Wednesday, August 08, 2007

January 26, 2006

I'm struggling with the grey.

Of course at sea it became the standard colour for the dreadnought era.

And people might compare the success of the Wehrmacht during the "Feldgrau" era with the defeats of the "Camouflage" era.

I can lift some experience from more recent sporting events. Both Manchester United and the English national team experimented with a pale grey "second strip", and both are agreed to have played consistently poorly in the outfit. Sports Psychologists at the time quoted the lack of inspiration of a neutral colour, coming up with quotes like "Club teams play best in red" - ignoring the obvious fact that Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United (who have pretty much dominated the British league for the last 30 years) all wear red. Perhaps more interesting were reports from players who reported difficulty in picking their teammates out from the crowd background.

Whatever the cause, I'm not sure the results map to a battlefield.

Consider the Rebs in the ACW. Their movement in mass would nullify some of the camouflage effects of the uniform,but It must have still had its uses on night patrol or on skirmish screens on a foggy morning. The ability to see your friends might be less important than in a game of football. You need to know where they are to avoid shooting them, and it helps if commanders know where their men are - but there is no suggestion that grey would grant this kind of invisibility.

Grey does seem to have been at the root of a number of friendly fire incidents during the first world war. Grey was pretty much the colour of choice among the armies on the Eastern front, and the only thing that appears to have prevented them from shooting their comrades appears to have been ammunition shortages, or the fact that the enemy sometimes got in the way. The problem appears to have been particularly acute in the forces of the Austrian empire - who were not best mates to start off with anyway.

On the western front the Portuguese were shot up a few times by the British since their grey was very similar to the Germans.

The only winners I can really think of are a subset of the 1813-15 Prussians. Their reserve infantry (initially recalled reservists, but after a year, better considered the junior regiments of the line) dressed in a simple grey uniform. Even the Landwehr looked finer in a blue equivalent - though the Reservists had boots and bayonets - so some sense of priority was preserved. This sounds like a vote for success in grey. Until you consider that the first choice for the reservist uniform was the varied supply of uniforms provided by the British. So some Prussian reservists turned out in the Scarlet of the British fusiliers, some wore the blue of the Portuguese regular army, one battalion were equipped in the dark green of the riflemen. And only those without supplies went into action in the grey issue.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

31 Jul 2007

You know, I'm read how you continue to obsess over the perfect set of 'big' Napoleonic rules, and how I spend hours crafting campaign rules that are 'about one thing only', and then I think about your sons and my nephews, and I realise kids these days are not like us.

They have their Pokémon or GW fluff written for them, and they don't seem to have that geeky perseverance that we do.

Maybe it's an age thing.

The other thing is, I seem to remember growing up in an era when war movies and TV series were common. There was 'Combat', and movies like 'Big Red One' and 'The Longest Day' being televised every so often, and then there was the 'Tour of Duty' series on Malaysian TV (which we used to receive, and which had the swear-words censored by the sound of machine gun rather than a *bleep*).

Wars were not terrible things. They were about men who knew what was right and what was wrong and did what they had to do in full knowledge of the dangers. I still believe that about soldiers and I still get a lump in my throat when I read about soldiers who get medals for risking their own lives to save their comrades, from the Mutiny to the Iraq war.

As a kid I drew pictures of tanks rolling across the landscape, and bombers flying over them, streams of bombs falling from them. My younger nephew draws Pokémons, and the older one doesn't draw at all anymore.

I hope at least one of them will grow up to be a wargamer, and I will be able to bequeath my stash of books, rules, and figures and terrain to them, but so far they are not interested. I thought about buying Little Wars and some 54mm figures for the older boy, but I am not sure his father will approve.


I think we grew up at a time when things hadn't been. Here's a corporate word for you - "Productised".

My way into the hobby was through a couple of school friends who also collected little Airfix men, and books from the local library.

My interests coincided with the books on the shelves at the local library.

There was also an excellent reservation system which enabled non-stock books to be fetched from other libraries. OK I didn't test the system with demands for Shakespeare first impressions etc - but they managed to get all the books I did request. Some even showed up with a completely fresh cellophane cover and library ticket inside - so must have been bought to satisfy my request.

