Saturday 27 May 2023

Reflections Upon the Late War in Italy

After the Machiavelli campaign, I suppose I need to reflect on what I have learned from it. After all, it was something I had long had in mind, had not really planned, and launched rather quickly. So, how did it work out?

Firstly, I did enjoy it. I got five wargames out of it, all of which were different even if three of them involved the French. The support system does lead to some unbalanced games, but they did not always go to the largest army, so that seems to be a good thing. The terrain rolling system worked as well, as it should have done, having been in production for a while.

As far as the armies go, my DBR 100 AP forces just about managed, although I kept running out of gendarmes. I have eight bases which is just about sufficient for two 100 point forces, but, of course, with the supports, I was a little short from time to time. Something to be considered for the future.

As far as the rules go, I think I am slowly getting the hang of skirmishing. The first Papal States against Venice battle certainly proved to be a learning curve on that. The last battle too emphasised the importance of skirmishing correctly (and luckily). The disruption to the French gendarmes gave the Imperialists the edge. Speaking for the French, they are extremely destructive if they get into combat on their terms. Except for the Imperialists, the rest of the forces in Italy have nothing much to match the Swiss with and have to get fortunate to win the cavalry battle.

Strategically, the French won, although the forces were starting to range up against them. In part, the French were lucky in that the diplomacy rolls ensured that mostly they were left alone to pick off the autonomous garrisons. In the end, although French and Imperial relations were cordial, the temptation to attack the isolated French garrison of Milan proved to be too much. Similarly, the Spanish Neapolitans, needing to expand in a hurry, were landing up in confrontation with the Papal States. That could have been quite interesting.

Still, I think stopping the campaign at the point I did was the right thing. The struggle, as historically, would have been to turn back to French tide, trying to persuade the Italian states plus the Imperialists and Spanish to unite against them could have been tricky. I think the diplomacy table needs a few additional rolls to permit the breaking of friendships and alliances in terms of the strategic situation.

The initiative card method worked quite nicely, although poor Florence never drew a card for any movement. Mind you, everyone left them alone which could well count as a win in the period. As I said at the beginning, I was trying to limit the number of battles per move which could have been generated if everyone had moved every turn. That would have overwhelmed me, although the wargames could be rather short.

The movement system in Machiavelli is extremely simple and allowed for the campaign turns to take only a few minutes. If I regard a campaign game as being a generator for tabletop wargames then this counts as a success. Winter turns take a moment or two longer, because of counting controlled cities and working out where extra armies go, but that is a strategic exercise in itself. The Papal States, for example, reinforced the northwest, leaving their home states vulnerable to the Neapolitans.

Where next, you might ask. Good question. I have hinted at something relating to the Thirty Years War, and I am investigating maps. The problem is that Germany was such a patchwork of micro-states at the time that maps are a real problem. I have a couple, one of Germany from an old The Wargamer magazine, and one from an old Strategy and Tactics. This latter covers most of Europe but is ugly. The game with The Wargamer has been described to me as being beautiful but unplayable. Certainly, the components are as good as Machiavelli’s, but the gameplay is anything but clean and simple.

The real problem with a TYW campaign is in my own head, of course: the scope. Looking at the S & T map, my horizons opened to the whole of Europe. Looking back at The Wargamer map, it then feels a bit constrained. Yet the former does not, of course, have the detail that the latter does, and having read Peter Wilson’s book on the TYW, I think the role of Electors is quite important. These states are marked on The Wargamer map.

Looking around the web there is a Diplomacy variant map of Europe in 1600 which might work. However, one of the joys of the Machiavelli map is that you can tell the difference between a fleet and an army at a glance, which is not possible with pins. Add to that my aspiration to include more states than the seven given in Diplomacy and you might see why I am shying away from that again. After all, the Elector Palatine really needs to be represented as, after all, he started the whole war.

So now I am veering back towards the The Wargamer map, using the national counters to represent armies. One of the problems of both the magazine games is that they attempt to cover both the strategic and the tactical. There must have been a trend at the time for this sort of thing, and it leads to enormous stacks of ordinary and elite infantry, similar cavalry, light artillery, and siege artillery. It all gets a bit, shall we say, unstable. So the plan is to represent armies (there is only a little fleet activity) with national counters and, possibly, allow the recruitment of siege trains. I will need some rules for besieging the various cities on the map, with and without a train, but apart from that it might work.

Saturday 20 May 2023

The Battle of Milan

Fear not, gentle reader, if you are totally bored by this sequence of Italian Wars campaigns and battles, for this is the last of the sequence. As I might have mentioned, at the beginning of 1501 the French were within a whisker of controlling 12 cities, and in Spring of that year took Lucca. It therefore became clear to the other powers that whatever happened, if the game was to continue, someone had to stop France. This was a bit independent of their diplomatic relationship with the French, although that still bore some weight.

