Saturday 28 May 2022

Wars in an Afternoon

I suppose that this is a bit of a follow-up to the ‘Battle for England’ post. I have already admitted assorted conceptual issues with that wargame idea, so I will not revisit those, except to note my own reaction: ‘Conceptual problems in wargaming? Who knew?’

Be that as it may, there are various ideas floating around for similar sorts of actions/campaigns. I have already mentioned the Peloponnesian Wars as one, contingent on having a huge store of hoplites, of course. Another possibility that Nundanket mentioned was the War of Austrian Succession or even the Napoleonic Wars. However, I have neither the figures nor the expertise to take those ideas any further.

I suppose that anything that could be reproduced on a map could be transferred to a wargame table. There is, of course, the problem of scale and ranges. It might be a little difficult to reproduce World War Two on a wargames table (unless it was a very big one). Even the European theatres might be a bit tricky, although if you went for something like 1944 you could have NW Europe, E Europe, and Italy as your armies. It might work.

Moving back into my historical comfort zone, aside from the ECW and GNW, we could have a stab at the Thirty Years War – French, Dutch, Swedes, Hapsburgs, Spanish, Danes, assorted Germans, and so on. For those who like the exotic, you could also add in Poles, Transylvanians, and, at a push, Muscovites, and Ottomans. That too would require a rather large table, I think.

Moving further back, I have always felt that the board game Machiavelli could be a good foundation for a campaign. I have, sort of done it and it did work. The sort of covers the fact that I simply used the map, rather than the game mechanics to create the actions. Here, I suppose, we are at the border between a map movement campaign and a campaign on a tabletop like my ECW and GNW games.

The advantage of a campaign on a tabletop is that you do not have all the paraphernalia that a map campaign requires, first and foremost, of course, a map, but also tracking and locating issues. A disadvantage might be, as I discovered, a difficulty with what scale of game you are playing. This does not necessarily detract from the game per se, but it might from the experience of the game as a representation of the campaign. As I said before, this might bear further pondering, or at least some proper planning.

Moving further back, some of you might recall I wrote a fair bit about the Norman Conquest of England and its consequences a while ago. This could, I think, be reduced to a table-top campaign. The Normans could be across the Channel, the English would have a northern and southern army, and the Vikings would appear in the north. If the northern Anglo-Saxon army is fairly weak (or a scratch militia army) then Harold and the southern army would have to switch from south to north and back again, as they did historically. It might work especially if you had suitable ship models for the period, as both the Viking and the Norman invasions were amphibious operations, and Harold could have had a fleet.

With shorter ranges and smaller armies, it is possible that the ancient and medieval periods have a lot of opportunities for this sort of game. Alternatively, the simple campaign system in DBA could be adopted and adapted. My GNW game had sort of that concept in mind, but without as many bases for the armies. You could quite easily run something like a Hundred Years War campaign along those lines, with the English, French, Burgundians, Low Countries (they had a habit of rebelling), and possibly Spain and the Empire involved. I imagine in this case Paris would be the prize, although Joan of Arc might have something to say about that.

Moving further back still, a 'first man in Rome' sort of game might be possible. Take, for example, 69 AD, the year of the four emperors. Here you have a Gallic and German contender, the emperor in Rome, the eastern armies (big, but with a war to fight themselves), Spanish provincial armies, and so on. That would be possible, but again, strategic movement might get a bit cramped and you could need fleets, at least for the eastern army. Similarly, the Roman Civil Wars of Caesar and Pompey would need fleets, not least because Caesar got around a bit, from Britain to Egypt at least. You would somehow have to represent the general skulduggery and shameless courting of public opinion, as well as the possibility of getting generals killed as they tried to outdo each other’s conquests (Crassus, for example). Possible, but perhaps best on a map.

I suppose the general thrust here is that doing a campaign on a table in a day (or two) is fun, but not appropriate (or I cannot imagine it) for everything. Alexander’s campaigns could be done, I suppose, but he sort of fought linearly – Greeks, then Persians (several times) then Indians. This does not really require a map or a table with all the forces deployed, but a narrative approach working out what happens after a particular battle, and some thinking about what to do if Alexander loses.

None of this solves my conceptual dilemma, of course. Do I set it up as a representation of the campaign or war, or as a single complex battle and let it rip. Having landed up playing once as the latter, and once as a mix, it seems to me that the latter approach would work best, but I could be wrong. I do think, however, that a bit more preparation is required for running a campaign in an afternoon than I put into the ECW game. But that is the purpose of such pieces as this – thinking out loud about where the games should go from here.

Saturday 21 May 2022

The Roman Invasion of Britain

 We all know the narrative, do we not? Julius Caesar invaded, beat the locals and then went home again, twice. Then, after this reconnaissance in force (and a few civil wars in Rome) the Romans came back under Claudius and stayed, defeating the ungrateful locals who rebelled from time to time, including Boudicca who, in spite of being a heroic woman, was still not a Roman and hence wrong, because she did not grasp all the advantages of Roman civilisation.

