Saturday 27 August 2022

Great Battles that Weren’t

I am sure it has not escaped the notice of my astute reader that some battles just did not happen. I dare say we can all think of a few in our favourite eras. Those confrontations where one side got cold feet, received incorrect information, or decided to march away in the rain and forget about the whole embarrassing escapade. Or where the alliance broke down before it got going and hence, of course, deprived the wargamer of a fascinating encounter.

It might not have escaped your attention that I have turned the idea into a campaign game – Armada Abbeys – based on the premise that the Spanish Armada did, in fact, land, or at least, partially landed. This is a highly respectable idea in historiography, by the way. Geoffrey Parker has a chapter on it in his book on the Armada, and I have seen a journal article or two about it, plus a discussion in one of the Elizabethan wars books I have read (do you really expect me to get up and find it?).

The fundamental idea is that there are a lot of situations in history where a campaign could have taken a different turn. For example, consider the Dieppe raid. What would have happened if the allies had captured the port and clung on? It was not part of the plan, granted, but a 1942 invasion of north-western Europe would certainly give a different twist to the progress of World War Two. Granted the allies would probably have been thrown back eventually, but where would the Wehrmacht pull the resources from to do so? It is not my period, but the possibilities are manifold.

This has been brought to mind as I have been pondering categories of wargames – historical, semi-historical, fictitious, and so on. Battles that could have happened but did not would fall into the semi-historical classification. The enemies could have clashed at that time and in that place, but did not. The Armada could have landed but did not. The allies could have dug in at Dieppe but were not in a position to, and so on.

As a case in point, as I was writing about this, I recalled reading in Jonathan Sumption’s Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I (London: Faber & Faber, 1990) about the campaigns before Crecy. These are activities that are largely ignored in the historiography and military history of the period, probably because they did not result in a battle, but they are interesting nevertheless.

The English under Edward I and his Flemish allies besieged Cambrai in the summer of 1339, and the French army marched to relieve it, taking up a position at Peronne on the Somme, 22 miles away. There they stayed, much to Edward’s dismay as he sought to bring them to battle. Cambrai held out (just) and the French would not move to relieve it. Edward had no particular use for the place except as bait for the French and he probably needed to move on to find supplies. He had around 10,000 men, half of them English, and a slightly fractious array of allies, some of whom were vassals for the French king. Invading France was going to cause them some pain.

In early October Edward invaded France, looting and burning as they went. The French king eventually arrived and took command of his army, while Edward drew his forces together and retreated, probably to secure his line of retreat north. He had other problems: the English had supplies but their allies had not, having expected to fight the decisive battle as soon as they entered France. Just as the army was about to fall apart the French sent a formal challenge to battle on 21 or 22 October. Edward accepted.

On 21 October Edward halted at La Capelle and ordered for battle. The army was arranged in three lines of infantry and men-at-arms behind a stake-lined trench, with archers forward and to the flanks. The French halted on 22 October at Buirenfosse about four miles away. During the night the English raided their lines.

Edward’s plan was, of course, the classic English tactic of the early Hundred Year’s War, to lure the enemy cavalry through an arrow storm onto a line of men at arms behind a row of stakes. The French must have known that, and there was a furious debate in their camp as to what to do. The army was hungry and thirsty, having marched through well-looted land in the last few days. Not forcing the action and making Edward retreat would be as successful as defeating him in battle. The French vanguard retreated and dug in.

At this point, Edward realised that his campaign had failed. He had sought a decisive battle and the enemy had refused. His army was smaller and had its own supply problems; he could not attack the superior French in a defended position. He had to retreat. After they had gone the French too withdrew, after examining the English position and finding it not as formidable as they had expected.

Crecy would have to wait. Edward only just scraped together the alliance and the money to continue the war. Harvests were poor and the wool price was low (the main source of English income) because Edward had flooded to market to raise cash. Crecy would have to wait.

Yet the wargamer might be inspired. What if Philip of France had decided to attack to English at La Capelle? It would be as famous as Crecy now, in all probability. Edward’s alliance might have survived, especially if he had won. If Philip had lost, what then?

As it is, La Capelle is only known as the place where the Armistice was signed in 1918 (according to Sumption, anyway). It could have been different. A superior force attacking a shaky alliance with better firepower and a reasonable defensive position. After all, what on earth could go wrong?

So, there you are. A battle that wasn’t. History can change on such things. Philip might have been persuaded to do the honourable thing and fight. Edward certainly hoped so. As wargamers, we can speculate, and that is part of the fun.

