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

Monday 30 September 2019

The Miracle of St George - contd.

Further to yesterday's post, I got an interesting suggestion from the Duc de Gobin, the noted historian, engineer, velocipedist, wing-walker and collector of small invertebrates. The Duc suggested that my "cross on the window" experience might be the work of the dreaded Slug of St George.

Naturally, one is obliged to approach such matters with a certain laddish sang froid, to avoid giving an impression of ridiculous intemperance, but this morning's new development is....


Now then - it's not a new cross, it's exactly the same one - it's just come back after a day of not being there. Right.

What have we got here? - if it's a person that's done this, what are the implications?...

* Well, the roof out there is steep and slippy and quite high up. Quite apart from what they might mean by such a sign, I'm not sure I'd wish to meet someone who could do this.
* The Army have recently been conducting training exercises on the beach behind my house, which involved twin-engined helicopters and suchlike at 3am. I've not been marked as a target, surely?

Let's assume that it's just a minor freak of nature, then....

OK. First off, apologies for the duff photograph - it was more easily visible on Saturday night - snag with night photography of windows is that the reflections of what is inside the window would probably be more scary than what is outside. The photo should be judged in context - no-one complains that the imprint on the Turin Shroud, for example, is a little underexposed. For supernatural evidence, crap photography is essential.

It is very obvious that what we have here are two slug tracks across my window, and they only show up when there is condensation on the outside - viz Saturday night and this morning. So that's a bit of a relief, except that...

* just why did a slug choose to make a sign he doesn't understand on my window? Who told him to do it?
* since I've never knowingly had slug-tracks on my windows in the 19 years I've been living here, why did I get two in one night?
* how long do you reckon it would take to train a slug to do this?

All in all, I don't think I've heard the last of this. I shall take care to keep a 1st edition copy of A.B. Mayne's Essentials of School Algebra under my pillow for a while.

Sunday 29 September 2019

Fighting with Friends

Yesterday I attended a wargame in the company of Stryker and Goya, at Stryker's house. We played an excellent Napoleonic game based on the Battle of Ligny, using Stryker's Muskets & Marshals rules.

I'll attempt to put together a proper mini-report later in the week, once I've sorted out my photos. By that time, with luck, Stryker himself will have done a blog post, featuring his own (much better) pictures. For the moment, suffice to say that a very good time was had by all, history was not overturned, and Stryker's cleverly-crafted scenario worked really well. Once again, many thanks to our host for his kind hospitality and a sumptuous luncheon - a lot of work, and much appreciated.

Completely separate from the main story, a couple of odd things happened to me yesterday.

Stock photo
(1) On a bright, clear morning, at about 08:30 on my way north, I suddenly drove into a bank of dense fog in the middle of the Queensferry Crossing, the new road bridge over the Firth of Forth. Not a problem, but definitely a strange feeling to suddenly be driving along with nothing visible further away than about 15 feet - the barriers and the bridge superstructure just vanished. Only lasted about 30 seconds, but I'm very glad there was only light traffic. From then on my trip was, as before, clear and sunny.

(2) Rather more spooky. While I was getting ready to go to bed, around midnight, I raised the roller blind on the skylight in the attic bedroom, and was surprised to find that someone had scrawled a cross on the window. It was completely dark outside, but the room light showed up the marking very clearly. It was on the outside, and it looked as though someone had drawn a very rough St George's cross with their finger, right across the window - it seemed to be a light grey colour. At first I thought someone was playing a joke on me - it was a definite cross - but since it was on the outside that's not possible. There's only the roof out there.

The vertical stroke was pretty firm - quite straight, about 1cm wide and bang in the centre, top to bottom. The horizontal was more uneven and wiggled a bit, but it still went right across. I was going to check out what it was, but the weather wasn't great, so opening the skylight was not a good idea. I should have taken a photo, but my camera was still packed away from the Ligny trip, so I decided that I would open up the window in the morning and have a good look.

Came the morning, of course, and it had gone. Not a trace. I had a moment of doubt whether I'd seen it at all, but I am certain that it had been definite enough to give me something of a shock the previous night. I am half crazed, of course, but not normally given to imagining visitations.

So - no photo, no evidence, no clues really. I really wish I'd taken a picture. I can only guess that recent wet weather has resulted in a snail or a slug taking a couple of strolls across our roof window, and last night's rain subsequently washed it away. But it was very clear, and looked almost deliberate.

I'm not going to lose much sleep over this, but the nervously imaginative might react badly to a sign appearing on their window at night. If something grisly happens to me, I promise to let you know. If it's grisly enough, you might read about it elsewhere.

