Thursday, 27 January 2011
It is not offered as an alternative to reading the rules, but it is more compact than some of the other customer-generated efforts I've seen so, if it is useful to anyone, here it is, in jpg form.
Sunday, 23 January 2011
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. Potentially, I have a new project for the New Year. We'll see.
I have two major confessions to make today.
Firstly, I am not a qualified historian. I am pretty well read, I would contend that I am a passably smart chap (quiet at the back, there!), and I once wrote a short and rather humble booklet on the Portuguese Army, but I am certainly not qualified. This may seem an odd thing to say, but it is a serious point. Anything more thankless than attempting to be an unqualified historian is difficult to imagine. I am a big fan of a number of recent and present day Napoleonic historians - Muir, Esdaile, Gill, Elting, and Horward all come to mind - and am aware that to some extent they write/wrote their books for each other, within a closed academic community which despises 'popular history' as a point of principle. Fair enough - that's how it is. During my recent immersion in Salamanca, I was a little disappointed that Rory Muir felt it necessary to be so dismissive of Peter Young's and James Lawford's Wellington's Masterpiece, of which, for all its evident faults, I have been very fond for many years. Though no-one is likely to confuse Muir and his very scholarly approach with the enthusiastic (and rather patriotic) authorship of the earlier work, the fact remains that popular history is really where it's at when it comes to selling lots of books, so let's treat Young & Lawford and similar with all due respect. If it wasn't for all the unqualified punters like me who purchase and read their works as popular history, Dr Muir and the rest of the fraternity would be getting pretty hungry by now.
The second confession may come as rather more of a shock, so I recommend that you put your hot coffee down carefully, and sit back.
I am not really Maximilien Sebastien Foy.
I use his name as my blog persona, because he is, in a quiet way, a hero of mine, but the real Max Foy died in 1825. I have always had a high regard for MSF. Most of the eye-witness accounts I have read of the Napoleonic Wars are flawed in some way - they may be self-justificatory (Marmont), tedious (Pelet), romanticised and unlikely (Marbot), excessively patriotic (Marcel, Napier and many others) or written by complete jerks (Thiébault). This does not mean, of course, that I have not enjoyed or valued such writings, but Foy is something different. His best-known work is his Histoire de la guerre de la péninsule sous Napoléon, which was published after his death at the behest of Mme la Comtesse Foy, who suddenly was very short of money. The Histoire is readily available, in French or in a handy English translation (which you can download from Google books here and here if you do not wish to purchase it). It is remarkably balanced and fair-minded, gives a valuable overview of the characteristics and strengths of the participating nations but, sadly, ends abruptly at the Convention of Cintra (1808). Foy was born at Ham, Somme, but had an English mother, which may have contributed to his rather liberal views on foreigners.
Foy was one of the good guys. I have an impression that he would have been excellent company at dinner. He became colonel of a horse artillery regiment, then a general of brigade, and ended his army career as a general of division. Conscientious and always in the thick of battlefield action, his seniority did not advance as quickly as it should, and this may not be unconnected with the fact that he was a known critic of the French Empire. On merit, he should certainly have been one of Napoleon's Corps Commanders at Waterloo, where he received his fifteenth and last wound while leading a division in Reille's II Corps. Subsequently he became a liberal politician and a noted orator, and he died suddenly in 1825 at the age of 50.
There is another book, with a much wider scope. I have in my possession a copy of Maurice Girod de l'Ain's excellent Vie Militaire du General Foy, which was carefully edited from Foy's memoirs and correspondence and published, by the splendidly named Editions Plon, in 1900. It's a sound, scholarly job, meticulously referenced. I am not aware of this book ever having been translated into English, and I am thinking of doing exactly that - this is what might be the New Year project. Partly as a consequence of my rather convoluted Anglo-French family, I read French well, and I have sufficient familiarity with the period, the individuals involved and military matters in general to avoid most of the howlers which can present themselves in such works. The original idea was simply to produce a translation for my own amusement and, I suppose, to prove I could do it. That would be reason enough, but it also occurs to me that such a book might have a wider potential readership. I know nothing of the copyright implications or how I might set about the project, though I am currently in contact with a couple of academic fora and individuals to gain some guidance.
