Saturday 30 March 2024

A Promise is a Promise…

A while ago I announced to the world and to the reader of this blog that a book, written by me, about Solo Wargaming was going to be published. I also said that I would let you know when it was available for pre-order, and that time is now. So, there you have it: Solo Wargaming: A Practitioner's Guide is now available for pre-order from the publisher’s website:

Not only that, but the book is available for pre-order at a very healthy discount of £6. Even if you add in the postage, it is still a good deal, in my view. Additionally, as orders over £40 are post-free, you can justify adding in some other books that you might like and get the lot – Pen & Sword seems to have a special offer at the moment on wargaming books, at least.

I suppose I should mention that you can get the book from Amazon, as well. However, leaving aside any accusations of dubious business practices Amazon may or may not be guilty of, it seems that the big A gets their books from a wholesaler, who gets them from the publisher. This adds an extra layer and hence delays to the supply chain. Thus, if you are eager to get your wargamer’s mitts on the book, order directly from the publisher, who will send the book out as soon as they receive stock from the printer.

I suppose it is rather time for me to start to talk a little about the content of the book. I will not reproduce the publisher’s blurb here. After all, you can read that on the website linked above. But it might just be worth trying to describe the bits that went into the writing the thing.

To start with, the title. In the dying days of my professional work, there was a lot of talk about ‘practice’. We were all becoming practitioners, it seems, although what we were practicing, and whether we got any better at it or not seemed to be moot. Still, ‘practice’ as a term was terribly trendy and right on (but not, it seems, ‘woke’, mercifully). Slightly intrigued, as I rather enjoy seeing how languages evolve, I dug a little further.

A practice is, of course, a way of doing things. It seems that a practice is defined against a theory on one side and a set of rules on the other. A practice is not abstract, hence it is not theoretical, but then it is not something that is constrained by already worked-out rules. A practice is, then, something concrete, that we can actually work with, and with which we can engage our critical and creative faculties. At one level this is, of course, obvious and, in these terms, practice covers more or less everything humans attempt to do. At another, I realized, it starts to sound quite a lot like wargaming.

So, somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind an idea was born, I suppose. At work, I was notoriously bad at titles. I still remember the laughter at the other end of the phone when I was talking to a colleague about my latest course and mentioned the title. ‘That needs a bit of work’ was the usual response. Too long, too vague, and not expressive enough of the contents was the usual feedback. And, to be fair, it was exactly correct, although I discovered that students could and did quite quickly come up with their own titles for our courses.

So, when I came to writing a book proposal, I realized that I needed a title, at least, a working title, so I could talk and write sensibly about the contents. I do not have, in my notes, a record of where and when the title came to be, but it was there in the initial outline and has, remarkably, survived without changes. I have only ever written one other thing that managed that.

A title is supposed to give some clues as to the contents, however convoluted some postmodern writing and titles might be. The book is, as you will have surmised by now, about solo wargaming, and the sub-title has, hopefully, just been roughly explained, at least as far as the practitioner goes. I am, of course, the said practitioner, and it is my guide to solo wargaming.

Perhaps also surprisingly, my outline chapters survived more or less intact. There is, of course, an introduction that discusses why someone would want to wargame solo. There turn out to be quite a few reasons, and I dare say my list is not comprehensive. We then move on to stand-alone wargames and the various ways these can be created and played. The focus is more on the creation of interesting battles than on anything else.

Next along, of course, comes running campaigns. Avid readers of the blog will recognize some of the ideas here, such as using plots to keep the campaign running nicely. Some of the nuts and bolts of running a campaign are discussed here as well, along with my admission that my campaign diaries are pencil scrawls on pages of notebooks, not the works of art that you sometimes see as journals.

Still next up are all those things that can make a wargame, and particularly a campaign game, much more interesting, such as personalities, random events, and logistics. I spend a bit of time trying (and probably failing) to take an accountancy approach to the latter. This is followed by a chapter on the prima-donnas of the wargame world, sieges, naval and air wargaming. Many wargamers still seem to avoid these topics, in spite of some very creative ideas published recently as to how to handle them, but if we are to wargame with some degree of realism, they have to be there.