Anyway, after bringing the benefits of being Roman to these shores, the country settled down to building stuff in civilised stone to permit later archaeologists to speculate them, and also constructed a wall to keep the even less civilised inhabitants of the far north out. Eventually, of course, as is the way with most civilisations except our own, the Roman Empire collapsed, the legions left to defend the metropolis, and Britain entered the Dark Ages.

Well, it is not that simple, as you probably already know. Every aspect of the above ‘normative’ narrative has been questioned, one way or another. This does not, naturally, mean that it is still not propagated, most histories of Roman Britain at the more popular end of the market spin a tale like that, one way or another.

As you may surmise, I have been reading again:

Hoffmann, B. (2013). The Roman Invasion of Britain: Archaeology versus History. Pen and Sword.

This is an interesting book, although not without caveats. The main one is that it is more tending towards an academic tome, and sometimes the assumptions that the reader knows the locations of the sites of importance and the texts is a bit overwhelming. I suppose there are so many that a location map for everything would be difficult, but I did struggle a bit. Perhaps I should have broken out my trusty OS Roman Britain maps.

Be that as it may, Hoffmann is very interesting about what, exactly we know about Roman Britain, how it came into existence, how it survived and declined. I suppose she takes a more empiricist or reductionist stance: we know very little. By what she calls a ‘journalistic’ standard of evidence, we can essentially say that Julius Caesar came twice and went home again, for example. Precisely what happened while he was here, or why he went home again is largely unknown to us, unless we are rather credulous about Caesar’s own account.

And so it goes on. We know a little bit about the Claudian invasion, but not much, including such important details as where they landed. As Hoffmann point out (she is an archaeologist) archaeology cannot really help, here. We can identify Fishbourne and Richborough as early Roman ports, but not which was first, or even if one of them was first.

At the other end of the time zone, we can identify forts of the Saxon Shore. What we cannot do is deduce whether they were build as a defensive system or were an ad hoc response to various threats and defensive needs constructed at different times, and only came to have a commander later. Archaeology cannot tells us and the chronicles which could cover it do not say.

We are thus left with a bunch of plausible scenarios, stories we can tell about how Roman Britain came and went. Deciding which is the most likely and which the least is a tricky business to say the least. While evidence is being (literally) uncovered all the time, fitting bits of pot into a chronology is difficult and even then the stones might not tell us very much.

Are these conclusions as controversial as the blurb on the book claims? Probably not so much to anyone who has read a bit about the ancient world and Roman Britain, as I have. Nevertheless it is interesting and does stimulate the wargaming taste buds. As my loyal reader might recall I have, following the man himself ‘re-fought’ Caesar’s first British campaign. Julius lost. Hoffmann’s conclusion about the actions is pretty well the same, expressing scepticism about Caesar’s claims and noting some confusion about the chronology and geography of the campaigns anyway. She ends the chapter on Caesar’s activities by quoting Lucan: Caesar Territa Quaesitis ostendit terga Britannis (Pharsalia (5.572)). ‘Caesar came looking for the British and then terrified, turned tail’ Not exactly a ringing endorsement, more along the lines of ‘He came, he saw, he scarpered’.

I suppose a recurrent theme in the book is that of the Roman historians, who tended to be based in southern Europe and have their eyes on Rome, if not residing there. Their reliability regarding activities in and the geography of Britain, not to mention other far flung reaches of the Empire, are bound to be a bit dodgy. In a couple of paragraphs Hoffmann pretty well dismantles the Elizabethan and Victorian obsession with Boudicca. Tactius’ account became widely available in Britain in 1591. Hoffmann notes that it permitted some flattering comparisons for a female monarch menaced by a continental power. Similarly, the Victorians identified Boudicca as a wronged wife and mother, a heroine fighting for British liberty and justice, and certainly better than Queen Cartimandua who surrendered Caractatus to the Romans.

The point is that, probably, Tacitus was using his character of Boudicca more to speak about his own attitudes to women in power, particularly the mothers, sisters and wives of assorted Roman emperors. The revolt of the Iceni is visible in the archaeological record in Colchester and London. Tacitus also notes the destruction of Verulamium, but there is no archaeological evidence. Silchester, however, does yield such evidence, but is not noted by the historians. Boudicca seems to have headed west, not north.

As you might have noted, there is a lot in the book, which is of modest size for what is essentially, notwithstanding the title, a concise history of Roman Britain. I cannot cover it all here – the comments on the end of Roman Britain and the comparative uselessness of the Notitia Dignitatum are also interesting. Perhaps another time.

