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

Friday, 31 July 2015

Hooptedoodle #185 - The ABC Man

Last month Ian Allan passed away, one day short of his 93rd birthday. Who? Well, in his way, Allan was one of the most famous and influential men of his generation.

Ian Allan (left), in his early 20s - checking facts
You see, he more or less invented trainspotting in the UK. Well, he didn’t really invent it, but the books and enthusiasts’ guides he published (and which the company he founded continues to publish) organised it and codified it, and have been the backbone of the Nerd World since 1942.

Allan was born in 1922 in Horsham, Surrey, and educated at St Paul’s School. An accident at an Officers’ Training Corps camp when he was 15 resulted in the amputation of one of his legs, and he was not greatly gifted scholastically, so by 1942 he was employed in a clerical department at the Southern Railway, a humble role which, as it happened, suited him perfectly. He was fanatically enthusiastic about all things to do with trains and locomotives, and, since his employers refused to have anything to do with the project, he published at his own expense a booklet describing all the rolling stock of SR, and was rather shaken when all the copies sold out very quickly, necessitating a further printing. He went on to produce successful booklets for the other British railway companies, and the first edition of his volume on London Transport systems sold out all 20,000 copies within 4 days of going on sale. After that, things really took off.

In post-war, rationed, miserable, penniless Britain, Allan had provided the basic tools for an inexpensive hobby which became a near-religion, claiming the attention of vast numbers of boys (of all ages). In 1949 he and his wife founded the Ian Allan Locospotters’ Club, which eventually had some 230,000 members. His little booklets covered a remarkable number of titles, originally on railway topics, but later on trams, buses, aviation, all forms of road transport, shipping, military subjects, model-making – you name it. About half the kids in my class at grammar school were trainspotters – at weekends, on railway station platforms all over the country, there would be little groups of enthusiasts, each with a knapsack containing a flask of tea and a number of Allan's precious ABC books, so that “spotted” locomotives could be marked off in the lists.

Trainspotters at Newcastle, 1950

Just as well his mother never knew...
My cousin Dave had an astonishing number of the bus books – and I do mean astonishing. He was an easy kid to buy presents for. Not only was it necessary to have the booklet for every known vehicle fleet, but constant change in those fleets would require new editions every couple of years, and, naturally, they would be snapped up as soon as available. Though the individual books were only a couple of shillings each (in my day), they would form a major investment for the true disciple. Dave and I spent many hours at the Ribble bus sheds, in Liverpool and Preston, scribbling numbers into notebooks. I guess my unsophisticated tastes were honed at an early age…

Allan was always an enthusiast
Ian Allan Publications are still going strong – their output is glossier and more ambitious now, but they still seem to hold the same important place in the hearts and minds of transport fans, and their reputation for accuracy and quality still holds. Allan also produced market-leading monthly magazines on railways, buses and model railways, which I believe are still going strong, and at various times he bought the Hastings Miniature Railway and the Great Cockrow Railway (near Chertsea). He was honoured with an OBE in 1996.

If you wish to see how influential ABC books were, just have a look on eBay – any day, any week, almost any subject.

My old school chum Andy “Cocky” Roche once announced that he had seen a girl trainspotter at Carlisle station, but this was greeted with total (and somehow reassuring) disbelief. Anyway, if he had seen one, she would most certainly have had one or more of the ABC books with her; thanks very much, Mr Allan.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Rules - the Diablo System and other things

Inevitably, Martin P wanted to know why I was looking at D4’s in yesterday’s post. Yes, quite – this does lead on to the topic of why Martin needs to know – or was he simply checking that I myself had some idea what I was doing?

In consequence, this post is probably going to be all over the place. I have a natural inclination to get involved in ideas when they stem, simultaneously, from different sources – some might regard this as a lack of focus, I just find that the cross-fertilization of ideas from different directions is productive – often illuminating (and sometimes just plain silly, of course).

