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

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Hooptedoodle #21 - Demons Revisited

In a fairly lengthy and very busy life, I have been told many things by many people, some in person, some through the medium of the written or broadcast word. This, I suppose, is how we all acquire wisdom, but there seems to be a quirk in my own particular wiring diagram which means that the things I have learned are not necessarily stored in any sort of useful priority order. The things which are most readily retrieved are such treasures as odd football results from English League Division Two in 1960, or some stupid proverb a long-dead relative used to misquote when the weather was cold, or a radio advertising jingle which annoyed the bejesus out of me when I was nine. There is some useful stuff in there as well, I suppose, but it seems to be buried somewhere in the gaps.

Here's an example of a memorable-but-not-very-useful thing I have stored away. Someone - can't remember who - once said to me, "If you loved a place, you must never go back there, because the magic will be lost, but if there is a place you fear then you must revisit it, to lay the demon to rest". Of course, I have never really had the faintest idea what it means, though I can appreciate that it sounds kind of wise in a folksy sort of way. I sometimes feel that I have almost understood it, but then it slips away again.

Well, I have had a very busy week - that old Real Life thing has really been playing up again, and my priorities all got skewed. However, I did manage to get some units cleaned up and shipped off to the painter. Some more Spanish militia and irregulars, and some more of my mythical Pommeranians. I am saddened to have to report that two of the Pommeranian battalions were pulled out of the shipment, old Scruby figures - I found (when I got close up to them with a razor saw and some needle files) that the castings were so poor that I shall have to make arrangements to get replacement figures of appropriate Old School style. What a pity that L S Lowry never turned his hand to sculpting 20mm wargame figures, come to think of it.

And then, this morning, the postie brought me a personal demon. I have managed to obtain a slightly battered copy of George W Jeffrey's The Napoleonic Wargame, and I am pleased to have it. It surprises me to find that I should have come to be interested in such a thing, and it gives some satisfaction to note that I can now read it without becoming depressed. I must have moved on. It is, moreover, a proper, archetypal wargames book, with a picture of the classic OPC Hinton Hunt lancers on the front. Excellent. I am looking forward to reading George's book, after all these years, just for a glimpse through someone else's windows.

At this point I should carefully point out that I once knew GWJ - he was not a close friend, but he was a personable enough fellow, if rather intimidating, and I knew him through his activities with my local wargaming club. I should also point out that, as is right and proper, I cherish the fact that wargamers can each pursue the hobby in their own way, so that they get what they want from it. The breadth of the church is all part of the richness of the tradition. I also have no wish whatsoever to be disrespectful or to rattle any cages, but in my view GWJ was one of a select number of individuals who came close to killing off the hobby of miniatures gaming. I don't just mean that they alienated me - I mean that they developed a school of thought within the hobby which ultimately threatened to make the games unplayable, and probably drove a lot of enthusiasts away from historical gaming (or into fantasy gaming, which is sort of the same thing). I am referring to the dreaded Myth of Realism. That is the demon. I never had a particular problem with George, but in his day he was one of the high priests of realism.

The first and most important point about realism is the obvious one that, since we do not normally play these games up to our necks in freezing mud, suffering from dysentery and festering bullet wounds, there is some major gap in the realism thing. The second point which occurs to me is that a sense of proportion is essential. George's book is a goldmine of facts - it tells you, for example, the exact dimensions of a deployed French horse artillery battery, in 5mm, 15mm or 25mm figure scales, and he goes on at considerable length about the use of templates to get the distance travelled by the outer edges of a wheeling unit. This is familiar - George was always a stickler for wheeling distances - he was obsessed by π.

I have always been a fan of the commonsense approach which I found in the writings of Paddy Griffith and Charlie Wesencraft, in which it was suggested that if (for example) rifles could shoot further than muskets, and if it mattered (i.e. if it affected anything), then it was a good idea to make the rules give the rifles a slight edge, but it didn't matter exactly how much, as long as it gave reasonable results. Because, to tell the truth, chaps, no-one actually knows exactly how much the advantage was. There are people who will claim to know, but that is mainly because they are too obtuse to perceive the shortcomings of the scientific data. I used to read regularly how such-and-such a set of rules had revamped their fire effect in line with Maj.Gen B P Hughes' (excellent) Firepower, omitting to notice that Hughes was mainly writing about test firings under experimental conditions, which have as much relevance in a true battlefield situation - especially with conscripted troops - as the price of onions.

