Friday, 21 July 2023

Please Support Dan

Last week I was walking a short section of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path with my wife and some friends, when we met the guy shown below going the other way.

Dan McNeil is walking the entire length of Britain's coastline (including its islands) in support of the SSAFA (the Soldier's, Sailor's, Airmen and Families Association). He's been going since March 2021 and still has a way to go. What a hero.

We gave him a tenner - maybe you can help him out as well via his Just Giving page:

Dan isn't the only young person we know of doing great things for charity - I expect you know (or have heard of) someone like Dan as well. Couldn't hurt to send a donation his way.

'Til next time!

Wednesday, 14 June 2023

Airfix Nostalgia - Redux

Well, it seems I just can't get away from those old Airfix kits. My original Airfix nostalgia project was supposed to be all over in 2020, but it seems the itch still needs scratching. So this is a short post recording a couple of recent bits of kit building. 

The first kit was one of those 'Vintage Classics' that Airfix currently have an extensive range of. So you can buy one of the models you remember from your youth, with the old school artwork, but the decals and instructions will all be bang up to date. Personally I'd prefer to have a facsimile of the old style instructions, but you can't have everything. Quality of the kits is generally very good. 

I picked the DUKW kit for two reasons - I remembered having fun building it and playing with it from when I was about 10, and it was also a vehicle that my dad told me he had driven in the war. In particular, he drove one up the beach at Anzio in 1944 (whilst the beach was still under fire), serving in a machine-gun battalion of the Middlesex regiment. So there it was, on a shelf at my favourite model shop, the Cheltenham Model Centre. No brainer!

The second is a genuine late 60s kit of a Ju-87 Stuka. This was another kit I distinctly remember building, at a time when I didn't even bother to paint my models, just glueing them together and then impatiently waiting for the glue to dry so that I could fly them round the house. Sad old fool that I am, getting my hands on one of those old bagged kits was once again a real thrill. 

Back in the day, the model would have been put together in an hour at most, but a combination of other things to do and a desire to savour the full nostalgic experience meant making this particular Stuka took a couple of months of short spells of activity. One positive surprise was that the decals, over 50 years old, still functioned, and so all I needed to add was a tail swastika from a modern decal company. Such things weren't allowed back in the late 60s, at least if you wanted to sell your kits in Europe.

Maybe those decals neeeded a couple of extra coats of Microsol!

It seems this project is now open-ended. I have a genuine 50+ years-old boxed Me-110 kit waiting on the shelf, and my eldest son bought me a trio of 'Vintage Classics' for Christmas, so that will keep me going for a while. I find making up these old kits at my current slow pace to be so relaxing, and the nostalgia is great for promoting peaceful and pleasant reminiscences. Retirement is good!

'Til next time.

Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Things Go Wrong In The Western Desert, 1942

So, a few weeks ago, I headed over to Roy's full of anticipation for a WW2 game set in the Western Desert. I had been working on my WRG-derived rules - I had recently checked over all the gun and armour stats and had even come up with a fancy alternate activation scheme for the turn sequence. What could possibly go wrong?

The day actually started very well. Roy had a pile of box files waiting, extracted from the depths of his Alladin's Cave of a wargames room, and I had the pleasure of picking out the forces I thought would make an interesting game. We threw history to the wind and went for a Flames of War-style tank punch-up set in 1942, with minimal infantry and just a battery of supporting artillery on each side. The table was 6' x 4'. The forces were:

British - Force HQ: Dorchester ACV
Crusader tank company: HQ (Crusader III) plus 3 platoons each of 3 x Crusader III
Grant tank company: HQ (Grant) plus 2 platoons each of 3 x Grant
Carrier platoon: in 6 x Universal Carriers
Recce section: 2 x Humber II
Artillery: 4 x 25pdr off-table plus AFO

German - Force HQ: Sdkfz 250 with Rommel impersonator
Panzer company: HQ Pz. III (kurz 50mm), platoon of 4 x Pz. IVG, platoon of 4 x Pz. III (lang 50mm), 
platoon of 4 x Panzer III (kurz 50mm)
Infantry platoon: in 4 trucks, plus towed 88mm Flak 36 and towed 50mm Pak 38
Anti-tank section: 2 x Diana SP 76.2mm
Anti-aircraft section: 2 x SP AA 20mm
Artillery: 4 x 10.5cm LeFh off-table plus AFO

The British had 17 tanks to the Germans 13, but the latter had some powerful anti-tank gun support. The models were 15mm-1/100th scale.