In the Summer 1501 turn the Neapolitan Spanish drew an initiative card, and swooped on Perugia. This was hardly designed to stop France, but I felt they needed to beef up their forces next winter and they were not strong enough to tackle the French armies in the boot of Italy.

Next turn the Holy Roman Empire drew an intitiative card, as did Naples and Venice. Neither of the latter were in any position to do anything against the French, so it was down to the Imperialists, even though the diplomatic table showed friendly relations. On the other hand, the French garrison in Milan was unsuppoted and the HRE could throw two armies at it. On a third hand, Trent was an autonomous garrison that had somehow survived this long, and that two was a tempting target.

Balancing things up I decided to go for an invasion of Milan. This is, of course, totally historically accurate: a lot of the Italian Wars were abogut the control of Milan. Thus one-and-a-half Imperialist armies faced off against one French.

When I dew up the army lists for this one I discovered a slight issue. The Imperialist list was based on the DBR list and had a lot of cheap Landsknecht pike. The French list had a lot of expensive Swiss pike. Thus a one point five Imperial army had 12 pike bases, against the French four Swiss pike. Having set the game up I spent some time pondering whether, both tactically and strategically, the French should simply withdraw.

The terrain set up encouraged me, as French commander, to persevere. The gap between the village and some enclosures was rather narrow, and I reckoned that half the Imperial foot would not get through, leaving my four elite Swiss pike against six ordinary Imperial. The cavalry battle was evenly matched, so it was, I thought, worth the risk.

As it turned out I was partially right. The Swiss landed up facing half the Imperial foot, plus a couple of skirmisher bases in the enclosures. The cavalry battle was, well, not exactly even. As the above photograph tells, the Imperial skirmishers, both foot and horse, caused a considerable amount of disruption to the French advance. Half the Swiss have been delayed, as have half the gendarmes. This latter was key, as after the usual standing and daring the enemy to charge, the Imperial cavalry did just that and hit the lead French gendarmes very hard indeed. Part of the problems, as well, was that the French had not deployed into line, so both lead bases were in jeopardy without gaining any benefit from being in column – gendarmes of the time charged en haye, as we know.

The result was a disaster. The lead French gendarmes were routed, and their general killed. The rest of the French cavalry fared no better, and the Swiss were starting to come under fire from the Imperial arquebuses, as well as the skirmishers. French morale dropped to withdraw, and so they did.

I did have a few wonderings as to whether the French should have committed to battle here. On the other hand the Swiss did not, historically, usually withdraw, as they got paid extra for battle days. The French gendarmes, too, were usually a bit gung-ho for action. Did they stand a chance?

I am sort of sure they could have done. Half of the Imperial infantry was going to find it hard to get into action. If the French had won the cavalry action they might have been able to hold the Imperial infantry with the Swiss frontally, while hitting the column from the flank with rallied gendarme bases. But we shall never know.

As count of cities at the end of the year indicated that, even though France had lost Milan, they still held twelve cities and so had won the scenario. I did wonder whether to continue. The Imperialists would have to work quite hard to keep Milan and the Neapolitan Spanish were limbering up to have a go at the French in Naples and Bari, as well as probably starting a war in the Papal States. On the other hand the Florentines had done nothing and the Venetians were still licking their wounds, so I decided to wind the game up there, at least temporarily. I have the positions noted so it can be reconstructed when and if the whim takes me.

So, what did I learn?

There was a fair bit for reflection here. Firstly, the game was as basic as it could be, with stereotyped armies and province to province movement. I could have made it more sophisticated, but I do not think that would have made the strategic decisions different. The game did not have any random events (famine, plague), financial considerations or assassination which the original has. I might well try to develop methods of solo play along those lines, but it would really involve a lot more work with personalisation.

One of the good things of the campaign was that the strategic moves were fairly short. All I had to do was turn over seven playing cards and move a few units on the board. I noted one or two of the strategic decisions along the way. Then, if there were any conflicting moves, I just worked out the forces, multiplied up the army numbers, rolled the terrain and got set up. It kept the campaign rattling along nicely.

I am fairly sure that there is more to extract from the experience, and I will probably ponder and pontificate a bit more in the coming weeks. Until then, I need to find my Thirty Years War map of Germany...

Saturday 13 May 2023

The History of the Countryside

Fear not, gentle reader, I have not decided to paint the blog green, although after reading the latest book, it might be an idea. Not that, after reading it, modern conservationists come out much better than the rest of us.

The book is:

Reckham, O., The History of the Countryside (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1989).

