A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Hooptedoodle #261 - Nellie

This is another farm at another time, but the farm I used to visit had an old
Ferguson tractor - I even drove it a few times. Two gears - one to go along
the road, one to work on the fields. Interestingly, you had to stop to
change gear!
 More ancient history - I last met Nellie nearly 50 years ago (there's a song in there somewhere!), but I was discussing her with the Contesse recently, and thought she might make for an interesting Hooptedoodle - at least I can be confident that I shall enjoy writing it.

Toward the end of my time at university (in Edinburgh) I was "going out" (did we really used to say things like that?) with the young lady who eventually became my first wife. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, but she came from the Borders country - her dad was a farmer. Eventually, as was the protocol in them days, it became necessary for me to visit the Borders to make the acquaintance of her parents, and so a trip on the SMT bus (to Earlston) was undertaken, and I duly presented myself for inspection.

I was completely out of my comfort zone - I was a townie, born and raised - an Englishman, what is more. Her father was nervous about my being from Liverpool - I think he expected me to steal the wheels from his car.

The trip went well enough - everyone was very kind and tolerated my almost total lack of social graces - but it was a real culture shock. The farm was out in the wilds, a few miles from Greenlaw, in Berwickshire - it was so quiet that they had to wake me up for breakfast, or I would have slept through most of each day. The food was a lot better than the Students' Union, as you might imagine, and the Old Man took me to the sheep sales at Kelso Market on the Saturday. Interesting, but all very unfamiliar, for me - like a trip to the moon.

I also had to get the hang of the fact that the locals would consider carefully what they were going to say, and then say it - very slowly. They were, after all, used to weighty matters such as whether it would be dry enough for the harvest in September, whether the shift in market prices suggested that next year there should be less barley and more turnips - that sort of stuff. I, on the other hand, was accustomed to speaking very rapidly, without any thought at all, so communication was something of a problem - I really had to work at it.

In fact, these are the workers' cottages from the farm in my story - I think that
Hector and Beth and Old Nellie lived in the second one along. There was an old
smithy just behind these cottages, but I guess it fell down decades ago.
This reached its most extreme form when I met Nellie, a lady from another age. Nellie lived in one of the farm cottages, with her daughter Beth, and Beth's husband, Hector Small, who was officially the tractor man but pretty much ran the whole farm singlehanded. Nellie was enormous - about 6 feet tall, and built like the proverbial brick outhouse - she must have been in her mid 70s, but she could still lift a sack of barley that I would have struggled with (I saw her in action when I came to help at the harvest). She had hands like millstones, her face was bright red - weatherbeaten, like a trawlerman's - and her teeth were terrifying - she didn't have many, and they were irregularly positioned, but what they lacked in numbers they made up in size - they were enormous - like horse's teeth. If I appear to be painting a deliberately unattractive picture, that's not the case - this is what she looked like. At harvest time, her standard working attire included men's overalls, tied with string below the knee, Nicky Tam style, to keep the mice out, and a man's flat cap, worn backwards. Scary.

This is an 1884 painting of Berwickshire farm workers - I'm sure it is, but
 I understand that the weird sun-bonnet is what is known as an East
Lothian Ugly, so these may be incomers!
Nellie and I really couldn't understand each other at all - not a word - but I didn't see a lot of her. Because of her age she only worked outdoors at busy times of the year; otherwise she helped the farmer's wife in the back kitchen. The house was early Victorian, and the layout was typical for a farmhouse of that period - the back kitchen, the dairy, the passage that led past the room which was called the kitchen (which was really the main living room, but was also where the cooking was done, on a massive range) to the hallway, these were all separate from the family rooms - and had no carpets, no fireplaces. Also the two servants' bedrooms up the back stairs - these houses dated from an age when the womenfolk who worked on the farm would perform manual work when it was the season, but otherwise would do domestic service in the farmhouse. Nellie used to keep out of sight when there were visitors, even wheel-tappers from Liverpool.