I have put this post up here mainly in case it is of interest, but also so that anyone who knows that an English translation of the Vie Militaire is on the shelf in their local public library can put me straight. Nothing at all might happen, of course, which would not necessarily be a novelty for my New Year projects, but at the moment I am very interested in this idea.
Friday, 21 January 2011
I'm not going to relate the progress of the battle, this will just be impressions gained during the action. In fact, I called an intermission after about 8 turns, and will resume tomorrow. Bear in mind that these are all aspects of the game as seen by a novice. Tomorrow I'll be less of a novice...
Observation 8 - the battlefield was worryingly busy, from a scenic point of view - since hills have no effect on movement in CCN, this turned out not to be a problem, but I'm not used to having that much terrain on a tabletop. The game mechanisms, the lack of fussiness in the rules and the combat dice system all work quickly and give fast, bloody action, but, because of the command cards, at any moment this action is restricted to small numbers of units and specific areas of the field. The build-up appears slow, but the turns alternate quickly, enabling your hand of cards to change quickly (though, naturally, you seem to collect a lot of cards allowing you to issue orders on the flank which isn't supposed to be doing anything).
Observation 9 - the game is not complicated, but there is a lot to remember. I think I'll make up a one-page crib sheet which covers movement, combat and terrain effects - if it's any good, I might make it available on this blog. The rules should produce a battle which develops quickly and smoothly but, as a rookie, I spent huge amounts of time checking odd situations - can you carry out a Combined Arms attack on a square? (yes - well you can try) - can you do a Combined Arms defence? (no) - what exactly happens when a general is left on his own after a bad melee result? (if he isn't dead, he retreats) - and so on. I read and re-read the rule book so many times that I was starting to flag after a while. All the odd bits in the rules that I glossed over on the first reading - you know the sort of thing? - well, as far as I could see, they all came up! The rule book appears well enough structured, and there is a pleasing lack of ambiguity if you can find the right sections, but finding things when it matters is not always easy. I learned a great deal, but I learned, by and large, by arriving at each situation and playing it through, rather than by remembering details from my preliminary reading. I think a couple of trial actions will be needed before I get anything like up to speed, but what I saw thus far looks very promising. All you guys out there who try a new game every week have my wholehearted admiration - I don't think my brain does that any more. I'll take the rules to bed with me and read them over again, and this time I expect a few more lightbulbs to go on. Ah - yes - so that's what that means....
Observation 10 - the command arrangements are very relaxed – almost casual. Each army is allocated a number of general officers, but there is no implied structure - any general can join or assist any unit. I'm not used to that, but it works OK. Unless the scenario enforces one, there is no higher organisation beyond the unit. You can, of course, be like me and place all battalions from a single brigade together and so on, but there is no need. In fact, a unit does not really have an identity in CCN - only a classification. This is closer to Joe Morschauser than I expected.
Good fun so far - I'll be back to the table tomorrow, I'll know more and I'll be quicker (and make less daft mistakes). The huge advantage of buying a commercial game is that knowledgeable people have put many hours into making sure it works and produces reasonable results, but you do have to trust the system!
Thursday, 20 January 2011
Observation 6 - this maybe seems a small matter, but it's niggling - once you have removed the contents from the CCN box, put the required stickers on and removed the scenery and so on from the punched cards, it is a fair old challenge to get everything back in there. At least it is if you are being careful not to damage anything, and if you wish to preserve any form of order in the unit blocks. I'll have to get my hands on a tray or shallow box of the correct size to hold the blocks - shoving them all in plastic bags and squeezing them in the original box would mean that a game would require a lot of preliminary sorting and counting - how about 2 hours to sort out the components and 2 hours to play? How would boardgamegeek.com rate that? It is not unknown for boxed games in my house to sprout all sorts of additional boxes, and somehow they refuse to stay in the one place. I believe they crawl away at night.
