Saturday 26 December 2020

Fifty Historical Wargames You Should Play Before You Die

 There have been a plethora of ‘bucket list’ type books published recently, along the lines of ‘Fifty Places You Should See…’ before you become incapable. Probably these are representative of the angst of our age. Quite likely also that they are writers and publishers spotting a decent gap in the market to make some money.

Never having been one to duck a cultural challenge, of course, I have tried to come up with my own list. Or rather, I have come up with a challenge to my loyal reader. After all, why should I do the hard thinking, particularly at Yuletide, when I can get someone else to contribute. You have heard of ‘crowdfunding’, now let us try ‘crowdthinking’.

So, the challenge is to think of fifty historical battles which are wargamable and which are interesting and / or instructive enough to be worth putting effort into wargaming. Being mostly an ancients and early modern wargamer, I suspect that choices will be deeply biased. But, you never know, we might get a book out of it.

My contributions, in no particular order, with a few extra notes:

1. Marathon: The granddaddy of all the historical battles, with so much speculation for just a few paragraphs in Herodotus. Also, it was the subject of one of the first wargame articles I read, way back when, by Charles Grant in ‘Military Modelling’.

2. Edgehill: I have always thought of this as one of the most interesting ECW battles, because neither side really had a clue what they were doing, nor how it should go. More or less any outcome, therefore, seems historically acceptable. Getting wargame rules to accept than an army, having lost both wings and one-third of the centre, can still nearly win is a bit of a challenge, though.

3. Pavia: Or, how to handle early sixteenth-century arquebus units correctly. Not only that, but it was an interesting battle, had significant consequences internationally and the Italian Wars are nothing if not colourful.

4. Issus: You have to have something Alexandrian, don’t you? Even if you think he was a violent, drunken lunatic with absolutely zero self-control and a god complex, he could command a decent battle, although in the Persians under Darius he was not facing the cream of possible opponents. Alexander had also got himself outmanoeuvred strategically, a point which a lot of Alexander worshippers tend to overlook, and he had no choice but to fight his way out of a tight corner.

5. Cremona: The answer to the question ‘who did the Romans mostly fight?’ is, of course, Romans. So one of the civil war battles is a given. I could have picked Caesar against Pompey, but the Year of the Four Caesars will certainly throw up a few interesting conflicts, and the second battle of Cremona is one, detailed in Tacitus’ The Histories.

6. Khanua: Given the nature of the blog, I have to go a little exotic with my list, at least, and the second great battle of Babur, against the Rajputs, seems to fit the bill. Much harder fought than Panipat, but decisive use of firepower again seems to have won the day.

7. Nagashino: Another, more exotic (although probably more familiar to wargamers) battle, again with firepower as the deciding influence. But who can fail to be seduced by the Samurai and their armour? I mean, come on, we are only human, are we not? Fanatical loonies, desperate cavalry charges against prepared defences, what is not to like?

8. Agincourt: Proof, if proof were needed, that some people do not learn from experience. The French, having an ‘army in being’, did not really need to attack Henry, but of course, you need to do the honourable and chivalrous thing and blunder through a muddy field to be present an obliging target to be shot down by Welsh archers. Sarcasm aside, of course, it is an interesting tactical problem – how do you launch heavy infantry at a more mobile firepower army?

9. Ramillies: Of course, Marlborough has to be in anyone's list of good generals, and Ramillies is a masterpiece. It also throws up some interesting questions about grand tactical movement on the battlefield, and French generals buying into feints. It was also a bit before Marlborough's opponents had noticed his habit of pinning their forces and then breaking through somewhere else.

10. Vienna 1683: Of course, the first Ottoman siege of Vienna is interesting, but 1683 combines all sorts of aspects into one major battle, with a wide variety of troop types from Polish hussars to Western European line infantry, along with Janissaries, Ottoman irregulars and so on. As the last gasp of a failing empire (sort of, the Ottoman Empire lasted until 1918, which hardly suggests imminent collapse in 1683) it also has a great deal of strategic interest.

So, my contribution for ten battles. I have tried to avoid fights I know little about (and you have failed, I hear the critics cry). I dare say there may well be cries for Waterloo, D-Day or Stalingrad, along with Gettysburg Minden or similar. I am not going to argue from my normal basis or ignorance.

I have put ten battles up, which I think are all wargamable, and so, according to the title, there are only another 40 to go. So, over to you. Suggestions in the comments please, and if you can add a paragraph of justification, so much the better. Given that today is Boxing Day (the Feast of St Stephen) when, traditionally, games and puzzles are played, this is your starter to the festive season.