The final chapter discusses how to keep things moving along and a bit about why academic military history is less useful than it should or could be for wargamers. It explains, at least in part, why Oman and Delbruck are still so popular. I finish up, of course, with an apology for everything I have missed out of the work.  

I will try to keep you updated; in the meantime, more timely news should be found on my new Facebook page, which should be here:

Saturday 23 March 2024

The Evolution of Strategy

As the long-suffering reader of the blog might have vaguely surmised, I have been thinking a little about strategy recently, and how it might impact on our wargames. The answer is, of course, both more and less than we might imagine. It impacts less because tactical warfare, which is, after all, mostly what wargamers are interested in, has relatively little impact on strategic warfare. That is, looking at it the other way around, it is hard to translate a tactical victory into a strategic victory. If your enemy is determined to carry on, no matter what the cost, or how badly defeated they have been, the war will continue. And you still might lose.

There are several cases around which prove the above assertion to, at least, have legs. Hitler defeated the Western allies in 1940, for example, but the war continued because the British Empire and Commonwealth refused to either surrender or negotiate. Similarly, it was observed that the US never lost a tactical encounter in Vietnam. It is just that, in the strategic picture, it did not matter much.

On the other hand, strategy, at its grandest level, does have some impact on how and where wars are fought. For example, after the First World War, some powers decided that all they really needed was a strategic bomber force to deter any invasion by threat of massive attacks on enemy cities. Whether the technology of the time was up to the job is rather moot, but the idea was there and the concept of a defensive air force took time to evolve. This idea did not, incidentally, die with the Second World War, but morphed into nuclear strategy.

As you might have guessed by now, I have been reading again, this time a large tome on strategy:

Heuser, B., The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: CUP, 2010).

This would seem to be something of a university-level textbook for international history, politics, peace (and war) studies, and so on. It really covers what people have been writing about strategy over the centuries, and how what happened in the real world changed that.

There are quite a few interesting points in the book, which is just as well because it is 500 pages long or so. It has to be said, however, that as someone who mainly wargames in the ancient and early-modern periods the coverage of these is rather light, largely because no one particularly wrote about strategy in its modern definition until roughly Machiavelli. I know that there are exceptions, and they do get a chapter or so, but really the picture starts to get interesting in the Eighteenth Century and beyond. For something that is supposed to be a rational human activity, there is a lot of trendiness and muddled thinking going on, by the way.

Still, everyone was mesmerized by the Napoleonic Wars. Heuser really does not think that there was a ‘Western Way of War’ before the French Revolution, but that Napoleon, with his focus on the decisive battle, rather invented it. Maybe, and maybe not. After all, Frederick the Great wrote a lot about decisive battles but rarely managed to engineer one. We return to the point above, that a campaign or battle is only decisive if it persuades your enemy to give up.

Still, at sea, the idea of the decisive battle was also all dominant after Trafalgar. The concept that your battle fleet put to sea and decisively defeated the enemy battle fleet, gained command of the sea, and then won the war was the key concept. There were arguments among the British as to whether the army was really necessary, and among the French as to whether the navy was superfluous. These were theoretical arguments, of course, among the emerging academic and retired military classes. No sane politician ever really considered scrapping one or the other.

This all rather changed with the First World War. There was no decisive battle at sea. Both sides in reality had a more realistic goal of retaining a fleet in being to deter any silly stuff like invasions by the other side. On land, the concept of a decisive battle expired in the trenches.

Views of warfare switched, somewhat, but in different directions. One school went for technology – future war would be dominated by tanks, aircraft, and submarines. Everything else was irrelevant. To an extent, of course, that was perfectly correct, but only, as with so many things, to an extent.

On the other hand, other strategists argued that the whole strategic idea of the First World War was incorrect and that more should have been done to attack indirectly, with such things as the British blockade (which did cause starvation in Germany, eventually, but which did not contribute to the surrender) bombing (which did not cause too much damage in WW1 and did not cause surrenders in WW2) and defeating the enemy by attacking command, control, communications and logistics (Liddell Hart and the Blitzkrieg, of course).

