Saturday, 25 March 2023

The Battle of Pavia (No, Not That One)

As reported last week, the first move of Avalon Hill’s Machiavelli 1499 campaign started with a bang as the French invaded Pavia from Milan, and the autonomous garrison decided to fight it out, outside the walls. This was a bit of a surprise to everyone (the rules say that autonomous garrisons just stand siege and die, but my argument would be ‘not always’). Still, a wargame beckoned, and that is the point, after all.

A bit of dice rolling created a battlefield, which, with its well watered plain, might even look a bit like Northern Italy. The Pavia garrison is closest to the camera, the French on the far side.

The Pavia garrison has four bases of gendarmes, three crossbows, two crossbow skirmishers, two mounted crossbow light horse bases and two sword and buckler. A sort of normal Italian army, at least for a wealthy state that could afford gendarmes. The French are, in my experience, a bit of an odd, unbalanced but very powerful (at times) army, with four bases of gendarmes, four of Swiss pike, a mounted crossbow and two skirmisher bases. In vague memory the French seem hopeless until they get to close quarters, at which point the sheer violence of the assault from either cavalry or pikes tends to blow opponents away.

The French aim was, as you might possibly be able to discern from the photograph, to cover the advancing columns of pike and cavalry with skirmishers, get in close and go ‘Boom!’. The Pavian’s plan was to hold the French off with the skirmishers, entice them into the field of fire of the crossbows and hit any remaining, hopefully disrupted, formations with the gendarmes.

A few moves in and the plans are evolving somewhat.

The Pavian mounted crssbows have managed to push back their French counterparts, and one base just about managed to avoid being destroyed by advancing French gendarmes. It has been rallied and is now again attempting to fill the French with bolts. The Italians are moving their crossbows a bit to the left to give their own gendarmes in the centre a better chance of charging in due course. On their left the other gendarmes are advancing, just about into charge range of the detached French gendarmes. The next move they charge home, the French rout, the Italians decide not to career on into the rest of the French cavalry (which deployed) and rally back. The French general just about survived the debacle, and carried on moving the gendarmes forward and trying to get the Swiss into the action. On the Italian right, incidentally, you can see a brisk skirmish underway, honours going mostly to the French.

The next photograph shows the crunch point. The Italian gendarmes which charged and then rallied are some way back behind the Italian left rear. They got the fall back order fine, but the general did not have enough tempo to stop them retreating and start them rallying until they were almost off the table. Lots of other things were happening, after all, and the Pavians suffered from bad tempo dice rolling all day. Tragically, the Pavian general was shot down by a French mounted crossbowman just before the critical point, which meant that Italian command and control evaporated.

On the Italian right you can see that the skirmish has been resolved in favour of the French. There was nothing much clever here, just some decent dice rolling which eventually wore down the Italian skirmishers. The French gendarmes have now charged home and hit their Italian counterparts very hard indeed. The rightmost gendarme base is on the verge of breaking, the left has been forced back. Lack of command means, of course, that the other half of the Italian cavalry is away to the left rear of the army and not intending to do much at this point.

To follow up the cavalry charge you can see in the French rear the Swiss pike bearing down on the crossbow line. Italian armies of the early Italian Wars, do not really have much of an answer to the Swiss pike and gendarmes combination of the French. It did take Cordoba and a ditch and bank to beat them originally, of course.

As it happened here, the pikes were not necessary. Another move or two and the Italian gendarmes were routing, along with the skirmishers and the rightmost mounted crossbowmen. That gave rather a large negative push to the Pavians, especially as they had lost their general as well, and they routed. Pavia was French.

As an opening battle for a campaign this was rather a nice one. As I mentioned, I was a bit worried about bias against the French, and that was even more so once the lead French gendarme base had been taken out by a careful Italian charge. The French general was attached, and was lucky to survive. Indeed, he had a charmed life, surviving the disruption of the mounted crossbow base as well. If he had gone on one of these events the French would have had a very hard time, I think. On the other hand, the Italians were unlucky to lose their general. If he had stayed intact, they might have brought in the other gendarmes and stitched together a defence to the French charge. But I do not think three crossbow bases and two sword and bucklers would really stand much chance against a Swiss pike strike.

As it happened, not too much was at stake in this battle, except irrelevant detail such as Pavian freedom and Italian unity. I did spend a few minutes wondering whether, in campaign terms, the French should have simply retreated to secure Milan as it was possible that the Austrians could have come in behind them and seized it in the subsequent turns. As it happens that did not happen; the rest of the year was fairly quiet in the north of Italy. Most of the interest moved to the Duchy of Ferrara, between the Papal States and Venice.

Saturday, 18 March 2023

What Would Gonsalvo Do?

A long time ago I bought the board game Machiavelli. This turned out to be the first Avalon Hill edition. The second, which a friend of mine bought, had a slightly different map layout. We, as a group of friends, played it quite a lot both face to face and via mail (this was before the days of email, which shows how old I am), and a good deal of fun it was too.

Recently I have, for reasons I will not go into just now, been rather overwhelmed by onrushing deadlines and stuff to do. While the deadlines are a fair distance off, I have been slogging away at a computer screen not achieving very much. The Estimable Mrs. P, whose husband managerial skills are legendary, noticed this and demanded a change, that is doing some wargaming rather than just thinking about it or painting.

Having recently excavated Machiavelli from its storage box, and having been thinking a bit about campaigns and strategy, as the recent blog posts will aver, the pressure to indulge in some wargaming, a campaign and a bit of strategy all came together, and so an Italian Wars campaign was born.

After the inevitable humm-ing and aaah-ing, I decided on the 1499 scenario, with some changes, both because the scenario really needed some, because I have a few logistical issues, and partly to make the game suitable for solo use.

As for the modifications to the scenario, the province labeled Swiss is neutral in my game. The Swiss, of course, were integral in the French armies, but Switzerland was not really part of France. Additionally, so far as I know, the French and ‘Austrians’ (really the Holy Roman Empire) never invaded each other through Switzerland. Another change was to split the Austrians and Neapolitan Spanish in the scenario. This was because, well, they did operate separately at the time with different troop types, and the aim here was to fight out the battles, not use the game’s combat resolution system.

I also turned the Turks into neutrals. This was mainly because I do not have all that many Ottoman troops. Probably just enough, in fact, but I was not confident. At the time, anyway, the Ottoman interests were elsewhere, after all.

As just mentioned, the idea was to wargame the combats. I have had the idea for years of using my Italian Wars armies to do this. Originally these were 100 AP DBR forces; they have only morphed a little in the meantime. I also have, you might recall, suitable galleys for the naval forces. A fleet was arbitrarily defined as consisting of 12 galleys. The armies ranged between 11 and 15 bases.

In Machiavelli, a force in a neighbouring area can support another force advancing into it or being attacked. I have for a long time had the means of dealing with this. Each force consists of a 100 AP army, as mentioned. The first support contributes another 50 AP (or, in the cash values of this game, half an army), the second support 25 AP, and so on. I used this method in 1618-Something years ago, and it seemed to work nicely, although in this game I did not include train and siege extras, which in 1618-Something could double or more the size of an army.

