Saturday 24 February 2024

The Bridge at Muchado


One of the great advantages of wargaming, particularly when you have been a wargamer for a number of years and have built up various collections of toys, is that you can switch from, say, one period to another, or from a ‘serious’ game to something just played for fun. You can get embroiled in heavy-duty campaigns, for example, and then just put a few bases on the table and have a wargame, just for the heck of it, or just because you can.

The Estimable Mrs. P has been a bit concerned about my wargaming, worried that it has become bogged down in concerns about painting (which she knows I don’t much enjoy) and also in campaigns. It gets, she argues, too complex for her husband’s overheated little brain, and she is probably right. I tend to overthink stuff.

I woke up one morning with an idea for an English Civil War / War of the Three Kingdoms action. In a sense it follows on, or is at least parallel to, the gunrunning scenario of a few weeks ago. But it is different and stand-alone. The idea of the scenario is that both sides have to try to seize a bridge, to permit (or deny) the passage of carts to where the supplies are needed. Hence the bridge at Muchado was born.

The peculiar name, for those who are interested, arises from Mr Shakespeare’s play. He evidently had these three villages in mind when he wrote, about 1600, a play about them. Granted, he transposed the action to Italy and so on, but I find that these sorts of things do spark the imagination.

So, we have the hamlet of Muchado, with a bridge over a fordable stream (except by carts, of course). We have two other villages, Nodding and Abbot. Put them together and you do have (roughly) the name of a Shakespeare play. A quick look through my complete plays of the Bard yielded some commanders, as well.

The Royalists, based at Nodding, were led by Sir Peter, with Benedict’s blue regiment of foot, Claudio’s buff coats, Claud’s cavalry, and two companies of dragoons, led by Dogberry and Watchman. On the other side, Sir Peter’s illegitimate brother Sir John leads the Parliamentary forces. He has Conrad’s and Leonard’s regiments of foot, Francis’ cavalry, and Verge’s and Sexton’s dragoons. Both sides are also blessed with a gun, although I did not name the commanders. Possibly, on the face of it, the Royalist gun should be called Beatrice.

The picture shows Sir John’s troops deployed on the right, with Sir Peter’s on the left. Sir Peter decided to stand, more or less, on the defensive and let Beatrice do the talking, as it were. Perforce, then, Sir John took the offensive, aiming to cross the stream with his cavalry while storming and holding the bridge.

A few moves into the game and you can see the plans developing. Beatrice has certainly disrupted the Parliamentary foot, and Sir Peter has moved his cavalry around the wood to oppose Sir John’s cavalry. What the picture doesn’t show, however, is that Claud’s cavalry is uphill of the Roundheads, which will cause them a problem. Poor tempo dice rolling has rather hampered Sir John’s attempt to get his attack moving, however, and he is having to now spend a lot of time persuading Conrad’s regiment to start advancing again.

The main clash was on the near side of the bridge, of course. Claud’s cavalry charged downhill and routed two of the three squadrons of Francis’ immediately. The third squadron held out for another move before turning tail and running, incidentally collecting Verge’s dragoons (who had dismounted) on their way and routing them. Four bases down, Sir John’s army decided that discretion was the better part of valour and decided to beat a retreat.

The Parliamentary cavalry had been caught with their backs to the stream, disorganised and downhill of the Royalists. It has to be said, however, that Sir John’s dice rolling was poor, and that his combat dice were even worse. To be several points down in the cavalry combat and then to roll a one does not indicate that the combat will last long. It also indicates that crossing obstacles is difficult under my rules, which is at it should be. While Verge’s dragoons tried to cover Francis’ reorganisation, they were under fire from Dogberry’s dragoons in the woods anyway and could not really face three bases of Royalist cavalry looming on the brow of the hill. They beat a retreat to behind their cavalry, who, when blown away, took them with them.

As I said earlier, this was really just a bit of fun. It was nice to get the ECW boys out again, and have a proper battle (as it were) albeit with small armies. The whole action did not take long, it has to be admitted and I think Sir John’s tactics were flawed. He could probably have done to have crossed the stream with both infantry and cavalry, at different points on the nearside of the table. Then the Royalists could have been a bit overstretched. As it was, Conrad’s attempted to cross the stream on the far side of the bridge and discovered it was a famous ‘crocodile-filled’ stream, and failed. Sir John did not have the tempo to get them going again, especially as they were under fire from Beatrice (who was alarmingly effective, as it happened).

Still, the use of the play gave a bit of extra depth and fun to the proceedings, so it felt a little bit more than just a stand-alone scenario, or a bash just for fun. I might use the idea again, especially as my complete plays is stored in the same room as the wargames take place (I’m not allowed to call it the wargame room – it is the snug). Sir Peter and Sir John and their merry men may well make another outing. We shall see.

