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Sunday, 4 January 2015

Hotz Felt Fields

I recently came across these Hotz Flocked Felt Fields, from the same people who produce the wargaming mats, of course. I was interested in getting some to break up the plain green of my wargaming table, especially now I am trying out an S&A Scenics felt wargaming mat.

They are made to order, and Hotz are based in Canada, so be prepared to wait 2 or 3 weeks for them to arrive. The website says they are posted out rolled, but mine arrived loosely folded. There was some light creasing, but a bit of gentle counter-folding was all that was needed to sort this out. There is an advice sheet sent with the product that tells you the best way to cure any problems with gentle ironing if you need to.

The mats are treated and flocked, and seem to be very durable - there was no shedding of flock evident during shipping or during my bit of counter-folding. I selected the '20-30mm' size of fields, and I got a standard set of 4 fields, each in a different colour. Sizes were roughly 35 x 27cm, 28 x 23cm, and 2 small fields each 14 x 11cm. They do lay nice and flat, and overall I am very pleased with them. They look fine as they are, breaking up the plain colour of my table. But of course combining them with trees and hedges or walls  would be great too. They would follow an uneven table up to a point, and could be used across simple, straight hill contours.

Pricing is very reasonable in my opinion - $16 for the mats and $8 postage.

The mats with 15mm German tanks and infantry, and some 30mm SYW infantry.
Close up of one of the fields.

I heartily endorse this product!

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Twas The Game Before Christmas...

With some leave booked in the days before Christmas, there was time on Christmas Eve eve (i.e. the 23rd) for a last game before the big day. My old friend Paul was once again able to make the trip across from Bristol.

I'm grabbing all the opportunities I can to playtest Honours of War, so SYW it was. I worked up a quick scenario using some nations I don't normally play - the Prussians would attack, but the defenders would be the Reichsarmee, with their French allies providing a flanking force. 

6' x 5' table. North to the top.

The map shows the Reichsarmee forces in position defending a town and its 2 river crossings. The Prussian force is attacking them, but the Reichsarmee's French allies have performed an outflanking march and hope to catch the Prussians off guard.

Prussian force (attacking, deploys up to 30cm from baseline between wood and eastern board edge)
Infantry brigade - 3 line infantry battalions, 1 grenadier battalion
Infantry brigade - 1 line infantry battalion, 1 grenadier battalion
Infantry brigade - 2 Freikorps battalions, 1 light artillery battery
Cavalry brigade - 2 cuirassier regiments
Cavalry brigade - 2 dragoon regiments
Artillery - 2 medium artillery batteries

Reichsarmee force (defending, deployed as shown. Commanding General with the Reichsarmee)
Infantry brigade - 3 line infantry battalions, 2 medium artillery batteries
Infantry brigade (reserve north of river) - 2 line infantry battalions
Cavalry brigade - 2 dragoon regiments

French force (outflanking counter-attack, arrive between wood and north board edge)
Infantry brigade - 2 line infantry battalions, 2 grenadier battalions, 2 medium artillery batteries
Cavalry brigade - 2 elite cavalry regiments, 1 hussar regiment

The French dice to arrive (by brigade) from the beginning of move 3. Each brigade must roll 4 or more to arrive. Arriving brigades are deployed at the table edge with all units in march column. They then dice for move initiative as normal and can move in their arrival turn. Any brigade failing to arrive tries again next turn, adding 1 to the roll each turn. Once a French brigade has arrived, all allied initiative rolls use the French modifiers.
The Prussians must stay east of a line from the edge of the wood to the western edge of the marshes until some French appear.
The town is formed of 2 built up area templates. Loss of both loses the defenders 1 army break point.

