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

Thursday 28 August 2014

Hooptedoodle #146 – Archie

Wow, Archie. I hadn’t really thought about Archie for some years – I think I may actually have avoided thinking about him – but recently he cropped up in conversation with my wife, and not long ago I threw out some old papers, in which I found an invitation to Archie’s retirement dinner, which was certainly not yesterday.

Archie and I both worked for the same (very large) employer for many years, though we never met and knew nothing of each other for almost all of that time. He spent his time in the sales organization, managing branch offices in different parts of the UK, and my world was of mathematics and computers, at boring old Head Office. Since we were roughly the same age, we eventually met up – collected together like fluff in a corner – when we had both become senior enough and old enough to become something of an embarrassment.

I can’t claim to be an expert on working careers, since I only ever had one, but there are some characteristics which seem far clearer to me now than they were at the time. If you are successful (and Archie and I were both pretty successful, I suppose, by any commonsense standards) then the ingredients will be a rough mixture of hard work, talent, luck, personal contacts and what we might call “politics”. Strangely, we tend not to notice much except the talent and the hard work on the way up, but when the momentum starts to run out we become painfully aware of the rest, especially the politics. It is pathetically easy to blame our ultimate humbling on conspiracies, or bad breaks, but the reality is that we must have benefited from exactly those same elements when we were doing well, but we chose not to see it. Eventually, old senior managers become too expensive, too risk-averse and too much of an obstruction to the promotion of the next lot of hot-shots, and they have to go. Nobody explains this at the time.

Anyway, Archie and I came together, late on, on the steering committee of some no-hope project that nobody cared about, and we got on very well. We used to meet up for lunch, to discuss important stuff like football and music, share uproarious tales of our memories of our working lives and the stupidity of the useless and pointless jobs we had now been pushed into (to make room for the hot-shots), and generally to enjoy each other’s company, though I fear that much of the chat was heavily negative.

Archie had been through a very traumatic divorce (he explained, quite cheerfully, that his wife eventually couldn’t stand him any more) and had moved back to the town of his birth – a small place not far from Glasgow – a town where the railings of the public park were painted red, white and blue and the Council had never, ever employed a Catholic, as far as anyone knew. As the lunches continued, I became rather less comfortable in Archie’s company; there was something about him – he burned too brightly – he was always too jovial, or too intense, or too angry, or too something-or-other. He also had a disquieting habit of supporting the points he made in conversation by trotting out biblical quotations, complete with chapter and verse numbers. In what I hope was a good-natured way, I asked him not to do this, since these quotes only served any purpose if:

1. The listener knew the passage, and thus could identify it as genuine.

2. The listener accepted the intended interpretation of these words in this particular translation.

3. The listener was otherwise convinced that these words carried some form of authority because of their inclusion in the Bible.

In all three of which departments this particular listener was a bad target.

We agreed that Archie would calm this down – the tacit understanding, I think, being one of joint acceptance of my inadequacy. On one occasion, when there were four of us for lunch, two being business contacts whom we did not know at all, Archie very kindly took it upon himself to say grace before we ate, which seemed a bit presumptuous in the circumstances, and we subsequently agreed that he would not repeat this, either.

And then, bit by bit, over a few months of lunches, we got to the horror story. Archie seemed to have a need to tell it to someone, but it came out slowly, in hints and fragments, until one day it became the subject for discussion for today. It had all happened years before.

Archie’s father was a devout member of some pretty extreme Protestant faction, and he brought his kids up as he thought best. Archie’s sister was a rather nervous, quiet girl, and she went away to teachers’ training college in Glasgow, where she became involved with a man who was a Catholic. There was a lot of trouble at home – a lot of tears and screaming, and eventually things reached the point where the father and daughter became irreconcilable, she was banished from the family, and she went away to live with her new partner. Her father even took legal steps to remove her from his will – this was a situation from which there could be no return.