The advent of nuclear weapons, as noted, did not really change things too much. The idea of a (nuclear) force in being simply continued. This is deterrence. The concept of imposing your will on the enemy, as practiced by Napoleon and the decisive battle brigade, started to decline as it was realized that a decisive battle in a nuclear sense would be the last battle. Ever. Nevertheless, as the small wars started up again, wars of decolonization and the ideological clash between superpowers, the concept was never entirely lost. Even large and successful campaigns, such as the defeat of the Tet Offensive, could not,, win wars, particularly when the resource base for the enemy was off-limits, as it was in Vietnam.

As might be expected from a large book there is a lot in it which I have not covered here. The chapters on asymmetric warfare are interesting and give a lot of ideas for how such activities are fought on the tactical and political levels. And so on.

The final assessment is that is well worth reading, and might inform your wargaming. After all, grand strategic assumptions tend to inform weapon system procurement. If you assume your navy will fight the enemy navy in a decisive battle, you will invest in battleships. Otherwise, you might decide that commerce protection and raiding are more important and invest in smaller warships. And that controls what you can do, in general, tactically.

Saturday 16 March 2024

Moving on….

… in random directions.

As you might recall, I have more or less stopped painting. That is, of course, untrue, but (aside from one) I am not planning any major painting projects at the moment, and I am trying very hard to curb my enthusiasm for buying any more models, either soldiers or ships. Some more ships were mooted for my recent birthday, but the Estimable Mrs P. spotted her husband’s slightly cold feet at generating even more ships to paint. The idea was thus placed firmly on the back burner and I got a coffee bean grinder instead.

Still, painting after a fashion has been taking place, so this post is a bit of a matter of record for my own interest and hopefully ability to build some momentum. The first lot finished (more or less) was a bunch of scythed chariots. Now, I do not think I need another six scythed chariots, but there they were, sitting in my painting shoebox of shame, and so I hoicked them out and set about applying paint.

As you can see above, the addition is of six Baccus 6 mm scythed chariots, all rather gaudily painted, I think. But then, if you are about to embark on a near-suicide mission, why not flaunt it, I feel.

There are a couple of points of interest and irritation, here. I already have 4 scythed chariots in the Persian army box. The addition of these will, of course, mean the box is over full and so further consideration to storage will have to be made. This is a tiny bit irritating, but perhaps some of the chariots could go in the Pontic army box, or with the Macedonian successors. Of such decisions, a wargamer’s life is made. On the other hand, I’ve a load of Persian Immortals living outside their box at the moment, so another Persian storage box might be due.

The other thing which, if you look really carefully at the picture you will note, is that my standard basing green colour ran out halfway through painting this lot. The bases are 40 mm square, so there is really quite a lot of area to cover. I had to switch to my newer alternative, which, on the base wet, looked terrible but has dried darker and less artificially green. So that was all right then. Consistent sourcing of base colours has bugged me throughout my wargaming career, at least since I moved off cardboard bases and onto plastic card and polyfiller. My local source of paint keeps switching suppliers, which is a tad annoying. The latest colour is from Hobbycraft, which should be reliable (I hope) but is a bit further away.

Still. I am pleased to have this lot out of the box and into a temporary storage tray, with hopes that my organisational abilities and interest will be sparked sufficiently to actually move them into a proper storage box soon. I mean, the Immortals have only been waiting a year or so….

Anyway, moving on. I may have mentioned the acquisition of the 25+ mm Warbases civilians at Christmas. They are still in the box, of course, but when I put them in the pending tin for big figures, I discovered 5 or so assembled but not painted ECW figures, so, in a moment of whimsy, I decided to paint them. I am not used to painting big figures, and I suspect it shows. I am also not a good painter, and that shows too, but they pleased me somewhat.

I think these figures are all Redoubt Enterprises and have been in stock for an embarrassing length of time. Part of the problem with them is that they are multi-part figures – legs, torso, and head – and I am an even more rubbish modeller than I am a painter. It takes a while to stick them together, for them to dry and then test whether they will survive undercoating. If they do then they are usually fit for painting.