The Game In Pictures


The set up (1). Austrian and Bavarian figures pretending to be Reichsarmee in the foreground.
"Prussians sir, farsands of 'em!"
The set up (2). I was using my new S&A scenics felt mat for the first time.
I like the colour, and the way it moulds itself around hills placed underneath.  
The Prusians advanced briskly forward, with effective supporting fire from their cannon on the ridge.
The Reichsarmee dragoons engage the attacking cuirassiers with little hope of success,
whilst the Reichsarmee reserves move up across the bridges.
It's rush hour in the town as reinforcements struggle through the streets.
Senior officers are forced onto the river banks.
As expected, the Reichsarmee dragoons are destroyed. The Prussians close in. 
The French finally arrived on move 5, which was a move or two too late. Top right are the infantry arriving,
whilst in the foreground the Prussian dragoons immediately charge in to delay the French cavalry.
Yes, I know, these are Austrian figures too.
All those inferior class units really make the Reichsarmee fragile. By the end of move 6 they had all
been destroyed or had streamed out of the town, which was now open to the Prussians.
In the background the 'French' cavalry have triumphed, but at the cost of one of their regiments.
This brought the allies to their breaking point and the Prussians had won. 
Concluding positions. The Prussians are now free to reform and concentrate on the French,
who will not be hanging around to try conclusions.
Paul is gracious in victory. I think the quote here was "you're screwed!".

The Christmas Spirit



Those who know the period will be aware that the Austrian generals' favourite tipple was Hungarian Tokay. I am particularly fond of the following quote from Duffy's By Force Of Arms, regarding the behaviour of Field Marshall Daun:

Verri claims to have seen Daun on a particularly hot day without hat or wig, and enjoying a huge cup of iced lemon sorbet, whilst the first gentlemen and leading gentlemen and officers stood about him. After the sorbet Daun addressed a carafe of Tokay, and at no stage thought of offering anything to anyone else. (p.191).

This year I finally got around to acquiring a few bottles of this lovely stuff, and we opened the first one to accompany the game. Personally, I'm with FM Daun - I wouldn't share this stuff if I didn't have to! These days it's generally described as a dessert wine, but it has a wonderful flavour and is not too syrupy or sweet to be enjoyed at any time. I would say something about the fine golden colour, but by the time I got around to photographing the bottle most of it had gone, as you see. Never mind, 2 more bottles still available for Christmas Day. A fine treat if you can get hold of some. 

And so it only remains to wish all readers a very merry Christmas. See you in the New Year!

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Villages and Towns in the SYW

When I was putting together some models for my SYW towns and villages around 5 years ago, I was inspired by the type of model buildings I had seen in the works of Charles Grant and Peter Young. So my built up areas took on the vaguely Germanic, Central European look of prosperous and solidly built small towns. The models were of 15mm size, purchased mainly from JR Miniatures with a couple of models from Total Battle Miniatures. You can see what I mean in the 2 photos below:



Over the last year I have realised that a lot of the small towns and villages fought over in the SYW were a lot more basic than this, consisting of wooden houses and huts, often thatched, and not offering a great deal of protection to the occupants, particularly from artillery fire. For example, read this quote from Duffy's book Prussia's Glory, describing the field of battle at Rossbach:

"The ground was open and cultivated, and devoid of obvious features except a pair of villages (Tagwerben and Reichardtswerben) to the east. They were poorish affairs of thatched houses, and offered no defensive potential." (p.65).

Hence my recent purchase of some rather more rustic buildings. These are now painted up, and below you can see them set up on my traditional square of felt to produce a built up area: 

Some Croats are in residence, supported by a light gun manned by their own gunners.

Protection From Fire
Further reading has refined my opinion of the level of protection that might be expected from occupying built up areas. Roundshot evidently created so many splinters of stone, brick and wood that even well-built towns offered doubtful advantages to those occupying them, unless actually enhanced with entrenchments and suchlike. Villages consisting of wooden buildings and farms would similarly offer limited cover.

So, in Honours of War, only entrenchments offer rock-solid 'heavy cover'. My built up areas are divided into two types, densely built places with mainly stone and brick construction, or more open affairs of mainly wooden buildings. Both are only 'light cover' against roundshot or shell. Against infantry and canister fire the former type is heavy cover, the latter light cover.

In addition, both roundshot from heavy guns, and shell (which I always class as medium) get a +1 modifier against built up areas, so in fact against these types of artillery fire villages and towns are no cover at all. Bring on the howitzers and 12 pounders!

