Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Society of Ancients Game Update

After the rather intense debate inspired by the previous blog entry back to some more mainstream activity.

The re-subscription game for the Society of Ancients 2011 is finished. Rules text and layout is done and proof read. Cover is done. The double sided game board/map artwork is complete, as is the cutout castle (!) and the figures. Here's a preview of the Elephant for "The Elephant in the Room". Well, one side of it. You get a double sided piece that stands 60mm tall.

I'm really pleased with how it has come out as I did the photography and also the Photoshop-style work to extract it from the background.

The figures for the Siege of Harfleur game have likewise come up nicely. Here's Henry V for example. He'll stand nearly 60mm tall as well once he's assembled, and he'll be accompanied by seven stalwart followers.

I'm currently in discussion with my liaison man on the Committee to work out how exactly I get these goodies to him, and in what format. It may end up that even in these on-line days I'll have to send him a disc as the files are quite big and they make my ISP wince when I try to mail them. Even zipped.

It's been an interesting project to do and I can only hope that the membership take to it. I'm quite a bit chuffed that I've managed to finish ahead of my deadline as I was a bit concerned at one point that I would overrun. As I've taken complete responsibility and total control for the output if I miss that I've no one to blame but myself.

I did one of these resubscription games before and I often wonder what the membership really think about them and also if they realise that it's all done by unpaid volunteer labour. All I get out of this is the tremendous buzz of seeing my own work in print.

Which is nice.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Osprey’s Nasty Little Book

The inevitable consequence of getting interested in something like the Spanish Civil War is that you end up reading a lot of stuff that can make your flesh creep. The accounts of interrogation centres set up by the Communists, and the masses of people shot by Franco’s men and thrown onto rubbish tips are not for the faint hearted.

I’ve read a number of accounts written by those who volunteered and fought for the Republic some of whom are pretty much unreconstructed Communists. In reading these works you expect a degree of bias, and that’s evident from the moment you open the book usually because the writer tells you so.

I’ve started to widen my reading now to look at those forces supporting Franco, and I started with the Osprey Elite volume on the Condor Legion. I often come away from studies of Nazi units feeling a bit grubby. There’s a school of thought that thinks it is okay to say “I abhor the politics of the SS, but they were one of the world’s finest fighting machines and they had nice uniforms”. Well, as our local wargaming vicar says “Everything before the but is b*ll*cks”. You can’t divorce the SS that fought in the front line from those that systematically rounded up and executed those they felt were racially inferior.

I wasn’t expecting anything similar from this book. It was published in 2006, and was written by a Spaniard who is now in his mid-50s. It is a bit gushing, and is rather overly obsessive about how smart Germans look when they’re in uniform but that you sort of expect.

However, it is the account of the bombing of Guernica that stands out as being more than a little apologist for the Nazis who went to fight for Franco.

According to this book Guernica was not an intentional terror bombing raid, but was intended to knock out a bridge. It also suggests casualties were closer to 300 than the 1,654 claimed by the Basque government at the time.

Looking at the evidence the latter claim is supportable and this is confirmed in subsequent studies. However, the former claim is open to serious challenge, and honestly falls in the same sort of areas as David Irving’s claims about Nazi Death Camps.

The raid on Guernica was not preceded by any reconnaissance, and the bomb loads included incendiaries. The waves of bombers were supported by fighters that straffed the roads leading out of the town. Richthofen’s order specifically refer to the bombing of the streets as well as the bridge.

So all in all I would say that the book in this respect is inaccurate, if not in fact misleading. The facts as we now know them are not difficult to check, and anyone editing a work covering such a controversial incident should have been able to challenge the author’s assertions. This isn’t a case of sloppy research of a lack of contemporary resources (as per for example the Osprey on Kadesh), this is a deliberate piece of political revisionism.

This is the most overt piece of apologist writing in the book. Elsewhere there are numerous remarks along the lines of the Germans were only there because the Russians were, and that Franco and the Generals had a legitimate case for overthrowing the elected Government of Spain.

