Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Friday, September 10, 2021

New Approaches

Knowing that there is no chance of my managing to paint up all of the armies in all of the eras I would like to, I have been exploring an alternative approach. While I have a decent collection of ancients armies, I have nothing for the horse and musket era, and little chance of having time or spare money in the near future to be able to remedy that.

So what is a person to do?

Well, I've decided to experiment with craft products and boardgames. 

I'm thinking of using wooden or cork sticks, circles and squares to represent various troop types, and either Battle Cry or Commands & Colors: Ancients boards and tiles for the battlefields.

To test whether the look would work I played the 1st Bull Run scenario from Battle Cry using these projected stand-ins.

Just for my own reference, here is the key to what each of the pieces represents.

I don't think it looked too bad, and it was easy enough to differentiate between the two sides. Obviously, for games which have more troop types and in which troop quality is represented, I will need to make some changes, but my initial reaction is that it seems worth pursuing. 

I have already picked up from Wargame Vault Sean Chick's first game in his Hollandspiele-published Horse and Musket series, and we'll see how it goes from there.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Midway by Messenger

Last week boardgamer Pat - my old mate in Japan - and I caught up for a game of the Avalon Hill classic, Midway. We played two sessions live over VASSAL, using messenger for the audio chat. We finished the game in about five hours all told.

It was most enjoyable. Not just for the game, but also to catch up with an old friend. Given I still feel like 1998 was only a couple of years ago, it had never really struck me that Pat and I have been gaming buddies for well over a decade now, but it's true.

For those who do not know Midway the game, it is a square-gridded board, hidden movement, 'battleships'-esque search mechanism, separate battleboard treat.

Pat and I had played this a few years ago with me as the Americans, so this time I took the Japanese. I was a bit of a nerd about it, and did some pre-planning. How was I going to go about the project of taking Midway and destroying the American carriers? I pondered.

All that pondering seemed it would count for nought though as Pat found my main force early on. It looked like it could be a long short game, but fortunately for me a bit of skullduggery threw Pat off the scent, and by several spots of luck, and an outlandishly good guess, next time we found each other I had superior numbers of aircraft to call on. With Enterprise and Hornet too far away to be of assistance, Yorktown was sent to the bottom. In the return strike Kaga was hit yet stayed afloat. Yorktown's surviving aviators, having nowhere left to land, were forced to ditch into the Pacific.   

Japan now massed its forces and pressed on towards Midway itself. Pat hit the invasion force's transports (symbolised on-table by the Akagi) hard, but not before we had got a strike in on Midway, destroying its planes on the ground. In the scramble thereafter, Pat attempted to ready his returning planes to finish off the transports and prevent a successful invasion, but we were able to find him first, and a raid of all the planes we had in the theatre fell upon Enterprise and Hornet, catching them with aircraft on the flight decks.

Despite the heroic efforts of the US sailors and airmen, both carriers were sunk, and the Japanese won the day.

American fleet spotted from Midway.

Final battle.

Hornet and Enterprise sunk!

The final result may have appeared decisive, but we had a lot of very good luck. It could have gone either way, and the game was tense throughout.

It was a lot of fun to play with Pat again, and we're going to give it another go soon. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Three Battles of Bosworth

Last Sunday was the Society of Ancients' battle day, and the battle they were doing was Bosworth. Although a week late, I thought it would do my own version of it on the kitchen table. The rules would be simple - I would use Table Battles by Tom Russell of Hollandspiele - and these rules, unlike the Society's, would use cards, dice, sticks and cubes.

Richard would start, having six dice to roll and assign. But first, a little explanation of the game.

As can be seen in the image above, Richard has three formations to consider. Norfolk and his own can fight right from the beginning, given the right dice. Rolls of 5 or 6 can be apportioned to Norfolk; rolls of 4 or 5 to Richard. Northumberland cannot be used at this point because he is in reserve. To bring him into the fight, Richard needs to accumulate a full house - three 4s and two 5s (or vice versa), which is quite a tall order when there are only six dice to use. 