I have witnessed, with my own ears, a lengthy argument at one of George's wargames about exactly how many rounds the Imperial Guard could fire before they needed to be resupplied from the caissons. The argument then moved on to the capacity of the caissons. The battle did not finish. I never saw a big Napoleonic battle finish at that club. There were holes in the melee rules that you could have driven, well, a caisson through, yet they argued about marching distances and the capacity of a cartridge pouch. George also used to be very interested in which particular figures in a unit were hit, though I never really understood why.

He is regarded as the inventor of Variable-Length Bounds, or VLB as the initiated call it. A great idea, in principle, to facilitate those dead periods at the start of a battle when not much happens. Advancing an entire army 2 kilometres in 30-second bounds is a certain cure for insomnia, in my experience. I've had several goes at reading about VLB, and I still can't understand it. Perhaps some worthy soul will respond to this post to sort me out. I read somewhere that George had a lot of good ideas, which were hamstrung by the fact that his approach was bottom-up - too many musket ball counts and not enough strategic movement.

I would like to stress that this was never intended to be any kind of personal attack on George Jeffrey, though I'm sure that someone will see it as such. George's book dates from 1974, which is three years before the appearance of another classic for detailed realism disciples, Bruce Quarrie's Napoleon's Campaigns in Miniature. I am very fond of this - it is packed full of so much extrapolated trivia that it is a book which had to be written. I believe George would have liked to have written a book like this. It is absolutely full of numbers - some of them numbers about things which you wouldn't think you could measure - and is an interesting read, if you do it in very short bursts. I'm confident that most readers of this blog will be familiar with Quarrie's masterpiece, but here is a section from one of my favourite bits, as a sampler.

And if that doesn't get you rushing to rewrite your in-house wargame rules then you should be ashamed.


  1. No shame here about that Quarrie stuff, as I have several chapters within arm's reach at this moment and have spent plenty of time calculating currency fluctuations to convert his system to the 18th Century prices and currencies.

    I had to copy several chapters in '04 to have them easier to carry around, as the library keeps making me give the book back, and that is what is one arm's reach away here in April 2011.

    It is the basis for my house rules in most areas and especially the visibility part with my 2mm big battle system as the table is far too large an area to identify troops until fighting distances are reached.

    To me the funniest part was to find that in the end it was all based on dividing the populations by three, as if they were all equally productive. After all that math, that just seemed way too simplified, but maybe he meant it that way all along, so as to say, it IS simplified! Not complicated at all. ;)

    That part could not be quite right when converting it to either Frederick's Prussia, or even Piedmont-Savoy. Certain populations would have to be more or less productive due to factors that he omitted, in order to maintain the forces they did. Tax rates not everywhere the same, and what about the debased silver coinage, the 'Ephraims?'

    To me it's just right, although it would take all day to explain it to someone else, who just wants to get on with the game.

    I had that Jeffrey book in the Eighties but it was a casualty of my exe-esposa. Since it has been gone so long, I have it mixed up in my memory with Paddy Griffiths' Napoleonic Wargaming For Fun. Only now from your explanation do I realize that is the same GWJ from the infamous VLB, and it makes me wish I could see it again.

    I have read many articles both from him in The Courier, and about the VLB from others elsewhere, and never realized that book was from the same guy, or if I briefly did, I forgot.

    My conclusion was that Empire should not have tried to 'copyright' the Telescoping Time Concept, when it was lifted from a Christopher Duffy book about the forts which had a wargame appendix about those games at Sandhurst using the telesoping of time, previously to Empire mixing the word telescoping with time, even using Duffy's own word, and then to assert that they have copyrighted it?!

    But that other than the arrogance and hypocrisy of doing that, the way Empire broke up time was a good way to address the problem of making the VLB actually work practically. There could be other ways.

