Napoleonic, WSS & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday 27 May 2011

More of the Same

The rest of the new shipment of painted figures have now been touched and revarnished as necessary and based. They too are now waiting for flags.

Very pleased to get back the first two of my proposed 4 groups of Spanish guerrilla infantry. These are a mixture of Qualiticast and Kennington figures.

More Spanish volunteers - these are the Defensores de Fernando VII, an unusually smart looking unit from Castile, who started life as Kennington 1812 American militia (good idea, Mr Kinch - thanks for that). The flag I had intended to do for them is a horror to draw, so I may go for something simpler.

And some volunteer artillery to support them - here we have the Artilleros Distinguedos de Avila. Since I am very keen on the weirder units in JM Bueno's lovely book, these guys could have been wearing almost anything, but it occurs to me that if I dress them more conservatively as slightly out-of-date artillery of the line I get more options for their use. Figures and guns are NapoleoN apart from the midget Kennington officer, who may not actually be visible in the picture.

Lastly, the combined voltigeurs of the fictitious Vorpommern brigade - Scruby and Higgins.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The Other Side of the Mountain

On Monday, the postie brought a satisfyingly hefty package, which was a pile of figures returned from David the Painter. It's always a bit like Christmas, unwrapping everything (a lot of very serious bubblewrap - and quite right too). Then follows an experience which might be described as the reverse slope of the Lead Mountain - that brief period when there is a pile of painted figures waiting to be organised and based. Since my basing standards are minimalist, this is not a huge chore, and it's really very gratifying.

Thus far, I've based three of the new units - they haven't been issued their colours yet, but that will probably be done over the weekend. No doubt they will appear here in full splendour when their formations are complete and a parade of some sort is in order. This is just a holding post, giving a glimpse of what passes for breathless immediacy in this place.

First there are two infantry units for my fictitious Vorpommern brigade. These are mainly Scruby figures, and once again I am astonished at how well they paint up, considering how unpromising they look in the metal. Since they have a pleasing "toy soldier" look, I like them a little bit shiny.

Here are the Grenadierbataillon Zum alten Greif, nicknamed Die Tulpen (tulips) by their comrades, for obvious reasons. The yellow coats are a tradition established by the old Stralsund Town Guard in the Middle Ages, and yellow and red were in any case the colours of the national cockade of the Duchy of Stralsund-Rügen.

And here is the Jaegerbataillon Franzburg. They were organised and drilled the same as the line infantry, though their light infantry pretensions extended to having carabiniers in tall bearskins and voltigeurs in colpacks. There was supposed to be a sharpshooter company armed with rifles, but this was discouraged by the French commissariat because of the lack of suitable ammunition. A number of the Stralsund-Rügen units bore the names of towns in Vorpommern, but there was no real connection - men were recruited from all over the area, including Brandenburgers and deserters from the Swedish army. There is a theory that the names were allocated to justify the raising of taxes in the relevant towns. The Jaegers had their headquarters in Stralsund, not Franzburg.

Change of army - these are the 2nd battalion of the Loyales de Zamora - Spanish volunteers - also waiting for their flag. The castings are by NapoleoN Miniatures. If they are poorly trained and equipped, if they run away in moments of duress, remember that they will be back next day. The relentless bloody mindedness of the Spanish militia and irregulars is what eventually wore away the spirit of the French army in Spain. They fought a style of warfare which the French did not understand, and which the Russians were quick to learn from. This unit, and all the many others like them, if he had only recognised it, were Napoleon's worst nightmare.


Monday 23 May 2011

The Charles Creed Collection - more Pathe films

These pale into insignificance beside the Marcus Hinton Pathe film, which is what reminded me of them in the first place, but I thought they might be of interest. Does anyone know what happened to the Creed collection?

If you click on the images you can watch the movies - apologies for any ads you get with them, probably a small price to pay considering the value of the Pathe archive.

Charles Southey Creed
Born: Paris, France, 1909
Died: London, England, 1966

Son of Henry Creed of Paris – who claimed to be the first tailor to introduce tweeds into women’s suits – Charles Creed was one of the movers and shakers of British fashion in the 1940s. ‘He was pre-destined to design exquisite clothes,’ said Vogue in 1946. ‘Like any artist he seeks perfection, in his case it is tailored perfection.’

Educated in France, England and Germany, Creed joined his father’s business – established by his ancestors in 1710 – before settling in London. At 17 years old, he travelled to Vienna to study tailoring and design. In 1941 he produced utility designs and, after the Second World War, opened his own London house. He married Patricia Cunningham, a fashion editor at Vogue, in 1948.

Charles Creed was in possession of one of the finest collections of lead soldiers and porcelains of the Napoleonic era. In his autobiography, Maid to Measure (1961), he claims to have invented the concept of boutiques in 1939 and concludes, I have grown older and grey and rather bald in the pursuit of my profession and the opposite sex – and I still cannot think of a better way to spend one’s time.’

[At a completely personal level, as a would-be historian I am quietly pleased that his middle name was Southey, and the biographical note, as you will have realised, is taken from   Dressing for wargaming has been discussed recently - how about painting soldiers in your good suit?]

Friday 20 May 2011

Hooptedoodle #26 - Why I Grew Out of eBay

I've had some excellent value out of eBay. My wargame armies have grown dramatically as a result of my constantly trawling the listings looking for vintage figures, I've obtained a load of books at decent prices and I've even made a few good friends from the people I've had dealings with. It has also been useful for selling off things I no longer needed, and, of course, eBay and PayPal have made a silly amount of money out of my involvement, which is what it is all about really, so I can feel that I have paid my way nicely. Most of all, it has given me a lot of fun.

I am beginning to grow very tired of it. For a start, the economic situation means that, like everyone, I have to watch what I spend, and eBay can be a bit dangerous at times. My armies now are pretty much complete anyway, but I am beginning to dislike some aspects of eBay. I do not like the standardisation of listings enforced by the Turbo Lister software, I do not like the restrictions placed on shipping values - many of them are poorly thought through (example - certain categories of item will try to force free shipping on the seller, regardless of the weight of the package, and regardless of the destination), I do not care for the growing preponderance of professional dealers, and in particular I do not like what has happened to the Feedback system.

