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

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Hooptedoodle #19 - Safety in Numbers

Foy's Ninth Law is:

Top-end technology is valueless if you man it with bottom-end personnel.

I'm aware that there has been a regrettable element of flippancy in some of the recent Hooptedoodle posts, and I am determined to get back to nice, opinion-free pictures of painted soldiers as soon as possible, but today's post is brought to you because I feel obliged - duty-bound, even - to share something which may make you feel a whole lot more comfortable.

It might even improve your day.

I know a lot of people worry about security - we know that we are being watched, that our emails are being sniffed, that International Crime is listening to our mobiles. Only recently, the British Daily Mail (bless them) were explaining how illegal immigrants spend their nights trawling through dustbins, looking for documents which we have thoughtlessly left there, which will enable them to steal our identities. That's right - steal them. And how are you going to cope with having no identity? If you were the sort of person who was unguarded enough to speak to a stranger, how would you introduce yourself?

This is a very serious matter. Characteristically, I have been giving it much thought. There is also the worrying possibility that anyone who steals my identity might actually get some use out of it (something which I have never managed) or, even worse, might bring it back to complain about it.

Well, it's a small step, but I have some good news. The credit card companies, at least, are doing their best for us. Last night I set about paying my credit card balance online, as is my habit, but found that the secure part of the website was shut down for maintenance. Naturally I was a little disgruntled about this - I mean, the whole point of the internet is convenience, right? - and, apart from that, I'd even made a fresh cup of coffee specially. However, these things happen, so I left it until this morning, and tried again.

Still no joy. Now an inaccessible secure website is pretty secure, I have to admit, but not being able to pay my bills is tough going. I searched around the website until I found the helpline number for the online service. After some delay, I spoke to a very pleasant, very correct young lady, to see if she could tell me when the online service was going to be back up again, so that I could plan my day around this convenient facility.

You will be reassured - possibly delighted - to know that the young lady would not give me this information until we had gone through my credit card number, my full name, the first line of my address and my mother's maiden name. Now that's more like it, I'm sure you'll agree. If, like me, you were worried about illegal immigrants gaining information about when the credit card company's website will be working, then this will be good news.

It did occur to me that the helpdesk will probably be very busy this morning, with people worrying about what has happened to the website, and that the requirement to go through The Security Procedures with each one may well explain why I had to listen to a few minutes of Mozart before I could speak to the young lady. However, I realised that this was not a helpful thought - just a quibble, really - and that I should focus more on the positive aspects of being protected.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Hooptedoodle #18 - Eric

Michelangelo's "Eric"

By some roundabout route, this short post is inspired (if that is the word) by further thoughts I had on yesterday's piece about provenance, and the general subject of fakes.

My late cousin and I shared a lot of private jokes over the years, most of which were greeted with puzzled stares from outsiders. We played a long-running game called "Not Quite", which kept us in stitches for years.

The theme of the game was things which were not quite successful, or not quite genuine. We started off with "Songs Which Nearly Made It", which included lots of groanworthy items such as "I've Got You Under My Sink", "Two Coins in a Fountain", "Trouble over Bridgwater" and many others. How we larfed. [Bridgwater, by the way, is a town in Somerset, England - it is a mysterious and little-understood characteristic of the British that we view our towns as a source of amusement, which does not mean that we are not proud of them. Whereas in America, for example, it is considered highly acceptable to write enthusiastic, sentimental or romantic songs about Tulsa, Phoenix, Galveston, Chicago, New York et al, in Britain - with the exception of London and (possibly) Glasgow - such mention of local places in songs is guaranteed to cause merriment - "April in Rochdale" was one of my cousin's favourites.]

We moved on from song titles to books, and then to the vast panoply of the world's fakes and magnificent near-misses. Cousin Dave was delighted to learn that Michelangelo's David, in Florence (no, not the one in Sheffield), the most-photographed tourist magnet of them all, is actually a fake. The original is held, sensibly, in a secure location in a museum. Dave thought that it was a little shabby of the authorities not to come clean on this. He felt that they should admit it was a replica or, if that was too uncomfortable, they might claim that the statue in the square was actually David's younger brother, Eric. After a suitable amount of sniggering, we called the statue Eric for ever after.

The point is (or "a possible point might be") that, if countless millions of tourists have queued to photograph, gawp at and pay homage to Eric over the years, then he has a provenance all his own. He is better known, in truth, than his more reclusive brother.

He is one of the truly great Not Quites. Respect.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Provenance and Vandalism

One of my other interests, apart from wargaming, is motor racing - especially the history of Grand Prix racing, and I maintain a casual interest in the actual examples of old cars which still survive. There is always a lively debate about what constitutes a genuine specimen and what doesn't. For example, if someone now builds a perfect 1955 Lancia D50, entirely from genuine 1955 factory spare parts, that does not constitute an authentic historic car, since the entity (and chassis number) did not exist in 1955. Now - just suppose that, back in 1955, Alberto Ascari had written off his works Lancia in practice at Monaco, and the mechanics had worked all night to create an entirely new car for the actual race, using exactly the same heap of spare parts - that would now be a genuine historic car, if it were still around.

Lancia D50 - genuine

Next case: suppose someone wishes to buy, say, one of the 1954 works Maserati 250F cars - the chassis number being identifiable as the one in which Fangio won the Belgian GP (say). If genuine, this is going to be worth an absolute fortune. However, if the car has really had a full life as a competitive car, and then has subsequently been maintained and raced in Historic racing, then it will have been fettled, patched, repaired, and renovated for 50-odd years, and it is possible that there is not a single part of that vehicle which is original - except maybe the chassis plate! The actual entity, however, is regarded as genuine if it has existed continuously since manufacture. You may recognise the celebrated Executioner's Axe conundrum. This is not entirely a straightforward matter - yes, this is the actual axe which has been used to execute traitors since the 15th Century, though, naturally, it has had many replacement handles and at least one new head over the years.