Observation 7 - Artillery unit sizes - not insoluble, but I do need to come up with an answer. Infantry units can be 4, sometimes 3 or 5 blocks. My minatures battalions have 4 subunits, so this is compatible, not a problem - just depends on the numerical strength. Cavalry doesn't offer a problem, either, though my basing is not absolutely perfect for CCN - I can handle this. Artillery is a different matter - CCN uses 3-block artillery units - the rules require this structure. My miniature armies use 2 crewed guns per battery, and 3 guns side by side would not fit the hex size on my table. So I need something which is not a gun, which can be used to denote the 3rd block. Preferably something which is not stupid(!). I had a great idea - I could use a caisson - unfortunately I don't have any. How about an ammunition chest? - tried this - it's hard to spot. I could, of course, use a dirty great coloured counter, or something, but it seems a bit crude, and doesn't please me as an accessory to the shiny new game. I shall think about it. It has to be something sensible, something which does not require a whole new painting frenzy to arrange, and something which, if possible, maintains the dignity of the game!
The other thing I have to remind myself about, and I'll write this in bold characters, to increase my chances of remembering, is that I will not start changing the rules. At least not until I have some experience of the game as published.
CCN's pocket-sized Waterloo scenario
The scenarios supplied start off with Rolica, and finish with Waterloo, no less. Rolica has about a dozen units a side. At Waterloo, the Allies have 21 units in total, including 3 batteries. Righto. Observation 1 is that there is an obvious amount of implicit scaling of the game to suit the size of the original action. That is certainly one way to fight a big battle with fewer troops (and it is only a game, after all...), but I have some initial misgivings about the distortion this can introduce to the structure of the armies, and the potential for (for example) musket ranges to get out of proportion to the ground scale. Having recently gone through the process of developing Grand Tactical rules of my own, and having consciously rejected the approach of just pretending big battles were smaller, with smaller armies on a smaller field, I'm pretty focused on the areas of potential discomfort. OK - maybe I'll avoid their Waterloo scenario for the time being.
Observation 2 - I quite fancy trying some rather larger actions - not ridiculous, of course, but involving a few more units, on a larger board. I could do with a little more information on how they design the scenarios - in particular how they fix the number of command cards to be used with the armies as deployed, and how they set the victory conditions (which in CCN is "the number of victory flags"). By inspection, it looks as though the number of command cards for each commander is something like a third of the number of units in his army, rounded up. That's fine - I can use that to create my own battles, but an obvious scalability question looms. The command cards are played singly, and allow a number of units to do something - this number is not large, and it may be that for actions involving more than, say, 25 units a side, I may have to alter the game so command cards are played in twos. This is a first guess - I'm not sure how this will work. Initially I will be trying small actions, and it could be that the proposed La Grande Battle extension set will provide command cards capable of rather more extensive orders.
Observation 3 - The troop classifications will need a bit of generalising - units are described as Grenadiers, Guard, Militia etc, and I have no problems with these descriptions, but there will have to be some conventions so that I can remember that, for example, poorly-trained line troops might be classified as "militia" for the purposes of the game, even when they are evidently nothing of the sort.
Militia in trouble
Observation 4 - there are some very nice bits in the game. Naturally, the bits I am most pleased with are the sections in the movement rules which are almost identical with my own hex-based game - sound judgement, GMT! No - this isn't just self-congratulation, it's simply something less I'll need to re-learn! The combat dice bear various symbols, some of which cause casualties and one (a flag symbol) can cause a one-hex retreat. Retreats may be ignored a bit in certain terrain situations, or for good quality troops, but if the rules say a unit must retreat, then retreat they must. If for some reason they are unable to retreat as required then they will lose blocks (subunits), as extra casualties. The Militia are treated specially - they retreat 3 hexes for each flag, which means, if they cannot retreat, they lose 3 blocks for each flag they are forced to ignore. Since an infantry battalion will normally be 4 blocks, this means that the unit is effectively wrecked - retreats for Militia are bad news, they either lose a lot of ground or a lot of men. I like this. It's simple and it's elegant.
Observation 5 is from the smart-ass department - one of the supplied troop classes for the blocks is Portuguese heavy cavalry. Naturally, my hand shoots up - please, miss, the Portuguese don't have heavy cavalry. That is correct, comes the answer, but they do when they are pretending to be Dutch Belgians, or whatever, so go and stand in the corner, and try to buck your ideas up.