I also decided to use only the basic game. The number of units is determined by the number of cities held – the black squares and circles on the map above. In a solo game, I have not figured out how to manage finances as well, at least, not yet, so I decided to test the diplomacy mechanics I had invented rather than include ducats as well.

There are also autonomous garrisons in the game. These hold cities that are not (or are trying not to be) committed to one of the sides. In Machiavelli, they have to be besieged or bribed (in the advanced game) out. In my game, I adjusted this to a 2D6 roll if a force enters the province. At a low roll, the city surrenders, at a high roll the garrison comes out and fights, and in the middle, the most likely roll, after all, the garrison stands siege as per the rules.

The diplomacy was handled via a system I saw years ago in Lone Warrior, the reference for which I have lost. Basically, you have a table of the countries and each cell gives the relationship between countries A and B, from 1, at war, to 6 friendly and possibly allied. I have adapted this to include the internal relations of the countries, as often they were factionalised and coups, rebellions, and civil wars were not unknown, and also the relationship the other way, as it were, between country B and A. This is because sometimes a country or ruler could be desperate not to upset another which might be about to invade them, for example.

Diplomatic relations are adjusted after the three campaign seasons that make up a year. For this I roll matched average dice, so the swings are not too wild, although having read a bit about the Italian Wars matched d10 might be more appropriate. Side-switching was really a hobby of some of the states.

I also introduced an activation system. Each turn (season) each power would turn a card, and could only move on a heart. Bitter experience has demonstrated that there can be simply too many battles in a turn to wargame in a sensible time frame unless some such system is involved. If that happens often the campaign grinds to a halt in frustration, so hopefully the activation system will slow things down to an acceptable rate. Things in Renaissance Europe did not happen that quickly, I think.

The picture above shows the Spring 1499 turn partially completed. The French have been activated and moved their fleets into the Gulf of Lyons (I think it should be Lions; Lyons is a fair bit inland), armies into Turin and Savoy, and are about to move into Pavia as well. I debated this internally for a bit because it leaves Milan open to the Imperialists, so it is taking a risk and after JWH’s post on possible solo wargamer’s bias I don’t want to be seen to be pushing the French too hard.

The Venetians have moved into Mantua and also into the Upper Adriatic, while the Spanish Neapolitans have also put to sea. On the autonomous garrison rolls, Manuta surrendered, Turin and Savoy stood siege and the garrison of Pavia came out to fight. So that will be the next post, together with some poor photographs.

Saturday, 11 March 2023

The Seventeenth Century

I have seen in more than one place, so it must be true, historians grumbling that there is not very much published in paperback about the Seventeenth Century, at least by comparison with the Sixteenth. I suspect they mean about England, or the British Isles, and are excluding academic historiography from that. ‘Paperback’ seems to indicate a certain popularity. I have seen it said that yet another book about Mary, Queen of Scots, can be predicted and sold, while one about Anne of Denmark is likely to get a ‘who is that, then’ sort of response.

This may well be true. There is something much more exciting and romantic about the Tudors than the Stuarts. After all, the Tudors have a usurper, a sickly boy, a tragic queen (or two), a woman who sacrifices love (of an aristocratic sort, of course) for the duty of queenship (unlike her cousin) and whatever you want to make of Henry VIII. As for the Stuarts, we have a Scot, of, perhaps, questionable sexuality, one who got his head cut off, a military dictatorship, a Merrie Monarch, one who didn’t last and a Dutchman as kings. Perhaps the appeal of the Sixteenth Century is a bit clearer.

As I said, this rather excludes academic debate over the Seventeenth (or Sixteenth) Century. The academy, unfortunately, usually talks to itself, even in these days of Research Impact Assessments. These latter, by the way, is why you often get rather half-baked research appearing on the end of the news. The university and research funders have forced the academic to go public before they are ready. Those of you with long memories may recall the cold fusion fiasco of the late 1980s.

But I digress; or at least, before I digress to far afield, the situation seems to me to be a bit different in wargaming. In Tudor England there was not a huge quantity of fighting, so not much of the period is wargame-able. There were, of course, a few rebellions against Henry VIII, and a couple against Elizabeth, but these really stood little chance against the might of even the Tudor state. There are also various rebellions in Ireland, but these can have political resonances even today and often get overlooked.

The big event in late Tudor England was, of course, the Armada, and that is high on some wargamer’s list. I have, of course, run a narrative campaign of my own set in the period. Actually, for a monarch who really was averse to warfare, because of the cost in both financial terms and human life, Elizabeth I spent much of the reign with her realm at war. To her credit they were mostly defensive wars and, probably to the wargamer’s dismay, did not result in too many field battles in which English forces were involved.

A reason for the relative lack of interest in Elizabeth’s wars might be due to Oman, of course, who did not think that too much interesting occurred militarily during her reigns, and Cruickshank’s Elizabeth’s Army which rather implied that it was corrupt, ineffective and inefficient. Well, maybe, but you do not see many late Tudor armies running around.

The opposite is true for the Seventeenth Century, of course. The English Civil War dominates the wargaming scene after a quiet forty years or so. Following on from that there are the Anglo-Dutch Wars, war against Spain, and then the whole complex of events starting in 1685 and culminating in the War of Spanish Succession. I see an increasing amount of this around, which is an interesting trend which I am not going to try to analyse.

On the whole, then, wargaming, focussed on England and the home nations is in opposition to the historiographical trend. There is, in my estimation, a fair bit more of it than Sixteenth Century wargaming. When we come to continental warfare, of course, the Sixteenth Century tends to strike back, particularly with the Italian Wars and, perhaps, occasionally the French Wars of Religion. The Thirty Years War and allied conflicts of the Seventeenth Century get less of a look in, as do the eastern wars of the Ottomans, Venetians, Muscovites, Poles and Austrians, even though the Austrians made spectacular gains in the period, and the 1685 siege of Vienna was a stunning victory.

Even further afield, the Seventeenth Century was that in which it could be argued, colonialism got going, with extensive contact between musket armed Europeans and natives of every range of sophistication from Africa to India, Japan and China. This early colonial adventuring gets, it seems to me, little attention, except if pirates are added in, in which case more light-hearted games, or role-playing scenarios, come to the fore.

Going back to the paperback thing, I suspect I might have hit a limiting factor on wargaming the Seventeenth Century. There is not a huge amount published on the period in affordable, more popular history. While Wedgwood's books are excellent, they are getting on a bit now and some of her narrative assumptions might be looking a bit threadbare. There are a few other works which count, but really, as historians generally, and in particular military historians have not until recently been particularly interested in battles and campaigns (often dismissed as ‘drums and trumpets’) and more popular writers cannot gain access particularly easily to academic work and so tend to rely on older writings, there is a bit of a deadlock.

This is a bit of a shame. I am sure there is interesting work going on at the moment in academic history, particularly with respect to the Protectorate and its military adventures, but it is rather hard, or takes a generation or so, to emerge into the public, or wargaming, consciousness. There are signs of hope, such as the Helion ‘Century of the Soldier’ series, but the danger is there that the wargamer is simply overwhelmed with information and books (and, if you get them all, they are not cheap).