Move on. A long time ago, I was sitting in the National Library of Scotland, reading an old, leather-bound copy of the English translation of Maximilien Foy's history of the Peninsular War, and was horrified to find that the book was defaced - someone had obviously taken exception to the bold Maximilien's views, and had expressed his patriotic outrage, in pencil, in the margins of several dozen pages. Shaking, white with indignation, I reported this to the girl at the lending desk (not least for fear that she might think I had done it!). She checked the records, and reported back that the book had come to the library from the estate of the 5th Earl of Rosebery around 1930, and that the annotations were almost certainly the work of the Earl, or possibly of his father. In short, the pencil scribbles were part of the provenance of the book.

So much for the ramble around the subject - now to the point. Today I noted that 10 unpainted Hinton Hunt Line Chasseurs a Cheval have been purchased on eBay for some £260. You may do the conversion into your currency of choice, but that is a great deal of money. I am aware that the value of these miniatures is also influenced by whether they are original issue or the later Clayton products, so there is a definite thread of provenance and authenticity in there, whatever you or I may think of the actual sums involved. Someone has been prepared to pay a certain amount to obtain the genuine article.

Now it gets a little complicated. I have seen, at first hand, some of Clive's ex-Peter Gilder Hinton Hunt Napoleonic cavalry. They are breathtaking - individually animated, some with bases replaced with sheet brass, wire harness and flat wire sword blades added and so on. My personal favourite was a trumpeter of chevauxleger-lanciers, converted from a trooper, with the cord of his trumpet made from plaited wire. So what are these things worth? I know that some of them have been bought and sold within living memory, so a value must have been placed on them. I guess that the fact that Gilder converted them adds greatly to their worth and, like the ex-Rosebery book, the mods were carried out so long ago that they have become an important and essential part of the character of these models. I also guess that, if I had hacked them about myself, the value would be approximately zero. Hmmm.

What brought all this to mind, if you will kindly excuse the jump from the sublime to the agricultural, is that I am currently working on some Minifigs s-range Spaniards. As ever with s-range, I rather like the figures but I really don't like their enormous bayonets. They are very robust, and they are part of the tradition of s-range, but they do look a bit silly alongside figures from other manufacturers. And, as ever with s-range, I find it is Groundhog Day. Once again I have given serious thought to shortening and slimming down the bayonets to improve them, and once again I have chickened out, primarily because these are very old figures, they are expected to be like that, and it would feel wrong to change them.

So - just as on every previous occasion - I'll leave them unaltered, and I suppose that this is the correct thing to do, even though I shall continue not to like their bayonets very much. I'm also pretty sure that Peter Gilder would have just changed them, without a second thought, and he would have been right, too.


Saturday, 19 February 2011

Computers in Wargaming - 4 - Fit for Purpose

Computers. I've been around them for years - I worked with them throughout my professional career, and I've always been interested in what can be done with them, though they don't really excite me in their own right. I don’t build them, I don’t properly understand the engineering and, though I can do (and have done a good deal of) relatively simple programming, I definitely regard myself as a user rather than a techie.

[When I was considering how best to structure this post, I found a comment I had added to a previous posting, which gets across a few of the messages well enough for me to re-use it as a starting point, albeit in smartened-up form.]

Computerisation of my wargames has worked pretty well for me, but not through the use of anything that I bought or that someone developed for me. I am the proud owner of 2 commercially available computer-managed Napoleonic games for use with miniatures, and I don't use either of them. I have Follow the Eagles - Tactical (I think), which is quite thorough, though I don’t care much for its playability, and I also have Iron Duke which is far cheaper, more tweakable and generally more friendly - yet I haven't really used that very much either. It’s OK – I paid for them, so I am entitled to an opinion.

Apart from the inflexibility (and implied threat) of a sealed "black box" system, there is a common mistake that designers make: because they can't help it, because they were trained that way, because this is how computer applications look nowadays, they write nice, Windows-style GUI (Graphical User Interface) systems in Visual Basic or similar, which require a dedicated, mouse-wielding operator to read a screen full of nice coloured text, select things from drop-down menus, set radio buttons, click on defined areas of the screen for choices and actions etc. For a miniatures game, I believe this is wrong. Too much distraction - first off, the classy interface between the operator and the machine is completely cancelled out by the totally useless spoken/misheard interface between the players and the operator; secondly, this is a miniatures game - everyone is supposed to be looking at the action on the table - the computer is, almost certainly, a major nuisance. My own home-built systems are very simple data-capture programs which run on a very small, battery powered net-book which can be handed from player to player as necessary. The only entries are single key-touch (e.g. y/n) type responses to direct questions, plus unit numbers where necessary. That's all. This is a conscious attempt to simplify the user interface to the lowest possible workload.

OK – that is a suitable point at which to introduce the subject of Fitness for Purpose. Let’s take a fanciful example.

