Thursday, 30 July 2015

1264 and all that

I met Richard Brooks through WD. He writes good wargames rules for refighting historical battles (especially if you want to play solo) but he also writes military history books.

I've written in favour of his Big Book of British Battles before, which if you don't own it, you should. His most recent publication came out on 20th July.

It's in the Osprey Campaign series and it covers the Evesham and Lewes campaigns and the struggle between Henry III and Simon de Montfort.

It is quite possible that you don't know that the whole business kicked off in 1264 in Northampton (I do, because I'm a member of the Northampton Battlefields Society) when Henry III attacked the town.

Any how, in October last year Richard e-mailed me out of the blue and asked for help on the book. Knowing I was local he asked me to go down to the area where Henry's forces broke into the town and take some pictures. The town has changed a lot, - the Cluniac Monastery of St Andrews is no longer there, although it is remembered in the street names of St Andrews Road and Lower Priory Street. The building of the railway line and station in the 19th century played havoc with that area as well. However, comparing maps from the 17th century to the modern maps indicate that actually the point where they crossed the River Nene is mostly unchanged. The line of the Monastery walls is also still very well preserved in the street plan of the modern town*.

So I went down to the area with my trusty (now ex) DSLR and shot off a dozen pictures. One of them made it into the final book, - bottom right hand corner of page 25.

What also made it in was a reference to the commemorative plaque just up the road from where I took the picture, which I think Richard didn't know about.

If you have the book and are curious about the plaque, this is it:

What did I get for my afternoon's snapping? Well, apart from taking the chance to wander round a bit of the town I hadn't really looked at before, this week a copy of the book arrived in the post.

So, thank you Richard.

And to the rest of you, go and get a copy. It's a quality piece of work by a military history writer who is also a wargamer, so he tends to write about stuff wargamers want to know.

*Northampton town centre street plan is mostly unchanged from... well as far back as you can track it.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The People You Meet

I'm working in a sort of temporary office at the moment. I'm permanently based in a hot-desking area (yeah, I know) and there are other people working on different bits of the project co-located with us.

Yesterday the bloke sitting opposite me (who I have spoken too occasionally but we have not exchanged names, - we are British, after all) remarked that the word "schema" was derived from a Greek word used to describe a unit of Alexander's cavalry.

Now my ears perked up at that point. I queried the statement, and remarked that I was familiar with the term "agema" but not "schema" in that context. A short conversation followed. His claim to knowledge was based on doing classical history at university, - although he did the Peloponnesian Wars, not Alexander's campaigns.

I pushed back with the comment that I was going to claim an area of more recent expertise as I had box loads of painted plastic Macedonian cavalry figures because I'm a wargamer.

Turns out he hasn't, but he has got loads of other painted plastic figures, which he stores in a shed in his garden. Never gets round to playing with them, of course.

And he's an occasional reader of this blog. So, hi there Mark.

Now I have been accused from time to time of doing obscure periods. The recent Pacific War and previous Taiping Rebellion spring to mind, but I have nothing on this guy. After all you can buy figures for both periods and soon there'll be Ospreys on both of them too. Mark had to commission a bloke to make a range for him.

They're for the Sokoto Caliphate.

This was based in the area of Northern Nigeria at the back end of the 19th century. They thrived right up to the point when the British decided they shouldn't.

Well, when I say a "range" there's two figures, although they come with 7 head options, so that's quite a lot of variety you can get from them.

They're 20mm, and why he commissioned them from a German company I can't say.

It's not a range I'm going to buy into any time soon, I have to say. I mean, they're clearly going to get completely stuffed by Mr Tommy Atkins and his chums.

Besides, I've got loads of other stuff to paint first.

Anyhow, if it floats you particular boat, you can order the figures from here: Sokoto Caliphate figures.

You see, there are more of us about than you may think.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Early Birthday Present

Several years ago I inherited my son's Canon EOS 350D. It had a sticky shutter release and when he traded up I took it over and had it repaired. It has done me good service not only with my toy soldiers but also in my trips round the world with Mrs T.

Alas the shutter release has become sticky again, so I went into the local camera shop to have it looked at. Same problem, same price. Is it worth having it done every three years?