Workers near Earlston, Berwickshire, sometime before WW1 - those look more
like the traditional Berwickshire bonnet. Naturally this is long before any
experience of mine, but Nellie must have been a young girl around this time - this
is the culture she came from. We are always about - what? - two handshakes from history?
She spent her entire life working on the land. I'm not sure when the Bondager tradition actually died out in the Border country, but Nellie seemed like the last of a breed (the Bondagers are a worthy subject for a separate book of their own, but you will be relieved to learn that I am not an expert). She had never been to school - she must have spent her childhood moving between farms as the seasonal work dictated. She could not read. She knew everything there was to know about planting cabbages, and how to look after sick lambs, but little else. She used sometimes to travel to Kelso (10 miles away) in Hector's car; she had visited Berwick on Tweed (maybe 20 miles away) a few times, but the last occasion had been years before; she had never been to Edinburgh (40 miles away), though she knew of the place. Every year, when she took her holiday, she packed up an old cardboard suitcase and walked - yes, that's walked - to the village of Gordon, maybe 8 miles, and stayed a week with her unmarried sister.

The wonder of it all is that, in Hector's cottage, there was the first serious colour TV I had ever seen. It seemed enormous (this in the days when TV screens still had round corners), and Nellie was delighted with it. This medieval peasant woman who had never read a newspaper (and could hardly understand the radio) used to sit and watch not only the world news, but also the Martini adverts and the travel programmes, with glimpses of sophisticated living that she must never even have heard of. I still feel giddy when I try to imagine what on earth she thought she was looking at.

The farm was sold off years ago. Nellie must have been dead now for almost half a century; her kind has disappeared. The automation of farming and the better pay and conditions offered by jobs in the textile mills in the Tweeddale towns - all these things changed the economics and the lifestyles of the area. One legacy is the last vestige of a particular housing problem for the local authority; they are dying out, but there are still a good few elderly people who worked all their lives on farms, in tied cottages. When the last family member with a farming job moved off to the town in search of better things, the old folks were often left with nowhere to live. Once they have died off, that will be the end of an age.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Another Solo Campaign? - Looking at Boardgames...

GMT's "Wellington"
In the last few years I have played out a couple of solo campaigns - one set in the Peninsular War, one in an unknown part of Lancashire and Cumbria during the ECW. I enjoyed them both - I mean really enjoyed them - there is nothing like a campaign to throw up interesting, assymetric miniatures battles, or hopeless defences, or tricky withdrawals, or games of a size and a format that normally I would not consider - might not even think of. Also, of course, as a solo player I need not worry about the one-sided nature of many of the resulting actions.

I documented these campaigns quite thoroughly, and still get a lot of fun and interest out of revisiting the narratives and the photos.

The mechanisms for supply and map-moving are always tricky - and then there's intelligence - despite my best endeavours, I didn't get either of these campaigns quite right - too much admin overhead, and the map systems forced the action into the same areas too frequently. For the ECW I used a map based on a customised set of The Perfect Captain's famous Battlefinder cards - it worked OK, but only just OK. For the Peninsula I used a map derived from Don Alexander's monumental (and terrifying) boardgame, War to the Death.

I have been thinking about a return to the Peninsula, later this year. I have been reading about the use of proprietary boardgames to provide the campaign framework - an obvious enough solution. One big advantage is that, apart from handling the logistics, the boardgame has its own inbuilt battle mechanisms, which you can use as defaults, so you can place whichever bits of the campaign you wish on the tabletop for the toys to fight out.

A number of sources were enthusiastic about the Pacific Rim game, Wellington's War, to manage a Peninsular campaign. I have never seen this game - I've read reviews, and seen pictures, and I was once quite excited about it, but there was a strange period of a few years when it was always just about to be published, during which I lost interest. It is very expensive, and I am unlikely to rush to buy such a thing unless I am convinced that it is worth the cost. I mean worth it to me (and I can be very difficult, I admit it).

It did get me thinking about two games which I own already, though I have not attempted to play either of them seriously. Firstly, I have the aforementioned War to the Death, which is so fantastically complex that I shall just reject it out of hand as a campaign driver. However, I also have GMT's Wellington, which is a smaller brother of their Napoleonic Wars and uses many of the same mechanics. In fact I also have the Napoleonic Wars game - and I haven't played that either (this is getting embarrassing...). The NW game has a replacement, de-luxe folding board, which is a major enhancement. At the time I bought Wellington, that was due to get an upgraded board as well - I don't care for the flimsy paper jobs, especially if the game is going to lie around for some weeks while I fight a campaign. However, GMT decided not to go ahead with that, for some reason, and the game has sat in its box at the back of my big walk-in cupboard for a long time, still unpunched, still waiting for the posh map which will never come.

I fetched it out at the weekend, and have been re-reading the rules in odd moments for a couple of days. It does seem a bit complicated, but the kit includes a Play Book, which walks through some detailed game-play examples, and that looks pretty good. Time permitting, I hope to set up a demo game and walk through the Play Book examples, to see how it goes. Customer reviews I've seen sometimes make reference to the game's being rather hectically interactive, which suggests it might be a dead duck for solo play. I don't normally do hectic anyway.