The main driver for this has been my interest in producing an occasional alternative for Commands & Colors (for variety and to keep me entertained, and because certain kinds of tabletop action are not ideally suited to straight C&C), though this may simply be a search for some optional alternatives to some parts of C&C. The Command Cards are one area – there is nothing at all wrong with them, but solo play, for example, requires some crafty workarounds (and removal of some of the cards – First Strike, Out of Supply don’t work solo, and Counter Attack isn’t much of a surprise in a solo game, either). Also, the Command Cards do not work if the game is played in any other manner  apart from straight-across-the-table. So an alternative activation/command system is always a useful option to have in the bag – there was a pretty good discussion on this in a post in February (here), and that is one of the kick-off points for this post.

Another possible add-on I am interested in is the introduction of some element of tactical manoeuvre – facing and unit formation – yes, I realise that the lack of this (apart from squares) in C&CN is deliberate and sensible – such things are not the business of an army commander – but for a smallish action it would still be fun to carry out a bit of column-into-line, not to mention the threat of cavalry explicitly getting around your flank (rather than such a possibility being abstracted in the range of available combat outcomes on the dice).

Before I became a C&CN disciple, I mostly used a ruleset of my own, which in its later forms I called Elan, a name which I thought had a pleasing whiff of informed elegance until John Ramsay asked me why I had named it after a sports car. Elan used a hex-grid table, and it was computer-managed (my own software), but it also allowed a measure of wheeling and reforming units – even limbering of artillery and tinkering with skirmishers. Such fripperies are redundant in the C&CN world, of course, but the idea seems quite nostalgic from time to time. Elan is currently in a frozen state – I got disenchanted with having a netbook computer next to the battlefield (I think that mostly I became disenchanted with the optical challenge of spending so much time peering at the damn screen, then trying to remember where that particular unit was on the table), so I spent a month or two removing the computer from the game, and made it into a nice, traditional, dice and paper game, but in this form it was among the more fiddly games of history. It is probably self-evident that constant weather checks and the management of concealed units are child’s play on a computer, but a dreadful chore without one.

Anyway, for various reasons Elan is at present a non-starter as a playable game – more a pool of useful mechanisms and things-I-used-to-do – but I do have a fond recollection of a few aspects of how the game used to play. Facing and formation are two major elements of this.

Another feed for the current spate of pondering was my preliminary reading of Blücher – this game uses “Momentum Dice” to limit the number of actions you may take in a turn – your opponent rolls the MO Dice, and keeps them hidden – he knows how many activations you have available in your turn, but he won’t tell you until you reach that number. Thus you have a limit, but don’t know what it is – which makes it necessary to prioritise very carefully – make sure you do the important things first – this “unknown limit” idea is attractive, but it doesn’t work in this form for a solo player (obviously), and it has one distinctive effect – if you prioritise carefully, and then are stopped at some point from carrying out any more activations, there are certain kinds of actions which become rarities – when I have done this sort of thing, I found that orders for artillery and for the movement of commanders tended to get lost, because the main priorities were the movement of big formations, and the guns and generals were down the queue a bit. Point noted – I shall come back to this, if I remember.

The simplest alternative to an opponent-generated unknown limit is simply to roll a dice and that is the number of activations allowed. This is dead simple, and an obvious way to do it, and that is what I may well come back to – I’ve done this in the past. The downside is in knowing up front how much scope you have – I find the unknown limit idea attractive.

Yet another feed was some excellent work Jay (Old Trousers) has done on his blog in refining and documenting Neil Thomas’s Napoleonic Wargaming rules for use on a hex grid. I had been thinking along these lines myself for a while, but (of course) didn’t get around to setting it out properly. For a while I thought of just trying Jay’s/Neil’s rules as they stand – apart from my requirement to use larger armies and a bigger table. Then I thought that the manoeuvre rules looked very much like what Elan used to do, and then I realised how much I would miss the convenience of the C&CN combat dice, with their built-in morale system, and I decided that what I would do in the short term, at least, is to try the manoeuvre and movement rules from Jay’s game with the combat system from C&CN, and add in my thoughts on an unknown-limit activation system, which is what I shall come to next.