If you have to write (say) an automated inspection inventory system for some hazardous environment, where the staff will be working in cold, or damp, or toxic conditions, where they may be climbing on observation gantries, or wearing protective clothing (big gloves, say), it would be a major error to design a desktop type application which requires constant use of a mouse, or a lot of free typing, or which generally looks like the sort of package which accounts clerks spend their days with. The hardware is going to have to be compact and tough and convenient – maybe even specially built – and the input is going to have to be a real lumpen data-capture arrangement, such that they can hit big buttons with their gloves on, do the absolute minimum of tinkering, and read the big numbers without difficulty and without mistakes. They will not want to wait for McAfee to finish downloading an update in mid-job. They will probably not wish to be offered the chance to chat online, unless it is to set off an alarm. It would be a good idea, very early in the design, to brainstorm exactly what the intended users require of their system, so that the builders do not simply default to something they prepared earlier. [Factual digression: I recall a team of very expensive external contractors coming into an insurance office to design a client-server system to support the customer helpdesk. Since they did not understand the business, nor the processes involved in insurance, and since they were in a hurry, they immediately set about producing a re-hash of a system they had previously built for a police force in New Zealand, with some changes in the wording. It wasn’t a success, the business users were upset, and they had to start again.]

If we take a small leap to what we hope is a slightly less hazardous environment – that of the miniatures wargame – the same principles still hold true. As far as possible, we should aim to use the computer only for what it can advantageously do for us. We do not wish it to divert the players’ attention from the tabletop more than is strictly necessary, and we certainly wish to design the input arrangements so that they can be handled on the fly by the players, without burdening them with an unacceptable extra workload, without requiring them to sit down at a side table, without slowing everything down, and without confusing anyone, or making them fed up. There will be some trade-off, naturally – any tasks that the computer requires us to do will obviously take a measurable time – the aim must be that the extra time taken is justified by the convenience or labour-saving which the computer achieves.

The first viable home computers were sold with the BASIC programming language installed. It can be argued that the use of BASIC - a relatively high-level language - was a major step towards making home computers work. It was now possible for a member of the public to purchase a branded box off the shelf of a high street store, take it home and start writing simple executable programs straight away. BASIC was excellent - it read very like structured English, was simple to learn, and yet had a fairly sophisticated command set. It was greeted with great sniffiness by the grognards of computing of the day, since it wasn't "proper" programming. A great deal of commercial programming on mainframes at that time was still carried out in low-level, numeric languages such as IBM Assembler, which were labour intensive and difficult to master, but which produced software which ran very quickly and efficiently. The real practical disadvantages of BASIC (as opposed to the prejudices) were two-fold:

(1) The English-like instructions, though compact and easy to use, are not compiled into a stored set of machine instructions; this means that each time the computer reads your BASIC program, however many times it has run it before, it has to interpret it as it goes along, and create machine-code type instructions for execution. The interpretive process was very slow indeed in 1981 - remember that the chip speeds of these early machines were very low. Thus BASIC programs which required a very large amount of reiterative mathematical processing could run so slowly as to be useless. One way around this was to embed chunks of machine code into the BASIC programs, which would run much faster. Machine code was much nearer to the concept of traditional computing, and was specific to the processor chip in your particular machine, but there was a learning overhead.

(2) There is a maximum size of 64 Kilobytes for the program listing. In the days when programs were stored/saved on audio cassettes, and home-brewed programs tended to be small, this wasn’t really a problem. More sophisticated stuff, like video games, was always written in machine code anyway, so that it would run fast enough to be acceptable.

Fine. I bought a Spectrum in the early 1980s, I started writing software for my wargames, and I wrote it in BASIC, since that is pretty much all there was. In places where the processing was too slow, and sometimes if I needed to save some space, I used some machine code routines (PEEK and POKE – ah, nostalgia). The way this progressed has already been described sufficiently in section 2 of this series of posts. It’s worth observing that, though there were a number of people experimenting and producing software for their own wargames (like me) at this time, I am unaware of anyone who attempted to market anything like this then. Two possible reasons present themselves without much thought – firstly, there was no common view of which rules the game should follow, and, secondly, although the Spectrum was probably a market leader, there was a great variety of makes and models of computer available, and no two could share software.

Then everything to do with wargames went on hold for me for a period of about 15 years. When I restarted, one of my earliest jobs was to transfer the old BASIC programs (I had printed out the listings) onto a modern IBM PC. It made sense to start with a close approximation to what had been working on the Spectrum before the Intermission. Getting the BASIC written, with equivalent function, and debugging it all was enough of a chore without learning a new programming language or rewriting the game rules at the same time. I could start improving/tinkering later.

I got my Ancients game (Camulos) up and running and, since the Napoleonic game used large chunks of the same logic, I spent some time sorting out the Ancients. Since the world had moved on, I started to teach myself Visual Basic, and prepared to rewrite the wargame programs in a smarter, more modern Windows environment. At this point I also started looking at some of the available commercial offerings, and discovered that I was really very unconvinced about the classic Windows GUI front-end, and its suitability for a miniatures game. After buying some examples of games, going down some blind alleys and, really, confirming what I had suspected, I decided to stick with BASIC, though by this time it was called QBASIC. I am aware that this decision may be considered laughable, but if I had rewritten them in another language, I would still have been looking for something that behaved like the QBASIC programs, so I could not see the point of migrating the software just for the sake of it. I improved the programs a lot, designed them to work more efficiently and split them into functional modules. They are still written in QBASIC to this day – and, of course, like all rule sets, they are still being improved!

OK, so what happened to the 2 great problems of BASIC which I noted earlier? Good question.

(1) The processing speed of modern computers is so high that even interpretive, clunky old QBASIC executes with blinding speed. No longer a problem – not even a little bit.

(2) The 64K ceiling is still a constraint. The answer is to split big programs into functional chunks which can call each other and pass data to each other. When one of my battles reaches a decision point, my main Battle Manager program will store all the relevant current information about the battle and all units, and will call the Result Assessor, which starts off by looking for the handover file and loading the saved data.

Note that I am not suggesting that anyone starting now should necessarily use BASIC – my point here is that what appears to me to be the optimal input arrangement for a miniatures wargame management system is handled quite adequately by QBASIC, though the choice of language is obviously up to the programmer!