Still, an interesting paradox. I suspect that there may be other historical periods to which the above apply, and which might remain under-investigated by wargamers. But I don’t know what they might be.

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Up and Down the Scales

In the unlikely event that this blog is known in the wider wargaming world at all, I suppose it would be known as a ‘6 mm’ blog, that is, a blog that features 1:300 scale figures in its wargames. Many wargamers, I suspect, might read some of the text, and even appreciate some of the wilder ideas about wargaming, but, on the whole, are not too impressed with the eye candy (can you have eye poison?) on show.

It probably only goes to show that taking photographs of 6 mm figures is a lot harder than with larger scale figures, and also that neither my painting skills nor my ability with a camera are up to snuff. I shall, therefore, keep wargaming with the small stuff and taking bad photographs. All I can say in my defence is that both my painting and photography have improved over the years, from the dreadful to the merely awful.

Anyway, as the astute reader of the blog might have noticed, occasionally larger-scale figures make an appearance. I have, in one of my boxes of shame, a stash of old (over 20 years) English Civil War dismounted cavalry and infantry figures, along with a few French King’s Musketeers types. These were purchased, I imagine (you really don’t think I can remember that far back, do you?) for my forays into role-playing games.

I started role-playing games as a teenager, of course. One of the difficulties was the fantasy setting, and the other was the lack of figures. The former meant that many hours were spent poring over books of rules and cults, trying to figure out how it all cohered. It was only many years later that I worked out that the setting did not need to be more than immediately coherent.

The other issue that I never solved for Runequest (for indeed, that was the RPG of choice) was the lack of figures. Naturally, I could (and did) get some ancient figures. My own was a Spartan Hoplite which, my friends complained, was not actually carrying a weapon, as he had lost his spear somewhere along the way. Anyway, we cobbled together some figures, some appropriate and some not. But unless one of us had a vast sum of money, which as ‘A’-level students was distinctly unlikely, we were never going to get giants, dragon snails or trolls.

Later on, I discovered the delights of FGU’s Flashing Blades game. Remarkably, this is still in print, along with all the scenario books. I have discovered over recent weeks that I use it a lot for Seventeenth Century background and ideas. Refreshingly, as I may have remarked before, it is set not in the France that was, but in the France that should have been. While the sword combat system is a bit complex (I don’t think I have ever played it correctly) a lot of the other stuff is a rollicking good adventure RPG.

Those of you who have read so far will have divined the next step. The large ECW figures are for Flashing Blades and similar systems. I also have in my pile of books the GURPS Pirates modules, and a few renaissance era skirmish type sets of rules – Peter Berry’s Once Upon a Time in the West Country and Once Upon a Time in the West Indies, and someone’s Have Pike Will Travel, which in the best traditions of my wargame stash, is in the ‘it's around here somewhere’ category.

So far as I recall they were all quite fun, in different ways. Flashing Blades was a real role-playing game, with adventurers with attributes like charisma, which could get the young ladies swooning, or at least intrigue the barmaid sufficiently to show the party the back way out of the pub. The others are slightly higher (or lower) level games. There is a lot less characterisation and the scenarios are more wargames, such as escort the wagon across the table, rather than intrigue and scandal. Still, with secret missions and occasional random events, they could be jolly fun games.

Meandering towards the point here, I suspect that often these sorts of games have been compartmentalised, perhaps almost totally, away from serious or proper wargames. In the latter, we conceptualise a few figures as being a battalion or a brigade, or perhaps a company or platoon. There is not much individualisation, there are few fun chance cards, and, hearkening back to a post a while ago, the chance of comedy narrative arcs is fairly small.

It has always seemed to me that there is a good opportunity being missed here. Why not mix the levels of wargaming up? After all, a lot of historical novels count on some individual action in saving the day: retrieving the Queen’s jewels which she has inadvertently given to a rather sweet English ambassador, for example. A more political plot could be ensuring the ambassador and a signed treaty get through hostile land to the destination. The really astute reader may recognise the Corbie battles and skirmishes here.

Without wishing to belabour the point, has anyone any ideas about this? Have you done it, mixed the levels of wargaming, so that the outcome of a skirmish game determines the circumstances of the next full-scale wargame? Does it work?

My own thoughts on the matter, having tried it out a bit, as just noted, is that it can work, but it can be a little difficult to decide on when to switch back to the other scales. I think particularly, given the options for identification with individual figures there are in the RPG and skirmish level, it is hard to get back from that to the army level operations.

On the other hand, Tolkien managed it in The Lord of the Rings, of course. The battles are only really sidelines to the progress of the fellowship of the Ring, or latterly Sam and Frodo to the Crack of Doom. But I have not seen many wargame campaigns that take this line. Have you?

Saturday, 25 February 2023

Wargame Strategies

I have been thinking recently a little about strategy. Now many people would respond to this by exclaiming ‘Thinking? You? Really?’ but I shall attempt to persevere. Wargames and wargamers, it seems to me are very good at being tactical. We know about handling pikemen and musketeers to advantage in an English Civil War game, or moving that Sherman up to blast the bunker while the infantry go in. We are quite good at all sorts of things like this. We study tactics, we consider how to make the best moves given the rule set, and so on.

It might come as a bit of a blow, then, to discover that tactics do not win wars. Tactics, of course, might win battles, and winning battles is a useful (although not actually a necessary) condition for assessing who is going to win the war (remember Phyrrus?) but a particular bit of tactics, such as fire and movement, or when to call in an artillery barrage is not necessarily going to triumph. Often, after all, keeping a force in being is sufficient not to lose the battle or campaign, rather than winning a battle.

Now I am sure that many readers (or rather, both of you) are reaching for their red pens and history books to refute me, which would be entirely fair. I am saying this in order to provoke (having admitted that no-one will comment at all, of course). But strategies really do not seem to figure much on our road maps, and I have started to wonder why.

Firstly, of course, strategies are, sort of, boring. I mean, they do not really have the same romance of an epic battle, be that ancient Greek hoplites clashing with Persians, or skirmishers plastering a stone wall with shot to keep the enemy heads down. After all, how many films major on the excitement of the generals discussing where to attack, as opposed to the attack itself? As humans, we want the action and excitement, not the planning and overall decision-making.

These thoughts came to mind while considering the Norman Conquest, as one does. The reason for that is what I have termed in my head ‘Harold’s Dilemma’. King Harold, as everyone except William of Normandy called him was perfectly well aware that there were at least two people, Duke William and Harald Hardrada of Norway who thought that they, rather than him, should be kings of England.

This then gave Harold a bit of a strategic problem. William was, obviously, going to come across the Channel. But Harald was a bit more difficult to predict. He would probably land in the north, particularly as he was allied to Harold’s brother, Tostig. On the other hand, Tostig was married to the sister of the Count of Flanders and, in May 1066, had struck the Isle of Wight and the south coast. Harold thus had to defend both the south and east coasts, and that, given even the resources of the Anglo-Saxon state, was a bit difficult.

We all know what happened, of course. Harald and Tostig did the usual Norse thing and sailed up the Humber, then entered the Ouse and captured York after defeating the local forces. Harold, reckoning that William might have missed his sailing slot before the winter storms, marched north, surprised the Norwegians and killed both Harald and Tostig. In the meantime William landed and proceeded to devastate the area around his beachhead on the south coast, forcing Harold to march south and tackle that problem.