Thursday 26 September 2019


On a visit to Edinburgh this week, I noticed this. On the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scott's novel Waverley (which was a couple of years ago, I think), the management of Edinburgh main railway station put up a selection of quotes from Scott around the station concourse - the station, you understand, was (and maybe still is) known as Edinburgh Waverley.

I know a number of Old Wally's quotations, but hadn't come upon this one before. It got me thinking - you don't think it's a message of some sort to self-indulgent bloggists, do you? Apparently it is from The Pirate, of which I have no knowledge.

I confess I am not a big fan - when my grandmother died, I was given a stack of her old books, which included a lot of Scott. I was very pleased to receive these, but was very disappointed with the stories. I guess they have not dated well, and I am also aware that many of them were published in serialised form in periodicals, which

(a) does something odd to the flow of the story (a cliff-edge every 30 pages), and

(b) encouraged Sir Walter to keep the story going forever, to maximise his income.

This is going to be a sacriligious thing to admit, but I gave up very quickly. If ever a man had the gift of taking an exciting story outline and turning it into a lengthy grind, it was Scott. If you are passionately fond of his stuff then you have my respect and admiration. You must drink a lot of whisky.

Hooptedoodle #345 - Nothing New on the Planet


Wednesday 25 September 2019

Hooptedoodle #344a - That Russian Girl

I decided I would find out once and for all about the picture on the wall of my mother's room. I took a couple of photos of it, and spent a little while playing around with Google Images.

Found it. It is a portrait painted in St Petersburg by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in about 1791, the subject being Elisaveta Alexandrovna, Baroness Stroganova, who was about 12 at the time.

When she was 16 Baroness Stroganova married Count Nikolai Demidov, who was appointed as a Russian diplomat in Paris, during the time of Napoleon I. They were big Napoleon fans, apparently, but the political situation meant that they had to return to Russia. The Demidovs had two children, but eventually separated because, it seems, he was too boring. Elisaveta moved back to Paris, where she died in 1818.

Here's another portrait of her, in about 1804, in Paris, by Robert Lefèvre, at a time when presumably she was still the wife of a Russian diplomat.

She is buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, in Paris - as am I, of course.

Sorry about this - I realise nobody could care less, though it is a nice little picture. This post is really a celebration only of Google and Wikipedia, so it is without any merit at all, other than commemoration of my finally finding out what that damned picture from Paris Match was, after only 40-something years. This is not any kind of relative of my mother's of course, though she has probably eaten Beef Stroganoff at some time in her life. That's as close as it gets. There is no point my telling my mum what I found out, because she will have no idea what I'm talking about, so it stops there.

I did get a bit distracted during my (brief) researches - Ancien Régime portraiture is not normally my thing, but Vigée Le Brun is definitely worth a read - she's certainly more interesting than Mme Demidova

Saturday 21 September 2019

Hooptedoodle #344 - Martin's Dad

My personal context for this post is just a regulation-issue, time-of-life thing. I visit my elderly mother in her nursing home each week - always at an odd time and on a random day, so that I can't be accused of being late, or of having missed a visit. No problems with this - obviously I am happy to visit my mum. She enjoys my visits, though she doesn't remember them, but it is taking me longer and longer to recover from them. She is increasingly confused, often distressed by her chaotic interpretation of the real world and her own memories, and has become (I regret to say) surprisingly vitriolic and actually quite racist in her views. She is regularly unpleasant to her carers, which of course they handle with cheerful, professional indifference, though it causes me much agony on their behalf.

Stock photo - the elderly resident is the one on the right
From my own point of view, each visit helps to convince me a little more that extreme old age has no upside - it seems like a very mean trick indeed. In my heart I know this cannot be true, but the evidence is overwhelming. I make these regular visits to an old lady who is no longer anyone I remember; she is mostly angry, or upset, or depressed - she thinks that the staff are trying to steal her belongings, she doesn't like the other residents, because they are old and stupid, and so on. Each time I leave I feel oddly privileged to be free to walk out of the place, and I take the long route home through the lovely countryside. My wife has come to dread the days I visit my mother, because I always come home very gloomy.

This, I hasten to say, is not a whinge - it's a situation shared by a great many of my friends and contemporaries, so I have to shape up and get on with it. Apart from vague stuff like duty, I wouldn't want it any other way. It's the very least I can do for my old mum. I try not to think about how long I have until it's my turn to be visited, but it's inevitable that aspect of it should bother me a little as well.


Along these lines, I've recently been exchanging occasional supportive emails with my friend Martin, whose father, Ben, is becoming "a bit difficult" (to use Martin's phrase). Martin, by the way, is happy that I should post this story here. [All the names, of course, are changed!] 