So what? Well, I just wondered if anyone had experience of the Wellington game (it doesn't have hexes, by the way...) and/or had any views about its suitability as the driver for a campaign. I'm not committed to using it, but it is lying in the cupboard...

Or should I splash out on Wellington's War? - or do you have good experience with some other boardgame for this purpose? All thoughts and suggestions welcome!

Friday, 19 May 2017

Hooptedoodle #260 - The Vaults of Yesteryear

Very pleasant day yesterday - I had to go into Edinburgh to collect some re-glazed spectacles, and my wife agreed to make the trip with me. We had a very quiet, relaxed journey in on the 11:23 train.

The visit to the optician took about 20 minutes, so we decided to get some lunch in town before we made our way back to The Sticks. We went to the All Bar One which stands on the corner of George Street and Hanover Street - one of several places of this name in the city. I'm always a bit wary of big chains/franchises, but in fact we had a terrific lunch, with very acceptable service in very pleasant surroundings. Never been in there before, but one slightly weird aspect of my visit was that this place used to be my bank, once upon a time.

When I first came to Edinburgh as a student, back in the Late Iron Age, I opened an account with the National Commercial Bank of Scotland, entirely because they were the Scottish agents for the old Midland Bank, which was where my family kept their fourteen shillings and elevenpence savings.

The National Commercial didn't last long - they were swallowed by Royal Bank of Scotland around 1969. To prove they once existed, here's one of their old notes:
My account moved (by default) to RBS, but I was not particularly happy with my new bankers - primarily since the word STUDENT appeared in my employment details on their files - in fact it said STUDENT ACTUARY - and thus they refused to allow me an overdraft facility (and quite right too). Thus I moved to the Clydesdale Bank, at the big branch which was conveniently close to my workplace - the building where I had lunch yesterday.

I don't suppose I have been unusually unlucky with banks over the years, but there are certain themes which have followed me in my dealings with them. I left the Clydesdale in a state of high animation around 1978 - I had returned from a fortnight's holiday (in Scarborough, in fact) to receive a registered letter from a firm of solicitors, acting on behalf of John Lewis and Partners, the noted department store. I had, you see, purchased new kitchen furniture for my new house and - as was the way in those days - had signed up to repay the bill over 18 months. A standing order was set up, the paperwork was completed, and money was sent each month to JLP. Alas, the Clydesdale made an honest-but-inconvenient mistake when they cancelled my payment after 6 months instead of 18. Everything was correct apart from the year. The first I knew about it was some 3 months later when I was notified that Lewis's were proposing to take me to court to recover the debt. We sorted it out without too much trouble, and a new series of payments was set up from a brand new bank account at Barclays. Sadly, Barclays were very little use either, but eventually I took my business elsewhere simply because I was generally fed up with them, rather than as a result of some melodrama. In a small way, I guess this was progress.

Anyway, that was all long ago, and is only faintly relevant because yesterday I had a very pleasant steak sandwich and a glass of Guinness in the Clydesdale's old Ledger Hall. Slightly odd, unreal overtones - does this sort of thing lay old ghosts to rest? - not sure.

So, if you're in George Street, Edinburgh, around lunchtime, All Bar One is a very fair choice for a bite to eat. It used to be a bank once, but that is of passing interest only to older residents.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

An Unexpected Day Out

I hadn't intended to go, but at the last minute I decided to attend the Carronade wargame show in Falkirk. I went on the train, and enjoyed the day much more than I expected. I'm not very enthusiastic about such events normally - my interests are mostly a bit too limited, too far from the mainstream, and I find the bring-&-buy sections are usually depressing.

Yesterday was better. Good to meet up with Stryker and Goya, of course, but I also had a chance to chat with Graham from Crann Tara, Paul at Tumbling Dice, Michael from Supreme Littleness, Trevor from Magnetic Displays (Coritani for those with tribal tendencies) and various other worthies. Some modest shopping was in order - I bought some Coat d'Arms paints, and some steel paper (and the word is that a steel-paper shortage is coming...).

A special mention for John Coutts and the lads from Westerhope Wargame Group - excellent fellows all. I particularly liked their 40mm SYW game, with Prinz August semi-flat figures which had not seen the light of day for many years. Splendid stuff - that's them in the photo at the top. I didn't take my camera, so it's not my photo, I pinched it from the Carronade Gallery page. Any club that has Charlie Wesencraft as a frequent guest are surely good guys in my book!