    The printed magazine boardgamers also had a few designs which tried to use systems like the Empire one, but maybe more efficient--that is to say, 'elegant,' in having less unit command levels with their counters.

    All of these are exactly food for my hobby, which is more trying to sort all this out than to actually use it on the table on my opponent, who moved away years ago anyway, but I still like to figure how we would do it, when we can.

    Excellent post, and so many things to think about there's barely room to confirm I also share an obsession with Mr Jeffrey for pie, in my case blueberry, which I need to avoid thinking about too often.

  2. An interesting post! I too own and love the Quarrie book. . . Own but don't care for the Jeffrey title though. Finally worked out in the early 2000s that my own quest for "realism" was a wild goose chase and that there was a lot to those old rules from the 60s and early 70s by Featherstone, grant, and Young & Lawford. If nothing else, those actully get you playing without worrying too much about precise unit depths, frontages, etc.

    Best Regards,


  3. I'm determined that I'm not going to be negative about GWJ - he was (or had been) a serving soldier - I seem to recall that he was an NCO in the Royal Scots, but that may be nonsense. Whatever, it's very apparent that he was very interested in controlling low-level behaviour - manoeuvring his miniature battalions in exact accordance with Dedon or Meunier, identifying the individual casualties (the men under the "bounce stick") - even (I hesitate to add) pretty much controlling the activities of his colleagues at the wargames club - you will not do that, you will do this. No doubt we all fight miniature battles for a reason - I've mentioned before that I really don't want to understand too much about my own reasons.


    1. Sorry I am coming late to this thread. I knew George Jeffrey very well, I joined his club in 1972 and was one of those few who took over when George had left. I was at his funeral too.

      George was indeed an NCO in the Royal Scots, Colour Sergeant in fact and was awarded a service comment of 'exemplary' on his discharge.

      George, whatever you feel his failings may have been, was instrumental in getting wargaming going in Edinburgh and his club has gone from strength to strength ever since.


    2. Hi Jim - thanks for getting touch - re-reading this post, I wish to restate my intention not to be disrespectful to George - at a personal level, I didn't have any problem with him at all except that, to use an old euphemism, "he didn't suffer fools gladly". I was silly enough to query his rules on a couple of occasions, and was well roasted for my trouble! My appearances at SESWG were fairly few - maybe 1970/71? - I knew Bill Mackay (from my local hobby shop) and Mario Boni slightly, and Allan Gallacher, who took me along to a few sessions. I learned a lot - including the fact that clubs weren't really for me!

    3. Hi Tony

      George had his fans as well as others less so. There were many facets to the man and to judge him on only one of them would be a sin. Like I said he was the one who got wargaming going in Edinburgh but I was one of those guys who stopped him from regaining his former position after returning from a few years absence, we had grown a bit wiser by then. I too, didn't always agree with him and paid the penalty but I still got a mention in his first book and I was privileged to be at his funeral.

      You predate me in your club membership and of the names you quoted only Mario Boni rings a bell. I remember playing a naval wargame on the floor of his ice cream factory.

      I was speaking with Henry Hyde of Battlegames just the other week about the founding fathers of the hobby. There are of course many names who can wear that title but there are others who will be the uncle, the cousin or just the best friend of the hobby and I think that George will be in there somewhere.


  4. Forgot to mention - variable time - doesn't Piquet do that as an option?


  5. Excellent post - like Stokes I too lean towards the simpler end of the rule spectrum for the very reasons you describe... tried hyper-realism, finally came to the conclusion they were emperors new clothes, went back to where I started... :o)

  6. My own take on Piquet - which I have played and enjoyed quite a lot - is that different people rationalise what's going on in different ways. One person's 'variable time' might be another person's 'the units aren't actually where you think they are'. As a game I find that it has enough uncertainty to appeal to me. I can quite understand that others might feel it has too much uncertainty to appeal to them.

    Chapter 7 of George Gush's 'A Guide To Wargaming' discusses many views on all this including the excellent sounding 'Space-Time Continuum' rule proposed by one Carl Reavely, but which is sadly dismissed pretty much out of hand by Mr Gush.

