Saturday 28 October 2023

The King's Bed

  ‘Ah, there you are Ferdinand.’

‘Oh. Isabella, my sweet. I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘So I understand. I have sent those young ladies home.’

‘Young ladies? What young ladies?’

‘The ones not wearing sufficient clothes who were waiting in the corridor for you to be free.’

‘Oh, those young ladies. Um. They are all excellent singers, my dear, its just that they find modern fashions rather restricting.’

‘As do you, Ferdinand. Anyway, you won’t need to worry about getting undressed unless you do something.’

‘Yes, dear. You have to undo all these knots that hold your trousers up. That can be quite time-consuming.’

‘No Ferdinand. That is not what I mean. I have news of great import to us.’

‘Oh? What news?’

‘Granada is poised to capture our bed.’

‘Our bed?’

‘The new one, that you enjoyed testing so much.’

‘How dare they!’

‘It was on an ox cart and I have a report from the escort that they have been forced to stop on a hill by a pursuing enemy force. You must go and relieve them, or no more bed.’

‘At once, my dear. I depart at once!’


Recently I was reading a little bit about the conquest of Peru. The Estimable Mrs P, having endured my confusion as to what was going on – there were about 17 years of civil war after the conquest, after all – suggested that a wargame involving the Reconquista might be interesting. She might have meant the conquistadors, but it reminded me about Ferdinand and Isabella and their quest to conquer Granada.

Anyway, a perusal of some resources came up with Scenario 4 in One Hour Wargames, in which an isolated force holds a hill and waits for reinforcements. The isolated force is one-third of the whole army, and the rest appears from a corner. Needing some sort of reason for an isolated force to be holding a hill, I decided that Ferdinand and Isabella’s new portable bed, for use on campaign, was in danger of being captured. This, as the above might have shown, motivated Ferdinand to saddle up and ride to the rescue.

Those of you with long memories will recall that Ferdinand's forces were downgraded by the loss of two bases of gendarmes, which were the main strike force as they tended to win battles on their own. He therefore has only one gendarme base and more jinites than he is used to. The advanced force, holding the hill and the bed, consists of two bases of shot and two jinites. They need to hold out until the rest of the army arrives.

The picture shows the initial position with the bed wagon in the centre, the holding force on a hill just to the right of it, and the might of the army of Granada on the far right. Ferdinand will arrive top left at the end of turn two.

The picture shows a few moves in. The Castilians on the hill are under pressure from the Granardan infantry and some jinites, while they are also being flanked both left and right. The arrival of Ferdinand means that the Granardan cavalry has been diverted from surrounding the hill to delaying Ferdinand’s advance.

A few moves later and it is nearly all over for the Castilians on the hill, the infantry attack having gone in, overrun them and captured the wagon with the King’s bed on it.

The wagon has been temporarily moved to permit the infantry to fight. In the background, Ferdinand has carefully lined his gendarmes up to charge the Granadine cavalry. They refused. Three times.

‘Why are we charging, sire?’

‘To rescue my bed!’

‘Your bed?’

‘Yes. Charge.’

‘Are we talking a bed, like a thing to sleep on?’

‘Yes, man. My bed, and the Queen’s bed.’

‘We are about to risk life and limb for your bed, sire?’

‘Well, that and Christendom.’

‘Oh, Christendom as well as your marital relations, sire?’

‘Um. Christendom first, man, of course. We are crusaders.’

Eventually, Ferdinand persuaded them to charge home and they did defeat the Granardian cavalry, but Ferdinand had spent his personal tempo on persuading them to do so for some time and the rest of the army was either un-deployed or defeated.

The photograph shows the end of the game. Ferdinand’s cavalry charge has taken him to the right-hand edge of the board, where they are being harassed by some jinites. The wagon, of course, should be on the other side of the hill. The rest of the Castilian army has still not deployed and their morale is a bit low. At this point, I, as Ferdinand, decided to use my second-best bed instead and withdraw.

