Saturday 25 June 2022

Plots, Structures and Interactions

I have written here before, and I still think that I am right, that a set of wargame rules is a set of interacting models. The trick is, in writing rules, to get each model functioning correctly (I am assuming that we are talking about historical rules here, but the same applies to fantasy and science fiction, and also role-playing games although the human interaction factor is higher there). Once each model is refined enough, their interactions have to be worked on.

This all sounds a bit high falutin’ and theoretical, so I shall try an example. For an English Civil War game, we need a model for movement (i.e. how far does an infantry unit actually move in a time period?), shooting, close combat, and for morale. These models need to be consistent across all arms, so infantry can face up to cavalry, artillery can behave as we believe artillery did behave, and so on. When you analyse a set of rules by this criteria you have quite a complex set of models, working on their own and interacting.

It is no wonder that rule sets throw up oddities. The complexities only multiply when you add in scale models and terrain. The game has to look and feel correct, whatever those terms might mean in practice. A bunch of musketeers charged in the open by an equal number of cavalrymen should find themselves in trouble, shouldn’t they? A lot might depend on the relative morale of the two sides, of course, on training, on the confidence of the troops to charge or to hold their fire until the last minute, and so on. It is little wonder that recent rule sets have given up on trying to quantify all of these factors, and opted for a straight dice roll with a few modifiers.

You may well be sitting, nodding sagely in agreement and wondering why I have raised the matter again. It is a fair question. I have perpetrated a few sets of rules in my time and commented on the fact. It is in my mind at the moment because, as I noted last time, I needed to write some rules for naval wargames in the Anglo-Dutch Wars period.

The numbers reading blog posts on naval matters tend to show that anything maritime is a big yawn to most wargamers, but if that applies to you, please do not stop reading here. I promise the rest of the post is of relevance to land-based wargames as well.

Writing naval rules brought to mind that, as well as the models outlined above we need to add extra models to the movement rules. Sailing ships were dependent on the wind, and that adds another element to the rule set. In my earlier rules, I tried to avoid explicit rules for tacking, but the wind proved to be impossible to ignore. It just matters too much for sailing ships.

There is thus a minimal number of models which any rule set needs to cover. Rules for movement in power armour are not necessary for World War Two rule sets. Rules for tank movement are. However, often, it has seemed to me, that the more complex the models used for some aspects, the simpler the models are elsewhere. The most egregious example I can think of is a set of WW2 rules, the name of which I do not recall, that had no morale model at all. Even as a young and green wargamer, it seemed a bit odd to have a complex paragraph or two on fire and movement and nothing much on whether the soldiers would hang around to fire (or be fired at).

Some rule sets like the DB* family wave morale away into combat outcomes and re-integrate it into higher formation and the losses accruing to that formation. Thus wings or divisions (or whatever they are called in period) run away at a certain point. This is a little predictable, I feel. The Polemos rule sets I have written have army-level morale, but it comes with a bit of randomness. Armies could and did run away before they needed to, or stand and fight when most sensible observers would have expected them to have chosen discretion over valour.

I suppose that there is only so much complexity or only so many interacting models that we, as wargamers, can or want to cope with. Perhaps this goes with age. I am much less prepared to put up with fiddly accountancy and endless tables than I used to be. Or, maybe, I have just realised that accuracy (whatever that means) does not map onto complexity.

After all, if, as I argued last time, we play wargames to tell entertaining stories, the narrative flow is surely interrupted by having to consult a good, big book of rules and find the right page. Granted most rule sets come with quick play charts, but even so. If the story is the thing then we require something that moves the narrative on, rather than stalling it. Throw a dice, consult a table and chortle or despair over the outcome.

In fiction, each scene is supposed to show something about the characters or move the plot along. In wargames, we do not have a great deal of discovering stuff about the characters on the table (even in RPG) and so the plot is the thing. The driver is the specific scenario, of course, the terrain, balance of forces, objectives, and so on. This might be why straightforward destroy the enemy army wargames get a bit dull after a while. We have to care about the story, and want to know what happens next.