How much difference does it make? Difficult to say. Ospreys are bought by a wide range of people within the hobby. Some, like me and others that I know, buy them, accepting the limitations and enjoy the pictures. For others they’re often the only “research” they do. Draw you own conclusions.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

St Valentine’s Day Massacre

So I gave my Spaniards a brief run out on Monday evening with a couple of friends. As I was eager to “blood” the figures I hadn’t really done a lot of rule writing. Can’t seem to fit it in with all the reading and painting I need to do to get this project off the ground.

I decided to use a simple set written by a friend of mine a few years back that have a card activation sequence and seemed to cover all of the bases on an initial read through. The rules have a four bases per battalion structure, so if I split down my big units I get enough for a game.

I set up the table with a sunken road forming up area for the International Brigade, facing a walled Casa on a hill top and an olive grove. Both were bordered by a stream and the bridge over that gave a focus for the game.

The Republicans started with an infantry assault across the open ground towards the casa and got slaughtered in the open. This was partly because of some demon dice rolling (6 out of 10 dice coming up as a 6 on the first roll was typical of the Nationalist firing) but also because of the unit by unit activation sequence that enabled the defenders to fire on each unit in turn as it emerged from the road.

Next up the Republicans tried to force the position in the olive groves. Similar result, even when backed up by some late arriving T-26’s, which were brewed in fairly short order by the Nationalist field gun. End of game.

We reset and played again with a slight tweak to enable all units under an officer’s direct control to activate at the same time. This let the casa be overrun, and a second more fortunate run at the olive grove for the tanks made for a Republican victory. We stopped there, thoroughly unsatisfied with the evening’s performance.

Except the toys look good and I like the way the terrain came out.

The post game discussion was helpful. The suggestion was made that I should just sit down and write some rules instead of using the ones I’d found. Whilst this sounds facile what I think was meant was I should sit down and produce something that plays to my strengths, - look at period flavour and see what needs to be done with command and control. (I’ve never been good at the combat rule bit so I’ll need to pinch them from somewhere).

What the games taught me is that I’ve formed, without realising it, quite a few strong views on what an SCW game should look like. Whilst I’m not a hardware-ist by nature I think that the difference in armour quality was something frequently remarked upon during the war. This means a simple “tank is a tank” approach which I’ve favoured in the past isn’t good enough. The T26 is a superior vehicle compared to the Panzer 1 and both are superior to the CV33 by a big margin (although that flamethrower version is nasty). Tank and aircraft involvement is important and how it affects people has to be considered. A version of “The Return to the River Don” armour effect cards might be called for.

And I need to think hard about how commanders work and how their different styles feed through to the game. The tendency to give stupid orders is a strong one in the SCW, and whilst I see little evidence of political opponents falling out whilst in battle a predilection to favour those of a similar political persuasion when handing out reserves is not uncommon.

Lastly the high but brittle morale of militia / volunteer units has to be factored in. A simple Raw/Average/Veteran classification isn’t going to meet the needs of the game.

So perhaps not a complete write off as evenings go.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Fascist Hordes

Just to round the weekend off I managed to finish my first fascist/rebel/Nationalist/Franco-ist units.

First up we have a Bandera of Spanish Foreign Legion. Again all Peter Pig figures. I'm quite pleased with the overall look of them. The flag is a fictional concoction as my sources are a bit weak in this area.

They are ably supported by a Gruppo of 75mm Schneiders (I think). I have another model to make up, but I just made two for the moment as that meant I only needed one packet of crew figures. The crew are painted in SFL colours.

Finally here's a shot of a Tabor of Moroccan infantry. As you can see they're a bit smaller than the Bandera. In the scale I'm painting up I'm doing two bases to a company. According to Bob Cordery's "La Ultima Cruzada" the Tabors only had a platoon of MGs, so they rate only one base.

I've got enough now to try out a brief game. I'm going to use Bob's "Restless Republicans" which has units about half the size of the one's I've painted up. That means I'll get twice as many manoeuvre units which suits me whilst I'm building the armies.

First test is Monday evening. I know it's Valentine's Day but Mrs Trebian and I have agreed that's just a load of commercial hype.

At least that's what I think we agreed.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Sense of Time and Place

I see from the Independent today that the cross from the Hougoumont Chapel has been stolen. You know, the one that survived the fire when the Chateau was being defended during the Battle of Waterloo. Here's the URL for the article:

Read the report to get the full story but briefly in order to steal it the thieves had to remove stonework, take out the door bolt and then replace it so no one would notice. Which no one has done for probably a couple of weeks. And the thing weighs 200kg.