The source for those books was the "By the same author" or the bibliography inside a book I'd read and enjoyed. We had little idea about the real history, so if Charles Grant told us that a British line could beat a French column we had to believe him. However we also sensed that things were not completely watertight with the book sourced games.

Charles Grant in particular tended to intersperse his rules in the narrative of his books - which made the rules unsuitable for playing with the book open. He used 48 man battalions, wooden bounce sticks and soldered wire templates for artillery.

I didn't have the cash to raise such large battalions, I didn't have the space to deploy them, and I didn't have the tools or skill to manufacture the artillery stuff. I suppose I might have asked my grandfather who lived on the same street, and enjoyed building things in his garden shed. However I remember him looking in while I was watching Waterloo on TV one Christmas, and muttering that Napoleon was just as bad as Hitler, so he might not have approved.

Anyway, it was necessary to improvise to get my resources playing on the available table space. So Grant's rules were merged with Featherstones, and small battalions took to the table. It took more than 10 years for the idea of abstraction to really take hold.

I knew that my table could never hold enough battalions to depict Waterloo, but I still insisted in fielding 4 battalions of line infantry and one of Imperial guard. I had not worked out a way to use formations higher than a battalion, nor how to disappear the battalions into composite brigades etc.

I think we have grown so used to tinkering with rules, that it becomes a habit. In my case, I'm also rather dissatisfied with some recent purchases and really think I could do better.

Now the kids with their Pokémon cards...I've tried a few games and found it slightly tedious. I actually enjoyed playing with a starter deck, as things seemed balanced, and with no killer strength Pokémon, there was room for a bit of strategy. I then bought some expansion packs for the boys, and the game was ruined. One of the decks enabled a Pokémon to evolve into something completely lethal, so drawing the right sequence to evolve it effectively wins the game. One of the others had a couple of low level characters which could send the others to sleep for free. The other player is then reduced to trying to wake up every move. If he succeeds, the turn passes and he is awake, if he fails, he is still asleep, though the turn also passes.

So we are a generation of meddlers, rather like the generation before us who did their modeling by scratch-building. The next generation likes their stuff complete - and parts of me cannot blame them - but I know they are also missing out on some intellectual challenge and fun.

So finally on to the subject of Offspring and gaming.

I did try Daniel with Battle cry for a while, and Mathew asked about Crossfire - we played a simple game and he got bored. I don't think either will actually show much interest in gaming. There was a time when I thought this would be a source of much sadness.

I'm actually seeing quite a positive side to it though.

1. My brushes and modeling stuff aren't getting borrowed and damaged/lost.
2. My figures aren't getting damaged and fiddled with.
3. When I do arrange a game with Hugh, I don't get a horde of "Let me come along, I want to command the chariots, let's do a flank march, Oh we're stuck in the swamp" pestering.
4. Football and Martial arts are probably better pastimes for health and general social credibility at school.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Lord Horatio comments on cost

I see Wahj is approaching the same problems as me.
Too much to do and too little time to accomplish all objectives.

In my case the demands are a little different, but the balancing act is similar.
The three competitors for my time are - in order of success:

Family: In particular 3 growing sons.
I am concious that I am a prime influence on their lives and attitudes beyond the traditional role of providing food and shelter for them.
They are all at different stages of learning.
The 2 elder ones are also excellent at sports for their age groups.
My involvement is one of encouraging them to participate and discover their talents.
To hand on wisdom as best I can - play fair, don't quit too soon, respect others, and take hard decisions to do the right thing.
I am aware that I have a few years to help them before they are off to make their own ways in then world, so they are a top priority.

Gaming: The hobby I love, but find it herder to coordinate modelling, collection, gaming and opponents.
The solution has been one of accepting the possible, but never forgettign to dream.
My recent accumulation of several thousand 20mm figures must be rated as a dream, I intend to paint and base them all, but it is a long term project.
Otherwise the shortage of time focuses me on fast play type rules, reading history books in small increments, and production line type painting.
I have few regrets about a diet of exclusively fast play rules.
There are some excellent rules available.
Perhaps the question should be "Where is the virtue in slow play rules".