Wednesday, 19 January 2011
The game also gives some insights into how times have changed, and things which were part of growing up and which I haven't thought about for a long time. In my grannie's house, the first door on the left inside the front door was almost always kept shut. It was The Parlour. Last bastion of working class gentility, it was only used at Christmas, or when someone very important visited (which, sadly, was a very short list - the man from Prudential Insurance, collecting his weekly pennies, maybe the occasional church minister). In theory, it was also available for laying out the deceased in times of family tragedy. I did go in there occasionally - probably when my grannie got tired of my prattling about nothing during the school holidays, and sent me to play the most out-of-tune piano I ever heard.
I was intrigued by the atmosphere of The Parlour - by the fact that the curtains were hung inside out so the neighbours could see the pattern, by the swordfish's nose on the wall (all Liverpool families had seafaring relatives), by the heavy-duty, embroidered antimacassars and arm protectors which covered the sofa and armchairs, and by the almost religious dedication to Keeping Things Nice. Nothing must be soiled, nothing must ever wear out or get broken.
Fast forward the film a couple of generations. That parlour sprung a far-flung family who still covered their best dining chairs with tea-towels, to stop them wearing, to Keep Them Nice. For what? For whom? What was the special occasion, who was the celebrity visitor they were being saved for? Did they ever arrive?
By this time we are no longer speaking of post-war austerity - this is just the way people were raised. I'm not in a position to mock, either - I am the man with a glass cupboard full of lovely soldiers which is fitted with blinds so that usually no-one can see them, in case the sun fades the flags.
Dice of Thunder - non-standard issue
And now my set of Commands and Colors has arrived, and of course I am pleased with it, yet slightly worried that some of the components may have a finite duty cycle. I have replaced the supplied dice with a better design, and varnished them carefully to preserve the surface of the stick-on symbols. I have now encased the playing cards (which are, to be honest, rather disappointingly flimsy) with clear plastic sleeves to protect them, and I am laughing out loud at myself. The cards are much tougher now, no doubt, and the sleeves are well made and exactly the correct size, but the cards are quite a lot thicker, and slippy, and handling them in bulk is a bit like trying to shuffle and deal After-Eight Mints. No doubt they will be fine, but I may just remove the sleeves again if I keep dropping the cards on the floor.
And all in the sacred cause of Keeping Things Nice, of making things last forever! At least Grannie would have been proud of me.
Change of subject. While we're on an OCD kick, I note that the rule book for Commands & Colors mentions that there will be a future expansion set to cover very large actions, to be titled La Grande Battle. Pardon? There it is again - the dreaded franglais étranglé. I keep coming across this in wargames. I guess it is because the history of warfare, by definition, keeps turning up the activities of nations who (rather inconveniently) did not speak English. It would be very easy to appear to be trying to be a smart-ass here, but if someone wishes to include some French to add authenticity, or even some romantic colour, it does seem worth the effort to get it right, or at least to avoid awkward mixtures.
I have long grown used to George Nafziger's reference to the 22nd Ligne and similar - in fact I probably do this myself - but what language, pray, is Guard du Corps? I'm also not completely comfortable with John C Candler's Miniature Wargames du Temps de Napoleon (though I am assured that the rules are excellent, and no disrespect to Mr Candler is intended). I recently obtained a copy of the 3rd edition of the Corps Command rules, and I find that one of the possible results of skirmish combat is termed Suave Que Puet. Why? - what's wrong with Run Away?
I can see there is a fair chance that someone will send a comment to take me down a peg or two, and I probably deserve it, but - come on, rule writers - Keep Things Nice!