Sadly, the girl’s relationship did not go well, for whatever reason; she suffered serious depression and was hospitalized for mental illness for a while, and she made contact with her father, to ask if she could come back to live with him. I am not sure where Archie stood on all this, but the father refused to answer her letters – he had no daughter – in God’s name he had no daughter. Some months later she committed suicide.

Now, of course, I have no idea how these things stack up – was she unstable enough to have committed suicide anyway, was her extreme upbringing part of the cause – who knows? It is tempting to assemble what I remember of what Archie chose to tell me into a novella of any style you choose – you choose Bronte and I’ll choose the Woman’s Realm. It’s also none of my business, anyway, but it was certainly Archie’s. I asked him – since it seemed appropriate – how he felt about it all now.

Archie had a habit of avoiding eye contact when he made his biblical quotes, and he stared into space very carefully now. He told me that his father and he had been devastated, of course, but eventually they were glad that God had sent them this trial as a test of their faith, and that they had come through it together. They were stronger in Jesus as a result, he said. The tragedy to Archie’s sister appeared to be incidental, and there was certainly no suggestion of guilt, or even regret.

I am sorry to say that I had a lot of trouble with Archie’s story – I was profoundly spooked by it. We met less often, and shortly after that he retired and our paths rarely, if ever, crossed. For a while he sent me emails (as part of a large circular distribution) drawing my attention to ranting letters he had had published in the Glasgow Herald – usually about the mismanagement of his former employer by the new hot-shots – and then later he sent out some pretty appalling racist and anti-Islamic materials, and I got him classified as SPAM, and I haven’t heard from him since.


That’s it.

Saturday 23 August 2014

More 1809 Spaniards

This week I received a small package of finished figures from BB Wargames. These are always interesting - conversions using Hinton Hunt castings (mostly). Here we have a pleasingly scruffy unit of foot artillery and also a welcome addition to the light cavalry brigade - these are the Cazadores d'Olivencia, who will join my other mounted Cazadores regiment, the (so called) Voluntarios d'Espana.

The cazadores do not yet have their flag, as you see. I know what it looked like, but it will get printed along with a number of other Spanish flags, once I have set them up on PaintShop and once I have got around to buying some decent printer paper for the job. I now have a good supply of cravats and finials, so there are no excuses left apart from procrastination.

Hinton Hunt enthusiasts may enjoy identifying the donor figures - there's a few Austrians in the artillery, I think, and the cavalry officer was definitely Lord Uxbridge in a former life. The cazadores really did wear that scary green colour, by the way.

I have a unit of Kennington hussars to paint (figures kindly supplied by Mr Kinch, of blog fame) and there are another two battalions of line infantry at Lee's prestigious painting factory, so things are moving along nicely.

It would be tedious to complain yet again about Royal Mail, but the Next Day Special Delivery package in which these chaps arrived appears to have been fired from a howitzer to get it here quickly from Norfolk. Damage to the figures was not extensive - one broken ramrod and some paint chips and grazes, but the packaging was top class, so a Next Day Special Effort must have gone into abusing the parcel. It did have FRAGILE written all over it, but FRAGILE is a very long word to read when you are in a hurry, and is in any case sometimes regarded as a challenge. Never mind - as long as the shareholders aren't affected.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

250,000 hits and still waffling

I observe that my total of hits on the blog has reached 250,000 - my humble thanks go to everyone who has read my ramblings over the last 4 years and entered into the spirit of the proceedings. I've learned a lot, made some excellent friends and indulged myself shamelessly - thank you all, ever so much.

Since this has always been principally a Napoleonic blog (though sometimes I forget), it seemed appropriate to come up with some truly stirring music, as befits such a glorious moment in my life. I hope you enjoy this, and that you find it as moving as I did:

To follow this, in what was originally intended to be a short season of celebratory pieces, I was hoping tomorrow to provide a link to the legendary (and record breaking) performance of Selections from Carmen, by the senior members' choir of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Wavertree, performed underwater in the deep end of Picton Road public baths, but, alas, the clip has been removed from YouTube.

