Tuesday, 18 January 2022

In praise of loooong games

In my previous post I reflected on 'the luxury of time': spending all day on a game at a more sedate pace than the usual time-pressured Monday night at the club. Since then I have enjoyed an epic three-day wargaming weekend, prompting me to ruminate at more length on the virtues of such long games.

The three battles we fought merit reporting in their own right, so let me start by doing that. First up, some exotic oriental action: the Battle of Tai'erzhuang (1938) from the Second Sino-Japanese War. I do love the esoteric corners of history and, at least for parochial Brits like me, this certainly counts as one of those. I knew of the battle but knew little about it. CB introduced the game by describing the political and military background, the events leading up to it, the armies, their weapons and commanders.

 Chinese defenders were hidden in and around Tai'erzhuang (the town by the river). The first few Japanese invaders have emerged from the northern pass (bottom centre) and taken position on the hill above the town and in the village of Lan Ling.

This battle pitted two Japanese divisions against several times as many Chinese. CB 'bathtubbed' this, representing each division by a battalion, to turn it into a feasible scenario to fight with the O Group rules. No proxies today - he had painted up all the right troops and equipment. Some of the Chinese infantry had Chinese characters on their helmets. Japanese combat patrols were represented by standard-bearers flying the Rising Sun. As for the hardware, the Chinese had amphibious tankettes and Vickers light tanks in gorgeous 4-colour camo, while the Japanese had a nifty Ki-10 biplane, clumsy Type 89 tanks and - pièce de résistance - an SS-Ki flamethrower tank.


How it looks on the ground. A Type 89 nestles next to Lan Ling. Opposing Combat Patrols face off in the central no-man's-land. Ki-10 biplane loiters in the distance.
 
A couple of technical factors slowed the game down. This was only our second or third go with O Group, so unfamiliarity with the rules played a part. O Group is a one-activation-at-a-time set with provision for reactions by the non-phasing player, so really only one thing can happen on the table at a time. In any case, we were playing remotely with players in several locations, which necessarily hinders implementing multiple parallel actions. Consequently, after nine hours of play, the second Chinese battalion had arrived and was heavily engaged, but the second Japanese battalion was not even on the table yet. My first Japanese battalion was pretty much fought to a standstill and had no prospect of mounting any significant attack on the main objective, Tai'erzhuang.
 

Climax of the action. My SS-Ki does a terrifying 'warm-up act', wiping out a Chinese infantry company and their infantry gun dug in east of Tai'erzhuang. Plumes of smoke mark the devastation wrought by Japanese air strikes on Chinese columns in the open.
 
Regular readers might now be expecting me to whinge about playing only half a battle in the time in which we could have completed two BBB games. However, this was one of those that was more about the journey than the destination. The ruleset presented us with plenty of tricky tactical choices each turn - there were always more things we wanted to do than there were command points with which to do them. A patient and careful build-up and low-level initial skirmishing ratcheted up the tension as we fed more and more troops into the line. Then, when both sides went on the full attack - the Chinese reinforcements counterattacking from the west of the town while I sent in the flame tank and friends on the east - there was an explosive frenzy of firing dice, saving rolls, and accompanying groans of dismay or whoops of delight.

***

On to day two. This was supposed to be Waterloo, but a COVID-afflicted GM meant a hasty reshuffle of the schedule. Instead, I laid on a small BBB Hungary 1848 battle, Nagysalló. This is one of my mate Dave W's favourite scenarios and is the one I wrote up for Miniature Wargames in 2017. For background on the battle situation, see a previous AAR here.
 
Set-up positions: Austrians in the central village with two more brigades approaching along the roads from the left (south); Hungarians lined up ready to storm the village, with reserves behind them waiting to be unleashed to exploit success.

This is a small battle with about half a dozen units a side and lasting just eight turns. Face to face, with regular BBB players, we would rattle this off in two hours comfortably. Playing remotely, with rules-rusty players and no time pressure, we took all day. As Scott and CB knew nothing about the Hungarian War of Independence, I spent the first hour and a half just giving an outline of the course of the war, a more detailed account of the Spring Campaign in which this was the penultimate battle, and various discursions about commanders, armies, tactics, and situating the war in C19-C20 politics and history: the 1867 Compromise and 'hyphenation' of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the 50 'golden years' that followed until WWI, the patchwork of ethnic conflicts across eastern Europe ... 

Major punch-up in the centre. The Polish Legion's red czapkas are about to assault disrupted Austrians unsuccessfully. In the woods, Dessewffy's hapless division has accumulated all the possible medals - white fluff = disrupted, black = spent, brown = low ammo, to add to the green counter for being fragile.

Once we got into the game, it was patient stuff. With small numbers of troops, every decision becomes important and every die roll matters. The guys mulled over their options. I lent advice from a rules perspective. When it came to combat, I have the charts in my head and could have resolved it for them in seconds, but they wanted to work through the calculations themselves, which obviously took longer.

As far as the course of the game was concerned, luck was against the Hungarians. The Austrians scored a couple of deadly hits with very high die rolls early on, which has a big impact in a small game. This was compounded by CB being less than fortunate with his reinforcement rolls, only getting one reinforcement into action before we finished. By contrast, Scott got exactly the right unit he needed (his cavalry) at exactly the right time to thwart CB's left hook that could otherwise easily have taken two unguarded objectives to achieve a draw. The end result was therefore a Hungarian defeat.

***

Game one was fought using Discord and game two via Zoom. For game three, Scott's naval battle, I had to have three laptops open: one on Discord, one on Roll20 (which allows hidden movement) and one just for all the charts and documentation.

