Saturday 24 June 2023

The Norwegian Invasion


It is often claimed that Britain has not been invaded successfully since 1066. That claim is, of course, disputable: those successful invaders, by virtue of the fact that they were successful, could rewrite history sufficiently that their invasion does not, on the surface, appear to be one. Yes, I am looking at you, Henry VII, and Queen Isabella, among others.

Still, it also has to be admitted that England was invaded twice in 1066. The second invasion we know about, that being due to William the Conqueror, who attempted to re-write history such that he was the legitimate heir to Edward the Confessor, rather than Harold Godwinson, Harold II of England, who, in Bill’s narrative, was an usurper.

As most wargamers will know, however, there was another invasion in 1066 which made Harold’s job quite a lot more difficult. This was due to Haraldr Hardrada, King of Norway, and Harold Godwinson’s brother, Tostig. As you might be able to imagine, the route to this was a bit torturous, and I have just finished a book on the subject:

DeVries, K., The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066, 1999, Boydell, Woodbridge.

Being from Boydell it is, of course, a heavy-duty academic monograph and, therefore, quite expensive. On the other hand, I did get it secondhand and therefore relatively cheap. It is part of Boydell’s Warfare in History series; the volumes of this I have read, including Gervase Phillips’ The Anglo-Scots Wars 1513-1550 are also good.

The book takes the reader through the history of Eleventh Century England and its relations, mostly with Scandinavia. After all, the country became part of Knut’s Empire in 1016 or thereabouts and thereafter was into a period of peace. This, incidentally, is the same Knut who overthrew Saint Olaf in Norway, which was the subject of a book I read a few weeks ago.

Anyway, DeVries outlines the early part of the history of England in the Eleventh Century, characterising it as an Anglo-Scandinavian state. He then gives a biography of Haraldr Hardrada, which reads like a medieval adventure story, full of daring-do, sudden reversals of fortune, and general mayhem causing, quite a lot of which was while Haraldr was employed in the Byzantine Empire. After a bit, and apparently falling from favour, he returned to Scandinavia, took over the rule of Norway and spent a lot of the rest of his reign at war with Denmark. If you are looking for an obscure period to wargame, with figures widely available, you could do worse than this period.

DeVries, having got Haraldr to the point of meeting Tostig and planning his invasion, then switches to the Godwin family. Harold and Tostig’s father is first given a biography. Exactly how he rose to power under Knut, Harold I, Harthknut and Edward the Confessor is a bit obscure, but he did. By the time of Edward, he was to King’s right-hand man. This was not without its wobbles, of course, including a period of exile, possibly as a result of the rise of Norman influence in the Confessor’s court.

DeVries then discusses the sons of Earl Godwin, excluding Harold and Tostig who get a chapter to themselves. Harold was not the oldest son, but he seems to have been a bit of a hoodlum even by the standards of the day and eventually died on pilgrimage. Harold seems to have been a successful warlord, in the mold of his father, and, together with Tostig fairly thoroughly duffed up the Welsh in 1063. This too would make an interesting campaign for someone, especially as the final effort by the English involved both a fleet and the army.

Harold and Tostig then fell out, because the northerners, of whom Tostig was the earl, rebelled and demanded that the King get rid of him. Harold acted as a go-between and agreed to Tostig’s exile, which upset and annoyed the latter. This dispute gets a chapter to itself.

Next along are two fairly short chapters, one on the Norwegian military and one on the English. They are compared and contrasted a bit, and the vexed question (in some circles, at least) as to whether the English used cavalry is discussed. I do not think that there is a dispute as to whether they rode to battle, the question is whether they fought from horseback. The case is unproven one way or the other, so far as I can tell. Some accounts of Stamford Bridge suggest the English attacked the shield wall mounted, some do not. Figure manufacturers might like to take note.

