Saturday, 31 December 2022

Air War Games

Well, here we are again, a New Year (nearly) and the same old stuff. This time I have been reading another old wargaming book, this time helpfully republished in the ‘History of Wargaming’ series by John Curry.

As those of you with the slightest interest in these things will know, there are precisely two books on air wargaming, which makes it an even more marginal wargaming activity than naval wargaming. This second book is, in fact, the earlier published one:

Donald Featherstone’s Air War Games: Wargaming Aerial Warfare 1914 – 1975 (revised edition, ed. John Curry, 2020).

As the original was published in 1966, the dates in the title indicate where some of the revisions occur. The book includes some rules and games for air combat over South-East Asia in the late 1960s. This, and a couple of other chapters on defending the Reich in 1944 and being in Bomber Command in 1943 are not Featherstone chapters, I don’t think. But they are worth having.

The updating does not stop there. The chapters on available models, commercial air wargames, and research are changed almost in their entirety. Hence it is revised; not the original text. This means that at times the editorial voice is rather intrusive, if not dominant. This is a good thing in some senses: most of the model information and the reference books are, to say the least, well out of date. On the other hand, occasionally, the editor’s footnotes, explaining bits of Featherstone’s text, can feel a bit more intrusive. I am not sure whether it is helpful; perhaps I am more used to dealing with old texts on their own terms.

Still, as with most of Featherstone’s books, it is quite a lot of fun. The chapter on methods of using model aircraft conjurers up a load of images in my mind of middle-aged wargamers clambering on top of their tables to string fishing line and cotton across them, and attaching nylon to their precious models to let them slide down wire to drop their bombs. I do not know if anyone really took this up, to be honest. In my hands, anyway, it simply would not work because I am just not that handy.

The key problem is aerial warfare is, of course, the dreaded third dimension. I suppose this is true also in fantasy and science-fiction games as well. Things that fly, aeroplanes, spaceships, and weird bat-like creatures, are always going to pose a problem for the wargamer. We know there is a third dimension, it is just that things in it refuse to stay put. Until someone invents an anti-gravity force field for wargaming, or wargames on a space station, that is the way it is going to stay.

Other methods of suspending aircraft in mid-air have other issues. Basically putting them on telescopic stands works nicely for air-to-air combat, but not for air-to-ground because the base of the telescopic bit gets in the way of the ground forces, or vice-versa. Perhaps some entrepreneurs in the future will invent wargame scale model aircraft as tiny drones.

Anyway, you get some interesting stuff here. As I may have mentioned in earlier posts, Featherstone is well aware that land, sea, and air warfare are all interlinked. He also has a bit on weather in air wargames which is quite helpful. It is not as detailed as Spick’s but does note (which Spick might but not that I recall) that for, say, a bombing raid to be viable the weather at both ends (and in between) needs to be suitable. There is no point in taking off on a beautiful evening in East Anglia if you cannot so much as find Germany, let alone your target because it is shrouded in thick fog.

There are some interesting ideas. Possibly the most interesting to me, although underdeveloped in the book, is a totally map-based game at 1 mm to the mile and 6 minutes to the move. This was the idea of an Edinburgh wargamer, Charles Dick. The location of your aircraft is recorded in a notebook which has one page for each 20 by 20-mile square, and the wargamers write (in pencil) the location of their squadrons, etc. Next move, these are erased and re-written on the next appropriate page until contact is made, at which point silhouettes of the aircraft are shown to the opponent. As Featherstone gnomically remarks, firing and determination of casualties is worked out by ‘whatever methods the combatants desire.’

Having been pondering, for a specific purpose, how to incorporate aerial warfare into wargames, this seems to me to be a workable system that could be updated for the Twenty-First Century using, for example, a spreadsheet or two. The system would also work for air and sea warfare, such as (as DF suggests) Midway.

One of the vital activities in air warfare, I have learned from reading these books on air wargaming, is the reconnaissance and spotting role. It seems to me that these roles are somewhat under-represented in most wargames I have seen set in the Twentieth Century and beyond. And that is a shame, because much of the interest, for me at least, lies there.