As such, the rules and mechanics, the models, and their interactions are necessary but insufficient conditions for an enjoyable wargame. While wargames can have higher or lower stakes for us, in terms of running campaigns, for example, if, ultimately, we do not care which side wins in terms of outcome, even if as solo gamers we are neutral in the matter, the plot is the thing; the rules need to facilitate but otherwise keep out of the way.

Saturday 18 June 2022

Telling Tales in Wargaming

Over the years, one of the things that has slowly come into focus in writing this blog has been the suspicion that most wargaming is storytelling. I imagine that there are two reactions to that comment. One could be ‘Of course it is, I’ve been saying so for years’, and the other might be’ Wargaming is a serious, grown-up hobby and I’m not telling you stories, just accounts of games.’

Both reactions are valid, naturally, but both sides might be willing to reflect a little bit more on wargaming, as in playing the games, as telling stories. Humans, after all, are storytelling animals. Telling stories, after all, is something that differentiates me from our cat. Stories are how we make sense of the world and receive and digest information about it. Even the most factual news is packaged as a ‘story’, whether we like it or not.

One of the interesting things about running this blog is the varying numbers of readers for the different sorts of posts. Before the botnets get to blatting the posts, which usually takes between a week and a month, depending on which networks are running, the battle report posts usually get fewer reads than the more abstract concepts and ideas posts. Of course, the naval wargaming posts take the lowest place, but battle reports are usually not much above them.

As a snapshot, the last four non-battle report posts have averaged about 68 reads per post. The last four battle report posts have averaged 54 reads. I am not sure whether the difference is really significant. Establishing that would require more work than I am inclined to devote to the topic, but the difference is around 20% in reads, so I suspect there might be some significance there.

My battle reports are part storytelling and part reportage. I tend to top and tail them with a bit of imaginative dialogue from some of the ‘participants’, especially if the wargames are part of a campaign. Then I tend to describe the game, with photographs and a description of the action. At the end are perhaps hints of the next games, and mostly there are not, simply because I have not thought about it yet.

The campaigns are, of course, narratives. In the case of the campaigns reported on the blog, they are self-consciously narrative. I create them not from moves on a map and careful calculation of resources after the mode of the famous Tony Bath Hyboria campaign of wargame legend, but from a storyline, and arc, with some troops and a map of an area.

The most satisfying narrative campaign has been the Armada Abbeys one, which also happened to be the first. These facts might be related, of course. But it did also satisfy the requirements, overall, of a story. It had a beginning, the landing at Whitby, and some plot development, through the battle of Guisborough. There were some plot twists, with the intervention of the Scots and the arrival of Spanish reinforcements. Finally, there was a satisfactory conclusion, with the final surrender of the Spanish forces in the North Yorkshire Moors. The overall tale is a pleasing one, to me at least.

Within the overall narrative arc, there are some key points, both campaign moments, such as when I realized that the Scots did not need to force the Tees bridge at Yarm but could try the next one along at Croft. There were also key points in the battles, such as the charge of the Scottish cavalry at Northallerton which meant that Don Carlos’ army was forced to make a difficult retreat (and was more or less destroyed as a fighting force as a result). There were some bits that I expected to be key points in the narrative, such as the defection of some militia at Guisborough, which did not turn out quite like that. On the other hand, the cavalry action at Mount Grace was a lot more significant than I expected, the resultant English fort dividing the Spanish armies and playing a part in the end of Don Carlos’ army.

The numbers looking at the blog posts, however, suggest that the stories, at least how I write them, are not as popular as the think-pieces. Granted, this blog started as think-pieces; the most popular post ever was called ‘Why I don’t Play WW2 Wargames’ or something of that nature. It was comparatively recently that I started wargame battle reports. Perhaps I am just not very good at them.