Thus we shall have to make do with William Marx's definitive live performance of John Cage's  4'33" at the McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, in 1973, followed by the whole of the 2nd season of Strictly Come Dancing.

It should be fantastic.

Monday 18 August 2014

Tweakle Tweakle Little Star (4) – Leaders, for Goodness Sake

There's one...
One of the characteristics of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics that we have discussed a bit is that the Leaders (generals) don’t do a great deal. Once again, I am happy to accept that this is the way the game has been designed, and have no problem leaving the rules as they are, but I have also spent some time thinking about what could be done in the way of some options to liven the Leaders up a bit.

As the rules are published, the role of the Leader is to enable combat units to ignore “retreat flag” results on the special combat dice and to keep himself alive (since he counts as a full Victory Banner/Point, same as a combat unit, if he is lost), and Leaders may also be given orders generated by Command Cards; they are specifically mentioned in just two of the tactical cards – Leadership (for which they are the source of activation, and provide a combat bonus) and Force March (for which they can provide a movement bonus for infantry to which they are attached).

I believe that a forthcoming expansion to C&CN – Marshals & Generals(?) - will bring more focus on Leaders, so any tweaks suggested here must keep that in mind. What follows is what I am proposing to try out in some test games within a few weeks; some of the ideas here have been suggested by, and discussed with, Lee and Iain, among others, and I may well have borrowed things from Lee’s own Leader tweaks for his developing AWI variant, and I have certainly tried a couple of these things already in my own ECW variant game. This package of changes is intended to be simple, to fit closely with standard C&CN, and to address a couple of small logical holes in the game (or things which appear so to me).

Here goes – if there’s bits you like better than others, then try those – if you reject the idea of making any changes at all to C&CN then that’s fine as well, and I have a lot of sympathy with your view:

The army will have a command structure. Generals are fielded at C-in-C, Divisional and Brigade levels – I already use colour-coded borders to the figure bases to distinguish rank. Predictably, an army will consist of Divisions, which will consist of brigades. A brigade should have a maximum size – for me, this is likely to be six units, which may include attached divisional artillery.

To aid recognition, unit bases/sabots will carry coloured beads to show which brigade they belong to. It will become a good idea to keep brigades together, and to keep generals with their own areas of command.

A Leader may be physically attached to any combat unit, as in standard C&CN, but will only have an effect for units which form part of his command. A relevant Leader (i.e. one attached to a unit which is in his own chain of command) will allow them to ignore a retreat flag result, as in standard C&CN, but will also gain them an extra combat die in ranged or melee combat.

In addition, if a “Section”-type Command Card is used to order a Leader who is attached to a unit in his own chain of command, then the unit and any other contiguous units of the same brigade are ordered as well. Thus, a Scout Left card (activate one Leader or unit on the left flank) might be applied to order a Leader who is attached to a unit in his own brigade on the left flank, and it would activate the unit, plus any other units from the same brigade which form an unbroken group or chain from the unit with the Leader. Any units which are physically apart from the contiguous group, or which belong to a different brigade, will require to be activated separately.

A brigadier may perform this role with his own brigade, a division commander with any of his brigades (though only one at a time – the one to which he is physically attached), and a C-in-C with any of the brigades in his army (again, one at a time). The Leader only provides combat bonuses and relief from retreat flags for the actual unit he is attached to, as in standard C&CN.

The downside is that any Leader who motivates his unit by putting his neck on the line in this way will have more chance of being killed; the test for a Leader casualty with a unit suffering loss becomes a roll of a single combat die – crossed sabres and he’s lost (the standard test is 2 sabres symbols on 2 combat dice). I have no ideas yet for succession planning – if he’s gone, he’s gone for the day – but Leaders below Division level do not count as a Victory Banner if lost.