As an example I have been watching Warplane Workshop, an obscure series (actually, the Estimable Mrs. P. expressed a wish to see it, as it is about something that neither of us knows anything about) on an obscure UK TV channel (More 4, for those interested). The first program was about restoring and flying a Spitfire Mark 19, which was a reconnaissance, late-war, aircraft, also used for chasing V1s. The problem it was to solve, at least initially, was finding the German forces retreating through France and other bits of Western Europe. After all, you cannot defeat the enemy if you do not know where they are. The methods of handling a very fast aircraft trying to find armed forces that have no wish to be found, in the early morning (to get the shadows) with an oblique camera can only be imagined.

On the other hand, I do recall R. V. Jones remarking that the reconnaissance flights were vital, and he discovered a method of making life easier. The commandos raided a German radar site (I forget where, on the coast of France), really to steal as much as they could of it to see what it was and how it worked. This had the knock-on effect of causing the Germans to place barbed wire around their radar installations which made the job of spotting them a lot easier, as the pictures showed rings of uncut grass around them. Warfare is full of unintended consequences.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, 24 December 2022

Christmas Crackers

It has become ‘traditional’, whatever that means, at this time of year, that I give you, my loyal reader, a set of rules to download, ruminate upon, and then leave on your hard drive until the end of time. However, this year, for assorted reasons some of which might become clear eventually, I do not have any such offering. While racking my brains for what I could do which would appear generous (the times are straitened, of course) I hit upon the idea of a fully formed campaign. And so, for those few of you who have been following it (one of the posts has a record-low number of hits, I think) I give you the Jersey Boys campaign.

There are two files in the download (about 1.75 MB, zip file, if you are interested). One is a map, with hexes overlaid, and the other is a list of the commanders with their personalities and the forces at both sides’ disposal. I think it has been rather a fun campaign, but your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Still, it would only take a few name changes to adjust to other age of sail eras. I could quite easily see the campaign re-imagined as a Napoleonic era French invasion, either to prevent British privateers or the RN from using it as a base, or just because Jersey is a convenient bit of the UK (actually, technically, it is not part of the UK, but we’ll have some slack cut due to the time of year) to invade from France.

It could also be imagined as an Anglo-Norman affair, perhaps related to the loss of Normandy by King John, or the Hundred Year’s War, again relating to Normandy. If you want to do a bit more leg work, of course, the Second World War beckons, but a bit of effort could make something interesting relating to the later Nineteenth Century, or the Eighteenth.

The campaign could be made longer if there was a possibility of the defenders being reinforced. The Royalists in the early 1650s were, of course, in a fairly hopeless position, but other eras present other options. Another possibility could be the Romans and some sort of Gallic or Ancient Briton alliance. After all, Asterix’s home village was somewhere on the mainland nearby, I think.

So, plenty of possibilities. Give it a go with whatever forces you have available. You never know, you might enjoy it. And a very Happy Christmas to you all.

The Jersey Boys campaign (map and characters, forces, and dispositions), can be found here.

Saturday, 17 December 2022

Sea Battle Games

I have moaned here before about the lack of naval wargaming and wondered about why that may be. Mind you, I have noticed that there is even less air wargaming around, unless one includes ground attack in that category. So I have taken a trip down memory, or in this case, very vague memory, lane, and come up with one of the early books on naval wargaming:

Dunn, P., Sea Battle Games, Hemel Hempstead, MPA, 1970.

I remember this book vaguely from the public library when I was a lad. The cover is striking, showing an exploding ship. This slightly belies the claim that wargame books and rules covers rarely show casualties, the only exception being Charles Grant’s Battle! Anyway, I digress.

The book proceeds more or less as you would expect for the period. There is some background and then some scoping. In this case, there is more or less an apology for not covering, for example, the Armada. This comes with some quite astute (or waspish, depending on your point of view) comments about Victorian historical writing, observing that ‘The historic truth of the Spanish Armada is, alas, far removed from the popular Victorian legend.’ (p.12). Quite so.

Anyway, the scoping comments are quite astute, at least in my opinion. Dunn advocates the use of campaigns. Battles for their own sake land up with rather silly (and certainly unhistorical) activities, such as damaged battleships charging the enemy. He describes the stand-alone action as a ‘blast battle’.

The book itself covers rules for Napoleonic wargames, ironclads (1860-70). The next chapter is a bit of an oddity in this non-expert's eyes, in that it is about pre-Dreadnought gunnery. I imagine that it goes together sufficiently well to permit small actions in the 1880-1940 or so era, when ship-to-ship gunnery combat was, at least theoretically the way actions were settled.

