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.