I was always very partial to the Feedback - it gave an overtone, however illusory, of old-fashioned trust. If someone had a large 100% feedback record, they could pretty certainly be relied upon; in more practical terms, they would be unlikely to risk spoiling that hard-earned record by messing me around over a £5 pack of toy soldiers. It worked nicely, though there was a regrettable tendency for some sellers to hold off with feedback until they themselves had received good feedback from the buyer - the "second snowball" principle, clearly aimed to discourage any expression of dissatisfaction. Feedback has become very specific now, and the 5 Stars system by service category (accuracy of description, quality of communication, speed of shipping and level of P&P charges) seems to be too detailed an instrument to place in the hands of your average eBayer. There are a few people who will never give anything full marks, on principle, or possibly out of embarrassment - who knows? There is an even larger number of people who will always give full marks for everything, because they feel it is expected, and because it's not worth the hassle of doing anything else. I am faintly mystified, for example, to reflect that my rating for shipping charges has never been higher than 4.8 out of 5. OK - it's a good pass mark, and it doesn't trouble me at all, but I have always charged postage at cost, try to use recycled packing materials where possible, and will make PayPal refunds if I have over-estimated the shipping cost. In other words, I regularly lose small amounts of money on shipping, so I can't understand how I have disappointed my customers. Maybe they are just unhappy with Royal Mail's tariff of charges? Who knows? No matter - the point remains that the Feedback, despite attempts to bring more science to it, no longer reassures me as it did.

Recently I bought a book from an eBay seller and was surprised to have it delivered by Amazon. I worked out that this is an eBay dealer who lists books at prices a few pence higher than Amazon's, arranges for them to be sent direct from Amazon and pockets the change. Not exactly entrepreneurial, is it? Apart from my grinding irritation with portal-type industries which milk money out of a system to which they add no value whatsoever, I cannot afford that kind of pointless waste. Now I always cross-check on Amazon and Abebooks before I bid for a book (or a DVD, or a CD) on eBay - in about 60% of cases I end up buying from Amazon.

Last week I bought a small item from a large eBay seller. Last time I dealt with them, they left feedback along the lines of "Perfect eBayer - a delight to deal with", which I was quietly pleased with until I realised that their other 32000 customers all had the same comment. This time, acknowledgement of my purchase included mention of the fact that if I give them positive feedback, an automated system at their end will respond by giving me positive feedback in return. Something not quite right there - something has slipped a little. Although it all helps perpetuate the lovely Facebook world in which we can all gush at each other and bask in the warm, meaningless glow, that little old trust thing just fell off the table. Not a big deal, but another of the accumulation of small niggles which have gradually made me an occasional, marginal user.

There are some things I'll miss - my all-time favourite daft feedback comment was "In days to come, they'll speak in awe of this transaction", though you don't often get that kind of quality now. I'll miss the Jurassic struggles when two superheroes simultaneously place a Really Silly Bid on the same rare Hinton Hunt figure, and I'll miss that lovely guy who keeps listing 25mm white metal Napoleonics - "maker unknown" - although they have obviously come out of the same Prince August moulds he used last week. Perhaps he has problems with short term memory retention.

So do I - what was I saying?

Monday 16 May 2011

Hooptedoodle #25 - Things Seen Outside the Kitchen Window

I was sorting out some files of photos from earlier this year, and found this one from late February - a fine chap indeed. A young male Greater Spotted Woodpecker, busy with the suet balls, getting himself into condition after a hard Winter.

We are very lucky to be able to watch a decent range of wildlife here - nothing truly exotic, but good by British standards. We have always had a family of woodpeckers around, ever since I came here - they are great characters, though very nervous of humans (as, of course, am I). This Spring we have had some birds we haven't seen before - Nuthatch and Siskin, for example - quite rare in Scotland normally. Must be the climate change, I guess.

We also get the occasional deer in the garden, and loads and loads of pheasants - the pheasants are bred here for the shooting. I'm really not a big fan of the shooting, though I'll eat the things if someone else shoots them. I'd rather leave them in peace and take pictures.

About 3/4 of a mile offshore - directly opposite our beach - is the Bass Rock, which is the chief breeding ground for Gannets in Northern Europe - there are about 1/3 of a million of them on the rock in midsummer. Strangely, they never come ashore - in 10 years, I've never seen one on land, apart from the occasional storm victim washed up on the beach. Only 3/4 of a mile away, but it could be a completely separate planet.

And, speaking of separate planets, I must make mention that I'm a little fed up today - I have recently read on Sam Mustafa's Honour website that the development of Blucher, which is expected to be the mummy and daddy of all grand tactical Napoleonic wargames, appears to have been abandoned - at least for the time being. Mustafa (I am quite a fan) makes an unusually full account of why, which is worth a read, but the main message is not good. It seems that development of such a game is not straightforward, after all. Let's see what happens.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Compromise in Wargames - (3a) Probability: an Afterthought

This follows from yesterday's post, and the comments on it. I had intended to make this a comment, which is maybe all it merits, but realised that no-one might read it if I did.

The suggestion was made that the figures "laid down" after a volley are not simply killed and wounded, but represent the number who are no longer available to fight back, for whatever reason, and that morale-type considerations will be a large part of this. I'm not talking about Charge! here, but I may well be talking about games of the same general style (and vintage?) as Charge! - if the "casualty" figures are really the overall reduction in combat effectiveness, as discussed, then they represent a nice get-out for those of us who find separate morale testing a tedious overhead.

Further - and this is where we get to this morning's wacky idea - this implies that your Old Guard should be harder to "kill". If they can fight on longer than lesser beings, then the proportional fall-off in CE should be slower in the same situation. It is a commonplace to allow good quality troops to shoot/fight better, and give them an extra dice (or something), but I do not recall ever seeing rules which gave an extra firing dice because the target unit were shaky. Maybe I should have? It would work, I think.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Compromise in Wargames - (3) Probability: the Ludic Fallacy and Other Stuff

This is the last of my three posts considering the basic assumptions on which wargames depend, and the need for a commonsense approach when applying them. This one will concern itself with the gamer’s need for convenient mechanisms to simulate chance events, or events which are subject to the laws of probability. The obvious areas of focus – maybe the only important ones, are casualty rates and the maintenance of some measure of combat effectiveness during a battle. To protect my sanity a little, and save some typing, let’s call this effectiveness CE, for short, and let’s not fuss too much about how it is assessed – let’s just assume that there is such a thing.

