Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Last Trial of the Chinese

I had a final playtest of the Chinese rules, pre CoW last night (Tuesday). I was rewarded by having three players, Will, Ian & Phil. Will took the Chinese and Ian & Phil the British.

The game is pretty much in its final form both in look and rules. I have a few more units to finish off sitting on my desk, but they are not essential to having a good game. I have a bit more work I can do on the terrain, but it'll do if I run out of time.

The scenario is the same. The British are trying to force a passage into a fortified town, defeating the covering Chinese force on the way. I have added a few field defences to make the challenge a bit harder, - although these are actually a bit bigger than their historical predecessors, as in scale they are 500 yards by 250, compared to the normal c200 yards by 100. I've also dragged out my paddy fields which I built for the Vietnam project I never did.

The Chinese position was protected on their right by paddy fields, and the open left flank was strongly covered by their mongol cavalry. Otherwise their infantry were bolstering a position that relied heavily on the three fortifications that offered each other, in theory, interlocking fields of fire.

The British went for a broad approach, covering their right with cavalry and pushing their way through the paddy fields in open order, to keep their speed of advance up. The playtest gave me a lot of good feedback on how skirmishers should work in this version of the game. I was also trying out a slimmed down firing and melee combat system. I have now got this all working off the one core mechanism, I think. There are some slight design issues to deal with (eg how to allow for the effect of minor tactical advantages) but I'm pleased with how it works.

The British advanced in the middle was pretty relentless, so the Chinese paid more attention to the mongol cavalry flank. Plus we had those pesky "tigermen" on the board. Wearing onsies and waving swords and shields no one really knows what to do with them. When I told the players they were trained to jump up and down and frighten cavalry they thought I was having a laugh.

Any how, taking the hint Will wheeled them off to his left to disrupt the cavalry advance through the new pagoda complex.

He also covered the flank by moving a couple of infantry units across. In truth the photo record of the game isn't brilliant as I got so involved in what was going on I forgot to use the camera. BTW I think the pagoda has painted up well. This colour scheme is based on buildings we saw in Suzhou, near Shanghai.

In the middle Will tried to exploit his cavalry advantage by charging Phil's Sikhs. However they reacted  perfectly, falling back and preparing to drive the Manchus off with rifle fire. Alas for this attack Will only had one unit as one of his Manchu cavalry units had already retired from the field having suffered from Phil's massed artillery.

Will then used his other Manchu cavalry to stall the attack on the central redoubt.

Phil's infantry passed their reaction roll and formed square. In this picture you can clearly see the mah-jong tiles being used as unit status markers. The rear rank of cavalry are looking a bit ragged already. Alas this attack also masked the Chinese guns in the redoubt.

This general shot shows how things were going on the far flank, if you look hard enough. The tigermen have launched an attack on the horse artillery (an interesting conundrum for me during the game), and the cavalry melee is in full swing. The King's Dragoon Guards are driving back their opponents (they're just the otherside of the far redoubt with a playing card behind them. Fane's horse have routed one unit of mongols but are hard pressed by the remaining cavalry over that side of the table. Probyn's horse (aka the Bengal Lancers) have occupied the pagoda then seemed to have no further plan.

Phil's infantry brigade pressed on. The Sikhs have now formed a firing line, as has the Royal Regiment and are giving the Manchu cavalry what for. The square has held and Manchu & Chinese units are starting to stream to the rear.

Things were not all bad for the Chinese, however, as the 15th Punjabis baulked at storming the redoubt and decided to reform on the start line (it looks better in the regimental history than "broke & fled to the rear"). They had been on the receiving end of some concentrated fire from some well handled Chinese guns.

Meanwhile over at the White Pagoda the Bengal lancers were facing off against the tigermen and resolutely refusing to charge them. Behind them the Mongols were chalking up a notable victory as they final drove back and broke Fane's horse by sheer weight of numbers, losing two regiments in the process.

It was a close run thing, the white mah jong tile showing that the mongols had started to waver.

This is the final shot of the table. Half of the Chinese army is now in rout, so the game is over. It ranks as a draw, however, as the British forces have lost a couple of units. Fortunately for them they are only Indian Army units. If they'd been British, I'd have rated this as a Chinese victory.