So, not nicked by a couple of Boozed-up Belgian Boys for a bit of a laugh. Clearly stolen to order for a “collector” with a Waterloo obsession. Or so the paper thinks, although it probably isn’t rocket science to work that out. Interpol are on the case.

Part of me thinks that we shouldn’t invest too much in physical objects when thinking about battles. Battles are about the men who are there, although as wargamers we obsess over hardware and uniforms. After the men it's about the ground and the buildings, so if someone burned down what’s left of Hougoumont that has more impact on our understanding than the theft of the cross.

However these things are invested with a resonance that goes with time and place. It is clearly better to leave the cross on the battlefield than move it to the National Museum of Belgium but the consequence of that is that the security will be lower. The act of theft isn’t just an act of illegality its an act of supreme selfishness. By placing it in a private collection it denies the rest of us from feeling the link to the past. When you stand and look at an object like this I find it hard not to think that many of those who defended this building stood and looked and maybe prayed for deliverance. It is a tangible link to past events and people.

So, whoever you are I hope you get a conscience and return it. Either that or Mr InterPlod turns up on your doorstep and retrieves it with extreme prejudice. Or if we get really lucky it’ll fall off the wall and bash your brains in. Or something equally karmic.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Off to Spain

As I’m nearly done on the Society of Ancients game I’ve been able to pay a bit more attention to my Spanish Civil War project.

I’ve been working my way through Robert Colodny’s book “Struggle for Madrid” which I referred to in an earlier post. This is turning out to be quite interesting. It dates from the late 1950’s and is a work-up from Colodny’s doctoral thesis. As such it is very heavily footnoted. Possibly about 40% of the book is footnotes as some of these contain hefty chunks of quotations from source materials. Pretty much all of this is valuable stuff, so you have to read the notes as well.

Colodny is an interesting character. He was wounded whilst serving with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion during the Spanish Civil War, and was also investigated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee (have I got that right? – I’m mean MaCarthy’s lot). He denied being a communist all of his life and seems to have survived the experience.

The book is both passionate and raw and Colodny clearly has an internal agenda. Franco’s forces are “rebels” or “fascists*” and whilst he is heavily critical of the Republic as well (especially Caballero) it is clear who he thinks are the good guys.

From a wargamer’s point of view it has some really good day by day analysis of the attack on Madrid together with excellent orbats, especially for the rebels. All in all I’m rather glad I picked it up.

I also managed to sort out my next load of painting the weekend before last. I’ve taken the Falange Peter Pig black box and turned the figures into Army of Africa Spanish Foreign Legionnaires. The first Bandera is painted and based and is looking quite natty. I’ve got the piping on the hats and I’ve painted up a few with rank insignia, - Cabo & Private 1st Class. Can’t work out how many PFCs the Spaniards had in this period as a proportion of the army. I’ve done enough so there’ll be noticed because the one thing you can always say about a fascist army is they do like their insignia. I’ve struggled to get the right shade of green however. Using Trebian’s golden rules of quick painting I try never to mix paint for basic uniform colours and only buy from my local hobby shop. I spent 15 minutes or more looking at paint colours on Saturday before finally settling on Tamiya’s Nato green, which is probably a shade too dark but it’ll do.

I’ve also cleaned up and readied for painting a couple of guns to go with the Legion. These are two guns from Irregular’s “Really Useful Gun” range. This pair are RUG 1c, which is a sort of 77mm Schneider field gun.

These are the first RUGs I’ve used. They are a bit odd being neither one scale nor another and being close but not exact to their historical prototype. However I’m quite pleased with the look and I think they’ll fit in just fine. Just to be sure I trimmed the gun shields to give them a lower profile. The Peter Pig gun crew are nice, although they suffer as there’s three poses in an eight figure packet. As I want four man crews it usually means duplicating a pose on the gun base. Luckily I had some spare odd figures from the HMG packets so I’ve mixed them in.

So, three blogs in three days. What’s the secret?

I’m blogging in my lunch hour….