Finally, as is usual in recent years, here are the latest version of the WotCR rules, for anyone interested.

And a very Merry Christmas to you all.

Saturday 19 December 2020

The Lead Pile

















6 chariots


Imitation Legionaries



Thessalian Cavalry
















4 chariots


Bolt Shooters

4 (Greek)


Marian Romans



4 bolt shooters
























Irish ECW



Scottish ECW




Anglo-Dutch WSS




Danish GNW



Bavarian WSS




Polish GNW




Unassiged WSS







Early Moderns

Overall Total: 2248

I told the Estimable Mrs P. That I had counted up my lead pile. ‘I am not sure,’ she told me, severely, ‘that I think that was a good idea.’ She may well be right, that it was not such a good idea. All I can say in my defence is that my box containing the ancients lead pile has felt a lot lighter since painting the second Sarmatian army, and my shoe box of shame, containing unpainted terrain items, is nearly empty.

The above tables show the results. I confess that the numbers in part intimidate me, and in part are rather fewer than I expected. On the other hand, most of the ancients lead pile is over a decade old, and the WSS and GNW armies are very old Baccus 100 AP DBR forces which, a long, long time ago, I suggested that Mr Berry create and sell. They are quite nice starter armies, or at least they were for me. However, I do get a bit fed up painting uniforms. I also get fed up painting in general, as well.

It is as well to look on the upside of such tables, I feel. Many of the ancients are left overs from constructing the armies in the first place, and then doubling them. The Parthians have not been doubled, admittedly, but they are the only ones on the above list. The Celts, Marian Romans and other bits are just that, left over bits. The un-doubled armies are the Persians, for whom I have plenty of infantry (for the early brand, anyway) but not much cavalry.

The ECW purchases are new. I mean as an ECW fan who can resist the Irish, even if they are, I presume, destined for Montrose’s army. And the Scots need a bit of beefing up with specific cavalry (the Armada Abbeys Campaign has run on Scottish lancers to date), and I need to double the number of musketeer bases, and may as will finish the remaining highlanders while I am about it.

On the other hand, I can point to some solid achievements this year. I just do not write them down, so cannot tabulate them that easily, but it is a fair bit by my book. I have, for example, more than doubled the Sarmatians; as I recall that was about 160 figures or so, all cavalry. I have painted a load of Hussites as well, which are a bit difficult to assess in terms of the above analysis – 12 war wagons with 9 crew each, plus sixteen bases of flail wielding men, assorted cavalry, generals, Polish war waggons and two carroccio wagons. I estimate around 220 figures for that. I also painted a load of spearmen, crossbowmen and handgunners for the Reconquista campaign, which seems to be about 280 figures if memory serves correctly.

So on that estimate painting totals for this year are around 668. However, there are also 90 cuirassiers and 48 Irish infantry to be taken into account, some siege engines and, I think, 48 crew, some buildings (two mosques, two donjons and some castle bits, at least), and twenty-eight small boats from new and twenty-four repainted. I have also painted some terrain and a load of hedges. For someone who does not like painting, I seem to have done quite a lot.

The rebasing project has nearly finished. All of the main armies, of whom the Danes are the last, are rebased. I have some Heroics and Ros artillery to redo, and I am, as mentioned last week considering re-rebasing the Aztecs to reduce the number of bases and make them usable. Mind you, I also managed to drop the Aztec boxes and damage some of the bases, so a few do need redoing anyway.

Overall, then, I reckon I can paint, say, one thousand figures in a year, which means my lead pile will last just over two years. It is a wee bit more complicated than that however. There is a limit to, say, the number of scythed chariots that I need. I already have four, I think, painted and based. There are another six in waiting, but for a twenty base army do I really need ten? That does not, of course, mean that I will not paint them; after all, the term ‘need’ when applied to wargame figures is a bit of an odd usage.

So, if I swear off buying any more figures I can probably aim to halve the lead pile next year, which would be nice. After all, at one point (I think after the small boats order to Tumbling Dice) the Estimable Mrs P., gallantly trying to take an interest in her husband’s antics, asked what else I had to paint. Upon being told some of the highlights from the above list, she responded ‘If I had known that, I might not have sanctioned the boats.’

So, solid progress on the lead pile is required, but I do need to chop the quantities up into manageable chunks. I can manage to base about twenty bases at a time, so that gives a maximum throughput, per batch for basing, of about 140 (120 – 160, depending on whether they are cavalry or infantry). On the other hand, my stated aim for my wargaming activities are to reduce time spent painting and increase that spent having games.