Still, the various efforts of Tostig to get support for invading England are discussed, followed by his raiding of the southern and eastern coasts in early 1066. These were occasionally successful, but not terribly, but caused his brother to call out the navy and fyrd to defend the counter. Tostig then repaired north and met Haraldr, either in Scotland or on Tyneside. They then raided Cleveland and Scarborough, where English resistance was greater than expected. They then sailed up the Humber and into the Ouse, defeated Harold’s brothers-in-law, Earls Edwin and Morcar at Fulford, south of York, and then settled down to enjoy the fruits of their victory.

Unfortunately, Harold was approaching at speed and surprised the Norwegians and the few English Tostig seems to have rallied at Stamford Bridge. Hardalr went down to an arrow in the throat. Tostig fought on until the invaders were scattered, and then the English had to tackle the Norwegian reinforcements who came up from their boats. After this, Harold, understandably, let the rest of the Norwegians go.

Harold, was we know, then had to hurry back south to deal with the second invasion of the year. Most people will know the result, of course. But there are a lot of what-ifs. Harold, after all, seems to have engaged at Hastings with half or less of his army. Was he over-confident having dealt with Hardrada and Tostig, or were his forces so denuded that it was all he could muster? Haraldr, after all, was an experienced commander and had made a mistake out of complacency. Harold might have done the same. If he had waited in October, what then?

Saturday 17 June 2023

Holy Roman Empire – Turn 2

About the first battle, there is little to say. The Swedes, with half a Brandenburg army in support, faced the defending Polish army in Pomerila, In case you are wondering, the province is the one on the map next to the Baltic, where the Swedish army has just arrived, transported by its own fleet and supported by the said Brandenburgers.

The Poles placed their Haiduks on the hill with dragoons to the fore, while their cavalry was in three lines – light horse, Pancerni and then the Hussars. The Swedes deployed with their cavalry to the fore, backed by their infantry, with the Brandenburgers on their right. The Swedish plan was to protect their advancing infantry with the cavalry as much as possible, while the Brandenburg infantry stormed the hill. As the above photograph shows, this was not really necessary. The army of Brandenburg had not so much as moved when the Swedish cavalry routed the Polish light horse and the Poles withdrew.

Not much of a wargame, I suppose. If it were a one-off game it would be disappointing, but as part of a campaign, we can simply move on to a more complex case in central Germany. As I mentioned last time this was a rather more interesting affair in the Bishopric of Bamburg, featuring one and a half Palatine armies against one Bavarian force.

The Palatinates are to the left here, on the left side of the stream, while the Bavarians are to the right. The Palatine plan was to advance half the army across the stream and thus to take any defence of it in flank while masking it in front. The Bavarian plan was to attack the outflanking movement with their cavalry while defending the stream.

The battle evolved pretty well as both sides had predicted. The Palatinate just about got its infantry across the stream and deployed before the Bavarian cavalry could attack their cavalry. Meanwhile, the Bavarian infantry got to the stream and, by virtue of a few lucky shots, managed to prevent the other wing of the Palatine horse from doing much for the central part of the game.

Eventually, the rest of the Palatine foot caught up in the centre, as pictured above. The Palatine horse can be seen on the far side, aiming to loop around the rough ground, cross the stream and take the Bavarian infantry from the other flank.

In the foreground, the cavalry fight has started, with six bases of Bavarians against three of Palatine. This started badly for the latter, with them refusing to charge, but then their general led them into a trotting encounter. Rather surprisingly, all three bases of Bavarian horse were routed. As the Palatine horse had not charged, they were not disordered and did not need to pursue. This was just as well, as the Bavarian cuirassiers were lurking in support of their reiters. If the Palatinate horse had charged they would have, first, left their foot exposed to the cuirassiers and second, been open to destruction themselves.

Anyway, the Palatine horse were able to amble into the Bavarian cuirassiers and, rather to my surprise and theirs, rout the base on the far side, which was led by the Bavarian general. The other two cuirassier bases held firm, just about, but the Bavarians had to dice for their general and then for their army morale.

