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

Friday 26 February 2021

Hooptedoodle #387 - Ads for Morons, Created by Morons

 Wow - I was on the CNN site this evening, trying to get the latest on the gold statue of Trump that some bottom-hole has put on display in Orlando, and some fiendish cookie or other got busy and - hey! - I got a personalised ad, just for me. That's quite something - I mean I'm not even very famous (though my reading about Trump might have been a clue), but I'm pleased that they realised I would be interested in this sort of thing.

North Berwick

To put this into perspective, here is a photo of my home village. I am fascinated by this potential jet service - how impressed would my friends be, for goodness sake? I am wondering whether the jets land and take off in the fishing harbour, or they use that big field behind the telephone exchange - of course, they'd have to shift the horses, but it's marvellous, isn't it?

Amazing what they can do nowadays, as I always say. There - I just said it again...

Monday 22 February 2021

Holcroft Blood, anyone?

 Someone recommended that I would enjoy the Holcroft Blood series of historical novels written by Angus Donald.

 I have to say, I normally don't get on with historical novels. I hated Sharpe, for example - yes, I know, obviously my problem. 20 billion flies can't all be wrong. I also got into trouble once, when I suggested that RF Delderfield was a very overrated author, and that one of his Napoleonic efforts, apart from being chucked together with little thought, was more or less a rip-off from CS Forester. Goodness me - I'll never have an opinion again - promise.

 So this is a humble request, from one who does not know, and does not claim to have the wit or the critical faculties to judge. Has anybody in my trusted world (intellectual bubble?) read any of the Blood books, and what did you think of them?

Any thoughts will be welcome. 

Friday 19 February 2021

WSS Rules - work in progress

 After the recent playtest, it became clear that something has gone out of whack with the draft house WSS rules, so I'm working on some changes. One fairly drastic re-think is taking place in the small matter of combat. I've now reduced the range of muskets to something which is less exciting but more reasonable, and - since infantry didn't normally get to sticking bayonets in each other when fighting in the open - all combat apart from artillery fire has now been subsumed into something called Close Combat, which will include all melees and all musketry (which is only effective at close range anyway).

I've been reading a few sets of rules which I own which use this kind of system - in particular Mustafa's Grande Armée, Doc Monaghan's Big Battalions, and Polemos's Obstinate and Bloody Battle. I used to employ a similar combat system in a house Napoleonic rule set I ran fairly successfully for many years, so I know it works - though there is an implied backing away from Old School turn sequences.

That's OK - the generals can concentrate on running the battle, and trust the invisible sergeants to look after fitting of bayonets, cavalry firing pistols and all that. I think it has something to do with getting the scale of the game right.

I'm now trying to glue some changes into the previous draft. Typing - it's what wargaming is all about, really.

I should have more to say about this before too long!

Sunday 14 February 2021

Hooptedoodle #386 - The Strange Tale of the "Normandie" - in fact and the movies


Yesterday I got rather sidetracked by the Internet (as one does), and as a result finished up watching a movie on my TV, late in the evening. I have promised myself that I'll have a more productive day today, but I'm getting off to a poor start by writing about the time I wasted yesterday...

So there are two related threads here - the ship and the movie I watched. I'll start off with the ship.

I did some reading about the SS Normandie, a ship I recognise vaguely from old photos, but never really knew very much about. It really is a very odd story - sad, undoubtedly, and filled with some astonishing bad breaks and terrifying incompetence - if you are interested, you can find lots about it online, but here's a quick skim.

Built at St Nazaire, in Brittany, the Normandie was launched in 1935; it was the biggest, fastest, most technically advanced, most luxurious passenger liner of its day, and this in an age when the big transatlantic liners were at their most prestigious. It's success was tempered a little by a shift in the market - by design, the Normandie was heavily committed to catering for the very wealthy, and as the 1930s neared their end there was a big upsurge in demand for more economical travel, which gave the British Cunard ships an unassailable advantage.


After the attack on Pearl Harbour, since the USA was now at war with the Axis Powers, and France had become German-occupied territory, the Normandie, which was stranded in New York, was requisitioned by the US Navy (with the full co-operation of its owners), was renamed the USS Lafayette (see what they did there?), and after some dithering about, during which it was briefly proposed to make her into an aircraft carrier (the ship, you understand, was enormous), eventually a plan was produced to convert the vessel into a troopship. 