I took a fair number of notes and had a few good suggestions from the players. So, a quick update to rules and playsheets and we're ready for CoW.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

A Successor-ful Evening

As a rarity the Monday Night Group met on Monday Night this week. Following a request last week I set up a game using Neil Thomas' "Ancient & Medieval Wargaming" rules, a perennial favourite that we haven't used for a while as a group. Plus the requirement was to use some of my 20mm plastics.

Flicking through the pages of the book I realised that as I have a very large Alexandrian Macedonian army I can make up a couple of Successor Armies, if I plunder my Greek, Thracian, Persian and Carthaginian boxes to plug the holes. I quickly discovered I've got light archers in simple tunics in quite a few of my boxes. So, Antigonids & Seleucids it was. I increased the army size from 8 to 12 units and added light levy cavalry to the Seleucid list, but otherwise no changes to the base system.

My first surprise for the players, however, was my first attempt at an old-school style deployment screen.

This has been improvised using some old speaker cable tied to the rafters, one of my board-cloths and a few clothes pegs.

I have to report that Phil's not a fan, on the grounds that he doesn't like deploying without being able to look at the terrain. This is a fair point, although in this case the table was flat and open, - as most battlefields in this period were.

Ian took the Antigonids. His forces were:
  • 4 units of Phalangites
  • 2 units of Companions
  • 2 units of peltasts
  • 2 units of Cretan archers
  • 2 Elephants

Phil got the Seleucids:

  • 4 units of Phalangites
  • 2 units of Companions
  • 2 units of Asiatic levies with bows
  • 1 units of Asiatic light cavalry with javelins (these aren't in the original list)
  • 3 Elephants
 The Seleucid Companions are more heavily armoured than their Antigonid opponents. When the curtain was pulled back we had the following:

Ian had gone for the cooler looking set up, with his elephants interspersed with his phalanxes.

Phil meanwhile had put his elephants out on one of the flanks to disrupt Ian's cavalry and give him a flank victory, whilst managing the other side with massed cavalry. I had failed to appreciate this was what Phil was doing, so I didn't take close up pictures. I did photograph his massed cavalry, however.

And his third elephant in the middle of his line.

The two lines closed together slowly, with the initial action developing out on the wings

Here you can see that Ian's Companions are under threat from the elephants, some light horse and levy bowmen. In the end it was the levy bowmen that did for the cavalry, whilst Phil shepherded them about with the elephant(s).

Here you can see that Ian (on the left) is thinking long and hard about how to keep his Companions out of the way of both elephants and bowmen. He's now about faced and trying to get out of the way. Phil, on the other hand, is worried about his centre and has about faced one of his cavalry units to gallop round his rear to shore up his right centre where he thinks Ian is going to get a breakthrough. I think.

However, Ian's attempts to "get out of the way" were tying him into even greater knots, as you can see below:

In the distance indecision over how to deal with the elephant is allowing Phil's archers to shoot lumps off one unit of Companions. The other, meanwhile, is exposed to a rear attack by light cavalry.

Eventually Ian got a unit of bowmen into the action, which softened up one of the elephants a bit and gave his cavalry a breathing space. Alas the elephant also managed to contact said light infantry...but this did enable Ian to attack the elephant in the flank with his cavalry.

Alas this went spectacularly wrong, as Phil then stuck his light horse into the flank of the cavalry. The following photo is posed, as it shows units routing, but you get the idea.

Although the elephant did die too.

Focus now turned to the centre, where Ian was closing rapidly on the Seleucid centre infantry with his elephants. Phil realised he need to bolster the middle a bit, and sent the remaining elephant from his right flank along as reinforcements.

Phil was right that he'd need help. Here's the elephants contacting his centre:

And this is what was left after one round of combat and a few failed moral rolls:

Elephants can be very nasty. In fairness on the "unit destroyed" count Phil was well ahead at this stage, but he hates to lose any unit at all.

In Phil's turn he charged his elephant into one of Ian's phalanxes and left his to their fate. Luckily for him they held on this turn, although things weren't looking good for the survivors.

After this, Ian broke the two phalanxes, and Phil roughed up one as well. The battle started to do one of those "revolving door" things and I lost track of who was doing what to whom. A real problem when both sides have the same type of units, and you've left it a few days before you start sorting the photos.

Phil was taking pictures as well, so maybe he'll throw some light on what happened next.

Basically, he lost his centre, but destroyed everything else in Ian's army, and ran out winner by a margin of 5 or so units.