The general dice indicated that he was a casualty. Thus the Bavarian morale was at -10 (four bases and a general) and the roll was minus four, which meant that the army was routed. This seemed fair enough. With their cavalry defeated and the infantry about to be taken in both flanks, running away seemed like a good survival option for them.

These campaign games do seem to throw up a lot of unbalanced wargamers. In some parts of Germany, the situation is locked as I am not prepared to risk a smaller force attempting to attack a much stronger one.

If you examine the picture of the board after the next turn (number three) you will observe there are several blocked positions. Bohemia I have already mentioned, but in central Germany, there are three mutually supporting Palatine armies, backed by the Saxons in their home territory. The Bavarians and newly arrived Austrian army simply cannot muster the forces to attack. There is a closely similar situation on the Rhine, where French and Spanish armies are confronting each other in mutual near deadlock (the armies are white counters of coloured counters with symbols on them. The coloured counters with, for example, fleur-de-lys are control markers).

On a similar basis, the Swedes have advanced in Poland. In order to keep Sweden out of Germany the Imperialists are probably going to have to send an army to Silesia, but getting involved in Poland would further divide their forces and also permit Sweden to invade Germany anyway.

As I may have mentioned, the game is rather complex (I nearly typed fiendishly complex) and I am not playing it right, I know that. But, as a strategic game, it is making me more battle averse. Hence the deadlock in Bohemia, for example, where neither side can gather the forces to make an attack.

Still, it is very interesting. I have no real idea of where the strategic points are on the map, so far. Nurnburg, by the way, right in the middle of the map, is an Imperial Free City and penalties are exacted against anyone invading it, so it is rather blocking the Hapsburg and Bavarian advance. It is, I suppose, touches like that which make the game a bit more historical than Machiavelli, but also a lot more complex. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of taste.

I could solve the blocking problem by changing my stacking rule, but that can make these games unwieldy too. The other option might be to adopt the Machiavelli bribing idea, so a state can pay the army of another to disband or even swap sides. This might not make things any more straightforward, particularly as I am not playing the leader counters. In the original game, you could buy mercenaries (Wallenstein, Armin and others) and any forces they had with them.

Still, we plough on. Turn four beckons.

Saturday 10 June 2023

Holy Roman Empire

As I dare say I have moaned about before, The Wagamer game Holy Roman Empire, is, well, blooming complicated. However, your correspondent was not daunted. Well, he was daunted for the roughly thirty or so years the game has been sitting quietly on a shelf doing nothing, but, flushed with the success of the Machiavelli campaign, I decided to give it a go.

The game, as someone said, is beautiful.

Here it is in most of its glory. I say most because a few of the counters and one or two state cards seem to have disappeared over the decades, and they have also got muddled with the counters from the Strategy and Tactics game (which are a bit more cartoony). Actually, all the leader counters seem to have vanished. I suspect a conspiracy. But that is mid-Seventeenth Century Europe, I am afraid.

Anyway, the art on the state cards is very good, and the map is quite attractive. On the near side, left to right we have Spain and Bavaria, then, going counter-clockwise, the Austrian Hapsburgs, Sweden, the Platinate, and finally France. The other state cards, piled on the near left, are uncontrolled. Actually, there are four levels of state: controlled, influenced, conquered, and unaligned. I warned you it was complicated.

So, having set the game up I decided to try something. I simplified. Each counter representing military forces would be an army, like in Machiavelli, and each fleet would be, well, a fleet. Each army would be a 12-base army on the wargame table, and each support would be the same declining scale of 50%, 25%, and so on, of an army. Simple.

Now for the more complicated bits. The diplomacy phase of the game is represented by bidding on state cards. While there are some exceptions for hereditary states like France, you seem to be able to bid on any state. I handled this by drawing playing cards, whereupon the first heart drawn made the first bid. I only did one round of bidding (the game suggests three) as it was getting confusing. I also ignored the religious modifiers for the bidding process, as it was firstly, getting very confusing, and secondly, I am not sure really that the TYW was a religious war, but rather a dynastic war with religious overtones.

