get my poor addled brain into gear in the New Year, we do encode an awful lot of information on a wargames table. There are the toys, of course. These encode unit type, facing and location on the battlefield. The terrain itself encodes a load of information about objectives, cover, obstacles and so on. But clearly there is another layer of information which is not so simply encoded, such as status, casualties, orders and so on. Perhaps, too, there is another layer of unit identity, morals and so on.

It is this latter group of information that often creeps onto the battlefield via what I am generally calling ‘clutter’. I do not mean to be derogatory in that word. I mean ‘stuff to help the wargame which is not the wargame’, that is information that needs encoding but could be regarded as being intrusive. Writing ‘clutter’ is easier.

There are various ways of handling such clutter. As I have mentioned, casualty caps can record the strength of the units, arrows their direction of march. I also see that the idea of knocking figures over has made a comeback. Many years ago this was frowned upon as being childish (i.e. what we did with our Airfix figures but have grown out of now) and also potentially damaging to the hard work we put in to painting the figures in the first place. It is not for me to criticise, and I am sure those who do this do it gently, but it does not, to me, add to the aesthetic experience, nor does it really reflect how casualties were really inflicted on the battlefield (most casualties before the rifle were, I believe, inflicted during the pursuit phase). But it is still a means of encoding information on the wargame table.

Another means of handling clutter is to do it off the table. Rosters of casualties for each unit are kept. I used to do this when using WRG and Tercio rules, removing one figure for every twenty men tallied against the casualty list. This, of course, had the appearance of accuracy, but still suffered from the fact noted above, that most casualties were not inflicted until one side ran away. It did keep the clutter at bay, admittedly, but at some cost in bureaucracy. Until fairly recently I went down this path with the tempo points rolls in a Polemos game, and it rather annoyed me, as well as being a bit difficult to pick up the exact finish point when the game resumed the next day.

I am not claiming to have solved the problem, but I do think a little additional thought can conceal the clutter in a bit more aesthetically pleasing and less paper-intensive way. You might have noticed that I have started to use a big gun in my renaissance games to indicate who possesses the tempo. During the turn I have some officers, mounted in triangular bases (known as Single Mounted Officers or SMOs) which are placed next to each general to indicate their pool of available tempo points. This only works, I suppose, because I play solo, but I dare say inventive face to face players could find a viable alternative. These SMOs also double as order markers, the point of the triangle indicating the direction of march and the placing of the SMO relative to the base indicating the orders to the base or group.

Casualties have caused me to pause, and a bit more pain. As I have mentioned, I am not that happy about using casualty bases for shaken markers, although it works and it both aesthetic and. I suppose, accurate. But I have replaced them with plain markers, firstly, because it means I do not have to paint as many soldiers ( a good thing in my book) secondly, because I cannot find (or Baccus have not got around to producing) appropriate markers for every army I have, and thirdly because, in the Polemos rules, two different sorts of shaken are required, which I can differentiate with two colours of markers. I suppose if I were really sophisticated, I could paint each side of a marker in a different colour. I also have ‘recoil’ markers, to keep track of who has just lost a round of combat.

All of this has two effects. Firstly, it preserves the wargame table from bits of paper and plastic which are not directly wargame related, and secondly, it encodes a lot of information into the battlefield, which means that I only really need to look at the table and then I will know the situation when I come to pick the action up at a later date. I am not saying I have solved all the problems, nor that everyone should do as I do (perish the thought; the world would be very boring) but I do think that a little more effort and imagination could preserve the aesthetic integrity of a wargame a bit better than some games do at present.

Saturday 18 January 2020

Pure Self-Indulgence

‘But Izzy, dear, be reasonable.’

‘Don’t you patronise me, you pusillanimous poltroon.’

‘But the strategic situation does not permit the castle to be relieved. It is not part of the plan. We proceed step by step, as we agreed. First, we do the near places, and then we hit the more distant ones when they are nearer. Castillo Al-Hambra is not part of that, not until at least two years hence.’

‘So, you are telling me that you refuse to go to the aid of these brave Christian soldiers who have risked their lives to take the place?’

‘Well, not refuse, Izzy. Obviously, they have done fabulously well and, when they return, I shall reward them handsomely. But we have to keep an eye on the plan, you see. Otherwise, chaos can ensue.’

‘I see. Tell me, then, O strategic oracle, whether Castillo Al-Hambra is on a strategic route between Granada and Malaga.’

‘Of course it is.’

‘And if we hold it, do we have a foot on the throat of the Nasrid kingdom?’

‘Yes, it would be a splendid coup; we would practically split the kingdom in two.

‘I see. Now, are you the commander of the army?’

