Thursday 21 January 2021

Transatlantic remote gaming

For the past few years I have been fortunate enough to have a regular January trip to the US. This always finishes with an intense weekend of gaming with a very fine group of American wargamer friends, as testified to by several enthusiastic previous blog posts.

Not so in January 2021. I don't think I need to explain why.

However, undeterred, the guys decided to maintain the tradition. Last weekend, a couple of them got together in person as usual. A full schedule of battles had been drafted and circulated in advance. Those on the spot set up the games and ran them, and the rest of us dialled in.


British redcoats march through Lexington. Right of pic you can see two other camera views of the battle (one a different sector, the next the overhead plan view) and then individual players' Discord feeds (video turned off during the game). Left of screen is where the team side rooms and game resource documents are to be found.


The first challenge was time zones. When you're all staying in the same place, you can play a game until it finishes, reset, start a new game when everyone's ready; party on into the small hours, crash at 3:00 a.m., reveille at 8, fuel up on fried breakfast and coffee, start the morning's game as soon as everybody's fit to fight ... but when players are in different countries 5 or 6 hours apart, setting definite start times and accommodating people's 'hard stops' becomes more important.

What it boiled down to for me was that I got to play one game for 8 hours or so from 2:00-10:00 p.m. on Saturday, then another smaller one for three hours on Sunday afternoon, both of these being the morning engagement for the players physically around the table.

The technological set-up was pretty sophisticated (much more so than my simple laptop camera arrangement I reported on in my previous post). As far as the physical apparatus was concerned, to provide a top-down plan view of the whole battlefield, Scott lashed a webcam to a TV studio microphone boom; two other cameras (iPads in cradles) could be moved around the battlefield to give close-ups of where the action happened to be.

The software platform we used was Discord. This supports video and voice. Importantly, it lets the receiver choose any camera for the main view, while the others remain visible as smaller views. It has some other features which were really useful for the games. The gamemaster can post resources in Discord such as scenario briefings, orders of battle, quick reference sheets etc, where they are readily accessible to players. He can also set up side rooms for each team of players, so that eg the Sudanese players can go to their side room and talk or text to discuss plans or hidden movement without the British players hearing what is being said. The text is also handy for other things, for instance as a place to record secret decisions one side might have to make, for future reference.


As for the two games, briefly:


Lexington & Concord (1775)

This was a reprise of the terrific American Revolutionary War scenario we played 5 years ago using Muskets & Tomahawks. This time it had been adapted to play with Black Powder. Inevitably, I got nobbled to be the British, because I speak the language - the King's English, that is. It always adds considerably to my American comrades' enjoyment to have me put on my best British officer voice. I can also contribute the odd idiom from the other ranks: "You're 'aving a giraffe, sir", upon failing an activation roll, generated particular hilarity. Just as well I scored some points on the linguistic entertainment front, because our British expedition was doomed militarily. It took us 17 of the 18 turns to score our first Victory Point, by which time the Yankees had racked up 30. ("We'll call it a draw, then ...") Scott did suggest post-game that the translation from M&T to BP wasn't quite calibrated right and the unit stats were too skewed toward the Americans. Perhaps so; perhaps we were hurt more by the ace of spades being drawn on Turn 2, meaning a ton of American troops were activated so early that we never got through to Concord. Whatever - it was a spectacular game and a lot of fun.

El Teb (1884)

For the Sunday game we changed continents and centuries to Africa 100 years or so later, where the British were fighting a different colonial campaign, this time in the Mahdist War in the Sudan. The scenario was based on one in Tim Tilson's book, "The Gordon Campaign", but adapted for use with "The Men Who Would be Kings" rules. Having spent Saturday attacking, I was ready to do some defending, so I opted to play for Osman Digna's team. Discord's secret chat channels came into their own, as we Sudanese got to use hidden deployment and hidden movement. I had a merry couple of hours of chucking spears, sniping at expensively-educated cavalrymen, and charging out to stab some unlucky jocks. ("They don't like it up 'em, sir.") Unfortunately my time ran out, but happily Nick dialled in at a convenient moment, so he took over. I think it ended badly for the Sudanese, but again, it doesn't really matter - it was about the journey more than the destination.

No remote event was ever going to match the fantastic in-person get-togethers we've had over the years, but this was a pretty good substitute. Naturally we drank a remote toast: to good friends and great gaming.