The shop (Skears Cameras up the Welly Road in Northampton) is a terrific little shop, doing its best to compete with the internet. Having premises slightly out of the town centre helps. Plus they're very helpful and they will price match and so on. And they sell second hand cameras.

Sitting in the window was a brand new looking camera body for a Canon EOS 550D for about £200. This is the camera my son had traded up to. A quick check on my smart phone revealed it was out of production but still very well regarded. A quick text to Master T confirmed he was still in love with his camera, so I took the plunge. Well, birthday is only a couple of months away, and they gave me a trade in for my previous model as well.

When I got it home it was like it had never been used. The box was in perfect nick and all the accessories were in there, some still in their packets. It even had a spare battery. The strap had a slight, - very slight - discolouration - but that was all. The original receipt indicated it was 4 years old, but you'd never know.

And this model takes SD cards rather than flash memory, so much easier to upload photos.

Is it any good at taking pictures?

Bit early to say yet, but here are some pictures of some recently completed Chilean infantry:

This lot are a National Guard unit of the second campaign. They are distinguished by having  grey trousers. I've painted the kepis without the normal covers to give them a splash of colour.

The Cazadores del Desierto from the second campaign, who wore grey uniform jackets and white trousers.

Both units side by side.

The main problem with these pictures is the light, because they were taken on my painting desk, just using the flash. I'm also getting used to using an SLR with a decent sized LCD screen, rather than using the view finder. Not sure which is best.

More to follow, no doubt.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Conference of Wargamers - Sunday

Sunday was a bit of a mixed bag of things, as it always seems to be.

I started off as a German commander in Bob Cordery's running of Phil Sabin's "Kriegspiel 1914". This game was developed to be played to mark the Outbreak of the War at an event at Windsor Castle (that is the event was at Windsor Castle, not the Outbreak of the War). It was also subsequently played at Connections 2014.

It can be played face to face, but is best if played in different rooms with umpires running between them.

Bob explained the game to us and mentioned he had made a few amendments, - chiefly an additional hex with Calais on it. So, well briefed I went off with my fellow Germans to plan our attacks.

I was in a team with Rob C and Chris A, which struck me as a powerful grouping. However, the Allies were equally well provided for, and contrary to the recommended practice were allowed to be in the same room together and co-operate.

We went for a knock out blow towards Antwerp and a strong thrust towards Le Cateau. We completely refused our left and in fact hurried resources to the North as quickly as we could.

We hammered at this area for about half the game with little apparent success, much to our surprise (a subsequent check on the original rules indicated that Bob had altered them slightly to make it harder for the Germans. The French are ordinarily required to go on an all out assault straight forward but otherwise not move in turn 1, which would have enabled us to take Le Cateau on turn 2).

Having sucked the French reserves North we eventually punched a hole through the centre round Sedan.

We seemed poised to take Paris, but were thrown back in disarray. The French & their Allies can refresh more units in the latter half of the game, so if the Germans don't get forward early on they can't make progress later in the game. The play sequence also allows the Allies to attack first (why???) which worked to our disadvantage here. If we had moved first, our lead unit would have been one hex closer to Paris, with the rest of the Army streaming in behind it. BTW In the picture above "spent" armies are represented by the blocks being turned on their sides.

This turn was our high water mark.

At this point my smart phone "beeped" and I discovered that one of my team mates had posted a picture of our map positions on the WD Facebook page. He took it down quickly. This is his "How stupid am I " look.

As the game was so in the balance Bob ran an extra turn (ie we played 7, not 6 as intended by the designer) but no one made a significant breakthrough. In fact the German forces were badly spent and the extra turn could only lead to an Allied breakthrough if they got it right. Which they didn't. Probably didn't realised how worn out our armies were.

In the post game de-brief it was clear that we had come close, but in the end fell short of the historical German position. So a marginal Allied victory.

The game is simple and works very well. Playing a game in multiple rooms with umpires is always a joy if it is done well as it was on this occasion.

And I know it is sour grapes, but without those rule tweaks/omissions we'd have been in Paris before the leaves fell.