We deployed by alternate platoons, and then set to. The action was quickly under way, and proved deadly - rather too deadly, in fact. But before some analysis, here are some snaps of the game:

Roy took the Brits - Crusaders to his left, Grants to his right.

The cracking Diana models - or to be more accurate, the two
 7.62cm FK36(r) auf Panzerj√§ger Selbstfahrlafette Zugkraftwagen 5t (Sd.Kfz. 6/3).

The Grants get going in the foreground.
Their thicker armour was useful, but 2 were soon knocked out.

But by move 4 the Pz.III (kurz) platoon had been wiped out... had the platoon of Pz.III (lang). Plus half of the PzIVs!

2 or 3 Crusaders had also been destroyed, but my Rommel impersonator had little
choice but to call it a day. A game that seemed to be over before it had really started.

Truth be told, it had not been much of a game. It wasn't hard to see why. A stationary Crusader with a 6pdr could hit on a 2 up to 500m, then a 3 up to 750m (the usual battle ranges). Against a Panzer III, a knock out was automatic if hit. So tank knock outs were just too easy and predictable, even if the stats stood up historically. Firing from the other direction was slightly more difficult, with even the long 50mm gun rated slightly weaker than the 6pdr, but knock outs were still pretty easy. 

This was a result of not seeing the wood for the trees. I had gone over the stats repeatedly with my reference material, but the consequences during a game had eluded me. Most of my games had been set in Poland 1939, where the tanks are mostly just armoured cars with tracks, so easy knock outs are expected. Not so later in the war. This was also the first time I had tried a real tank-heavy engagement, popular with many gamers but a rare occurence in real life. So this had been a valuable play-test. But how to solve the problem?

The Phil Barker mechanic for deciding whether AFVs are knocked out was quirky and original, and I had decided to keep it as part of the character of the rules. For those not familiar, it consists of a table with most WW2 tank and anti-tank weapons down one side, and the six armour classes (later increased to 8) along the top. A typical cell has a range band and a number - '4 at 500-1000m', for example. This means that a particular gun, firing at that particular armour, will knock-out automatically at under 500m, knock-out on a roll of 4 or more at 500 to 1000m range, and be ineffective at over 1000m. Also, quite a lot of cells say 'All K-O' or No K-O'. The system was refined a little in rule books after 1973, but the basic mechanic was retained. It might be of interest to show an extract, pictured below:

© WRG 1973.

One obvious option was to just go through the table I was using and alter all the stats to make things a bit less deadly. But I quickly began to think about ditching the system in its entirety. It was rather inflexible and lacked nuance - it was usually a choice between no knock out possible, a 50-50 chance of a knock out, or an automatic knock out if hit. It had also become apparent that fitting particular AFVs into one of the 6 classes could be tricky when they were on the cusp between the parameters for one class and the next.

My decision was to change to a much more well-used and familiar system - attack and defence values, which I had first encountered in Donald Featherstone's War Games from 1962. I had been tempted to make this change from the outset, but respect (and nostalgia) for Mr Barker's concept had held me back. But now it was time for the change. No need for armour classes - each AFV could have a defence value number that represented my best guess at the strength of its armour, whether front, side or rear. And similarly for guns - the attack value number at any particular range (and with any particular ammo type) could be tailored as required. 

There are a variety of ways the system can be used, but I went for that described by Charles Grant in his 1970 book Battle - Practical Wargaming. Look up the attack value at the appropriate range, add the sum of 2 D6, and the total must exceed the defence value of the tank's armour to knock it out. If not knocked out, the tank remains 'neutralised' (i.e. suppressed) as a result of being hit, as with the original WRG rules.

The good news was, I had a specimen system already available from my own adaption of the Charles Grant rules, which I had used for many years back in the 1970s and 80s. A few hours work and I had my attack and defence value tables done. Interestingly, I checked the probabilities of various knock-outs with my most recent set of commercial rules (the Battlegroup series, which use a very similar system) and found a reasonable match. So I'm going with this change. Rolling 2 dice is somehow rather more satisfying than rolling just one, which is an additional bonus. The inevitable tweaking of probabilities that will take place in the future will be much easier with the new system. All other firing rules from the WRG system remain in use, although I once again adjusted the hit probabilities to make hits just a little less likely.

