Saturday, 29 May 2010

Real Life (part 11)

I have discovered a universal truth. It doesn't matter how you plan things or what you do it doesn't matter. Traffic on the Friday before a bank holiday weekend will be dreadful regardless of where you are going. I should have known. I mean I was travelling from one fairly non-descript "new town" to another, - who gets away from it all for the weekend to a place that is basically a large industrial estate next to a motorway on the way to nowhere? So a 90 minute journey took me closer to 2 1/2 hours. Added to which I got caught leaving the building for a consultation on some project dynamics so I got away at closer to 4:30 than 4:00. All of which meant that I really should have set up Friday evening's game on Thursday so that I wasn't still rooting through the scenery boxes when the players turned up.

However the endless traffic queues on the way home had allowed me to work out in my head how I was going to do the game I wanted. We were revisiting the Russian Civil War with a variation on RFCM's Civil War Battles that we first tried a couple of years ago. I have rules that do Corps & Front Level games but I want something at a brigade level and we've had problems in the past with everyone else's favourites from The Perfect Captain.

I had set up a scenario with a White infantry brigade defending a bridge and a rail junction against a Red Army cavalry brigade with some armoured cars and a motorised infantry battalion in armoured trucks. It looked pretty nice, - I love the open spaces and the cavalry with waving sabres and the Kerr & King buildings.

So off we go, a Red Cavalry Regiment pushing down the line of the railway supported by the Armoured Cars. The Whites respond by throwing their artillery forward in an aggressive fashion and try to knock out the cars as they force their way across the railway bridge....and then my mobile goes off. It's IT Support telling me that the End of Day has halted on the Division's computer system and no one knows what to do about the error messages. Unfortunately I don't know what to do either, so I have to go off and call a couple of my team to discuss what might have happened. I eventually track down the right person to deal with the problem and get him in contact with IT and get back to the game.

I find things have moved on a bit when I get back to the game. The players have picked up the rules and seem to be working through them okay. Luckily I'm back in time to help them resolve some issues that I hadn't covered in the playsheet and / or hadn't understood or remembered from what I originally wrote. The game is going pretty well and the players seem to be enjoying it, which is good as I remember at this point that a number of people hated the rules last time we played them. Just as I get back into the game the phone goes off again. It's one of my team leaders "Treb....sorry to bother you but...". He's had a staff member on the phone almost in tears because of something that happened today and we need to get hold of someone's details before the weekend kicks off. So I need to put in a couple of calls and field another one on the End of Day problem that's just about fixed.

When I finally got back to the game the Red Army cavalry had just launched a charge on a disorganised White infantry unit, under the threats of their Commissars assisted by their Cheka bodyguards. These are bounced off quite comfortably and we have a detailed conversation on the odds of this happening, before closing down the game for the evening. Everyone has had a good game and wants to continue with the scenario next week once I've plugged the holes in the rules. All I've got to do is work out what actually happened whilst I was on the phone.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Grown Ups in the Sudan (part 2)

Having just enjoyed the most recent Dr Who the distaff side of the Trebian clan's obsession with musical reality shows has driven me out into the summer house to enjoy this beautiful evening and write part two of the blog about Friday's game.

As you will recall from the last blog I had assembled my group of three players, and they were off to make the Sudan safe for the Empire in the roles of a scientific soldier from Wolesley's Ring, a bumptious "Scotch" gadabout and a threadbare aged warrior forced to seek his fortune in the Egyptian army.

The basic scenario is that the players have to enforce British power in a village near Suakin where the local headman seems to have swapped sides after taking a subsidy.

The game started a days march from Suakin, half a day from the target village where the force, (one British brigade, one Egyptian brigade plus cavalry support some RHA, the odd engineer or two plus loads of camels and wagons) was in their overnight zariba. I represent this with barbed wire entanglements from my WWI box. This occasioned much discussion when the players were challenged to march out. Eventually the players decided to march in open square (ie two lines and columns at the side to get decent movement speed), and leave one of the British regiments behind to guard the zariba. The front, back and left hand side of the square was provided by Egyptians, the right hand side bythe Highlanders. A British regiment was then left in the middle of the square to deal with break-ins and so on.