The second morning session was a discussion on the history of card decks and how different countries have different decks with different colours (not just red and black). This was lead by Ian Lowell, with the aim, I think, of encouraging people to use more culturally appropriate decks of cards in games when needed. A couple of ideas for uses of Spanish decks and also German Skat decks came to mind, - the latter for a WW1 game where the Allies get a "normal" deck, and the Germans a Skat deck.

Post lunch John Curry gave a short talk on Paddy's career and how wargaming had affected it. John is Paddy's wargaming literary executor, so to speak, as no academic institution wanted those papers. Paddy kept all his correspondence, stapled together with notations, apparently. This is a bit unnerving in a way, as there'll be letters from me, written when I was in my teens and early 20s somewhere in there.

One thing I did learn is that he came close to getting a teaching job at my old University, just before I went up. Can you imagine that? Being taught by Paddy, and then wargaming with him at the Uni wargames club!!! Oh well, it was not to be.

And then it was time for the AGM and good byes, until next year.

Only 12 months to go to CoW 2016. Better start working on my sessions.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Conference of Wargamers 2015 - Saturday Evening

Saturday Evening gave me the chance to play in a John Bassett committee game. These are usually jolly good, with lots of Machiavellian politics and cut and thrust.

This on was "East is East", a game about the sepoy rising in Singapore in 1915 (yeah, I didn't know anything about it either). John professed to being torn between two roles to give me, and I ended up with the Police Chief. I think the alternative was the Governor, but more of that later.

The game consists of a few maps and counters to look at and a load of personal briefings. We then all sit round the table and try to solve the problem with limited access to intelligence. Players receive info from JB as the umpire and can tell him what else they're going to do.

Reading between the lines of my briefing I could see that I had genuine concerns about subversive elements. What's more I was an ex-Highlander officer. An excellent opportunity for some role-playing.

It quickly became clear we needed more than just my 200 Sikh policemen to regain control. Men with guns were going to be required. However, the confusion and chaos enabled me to act upon all the dubious information I had been storing up during my career. Any one remotely subversive (those Ditch, - they sound GERMAN!) was arrested and put into the jails or held at the Cricket Ground in a concentration camp (well , it worked okay in the Boer War, except for the sanitation). With the jails not completely full I was in position to show how zealous I was by instructing the umpire to round up the usual suspects.

Alas I did misread my briefing and instruct the Special Branch to burn down the empty Turkish Consulate in an attempt to flush out more spies. My vigorous actions gained the support of the rest of the committee, except perhaps the Navy, when a few Marines got arrested.

Alas the Governor had lost control of the committee and the situation and lashed out in all directions, finally ordering my dismissal and handing over control to the military. I'm pleased to say that my loyal Sikhs backed me to the end and withdrew to their barracks, and in the eventual court of enquiry I was completely exonerated, backed by all my colleagues except the Governor.

We suppressed the mutiny, arrested all the local spies and restored order. Not a bad result.

All in all a lot of fun, if a little bit chaotic.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Conference of Wargamers 2015 - Saturday Afternoon (1)

I was dawdling over a leisurely lunch when I realised I hadn't set up my afternoon game yet and I hadn't devised a scenario either.

So I dashed off to the car and grabbed a crate of toys before lugging them over to the Beech Room.

The thing about the scenario is I'm never sure how many players I'm going to get. It depends on what else is on & who is doing what to a large extent as well as whether you have caught the conference's Zeitgeist.

I thought I might get four players, feared I might get two and idly wondered if there might be six. In the end I was at the maximum end of the spectrum, and was joined by Wayne, Stephen, Charlotte, Matthew, Nigel & Alan. Some of these players had been at my last run of this system back in 2013. (BTW I was otherwise distracted at the time, and never wrote that conference up so I have no record of what happened, although the players reminded me. Stephen especially bemoaned the lack of decent rifled artillery, such as the excellent Armstrongs)

What am I talking about? Sorry, - forgot to say. We're back in China for Taiping Era*, only this time no Europeans are in evidence. It's a straight fight between the Imps and the Long Hairs.

Okay. Scenario. I knew I needed to start the armies closer together than normal and also find something for 6 players to do.