El Diablo. I mentioned this in the February post I linked to earlier, though I didn’t mention the Diablo name. The terminology is my own, and requires a quick, time-wasting yarn from yesteryear – no-one expected that, surely.

In my first year at university I stayed in a large lodging house which was like the United Nations – about two dozen students from many countries. Three of the guys used to get together late in the evening and spend an hour playing card and dice games for money – small stakes. I couldn’t afford to get involved, but I used to enjoy watching. The guys (not that it matters) were Skip, from Chicago, Bjorn, an Icelander, and Engel, from Rotterdam, who was rather older, having been seconded by his employer to do a course in marine engineering at Heriot Watt.

One of the games they played was called El Diablo – I don’t really remember the full details, but it was a sort of relative of Crap Dice – the game itself was negligible, the point was the betting – the players would bet on how far they could progress, and watchers could also make side bets. The game used a normal six-sided die – this system is what I discussed in the February post as a means of producing an unknown limit for activation.

This is not a picture of Martin
1D6 version of Diablo: Each turn scores a minimum of 1; to score 2, you need to roll 2+ on the die; to score 3, having successfully got to 2, you then need to roll 3+, and so on. You stop when you fail, and your score is the last one which succeeded – thus scores are in the range of 1 to 6; 1 is the minimum, and it is very rare to get to 6. I can’t remember how the betting worked, and it is irrelevant anyway.

I tried using what I have decided to call Diablo(6) as an activation system in an ECW game. You get to activate 1 unit for free; you need to throw 2 or better to activate a second, and so on. You stop when you fail, but you have already selected the units for activation when you get to that point. It was simple to use, did not slow the game down and worked OK, except…

Well, except that it gave miserable results – the number of activations in practice was more stingy than a simple roll of 1D6 would have been.

The average score of 1D6, of course, is 3.5

The average result of Diablo(6) is the sum of p(j).j for j = 1 to 6, which works out at a niggardly 2.775

Now neither of these numbers compares badly with the average number of “orders” you would expect to be allowed to give as a result of a C&CN Command Card – especially if I add in the facility to activate an entire brigade with a single order – but the fact remains that the artillery and the generals were getting starved of action.

That’s getting close to as far as I’ve got – my current thinking is that there should be two quick activation sessions per turn – a distinct artillery session of Diablo(4) (using a D4), and the activations from this may only be used for artillery. Then the main activation uses Diablo(8), with a full D8 – these activations may be used for anything, including artillery.

It is tempting to consider using different kinds of dice, for different commander abilities, or for handicapping; I also considered whether the dice should be chosen to match the number of units fielded – in this I agree with Michael’s comment last time, that there is a limit to what one general can do, however big the army, so maybe D4 and D8 will work across the board (so to speak).

The train, as you will observe, has not yet stopped moving, but I have at least answered Martin’s question about D4’s. I may set out some stuff about introducing an element of tactical manoeuvre, once my thoughts start to look printable - maybe some photos would be good. Hmmm.


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Easily Pleased

I have been tinkering with some numbers and things for a possible game tweak, and I realised that what I really need for this is a 4-sided die or two - 2D4, in fact.

This caused me a little sinking feeling, since I have a few D4's, and they are the most user-hostile, unpleasant things to handle - they have sharp, jaggy corners and they absolutely refuse to roll in a satisfying manner.

It would be wonderful, I mused, if I could get some 8-sided dice marked 1,1,2,2,3,3,4,4 - they roll much better and are a lot more comfortable. I decided that if I could get some blank D8's (are they still D8's when blank?) I could mark them up myself. To my surprise I found an online shop that has blank D8's - good so far - but then I found that they also have 8-sided D4's! Hey!

Excellent (though that may be August's good break used up already). Anyway, I've ordered a couple - the firm is UK based, so the total hit on PayPal is about £3 - can't be bad. I realise that you may well have drawers full of the things, which  is why you are yawning, but I haven't seen them before - I had merely thought what a great idea it would be.

The online shop is new to me as well, but they look very impressive - worth a browse. Just the place to buy those weird dice you never realised you wanted. The Dice Shop - good name too, eh?