Conversion work was rather rushed, trying to meet a very ambitious commissioning date, and on 9th February 1942 the ship caught fire, at the refit berth at Pier 188, Brooklyn. Sparks from a welding torch set alight a store of kapok-filled life-jackets which were in a passenger saloon, the fire spread rapidly, as a result of inflammable varnished wood panelling not having yet been removed, and, helped by a stiff northeasterly breeze, which blew the blaze along the length of the ship, within about an hour, the three upper decks were engulfed from end to end.

The ship was equipped with a sophisticated fire-fighting system, and lots of appropriate equipment, but the system had been disabled and most of the equipment removed. Further, the NYCFD's hoses did not fit the ship's French connectors. Some valiant, though hopeless, efforts were improvised to fight the conflagration. As water was pumped in from shore-based fire tenders and the port's fire-boats, the ship began to settle in the dock, and took on a list to seaward.

The Normandie's designer was present in New York, since he had been involved in discussions of the refit. He arrived at the dock, with a plan to save the ship, but the harbour police refused him entry. His idea was to go on board, open the sea-cocks to flood the lower hull, allowing the vessel to settle the few feet to the bottom of the dock, which would enable the fire to be put out without risk of capsizing. The Navy commander on the spot, Admiral Adolphus Andrews, rejected this idea.

The authorities eventually declared that the fire was under control, and rescue operations ceased, but some 6,000 tons of water had been pumped on board. Continuing entry of water below the surface resulted in the vessel capsizing later on that night. This had been a major emergency - many individuals were injured, and there was one death. Andrews placed a complete shut-down on all reporting - no press were allowed anywhere near the scene.

Later there were a number of proposal for projects to restore the vessel in some form, but after a lot of wasted time and expenditure the ideas were axed, and the hulk was scrapped in 1946. Since then there have been many theories suggesting mob involvement and so on - interesting, but I'll spare you all that.

While I was reading about this, I learned that the capsized vessel appears in the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Saboteur. Now, as it happens, I have a big box set of Hitchcock films, which one of my sons gave me for Xmas some years ago, and I was pretty sure this one is included. It is.

Which brings me to my other thread - the movie, which I duly watched last night. In fact I have seen it before, some years ago, but I remembered very little about it (the plot was spoiled rather less for me last night by what I had remembered about it than by what was pretty obviously predictable anyway). The film has a big wartime message about patriotism and public awareness of national security, though there are some odd plot twists involving a wealthy, privileged elite who are masterminding the Fifth Column and sabotage in the US - seems strangely in tune with modern conspiracy theories?

The movie is fun - not a very demanding watch, and is in many ways a film of Great Silliness, not the least of which is a Hitchcock cliché - a climactic ending, set on yet another famous National Monument (yes, AGAIN). I sat up and saluted when I (briefly) saw the wrecked Normandie/Lafayette (or USS Alaska - a battleship, no less, as it is cast in the plot). 

OK - so what? Well, so nothing, really, but there is something odd about the dates. If I had been less tired, I am sure I'd have tried to find out a bit more, but I'd had enough by this stage.

Here's the thing - filming took place from December 1941 to February 1942 - not a generous timescale, but there was a war on. The capsizing of the "battleship" is not a strategic high spot of the story, but it is an impressive part of the build up to the finale. Given that the ship only sank in February 1942, I am forced to assume that there was some very fast footwork, and Hitchcock changed the story to include his (prohibited) shots of the Lafayette - I guess that the story was largely patched together as he went along anyway, but that is impressive. As far as I know, none of the conspiracy stories involves Hitchcock commissioning the sinking of one of the biggest ships in the world, to fit into his latest movie, so it must just have been opportunism on his part.

It brought him a lot of grief - his use of illicit shots of a ship, the sinking of which was the subject of a lot of denial, and the hints in the story that the Navy's security and competence might be a tad suboptimal resulted in the movie being "red-flagged" by the censors, though it was allowed to be released because of its positive wartime espionage messages, and was premiered in April 1942. We may assume Admiral Andrews never forgave him, however... 

Friday 12 February 2021

Hooptedoodle #385 - Chick Corea

 Another personal hero gone. Chick Corea, the jazz pianist, died this week, aged 79. He became famous when he played with Miles Davis in the late 1960s (in a band which for a period featured 3 electric pianos - Herbie Hancocks, Keith Jarrett and Corea, which some might say is at least 2 too many...).