As an example, to knock out one of those Panzer IIIs pictured above with a 6pdr will now need a hit roll of 2 up to 250m range, then 3 for up to 500m, then a 4 for up to 1000m. For a frontal attack, the attack value of a 6pdr at 500-1000m is 5, the defence value of a Panzer IIIH is 11, so a roll of 7 with 2D6 is required to knock-out, a probability of 58% in favour. Naturally, as the range shortens this probability increases. 

As with so many things in rule writing, I have once again been taught that getting the 'feel' right for a satisfying game is more important than a spurious 'accuracy' which says that if this gun could penetrate this armour at this range, then a knock-out will always result, whether in real life or on the gaming table.

By the way, the alternate activation system seemed to work quite well, replacing a standard IGO-UGO arrangement with one where units from each side take their 'bound' alternately. That is, in the game described, a German unit fires and moves, then a British unit fires and moves, and so on. It seems a bit more modern (I might even say a bit more 'on trend' for 21st century gaming), and gives more of the feel of real battle where punches are traded in quick succession. Plus, the choice of what order to activate your units gives a little more tactical choice.

I hope this hasn't all been too tedious for readers. Perhaps this kind of detail may be of interest to some of you. And of course, this blog is for me as much as you, recording my adventures and decisions in this strange hobby.

Roy has foolishly agreed to a re-match, so with luck we will have another, rather more enjoyable, game with the same lovely models. I will endeavour to report back.

'Til next time!

Monday, 24 April 2023

"Is This a Hobby or a Military Exercise?"

The quote is from Donald Featherstone. He wrote the words in 1960, during a dispute over editorial policy in War Games Digest, the pioneering historical wargaming magazine that was at that time being published in alternating British and U.S editions. You can still source the full article here. Don wanted the magazine to stick to strictly recreational wargaming articles, whilst Jack Scruby (the U.S. editor) was happy to have general discussions of military history published as well as articles tending towards attempts at simulation - in fact he was happy to publish anything relating to military history or wargaming that he could get his hands on. 

The dispute ended in WGD winding up, and each side of the pond producing their own magazine - Don's Wargamer's Newsletter and Jack's Table Top Talk. The full exchange of views is also preserved online here. Who was right? I have sympathy with Mr Featherstone's view, but you can understand where Mr Scruby was coming from. He was short of articles, and was happy to have his magazine reflect whatever was being sent in. But who was right in this instance is not the point of this post. The point is the question posed by Donald Featherstone.

These days, historical wargaming with miniatures is pretty much acknowledged to be just a hobby. Right? We're into recreational wargaming. We're all just playing with toy soldiers. Well, recently I had the free time to check out a couple of podcasts, in both of which non-wargamers (but people keenly interested in military history) invited wargamers onto the podcast to speak about their hobby. And it appears that the idea of a military exercise is not dead.

The first podcast I heard was on James Holland's We Have Ways Of Making You Talk channel. It was called 'The Miniature War', and can be heard on Apple podcasts here. Their wargaming guru was Nick Skinner, well known as one of the Too Fat Lardies. I strongly recommend you listen to the podcast if you can. But I'm afraid Nick lost me when he started by saying "it all goes back to Kriegspiel". Personally, I thought it all went back to H.G.Wells and Little Wars. But, from what I heard, Nick seemed to be all about confusing military exercises and recreational wargaming. He certainly seemed to end up confusing James Holland, which is not surprising. 

Nick's main wargaming example was the recent Too Fat Lardies project that involved putting on some Chain of Command games at the museum in Arnhem. This was a remarkable and fantastic effort which succeeded admirably in entertaining visitors to the museum and publicising the hobby. But of course Chain of Command is a set of rules for recreational wargaming. It's a game between players. Kriegspiel was a predictive learning tool where members of the Prussian General Staff umpired (yes, you've guessed it) a military exercise, most famously trying to work out what would happen if Prussia went to war with France in 1870. Which doesn't sound like a recreational game to me.