Saturday, 15 January 2011
Great-Grandfather Robert is on the right end of the middle row
These were taken by my Great-Grandfather Robert during his WW1 service, and they form part of an extensive archive of documentation and pictures which has been painstakingly compiled by a relative of mine. Robert (who was the father of the grandfather I mentioned in Hooptedoodle #10) served in the Royal Army Service Corps, Motor Transport branch. His discharge papers in 1919 describe him as a "Ford driver". His service included spells in Egypt, Damascus, Gaza and Palestine. He carried his snapshot camera with him throughout and, understandably, most of his pictures are of things which he found interesting during his off-duty moments - the ruins of Palmyra, casual groups of his mates, tourist stuff of camels and so on. He did, however, take some pictures of his unit at work, and their vehicles, and I thought someone might be interested in the WW1 machinery.
This is described as 'a camel ambulance'
Army chaplain on horseback, in Egypt
While thinking about family history, a story which was handed down by Robert's father (who was also named Robert) is interesting, if only as a glimpse of a historic occasion. Robert senior (my great-great-grandfather) was an Irishman, from Tralee, a career soldier who served in the 95th (Derbyshire) Regt. He was present at a big ceremony at which many of the British Army units were re-organised and renamed.
I guess this was the 1881 event (in Hyde Park?), when Queen Victoria presented the new colours. The story is as I was told it, as a boy - if the details are inaccurate or have changed through retelling over the years, please reject or correct as you wish. The drill was that the 95th had to march up to the dias where Her Unamused Majesty was located, receive a blessing and the new flags, and then be ordered by the RSM to march off, under their new title (2nd Battalion, Sherwood Foresters) - this last is the important bit.
Sadly, the RSM had been steadying his nerves with much gin, and when his big moment came to march them off, he couldn't remember the new regimental title. After a long, awkward silence, during which we may imagine the RSM growing very red in the face, he eventually roared, "Oh - bugger it! - 95th Regiment of Foot - about face, quick march..."
Legend has it that HM was even less amused than usual, and the RSM was dismissed from the service without pension. Feel free to append your ending of choice.
Friday, 14 January 2011
Battle Dice - the original GMT 18mm (black) & my proposed 19mm replacement
I have received my set of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics (hereafter CCN) from America, and am impressed with it. I haven't had time to get on with all the stickers yet, but I hope to do some of that this weekend. I checked the contents, and everything looks very good, and the quality, as always with GMT, and as is almost always true with American games, is excellent.
Since I have spent a little time gawping at the pre-release discussions on various fora, I was aware of some concerns about the quality of the battle dice. Now I have to say right up front that if I hadn't read about this, it would not have occurred to me when looking at the supplied hardware, and much of the prejudice which I have read about seems to come from the Ancients version of the game. Yet I can see that the dice might wear a bit.
In case you do not spend much time reading discussions about the quality of dice in a game you do not own, a quick explanation might help. The game uses special Battle Dice, each of which carries 2 infantry symbols, 1 cavalry, 1 artillery, 1 crossed sabres symbol and 1 flag, all of which (obviously) have a defined meaning in the rules. The dice are supplied blank, with stickers to be applied by the purchaser (or his kid brother, if it is that kind of family).
The discussion threads on GMT's site and at boardgamegeek.com get into odd areas such as whether people prefer the feel of wooden or plastic dice, whether dice with stickers attached can ever be truly dynamically balanced, whether wood swells with the weather conditions, etc - you know how these discussions develop.
The dice provided - and there are 8 of them - are black plastic, 18mm across, with very slightly recessed areas to take the stickers, which are shiny printed paper, each one being 14mm across. I can see that the edges of the stickers might wear a bit - the indentation is shallow, and the thickness of the paper will protrude a little. It is entirely probable, of course, that the dice as supplied will work excellently well for many years, but I am such a worrier - and then I read the misgivings of all these other people - oooh oooh.
I do have some alternative blank dice. I purchased some samples of various types of plain dice, quite a number of years ago, and (naturally) they are still lying in the Diddy Box in their original packets, untouched. Amongst these are some slightly larger dice - 19mm - which have deeper indentations, and the indentations would fit 14mm stickers perfectly. OK. Unfortunately I only have 5 of these, but I have ordered a couple of additional packs on eBay, from a firm which specialises in educational toys. Given enough of these alternative dice, my plan is to fit GMT's stickers onto them, the deeper indentations will protect the edges nicely, and I might also apply a bit of acrylic varnish over them (subject to a bit of preliminary testing). If all this works, I should have dice which will be the envy of all. Dice of Thunder. When the smoke clears after World War III, my dice will be the only undamaged objects they find around here.
