Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Unusual terrain item: the 'ship-mill'

Here is a unique terrain item some enterprising manufacturer or creative modeller might want to add to their collection of European buildings: a ship mill.

These floating watermills moored in major rivers used to be a regular feature all across Europe, especially northern and central Europe, from late Roman times until the end of the 19th century, becoming especially common from the 10th century on. They could therefore legitimately grace an awful lot of wargame tables.

In particular, I have been researching the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-1849 and there were dozens of them on the Danube, the Vag, the Mur etc. There were so many that they were frequently collected together and used to improvise pontoon bridges (often in combination with other craft), and they feature in several battle accounts from that war.

Maybe you know all about them but they were new to me and I had to look them up:

There are lots of pictures of a characterful preserved Hungarian one here, the Ráckevei Hajómalom:

So there you go, that's my suggestion, do with it what you will!

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Hungary’s last battles: Szőreg and Temesvár, 1849

For the last couple of years we have been fighting our way through all the major battles of the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-1849. I put a lot of effort into creating the scenarios: many, many hours of tracking down and translating Austrian and Hungarian sources, nailing down orders of battle, working out the detailed sequence of events, examining various historical maps to reproduce the terrain accurately.

Battle of Temesvár V. Katzler.jpg

One result of all this dedicated effort can be an excessively nerdy love of the tiny gems of detail discovered along the way. The risk that follows is that scenarios can be excessively adorned with special rules that delight us as scenario writers but just throw up to much radar clutter for our poor players' brains to cope with.

This month we fought the last two battles in the Hungary 1848-1849 series: Szőreg and Temesvár. I think that in these cases I got the balance right, including enough of the unique circumstances to make the games distinctive and memorable for the players, but mostly without complicating them so much as to cause brain pain (though see below).

The situation by late July/August 1849 was that both of Hungary's field armies were in full retreat toward the southeast of the country, trying to link up near the fortress of Temesvár (still Austrian-held and under siege). The one under Görgei that had escaped from Komorn/Komarom had been forced to take a circuitous route around behind the invading Russians and was approaching Arad, not far from Temesvár. However, Görgei would not get to fight another battle, because Dembinski commanding the other army would fail to meet him.

'The disastrous Dembinski' with Hungary's southern army had been occupying a large entrenched camp at Szeged on the west bank of the River Tisza. As Haynau's Austro-Russian columns approached, Dembinski was fearful of being surrounded, so he abandoned the camp without a fight and fell back to the east bank of the river. He then allowed the Austrians to establish a bridgehead in front of him, again with barely a fight. When the Austrians broke out from their bridgehead, the battle of Szőreg ensued.

Historically, Szőreg was a rearguard action by one Hungarian corps while the anxious Dembinski again retreated pre-emptively with most of his army to avoid the threat of being outflanked. In our game we allowed the Hungarians the option to have more of their troops turn and fight to try to give the Austrians a bloody nose. A distinctive feature of the battle was a massive dike, built to contain the Tisza's seasonal flooding, that the Hungarians had embrasured for 50 guns. In the game this produced a real ding-dong see-saw fight as the outnumbered Hungarians repeatedly kicked the assaulting Austrians back over the dike until being finally overwhelmed. A characterful game with options for both sides, fast and fun to play. There was one instance of special rule brain pain. I had written a 'flank threat' rule whereby if the Hungarians did commit troops to battle that historically avoided it, they risked conceding victory points to the Austrians, representing being outflanked and cut off post-battle. This did confuse the players a little, not enough to spoil the game, but enough that I needed to re-write it to make it clearer. The playtest also showed that the victory conditions generally needed amending and re-calibrating.

Szőreg was thus a productive playtest and an entertaining game. Fittingly, though, the best entertainment was provided by this week's game, the culmination of the campaign: the climactic battle of Temesvár (now Timisoara in Romania).

Temesvár happened a few days after Szőreg. By now, after so many retreats and defeats, the Hungarian army was thoroughly demoralized, so I rated all its infantry Fragile. Historically they ran away with barely a fight, covered by their cavalry and artillery. The rout was sparked by 10,000 scythe-armed levies, units who provided the game with some special flavour. The battle happened because Dembinski - who was poised to retreat and avoid battle yet again - was suddenly replaced by General Bem, who felt the army needed to fight and win a battle now if it was not to disintegrate. As the Austro-Russians approached, he pushed toward them to defend the line of the River Nyarad, but could not withstand what was now a very efficient and formidable Allied military machine.