Next up, before the World War Two rules, there is a chapter on Map Campaigns, with three categories: self-contained, where the campaign and action is entirely map based; semi-secret campaigns; completely secret campaigns. The differences are mostly about how much information is revealed to the enemy (and the need for an umpire, of course). The rules are fairly straightforward, fortunately, and they seem to be sensible. The diagrams showing various wargamers’ activities are something you might either love or hate, such as bald Albert, smooth Sam, and bearded umpire Jonathan. The fact that they all wear jackets and Sam, at least, a tie, gives them a certain period charm.

Anyway, World War Two rules follow, and they have all the problems and solutions (including fudges and workarounds) that we already know. Given a scale ship of 1:1200, the ship's speed is translated directly from knots to inches, which means you have to have a fairly large playing area. Gun ranges too are rather scary, suggesting 91 inches for an eighteen-inch salvo. That is probably bigger than my entire wargame ‘room’. Still, Dunn does suggest reducing the range by half or three-quarters. He also notes that while the speed scale is correct for one minute, the damage from gunnery is probably more likely correct for twenty minutes. Compromise is in the air.

Still, torpedo, submarine, and air rules are included, so the rules do not suffer from a lack of comprehensiveness. As with many naval rules I have seen, they rely on both dice and card drawing for resolving gunnery. I have not, of course, seen all that many rule sets, particularly more recent ones, so I cannot comment on other ways of resolution. Still, the limits of wargaming were often identified by pioneer writers, and many of the problems they throw up remain unresolved.

Chapter 9 is ‘The Hypothetical World War Game’, which is fascinating. It is, basically, a campaign set in an imaginary world. Given that heavy bomber range is nearly half the world map, it is not a particularly large world, and steaming off the right-hand side of the map leads you to reappear on the left, it is certainly a world. There are rules for generating the naval forces, air squadrons, and army groups. Resources are limited to steel and oil. The former limits ship repair and construction, and the latter the range of the ships.

The result is an interesting mix of naval activity (the map is mostly islands) and interaction with air and land elements. Doing the latter ‘properly’, of course, makes the whole lot a load more complex and in a context of a naval wargame book beyond its scope. This is a bit of a shame because, well, the epitome of wargaming is surely those operations or wars where all three (or both, in earlier ages) were involved.

Still, the last chapter discusses wargaming in earlier ages, taking 1470 (firearms on warships) as the start date. There are some suggestions on wargaming the Armada, with observations about the differences between Spanish and English gunnery and their strengths and weaknesses. There are a couple of paragraphs on Lepanto and then on Henry VIII’s navy.

Obviously, a book of this age shows it in some aspects. The comments about models are, obviously out of date. The contemporary wargamer has a bewildering choice of scales for naval wargaming, from 1:6000 up. If I ever did get around to Twentieth Century wargaming that is the naval scale I would go for. As I mentioned a long time ago the compression of the ground scale in the Twentieth Century just gets huge, and the only way to deal with it is to reduce the anomalies by shrinking to models. Alternatively, especially with the carrier battles of the later Pacific War, you could manage with a pure map game.

Still, it was worth reading again, after many years of vaguely remembering it. As with any wargame book, there is some useful stuff in it, some things to make the wargamer think, and some parts which make you wonder whether the topic was really carried out in that way. I am not to judge, but the enthusiasm of books of this age is not to be doubted.

Saturday, 10 December 2022

The Siege of Somesvar

‘Why are the heretic cowards skulking in there?’

‘Perhaps they have been hit with a spirit of fear by the Lord, Jaz.’

‘They should come out and fight like the heretic cowards they are!’

‘Um, Jaz. Heretic cowards, by definition, would not come out and fight. Due to being cowards, like. You know?’

‘Are you on their side?’

‘No, no. Just trying to explain. The Lord our God gave us brains to use as well as, um, fanatical faith.’

‘I am not a fanatic! The Lord really does speak to me and I call them heretic cowards! HERETIC COWARDS!’

‘Yes, Jaz. Now, perhaps, a nice lie down in the cool and dark of the wagon will help. It's going to be a long siege.’


It has been a long time, or so it feels since the Hussites hit the table. So I thought I would drag them out and see how the rebellion was going. As you might have divined from the above, Jaz and her fellow war wagon drivers have pitched up outside a castle held by a German Crusader army.

