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.