Saturday 12 December 2020

How (Not) to Take Over the World

 Those of you with long memories might recall my escapades in rebasing Aztecs, and the vast quantity thereof I seem to have. Plans are afoot for reducing the number of bases, incidentally, but meanwhile, what of my plans to become the new Emperor of the known world, in this case, Mexico before the Spanish arrived.

Anyway, following my starting of a campaign to become Emperor of Mexico, you might recall that I started with a success against some Chichimec raiders. I admit that they are not exactly a dangerous foe but in DBA they are a bit tricky, as actually destroying any skirmishers is a bit of a task. They tend, after all, to run away rather than stand up and be destroyed like proper soldiers.

One of the key quantities in the campaign is the ruler’s personal rating. The higher the better, of course. The higher your rating, the more likely cities are to surrender to you without a fight, for example. Plus, you are less likely to be assassinated by disgruntled nobles. Your rating starts at 7 and is increased by one for each battle won, decreased by two for each battle lost, but increased by one for each city conquered or surrendered. On the other hand, you lose one if you withdraw from a battle without fighting.

As a consequence of my victory against the Chichimec raiders, my rating became 8, so then, in the second part of the first turn I moved on Tlacopan, albeit with a DBA army of 11 bases, having lost an auxiliary base (that is, Aztec warriors) against the raiders. A bit of dice rolling and card drawing indicated that the residents of Tlacopan were not impressed by my imperial credentials (at least, not yet) and defied me, calling in their allies to face me with eighteen bases (excluding any hidden in ambush). Granted the allies were all skirmishers, but eighteen against eleven did not seem great odds to me, even so.

After some time pondering the odds (the last battle, you might have noted, was fought in October 2019) I decided to take the hit to my personal rating and withdraw. My personal rating dropped back to 7. That was the end of turn one of the campaign, so I regained the missing base of my army to be at full strength for the next turn.

This time there was no random event, so it became my move immediately. I decided to attack Tlateloco. The residents drew a three on their resistance card, from which my rating was subtracted and another card (a ten, in this case) was added to their resistance total. Thus I had to roll more than six on a D20 for them to surrender without violence. No problem, I thought, and rolled – a six, of course.

So, I thought, these people wish to defy me. Very well, battle will be joined. Drawing up their army they had the normal DBA Mexica array of 3 blades (suit wearers), six auxilia (warriors), and three psiloi (skirmishers), plus an extra ally, of another three skirmishers. No problem with that, I was confident in my newly reinforced and up to strength army.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure about the pictures are not brilliant (they never are with me at the helm, I know, but these seem to me to be worse than usual), but anyway, above are the initial dispositions. In the distance, you can see my brave lads, ready to roll over the foe. I have to say that the campaign game does give some real use for skirmishers, as in this case, the terrain features may contain ambushes if they are in the enemies half of the table. Thus I can use my skirmishers to ‘spring’ and ambushes before the main body arrives.

In the campaign I have ten moves in which to win the battle. I managed to lose it in six. The picture above shows the end of the game. Conspicuous by my absence, you will note that the Aztec general’s base is missing, along with two bases of suit wearers. In DBA terms this means that I have lost. What, you might ask, went wrong?

We await the results of the full public inquiry into the battle, of course, as well as the Royal Commission. However, a few facts are clear. Firstly, there were no ambushes, so they cannot be used as an excuse. The advance of my army was a bit disrupted by pesky skirmishers so my warriors never really got into full combat. However, it was the other flank that turned into a disaster where my suit-wearers got flanked by the enemy and I lost two bases, the second one including the general.

I then had to roll for the fate of the said general, my good self in this case. Fortunately, I rolled low and my flesh, at least, was preserved intact. My reputation as a general, however, took a bit of a pounding and my rating fell to five. Ho, as they say, hum.

I now have to take turn three with an army lacking a suit wearer base, which might make things a bit tricky if I have to fight again. I have to confess that I was probably over-confident in my assault on Tlateloco, especially when no ambushes were discovered. It was a bit ‘hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle’ but my defense is that with the terrain lay out, I did not have much choice.

Still, upwards and onwards as they say. I have to confess that there is a certain satisfaction in designing a campaign system that can beat me in battle. Actually, the last time around, I not only lost in battle but I also eventually lost my life to an ambush. It was a bit like things could happen in real life I suppose, I was desperately trying to shore up my position by winning a battle to restore my reputation when some idiot bashed me on the head with a wooden sword. I hope to do better this time.