The strategic problem for Harold was, of course, an attack on two fronts. It is quite possible that he could have dealt with either Harald and Tostig or William. Both, as it turned out, was a bit more of a problem, although he nearly managed it – Hastings was a weird battle for the time. As a wargame campaign, the question is could the wargamer representing Harold do any better?

It would certainly be easy for the Anglo-Saxons to do worse. If Harald and Tostig had been a bit more alert before Stamford Bridge Harold would have had a much harder time and could have lost. That would leave Harald facing William, and interesting scenario in its own right. On the other hand, if Harold had kept the Anglo-Saxon fleet together a little longer it might have intercepted the Normans, leaving Harold only to face the Norwegians and Tostig.

There are clearly lots of possibilities here, but the strategic problem is one which does bear consideration. I dare say that there are many other instances of a ruler with a single effective armed force facing multiple threats and having to guess which one should be dealt with first. But making that decision is a fine judgment.

We will all, probably, have seen refights and articles about Stamford Bridge and Hastings, and, possibly for those who do details, Fulford as well. So far as I recall (and I do not have extensive knowledge of wargaming in this area) I have not seen any attempt to do both. I think it might be a rather interesting exercise for the wargamer(s). Harald and William’s invasions were uncoordinated, after all, and rather dependent on wind and tide. Harold had interior lines but was on the defensive. As it turned out his militia in the north was not sufficient to deal with the Norwegians on its own.

The consideration for the Norwegians is, really, where to invade. They could have hit, at least in theory, anywhere from the Isle of Wight to Northumberland. William probably had less room to manoeuver. He had to get his troops across the Channel quickly once they had set out. A situation where Harald and Tostig held Wight while William landed in Sussex would be interesting, especially with Harold holding London with an undiminished force.

Similarly, it would be fascinating to see what happened with the Norwegians secure in York while William was unopposed in Sussex, with, perhaps, a few remaining rogue Anglo-Saxons in the offing. But this is getting far into what-ifs.

The point, really, is that wargaming tends to focus on the battle, the tactical. There are interesting scenarios to be considered at the strategic level as well. Sometime we might give these some brief consideration, but not, it seems to me all that often. Perhaps we should try to change that.

Saturday, 18 February 2023

Viking Saint

Now there are two words that are not normally associated: ‘Viking’ and ‘saint’. Vikings, after all, are usually depicted as bloodthirsty pagans, barbarians in all sense of the word, who appear out of nowhere, plunder, murder, rape, and rob, and then vanish whence they came. Oh, and they have these peculiar helmets with wings on them.

Inevitably, modern historiography has rather reduced the brutality of the Vikings. Originally, of course, they were raiders, and they did raid churches that were, after all, fairly rich. In fact, the early Viking raids did largely destroy the Christian infrastructure in the north of England in the ninth century and distinctly jeopardized Christianity in England, at least until the reign of Alfred in Wessex. But things are never quite as simple as older histories like to make out.

There are a few things to ponder. Firstly, the Norse invaders (as opposed to the early raiders) quite quickly settled and were Christianised in England (and other northern British territories). Secondly, many Vikings came as farmers, not warriors. I am not sure of the evidence, but I suspect that quite a lot of assimilation went on; certainly, some people I know hereabouts have Scandinavian blood according to those DNA tests you can buy (of, to me, unknown reliability). Thirdly the interactions of Britain with Scandinavia needs to be taken into account. Since the Normans, England has been largely focussed on north-western Europe, the southern coast of the Channel. While this was of perennial interest in the defence of England, before William (and, in fact, until at least 1086) there was as much interest in, and threat from, Scandinavia as there was from Normandy.

This brings me, by a roundabout route, to the subject of the latest book:

Carr, J., The Viking Saint: Olaf II of Norway (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2022).

As you can see this is a new book, which is unusual for these pages. The Estimable Mrs P saw a review of it and decided that I might like it for Christmas. She was, of course, correct.

Olaf might not be terribly well known in this country, although as a very young man, he was involved, perhaps even the key person, in Cnut’s campaigns, and he stands accused of being the Viking responsible for pulling London Bridge down. This event was possibly the origin of the ‘London Bridge is falling down’ nursery rhyme, although perhaps not, as who knows where such things come from really.

Anyway, this is a complex tale of intrigue, violence, treachery, and so on. Really, I think that we do not know how lucky we are to have had primogeniture in northern Europe for more or less a thousand years. Things have been bloody enough with it; if every passing noble thinks he could make himself king it could have been a lot worse.

Anyway, Olaf was a pagan who converted, became king of Norway through a complex web of intrigue, violence, and diplomacy, reigned for about fifteen years (1015 – 1030), and was killed in battle in his mid-thirties. He then became a saint, due to assorted miracles associated with him, and is recognised as such by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches, which is a pretty good track record of a saint, especially a warrior.

His efforts at Christianising Norway had mixed results, it has to be said. He did upset a number of people, mostly those away from the coast who had received less influence from already Christian lands. He also was not the first person to try to bring Christianity to Norway, including earlier kings Hakon the Good and Olaf Tryggvason. But he did a bit more and when his body was recovered for reburial it was found to have not decomposed and, as I mentioned, there were miracles.

Actually, Olaf’s fall was not directly due to his Christianity, or his occasional habit of executing those who refused to be baptised (now, that is muscular Christianity). In fact, his reign was undermined by King Cnut, who claimed suzerainty over Norway as well as Denmark and England. The point here is that, in relative terms, Cnut was rich and his money was a persuasive argument for some more independent Norwegian nobles (of whom there were many) to abandon Olaf. The last battle, at which Olaf perished, was at Stikelestad, near Trondheim.

This is an interesting book on a subject about which I know little. The names are a bit confusing, but that is because most of the key players are called Olaf or Hakon. The geography is a bit tricky too, particularly as the borders between nations were, shall we say, a bit porous. But it is a rattling good tale, albeit without much analysis.

In wargaming terms, there are some splendid opportunities. There are a number of naval battles with dragon ships lined up against each other, followed by hand-to-hand combat on the decks. There are land battles ranging from murders and assassinations to full-scale set pieces. There is a great deal of diplomatic skulduggery. For example, Olaf was supposed to be marrying the legitimate daughter of the King of Sweden, but the latter substituted an illegitimate daughter. Olaf seems to have accepted this; the legitimate daughter, Ingegerd was married to Grand Duke Yaroslav of Novgorod and Kyiv. She died in 1050 as Saint Anna of Kyiv.

The tendrils of the Viking world spread far and wide. Olaf’s half-brother was Harald Hardrada, whose military career spread from Italy to Constantinople, much of northern Europe and, as most wargamers probably know, died at Stamford Bridge in 1066. The Normans, too, were sort of Vikings, in the same way that the inhabitants of York were. The Viking merchants, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, ranged far and wide in northern waters, from Newfoundland to Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles and, as just noted, Baltic nations.

The scope, therefore, is enormous. There are plenty of opportunities for island landings, invasions, set-piece battles, sea battles (I know most wargamers ignore them), desperate deeds of daring do, and so on. I am nearly tempted.