A really fun game that played well in 2 1/2 to 3 hours. There are a lot of figures on the table, and they started a fair distance apart for armies where most of the infantry moves at 8cm a turn, so a good speed of play was achieved.

Phil certainly out thought and out played Ian in this one. However, I think I would take the extra elephant and light cavalry over two units of peltasts most days of the week.

The game has rekindled my interest in plastic figures and the Neil Thomas rules. I love them for their simplicity and ability to get a decisive result in a good game length (DBA can be a bit short, sometimes).

So I think I'll revisit the Hat catalogue again. I like the look of those Alexander period Indians, and possibly those Sumerians. The Assyrians look interesting too....

Sunday, 16 June 2013

It's a Wall, and it's Great

“On your right is the Trans-Siberian railway. Take that and you can be in Moscow in 7 days”. It is strange sometimes how the most mundane looking of things can have such romantic and exciting connotations. I mean I used to travel on the train every day to work and the Trans-Siberian railway doesn’t look any more interesting that the Northampton-Euston train main line.

We are on the last but one day of our trip to China. Today is “Great Wall Day”. We’re just heading out of Beijing towards the large section of restored wall at Badaling. We are assured that even though the section we’re going to see was extensively restored in the 1950s some of the original bricks were used, so it is practically the same thing.

As befits something you can supposedly see from the moon you get sight of the wall from quite a long way out. This isn’t so much because of its size – of which more later – but because of where it is. The Great Wall is built, as far as it can be, on the top of hills and mountains. Consequently it starts out with an inherent advantage for Things You Can See From A Long Way Off.

The other reason it is so visible is simple colour contrast. The wall varies between a sort of light brown and grey. The mountains are largely covered in vegetation, so it marks out a huge man-made scar carved across the countryside.

Gregory, our irrepressible local guide, is typically enthusiastic about what we are to see, and I learn some things I didn’t know. Actually, apart from seeing the odd documentary on it, the Great Wall has never featured highly on my list of things to be interested in. it’s sort of something you’re aware of and you know it is important.

The concept of the Great Wall as a “Great Wall” is over 2,000 years old. It all goes back to Emperor Chin, the Terracotta Army man. Prior to that there were seven little walls, all built by separate kingdoms to protect their northern borders. Chin’s instructions were to link them all together and then extend them. Throughout its history it has been modernised and rebuilt, probably principally by the Ming dynasty, but the basic concept stays the same. It’s a big wall with watchtowers every 500 metres or so stuck on the top of the dominant ground until it winds to its eventual conclusion in the middle of the Gobi desert.

The road heads out to the site, and the Wall, or elements of it, are always in your eye-line. When you get to the site you can’t drive right up to it. There’s a walk up a broad boulevard, past souvenir shops, cafes & restaurants as you head towards the main gate. The design isa such that you approach it effectively from outside so you can be impressed by it.

It has all been done in good taste, - the goods in the shops may be tacky but the entrance area is clean, well designed and well laid out. You are warned to use “the facilities” as there isn’t a lot of plumbing on the wall itself. 

Up at the wall itself you can head either left or right to walk along it. There’s some dispute as to which is the more difficult walk and which has the best views. We head West. East may have been better, but we’re not disappointed by our choice. 

The first thing you note as you walk is that it isn’t flat. If you’ve walked city walls in England (or even in China) you’ll have noted the engineers attempts to keep the walls level. Not here. The entire aim is to build to a certain level on the commanding heights. If the mountain shoots up nearly vertical, then the wall likewise goes nearly vertical. There are steps, it is true, but you need the handrail. The steps are in good repair, but they do not all have the same riser height nor depth.

Of course fit young people like me and Mrs T are bounding up and down the steps like gazelles, but not everyone is in the first flush of youth. This isn’t a walk you do in a hurry.

The view from the top is stunning. You constantly stop just to look. The Wall is worth seeing in itself, but it also gives you access to look at countryside you otherwise probably couldn’t see. It’s like an enormous public footpath through an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The Wall as a military obstacle has, to me, a number of question marks hanging over it. They’ll tell you that it was built to keep out both the Mongols and the Manchus. Both of these peoples did succeed in crossing the wall in some way and overthrowing the ruling Dynasty, setting themselves up as rulers of China. Thus the Wall can be seen as only ever delaying the inevitable, - of course if it delays the inevitable for 300 years then that’s probably a success.