I think that this scenario depends quite heavily on movement rates. For my rules, the hill could have done to have been a little further from the Granadan table edge. As it was the Castilians on the hill edged backwards as much as they could, but eventually were caught. Ferdinand did suffer from a bit of a tempo drought at times during the game, but his endless attempts to get the gendarmes to charge could have been better spent. I think I got the Granardan command right, for once. Their infantry was too powerful for the detachment on the hill and the jinites did their job quite nicely, better than their counterparts.


‘Ah, Ferdinand. How did you get on? Where is my bed?’

‘My dear, in warfare you cannot always achieve the results you desire.’

‘I see. Without the bed, you will not achieve the results you desire. You know that.’

‘We do have alternative beds, Isabella.’

‘If you think I am going to share a bed with you that creaks every time I turn over while living in a tent, you have another think coming. I don’t want the servants to know what we are up to.’

‘We do have some children, my dear. I dare say they know what we’ve been up to.’

‘You had better start working out how you are going to intercept the carriage of that bed before they get it back to Granada, or it will be no result for you, my friend.’

‘Yes, Isabella.’

Saturday 21 October 2023

A Reconnaissance

A short time ago I read in Lone Warrior an article by Jeff Subko, about reconnaissance operations in World War Two and their importance. It also included quite a lot of information about reconnaissance units and equipment in France in 1944-5 and provoked some thinking by yours truly.

I am rarely one to let a lack of suitable toys slow me down. If you abstract sufficiently, I think, more or less any situation can have its period changed, and so I started pondering. I also recalled some of the activities by the force before Naseby. In short, the Parliamentary scouts surprised a Royalist cavalry outpost in Naseby village. The latter were gambling and playing quoits; I am not sure if the two were linked. Some reports suggest that the Royalists were also having lunch.

All of this went together in my poor overstretched little mind and combined with some of the stuff I read about intelligence in Andrew’s book that I wrote about last week. As I was getting desperate to have a wargame and could not quite stomach starting another campaign, or reviving Machiavelli again, I sketched out a possible reconnaissance game. I vaguely remembered a report on a participation game from years ago, where the player was leading a squad sent to scout a farmhouse in 1944 Normandy where what they found was, in fact, randomly controlled and could be anything from nothing to a Panzer division, I needed a bit of a random method of creating what I found.

I will not bore you with the details here. It is really too much of a scribble. I might write it up more sensibly sometime. Basically, what was found in each terrain item, plus each square of the table, was controlled by playing cards. The encounters ranged from nothing to an enemy camp. There was a points system as well. Getting a message back to headquarters on what was found was 1 point, getting a prisoner or deserter back was 2 points, and losing a base in combat lost 3 points. The idea was to get out with a positive point balance.

The picture shows the initial terrain. Each terrain item was, potentially, the concealment place for an enemy force of some description. My side (the Royalists, for no better reason than that I picked a Royalist cavalry base first) enters by one of the two roads nearest the camera. The idea is to see what might be lurking in the rural scene above and get away without damage, as the points system suggests.

In order to do this I had four bases of dragoons and three of cavalry. The latter was conceived of as backup, to rescue the dragoon bases if they hit trouble. I suppose I could have deployed some scouts as well, but decided against it (or forgot). It probably would not have made much difference. The other thing to note is that I ran out of hedges and walls. I needed quite a lot of cover for troops to hide in, and that included along the roads, so every hedge and wall was deployed. I also have some more unpainted and un-based hedges. I might need to break them out.

Still, I cautiously moved some dragoons onto the table and sprang some enemy dragoons in the rough ground on the right, nearest the camera, as well as a scout on the road ahead of my troops. The dragoons opened fire (ineffectively) while the scout made off pursued by my brave men. After a turn or two they did, in fact, catch him and he was sent up the line to be questioned.