You can ocasionally find a game of Kriegspiel being played at a wargaming show, but playing games of Kriegspiel is a niche hobby within a niche hobby. Sadly, the phrase 'playing with toy soldiers' never left Nick's mouth. He seemed very keen to convince his audience that the hobby of historical wargaming was some sort of serious 'learning tool' (a phrase he uses at one point.). This is, in my opinion, rather silly. But we can discusss that below. For the moment, I will say that genuine Kriegspiel and Chain of Command are very different things indeed, and mixing them together is a mistake.

A fine set of wargaming rules.

Those seeking to understand our hobby were on much firmer ground with the second podcast. This dated from 2019 and occurred on the Ready Room channel. It involved a couple of the leading lights from Little Wars TV. LWTV already have a succinct and accurate summary of the background to our hobby available as a YouTube video, so I expected a better result than Nick Skinner's effort. I was correct. The whole podcast goes on for 2 hours, and does diverge into non-wargaming issues towards the end, but the first hour is an entertaining discussion on what our hobby consists of. For LWTV fans such as myself, there is also some interesting background into how the club and its YouTube channel started out. This is another podcast I urge you to find time for.

There is no messing about in the Ready Room podcast. Our hobby is clearly described as just that  - a hobby. And no-one is shy about saying they enjoy playing with toy soldiers. To be fair, Gregg does say how regularly playing Gettysburg as a wargame over the years has taught him that the Confederates appear to have had little chance of winning that particular battle. But how far this means recreational wargaming is a learning tool is questionable and something I'd like to have a quick chat about. 

A Military Exercise?
The strap line for the James Holland podcast actually includes the words, 'What wargaming can teach us about the Second World War'. So, what can we learn about warfare from recreational wargaming with miniatures? The answer is, nothing. Or, to be more precise, practically nothing. The only exception I have come across is Professor Philip Sabin's Lost Battles. But in this book it is clear that he develops an academic modelling technique relating to ancient warfare rather than a game, a technique which is probably better run through computers than played on a table top. Simulations tend to make rather dull games.

There is an overall point here. I do not want to simulate war in my games, even if such a thing were possible. It has been said that those wargamers wishing to simulate WW2 should dig a hole in their garden in the middle of winter, then live in it for a least a couple weeks, whilst friends and family members occasionally throw the biggest fireworks they can buy at your hole - preferably in the middle of the night. War is about death and destruction and I do not wish to simulate it. I want to play with toy soldiers in a game based roughly on what is known about a particular period, and which results in historically plausible outcomes. 

But how do we know what an historically plausible outcome is? By knowing the period through research, mostly via the reading we do in books and online. This leads to my basic point, which is about the flow of information. Information flows from what we know about warfare into our wargames, not from our games into a body of knowledge. We make our games by knowing about military history, not the other way round. 

One might say that someone with little knowledge of WW2 tactics might learn the power of an MG42 by playing Chain of Command. I suppose my point is that they won't have learnt anything new. The knowledge about MG42s came from the rules author, who learnt it by reading books about WW2 tactics. You can't learn about the power of an MG42 by making a 1/76th scale model of it and putting it on a table. And, to be frank, you can learn a great deal a lot faster by reading than playing a wargame. The latter really is a very time consuming and cumbersome way of acquiring information that everyone who's interested already knows.

How about the Gettysburg example? Well, without wishing to deny Gregg's lived experience, I have severe doubts about recreational wargaming having anything real to say about the outcome of Gettysburg. So much of the outcome of a battle of that size is about command relationships and command decisions that can't really be gamed at a tactical or operational level. And the distance between a recreational game and a real battle is just so great that the chance of anything at all being learned seems like wishful thinking. Having a go can be very enjoyable, but then 'enjoyable' is not a good word to describe an actual bloody battle.

So, I was rather disappointed with Nick Skinner's description of historical wargaming with miniatures, and pleased to find a much clearer and rather more enjoyable description given by the guys at LWTV. Please, if you can, listen to both podcasts. I'd really enjoy reading your reactions in the comments section.

'Til next time!

Friday, 31 March 2023

Clear The Woods September 1939

Here we go with another WW2 scenario, played using my WRG 1973 revised rules. This time I was fortunate to have a live opponent - many thanks to Steve for coming over and helping out. If anyone finds the title and map of this scenario ringing some bells, both belong to a Napoleonic skirmish scenario laid out in WSS magazine a year or two ago. The original magazine is, alas, long lost, so I can't refer readers to the source.