Our game upset history. The Allies start the game outnumbered because half their force has yet to turn up. We had a relatively new player commanding the Austrian right who ventured what proved to be a fatal foray with part of his force. In a contest of Austrian quality against Hungarian quantity, the sheer numbers of Hungarians overwhelmed an isolated Austrian brigade. This early success magnified as the game went on and resulted in the Austrian gun line on the right becoming exposed and eventually overrun, and their line of communications cut. When the Austro-Russian left arrived, it did grind remorselessly forward and had the game gone on another turn or two, could well have crushed the Hungarian right and centre; but the valiant scythemen had detained an Austrian brigade almost all game, and this and other delays held off the Austrians long enough for Hungary to claim victory.

Although the scoreboard showed an emphatic Hungarian win, the game was closer than the score suggested, and given that the Hungarians were well handled as against some Allied tactical errors, the scenario seemed nicely balanced. The players all enjoyed it, even the defeated Allies - in fact elated would not be too strong a word - and keen to swap sides and refight it soon, so we have scheduled a rematch for August.

Meanwhile both scenarios are now available in the BBB Yahoo group files.

Thus we have now fought through the entire campaign. As I have done a lot more research along the way, I do need to go back and polish some details of the scenarios. When I've done that, I expect we will do final playtesting by fighting through the whole lot again in a concentrated period, as a linked campaign, before I publish them as a BBB campaign scenario book together with some suitable historical background information etc.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Vae Victis reviews BBB, BBEB & BBBB

Many readers of this blog may already be familiar with Vae Victis. For those who are not: VV is a gorgeous, lavish, high-quality French wargaming magazine. The publication of Konstantinos Travlos's Bloody Big Balkan Battles campaign book (BBBB) prompted Nicolas Strategos at VV to commission a review not only of BBBB but also of the parent BBB ruleset and its companion BBEB scenario book.

The review is mainly descriptive of the mechanisms and contents, but perhaps I can extract and translate its essential assessment here without committing too many crimes against the French language.

For BBEB, it just lists the wars covered. For BBBB, it goes further:
"The content is extremely educational and provides an excellent synthesis of events."

For the BBB rules:
"Overall, BBB offers a level of abstraction and a scale of game suited to 'big battles', with simple mechanisms and loads of high quality scenarios. Basically it allows you and some good buddies to get together around a standard wargame table and recreate the major 'collisions' of the second half of the 19th century (and the start of the 20th)."

Summary:
"Good points: simple mechanisms, suitable for multi-player games, high quality scenarios.
Flaws: running out of ammunition (this seems a bit excessive and will happen too often during a game)."

My thanks to Nicolas for arranging the review, and to VV's reviewer Jean-Philippe Imbach for doing a thorough job and bringing BBB to the attention of our wargaming comrades across the Channel.

I guess at some point we should do that French-language edition of BBB ...

Monday, 8 July 2019

Nice review of BBB from 'Manteuffel' (Wargaming from the Balcony)

Pleased to stumble across this latest review of BBB, published in May 2019 by 'Manteuffel' on his Wargaming from the Balcony blog. I don't know who Manteuffel is, nor what his balcony overlooks (though some clues elsewhere on the blog suggest he is somewhere in Virginia USA or thereabouts), but I hope he won't mind me picking out a couple of my favourite lines from his review:

"Our group has found the rules as a good and simple system that allows us to play (and finish) battles during the 19th century."

"We often get occasional players, so having a system that they can quickly grasp is a true bonus."

"BBB is what we have been looking for."

"If your looking to play full sized battles in an afternoon with some buddies, BBB just might be for you!"

I'm particularly pleased to see that he and his group have been getting good value out of BBB for Napoleonics, as witness for instance his AAR for the Battle of Gordeczna. As he says:

"We actually find that [we can] use the rules for the later Napoleonic period without modification. We just reduce the unit scale and apply the appropriate unit attributes and the rules fit like a glove. We had been working on our own variations of rules to cover this scale, but are all in agreement that this is not longer necessary, as BBB is what we have been looking for. "

"[BBB is] our current preferred system for to play full sized battles in the 19th century."