Here is a screen shot from the Iron Duke game – note that it is a conventional Windows GUI, mouse-driven application.

Here are a series of screen shots from my own QBASIC game – some examples of how the computer directs the progress of the game, stepping through the turn sequence and cueing the action, reporting on events as they occur.

It was a bad day for the 16th Light Dragoons, and especially for General Anson.

Weather checking is a good example of the sort of background task which a computer handles well.

That is really as much as I wanted to say. In my experience, once you are used to the convenience of an automated system (provided it is, in fact, convenient), all the memory work and mental arithmetic of a complex dice game can seem exhausting. My 8-year-old son became interested in my games recently, and so I put together a very simple dice-driven game for him, to get him some experience. When we were an hour into it, he asked if we could play the computerised game instead, since he found the dice a distraction. Now there’s heresy. It is possible, of course, that my simplified dice game was dreadful...

Lastly, to repeat the message which overrides all of this – computers have been useful because they have allowed me to use fairly complex rules without losing the will to live. The option would have been to cut back drastically on the complexity. If the Commands & Colors rules – straightforward as they are - provide games which run crisply, I shall be very happy to leave the computer on the shelf. It is, and always has been, just a tool, just a means to an end.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Hooptedoodle #17 - Sebastopol

I just switched on my mail browser to be told that "Faster is Funner" in the banner advert provided by my Internet service provider. They really shouldn't say these things to people like me, who live in the Front of Beyond and only receive a sub-half-meg service (especially when I have to wait for their pesky ad to download before I can read my mail), but mostly I was distracted by the ad - faster is what? Good grief.

Someone recently sent me the following, which definitely strikes a chord:

"Her vocabulary was so poor that she was, like, whatever".

Anyway, that's not the point of this posting. Matriculus emailed me again. Fine, I hear you mutter, just email him back. Well, it's not that straightforward.

He said, "Interested in the dominoes game. Why is it called Sebastopol, and how do you play it?". First bit of that is easy - I have no idea. It probably has something to do with the battle. Second bit should also be no problem, but before I sent off a reply, I checked online for the official rules of Sebastopol and - you guessed it - the official game of Sebastopol is quite a bit different from what we play. This is a serious issue - I am in real trouble if I have misinformed my son in this matter.

I learned the game which we call Sebastopol when I was about 12, I guess. I can't find any other dominoes game which has quite the same rules, so if anyone has any ideas I shall be most grateful.

Sebastopol, or not

Game is thus. For 2 players, each takes 10 tiles - rest go face-down in the boneyard. Starting player (winner of previous game, or reigning champion, in our house) plays a double of his own choice. If he has no doubles, the other player starts. Play proceeds in 4 directions from this initial double, but there is no need for all 4 directions to be played. No number may be played until the double of that number has been played, so at any moment numbers are "open" or "closed". If you can't play, you may pick up one tile from the boneyard. If you still can't go, you pass, or "knock" (or "chap" if you are in Scotland). If you play your last tile, you have won. If no-one can play then the player with the "lightest" hand (least spots) wins. If the spots are equal, the players go outside and fight to the death with knives. I made that last bit up, to see if anyone was paying attention.

The feature whereby numbers remain closed until the double is played adds a bit of spice to the strategy. You can play with 3 players (7 tiles each) or 4 players (5 tiles).

I propose to brass this out, and continue to call the game Sebastopol, but any better-informed opinion would be most welcome.

Good game - recommended.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Computers in Wargaming - 3 - What Makes a "Good" Game?

I received an email from Matriculus in response to the second part of this series of posts on computers. It was very affable in tone, and made a couple of very useful points, but it also asked a question which bothered me a little. It bothered me to the point where I wish to take a brief timeout to reconsider what it was we were trying to provide a solution for - just where is the swamp we came to drain?

Why, asked Matriculus, are you trying to sell the idea of using computers in wargames? Remember that many people have to use computers every day in their work, and many people do not enjoy their work, so the idea is bound to be unattractive to many.


He is, of course, absolutely right, but I fear that my interest in the subject has been interpreted as evangelism, and that is bothering - I never meant to sell anything of the sort. My standpoint here is that a game (of any type) needs a certain number of characteristics to make it "good" for me. For a number of reasons, miniatures wargames can become so complex and require so much off-line information that it is hard to keep them "good" without some additional help or equipment. A computer is one of the things which might help - I'm sure there are others - but I fear that computers are, in general, viewed unfavourably or "not fancied", not least because inappropriately designed game-management programs have given them a bit of a bad press in the past. A number of people have mentioned to me that they have seen, or taken part in, a wargame with computer support, and thought it was distracting. At best it caused delay, at worst it spoiled the game.

So I think I should back right up at this point, and re-examine what it is that makes a game "good". As always, this is going to be very subjective. I like games which are simple enough to allow you to carry all the rules in your head (with, maybe, some minimal additional reference for special occasions). I like the game to be compact and self-contained, and to have nice, high quality equipment. Green baize is good, shiny crystallite components that feel right and make exotic clicking noises are good. The game should also offer a strategic challenge, and a bit of luck to spice things up and balance the form book is fine. Not least important, the game must be capable of being played to a conclusion within a sensible timeframe, and the conclusion must be understood by the players.

Chess is a good game - it looks and feels terrific, its rules are self-contained, though the player will require an encyclopaedic knowledge of moves and strategies to progress to a decent level. It is a bit heavy to be classed as pure fun, and (as discussed before) it contains no luck at all, which can be severe - humiliating - for weak players like me.

Draughts (checkers) is a less threatening relative of chess.