For each attack that Norfolk or Richard make they will lose one of their formation sticks, and will remove as many formation sticks from the enemy as they use dice, so it is to their advantage to use as many as possible in each attack. Norfolk can also use a pair of 5s or 6s to screen enemy attacks (i.e., the attack fails with no loss to either side).

Henry's cards are similar. He has Oxford and himself in the front line, and the Stanleys in reserve. 3s and 4s activate Richmond; 5s and 6s Oxford. As with Northumberland, a full house of 3s and 4s will bring the Stanleys into the battle.

Oxford has eight formation sticks and Richmond two. Oxford will also lose one formation stick for each attack he makes and inflict as many hits as he uses dice. Richmond himself does not lose formation sticks when he attacks, but to launch an attack of his own he must have a pair of dice, and will only remove one formation stick from the enemy. To complete the puzzle, Oxford has a counterattack ability that allows him to use a pair of dice to remove an extra formation stick from any enemy that attacks him. 

Both sides start by stacking dice on a single formation card, as shown in the picture below.

Richard attacks first, removing three sticks from Oxford and losing two himself. He then concentrates on building up dice on his own formation again. Oxford also attacks with three dice, hitting Norfolk badly, and reducing him to one stick.

As shown above, both sides have three dice in play again, but this time it is Oxford to move. He attacks Norfolk, who is destroyed. Henry takes a morale cube off Richard. One more is needed for the victory.

The only way Richard can win now is to get four dice on his card to take out Oxford with one attack, and then turn his attention to Henry. Over several turns he saves up his dice, but can only manage three 4s. 

Oxford, with a pair, is able to play and remove Richard entirely at a cost of one formation loss to himself.

Northumberland has not entered the battle and Henry is the victor. Bosworth I to the kingslayer!

Bosworth II starts with a powerful attack by Norfolk doing three damage to Oxford for one to himself. Henry rolls poorly and is unable to populate his cards with dice. Richard has no such trouble.

With Richard to play in the sitaution above, he inflicts three more hits on Oxford. Henry is still struggling to get the dice in play.

Richard seizes the moment and attacks Oxford again. Both formations are removed at the same time, so no morale cubes are exchanged. It is now a contest between Norfolk and Richmond to collect dice for an attack.

Norfolk is first.

His two dice are enough to destroy Henry at a cost of just one formation hit to himself. Bosworth II goes to Richard. 

We go to a Bosworth III to find the winner. The third battle commences with another 3/1 attack by Norfolk

A 3/2 attack from Richard follows from the position below.

Once again Oxford is in a precarious state. Richmond stacks dice hoping to obtain the full house needed to bring the Stanleys into the line; Richard just stacks dice. Battle continues for a few turns with Norfolk successfully screening some attacks while the house of York gathers its strength.

A pair on Norfolk will be enough: Richard only needs to capture one morale cube to claim the win.

And the deed is done! Richard wins two battles to Henry's one. 

And so my battle day is over. Not quite as satisfying as a two hour game with figures, but a fun way to get into the spirit of the event, play the battle, and have hardly any clean up required.

It was an unexpected piece of serendipity to find that today was actually the anniversary of the battle. All in all, I think it worked out rather nicely!

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again

We all of us enjoy our wargaming, our playing with toy soldiers, our board wargames, and our reading around these kinds of topics.

There is crossover between serious games and hobby games, and many of us enjoy that aspect too. Some of the blogs I follow are more towards the serious end of the spectrum, where wargaming is a job, where it is used to prep military and intelligence professionals, and - perhaps - influence real-world policy, real-world decisions. 

One of the newer, modern boardgame designers was recently asked about an expansion to his game on Afghanistan, A Distant Plain, which would take into account recent developments. I quote here part of his response:

Given the speed of events, I think if anything what we are seeing now is each faction’s game pieces being swept around on the map and scooped up prior to being put back into their ziploc bags.

Game’s over, man.