Saturday 20 August 2022

A Diabolical Plot

It has been said, although the veracity of it is disputed, that there are seven basic plots in fiction. It seems, to a non-literary critic who only occasionally reads novels, that there might be some truth in the claim, although not all plots will fit neatly into one of the seven categories. For reasons which might become clear eventually, if I ever get around to it, I have been considering the plots of wargames, and, more specifically, plots of wargame campaigns.

As my attentive reader might be able to deduce, this has arisen through my recent pondering that a wargame is a narrative, a story we like to tell because we are humans and humans like to tell stories. This impression of mine was reinforced by a comment in Henry Hyde’s Wargaming Campaigns, to the effect that campaigns are bigger narratives within which each battle is embedded. I am not going to argue with that.

Given that a wargame campaign is a larger narrative (I am not going to say ‘meta-narrative’ here because of its postmodernist connotations) it must, if logic serves me, have some sort of plot. Turning that around, it occurred to me that the seven basic plots in fiction may well enable the wargamer to think of a variety of plots or themes for wargame campaigns. My idea is that to keep interested in the campaign (which is a difficult thing sometimes) an overarching plot might well help.

There might be some logic in this sudden onrush of literary-ness on the blog. After all, something must propel readers, often easily bored teenagers, through Nicholas Nickleby or Far From the Madding Crowd, although one of my schoolfriends described the latter as ‘Far From the Maddening Crowd’ and when corrected, replied ‘I know what I mean’. So an overarching narrative might help us as wargamers drive our campaigns onwards.

The first plot is ‘overcoming the monster’, where the aim is for the hero to defeat their antagonist, who may well be evil. The hero might well be small and relatively powerless while their foe is wealthy, or powerful, or influential. Rendering that into wargame terms is fairly straightforward: we could have a minor principality menaced by a larger neighbour, for example. The neighbour attacks, there is a heroic defence, perhaps defeat and rebellion or other powers, small or large join in.

The second plot is ‘rags to riches’, where the protagonist goes from being poor and ill-treated to obtaining power, wealth, a mate, and so on. Think Cinderella. This is the plot for an awful lot of role-playing game campaigns (as opposed to scenarios). Perhaps, at risk of engaging in modern UK politics, a campaign whereby the Scots rebel against English rule would be the nearest wargame here. Or perhaps I have been reading too much about the Bishop’s Wars.

Next up is ‘the quest’. This is a fairly obvious one, used in many films where the characters, good and evil, are after some object or attempt to get to some objective. The Maltese Falcon is an example. Again, this is a fairly obvious role-playing game device for both campaigns and scenarios (who has never attempted to rescue the Duke’s loot or daughter, for example?). Historically the campaigns of Alexander III of Macedon would qualify I should think, although quite what he was looking for is anyone’s guess.

Fourthly, we have the ‘voyage and return’, where the hero goes to a strange land and comes back changed in some way. The possibilities here are manifold, I think. Colonial wargaming would yield a fair bit of this, as would fantasy and science-fiction. Even campaigns where the strange lands are not so strange and the armies are bigger than skirmish size would still fit the bill; the American Revolutionary Wars probably changed the British Army, after all.

Then there is comedy. I am trying to get my head around a wargame as a comedy without much success, although role-playing games can fit the bill. There is in comedy a plot based around increasing confusion and errors which are finally resolved happily. There might be comedy in wargames, but I am finding it hard to conceive of it as part of the game. Perhaps you can help me out here.

Penultimately there is tragedy. The hero is flawed or has made a mistake, and pays for it, perhaps with his honour, or his life, or that of his loved ones, or possibly all of them – think Macbeth, who probably had most of those things happen. I can certainly think of a campaign along those lines where a nation has made an error and has to back it up with force. The Romans did a lot of it in their provinces, extracting taxes corruptly and then having to deal with the rebellion.

Finally, there is ‘rebirth’. Here events turn the hero into a better person, such as in A Christmas Carol. That would certainly be possible in a role-playing game, I think, but how about an overall wargame campaign? Well, we could consider the political implications of, say, the First World War where women got the vote in the UK as a result of their war service. Is that stretching the point a bit far? Or maybe we could consider the encounter of the Roman Empire with Eastern cavalry which led to the cataphract? That might be considered to be a bit more to do with wargaming.

The point here is not to show that all wargames fit neatly into seven categories. They do not, and I am aware of it. But before launching a major (or even a minor one) wargame campaign it might just be worth thinking about it for a bit and using the basic plot schema for trying to decide what, at least initially, is going to be the narrative driver for the action. Mostly, I should think, this will be fairly simple and straightforward, but the bigger the campaign, or the more detailed, then, I suspect, the bigger narrative drive it will need to sustain interest.