When I first discussed this with the Professor, we felt that this facility for bulk activation of up to a single brigade as though it were one unit was a huge advantage, and should be restricted to movement – i.e. combat orders could not be made at brigade level, but eventually we agreed that it is simpler if we do not apply that restriction; if the attacking brigade can all fight on a single card, maybe the answer for the defenders is to organize themselves so they can do the same. I’ll have to run some trials – if I find that unnatural geometric formations or peculiar strategies result, then it’s back to the drawing board, but it is potentially an interesting add-on – it addresses a number of holes in a single step: introduces the concept of army structure, gives the Leaders a more positive role in combat and provides a means of speeding up movement by activating a brigade as a single entity. A couple of footnotes, before I end:

A brigade can only carry out one order at a time, so having the brigadier and division commander both attached wouldn’t produce a double order.

If a unit becomes separated from its brigade, then it doesn’t get to take part in a brigade order, but that unit may be separately activated and manoeuvred to join up again.

You may attach a Leader to a unit with which he has no relationship (for example, if he is forced to take shelter with them), but he will offer no benefit for them, in either combat bonus or retreat relief, and he is still at risk if they take casualties.

I’m sure there’s a need for more subclauses, but I’ve tried to keep it straightforward and tried to keep it like C&CN – suggestions, abuse and muted applause will all be gratefully received…

If there seems a need for it, I might write a post about coloured beads some time.

* * * * *

Late addition: 

As part of my ongoing effort to complete my siege warfare rules, I've been looking for rules for a miniatures game called Festung Krieg, published around 1988 as part of a suite of SYW games by Freikorps. Not only have I had no success, it's very difficult to find out anything at all about it; it's as if the thing never existed, though the very small number of owner votes on Boardgamegeek give it a high score.

Anyone own this game, or have access to a copy, or know anything at all about it? If you do, I'd be delighted if you would email me through the address in my profile.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Tweakle Tweakle Little Star (3) – Hot Spots and Standing Orders

Mostly waiting
Preliminary Waffle: Partly, this comes from a description of a battlefield which I heard not long ago in a re-run of the classic Thames Television World at War series about WW2. An eye-witness described a large area in which mostly nothing was happening – a great quantity of men and equipment, waiting and watching while, in isolated pockets, it was apparent that a relative few were fighting desperately for their lives. The eye-witness said that it seemed strange afterwards, when people asked him was he present at the battle of such-and-such, because often it had not felt like a battle at the time.

With that in mind, around January time I was walking through the park in a nearby village while a class from the primary school were playing football (soccer) on the public pitch there. This was obviously timetabled school games rather than a formal match or a get-together of enthusiasts, and they must have been 7-year-olds or thereabout. There is something distinctive about matches involving 7-year-olds, especially if the players are conscripts rather than a collection of those who wish to be there or those who are chosen on merit.

Often you can’t see the ball – you can see where it must be, because there is a knot of players which travels around the field, like a very small, brightly coloured tornado, and sometimes the ball pops out of it for a moment, before a group charge swallows it up again. The overriding impression is of a speeded-up movie. Out near the edges of the playing field, placed there by personal choice or for purposes of damage limitation, you will find the less committed members of the teams – those who make up the numbers – the weedy, the unco-ordinated and the exercise haters – chatting to each other or making solitary daisy chains. On occasions the ball will bounce out of the frenzied knot, heading toward some bespectacled dreamer on the touchline, and a shout of “your ball, Ainslie” will wake him, far too late, from his reverie, in time only for him to trot away to fetch the ball from the rhododendron bushes and back into play.

Hot Spots, and Threat Ranges: I wrote of my observations in the park to the Professor, and mentioned that it had occurred to me that there was some kind of activation system at work here. It is recognisably specific to football as played by 7-year-olds – proper, grown-up football is not like this. By contrast, senior players are coached to run into space, manoeuvring off the ball, to arrive at places where it is expected to be soon, if things go to plan; that version of the game is much more like a military action, with an overlay of strategy, than it is like the 7-year-olds’ bar-room brawl. Of course, in a battle (or a wargame) there could be more than one “ball” on the field at any moment – more than one “hot spot” (as the Professor called the focus of activity) around which the action was taking place; the instruction to the winger to be up there, on the left flank, in time to co-ordinate with other players in a manner which they have practiced on the training ground, has very obvious military parallels.