There are a few extra victory conditions for the players. The French have to try to control bordering provinces and prevent the Spanish from keeping the ‘Spanish Road’ open, a line of controlled provinces from Milan to the Spanish Netherlands. This sets up a nice conflict. The Swedes have to control Poland before they can intervene in Germany. Poland is an influenced card for the Austrians, so the latter have to judge whether to intervene or not.

A close-up shot of the map shows, additionally, the Elector states: Cologne, Mainz, Trier, Lower Palatine, Bavaria, Saxony, and Brandenburg. The control of these gives the controlling player a say in who becomes the Holy Roman Emperor. As the first picture shows the Emperor gets an extra stack of states and a great deal more problems. Various states get victory points for being the Emperor, or for the Emperor being of their religious persuasion.

I abandoned the idea of having the military units on the board as too complicated and confusing, not to mention giving seriously unbalanced forces. Map movement in the game is based on each unit having three movement points to cross unfriendly borders, mountains, rivers, or forest provinces. I sort of kept to that, although the danger is that Spanish units could, for example, zip from Milan to Brussels in a single turn. But then each game turn seems to be around 2 years in real time, so I suppose it is not unrealistic.

In the second game turn, things started to hot up a little. The Swedes invaded Poland and were met (automatically) by a Polish army. By this time the Swedes had influenced Brandenburg, so they got the support of the Brandenburg army. So, one battle was a Swedish army, assisted by half a Brandenburg army, against a Polish army.

In central Germany, a complicated situation was already arising, with Palatine armies converging on the western pass into Bohemia (I dare say it is called something; I am simply showing my ignorance of European geography). As they had failed to prevent the Austrians from entering Eastern Bohemia they needed to support their army in the western half. The Bavarians swung an army west in an attempt to outflank them and block the pass, and themselves support the Austrians into western Bohemia,

The Palatine counter to this was to overrun some states in central Germany (OK, I think they bought some, I mean, gained influence) and then support an army to attack the advancing Bavarians in Bamburg. Thus they had one and a half armies against one, and this was to be battle two.

In western Europe, the French are not allowed out of France for the first two moves, presumably because of the internal problems in France at the time (the Huguenots, I think). But they can still bid on states, and so they took influence over Lorraine, while the Spanish made a bit at building the Spanish Road.

This lot, including setting up, took me a long morning. All right, it did include another coffee and scone break, but my poor brain cell was stretching itself out of shape by this time. Even with six players, it would be complicated, and I am not even playing the full rules. I suspect that this is part and parcel of, firstly the complexity of the Thirty Years War, and secondly the complexity of the game in trying to model it. There are plenty of aspects for consideration as each player, let alone the lesser powers (who were, really, greater than represented in the game. Giving, for example, control of the Dutch to the Palatine is a little like putting the cart before the horse, especially after White Mountain). Still, I have managed to wangle my way through to a couple of wargames, which was the point, after all.

Saturday 3 June 2023

The Creative Wargamer

Wargamers are, usually, rather creative people, I think. Certainly, the wide variety of games and ideas I see around suggest a lot of creativity is around. I do not necessarily only mean in the painting of toy soldiers, however. The creation of terrain items and nice battlefields is certainly a form of creativity, of course. The writing of rules and running campaign games, the making of scenarios, and the investigation of and generating playable games of the most obscure parts of the history of human conflict are surely creative occupations.

As you might have guessed I have been reading again. This time it is a non-wargaming book which I picked up for two reasons. Firstly, The Estimable Mrs. P was determined that I read something else apart from history and philosophy and, secondly, it was cheap.

Eagleman D., Brandt, A. The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. Canongate: Edinburgh, 2017.