As I have said many times, I like the Black Powder rule set. One thing I don't particularly like, however, is that built up areas in these rules are very tough nuts to crack and attacking them can easily bog down the game, something I have tried to correct in my own rules. Fighting for towns and villages was usually intense and bloody, but unless prepared defences were in place they could often change hands fairly readily. Think of Leuthen or Hochkirk, to take 2 famous examples. Or the village of Krechor at Kolin.

As usual, I am simply gagging to hear from those who might disagree with these conclusions. I try to be open minded at all times!

Good gaming!


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Hell Yeah!

A Pleasant Surprise
The very lovely Richard Couture at the Kronoskaf Seven Years War website has made this blog his Website of the Month for December, which is very nice of him. If you are visiting as a result of this, welcome. 
If on the other hand you have an interest in the SYW and haven't yet found the Kronoskaf site, I recommend it unreservedly as an outstanding source of information on this particular era of military history. It is also constantly being improved and updated.

The Roaring Inferno of Industrial Wargaming
Now, being nice is all very well, but I have a set of rules (specific to the Seven Years War) to perfect before the end of January next year, and I need your help. Below you can see the cover artwork for Honours of War, to be published next year by Osprey Wargames. Regular visitors know all this already but I'm hoping to interest new visitors prompted by Kronoskaf.


So, regular visitor or new one, I'm hoping you might want to take a minute to visit the Honours of War Yahoo Group. Members of the group have been very helpful in ironing out a few problems and suggesting improvements to the rules, but things have been a bit quiet of late and some new blood might be just the thing. The rules plus a playsheet and some explanatory diagrams can be downloaded from the files section. 
Anything from first impressions following a quick read-through to the results of a full playtest will be gratefully received. Or, if you're feeling nasty, just download the rules and avoid paying for them when they come out. What the hell. Although you will miss a very reasonably priced but excellent quality booklet with some very nice illustrations.

Ooh! Nice!
The rules will be one of the current 'Osprey Wargames' series, retailing at £11.99 at present, which I reckon produces a great balance between an affordable price and a well produced product. And regarding those illustrations, below find a teaser of the quality of photos you can expect. These crackers have been provided for us by James 'Olicanalad' Roach, whose website was the first ever Kronoskaf Website of the Month. Enjoy, and I hope to see you on the Yahoo Group.

Russians (below the river) meeting Prussians

Prussian artillery.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Toys On The Table

My ambition to complete my SYW collection before the end of the year is largely fulfilled. Of course, as a red-blooded wargamer I hold to the faith that no army is ever truly complete, so I expect I will find a place for the odd extra unit as motivation and money allows. But in most of my recent battles, some units have remained in their storage drawers, so significant growth seems unnecessary. I have as much as I reasonably need.

Taking stock, I felt it was time for a game that used all my units (every single figure, including civilians and sheep), both in order to see them all out on the table and to test my rules with as big a game as possible. I decided to go for a very basic terrain, and set out the Austrian and Prussian armies opposite each in other in a 'classic' (some might say 'unimaginative') encounter set up. The table size was my maximum 7.5' x 6'. Total number of toys on the table were:

Prussia: infantry 255, cavalry 56, artillery 8 guns+28 crew, senior officers 9.

Austria: infantry 275, cavalry 56, artillery 9 guns+30 crew, senior officers 9.

Other: 10 militia, 8 civilians, 12 assorted supernumerary officers and NCOs, 6 wagons, 9 sheep.

There we are then. Nothing left in the storage drawers, everything out on the table. 

My cavalry units are small (normally 8 figures each), hence the low numbers of actual cavalry figures. Overall, not a massive collection by some standards, but like most people I have my limits of time, space, money and motivation. My SYW project started in 2008, so it has taken 6 years to get to this stage. I suppose around 40% of the figures were painted by me, the rest being painted commercially.

I am currently fortunate in that the dining room at our new home sees little use, so it makes an excellent wargames room where I can set things up and leave them there for as long as I like. Hence I was able to play out my 'big battle' solo using odd hours of spare time over the course of a week or so. I was also able to take my time in taking some photos to a slightly higher standard than normal, using a bit of extra lighting and trying to improve my composition. The recent articles in Miniature Wargaming on wargames photography, authored by Henry Hyde,  were an inspiration here, though sadly top quality results continue to elude me.