So we have a strong Imp column marching on the edges of Taiping territory, keeping the locals in order. In addition they are going to camp in the region of the Enchanted Flower Pavilion so their General can renew his acquaintance with Lotus Blossom of the Moon.

So, yes, first proper outing of the infamous Chinese Puzzle building that has featured on these pages before (on the right centre of the picture). Any how, the Pings know the Imps are on their way and have ordered their local forces to converge on them. On the road they have thrown up a quick entrenchment with a gun and some jingals in it. From the right their cavalry forces are closing quickly, on the left is a strong force of infantry.

The Pings were played by Charlotte, Nigel & Alan. The Imps were lead by Stephen (father/daughter confrontations always being good value) assisted by Wayne with the advance guard and Matt with the rear.

Opening shots from the artillery on the road disrupted the head of the column. Were the Imps down hearted? Well, his Excellency wasn't, secure as he was under his Yellow Banner in the middle of his army.

As the Pings rushed on the Imps started to form a type of Brigade column**, which provoked some pointing.

In the background the first of the major cavalry battles had started, with two units of Pings, taking on some elite Mongol horsemen.

The cavalry melee breaks the Mongols, but the Pings are badly roughed up. The Mah Jong tiles record their current EDNA level. That's a 1 & a 3 if you can't read the tiles. Elsewhere Nigel is manoeuvring his infantry to attack the head of the column whilst simultaneously avoiding the cavalry on the right of the picture. Charlotte has attacked with her two infantry yings with fair success. Matt has managed to deploy a gun and is taking pot shots at Nigel's infantry. In the middle left cavalry from both sides dance round each other, looking for an advantage.

The Imp "box" starts to fragment as it tries to face up to its various attacking foes. Elsewhere units are breaking and fleeing in various directions. About this time Wayne ducked out to play something else, as I was running a double session. Light weight.

On the left top there's a unit of Mongol cavalry breaking free, led by an Imp general of the Red Banner, looking like he's going to outflank the gun emplacement.

Nigel has broken the front of the column, and has enough troops to cover the rest of the cavalry, the Imp army is in tatters, so it's a complete win for the Pings, as they chase the remnants of the government forces back up the road from whence they came...except...

Yes, Stephen of the Yellow Banner blocks off the Pings with the remnants of his infantry, picks up a Qing cavalry guard and re-unites with his Mongols and arrives at the Pavilion with his Jade Stem in tact. Lucky old Lotus Blossom.

And all it cost him was an entire army.

Post game de-brief indicated I had happy players, and they all (except Wayne) came back voluntarily after tea break, despite being offered a way out.

It might be this is the end for this particular set of rules. It has done most of what I want to do with them in terms of development and the overall concept of the design has proved to be effective if a little bit eccentric at times.

Time to tidy up and get some dinner, after a sojourn on the terrace with a beer.

* The rules are available up top left, if you are interested.
** This formation probably has a Chinese name like "The Crab With Four Claws"

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Conference of Wargamers 2015 - Saturday Morning (2)

Following the smuggling game I had to chivvy Sue out sharp so I could set up for "Hurried Hydaspes".

After an initial slow sign-up (people waiting to see what else is on, I suspect) I was lucky enough to get a full house of four players (see, - "Full House" for a card game...oh, please your self)

In the far game we have John Salt on the left, and Ian Lowell on the right, ex of the MNG. Near the camera we have Colin Maby on the left and Rob Cooper on the right.

John admitted that ancients wasn't his thing and Rob remarked that he didn't really do figure games. Perfect mix of participants.

The rules were explained, mostly clearly, and then I let the players get on with it, having provided rules and a QRS to everyone.

There aren't a lot of pictures of the games being played as I was dodging backwards and forwards offering helpful tips. Both the games were close and both played out differently.

Top class pointing from Rob Cooper.

In the JS/IL game the main fight developed out on Ian's right, where Alexander was. Alex got himself caught between a couple of Indian units, and there was a constant stream of court cards cancelling each other out. Eventually Alex succumbed, and died. The subsequent army morale check saw his forces retire to Macedonia.