De Vries’s idea was that any wargame unit which was close to a hot spot would be automatically activated. We debated what “close” meant in this context, and it was suggested that it meant within their own “threat range” of the enemy, which – again – we defined as being within the greater of their own weapon range or charge distance – basically, the maximum distance at which they could take some offensive action. Thus anyone who was within range could fire at the enemy, or move, without a specific order. It took us longer than it should to realize that this would not be sufficient in itself – any unit outside their own threat range would remain inactive indefinitely unless the rest of the action moved close to them; the foot artillery battery which was 6 hexes from the enemy (maximum range being 5) would be unable to move any closer unless we allowed some additional activation. Thus we needed some extra system – dice based or whatever – which would allow some unengaged units to be deployed (this, presumably, would handle the daisy-chain makers). We also realized that the unfortunate infantry boys who are currently being fired on by artillery would be stuck there, to stand and take it, if they were outside their own musket range – maybe the extra activation slots could rescue them, or maybe being themselves within the threat range of an enemy is a trigger for activation in itself. At this point we felt there were too many threads developing, and that the two general groupings of “those within their own threat range” and “a few other activation slots” would suffice – the second category can be used for bringing up reserves, shifting the guys who are taking a battering etc.

That’s as far as I’ve got with that one. The basic idea is that activation sort of ripples around the hot spots, with additional measures being taken to switch on outlying or remote units.

Standing Orders: This is different again, but seems worth consideration. Iain contributed some thoughts on this – his particular point was that artillery would be easier to utilize, and maybe less of a consumer of available order slots, if it were possible to nominate a target and leave them to get on with bombarding it until further notice. His original note says:

Guns would be given a target in real life, and tasked to destroy/suppress/reduce [it]. What if an order given to an artillery battery in CCN specified a target, and allowed the battery to continue to fire each move until that target either moved out of range, or was destroyed? Then a new order would be needed to direct the fire against a new target.

In passing, this also would potentially allow a battery to continue to fire upon a target which moved but stayed within range.

The concept of standing orders has come to my notice previously in the rules of White Mountain, a 30 Years War period game, heavily based on CCA, which is the work of Anubis Studios. I reproduce here the relevant section from the White Mountain rules – it is set in the context of a card-driven system similar to CCA, and it stipulates that only one such order is permitted at any one time, but it should serve to give an idea how it might work:

A standing order is an order for a nominated group of units who will continue to carry out that order, turn after turn, in addition to any other orders you perform elsewhere.
You may only have one standing order in play at any time.
Units operating under a standing order may remain in place or may move only toward the objective marker. If any unit affected by the card makes a move away from the objective marker for any reason the standing order is broken and the Command card is removed from play.
You may also cancel a standing order by removing the Command card without acting on it, and then take a normal turn instead.
To issue a standing order:
1 Play a Command card on the table in the nominated zone (left, centre or right). This is the order that you want to units to act on automatically in future turns.
2 Mark each unit affected by the order with a [blue] token.
3 Place an objective marker anywhere ahead of the affected units in the same zone. This is the point where the units, if they move, must move toward.
4 The units may now be moved or otherwise acted on in accordance with the Command card played.
5 Draw a card to replace the one just played. Your turn now ends.
6 On your next and all subsequent turns until the standing order is broken, you may act with the nominated units as if you just played the standing Command card.
In addition to this continual order, you may play Command cards elsewhere and act with other units as usual.

Friday 15 August 2014

Tweakle Tweakle Little Star (2) – The Free-for-All

Having established that there are scenarios and battlefield configurations which are perhaps not ideally suited to the Command Cards activation system in Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, what else might fit the bill?