Detail of the Austrian Grenzers holding the wood on the Austrian left flank.
They are well supported by light cavalry

The Prussian centre. Grenadier brigade nearest, with line infantry in the background.

Whilst the artillery on both sides commenced a bombardment, the cavalry flanks were the scene of the earliest real action. Here Prussian dragoons charge Austrian cuirassiers.

The infantry centres were more cautious. The Prussians pushed gingerly forward, whilst the Austrians were content to let the enemy come on. A definite blue 'cast' on the Austrian uniforms from my choice of light bulb (although the rear 2 infantry units are Bavarians!).

On the other flank, the Austrian light cavalry advanced and tried a charge against the Prussian Frei-Korps, who were supported in turn by their own hussars. A high risk tactic...

...which resulted in disaster. Two hussar regiments and a dragoon regiment were destroyed.

Overall, the battle was slow to get going. In the distance it is possible to see that the Prussian cavalry attack has failed, although less conclusively than the Austrian charge.

Using the rules to apply pressure. In the background the Prussian cavalry push forward a hussar unit to prevent the Austrian cavalry rallying off hits, whilst howitzers and light guns engage. If charged, the hussars will be able to evade. In the middle right of the picture, the Austrian 'grand battery' (3 model guns representing 12 actual guns) picks off Prussian infantry units at an alarming rate. Six units became two over the course of six moves.

On their right flank, the Prussians have to decide whether to follow up the success in the cavalry encounter.

Prussian grenadiers in column of battalions wait steadily for the order to advance, shrugging off casualties from the Austrian cannonballs skipping through their ranks.
Upsides
I called the game after 6 moves. Besides the fun of seeing the collection out on parade, a large game was a useful exercise for my rules. For example, I have never used a large 3 gun battery before, and it was surprising to see the effect three model batteries could have when firing together. One of the first things the guys on the Honours of War Yahoo group pointed out was that they felt artillery was too powerful. I had tended to use artillery very sparingly in my games, and so had not noticed this, but I adjusted the artillery effect down in response. I have been wondering recently whether I went too far, but this game reassured me that the playtesters had been right.

Downsides
Those unfamiliar with this period might think that a setup like this, with both sides lined up opposite each other, cavalry on the wings, infantry in the centre, was typical of the Seven Years War. Whilst such a deployment may have been the basic template, I have read of very few battles where the opposing sides ended up in such a balanced and symmetrical state of affairs. Terrain and other circumstances created all sorts of battle situations, especially due to the common tactic of trying to outflank your opponent with at least part of your force. So the setup was not particularly representative historically.

In wargames terms, despite looking attractive, such a setup didn't make for a very interesting game either, even taking into account that it was just a solo test game. Neither side had much alternative but to advance forward and hope for the best. An interesting wargame needs to provide for a bit of manoeuvre, with some open space to exploit and choices to be made. In this game, both sides had to be so cautious that the infantry didn't even get round to engaging during the 6 moves played. The almost completely open terrain didn't help matters, but it was worth having a game on such an open plain to see how it affected game play.

And Finally - A New Wargaming Mat
The Games Workshop Battlemat is a very good product - durable and easy to use. I have been using 2 of them for a while now, and you see them in the photos above. The two problems are that, one, they seem to be no longer available, and two, although advertised as 6' x 4' they come out at a couple of inches short of 6'. On my 7.5' x 6' table, I end up with a white strip along the baselines, as well as a join along the middle. Call it the effect of OCD, but having seen an S&A Scenics mat at a show recently I decided to get an 8' x 6' one which would cover my table completely and uniformly. The mat is plain green felt, and you see it below just unpacked, before I try to iron out the packing creases (iron not too hot, and don't use steam - any escape of water will stain the cloth). I like the nice bright green colour and the broadly Old School look it gives. Usefully, the mat is a generous 2 to 3 inches over-size in both directions. Total cost £38 including p&p.