‘Of course I am Izzy. And I am very proud of it. You know that. As fine a body of men as I could hope for.’

‘Good. And is the army mustered?’

‘Yes, we are fully operational. You got the report from the council, I believe.’

‘I did, Ferdie, yes. Is the army in supply?’

‘Yes, the magazines are full.’

‘Excellent. And is the money on hand to pay the troops and for the supplies?’

‘Well, you look after most of that, my, um, Isabel, my Queen. But I believe that we have sufficient funds.’

‘Finally, then, Ferdie, King and army commander, have you taken the Cross with the aim of kicking the infidels out of Spain, and have you received the Papal blessing so to do?’

‘Yes. And yes. But Izzy, where is this going? You know all this stuff.’

‘I’m just checking my poor womanly understanding, Ferdie. Tell me, please…’

‘What, my dear?’

‘Why the Hell are you still sitting here and not marching on Castillo Al-Hambra?’

‘Well, I have tried to explain, my dear….’ Ferdinand noticed that her foot was tapping on the floor. ‘I mean the plan….’

‘Ferdinand, King and army commander, if you are still standing there in five minutes time and not marching to the relief of Castillo Al-Hambra, there will be trouble. You will not be admitted to my bedchamber until you have retaken it.’

‘But what about the plan! That would be two years away…’

‘Furthermore, I have consulted with your mistresses and the other ladies of the court, and we will permit neither you, nor your commanders, access to our bodies until Al-Hambra is relieved and held.’

‘Izzy, in Lysistrata the women withhold sex until peace comes.’

‘I know. The women of Spain are doing it the other way around. Get on your horse and march. Come back a hero or dead, on your shield or holding it.’

‘But the shields are a bit small for that, Izzy. I mean, they are heart shaped, not hoplons.’

‘Get on with it.’

There was a pause. ‘Why are you still here?’

‘Oh. I’m just thinking about the orders and stuff. There is a lot to do. It will take a few days, you know, Izzy. We have to assemble the troops and the supplies, appoint captains, determine the march route, send out scouts. It all takes time.’

‘I know Ferdie. It is all a bit much. I have tried to help, you know.’

‘I know, sweetheart. But there are some things that women cannot get their heads around. We should be able to set off next week; maybe the one after.’

‘Well, Ferdie, my poor overheated brain has struggled with this, but let me tell you what I have managed.’

‘Go on, my dear.’

‘The scouts went out yesterday. The vanguard left at dawn. If you ride in the next hour you should be able to catch them before they cross the frontier. The main body leaves after the heat of the day has gone; the rearward tomorrow at dawn. I know you would want to travel light, so instead of your fifteen carts of personal gear I have restricted you to two mules, the other senior officers likewise. Don’t worry: I have done your packing for you.’


‘Your horse is saddled and your groom waiting in the courtyard. Your bodyguard is mounted and under strict orders not to permit any dalliance along the way.’


‘They will remove any part of your anatomy that causes you to delay as you ride.’

‘I am the army commander, you know.’

‘I know you are dear and don’t worry. All the orders went out under your name, with your seal upon them, as usual.’

‘But, how could that be. I’ve had my seal with me at all times.’

‘Of course you have, dear. But you were a little tired the night before last. I knew that you would want to get into action as soon as possible and save the garrison of Al-Hambra with all due alacrity, so I anticipated your wishes. Naturally, if you object to my activities you may, as army commander of the joint forces of Castile and Aragon countermand them, but then I, as Queen of Castile, will be forced to order the Castilian forces into the field to rescue their comrades from the place.’

‘I thought we had agreed that the army would be a joint venture.’

‘We did, and I should hate for you to break that agreement, my dear. So it would be better if now you would run along and relieve Castillo Al-Hambra. I promise I shall be terribly grateful when you have succeeded.’

‘Terribly grateful?’

‘Really, really grateful. As only a Queen can be for her returning hero.’

‘Oh. Well, I suppose I had better set out.’

‘Have a nice trip, dear.’

Saturday 11 January 2020

Retrospect and Prospect

Many blogs and bloggers run posts around this time of year describing past achievements and discussing future projects. It is something I have never really done, so I thought I would make an exception this year, just because, well, I can.

Looking back over the past year’s posts I discover that this has been something of a bumper gaming year for me, with, so far as I can tell, fourteen wargames played. That may not be many by most people’s counts for the year, but it is a large number for me. In 2018, so far as I can tell, there were four wargames played. That is an increase of about 350%. Impressed?

The rebasing project has proceeded apace, however, with now most of my old figures proudly boasting plastic card mounts and their own stands roughly concealed by filler, chinchilla dust, glue and paint. I have tried but failed, to recall what I have rebased this year, but it includes Samurai, Aztecs, Italian Wars, and the Inca, Wars of Spanish Succession and Great Northern War armies. That amounts to a fair horde of bases.