Potential conflict zone: the Nicobar Islands. Grey boxes 'PRC TF' are my Chinese naval task forces; 'PRC Enemy' is detected opposition; the small hexagons E and 1 are neutrals.

Naval really isn't my thing. I don't do boats. My major objections are that absence of terrain makes tactical decisions much less complex and interesting, so they are essentially a dicefest, and that all the most interesting decisions happen at the campaign level rather than on the tactical tabletop. Scott's scenario addressed these objections most satisfactorily. We had terrain: the Nicobar Islands, over on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, where Thailand and Malaysia and Indonesia meet, near the Strait of Malacca. (Did you know the Nicobars were a Danish possession until they were sold to Britain in 1868? I didn't before this game.) The 'terrain' also included neutral vessels of various kinds, from cruise liners to freighters to a Russian spy trawler and a US warship. It was a campaign situation rather than a straight fight, an imaginary diplomatic confrontation between India (which administers the Nicobars these days) and China. Rob and I were on the Chinese side - him running the subs, me running the surface ships - trying to recover or, failing that, destroy a Chinese spy trawler that had gone missing among the islands. CB played the Indian navy, which of course turned out to have seized it, so the chilly diplomacy went hot.

Roll20 has a chat/whisper function that lets you talk to all players or just to the one you specify. As the exchange on right of screenshot shows, this was the point in the game where the Chinese marines had just choppered in and recaptured the trawler - but it wasn't over yet ...
 
The rules were from the venerable Task Force board wargame published over 40 years ago. Modern naval warfare is utterly technical, but TF makes this hideously complex business manageably simple enough to play. Of course, understanding your combat units' capabilities is still important, eg knowing which missiles have 2-hex range rather than 9. When matters came to a head and we were having to decide how many missiles to launch in each wave, and which vector they should arrive on, we needed a lot of handholding and walkthrough-talkthrough from our gamemaster. But that worked OK.

Anyway, most of the game was spent not shooting but just trying to find each other and not sink any neutrals by accident. The search rules are clever: an approximate detection tells you there is something in a 7-hex 'megahex', a significantly better die roll can tell you exactly where and what it is, and there is also the chance of a false report on a duff roll. Roll20 did a great job of the hidden movement and fog of war.

There were effectively four players: Indian, Chinese surface, Chinese subs, and neutrals, each with 3 or 4 task forces or commands. The player order varied randomly each turn. Each player activates a TF in turn until all have activated. Each TF rolls a die to see how many action points it gets, using these to move, fire, search, etc. Again, regular readers might expect me to complain here about only getting a quarter of the game. However, I found I had quite a lot to do, exchanging messages with Rob to report my locations and consult him about what we should do next, or responding to the GM asking me whether I wanted to shoot down a passing Indian helicopter. It was thoroughly absorbing. I wasn't able to stay right to the end, but we did manage to have a couple of reciprocal helicopter assaults on the trawler and a skirmish for control of it, before it was sunk in the subsequent major missile exchange.

***

Reflections

Thus, after three marathon nine-hour remote online gaming sessions we had finished one game (the small BBB battle), sort of mostly finished another (the naval campaign) and half-finished another (the Sino-Japanese battle). But even though two of the three were inconclusive, I was left happy and satisfied and feeling this had been time well spent. Here are some of the reasons why, reasons which can be offered in praise of long games:

Learn more history! It was valuable having the time for full introductions to explain the historical context of the games. For many of us, learning about the history is a major part of the hobby, so acquiring this new knowledge was worthwhile in itself. Understanding the context also made the games themselves richer and more engaging.

Better aesthetics! For such a major event, GMs put extra effort into the troops and terrain and making the table look good. Even I broke out my nice Timecast roads instead of the functional felt ones. We took time out to admire each other's handiwork. CB's beautiful models were held up to the camera. I showed the guys Colin's handcrafted ship-mill.

More thoughtful play! We had the time to read scenario briefings thoroughly, to examine the situation from all angles, to consider our options and work out (hopefully) good plans. As the battle developed, we had the time to ponder before making decisions. (Except when CB's Indian admiral - an inspired creation - was telling us our Chinese helicopters had 30 seconds to turn away from Indian airspace or be shot down.) While there is something to be said for the Monday night adrenalin of having to crack on and make quick decisions, there is also something to be said for respecting and appreciating a finely crafted scenario, and for being able to engage in preliminary manoeuvring and preparatory fires, and for not having to launch a massed charge just because it is 9:30 and people want to finish in time to get to the pub.

It's about the journey, not the destination! In my usual BBB games the result does matter, and often much of the reward and excitement comes from the rush towards a tight finish. But in these epic games, although of course we were all trying to win, the fun was in all the decisions and incidents and episodes along the way. The Japanese flame tank's attack will live long in the memory, as will Scott's reportage of the skirmish on the trawler, and the Indian admiral's protestations at 'perilous and precarious' Chinese incursions.

Good times with good friends! Sometimes on a Monday night we are so efficiently focused on the game that the small talk is limited to a brief hello-how-are-ya at the start and a rushed goodbye at the end. In these long sessions with friends thousands of miles away there was time for interludes to freshen and empty glasses together, catch up on each others' real lives and families and mutual friends, and talk about things other than games. And good friends are even more important than good games.

On which note: until the next time, my good friends!