*Having read a few books now I'm not convinced Franco was a fascist as we understand it. I mean he was an unpleasant individual but he's got more in common with Catholic absolute monarchs or military dictators. He hasn't actually got a political philosophy other than he's the strong man and he wants to be in power in as traditional environment as possible. Both Hitler & Mussolini were radicals in their own right. Just a thought. I'll probably continue to call them Fascists, but that's because that's what the Republicans called them.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Sepoy Memories

A friend of mine drew a blog entry to my attention recently. He’d notice someone was writing about Indian Mutiny* wargames and said he was using the “delightful” Sepoy rules.

I have a lot of affection for these rules. They’re based upon Pete Berry’s excellent and ground breaking “File Leader”. They were the first rules I ever read and played with that filled the gap between skirmish wargaming and full on battles. They’re ideal for games with say 600 – 1200 men aside in a formal era where battalion structure and proper command and control is important.

I have been interested in the Indian Mutiny for quite a few years. I read all of the Flashman books, but was most taken by Flashman in the Great Game, which I read just before I went to university. I broadened out my reading and became particularly interested in the campaign lead by Sir Henry Havelock to relieve Lucknow. I was struck by a number of things,, particularly the small size of the armies involved.

I bought and painted Mutiny armies for both sides, using the Minifig 25mm range on a scale of 1:50, then went off and to find some rules. None of the rules then available would work, - they simply required armies that were too bog in order to make them work. I had a few goes of my own and ran a session on wargaming the Mutiny at a WD conference in the early 80s where I had a serious disagreement with Phil Barker over the effective range and relative importance of the Enfield Rifle.

Out of those discussions I started to develop a role playing style game with system controlled natives and then discovered that Howard Whitehouse had got there first with the Mahdist Wars and “Science vs Pluck”. I did a quick adaptation based on them which seemed to work, but in many ways the game wasn’t very satisfactory. By this stage I’d decided to increase my figure collection and now could field Havelock’s forces at 1:20 ratio or similar. I also commenced on constructing a lot of Mutiny period buildings including a scale model of the Lucknow Residency. I used these to run a participation game for WD called “Siege of Delhi” which did a few shows, notably Sheffield Triples.

And then in 1988 Pete published “File Leader”. I got to know Pete whilst at University and we collaborated on his first set of ECW rules, “Forlorn Hope”. Pete was excited (as much as a Yorkshire man ever gets excited) about FL, and when I played them I could see why. It didn’t take long to realise they were the perfect platform for Havelock’s campaign to relive Lucknow. We exchanged a bit of correspondence and I agreed that I’d write an adaptation for the Mutiny, and that they'd be published by Partisan Press.

The working title was Havelock. The development was done with my then regular Friday night opponents, deep in someone’s basement. My recollection is that it didn’t take that long to get the game system right although we all hated the melee system but I didn’t feel that I could change such a core part of the rules. If I was doing it now, I probably would.

I had strong views on the poor production quality of a lot of rule sets at that time. I didn’t want glossy pictures, but I did want the rules to be clear and well laid out, using a readable font in a proper size and written in a form of the English language we can all understand. So I was meticulous in working through the layout with page numbers and headings and so on. The illustrations were provided by a wargaming friend ("Dormouse") who is still one of the Monday Night Group. We sat for an evening combing through the text and reference materials to try and find anything we could hang a joke off. I remember how difficult it was to squeeze that one off evening in. I had a very young family at the time and a (fairly) new job. The Dormouse was setting up his own business and there was no internet to help us discuss what we wanted to do.

I submitted the rules to Dave Ryan complete with an elegant, stylised cover. He contacted me as he didn't like the name on the grounds that Havelock was a type of hat. I explained that anyone who knew the period wouldn't be confused, but he was insistent. I tentatively suggested Sepoy, which Dave accepted. So I went off to my PC to do a careful search & replace. Took quite a few evenings over it, only to discover that Dave had gone to press anyway with a cover of his own design. He'd Tippexed out the page headings and but blithely ignored the introduction and other places that referred to "Havelock".

It has been remarked that the game isn't awfully well balanced. I'd accept that, but I reckon its a good game and a good simulation. The Brits have to be bold and well handled, and it is easy to create a scenario where they can overreach themselves.