The terrain at this point was open desert, and they put out a cavalry screen about 300 yards ahead. Overall the time taken to form up and the chosen formation meant that they were a bit behind the clock, especially as they didn't start to break camp until dawn.

About 9am they encountered the first challenge, which was a khor with steep sides (represented in the picture by a couple of lengths of dowel). This was meant just to provide a brief hiccup whilst they roped up to get the wheeled transport and guns down and provide some opportunity to spook themselves as they'd have to break formation. In practice it took forever to work out what to do. First choice from the Major-General was to march the whole square along the khor until the banks got easier (the idea of sending a cavalry recce didn't occur for a while). In the end they realised that the problem to solve was to cross the khor, not go round it, so a few companies were dispatched to hold the other bank whilst they got on with it. My initial intention was not to challenge the crossing but it all took so long that in the end some Baggara camelry turned up to see what was going on. Six bases turned up and before you know it some cavalry types (one squadron thereof) had gone through the reaction phases to "Excited" and thrown themselves into combat with nary a look behind. Totally outnumbered they proceeded to roll the most amazing dice and blow the camels away. The best I could get out of it was "That squadron is completely blown, and needs to rest".

The only other casualty from the crossing was the commander of the RHA battery (Captain Shreader) who suffered from heatstroke caused by over zealous participation in moving his guns.

After some minor faffing about they finally made it to the edge of the acacia & mimosa shrub that surrounded the target village. With only a few miles to go (although only three hours to sunset) they formed up into a tight square and plunged into the scrub.

Despite my best efforts I was unable to spook the Egyptians and make them blaze away their ammunition (the players didn't know that they were only carrying an 8 minute supply with none on the camels and rifles incompatible with British cartridges).

They finally got to the village and finding it deserted and only a couple of hours to nightfall they set about building a zariba. I got them to mark the outline with bits of quadrant doweling which I intended to replace with barbed wire as they built it. But I got bored with that and suddenly erupting from the scrub came a horde of dervishes "all hot sand and ginger" storming up the slope towards the Egyptians.

What I expected was for the Egyptians to panic and break and the Brits to have to do some fancy footwork to about face from their side of the zariba. In practice the Egyptians got off a devastating volley (despite all the minuses) and shot away most of the Dervish front rank. They then resolutely refused to fail a reaction test and stood their ground. The hand to hand was pretty bloody, but casualties were only marginally in the fuzzy-wuzzies favour and again the Egyptians refused to run away. Some dervishes got in amongst the camels and cut up an RHA horse team as well. Whilst this was going on the Brits fortified themselves in their corner of the zariba before launching some devastating local counter attacks with the bayonet (spearheaded by dismounted cavalry, would you believe). Eventually the mahdists were wiped out and order restored as darkness fell.

I'd like to thing the players spent a restless night, unable to complete their defenses, but they seemed to feel they'd done pretty well despite the big pile of dead baggage and the corpses of about a whole Egyptian Regiment to deal with.

Overall I think we all had a good time. SvP takes a time to warm up and whilst it's mostly free kriegspiel there's quite a few rules to keep in mind (plus remembering to roll 2 dice for the mahdist reaction test, not just one!). Furthermore the players have to role play and that can take a while to get in character. Even if the umpire gave you a fez.

Grown Ups In The Sudan (part 1)

When I first thought about what I might blog this week I reckoned it would be just a simple account of a Friday Night game. As it turns out it's sort of a classic Wargaming For Grownups type situation.

This week was going to be the first "Science vs Pluck" game of the year. That's a "Wargaming for Grownups" event in itself as it means opening up the garage for the first time since the last game of the autumn. That involves the very Grownup activity of tidying it out of the rubbish that has accumulated over the winter (defunct microwave down the tip, for example), the putting up my 12' x 5' table, which wouldn't be possible if I wasn't Grownup with my own garage.