Martin's mother died suddenly a few years ago - she was, I am told, a lovely but rather mousey little lady, who never had a great deal to say for herself. Martin has been surprised by the extent to which his dad, who always made all the decisions and was very outspoken ("never suffered fools gladly") has shrunk into himself since he was widowed. They rarely heard from him, they were concerned that he chose to spend all his time on his own. They bought him a big TV a couple of Christmases ago, and after a month he put it back in its box and stored it in the garage. Martin suggested that his dad might join an evening class, or do some voluntary work at the local hospital, or renew his interest in photography, but he got very short answers. He got an old friend of Ben's to arrange to take him down to the pub occasionally - that didn't go well - they fell out after a couple of weeks, and Ben came close to starting a fight at the bowling club. Ben phoned up Martin a couple of times at about 3am, to tell him that there was a car parked in the street outside his house, and it shouldn't be there. Ben's street, apparently, is full of cars from end to end. Martin told his dad not to worry about it, so his dad phoned the police instead.

Round about the same time, Martin got a quiet heads-up from the family doctor that his father didn't seem very well, might not be eating or looking after himself properly, and refused to answer the door if anyone called. Martin's wife, Angie, is a treasure - she's energetic and kind-hearted and all the things which Martin claims he is not. She suggested that they should take Ben with them on their Saturday groceries-run to Sainsbury's. It would get him out of the house (they could pretend that they needed him to help them), and it would give an opportunity to make sure he was buying some decent food for his own larder.

To Martin's astonishment, his dad was delighted to go to Sainsbury's with them. It all went very well - maybe, ominously, too well, Martin thought.

The only problem initially was that the old man found the shop too noisy - too many kids, too many people. So after he'd put his own shopping in their trolley he liked to go and stand outside in the car park. On the drive home he would tell them at great length of all the examples of dangerous or antisocial parking he had observed. Martin was not invigorated by the subject matter, but old Ben was more animated than they had seen him for years, so they decided that even a rather weird interest was better than none.

By the third Saturday there was trouble. Sainsbury's had received quite a few complaints. Ben had printed a little supply of notices, and he spent his visit putting them under customers' windscreen-wipers, explaining that they had used the disabled spaces without displaying the requisite Blue Badge, or had parked in the mother-and-child spaces when they patently did not have a child with them, or had parked carelessly, protruding over the painted white lines or (more subjectively) thoughtlessly close to the next vehicle. Some customers thought initially that Sainsbury's themselves had issued these notices, but the supermarket staff had observed Ben at work. Tactfully, they mentioned to Martin and Angie that they'd have to ask for this to stop, and immediately.

By the following week, Ben was driving to Sainsbury's in his own car on Saturday - purportedly to do his weekly shopping. Martin and Angie's pleasure at this news was short-lived. He wasn't shopping. He hung around all afternoon in the car park, harassing the customers and telling them off for parking badly, or driving too quickly, or not controlling their children, or (apparently) speaking too loud. 

The manager at the local Sainsbury's had become quite a good friend of Martin's by this time, and he went to visit him, to discuss what they could do. They hatched a cunning plan.

The next Saturday, Ben arrived at Sainsbury's on his weekly mission. You are allowed 2 hours in the car park, maximum (this to prevent local workers and residents jamming up the place), and after 2 hours Sainsbury's clamped Ben's car and issued him with a parking ticket, for repeatedly breaking this rule, and parking in "an inconsiderate and antisocial manner". Ben was mortified - ashamed. He agreed with Sainsbury's that they would destroy the ticket if he promised never to hassle their customers again.

That, of course, does nothing to address Martin's other, related problems, but he is quite pleased with that outcome. He says you have to celebrate what little successes you have, as they come along.

Who's that in the car park, dear?

Saturday 14 September 2019

Hooptedoodle #343 - Castles in the Air

Yesterday I visited a friend of mine, a retired architect. When I say retired, the term is relative - he still takes on some private work - he enjoys the technical and creative challenge, and the modern computer drawing tools are good fun. He also has to pay continuing professional subs and make some token effort at keeping his knowledge up to date, and he has to pay for personal insurance. An architect is never off the hook - if a building collapses and kills someone, years after completion, the architect may still be found personally liable if the design is proved to be faulty.

Over coffee, he shared some hairy old yarns of the building sites and the shenanigans and politics in the Building Control office. This prompted a story from me which I had forgotten about for a while - a story about another architect friend of mine from years ago. It occurred to me that it might be worth a run out here.

Sitting comfortably? - then I'll begin...