I don’t know what the Very Beginning is, in absolute terms, but Young & Lawford’s excellent Charge! seems a Very Good Place to Start. In the opening chapter, the authors discuss the introduction of random events into wargames, mentioning topics such as Military Chess, a variant of the noble game in which a determined pawn may occasionally fight off an attack from a knight, for example. Random events – simulators of battlefield probabilities – are introduced as a characteristic of wargames.

In the basic game of Charge!, infantry fire requires the player to throw 1 normal dice for every 8 figures firing. The score on the dice gives the basic number of hits. For long range (over 3”) halve the dice score. For incomplete volleys (4 to 7 odd men), halve the dice score. Hits on gunners, cavalry are halved; for troops in cover, hits are halved. All these halves are cumulative, and adjusted hits less than ½ a man are ignored.

This is a practical, standard approach to the problem – some contemporary rule writers allowed saving throws in addition, but this was the state of the art in the 1960s. The implied theory is fine – circumstances which reduce the probability of a hit (range, cover, type of target, etc) are allowed for by reducing the number of hits. Whether the numbers which result are reasonable or correct might be a very subjective judgement – we could compare the results with known recorded events from history, but the main criteria are whether the game works, and whether the players are happy with it. Charge! gives a good, rollicking game which is easy to understand, though the arithmetic can still become troublesome at 2am after a bottle of wine.

Possibly as a reaction to what had become the establishment method, some dissatisfaction began to appear among gamers who felt this was too crude, that it was not “scientific” enough. Charge! uses large units – about 60 figures to a battalion, so the relatively large numbers of dice in use would cause some averaging of the results, but people with 20-man units would be throwing 2 or 3 dice, which gives greater volatility. I can imagine some disgruntled player whose grenadier battalion had just rolled two 1s at long range, feeling this was unreasonable, that he had been cheated by the rules. He might point out that the 20 figures represent 750-odd men, who could get off something like 1500 shots in a 1 minute bound. If we know the probability of a single shot finding its target, we should really be throwing 1500 dice (or similar), which would give a much more predictable, much more even result. I would be prepared to bet that some hero, somewhere, did attempt to throw a dice for each musket shot. However, “if we know the probability” is the key phrase – in fact we don’t really, but we’ll come back to this point later.

The Wargames Research Group produced their famous table – you worked out the combat factor for the kind of weapon and the circumstances, threw a dice or two, and looked up the table, and it would tell you that the target unit had lost, say, 27 men (not figures) which at 20:1 figure scale meant you’d lost 1 figure plus 7/20 of a figure. You kept a note of all the bits, and removed complete figures when appropriate, and this was widely accepted as a step forward – it was now pretty much impossible for your grenadiers to miss – they just hit very small parts of a figure, which would eventually accumulate to something which represented discernible damage. There were those of us, admittedly, who considered the extra record-keeping something of a nuisance, but progress can often have a small cost.

Combat losses still had some variability, but using this approach they were generally closer to expectation. An extreme case of this was developed in Arthur Taylor’s Rules for War Gaming, published by Shire Publications in 1971, which set out diceless rules; in a given situation, the casualties inflicted are always the same. I am not proposing to dismiss this approach – it was regarded as returning something of a chess-like precision and dignity to the wargames, but in its way it is just as daft as completely random results. [I used to have this book, but don’t seem to have it now – entirely out of idle curiosity, did anyone ever fight battles using Taylor’s rules?]

A big problem is that we do not actually know what the probability of a hit is – we do not know what it is in general terms, and we certainly do not understand the variations from man to man, from moment to moment. I remember that, like a lot of other gamers, I used to search for some clues which might give some evidence of what hit rates really were in history – just something factual to hang a hat on.

Contemporary diarists like George Simmons (95th Rifles) would occasionally give a tantalising glimpse of the reality – he might say that in a smart skirmish with the French outposts his company lost, say, 5 men wounded and 1 killed, which was considered light in view of the severity of the fighting. Very clearly, Simmons had some view of what sort of casualties you might suffer on such an occasion – it would not be a probability calculation or a dice throw, it would be what his experience led him to expect, and he probably could not tell you what the expected number was, just when it seemed heavy or light to him. That’s entirely subjective, but at least he knew what he was talking about, which most of us patently do not.

I was thrilled to bits when Bill Leeson translated and published Von Reisswitz’ Kriegspiel in the early 1980s. I was fascinated by a number of aspects of the game and the book, but in particular I spent many hours poring over the tables – here, at last, was something entirely relevant to horse and musket warfare, written by serving soldiers in the Prussian Army, no less – guys who would certainly know what was what. I confess I was surprised that the hit rates were so high – I would be reluctant to say I viewed them with suspicion, but Kriegspiel was bloodier than I had expected. That was when I first started to have doubts about how helpful actual casualty returns are when constructing wargame rules. [It’s appropriate to remind ourselves that Kriegspiel is alive and well, and nurtured these days by the splendid chaps at TooFatLardies.]

Let’s go back to my nice new CE acronym – if I find that the 50th Foot have a casualty return of 74 all ranks at some battle or other, out of a morning strength of 428, does that mean that their CE was reduced to 82.7% of what they started with? Well, 74 and 428 are definitely real, official looking numbers, and it’s tempting to use them in this way, but it doesn’t seem very likely, does it? We’ve had some discussion of this in this blog before – when a unit is fired on, over and above the initial problem that we don’t fully understand the maths which would give us the likely number of hits, what happens to the target’s CE, as I have chosen to call it? Some of the men will be physically disabled – some permanently – and some slightly hurt; some of them will be shocked into a state of reduced capability, some will be discouraged – some may even be discouraged enough to seek a change of location to somewhere less stressful. A unit of Prussian guard might be so outraged by the insult that their performance is actually enhanced; a unit of Napoleon’s 16-year-old Marie-Louises might suffer no loss at all, but be so upset by being fired at that they take no further part. Almost anything is possible – as we have discussed before, the concept of morale is central to this, the level of optimism in the army, the fact that they may be fighting on home soil for their liberty, the inspirational qualities of their leaders, the level of training and experience of the troops, their physical state, the weather (probably) – and so on.