Saturday 17 February 2024

The Campaign Paradox Revisited

My recent post on campaigning and why we, as wargamers, tend not to run campaigns seems to have sparked a bit of interest and comments, for which I thank everyone who has engaged. In particular, JWH posted a response on his Heretical Wargaming blog, and the comments there are interesting too, and worth a look.

To attempt to summarize the comments, campaigns do happen and are usually regarded with fondness in retrospect. The reasons for not running wargame campaigns seem to cluster around the time constraints, the complexity of campaigns, and the desire to actually get the toys out and fight tabletop battles, rather than move pins or counters around a map.

That said, a fair number of campaigns have been run. Some of them are linked scenario campaigns, where, for example, a battle group or platoon is followed through a series of engagements. As was noted, these tend to be the more resource management sort of games, deciding which resources you are going to commit to a given action, and resting up and conserving elements you might need later. While this is certainly giving a wargamer pause for thought before committing the reserves to a final charge, it is not quite a strategic decision.

The other end of the telescope gives us board games. Aside from self-consciously tactical games, such as, I imagine, Squad Leader, these tend to be inherently strategic in nature. Even a single battle board game gives the wargamer pause for thought about deployment and axes of advance, although again the strategic scope is distinctly limited. Many board wargames are, of course, on the scale of a front or theatre, or even a whole war. These tend to be enormous, quite detailed, and take a great deal of time to set up, let alone play. I think Phil Sabin observes in Simulating War that hobby games are far too complex and lengthy to be useful teaching aids.

Of course, to a great extent, wargame campaigns, as with wargames themselves, are open and flexible objects, and wargamers can and should do whatever floats their boats, as it were. If delving into the logistical arrangements of the war in the desert in 1941-2 is your thing, I am not the person to stop you. Similarly, if all you want to wargame is big battles in the Napoleonic era, that is fine by me. But many of the wargame books you see around do seem to suggest that a campaign is another level of wargaming, as JWH suggested in his survey of books on his blog response.

I suspect that one thing that has not really happened is rule writing for campaign games. I know that there are quite a few rule sets around which include campaigns, and even a few rule sets specifically for them (there is a set in Henry Hyde’s book, for example) but, in my view, they tend to the rather complex. If they do not, they have a habit of being severely simple, as a sort of afterthought to the rules themselves. Neither of these outcomes, in my view, are really conducive to encouraging people to run wargame campaigns.

A wargamer who would like to run a campaign is faced with some more or less complex decisions. There is the level of campaign, whether the participants are squads or armies or anything in between. There is the scope of the campaign, whether it is open-ended or aimed at specific objectives, in a specific time frame. There is also the question of what is to be modelled within the campaign. Are logistics included? Personalities? Replacements and reinforcements? And so on.

In part, I suspect, the question revolves around the campaign rules to be used and the complexity (or lack of it) involved. My narrative campaigns are very simple and easy to run. The outcome of the first battle leads to some choices for both the winner and the loser as to what to do. Normally the winner will make a decision, the loser responds and another battle will be set up, possibly with a few quirks. This is how the Armada Abbey campaign ran, and it still makes me smile when I think about it.

It is not always easy to think of the narrative, however, and, sometimes, the lack of detail might prove to be frustrating. Some wargamers might like the reconnaissance element of campaigning, for example, and the narrative process, while it can incorporate this, might well get bogged down. It is, as I have said, a question of what you want to model.

While many campaign rules do exist, as I mentioned, none have really caught on widely, it seems to me, and many of them tend to the complex. There is no real campaign equivalent to DBA. Whether you like DBA or not, it certainly encouraged wargamers to fight battles. It might even have encouraged a few campaigns at the very abstract level it included. But therein lies the rub: it was very abstract, a vehicle for creating tabletop wargames. Aside from the armies involved, it could have been any period.

I do not, of course, have any answers. DBA was a rule set that arose from long experience of wargaming by the authors, and much practice in wargaming. It may or may not have worked for a given wargamer, but the systems were quite elegant. We do not seem to have an equivalent elegance in wargame campaigns. War is, I suppose, inherently complex.

Clausewitz noted that everything in war is easy, but that the easy things are very difficult. Wargame campaigns should be fairly easy. After all, they are ‘only’ wargames writ a bit bigger. Perhaps if we had some truly elegant rules for wargame campaigns, one which ideally had zero record keeping and many opportunities for strategic thought and decision-making, we might have something that provides a satisfying vehicle for tabletop wargames with context.

The problem seems to be that these two objectives are mutually opposed. We cannot, it seems, have a strategic campaign system that is simple and has zero record keeping, but keeps the interest and decision points that wargamers need. Perhaps we just always land up in this bind and prefer to get the toys out (or do painting) after all.