Initially, I was going to wargame the approach and deployment, but as the German noble cavalry (4 bases) and skirmishers (2 bases) faced up to the proto-besiegers (24 bases, plus some big bombards) the nobles did the only truly noble thing they could and rode off into the sunset shouting ‘Stand firm’ over their shoulders, and ‘We’re all in this together’, and promising to bring aid. So much for the public school educated.

Anyway, that left the situation as in the picture.

Now, even with two armies, there are not really sufficient troops to surround the castle (Leven Miniatures), but the game was meant as another outing for my playing card-driven siege rules, with hopefully slightly less wacky results than last time. Nevertheless, you can see the results of the first few cards drawn. The Hussite main magazine has exploded (foreground) and part of the castle wall has already collapsed (3 points damage to the left of the gate). Obviously, health and safety and maintenance rules are being laxly enforced on both sides.

The game proceeded quite nicely. The trenches were dug, the batteries established and only a few unwanted events were found, which kept the game moving but did not bog it down in too many events so the generals were totally disempowered.

Above you can see the siege works advanced and a breach has in fact been created in the already damaged wall section. The next card drawn informed me that a wall section had collapsed. The Hussite billmen attempted to storm the breach but were held off by the German spearmen. Along the way a Hussite battery had exploded; clearly, inexperience with gunpowder was telling.

After the storm was repelled I had to do a bit of pondering on behalf of the Hussites. As has been noted, under the rules (in fact, it should be under any rules) bills versus pikes or spears is a bit of a slog. Both have high factors and it is difficult to get a result. In the above storming, the Germans were able to flank some Hussite blades and destroy them. I realised that I was lacking a bit of firepower.

Now, Hussites have firepower. They are famous for it, with the war wagons occasionally being described as prototype tanks (which they were not, but anyway). I noticed that the war wagons could not really be deployed closer to the walls, but that the crews could be. The Hussite war wagons were crewed by folks with both handguns and crossbows, probably a lot more of the latter than the former in reality. So, I thought, I can dismount some of the crews and have them shoot through the breach to clear the way for another assault. Another round of card drawing or two left the Hussites attempting to demolish another wall section (and failing) while pushing their trenches ever closer to the breach.

The above shows the final assault. Hussite firepower pushed the German crossbows back from their temporary defences inside the breach and enabled the billmen to go in again. This time the disruption from the firepower was such as gave the Hussites the upper hand in the combat, and they prevailed, albeit just. The castle surrendered.

I confess I was pleased with how my siege events table worked out. It might have helped that I did not draw any of the mine and countermine cards, of course, but I would probably have simply ignored them. Nevertheless, the cards added colour to the game, with a sudden wall collapse, exploding gunpowder, and, at the last, an immense burst of energy enabling the Hussites to push their trenches right under the walls.

In the game the defence was rather passive, I admit. That was partly because I wanted to test the rules, rather than fight a siege wargame, but also because without the knights the German Crusaders are a bit low on options in a siege. I should have probably given them some more firepower as well. Although they do not seem to have used handguns or cannons on the battlefield, they did on walls and in sieges.

Still, it was a good game. I think my rules are advancing to the point I can conceive that a siege wargame could be interesting and give some difficult decisions to both players, as well as a few random events to cause a bit of head-scratching. At one card each per siege turn, with only half the cards being relevant, you get a nice slow flow of randomness and can make plans. The game, as I recall, took 13 siege turns and two bursts of tactical action in the storming. I have not quite worked out how long a siege turn is, yet. Maybe a few days.


‘We are triumphant! The gates of Hades cannot stand against us!’

‘Jaz, the castle wasn’t called Hades, you know.’

‘Any place where the unbelievers reign is Hades! But the Lord of Hosts has overcome. We march triumphantly against sin, the world, and the Devil. Whose round is it?’

Saturday, 3 December 2022

Air Battles in Miniature

Fear not, gentle reader. You have not opened the wrong blog, nor have I gone totally mad, or, hopefully, even slightly. Nevertheless, the title and topic do need some sort of explanation, in this case, a delve down memory lane.

A long time ago I read a couple of issues of Airfix Magazine. As with many of my generation, there was a lot of model making of ships, aircraft and tanks, along with divisions of little soldiers to be stood up, have marbles rolled at them, lost in the garden trenches and so on. One article stuck in my mind, however, was about the use of model aircraft in air wargaming.

