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

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

ECW - We Like Our Musketry Explicit

The gentlemen of the Sealed Knot being unpleasant at close quarters
This is going to be one of my ruminating sessions, I think, so if you don't fancy the prospect you have at least been forewarned. In response to my post yesterday, David sent a comment that touches on some of the key issues in the problem of how we try to represent warfare as a game we can play on the kitchen table. [When pressed, ruminate. That is the house rule here.]

So David is my guest writer for the morning. His comment included the following:

"...it is fascinating to think about how they actually went about the business of organised combat in the pike and shot era. Now I admit I have not downloaded your rules, so you may rightly ignore all I say. But one thing that always strikes me is how short a range they would be firing their muskets at (ignoring ill-disciplined premature popping-off by inexperienced troops); I get the feeling this would often be 100 yards or less. Which must have been terrifying, by the way. Now this makes me wonder, what is the 'range' of musketry in C&C, in hexes? And what distance does a hex represent? And how does that relate to movement distances?

Another thing that only now strikes me is, if taking up a firing position at 100 yards from the enemy and then using 'fire by introduction', it can't take long to close the range quite considerably; how much discipline did it take to maintain that measured fire and reloading, and how tempting was it to just give all that up and get stuck in to a melee?..."

I'd like to take a couple of detours before attempting to respond to this.

This doesn't look like rolling fire to me - it looks like a big Salvee
Firstly, since we are all shaped by our experiences, and since this includes the development of my own views on war gaming, I'd like to share with you a tale of a game I was once involved in. I would say this was about 1974. [I used to keep a huge file with notes and jottings and OOBs from all my war games - going way back - but alas I lost it during a house move 19 years ago, so approximate memory will have to serve now]. The main things are that this game certainly wasn't yesterday, and that it was from a period when we were all striving to make our miniature battles as realistic as possible. That seems like a very sad joke now, but I was as keen as anyone else.

The event was a very large bash at Quatre Bras - lots of borrowed troops on display - I can't remember how many, but there were a lot, and we used the WRG rules of the day. There were a lot of people involved, though, since the game lasted all day Saturday, all day Sunday and some of Monday evening, players were coming in to relieve each other, so there was never a time when everyone was present together, and some of the visits were brief and intended to show willing rather than make any major contribution. I recall that Phil Maugham, Alan Low, Dave Hoskins, Allan Gallacher (our host), John Ramsay, Dave Thomson, Keith Spragg and Forbes Hannah were all present at some point - a true marathon relay effort. I am less clear about the outcome - I think it was a sort of draw, though the Allies claimed they were leading at the end - you may recognise that kind of conclusion. Another, rather darker recollection is that only about 3 of the assembly are still alive, which just goes to show something or other (it probably shows that I was one of the younger participants!).

It took a long time afterwards to clear up the mess and sort out the paperwork, and two big messages feature most strongly in my memory. Firstly, none of us ever wanted to do anything like that again - in fact this was around the time that I first started looking seriously at what could be learned from board games, and trying to find ways to simplify my own miniatures games. Secondly, we were horrified (not to say incredulous) to learn that the total elapsed "battle time" amounted to around 35 minutes - that's all. Something like 22 hours had been spent "fighting" a battle which must have lasted a few hours historically, and the mathematical basis of the game accounted for only 35 minutes. So what else was going on at Quatre Bras? Were our rules incompetent? - well, possibly, though, like the players, the rules were well-intentioned. Did battles involve a lot of other stuff - waiting around, perhaps - which padded out this skeletonic 35 minutes? Is there something else at work here?

I've thought about this problem, off and on, ever since. There was something else at work. For one thing, there is something strangely elastic and subjective about the passage of time - Einstein said something to the effect that an hour spent conversing with a pretty girl was but a fleeting instant, but a minute spent sitting on a very hot stove was a long time indeed (stovists please don't bother complaining - get in touch with Einstein) - this is not something you can measure on a clock. I have read about this, but don't have much of a handle on it. More importantly, there are huge problems with our assumptions of realism in any kind of stochastic simulation.