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Hungary 1848 #12: Vác - a fighting withdrawal

What a great start to the New Wargaming Year! Bob, who I hadn't seen in person since the era BC (Before Covid), lured me over to his place for the day. I was expecting one of his fine tank battles - he'd mentioned the idea of a what-if 1969 Sino-Soviet clash - but he had a yen for BBB and liked the look of the next Hungary 1848 scenario in my queue for playtesting. Consequently, we fought the Second Battle of Vác - the twelfth in my series of scenarios for the Hungarian War of Independence - and my beautiful professionally-painted troops got to march across his equally gorgeous terrain instead of my functional felt for a change.

This scenario got an initial playtest two and a half years ago. My post about that game gives the detailed historical background and game situation, so I won't repeat that in full here. In brief summary only: Hungarian and Russian advance guards clash and jockey for position; both sides deploy more troops overnight; the outnumbered Hungarians then decide to withdraw, so they have to hold various objectives for different lengths of time, while getting half their force off the table. The previous playtest had left me with the feeling that the scenario might benefit from being a turn or two longer, so we made it a 12-turn game. Bob took the Hungarian side as it presents the most unusual and interesting challenge (not that the Russians have it easy, but the decisions they have to make are more conventional ones).

What follows is a relatively detailed AAR with over 20 photos to do Bob's table justice. If that's too long for you, skip to the end for a summary and reflections if you're still interested in those.


The scenario map to help you get oriented. Russians in green approach from bottom right. Hungarian march column has arrived from top left. Red stars mark objectives. Advance guards will contest the southernmost two initially, then the Hungarians have to hold the middle two at end of turn 8 and the northern two at game end (turn 12). Hungarians need 4 objectives for a draw, 5+ for a win. They also have to withdraw a corps-worth of troops; they lose 1 objective if they fall 1 unit short, 2 objectives if they miss by any more.


Hungarian advance guard (right of picture) about to drive Bebutov's Caucasus cavalry out of the Sződ vineyards. The game kicked off with a bang as Bob expelled them from both the forward objectives on Turn 1. To do so, he launched his own lead hussar brigade out of Vác in a bold charge which resulted in our cavalry's mutual destruction. This left him with just one cavalry brigade, which would have consequences later.
 

Under the midday sun (shining from the north, but never mind), two Hungarian corps follow their advance guard in a long column marching alongside the Danube from top right of picture into the charming riverside town of Vác (left of picture).

View of the whole battlefield, looking from the tail of the Hungarian march column (bottom right), following the column as it marches south between the Danube and the railway into Vác. The Hungarian advance guard is visible on the plain beyond Vác, opposed by one tiny Russian cavalry unit.

Hungarian Turn 2. The Russians have appeared in more force - three cavalry brigades and their artillery, top left of picture. The Hungarian advance guard has therefore fallen back from the vineyards to join the main body debouching from Vác and form a line.

 Close-up of Bobics's division on the Hungarian left; Hungarian right wing is in the distance (top left of picture). In the Night Interval, both sides will redeploy: Hungarians first, south of the Csörög (the stream in centre of picture) and around the Hétkápolna (the church top left), >6" from the Russians; then the Russians, north of the Csörög and >6" from the Hungarians. Bob is therefore trying to establish a line to keep my Russians beyond the Csörög so we don't constrict his redeployment and are ourselves forced to deploy at a distance from the next objectives.

Same situation as the previous photo, but looking towards the Hungarian right wing from behind the Russians, who have straggled somewhat on arrival. Some infantry and guns are in the vineyards, cavalry probing right towards the Csörög, and more infantry bringing up the rear.

Hungarian Turn 3. Their march columns have changed into battle formation. Bobics has crossed the Csörög, daring the Russian cavalry to attack him.

A closer view of the confrontation above.

Russian Turn 3: the shell craters indicate that the Russian hussars and lancers have retired Disrupted after their charge failed to drive back Bobics's men. Some consolation in the form of the empty ammo boxes by the battery in Duka village, showing that the guns are low on ammo after causing a Hungarian casualty - though, as it turned out, this was then recovered overnight anyway.

 Turn 4 (the last before nightfall): satisfied with having kept my cavalry at bay, the Hungarian left falls back behind the Csörög. On the Russian turn, the cavalry fail to rally.

Russian forces lining the Csörög after their Night Interval redeployment. The cavalry in the foreground still have not recovered their composure. A massive gun line in the centre aims right towards Vác. Beyond the guns, a solitary Hungarian rearguard brigade is visible, about to skedaddle (and be blown away). Beyond it, the bulk of the Russian infantry and a few more guns poised to attack Vác.

And a view of the Hungarians braced for the impending Russian assault. Front centre are General Leiningen and his best troops: the Polish Legion in their red czapkas, and a brigade including the famous 9th Honvéd Bn in their red kepis. Behind them, a formidable gun line defends the Török Hill objective. In the far distance, a third line holds the final rearguard positions.

Turn 5: the Russian assault columns approach Vác and their right wing crosses the Csörög.

Another view of Turn 5. The Russian cavalry are supposed to be on a sweeping move to outflank the Hungarian left, but it doesn't seem to be happening ...

Turn 6: Russians close right up to Vác , crossing the river in front of the town, but do not assault yet. Meanwhile, shell craters show where Russian attacks on the Polish Legion and the red kepis have been inconclusive and left everyone Disrupted.


Turn 7: crunch time! Attacks go in on Vác and the Polish Legion. The Russian cavalry (front centre and bottom right) has begun its sluggish outflanking move - those snake-eye dice betray a series of dreadful movement rolls.