So if Von Reisswitz reckons that a combat will result in a number of losses, probably what he means – or should mean – is that the effect of the combat is a reduction in CE equivalent to the loss of this number of men. Whether or not this number of men actually make it into the casualty returns is of no interest at all until we work out strengths at the end of the day to feed back into our campaign. Separate issue.

To those of us who have ever felt a temptation to snort at Little Wars’ simple blood-bath melees, in which equal sized units simply eliminate each other, just think – what are the chances of an evenly matched melee leaving the winners in a position to do much else for the remainder of the day? They are not dead, they are merely resting.

The big godsend to everyone with this sort of appetite for numbers was Maj-Gen BP Hughes’ Firepower, which was published in 1974. The timing was spot-on, and it presented a lot of fascinating and authoritative material in a readable and understandable way. I still think this is a great book, though I am a little saddened by the fact that some writers have used it subsequently to justify some pretty crazy extrapolations from the factual bits.

Hughes describes field trials of artillery pieces, and I would love to see contemporary pictures of the trials being carried out. Case shot, for example, was fired at a number of ranges at a large (battalion-sized) canvas screen, to estimate numbers of hits at various ranges. Brilliant. I have a lovely vision of gentlemen with large moustaches, solemnly marking off the holes in the sheet with the official crayon, to avoid double counting, and presenting a double-checked return to the officer in charge (lots of saluting and stamping boots). The Army would be in its element, ordering some poor grunt to count holes.

Hughes reports similar trials with various kinds of artillery projectile and small arms volleys, and painstakingly tabulates and explains the results. He also spends some time discussing the shortcomings of the data, and he examines Albuera, Talavera and a couple of other battles by analysing losses and the estimated effect of fire. Excellent.

One of the parts which most of the wilder enthusiasts did not read was Chapter 3 – Inefficiencies of the battlefield. In this he points out that the trials were designed to examine the optimal capabilities of the weapons, not to estimate their effectiveness in battle. The test circumstances were abstract, artificial, calm. Everyone would be on his best behaviour, the best gunners would be selected, all distractions would be eliminated, and anything which did not work would, presumably, be repeated. In a real battle, Hughes says, other elements would come into play which would change the situation out of all recognition:

1. The “animate” target – not only would they be moving and taking shelter, but the beggars might even shoot back

2. Technical failures – this includes routine misfires as well as more dramatic failures

3. Human error – now you’re talking – the sergeant can try to make you fire, but he can’t make you hit anything

4. The nature of the ground – unfavourable slopes, hidden areas, cover, variable bounce

5. Ammunition – the need to conserve it, and the variable quality of its manufacture and condition

6. Smoke – we think they’re out there somewhere...

What relevance do the battlefield trials have when applied to actual battle experience, then? Probably not very much, in truth.

While we are on this topic of the hopelessness of estimating probabilities of a hit, it seems appropriate to introduce a gentleman named Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He is a writer, quite a celebrity, in fact, and variously regarded as anything from a guru to one of the most irritating men around. I cannot claim to be an expert on his work, though what I know of him suggests that he has the rare gift of being able to present a limited number of important ideas in sufficient different ways, with different wording, to allow him to publish a surprising number of books featuring them. I recall that Edward De Bono used to be adept at the same strategy, but that was some years ago, and is, in any case, a digression. This is not to say, of course, that the ideas are incorrect – merely that over-exposure does not seem to improve their level of general acceptance.

In his The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Penguin, 2008), Mr Taleb makes the important point that mathematical models do not work, and are unreliable for anything other than artificially simple games of chance and similar. Basically, what he says is correct, which is faintly disappointing for sad souls like me who spent years working with models to perform stochastic testing on populations, funds, stock markets and the like. He coins the expression Ludic Fallacy to describe what he sees as a practice which is inaccurate and even dangerously misleading – his main target is the world of finance. He identifies that economists, fund managers and investment analysts who grow to trust computer models set themselves up for catastrophic disillusionment and failure, since the model will not cover everything.

The world, says Taleb, is a dirty place, in which the things we do not know, or cannot measure, or (most importantly) just haven’t thought about will swamp the things which we can actually calculate. Tinkering with the decimal places of how many canister balls hit the canvas screen is worse than pointless when trying to simulate real battle action, when the numbers will be changed out of recognition by a whole raft of interacting intangibles, most of which we cannot predict or even fully understand. We may be doing our best with what we can actually get a numerical handle on, but we are – to quote my grandmother yet again – whistling into a gale.

Even the simple world of games is not clean. The odds of a head (or an eagle, or a zarg, or whatever) when tossing a coin is one half – 50% - every schoolboy knows this. If a coin turns up four tails in a row, what is the chance of a head? Again, the theory says it is still 50% - in an infinite series of tosses of our coin, we would expect 50% of the results to be heads, but 4-on-the-trot is a very small sample, and not significant. OK then – what about 99 tails in a row? What then? Well, 99-on-the-trot is not very likely, but it can happen, and the theory reassures us that there is still a 50% chance of a head on the next toss. However, at this point, you or I – or even a statistician – would start to suspect that the coin is dodgy, and tend to bet on another tail next time.

So where does that leave us? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I was brought up to trust in the purity of mathematics, but I can appreciate that calculating, for example, the effect on a raw battalion of a single volley is beset with all sorts of unknowns and things that can vary wildly from instance to instance. The WRG might expect them to lose an average of 4 figures plus 11/20 of a figure, give or take a few; even Rifles officer Simmons would have had some kind of expectation of that sort, but I suspect the fact of the matter is that a volley of 300 muskets in clear conditions at 100 paces might be expected to injure about 80 men (say), but the standard deviation is high, because of the unstable nature of the underlying probabilities, and the mixture which they present. It was not unknown for such a volley to hit no-one at all, and there must be a very slight chance that 200 men could be laid low.