Saturday, 11 February 2023

Difficult Passage

‘I am sorry, but I really cannot let you pass.’

‘You permitted the Sarmatians to go through your lands.’

‘I did not. They fought their way through.’

‘Well, if you do not permit us, we shall have to fight our way through.’

‘Look at it from my position for a moment. The Romans are very unhappy about the Sarmatians. They have invaded my lands twice in retribution, and I could really use not giving them another excuse.’

‘But a little bird tells me that there is also the question of an unpaid bill between you and the Romans on your account, as well as your help to the Sarmatians in storming the Roman camp.’

‘I got the money from the Sarmatians for services rendered. I have no interest in where the money came from, it was due to me.’

‘The service rendered, though, was fighting the Romans and beating them. And it was Roman money, because they had bribed the other Sarmatians onto their side. But they changed sides.’

‘Yes, but now the Romans have come for what they regard as their money, twice.’

‘And you have beaten them, twice.’

‘So you see we are a tough army. So you do not want to fight us. You can go around my lands, you know. I’ll give you a guide.’

‘It is so much easier to go along this road, my friend. The Romans build such nice roads, so convenient for invading places, I find.’

‘Convenient for them as well, of course.’


Poor Dubolwhiskos is, of course, being invaded again. His realm seems to be the motorway from barbarian lands to invade rich Roman territory, and no-one seems willing to go around. It does lay him open to charges of collusion with the invaders. He did fight the Sarmatians under Vodkaschnapps, but the Romans still blamed him, and now it is happening again with a Germanic tribe.

The occasion for this wargame was, firstly, my recovery from a bit of a cold (“there is a lot of it around”) and also a celebration of completing my Dacian and German armies, the final 132 figures of each. So, what else should I do except revive the Sarmatian Nation campaign, with the Germans as a further complicating element? Sooner or later, Vodkaschnapps will catch up with his cousin (or brother) of the other Sarmatian tribe, and that will cause another wargame, very different from this one.

A bit of dice rolling yielded a clash in the hill country. The Germans are nearest to the camera, seeking to proceed along the road to the far edge. The river is, in fact, fordable, but that is known only to the Dacians. Dubloswhiskos’ plan was to delay and disrupt the Germans with his light troops and archers, hold any attack with his tribal foot, and then counter-attack with his reserves and the Sarmatian cataphracts.

The German plan was to sweep in the light troops and mask the archers and tribal foot while the German tribes deployed four deep, and then charge home.

A few moves in and the plans are developing. The German skirmishers on the right are giving the Dacian light horse a hard time, while the Dacian skirmishers are in some jeopardy from the German cavalry. The German foot is just starting to deploy.

I have to confess that Dacian dice rolling was awful on the day. The light horse was routed by the skirmisher bases, and the Dacian skirmishers were routed by the German cavalry, which trotted into them and thus did not pursue into the archers.

The German left developed into a bit of a stand-off between the archers and German cavalry, who were hanging around screening the tribal foot. On the other flank, the Germans were also deploying, covered by their skirmishers.

The Germans took their time before launching their right flank foot, but won the initiative just at the right point, charged through their own skirmish screen, and then routed the Dacian foot on a flukey 6-1 roll. I told you Dacian dice rolling was rubbish on the day.

Dubloswhiskos has already got his left flank reserves moving into position and they managed to countercharge the Germans in the confusion but to no avail. While they did manage to push back one of the German columns, at the end of the turn the dreaded morale roll was required. Having already lost three bases, and then adding another four, the total was, well, it was not quite a rout. Let us say that the Dacian interest in defending their land against the next wave of invaders evaporated at this point.

So a decisive victory to the invading Germanic tribe, and another failure to defend his own country by Dubloswhiskos. It was a lot tighter than you might think from the casualty list, however, and quite tense. It really came down to the question of who won the initiative on the move when the two sides were in charge range, and then a really bad Dacian roll on the charge resolution. If they had managed to hold on, the first round of combat might have been kinder to them and anyway, the Germans had committed 8 bases to beat 4, which is not really a decent rate of return.

But there is always, I suppose, the bigger picture. The Germanic tribe is now about to invade the Roman Empire proper, and we shall have to see what the Romans make of that.


‘All right, all right. I’ll let you through. But you have to fight the Romans. You’re not getting any help from me.’

‘It would seem, my friend, that we do not need any help from you.’

‘Have you fought the Romans before?’

‘No. They are just soft southerners. Why should I bother about them?’

‘They are quite a lot tougher than you seem to think. And they do not stop. If you beat them, they shrug it off and come at you again. And again.’

‘And yet even you have beaten them, my friend. We shall see. They think they are soft.’

‘That is just Latin rhetoric, you know….’

Saturday, 4 February 2023

Viking Nations

The long-term reader of this blog will recall, I dare say, a riff during the lockdown and its associated life-inverting activity, about the Anglo-Norman state in England and other, related, matters. This came alongside an avowal that I was not getting into early medieval wargaming, although some of my comments do seem to have provoked some Anglo-Norman wargames among my reader.

The potter through the history of the British Isles has continued, however, although perhaps a bit more on the quiet. The latest rummaging in the remainders box pulled out the following work:

Knight, D., Viking Nations: The Development of Medieval North Atlantic Identities, Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2016.

This is a thesis, it would seem, which has been ‘re-written’ for a less specialist audience, in my estimation. The scare quotes are because, well, the re-writing shows. In spade loads or bad editing, sentences which do not make sense or in which words and word sequences repeat, typographical errors, and incorrect references to figures, of which there are, inevitably in a work of archaeological anthropology, a lot.

In short, the work needs a great deal more cognitive effort from the reader than it ought to, and that is a great shame because there is an interesting work struggling to make itself heard above the din of proofreading gaffes and other infelicitous errors. I should just mention, I think, that I hope that the original thesis, which was presented to the University of Nottingham, had a lot fewer errors than this. While examiners are a little more laid back than they used to be, lack of clarity is a Ph.D. thesis sin still, I believe.

Still, more positively, the work attempts to summarise the archaeology of Viking sites across three zones of the North Atlantic. The first is the North Atlantic archipelagos of the Shetland and Faroe Islands, which have rather less in terms of archaeological work associated with them than the Hebrides and Orkney Islands. The second zone is Iceland, and the third is the Norse sites of Greenland and North America.

The idea that the Vikings, when they came into contact with Western Europe were basic, uncivilized, pagan barbarians can, I think, be reasonably discarded now. While the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are, to say the least, not positive about the Vikings, and they did disrupt and destroy much of the civilized life in the North-East of England with their initial plundering raids, they quickly started to settle and assimilate with the locals, and even, within a generation or two, became Christians.

In the islands, things were a little more complex, depending on the situation. The Vikings came to settle and farm, basically. They might have taken over indigenous sites or they may not have done, depending on whether there were any. There is also the issue of the Paper, who seem to have been the pre-existing Christian hermits and priests, presumably of what we would now call the Celtic tradition. There is not much information about as to whether the Norse and the Christians clashed, co-existed or the latter converted the former. Ultimately, of course, the Christian prevailed.