Backgammon is good, though I never really understood the use of the doubling cube(!), and our infrequent games always have to start with a rules refresher course. Backgammon is a game which really benefits from high quality, box-style equipment. Throwing the pieces effortlessly into the corner point makes you feel like Omar Sharif. Playing on the backside of the kids' folding draughts board is just not the same.

I'm very fond of dominoes. My son (he is 8) and I play a lot of dominoes, including its noble Sebastopol variant, and it always goes well. The rules are simple, and it is especially enjoyable played with our best Jaques domino set (look, feel, sound). If the game goes well and you win, then you are a genius. If it goes badly then you were unlucky with the draw of the dominoes. Perfect.

Scrabble is a pretty good game, but it has irritating interruptions when someone has to break off to consult the dictionary. It's OK, and it's necessary, but it spoils the flow of the game.

Monopoly doesn't do it for me. The equipment is fun, even pleasantly surreal, and the rules are OK. Personally, I find all the counting of money tedious, and the game invariably reaches a point where some of the players have no chance of winning, and really only keep playing at all out of decency, to allow the potential winners to check out. Losing a game of Monopoly is not necessarily a stimulating use of time.

Snakes & Ladders is a terrible game (fortunately my son has now grown out of it), simply because the games are interminable and it contains no skill at all.

My earliest, shambolic ACW wargames were excellent - the equipment, including the troops, was fun, and the rules were simple, though even at that stage there was a lot to remember. The main problem was dissatisfaction with the poor simulation of real warfare, and with elements of the rules which gave paradoxical results, or required improvisation to cover holes. You don't expect holes in the logic of a good game. But the spirit of the battles was spot-on - all the points of attention, everything you needed to look at, including the tape measures and the dice, was right under your nose. The social heart of the occasion was right on the table. When, as proved increasingly necessary, we had to break off for a moment to consult a wall chart (or, even worse, the rule book) the game dipped a little - momentum was lost, the collective vibe was lost, and the less involved players might start to discuss football or their holidays during the interruption. These things are fragile - as often as not, the excitement did not recover from this point.

As my miniatures games got bigger and more ambitious, the interruptions to the spirit of the game became lengthier and more unsettling - especially as we got more frequently into the classic Death Position of arguing over what the rules meant.

I've already expressed my dislike of sheets of paper on the table. On the face of it, the presence of a computer seems like an extremely bad case of rule book. If we have to stop looking at the soldiers, and break off to look at, or do something to, that machine over there, the flow is spoiled. Not only that but it is often hard, when you go back, to find the piece of action on the table which you were considering before you broke off. Dice are fine - if you can avoid wrecking too many bayonets, you can resolve the action right where the combat is taking place. This preserves continuity, makes the outcome seem more natural and more immediately relevant, and - for anyone with short-term memory problems - makes it easier to remember where you were up to! Also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, dice are tactile, fun things to use.

In an ideal world, my miniatures wargames would be simple and compact enough not to need computers or any other sort of support devices or paperwork. I believe that my interest in the new Commands & Colors game is exactly attributable to the hope that it may get me closer to what I enjoyed in my earliest wargaming, with those exotic Battle Dice, and without a sheet of paper or a damned computer anywhere in sight. That is the key point here - if I have got into the habit of using computers over the years in my wargames, it is not because I was looking for another excuse to use the computer, nor because I am especially deranged. It is because they have helped to simplify the games I used them with.

Since this has been something of a stock-take rather than development of my main themes, I'll go on to consider design and (a little) technology, and what I describe as "fitness for purpose" in the concluding fourth part of this trilogy of postings. If Matriculus emails me again, the trilogy may go up to five parts - we'll see.

Hooptedoodle #16 - A Planet by Any Other Name

I am sure that most people know this anyway, but this morning I was reminded of my favourite story involving heavenly bodies. In 1781, while conducting a survey of the Zodiac, astronomer William Herschel discovered another planet which had previously escaped attention. Patriotic to a fault, the noble Herschel named his new planet George (strictly, Georgium Sidius) in honour of his patron, the English King George III.

Understandably, reaction to this name was mixed, non-British astronomers being generally less supportive. It took 60 years before it was agreed that Uranus would be a more appropriate companion to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn than George.

William Herschel (1738-1822)

I am always fascinated by the human obsession with giving things names anyway, although I accept that we have to have some way of identifying objects. Every blemish on the moon, however small, has a name. Does it know? Does it care?

Whatever, what goes around comes around. Herschel (who was a noted musician and composer in addition to his stature as a scientist and builder of telescopes) is himself commemorated by the naming of the largest crater on Mimas, one of the moons of Saturn. Mimas is the smallest known round object in the Solar System - there are smaller things, including a few moons, but they are all classed as asteroids, and do not have sufficient mass to smooth themselves into spheres.

So there you have it. Apart from his loyal indebtedness to the king for funding, it seems hard to believe that Herschel failed to see that a planet named George could well be a source of international hilarity for ever, though arguably no more so than the name which replaced it.

Enough of the Hooptedoodles, already - the third part of the computing posting is shaping up, and should appear in a day or so.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Hooptedoodle #15 - One Man's Democracy

Like countless other people, I have been very moved by the TV coverage of developments in Egypt. Also, like most people in the UK, I have to confess that, prior to the last week or so, I had little knowledge of the situation in Egypt, and probably never thought about it. I am reminded of another evening - not so terribly long ago, really - sitting up late, watching the destruction of the Berlin Wall, wide-eyed, aware that something unimaginable was happening, yet fearful that the shooting would start at any moment. Watching from behind the sofa.