If the Wall has been reconstructed in accordance with the original design then it actually isn’t that big. Again, compared to castle and city walls in the West it didn’t strike me as awfully tall. And it doesn’t have a moat in front of it. So my view would be that it is fairly easy to cross it with a few storming ladders. Especially as the guard towers are 250 yards apart. What it does prevent, I suppose, is the lightening raid by mounted troops. So that might be what they were trying to achieve.

The other thing that did occur to me was that it probably didn’t look a lot like this when it was actively used. Trees and foliage are allowed to grow up really close to the Wall. I would guess, seeing as this would give cover to attacking troops, that it must have been cleared back from the Wall for distance of at least 125 yards (or what the Chinese considered to be bow range). In conclusion I think it is basically saying "Oy! You barbarians. Look what we can build. You might as well b*gg*r off and attack someone else"

My final, final thought is this. The Wall is an iconic location. It is instantly recognisable to a large number of people who live on the planet. Like Red Square or the Pyramids, it's one of those places you can say you've been to and people are instantly, genuinely, interested in.

And we've been there.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Panda-ing to my public

So this a completely non-wargaming related post. However, everybody loves Giant Pandas, don't they?

We took a four hour drive to a place called Chengdu, which is the world's largest panda sanctuary. It was worth it.

The site, like the Trerracotta Warriors site, was well designed,- modern and thoughtful. Clearly heavily influenced by US theme park design, but in a good way.

This is the entrance. You have to agree that it looks different. There's a large video screen embedded in the front. This plays Kung Fu Panda on a continuous loop, as far as I could tell. There were display boards and homilies to our need to care for animals throughout the site. This one caught my eye:

What happened to the fourth line, I wonder?

Before I post any pictures of the adorable creatures, I would like to make the following observations that I gleaned as we went around*. They have forced me to conclude that the Giant Panda is one of the most stupid animals in the world.

  1. It is a carnivore that prefers to eat bamboo. In spite of eating bamboo for a long time the species has not adapted to being a vegetarian and will still eat rodents and other meat if it can't get bamboo.
  2. It only digests 20% of the bamboo it eats. The vast majority of it passes straight through the panda's body**. Consequently it has to spend the entire day, pretty much, eating a food that is almost, but not completely, unsuitable for it and indigestible.
  3. Its preferred diet is prone to die out even without human intervention. It is inedible once it has flowered.
  4. It prefers to be solitary, and has a very low desire to mate (hardly surprising as that might interfere with it eating bamboo).
  5. It is nearly impossible to tell if a female panda is pregnant. It probably doesn't know itself.
  6. Gestation can vary from 10 months to 3 years. They probably forget they're even pregnant.
  7. They are completely rubbish parents. The mother gives birth alone and the preferred method of child care is to knock the cub around with the back of its paw to encourage it to move, or to sit on it.
  8. They die of heat exhaustion if the temperature rises above 27 degrees, yet they choose to live in a hot and humid environment.
It is therefore my conclusion that if Giant Pandas did not look so damn cute to humans they would have been allowed to die out. Their popularity is entirely linked to the fact that they look more like a stuffed toy than any stuffed toy does.

Any how, some pictures:

*This is written from memory. Some of these facts could be wrong.
** The Chinese make top quality paper from what the pandas do not digest.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

China Refresh

Having got back from holiday I checked what was happening at CoW, which is in less than a month's time.

It appears that I'm offering a session with my 19th Century Chinese rules. I felt like I needed a refresher, so I set up a simple game last Thursday evening.

I went for a fairly open terrain, with two British infantry brigades supported by cavalry attacking all the Chinese I had finished painting. I'm afraid that some bits and pieces still had to come from my Sudan collection as not everything is done yet.

I was obviously more interested in the new building than the figures when I took this picture, as I've missed the Manchu cavalry out completely who are closest to the camera. The cavalry in the distance are Mongols.

Alas by the time I got the camera out to photograph one of the Manchu units had routed and was streaming to the rear.

The other cavalry units are cleverly working their way round the flanks to make use of their numbers.

Here's a picture of the mah jong tiles being used as unit markers. This is a "4" in Chinese numerals. I think they look quite neat.