Manteuffel, if you're reading this: I appreciate you taking the trouble to write such a thoughtful review, and I'm delighted that you and your group are having such a good time with BBB!



Sunday, 23 June 2019

Operation Bluecoat: The Wilderness in the bocage?

Had the privilege of spending the 75th anniversary D-Day week in Normandy, witnessing commemorations, celebrations, reenactments, and events of all kinds. A wonderfully memorable week.

[Sorry, no photo right now for technical reasons! I should add one in a week or so.]

Naturally we had to mark it with some suitably themed wargames. One highlight was joining the Guerriers du Marais for their exposition in the municipal gallery in Carentan. They had two display games: one a 28mm Bolt Action section of Omaha Beach (fine scratchbuilt bunkers by Pierre); the other a 10mm representation of the whole of the battle for Carentan, using a WWII adaptation of BBB.

The buildings for the latter were real works of art, having been handcrafted by Colin based on actual Carentan buildings, using photos from 1944. The game was good value too. The poor German players really felt pummelled by the US artillery, airpower and naval gunfire support. At the end their paras were still hanging on grimly, but 17th SS had taken a battering and the Ostbataillons had lost interest long ago. The game felt right, and of course it was great to fight for Carentan in Carentan.

We fought a couple of other battles as well. But my favourite game of the week was the tail-end of Operation Bluecoat. Bluecoat seems to be a somewhat neglected operation in Normandy histories, perhaps because it is a kind of bridesmaid as it covers the US flank after the more glamorous and well-known US Operation Cobra. But whereas much of the Normandy fighting is simple frontal assault slog with limited options for the defender, the last part of Bluecoat offers scope for games of much more complex and interesting maneuver.

The focus of our game was the period in early August 1944 when two British divisions - 11th Armoured and Guards Armoured - push south from St.-Martin-des-Besaces toward Vire and the critical east-west highway through it that the Germans are using as an axis for their drive on Mortain. The result is that they collide at right angles with 9th SS Panzer Division 'Hohenstaufen' and some other fragments and remnants. Hence the attacking British forces are not much larger than the defending/counterattacking Germans; both sides have substantial mobile and armoured formations; and both sides need and want to maneuver.

To me the situation is strikingly similar to the ACW Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. (See here and here.) Invert the map east-west, and you have the British playing the part of the Union - with Guards Armoured showing some of the diffidence and caution of the passive and confused Union army - while 9SS is Bobby Lee's mobile, smaller but highly motivated and aggressively led army, striking at ninety degrees. Vire isn't quite Richmond, but near enough in providing an objective at the southern end of the pitch that the CSA/9SS have to stop the US/Brits from reaching; and to do so they have several options of blocking, smashing, or cutting rear lines of communication.

We fought this twice in Normandy, having fought it once already in UK. In game 1 (UK), the British easily raced south and cut the road at Vaudry and Viessoix but then couldn't make much progress along it to the east, and ended up winning by turning west and taking Vire (unhistorically, since in the actual campaign this could shifted from the British to the US sector during the operation). Game 2 was another British win as the Germans opted for a straight punch to the west from Estry, came within an ace of cutting British supply lines completely, but left the road to Vire and the highway too open. Game 3, benefiting from previous experience, the German players followed a more historical plan. KG Weiss's Tigers successfully dominated the main road toward Vire for the whole game, and 9SS managed to string out along the key Estry ridge and hold that against all efforts. There was an alarm late in the game when Guard Armoured briefly opened a gap on the eastern flank and looked like getting through behind 9SS; but reserves plugged the gap. By then all the British formations had run out of steam, so a German win evened up the score somewhat.

The game was fought with a playtest version of Frank Chadwick's forthcoming Breakthrough! rules.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Bash Day III was a blast!

The third Bloody Big Battles Bash Day was held in Oxford on Sunday 12 May 2019. Thirty players got together and played morning and afternoon games of the seven participation games on offer.

Upstart rebels confront forces of the Crown at Germantown.
(No, that's not a local rival of The Plough.)
Photo by kind permission of Alan Millicheap.


Let me pay tribute here to all the dedicated and creative gamemasters who laid on such beautiful and enjoyable games. In chronological order by battle:

Bruce McCallum: Edgehill (1642), English Civil War

Haim Ben-Zion: Helsingborg (1710), Great Northern War