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?