Saturday 14 May 2022

How to be a Roman

My attention has slowly been turning back to the Romans in Britain. Actually, I am reading a very interesting book about the Roman invasions of Britain, and what we can actually know about it (‘not much’ seems to be the conclusion). I will almost certainly return to the tome when I have finished it, but, in the meantime, an itch for some Romans in action seemed appropriate.

As my loyal reader might recall, I have done Caesar’s first campaign in Britain, and so his second was an option. On the other hand, Jules got a bit of a pasting there (apparently, a Roman poet wrote of Caesar in Britain ‘He came, he saw, he ran away’; ho, as they say, hum). So I thought it might be a nice idea to let the Early Imperialists have a go. After all, in the Sarmatian Nation games they have received a bit of a pasting, due mainly to bad generalship than anything else. At least Jules could argue that without cavalry he did not stand much of a chance.

Anyway, I flipped through the One Hour Wargames book and found scenario ten, which seemed to fit the bill. Here, an army is advancing along a road while the opponents try to delay them until the rest of their army arrives, on turns five and ten, respectively. The objective is to take and / or hold a town.

I confess I rather prefer my own rules rather than those in the book. I am a solo gamer and like things to develop slowly, with much sitting around contemplating the situation while sipping coffee. I suppose rules reflect the writer, and so my rules have fairly slow movement by comparison with some, and combat is not that effective. In ancient warfare there does seem to have been a great deal of hanging around waiting for something to happen. The rules, should you be interested, are available from the ‘Rules’ link to the right.

I recall from reading Goldsworthy’s The Roman Army at War that what tended to happen when some uppity natives rebelled against Roman rule was that the local commander gathered what troops he could and set off immediately to nip it in the bud. Often, I surmise, this was successful and nothing more was heard of the rebels, as they had already gone home when the army arrived. Sometimes, however, the local army got itself ambushed and received a good thumping, necessitating the Romans gathering an even bigger army to go and crush the rebels. This is the sort of arc which both the Jewish revolt followed and, so far as we can tell, the Boudiccan revolt.

So, the plan for the game was the Roman army advancing along their own road to take a native British town which is the centre of a rebellion, while the Britons, of course, try to prevent this. Initially the latter had three bases of chariots, three skirmishers and one light horse on the table, reinforced on turn five by two light horse and five tribal foot, and on turn ten by six more tribal foot. The Romans, initially on the road, advanced with a light horse base up front, followed by three cavalry, five auxilia, two bows, seven legionaries and then two cavalry bases as rearguard. Both sides totalled twenty bases.

As I said, things developed slowly, so the early photographs are a bit boring. The British lights of various sorts forced the lead Roman cavalry and general to deploy, but otherwise failed to delay anyone, and the Roman column proceeded sedately up the road towards the town, probably collecting British javelins to use as firewood later.

The picture shows the situation on turn 10, when the second tranche of Celtic reinforcements have arrived. The Celtic chariots have caused a little delay now to the Roman cavalry, but the light horse and the skirmishers have managed nothing so far against the infantry column. The first tribal foot are moving towards the Roman cavalry, which may or may not be a good thing, while the rest of the tribal foot, newly arrived, and reinforcing the town defenders and about to move forward against the column.

It all went rather pear-shaped for the Romans. I really should have moved the general across to deploy the infantry, but he was tied up with winning the tempo to charge the British foot (which they refused to do). The British foot sensibly refused to charge the Roman cavalry the first time, but went in when the chariots had produced a recoil result which left one base in range and isolated. A bad Roman dice roll meant they fled.

The march column incautiously moved within charge range of both the town garrison and the newly arrived tribal foot. Furthermore, the column started to take disruption from the British skirmishers and light horse. The head of the column stood no chance against the chargers, and fled, this causing a domino effect down the column until the first point where the skirmishers had achieved a halt result, there being a gap in the lines there.

The picture shows the end result. The front nine Roman foot bases are routing. Added to the one cavalry base routing off picture to the left, and the Romans are ten bases down, leading to an army rout result.

I suspect the Roman debacle was probably my fault. I was concentrating on getting the Roman cavalry into a position to charge the chariots, but the tempo point never let me and the Britons always managed to skip away out of range. The result was that I was unable to deploy the infantry, with predictable, disastrous, results. The front of the column, incidentally, was auxilia and so did not benefit from the legionarie’s extra tempo point.

I seem to have got the British tactics worked out, but this is not the first time that the Romans have struggled against tribal armies (there was a Dacian action as well). Skirmishing tactics can be very slow, but the disruption they can cause can matter. Interesting….

Saturday 7 May 2022

The Battle for England

 As you might have noted over the years, my aspirations and efforts have tended towards the more megalomaniac. At least I stick to wargaming rather than moving real soldiers around the place. Anyway, after the success of the GNW in an afternoon a while ago, I thought it was time for another go, especially as I had a bit time for a major wargame.