I was also very taken with the special home-made dice used for the Dunfermline club's C&CN game - one of the guys makes up his own custom dice - he has a set for each Napoleonic nation. Keep an eye open for these - a very nice touch! I've been thinking about some ECW-themed dice, so obviously the scope is wider than I had surmised. Hmmm.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bordering on Command

This is a figure I've had lying around, undercoated, for years. Enthusiasts may recognise another vintage Alberken/Minifigs20mm OPC commander - this one starting life as the casting for Lt.Gen "Daddy" Hill. I have now painted him up as a senior field officer of the Royal Artillery. One issue I had with the casting was that there is a very prominent shoulder belt, over the LEFT shoulder - for which I could find no use. Given this fellow's map (no, it's not a towel), and the artillery role I've given him, the rogue shoulder belt became a leather strap for his map case. Of course, I hear you say. What else could it be?

I'll come back to this figure in a while - for the moment, observe that his base has a black border.

I've been asked a few times in the past, what is the significance of the coloured borders around the edges of the bases of the senior officers in my armies? Primarily, it makes them easy to spot, but occasionally I myself have questioned this system - house rules can sometimes live on as tradition long after the original reasoning is lost. For my ECW armies, for example, I dropped the coloured borders; I don't think I will, but just occasionally I have wondered if it might be a good idea to retrofit them, after all.

It all dates back to 1970-something, when I was using Don Featherstone's rules (gradually replaced by Charlie Wesencraft, then - later - by the WRG, which was the beginning of a period which I refer to vaguely as The Disillusionment...). In these rules, a simple morale test made use of whether a unit still had its officer present - fellow veterans and game historians will probably be able to identify just which rules these might have been. To help with this rule, I made sure that all unit officers were based on their own, and - to make it easier to spot them in moments of crisis - I painted a dark green rim around the edge of the base. This worked pretty well. I extended this to brown for brigade commanders, white for division commanders and yellow ochre (?) for army commanders. Yellow ochre? - well, the original idea was that I should use vaguely earth-type colours, which would not be too offensive against the house pea-soup green bases and tabletop.

Yes - I know, I know. The pea-soup is already something of an affront to the visual side of things, so picking colours which blended with it seems odd. It's OK - you just mutter the words "Old School" under your breath, and everything is fine. In fact, if I work at it, I can even dredge up a little genial ridicule of other people's armies, where the soldiers carefully drag a lovingly-prepared hearthrug of flock and cat-litter around with them - even along roads and into rivers. I am, of course, jesting. The point is, it's OK.

In a spasm of commonsense, I eventually replaced the unimpressive yellow ochre with a distinctive colour for the army, so that the Anglo-Portuguese army had a red border for its commander, the French blue, and - later - the Spanish had yellow. Yes - all right - yellow isn't great for Spain, but it isn't red or blue and it hadn't already been given a reserved meaning.

Righto. Time passed (that was the easy bit) and I was no longer using regimental officers for this morale rule - though it's always tempting to retain the coding system just in case I wish to use it again in the future. The result was that, long after it had ceased to have any significance, I was still devoutly painting up my units with dark green borders around the regimental officers. A major rebasing project eventually put a stop to that for the infantry and artillery - all command figures are now just glued onto a multiple base, with some of their subordinates, and no bordering colour is added. My regiments still have some way to go with liberté and fraternité, but we have at least made a start with egalité.

However, for the cavalry it persists. Now I would really be pushed to come up with a sensible justification for it, but any new cavalry units I add still have the officer on his own individual base, bordered in good old dark green. The only reason this still makes any sense at all is that - especially in campaigns - it is a commonplace for cavalry colonels to have to take over a brigade, particularly given the horrifying casualty rates in the cavalry arm in my battles. So, just occasionally, a colonel with a green border has been a useful addition to a battlefield, when acting up as a brigadier. I think that one day I shall probably get rid of the green borders on the cavalry, but I'm currently in that twilight, it's-a-tradition-no-it-isn't phase.

I am now slowly moving onto a Creeping Elegance project to change the basing standard for field officers - division commanders are to have an attached ADC, army commanders to have 2 supporting staff - so this gives me an opportunity to reconsider the coloured borders. I think I'll probably keep them.