Saturday 5 December 2020

What Happened Next?

Two of the great dangers of reading any given bit of history are the questions ‘what happened before?’ and ‘what happened next?’ As my loyal reader will be aware, I have got a little interested (Do all those books represent a ‘little interest’? - ed.) in the Domesday Book and hence the invasion of William, Duke of Normandy, Bastard and Conqueror.

The astute reader will have noticed that I have, to a small extent, answered the first question by reading Stenton and one or two other works which have filled in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking background to the invasions, although I have still not quite got my head around the complexities of the politics. So the second question reared its ugly head.

In an effort to find out what happened next, I bought and read a (second hand but excellent condition) this:

Bartlett, R. (2000). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075 - 1225. Oxford: OUP.

This is a weighty tome in the ‘New Oxford History of England’ series; Stenton, of course, being in the ‘Oxford History of England’ series. So my engagement with the scholarship has moved up a gear.

Unfortunately, Bartlett (which is a very good book and one to which I shall return, possibly in a future post) assumes that you already know something about the period, which I do not, or at least, did not. I am a firm believer that you cannot do thematic history without some idea at least of the narrative sweep of the period in which you are interested. I, therefore, cast about for a narrative for a bear of little brain, and found this:

Cole, T. (2018). After the Conquest: The Divided Realm 1066 - 1135. Stroud: Amberley.

You might recall that I was perhaps a little sniffy about Cole’s book on the Norman Conquest, but then I am perhaps a little sniffy about the Norman Conquest per se. You might also notice that I am studying the period the wrong way around by my own precepts: the narrative after the thematic. All I can say is that I thought there might be a little bit of narrative in Bartlett (there was, but not enough for me to get a handle on it) so I decided to go for a story. As someone says somewhere (I think it might be Aquinas) there is a way of discovery and a way of teaching, and they are not the same.

Anyway, both Cole and Bartlett make the same point. When BtB went down to a probable equestrian accident in 1087 in Normandy, he left his sons with several problems. Firstly, of course, there was the problem of each other – Robert, William and Henry. William gave Robert Normandy, in spite of the fact he kept rebelling against his father, William England and Henry £5000, which was a lot of money but no land. There was little in the way of a tradition of primogeniture at the time, so no-one could really claim that Robert should have got the lot (although it did not stop Robert, of course, from time to time).

There was also the problem of ruling both England and Normandy either separately or together. There were Anglo-Norman lords who held lands in both places, and who therefore were forced to pay homage to both the Duke of Normandy and the King of England. This was fine so long as the King and Duke were the same person, but when, as in 1087, the roles were split, there were inevitably issues arising, both between the brothers and between one of them and a vassal who considered another to be more important or useful to them than their liege lord.

To this mess of pottage should be added the fact that the Duke of Normandy owed homage to the King of France while no King of England was going to be seen dead paying any sort of homage to the said monarch. Further, we can add issues between England, Scotland, and the various Welsh kingdoms as the Normans penetrated Wales and the fact that the Norman barons kept raiding, fighting and generally causing mayhem within Normandy, requiring strong leadership which, in Duke Robert, they did not seem to get.

As you can imagine, it all got a bit complicated, especially when the crusades were added in. Robert, on the losing end of a war with his brothers agreed to pawn Normandy to William and go on the First Crusade. Henry and William proceeded to fall out and patch things up until William (Rufus) was on the receiving end of a hunting accident in the New Forest. As Cole points out this was a kind of convenient accident for Henry, as he was in the same hunting party and managed to get to Winchester and secure the royal treasury and be crowned King of England more or less before his brother’s body hit the ground.

Cole is generous enough to suggest that there might be other culprits for staging the tragic accident. After all, medieval kings were never the most popular of people around. The King of France was by no means displeased to find William no longer a factor in Normandy, while Robert, although a long way away, might also have supposed there was an opportunity. Henry, the man on the spot, took full advantage but was then faced with the same problem of Normandy which had baffled his siblings (and, for that matter, his father).

Henry solved the problem by conquering Normandy himself and capturing Robert, who was held in prison for the rest of his life. His reign saw the starting of the English Common Law tradition as well as a number of other innovations and his realm of England at least was broadly settled, although used as a cash cow for military adventures in France, and for marrying his daughter, Matilda to the Holy Roman Emperor’s son. However, the drowning of Henry’s son William in the ‘White Ship’, an affair of a great deal of drink and some rocks outside the harbour left a problem for the next reign. Would Henry’s nephew, Stephen, or his daughter get crowned next.

Now, as they say, read on….