I do not know other bloggers' experiences of battle reports as opposed to pondering history and how to wargame it. Perhaps my experience is not representative, I have no idea. Blogging, after all, is a very personal thing; we blog, mostly, for ourselves. For me, the battle reports are convenient ways of logging my campaigns. If others gain ideas and interest from them then that is a bonus, not the point. But the relative unpopularity of my battle reports might suggest that other people’s stories are not as popular as our own.

Maybe there is another point lounging around here. I go to a show and see demonstration games and think ‘That is very nice but I cannot do that.’ The ‘cannot’ is a combination of the period, painting, scenery, cost, space, and all the other things that go towards deciding to stick with what I already have rather than launch into something new. It is quite likely to be the same for blog battle reports: ‘Very nice, but…’ Perhaps that is why they are relatively unpopular, plus the fact that that wargame has already been done in someone else’s story.

I am not sure. The considerations above will certainly not prevent me from writing blogs on my wargames, no matter how unpopular they are. As you might have noticed, I keep posting on the Anglo-Dutch Wars and they are hardly at the forefront of naval wargaming, let alone wargaming per se. But the stories are useful to me, as a record and also because I am, believe it not, human, and like telling stories.  

Saturday 11 June 2022

A Little Scilly

‘The cavalry will advance and collect those ships, while the infantry will sail over there and make sure the clog wearers do not capture the islands.’

‘Um, general, those are ships and not infantry or cavalry. The cavalry are sixth rates, the infantry you describe are fifth rates, the Lion and the Unicorn.’

‘Captain, you are a sailor, I am a soldier. It is your job to translate my orders. Get on with it.’

‘Aye, aye, sir.'


You know what it is like, I am sure. You have a nice set of newly painted toys and you are itching to get them onto the table. But then a problem arises: you have no real idea what you are doing. Further, it turns out that you have no rules that particularly appeal to you. What is a poor solo wargamer to do?

Obviously, short of buying endless rules and engaging in indecision and procrastination, the answer is to sit down and write some rules and still get the toys onto the table. With the Anglo-Dutch Wars ships that is exactly what I did. I was somewhat dissatisfied with the rules to date, and so I stole (I beg your pardon, used as inspiration) the Eighteenth Century Naval Rules from Arthur Taylor’s Discovering Wargames book (which is many years old) for the sailing and weather rules, and my own bits for the combat rules. I find that I really do not like the endless accountancy that most naval wargame rules seem to require.

Next up was a scenario. Reading a little about the outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War I came across an incident which seemed to fit the bill, particularly as, as a first outing for the rules, the forces could be small. The Scilly Isles were a base for Royalist privateers in the late 1640s. They even had a court there for the disposal of prizes. As the principal commercial maritime power, this annoyed the Dutch considerably, and so, in 1651 or so (I forget exactly) they dispatched an expedition to the Scillies to recover their vessels.

This move did not go down well with the Commonwealth government, which was attempting to negotiate an alliance with the Dutch at the time (and which was being roundly snubbed to boot). The two governments had wildly different ideas about what they were doing. However, the Commonwealth believed that the Dutch were attempting to set up a naval base on the island, with the connivance of the Stuarts, and so dispatched their own expedition to stop it.

This is the start of my scenario. In real life it did not result in a shooting match but, in my world, it could have done. The first job was to create some islands in 1:2400 scale, and then I had to choose the forces.

The picture shows the game at about move six. The Dutch appeared on move two in St Mary’s Sound. They consisted of two fifth rates, Leeuw and Eenhoorn and four hoekers, sixth rates (which I did not get around to naming). The two fifth rates are mid-picture, two of the hoekers are nearest the camera, about to cut out some merchantmen, and the other two are just boarding some of the others.

The Royalist guard ships are hanging around the other safe passage out of St Mary’s Harbour, Broad Sound which runs south-east to northwest (hence, the camera angle is roughly from the north). The Commonwealth ships arrived on move five. With four sixth rates upfront and two fifth rates (Lion and Unicorn) nearest the camera.

The wind was force 4 during the game (it can change every eight moves) and blowing north to south (this changed slightly to NNE to SSW). Ships cannot sail closer than 45 degrees to the wind and cannot change course across the wind. This caused both sides a fair bit of bother during the game as the sea room is rather constricted.