Saturday 10 February 2024



It might mildly surprise some of the readers of the blog (you think they are plural – really? (ed)) that I have an interest in naval matters and that naval matters during the English Civil War (or Wars of the Three Kingdoms, or whatever the latest name for the conflicts are) were significant. Unfortunately, they are also heavily neglected in the historiography, although that is starting to change with an eyewateringly expensive academic tome titled ‘The British Civil War at Sea’. At £75 or so, I’ll have to wait for the paperback.

Fortunately, I have a few ideas on the matter. There is some stuff around. For example, the failed naval expeditions to La Rochelle in 1627 and 1628 were expensive, cost Charles I his favourite and led to dissolving Parliament in a huff. Ship Money, of course, caused further tensions in the 1630s, and the wars with Scotland brought the nation to the brink. After the Irish rebellion, the navy went over to the Parliamentarian side.

The consequences were serious for the Royalists (and Irish Confederates). They turned to private enterprise, but still needed foreign arms and munitions, which had to be imported. Slowly the Royalists gained strength at sea – capturing West Country ports helped. Henrietta Maria, famously, landed with arms at Bridlington in February 1643, under fire from a pursuing Parliamentary squadron.

The big ships in the Royal Navy were fairly useless, being too slow, for the war of intercepting merchant ships, convoys, and privateers. Both sides hired armed merchantmen, and Parliament even built some frigates. While there were no big battles there were bloody hostilities at sea, not to mention the relief of various ports by naval forces.

As I mentioned, that was also the question of the importation of guns and ammunition, and it was this that gave me an idea for a scenario. As the Royalists were the worst off for domestic production, they had to try to get cargo across the Channel, while Parliamentary forces, of course, tried to intercept and stop them.

The scenario is shown set up above. Really boring I know, but it gives the idea. The Royalists are in port, and the Parliamentarians are patrolling the sea with their heavier ships nearest the camera. The royalists have to exit by the nearest or near right-hand table edges. Each ship getting to the corner will score 3 points, the middle third of each side will score 2 points, and the last third of the near table will score 1 point. For Parliament, each ship taken will be worth 3 points, while each ship damaged will be worth 1 point per point of damage (for either side, in fact), or if the ship is forced off the table elsewhere than the Royal exit areas Parliament will gain 1 point. Each damage level a Parliamentary ship receives will lose them 1 point.

I should note at this point that the Royalists could fight back against the Parliamentary light ships but would surrender if the heavies (1 third and 1 fourth rate) came into close range. This is because, under the rules, mostly the merchantmen and 6th rates will be at least badly mauled by a close-range broadside from even a fifth rate. I should also note that the rules are my own, and are now covered with scribbled pencil notes.

I have recently discovered that naval wargames and describing the action is even more difficult than land-based wargames. Furthermore, the interaction of wind strength and direction makes things even more complex. The basic problem here was that for the first half of the game, the winds were light and so no one really moved very far or very fast. The wind veered from a north easterly at the start of the game and then round to south-west, which gave the Royalists the wind advantage from the second half of the game especially as the wind then strengthened, meaning that all the ships could move faster.

The game caused a lot of thought and manoeuvring, even more than a land game. The lighter ships clashed and Parliament lost one ship crippled and one seriously damaged (minus 5 points, oops). The main question was whether the Parliamentarian heavies could get among the main Royalist convoy. They were, at one point, getting close and the Royalists tacked (135-degree turn under the rules). The Parliamentarians were slower to turn and the Royalists gained but then reversed their tack and, moving a little faster than the Parliamentarian heavies managed to leave them just about behind.

The picture shows the final situation. While it would seem that the Parliamentary heavy ships are about to sail through the convoy, in fact, the next Royalist move will take them off the table and, due to the wind, there is nothing the Parliamentary ships can do about it. In the distance, on the right, you can see the two damaged Parliamentary 6th rates, as well as one in the foreground and one in the background which are in the wrong place and going the wrong way. Two Royalist sixth rates are already off the table, incidentally.

So, that was interesting. The rules, which I have not used for quite a while, seemed to work quite well, although they now need revision. The Royalists came out of port into a headwind, but the wind veered and gave them the weather gauge, which helped considerably. The Parliamentary ships contested the progress of the convoy bravely but were bested by lucky Royalist shooting rolls. The heavies never quite got into combat as they were extremely slow in the wind conditions.

So, the question now is what next, aside from rule revision. As Paul Hague remarked, naval wargames are best in the context of a campaign narrative, so the choices are either a chase at sea, with various Parliamentary ships trying to intercept the Royalists, and/or attempt to blockade the port to which they are heading. Mind you, the Royalists are on +13 points and the Parliamentarians on -5 at the moment, so there is a lot to catch up.