It is quite interesting that the Norse in England converted quite quickly to Christianity. Guthrum, for example, was defeated by Alfred in 878, and the latter then stood sponsor to his baptism. The Norse subsequently settled in East Anglia. The main Viking states, however, Norway and Denmark, did not convert until the Eleventh Century, and, as Knight observes, this was as much to do with the formation of the states as it was anything else.

As the military aspects of the wave of Norse invasions subsided, the trading elements increased. One of the interesting things about the book is the discussion of Norse shipping and its development from a coastal raiding and trading system of light, flexible and shallow draught boats to more capacious but deeper-keeled hulls. The main propulsion method switched also from mainly rowed through rowed with auxiliary sails to mainly sailed. These latter ships used less manpower and hence the carrying capacity was greater (as there was less need for provisioning the crew) and the voyages could be more profitable.

Fewer crew meant that the wars of plunder and conquest were over, of course. But then, in Iceland and Greenland there was a lot less to conquer. Norse farming was adapted to the relatively harsh environments encountered in the North Atlantic zones, even during the relatively benign period before the Little Ice Age. Even so, farms in Greenland struggled to maintain viability. Quite a lot, it seems, was predicated on the export of walrus tusks to Europe for ivory. The re-opening of trade routes to Africa rather put paid to this trade as elephant tusks are much better for carving, and this chipped away at the sustainability of the Greenland farms.

The most useful chapters are those relating to trade and to religion, it has to be said. They are also relatively uncluttered with typographical errors, which does make them a little easier to read. The structures of Norse farms in the archaeology discussed in the three zones are interesting but do get a little repetitive, although I still do not know why the early Norse longhouses had bowed walls and the later ones went straight. Some of the other insights from archaeology are quite interesting, such as the positioning of the longhouse on a slope, with the landowner’s bed at the highest end and the animals at the lowest. The drain ran downhill, so the lowest-status farm hands had to be careful where they stood. On the other hand, they did get the benefit of the warmth from the herd.

An interesting book but, as I said, rather a flawed one, unfortunately. I know I perpetrate my fair share, and probably more than that, in my own waffling, but a little more care and attention could have raised this one from a struggle to read to something really quite worthwhile and interesting. Proofreading is boring, I grant, but it is rather necessary.   

Saturday, 28 January 2023

When is a Historical Wargame Historical?


It is always fascinating to see what other people are up to. That is one of the advantages of the wargame blogosphere. There is the chance to eavesdrop on other people’s games, just to see what they are up to. It is also nice when the accounts match up, that is when you get two accounts of the same game. Sometimes they set me wondering, however, but that is just me. In what follows no criticism of any wargame or wargamer is intended; it is just me being a bit puzzled.

As someone who has a more than a passing interest in the Hundred Years War, I was drawn to an account of a refight of the Battle of Auberoche, 1345, initially by Peter of Grid Based Wargaming, subsequently by Jon of Palouse Wargaming Journal. As I am sure you know, this came about in the early years of the conflict when a bunch of English and Gascons under Henry, Duke of Lancaster jumped out of some trees at the French forces besieging Aucberoche and, after a bit of a fight, routed them. The actual details are a bit obscure.

The game, which was played remotely, was based on Neil Thomas’ One Hour Wargames scenario 22 (Ambush). This itself was based on Donald Featherstone’s account of Auberoche in Wargaming: Ancient and Medieval. Featherstone, I seem to recall, actually wrote about the battle several times, at one point re-inventing it as a rescue by British paratroops of a party trapped in a ruined castle (I think it is in Featherstone’s Complete Wargaming, but I could be wrong).

The puzzlement which arose in my mind was how the final wargame (as I said, I am not criticizing the wargame at all) was related to the original, historical battle. After all, the original has been filtered through a number of levels. I suspect that Featherstone based his account on that of Burne’s The Crecy War because he uses that quite often, as well as being a fan of Burne’s ‘inherent military probability’ theory.

So we have a chain from the sources, whatever they may be, to Burne, to Featherstone, to Thomas and then to the wargame we have blogged before us. Perhaps I have a slightly twisted mind, but I could not help but wonder ‘is this really a wargame re-fight of Auberoche?’

It chimes in with one or two other thoughts and puzzles I have come up with over the years. I have in my possession Asquith and Gilder’s The Campaign of Naseby 1645 (Osprey, 1979). The last section is on wargaming the campaign. There is a discussion of the ratios of real troops to wargame figures to be used. The suggestion is that there should be 540 or 409 figures for the New Model, and 300 or 227 for the Royalists. It is asserted that strengths based on a 1:50 ratio detract from the fact that Naseby was a major action. Even as a youngster that always irritated me, in that I wondered why Naseby fought out with, say, 90 figures for the NMA and 50 for the Royalists should not be a re-fight of Naseby, especially as I think might have managed to muster 140 wargame figures, but had no chance at 636.

There are also questions raised towards the end of the section about ‘injecting alternative courses of action’ into the re-fight game. The response there is of a horns of dilemma format: either you re-fight Naseby or you stage a typical ECW battle. You can do either, but they are not compatible. Again, I do find this a little questionable. History, including battles, is contingent. Part of the aim of wargaming, in using dice throws, is to model that contingency. If we only follow the historical script we are no longer wargaming.

I do not pretend to have an answer to all of this. It all gets a bit Aristotelian, as the Estimable Mrs P. observed when I discussed it with her. For those of you whose classical philosophical education was a long time ago, I will refresh your memory with a brief excursus into Socrates’ boat.

Suppose Socrates has a boat. After a while it needs mending, so he removes some of the planking and replaces it. Not wishing to let anything go to waste, he preserves the planks. A little later the boat needs a new mast. He removes the old one, replaces it, and preserves the old one. And so on. Eventually, when Socrates has replaced all the parts of his boat, his brother comes along and uses the old bits to build a boat. The question is now: which boat is the original? Is it the one rebuilt by Socrates with all new parts, or is it the one built by his brother, with all the original parts?

I hope you can see the analogy with wargaming historical re-fights. We have already replaced a great deal of the original, an original of which, in all probability, we have limited knowledge. And we now have to try to tell the story of the battle. How closely do we need to stick to the original before we have to say ‘this is just a typical ECW battle’ rather than ‘this is Naseby’? How much can we deviate from the historical script before someone shouts foul?

Perhaps we are back to Burne’s inherent military probability. Can we invent stuff because it looks plausible? Could the French have noticed the English army creeping up on them at Auberoche? If we allow that, can the subsequent wargame be given the Auberoche? And so too with Naseby. For example, if Goring had arrived with the Royalist cavalry reinforcements and reinforced the left with some experienced troops, would Cromwell’s wing have had such a relative walk-over? The New Model infantry was struggling in the centre, after all. But if we allow that, are we still doing Naseby?

I do not pretend to have any answers to these questions, but I do find them intriguing. We can go a lot further, of course, and re-fight Naseby using Space Marines and Imperial troopers: would that count? But, mercifully, I have run out of words….