I've got no serious heating in the garage so we have to wait for the good weather to arrive, which fortunately it has done. (Insulating it and making it a proper year-round wargames room is a real Grownup project that will have to wait a few years until I retire.

Anyway, I committed to putting on a largish SvP game for our group. As we normally have 3-4 players there's enough for a proper command structure so it works quite well.

The scenario was a bit troublesome. You can't just run SvP as a "pick up" game. Its role playing elements mean some thought has to go into it. Of course, having committed to the game a week ago my mind went a complete blank, and I started to scrabble round for inspiration. Trouble was real life kept exploding all around me (not literally, - my job isn't that dangerous). Any how I managed to squeeze in an hour or so in the evening to flesh something out - based around Hashin & Tofrek - and I typed up the briefings in my lunch break at work. What I didn't have was time to get the tables, terrain and figures sorted out. No worries, - I'll skip work at4:30pm on Friday and do it then thinks I.

Inevitably the phone goes at 4pm and there's someone saying "Treb, - we've got a problem......". Two hours later after several conference calls, some gentle cajoling and some moral blackmail I finally leave the building. Luckily for me the large accident involving use of the air ambulance that blocked all the roads round my office was starting to clear so I wasn't too long on the drive home.

After a hurried pizza I got out to the garage and set everything up, only to find that one of our number had been forced to drop out, so I had to think through turning a player character into an NPC as well. I finally resolved on cutting out the cavalry commander as he's the easiest to ham up as an umpire.

All finished in time for the first couple of players to arrive and be presented with their carefully crafted briefings.

And this has taken a bit longer to write than expected, so I'll close now and post some pictures and details of the battle in my next blog.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Trebian Climbs Mount Everest

You will have noticed that I haven't blogged recently . That's because a few days ago I set out for the assault on the summit. It was tough, but I've made it back safe and sound.

Well, okay so I haven't actually climbed Everest, it just, meta - phorically feels like it. What I have actually done is finish reading "The Noble Revolt" by John Adamson. Those last few chapters took some reading.

This is a massive tome re-evaluating the run up to the outbreak of the Civil War on an almost day-by-day basis. It starts just after the end of the Short Parliament, and ends with Charles fleeing London in January 1642. Adamson has a second volume on the later period coming out next year.

Strictly speaking this isn't a book for wargamers. Whilst it covers the raising of the army to fight Scotland there's no real military detail. What there is amounts to a massive amount of political detail and a radical interpretation on why the Civil War broke out. In summary Adamson seems to be claiming that the Civil War was a cross between a traditional medieval Barons' Revolt combined with an attempt to create a monarchical republic.

And when I say massive, I mean massive. It's 742 pages, of which just under 200 pages are footnotes. And it isn't printed in a big font either, although it does have colour pictures.

So I finally finished it, and I think I've earned myself a stiff drink. The level of detail is such that it's not a book you read casually. Constantly checking the footnotes and going backwards to keep the multiple threads in your head means it doesn't get finished in a hurry.

It's also not a book for the unwary. Whilst it is beautifully and persuasively written (almost journalistic in parts) that doesn't mean it is right. There were a few points where I almost shouted at the book in disbelief, but then he's a fellow of Peterhouse & I'm....not.

So I checked a few reviews on-line (not those on Amazon, - proper ones written by proper experts) and there's a distinct "flawed masterpiece" air about it, although no one can argue with the industry that has one into its production. If the same detail has gone into the next volume it'll be a must read.

The consequence of this is that I've gone back to re-read an old friend, - Anthony Fletcher's "Outbreak of the English Civil War". This to my mind is the definitive narrative of the years leading up to the war, a much overlooked book (although not by Adamson) and one anyone who has an interest in the Civil War should have read. Alas it has been out of print for over 20 years, but Amazon has the odd second hand copy.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Minding the Baby

The second day of MK's Campaign was quite a bit quieter.We only ran TEITR four times, compared with nine on the Saturday.