These have now joined my skirmish figures, which include a few Border Rievers, some Irregular cavalry whom I painted last year and quite a few others including Landsknechts, French Musketeers and more dismounted ECW cavalry. The idea is for a role-playing or skirmish campaign. I have far more figures than I need, plus another 16 or so waiting to be painted. No wonder I am also working on very fast play sword fighting rules.

And finally, the new project, which is (if you were paying attention earlier in the year) Far Eastern fleets. I have had Japanese (Samurai), Korean and Ming Chinese armies for ages, but was always frustrated by, firstly, the lack of information on the Japanese invasion of Korea and secondly, by the lack of suitable ships for the period. Both of these deficiencies have now been rectified thanks to Osprey Books and Tumbling Dice miniatures respectively.

That means, of course, that I now have three fleets to paint. I do not mind painting ships quite as much as I do soldiers. The ships, at least at 1:2400 scale are reasonably easy to actually paint. Assembling them is, of course, much more fiddly, and I refer my reader to the comments above about my modelling skills. It also has to be admitted that the names of the ship types are not normally in my naval vocabulary, so I am trying to record the ships as they are painted so that at least I have some record of what they are.

The picture shows the first sixteen results of my efforts. At the back are four Korean P’Anokson. These were the sort of main Korean battleships of the era, and there were usually more of them than there were of the famous Turtle ships. At the front are 12 Kobaya, which are the smaller vessels, scoutships, coasters and small merchantmen. Next up, partially painted, are 5 turtle ships. At least they are assembled.

Interestingly, Korean tactics in the war were to stand off and use cannons, while the Japanese aimed to close and board (hence the spikes on the roof of the turtle ships). This reminds me of the battles of the era of the Spanish Armada (same time, different continent) where the English stood off and shot while the Spanish aimed to close. There is something here about the construction of the ships, and neither the Spanish nor Japanese hulls seem to have been able to stand the strain of constant cannon fire, being much more lightly built.

Still, there is a long way to go: just over 50 more vessels to paint by my reckoning. Bit at least I have go the Persians finished.

Saturday 9 March 2024

An Announcement

It is now about 18 months or so since I left paid employment. I was, shall we say, eased out by post-Covid management irresponsibility and incompetence. At least, that’s my story and I am sticking to it. In my last conversation with my line manager, before I was declared persona non gratia for resigning, he asked what I was going to do. To my surprise, and to his, it seemed (it is a bit hard to tell over Zoom) I immediately replied ‘Write’.

Post-paid employment I sat at my desk and considered. ‘Write’ is all very well but it lacks, shall we say, detail. The normal response in creative writing courses to the question of what to write about is to write about what you know about.

My thought process thus turned to what I know about. Hopefully, the long-term reader of these pages will have picked up that I have read about a variety of things, even though knowing about them, still less understanding them, remains somewhat elusive. So, I thought, what do I really, really know about, from the inside (to use a possibly unhelpful spatial metaphor).

Eventually, the answer struck ‘Solo Wargaming’. Counting back the years I have been a mostly solo wargamer for over four decades, with a few breaks for role-playing games among my student friendship group, the occasional Napoleonic wargame with a friend, and so on. But, as this blog, which has been going for well over ten years it seems, shows, most of my wargaming is done solo.

Those of you with very long memories might recall a post here in April 2022 on the subject of what there should be in a solo book. At the time the idea had not occurred to me to try and write, but clearly, a seed was being sown. I would like to thank everyone who responded in the comments, which seemed to suggest that the idea was viable.

So, slowly and painfully, my fingers were applied to the keyboard. My usual mind-mapping sorts of scrawls (which the Estimable Mrs. P. describes as ‘bubble diagrams’) were sketched for some chapter outlines and some ideas were collected. Some draft chapters started to grow, and I wondered what to do with them. There seemed to be a book gestating.