The S&A Scenics mat with some TSS hills placed underneath.
The same hills placed on top of the mat. Not sure which I prefer as yet.

As you can see, the worst of the creases are easy to remove. But being felt, the mat will pick up more creases during storage, so we'll see how I get on. And the felt can be a bit 'sticky' with things like tank tracks and the rougher sort of basing. You pays your money, etc...

And that's it for this post. Thanks for visiting.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Fury

"War Never Ends Quietly' - what kind of dumb line is that?

I normally like to keep this blog strictly wargaming, but I went to see the latest Brad Pitt war film last night, and I wanted to share my experience. As the film ended, the guy next to me said to his girlfriend "That was so fake". He was so right.

The battle scenes are desperately unconvincing, the bits of drama in between the battle scenes don't work, and the climax is 20 minutes of Hollywood gung-ho nonsense.

This is a stupid film, and if this is the best the American film industry can do 69 years after the event, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Honestly, don't bother. Over and out.

Friday, 17 October 2014

One Hour Wargames

Neil Thomas is becoming quite a prolific wargames author these days. The subtitle to his latest offering is 'Practical Tabletop Battles For Those With Limited Time And Space'. Sold, then. I think most wargamers these days (and probably since time immemorial) have had limited time and space. This was definitely a book for me.

I took a photo because the cover you see on Amazon isn't the cover you receive.

This 150 page softback can be got from Amazon for around a tenner. None of your colour pictures or high-end production values here, just a normally printed book with a set of black and white maps (to which we will return) and no photos. After a quick introduction, we are into the meat of the book - rules for nine wargames periods from Ancients to World War Two (not eight as the jacket blurb states). As regular readers of this blog will know, there are actually only three wargames periods, but Neil has decided to give us:

Ancients (500BC to AD100)
Dark Ages (Western Europe 600 - 1000) 
Medieval (1100 - 1300)
Pike and Shot (1450 - 1650)
Horse and Musket (Europe 1700 - 1860)
Rifle and Sabre (Europe 1860 - 1900)
American Civil War (The name is the clue here)
Machine Age Wargaming (1900 - 1939)
Second World War (You guessed it)

I suppose most gamers will have their own thoughts about this periodisation. My initial thoughts were that the Battle of Hastings appeared to have disappeared from history, and that the Second World War section should have started in 1936 with the Spanish Civil War. The latter opinion was confirmed when I read the rules in detail - Machine Age Wargaming is really WW1 (and doesn't include tanks).

Each period receives three pages of explanation of both the period and the various rules rationalisations, then a set of rules which take up around two and a half pages. After the rules there is a section of 30 scenarios followed by short (and I mean short) sections on campaigns and solo wargaming.

The rules for each period have essentially the same structure: Neil forms his 'armies' (which have a maximum of 6 units) from 4 troop types, which vary from period to period, and the rules for each period are basically tweaked from those for other periods to reflect the flavour of each epoch. To say the rules are simple is a gross understatement - they are brutally simple, not to say Extremely Basic. My reading brought me to the conclusion that Neil had been very clever in picking out some essential facets of each period, and making adaptions to the various sets to bring these out. The book does indeed bear the evidence of a very analytical and disciplined mind setting out to produce a very specific product - games that can be played in a maximum of one hour on a 3' x 3' table.

I did note a few downsides before I had played any test games. The Wargame Campaign section (2 pages) is really nothing of the sort - even calling it a 'tournament' section would be extravagant. Neil simply suggests you might like to play the best of three games (or five if you have the time), and might like to link them by, for example, allowing the winner of the previous game to pick his preferred side in the next game. The Solo Wargaming section (a little under two pages) is a bit better, but not much. Providing thirty scenarios must have been a real effort, which is much appreciated, but they are let down by maps which are frankly a bit sad. They bear the unmistakable stamp of maps produced by someone in a rush using Microsoft Word. Black and white is fine, but in this day and age something a little more inspiring and imaginative (or at least a bit less amateurish) is to be expected. And despite the emphasis on using 3' x 3' tables, each map has unaccountably been squashed so it is actually a rectangle. In my opinion, Pen & Sword must bear the blame here - as a well-established military publisher they should have made sure a decent standard was achieved. 