I wrote a rather lengthy post on the concept of ludic fallacies on this blog - it seems it was 6 and a bit years ago. Goodness me. I was a windbag even in those days. If you wish to risk that old post then good for you - it's here - I haven't changed my mind since then, and I doubt if I could express it better now (more concisely, maybe...). The idea is that any kind of mathematical model of a real system is fundamentally flawed, unless the system is itself very simple and mathematically based. Thus, for example, we can analyse fully a game based on rolling dice - provided, of course, that the dice are "honest dice" and that the players don't do anything underhand (and these may be significant doubts, if there's a lot of money at stake!). Anything more complex and we very quickly find that the elements we can measure and understand and estimate (or think we can) are swamped by the things we do not understand, the things we have not thought of, and the interactions between these. [The original target of ridicule for the ludic fallacy was the world of finance, in which fund management and investment strategies are driven by mathematical models which are not only unreliable but dangerous if they are trusted beyond the bounds of validity (please supply your own examples...)]

War games are less scary in their implications than fund management, but an example I used 6-and-a-half years ago was the way rules all over the planet were suddenly "improved" after the publication of Maj. Gen. BP Hughes' famous Firepower, a semi-scientific study of the power and effectiveness of weapons. Hughes himself was very sensible and forthright about the limitations of both the data and reasoning in his fascinating book, but the guys who adopted it for rule writing almost all missed the point by some miles. Idealised 19th Century experiments to measure the power and hitting capability of (for example) canister fire are interesting as an assessment of the weapons themselves, but the official-looking analysis tables from Hughes have as much to do with the likely results of these weapons' use in real battle conditions by real soldiers - with real emotions and limited training - as the proverbial price of onions, so basing a game on them was more than a little naive. Sorry, chaps.

One of the misunderstood charts from Firepower
I can't be bothered checking for actual references, but a few of the earlier war games writers - notably Peter Young and Paddy Griffith, I think - made the point that game scales and exact measurements were all very well, but the most important thing was to have a game which works. If rifles are supposed to fire a bit further than muskets, let them fire a bit further in your game - exactly how much further is less important, within the limits of commonsense; in truth, no-one really knows exactly how much further it should be, anyway. Same with march distances and all that. If anyone tells you differently then he's bluffing, or he hasn't thought about it. Or both. The 1970s push for time-and-motion-study re-engineering of war games produced very little improvement in the observed realism of outcomes, and, as far as I am concerned, produced a colossal reduction in the enjoyment of the games themselves.

It will rattle some teacups, but I would contend that one of the attractions of the newfangled, non-Old-School, board game-style Commands & Colors game is that it is closer in spirit to the creed of Messrs Young and Griffith than much of the pseudo-science and detail that we have seen in the time in between.

I impose a ground scale on C&C to make sense of modelling battlefields, and especially for setting out fortresses, but some of the equivalences don't stand up to close scrutiny. If I assume 200 paces for a hex, then a unit in a hex 2 hexes away is somewhere between 200 and 600 paces distant. 400 seems a logical figure to use. 400 paces as an effective musket range is pretty optimistic in the Napoleonic Wars - the captain would not be pleased if his chaps started firing at such a range - and is certainly just plain silly in the ECW. And yet I've adopted a 2-hex musket range for the ECW game - why?

Well, to be honest, I'd be more comfortable if musketry were not handled explicitly in these games. I've already abstracted cavalry firing their pistols into the bit of the game that comes under the heading Melee Combat. Pistol fire was just one of the unpleasant things that cavalry did to each other when they were in reasonably close contact. It would make sense to do the same with musket fire - simply regard it as a close-range matter, in terms of the ground scale, and include it into Melee, in the same way I've already done for the Horse.

This would certainly not be very revolutionary. Long before C&C appeared, I used home-brewed Napoleonic rules which were very influenced by Doc Monaghan's Big Battalions, which originated with the Guernsey Wargames Club. This was most definitely a miniatures game, but it used a very neat melee system, which was very clearly board game-like in style, and there was no musketry. What? That's right - cannons fired at people, and there was some skirmisher activity ("harassing fire") which was carried out around the same time as the "Bombardment Phase", but volleyed musketry by close-order infantry was something that happened in a close combat situation, so it was covered by the board game-style melee rules.

It worked nicely - it took a bit of getting used to, and it would certainly alienate the chaps who don't like C&C because it denies you the opportunity to form lines or columns, or fiddle with skirmishers. I think that if the game scale is big enough, abstracting musketry is logical and reasonable.

So why have I persisted with a distinct rule for musket fire for the ECW, which is, to say the least, not well supported by our understanding of the facts? Why not take the obvious step of making artillery fire the only kind of Ranged Combat permitted? Hmmm.