Career: Strriking the balance between hard work, sufficient income and professional satisfaction.

Returning to Wahj's comments on cost - there is a price to everything.
Sometmes the cost is hard cash, but often the cost is wasted time.
When we aspire to be like the great commanders of history we would do well to remember the role of Logistics and Time Management.

As a schoolboy, I could afford to spend a whole days of my weekend on a pointless slow play game which had barely started before we tidied up. I could not afford the 80 pence for 2 additional boxes of Airfix soldiers without halting all other spending or 2 months.
Today it would be a major arrangement to spend a whole day gaming.
One which would cost me a fortnight of compensation in domestic duties and time spent with the 3 sons.
On the other hand I can happily spend 40 pounds on gaming materials and barely blnk an eye.
The relative balance between time and money has move

As a gamer I am amazed how cheap the hobby is in financial terms.
A friend who is an occasional mountain biker seems to spend about £150 per month on new gadgets and enhancements to his kit.
(Currently getting body armour to protect him from high speed falls).
A workmate spends about twice that on his vintage motorcycle and social events with his fellow enthusiasts.
The latest hand held games console osts just under £200 - which would purchase sufficient ancient armies for a campaign.

In financial terms, wargaming is a relatively inexpensive hobby.
Compared to real war, it is an absolute bargain.
Ask my namesake, war cost him and arm, and eye, and finally his life.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

What's the cost of wargaming?

A comment by Dom on my other blog (the other other blog) led me to think about how much time and money we wargamers spend on our hobby.

For myself, I have three hobbies competing for my time: photography, geocaching and wargaming. I can usually only manage one at a time: when one peaks, the others trough. If I'm spending time on photography, my wargaming suffers, and vice versa. There is some synergy: geocaching usually leads to photographic opportunities, and one can always photograph one's miniatures (a technical and somewhat unrewarding exercise), but they usually compete rather than cooperate for limited time. Add to that the regular Friday night LAN games with the guys, and I have limited time that I need to allocate between wife, hobbies, and myself. Reading Lord Horatio's posts, it seems that this is a problem most gamers share. Right now, the wargaming is giving way to other pressures, so this is a low-key gaming period for me.

Cost is a bit more difficult to calculate. I've spent quite a fair bit on cameras and film over the years, probably in the thousands. I know my GPS unit for geocaching cost me $270, and that's about it.

Wargaming, though, is trickier: it's hard to estimate how much money I've spent over the years on figures, paint, and rules, since none of the purchases are big-ticket items that burn in the memory (unlike cameras, which burn a hole in your pocket so big that you're not likely to forget). It's easily in the thousands, but how many thousands is hard to estimate.

So let me throw out this question to my esteemed co-contributors, and the reading public: how much time and money have you spent on this hobby? What's the cost of wargaming?

Monday, August 29, 2005


An old adaptation I managed to dig up to fill the blog until my next article:

If you can keep your command unit when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when your doubles partner doubts you
But make allowance for his doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being cheated, don't deal in loaded dice;
Or give up a couple of weekend of dating;
And don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can plan - and not make plans your master;
If you judge distances - and not be too far off aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to see the tactics you have taken
Twisted by opponents to your woes,
Or watch the figurines you gave life to, shaken,
And stoop to build'em up with rally rolls:

If you can make one heap of all your troops (Guard and Line);
And risk them in one melee, one die-toss,
And lose, and start again at your base-line
And never breathe a swear-word about your loss;
If you can force your Foot and Gun and Horse
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing left in your force
except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with Magic-card players and keep your virtue,
Or walk with 7th Edition players - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor bungling partners can hurt you,
If the casualty count's with you, and not too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of fun,
Yours is the game and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Wargamer, my son!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Fog of War Versus Fun of Wargaming

Picking up on a idea mentioned in this post by Capt Arjun, I'd like to discuss the issue of recreating the perspective of a "real" commander.