This is a 2020 reprint of the above tome, and very interesting it was too. The book is nicely written, with a good deal of wry humour and lashings of criticism regarding land use ancient and modern, with a special side issue of sarcasm for contemporary land improvement.

Still, I read it partly because I live in the countryside, as we all do (even those of you rooted in urban jungles: nature is closer than you think). Partly I read it to see whether I can improve my terrain modelling. The answer to the latter is, yes, of course, I can, but perhaps not in the ways I expected.

The countryside is a great deal more dynamic than we think. The book focuses mainly on England, and much of the evidence comes from certain parts thereof, but an overriding impression given is that the countryside has been changing ever since the end of the last ice age. Even before the arrival of Mesolithic humans, who are often credited with the destruction of much of the wildwood with which the country was covered then, the landscape was changing. In fact, Rackham is sceptical as to whether Mesolithic humans were present in sufficient quantities to change very much. As he observes, it is actually quite hard to burn down a wood in this country.

One thing that does stand out, however, is grazing animals and their effects on the landscape. Ancient and medieval people very sensible kept their valuable woodland (and it was really valuable) safe from their animals by building banks with hedges on top, and employing wood wardens to keep the woods safe and the banks and hedges in repair. The important commodity was, in fact, underwood, rather than timber. Underwood was used for all sorts of purposes, such as fuel, building materials for, for example, wattle and daub walls, fences, utensils, and so on. Timber, by which is meant large trees cut into planks and similar, was less in demand. Only church roofs and similar large buildings really needed enormous logs of oak for their construction and, in spite of Englishmen worrying to the contrary, the country never did run out of oak to build sailing ships.

Much of the timber did not, in fact, come from woods. The larger trees, particularly oaks, were to be found in hedgerows and woodland pasture, or on farmland. There was plenty of that. Hedges only became without trees when modern cutting techniques arrived, as hedge cutters by hand would cut around saplings, so more hedgerow trees survived.

Hedges themselves are interesting. Some parts of the country, what Rackham describes as ‘Planned Countryside’, those parts where open strip fields were the order of the day. These fields were large, farmed in strips, and unhedged. Hedges only came to these parts of the country later, as the open fields were divided up and enclosed with fences. The fences, of course, prevented mowing in their immediate vicinity and thus hedges grew up in a few years. It is only post-World War Two that the habit of grubbing up hedges and recreating enormous fields has occurred. This has negative effects on soil, wildlife and the landscape, as we probably all know.

Anyway, another interesting point Rackham makes is to the effect that many of us paint our tree trunks wrongly. We are used to fairly brown tree trunks and branches, with maybe a bit of lichen growing on them. Actually, before the era of acid rain, tree trunks were much greener, as mosses and a wider variety of lichens grew on them. Tree trunks could be practically green.

Quite a lot of Rackham’s ire is directed at efforts to conserve the countryside. He is particularly severe on the ‘Plant a Tree in ‘73’ campaign. Most of the trees died or at least failed to flourish because no one bothered to look at which species of tree should be planted there. Oaks do not flourish everywhere in England, in spite of our national mythology.

The other thing which we should possibly note as landscape wargamers is the number of trees that were pollarded. In this, the tree was cropped, either to a stump or coppiced to just above ground level. It was then left to grow for a number of years before the process was repeated. This left tree trunks quite solid (for a pollard) with spindly growth above. Coppiced trees have what are termed crowns, roundish bits of solid tree, at ground level, and then spindly bits growing from that. The effect of both of these is to supply the rods and underwood that society needed until industrialisation came. Rackham notes that pollarded and coppiced trees live for a long time, while trees left to their own devices have a life span of a couple of centuries.

Rackham also explains that in England, ‘Forest’ does not mean what we think of as a forest – a thick load of trees. In medieval England, Forests were places where Forest Law applied. They might include a few woods, but were often more heathland, such as the New Forest. The aim of Forests was to grow venison for the tables of the King and his Lords. Apparently, if you received the gift of a haunch of venison you were really in with the in crowd.

There is, then, lots to think about in this book as a wargamer whose games often land up in England of various times. Certainly, I think my modelling of woods as woods could be improved with ditches and banks. And my hedgerows clearly need more trees. I imagine I shall lapse into lassitude and nothing will change, but there you are: a challenge to landscape wargaming.

Saturday 6 May 2023

Balance and Bias

In a recent post, JWH of Heretical Wargaming raised the interesting question of wargamer bias, specifically solo wargamers being biased against a particular army, force or nation. This is an interesting question and got me thinking, as one or two of the comments in the sequence of posts on the Machiavelli campaign might have indicated.