Turn 8: After the crunch, the thud. All the Russian attacks bounced off. The twin craters and tent mark a Russian brigade that is decimated and spent. The Hungarians reform their line in the centre. General Görgei can be seen at the back, directing the imminent withdrawal. At the very top centre, Hungarian hussars depart. Bob was about to launch them against my Russian cavalry when he realised that he was required to exit one cavalry unit or forfeit a victory point. As he had got his other cavalry unit killed on Turn 1, the hussars had to leave the party early!

Turn 9: The Hungarians have successfully held both middle objectives to the end of Turn 8 and begun to withdraw their gun line. The Russian cavalry finally gets into gear and dashes through the woods to cut off the Hungarian retreat, forcing the guns to evade onto the road (which they wanted to do anyway). The Russian infantry has no subtle options so keeps pounding the Hungarian rear guard. 

Turn 10. Vác and the Török Hill have fallen at last. Russian columns press on after the battered Hungarian defenders. The Russian cavalry, though, has been balked by enfilading fire from a Hungarian battery on the commanding Kis Hermán Hill position at the rear (out of shot, upper right).

Turn 11. The end is nigh. Two Hungarian units in the vineyard are being overwhelmed by five Russian brigades. Russian cavalry menaces the battery defending the Kis Hermán Hill objective (upper right). A column of Hungarian infantry is about to desert the guns as Bob tries to reach his quota of troops withdrawn off the table.

Turn 11 seen from General Görgei's viewpoint (front of pic). The Polish Legion has succumbed but the other Hungarian infantry in the vineyard will live to fight another turn. Hungarian guns defend the Buki bridges objective.

Turn 12. The game reaches its climax. Massed Russian cavalry charge up Kis Hermán Hill. Russian infantry assault a beleaguered rearguard unit (top centre) and storm the guns.

Game end. The Russian infantry have carried the bridge, but the guns on the hill repulsed the Russian cavalry. Thus the Hungarians have held 5 out of the 6 objectives. That would be enough for victory, except that they have fallen one infantry unit short of the number they were supposed to withdraw off the board. Thus their VPs are reduced from 5 to 4 and the match is drawn!

Summary

Bob made sure of the first two objectives on Day 1, but it unluckily cost him a precious cavalry unit.

He succeeded in forcing me to deploy at a distance for Day 2. Maybe he was lucky with my poor movement rolls for my cavalry, and none of the critical combats went against him, but on the other hand his artillery's dice were dreadful. The luck probably evened out, and his plan was sound enough for him to hold the second pair of objectives to the end of Turn 8.

The final third of the game was a frantic scramble, as fighting retreats often are. Bob had to strike a balance between withdrawing enough troops to meet the victory conditions and keeping enough on table long enough to hold the final pair of objectives. He almost managed it, falling just one infantry brigade short of the withdrawal target, and barely losing the Buki bridge objective in the last combat of the game, so had to be satisfied with a draw.

Reflections

Beautiful terrain is such an important part of the High Quality Gaming Experience. I really ought to make the effort to upgrade my own terrain collection.

The first rule is always to understand the victory conditions. In an unusual scenario like this one, it was especially important. Bob approached it with due care and attention, quizzing me to make sure he understood his victory conditions correctly, as well as the very significant redeployment conditions in the Night Interval.

Fighting withdrawals make for good games. Particularly for the defender, the choices about which troops to pull back and when, and where to stand and fight, present interesting challenges.

Fighting withdrawals are tricky to set victory conditions for, because of that 3-dimensional trade-off between space, time and forces. I'm happy that the scenario produced such a good close game and a tight finish (all three results possible on the last turn - classic BBB).

The luxury of time: on a Monday night at the club, time is at a premium and there is generally pressure to make decisions quickly and get on with it. For this battle we had all day and were able to approach it in a more leisurely manner. Critical decisions could be mulled over at length; we could take a step back between turns to take photos and appreciate the battle situation; we could pause for pizza ...

6mm figures make it easy to use proxies. My whole Hungarian army is built from proxies, of course - mostly ACW infantry in kepis - but at least they are painted the right colour. But you may or may not have noticed that those Russians in the photos, in their correct 1849-era spiked helmets, are wearing blue rather than green ... that's right, I don't have a Russian army for the '48, so my Prussian infantry (and Bob's Napoleonic Russian cavalry and artillery) did the job.

So good to catch up with an old friend in person after so long. A great way to start the New Wargaming Year!


PS - a reminder that, for anyone interested in this conflict, my book Hungary 1848: The Winter Campaign is available from Helion. The sequel, Hungary 1849: The Summer Campaign, is in press and should be published this year.


Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Lest we forget

November 11 is Remembrance Day in the UK and Commonwealth countries, Veterans Day in the US, and a public holiday in France and Belgium as well. On this day, my dice fall silent. It is not a day for wargaming but one for sombre reflection on the grim reality of war and for honouring those who died.

Last week we paid our respects at the new British Normandy Memorial. Construction of the memorial began in 2019 and it was completed and officially opened in June this year. It has a fine hilltop site by Ver-sur-Mer, overlooking Gold Beach, with the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches visible away to the west. A few photos below.


The memorial is done in appropriate style.
The names of the fallen are inscribed on the pillars of the colonnades.

Newly laid poppy wreaths.

Proper statuary.

 

Not a D-Day veteran, nor one of the fallen. However, this seems a suitable place to remember my grandfather, Frank Pringle, pictured here before going overseas in 1943 as a member of 2 NZ Division. Frank fought all the way up through Italy, including at Monte Cassino and the Sangro, before returning home safe and sound to live a long and happy life back in New Zealand.