A few moves later things were getting lively. My advanced dragoon troop had found an enemy camp near the road. The shooting of the enemy dragoons (and my dragoon’s return fire when they had dismounted) had started to alert the camp but they were slow to deploy, their general in particular being rather sluggish (I wonder what he was doing). The picture shows the situation as the camp was getting organised. You can see to left and right Parliamentary dragoon outposts and patrols withdrawing, while centre right a Parliamentary cavalry troop is heading for what might become the fray from covering a foraging party which was way out to the right. The foragers themselves, another troop of horse, are rallying.

On my side, on the left, a troop of dragoons backed by cavalry are probing forwards. In the centre I have started to withdraw my leading dragoons as they are a bit exposed, and I have deployed my cavalry to stop any smart ideas of charging them.

As it was it did get a little fraught. The dragoons took a bit longer to withdraw than I hoped, leaving the cavalry facing three bases of enemy cavalry. Both sides attempted to charge but the troops of neither side fancied their chances and so after a few growls and doubtless some sword waving from the more excitable elements on both sides, I completed my withdrawal without too much further ado.

You might think that this was very boring as a wargame. Fair enough. Not much happened. But I did succeed in the mission, and got a message reporting the camp and a prisoner back to headquarters, and managed to get my troops away without too much damage – one of the dragoon troops took a lucky hit from some Parliamentary dragoons near the end of the game.

On the other hand, I had discovered the enemy’s presence in some strength and, possibly, the captive scout might tell us more about the enemy's dispositions. My dragoons had inflicted a few casualties on their most advanced post as well and those dragoons, plus their colleagues on the other flank had been pushed in, to use the contemporary term.

All in all, it was a rather satisfactory little game, I thought, and, if it had been part of a campaign context, might have been a bit more important. The thing with reconnaissance, as I have said, is to try to get your troops off without casualties and the message back to headquarters as to what you have found. Dying in a ditch while taking on the whole New Model Army with a couple of troops of dragoons is not much use to anyone.

Saturday 14 October 2023

The Secret World

Everyone does it, you know. Even people who deny that they do it, do it. I am, of course, referring to spying or, to give it its respectable name, intelligence gathering.

I have just been reading

Andrew, C., The Secret World: A History of Intelligence (London, Yale, 2018)

This is a thick brick of a book, with 760 pages of text (more or less, there are some illustrations) and another hundred or so of (very compressed) notes. A serious tome, and it has taken me a bit to read it all. It was, however, undeniably fascinating and by turns amusing, alarming, and bewildering. As with Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis, you do start to think that world leaders are rather stupid.

Still, this book claims to be a comprehensive history of intelligence services from the earliest times (the spies Moses sent into the Promised Land, Numbers 13) to the aftermath of the Islamist attacks in the early 2000s. There is much of interest in it for the wargamer, although the actual operations are usually more along the lines of role-playing or skirmish games rather than actual large-scale wargames. That said, one of Andrew’s points is that intelligence and the history thereof is largely unknown in government, security services, and academia.

For example, early on in the book, Andrew notes that on the three occasions when Britain has been seriously threatened by invasion by a foreign power – 1588, 1805, and 1940 – the intelligence services have been quite happily reading the enemy communications. On each occasion (except the first, of course) the codebreakers were ignorant of the fact that it had been done before. It would have helped, it would seem, if they had known because, firstly, it enables a longer view of intelligence and what it can deliver to be taken and, secondly, knowing what went before can clear up a good deal of confusion in how to handle the results of intelligence gathering.

Example abound. For an audience of wargamers, I might not need to mention the US intelligence decision in the late 1930s to have the Navy and the Army decrypt messages on alternate days. It probably seemed a good way to defuse inter-service rivalry at the time, but it led to serious confusion in the run-up to Pearl Harbour, even if the intelligence that had been received probably would not have issued a specific warning.