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Hooptedoodle #184 – Donkey Award – Edinburgh Residents’ Parking

Righto – two things right up front:

(1) I lived in Edinburgh for nearly 30 years, though I rarely drive into the city these days. Outdated knowledge of a place is confusing – you have to accept that you are a stranger, and read the traffic signs carefully, as a stranger would.

(2) I have very little patience with the eternal chorus of whingeing on behalf of the poor, oppressed motorist; I take my share of the collective blame, but our environment and (especially) our cities are being steadily destroyed by the motor car – something has to change soon, though I’m not convinced the things which are done at present achieve much beyond producing short-term revenue for the authorities.

This week I drove my van into Edinburgh City Centre on two occasions. Parking is a nightmare, which is hardly a surprise, but I was struck by a strange anomaly [I should be more careful – these anomalies get everywhere]. Edinburgh is a bit unusual since a lot of the central areas are residential – i.e. people live there (like). During the working day it is evident that there are a lot of empty parking spaces, but they are all marked PERMIT HOLDERS ONLY, which means residents.

I am intrigued by this. A large (and expanding) area of the city contains apartments and blocks of flats which have no gardens or garaging, and parking on the street requires a permit from the City Council. The cost depends on the location, and also on the size and emission level of the vehicle. It will normally be hundreds of pounds for a year – a vehicle of 3 litres or over will cost about £450 for a year’s parking. Application for a second vehicle for the same household costs 125% of the normal rate. You get the idea.

This is a hefty outlay – what the residents get for this is not an earmarked space, but a notional share in a number of parking spaces which is deemed adequate for the street. You have no control over who parks outside your house, but the detailed permits should be clearly displayed in the vehicles, and – in theory – there should be enough spaces available somewhere around.

Ah, but...

The PERMIT HOLDERS ONLY regulation applies between 7am and 6:30pm Monday to Saturday, and not at all on a Sunday. If one of the permit holders drives away to work, only another permit holder for that street will be allowed to occupy the space he has vacated. This means that, in areas where most residents drive to work, there is a lot of unuseable parking space of this type during the day – as I saw on my visits.

It also means, since anyone can park in these spaces after 6:30pm (the regulations stop at that time), anyone arriving home from work after 6:30pm will find that his street is full of parked cars, which do not require a permit, and thus he should not expect to get a space. Many of the parked cars will belong to permit holders from other streets, who arrived home a little earlier to find that their own street was full.

Therefore an outlay of some hundreds of pounds can be expected to result in an empty, unused space being available somewhere near your house during time when you are likely to be at work, and no space at all during the evening when you get home. I’m sure I haven’t quite thought this through, but there is something counter-intuitive about this arrangement.

Presumably this parking permit deal exists in other parts of the world beyond Edinburgh?

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Summer Prize Competition 2015 - Results

Well, I received some wonderful, well thought-out and often very entertaining entries. Out of a total of 19 entries, 7 identified the Amalfi area in Italy. Winner is Steve Curry, who produced a near-flawless answer:

Righto Foy, you bastard, this is driving me crazy. I've wasted three days on this puzzle already and if I don't send an entry I'll go mad picking at it.

Thanks to your clue in the follow-up post I believe I've got it:

The photo is taken from within the grounds of the Villa Cimbrone, looking down onto the town of Ravello, which is on the Amalfi Coast not far from Salerno, the target of Operation Avalanche.

The Villa Cimbrone is a mock pile built by the rather brilliant Ernest Beckett, 2nd Baron Grimthorpe, described by Michael Holroyd as 'a man of swiftly changing enthusiasms ... a dilettante, philanderer, gambler and opportunist. He changed his name, his career, his interests and his mistresses quite regularly.' I would love to have met him, but not to have lent him money!

No doubt among many other connections between Ravello and Whitby, the towns were both visited by Wilkie Collins, the author and great friend of Charles Dickens. He visited Ravello as a child with his father the painter William Collins during their two-year stay in Italy (and about which he wrote in a memoir). Dickens introduced Collins to Whitby, where he stayed in 1862 while working on his novel No Name.