We need mechanisms which give results which can be seen to be reasonable over extended experience of their use in gaming. The mechanisms should be simple to use, and they should allow a fair amount of variance – maybe more than the scientific wargamers would have claimed. We should give due weight to factors like first volley of the action (perfect loading under the NCO’s eye), and the steadiness and calibre of troops, but what exactly is due weight? Maj-Gen Hughes and our new friend Mr Taleb would agree that the things for which we cannot come up with exact numbers probably overwhelm the things for which we can.

You know what? The game is the most important thing - paramount. The more I think about this, the more attractive are the rules in Charge!, which seems a Very Good Place to End.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Hooptedoodle #24 - Who were you in the 12th Century?

We interrupt the trilogy with a small digression - something that I've been thinking about for a day or so. Nothing scientific, I promise - just something silly to mull over.

Each of us has, or had, 2 (biological) parents, and thus 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents and so on. You have no choice in the matter - that's the way it works. As you go back to each previous generation, the number doubles, for obvious reasons. If we assume, as a rough-but-handy approximation, that 10 generations take about 300 years, then you should have 1024 great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents who were alive somewhere around 1700. Go back a further 300 years and you now have over 1 million direct ancestors; go back yet another 300 years - around 1100 AD - and there are over a billion. That is mind boggling enough, but we have hardly started yet - mankind has been around for far, far longer than that.

That's OK - let's stick at the year 1100. 1 billion people required for the family. Now, as far as I can determine, our current best estimate for the total population of the Earth in 1100 AD is only 300 million. That's everyone - all races, all religions, all over the globe. Is the difference between these numbers explained entirely by various degrees of inbreeding?

My assumptions are consciously simplistic, but the principle of the thing stands up. If, as you go back through the generations, you find the odd individual who (accidentally?) occupies more than 1 slot in your upside-down family tree (and this must get more likely as the numbers increase), then a whole section of the tree above him/her disappears, since we only need him/her to be conceived once. That would get the numbers down a bit, and let us not, gentle readers, distress ourselves by dwelling on just how he/she occupies the two slots. And so on. I guess that must be it - there doesn't seem to be another explanation.


Sunday 8 May 2011

Compromise in Wargames - (2) Time: Wellington, Wallace & Gromit

The more I thought about issues connected with time in wargames, the more I started to think that maybe there wasn’t much to say. There are some key decisions to be made when designing a game. Since it will not run, smoothly, by itself in real time (like a model railway), we have a practical need to replace continuous action/movement with a series of step turns, each representing an interval of time; perhaps these will be alternate turns, perhaps (if someone finds a way to do it) the intervals may be of varying length to suit the situation, the intensity of the action – however this is done, the compromise is similar. The shorter the intervals, the more closely we approximate to continuous action (like the stop-frame animation techniques used in Wallace & Gromit, my very favourite pieces of Plasticene). Very short turns will also reduce the problem of determining the exact timing of events (volleys etc) during the bound, but will also give a laborious, fiddly game. That is all pretty clear, but very short turns will also accentuate one of the great philosophical mysteries of wargaming – why doesn’t the real time represented by the elapsed turns add up to something realistic?

Here’s a quote from the Wargames Research Group’s then-shiny new Wargames Rules 1685-1845, published April 1977; bear in mind that these represented something of a change of direction for WRG, switching (correctly, in the cause of playability) to alternate turns, and abandoning their trend-setting combat factor table system:

Time Scale - Each bound can include action comparable with that possible in 80 seconds in real life. However, the bound overlaps both the preceding and succeeding enemy bounds, so that one friendly plus one enemy bound also equals 80 seconds. As this, multiplied by the likely number of double bounds in a game, gives an unrealistic duration for a real battle, we assume that each bound also includes a variable amount of delay. We therefore recommend assuming for campaign purposes that a pair of bounds represents half an hour.


This, remember, is from game designers and rule writers who were not noted for ambiguity or mincing their words – the same booklet specifies exactly how big a marsh is allowed to be, for example. If the WRG, no less, were as woolly as this about how time elapsed adds up in the game, then this is very serious recognition that the matter is not straightforward.

I’ve referred to this before in this blog, and the discussion generated a comment from Ross Mac which has played on my mind ever since. With a grateful doff of the hat to Ross, and with my own rather clumsy paraphrasing super-imposed, the observation refers to the Battle of Waterloo: something like a quarter of a million men spent a long summer’s day within a few miles of each other; any one of the infantry units could have marched right across the field in a couple of hours – so what the blazes were they doing all day?

To an extent, this demonstrates how little intuitive understanding I have of what a real battle was like. The only reasonable answer is that, by and large, most of them must have spent most of the day hanging around, doing very little other than being in position, implying a threat. Very obviously, all over the field, lots was going on, but any one of the participants in the ranks must have spent most of the day waiting – waiting for the ground to dry, waiting for the other lot to do something, waiting for orders, just waiting.

Another thing which I find difficult to fathom – though I enjoy trying to unravel it – is the widespread disagreement we find in accounts of what happened, even to the extent of published exchanges of umbrella-rattling letters between colleagues who were within a few hundred yards of each other. I am writing about the Napoleonic Wars here, remember, one of the best documented periods of history – an astonishing proportion of the survivors left eye-witness accounts, and yet there is still huge debate about what order events occurred in, who did what, exactly where they were and so on. There must be many examples we could pick on, but one which has always intrigued me in particular is my old chum Marmont’s career-spoilingly bad afternoon at Salamanca on 22nd July 1812.

Realising that the brigades on his left have got themselves out of order and left some gaps, Marmont calls for his horse, with the intention of heading out there in person and sorting them out, when he is wounded by a shell, which spoils his concentration more than somewhat. In his memoirs, Marmont (who has a little dignified ass-covering to do on the subject of his performance that day) estimates it was 3pm when he was wounded. Foy, who was less than a mile away, estimates it was between 3 and 4. Wellington, however, is said to have spotted this over-extension of the French left while he was at lunch, around 1pm, and sent orders to Pakenham accordingly, which makes it unlikely that it would have taken Marmont a further two hours to spot the problem. Basically, we don’t know. This seems almost impossibly strange to a 21st Century reader – in a modern context the exact moment the C-in-C was struck down would be known without doubt – order sheets would all be headed up with the date and correct time, there would be a paper trail a mile wide from which to reconstruct events, if need be.