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Battle of Delhi (1803)

It would be difficult to exaggerate my ignorance about the British conquest of India. I knew there were Maratha Wars, but I could not have told you there were three of them, and I would have struggled to pin any of them to the right decade. Apparently the First Anglo-Maratha War was 1775-1782 (when Britain was also busy with some other minor colonial scuffle elsewhere), the second in 1803-1805 - in which the future Duke of Wellington won some famous victories - and the third in 1817-1819.

Our game this week was the Battle of Delhi during the Second Anglo-Maratha War. This pitted some 4,500 East India Company troops against over three times their number of Marathas in an asymmetrical contest of quality vs quantity - often a promising start for a wargame scenario. The Maratha army was lined up just outside Delhi, southeast of the city. The British vanguard was encamped about five miles away. The Marathas surprised General Lake by advancing, obliging his cavalry brigade to conduct a fighting withdrawal while he brought up his infantry. Once his force was formed up, Lake attacked and routed the opposition. Delhi fell three days later.


In our game, I took the part of the EIC and Mark J the Marathas. Our scenario designer, Mark S, hosted and umpired from his war room while we played remotely.

Mark chose to deviate from the history and hold in place, rather than attempt a coherent advance with his unwieldy army. The Maratha C-in-C and a number of regimental officers had recently defected. Consequently half their force was rated Passive and Mark had no Generals on table, making manoeuvre difficult for him. He formed a solid line punctuated by two batteries entrenched in front of two of the hilltop village objectives.

I was heavily outnumbered but needed to attack to win. The Marathas' numbers and artillery would give them an edge in a protracted firefight, but my troops' qualitative edge meant they should win most assaults. To get stuck in without risking being outflanked and swarmed, I opted for a pincer attack. My cavalry that started on table would move north around the Marathas' more distant left flank, staying at a safeish distance from Mark's guns, and threaten the ford behind them (an objective). Then as my infantry marched on, they would head for the Marathas right, with my best unit leading (His Majesty's 76th regiment of foot) and the Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) battalions following in echelon. Another point in favour of this plan was that the right wing of the Maratha army was its worst formation, the 2nd Compoo under Geslin, which was rated Passive as well as Fragile and would therefore find it difficult to react.


A taster snippet of the scenario

A cautious cavalry dance developed on my right. Colonel St Leger's dragoons and BNC probed for a worthwhile opportunity to charge, but I was wary of spending this potent force too early. The opposing Hindustani cavalry and Sikh gorchurra mercenaries were similarly leery of actual fighting and preferred to face us off and cover their infantry's flank.

Mark responded to the gap in my centre by sending successive units to probe towards my vulnerable encampment and baggage train. First a contingent of his cavalry advanced, only to scamper back when my most echeloned BNI moved to counter them. Next a brigade of 3rd Compoo pushed forward, engaging that BNI unit and my baggage guard in a tough fight. The BNI eventually won but at heavy cost. While that was going on, some gorchurras chanced their arm, but were blown away by a lucky long-range salvo from my cavalry's galloper guns.

My oblique order attack à la Frederick the Great against the Maratha right went almost perfectly. The 76th smashed the end enemy unit and wheeled right. With the supporting BNI also pushing back the next Maratha unit, my men were now enveloping the first of the fortified villages. This was the time to commit my cavalry, who charged the Maratha cavalry north of the second fortified village while more echeloned BNI attacked it frontally, taking advantage of the enemy guns having turned to face the cavalry and expended their ammo. The second village was carried!

The crisis of the battle had arrived (as Clausewitz likes to say). Mark threw everything into desperate counterattacks. In the centre, a Maratha brigade scorned the fire of the galloper guns and brushed aside my baggage guard to threaten my camp once more. Another brigade broke ranks to advance towards another objective village behind my lines. Every other unit he could muster charged my cavalry (disordered after their earlier charge) and my BNI in the captured hilltop village.

By rights, my cavalry should have been driven back or even destroyed. Instead, in the kind of moment beloved of our tournament-gamer comrades at OWS, I rolled a 6 and Mark a 1, so his counterattackers were put to flight. My cavalry were left free to seize another objective, which they did. My movement dice were kind. A reserve unit of BNI thwarted one of the Maratha thrusts in the centre. The 76th and the BNI stormed the remaining fortified village.

With that, the Maratha army was broken and the East India Company had carried the day. Delhi would certainly fall. Victory was mine.

However, it was by no means one-sided and indeed, a turn earlier a Maratha victory had looked entirely possible. A few dice falling differently would have left me with just one or two objectives rather than the four I needed to win or three for a draw.

Reflections:

- This was a thoroughly absorbing game (hence I forgot to take any pictures, sorry!). I found it very challenging and had lots of important decisions to make. On the other side of the hill, Mark didn't find it any easier than I did. When both commanders think they have a hard job, that's the sign of a good scenario.

- I've said it before, I'll say it again: asymmetry makes for a good game. Quality vs quantity is a great match-up.

- I sometimes find it really hard to know what to do with cavalry! Their manoeuvrability gives them so many options, the choice set becomes too large. On the other hand, they can be a one-shot weapon: even if they charge successfully, that leaves them disrupted and unable to evade, so if the enemy they defeated has some friends around, they're dead. An eternal conundrum.

- It's good to have a plan. This time I read the scenario thoroughly in advance, paid proper attention to the victory conditions, came up with a decent plan and executed it successfully. Nice when it works.

- 'Learning by doing' - I will remember this game for a long time. I probably increased my knowledge of the Maratha Wars in a much more enduring way than if I'd just spent three hours reading a book.

- The remote format generated the usual degree of fog of war, misunderstandings over distances and angles etc. Mark probably had the worst of this.