Suffice to say that the Germans are attacking from the west, entering the table on move 1 along the two roads (sectors A and B on the map). Force A is based around a Combat Engineer platoon, force B is based around a Kradschutzen platoon. Their overall objective is to clear the wooded terrain of the enemy, and make a clear path for the tank units following them up. The Poles are there to delay them as long as possible. The four specific objectives are indicated by the red dots on the map, and as indicated in the scenario details the Germans have to take at least 3 of them to win. Game duration would be as long as we decided it was worthwhile - this was, after all, basically a test game.

As usual, the table was 6' x 4'. If anyone needs reminding, the models are 15mm or 1/100th scale. The Poles were free to dig-in as required.


How It Played
Due to the rules requiring elements of a platoon to stay within 200m of their command element, or 50m from each other, the Poles would need to deploy the cavalry platoon guarding one road, whilst the recce sections guarded the other. Thanks to Steve, I was able to see how my 'dummy counters' rules worked to disguise the details of the Polish deployment (quite well, as it turned out). 

As so often with a new scenario, it turned out to be a little unbalanced, and the Germans had a tough time making progress without proper armoured support. Hence the recommended addition of an under-strength panzer platoon along each road. This should create a more mobile and equal game. You could try more armoured cars if you prefer, giving the Germans a full armoured car platoon of 4 or 5 vehicles down each road to give the Germans a proper chance of punching through the Polish defences.

Overview of the table, with dummy counters in place.

The Germans made reasonable progress on the southern road.

Things were a bit slower on the northern route, due to a nicely
placed artillery strike which caused casualties and disruption.

As dummy counters were revealed, it became necessary to
winkle out Polish opposition.

The leading armoured cars from the southern column reach the ford.

The Polish 'strategic reserve', as Steve called them, take some
mortar fire at the crossroads. Polish AFO seen behind.

The Poles are making a stand at the northern roadblock.

A German airstrike appears, but as so often the effect is limited.

After 7 moves it was time for Steve to head home.
German progress had been halted - it seemed they
needed more mobile firepower to make a breakthrough.

The Poles had won, but it seemed obvious the Germans needed a bit more 'oomph' to make a game of it - unless of course the Polish forces were reduced. So I think adding about 3 German tanks up each road should do the trick - the Germans will be able to overcome the initial Polish defences, giving them time to dismantle or go around the roadblocks before taking on the FT-17s.

This was Steve's first try at these rules, and he seemed to settle into them without too much trouble. He commented on their 'old school' feel, which is hardly surprising considering their vintage. Will he be abandoning Blitzkrieg Commander, his favourite rules of many years? I doubt it, but it seems we have an altenative set of rules with a different figure scale to add variety to our WW2 engagements.

To see Steve's report and his comments on the rules, go over to his excellent blog:

"Til next time!

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

The Action at Rudnik - Poland 1939

For the moment, my main project continues to be developing my variant of the WRG 1973 Armour and Infantry rules. Tweaking the morale rules (or 'reaction' as the rules call it) had been causing me some trouble, but I thought I now had it figured out.

I decided to test things out using a full-blooded attack-defence game with a battalion-sized German Kampfgruppe attacking a Polish position. I hope any readers gaming WW2 will find the scenario of interest, regardless of the rules you are using.

The terrain map (6' x 4' table) is shown below. 

The Germans are coming from the south, and are looking to open up the routes to the north. They need to capture Rudnik and force a crossing of the bridge. 

All the hills are classed as 'low', which means that they are just representing folds in the ground or low rises which block line-of-sight but have no other effect on the game. The narrow river is crossable by infantry, but vehicles will roll as they wade: a 1 or 2 and they are stuck. The pillboxes hold an MMG each. The defenders can dig-in as required. Polish reinforcements dice from move 2, needing a 5+ to arrive. If they fail, they try again next turn on a 4+, and so on. Arrivals dice 50-50 to see which road they will arrive on.