This was not the case then. There was no satellite transmission of accurate time, no time signal on the radio – the pocket watches of the day would also add a little inaccuracy. Most importantly, the mindset was different. People thought in terms of a day’s march, “about midday”, “late afternoon” – they would not have understood our modern-day obsession with spurious accuracy of time-keeping. So there is plenty of scope for disagreement between witnesses, in the midst of so much confusion. But there is something more – the confusion itself appears to be related to a certain subjectivity in people’s perception of the passage of time.

Here’s another, more famous quote:

The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.

Arthur, Duke of Wellington, from a letter to John Croker (8 August 1815), as quoted in The Waterloo Letters (1891) edited by H. T. Sibome

So what is he on about? Surely it is a straightforward matter to assemble an accurate account of a battle, even if it is complicated? There are a finite number of events, and each must have occurred at a known time. Time, very conveniently, travels only in one direction, there is only one of it, and it is the same for everyone. Is this true? [In what follows, I am not trying to labour a pun on the word “ball” – it’s just a coincidence!]

I had a long think about this. You can watch, or produce a decent written report of, a football match, for example, because there is only one ball, and the ball is the central point of focus of the game. If you asked each of the players involved to relate exactly what he had done during the match, none of the accounts would be the same as the report of the game, and this is because much of what they describe will have happened “off the ball” – running into spaces, making dummy runs, positioning themselves for a pass which did not come, and so on.

Further, the inter-relation between the individual events in these personal histories would be complex, and might only be apparent in retrospect. This is becoming more like a battle – radio commentators can make a very nice job of describing a live football match; commentating on a developing riot is a different challenge – it is impossible to identify the significant moments without knowing what is going to happen later – and there are too many balls in play at the same time.

Even if you can reconstruct everything that happened, and the timing, building a single, linear narrative of the whole thing is probably impossible, and we have already established that the individuals involved will have different recollections.

Considering my initial doubts, I seem – once again – to have expounded very little at great length. Last time we discussed this problem of tabletop time vs real time, we touched on the subject of Command Activation rules; one of the traditional things which go wrong in a wargame is that we waste an awful lot of time shunting all the units around, including the ones which aren’t actually doing anything. Activation rules are useful because they push you back to focusing on key areas, which removes a lot of the spaghetti from the Western.

Friday 6 May 2011

Compromise in Wargames - (1) Space, and Very Small Houses

Two beautiful examples of the accepted appearance of a Napoleonic wargame – and very nice too

So I’m just starting to get my ideas sorted out – my milk bottles in a row, as my grandmother used to say – when De Vries emails me and disrupts everything. Milk bottles all over the place. No, he says, you can’t classify everything under the three headings – Space, Time and Probability – because this skips over the most fundamental factor of all, the figures-to-men ratio in the game.

Well, I had intended to include this (let’s call it the “figure ratio”) in the Space section, for two main reasons. Firstly, the “look of the thing” (which, for me, is very important) requires that figure ratio and ground scale in the game are sensibly related, so I have great difficulty separating them and, secondly, I spent quite a lot of time considering the distortions that figure ratio can produce in my discussion of Grand Tactical wargames, and I felt I didn’t have a lot more to say.

De Vries being the man he is, our exchange of ideas got briefly into the realms of Monty Python, but I believe we both think we won the argument. I agreed to spend more time on figure ratio, but I’m going to include it under the heading of Space anyway. Fifteen all.

The Pythonesque bit might as well feature very early in our trilogy – regard it, if you will, as a preliminary cartoon. One approach to fighting a battle for which you haven’t got enough soldiers or enough table area is to fight a much smaller battle – less units on a scaled-down but representative battlefield - and use your usual rules. I’ve done it myself – it can give an enjoyable game, but it will lose something of the original. That may not be a problem, but it should be borne in mind. If your cut-down Waterloo gives the French one regiment of cuirassiers and one battery and a few infantry battalions, it becomes tricky to decide just how to use them. You can certainly play the game, but – apart from certain identifiable bits of terrain – the game has less and less to do with Waterloo as you decrease the numbers of units.

The alternative might be to try to keep the numbers of units up, but have, say, in extremis, one figure in each, and do drastic things to the ground scale. In my view this works rather better, but it looks pretty silly – at this point there’s no point having the soldiers at all; since they are simply representative tokens, cardboard counters would be just as good, and might even look less embarrassing. Devotees of Risk and Campaign and maybe of Battle Cry may be growling at this point.

Now for the cartoon. We debated fighting Waterloo at a 1:100,000 figure scale, with a ground scale of about 1 foot equals 4 miles. Naturally, at this scale terrain features and buildings could be ignored, and each army would consist of a single figure. 3” alternate moves, and if they get within 1” of each other you roll 1 dice each. Highest wins. If it’s a tie, roll again. Loser buys the beers. De Vries was quite proud of this – the game may be adapted to any period or size of action you wish, it does away with the need to do all that painting and so on. He also claims it is extremely portable, though I’m not sure what he means by this. To keep him happy, I promised to include a picture. The point of this, apart from a bit of a giggle, is that extreme distortions of scale change the game beyond recognition. Now perhaps we can get on.

Waterloo at 1:100,000

There’s a vague crossover point between diorama and wargame. The look of the thing versus the playability of the game – where and how do you compromise these? The ultimate diorama, for me, is the model railway – everything is faithfully reproduced, on a 1:1 figure ratio (as it were), at very strict constant scale (HO, N), and it is forever June 1954 (or whatever). The trains do move around, and in real time, though the cars and pedestrians are definitely frozen (once again, note that this means that a still photo will be much more convincing than a movie). I did once visit a wonderful exhibition of an N-gauge West Highland Line (that’s Scotland), in which they had taken some liberties with the length of the runs between stations, but in general it’s all faithful, constant scale.