Saturday 13 August 2022

Probability and Personality

A week or two ago I reviewed Henry Hyde’s Wargaming Campaigns. It has also been reviewed on JWH’s Heretical Gaming site. There the issue is raised about how personalities are created for your campaign. Now, I do not want to turn this blog post into an exposition of mathematics and probability. I am sure we all recall those lessons from school with a shudder, but I do think there is a bit of a point here, and I do, of course, have my own suggestions.

Along with most other authors, HH has a method of creating personalities for your wargames and campaigns. In this case, 1d100 is rolled for each personality trait of an individual. As JWH observes, this can lead to some rather extreme people populating your armies and countries. One of HH’s examples (p. 271) has Corporal Sheffield having an intelligence of 12 and a health score of 99, along with a charisma of 5. While this might be an amusing element of a campaign, it does indicate that perhaps the creation system is slightly out of kilter, unless you revel in such.

In a similar way, C. S. Grant’s Wargame Campaigns uses a 1d6 roll over a set of characteristics to create personalities. Again, this seems like a method for generating extremes, such as a rash invalid, or a self-centered incompetent. Again, a few of these might enliven a campaign, but quite how a self-centered incompetent is played slightly baffles me. Are they incompetently self-centered and therefore behave in an altruistic manner?

Perhaps the earliest personality creation system, certainly the earliest I have seen and used, is in Tony Bath’s Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, which is perhaps getting on a bit now but is still a worthy read, bubbling over with ideas. Bath uses a playing card system to create characteristics. Having tried this a long time ago I can say it does work but the characters can feel a bit ‘same-y’ and the meaning of the characteristics is a bit vague and how they are incorporated into the campaign is a bit lacking in clarity.

I do not want to tell people how to run their campaigns and personalities, of course, but I do think that single dice rolls are probably not the way forward. I think the idea comes from Dungeons and Dragons, but there are other ways of character creation. JWH suggests a 2d6 roll to obtain some averaging, and that is a distinct improvement, but I would go a bit further.

In the recesses of my mind, I recall my old role-playing game days where the Runequest system used 3d6 rolls for the base attributes of each characteristic. This does have advantages. The average roll on 3d6 is 10.5 (the range is 3 to 18) and the distribution is peaked around this value reasonably strongly. Therefore you get a strong average for a human characteristic – most characters you generate are going to be average in some quarters. They might also have some serious flaws or outstanding features, but these are going to be rather nuanced by the other, more average rolls.

Of course, in Runequest and other games, there are also non-human characters who get different dice rolls, or at least a different number of dice to be rolled. I shall ignore them here except to note for your fantasy or science-fiction game you might like to consider them.

The second advantage of the Runequest system is that the basic characteristics allow you to derive other skills from them. So, for example, your chance of spotting something hidden is given by your intelligence, while your initial ability to pick locks is determined by your intelligence and dexterity, and so on. You can also improve specific skills by use.

As I have been banging on a bit about Flashing Blades a bit here recently I can say that it has a similar system, and some useful skill sets that can be derived from the characteristics of many personalities in wargames. The soldier's career path has basic skills, such as shooting and swordplay, but also things like generalship and strategy. These would be handy for a budding general, and the initial scores can also be improved by training and practice.

The other useful trait of the 3d6 system is that by multiplying the number by five you have an immediate percentage chance of success. Thus, if your character is of average intelligence, say 11, they have a 55% chance of doing the intelligent thing, whatever that might be. If they have an initiative of 12 they have a 60% chance of doing something given a stimulus, and so on. While it does entail a little mental arithmetic, it is a useful basis, I find, for using the personalities I create.

Alternatively, you can use a 1d20 roll. I find that a bit less useful as the results are less fine-grained. You might want to know, for example, by how much your character has failed the intelligence test, or how badly their charisma lets them down in inspiring their men. A 1d100 roll gives you a more finely-grained answer than 1d20.

In both cases, however, there can always be a chance of success (a 1 or 01-05% in my system) and a chance of failure (20 or 96-00). I have also carried over the critical hit and fumble outcomes from role-playing days. The 1/20 of your probability of success at the lowest end counts as a critical roll, so you not only succeed but succeed as well as you can think, so if your roll is 50% you get a critical on a roll of 3% or less (being generous). The top 1/20 of your roll is a fumble (97% or more in the example) which results in the most egregiously silly or stupid thing being the outcome. In the Jersey Boys campaign just started, the Parliamentary land forces commander picked his units for the first wave, fumbled his intelligence test, and chose the forces with the most cowardly leaders. It may not matter, but it causes some amusement, and that is surely why we have personalities in campaign games.

Saturday 6 August 2022

Dealing in Death

It is a truism that wargamers tend to be uninterested in logistics. We are, on the whole, interested in the drama and excitement of the battle, not the long slog to bring weapons and munitions to the units that do the fighting. You can see why: an interest in wargame campaign logistics threatens to turn the hobby, usually tied up in the glamour and heroism of the sharp end, into an accountant’s nightmare.