If you want to carry on, I think you will need a different game.

He linked to one of his previous blog posts, and also to an (as it turns out decidedly non-prescient) article on the then current state of affairs, entitled 'Why the Taliban isn't winning in Afghanistan' (from which I quote below): 

“We must face facts,” remarked Senator John McCain in August 2017, “we are losing in Afghanistan and time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide.” He is not the only one who has argued that the Taliban are on the march. “The Taliban are getting stronger, the government is on the retreat, they are losing ground to the Taliban day by day,” Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, a retired Afghan general who was the Afghan government’s military envoy to Helmand Province until 2016, told the New York Times over the summer. Media outlets have likewise proclaimed that “The Taliban do look a lot like they are winning” and that this is “The war America can't win.”

Although the Taliban has demonstrated a surprising ability to survive and conduct high-profile attacks in cities like Kabul, it is weaker today than most recognize. It is hamstrung by an ideology that is too extreme for most Afghans, a leadership structure that is too closely linked to the Pashtun ethnic group, an over-reliance on brutal tactics that have killed tens of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians and alienated many more, a widespread involvement in corruption, and a dependence on unpopular foreign allies.

What am I getting at, you might ask?

Well, it is that games and game-models that are lauded for their innovation and perspicacity, whose designers are profiled in the Washington Post, whose hobby games potentially influence real-world decision-making, can still get it wrong. Why they get is wrong is not really my focus here, but it is clear that they get it wrong for reasons which include a) a reliance upon commentators who make incorrect assumptions; b) a game-induced need for simplification which means that factors that appear insignificant (but may not be in real life) are minimised; c) that formulated victory equations which may seem plausible to Western analysts who sit within the military or intelligence paradigms may well not match reality.

So what does this say about wargaming? 

That we should all be wary of it. That it may have consequences. That it is inexact for predicting future events.  

As hobbiests our first reaction to 'serious' military/intelligence-adjacent wargames on current or near-future conflicts is often likely to be "cool, we want to see more of them!" And why not? It seems to validate our hobby, encourages new designs, and perhaps adds authority or cred to what we do. 

But current events show that popular wargames on current conflicts do not necessarily lead to increased understanding or to desired outcomes. And in fact, if real-world wishful thinking is rendered in games as plausible result, may lead not to understanding but to folly. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Two short reviews: The Song of Simon de Montfort and Being Napoleon

I haven't done a huge amount of book finishing recently, but the most recent non-fiction book I've got all the way through was this one, The Song of Simon de Montfort, by Sophie Therese Ambler. It is a biography focused on two main points: how de Montfort conceived of his role in opposing and controlling the king, and how he appeared through the eyes of those that followed him.

The book begins with the end: Simon preparing to die on the field at Evesham, and everything that follows then leads us back to this moment. It's a neat trick to engage the reader, and it works. 

On the whole I found the book informative - to my shame I didn't know a great deal about de Montfort before reading this - but it is also something of a hagiography, as inevitably it must be given its stated aims. Simon is shown as a great revolutionary driven by his cause, standing up for the common people, wronged by his king, and in the end by his confederates. That his own arrogance, selective morality, manipulative tactics and dubious methods of obtaining funds contributed to his demise is largely overlooked. 

The book is engagingly written, nicely weighted and well paced, but if a man's qualities are to be as lauded as much they are here, for his faults to be glossed over so consistently eventually generates a kind of low level rumble of resentment in the reader. When the book was done, it was that sense of discontent that stayed with me.

I'd give it 3.5 out of 5. It's a good read-on-the-plane kind of book, and has motivated me to look more into gaming the period, as well.

The second short review I have is for a 2018 documentary on Netflix called Being Napoleon. The Netflix blurb is for a quirky, offbeat piece, and I can't really improve on that as a description. It follows the fortunes of various oddball characters as they build up to a reenactment on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo. There is the occasional lurch towards mockumentary, but it always manages to remain on the right side of that line.

It ended up an affecting watch, with the emotional heart of the film turning out to be not quite where you would have expected it to be.