The first author is a well-known neuroscientist while the second is a composer. I confess I approached the book with a little scepticism. Neuroscientists are well known, in philosophical circles at least, for a certain ‘nothing but-ness’ about their views. For example ‘human thought is nothing but brain activity’. Philosophically, let alone theologically, this view fails, although explaining why would take me rather far afield from creativity, let alone wargaming.

It turns out I need not have worried. Apart from a series of brain scans showing how much less interested in experiences that are repeated our brains become, the discussion is really about what I suppose I would call a phenomenology of creativity. Essentially, the authors have three models of how the creative mind works: we bend, we break or we blend things to make something new.

There are manifold examples. The first is the Apollo 13 crisis, where Earth-bound engineers had to figure out how to get the crew from the stricken mission back safely. This took a lot of ingenuity, ranging from recalculating and reprogramming rockets to lashing together a carbon dioxide scrubber so the crew did not asphyxiate. The fact that they returned safely is a remarkable testimony to human creativity.

Juxtaposed with that example is Picasso’s Le Bordel d’Avignon, which scandalised the art world in the early 20th Century. Picasso undermined the whole of the realist art tradition of the West in that painting. In later years it was recognised as a masterpiece.

The two events have in common human creativity, of course. Neither came out of nowhere. The engineers had a complete manifest of every item aboard the spaceship. Picasso started with a series of realist sketches. Neither work came out of nowhere; both showed astonishing creativity.

A while ago I had a trot through classic wargame texts, some by Featherstone, some by others, and one of the comments asked whether there was any value to reading them today. I sort of prevaricated, but I think I might have got close to the answer. These texts tell us, roughly, where wargaming has come from, and, therefore, they are valuable. I think I said at the time that the questions they pose are still valid, even if our answers might differ.

That is, of course, where human creativity comes into the wargaming world. As our context changes, so do the answers to the basic questions of wargaming change. At least, for historical wargaming, more information, more historiography, and different points of view appear, and suddenly our old ways of doing things feels less appropriate, and less comfortable. To innovate is to be human, and so we set to work again to create something that satisfies this new view of the world.

We do not approach a wargaming subject from a vacuum. There are many tried and tested methods that, unless we have been wargaming in a bucket for years, we will know, or partially remember. Then, with these tools in hand, we address the new problem; our solutions may vary, of course, and, often, we come up with many solutions and have to try to find the best one. There are plenty of ways of fighting a wargame; there are plenty of ways of writing rules. One of the points the book makes is that some ideas will be too radical to catch on, some will be only slight evolutions, and some will be both noticeable and acceptable.

As a slight aside the book suggests that the imperfect memory of humanity is an aid to creativity. We cannot slavishly follow the previous solution because we cannot remember it in detail, so we have to make up a slightly new one. Computers, it is noted, have perfect recall and do not need to create a new solution. Therefore computers are not creative in the way that humans are.

So faced with a new problem we perform, albeit unconsciously, our blending, breaking, and bending operations. We break down the problem into smaller bits and solve some of them, then reassemble with some other ideas to see if it works any better. We might throw large parts of old solutions overboard as unworkable or too complicated. We might blend in solutions to other problems because they look a bit like this one, even if their context is different (physics does this a lot, by the way). And so on.

If we are being creative we come up with many solutions, many ways of solving the problem or achieving the task, and we have to pick one to try out. If it does not work too well, we have a load of other things to try and see if they fix the new problems we have developed. And so on.

As a wargame example, I have tried a number of ways of creating a Thirty Years War campaign game. The problem is handling the complexity of the number of states involved and their relations. I have decided on a simplified version of the Holy Roman Empire game, and I am trying it out. It is still too complex, in my view. Quite how even six players could handle the cognitive load of it rather beats me, but the game is the game. It has a nice map. Even as I am playing it, I am pondering the processes and methods and how it could be simplified. Another iteration could well be in the offing.