I should also have paid more attention to one final point before I set up some test games. In his introduction Neil makes the point that complex rules don't necessarily provide realism (a fair point), but that 'simplicity is at least guaranteed to produce enjoyment'. This is not true, as I was about to find out.

I played out five solo test games, two in the Seven Years War period (i.e. Horse and Musket, troop types infantry, skirmishers, artillery and cavalry) and three in WW2 (troop types infantry, mortars, anti-tank guns and tanks). I chose one of Neil's scenarios at random for each game. The rules do have the advantage that anyone with a modest collection in any scale for a particular period will probably be able to get forces together to play these rules. For me, trying them out only meant another tenner spent on acquiring a 3' x 3' square of 12mm MDF. 

The SYW games were OK. Fair enough, these were only solo test games so I didn't expect nail biting entertainment. But I did get the feeling that the games, which are supposed to run to 15 moves if using the scenarios, started to run out of steam after 6 or 7 moves, as units tend to be destroyed quite quickly. Still, I thought, an uncomplicated evening of 'the best of three' with a live opponent would be worth trying. Then I moved on to WW2. Frankly, the resulting games were dull exercises in die rolling, where the winner was usually obvious halfway through the game, or else so many units were destroyed that the final moves became pointless fight outs between lone units, usually a mortar unit on each side as these tend to be the last to fall. Never mind an hour: the games I played were essentially over in 20 minutes. As an example of how the game mechanics failed, I played a scenario based on a surprise flank attack. But as all units in the WW2 section have a 360° field of fire, and there is no disadvantage for being fired on in flank, the defenders didn't need to re-deploy or manoeuvre at all against the flank threat. It was back to a die rolling exercise again. Maybe it's just the case that these rules work better for the earlier periods.

I also found that the period feel introduced by the tweaks to the rules tends to be cancelled out by the common basis that all the rules share. Setting out my WW2 infantry units and anti-tank guns on a hill, it felt like I could just as easily have been setting out some SYW infantry battalions and smooth bore artillery.

I very much wanted to like this book, but I learnt that most wargames rules have a certain level of complication for good reason - they provide the required period feel, and also provide games that are interesting to play because you have to think about detailed tactics, as well as simply having a number of things to constantly bear in mind if you are to be successful. For my taste, Neil has taken simplification several steps too far, and has conclusively thrown the baby out with the bathwater. To be brutal, I would say the rules are just rather boring to play. I will also say that I have encountered 'one side of A4' rule sets for periods including WW2 which gave much more subtle and interesting games than this book provides. If you have ancient or medieval armies, DBA is a far better option for a quick game, with much more play interest. However, one area the book might be of value in is as a starting point to get young kids into wargaming. They will certainly enjoy the no-nonsense simplicity.

There is perhaps one further point to make. The rules in the book are obviously sitting ducks for those keen to make their own amendments and additions, and Neil indicates that this is fine by him. In the past I might have already been busy working out 'improvements' so that the rules worked better for me. But these days I tend to think that, having paid out for a rulebook, I want to be able to use it more or less as written. Spending time amending and altering is messy and frustrating. And I also want to feel that I am giving the author the chance to convince me about his ideas - I've bought the rules, so I should give them a chance to work on their own terms. I therefore won't be spending time making Neil's book work for me. His approach doesn't suit me, so I will leave it at that.

I should add that I do not regret buying this book. Reading it and playing the rules therein has helped me clarify in my own mind what makes wargaming intellectually satisfying. And those three page sections written for each period which give a potted explanation of how warfare worked during that time, and how Neil proposes to reflect this, made me think about my own assumptions for the periods I play. Despite the maps, those thirty scenarios will probably spark some game ideas in the years ahead. A good feature of them is that Neil notes which real battle or classic wargames scenario has inspired them.

Despite the mostly kind reviews on Amazon, I doubt these rules will catch on. But the book was worth writing, because I feel Neil has explored the limits of rule writing for miniature wargames with a brash originality. Even if  I find the results disappointing, the attempt was worth making.