On the small number of occasions when necessity has obliged me to come up with something suitable (typically because the battle was the wrong size or shape for left/centre/right demarcation), I’ve successfully used a dice-based system, whereby the number of units which may be ordered is the total of nD6 (or, more usually, nD3), where n is given by an algorithm involving the current number of units and generals in each army, and might make some allowance for the historical abilities of the commanders involved. This system (and it has evolved a bit) is derived from assorted sources: Portable ™ wargames of various types and shapes, an OOP edition of Hearts of Tin, articles in Bicycle News and elsewhere, and even some stuff of my own. Personally, I prefer something simple, preferably linked to the structure of the army, which does not involve counting the distance between each leader and his units – not every turn, anyway. The ability to carry forward a small “float” for later use is nice, too. All good – the only potential weakness is that the algorithm has, thus far, been based on guesswork, the only check being that the resultant numbers of ordered units are not dissimilar to those in a straight game of CCN.

What I have actually done, though, is less important than the fact that the world is full of alternative ways of activating an army, and probably a fair number of them would have been suitable. It’s mostly a question of effecting a smooth join at the edges.

I had a lengthy exchange with Prof De Vries about what else I could have done. He is invariably amusing, but he also has a refreshing tendency to produce crazy extrapolations, which sometimes are more useful than he intended. How would it be, he said, if we dropped activation completely, and fell back on what we might consider a streamlined Old School game, where you can move or fight with anything you like, yet still keep the neat, quick, simple moving and combat systems from CCN? As far as I know, Peter Gilder and Charles Grant Sr didn’t bother about limiting the number of units under your command on any given turn (apart from the ones who were stopped or routed by the copious morale tests, of course), so you would expect a deep-throated murmur of approval from the traditionalists. In truth, such a game sounds like it might be a blast, and I am very keen to try one. Being of an analytical (not to say pessimistic) bent, however, the Prof and I also came up with a few potential problems.

1. One of the reasons why CCN works so well is that the games move quickly – your turn usually doesn’t give you a great amount of scope for moving stuff about, but it will be your turn again very soon. In direct contrast, if I could get back all the accumulated time that I’ve spent over 40 years wargaming, watching people scratching themselves while they decide what they should do with their other 33 units this turn, I would have more than enough left over to build an Austrian army. I might even have enough to read all the way through the Empire rules. If we’re going to allow a free-for-all, then it will be necessary to impose some time limit on a turn – if your time runs out before you’ve fired then perhaps you will learn something for next turn.

2. If all units can be ordered every turn then there is no opportunity cost, there is no need to prioritise, or to choose the best use of a limited resource. In normal CCN, if you wish to order a unit to come out of square then that will be one less order that you could have used to do something else. With no limits, you can have your cake and eat it as well, every single turn. This would not have occurred to me 10 years ago, but it seems quite uncomfortable now.

3. The Prof also made the point (and it may be a very good one – this is not the bit of game design where I have a very strong intuitive feel for things) that if everyone can move and fight then the balance of the game may alter. Attacking will become easier, because you can just throw everyone in, and deploy the artillery nicely in support, but on the other hand everyone in range will be able to fight back. He saw a number of potential distortions which could arise, the chief of these being that it would be much easier to move units to gang up on an isolated enemy unit – especially on the end of a defensive line. One suggestion was that the traditional SPI/Avalon Hill Zone of Control idea should be applied – it should become necessary to engage every adjacent enemy unit, you can’t simply ignore some of them to concentrate on getting a local superiority over others. Also, since the normal CCN game is expected to involve action from only a few units each turn, the kill rates might need to be reduced a little if the game were to become a free-for-all in this way.