What about wargames? Childhood games, crawling around the carpet with Herald and Timpo soldiers (in my case), were definitely 1:1 skirmishes. The individual soldiers usually had names, and the game was greatly enhanced by the addition of the odd hedge or corn-stook from my farm set. At one point, I reluctantly had to give up an ancient carpet with a floral border which had been very useful as a jungle – probably for quite a few generations. In its innocent way, this was role-play. It’s intuitively natural to do it that way, I think. Left to myself, I doubt if I would ever have thought of having a figure ratio other than unity, or a ground scale different from the 1/32 or whatever it was that was implied by the figures themselves, and the fact that Crescent Toys’ 1/32 scale 25 pounder did not sit well with the 1/50 or so Dinky tanks I had was only a small cause for regret.

Even for adults, including normal, non-wargaming adults, visualising anything beyond a limited action with a small number of named individuals and the odd Johilco tree is tricky. Look at the Sharpe stories and films – look at just about any war narrative you can think of, and you see that same comfort zone. If you are going to portray the Battle of Talavera or the D-Day landings in a novel or a film, make the battle itself a background, and zoom in on the actions of the key individuals – it’s easier to get involved with individuals. Anything else and it starts to become a documentary, not to mention prohibitively expensive. The look of the thing is still very important, as anyone who watched the old BBC “War and Peace” series, with Borodino acted out by 12 men and a cannon, will be aware.

Over the years, I have come to accept that a rectangular group of two dozen painted model soldiers looks like a battalion. It doesn’t, of course, but the wargames I was raised on made that convenient assumption, and I’ve become brainwashed. It occurs to me as I write this that maybe there’s a distinction there – subconsciously I have tried to make my battles look, not like real battles, but like Charles Grant’s battle games from 40 years ago. I hadn’t thought of that before, but that is maybe as real as it gets.

I’ve absorbed the 1:33 figure ratio, 20 yards to the inch (1 pace = 1 mm) standard-issue game to the extent that I now regard it as normal. It’s a package, and the choice of that package is dictated by how much room we have available, how many figures we have, and how it looks. There it is again – how it looks. Although a 24-man battalion is blatantly unrealistic anyway, we get strangely agitated if, having got the frontage of our bases correct, we feel the figures are standing too far apart to conform to the regulations and tactics of the day. The look of the thing – that’s absolutely central to all of this. Probably, if we were not constrained to fit in with extant rule sets, the sensible approach would be to do this back-to-front – work out your ground scale for reasons of practicality, decide the size of the figures you wish to use, decide aesthetically how closely you wish to group them on correct-frontage bases, and then work out the de facto figure ratio as a last step. To complete the loop, you are probably then committed to basing your rules on the unit rather than the individual, which gets us a bit away from Charge! and similar games. It’s a constant source of surprise to me that all these factors dovetail into such a tight set.

I have no experience of proper skirmish gaming – I should probably have a go sometime. I have a faint (and very unreasonable) feeling that it’s a bit too closely related to my crawling-round-the-carpet days – something I prefer to think I have grown out of, or – literally – risen above, but I’m sure I would find it enjoyable, maybe even liberating!

Around 1977 I spent some time helping dear old Peter Gouldesbrough to perfect his Napoleonic game using the new-fangled 5mm troop-blocks from Minifigs. When I first saw these, and understood what Peter was trying to do, I was really quite excited – the battles looked like 19th Century prints, or would have done if it wasn’t for Peter’s horrible Plasticene hills, and it was like a skirmish game on a vast scale. At an intuitive level, this potentially felt like the right way to do things. That was still early enough in my own wargaming career for me to be able to start all over again with the blocks, and I did consider it briefly, but decided against it for a number of reasons, any or all of which may not stand up to scrutiny (with hindsight):

(1) Already in 1977 the moulds were starting to break up, and I was very nervous about being dependant on the continued production of a single range from a single manufacturer. Makers come and go like the flowers of Spring, and fashions in figure sizes were changing rapidly at that time. I think Heroics or someone had already started producing 1/300 or 6mm figures, which worked out dearer than buying the blocks, and (more seriously) were not really compatible by size.

(2) The little figures were a bitch to paint convincingly. Peter’s figures were not very well painted, and that didn’t enhance the game.

(3) The small size had a lot of advantages, but there were also some very real visibility issues, some of which were a source of much hilarity. It was very easy to lose some of your troops. On a number of occasions one of us would overlook an entire brigade of dark blue troops on Peter’s dark green table. It puts a new dimension into Command Activation. To get round this, the brigades would be accompanied by coloured labels which helped the game but pretty much destroyed the spectacle.

(4) This probably has a lot to do with Peter’s areas of interest, but the blocks lent themselves well – probably too well – to formational micro-management – a lot of time was spent checking for correct intervals in a column of march and so on, and tracking the movement of individual companies with a ruler. To make this easier, of course, we also had 30-second bounds, but that is a topic for the next instalment. Let’s just say that the games were not rivetingly fast.

Having said all of this, I look wistfully now at pictures of 6mm set-ups like Fabrizio’s Torgau Project and I can see the very strong appeal of such an approach. Even 2mm is interesting...

On rare occasions I have seen big dioramic displays of battles in museums – hordes of tiny figures on a realistic battlefield. I have not yet managed to see Siborne’s masterwork in London (are there two of them?), but it’s on my list of things to do before I snuff it. I find these things just wonderful – to simply stand and stare and think “Wow!” for a very long time is guaranteed to make me into a 10-year-old for the duration (though no-one, of course, may be able to tell the difference).

I’m not going to get sidetracked into a repeat discussion of base sizes or frontages, other than to mention – yet again – that one issue with big figure ratios is that the unit depths tend to get out of whack with the ground scale. If you group your figures so that the frontages and the unit sizes are correct then you are likely to find that you have to produce a cover story about the need to allow for intervals and manoeuvre space to justify the unit depths. Maybe this is a big argument in favour of the back-to-front calculation method I mentioned earlier?