4.5 out of 5 for me. If you have Netflix and haven't seen it already, I would suggest giving it a look.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Revisiting Commands & Colors: Ancients

C&C:A was one of my favourite games in the oughties through to the birth of our second child. Following the arrival of young R, the lack of time to play C&C:A online over VASSAL meant that it was gradually displaced by Lost Battles, because Lost Battles is a superior solo experience.

You can certainly enjoy C&C:A solo however, so I set up a game the other night to reacquaint myself with the game.

The scenario played was Arausio.The early play was all made by the Romans. A line command and double time card got them into contact early, and they quickly went out to a 2-0 lead. 

A darken the sky missile attack failed to halt the Roman attacks, and so it came down to local, small-scale counter-attacks to pull the initiative back. This continued for another six or seven turns.

With two banners needed for victory Caepio and his accompanying unit took a chance, but it did not pay off. Left exposed, Caepio was then fallen upon by Boiorix and killed to win the day for the Germans, 7-6. 

Caepio's unit destroyed, and then himself.

While still an enjoyable game, times have changed, and C&C:A is not usually going to be the first game I pull out when I want to play ancients. Its main strengths are:

1) Once learned, it's hard to forget

2) It's a great two-player contest when both players are experienced

3) It has tonnes of scenarios

4) It is a nice game to look at and play

5) The card play system lends itself well to solo play, provided you take out the First Strike card

6) It is an excellent introduction to the era

Its main weaknesses are:

1) As much as I might have tried to convince myself otherwise (and I have!), it has deficiencies as a model of ancient warfare, and

2) It's just not quite as engaging solo as Lost Battles is. 

That said, it's still a very fine game.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Eyeless in Gaza (312 BC)

SP came over last night for the second iteration of our Washbourn Trophy Lost Battles series. I had set the battle as Gaza 312 BC, for its ease of set up (only a flat plain to fight over) when time was short, and for its own sake.

I don't recall having fought it before - though surely I must have - so we were both going in without too many preconceived ideas of how to play the scenario. Being on holiday this week, SP had the day to come up with a strategy, while I would rely upon my knowledge of the rules and 'general tactical nous' to breeze through. 

The first point of interest is the armies. Both are successor forces led by fighting generals - Ptolemy/Seleucus (combined into a single on-table commander) the one and Demetrius the other - with the usual mix of phalangites and cavalry heavy and light. In addition Demetrius had three units of elephants, and Ptolemy a dedicated anti-elephant corps of light infantry, in four units.

Essentially, it was to be a battle of elephants vs light infantry, phalanx vs phalanx, cavalry vs cavalry, and inspired commander (Ptolemy) vs average commander (Demetrius).

In fighting value Ptolemy had the edge 79 points to 67, but it was still close enough to be challenging for both sides. 

We used the historical deployments outlined in Phil Sabin's Lost Battles book, so the action began for us in turn two.

As Demetrius, and with the first move, I attacked on my left with Demetrius himself and his two units of veteran heavy cavalry. I then reinforced this zone with light cavalry from my right flank, bringing them around behind my army to give some extra numbers in what was bound to be a tough fight on the left. My centre left attacked with elephants in the lead, and I advanced in the centre to allow the light cavalry to scoot around behind them in the aforementioned reinforcement move. My right - now my weakest zone - I refused. 

As Ptolemy, SP fought fire with fire on his right. He attacked with bravado with his two veteran heavy cavalry units and light cavalry, and then also reinforced this zone with cavalry from elsewhere in his army. His light infantry hit my elephants hard, and rather than advance his centre and left he merely redeployed his leftmost unit of light cavalry so that they could reinforce Ptolemy next turn if needed.

Turn four saw Demetrius shatter a unit of light cavalry in Ptolemy's zone, but the rest of his army held firm. There was little success elsewhere.

The view from Demetrius's zone after his second attack. Note his position in the lead with his guard cavalry in an attempt to shatter the enemy zone before it can be reinforced. It was not to be!

