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

Monday, 25 April 2016

Siege Testing – (3) Scales, Artillery Ranges, Saps

Things are getting a little busier, as you see. The game is hex-based – I am confident it could be played without hexes, if you really like measuring things.

My hexes are 7” across the flats, and the game scale equates one hex to 200 paces across (or 100 toises, if you prefer the classic terminology). That fits with the size and theory of the (15mm scale) fortress pieces. A lot of the logic of the game is related to artillery ranges, so let’s get to that now. Since this is a little section on artillery, I’ll go into a little more detail than this discussion really needs – if the mechanisms strike you as reminiscent of Charge!, or the closely-related Sandhurst siege game rules in Chris Duffy’s Fire & Stone book, then I can only plead that this is not a bad source. I propose to use Commands & Colors style rules for melées and movement (though not the Command Cards), but I’ll stick with Chris Duffy for the artillery.

In the Tactical game, the maximum effective ranges for roundshot are:

Light guns      -           4 hexes
Medium guns -           5 hexes
Heavy guns    -           6 hexes

Subject to the range limitations of a particular piece, the effect of a shot is calculated by throwing two dice; one of these is the Accuracy Die (which is a black D6) – this has to turn up a number greater than or equal to the range in hexes for a hit. If it is a hit, a second (red) die gives the Effect; this die is a D6 if the target is close-order foot in the open, a D4 for horse, artillery, engineers or open-order foot in the open, or for close-order foot in soft cover (hedges, trees, temporary gabions), and it’s a D3 for anyone in hard cover (earthworks, stone walls). This score gives the number of figures lost. If, like me, you prefer your casualties to occur in whole sub-unit bases or not at all, then you have one more step – the owner of the target unit makes a Saving Throw (you may now groan). It works like this – we need to round odd hits up or down to a number of whole bases – if the unit suffering loss is organised with n figures per base, roll a Dn – an n-sided die; if the roll exceeds the number of odd hits, forget the odd hits; if it doesn’t, you lose a complete base.

Example: a medium cannon fires at a range of 5 hexes (its maximum) at an enemy unit of horse (and my horse is organised in bases of 3 figures). The horse are in the open.

(1) Roll the black D6 for Accuracy – at range 5 we need 5+ for a hit. Comes up 5 – good enough – a hit.

(2) Horse in the open are a middling sort of target, as discussed above – roll a D4 for casualties – comes up 2 – OK – 2 figures lost.

(3) Additional step because I want my losses to be counted in bases. At 3 figs/base, 2 figures is zero bases plus 2 odd figures. The Saving Throw has to be a D3, to match the base organisation – must roll a 3 (“beat the 2”) to save them. Throw is a 2 – tough – the horse lose a complete base.

Siege cannons (i.e. nominated wall-battering guns) and siege mortars have no tactical function at all, since they are too ponderous to move and too slow to load and fire in a tactical context (though they may be overrun during such a phase, of course).

The Strategic artillery system is basically the same, though there are additional rules for siege cannons and mortars in the Strategic game. If it seems odd that a 24-hour Strategic turn should produce similar casualty levels to a 30-minute Tactical turn then I can’t disagree – however, the arguments in favour of this oddity are thus:

(1) During a Strategic turn, rates of fire are deliberately slow (to avoid overheating the guns) and the troops would stay in cover and keep their heads down. A Tactical turn is a much more intense period of action.

(2) It is very convenient to make this assumption.

(3) Chris Duffy recommends it – if it was good enough for Sandhurst...

In the Strategic game, I had thought of giving siege cannons some extra range – maybe 8 hexes – but on the grounds that 6 hexes is already 1200 paces, the guns were pretty inaccurate and you can only fire at what you can see, I kept it at 6 hexes, like the other heavy guns – siege cannons, however, can break down walls. Fire on a section of wall is like other fire – the black Accuracy die tells you whether you hit the right place, and a D6 Effect die needs to score 4+ to do damage to an old-fashioned stone curtain wall, 5+ for a low Vauban wall with earth backing, and whatever else you fancy. A single, damaging hit to a wall is denoted by a piece of gravel placed below the target area (classy, eh?) – in my game, I have been working with the assumption that 5 such gravel-generating hits on the same section will produce a breach in the medieval walls of Middlehampton.

The common all-garden damage markers I borrowed from our driveway - this is
good whinstone, but it's a bit dark to match the walls - do you think I could get a
sample of some rather paler Cotswold stuff from my local garden centre?
Mortars also feature in the Strategic game – the range is up to 6 hexes, like heavy cannons, but the target need not be in direct sight and the effect of cover is negated. There are strict limits on the number of mortars (just one in my present game!).