This story dates from the early 1980s. My eldest sons were then at primary school in Morningside, Edinburgh, and my then wife befriended a group of other mothers she met at the school gate. Next thing, I was roped into a round-robin of socialising with these ladies and their families. Being a miserable soul, I wasn't too keen on this kind of enforced jollity, and was relieved when it fizzled out a bit. One of the husbands, though, was Bob, with whom I got on very well - a most interesting and amusing chap. A great football fan - a life-long follower of Partick Thistle FC.

Bob was an architect - nothing glamorous - no fancy Georgian office in the New Town for him - he was a time-served, City & Guilds type architect who came up the hard way, and he worked for a little company no-one had ever heard of. In fact, this company was a small part of the bewildering empire of one of Scotland's major retail banks at that time, and it was responsible for the maintenance of the bank's property. Thus the architects there carried out a wide range of tasks, from the refurbishment of a rural branch office to the design and construction of a new banqueting hall at the head office. This, I hasten to add, was many years before the astonishing excesses of the emirates of [Sir] Fred Goodwin and his chums at RBS and elsewhere.

Bob was a good friend, and he did me a couple of very useful favours, producing very heavily discounted designs for a kitchen extension and an outbuilding at my previous home. We also enjoyed a good few beers together, and he told me stories of why the architects in his little organisation did rather well.

They all did "homers", you see - private jobs, unconnected with their employment, though a lot of the private work was done in the office, during office hours. At the time, there was a "perks of the job" facility available to directors and top management in the bank - they were allowed to take out loans at very low (sometimes non-existent) rates of interest, for the purposes of house purchase, or home improvement, or similar. Usually some bricks-&-mortar type of investment.

If this seems like an abuse, I have to say that such facilities were widespread throughout the finance industry at the time. They would also be available in some form to all permanent members of staff, though the amounts would normally be less than those involved for the top brass. As Bob said, "In a brewery there is usually the odd bottle of beer going spare - in a bank, the situation is the same, except the stock in trade is cash - the place is awash with it".  

The procedure was that a competent, detailed design would be required for the work - if it were approved, the cash would be advanced through the Personnel department. The scheme, naturally, was ultimately under the control of the same senior individuals who were benefiting most from it, and the validation and costing of the drawings were carried out by Bob's colleagues in the design office - who, in almost all cases, would have produced them in the first place. Payment for the design and drawing work was paid to the architects individually in cash, and [allegedly] a lot of this went on out of sight of the Inland Revenue. Bob reckoned that a fair proportion of this building work was never carried out - a design would be produced for a fictitious project, it would be approved and costed, the loan would be granted, cash paid for the architect's services, and the world would move on.

Bob's first involvement in this odd sideline came when he was approached by one of his directors, who wanted the attic floor of part of a listed mansion house in the Scottish Borders equipped with a TV lounge, a billiards room and a small guest apartment. Bob was puzzled by the "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" style of the proposition - and one of his more experienced colleagues explained that the job was probably a hoax - just a fund-raiser. The money might be used for anything at all - it might even be invested to provide a return well in excess of the token interest on the loan.

Despite this his professional instincts persisted, and Bob became very interested in some of the challenges of this project - at one point he went to see his client, with his drawings, to discuss an idea he had for a light-well into the stair area of this attic conversion. He realised very quickly that the director was not interested in his ideas - in fact was rather surprised to hear from him. Then he remembered - the thing would never be built.

Bob got all sorts of private commissions from the bank's senior echelons, their relatives, golfing friends and so on. He did not make a fortune out of it, because he kept a sense of proportion, but some of his colleagues really did very well indeed out of their homers. One of them, a South African chap named Albert Hinkus, became something of a legend, and achieved a sufficiently ostentatious lifestyle to attract resentment amongst his peers - someone seems to have tipped off the Revenue.

Hinkus received a letter from the tax authorities, which basically said something to the effect that they suspected that he had other income which he had not declared, and they invited him to a personal interview at Drumsheugh Gardens. This was not unlike being invited to Gestapo HQ.

Bob says Hinkus had holiday properties in France, which he rented out, also a modest yacht based at Trinité-sur-Mer in Brittany, which he also rented out, and he was reputed to own a share in a vintage Le Mans-style Bentley, though his official salary was nothing extraordinary.

Gratuitous photo of vintage Bentley
Hinkus went along to his interview in a terrible state of anxiety, apparently. After having a couple of attempts at mystified denial completely ignored, he decided that they obviously did have something on him, so he confessed. Problem was that, once he started, he became very emotional and couldn't stop, and he gave them full details of many years of untaxed fees for private architectural work, amounting to tens of thousands of pounds. When he had finished, his interviewers were very worried about his state, and offered him a cup of tea and a chance to rest for a few minutes.

