Saturday 26 August 2023

Reflections on Failure

As you might have noticed, the Thirty Years War campaign has vanished into the mists. It was getting totally bogged down, and so was I. The Estimable Mrs. P noted the problem and suggested that doing something else would be better. So, as you will also have noticed, I returned to Machiavelli and played through a few more moves, and had a few more wargames. That, too, is in danger of bogging down, so the Greek-style ACW campaign was born.

Anyway, often reflecting on why things did not work out very well is more instructive, although more painful, than thinking about why things did work out. That is certainly true of the TYW campaign: it took a lot of work and putting it away was the right thing to do, but did not make it any less of a cross between disappointment and chagrin. After all, I have been trying to work out how to use the game for decades and was flush with the success of the Machiavelli campaign.

I think there are multiple reasons for the campaign not working out too well. The first was with the rules: they are over-complex, as anyone who has seen the game may well agree. I had tried to simplify them quite a lot, but it turned out that I had not done so sufficiently. Possibly the best wat forward would have been to abandon the rules of the game totally and transpose the Machiavelli system instead, but that might have lost TYW flavour, even though it would have gained simplicity.

Within the rules, the bidding system for states was, um, a little bizarre. Even though I had tried to simplify that too, there seemed little to stop a power bidding on a state of no use to them except to try to stop someone else from buying it up. But then there was not much to stop someone just wandering a rogue army around the board and doing much the same. To be fair, this also happened in Machiavelli. There must be some way of stopping it. I suspect the answer is more detailed national and diplomatic rules, but that would bog things down (unless the system is very compact and elegant).

The other thing that did not really work was the support system. In Machiavelli (the original) you simply count the number of armies and the one with the most wins. In my version, each additional army counts as half or a quarter, and so on. This just about works in Machiavelli, but with more provinces to base armies in at one point I was adding one-eighth of a Spanish army to half a Bavarian and a whole Austrian one. This started to feel a little silly.

I confess also to making my own mistakes. I have banged on here often enough about the importance of sieges in the early modern world, and I totally forgot to include them. I had considered returning to my own 1618-Something rules where you have an army, plus a train (so you can afford artillery etc) and then adding in a siege train. However, I considered that a bit cumbersome for a play-through and, as a consequence, forgot to add sieges in. As these were pretty vital at some stages of the TYW, it was a bit of a significant omission.

Another problem, at least for solo play, was that there are both too many and too few actors. Too many, because you have to consider the situation from each perspective, and everyone can move every turn, and too few because, well, there were a lot of powers active in the war. I moaned before about how odd it was to have the Dutch Republic subservient to the Elector Palatine, and the same was also true about Sweden picking up the Elector Brandenburg and the Palatine recruiting Saxony. Both of these were, in fact, actors within the war in their own right, not just powers to be purchased.

It might work better (if the rules are simplified) as a multi-player game, but some powers, such as Austria and France are always going to have a lot more leverage than others. When I did run something based on the Machiavelli rules using this map (an expanded one, actually) a problem early in the game was that Bavaria was knocked straight out, followed, not that long afterward, by Sweden. The smaller states have little resilience in the game.

The final problem was that parts of the map started to resemble the First World War. Long lines of armies stretched from Bohemia to the Rhine, and then across the Spanish Road to France. Each of these was blocked, more or less, in that every army had one or two supporting it. This meant that I was unwilling to risk an attack at equal strength, and I could not build up the strength to get an edge for anyone. This is a function of stacking, of course. I could have tried stacking armies in the same province, but then you get into God being on the side of the big battalions, which is not the TYW. Perhaps permission to stack two armies, but the province being put into famine as a consequence might work.

As I said, there is a lot to ponder in a failure like this, rather more than there is in a success. I dare say the TYW is something that I will come back to on another occasion. My current thinking is based around the Cleves – Julich succession crisis of (I think) 1610, which could have launched a European war had Henri IV of France not been assassinated. A nice, limited campaign as a taster for the full works might be an idea. On the other hand, I do like to include all possible powers, and in Europe of the C17 that means Turks, Poles, and Russians should be considered.

Now my incipient megalomania is starting to show, and so I will stop here. But there is lots to ponder.

Saturday 19 August 2023

ACW Greeks – Battle 1

Having spent rather more words than I expected last time in setting the scene, this time I will hurry along to the first confrontation between the Athenians and Spartans in the magically transported-in-time and simplified American Civil war campaign. As I am sure you will recall, in this the Spartan central army has moved at speed on the Athenians, and the latter are now intent on defending their city, H.