Fine. Now, if I go right back to 1970-something, I did have an additional classification of field officers. I was aware that proper historical OOBs would identify an overall commander for the artillery, and maybe for the engineers. Since I wasn't sure whether such a fellow would equate to a brigade or division commander in my army organisation, I took an escape route and came up with a separate border colour - black - for officers of what I grouped as "service arms". Thus all commanders of artillery and engineering get a black rim around the base.

Only problem now is - I've never had one! I was never sure what I would use him for (my crass ignorance of how real armies worked is a major contributor to this), and other types of painting jobs always took priority.

Which - at long last - brings me back to the photo at the beginning of this post - long, long ago. I have painted up the old Alberken Hill figure to represent a senior officer of British artillery. I was going to make him Lt.Col Hoylett Framingham in my Peninsular army, but I find that Framingham was in any case a RHA officer, and was absent after being wounded at Talavera, so I'm still pondering his identity. I intend also to add Alex Dickson (a man from Kelso, as it happens) to look after the siege train and all that - Dickson will be in Portuguese uniform, I think. I should also have a commander of engineering. I think it might be appropriate for him to be on foot, and he will have the earlier (blue) uniform. I still haven't really got a clue how these fellows will be used on the toy battlefield (a puzzle with which some real generals of history might empathise, come to think of it), but here, gentlemen, after only some 40-odd years, is my first field officer with a black border.

I shall now, for shame's sake, dig out SGP Ward's Wellington's Headquarters to remind myself how this stuff worked...

***** Very Late Edit *****

I found some old pics of the Picton and Napoleon Alberken figures mentioned in this post and the comments, so here they are again...

I'm also reminded that, though Napoleon came in an eBay job lot, Picton was very kindly given to me by the Old Metal Detector - apologies for my error - one of wargaming's true gentlemen. Thanks yet again, Clive!

Napoleon playing the part of someone else

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Hooptedoodle #259 - Allan Holdsworth - A Unique Voice

I only just found out that Allan Holdsworth died last month, at his home in California. Another guitar hero gone. Oh well.

Holdsworth was never everyone's cup of tea - often too intense, too inaccessible. Of course, the equipment freaks and the technique warriors and all the rest of them (and just about every moron you know probably plays guitar - there's me for a start) have consistently missed the point by an enormous distance over the years - how he played, and the hardware he used, are very small parts indeed of a complex whole; the important bit, in the end, is what he had to say musically, and his was a unique voice - sometimes a breathtakingly emotional one.

He will be commemorated for his pioneering use of polychords, his completely original, alternative approach to functional harmony, his terrifying technique (based on what has become known as the "hammer-ons from nowhere" style of legato playing - no-one ever played like Allan - probably it's just as well), and the characteristically wide intervallic leaps in musical phrases. He developed his own way of playing, and he didn't sound like anyone else. He was born and raised in Bradford, and he took a pride in being an awkward Yorkshireman - he developed his own approach because he didn't find anything else that could produce the music he heard in his head. I guess he really was a genius - we hear a lot about geniuses, but they are thin on the ground.

Even as a (sort of) disciple, I can't take too much of it in one sitting - a lot of the music is very angular - uncomfortable - and if I try to visualise what he is doing I have to go and lie down. If you are a fan, please excuse my bumbling effort to pay tribute. If you are not, then I suggest he was worth a listen. He was never hugely popular - you will see why - but once you've heard him you will recognise him.

Here's a ballad from 1989.

And here's a live piece recorded in Frankfurt 8 years later. The album version of this track (same line-up) uses double bass, which I think is a big improvement (more space to breathe), but this is still good.

 Thanks, Allan.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics - Command Cards - Summary Sheet

Further to yesterday's typing extravaganza, I had a good look at the revised (Expansion #5) Command cards, and decided that a full listing of these would also be useful for reference. Note that this is a listing of the revised cards - the ones with the green backs, not the blue ones that come with the original base game (which are listed in the rules booklet).

The cards are organised in three rough groupings - first are the section cards, which specifically relate to units located in one or more sections of the field. Next are the new Take Command cards, which are a bit like section cards, but are applied to Leaders and groups of units adjacent to them. Last are the survivors of what used to be referred to as "tactical" cards - because it is too confusing to have these in the same world as the new Tactician cards, I shall just classify these as Other - if you like, they are Command cards which are not section cards. As with yesterday's list, the numbers in brackets after each card detail are the number of instances of this card in the deck.

Anyway - here they all are - any significant typos, please shout and I'll get it sorted.