The wargamer can see the whole battlefield. The real general can only see part of it - as technology increases, the modern general can see more than Alexander could, but it's important to note that what he sees is mediated. A general now, compared to say Wellington, can see about the same thing with his naked eyes. Everything else that the modern general (why do I always have to resist the urge to type "modern Major General" when I type that phrase?) gets to see is mediated - it's a report, a readout, a radar image, an air or satellite recon photo.

More often than not, it's a report: even though he has access to "raw" data (for example, a photo of a bombed out bridge) he is likely to base his decisions on the report processed and generated by his staff (in this case, the bomb damage assessment report). The important point here is that improvements in a general's ability to perceive the battlefield have been in terms of indirect, mediated access.

Even granting that this is an extension of his ability to receive input, it is nevertheless nothing compared to the birds-eye-view a wargamer enjoys of the table. The problems of hidden and plotted movement mean that most wargames still use a completely transparent movement and status system - you can see all units, and can usually see their status (rallied, suppressed, routing etc).

Realistic? No - to achieve that, we'd have to artificially limit the wargame player's ability to see. There are quite a few ways to do this - ranging from plotted hidden movement, to isolating the player in a different room and forcing him to receive only reports and issue only commands, with someone else on the other end effecting the actions. It's a black box we'd be putting the player in, in an attempt to recreate the black box that surrounds the general in real life.

And it's definitely not fun. We have a choice here between the Fog of War, and the Fun of Wargaming, and it's no wonder we choose the latter. Nobody likes informational Fog - real generals particularly, which is why so much technology is being introduced to try and increase information flow between soldiers, and between levels of command - soldiers would like to know without ambiguity where the enemy is, and where the friendlies are, and generals would like to know the status, without ambiguity, of each and every soldier, tank and asset, friendly and opposed. And generals most definitely don't like the Friction (to use Clauswitz's term) of war - they would love it if every order was understood with perfect intent, and executed to exact specifications and expectations. This doesn't happen, but the ideal is still there. Perfect information (the logic goes) leads to perfect decision-making, perfect information flow leads to perfect execution of intent. (one could argue that the genius of great commanders lies in being able to work with/around these limitations, more than in any particular insight or brilliance)

Wargamers have near-perfect information. Games are designed that way from the start - otherwise nobody would play them. A game that frustrates its players is a game that tends to stay on the shelf (wargames are a business, after all) and most players are firmly on the "Fun" axis - and even if not, at least aren't willing to venture so far out onto the limb of ultra-realism and uber-frustration. I don't have statistics, but I would hazard a guess that most of the "black box" rulesets that exist are home-made/specialised rules that were written by gamers (as opposed to published by a commerical wargames company) for a small group of like-minded individuals who do get primary satisfaction out of realism, and are willing to endure tedium, frustration, and heavy paper-work in return.

Attempts at compromise do exist - mechanisms and rulesets that try and create the effect of fog of war, without the heavy bean-counting paperwork. For example, a rule that forces a player to roll against incrementally higher odds to give successive orders to the same unit (think Warmaster) is trying, via a simple mechanism, to recreate a host of real-life events - soldier fatigue, disruption to plans, depreciation of equipment and capabilities, and degradation of command ability - all in one shot - i.e. what Clauswitz called "friction". Mechanisms like this are themselves a sort of short-cut - an attempt to model the signs and symptoms, without having to engage all the details.

Think about how one can attempt to measure the circumference of a circle by drawing polygons of an increasing number of sides: the larger the number of sides, the close one gets to the actual circumference, though never being exactly there. Sooner or later, one reaches a polygon whose number of sides is a manageble quantity, and by multiplying length of side x number of sides, reaches a good approximation of the circumference (yes, I know we could just 2 x Pi x r the whole thing, but stick with me here). This, in wargame terms, would be the "mechanism" - the command die roll mentioned earlier for example, that attempts to create an acceptable approximation, via the probability of simple die rolls, of what fog of war and friction could do on a battlefield. It's an attempt to reach a compromise between Fun and Fog/Friction.