However, I think we'd view the weekend as a success. The Society of Ancients sold a few memberships and many conversations were had with existing and prospective members of the hobby.

The game isn't tremendously well balanced, - the Romans won 12 times out of 13. The Elephant gets close enough to scare the players, but they win out in the end by being daring and at least one of them dies. For CoW I may alter the balance. I think I'll reduce the number of javelins available and make the instant kill on the elephant a bit more difficult. After all WD members are experienced games and there are tactics to be deployed.

I enjoyed running the game, and I enjoy doing shows, but I do object to being taken advantage of. I'll happily run games for younger players, but to be honest I'd rather their parents actually hung around whilst they played, - or even took part. I ran a game on Sunday for 3 very well spoken, very well behaved & polite (if excitable) brothers. The oldest was probably 11. They started off and the accompanying adult hung around and gave advice. 10 minutes into the game he says "I'm off to Costa Coffee, - find me in there boys", leaving me to supervise them. As I said, I don't mind running games for children, but I object to running a creche (see the Peter Pig website for a similar view).

On top of everything it is just unwise. I was involved as a parent in my childrens' primary school, but nowadays I fear I wouldn't there's so much checking and vetting you feel it's more trouble than it's worth. Mrs Trebian as a Brown Owl, and Miss Trebian as a student teacher have both been Criminal Record Bureau checked to exhaustion. What do people think they're doing with their kids?

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Elephant in the Very Big Room

So, first formal outing of The Elephant in the Room. Milton Keynes' Campaign was chosen for the honour. As I've said before I like this show as it is really accessible to the non-wargaming public. I mean Derby is all very well, for example, but being on a university campus on the edge of town only those who are already in the hobby are ever going to visit it. With MK you get quite a few people who've never seen a wargame before and turn out to be prepared to give it a go, or people who used to and sort of gave it up but now that you mention it have got some Egyptians/Seleucids/etc in the attic it might be fun to get out again. After all the hobby is about people and you need to get new or newish blood back into it.

I've done MK for the last three years now. Last year and the year before I put on a large ancient traditional wargame with my 2omm Hat plastic figures. This year I thought was a little bit below par. There were fewer people about, - well it was a cold day today and we're in a recession, so I shouldn't be surprised. And the trade stands were fewer and sparser than in recent years. Again, the recession I fear.

As it was we got in 9 runs of the game, with three people each time, using 2 velites each. We use some of the local club members to keep the numbers up, but that was about 18 players of varying ages and experience. I even got a break as one of our group took over and ran a session.

Overall the game favours the Romans, especially if you use all 6 velite figures. We had one Carthaginian win, but quite a few ran close. And that's what I want, - the players to win but feel it was because they played well, rather than got lucky.

The feedback was rather good, - from "This is really cool - where can I buy it?" to "Yes, - I like the mechanisms" and "Oh yes, that's fun!".

So, a success. And I'm back tomorrow for another day. Maybe see you there?

Monday, 3 May 2010

Hamlet and the Jester

There is a saying that all great comedians want to play Hamlet. I think that's a way of saying some people don't value their own work, even when they're good at it.

On the other hand it might be saying that even when you are good at something that doesn't mean that you wouldn't rather be doing something else. Even if you are enjoying yourself.

I was pondering that thought as I put the finishing touches to "The Elephant in the Room". I'm really pleased with the overall look of it, and a close-packed line of twenty 1/32 Hastati certainly looks impressive, even if all you've done is block them in and soak them in Ronseal.