I have no views that I wish to express on the political or religious issues (so spare me the hate mail), but the impact of seeing live TV coverage of ordinary people, children even, carried along by such enthusiasm, uplifted by such collective jubilation, is very powerful. Our UK media have been very sympathetic, as they always are to anyone who wishes to move towards our own local definition of democracy. I wish the Egyptian people every possible success - they have a lot of work to do - I hope things stay peaceful. It looks promising at the moment - may God (their god, the gods, whoever) watch over them.

In the midst of all this euphoria, that little imp of perversity speaks up, somewhere in the back of the brain. History is ultimately written by the winners. I come from a generation and a nation which was taught that the WW2 French Resistance were freedom fighters, yet the IRA were terrorists. Interesting distinction. A lot depends on who you are, where you are and at what date you are considering the matter. I can't help wondering how positive the BBC coverage would be if suddenly the streets of London were filled with protestors, attempting to overthrow our own government. And how would it be if President Obama started giving Britain directions on how to get our democracy act up to the required standard? It suddenly would not be the same thing at all.

Such ideas are far-fetched and probably unworthy on such a historic morning, but when the Egyptians get organised it will have to be done to suit themselves. It would be great if it lines up with some Western model of what we would like to see, but this astonishing public mobilisation and unity is looking for something for themselves, not for outsiders. We'll have to bear this in mind when the time comes.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Computers in Wargaming - 2 - From Basic Principles

You've almost certainly seen this poster before. It has a nostalgic charm for me, since a version of this used to hang on the wall in the software engineers' office at our local IBM office, around 1978. The point, I think, is that it is easy to get so absorbed in the tactical requirements of a solution that you lose sight of what it was you were trying to solve. When I used to work with a bunch of systems analysts, we had a house rule that you had to start every piece of work by writing, on half a sheet of A4, what your objective was, and then keep the paper safely in your drawer. After that, you were supposed to take out the document once a week and check that that was still what you were doing. If it wasn't, you had to call a project meeting straight away.

I've been using microcomputers (as we used to call them) in wargames for so long now that I thought it would be a useful sanity check to try to reconstruct how I got where I am, and why. As anyone who has read my stuff before will expect, this is likely to require a lengthy ramble through my personal history, but - be fair, chaps - who else's experience was I ever likely to learn from?

In the beginning, the first wargames I actually organised and played (rather than watching from a distance at my local wargames club) were very simple ACW-based games, with relatively few troops and (almost certainly) the rules from Featherstone's Battles with Model Soldiers. They were fantastic - hilarious fun. In the company of some equally daft friends, I staged some of the least realistic wargames ever seen. Units of badly-painted Airfix soldiers whizzed around the table at motor-cycle speed, armfuls of dice rolled about the place, and the evenings passed amid a lot of laughter and a great deal of genuine (if rather childish) excitement. Every time, no-one would be able to believe that it was 1am already. There would - even at this early stage - be many occasions when we would forget to do something - usually, but not invariably, something fairly obscure, but sometimes something which completely derailed the flow of the game. One fairly common error was that, in the general excitement, one side would start fighting back or moving before the opponent had finished his turn. The resulting confusion could normally be rescued if spotted early enough, but it was sufficient of a problem to result in the drawing-up of some wall-charts to keep the play sequence organised.

Then, of course, my primitive ACW armies were replaced, first by Ancients, later by Napoleonics, and further reading and new rule sets (especially the preachings of the WRG) resulted in much thickening of the rules, more detail, and bigger and more impressive armies. The spectacle, of course, was improved, but the snags and minor irritations increased roughly as the square of the number of "improvements" we added. We tried to fix things, we placed more and more small print in the Commandments on the wallcharts, and, though we were still committed and positive, the games were never quite the same amount of fun again. We tried using a commercial rule set (WRG) exactly as published - soup to nuts - in the belief that it would hang together nicely, that 20 million flies could not all be wrong in their choice of diet. It helped a bit, but there was still a disappointing number of elements in the games which were - to put it bluntly - clunky, and it was far too easy to make mistakes which escaped immediate detection, spoilt the game and (for the first time) generated some resentment. That is probably an identifiable landmark - much of my devotion to the hobby ever since has had a lot to do with searching for the magic tweaks which might restore the joy of my earliest efforts.

The first serious realisation that something needed fixing came when, one evening, I found I was doing a headcount of the same unit for the 7th time in an hour, that I had once again forgotten to give someone the bonus points for their elite status, that the 28 of a possible 51 melee factor adjustments which I had just identified as relevant for an attack by the chariots on the left flank were exactly the same as they had been in the two previous attacks, and so on. And then came the creeping sophistication of victory condition testing each turn, weather, fatigue levels, progressive morale adjustments (as opposed to random morale throws when necessary), ammunition supply, national characteristics (oh God) - it became obvious that we were going to have to keep written records, so we moved bravely into a new era, in the belief that the hassle of the bookkeeping effort would be justified by a smoother, happier game.

And it didn't work very well. Now I know that many people use rosters to good effect, and swear by them, so this is entirely my view here, but - for me and my friends - it didn't work at all. For a start, the overhead of pre-printing record sheets and filling them in made it more like being at work than playing a game. Next, try as we might, we could not prevent the sheets of paper from cluttering up the battlefield and completely destroying the spectacle (and the spectacle, in hindsight, was one of a decreasing number of things we had left to enjoy) - from that point on, I have always loathed the sight of paper on the battlefield. Most irritating of all, the quality of record-keeping was so bad that it completely defeated the objective of making the game work better; worse, there was even a moral hazard here - if you forgot (or otherwise didn't bother) to update your roster for some loss or other, your unit strengths would be artificially high. Thus the sloppiest record-updaters would actually gain an advantage. Without employing independent auditors (and where has your game gone now, Johnny?), it just didn't work.