I do not have a good answer to the question of bias. From a young age, for example, I was taught about Agincourt, Trafalger, and Waterloo, and hence might have imbibed some bias against the French. Similarly, my early life was surrounded by comics in which Germans soldiers shouted ‘Achtung’ or ‘Himmel’ rather a lot. As my education proceeded and the horrors of the Nazi regime before and during World War Two came into focus, bias against German armies of the period could surely have followed.

I am not sure that there is a lot I can do about my inherent biases. I can educate myself, reading about, say, French Napoleonic victories, both sea and land. I can certainly examine the achievements and limitations of both sides, or consider the relative exhaustion levels of national resources and so on. For World War Two I can look into the way that the British Empire, fighting for survival, used the colonies for resources, impoverishing the inhabitants for a war of which they knew nothing. Whether any of this would change my biases I am not sure. Given that I wargame neither Napoleonics nor World War Two I shall probably never find out.

Nevertheless, there is another issue which the playing of Machiavelli has raised. As I recall, from playing it with multiple players, everyone had a shout. We know, after a few games that in order to survive and have a chance some areas were important. Venice needed to grab the Adriatic, for example, and France the Gulf of Lyons. Other than these points the game was well balanced and every nation could potentially win.

Surprisingly, this is a bit of a problem. We are honed, perhaps as children, to seek balance. Everyone has to have a chance, at least roughly of winning. This is, often, drummed into us. As a review I turned up on the Internet remarked, possibly Machiavelli is too balanced. The author did not elaborate on the comment, so what follows is my interpretation. I think, however, it follows for wargame scenarios as well.

If a game is balanced, everyone has a chance to win. Victory and defeat, therefore, are dependent on marginal differences. In Machiavelli, for example, the ability to swiftly occupy certain sea areas makes a big difference to some states. These seemingly minor moves can have bigger effects later. If the Venetians do not seize the Adriatic early, they have to expend time and resources in capturing it later, which is awkward to do because only a limited number of fleets can be brought to bear on the problem. Thus the Venetian actions (or lack of them) in the first couple of game moves can lead to an irretrievable problem a bit later on.

The problem can, of course, be compounded by the actions of other players in a multi-player game. The Turks, for example, can set out to obstruct the Venetians; indeed, it is in their best interests so to do. The interactions are part of game, of course, but again, a turn or two delay at the start of the game can lead to problems later on. Given the game balance, these issues take on a bigger function in determining the game outcome.

Similarly, I suspect, many wargame scenarios are designed to be, in some sense, balanced. Even in a game with unequal forces, both sides have a roughly equal chance to achieve their objectives and, hence, win the game, whatever winning might be within the scenario. Given this balance of forces and outcomes, it seems to me that we are back with the Machiavelli balance problem: small mishaps early on can lead to major outcomes, even including defeat.

This is not bias, of course. In fact, unless you start to really analyse what is going on, you might well miss it. My suspicions about which areas are key in Machiavelli games comes from playing it with a bunch of physics and computing students. Analysis of what was important, which were the vital areas for each nation, came naturally to us. The thing is that this analysis and the subsequent actions of the palyers of various nations then added to the balance of the game. If I was Venice, I knew that seizing the Adriatic and, preferably, the Ionian Sea was in my best interests. So did everyone else, of course, and so the game was rebalanced in that sense.

Bias is a more systematic means of unbalancing the game. It seems to me to come in many forms, and can be really rather subtle to catch. This is further compounded by the balance of games and scenarios: if the games is so well balanced, an early marginally false step can have grave consequences later. Similarly, as the games in the Machiavelli campaign might have shown, in a well balanced game a bad (or good) dice roll can make a big difference. If the balance is so good the result can depend on a hair-trigger.

A case in point would the be heavy cavalry charges of my Italian Wars campaign. If these hit home, they are devastating. If they hesitate, and the gendarmes are counter-charged, the result is often devastating the other way. Similarly, I suspect, in World War Two games a lot depends on who reacts first. If it is you and your machine gun opens up, you win. If not, you lose. Again, this is not bias, but balance kicking in.

To start to answer JWH’s question, then, bias can be hard to distinguish from designed balance. If I favour one side by 60% to 40%, then I should see that in the game outcomes. But if my games results really depend on a single hair-trigger outcome at 50% to 50%, those results are going to be hard to distinguish unless I repeat the scenario a fair number of times. Even then, as I will have learnt about the scenario and the most optimal deployments and moves for each side, I may not be able to see if I am biased or not.

As it happens, I was concerned about bias against the French in the Machiavelli campaign. As, at present, their wargame account reads played two, won two, and they are within two turns of winning the whole campaign bias may not be a problem. However, in the wargames they have, so far, been lucky on the heavy cavalry charges. If anyone can figure out if I am biased, I would like to hear from you.