It did take a bit of thinking about. Originally I was planning to include Scotland and Ireland as well but, fortunately for my sanity, I realised that was not going to work. Eventually I opted for four armies a side. The Royalists had Oxford, Cornwall, York and Chester based armies, while the Parliamentarians had London, Bristol, the Eastern Association and a north-west army. Each army consisted of six infantry bases, six cavalry, one dragoon and one artillery base.

The set up was fairly simple. The Pennines were represented, as were the Chilterns, Cotswolds and Welsh hills (just). A few wooded areas were scattered about the place as well. The Parliamentarians had an extra three infantry bases in London, representing the trained bands. The Royalists had an extra general, representing Prince Rupert who often acted as a sort of general-without-portfolio, it seems to me. If I deemed it necessary (i.e. if things lagged a bit) the Parliamentarians could introduce the Scots marching south, while the Royalists could land Irish foot at Chester.

It is a bit difficult to get the whole set-up into a photograph, but here goes.

This shot shows London in the near right hand corner, Oxford in the middle and Bristol on the left. The Cornish army is lurking on the extreme left. Further north in the middle distance you can see the Parliamentary midlands force with Chester and the north-western Royalists behind them. On the right north of London is the army of the Eastern Association with the northern Royalist army beyond them around York.

I confess to making at least one conceptual mistake with this game. When I did the GNW I fought it as a single battle, not as the whole war really. Here I could not decide whether I was doing the war as a whole or the whole was a single battle. Also with the GNW I had a points system for who won, whereas here I just vaguely had the idea that the Royalists had to capture London and the Parliamentarians to capture the King.

I also had a few problems with the command system. Originally I rolled for tempo points for each army, but that was a bit confusing with eight of them. Then I combined the rolls into one, did the bidding and used the rest for orders. That meant, for the Royalists especially, a feast of tempo for ordering units around which was a bit of a problem. So I had to abandon that and just roll for who got the tempo. This clearly needs a bit more thinking about for big battles.

I also vaguely had the idea that in order to capture a garrisoned city the besiegers would need to bring up their siege gun. I also abandoned that as an idea. As the game progressed there was also less involvement from the field artillery and dragoon elements. Perhaps in a wargame this size these aspects just would not work usefully. Again, some further thought is necessary before having another go.

Anyway, doubts, conceptual infelicities and errors on my part aside, it was very interesting. Just setting the game up brought home just how vulnerable Oxford was strategically, more or less surrounded by enemy forces. I did a lot of pondering as the Royalist general as to how to break out, and as the Parliamentarian as to how to exploit the position. The aim of the Royalists was to break out in one direction or the other. As Parliamentarian I focussed on capturing Oxford (after all, the King was there) while simply holding off the York and Chester Royalists.

The picture shows the developing strategies. The Cornwall Royalists are advancing to support Oxford. Rupert has taken some Oxford cavalry to try to break out to the north-west. The North-west Parliamentary army has split, half to delay to Chester Royalists, the rest moving south. The Eastern Association is similarly splitting, half to oppose the York Royalist, the rest moving into the Midlands around Newark. The London army is moving forward to threaten Oxford from the east and south.

It went a bit pear-shaped for the Royalists. Rupert’s cavalry were destroyed by a cavalry charge by the Bristol Parliamentarians. The Eastern Association cavalry administered a mauling to the York Royalist cavalry, forcing them onto the defensive. In the North-West, the Royalists were on the whole successful but they were delayed by the half army deployed against them.

The end of the game is above. The Cornwall Royalist cavalry has been half-destroyed by the Bristol forces, forcing the reinforcing Cornish infantry (white coats) to move back to cover the hole. The London army is administering a bit of a bashing south of Oxford, while a combined infantry and cavalry attack over the Chiltons is pushing the Royalists back into the city. To the north another infantry attack has got into Oxford itself. To the north the York Royalists are on the back foot having had most of their cavalry defeated. The victorious Parliamentarian cavalry can be seen in the Midlands moving towards the north-west, which is the only place where the Royalists have been at all successful.

In spite of the problems I outlined above, it was a fun and interesting game. I am considering another go, with a bit more parochialism for the armies built in and a different command and control system (or, maybe, spend the time trying to streamline what I already have). After all, the Parliamentarian cavalry reinforcing the north-west came, originally, from London and the Eastern Association. “New Model Army? We don’t need no steeking New Model Army….”

Perhaps the size of the battle is just too big and I should have resorted to map moves and narrative. Or perhaps I should have called to cities different things and just abstracted everything else away. I am not sure.

It was, as I said, fun, and kept me occupied over three wargaming sessions. The Royalist cavalry was unlucky, going down to two separate 6-1 rolls west of Oxford. It was also nice to get more or less every ECW figure I possess out – I think there are 114 bases on the table, plus eight generals. It is a bit crowded in the south, admittedly. As I said, it probably needs a bit more thinking about.