A general view from the middle of the Chinese position and their massed artillery. The guns are masked by the tigermen, but it doesn't matter. They couldn't hit anything anyway.

The Mongol cavalry charges the 1st Dragoon Guards. This didn't end well for the Mongols.

The middle of the Chinese army has collapsed following some well aimed barrages from the combined British artillery. This is entirely realistic.

Not a very clear description of the game. Here are a few more of my pictures just to round the post off.

A better picture of the Chinese artillery and their infantry support.

I'm using playing cards for status markers for the Europeans. Nice cultural touch, I thought.

The Royal Scots close in the Chinese main battle line.

The game was an important refresher on my ideas on the period, and I took a lot of notes. The rules are half way through a re-write. Most of the design decisions are holding up, so it is just a case of calibrating exactly what the ranges should be and what you need to roll to hit. I need to lok more closely at command and unit activation, however.

Very pleased with the progress so far.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Some Chinese Goodies

It is a sad refelction on the state of the West that most of what we buy these days comes from China. Having seen the amount of industry the Chinese have built (and are building), the environmental pain they are prepared to suffer and finally the extent they are prepared to allow the exploitation of workers in the People's Republic it is no surprise. We cannot compete unless we are prepared to push ourselves back into the Victorian era.

Having a Chinese project on the go I was on the look out for anything suitable that I could bring back to augment the look of it all that the Chinese hadn't got round to exporting to us already. Or at least get things cheaply with the added veneer of authenticity that comes from actually buying things in China. The finding of items was a bit hit and miss and some of the best stuff I got on the very last day we were there. Somethings I saw on the first day so frequently that  thought it'd be easy to pick them up at anytime. Once we got away from Shanghai that proved not to be the case.

My real aim was to pick up some suitable buildings, particularly pagodas and aything with a curvy roof as they're a real pig to do. I even took along a couple of figures so I could judge the scale.

Exhibit "A" is therefore my pagodas.

I got three of them as you can see. They're resin and have got a bit chipped on  the way back, but they're okay otherwise. They're probably closer to 6mm/10mm scale if I was being hyper-critical, but once they're painted up and put on a slight hill they'll do fine. I had to bargain for them in a hurry and I think I paid about 100 Yuan, - just about £11 at the exchange rate at the time. I probably could have got the price down lower if I'd been prepared to walk on but it was raining and I had to head for the coach.

Next up was a mini-Mah Jong set.

As regular readers will know I've used dominoes and playing cards in games for quite a while as well as traditional dice. I've never really looked at Mah Jong, but I learned how to play it on the boat as we cruised up the Yangtse and thought that I could use the tiles as a more culturally appropriate unit or turn activation mechanism. I was resolved to buy a large set, then I saw these. They're about 1.5cm x 1cm each tile and I thought they'd do good service as unit status markers or something similar. Besides a full sized set is really heavy and we were up against luggage restrictions because of the internal flights we had to make. Again I was bargaining in the rain and in a hurry, so I paid more than I was intending as I did the conversion rate wrong in my head. I thought I was paying less than £5. I actually paid closer to £9. Curses. Proved to me how out of practice I was.The maths teacher on the trip (and my daughter who likewise teaches the purest of sciences) would have been ashamed of me.

Which brings me to the final day's haul at the souvenir shop near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

As we walked past it out of the corner of my eye I saw some wooden puzzles from the delightfully named "Human Again" Wooden Toys range. As part of this range they do historical buildings, and in the window they had the Tianamen Gate and a "Beijing Courtyard House". A quick check with the figures I had with me revealed they were pretty much 15mm scale. They're quite large models, and the courtyard building may well cut down into four or five (at least) small buildings.

So far I have only built the Tianamen Gate. This famously has a picture of chairman Mao on the front, but I've built it without:

This is a the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing, but it is in practice a pretty good proxy for the standard Ming period city gate. My only conundrum is whether I should repaint it. The two kits together I got for 110 Yuan, - about £12. I may have been able to get them cheaper, but compared with internet prices of equivalent items in the range that's a pretty good deal.

Then as I was walking out my eye caught some items to add to the Shedquarters hat shelf:

Yes, embroidered Mandarin hats, - WITH PIGTAILS. The lady said "genuine silk" (I think not) and there are two of them there which cost me 40 Yuan for the pair. Total bargain.

All of these items have been used in a game since I got back, so pictures of that to follow in due course.