Saturday, 21 January 2023

Wargame Heresy

I hope you are in a forgiving mood, because I think I might be about to commit the unforgivable sin of a wargamer, and that is to say that I am not, in fact, that keen on one of Featherstone’s books. Before you rush off to join the lynch mob, please note that I live in a relatively inaccessible and overlooked part of the country, in a small village, where the lamp posts are not strong enough to support the requisite rope and noose arrangement which is traditional in these things. Additionally, it being the middle of winter, lighting a bonfire might be a bit hard, because most of the available wood has been collected by the peasants to warm their toes (and other appendages).

So, what has caused this outburst? What could I possibly say that might occasion a mob of outraged wargamers descending on the village where I live? (If you do come, try one of the local hostelries; they serve a decent pint and good food).

As you know, I have been reading through the classic wargame library, and I have, finally, made my way to:

Donald Featherstone’s Wargaming Campaigns (ed. John Curry, History of Wargaming Project, 2013).

Perhaps the reason for my relative disappointment in the book was my fond memories of it from my teenage years. I frequently borrowed it from the library. It was a tome I perused in great detail, and attempted to use in my own games. I discovered, after some experimentation, that I could repurpose the content to match my figure collection, and there was even an English Civil War campaign included.

I think the reason for my less-than-impressedness with the work is that it has not really aged well. To be fair, it was first published in 1970 and things, including historiography, have moved on rather in the fifty or so years since. The most pressing example is in the introduction to the Vikings, the first potted campaign chapter (p. 93). ‘… they wore iron helmets sometimes fitted with horns or raven’s wings…’ No, I believe that they did not. The paragraph on berserkers is similarly, I think, out of date.

I think the problem here is relying on Victorian historiography, which I suppose was still fairly rife in the 1960s. It takes a while for academic revaluations to permeate popular history, particularly, I think, military history. These sorts of statements, however, are simply untrue by today’s measures.

I am not sure that reliance on out-of-date historiography is my main problem with the book. The main cause of relative disappointment is that the campaigns are short, mostly on a very small scale and, in some cases, resolved by a single action. This seems to me to be rather an abrogation of the phrase ‘wargame campaign’.

Now I grant that one of the problems with wargame campaigns is that the scope often suggests that a single wargame can determine the outcome. However, that, in my view, is something to be worked against. Why go to all that trouble for a single wargame? I admit that my Jersey Boys campaign admitted only three actions, one of which was very small, which might not be a great return on investment, but a single action is surely even worse.

Another irritation was the constant intrusion of tactical rules into the campaign scenarios. This might have been appropriate in 1970, I suppose, but it did rather annoy me after a while. This issue, however, is probably more of a matter of taste than anything else. On the other hand, wargaming has moved on rather from singly mounted figures and bang-you-are-dead (except for a saving throw) rules. I know there are exceptions to that, but really I think that of all the older books I have read time has treated it least kindly.

That is not to say that the book is without merits, of course. The enthusiasm is there, as ever with Featherstone’s works. The campaigns have potential, even as one-off game scenarios rather than as wargame campaigns in their own right. There are some good ideas. I particularly liked the description of the English Civil War club project, where the only forces permitted to be deployed were those of the players who actually turned up. It makes an important point, I think, in these days of army lists and careful selection of units: historical commanders had little or no control over the constitution of their army.

Perhaps the fault is mine. I recalled this book with great affection, but I last read it over thirty years ago. Maybe distance in time had graced it with a rose-coloured glow that it did not deserve at the time. Or, perhaps, by comparison with other works on wargame campaigns, such as Bath’s ‘Setting Up….’ its scope and aim feel to be a bit diminished. The aim is a variety of periods from medieval to World War Two. Bath’s aim was an imaginary world. Maybe I veer towards the latter.

The early chapters are quite useful still, at least in posing the questions that aspiring wargame campaigners have to tackle, such as movement, lines of communication, and so forth. The solutions may or may not be as useful; as with so many things, a lot depends on what you want to achieve and how you intend to get there. And as I said the scenarios, albeit more suited to a single wargame than what I would call a campaign, are helpful.

So far as I can tell this work more or less finishes my wander down memory lane. Some other works have escaped, of course, including Grant’s books, The War Game, The Ancient Wargame, and Wargame Tactics. The first two were good fun, and the latter was a very good book, but I’ve not seen it for years at an impoverished wargamer’s price.

So the wander down my teenage wargames reading comes to a close. It was fun, even though the last book of the sequence was less inspiring than the others. That, I suppose, is the cost of being a (tiny) bit older.

Saturday, 14 January 2023

Naval Wargaming

I bet you think I am repeating myself. Naval wargames last week, naval wargaming this week. Aside from trying to reduce further the number of readers of the blog, you might be forgiven for wondering what is going on here. The answer is, of course, another wander down the odd recesses of memory lane, or at least, my memory lane. As you might have noticed, it has some very odd recesses.

Anyway, today’s memory is a bit more recent than some of the others:

Hague, P., Naval Wargaming: From Ancient Galleys to Modern U-Boats, Yeovil, PSL, 1992.

This one is in fact another memory cruncher. I had to resort to a search engine to tackle my puzzlement, but I did manage to resolve it. This was, in fact, Mr Hague’s second book on naval wargaming, the first, which I also vaguely recall, was titled Sea Battles in Miniature, published, it seems, in 1980. I have not managed to find a copy of that work at a price I am willing to pay for it.

Rather cutely, this has a publisher’s tag thing on the front cover, announcing that the book is ‘An essential manual for the hobby’. Well, maybe. It is certainly an interesting book, although how modern U-boats are might be the subject of a question in the history of technology.

There are the inevitable introduction, hints for the beginner and then a few pages on available models. This is short, which is merciful because of all the ideas contained in older wargame books, the lists of models, manufacturers and distributors are the first to go out of date. Mind you, some recent books commit the same error by putting web links in, which are even more ephemeral than bricks and mortar makers of model toys.

I do think, however, that the idea of cardboard cut-out ships might have legs (sorry – water wings, of course). After all, there are plenty of silhouettes and deck-plans available of modern warships, and there are increasing ranges of paper soldiers around, so why not. Rather than a silhouette, however, I would go for a deck plan, partly because it is a lot easier to cut out, and partly because it makes it easier to use aircraft. The idea at the back of my mind is to print out a load of aircraft on a piece of acetate sheet and cut them out, so they can really fly over a ship.

Anyway, I digress, albeit modestly. The rest of the book consists of rule sets for various different eras. The first is the age of the trireme, with a discussion of the diekplus and the periplus. These always cause a bit of head-scratching with me, as I am by no means sure they really took place that often, a bit like my scepticism about the caracole in the Sixteenth Century. These might be ideal manoeuvrers from the point of view of an armchair admiral, but achieving them must have been a lot more difficult. The kyklos, which I know is reported in Thucydides, is more possible, but again, to attack from it like the Athenians did must have been a challenge.

Anyway, after explaining that big galley models are a thing of the past for him (as opposed to the earlier book, which I believe had about 6 galleys in the reported action), this goes for larger quantities and a hex-based board. Larger, here, means about eighteen 1:1200 galleys a side. The recording is still on a ship by ship basis of damage and orders, which must have bogged things down a little, but ramming, oar-raking and boarding are all included.