At this point some of my collaborators gave up and returned to their former life of visiting the pub, playing darts, even - it is said - spending time with their wives. The proper Old School doctrine would have been to go back to the original ACW games, make a feature of their primitive nature, and enjoy them for what they were. Somehow, life isn't like that. There is a faint echo of apples in Eden somewhere, but there is no going back. You can reconstruct the game and the circumstances, but not the innocence.

I had worked a lot with computers, and the very first affordable home computers were appearing. I commissioned a friend who had a Commodore to program some wargames routines for me, to see how it would work, and it looked promising. We did the game sequence (so that the computer announced each stage of the turn, and told you how many turns had elapsed), and we automated a simplified melee routine (for Ancients). Interesting.

I bought a Sinclair Spectrum, mainly because it was cheap and mainstream, and I started work to write a program which ran the move sequence skeleton, and which was gradually populated with more and more functionality, so that, over a period of time, a greater amount of the game was automated. It was a valuable experience to see it develop like that - you could judge whether each change was an improvement. A lot of it wasn't, and it was surprising how this worked out - something which looked like a sure-fire enhancement would prove to be just a nuisance, while some obscure, minor tweak might accidentally turn out to be a big step forward. We must remember here that these machines were agonisingly slow - I had to develop a good working knowledge of machine code to get some of the routines to work fast enough to be useful. One thing that never seemed a good candidate for automation was the movement phase of the games. To this day, in my computer managed games, the program does not know or care where the units are on the table, though it may know which ones have not arrived yet, or are not yet visible.

Around 1984, my wargaming involvement went on indefinite hold as a result of the pressures of the dreaded Real Life. One of the last things I did before storing everything away was to print out listings of all my Spectrum wargame programs - one of the smarter things I have done over the years. About 15 years later (Real Life having given up on me), I came out of the closet, and recreated the software, this time to run on an IBM PC. Apart from a lot more of the same, that is really where I am up to now.

It's maybe useful at this point to recap on what computers are good at, on what might be relevant and useful to a miniatures game, and on a few criteria and odds-and-ends by which we might judge whether the automation is beneficial. This is off the top of my head, so if you have a better list, please substitute your own.

Computers are good at

Storing and processing information, and reporting on it when you ask. Here is your roster, my Lord - and you don't even need to remove casualties.

Repeating a procedure, faultlessly, forever.

Doing calculations - of almost unlimited complexity - accurately, without forgetting anything and without making mistakes, and (sometimes regrettably) without coming back to tell you if this is a really stupid thing to be doing.

Generating random numbers - in more ways than you would believe.

Doing thankless background tasks - such as regularly testing for something that hardly ever happens - reliably and without complaining, and only telling you when the outcome is significant

They can also usefully do things without telling you about it - examples might be keeping track of the weather, or of concealed units (Blinds) or the arrival of delayed troops, or building a variance into scheduled events to provide an element of Fog of War - in an extended form, they can also go some way to providing support for a solo gamer - not by supplying a fully-functioning opponent, but by randomising things that you thought you knew, or by choosing one of a range of strategies, for example.

They can free you from some of the constraints of a manual game - for example, if your manual game uses a 6-sided dice to decide on some result or other, one obvious way to proceed is to automate it as it stands. In the manual game, a 6-sided dice is simple and readily available. On the other hand, a computer is just as happy with a 27-sided dice as with a normal one, so, if you know the game is to be implemented on a computer, you do not have to restrict yourself to the kind of dice which are convenient in the physical world. [In a business context, one of the most common inefficiencies in computerisation in the 1980s was the over-faithful automation of a clerical process, complete with all the double-checking, paper communication loops and other constraints which were inherent in the original clerical version. Sorry - that was boring.]

They can provide you with a Black Box game, which is especially sexy for a wargame - let's have a look at this:

Wargames, especially as they become more complicated, are hard to learn - there is a lot of stuff about how the troops behave, weapon capabilities, move distances - what we might term the historic aspects of the game, and then there is a whole lot of detail about how many dice to throw in various circumstances, exactly how many morale points to deduct if outflanked, all that kind of thing - the mechanics of the game. I get the horrors when I see a new set of published wargame rules which extends to (real example) 104 pages. Even if we ignore all the irrelevant photos of 54mm soldiers which have been used to brighten it up, there is still far too much in there. The author might understand it all, or at least he will know where to find the tables, but for anyone else this is a huge problem - especially for someone who, like me, regards a wargame as a social exercise rather than a plan to conquer the universe.

I am a big fan of the approach which does not require a newbie to know all the details of the mechanics, or what happens in the dark corners. In an ideal world, a wargamer with some experience and a good working knowledge of how (e.g.) Napoleonic warfare worked should be capable of learning the extra bits he needs to know to play a game in a very short time. The implication, of course, is that someone else - an umpire or a black box - knows the rest of it and makes the game work. Howard Whitehouse's Science versus Pluck rules for Colonial warfare follow this model - there is a very full, detailed manual for the umpire, and the other players only know what they need to know. The umpire obviously has a lot to learn and a lot of responsibility, but the situation for the players is what I would regard as correct. If they work, black boxes are easier to field (and drink less) than umpires.

One characteristic of a black box is that the contents have to be very carefully documented somewhere, and kept up to date as the logic is maintained. The program code contains a lot of wargaming nuts and bolts and expertise, and detailed knowledge of what is in there can dissipate very quickly. There are few less interesting tasks than reverse engineering the code to see what the game does (been there, done it...).