On the painting front, I have finished, of course, the castle, and painted the early-modern Irish, alongside a few bits of Scots for the Armada Abbeys campaign. As I keep moaning about, my painting is slow and bad (but I am too proud (or skint) to get someone to paint the figures for me). Still, it is nice to see a little progress from time to time.

In terms of the campaigns, the Armada Abbeys continues, with the Scots poised to assault Northallerton, the Spanish having suffered a couple of setbacks at Croft Bridge and Mount Grace. Nothing decisive, so far, but you never know. So far as the ancients go Alexander IV is still partying on Ibiza, wondering if his reinforcements will arrive before Daddy’s empire collapses. A few other pointers to campaigns have been strewn around, such as the Khmer and Vietnamese, an Aztec campaign without Conquistadors, the Portuguese in the Persian Gulf and, I dare say, a few other things that have occurred to me perhaps caused a wargame and then been left.

Reading has been quite wide this year. Theoretical historiography has figured with post-colonial history as applied to wargaming being, perhaps to the fore. I realise that for most people that might simply leave them cold, or at best give rise to a puzzled ‘huh?’ Fair enough, and I am not going to argue with anyone who says ‘Stop worrying and put the figures on the table.’ However, I do think that there are some grounds for challenging the ‘normal’ approach to historical wargaming, especially as applied to the historical part of that expression. The normal narrative of the conquest of Central America is one such, as I have tried to hint.

Another issue which has been a theme in my reading recently is what could be known as the rise of Spain. As someone who started off as a Seventeenth-Century wargamer, Spain was the superpower, the global hegemon (at least as far as any power could claim to be such). Until at least mid-to-late century everyone was worried about Spanish domination and, basically, fighting them. One of the themes of the blog this year seems to have been the rise of Spain, that is the era of the end of the Reconquista and the unification of the country under the Catholic Monarchy, that of Ferdinand and Isabella. With the exception of the early Italian Wars which have occasional wargaming traction, this does seem to be an under-explored subject in wargaming, possibly because there were few, if any, pitched battles, the war being one of raids and sieges.

Looking ahead, I do have a few bits in the pipeline, of course. A return to sea warfare is on the cards, when I get around to it, both in the early modern era and ancients. For the Reconquista period, I really should get around to rebasing my renaissance galleys, such as are left after years of neglect. After all, one of the defining issues was the blockade of the southern coast by the Aragonese navy, which blocked supplies and reinforcements arriving from North Africa. For the ancients, a fleet action is on the cards (planned, but not tabled) to relieve Alexander IV, as noted above.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the unpainted lead pile is growing again. Currently, I am working my way through a pile of siege equipment and some other scenic bits and pieces. These are, of course, aimed at the Reconquista which is becoming a bit of a theme (or bee in the bonnet). I also have acquired some Baccus Wars of the Roses hand-gunners, crossbowmen and spearmen for the same purpose. By my usual pace of painting, these should be ready around mid-August.

Further to those, I also have some more buildings, including from the Far East, hoping to kick start getting the Samurai onto the table, and a couple more towers for the castle. The main additions to the painting mound are Baccus ECW Irish, some extra Scots musketeers, Scots horse and cuirassiers. These are to fill in gaps in my current provision, of course, not to start anything new. It does not sound all that much, but I do not expect to get these through my system until the end of the year.

You will notice that I managed to avoid the Wars of the Sun King and, in particular, obtaining anything to do with the British brigade in the Hispano-Portuguese war. This is entirely deliberate as I am not sure I could cope with the quantity of painting. I do, however, have some GNW / WSS armies to finish or start – the Danes need an extra base of infantry, the Anglo-Dutch have been undercoated for about fifteen years and the Bavarians and Poles are unstarted. I also have, of course, a pile of ancients I could paint; in fact, a need for officers is becoming slightly pressing.

As for my future reading, your guess is as good as mine. On the shelf I have some books about the ancient economy, triremes, Ranters, and the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Awaiting a write up here is a book about the early-modern sea, a paper about the Reconquista, another about warfare in Morocco in the Fifteenth Century and probably a number of other things I have temporarily forgotten.

I realise that much of the above is not to everyone’s taste. Wargaming is a hobby, as is amateur history, and I do not want to take it all too seriously. On the other hand, I do feel that historical wargaming runs a risk of being stuck in a historiographical rut, recycling the same narrative of historical events to run, effectively, the same battles. I am not going to change that single-handedly, I know, but I will continue to throw my penny in here.