- Fortunes of war: as noted above, just two or three different dice would have produced a Maratha victory. The game was in the balance right to the end. Well played to Mark J who was a little unlucky to lose and made me work hard for the win. Super scenario.

- I think Mark S has just two or three more scenarios to finalise and then his "Wars in India" collection will be complete. The resulting set, covering the Maratha Wars, Sikh Wars, Gwalior Campaign and India Mutiny (and maybe more I've missed) should be published some time next year as a BBB campaign book.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Reflections on wargaming

The BBBBlog is now over 200 posts old. Most of these are routine reports of tabletop battles. While I try to make them entertaining and informative, I don't go in for much eye-candy, so they don't have particularly wide appeal beyond readers interested in the conflict in question. However, occasionally I have mused on more general wargaming topics. Some of these general posts have attracted very high readership and generated lots of fascinating discussion among fellow wargamers. Until now, though, whereas a battle report would be easy to find by means of the blog labels (either the name of the war or the year of the battle), the general interest posts would not.

I have now rectified this by adding a label, 'Reflections on wargaming'. Here are the topics I've addressed to date under that label. I hope you'll find something among them to interest you:

Reasons NOT to refight historical battles. Arguing against my own preferred format produced tons of really good comments on multiple forums. The updated blog post links to these.

On the virtues of IGO-UGO. Prompted by having spent too much time sitting around doing nothing in big multi-player games where only one player acts at a time.

Wargaming one-sided wars. An attempt to counter prejudice against gaming conflicts perceived as one-sided walkovers.

Changing situations mid-game. Remarking on how scenario designs that include some significant change in battle situation tend to present more interesting decisions than more straightforward line-out punch-ups. (This was illustrated yet again recently with our Hegyes and Gitschin refights.)

Studying classic battles. Some thoughts on different ways of approaching history to obtain insights and understanding of the events.

V-E Day games ... and granularity. On the need to represent time, troops and terrain in due proportion.

Get out there and wargame! I am regularly saddened by wargames forum members who state that they wargame solo (or rarely, or never) because they have been put off going to clubs.

Airing some prejudices: on one-dimensional vs 2-dimensional games. Oh, this was a good one, really set cats among pigeons. Basically explaining my prejudice against any pre-Napoleonic games.

Wargames: how much "war", how much "game"? A nice thoughtful post that hasn't had as much attention as I think it deserved. Discussing how people's choice of game is influenced by the different things we want from our games.

Victory conditions in wargames. I think this might be the all-time most popular BBBBlog post.

The appeal of miniature models. A snippet about why models rather than just cardboard counters.

The Quest for the "High Quality Gaming Experience". Or, "life's too short to waste playing lame games with jerks".

It's not about winning - it's just losing I can't stand. One year I kept track of how many games I won or lost, but really that's not what it's about. (See "Wargames: how much war, how much game" above.)


Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Reasons NOT to refight historical battles

I am an avowed historical wargamer, dedicated to recreating historical battle situations on the tabletop and then seeing how players' decisions and fickle dice make them turn out. I find this immensely satisfying in several ways and it is definitely my preferred wargame format. However, my impression is that among my fellow wargamers this is very much a minority sport. People may make a special effort to depict a particular battle for a convention game, but on a routine club night or home-hosted game most seem happy with something non-historical: perhaps a points-based competition game; perhaps a cunningly devised tactical puzzle that may or may not have some historical inspiration; perhaps something entirely unscripted beyond fielding whatever armies take the players' fancy on a given evening. And that's without even counting all the fantasy and science fiction armies alongside the 'real' ones.

I've been involved in some rather good non-historical games myself in recent weeks. Therefore, rather than harp on tiresomely about why everybody should change their ways and do what I usually do, in this week's meta-musing I thought I'd ponder on the many good reasons for NOT refighting historical battles but doing a non-historical game instead. Here are some I could think of, in no particular order.

Preparation time

Researching a battle and turning it into a playable scenario takes a lot of time and effort. Not everyone has that time to spare, not everyone enjoys it, and not everyone will find the results worth it.

Terrain challenges

Historical battlefields are generally more complicated than the average wargames table, particularly in terms of hills and valleys, which can be difficult to portray. Even an extensive terrain collection can find itself stretched and run out of roads, or streams, or mountains, or villages. Then there is the set-up time required for faithfully representing a historical battlefield in detail. Especially for a club night when time is limited, that can be a serious limiting factor.

I don't have the troops!

I was going to make this a reason, but on reflection, no wargamer worth his salt would accept that. Not having the troops isn't a reason for not fighting a battle, it's a reason to buy more troops! (And until then - use proxies.)

We're doomed, so what's the point?

A significant proportion of historical battles were one-sided affairs which are bound to end in a more or less crushing defeat for the historical loser. I've seen that offered on several occasions as a reason not to touch the Franco-Prussian War at all, for instance, because people have a prejudiced view of it as a walkover for the Germans. Understandably, while a "damned near-run thing" like Waterloo (to paraphrase Wellington) is enduringly attractive, the destruction of Napoleon III's army at Sedan is less popular with gamers, even if clever victory point schemes can make it possible for the loser to "win".

But the [insert favourite regiment, tank, etc] was just so awesome!

We all want to field the cool kit or the funky fun units, even if they never actually made it onto the battlefield. I have seen six 60cm Karl mortars on the table, which was perhaps overdoing it, but I can see the appeal. And among the competition gamers, I have seen niche stuff like T34/57s or double-mounted archer camelry go through phases of tremendous popularity because their tabletop effectiveness far outweighed their historical footnote status.