Over tea, one of them thanked him very much for his full and frank co-operation, and said that the only definite information they had had previously was that he had been paid some £30 for squash coaching lessons at a local private school the previous year.  He was also reminded that he must be sure to claim for his transport expenses in connection with the squash coaching.

I don't know what happened to Hinkus - I understand the abuses of the fantasy buildings scam were drastically pruned subsequently. Bob himself was a very religious fellow, and would never have done anything as iniquitous as cheating on his tax, but he said that some of his colleagues had some very sleepless nights, waiting for more letters from HM Inland Revenue.

In passing, I am reminded that Bob had some very bad luck some years later. He and his wife had bought an old farmhouse, and he had an extension built on the side, including a large conservatory which, of course, he designed himself. I never saw it - my wife had kept in touch with Bob's wife, and she said it was beautiful. Just as it was being completed there was a serious fire that destroyed much of the house. No-one was hurt, fortunately, but it took a couple of years to restore the place. Because the house was unoccupied at  the time of the fire, the police investigated the incident.

There was nothing suspicious, but the cause of the fire is alarming enough to stand as a warning. An inexpensive spotlight - designed to clip on to shelving - fell off and landed on a sofa in the new sun-lounge; unfortunately, the rocker switch on the lamp hit the sofa, and it switched itself on, scorching and ultimately igniting the sofa and resulting in a major conflagration. Never use clip-on spotlights - if they still make them, avoid them. 

Thursday 12 September 2019

Maria de Huerva (15th June 1809) - I've just played a game named Maria...

Wargaming yesterday. Things have been a bit confusing lately, but luckily Goya was able to organise a free day, and he came down to these parts for a Peninsular game, which offered a very welcome diversion for me.

Suchet (that's me, folks) thinking that these Spanish fellows fight a lot better than he had expected
This was an engagement between GdD (later Marshal) Louis-Gabriel Suchet and part of the Spanish Northern Army under Joaquin Blake. Our game was based upon the scenario published in Expansion #1 of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics - tweaked a little to reflect the relative strengths in the actual battle. In the historical battle, Suchet, having left a garrison in Saragossa, and having split off Leval's Division to protect the roads to that city, had some 10,000 men in the field. Blake was advancing north on both sides of the River Huerba, Areizaga's (large) Division being some miles from the action, so he had about 14,000.

We used the latest edition of the Ramekin Versions (based on CCN); both armies had a small off-table reserve available - Suchet spent the day waiting for Robert's brigade to join him, while Blake sort of hoped that Areizaga might condescend to send him some help when he heard the guns. In fact, neither of these reserves played any part - Robert arrived right at the end, when the game was already decided, and Blake was so stretched keeping the French at bay that he had no spare orders to do anything about a reserve, so Areizaga's chaps, wherever they were, were not much help.

In the real battle, Blake's troops demonstrated against Musnier's Division, on the French right, in an attempt to goad the French into attacking them (the Spanish position was along a very presentable ridge, and the Spanish Army - especially in this game - is at its best when defending ground of its own choosing). On the French left, Wathier's cavalry brigade advanced, and frightened the Spanish cavalry from the field, leaving the infantry's flank exposed - the Spanish right crumbled, but Blake did a creditable job of withdrawing his army, and the defeat was not the complete disaster it might have been.

So much for history. Our game didn't really go like that at all. The field looks a bit barren - that is correct - apart from the parallel lines of hills, the scene was more or less featureless. For the record, Suchet and Co were rated as "Good" commanders for the day, and Blake as "Competent". C&CN Tactician Cards were in use, and 7 Victory Points were required for the win.