An aside here: the one I've been involved in real military wargaming, i.e. with the military, the perspective was very different. Fun was never an issue - realism was everything. Computers and technicians were used to create an effective Black Box, commanders only being able to issue orders to them, and receive reports via radio. The whole thing ran in real-time - I could not begin to tell you how tedious it was. But it was realistic. After all, they do this for a living: we do this for recreation.

Which really brings me back to the point here: we do this as a recreation, not for re-creation (to use a bad pun). Fog of War is best left to the real battlefield, and Fun of Wargaming left on the wargames table. After all, if it stops becoming a recreational activity, then it'd be real work.

What is it good for?

As promised, a further look at fantasy and sci-fi wargaming.

Fantasy and sci-fi wargaming have often (if not always) been seen as the poorer cousin to ‘proper’ or historical wargaming. Now if the point of contention is that historical wargaming is backed up by history, which the former lacks, then there is no need for argument because all the arguments in the world is not going to make Starship Troopers or Middle Earth something which ‘actually did happen’. We can attack the accuracy of the history behind historical wargaming, but we cannot deny that however scant the evidence, history has more basis in reality than fiction.

My question then is this: are fantasy and sci-fi wargaming good for anything then? Are they good? In the context of this discussion let’s define something as good which does what it’s supposed to do. So a sweater that keeps you warm is good, a pen that writes is good, and a die that always rolls a six is good. (OK, the die is supposed to roll a six one time in six, but we all know we wouldn’t call it good.)

I believe that fantasy and sci-fi wargaming can be good, from a few points of view.

Good Gaming

As I have argued in a previous post, there is nothing intrinsic in a set of rules which makes it historical or not; historical wargaming rules are supposed to base their parameters on known facts from history or recreation, but this in it self does not always make a good game. Conversely, a set of wargaming rules can still be technically sound and interesting even if it is not based on history. On a more abstract level we have games like Mahjong and Go, and on a more military level we have games like Steve Jackson’s Ogre and Battlesuit. The latter games are not based on any historical occurrence, but have interesting premises and mechanics which are balanced enough to provide a challenge to the players.

The lack of historical basis does not mean a set of rules cannot be technically sound and tactically challenging to the players.

Good Fun

robartes called wargaming a 'figurine-mediated shared illusion'. The subject of the illusion is a matter of taste, and certainly dedicated fans of a fantasy or sci-fi background like Middle Earth or star Trek will enjoy a shared illusion based on their favourite background. (Of course, the Trekkies would prefer to have a Holodeck, but we can’t all have what we want, can we?)

Given a sound set of rules, and a set of agreed parameters regarding the world which is the subject of the game, there is no reason why players in a fantasy or sci-fi wargame would not (or should not) have as much fun as historical wargamers.

Good Simulation

Perhaps the least relevant angle, and more applicable to sci-fi wargaming than fantasy wargaming. Now even though sci-fi deals predominantly with the future (and occasionally a galaxy far, far away and a long time ago…), the genre usually has to be more grounded in reality than fantasy wargaming does, in that science as we know it today forms a large part of the genre.

If the science behind a set of sci-fi rules are sound, and the rules themselves sound, then it may be argued that the games played using these rules may in fact have a predictive value in the outcome of future combat using the systems described in the game.

Take for example we postulate that in the near future we can develop body armour that is practically impervious to all modern small-arms but yet lightweight and thin enough to feel no different from the current battledress uniforms. To investigate the effect of such armour on combat we can take a set of modern rules which is acknowledged as good, and simply apply a higher ‘save’ factor for the side possessing the armour, while letting the players’ responses account for the morale impact of such protection/difficulty in causing damage to the opponent.

So if you leave aside the fact that ‘it didn’t actually happen’, there really isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with fantasy or sci-fi wargames.

Yet it is undeniable that a certain perceived divide exists between the two genres. I myself play both but must confess to feeling that historical wargaming is a higher form of pursuit, even if I cannot give any reasons as to why.

Perhaps we can look at this issue in another post?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

How many hats can fit on the head of a wargamer?

