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

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Topsy Turvy Wargames – why not?

This will be another of my more ruminating posts – asking a pile of questions, and offering very little in the way of answers. There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on – definitely some idea which is just out of reach. You might well be able to explain it to me, or even convince me that the matter can be safely forgotten about. This is not going to be a competent review of the Huzzah! wargames rules, though it might encourage you to have a look at them.

There were quite a few starting points this time – some probably more obviously significant than others:

(1) I was telling someone about one of my favourite daft moments in a military book – in Frederick E Smith’s screenplay paperback of Waterloo (from the 1970 Bondarchuk movie) there is an episode during the Battle of Ligny where Smith states that “suddenly a shot rang out”, and – of course – Blücher’s horse is hit, and the old bugger is pinned underneath. History notwithstanding, think about it for a moment – suddenly a shot rang out? – and, presumably, it broke the complete silence in which the Battle of Ligny had been enacted prior to that point? Yes, this is silly, but somehow it encapsulates what we expect military dramas to say – more significantly, there is maybe something here which reflects the way we think of battles.

Certainly, my wargames are a bit like this. Because of the tricks we play with time and activation to make the game playable, the tabletop action consists of a series of isolated volleys, separated by periods of measuring and calculation (and whatever else it is you do during your games). Sad person that I am, I sometimes play a background soundtrack of a horse-&-musket battle during my wargames, which is fun, but it is very obvious that the activity on the audio is not very like my battle, which seems much more like a series of shots suddenly ringing out, as it were, in an otherwise silent and mathematical context, in a style which Frederick E Smith would recognize immediately.

(2) In a comment about a recent blog post, I mentioned that I suspected that – certainly at the time of the ECW – the proportion of people killed by an aimed shot intended for them was small. If someone dispatched you while holding the other end of a sword, or if he fired at short range to stop you attacking him, then there was some personal malice involved, but otherwise casualties must have been men who were hit by a passing ball – if there are enough bullets flying about, someone is definitely going to get hurt. It’s like running with scissors – you just know it’s going to happen.

(3) I remembered a minor (low wattage) lightbulb moment I had a couple of years ago when working on Grand Tactical rules; I realized that the tedium of answering the same, repetitious questions about the tactical situation of an artillery target fired on by more than one battery in the same turn could be simplified by considering the total effect on the target unit in one go, rather than as a series of separate shots from the firers. In other words, turn the thing back to front and think about it from the target’s viewpoint. Topsy Turvy, in fact.

(4) As part of an ongoing pastime I have of reading wargames rules, I recently came back to Huzzah!, published by Oozlum Games, which is a ruleset I have never really played with, but which interests me greatly. It is, so to speak, back-to-front in that it focuses on the risks to, and demoralization of, a unit in a combat situation rather than studying individual volleys and the reaction to them.

(5) (This is the last one, I promise) – I was reading someone else’s ECW rules, and was surprised at how effective musketry at long range (100 to 200 paces) was. I can see that someone coming within 200 paces of a musket-armed unit is getting into a stressful situation, but somehow the risk doesn’t seem to me to be simply that of being hit by an aimed volley at such long range.

OK – that’s all the inputs. This left me thinking: what is it that a musket armed ECW unit does to an enemy unit 200 paces away? I think what they do mostly is they frighten them. The potential damage and pain that is implied is more significant than the loss occasioned by the aimed balls at this range. How the recipient unit reacts to this is dependant on a familiar list of things such as their training, fatigue level and so on – the Morale shopping list.

The important point here is that a battlefield is an appalling place, filled with noise, horror and flying metal. Any unit coming within firing range of the enemy is, first and foremost, entering a very dangerous place – an area of high risk. The Huzzah! approach seems appropriate. A commander’s view of one his regiments is not how many have been killed, it is are they still in action, and can they still hurt the enemy? Inability to hurt the enemy any longer could certainly be explained by their all being struck down, but I think there is a general agreement now that what mostly happened was that the effects (physical and mental) of being in a very dangerous and stressful place for a period reduced the effectiveness of a unit to a point where they no longer contributed to the army’s effort.

My battlefield soundtrack seems to portray complete mayhem – a whole pile of firing going on throughout – yet we know that units would try to conserve their ammunition, and that there would be little point in firing blind at distant targets. The Topsy-Turvy approach (courtesy of Huzzah!) is that we consider the situation of a unit which is such-and-such a distance from various threats, and is thus stressed by the sum of the various hazards – as currently experienced and also the expectation of what could happen next. There is a whole pile of lethal material flying about – the nearer you are to the source of the firing, the more discouraging (and damaging) this will be.