Only potential fly in the ointment is that the supplier cannot guarantee that the dice will all be the same colour, but they are hoping that will be possible. Let's see what I get.
Monday, 10 January 2011
A while ago, I was discussing with Clive a Minifigs S-Range Old Guard band which I've had, unpainted, for donkeys' years. Like any non-combat unit, the band have suffered from always being a secondary priority in the painting queue. If it is a choice between painting a fighting battalion or a soppy band, I will pick the fighters every time. Result? - 25 years later, they are still only partly painted. We joked that, to make the band more useful, and raise their ranking in the paint queue, it would be possible to introduce a new rule, such that all units within earshot would get bonuses for morale and so forth.
Now I come to think about it, and joking aside, that sort of thing has been going on in my wargames since I started. I once was out running in the Queen's Park, Edinburgh, when Her Majesty was in residence at Holyrood Palace, and a troop of the Royal Horse Guards were drawn up in line, in the park, in such a way that I had to run along behind the complete line of great, towering, black horses’ backsides to continue my jog. I was so impressed by the experience that when I got home I amended my rules for the effect of cavalry on infantry.
Recently I have added various siege-type units to my Peninsular armies, since I am working to develop rules for sieges. I have some small units of French sappers in full siege gear, with round helmets and cuirasses, and the siege rules will have to give these guys special skills and duties. I also recruited a bunch of French line infantry sapeurs (Falcata and Kennington), which are pleasing, and I have been gently looking for clues as to what such chaps might do, and how they might be organised.
I realise, for example, that your battalion sapeurs would be just the fellows for smashing down doors, or maybe corduroying rough roads, and they could, I guess, be provisionally grouped at brigade or division level for special duties. Looking at various historic OOBs, it is clear that each French division had units of pioneers - i.e. men from the engineering branch of the army - so I assume that if you wanted to construct a bridge or something these would be the people to do it. What role, then, did the regimental sapeurs have? I had a look at various rules, to see how engineering is addressed, and I found that it is pretty haphazard. Some rule writers have dismissed engineering as an aspect of warfare which is too slow and too tedious to take into account. Some - the old WRG and Big Battalions rules among them - have a fair amount of detailed stuff, but it all looks a bit like something borrowed from a scenario.
Interesting. Does anyone have any ideas about obvious, no-brainer duties which sapeurs could carry out on the battlefield? Are there any sets of rules which address this in a particularly coherent way?
As with the band, it would be silly to distort the game just to give my new unit a job to do, but it has made me realise that I have very little idea what they did. All clues welcome.
Completely separate subject. Just before Christmas I managed to obtain a good copy of the 2-volume Memoirs of Baron Thiébault, which, though I owned it in a former life, I never actually read. Officially, I am currently having an 1814 (Defence of France) period, and have the appropriate works by Petre, Houssaye and Uffindell lined up for study, along with the trusty (but very heavy) Elting & Esposito atlas. I had a quick squint at Thiébault, and the 1814 plans are now on hold as a result.
I am aware that the baron does not get a very good press, and I can see why. This is something a bit different. Thiébault was present at some important episodes of the Napoleonic Wars, so he is a major witness anyway, but his personality is unusual. He writes well, with a great eye for detail and excellent recall, even humour, but he is vain, permanently offended, always the victim of injustice, and always the hero of everything he describes. He never loses a witty exchange, his only fault, he believes, has always been excessive humility and honesty. He is, in short, a horror. If you want to know what a complete waste of space all the celebrity generals were, this is where to find your information. Soult, Darmagnac, Dorsenne, Solignac, you-name-it all got a roasting in last night's session. Dreadful people. D'Erlon, it seems, was not completely hopeless, but was ineffective unless Thiébault was around to support him. Anyway, it's been hugely entertaining. There are moments when I wish I had a time machine, to travel back to give him a resounding slap, but it’s a highly recommended read overall.
Sunday, 2 January 2011
The revised rules can be downloaded from here.