There are all sorts of fascinating historical items floating around. As another example, the machinations of the 1815 Conference of Vienna were a secret agent’s dream and a security officer’s nightmare. So many diplomats descended on Vienna that it was a simple matter of the Austrians to pay newly hired staff to retrieve documents that they were supposed to burn. Not that the diplomats were much better. A lot depended on who their mistresses were and who the mistresses spoke to. That Europe survived and was reshaped is possibly remarkable.

Another item of interest is that from 1844 to the outbreak of World War One the British had no cryptology department. The interception of letters from Mazzini, an Italian revolutionary caused a political outcry. No gentleman would read another’s mail. This attitude persisted for seventy-five years, more of less. Apparently, the US Embassy in Moscow was so riddled with spies and bugs that nothing could be kept secret until it was swept in the early 1950s. US diplomats continued to use easily cracked codes as well, on the basis that no one would intercept and read them.

It is also the case that the use of intelligence is a bit dubious as well. Enigma information, as is well known, was kept securely under wraps for fear of the enemy detecting that the codes had been broken. On the other hand, ministers and other leaders have a sometimes laughable propensity to announce that they have seen decrypts of foreign diplomatic messages – the temptation to boast is always around, I suppose.

There are also problems with intelligence analysis. Moses had a bit of an issue with that as 10 out of the 12 spies he sent into Canaan brought back scary reports of the place, with the result that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Poor analysis of the results of intelligence can have significant implications for policy, warfare, and diplomacy. Countries have a predilection to misjudge others. The US and British misjudged the capabilities and imagination of the Japanese in 1941, as well as of Islamist terrorists in 2000. You cannot tell if there is a threat unless you are looking in the right place.

Intelligence does not of itself provide victory, either diplomatically or militarily. It can give a force multiplier, however. If you know what your enemy is probably up to you can take suitable countermeasures. If you do not, as with the German army at the beginning of World War One, you have to cover more options, in this case, the Channel ports as it was unknown where or when the British Expeditionary Force was going to land. The resulting division of the German army possibly affected the outcome of the Battle of the Marne.

In wargaming terms, not to mention real life, intelligence, both general diplomatic and specifically military is often overlooked (guilty as charged, m’lud), and, perhaps, it should not be. For example, agents in Bayonne fed Wellington lists of French units passing through on their way to Spain, so he had a pretty good idea of what he was up against. On the other hand, while the Prussians seem to have had far better intelligence than Napoleon before Jena, it did not stop them from losing. Nevertheless, some consideration of the obtaining of intelligence and its analysis and use could well enhance our games and, perhaps more specifically, our wargame campaigns.

I did like this book, although it is a very lengthy text. It has some great ideas for wargame (RPG / skirmish) scenarios in it, and has made me stop and ponder a bit about how intelligence gathering and use could be factored into our games, particularly when, as I do, you play solo. Hm.

Saturday 7 October 2023

‘These dice are not Spartans’

The ACW Greek campaign has, after a hiatus, continued. I had considered stopping after the Athenians captured the Spartan capital, but decided that would be boring. A rethink of the strategy for both sides was clearly necessary, however. The situation was this.

Spartan army S has ceased to exist. Spartan strategy needs to account for this, and the fact that Athenian army A, the red pin in the centre of the map, is 20 bases strong, having just captured the Spartan capital. Looking at the troop strengths of the armies, the two Spartan forces, if combined, could easily defeat (at least in theory) Athenian armies D (top left) and H (top centre), at least in detail. The problem is to combine them, and so both Spartan armies have started a retreat to town B, at the southern edge of the mountain range.

The aim of the Athenians is, of course, to trap the Spartan armies with army A and eliminate them in detail. As the shot above shows, it is a close run thing. Both armies are converging on Spartan town J. Whoever gets there first will have an advantage. The other Athenian armies, weakened by their combats, have withdrawn to their respective bases, ordered to defend them if the Spartans tuen up.