Saturday 3 February 2024

The Campaign Paradox

As the regular reader of this blog might have surmised by now, I am something of a fan of campaign games. The ideas of linked battles, the movement on the map, the decisions of strategic import, and so on interest me. Perhaps I am much more of a big-picture wargamer than most others, I am not sure. The Estimable Mrs. P. keeps arguing that I think in the abstract, so maybe the interest in campaigns is a consequence of that.

Still, it is a little hard to find evidence that campaign wargaming is particularly popular among wargamers. I know that some campaigns are played (I could name a few blogs that report them) but, to be honest, most battle reports in the blogosphere, at least the slice of it that I read, are of either historical battles or of scenario games, with Neil Thomas’ One Hour Wargames as the source of choice.

Now, to be clear, I do not have the slightest problem with that. Again, the regular reader will be aware that I have indulged in not a few scenario-based games from OHW, as well as a few historical games. But the hankering after campaign games does not, for me, go away. Perhaps, as a solo wargamer, I have imbibed too much of the advice that, to keep the solo interest going, we need to move to campaigns.

There are, of course, campaigns and campaigns. There are sequences of scenarios, where the sequence is fought out step-wise, with results and casualties carried forward. Indeed, OHW suggests taking those scenarios and linking them. Then there are ladder campaigns, where the sequence starts with a middle-ground scenario and the action moves one way or the other until either the top or the bottom of the ladder is reached and the campaign is won and lost.

I suppose somewhere in this my ideas about narrative campaigns, where the detail of the map moving is ignored but the moves are conducted with reference to a map to decide where the next game is to be fought fits somewhere alongside these forms of campaigning.

The next logical step from narrative and ladder-style campaigns is probably to use a proper map, gridded or hexed, and plot out the moves properly. I tried this out with the Jersey Boys campaign and it did work quite nicely, but there is, of course, a bit of a penalty to be paid in terms of preparation. It might be at this point that some wargamers decide that an off-the-shelf scenario game is preferable.

Of course, as in real life, the complexity of campaign games is potentially unlimited. Jersey Boys did have personalities created for the officers, although it has to be admitted that most of the effort expended on this was rather wasted, I feel. It also made use of a proper map, with pins to locate the units, weather, and couriers. These latter bits worked quite nicely, although the invasion had to wait until the weather cleared.

At the most complex end of the spectrum are those imagination games where the action spans continent(s) and decades. These take a lot of work, I think, to set up and, if my own memories serve me correctly, a fair bit of effort to maintain. The gold standard in such campaigns is, of course, Tony Bath’s Hyboria campaign, as documented in Setting Up a Wargame Campaign. I have tried this sort of thing, and much simpler settings, but the sheer size of it tends to overwhelm me.

I am aware, as you might have seen, of most of the wargame books that cover campaigns: Bath, Grant, Featherstone, Hyde. But the fact remains, it seems to me, that campaign games are a thing that is more honoured in the breach than execution. That is, not many people actually carry out campaigns, even though they might like to in principle.

I think there might be a fundamental paradox lurking behind this. The idea of a campaign is to achieve an objective – capture Jersey, for example. The objective for the other side is, of course, a mirror image of this. However, the next idea along is that the objective needs to be achieved with minimal casualties because for each combat you might lose forces you will need shortly. The campaign paradox emerges.

The campaign paradox is that the wargamer wants to fight wargames, fairly obviously. In a campaign game, however, the idea is to fight as little as possible while winning the campaign. The nature of the campaign game, therefore, is to limit the number of wargames to be fought out, while maximising the paperwork. This is not an attractive proposition to many wargamers, I suspect.

Given the popularity of OHW, I was wondering if there was any scope for (and perhaps it already exists) a sort of similar book, packed full of smallish campaigns. A set of easily transferable campaign outlines might work. It would be the sort of thing that OHW does for scenario games, crossed with Featherstone’s actual examples of small campaigns.

Or, maybe, the scope should be bigger. The Featherstone games are, mostly, what could be termed grand tactical rather than strategic games. The introduction of strategy is, naturally, opening a whole extra can of worms, and there would be no telling where it would end. Nevertheless, it is fairly clear that generals of times gone by had strategies, even if they did not use the term (which seems to have got its current meaning sometime in the Eighteenth Century).

So, I open the discussion to the floor, if there is any interest. What would persuade you to get the maps out instead of starting another scenario? Is there anything, or do time constraints preclude such things? I suppose, somewhere in my mind, is the question of whether we have to dash on to the next wargame all the time. Slow wargaming, anyone?