Thursday 14 January 2021

"Ah, Vienna!": Schwechat (1848)

This was the second battle in our Hungary 1848 campaign: Schwechat. Historically, it's an unusual situation that makes for a different tabletop challenge. The Hungarians had kicked out an invading Croat army. Rather than retreat to Croatia, the Croats had headed for Vienna to join the imperial army gathering there. Meanwhile, the city of Vienna had risen in revolt against the Kaiser. The Hungarian army was a rather ragged mix of line troops, newly-raised honveds, and scythe-armed national guards; and it was divided between those who wanted to help the Viennese revolutionaries and those who thought it wrong or unwise to invade Austria and turn Hungary's self-defense action into outright rebellion. A false alarm during the night before the battle generated a wild goose chase night march for part of the army, which made it even more fatigued and frustrated. It therefore failed to breach the Croat line at Schwechat and was then routed when reinforcements arrived from the imperial forces besieging Vienna. The revolutionaries did not join in.


Balloon-basket view of the Schwechat battlefield: 6mm figures seen from a distance through a laptop camera, thus creating very realistic fog of war ... the roads are the Hungarians' axis of advance, with Vienna off-table top right; the Hungarian armed paddlesteamer Meszaros on the Danube bottom right; Croats are defending the line of the Kalter Gang river. Schwechat is where the roads cross the river. Hungarian massed guns on the hill in the centre, supported by scythe-armed rabble.

This is a tricky situation to represent in a scenario. My first effort didn't really work, as I reported back in 2016 (complete with Hungarian poetry). I revised the scenario after the playtest back then; I reviewed it again and refined it further before our game this time. The distinctive ingredient is the rate at which reinforcements become available to the Austro-Croat defenders. The Austrian players can choose which of the available reinforcements to commit to action and when. This in turn affects a Hungarian decision about when to see if the Viennese will attempt a sortie; they only get one shot at this, and the more troops the Austrians have withdrawn from the besieging force, the greater the chance of a sortie.

I'm pleased to say this generated a cracking game for my four remote players plus two interested observers. As for the previous battle, Pakozd, we just used simple online meeting software and my laptop camera. Once all the players turned off their own video feeds so the battlefield filled the screen, this worked OK. A serendipitous factor helped. Although Schwechat was fought in October, I set it up as a snowy battlefield, using hedges dotted around the hills to outline them. The dark troop blocks and terrain features were very easy for the players to see against the white background and compensated to a degree for the somewhat distant and fuzzy panorama view. Usually in our multi-player BBB games things happen in parallel, as the players on one side can all carry out their moves at the same time. For the remote game, of course, we had to operate in sequence as I had to move all the troops. (The players got to roll their own dice, though - we're a trusting lot.) This necessarily made the game take a bit longer but we still finished it in an evening. And I got my 10,000 steps of exercise by running round the table.

The Hungarians attacked with a very clear plan. They raced forward, daring the Austrians to come out and attack their march columns (they didn't), then setting up a grand battery on the hill on their centre-right. Consequently their left was largely unprotected, inviting the Austrians to attempt a right hook against the objectives on the vulnerable Hungarian line of communications. The Austrians did venture their cavalry forward vaguely in this direction, but seemed unsure about what they were trying to achieve. As a result, one of their two potent cavalry brigades wandered into range of the massed Hungarian guns, got pinned down, and was duly wiped out. The other could still have got around to the Hungarian rear but opted not to, so it was eventually driven back and held off by superior numbers of hussars.

While the Austrian right hook was being rebuffed, the Hungarian attack on the Austrian left was having little more success. The honveds seemed reluctant to assault the Grenzers defending Mannswoerth; they pushed into the gap between Mannswoerth and Schwechat, but were repulsed with heavy losses.

This relative stalemate took us to turn 7 out of 8. The Hungarians had inflicted significant casualties on the Austrians, but had yet to take an objective, so were behind on points and time was running out. Meanwhile, several brigades had been released from the imperial siege lines, including their crack grenadiers, more cavalry and several batteries. Turn 7 was crucial and exciting: the Hungarians finally stormed Mannswoerth and also took Zwoelfaxing, another of the strongpoints in the Austrian defensive line. The Austrians were in a good position to retake the latter, but the dice were unkind and their counterattack could not go the extra yard. They had also miscalculated concerning their reinforcements: they committed several regiments, but too late for them to actually reach the places where they were needed. However, this emboldened the Viennese, who drove the last nail into the Austrian coffin on the final turn by surging out of Vienna in force and seizing another objective at Simmering.