Right – that was a fairly lengthy introduction to the idea that “artillery range”, broadly speaking, is 6 hexes, and this is relevant to the necessary task of Sapping Forward. In the last instalment, I mentioned that the digging of parallels and other general-purpose trenches requires infantry bases to match or better the day’s Digging Number. The procedures for such trenches mean that the position is first of all protected with gabions, to offer “soft” cover to the shovellers while work goes ahead, and then the main challenge is to score enough decent dice rolls to complete the work. Digging toward the fortress is a different deal altogether – in this situation, specialist sappers work towards the front (well, obliquely toward the front, to avoid the sap being enfiladed), and the particular challenge is staying protected from the enemy’s fire while working. In this, the challenge has less to do with the state of the ground, and more with the proximity to the enemy. Accordingly, digging a forward sap requires an engineering presence of some sort (I have sappers for my Napoleonic armies, but for the time being for the ECW I have to attach a designated “engineer” figure and imagine there are sappers present), and some infantry to follow up to widen the sap into a trench in the normal “Digging Number” way.

The current situation is a bit crude - the token "Engineer" is followed up by some
infantry, who will enlarge the sap to full trench proportions - in this form, without
any identifiable sappers, it looks a bit like a firing squad. I hope improved elegance
will follow soon.
The actual head of the sap is traced out, one hex at a time, using gabions, and the infantry follow up with the trench work. To advance the head of the sap is automatic until the sap gets within the 6-hex artillery range zone, and therafter success requires a roll of 2D6 – and at least one of these dice must come up equal to or less than the distance in hexes from the walls (or the covered way, if it is that kind of fortress). It gets slower and more fiddly the nearer you get.

Once the sap has reached the correct distance, digging a parallel and new gun positions is simply a question of doing the spadework with dice against the Digging Number. Since the Strategic game allows the besiegers to move troops to anywhere which is not forward of the heads of sap, some good dice can enable a complete parallel to be dug in a single day.

Enough nuts and bolts for the moment. In the Test Siege of Middlehampton, the attackers (Leven’s Covenanter army) were forced by the existence of the Duke’s Sconce (a modern outwork) to build their First Parallel further from the walls than they might have chosen. Once they had taken the outwork, they sapped forward without incident and constructed the Second Parallel just outside artillery range of the walls. Leven opted not to advance this first sap any further, for fear of some form of sally on the part of the defenders.

Now within range of the town’s heavier guns, further sapping was rather slower, and an engineer was among the (few) casualties, but it brought the Third Parallel within 4 hexes (800 paces) of the walls, and a position was constructed for the giant mortar (Auld Aggie). This mortar, along with the two heavy guns captured in the Sconce, now produced a steady fire on the town which mostly served to frighten the inhabitants. There were a few casualties on both sides, but the Loyalty of the townspeople had now slid to 1 (“indifferent to the garrison, but not yet a threat to them”), as a result of the Governor’s unpopular demolition of the northern suburbs and the harrowing effects of night bombardment by the Scots.

Still the forward saps continued – still there was no action on the part of Lord Bloat to disrupt the approach work with any kind of sally. By the end of the 13th day of the siege, a Fourth Parallel was ready, and the mighty siege cannons were in place opposite the section of the curtain wall which had no earthwork protection.

Not looking good for the Royalist town of Middlehampton?

Siege cannons in place to start bombarding the old North Wall

The Scots' works, with the Second Parallel in the foreground

Lord Bloat (mounted, with red plume) must surely be thinking of asking for terms.
We have to assume that he has faithfully promised the line of red-coated musketeers
manning the earthwork outside the walls that he will open the Stockgate to let
them in pretty smartish when the time comes 

I'm not sure who this little drummer is, nor why he's involved - I guess I must
have accidentally included him as one of the singly-based engineers. He has
a certain plucky quality - I like him - he's a sort of talisman for the Resolve
Number of the garrison, but I fear his time is running out
That’s as far as I’ve got – thus far I have to say that the sapping is slow and would not necessarily be a lot of fun in a competitive game, though it is fine for a solo effort. The artillery is not as effective as I expected, which is probably historically correct – I could have done more with sallies if the garrison had been stronger.

Next steps will be the start of the bombardment of the curtain wall, and I might say a bit about food supply – let’s see how it goes!


  1. Looks & sounds good so far (sounds as in listening to me reading aloud in my head perhaps).

    I found it necessary to disallow breaching fire during sorties and assaults etc to prevent the besieger taking advantage of sorties, or worse feigning assaults, in order to get additional breaching done quickly!

    1. First sentence reminds me for some reason of an old gag from Lucille Ball, where someone was described as "not dumb, but can't read the newspaper when her lips are chapped".

      Second paragraph - yes, absolutely. I decided right at the start that no-one would ever get a shot off from a siege gun during a tactical turn. None of the ECW history is actually amusing, but some of it gets close - at the Leaguer of Lathom House (not far from my native village of Liverpool), Col Rigby borrowed a massive mortar from Sir William Brereton's Cheshire army, to batter Lady Derby into submission. Because they were hard to come by, Brereton could only let him have half a dozen or so of the huge grenadoes which it fired - so the rate of fire was not exactly like WW1, since these grenadoes lasted some weeks - until the defenders sallied out one night, overpowered the boys from the St Helens militia (or similar) and took the mortar back into the grounds of Lathom House. What a bugger, eh?