The ships are mainly my new Tumbling Dice Anglo-Dutch Wars vessels. The Royalist cutters and some of the merchantmen are Hallmark, the rest are Tumbling Dice. Each smaller merchantman counts as one point for the side that holds it at the end of the game, the big ones count as two points. To capture a merchantman a ship has to come alongside, wait for a move while the merchant is boarded and then move off when the merchant can then move. Captured merchantmen will immediately surrender if shot at or boarded by a different side.

The aim of the Dutch is to capture and escape with as many merchantmen as possible. The Commonwealth's aim was to prevent the Dutch from landing (which they have no intention of doing), capture merchantmen and, if at all possible, defeat the Royalists so the Commonwealth can capture the islands. The aim of the Royalists is to prevent their prizes from being taken or, if necessary, surrender to the Commonwealth ships rather than the Dutch.

This was a fascinating game. As I mentioned, the problems of wind and sail in a confined space made movement interesting. The rules kind of worked although I am not sure of the gunnery – it probably needs a bit more refinement.

The picture shows the key point of the game. Two merchants have been boarded by the Dutch and are proceeding, in the middle of the shot, to escape, although they will actually be recaptured by the Royalist guard ships shortly. Two of the larger merchants have also been boarded and are about to set sail to escape (the green counters show Dutch controlled merchants). Most of the Commonwealth sixth rates are sailing into the wind and exchanging shots with the Dutch sixth rates.

The main action is in the centre where the Leeuw, perhaps foolishly (and possibly as a result of my bad seamanship) has boarded another merchantman. However, the Unicorn has got to aft and has just raked her, crippling Leeuw.

For the rest of the game, the Commonwealth sixth rates recaptured the larger merchantmen while the Dutch sixth rates used the narrow channel to the north to escape. Eenhoorn exchanged broadsides with Lion and Unicorn, receiving one hit but inflicting two on Lion. The crew of the Leeuw boarded the merchantman they were in contact with and made off, while Unicorn sailed down on the Royalists and their prizes and the Royalists surrendered.

As the rules were new I do not think it was a bad game. Most of the gunfire was ineffective – it is done on matched rolls and the size of the vessel; the sixth rates did not damage to each other or any other vessel as far as I recall. The combat between the fifth rates did create damage, so that seems as it should be. The sailing rules took a fair bit of getting used to and frustration from this landlubber as the Dutch fifth rates could not turn to face the Commonwealth ships in time. We live and learn.


‘The governor of the Islands has offered to surrender to you, sir.’

‘Excellent. I can’t wait to get onto dry land.’

‘The Dutch ship has surrendered as well, sir. It seems to be sinking.’

‘Is that a bad thing for a ship?’

‘A little, sir. We’ll send some men and pumps and see if we can help.’

‘Is that necessary?’

‘Well, sir, it is a bit like having a waggon shed a wheel on a road on land. It gets in the way a bit. That ship is in the main anchorage and so it would be a bit inconvenient.’

‘You mean you want us to park there?’

‘Yes, sir, after a manner.’

‘Did you sigh captain? I distinctly heard a sigh.’

‘Must have been a seagull, sir.’

Saturday 4 June 2022

A Painful Process

 ‘Are you still painting those ships?’ the Estimable Mrs P enquired one morning.

‘Yes. I’m just up to the bling.’

This elicited a snort from the spousal direction. ‘You don’t do bling.’

‘No, but the ships had quite a lot of it…’

As you might have surmised by occasional grumbling on this blog, the painting of the Anglo-Dutch Wars ships has not been proceeding quickly. It seemed like a fairly straightforward task – fourteen 1:2400 scale ships per side. Starting in February, I reckoned I would be finished by the beginning of April. It is now the end of May and I have just about staggered over the finishing line.

Do not get me wrong: this is not the fault of the models themselves. They are perfectly good scale models of the ships of the time. It was just that your humble correspondent had some problems, in particular assembling the models.