I have a small collection of wargames magazines which I never throw away and have re-read many times over the years. One particular article is this one from Volume 29 of Historical Gamer (which I believe is now defunct) from all of 10 years ago, which I am surprised to find is actually available online.

In the article, the
author looked at the issue of simulating the general’s point of view in a wargame, and how this could be achieved with various command structures and mechanics.

Here’s a
post I made myself on our forum a couple of years ago on the issue, presented slightly retouched:

Another topic which brings out the wargame-theorist in the Napnuts. Believe me, I have difficulty deciding which side of the fence to be on.

Phil Barker wrote in the preface to DBA that the aim of a command system in wargames is the opposite of it's real-life counterpart - to prevent a general from moving his troops as he wants to rather than to facilitate it.

We enter another level on the discussion on realism. As mentioned in my previous post, there was a school of thought few years ago emphasising the 'commander's perspective' and the 3000-foot general is an oft-criticised entity.

In order for the game to be realistic, the player must only be allowed the scope of information and options and influence of his historical counterpart. However, this cannot be achieved for either skirmish-scale games nor grand-tactical games, short of a multi-level game where each player is part of a team and makes decisions only at his level. As it is, even as WW2 Division commanders we decide where the next barrage will fall, and as platoon commanders decide for Klaus whether he will shoot his K98 or throw a grenade this 15-second turn! That is not to say that it is impossible to implement this to a certain level - some rules have mechanisms which 'lock' a player out of minute decisions, so you will just be moving units around without being able to tell them what formation to be in, the classical example being DBA. However, even for a game as simplistic as DBA, the player still gets to decide which elements to use his PIP on, and even the order in which melees are resolved!

Now the second aspect of this is: is it desirable to implement control? While the wind-up toy model may be closer to reality, it's not my idea of a FUN game (yes, we return to the same few parameters here; surely those of you who have done Economics can come up with some suitable models?). As I mentioned in my Equation, Decision plays an important part of the wargaming process. Now the Decision bit can be a one-off event (like in bowling), or require a player's constant input (juggling), or somewhere in between (ping-pong and chess). Let's just say I can't juggle, I have only bowled once, and I used to play ping-pong and chess for my class (though not at the same time or on the same table). We should go bowling someday.

Whichever era, and whatever scale, the problem of commander's telepathy is an unavoidable one. And let's face it: you like the idea of toy-soldiers moving to your command.

In some of the WW2 games we've played which did not have hidden movement, it took good gamesmanship to not react to an unseen flanking force, radio or no. Now it is debatable whether or not a phalanx threatened from a flank (surely hoplite Lekoles is not going to ignore those cavalry on his left despite what the command is?) will turn to face the enemy. We can either roll a die, modified by the unit's training, initiative, and so on, or we can leave it to the player and save some time (provided he doesn't take fifteen minutes thinking about it!). The problem comes when the unit to the flank is some peltasts hidden in the woods. Then it becomes completely unrealistic for them to turn. Now as wahj mentioned, this is when a player who turns his phalanx gets verbally-bludgeoned by the others until he retracts his move. So far we have had relatively good success, especially with an umpire. Frankly, this is my favourite system, as I will never check another Napnut's map orders or his written orders, so it all comes down to an honour system anyway. Also, my favourite way to simulating sub-commander's initiative is to let another player take a wing and not influence his decision.

In any case, a written order/map order system with reaction tables for each encounter faced by each troop type only guarantee realism IF the system was sound in themselves. It doesn't matter than a set of rules say such and such would happen if such circumstances matched with such die-rolls. It's not realistic if the Nuts say it's not.

Unlike the rules for chess, wargame rules are not water-tight. That's why we like to have an umpire most times. Chess games do not need one, and football matches cannot do without one. If we can trust each other to play 'realistically', then we don't really need an order system. If we can't then no system will ensure fair play.

Er, actually, that's it. Despite the long preamble, my real point is the paragraph above. So let's all just get along, play cricket, and bash the guy who turns to face hidden ambushers, eh?

Confucius he says: where the wargame rules end, wargamer's honour, it must take over.