As ever, we have no convincing answers, but we have at least identified a number of questions. I am determined to try a no-activation-limits game of CCN (without cards), just to see what happens. Solo, I think…

In the next post I’ll talk a bit about another possible approach I discussed with the Prof, which probably will not work either, but is not without interest, I think. After that, if I’m still up and running, I’ll have a look at possible tweaks for Leaders in CCN, which might offer some more useful results.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Tweakle Tweakle Little Star (1) - here we go again

Not a lot of wargaming going on here at present, what with one thing and another. There are still a number of related activities I can involve myself in at odd moments – fettling figures, a bit of painting, redrafting (yet again) my plans for progressing the Artillery Project, background reading – all that – but only a few actual battles of late. One thing I still enjoy very much is sitting down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a pencil and an A4 jotter, and scribbling down ideas. Recently I’ve been (yet again) doing a bit of going-back-to-basic-principles, partly because it’s fun, partly because it often helps reaffirm the faith, and partly because it sometimes generates new ideas, or at least turns a faint light on some old ones. Partly, I guess, it is also because it has become such a familiar activity that it is comforting to get back to the same old thought processes. Maybe it's a time-of-life thing - if I catch myself always wearing the same old sweater when I do it I'll get some more clues.

For a few years now I have been using Commands & Colors: Napoleonics as my main rules for miniatures, as people who read this blog will have noted ad nauseam, and this has produced a few changes for me – none of them bad, I hasten to add, but all worth understanding for what they are, and worth bearing in mind.

First and most important change for me has simply been the use of a published rule set, with the package of advantages this brings, and with the consequent behavioural discipline it imposes (unaccustomed as one is to discipline).

Big advantages have been, quite simply, that the system is widely used and extensively tested, it works, and it gives games that are fast and mobile and more enjoyable than most of my wargaming has been for years. It’s hard to argue against that, really.

The discipline, and this is more serious than it may sound, is that I have had to get used to keeping my hands off the rules. Leave them alone. They work. I’ve never had a set of rules, ever, which I have not eventually ruined by attempting to improve them; once the supposed improvements used to be in the direction of greater realism (the Great Blind Alley of Realism, especially given my own feeble grasp of what realism would look like); later they were in the direction of simplifying or speeding up the game (to overcome the tedium introduced by the earlier attempts at realism), but they almost all failed because I did not understand the fundamental fact that game design is a real skill (or science, if you will), and a simple tweak will usually have an unforeseen downside where you hadn’t expected one. So for C&CN, thus far, I have managed to avoid tweaking a working system, and my new belief set includes this as one of the doctrines. The game works, and – broadly speaking – leaving it untweaked also works.

Good. So what is the pencil and paper for, then?

Well, in the last 12 months or so I have hosted a number of games with visiting players who were completely new to wargaming (Lord help them, coming here) or else were experienced, sometimes very much so, but had not played C&CN before. Their reactions were interesting, and served to highlight, and sometimes confirm, some of my own.

The complete novices all found the game straightforward enough, after some initial coaching, to be able to follow the narrative of the battle, rather than struggle with the rules themselves. That is a terrific strength. No-one, as far as I know, was frightened away. The experienced guys all found it interesting – sometimes not quite to their preferred taste - and understood the game readily, including its differences from and similarities to other games. I think there have been four such visitors in the 12 months, and they all – to a man – produced some well thought out suggestions for tweaks to the rules afterwards.

Which is, of course, exactly what my own reaction would be. Some of these suggestions would make the game more like other games with which they were more comfortable – that’s absolutely fine; in some cases I had considered some of this stuff already – some of them were decent ideas but, in the interests of preserving the untweaked rules (which work, let us remember), I disregarded them. Some of them, though, hit the odd nerve…

If I am to be absolutely honest – and this does not compromise my faith – there are a couple of aspects of C&CN which still don’t feel quite right for me, and my requirements are evolving a bit. This is going to be an unfair, unbalanced presentation of some ideas, and I hasten to emphasise that my first choice and my intention is to continue to use the game as published, so please don’t anybody feel moved to leap to Mr Borg’s defence.

