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

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Siege Thoughts (1) – The Folks Who Live on the Hill

The Civilians

My first period of enthusiasm for tabletop sieges was about five years ago now; this was before I started this blog, but the first serious playtesting was recorded splendidly by Clive in his Vintage Wargames blog. My early rules had a lot of holes in them, and the game was fun but definitely creaky in some areas – I’ve done a little work on it since then, but otherwise I have been distracted by other things (excuse 1), and for a while I have been waiting to see what Piquet would produce in their mooted Vauban’s Wars rules, for which we are all still waiting, sadly (excuse 2).

During my solo Peninsular War campaign (blogged here in 2012-13) I deliberately chose not to use tabletop sieges, since they do not fit well with the timescales and turn cycle of the map movement game. I did consider the possibility of having a siege set up on a tabletop if it was required, and working it alongside the map stuff (such things should be possible in a solo game, you would think), but then I realized that I would be in deep trouble if there were two sieges simultaneously. Thus I spent some time developing algorithm-based siege simulators, and I have to say that the two sieges that took place during the campaign worked very nicely as mathematical models, but I was still a little sad that the lovely fortress toys and my siege train did not get used on the table.

I am very keen to get back to sieges sometime soon, so I’ve been doing some further thinking and scribbling. I already had some rough notes about what I termed barometers, which were missing from the early rules, and which I have always known I should have to come back to. During a siege, my logic goes, the normal siege turn will represent 24 hours’ activity, but if anything more tactical occurs – such as a sally, or a storm, or the arrival of a relieving force – then the game temporarily switches to 15 or 30-minute turns, during which a more standard type of wargame is conducted until events calm down again to the more measured step of the siege operations. Over and above all this, I envisaged  a weekly check on the progress of a number of things, and this is where I would maintain the barometers to show the current state of the garrison and the civilians (if any) in the fortress, the level of enthusiasm of the besiegers, and the supply of provisions and ammunition (in a simplified form). It would also be necessary to monitor damage to the town as the result of bombardment and fires, and check for sickness and epidemics (on both sides). The movement of the barometers would be linked one to another in many cases, and there should be a little contributory dice-rolling to simulate good and bad breaks.

This, potentially, could get very complicated, but thus far the barometers don’t exist in any useable form, so in odd moments I am doing some head scratching and trying to write down a few basic ideas. Some of this is from first principles (or what passes for commonsense around here), and some is borrowed from my various sources, which include the works of Chris Duffy, Tony Bath, Charles S Grant, Henry Hyde and a number of other worthies, plus the Festung Krieg rules from the Koenig Krieg 18th Century rules and other bits and pieces.

My first attempt at a barometer is that for the civilian population who have the misfortune to inhabit a besieged town. My starting point was to identify five broad “states” of the civilians, thus:

(1) Completely supportive of the garrison; will collaborate fully in matters of supply and will require no policing effort; if necessary, will be prepared to form irregular units and/or help man the defences. The population of Saragossa during the sieges there might be an example of a State 1 civilian group.

(2) Passively supportive of the garrison; will contribute food and labour, but will not fight; a small amount of policing required; will probably hand over spies.

(3) Pretty apathetic; may require active policing and control; will not fight, but may well be demoralized or sullen.

(4) Hostile to garrison; may obstruct military effort, or disrupt supply arrangements. Extensive policing required, and there will be inhabitants who provide information to the besiegers, and who may take up arms to assist an assault from outside.

(5) Violently hostile; the population is held in check only by extensive diversion of troops and effort; there will be a tendency to insurrection, and armed resistance against the garrison. They will certainly assist the besieging force if chance is offered.

Clearly, the citizens may move from one state to another – up or down the barometer – as the situation develops. A military governor who deprives the townspeople of food in order to feed his own men, for example, may find that he has to divert much of his strength to suppress a violent backlash if the citizens slide into State 5.

OK – there’s a lot to do here, and the way this all links with the progress of the siege and with the other barometers still needs thinking out, but this is my first skeleton. I was interested in the fact that States 1 and 5 imply that the population may generate irregular “units”, which become involved in conflict on either side. I started thinking about how many such soldiers might be produced from a civilian group.

Bearing in mind that my priority here is to get something working for Spain in about 1810-13, I reasoned that, if half the population were male, and there were large numbers of children, many of whom would not survive to adulthood, then about one-third of the males might be aged 16 to 50, and capable of carrying arms. I am aware that many of the men would already have been called up to join the army, or have otherwise disappeared to avoid being called up, and many might have been killed in the war. Let us assume this takes the one-third down a bit. A convenient figure might be that 1000 population can yield 4 fighting figures (at 33 men/figure). Thus it will also be necessary to track civilian losses in the siege.

I propose to work with a standard unit of rations (yet to be named), which will feed 1000 civilians or 1 infantry battalion (of about 700 men) or 1 cavalry unit (of about 350 men) for a week. There are some tables in Tony Bath’s book giving guidelines for the effect on sickness and morale (and thus desertion) of living on reduced rations for various periods, which look useful without being too onerous, so I propose to check that all out.

These siege thoughts will, I hope, constitute an occasional series as ideas come together; much of this is very rough at this stage, and it will take some time and much testing to get it into shape, but it’s the sort of thing I enjoy fiddling with!


  1. True to form, Martin P sent me a nice, crisp, correctly punctuated email at 08:00 this morning, which must be around the time he arrives at his city desk. He correctly guesses that my thoughts on sieges are intended to be capable of being adapted for a range of periods - a guess which was helped, I feel, by my having previously told him that this is the case. He also offers some interesting suggestions, for which thanks, and mentions that Partizan publish "English Civil War Sieges - rules & scenarios for wargamers" by Stephen Maggs, though he has not actually read it.

    They do, indeed, publish such a book, and I have it, and have read it. It is an attractive book, with some period illustrations, but it does not help a lot with what I am trying to do here. Maybe predictably, it is a very wargamey book, with lots of fun information about siege engines and gizmos - fire pikes and the like - and suggested effectiveness factors, and a copious glossary of terminology, but it appears to describe a fairly conventional wargame which just happens to take place around a fortified town, with interesting weapons. The central issues of how supplies are managed and people react to such a hellish situation is pretty much out of scope. So the book is interesting, but does not help me in filling the holes I am working on. Thus the book covers useful material to help with what I have described as the secondary, tactical level of the game, and the scenarios tend to be battle-like incidents from within a siege rather than the full schmatter (so to speak).

    Thank you Martin - please get on with your work now.

  2. Interesting!! looking forward to what you come up with. I seem to also remember Bruce Quarrie having a siege rule in his Napoleonic Wargaming rules... Also http://what-if-catalonia.blogspot.com.es/ has published his WSS Spanish Catalan rules here, including decidingwhich side the town is on etc.

    hope it's of interest and help!


    1. Stephan - many thanks for link - I'll dig further and see if I can find the rules.

      Bruce Quarrie! - yes, Chapter 12 in his Napoleon's Campaigns in Miniature deals briefly with sieges, but the most quoted line from it is the one in which he dismisses sieges as too boring for a wargame!

      I've a couple more emails from people offering suggestions, so my next task is to come up with mechanisms to move populations up and down the "barometer" - it's quite challenging - not all civilian populations who hate the governor will have the capacity for actually fighting his troops, and starving the people will make them resentful but also feeble, and then plague is a great leveller! I'll put up another short post shortly.

      Thanks again - regards - Tony