That is not to say that there are not some honourable mentions along the way. A variety of scenarios, for example, have a supply train at their heart. The sides attack or defend some valuable cargo, be it gunpowder, attractive princesses or large sums of money. Siege wargames (another neglected area of wargaming and warfare over the centuries) also make reference, of necessity, to the problems of supply (which, after all, affected both sides). But, on the whole, wargames are fought without great attention being paid to how the sides came to obtain the wherewithal to enter combat in the first place.

I count myself as guilty as charged here. My wargames devolve all such considerations to an imaginary commissary officer, who makes sure that all units are fed, watered, and issued with copious stocks of ammunition, clothing and fodder for their horses. Real-life is not like that, of course. All of the items an army needs for fighting, moving, and simply existing, have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually not particularly close to the area of operations, at least as far as munitions go. Food is probably a different issue, at least some of the time.

Anyway, as you can probably discern, I have been reading again, this time a book I think I must have read before but have no memory of:

Edwards, P. Dealing in Death: The Arms Trade and the British Civil Wars, 1638-1653. Stroud: Sutton, 2000.

This turned out to be a fascinating read ranging from the Bishop’s Wars through to the expeditions to Ireland and Scotland that finished the civil wars, at least in the sense of fighting.

It turns out that the supply of munitions and weapons is a tricky thing. For the Bishop’s Wars Charles I could call on the Ordinance Office at the Tower, but that was small, underfunded and the king’s timescales were unrealistic. Thus the English armies were ill-equipped. The Scots did better, relying on massive imports from Sweden and Denmark, most of which were not intercepted by the royal navy.

The next challenge was the Irish rebellion. The rebels failed to capture the arsenal at Dublin Castle, but the defending royalist forces quickly ran out of weapons and munitions. They were starting to be supplied by Parliament (there was very little sympathy for the rebels on either side of the political divide in England or Scotland), but when the fighting was threatened and broke out in England supply dried up almost totally. The 1643 Cessation between the royalist and Irish Confederates was a relief to both sides, as the Irish were almost entirely dependent on imports. The English royalists then started to request munitions from Ireland.

There was, of course, a domestic arms industry. This was mainly centred on London and the south-east and so was under the control of Parliament. They also had the main horse market at Smithfield, which helped considerably. On the other hand, the principal officers of the Ordinance Office fled to the king and used their expertise to start manufacturing at Oxford. When Bristol fell to the royalists in 1643 manufacturing was set up there as well.

Things evolved over the war. Initially, the main royal centres of importing goods were in the northeast – Newcastle and Sunderland. Queen Henrietta Maria landed herself and her munitions at Bridlington, under gunfire from a Parliamentary squadron. The capture of the south-west and subsequent fall of the north led to the south-western ports such as Dartmouth becoming important. The stubborn resistance of Plymouth and Lyme increased the inconvenience, of course, but so long as they were blockaded the royalists could import good fairly straightforwardly.

The domestic industry increased to meet the demand. By the late 1640s, Edwards reckons that England was self-sufficient in most things needed to make war, except saltpetre and sulphur. Certainly, Cromwell’s expeditions to Ireland and Scotland had none of the logistical problems which had bedevilled the first civil war.

There were still, of course, transport difficulties. The roads were not great and while waterborne traffic could move goods in bulk, rivers were not always convenient, and a well-placed enemy garrison, such as Gloucester or Reading could limit use even more. Large numbers of draft horses were also required to move an army, and these were not always forthcoming. In Ireland the problem was acute. For those of you interested in the Irish armies of the time, the draught problem was solved by using oxen. I knew I had got those ox carts and limbers for a reason.

The real wargame interest here for those of us who are not accountants is surely in the import trade. All sides imported arms and munitions. All sides employed privateers to disrupt enemy shipping. And all sides attempted to blockade enemy ports. The logistical reason for the downfall of the English royalist cause was the loss of the southwestern ports, and also the shrinking of the areas of control which diminished the supply and manufacturing base. You might have expected Charles’ royal relations (his uncle was King of Denmark, his father-in-law King of France) to help, but both were at best lukewarm.

The possibility for small-scale wargaming and campaigns is almost endless. Collecting possibly contraband cargos from unfriendly or neutral ports, evading privateers and patrolling warships, delivering the cargo and then embarking on the return ship with a new load of exports might not sound that exciting, but I think a decent skirmish or role-playing game or campaign could be made out of it.

As an alternative, another approach could be to play out the naval part I have just suggested and determine the supply of the armies on the table by who has or captures the supply ships. The possibilities are endless.