Saturday 4 January 2020

To Show (or Not)

Recently, Mr Berry of Baccus 6mm fame mused publicly about the future of wargame shows and how they might be revived. It is not my place here to repeat the discussion, nor to criticise the organisers, traders, demonstrators, participation game creators, vendors of coffee and other comestibles and patrons of said shows, but to ponder on my own experience of them.

Firstly, let me be honest, I am not a great fan of wargame shows. I used to go to a fair few, when I lived in a part of the country where the density of shows was higher than it is near my current residence. I did, indeed, meet a few friends, occasionally, at said shows. But most of the time was spent wandering around the trade stands and looking at the participation games. The days were tiring, the food average, and the crowds could be intense.

I am, as you can probably tell from the blog, not a particularly extrovert person. While I disagree with most of what Sartre said and wrote, I do agree that ‘Hell is other people’, however abused and misquoted that trope might be. Indeed, if there were a Diogenes club for wargamers, I would probably be a founder member. I even find the Solo Wargamer’s Association a bit too social for my taste. Therefore, I suppose, I was never going to enjoy going to a wargame show, and possibly might even find the whole concept of ‘enjoying’ a show a bit of a mystery.

Living now in the outer reaches of the wargame world, north of Watford (actually, the outer reaches of more of less every world) I attend one show a year. I could, I suppose, go to more if I were willing to travel further for the experience, but, as hinted above, I do not find myself willing to expend time and energy in driving across the country in my spare time. I could probably more profitably spend the time tackling the lead mountain (which is, mysteriously, growing at the moment). So the one show which is more local to my current abode is the one I go to. And a nice show it is, too.

When I say the show is ‘nice’, I mean it is not over busy and that I can get to the Baccus stand and have a chat without being interrupted by crazed lunatics passing themselves off as wargamers wanting to buy toy soldiers for battles I have never heard of, or arguing the toss over whether there were lancers in the Khartoum campaign (seriously). I can wander around the book store without being eyed suspiciously, feeling that I should slip a couple of Ospreys up my jumper just to confirm the doubts of the observers. I can look at the demonstration games, although here more people are better, as I can observe without being engaged in conversation.

That said, shows have improved since the days I went to Salute in Kensington Town Hall. That was a crowded, ill-lit and chaotic venue, although the show organisers did their best to arrange everything neatly, the space in which they were confined was never going to make it anything else. A plus is that the wargame world seems to have discovered the use of soap and water, which is never a bad thing when in confined spaces with numbers of other people (Polemarch’s personal hygiene is like Caesar’s wife, of course). The use of Sports Halls as venues also means that a reasonable amount of space is available to move around, even if two people standing conversing face to face, both wearing large rucksacks, can still block the aisles.

Is there a future for shows? I rather hope there is, although I am not planning to increase my attendance. A great deal of effort goes into planning and executing them, as is also true of the games. Traders, of course, travel large distances to be there, hoping to sell sufficient of their wares to at least cover costs. And yet there does seem to be a worry that shows are past their best; that the glory days are gone and the future only holds bleak decline.

I will warrant that some things, perhaps, need to change. Demonstration games, to me, start to look a bit similar, even if their subjects and content are different. While there is only a limited amount of things that can be done with a (say) five foot by three foot table for a demo game, I do feel that something a bit different could be tried. Do they have to be always representations of historical battles? Must the figures and terrain always be bespoke and beautiful? Is there an option for a ‘real’ wargame?

Participation games might be better, but of course the facilitators of such are more limited in needing quick fire, easily understood rules and simple activities. Even so, the number of role playing games as participation games seems to be on the up, and the number of historically based games seems to be in decline. Of course, there is a balance to be struck between engaging the wargame periphery and impressing crusty old diehards like yours truly.

I would like to end on a positive note. I do appreciate all the effort that goes into putting on a show, and I am glad I made my sole pilgrimage of the year to my local one. I think shows do have a future, but perhaps some bits need to be re-thought. I know that some shows have lectures by local historians, which seems like a good idea. Some have painting workshops, which again might encourage the passing proto-wargamer to take the plunge. Perhaps these sorts of ideas could be spread more widely.

As the Estimable Mrs P keeps reminding me, wargaming is a hobby. Sometimes, at shows, it is a bit hard to see where the ‘fun’ bit gets a look in. Participation games seem to be rather serious, with the participants trying to win rather than enjoy themselves. Demonstration games seem to have headed for the worthy, with the often concomitant dull.

Naturally, your riposte might be ‘well, do it yourself, if you think you can do it better’. I doubt I would manage anything any better than current offerings, however; I am under no illusions as to my abilities in that department, as the photographs on the blog will show. So I shall stop pondering and retreat into my hole in the ground until next year.