The battlefield was rolled up using my usual system and evolved into a somewhat cluttered, but with plenty of room for maneuver, field. Fortuitously, the Athenians got a hill and built up area to defend, the latter of which I decided would be the edge of city H. Infelicitously, my camera batter decided to go flat at this point, so there are no rubbish photographs of the start of the battle. You will have to put up with rubbish photographs of the action itself.

The Spartans had a force of 8 hoplite bases, 5 light infantry, and 1 cavalry, while the Athenians had 5 hoplites, 2 peltasts, 3 light infantry, and 1 cavalry base. They lined up the hoplites mostly on the hill, with a base defending the city along with the peltasts, while the cavalry lurked on their left, hoping for an opportunity.

The Spartans advanced in two infantry columns (four deep hoplites headed by a light infantry base look rather imposing, I think) flanked by the cavalry base on their left and the rest of the light infantry to the right. The first action was when the Spartan cavalry moved swiftly across the battlefield and charged, and routed their Athenian counterparts. However, the cavalry commander lost control and they pursued to the table edge.

In the mean time, the Athenian peltasts has advanced from the city to try to deal with the Spartan lights, and the Athenian light infantry were skirmishing, moderately effectively, against the advancing Spartan columns.

I was having doubts as the commander of both sides, which seems to be a hallmark of a reasonably balanced wargame. As the Spartan commander, I was unsure as to whether I should deploy the hoplites to 2 deep to assault the hill, as the Athenians were only 1 deep. I decided that I would as otherwise the column would easily be flanked. Given the defensive bonus the city would give its defenders I stayed four deep for that column. As the Athenian, I was hoping that the Spartan cavalry was too far away to attack the vulnerable peltasts (as it turned out they were) while the latter dealt with the Spartan lights.

The Athenian peltasts did, indeed, see off the Spartan light infantry facing them in some style, routing one base instantly and another in the second round of fighting. The Spartan dice rolling, which had allowed them to control the battle thus far, deserted them, and the combat dice rolls from here on were awful.

The infantry columns fared little better. As the Athenian commander, I was really concerned about the assault on my rather thin line. As it was, the Athenian hoplites on the hill launched a rather splendid spoiling attack on their opponents which delayed them, while the garrison of the city gave their assaulting column a bloody nose. As I said, Spartan dice rolling had become awful, although the +2 the garrison got from being in a built-up area did help.

The Athenians peltasts had turned on and managed to destroy the final loose Spartan light infantry base, and the side of the Spartan hoplite column just repulsed from the city was looking a bit vulnerable. The Spartan position unraveled on the hill side, however, where the Athenians finally attacked downhill and, under the direct command of their general, routed the Spartan column nearest the camera, and caused the one on the far side to recoil.

The recoil of the farthest Spartan column, which was under the direct command of the general, caused a roll on the general at-risk table. It should have been routine but, with a certain inevitability, I rolled a six. Spartan dice rolling had returned, just when it was not wanted (to be fair, the Spartan general had already survived a couple of rolls). The general was lost and the Spartan position was now looking ropey.

The next thing to do was an army morale roll, of course. With the three light infantry bases routed by the Athenian peltasts, and another swept away by the rout of the two bases of centre hoplites, plus the loss of the general the initial morale to work from was zero. In a sudden revival of fortune, the Spartans managed to roll plus 5 on the morale dice. This at least spared them the ignominy of a rout but was still a fallback result, so they did just that.

The Spartans, of course, from this position, could have fought on, but in a campaign context, it turns out to be important to keep armies in being. The total rout of the Spartans would have left the road open to split Sparta in half, from top to bottom, and left the weak garrison of Sparta itself beyond help. Thus it was far better, in the wider view, to withdraw some sort of intact army. Even so, the losses are quite serious, with 6 bases and a general gone out of the original 14. It is also worth noting that the general was also the one with the most initiative. How much that matters is a question that only time will answer.

From the Athenian side, of course, this counts as a success. A weaker army has won a defensive success with relatively light casualties (1 cavalry base). They have also managed to weaken the opposing army significantly, such that a battle on more equal terms might see success. On the other hand, the Athenian army covering Athens is still the largest single force on the map, and, so far, has achieved nothing very much.

It is still all to play for, which good as I suspect a lot of campaigns, both historical and wargame, probably finish after a single battle.

Saturday 12 August 2023

Greek Style ACW

As my discerning reader might have noted, I have been reading a little about strategy. In wargame terms, strategy is a bit of an oddity, at least as it is discussed historiographically. I suppose, as wargamers, we want to get the toys onto the table and play a game. How and why they got there is of interest, but perhaps less so than the drama of battle.