The emphasis shifts to examining each unit’s exposure – how far are they from each potential threat? Never mind the individual firers and their activity, assume they will be keeping busy, making things unpleasant, and consider instead the state of each unit exposed to fire.

I have no draft rules to sum this up, and no firm ideas yet, other than an itch which needs scratching, though you might be interested to read the Huzzah! rules.

Topsy Turvy. Interesting. Maybe?


  1. Right – I am normally a man of few words, as you know, but I have a bone to pick with you. Since I had a slack evening and had to babysit the grandchild, I took the trouble to download and read the Huzzah materials.

    It is well written – in the sense of being grammatical and properly structured, it is formatted in a professional manner and looks the business, though the author tends to express himself in a rather superior tone, perhaps. I studied the “threat zone” feature, which is thought-provoking, as you say, but – try as I might – I cannot see how this game is played. It has so many proscribed colours of counters that the old WRG would have been proud of it, it has copious definitions (to assist the dim) and – far from being a nice, simple, flowing game wth variable-length bounds (which is what I was led to expect), I found it was over-fussy, full of itself and pretty turgid.

    I would have been pleased to say that I do not fancy playing this game, but in fact I do not even understand how it is played. There is a complete appendix showing diagrams – very nice – but it demonstrates only the bits of the game which I can already visualise. The best thing i can say is that it would be interesting to see a demonstration game, to understand how it works. I am qute happy to accept that I may be too stupid to appreciate it – I guess that the author would agree with me wholeheartedly – but, apart from the threat zone idea, the game offers little that is attractive or especially new. Command radii seems a disappointingly 1990s idea.

    I guess it depends what you like. I am just irritated because I’d have had a better evening if I had just fallen asleep in front of the TV, as normal.

    Please don’t do this to me again.

    Cheers - Lou

    1. Lou - I have no intention of playing Huzzah! - my only area of interest is the threat zone approach. You will no doubt appreciate that the author provided a diagram of a big circle with a figure in the centre, so that you could visualise a command radius in action.

      Sorry about your wasted evening. Like you, I feel that I would be well below the originators' intellectual horizon - I did notice Jim Getz named among the play testers, however.

      Calm down - Tony

  2. Coming at this post on a Tuesday, after mulling it over all weekend, with disturbingly little in the way of results. You and Polemarch both usually serve up thought provoking posts on weekends.
    My first response, while I know nothing about Huzzah and after reading Louis' reply don't care to, is that the idea of threat zones is useful one, and has been represented in various ways, from Zones of Control in paper hex map boardgames to different rates of movement (Strategic vs Tactical) depending on proximity to the enemy to the possibility of Opportunity Fire if you move your units within range of enemy units (I was reminded of this revisiting Kershner and Wood's Age of Reason last weekend). You're right to think that there should be some cost, whether to morale, cohesion, movement, or even casualties, in coming within effective range of a formed unit with missile weapons/firearms.
    What I know about the ECW comes from watching the film Cromwell, so I am an ignoramus on the subject, though it would seem that while Renaissance shotte units might not have the same firepower as musket armed troops in later centuries would, given advances in technology (it is easier to load an ECW firearm than it is a Napoleonic one? I don't really know), it would seem that the novelty and fear that firearms in this period generated would compensate for their relative lack of efficiency, so the net effect of coming within range of such a unit would be equivalent to coming within the range of formed infantry in, say, the SYW.
    Of course, it would depend on other factors such as ammunition consumption, discipline, and the ability of officers to control fire once commenced. In reading Paddy Griffiths on the ACW, it would seem that often, once a unit started firing, it would/could do little else until it had burned up it's ammo. Perhaps you might want to look at Griffiths and see if his observations could be helpful once ECW weapons are factored in?

    1. Thanks for this Michael - I agree with your points about ZoCs and differential movement. I was also coming to the idea that maybe there is some kind of a cost to a unit within effective range of the enemy, even if they are not fired upon in our game - if they stand for long enough, waiting to be fired on, they must start to dither. I must try to find Griffiths ACW material. As for holding/wasting fire, I read of a number of instances - Picton, Beresford and a couple of French generals - who ordered their troops to unload muskets before advancing, since otherwise the attack would tend to peter out while the troops started a desultory fire instead. If they were not loaded, they could only keep marching.

  3. I got a moderately hostile email from Kieran, who appears to be involved with a Huzzah Yahoo Group. I hadn't intended either to promote or attack Huzzah as a rule set or a game - I have no relevant experience of it, and am interested only in this "exposure to risk" issue - the game does not appear to be very unorthodox otherwise. I try to make a point of not whingeing too much if I get hostile responses - it's fair enough I would say - but Kieran makes some statements which are not really appropriate in this context, and which I suspect he would not be prepared to say to my face, and that i do not care for.