General view at the start, from behind the French left flank. From this end, the French have Habert's infantry brigade, plus Wathier's cavalry, and on the ridge is Musnier's division, with the Vistula Lancers attached. The Spaniards, on the other side of the field are, from this end, Col O'Donnell with the flank force, then the Divisions of Lazan (front) and Roca (rear). The Spaniards were all regular troops - no provinciales, no irregulars. The Monasterio de Santa Fe is in the foreground.
Spanish in a good defensive position. Blake is visible with the yellow border to his base, in the background.
Spanish light troops - these are the Cazadores de Barbastro, on the left end of the line.
More general view of the Spanish position, with Musnier's French on the right edge of the photo. That gap between the two ridges was a real killing ground.
Musnier finds it hard to get started, as his men are taking casualties already.
Quick aerial view of the Monasterio, with prize-winning vegetable plot visible.
It's very rare for my Vistula Lancers to put in a good performance, but on this occasion they got it right, and probably won the day for the French in the end. Occasionally they strayed too far from their command to be able to receive orders, which was a nuisance, but when they were good they were very good.
View from behind the Spanish left - having gone off the idea of a straight frontal attack, Musnier sends out a force (just visible at the left edge) to attempt to turn the left flank of the Spanish front line 
Here his leading battalion gets up onto the Spanish ridge, though they look very short of friends at this point
They were repulsed, and again lack of command was a problem as the French tried to advance
Over on the Spanish right, O'Donnell, with grenadiers, light cavalry and light infantry (1st Cataluna, in the foreground), fought doggedly and impressively
There weren't as many as there had been, but Lazan's force sorted themselves out and began to win some VPs of their own. They got the situation back from 2-6 to 4-6, and Suchet was getting very nervous
Musnier rode out to take personal command of the flank attack - that's him on the left, with the white base-border.
Now there is a 3-pronged attack (dashing, but not much support available), in the foreground, Musnier with the 2/86eme attacks the Regto de Africa, who are still fresh; in the centre, the lancers turn to threaten the Regto de Ribero, who are already fighting (very well) against more French infantry
Musnier and friends are making short work of Africa - lots of red markers in evidence on the Spanish left flank
Leadership in action - Musnier encouraging his lads...
...when suddenly there is a dastardly Spanish trick, and they play a Short Supply card - we don't know what it was that the 86eme were running out of, but whatever it was they were obliged to whizz back to the baseline to get some more
At this point, at long last, Suchet was delighted to see Robert's brigade appear from the direction of Saragossa, on the edge of the field by Santa Fe - the sight probably didn't cheer up the Spaniards very much, but Robert had no time to contribute much to the French effort...
...because the Vistula Lancers, in a "Combined Arms" attack with support from artillery across the valley, now eliminated the battered Regto de Ribero...
...and that was that - the French had won 7-4
A good game - no real problems with the rules or the scenario. The Spanish put up a good show, but they always have problems - they fight well enough, but moving fire is poor, and in melees they are reliable only when they are standing firm. The biggest disadvantage is the double-retreat rule - if they do fall back, they fall back a long way, and if the retreat is blocked they suffer losses instead.

Afterwards we retired to Zitto in North Berwick for food and deep analysis - always a good idea. Subsequently, things slipped a bit when Goya's train of choice was cancelled, but he managed to get a later one without problem, and made it home safely.

Monday 9 September 2019

Some history with your wargame, sir? - one lump or two?

Gilder vs Griffith: Gettysburg on the telly - a Type (2) game?

I was pondering a gentle conundrum from my experience of wargaming during yesterday morning's walk on the beach. Naturally, I couldn't just keep it to myself...
I guess that most of us started off in the hobby with a handful of soldiers and a couple of books or magazines, and we got fired up by the published photos of other people's efforts, and we maybe visited a local club, and we probably filed away a vague ambition that one day we would fight Waterloo (or Cannae, or Gettysburg) on our very own tabletop. And quite right, too - what could be more reasonable, or motivating?

I had a total sabbatical from wargaming for a period of maybe 12 years, and then from about 2001 until a few years ago I usually played solo, which is OK to a point, and I took the opportunity to try out some gaming situations that might not sit too comfortably in a social context. I played some very unbalanced games and some very long-winded ones - sometimes cued by a campaign narrative, and I tried some experimentation with sieges, computer-managed miniatures rules, various things. In a solo session, it is instructive and entertaining to see what happens in a game that would not necessarily be optimal for a social get-together. This is not to claim any particular advantages in having no mates - it is merely making the point that solo games do work, but have to be approached in an appropriate way.

Of course, historical scenarios are always appealing. I believe, however, that it's necessary to approach them with some caution. During yesterday's beach walk, I was trying to consider the various flavours of this.

(1) A deliberate walk-through - a demonstration, maybe for a public event, or even TV (which is what we had before YouTube). By this I mean that the tabletop proceedings are entirely scripted, there is no randomising element, and the presenters are normally not given any freedom to depart from the historical narrative, though they may, of course, make reference to decision points and possible alternative courses of action which were available to the original participants. Typically, these events are very luxuriously presented, and have to make allowance for the fact that the audience is going to include:
* true enthusiasts, many of whom will feel the need to disagree with just about any aspect of the scenery, the OOB, the recorded facts, the uniforms, the figure scale, the personalities etc etc.
* people who are casually interested in the topic, and are keen to see it demonstrated - these will normally be less difficult.
* those who have no real interest (they arrived with their brother, or kids, or boyfriend, or just came in because it is raining), but may enjoy the spectacle of the set-up - these people can be alienated within about three minutes if the presenters forget about them.