I do think there is much of interest in strategy, and to try to prove the point set up a little campaign. From the comments a blog or two ago you might have noticed that my imagination was captured a little by the strategy options of the American Civil war. Basically, both sides had to decide whether a direct assault on the enemy capital would win the war, or a more indirect approach around the west of the Appalachian Mountains would achieve the goals. If you look at the distribution of battles in the ACW you will note that a lot of effort and blood was spent trying the direct approach. Eventually, Sherman’s march to the sea cut the Confederacy in two and it was pretty well game over.

I do not, of course, have suitable ACW troops for this campaign. Indeed, I do not have any ACW troops at all. I do not think I have ever had any. As you might already know, anything after about 1745 is a bit of a mystery to me. The obvious choice was to switch the period to another one I do have figures for. Given that the ACW was fought between sides of roughly equal technical facilities, I decided that something with ancient Greeks would probably work. A bonus was that the Greeks have not been out for a while.

I have always had a bit of a soft spot for hoplite Greeks. I suspect it goes back to my early days of wargaming when a 25 mm Spartan hoplite sample figure (from Asgard Miniatures, as I recall) was my first proper wargame figure. He served for many years as my personal figure in Runequest role-playing games, even though my friends complained that he carried no weapon (he had a wire spear, but it vanished). 25 mm was quickly superseded by cheaper 15 mm figures and ancient Greeks by ECW.

First, for a campaign, you need a map. I knocked one up on the useful Hexographer software which, in my view, included the important bits of the eastern USA in terms of the strategic geography.

In the picture, you can see the two sides, the north (Athens) and the south (Sparta). You cannot really see the roads and city system, as they are simply drawn on in pencil. The red pins are the Athenians and the blue are the Spartans, with the two rightmost pins in the capitals.

I counted up the total bases in my Greeks box and divided up the results. The total was 42 hoplites, 7 cavalry, 21 light infantry and 8 peltasts. After a bit of humming and aah-ing the Spartans got 24 hoplite bases, 3 cavalry and 10 light infantry, while the Athenians got 18 hoplites, 4 cavalry, 11 light infantry and 8 peltasts.

Having learnt from previous errors, a points system for victory was also created. The capital city of each side was 20 points, each town (the Athenians had 4, the Spartans 5) was worth 10 points. An extra 15 points would be given to the Spartans if they had an army off the top of the map, or the Athenians if they had an army off the bottom. The Athenians would gain 10 points if they held the road from the town at the bottom of the mountain chain (point B) to the coast; the Spartans would gain 10 points if they held the equivalent road from the top of the mountains to the coast. Moves were to be 4 hexes for an army unless it was all cavalry (unlikely) in which case 6 hexes. Again, having learnt from the abortive TYW effort, sieges would take 1 move to invest the town, 1 to besiege it and then subsequently the place would fall on a 4, 5 or 6 1D6 roll.

Finally, to the strategy. Each side would need three armies, one for each north-south road. The make-up of the armies was decided by rolling 1 Dav for each except the main armies based on the capital. The Spartans left only a measly 4 hoplite bases to defend Sparta itself, putting half their effort into the western theatre and the rest into the centre (Shenandoah) road. The Athenians put half their force into the defence of the capital and divided the rest fairly equally between the west and centre.

Commanders were assigned initiative rolls, which gave a percentage of them moving each turn. The Spartan central army commander got an 80% initiative, which is why, on the map above, he has steamed his army (army ‘I’) forward in the centre to attack the Athenian army at H. The Spartan western army has also advanced, while the Athenian general at A seems to be doing a Meade and has failed to move against his massively outnumbered opponent.

The thing about campaign games, it seems to me, is that they work almost the opposite way around to an ordinary, stand-alone, game. In the latter, we want a game and we want a reasonable chance of winning it. In the former, actually, we do not want a wargame unless we have decent odds. The dynamic of the game is shifted quite significantly. In this case, both the Athenians at H, in a defensive position on the edge of the town, and the Spartans advancing on it could reasonably accept battle. The Athenians to defend their lines of communication, the Spartans, who outnumbered the Athenians 14 bases to 11, could reasonably expect a victory.

One of the things which foxes me slightly, and which is why the Machiavelli campaign has again been suspended, is whether it is rational for a general to offer or accept battle on equal terms. In the Machiavelli campaign, central Italy has been blocked up by four lots of mutually supporting armies, all of equal strength. For all of the sides losing a battle would be near disastrous, while winning might not achieve too much, there would still be two other enemies to fight. So my inner condottieri has come into play, and battle has been refused by all sides. Hence the switch to this campaign.