Things went wrong for the Spartans from the off. They failed the next initiative roll while the Athenians made theirs, and so blocked the road which led to Spartan safety. One of the interesting things about campaigns, aside from yielding unequal wargames, such as this one, is that they do generate their own scenarios as well. Here, the Spartans needed to get past the Athenians without necessarily defeating them.

The terrain dice rolls were not kind to the Spartans either. They had to get across an impassable river with an Athenian held ford, as well as crossing a stream to get there.

The picture shows both sides struggling to deploy. The Spartan columns became separated by crossing the stream (I rolled 2 sixes for the rightmost column which delayed it considerably). The Athenians simply did not have that much room and had to juggle the deployment of the cavalry to cover the hoplites, the changing of the hoplites into line as well as the movement of the peltasts and light infantry into useful positions.

Eventually, the Athenians were ready and the Spartans were across the stream. The Spartan general was the first casualty, going down to a javelin shot from the skirmishing Athenian peltasts. That rather inhibited the Spartans, but they carried on in true Spartan style. The Athenians hoplite attack was met with some initially desperate resistance, but numbers told, except by the river where the Spartan hoplite base disposed of its foemen. In turn, however, it was charged and routed by the Athenian cavalry who were hanging around in the rear without much to do since the hoplite deployment.

The Spartan casualties were sufficient to cause the Spartan army to rout, and so that was, as they say, that. Neither the initiative dice. Terrain dice nor the combat dice were kind to the Spartans this day, hence the pseudo-quote at the top.

As a result of this, the Spartans are going to have to negotiate. They only have around 8 active bases left on the map in their army B, and this is heavily outnumbered by the Athenians. While one of the lessons learnt from the campaign battles has been that slightly smaller forces can successfully hold off and even defeat larger ones in defensive actions, there are limits, and the Athenians have learnt to surround outnumbered enemies.

Overall, I enjoyed the campaign. It created some intriguing wargames with a point and they, in turn generated some unexpected results and threw up problems for the respective generals (who were both, of course, me) to ponder. The movement was simple and straightforward. The campaign set-up was controlled by dice, hence the rather radically uneven initial deployments.

One of the godd things about the campaign was its simplicity. I could pick it up and put it down on a whim. The campaign diary only records which armies got the initiative in a given move; the location was designated by the pin in the map board. With only three armies a side I could keep track of which was which without straining my brain cell.

The initiative rolls worked well in providing unexplained delays and permitting strategic opportunities to slip by. They introduced a nice bit of ‘friction’ in a very simple way. Similarly, while in a face to face campaign the initial strengths of armies would have been hidden, as a solo game I did not need to bother, and it probably did not matter. The map was sufficiently large to prevent reinforcements from being rushed across the board.

Was it anything like the prototype, the American Civil War? Of course not. For a start the northern armies advanced, in the end, down the far side of the mountains and then across. The victory conditions in fact encouraged that, but the deployment dice decreed that the Spartans were gambling very heavily by holding their capital very lightly. This might have worked in Sparta, but probably not in the Confederacy.

Still, I did learn quite a lot about campaign games from this. The first lesson was really about the time and space movement on a map a bit larger than I am used to. When the Spartans looked like punching past the Athenians in the west I spent a fair amount of time counting hexes for Athenian army A got get across to protect the flank and, indeed, their own capital. I am not sure they would have made it. As it turned out it was unnecessary, but it was a bit fraught.

Would I do it again? Yes, of course. Further campaigns are already in pondering mode. I think that switching period does not detract from the campaign, and by stripping away some of the external historical context, it might even help to concentrate on the bare bones of the strategic situation.

Or maybe that is just pretentious.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Maybe of Some Interest…

For those of you who are not trendy leftie Guardian readers, this might be of some interest:

It is an account of a game held in London on the attempted destabilisation of Finland. Interesting and scary.

This is a link, found in the above story, to a paper on the history of wargaming, perhaps more aimed at ‘serious wargaming’, that is trying to persuade movers, shakers and their minions that Armageddon might be a bad idea.

I just thought you might like to know, and may be interested.