This is such a specialised sort of event that it probably falls outside the scope of what I was thinking about. I have, on very rare occasions, been involved in such things - usually as a gopher or box-carrier, and the pressures are mostly connected with logistics, rehearsal, thorough research, professional-standard presentation.

(2) A game scenario - an actual game, played competitively with rules. Such games are usually subtitled as a re-fight of the original. The scenario may be fudged a little, to give each side a chance of winning, or to simplify some tricky aspect of the real battle. Typically, play will start at some key point (not necessarily the beginning), and it may be limited to some localised part of the action (the Russian left flank, the second day, whatever). The design of the scenario will reflect the rules and the game-scales in use, and may also show traces of personal (sometimes patriotic) bias. There are likely to be some scripted events within the game - thus your Waterloo-scenario game will feature the arrival of the Prussians around tea-time, and it is a safe bet that there will be a lot of fighting around La Haye Sainte.

(3) A game, based loosely on a historical event. It may be that the generals are given their original OOBs and allowed to set up as they choose - any degrees of freedom are possible - for example, the game may feature some what-ifs, to explore what would have happened if the background to the battle had been different. The essence here is of a game which has some similarities to a historical event.

That's probably enough to be going on with. In both of (2) or (3), the players are starting the game with some information which their historical counterparts did not have.
* What actually happened, and why - there may be a tendency to follow the history, even if it is a dumb thing to do (I write with some sorrowful experience here); if we decide to do something else, the reasoning behind our choice will still reflect some unrealistic level of knowledge, or received analysis. The scenario rules themselves may be tweaked to fit the history.
* The players, having turned up specially for the day's event, know that they are here for the Battle of Waterloo, for example (which the original soldiers did not), thus it is very unlikely that a preliminary contact between skirmishers will be followed by Wellington marching his army off the table towards Antwerp.

All this is perfectly acceptable - a fine time will still be enjoyed by all - it would be naive to expect any unreasonable correspondence between the battle and the game. The game itself is the thing.

What has intrigued me recently has been my own involvement in designing such historically-based game scenarios. My usual starting place is looking at someone else's scenario, and deciding I'd like to improve upon it, to give a different size of game, or to correct (perceived) distortions in the field or the troops, or to produce something more suitable for my house rules. I admit that I do not need a particularly convincing excuse to get involved in this, because it is the most enormous fun - books all over the dining table, with index cards stuck in key references - Martinien, Oman, Elting & Esposito, Dr Nafziger, Uncle Tom Cobley, and masses of online searches. Sheets and sheets of scribbled notes. I have a terrific time, getting stuck into this kind of thing.

The resulting game may not be perfect, admittedly, but it will certainly have engaged a lot of sincere effort to produce it. The thing which has struck me is that it may be a reasonable game, but if I take part in it myself I find I can be distracted by all the things which I have thought about during the research. In short, a designed scenario is maybe more satisfying for players who have had less previous involvement!

I've always seen a strong appeal in the situation offered by Howard Whitehouse's Science vs Pluck game system (set in the Sudan Wars), whereby players are each given just as much knowledge of the military situation and of the rules as they need, and a god-like umpire who knows everything there is to know (or is authorised to make it up on the spot) runs the game. I have no direct experience of such games, but I can see how that would make sense.

Anyway - none of this is any problem at all - it may be a small argument in favour of the game designer being the umpire rather than a player - it's worth thinking about. What intrigues me about this is that the designer's previous work on the research may actually give him a disadvantage in the game, which seems counterintuitive!

Fortunately it wasn't a very long walk, so that is as far as I got with my ponderings. Here are some gratuitous beach pictures.

Early morning vapour-trail graffiti - Scottish saltire?
In it's day (when it was still working) this is reputed to have been the smallest working harbour in Britain

Sunday 8 September 2019

Hooptedoodle #342 - Chrysopidae

The Green Lacewing - these chaps live all over the Northern Hemisphere - very successful. I rather like them - they are peaceful and elegant, of modest dimensions, and do no harm. This time of year we always have a few around the house, but they blend in with their surroundings and don't move about much. If you have a lacewing sharing your room it will not be a nuisance.

Further to this, they are very good news for the garden - their larvae, which are surprisingly fierce, ugly beggars, have a voracious appetite for aphids - the larvae are also reputed to sting humans occasionally - we never see these indoors [that's the larvae, not humans].

Nearly twenty years ago, when I had recently moved into the original version of our current house, I had an ancient, mains-powered front doorbell. [When did you last see one of those?]