Over the years I've designed quite a few one-off single subject games that work as participation games at shows, or are fun for a group of friends in an evening. There's the "Harrying of the North" game about an attack on a Saxon village, "Looting the Baggage" - a game with a rather nice mechanism for simulating drunkenness and "Hack!" - the game of war correspondents lying and cheating their way to being that day's headline reporter. Most of these have won awards at various shows (I used to do Triples a lot, which always liked off beat participation games). All of these games to my mind are unique. There may be a small mechanism here or there that's been borrowed - after all there's nothing original in rolling a die - but essentially they're my games. TEITR fits into that category, - okay so I nicked the domino combat system from Graham Hockley but the game would work equally well with another combat mechanism. Plus I didn't start from Anno Domino and develop from there. The game just had an Anno Domino shaped hole in it.

The problem for me is that I also like, - or maybe even prefer- large table top toy soldier games. What I'd really like to do is design really good table top toy soldier rules. I mean ones people can pick up and play that I haven't ripped off someone else's set. I just don't seem to have the knack. I've got loads of half finished sets which don't quite get there. The last one was a WotR set that had a really radical approach to the way battles held together and focused heavily on the various commanders. It was so radical in fact that it was completely incomprehensible to one of the playtesters I signed up through a Yahoo group. In the end I took Neil Thomas' AMW rules and bolted on some pieces such as the officer incident tables and I had a solution. But it wasn't my game.

I've done the same with the Russian Civil War, English Civil War, Indian Mutiny the Sudan and loads of other periods, borrowing from Richard Brook's Squares system, Pete Berry's File Leader, Matrix Games and even Hordes of the Things. I usually start with all of my own ideas and quite rapidly end up with somebody else's. The only period that remains really intractable from any approach is the Great War. Boxes of the stuff and no rules system will do.

I mean I don't necessarily like WRG & FoG but I can admire the skill that has put them together and I can't work out how they can do it and I can't. Even producing variants of these rules doesn't help me understand the mindset that can produce them.

Ah well, as one of my friends once wrote "As long as everyone's having fun, who cares?"

But I'd really like to play Hamlet at some point.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Elephant in the Room (2)

I managed to get most of the preparation work done on the display version of the game this week. When doing a participation game I always get caught out by how many little things there are left to do before it's ready. They aren't essential, but you just want the thing to look good, - so there's turn markers, play boards and so on. I succeeded in getting most of them done on Thursday evening (not cutting it too fine for Friday night's playtest) whilst three mad men ranted at one another on the TV (bit of political commentary there).

I was feeling a bit encouraged as one of my regular gaming friends was kind enough to remark on seeing the photos in the last blog that my painting style had "scaled up well". This was pleasing as I had indeed just applied my magic dip painting method developed for 15mm figures to their 54mm cousins. If you are new to the blog then there's several postings about how I go about painting figures quickly last year.

The overall look of the game is coming along. I've given the board a bit of depth by adding a plinth at one end with the control panels for the elephant and crew. This was constructed from a stray bit of plasterboard I had in the garage with a bit of gloss paint slapped on it. Another advantage of being a Grown Up with a Real Life is that you have bits and pieces like that lying around you can use on your hobby.

Having the game board look a bit "3D" is important at shows to attract people's attention. Regardless of the quality of painting or game design games with toy soldiers can merge into one another and anything that looks a bit flat just looks boring. Once you've attracted people's attention the game can win them over, but if they never stand and look you don't have a chance no matter how good the game is.

After the test on Friday - 2 wins for the elephant, 1 for the Romans - the game seems to have a reasonable balance and is good enough to go. I have some final tidying up to do to make the game pieces more permanent but we have a winner for Milton Keynes.

All that remains for our group is to sort out the travel arrangements for what is our closest show. We know we need to get there before 9, so that means various pick up points between 7:30 and 8 to get all the bits and the people in the car.

BTW If you've never done the MK show I'd recommend it. It isn't the biggest, but it is free and it is open to the general public as it is in the display area outside John Lewis. So it's ideal for those with a non-wargaming partner who can be left to enjoy the wonders of MK shopping whilst you pick up some new stuff and play a few games.