In the other match Rob went for the high intensity approach with the Indians, attacking vigorously where ever he could, and giving himself card deck management issues. Eventually he ran out of cards and his army broke, making it one win each to the Macedonians and Indians.

In the remaining half an hour Nigel & Nick (in the background) kicked off another game and got close to a result.

All the players seemed to enjoy themselves and claimed to like the system. I discussed a number of options for rule changes with them, with the consequence that I will add a rule change allowing the player who wins the initiative to advance their whole army one square before any cards are played, if desired.

With that it was time to tidy away and have some lunch.

Conference of Wargamers 2015 - Saturday Morning (1)

Awakening to a glorious Northamptonshire morning with sun streaming through the window what could be better than a day's wargaming?

First game of the day for me was Sue Lafflin-Barker's smuggling game "Gentlemen Go By". This has been back and forth to CoW over a number of years, but I'd never played it, so I signed up for the latest iteration. Its return this year included some minor changes we were told, but mostly I think it might have been because Sue has just published the rules for this and a couple of other games in a small book

The set up is attractive, with a pretty Kent village made of cardboard buildings where its citizens go about their daily business, turning a blind eye to the dark underbelly of their community.

The Dark Under Belly
 I got cast as the "Revenoo men", and three others turned up to play the more or less honest inn-keepers and smuggling band leaders. They have to make deliveries round the town of a mixture of legal and illicit goods. I have to catch them red-handed.

This is a stage coach built for Sue by Phil Steele. At this point in the narrative the picture is just gratuitous eye-candy.

The game commenced and I sent my brave boys off patrolling, looking for those subversive elements who were undermining our Nation's attempts to defeat the evil French.

I struck lucky early on. Sue was quite exasperated, and lectured the smugglers on the need to co-operate. It did sound at times like a much loved tutor telling you your essay wasn't quite up to the standard she would expect from one of her students.

I wanted to make an example of this particular smuggler, - I mean Letters for a SPY!!! - but my attempt either to have her shot and dumped in a ditch or hung up on a gibbet were over-ruled, and I was told I just had to drag her back to our base at the windmill.

Alas my team were surrounded by villagers and "Betty" was freed. I redoubled my efforts and searched everyone I could. I realised at this point that it would have been a good idea to have kept a list of who had been searched, as once they have been "cleared" the system doesn't allow for them to be re-supplied with illegal goods.

 A brief note here on the way the game works. It is driven by PiPs which you roll each turn to move both your own chaps and also any villagers you're next to. This has its usual frustrations as not enough PiPs means that you can't always do what looks like a sensible thing. Luckily the moves turn over quickly so it isn't that big a deal for your involvement if you roll a 1 for your PiPs. Alas a double 6 is useless, however, as that just brings the stage coach to town rather than let you move everything to everywhere.

I'm not convinced that this is the best way of dealing with command and control (!) in a skirmish game, but who am I to argue?

I did succeed in intercepting another parcel, and when the game had to finish I was dragging the miscreant away, and was driving back the local mob quite successfully, so a good outcome for me.

A fun way to start the day, and set me up to run my first session......

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Conference of Wargamers 2015 - Friday Evening

Is it that tine of the year again? Well, a week later than normal to avoid Silverstone, but yes, it is early July so it is off to Knuston Hall for the annual wargames event of the year, WD's CoW.

The weather is wonderful and old friends have arrived in force so an excellent weekend is in prospect.

The CoW programme, magnificent in all of its amendments

For the first time pretty much ever I missed the plenary game as I was catching up with some fellow attendees enjoying the evening sunshine. However soon it was time for my first game of the weekend, a historical based role playing game run by Tom Mouat, following the escapades of famous female flyer Jean Batten, who has gone missing in the Pacific Ocean.

We were a team of 8 in an ex-military Catalina, now re-purposed by ex-Navy buddies into a private airline. There were a crew of three, accompanied by Jean's very rich fiance, his bodyguard, a professional photographer and the Dunlops, a couple consisting of another famous female flyer and her husband. Never did work out what he was for. i was the most junior member of the team that owned the aircraft, and my specialist skill was painting the nose art on planes.

Well, some one has to do it.