One day it stopped working - after a week or two of relying on the knocker, I spent an afternoon trying to work out what was wrong - checked the transformer and the wiring, cleaned out the push-button. Eventually I opened up the bell unit itself, and found that it was jammed with adult lacewings - all dead. There were dozens of them - possibly a hundred or more. I guess they had been hibernating, since it seems unlikely they would have hatched in there. I had a slightly nervous feeling that I was in a sci-fi movie, but I am assured that this is not an uncommon event, though they usually choose their sleeping place with more care. I don't know whether the lacewings had just died of the cold in there or whether something had trapped or injured them.

I never cared much for the mains electric doorbell anyway, so subsequently it has been replaced by a series of battery-powered ones which send a little radio signal to bell units placed around the house. The present one plays a grating, ice-cream van version of Fur Elise, which is useful since it encourages us to race to the door in case the postman presses the button a second time.

Thursday 5 September 2019

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Hooptedoodle #341 - Maybe not the Moon, then?

Noah sat at the kitchen table and glowered at his mother, who was bustling about, preparing for whatever it was she had said they were going to do. What he really wanted was to get back to playing with the rude noises he had downloaded on his smartphone, but experience told him this current inconvenience might not last too long. Noah was four. To pass the time, he idly punched his twin sister, Olivia, who was sitting next to him, staring out of the window at the pigeons on the garage roof. Olivia spun round in her chair, with a grimace, to find him staring innocently at their mother, who was having some problems.

Katharine was attaching some large sheets of paper to the front of the refrigerator, using button magnets. Because the sheets of paper had been rolled up for a while, they needed extra magnets at the bottom to stop them curling up. Once they were hanging straight and flat, she found they were in the wrong order, so with a little tut-tutting she swapped them around until everything was right. She cleared her throat and took a telescopic pointer from the mug on the adjacent windowsill.

"Righto, you guys," she said, "we need to spend a few minutes revisiting our plans for our holiday this year."

No response - Olivia had gone back to staring out of the window, and Noah just carried on glowering, thinking about his phone.

Katharine continued.

"Now, these are the results of our brainstorm from March. You remember that we decided that the most important things - the things that you said mattered most to you for this year's trip - were that we wanted to go somewhere really quiet and somewhere that offered the very best sandcastle-making facilities ever. You will recall that we got into a bit of an argument about some of this, and the meeting was cut short because Noah pulled Olivia's hair, but - as we left it - we were looking at the possibility of going to the Moon. I have to say I was never completely comfortable with this choice, though we have to keep faith with the process, as I always say..." she laughed nervously, "but I think we can't put this meeting off any longer."

She paused, partly for dramatic effect, partly to take a very deep breath.

"It looks as though the Moon is not going to be a possibility, Twinnies. I'm really, really sorry, but there are some big problems. I've been doing some more reading, and I really think we should go somewhere else."

The screaming started immediately.

"But you PROMISED!" roared Olivia. "You said we could go anywhere we wanted - that it was our choice. You told us a LIE!"

"Promised...  lie..." echoed Noah, kicking his sister under the table.

"No, no," protested Katharine, "Mummy would never tell you a lie, you know that. It's just that, well, the Moon is a very difficult and expensive place to get to, and our car won't be able to get there, and we can't afford to buy a car that could. I don't know very much about the Moon, as I told you last time. It seems it's always the details that cause the trouble - there wouldn't be any ice cream, and one thing that worries me rather a  lot is that there is no air there, so we would all die. That wouldn't be very good would it?"

"But you promised," said Olivia, tearful now. "I don't care about the stupid air! I want to go to THE MOON. I told Victoria that we were going, too. You said we could go anywhere we wanted. That was a LIE. I'm going to call Child Line"

Noah was calmer.

"Where will we go instead?"

"Well, Daddy and I thought we could go back to that super camp-site at Ilfracombe - remember what a lovely time we had there last time? We think it would be marvellous."

"Last time it was raining," said Noah, "and I cut my foot on the beach. I don't want to go there. Anyway, the toilets were smelly."

This was not going well. Katharine fell back on her methodology training - it had never failed her before. She raised her voice a little, to be heard above Olivia, who was now sobbing on the table, her face laid on her arms.

"Well, we could start again with new Terms of Reference, and we could have another brainstorm - that would be the best and fairest thing to do, I think. You two happy with that?"

The meeting ended at this point. Noah pushed his sister off her chair, and she banged her head on the recycling tub, and there was a lot of screaming. Katharine put her pointer back in the mug and went to rescue her daughter.

It was true. She had, in fact, promised. That was the worst bit of the whole thing.