Reflections, then (taking my cue this time from Steve J's excellent format for his Wargaming Addict AARs):

- The remote format worked when scaled up to four players. More than that would probably be too many, but having four (and a couple of observers) made it an even more convivial social occasion than the previous 2-player game, very jolly indeed. We spent a good half-hour at the half-time drinks interval just nattering.

- The white battlefield was very helpful and I may well use it again, regardless of whether it was actually snow-covered historically. A north pointer could be useful for next time as some players got confused when giving directions. ("Northeast, I mean southeast. Left a bit. No, the other left ...") Need to give some thought to how to help distinguish units at a distance: big coloured counters? Use larger figures? (Dave W has 10mm armies which would be a bit more visible than my 6mm.)

- The Hungarians demonstrated the value of having a clear plan and sticking to it. The Austrians demonstrated the dangers of being indecisive and tentative and rolling bad dice.

- The scenario was very successful in producing a close and exciting game. The revised rule for Austrian reinforcement release and Viennese sortie worked well. (Draft version of the scenario in the BBB group files.)

- It's tricky for a scenario to capture how brittle the Hungarian army proved to be. The Hungarian players did a good job of letting their solid line troops do most of the fighting, shielding their extra-fragile honveds and national guard. Even so, and despite the sound Hungarian plan, by the end of the game their infantry was definitely running out of steam, so we figured the scenario is pitched about right.

- One of the guys said of the remote gaming under lockdown, "it's kinda like therapy" ... it was a brilliant fun evening.

Chronologically, the next major battle of the war was around Hermannstadt aka Nagyszeben aka Sibiu, which has since moved to Romania. Next stop Transylvania!

Friday 1 January 2021

The 1848 campaign begins!

Happy New Year to all of you! May it be a better year than the last one. 2020 was a bit of a desert  wargaming-wise. OK, that's not one of the bigger problems COVID-19 has caused, but it is the pertinent one for this blog.

I am therefore pleased to report that we did manage to end the year on a relatively high note. Earlier in the year I'd run some PBEM games (play-by-email) with players sending orders and getting reports every day or two and the games taking a couple of weeks. Last week I had my first go at running a game played remotely in real time: that is, two players looking at the table through my laptop camera, telling me where to move their troops, and rolling their own dice for me to implement the results.

The battle I chose was Pakozd (1848). One reason for the choice is that it is a small game: a 4'x4' table, only 9 or 10 units a side, and only 8 turns, making it ideal for this first experiment with the remote format.

The village of Pakozd, on the shore of Lake Balaton, is wreathed in smoke as Croat Grenzers clash with Hungarian honveds. (Forgive the Austrian line infantry standing in for Grenzers and the Frenchmen pretending to be Magyars.)

The other reason is that it is the first battle in my project for the year: to fight through the entire Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-1849. As regular readers of this blog will know, this has been a major interest of mine for the past few years, and I have one book on it forthcoming (an annotated translation of the Austrian history of the Winter Campaign, the first half of the war) and others in preparation. The ambition for 2021 is to playtest the set of scenarios I've written for all the main battles of the war and then publish them in a BBB campaign volume.

Two of my regular gaming buddies, Dave W and Crispin, both share my enthusiasm sufficiently to have painted up their own armies for this conflict. They were therefore the obvious candidates to invite. Dave commanded the Hungarians defending their homeland; Crispin took the part of Jellachich leading his army of Croats to remind the Hungarians of their duty to the Kaiser.

Pakozd is a small battle but one that was full of colourful incidents: diplomatic envoys, parleys being respected or otherwise, whole units of Croat Grenzers disappearing into the wine cellars, a huge flock of sheep released from a barn and causing mayhem ... The BBB scenario reflects this with a random events table. Together with the low troop density and resulting room for manoeuvre, plus the quality vs quantity disparity, this made for a real see-saw game. Fortunes swung radically and at different points in the game, both Crispin and Dave thought the writing was on the wall for them. In classic BBB style, it came down to the final assault on the final turn. The Hungarians were ahead by a nose, but if the Croats could successfully charge the last lone national guard unit on the Hungarian right, they would level it; if they could exploit and capture the village beyond, they would transform defeat into victory. In the end, luck favoured the Magyars, but really it could have been anyone's game.

This was a success in every respect: a highly entertaining wargame; the technology and remote format worked (we finished it in about two and a half hours' play); and of course, it was great to catch up with good friends I have seen too little of for a while.

We're going to try expanding it to four players next time, which is probably the limit if everyone is to get a decent share of the game. Next stop will be the battle of Schwechat, just outside Vienna. Onward!