Never mind the historical battles, I want to fight a campaign

And as soon as you start making campaign decisions, you will inevitably change the shape of the resulting battles. I have quite a lot of troops in 1891 uniforms they never fought in, including an entire (small) Portuguese 1891 army, all painted purely for campaign purposes and necessarily only ever used in non-historical games.

What if ...

... the Aztecs fought the Samurai? (Or whoever.) Or if the D-Day invasion had been aimed at the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy? It is quite natural to think about armies that never met and wonder which would have won, or for armies that did meet, to consider battles they might have fought if they'd made different strategic decisions. Non-historical what-if games let you explore those questions.

All that button-counting is just annoying and trivial

Among us historical types there is certainly a tendency to obsess over details that, while fascinating to us, can seem irrelevant to others. The player who just wants to have a game doesn't really enjoy being told their tanks are in the wrong camouflage scheme, or any other such unhelpful "advice" aka smug derision of their harmless amusement. In that respect, historical devotees sometimes do our own cause more harm than good.

All that historical detail actually gets in the way of the game

We historical scenario designers can get too carried away with our Great Work, too in love with all the esoteric detail we have discovered, too eager to incorporate every last precious nugget of our arcane knowledge into a 3-hour bash. The game may drown in a plethora of scenario special rules and infinite variety of confusingly nuanced unit differences. (Guilty as charged, m'lud - I know I've done this at times.) A game "inspired by" a historical situation but with all the clutter stripped away may be a much better game than an excessively faithful recreation.

I just want to put some nice armies on the table and have some fun

There is a lot of aesthetic pleasure to be had from beautifully painted figures on a finely crafted layout. Who cares if this lot in their 1809 uniform are next to some others in anachronistic 1815 garb, and are fighting an army that was actually their ally, so long as it looks good and the game is exciting?

Why limit your imagination?

With a historical battle, there are so many limits on what the game can include and what can happen. Throw off those shackles! Play Fantasy, Science Fiction, Pulp, Alternate History! Mix periods, mix genres, create crazy cocktails to delight your gaming palate!


Well, that's it. I've pretty much persuaded myself. Time to throw out those nerdily researched historical armies and splash out on more orcs, space marines and steampunk machines. Goodbye accurate orders of battle, hello cunning calculations of 400-point armies. Roll those dice for random terrain, missions and deployment, and have at thee!

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Update added 17/10/2021

I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of comment this generated – well over 100 responses on various threads on various forums. Rather than respond to them all there, let me provide one collective response here, with a big thank you to all who took the trouble to comment. The forums where these many thoughtful and fascinating comments are to be found are these:

[TMP] "ReasonsNOT to refight historical battles" Topic (theminiaturespage.com)

Reasons NOTto refight historical battles (pendrakenforum.co.uk)

»Topic: Reasons NOT to refight historical battles (thewargameswebsite.com)

Reasons NOT to refight historical battles (leadadventureforum.com)

The first thing I need to address is the old chestnut, “it’s all fantasy anyway” (aka the “Claudia Schiffer gambit”). I disagree with that, except in a trivial semantic sense. There is obviously a major category distinction between games whose divergence from actual history rests only on human decisions (and are in that sense “possible” alternative history) and those that involve things that never existed and cannot exist – magic, monsters, etc – and are thus “impossible”. (If you’d just made different life choices, Mike, you could have impressed Claudia …) Rather than use words like “fantasy” or “fiction”, how about if we talk about “explorations of history”? Thus:

-          - Refighting an actual battle is an exploration of the history of that battle;

-          - fighting fictional battles generated by starting from an actual campaign situation explores the history of that campaign;

-          - fighting fictional battles between historical armies (whether or not those armies ever met) could be regarded as explorations of historical weapons and tactics.

Having dealt with that, let me endeavour to group the respondents’ reasons into a few major headings.

“We know what happened!”

This includes the problem of surprise (or lack of it). Often the reason a battle took the shape it did is because a commander was deceived or ignorant of some major factor, be it terrain, enemy strength and dispositions, etc. It is hard to recreate that when players know what happened. Artificial constraints on what players are allowed to do are not entirely satisfactory – it is important not to make things too ‘scripted’, otherwise why bother having players? That said, it can be done, witness our recent games of Hegyes or Gitschin where one side’s strategic objective changes mid-battle. Player knowledge didn’t seem to prevent these being good games and decent depictions of the battles in question.

Another aspect of the “we know what happened” problem is that players can be unhappy of the refight turns out differently from the historical event. But if we allow (as I think we should) that people could have made different decisions – whether generals giving different orders, or private soldier choosing when to fire or whether to stand or run – then we should be OK with getting different results. In fact, seeing whether different plans (or even the same ones) could have succeeded or failed is part of the attraction.

And another: translating the history we know onto the tabletop is difficult, and “we all love a good scenario – but have probably suffered too many half-baked ones that didn’t quite work – which is why the basic two sides line up and charge format is so often favoured”. Well, I recognise the problem, but the fact that something is difficult to do doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t worth doing. When it’s done right it is so much better.

Tabletop representation

I already addressed the challenge of terrain. Others raised “depth of the battlefield and how many forces are packed into small spaces … it’s quite a shock to see the set ups for Dresden, Borodino, etc, where troops are piled on top of troops”. Or similarly, “Most sets of rules focus their command/unit representation too low to do a whole historic battle.” I suppose my answer to that would be that’s simply a problem of choice of ruleset – have you tried BBB? 😉

Arguments

People have different notions about what historically happened or could have happened, so historical refights can create disputes. Well, if these are constructive discussion, that’s interesting, isn’t it? And if they’re blazing rows, the problem is probably that you’re gaming with the wrong people, not a problem of the game per se. (Though as one respondent said, “it’s hard finding like-minded people”. In that respect I’ve been very lucky.)