First thing to say is that musketry is kind of fun - the game would feel poorer without it, and in this game it is not very effective anyway. Next, the same arguments could be applied to the Napoleonic game - which is a board game, let us remember - yet the very experienced and knowledgeable authors of that game decided to feature it as part of ranged combat.

That whiff of board game is quite an important aspect of this. In a traditional board war game, cardboard counters move next to each other on the board, and bad things happen. It isn't a series of individual musket volleys or charges, it's almost like some kind of force-field thing - the units interact in some manner, and one of them prevails, or is eliminated, or whatever - as the game scale increases, our view of the details starts to disappear. It is the sort of thing that turns off the Old School enthusiasts.

Thus I have left musketry in my ECW game at present, because it feels more like a miniatures war game if it is left in, but my feelings on the matter are pretty marginal. There are strong arguments to make it part of the Melee, and the game would be tidier (and probably more correct) without it, but it would feel less like a "proper" war game. Peter Young would have been horrified not to get a chance to fire his muskets, so that'll do for the time being.


  1. Don't really disagree with any of that but if this was a pub.... When I first really read Joe Morschauser's 1962 book "How to Play Wargames in Miniature" it was 2002 and I was well steeped in the detailed bottom up, true scale approach and the book was quaintly amusing and naive. I mean, in the Horse and Musket Era he has a 3" melee range then says units can't shoot because the men are too bust fighting hand to hand with bayonets etc. From 3" away?

    Then I tried a game, just because, and it suddenly became clear that he had found a very simple way to crack two problems I had been struggling with for years.

    One dilemma was that after studying as many detailed battle accounts as I could, I had reached the conclusion that long range musketry was almost never decisive and that many infantry "charges" were really about getting the troops into the decisive zone but occasionally an attempt to close would happen and usually one side would break. I just hadn't been able to write or find a set of rules that managed to get that to work, especially not a simple, playable set. His rules descriptions were "dumbed down" for a wide, not necessarily informed, audience but they nicely differentiated between less decisive long range fire which might wear the enemy down eventually (when using the roster system) and immediately decisive "melee" where an attack was resolved immediately by the destruction of one side or the other, even if it took several rounds of dicing to get there.

    My other dilemma was that the better my rules got at reproducing tactical detail, the less important Generalship seemed along with all those principles of war and reserves etc, partly because the games rarely got that far before the evening was out.

    15 years later I haven't recovered but my games play better and a few small nods to expectations like allowing the defender to roll first in melee if he qualifies for "defensive fire" or a plus if an attacking cavalry unit is using "shock" tactics, are enough to give me some flavour while keeping up the pace and allowing the over all picture to matter more than tactical details. .

    1. Ross - excellent comment - Morschauser is a shadowy presence - his books were regarded as a bit alternative when I first started wargaming, and there is something odd about the way they are written - maybe you're right that they were dumbed down - some of the stuff seems almost like an apology for the hobby. It's always salutary when something one has previously dismissed as beneath your dignity to acknowledge turns out to be an eye-opener - my first exposure to the despised boardgames demonstrated that it was possible to write rules that actually hung together. Good grief - what a shock.

      What's the bit about the pub? - if this was a pub, I'd never get to drink anything, because I talk too much.

  2. Another thought provoking read Tony. I agree it would work for battle in the ECW to have a combined 'close combat' calculation that covers both musketry and pike fighting as the firing ranges must have been incredibly short. Dr.Paddy Griffith in his excellent study of combat during the American Civil War concluded that the average firing range during ACW battles was only around 100 yards, with rifled weapons that were capable of spinning a bullet with some accuracy to ranges exceeding 400yds, so my thoughts are that those dodgy old matchlocks would have had to be let off at very close range to have any chance of hitting anything! I know they were firing into a mass of bodies, but if one paces out 100yards it's the chance of firing too high or too low with inaccurate weapons that is a major factor. I reckon they could do more damage simply using the things as clubs. But then we all like a bit of musketry in our wargames.

    1. ...then throw in the effect of smoke, and lots of it, and I suspect actual firing ranges may have been even less than 100yds....

      ...a good read Tony - a well presented, concise explanation of why it's your cricket bat and you're going home... :o))

    2. Good heavens, is that what I said?

    3. Lee - problems with Blogger again - can't reply to your comment! I was just going to say that there's nothing to beat a bit of musketry, but maybe it's as well I couldn't! Short effective ranges - I think the idea of making a loud bang from a distance, so that the rustics would run away in superstitious dread, was probably wearing a bit thin by the ECW.