More importantly, Whitby is a sister city of Porirua, New Zealand, where I was born (and which is also famous for being the site of New Zealand's first McDonald's restaurant).

I can sleep now.

PS I may have omitted the key fact that Ernest Beckett was the MP for Whitby between 1885 and 1905, during which time "his name was rarely mentioned in Hansard", suggesting that if he ever bothered to show up it was only to sleep off a hangover.

Very nice, Steve – if I ever used words like “awesome”, this would be the time to use them.

My photo is taken looking over the handrail of the last terrace at the Villa Cimbrone, Ravello.

Ravello is a remarkable town, it is about 1 km inland from the astonishing Amalfi Drive, along the Northern shore of the Gulf of Salerno, and is also about 350 metres above sea level, so the road to get up there is, shall we say, interesting. I have visited the place since then, but my photo was taken in 2000. We are looking straight down the gorge towards Atrani, where the road up to Ravello leaves the coast. Atrani, these days, is just the eastern end of the ancient town of Amalfi. The terraces and the twisting road are apparent – meeting the local bus on this road when driving a car is not recommended. I have, let it be said, walked down this same valley – I am delighted to say I came back up by bus.

Down at the edge of the sea you can see one of the old Martello-type towers which were built to watch for the approach of the Saracens, Turks, Greeks, Normans, Carthaginians, or whoever the enemy of the week was. This is the garden of Europe, my friends, and it has been open for pillage since the dawn of time.

As Steve has identified, the link with Whitby is Lord Grimthorpe.

Ernest, 2nd Baron Grimthorpe, sometime MP for Whitby
Ravello, of course, was also where DH Lawrence wrote much of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and where Wagner finished off the production details for Parsifal, but that’s all a bit cultured for this blog – I’ll leave that for other, more worthy poseurs.

Here's a picture taken 10 years later, looking the other way along the coast - with
the terrace of the Hotel Palumbo in the foreground, we are looking towards the
resorts of Minori and Maiori - Salerno and the invasion beaches are somewhere
away in the mist round the headland
Steve, if you can send me a comment with your postal address, I won’t publish it and I’ll get your parcel away to you forthwith.

The shortest entry came from Vance, who simply asked, "Is it a photo of Whitby?"

Among the “special mentions” are Jacko, who tells me that he visited the area a few years ago, in part to see the area where his grandfather was seriously wounded during WW2, and, most especially, Chris Grice, who got the place entirely wrong, and in support of this included a piece of what he dismisses as doggerel, but which by the standards of this blog is a very significant piece of high art:

“I’ve up and writ this story,” the Yorkshireman declared,
“’bout blood and bats and big black dogs. It’s sure to leave thee scared.
But I need a place to set it.” Bram Stoker then imparts.
“There’s no scary names in Yorkshire like they ‘ave in foreign parts.

I’ve wandered round the continent, ate foreign food and such,
but I found no inspiration ‘mongst the Belgians and the Dutch.
I even thought of Chateau Foy to set my tale of blood,
but the French said they pronounce it fwa, so that’s no bloody good!

At last I’m in Romania, atop a gret big ‘ill,
wi’ a castle that’s just perfect! In fact I think I will
use this very same location as the setting for me tome.
Pray tell to me, your countship, what t’name is of your ‘ome.”

“It’s Cetatea Poenari,” said the nobleman with pride.
“It has been mine for centuries, well, since my father died.”
The Yorkshireman, crestfallen, grunted, “Bugger, that’s a shame.
I’d never sell me novel if I used THAT for the name!

So perhaps I’m back to Whitby as the place to set my plot
but I shall ne’er forget thee and t’reception that I got
at thy castle on a mountain, wi’ a vista so spectacular.
I’ll even name t’book after thee, my dearest Count Vlad – what was your name again?”


Thanks again to everyone who took part, including those who did not send an entry, but restricted their input to abusive/helpful comments. I had a lot of fun with this – I hope you found it interesting!