There are not enough historical battles!

That’s a fair point: if you’ve gone to the trouble of painting your Bolivian army for 1880, you might want to use it for more than just endless refights of the battle of Tacna. That said, my own focus on the whole of the 19th century has kept our group entertained for the past decade and more, without having to learn new rules (we fight them all with BBB), and with no prospect of running out of battles any time soon.

Fighting smaller actions that never reached the history books

This was a good one. Particularly for skirmish-level games, a more generic ahistorical approach can be just fine, eg for pre-modern wars where records don’t exist, or for modern wars on such a scale that almost any skirmish scenario ‘could have’ happened (and again, not everything at that level was recorded).

It’s disrespectful

Some feel it’s disrespectful to those who gave their lives if we trivialise their sacrifice in a game, hence eg the appeal of gaming with ‘Imagi-nations’. I disagree – I have enough combat veteran gaming friends to think if it’s OK for them, it’s OK for me – but I entirely accept this as a reason for those who do feel that way.

“Modern sensibilities” were also mentioned, as in it being considered distasteful and insulting to suggest one nationality was inherently better than another. I suppose that could put people off recreating certain conflicts.

I’m just not that into history

People get different things from our hobby. Some are more into the craft element (the painting and modelling), or the social occasion, or the competitive aspect. Not everyone cares about the history.

What’s the point? You won’t really learn anything

Some dismiss the idea that you can gain any deeper insights or understanding of a battle or period by doing refights. Hmm: perhaps whether anything can be learned from a refight depends on both the learner and the lesson? We all learn in different ways. A refight can be “learning by doing” – I know that refighting historical battles has imprinted them on my memory better than all my reading about them – and the better crafted a scenario is, the more we will learn from it.

 

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I hope that’s a fair summary of the many points raised. Apologies to any to whose comments I haven’t done full justice – hard to reply to >100 in sufficient detail! Thanks again to everyone who engaged with my blog post and created such an interesting discussion.

Incidentally, I have now added a new label on the blog, “Reflections on wargaming”, which links to a few similarly broad-themed blog posts that have generated similarly rich discussions. Please do have a browse.  

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Sherlock Holmes and the Wicker Man

And now for something completely different ... as if our recent post-apocalyptic diversion into the Gaslands were not fantastical enough, this week Bruce's talented pen brought us some alternative Victorian SF/Fantasy in the form of his scenario for 'Sherlock Holmes and the Wicker Man'. I trust I don't really need to introduce the eminent detective, Holmes, but some readers may not be familiar with the classic horror movie, The Wicker Man. The film is about a Scottish isle whose inhabitants still cleave to old pagan ways, including the occasional human sacrifice to ensure rich harvests. In Bruce's spin on the plot, Sherlock Holmes is on the island in disguise, investigating the islanders' misdeeds, and summons his sidekick Dr Watson urgently, who arrives with five policemen. These valiant few have to sneak/fight their way past/through Lord Summerisle and assorted henchmen and villagers to rescue a captive from being burned in the giant wicker man.

Bruce's time in lockdown was not entirely wasted. His brush is as talented as his pen and he unfurled a splendid layout for our eyes to feast on. The ruleset was Osprey's "A Fistful of Kung Fu", which apparently uses the engine from the "Song of Blades and Heroes". SBH I was faintly aware of, AFKF I had never heard of, the rules engine I had never encountered but a jolly clever one it is. The basic mechanisms were easy to grasp; we learned their tactical subtleties as we went along.

Mark J and I found ourselves on the side of the old gods and their Hebridean worshippers. Dave T and Nigel were the forces of law and order and civilisation. I'll let the photos tell the story.

The magnificent Wicker Man complete with hapless 28mm maiden trapped inside him and bonfire piled up around him, cultist poised to light it. The Wicker Man is well over a foot tall.

The table seen from the point of view of Watson and the approaching bobbies. They had to get through the wood or orchard, past a couple of dozy cultist sentries. All the other enemies were busy with their pagan ceremony until the alarm was raised.

Some of the islanders. Could that master of disguise, Sherlock Holmes, be one of these? That one on the left looks dubious. Fine paintwork by Bruce.

Lord Summerisle conducts his pagan ritual, backed up by a cultist, his alluring sidekick Willow, and one of his three gamekeepers, oblivious to the policemen sneaking through the trees behind them ...

A big punch-up ensued around the central wagon. Watson perished there, as did a couple of coppers. Willow was wounded but got away, luring a policeman after her.

Holmes is revealed! He could easily despatch those two villagers, but he has more urgent business to attend to. He dashes towards the Wicker Man! He strikes Lord Summerisle to the ground! He scales the ladder and unties the damsel in distress! But ...


... a welcome committee gathers at the foot of the ladder as flames begin licking up the Wicker Man's timber shins. All the police have fallen or scattered. Only the dastardly Summerisle and his cohorts remain. Holmes's chances of survival look remote ...

Thus the game ended in a triumph for the forces of evil, and Conan Doyle will have to either start writing about a new character or resort to penning prequels. There will be a bumper harvest on Summerisle this year.

This was splendid good fun. From my (evil) side of the table it did seem like too hard a job for the goodies, so maybe Bruce will tweak it a bit before its next outing. (For another outing there must surely be - too much work has gone into the Wicker Man not to use him again!) But the game was at least as much about the journey as the destination, and a thoroughly entertaining ride it was. Bravo, Bruce!