  7. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the word "simplify" in that quote. I've never read the Quarrie book but I spent many an hour with the Jeffreys book being unsettled. Picked it up not that long after I got Charge! and Grant's Napoleonic book, no wonder that I've been confused ever since. Took me 25 years to get back to playing Charge!

    At times I can sorta see the idea behind VLB, troops don't march in bounds or turns, they march to a location unless interrupted etc. I don't know who was first proposed it but von Reiswich used the idea in 1824 in his Kriegspiel.

    As a game mechanic it seems to require either an umpire who adjudicates things or else discussing your plans with your opponent, and then watching him trying to justify how he knew just what you were about and was already planning to order his counter measures. I've also never quite figured out how to work it when there are 5 different things going on at different rates.

    Never actually played Jeffery's game but I did eventually rip out the tables of unit frontages pages before throwing the rest away during a purge. Something I normally reserve for magazines.


  8. This has some danger of turning into a distraction, but I am intrigued by the philosophical problems presented by varying the bound length. I've just been glancing through the Horizon Movement section in Piquet's "Les Grognards" supplement (one of many sets of rules which I own, find interesting, but have no immediate intention of playing). I haven't looked in Empire yet (another such) - I have the 3rd edition, I think.

    The Piquet mechanism is, I'm sure, well worked out, since Piquet things usually are, but it seems to be generically similar to other approaches to the same problem. The idea is that units will make a big, multiple (if you like) move, which ends when they they are interrupted by a significant piece of terrain, or by a scheduled order, or by some enemy action or contact. I'm sure there's other stuff that can interrupt them, but that sets the idea. So whose interruption is going to apply to everyone? - well, I guess it's the first one to happen. OK so far - needs a bit of second guessing, but OK.

    So what happens when General B says, "Ah - if I'd known you were coming through that area, I'd have fired my artillery about 2/3 of the way through that big move"?. So, since there's a possibility this artillery fire might have discouraged the advance, we might agree to unwind the multiple move back to this point, and do some dice throwing. In fact, the easiest way to do this might be to split the big move down into little ones and work forwards, which puts us back where we started, except more confused. This is exactly the problem I have with VLB!


  9. I thoroughly enjoyed BP Hughes book and found it very interesting, but the fact remains that we have very fragmentary evidence upon which to base a statistical analysis of blackpowder combat. That is not to denigrate his achievement, but merely to state the limitations of the approach.

    I find gamers are very keen to seize upon numbers in their search for "realism". The problem with the approach is that the numbers are often suspect and can only take you so far. They are not good at dealing with imponderables like morale, obscuring effect of gunsmoke, starvation, sleep deprivation and the like.
    Which is not to say that numbers couldn't be found that have a bearing on this, but they weren't collected at the time.

    I've always felt that this approach is about trying to control a chaotic environment, as if by gaining a mastery of the numbers - a complete understanding of the situation could be achieved.

    I was watching a game of Little Wars a few years ago with a friend of mine who did not rate it as a game because of the non-random melee resolution system. He was bewildered when he saw the game in operation, because players with complete and perfect knowledge of the situation (how far men could move, how many men a given side could bring to bear) could still make self-defeating decisions.

    People are a magnificent random outcome generator.

  10. Hey, my old copy was slightly battered...have you checked the inside front cover?

  11. Mekelnborg - my new/old copy of Jeffrey did come from the USA, but the inside cover is unmarked. If it had been your book I would be getting very nervous indeed - I did check, though.

    Conrad, and everyone else with realism vs numbers vs playability references - I think there's still some mileage in this - it's a well-worn subject, but it's probably worth another post of its own.

    Quarrie's calculations about cavalry in the example offered basically demonstrate one of my big quibbles (can you have a big quibble?) about the whole subject - the differences in cost he demonstrates between nations are less, proportionally, than the accumulated degree of error in his assumptions. I love the book dearly (apart from the rules), but he is really saying "all types of cavalry, of whatever nation, cost quite a lot of money to turn out", to which the appropriate answer is "OK, we'll get back to you".



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