Sone tiny ship models come with sails on masts and little holes in the hull into which you stick the masts and hope that you keep them vertical; the Hallmark galleys and Armada era warships I have are of this type. Some of the ships are small enough to have the sails cast on; the Hallmark and Tumbling Dice little ships I have are of this type.

The Tumbling Dice Anglo-Dutch Wars ships which are the subject here, however, have cast on masts and sails to be attached using glue. The Estimable Mrs P was dispatched, on her next trip to the Post Office (which is in a hardware store, so it does make sense) to obtain some superglue. Fun and games ensued as I attempted to superglue the sails to the masts. The problem was that the masts, being vertical, ensured that the superglue ran down them and out of the joint before it could start to set. Hence, a lack of adhesion and much frustration from this poor modeller.

After a bit of experimentation, an alternative was found, consisting of partly dried PVA glue held in place by my unsteady hand until the sails were glued sufficiently to hold themselves in place. This was a bit hit and miss, and occasional sails were displaced by ineptly placed thumbs while attempting to glue the next one in place, as well as some sails, apparently being firmly glued in place not being so, and requiring the application of more glue to strengthen the joint. Batches of four were as much as I could manage, with one set of sails per ship (there were four sail sets – mizzen, main and foremasts, and a bowsprit sail) per day. Painting, after that, was comparatively simple, although there was always the danger of loosening the sails while undercoating. Extra coats of glue were eventually applied.

Painting complete, attention was then turned to flags. Now at 1:2400 scale, flags are rather small, as you might imagine. Initial experiments of wrapping the flag around the mast worked (especially when I discovered that the flags were adhesive-backed) but looked, in all honesty, a bit off; there was no room on the flag for a bit that wrapped around the flagstaff. They looked OK, but even your erstwhile bad modeller was not too happy.

Next up I tried wrapping the flags around a bit of five amp fuse wire and then supergluing the assembly to the mast. This looked better and, using tweezers, I managed not to superglue myself to anything. It was still fiddly, however, and I needed to paint any sticking out bits of fuse wire in order to make it look like rigging. An improvement, but not gold yet.

Finally, I figured out that I did not need the fuse wire, and simply scored the flags, cut them out, folded them over (removing the backing paper was probably the most fiddly part of the operation), and then glued them directly to the mast using PVA, the superglue having glued its own lid onto the tube in a hissy fit at not having been used properly (either that or me not having wiped the nozzle sufficiently at the previous last use). Being light the flags took the glue very quickly so my wobbly hands managed the task quite adequately (for me, anyway).

Then, liking the look of beflagged ships, my eye fell on the smaller items which had been painted first: cromsters, yachts, and hoekers. The flag sheets came with even smaller flags, and, flushed with success from flagging the fifth rates and above, I scored, cut, and stuck even smaller flags to the little ships.

So now, I present to you, the fruits of my labour. Do not look too closely, but I think they will do for wargaming models. Dutch lights nearest, then Dutch capital ships, British capital ships, and then the British lights, somewhat obscured.

In other news, I was rooting through some of my deep storage boxes the other day and came across a castle, which I had made up and painted years ago. Having started to repaint (finish and/or start over) some of my 25+ mm ECW figures, I retrieved it, even though it is, in fact (as I recall) the Airfix medieval castle.

Here we see the offending article with the newest re-recruits in front. As I recall the figure top right is a Redoubt French Musketeer figure, and the others are old Wargames Foundry. All I can say is ‘En Garde!’

All of this has left me wondering what the point was. I had a plan, even though it was a bit vague for these ships and the big figures. I think it was to do with Corbie; somewhere I do have a figure who was slated to be the English ambassador who was being escorted to the coast with the vital treaty which would bring Britain into the war against the Spanish and avoid the English Civil War. And of course, there would then be a chase at sea….

Things move on, of course, and I am now considering an idea I saw years ago, probably somewhere in Featherstone or possibly in Setting Up A Wargames Campaign of an island-hopping amphibious imagination campaign. Have ships, will travel.