To get a book published you can either do it yourself (self-publishing) or involve a publisher. There are pros and cons to each, granted, but given that your correspondent is a shrinking violet (we will come back to that) I went down the publisher route and put together an outline of the bits I had written (about three chapters, as it turned out) and the bits I thought would make the thing whole. I settled in for a long wait (used to academic publishing timescales) and was a bit surprised to receive a response from the editorial office of the publishers asking for any chapters I had so they could pass it on for consideration by the commissioning editor within a few days.

There the matter rested. Again, I expected a long wait, but a few days later the commissioning editor was in contact saying that he liked the outline and would read the chapters. I sent what was probably a rather pathetically needy reply.

That was all in September 2022. By the beginning of October, I had a contract to write the book. Rather surprisingly I managed not to get too stressed or panic, but I sat down and actually tried to write and revise the originals and, working from my outline, do the rest. In the meantime, there were a few questions about the number of pictures and maps (not many) and the timescale, which I found difficult to answer but did a rough calculation based on writing 3000 words a week, plus a bit for the maps.

I did not want the book to reproduce the blog posts. I have seen non-wargame books that have done that and very annoying I find them too. So, while the ideas in the book might come from the same mind as the blog posts, and have some of the same themes as them, it was all supposed to be original stuff.

Rather to my surprise, the book was nearly finished by April last year. It was then put to bed for a week or so before I did proofreading, and eventually, submitted it to the publisher. Things went rather quiet until November, when the jacket was designed (my idea did not work, but that is life), and then in December copy-editing happened. This is a potentially traumatic occasion for an author where all the errors, repetitions, lacunae, and continuity lapses are ruthlessly detected and exposed. Actually, I think I got off rather lightly on this – the worst was a reference to Cannae which certainly did not belong in the paragraph. I wondered long what I was thinking at the time.

January ticked around and I got the first proofs, which I returned with, as I recall, 26 errors and two or three bigger points, and, presumably the cogs of the publishing industry were turning. Then, the dreaded email arrived, the occasion on which most authors head for the hills or hide behind the sofa (remember the shrinking violet thing?). The time had come to start the marketing.

I am trying to be rational and reasonable about this. After all, the book is the one that I would like to read about solo wargaming. It has gone through the process of being written and edited and everyone who knows about it so far has been kind and encouraging. If people do not know that the book exists (or, strictly, will fairly soon exist) they cannot choose whether to buy it or not. On the other hand, whenever I have had an article published I have had to ask the Estimable Mrs P. to open the package in which the item is published because I dare not. It is hard to know which route this one will go down.

Anyway, enough of this and the apologia. I will, almost certainly, be giving more detail in the next month or three about the book, its contents, and its route to publication. It is listed for publication in June, by Pen and Sword Books, although the last time I examined their website it was not up there yet. You probably want to know what it is called and so on, so here is the cover. I have reduced the resolution to make it a smaller file, so the original looks better than this.

As I said above, there will be more on this in the coming weeks, and I will also be setting up a Facebook page for shorter comments and discussion of it. In the meantime, comments and questions are welcome in the usual manner here.

Saturday 2 March 2024

On Artillery

I have, on and off, been pondering early modern artillery and its usefulness, effectiveness, and, above all, why armies bothered dragging the pieces over the countryside. After all, I think it was King Charles I who commented that the artillery train was a sponge that soaked up all the money.

By the War of the Three Kingdoms cannon had been around for a while. I think the first illustration of one dates from the early 14th Century, and they were certainly deployed by the English in the 1327 campaign, not that they were particularly useful on that occasion.

Still, by the 17th Century, things had improved. Powder, for example, was more powerful, and improved construction techniques meant that the pieces could take the strain, although a full charge of corned powder could well be too much for many gun tubes. That, I imagine, comes down to the skill of the individual gunner and his knowledge of his piece.

Gunpowder weapons of all sorts were horribly inaccurate. Bert Hall’s excellent book on early firearms reports a test of 325 discharges of smooth-bore muskets (dating from the 16th—18th Centuries). Surprisingly high muzzle velocities were reported (averaging 454 m/s, or 1490 ft/s), although that depends, of course, on the charge weights. There are some similar results for ACW artillery.