Moving on there are rules for the ship-of-the-line ear, which extends from the Renaissance to the Napoleonic Wars. The rules are specified more for the later Seventeenth Century and the reported action is from the Nine Years War, at a rough guess. It shows the difficulties of sailing ships on lee shores, as the English fleet is embayed in Drumcloggy Bay. Again the ships are balsa wood and paper sails, and look impressive. However, modern wargamers have a plethora of models available.

Next along are the dreadnoughts, 1906 – 1941 (-ish), along with improvements in gunnery before the First World War. The chapter includes how gunnery worked, and how deployment was supposed to work, and how it really did at Jutland. I suppose a difficulty here is the relative paucity of large ship to ship battles in the period. Aside from Jutland, most of the rest consisted of Royal Navy ships eventually pounding German battleships and battlecruisers to bits. I generalise wildly, of course, but some imagination seems to be required to justify all that investment in models of Graf Spee and Bismark.

The rules are fairly straightforward, although they do use a pack of playing cards to assess damage of shell hits. The cards have a fifth suit, as well, called blobs, which must make life a bit interesting, if you can see that the next card is a blob and know that the centreline of your ship has just been hit. Still, so far as I am a judge the rules seem to be workable.

The aircraft carrier is next, and here we do get a step up in complexity, now that we have to worry about a third dimension. Hague suggests some straightforward ideas for using aircraft, such as ignoring differences in range and endurance. Also he acknowledges the importance of aerial reconnaissance. He suggests making 1:3000 scale aircraft out of piano wire and plastic card, or a flight of 1:4800 aircraft using clear plastic and painting on wings and a fuselage. It would need a steadier hand than I have. After the rules Hague makes a plea for naval wargamers to be less callous, or engage in campaigns so they do not let the planes just ditch after an extreme range strike.

Finally, we get to U-boats. I confess to not being an expert on U-boats, and unsure whether they tended to strike from the surface or from submerged positions. Possibly it varied. Hidden movement is, of course, required for this, and the various sorts of delivery system for depth charges are discussed. Again, without trying it out it all seems to work, even the idea of using bent pins stuck through bits of card to indicate periscopes.

I rather like these older books on wargaming, I confess. They have a bit of a simplicity to them, and a practicality, which perhaps some more recent books lack. The marketplace is now crowded with war and wargame related material, of course, and that might make a difference too. But most of the authors I have recently read argue that compromise is necessary to create a playable game, and I am not going to argue. True realism in a wargame is not something any of us would really want, I think.

Saturday, 7 January 2023

Naval Wargames

Another trip down memory lane this week. I remember, a long time ago reading this work. Just vaguely; I was not and am not particularly interested in World War 1 and World War 2 naval wargaming, but some people are, and more power to their elbow.

I have been reading this particular tome:

Carter, B. J., Naval Wargames: World War I and World War II, Newton Abbot, David & Charles, 1975.

As I said, I remember this one from being a lad. I suppose it is a book of its time, listing the possible sources of model ships, discussing scratch-building ships, and then constructing some rules for naval wargaming. Included are air and submarine rules, so they do aim at being comprehensive. Rules, of whatever age, always have some fascination, if only to examine what is kept in and what is abstracted away, and what sort of compromises are necessary.

Carter’s rules use a squared grid with the advantages and problems that that entails. In this case, movement is along the edges of the square, it seems, so at least one problem of a square grid is compromised over. Still, the grid does mean that ship speeds are reduced to a number of squares, although we also get some alternate long and shorter moves (two squares one move, three the next at 16-19 knots, for example) which must get a little confusing.

Ranges are calculated without using diagonals, so ranges are calculated using ‘knights moves’. Damage is via attrition, it seems, with each ship being given a sinking rate. Nasty explosions are not included, so far as I can tell; ships are pounded to pieces. Fair enough.

Interestingly, some actions using the rules are included. One is the escort of a convoy down the Adriatic coast from Pola to Cattaro. The escorts are a mix of Austro-Hungarian and German warships and some Austrian submarines. Their opponents are some Italian naval vessels and a British squadron.

The game, which lands up with an Austro-Hungarian victory, is quite interesting. Not because it is a particularly interesting era of naval warfare, although it might be, but because it is more or less a campaign game, with hidden movement, U-boats, and minefields. To cut a several-page story short, the Austro-Hungarian convoy makes it to Cattaro, while the damaged Italians withdraw to Bari.

Aside from the fact that this sort of submarine activity forms part of the backdrop to The Sound of Music, and that it is an interesting narrative, the distinction between a naval wargame and a naval wargame campaign is blurred. The sheer scale and scope of naval wargames automatically push them toward the campaign, even if only a single action is really envisaged.

The second game report is a hunt for a Japanese heavy cruiser commerce raider in the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean in the Spring of 1942. The raider is being sought by several groups of allied warships. This game brings out the need for air reconnaissance in WW2 naval wargaming. Many years ago, when building Airfix warship kits, I wondered why so many of the cruisers and above had seaplanes aboard. Now I know.

Again, this game, while, it seems, it was played in one session as with the convoy escort, has the hallmarks of a campaign game. Eventually, the raider was pounded to bits, although not without meting out a fair bit of damage to her pursuers. Again, this looks a bit more like a campaign than a single battle to me, although the difference is a bit moot.

Next along is an idea for a campaign, set in the Far East in 1918 and involving naval and land forces from China, Korea, Japan, and Russia. This is a fictitious campaign, of course, but interesting. The land activity is very abstract, but the game does include fuel usage and differing port facilities. The Sino-Korean alliance has an advantage in ground troops, and the Russo-Japanese an advantage in naval units. It is quite an interesting set-up for a limited-scope but ongoing campaign.

Overall, this is an interesting book, at least to revisit after <mumble> years. The ideas are still good, although I imagine that there are many other tactical rules of varying complexity that the wargamer can try. The other difference relates to available ship models. If your main possible scale is 1:1200, then your wargaming models are going to be that scale. Of course, this means significant compromise on the ground scale, ranges, and movement. Now, I think there are extensive ranges of models in 1:3000, 1:4800, and 1:6000, which allows for a rather better match (visually, at least) between model and table scales. Not perfect, I will allow, but better.

The smaller the scale, the larger the scope, of course, and modern naval warfare brings in, as I have noted, some considerable issues of range and reconnaissance. In fact, after about 1942, the number of shooting matches between ships in sight of each other was limited, and it does seem to me that much of the Pacific War, at least, could be fought out as a map game without models at all. But, as wargamers, we do like our model representations of soldiers, ships, and aircraft.

The more recent warfare gets, the more complicated and technological it becomes. Perhaps this is why I see rather less Twentieth Century naval wargaming around than might be expected. Mind you, I recall playing Seastrike in the 1980s, and that was both fearsomely technological, had enormous ship counters and practically no maneuvering room, and largely came down to who could drop a missile on the enemy headquarters first.

Perhaps there is no really happy medium in modern naval warfare. The scales and timings are both long and short. After all, the naval rules suggest moves of minutes, if not hours, gunnery strikes in terms of rounds per minute, and air strikes should really be times in seconds. Ranges face similar sorts of problems, and it seems really hard to square all of these circles and still have a good game. But maybe I am simply unaware of more recent developments.