  3. Well I have to say I am highly honoured that my comments have inspired your ruminations!
    I quite agree, we are dealing here with the difference between a board game and a figures game, and in a figures game the 'look' of the thing is important: you want to see the figures stood at a sensible distance apart, exchanging musketry. If you kept strictly to the 'one hex = 200m' maxim, then the figures would be in adjacent hexes and it would look all wrong. In a board game, as you say it is much easier to just say that the two units are adjacent and therefore 'in combat' = because you are instinctively seeing them as much smaller scale representations.
    I'm afraid with my questions I seem to have cast myself as one of the 1970s throwback 'more detail equals more realism' brigade, who inflicted such painfully complicated and un-finishable games on us all, as you describe, in the name of 'accuracy'; whereas in fact I think I have a diametrically opposed view!
    I think that we have to recognise that we simply cannot make all of the figure ratio/distance/time scales work 'accurately' with figures on the tabletop, and that a sort of 'Uncertainty Principle' applies : if we make the ground scale and figure ratio absolutely 'correct' then the time scale will probably be 'wrong', and so on (and the height scale NEVER works with the ground scale!). There always has to be a generous helping of fudge applied, and that's fine as long as the result 'feels' right.

    Where things then get really interesting, surely, is knowing what that 'feel' really was like, and capturing it, in as simple a manner as possible; that's the Holy Grail! I think Neil Thomas is really interesting in this respect, with his mission to simplify and remove redundant detail at every turn (it's only a shame I'm not sure if his Pike and Shot rules work very well!). The old-schoolers like Charles Grant and Peter Young were surely on to something, too; they were serious students of military history and their games reflected that, while still being seriously entertaining and relatively simple - it also helps that their writing could be both elegant and witty! In the Pike and Shot period, I have high hopes of Charles Wesencraft; I bought his book from John Curry's reprint series and enjoyed it enormously ( admittedly I haven't yet tried using the rules!).
    The Pike and Shot period, to my mind, is a real challenge for this approach; have you ever really sat down and thought about how two foot regiments, each with a block of pikemen and wings of musketeers, would have actually gone about fighting each other? If you were in the front rank of a pike block, and you and your mates charged with levelled pikes at an opposing pike block's levelled pikes, wouldn't you just be impaled? So you would stop before you reached them, wouldn't you? And then what? And what are your musketeer chums doing, meanwhile..? To me that's the stuff that's really interesting; and then, how to bottle it, and make it into a game, and keep the spirit, and keep it simple..
    So, many thanks agian, and here's to rumination!

    1. David - I agree entirely. Big lessons for me over the years have been

      (1) lots of different approaches work - much of it is down to personal preferences, but a lot is is also to do with the scale of operation. Skirmish games are super-detailed, obviously, and a lot of fun, but the approach obviously can't just be applied to a bigger game - I've seen people using skirmish-type rules for larger actions as club activities at wargames shows, and it looks like fun, but - man - it's exhausting!

      (2) Occasionally - especially in rarified places like TMP - people will defend their preferences or ridicule someone else's by reference to "Period Flavour" - which phrase is a bit of a warning sign for me. Obviously it is important that we don't lose some distinctive feature of the period we adopt as our game context, but one man's Period Flavour is another man's Tom Foolery. If a game is rich in tactical detail but is unplayable as a result then it needs a rethink.

      (3) Billy Connolly said something about there being no such thing as bad weather - there is only inappropriate clothing. In a similar vein, you don't often come across truly bad wargames rules - you just come across games where someone tries to use rules which are unsuitable for the scale. There are other choices - we have to keep an open mind!

      On the topic of the actual experience of warfare, I find a lot of it bewildering. So much is a product of the lifestyles and the opinions of the age we live in. Even ECW re-enactors (excellent chaps, to a man) know in their hearts that the other side isn't actually going to try to kill them, which puts an upper limit on the realism thing. I read John Keegan's "Face of Battle" years ago and found it very educational - it put the unimaginable into terms which i could almost appreciate. We are lucky (most of us in the UK, anyway) that we haven't had to experience events like Agincourt, the Somme, etc at first hand.

      The little soldiers do that on our behalf - that's why we have to look after them!

    2. Thanks; I think I had one of my funny turns. I remember the red mist coming down, and then the nurses,and the screens..