Spheres are the worst regular shape possible for generating drag, and the bullets decelerated at about 2.5 m/s for every meter of travel. About half the kinetic energy is lost at 100 m from the muzzle. Hall reckons that early modern weapons only have a possibility of being lethal at 100 – 120 m. At Blenheim and Fontenoy the high casualty rates were generated by shooting at about 40 meters. Drag meant that under normal circumstances at best 10-20% of shots hit the target, and, frequently, it is more like 5%.

Of course, artillery kept its velocity better, or at least, because the bullet was heavier they maintained lethal velocity for longer. But both firearms and artillery were notoriously inaccurate. Frederick the Great of Prussia calculated that 650000 rounds had been fired at Chotusitz (1742) killing about 2500 Austrians and wounding a similar number. That is, 1 in 130 discharges hurt someone. Other numbers bandied about were even more pessimistic.

Inaccuracy was also measured. At 100 meters the size of a square enclosing half the bullets is about 1 foot on each side. Actually, rifled muskets from the same period did not do much better. So the chance of hitting someone at 100 m was about 50%. Some weapons were better than others.

The problem is that spherical balls with windage – the difference between the diameter of the ball and the inner diameter of the barrel – bounce along the barrel. Ward reports that the standard windage was about a quarter of an inch in cannon. So the ball strikes the sides of the barrel after the gun is discharged, and picks up spin from such collisions.

As any cricketer or baseball player will know, balls with a spin on can behave in unusual, counterintuitive, ways. In a controlled spin, such as in a sport, this can be helpful. When aiming a weapon with the spn in an unknown random direction, it will move in the air. Hall reports an amusing experiment with a slightly left-bent barrel where the ball actually struck the target to the right of the centreline.

Artillery, although with longer ranges, suffers from the same issue. The ACW artillery deviated by 3 feet at 600 yards and 12 feet at 1200 yards for a 12-pounder. Lighter pieces seem to have deviated more. The aim of gunners, of course, was also to keep their shot below the height of a man. There is also the consideration of ‘point blank’ range, where the shot starts to drop away from its expected trajectory. Ward records point blank to a saker (5 ½ pounder) as 300 paces and a culverin (19 pounder) as 420 paces, which is the furthest in the list. Ultimate random ranges were 1500 paces and 2100 paces respectively, although the deviations Hall records for smooth bore artillery indicate that you were unlikely to actually hit what you aimed at at those ranges.

I have long suspected that part of the impact of artillery is simply the noise. A cannon discharging is, from my experience of attending re-enactments, very, very loud. Musket fire is less so, but these noises were probably the loudest ones available to most people. It would, at least until you got used to it, be frightening. Along with the noise the smoke and the possibility of being hit by a cannonball (which could damage you if it hit you at even extreme ranges), there was quite enough to perturb most people.

In Polemos: ECW we have a maximum range of artillery as 4 base widths and a factor of 3. At over 1 base width the artillery loses 1 from its factor. This, as JWH has pointed out in the past, seems a bit too swingeing. I suggested an alteration, making the artillery fire as normal over 4 base widths and then losing 1 per base width from its factor. That seems to make artillery too effective, as my experiment with Beatrice last week might suggest. I also added a second dice roll at over 6 base widths – the cannon needed to roll a 6 to hit.

In my homebrew Wars of the Counter-Reformation rules, I have adopted the above model. It attempts to depict the problems with the deviation of cannon shots, as well as the disruption artillery fire can cause. Beatrice disrupted the attacking Parliamentarians but did not cause any problems other than command and control. That seems about right to me, although I still suspect that the factor is a little high – perhaps it should be 3 rather than 4, although firing at dense pike blocks might give a bit of an advantage. But I am trying not to have too many factors in the rules.

So, in summary, I think early modern artillery should be a disruptor in battles, rather than a critical element. The hope of early modern generals must have been to shake the enemy and disrupt their deployment and advance rather than anything else unless there were specific tactical situations, such as narrow bridges or flanking fire, which would give the cannon an advantage. Sieges, of course, are a different thing again.