One area that has intrigued me for years is the effect of the ground scale on scenery. Again, this is all obvious, but we tend to overlook it. I was brought up (so to speak) on photos of wonders like Peter Gilder’s Waterloo terrain, and such things add greatly to the enjoyment of a game, but we run into a problem as a result of the mismatch of the vertical and horizontal scales. If I have 1 inch tall men (near enough 2 yds = 1 inch) and a 20 yds = 1 inch ground scale then the ground scale is 10 times the vertical – your figures are 1/72, and your horizontal scale is 1/720, which is less than half as big as 1/300. This means that Hougoumont should really look like this:

At 20 yds to the inch, the fact that a division of the Old Guard could comfortably stand in the orchard of Gilder’s La Haye Sainte is a problem. The fact that our innocent little farm building with the detachable roof, which is a satisfying visual match for the figures, occupies the same area as Candlestick Park, or that the beautiful 28mm scale village we bought from In the Grand Manner is as big as Sheffield on the ground plan – these are distortions. Such scenic items are perfect for skirmishes and dioramas, but beyond that we have to be careful.

My personal compromise for this is to use 15mm buildings with my 20-25mm figures. They are still too big, but it’s better (and they’re cheaper!). I’ve thought of using 10mm buildings, but at this point it becomes obvious that the men could not crawl in through the doorways, and a cavalryman is as tall as a church, which is a major offence against the look-of-the-thing criterion. This all makes a lot more sense to me now than it did only 3 years ago, when I was proposing to move to 15mm buildings, and was busy asking people if they thought it would look stupid. I can hardly believe how much I worried about this, but it was a big change for me.

My compromise – these men would be cramped in the 15mm houses

The approach, as suggested by Charles Grant and Charles Wesencraft all those years ago, is that a small cluster of buildings on the battlefield is intended to denote an unspecific built-up area occupying the same space. Unless it is a skirmish, the buildings can be moved around a little to make room for the action, and there is no question of arguing about exactly how many men can occupy a particular building (unless, of course, it is historically necessary). The men are either in a village or not in a village. How they deploy to occupy it is beneath the resolution level of the game.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Compromise in Wargames - Adventures in Space, Time and Probability

This post is the preface to what, with a bit of luck, should turn out be a trilogy.

I did consider doing another off-topic post - I am about to defragment the hard drives on my main computer, so I could talk you through that, or I could describe some problems I've been having with my truck, which might be more exciting. On balance, I thought it was probably time to do something a bit more relevant to wargames, so I'm going to attempt to organise some rambling thoughts into proper, joined-up ideas. If they end up still looking like rambling thoughts then you may imagine their state when they started out.

In recent weeks there have been some good-going comments here on the subject of realism in wargames, and I thought that might still be worth some more attention. So I had a go at standing back a little and focusing on what the problems are, and how we got here. It seems to be much easier to detect that something is wrong than to identify just what it is, or why.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the challenge of playing and devising games (especially sports games) which simulate reality - originally with matchboxes and dice and bits of string, later with mathematical models running on computers. The most obvious, most definite thing I have learned is that there are very clear limits to how closely you can make a game reflect the real world - you always end up making compromises. One of the challenges is to identify where the compromises are necessary - your game, after all, has to be capable of being played, yet the experience is going to be impaired - the game may even be pointless - if the results are blatantly silly. I also learned that the more you change the scale of the thing, the more carefully you have to look at this area.

This scaling problem crops up in all sorts of places. I remember, when I was about 7, watching some epic British film about a disaster at sea, and realising that something wasn't quite right. In the action scenes, a brilliantly executed miniature ship would be wreathed in fake mist and cleverly lit, and in a still photo it would have looked brilliant, but in a movie it didn't work. It was something about the appearance and the behaviour of the water - any fool could tell that this was a toy boat in someone's bathtub, even though we might be pushed to explain just what was wrong. The problem, of course, is that mucking around with the scale of something, reducing it to a miniature version of itself, for example, introduces some nippy little paradoxes. If you reduce the size, you may have to do some other things as well - in the case of the sinking ship, slowing the film down might have helped the little waves look more convincing. As soon as you start reproducing space and time (and a cinema film gets you into time issues), modelling and simulation have to be thought through. I admit I may have been a rather odd child.

Later on - I'm 12 and I'm back at the movies. I took some comfort from the fact that the monster spider in some horror show of the day was impossible. OK - the story was clearly fantasy anyway - even to a child - but I knew that mathematically the thing couldn't exist. The back-projected, blown-up footage of a normal-sized spider which obviously terrified the cast would not be able to move if it were real. This is school maths, it may even be primary school maths nowadays, and I apologise for setting out what is well known and otherwise obvious: if you multiply the linear dimensions of a spider by a factor of, say, a hundred, so that a 1-inch spider is now 8-feet-something across (which is, I admit, a horrifying idea), then - if everything remains in exact proportion - its weight will go up by a factor of one million, but the structural strength of its legs (for example) will go up by only ten thousand times, since this must be related to the cross-sectional area of the components in its legs. So the load on its legs, proportionally, will be a hundred times as great as the original. Its legs could not bear its weight. OK - this does not mean that you cannot have a spider which is 8 feet across (in theory), but it does mean that such a spider would not look like a big version of a small one. This is why elephants do not look like ants.

If you are nervously looking for a means of escape as you wait for a point of some sort to emerge from this - here is the point: changing the scale of something will change its properties and its behaviour unless you do some other stuff as well. I'd like to have a look at a number of aspects of this in the context of wargames - Space (size, ground scale), Time (converting a continuous action into a series of jerky moves - maybe even alternate moves) and Probability (the use of numerical data to produce a "realistic" game). These things are not entirely independent, but it suits me to divide the subject into parts, so I'll address it under these three headings.

Accordingly, the first instalment will be about Space...

Monday 2 May 2011


I'd like to express my appreciation and sincere thanks for a couple of additional nominations for my blog award.

To Fabrizio, whose lovely Torgau Project blog is a favourite of mine, and has often made me think wild thoughts about starting all over again, and doing 6mm instead...

...and to the legendary Conrad Kinch, the worthy proprietor at Joy and Forgetfulness, which is always intriguing, always full of surprises and delightfully off-beat.

Thank you, gentlemen, for the work and good taste you commit to your fine blogs and the pleasure which they bring.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Prof Richard Holmes

I'm really very sorry to learn that Prof Richard Holmes, the military historian and TV presenter, has died at the age of 65. I did not know him, and never met him, but feel I knew something of him from his excellent books.