Then, of course, he became a leading light in his own right in the Jazz Fusion thing, which divided the world neatly into those who felt it wasn't proper jazz at all and those who felt it didn't quite make it as rock music either. I was playing a couple of his CDs this morning, and it occurred to me that the 1990s was longer ago than I had thought. Good, though.

Here's a track that I like. Thanks from me, Chick. Rest easy.

Thursday 11 February 2021

Hooptedoodle #384 - troglodytes troglodytes

 So good, they named it twice.

I'm aware of these little birds being around our garden, but you don't often see them. I think we hear them, but we don't see them much. This morning, while the French window was open and some boxes of stuff were getting shifted into the log shed, a Wren flew in and was temporarily trapped in what we refer to as our Garden Room (because it's, like, next to the garden).

Eventually it stopped flapping about, and rested on the back of one of the sofas. My wife picked it up, checked it over, and took it outside, where it recovered for a couple of minutes before flying away. We were reluctant to simply put it down somewhere to get its breath back, since I imagine the Magpies eat these little fellas like popcorn.

All well in the end - very nice to meet a rather shy neighbour.

Sunday 7 February 2021

WSS: Beutelbach Playtest (via Zoom)

Ready for the off - counters and markers and cotton-wool smoke. Even some Lucozade.

 As planned, the playtest game went ahead on Friday - 10am kick-off.

Stryker and Goya arrived promptly (and remotely), and after some fiddling about with camera settings we got started. The revision to my WSS rules this time had been quite a large one, following on from what had been a pleasingly successful playtest back in December (or whenever it was), so we had quite a few new bits to assimilate. I, as umpire, had no choice to make a good fist of this, since the umpire is the guy who has to understand everything - especially if he is also the author. Nowhere to hide. Bright lights.

Let me say, straight away, that it was a very pleasant day - certainly I enjoyed the interaction and the company and all that - and we achieved a great deal on the rules workout. Overall, I am pleased, but am rather concerned that I presented my guests with a rather lengthier and more arduous experience than they might have been expecting! I can only praise their courage and good humour, and thank them once again!

Playtesting your own rules reminds me a little of the old home-brewed beer days (anyone remember them?) - the whole thing is driven by enthusiasm and good intentions, but it is also very easy to inflict on one's friends something which tastes ghastly and gives them terrible headaches, which is not a kind thing to do to anyone. I hasten to assure my gentle reader that our session was not so awful as this might suggest, but some of the things I learned about my new rule changes will require a day or two to digest. As is always the case, a lot of the problems unearthed are merely a question of tweaking the numbers to get a better balance, but I definitely got a few things wrong. Humility is required.

For a start, we had rather the rough end of circumstances - I had about 2 hours sleep the night before, because we had howling Easterlies rattling the slates here at Chateau Foy, with horizontal rain and sleet on the roof-windows, and at about 2:30am I had to get up to shut the gate, to prevent our garden chairs from rolling into the lane. So there was a lot of caffeine in my bloodstream by around 10am.

Next - Zoom. It is less than a year since I had no experience of remote gaming at all, and of course we have to be grateful for what is possible. Games via Zoom are a poor substitute for a proper face-to-face game, but they are a hell of a lot better than nothing at all, so it would be stupid to complain. On the other hand...

Well, on the other hand, I am one of that often-forgotten fringe of UK residents who do not live in a city. Our broadband arrives by radio transmission, believe it or not, and it is astonishingly good, considering, but in absolute terms it is a bit marginal for streaming two cameras simultaneously, especially when my locked-down neighbours are confined to barracks, and seem to spend their days home-schooling (via Google Classroom and similar) or just watching Netflix. The radio bit means that we are relying on line-of-sight contact (a familiar wargaming concept?) with a mast on a hill about 8 miles away, which also means that really wet weather can affect things adversely. [It also means that one of my neighbours can't understand why the broadband works at night, when he cannot see the hill where the transmitter is located - but this is quite another story...]