1. The Command Cards which handle activation and provide occasional tactical opportunities are central to the game; they are a very large part of the “short, fast turns” philosophy which keeps the game moving, which makes it work so well, so it would be real heresy to take a dislike to them. However, there are occasions when the challenge, the main thrust of the game, becomes a struggle with the damned cards rather than a tabletop battle involving miniature soldiers. Also, if I’m going to be really picky, it’s very hard to justify some of the cards in terms of what they represent in a real battle. It’s nice when the artillery can suddenly advance quickly, or fire a lot more effectively for one turn, for example, as the result of the right card turning up, but why did it happen? What on earth does the Short Supply card represent? (This card is usually removed from my pack – regard it as a Scenario Variant if you prefer). I occasionally wonder what other activation approaches would work, in the absence of the  Chance Cards, which sometimes can seem to be faintly reminiscent of some kind of Waddington's game [shrieking noises offstage…]

2. To me, there is too much obsession with the published scenarios which come with the game. If I were spiteful I might suggest this shows a lack of imagination among the players, but my own view is coloured by the fact that I play solo much of the time (Maximilien No-Mates Foy). A two player game must give both sides a worthwhile chance of achieving something; the scenarios appear to concentrate on providing this balance as a priority, sometimes at the cost of a slight distortion of the historical context. Fair enough. Another advantage of the published scenarios is that they start with the armies present, set up (and looking good) and just out of artillery range, ready to go. They avoid types of action where C&CN, untweaked, does not work so well: bringing up reserves – including off-table reserves – or making large strategic moves on the table.

3. I have become more interested in using a wider board, with bigger armies. This appears to justify some changes in the Command and activation rules, if only to cope with the changes of scale.

4. I have recently developed a C&CN-based game to fight battles in the ECW. It still needs a little polishing, but works well enough to trot it out for visitors without fear of embarrassment (hopefully). One side effect, though, is that I have got into a habit of trying tweaks, refining or undoing them, then trying something else. I suppose the whole idea of an ECW variant is just an excuse for a mighty tweakfest, but this mindset is old and familiar and habit forming, just at a time when I thought I’d grown out of that stuff.

5. Leaders. Mustn’t be rude about Leaders in C&CN, because the game was fine-tuned by people who know what they are doing, but the Leaders are a bit limp, aren’t they? They feature in a couple of the activation and combat bonus Tactical Command Cards, but otherwise they are all the same as each other (no unseemly star or ranking system), they do not relate to any army structure (real or imagined), and they provide no combat or rallying advantages to troops they are attached to. Their main real functions are to help stop people running away and to avoid getting killed (since they count as Victory Banners in their own right). I know that there are some mooted changes for Leaders coming in a future C&CN expansion, but this is the one area where I might well have a go at some gentle tweaking before long.

6. Sieges. I am keen to get back to developing my incomplete (beta-test? dormant? stillborn?) Napoleonic siege game, and it makes sense now to use C&CN for the tactical-level actions within the sieges, and thus it makes sense to develop the one-day-per-turn part of the game in a manner which is consistent with (or is an extension of) C&CN. I feel tweaks a-plenty coming on.

OK – Leaders aside, I am not proposing to make any dramatic changes, but I have been amusing myself thinking what other approaches to activation might fit with the C&CN combat and movement systems. I have had to address this on a couple of occasions already – during my solo Peninsular campaign, for example, there was a battle which was fought end-to-end of the table, which doesn’t fit well with C&CN’s arrangement of Centre and Flanks on the Section cards; I improvised (borrowed) a dice-based system which worked well enough. The world carried on afterwards without lasting damage, and I didn’t feel particularly dirty, though I may not have rushed out to tell anyone at the time.

I’ll write a further post (maybe two) on some of the alternative ideas on activation I’ve been scratching at – for possible occasional use with the other, standard C&CN mechanisms. These are not working solutions, by the way, just more navel gazing. The value, as ever, if there is any, is intended to be in the scenery along the way rather than the destination.

Some of these ideas have already been distilled (or at least warmed up a little) in email exchanges, which I always find worthwhile – if you have contributed to these, and if you have offered some original idea which I claim as my own in what follows, then you have my undying gratitude and humble apologies. Prof De Vries - this means you.