The author of the article (there might have been two) was Mike Spick, and there was a book. Being impoverished and also in a small community, my only hope was the town library, which carried a fair few wargaming books, but Mr Spick’s never appeared. Who knows what might have happened if it had.

Still, many years later the memory returned and the second-hand book market turned up trumps:

Spick, M., Air Battles in Miniature: A Wargamers’ Guide to Ariel Combat 1939 – 1945 (PSL, Cambridge, 1978)

With the blessing of the Estimable Mrs P. the tome winged its way to my door, although I had to promise not to start off a World War Two aircraft collection. One quiet Friday afternoon I settled down to read.

The most obvious problem with air combat is the third dimension. Aeroplanes operate in the along, side-to-side and the up and down, while land and sea forces only have to contend with the first two. How this is represented on a wargame table is a matter of some perplexity. Mr Spick has his own answer, at least for the tactical game.

I did manage to reduce the Estimable Mrs P to laughter with some of the solutions to the 3-D problem of air wargaming. Telescopic car aerials, for example, were treated with a little derision. See-through plastic stands fared slightly better, although not a great deal as it was pointed out that aeroplanes operate at different heights. Criss-crosses of thread or fishing line hanging over the table were, I am afraid to say, simply laughed at, along with a look which said ‘Don’t even think it’. I suppose that this solution needs a permanent wargame table.

Still, Mr Spick’s solution is obvious to a mathematician. On the basis that the three dimensions are the same, we can alter the slice of space in which our aircraft operate. That is, instead of the table representing the side-to-side and the along, it represents the up-and-down and the along. Instead of height being bodged, depth is.

The upshot of this is that when making your Airfix aircraft kits, you need to make them in two halves. Depending on in which direction your aircraft is moving, you use a different half. Up and down is obvious, while in and out is, largely, ignored, or at least, reduced to a projection of that dimension on the other two, such as when an aircraft turns.

This certainly gives another view of air combat, and the rest of the book, after accepting that compromises are rife in wargames and in particular air wargames, the tactical rules are worked out with respect to it. So far as I am any judge here (which is not far) they seem workable but, as aircraft vary widely in performance, horribly complex and technical. Air combat is also, it seems, nasty, brutish and short, and a turn length of 4 seconds seems to suggest as much.

So far, so fascinating but, for my poor little brain which can just about cope with half-a-dozen troop types, navigating the differences between a Bf109G and a Spitfire Vc is a bit much. For me, the book gets more interesting when it turns to air-to-ground interactions (bombing, strafing and anti-aircraft fire) and larger-scale campaigns. Here, the x-z plane for the wargame table is abandoned, and the whole is given over to the operational map.

Spick suggests a number of possible limited campaigns. I learnt that the air war on the Eastern Front was mostly fought in support of ground activities, which brings us back to the 3-D problem, but some of the other activities could be recreated. Most obvious is the Battle of Britain, with Luftwaffe air raids and their limited fighter support. Another possibility is the raids by night and day in Germany starting in roughly 1942. Here, considerations of weather and wind are important in planning, and I also learnt that one of the points of pathfinder missions was to measure the wind speed local to the target to aid navigation and the ability to actually hit something.

Interactions of aircraft with naval vessels are also covered. The purists might not like the solutions proposed, but they seem workable to me, but most would probably replace them with whatever their naval rules suggest. Spick does emphasise he is looking at the subject from the air side, not the ground. The book does include dashes of humour: he notes it is easier to keep track of damage to naval air bases than land ones because the former tend to sink.

The best idea in the book, so far as I can tell, is air operations around Malta. Malta was important because of the convoys from Italy to North Africa. Mr Spick notes that when bomber forces were sent to Malta, the Axis air forces went into overdrive. The game could include various aspects of naval warfare, such as the Malta convoys, but can be treated as a pure air campaign. All that would be needed is an outline map of Sicily and Malta, and if I could find one on the Internet I might give it a go.

The forces involved in the Malta campaigns were, on the whole, smallish and included, of course, Italian air units, which are a must, it seems to me, for those who like less fashionable aircraft. The game could conceivably last for three years, from 1940, and the units available varied considerably, as Allied reinforcements got through (or did not) and units of the Luftwaffe were called away to other duties, mostly on the Russian front.

So there you are. A trip down memory lane, a teenage daydream fulfilled and some interesting stuff. But I will probably keep my feet on the ground.