Ptolemy reinforced his own zone again with more light cavalry, and fought back with determination. He scored two hits with the cavalry in his zone, and then three hits against Demetrius's centre left as the elephants panicked in the face of the light infantry assault. 

Again from Demetrius's zone: a violence of horses, and some reinforcements. 

Two more turns went by with some thrilling exchanges as both sides fought desperately to win the cavalry fight between the two opposed generals. The full complement of Lost Battles's tactical tricks was employed, to our delight: manipulation of  lead units to maximise attack and best defend; command bonuses artfully issued; Favour of the Gods re-rolls demanded; generals rallying what could have been battle-defining strikes. 

Elsewhere the elephants continue to panic, and the phalanxes engaged in the centre. My men all-out-attacked in an effort to make the enemy army as vulnerable as possible to mass rout once the moment came. 

The moment, however, did not come. A shatter, a double shatter, a successful rout test, a shatter, a failed rout test, and Demetrius was alone with his guard cavalry.

The grim reality: Demetrius about to be permanently displaced.

Demetrius's guard was destroyed, and the man himself fled the field. He took the centre left with him in a trumpeting of panicked elephants and a cacaphony of hooves. 

In the centre, the phalanx turned and pulled back, marching off table to escape with what they could.

Battle over, and Ptolemy was victorious 93 points to 74. The result did not show how closely fought it was. In the aftermath, we were pleased to announce that SP had won the Washbourn Trophy. It would change hands and go home with him.

We still had time for a second battle, so we set up again. This one was also a tough fight in which we put hard-learned lessons from the first battle to good use. 

The action on my left played out much as before, with our cavalry wing and elephant-led left-centre eventually losing against Ptolemy, but this time we were a lot more active with our centre and right wing. Even after our left routed, our right fought on, up until the tenth turn, shattering enemy before eventually, just a moment before darkness fell, being shattered ourselves.

Game two, three turns in.

The final result was 100-99, with SP as Ptolemy again emerging the victor! We were both a little surprised with this result. I thought I had done enough to win on points under the Lost Battles handicap system, but not quite.

Again Lost Battles delivered. Two exciting games which could have gone to either side, with two very plausable results which did no injustice to history.

Thanks to SP - worthy winner of the Washbourn Trophy - and to Phil Sabin, master rules designer!

And if you ask for Demetrius now?  You will find him eyeless in Gaza at the mill among slaves.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

History of the World (part 2).

Carrying on from part 1 of my solo, game-learning play of the 'History of the World' boardgame, and with the world still reeling from the Pax Romana (who made a desert and called it peace?), the third epoch of human history began.

The Guptas, appearing in Deccan, claimed the entire Indian subcontinent from its previous inhabitants the Mauryans, but not without some hard fighting. Sculpture, painting and architecture flourished!

But the red team could not be held for long: the indignant steppe Huns rose and bore down upon China, Eurasia and Southern Europe, to seemingly alter the landscape forever. 

The Byzantines however had a story of their own to write. They gained almost total mastery of Europe North and South, and with their legacy peoples still in Africa and the Middle East, the future was looking, um, golden.

History then gave herself over to the Arabians, who repopulated the Middle East, as was only meet. Despite their great numbers, they were unable to proceed much farther, as the descendants of the Guptans resisted the invaders strongly. 

At the close of the third epoch, Red led Gold, with White and Blue fighting for third place. 

Era four commenced with the establishment of a satellite kingdom in Japan and a Viking charge into what would later be known as the New World. More points for Red, who dominate the northern hemisphere.

At that a great khan appeared to unite a hardy people of the plains, but he must have REALLY displeased the gods, because almost half of his attacks were unsuccessful. Behold the blue horde grouping!

The Ottomans came, saw and conquered, but were unable to extend their influence into Europe or Eurasia.

Next the age of discovery dawned. If the tall ships of the Portuguese failed to land in the New World, they did however have the satisfaction of opening a trade route into Eurasia. Spicy!