We set off from Auckland New Zealand, and flew back along the flight path Jean would have followed,and chanced upon an Atoll with a landing strip, slightly off the beaten track. Seeing a village we took the old bird down and landed in the lagoon.

Luckily we'd remembered to pack a rubber dinghy, so we were able to send a shore a search party without risking the plane. We encountered the local natives, who were into a full-on cargo cult, complete with mock US Marine sections who did drill.Unable to establish if they'd seen Jean's plane land we took off again, and espied a runway, built on the atoll. An eagle eyed observer from the Catalina spotted fresh plane wheel ruts on the runway, so we landed and sent another party on shore for a look.

They shore party searched the surrounding jungle and found the wreck of Jean's plane, and also the distinctive footprints of those split-toed Japanese military's 1946, could there possibly by a section on the island who haven't heard about the end of the war?

Here's me and my kit. Dashing, aren't I?
 The shore team followed the tracks into the jungle, whilst keeping in contact by walkie-talkie. The team in the Catalina kept the engines turning over.

The shore party explored the abandoned airfield buildings and defenses that were clearly being used by the Japanese. In the process they nearly lost a team member to a booby trap and generally made a hash of things. Meanwhile......

Out in the lagoon a boat was being hastily paddled towards us full of Japanese soldiers, with the officer holding a gun to the lovely Jean's head. Clearly they were threatening to kill her if we didn't hand over the plane. There was only one thing for it, - put the plane up to full throttle and run them down.

The boat was destroyed and the party thrown into the water with the officer encountering one of the prop blades in bloody fashion. I hung out of the hatch with a rescue rope in intrepid fashion and we whisked the glamourous flyer up into the air.

All it took then was for us to reseue the rest of the party and we were off home, mission accomplished.Who would Jean fall for now, her loaded banker boyfriend or the heroic lantern jawed all-American guy who plucked her from shark infested waters?

My lips are sealed.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Blind Playtest

Sir Padraig of Norfolk agreed to try out "Hurried Hydaspes" with one of his local opponents. He was good enough to photograph the game nearly turn by turn and send me comments. This is how it went.

After we'd had to speak on the phone so I could explain a few things of course.

Sir Padraig was the Indians. Esquire Hoops the Macedonians.

Now I don't have captions for all of these pictures and I didn't see the game so this account is even more incoherent that usual.

This is a view of Alexander's wing. He's out there on the extreme left of the picture. The Indian left flank cavalry are being held back, out of shot at the bottom of the picture.  Sir P is being devious, surrendering the initiative to give himself a card advantage at the end of the game.

Lots of resources being thrown in on this flank to get a Macedonian breakthrough. Looks like a dead chariot to me on the right, although later pictures indicate this isn't the case. Wonder what happened?

Nothing much going on over on the other wing. Those light infantry are keeping that elephant in check.

That looks like a dead elephant in this picture as the light infantry get stuck in.

Right. That certainly should be a dead chariot, even with the elephant joining in. The Indian cavalry are certainly gone.

Macedonian cavalry sweeping along the battle line at the bottom. Can't work out who is doing what to who on the right hand edge.

I have a note that goes with this picture. It says "3 Indian Units gone, 1 Greek unit gone" (sic)

Those pikes have got it sorted against that elephant. Bonuses for two black cards, plus a support card from the rear rank.

This picture is the wrong way round, but I can't rotate it. The caption reads: "Archers killed two cavalry cards with archery. But 2 for 2 stand off no movement no deaths. " It refers to the two units on the left. The archers have held off the Macedonian cavalry with some steady shooting.

The end of the game, -

Alexander stayed out of action the whole game. Curious.

Final note from Sir Padraig:

"We ended early as I lost 7 units but missed the card turn. As you can see I had a very strong backhand (I have a picture of the remaining cards, but it's a bit dull for a blog). Alexander still not involved and Hoops pointed out that the next turn was definitely his last. 

I had been successful losing the initiative to burn his deck and holding back to force him to burn cards. 

We really enjoyed it. Thanks."

Looks like it was a close game, and it is good to get some positive feedback from people enjoying the game.

I have a few items to sort out and write up, but a reassuring playtest before CoW.