The forces were:

German - 'Kampfgruppe Meyer' (attacking from the south)
Kampfgruppe HQ - Command group in radio truck

Panzer Company HQ - 1 x panzer I command tank
2 x light panzer platoons - 3 panzer II, 2 panzer I
1 x heavy panzer platoon - 2 x panzer II, 2 x panzer IV, 1 x bunkerflak (attached)

Infantry company HQ - 1 x light truck with radio
3 x infantry platoons each - 1 x platoon command group, 3 x rifle group, 3 x rifle/lmg group, 1 x 5cm mortar group, 1 x anti-tank rifle group, 1 x MMG group

Recce section - 1 x sdkfz 231 (6 rad), 1 x sdkfz 222

Anti-tank section - 1 x light truck with command group, 2 x towed pak 36

Off table mortars - 6 x 8cm mortars with on-table MFO
Off table artillery - 4 x 10.5cm howitzers with on-table AFO

Polish (defending. Placed up to 700m/28" from north table edge)
HQ - Company command group in truck with field telephone

2 x infantry platoons each - 1 x platoon command group, 6 x rifle group, 3 x rifle/lmg group, 1 x 46mm mortar group, 1 x anti-tank rifle group, 1 x 37mm anti-tank gun with tow. Right flank platoon also has a towed 75mm field gun attached.

MMG section (attached to left flank platoon) - 2 x MMG group

Attached tank platoon - 4 x Renault FT-17

Reinforcing tank platoon - 4 x 7tp

Reinforcing recce section - 2 x Wz-34 armoured cars

On-table mortar section - 2 x 8cm mortars with command group and MFO (telephone only)
Off table artillery - 4 x 75mm field guns with on-table AFO

Photos of the Battle

A Polish 75mm field gun waits in Rudnik

The Polish positions in Rudnik.
Many infantry bases were inside the houses.

Polish positions around the bridge.

Overall shot before game start. 

The pre-game barrage fell on Rudnik and was deadly.
Many infantry elements were knocked out and the platoon fell back.

German armour races forward past the orchard.

Polish artillery claims a truck on the German left flank.

Tank platoon with infantry on the German right.

As the Poles fall back, German armoured cars enter Rudnik.

The Germans edge forward towards the bridge.
The pillboxes are pounded with suppressive fire.

Polish reinforcements (the 7tp platoon) enter the table,
passing by the Polish mortar position.

Overview in mid-game.

The Germans press forward to the bridge, firing as they go.

Polish casualties around the bridge include
a 37mm anti-tank gun and an FT-17.

At last the German infantry close up to the stream, 
only to be bracketed by Polish mortar fire.

The Poles evicted from Rudnik manage to fight back.
German armour burns in the village square.

A Stuka strike arrives over the bridge area.

The Poles at the bridge are under pressure but holding...

...They have the support of both tank units.

After 6 moves I stopped the game. Rudnik is in German hands,
with Polish armoured cars acting as rearguard for the retreating infantry.

Even playing solo it had been a fun game, with the rules nicely tested out. The reaction rules seem to be fixed, and most other issues were minor. 

Usually I show knocked out tanks and guns with grey-dyed soft toy stuffing. For this game I used my new Litko 'flaming wreckage markers'. I like the way they catch the light and give the illusion of flames.

The Germans had taken Rudnik, and after a struggle the Poles at the bridge were finally beginning to crack, with the infantry platoon falling back. But the FT-17s and 7tps would doubtless make the Germans pay if they tried to rush the bridge. However, the bridge position was now outflanked to the west and I decided the Poles would pull out to avoid being trapped. A German victory.

'Til next time!

Friday, 3 March 2023

The Cotswold Wargaming Day 2023

Cotswold Wargaming Day 2023
Sunday 15th October
The Westwoods Centre
Bassett Road
Gloucestershire GL54 3QJ

09.00 - 17.00

A close-up of last year's 'Best Game'.

And so, year five of this event beckons. The formula will remain much the same as in previous years. All those on the mailing list have received an email with the details. If you are not one of those, you can just turn up on the day if you wish (all wargamers are welcome), or leave your email in the comments section if you are thinking about putting on a game or you need any more info. I will get back to you and will remove your address from the comments afterwards to protect your privacy.

There will be a charge of £10 to attend, to cover costs. Any excess left over will go to charity. Free coffee and biscuits, and the chance to win the Stuart Asquith trophy for best game!

I hope to see you there.