      Another bit of this saga I found interesting was that, since they had very little ammo and no experience of using such a mortar, Rigby's gunners practised using big round rocks of about the right size. When they were confident they had the feel for the range, they tried one of the precious shells, and because of the difference in weight they missed the house by about half a mile. I guess boys didn't do basic Physics at school in them days?

      This reminds me I have two very good books on ECW mortars and artillery by Dr Stephen Bull, which I should dig out and read more carefully.

  2. Got to be honest and say that this is the first time I've actually paid atrtention to a description of siege warfare rules - they're concise and business-like, which helps. While I agree the preliminary work prior to a breach would sap the enthusiasm in a competitive game (sorry!), its very nature adds to the atmosphere and is ideal for solo play.

    I suppose one could carry out the exercise in a very pragmatic way with strips of cardboard to represent defences and emplacements etc., or even just with pen and paper, but the potential for modelling the actual siege in whatever style of game you prefer and the satisfaction it must give seems a great deal higher than in a normal 'field' game. In the past, when I've played a campaign, sieges ere conducted in a quick fire way via tables and minor calculations, but no more. With minor adjustments for personal tastes, they can cover just about all the gunpowder period.

    1. Hi Gary - a standalone siege is a slightly weird thing to play through, I find. In my Peninsular campaign I did as you suggest and did algorithm-based mathematical sieges in the background - reason obviously being that the campaign would continue in real time while the siege was going, I couldn't make the weekly turn cycle fit in with a siege game, couldn't leave a siege set up on the table for any period that would make sense, was worried in case 2 simultaneous sieges were required (aaargh) etc.

      A standalone siege, then gives the chance to spread out a bit and (since this is the premier dining table) make a meal of it, but that's artificial. There have to be some constraints in the scenario, otherwise it's just a question of watching patiently as the besiegers slowly but inevitably win. It is necessary to put time limits on the action (campaign pressures, ammunition and other shortages, fear of a relief movement, etc etc - whatever). It's also uncomfortably artificial if you don't have to worry about politics, not to mention food supply and suchlike - on the other hand, there is a temptation to go over the top with a mammoth bookkeeping industry - nightmare - spreadsheets can even make this more likely - and the game disappears into potential insanity.

      So some lightweight system is needed which puts pressure on the garrison commander, and the narrative becomes important - vital, in fact. To make it a sensible, or plausible game, the garrison need a reason to hold out - they need time objectives or something. Otherwise they should just watch the beginning of the siege and, if the attackers seem to know their business, give up after a respectable amount of prevarication.

      Also, if the narrative is key, it also helps if the scenic set-up makes it worthwhile - I've had a few attempts at this in the past using miniature Jenga blocks and bits of card, and the desultory look of the thing just added to the tedium. Despite myself, I could only think that Bruce Quarrie was right all along, and only a madman would attempt this. My current renaissance (?) in the siege business has a lot to do with a moderate investment (?) in equipment and buildings - it helps a lot. There's still time to fizzle out, but I have a permit to leave the table up for the rest of the week, so should get as far as knocking down walls, storming breaches etc. I still feel the scenario is a bit short of political and strategic background though.

      Enough of this - cheers - Tony

  3. I'm enjoying reading about your development of a siege game very much. Sieges played a large role in the ECW, so a system for gaming them is very welcome, and portraying a garrison cut off by a siege is ideal for adding roleplay elements to the game. Your systems seem primarily designed for full-scale sieges of towns; do you think they would suit the smaller, but very common, sieges of fortified manor houses/old castles &c?
    It strikes me they would work equally well, if not better, for the 18th century.

    1. Hi Arthur - the rules may be a bit of a blunt instrument for very small sieges, but I see no reason why they wouldn't work - just need more tactical interruptions! In fact, in that context, the strategic turn is just a convenient time-collapse to accelerate periods when not much is happening, so it makes good sense.

      I think the noble precedents for this kind of game (the Sandhurst game, the classic Siege of Dendermonde) concentrate on the 18th Century, so I agree this would be an ideal period for this kind of game.

      An advantage for the leaguer of a single house or similar would be the possibility of putting the complete place on the table, rather than the "pizza-slice" approach which I'm using here. Longer artillery ranges might become a problem, but in fact at 200 paces per hex my table (unextended) is 2600 paces long, and the First Parallel for my ECW game only needs to be half that distance from the walls.

    2. I'm not sure I grasp the rules as well as I should, but I'm certainly enjoying the spectacle.

    3. Good day, Mr Kinch - thank you - if you read Appendix 3 of the Chris Duffy book I mentioned, you'll find he expresses it much more clearly!

  4. Now this has whetted my appetite Tony! Sounds like you have a good balance of relative 'tedium' and 'bang you're dead' playability. I say 'tedium' because part of that slow unfolding of the approach work has got to be part of the experience of a siege.

    Can't wait for the next episode. (Hums the Flashing Blade theme to self)


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