One way or another, our broadband is slow enough to make Zoom default to what it considers a manageable picture quality, which is not very exciting. Well, John Logie Baird might have been excited, but these days we expect high definition at all times, and don't you forget it. This means that, though I get to see the toy soldiers close up in the real world, my guest attendees have a real fog-of-war problem trying to see what's what, they get a very poor visual presentation and involvement level (they don't even get to roll their own dice!) and, of course, they also have to put up with hours of me charging about, talking too much and pointing at things. You may be getting a glimpse of why I was so grateful for their stamina on Friday! Zoom also kept hanging up on us - we had maybe 10 or a dozen instances when a broadband blip froze everything; I am getting surprisingly handy at recovering hangs, though on one occasion we lost the Zoom session completely, so I had to join again and admit everyone back in, but we also frequently lost time when someone's conversation would break up [the well-known Stammering Dalek Effect] and we had a lot of checking and repeating. I'm not going to say any more about Zoom, except that it occurred to me late last night that we could maybe get some improvement by shutting off the video links from the remote attendees - once we've said hello we don't need to see each other, as long as the battlefield views are working. It's a theory - I'll ask my son if it will help...

Righto - that's the excuses out of the way. The next bit has to be the things I got wrong. Last test game, I became aware of a few points in the game where the rules were vague - mostly about things like the exact timing of a morale check, or just what happens when a unit breaks from melee, so I had tightened this up, and had inserted some clarifying detail, including expanding the Turn Sequence to incorporate a specific Rallying Phase, between Activation and Movement. Great. In fact, it was a lot tighter, but I set up a big, encounter-type scenario, and the game was slow. I mean really slow. The melee rules worked a lot better (though they still need some tweaking), but it was all far too laborious for a big game. I also screwed up the formula for numbers of Order Chips, so that we had too many orders, which is like not having Activation at all. We had great, long player turns which must have been heavy going for the non-phasing player, who didn't even have any dice to roll.

OK - fair enough. All good - that's what a playtest is for - provided your friends are still speaking to you at the end!

The actual battle? Well, it took hours - much of which is down to lack of familiarity, of course, but it meant that we didn't finish. The target for a win was 8 Victory Points, and we had got to 4-all when we had to call it a day. As I say, I'm very happy that I learned a lot of good stuff, but one thing I learned is that the rules as they are now will not handle a big game, and I am really partial to big games, so some rethinking has started!

The armies seemed to spend a long time firing muskets at each other at 400 paces, which is not very effective, but there was a vigorous cavalry fight quite early on. The manoeuvre rules were not much of a problem - there seemed to be too many morale tests, considering not much was going on for most of the time. I can fix all that, but there are some fundamental issues which will need some surgery. That's OK too! I am pleased with what we achieved,  though as an actual game it was not the best.

I'll work on it!

Starting position, from the Imperial right flank - aggressive moves from the cavalry in the foreground...

...and from the opposite side, behind the Bavarian lines...

...just like the ECW all over again - the first cavalry clash was indecisive!

The Bavarian right flank was pretty quiet throughout - the battery on the hill was busy, but Goya seemed to have a great many 1s and 2s that he didn't get to roll last time out.

The cavalry get themselves sorted out, ready for another go. Note some dragoons sneaking through the wood on the left of the photo.

The Imperial forces, complete with battalion guns, came across the field to take the initiative, but a long range firefight ensued, which mostly didn't hit anyone, though a couple of units took fright

Bavarian artillery - working hard

Things were building up nicely, but we ran out of time before we reached the real crisis

General view, from the Imperial right, at the point at which we were forced to close. It'll be a lot better next time - trust me...

Wednesday 3 February 2021

WSS: Set-Up for Another Playtest

 Gaming via Zoom on Friday, so I've been setting up the table. This will be the little-known Battle of the Beutelbach, which must have been in 1703, I guess, on an unusually flat area of  Bavaria. I needed some photos for the participants, so it seemed sensible to post them here as well.

This is the first-cut set-up, still a little adjustment allowed before we kick off on Friday. Here is the view from the Bavarian left flank. That stream is just a little watersplash.

And now from the Bavarian right flank. Since the micro-dice will be completely invisible on the Zoom session, there will be an issue of coloured counters, to denote unit status, before we start.

A drone shot from behind the Imperial position - no-one in the little hamlet of Staubhof yet, so the residents can shift the glass and china into the cellar.

10am start Friday - better read the rules again - there are some changes in the turn sequence, so a quick guideline note to keep me right would be a good idea.

*********** Late Edit ***********

And now an extra photo for Nature lovers - here are Die Schwäne von Staubhof...