Going into the fifth and final epoch, Red led Gold, and Blue led White.

The board at the end of the fourth epoch.

The fifth era started with courtly grace as the Qing expanded their influence with spectacular success, establishing dominance in Southeast Asia and even reaching Australia. A good haul of points resulted, but not enough to catch the leaders.  

North America, Africa and the Middle East then fell to the British, who bestrode the world like Colossi from their island fastness (didn't get to Australia, but).

On cue came the proud Americans. Freedom this, freedom that; supremacy in North and South America; a foothold in both Europes. To add insult to grevious injury, they captured Britannia!

The last empire of the game was the Germans. Predictably, they put northern Europe in thrall. What was not in the script was that they then liberated Britain from her American masters. They had no truck with Russia. A golden German finish it may have been, but it was not enough to take victory from the Red team.

At the end of it all, the final scores were as follows:

Red: 151 

Gold: 126 

White: 119 

Blue: 118

And the final board looked like this:

Playing History of the World solo was a heap of fun. Having had this run-through, I was consequently able to teach the game to three Risk playing buddies the following week, and they enjoyed it as much as I did.

It takes a good three or four hours, which is time enough to get involved without being quite long enough to get bored. The only issue I can see is that players who fall behind early may find their interest waning. It is possible to score big later in the game, but it is harder to do this if you don't have legacy pieces still on table, so with a bit more player experience and some developing tabletalk, it may turn into an experiment in diplomacy as well.

To conclude, I think we've found a good one here! 

New Phil Sabin Website

Since Phil Sabin (of Lost Battles and Simulating War fame) retired from Kings College, he has not had a web presence to disseminate his games. He has however just announced one now: the page, Philip Sabin's Wargame Designs, is here. Interestingly, Phil states that he has been "designing ‘total conversions’ which build on the components and data from existing games to give owners of those games a different dimension to explore."

More information is on the website of course, so please check it out if you are interested in accessing Phil's designs. It is good to see him back with a web presence again. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

History of the World (part 1).

The other week I saw advertised a new edition of the classic boardgame 'History of the World' made famous by Avalon Hill. I snuck it into the house like a seventeen year old returning from a night on the beers and let it blend into its surroundings until the time was right to unwrap it and get it to table.

Sunday last was that night. 

With the den to myself and the cricket on, I decided to give it a try.

The Sumerians were the first empire to establish themselves. Getting on their asses they spread from Tigris into Zagros and the Levant. Dominance of the Middle East along with a capital and a monument entered twelve points into the ledger for the blue team. History had begun!

The second empire to emerge was that of the Minoans. Avoiding conflict, these hardy seafarers settled Mauretania and Anatolia. At home they built a palace at Knossos. Some chroniclers considered this to have been a minor tear, but others thought it was bull. At any rate, the gold team had points on the board.

The Hittites then arose, pouring forth with their iron weapons to wipe the Sumerians from the face of the earth and they almost succeeded.

Hittites get to build forts! Cool (unless you're not a Hittite).

In China the Zhou asserted their supremacy and cultivated a satellite kingdom on the banks of the Indus.

And so ended the first epoch of recorded history, and in a neat touch of verisimilitude, I forgot to record the scores. 

Era the second commenced with the rise of the Persians. Alongside their white team legacy Hittites, they dominated India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East to win masses of points. Sadly for the Zhou, their erstwhile satellite kingdom became just another satrapy. 

Next it was the turn of the Celts to rampage their way across Europe, Eurasia and Persia. It looked impressive, but with Eurasia terra incognita at this stage of the History, they did not get as impressive a pay-off in points.

The Mauryans subdued India and ventured into Southeast Asia. Two crucial battles were lost, but team red have control of the east.

But then came the Romans, and they smashed everyone - almost as if it was destiny! Northern Europe, Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East all trembled before the tramp of the Roman caligulae. A few indomitable regions held firm, however. 

And with team gold in ascendancy (IIRC) epoch two concluded. 

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