What sort of benefits are we looking for from the use of automation with a wargame? Well, as in every aspect of wargaming, what you are looking for depends on what you happen to like, but there are a few givens which I think few people would argue with:

The computer should not be a distraction, and should not impede, or detract from, the game it is supporting. The important bit of a wargame, after all, is the soldiers-on-the-table bit - the computer should be a help, but is otherwise not interesting in its own right.

The game should be easier with the automation, not harder, nor more irritating.

The means of input should not require a full time operator - even if someone wants the job (and would you invite someone like that to your home?), the constant passing of spoken information backwards and forwards is going to be an irritant, and, almost certainly, a source of fatal misunderstandings.

The program should be as failsafe as possible - for example, confirmation yes/no questions should be inserted as a double check at critical points, to guard against disastrous mis-keying, and (very usefully) a succession of security copies of the entire battle should be automatically saved at the end of each turn, so that the game can be rewound a bit if something goes horribly wrong.

That's probably more than enough for now. Next time I'll say something a bit controversial about user interfaces, and the way commercial games are designed, and I'll say a bit about games (including my own) of which I have some experience. There may be a little technical stuff in there. too, but only a bit, and only in passing. If you are still with me, then thanks, and well done!

If you are generally hostile to the entire subject of computers, there is some relief for you here.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Home Brewed Flags - French 1er Leger

1804 pattern flag - for 1/72 scale, print the image 12mm high - if you prefer them overscale, 15 or 16 makes them clearer. Click on the image to get the big version, right click and save.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Computers in Wargaming - 1 - Preamble

The other week, one of the less supportive comments I received accused me of "ridiculous intemperance" (isn't that wonderful? - I'm really very proud of that) and, naturally, I value this feedback, as they used to say in the upwardly-mobile 1980s. Unfortunately, it was a good way wide of the mark - the truth is that behind my flatulent presentation and verbosity beats the sad, dry little heart of an actuary.

As a kid I designed all sorts of solitary games for my own amusement – cricket matches played with dice, a jousting game using Timpo knights and playing cards – all sorts. When my cousin and I were both about 11 we built up a model bus fleet to serve a large mythical island in the Irish Sea (alarmingly similar in concept to the Thomas the Tank Engine idea), but, instead of sensibly crawling round the place with toy buses, uttering gear-changing noises, we got hopelessly sidetracked into drawing maps and producing detailed timetables. Later, my education and professional training were heavily mathematical, and included a lot of statistics and probability, stochastic modelling and so on, so I guess I have always had an interest in playing around with mathematical simulation.

Which gently leads me into a topic which I have been intending to cover for a few months. Computers. If you feel a cold twinge at the mention of the word, do not be alarmed. I have no drums to beat here, but I do have a lot of experience of the subject, both in a wargaming context and from the wider viewpoint of process automation in general. I promise not to tell you what is right, or what you should all be doing, and I hope that some of this may be of interest. A blog, after all, is useful not least because of the opportunity it gives to take a peek through someone else’s windows.

Digression: mention of what is useful about blogs reminds me that one of the big benefits I have gained from writing this stuff over the past five months is the sorting out of ideas. To write something down in an intelligible manner, it is necessary for me to tease out the knotted string which normally fills my head into a more linear, structured form, and a great many light bulbs turn on while I am about it. So, even if you find my blog tedious and/or pointless, you will now have the comfort of knowing that I, at least, am getting something out of it!

End of digression.

The subject of computers is a big one, almost certainly far too big to cover in a single post. This is a bit of a shame, in a way, since dividing the topic up into a series of threads will inevitably risk someone coming back to me and pointing out that I have overlooked such-and-such, when I have not forgotten it, but haven’t got to it yet. That’s all OK – I’m quite happy with that. I’ll try to keep the subject matter focused and relevant – if you are prepared to give it a go then maybe we can help each other out if need be.

Areas I intend to discuss will include some general points on the practicalities and pitfalls of automation, what computers are good at, their use in miniatures wargames (and some of the things which really don’t work very well), some examples of commercial or shareware software of which I have some experience, how I have developed my own game-management systems, and my theories on why the majority of wargames programs are handicapped by some fundamental conceptual and design flaws. I am very much aware that some of this sounds a bit dry – I hope I’ll be able to enhance it with occasional touches of intemperance to brighten things up a bit.

One subject area I wish to swerve is that of self-contained computer games of a wargaming nature. This is – I admit it – a little like my former avoidance of the subject of board wargames, in that there is an element of fear of the unknown in there. I have seen Total War and Cossacks, though not for a couple of years, and some aspects of them look wonderful. I am nervously aware that if one day someone does this right, and we can switch on the PC and find ourselves in a customisable game which looks like a Sergei Bondarchuk movie, we may wonder what on earth we were doing all those years messing about with painted toy soldiers. Having said which, I think we are some years short of that, and I recall that Cossacks II once corrupted the operating system on one of my computers (it rendered the CD writer useless), so there is still some room for scepticism.

If, at any point during the next few postings, anyone spots that we are entering a non-trivial debate about run-time environments, or if someone mentions Unix, please blow a whistle and we’ll stop immediately.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Sabol Studios

I have recently been very impressed by the work of Sabol Studios (of Woodstock, Georgia, USA), and thought it might be of general interest. Sabol Design are well known as manufacturers of carrying cases and similar wargame-related hardware, and they also do custom builds and commissions for terrain boards and pieces.

The 15mm Spanish monastery was built for Gary, whose blog The Peninsular War in 15mm is always interesting. I was sufficiently gob-smacked to contact Sabol, who proved to be friendly and very helpful. They are happy to take on terrain commissions, though shipping costs mean that there are limits to the size of items they can send to Europe. I think they may be just the guys to build some extra bits (including a gatehouse and some wrecked walls) for my 15mm Vauban fort.