We don't play them anymore and I'm fairly sure they were never a big seller. It's been over 15 years since publication and the original print run has never sold out. I got a small amount of royalties-in-kind at first, but then nothing. We had a lot of fun developing them and in the games we played with them shortly after publication. However I've moved on to other projects and there's always other games to play and write up. I'm afraid I tend to work on a period, get the rules how I want them then move on. It is almost like I've solved the problem and so it no longer interests me.

Nowadays such variants are probably more likely to appear on the internet in a handy downloadable pdf.

So that's what I remember of it all. Perhaps I'll get the figures out and we'll have another go this summer.

* I know that it is becoming fashionable to refer to it as a "rebellion" or a "revolt" or "nationalist uprising" but the way I see it the conflict broke out amongst soldiers who rose up and murdered their officers. Whatever their motivation, that's a mutiny however you look at it.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Kadesh Katchup

I've been away from the blogfront for over a week since the last posting which was made from a train on the way to London. Since then I've hardly been in the office and away from home for a few nights. My spare time has been spent on the SoA game which, hopefully, is now complete except for the last set of playing pieces.

Anyway, last Thursday I managed to make a meeting of the Monday Night Group. We're working on doing the Battle of Kadesh using Armati in preparation for the SoA Battle Day this year (for those of you not familiar with this event it involves the same battle being refought using as many different rules sets as possible. The battles are then written up for Slingshot).

Well I say we're working on it. What I mean is that one of our number is going to do the game and the rest of us are doing our best to make sure he gets it right. As you might expect for a group called the Monday Night Group that meets on a Thursday this week the person putting the game on couldn't make it, so the rest of us (well, me, Phil & Ian) just carried on anyway. After all we had Ian's 6mm Egyptians and Hittites, Phil's adaptations the last time he did Kadesh with Armati and me, who is never short of an opinion. Plus Ian knows as much about the sources for Kadesh as anyone and is currently writing them up for Slingshot.

I always learn a lot from these sessions. Ian is very knowledgeable and he's quick with the support or challenge to any hypothesis we might make. And he draws nice maps. I just wish he'd make up his mind how to spell the name of the battle. Okay, I know we are transliterating hieroglyphs and so on, but the spelling is variously Kadesh, Qadesh, Qidsu and Qids (together with various diphthongs and other clues to pronunciation). I was looking at one map for ages trying to work out where Kadesh was without realising the spelling had changed.

Quite a few years ago I did Kadesh as a matrix game so I was well up to speed with the armies and the various interpretations of them and the battle. At that time Armati II was being republished and I remember having long arguments over the Egyptian and Hittite army lists and the relative troop types. I looked back at the final lists recently to remind myself how badly I lost the battle.

The primary difference between the two armies (to quote Molesworth) "as ane fule kno" is that Egyptians used light skirmishing chariots whilst the Hittites had three man medium chariots that were used as a physical shock weapon. Alas whilst that makes a nice differentiation between the armies for wargaming purposes it isn't really that black and white. The other thing that "ane fule kno" is that Ramasses won. Except if he did win, why did he retreat to the south and cede Kadesh and the surrounding area to the Hittite king?

The three man chariots come from Egyptian accounts of the battle and are depicted in various wall reliefs. But of course just because a chariot has three men in it doesn't make it a chariot from which three men fight. We know that Hittites practiced archery from moving chariots and also used chariot runners. It isn't an enormous leap to suggest that standard chariots were carrying a runner to enable a fast attack on Ramasses' camp. (yes i know the Egyptian wall reliefs show what look like carts with three people in them and a middle axle, but that can be explained).

Anyhow, I digress. On Thursday we worked through the mechanisms you'd need to deal with the opening phase of the battle, where the Hittite chariots ambush the Ra division crossing the ford. We came up with a few changes to the core Armati mechanisms that enable us to still see that Armati is being played, without throwing the whole battle completely open. One of the key issues is the timing of the attack and the Armati army initiative roll. We think by giving the Egyptians a minus on the intiative roll whilst in march column and only allowing them to react if they win the roll or are actually attacked we have a good solution. That leaves us with the Hittite player having to decide how many moves he's going to give the Egyptian Army to cross the ford, - ideally he wants it all over so he can destroy it all. However the longer he leaves it the more chance that he'll be spotted. Also, if he launches an archery volley from his chariots before he charges in the Egyptians will know he's there and be able to turn to flank.

Yes, shaping up nicely.