Saturday 5 August 2023

Messianic Imperialism

Well, there is a title and a half. Actually, it is not quite as pretentious as it may seem, but simply a theme in the latest book I have been reading:

Parker, G., The Grand Strategy of Philip II, (New Haven, Yale, 1998)

There are all sorts of potential problems with the title, at least. Philip II would probably not have recognised the concept of ‘grand strategy’ but as every historian who writes about what monarchs and politicians were up to before the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century or so has to admit, what they were doing was grand strategy, even if the grammar of their activities did not include the expression.

Parker admits that it is very difficult to assess Philip’s strategy in full. Therefore he focuses on the struggles in northern Europe with the Netherlands and England, with a side order of France thrown in. t would be nice to have some idea of activities in the Mediterranean, but Parker is honest enough to admit that neither the archives nor the languages are available to him. Therefore, he sticks to what he knows best, namely the Dutch Revolt and the Spanish Armada and its consequences.

As the long-term reader of this blog might already know, I am interested in the later Sixteenth Century, and so this book has been in my sights, vaguely, for a good number of years, probably since it was published. It was nice to get it, in a decent second-hand version, with only a little dampness on the corners occasionally sticking some pages gently together. And very interesting it proved too.

In terms of the Armada, there is not a huge amount more in the book than in Martin & Parker’s The Spanish Armada (1988). Both there and here Parker roundly blames Philip for the failure of the expedition. In this book, there is a bit more detail as to why the decision of the strategy of rendezvous between the fleet from Spain, led by Medina Sidonia, and the army of Flanders, led by the Prince of Parma, was adopted. Philip was fully aware of the different strategies that had been adopted to invade and even conquer England in the past. He chose none of them.

Philip did not even adopt the strategies of his experienced admiral (Santa Cruz) or general (Parma). The former argued for a fleet landing in Ireland or the West Country, the latter for a surprise attack across the Channel. Other strategies suggested included feints from the fleet to draw the Royal Navy to Ireland while the army slipped across to Dover, a combined operation from a Netherlands-based fleet and army and an all-out surprise attack.

The plan adopted included elements of these but depended on split-second timing (relative to Sixteenth Century communications) of Parma knowing the fleet was in the Channel about three days before it arrived. Philip refused to let his subordinates deviate from his plan. This is where the ‘messianic’ bit comes in: it was Philip’s plan, it was to defend and extend the true faith against the English and Dutch heretics, and therefore God would provide what was lacking in the human ability to control things.

As it was, of course, Parma remarked afterward that he thought that God was an Englishman. Parker places the blame squarely on the King and his lack of a Plan B. Medina Sidonia could have been permitted to shorten sail in the Channel until Parma was alert to his presence. He might have blockaded to Royal Navy in Plymouth or landed on the Isle of Wight. As Parker remarks, a more belligerent admiral such as Santa Cruz might have attempted to defeat the Royal Navy. It was by no means impossible: the Spanish had several times defeated Anglo-Dutch fleets, for example in the Azores.

The principle problem facing Philip was partially of his own making. He insisted on all the decisions passing through his office in Madrid. Especially after 1580, this meant a vast quantity of data flowed to Madrid, some of it weeks if not months, or years out of date. Data is not information, however. Philip believed he had a better grasp of the situation than his subordinates and insisted that they await his decisions. But those decisions could take ages, both in the making and the communicating, and when they arrived they often had little to do with the situation on the ground as it was.

Another consequence of the messianic part of Philip’s imperialism was that he would not yield ground if he believed that either his cause or the one of the church, was at stake. He could have defused the Netherlands situation in the late 1560s but negotiation, but would not yield toleration for heretics. Alba, his general, could have helped by not executing the garrison of Haarlem, which might have persuaded other rebel towns in Holland to surrender on terms. We probably cannot understand the role of faith, the extirpation of heresy, and the belief in the rightness of the cause that led Philip and his generals down these paths, although we can find such views in today’s world if we care to look.

There are a few other things in the book. The chapter on intelligence gathering and transmission is fascinating. Parker observes that, while it was widely known across Europe that the Enterprise of England was being hatched, there were so many changes of mind and aim that everyone, from Philip’s courtiers and generals to the French, Dutch, and English leaders were confused as to what was going on. It was a perfect intelligence operation, from that point of view, but as Parker observes: ‘order followed by counter order means disorder’. All the English really knew by the summer of 1588 was that they would need to fight.

All told this is a fascinating book on the problems besetting Spain in the later Sixteenth Century. At the end of the book, some consideration is given to how Philip found himself in the position of the first ruler of an empire on which the sun never set. It was mainly achieved by dynastic marriage. Philip’s son, Don Carlo, who died young and insane, had four grandparents instead of the more usual eight. Philip might have held an empire as a result, but as another Carlos would prove a hundred years later, the gene pool was not of the greatest.