Friday 26 February 2021

A WW2 Rules Revolution

How does a new project start? It's often hard to pin down. But a week or two ago something made me get these old WRG rules down from the shelf, where they have lingered for at least 40 years. With a couple of house moves in recent years prompting the need to slim down the bookshelves, many of my old rule sets have made their way into landfill. But these guys have always been retained. 

I can't claim to have ever been a big player of these rules, but I did play a game or two back in the day. Even then they seemed like a set that had potential, rather than a really finished product. I ended up developing my own WW2 rules, which eventually got over-complex and were dropped in favour of the old Peter Pig rules, Abteilung. Since then it's been a succession of commercial sets, leading to my present use of the Battlegroup rules.

Back To The Future
Battlegroup have always been good fun, and I've had some excellent games with them. But I have always had some reservations. I won't bore you with the details, but overall I often had the feeling they were just a bit too much. Big coffee-table books, with lots of special rules and detail that could produce interesting game play but were also easy to forget about if you didn't play regularly. These rules had chrome with a capital 'C'. The other main thing was that they were, at heart, a set for individually based figures of at least 20mm size, which had an alienating effect for someone using 15mm figures based in groups of four. And I never really worked out the difference between Points Values and Battle Ratings. 

A recent small-scale solo test, from the German side.

And so one evening, there I was with a copy of the 1973 WRG set in my hand. Hmmm, these look pretty simple. And the whole set (covering everything from the Spanish Civil War to the Korean War) is about 35 pages in a book smaller than A4. Perhaps there might be something here for the occasional WW2 gamer.

The main thing I remembered was the 50mm infantry move. Just 2 inches? Right from my first reading of the rules all those years ago, that simple fact had told me that these couldn't really be a serious prospect for proper wargaming. But giving them a good re-read (or two) convinced me that there was an absorbing project here - revising the rules to my own satisfaction for a more straightforward WW2 gaming experience. And the first thing I would do was simply change that 50mm move to 100mm.

Over the years I've been pretty disparaging about a lot of WRG rule books - in recent times, the old 'ancients' books in particular. The successor to the 1973 WW2 rules, which came out in 1988, I found to be genuinely and grimly unplayable. They went to the council dump many moons ago. But the 1973 book always had the feel of a classic that perhaps I didn't fully appreciate, but might do one day. That day appears to have come. Here I would like to quote the man himself, Phil Barker, from a 1980s article in Miniature Wargames magazine:

"It does a rule writer no credit to fail to acknowledge his debt [to older rule sets], or even to blackguard his predecessors. Something can be learned from all of them, even if only what to avoid".

Indeed. It is easy to pick holes in forty-year-old rule sets with the benefit of hindsight. But on the other hand, it can't be denied that 'what to avoid' is sometimes only too apparent. However, enough of that.

The above scene from the perspective of the Polish defenders.

Forward To The Past
And so off I go. I've started my re-write, and played a single test game (solo of course). I believe I may be on to a winner. There is much I will change, but there is also much to admire; like the simple fire-before-moving sequence which makes excellent sense in a WW2 game, and the straightforward yet mostly satisfying firing procedures. And one particularly brilliant aspect is the absence of any kind of 'melee' or 'close combat' rules. They are simply completely absent, with the possibility of such processes unmentioned. So close encounters between opposing troops are simply resolved by the standard firing rules, which seems to work very well. And as we all know, that's exactly what resolved 'close combat' in WW2 encounters - firing at very close range. The final clincher may well be that this is a set of rules firmly based on infantry 'elements', meaning groups of 4 figures mounted on a single base. That's more like it!

I'll keep you posted. And rest assured, if I develop anything like a workable set, it will be shared online. Right up to the point when they become the top-selling set of rules for WW2 miniatures!

'Til next time!

Monday 8 February 2021

Why We Wargame

Do any of you enjoy the odd glass of wine? Or appreciate a pint of ale? Maybe some of you might also partake of the odd spliff. I think most of us would say, no harm in that. But if you find your friend looking at a bottle of wine and saying "that's my escape", alarm bells would surely start to ring. So why does it seem such a comfortable cliché to talk about wargaming (or any other hobby for that matter) as an 'escape'? I want to argue that we ought to avoid that cliché and think a bit harder, and perhaps as a result see the hobby in a clearer and better light. And maybe even avoid a bit of damage along the way.

Where is this coming from? Well, I've been checking out the trailer for the documentary 'Miniature Wargaming - The Movie. Sadly, the film is not yet released in the UK, which is disappointing as it's essentially a British production; but one presumes there are valid reasons for the delay. Nevertheless, some of the comments from the main participants in the trailer are very interesting.

First, there's the idea that wargaming and 'the real world' are different things - that your hobby is somehow separate from your 'real life'. "In this world, you're a general on the battlefield". I've used this idea many times myself, on this very blog, and I now think it's a mistake. When I wargame, I don't think I'm a general on a battlefield - I think I'm Keith Flint, along with some of my mates, having some fun playing with toy soldiers. This is an extension of my life which is in no way separate from any other part of it. It is me being me.

And then - "people say it's nerdy and geeky - it's just because they haven't tried it". Well, I've been trying 'it' for the last 50 years, and you know what - it is nerdy and geeky. That's the fucking point of it, you bonehead. We arrive at that realisation if we substitute some good old British English for the American slang. Let's not say nerdy - let's say 'whimsical'. Whimsy is a much underestimated approach to many aspects of life. There are some great definitions of whimsical out there - "playful and unpredictable rather than serious and practical"; "unusual and strange in a way that might be funny or annoying"; but especially "lightly fanciful". There is no better word to get to the heart of what a hobby like miniature wargaming really is. 

This explains why railway modelling is much closer to wargaming than the often mentioned and supposedly 'brother hobby' of re-enactment, which isn't really like wargaming at all. No matter how much time I spend researching the Napoleonic period, 'lightly fanciful' must be kept firmly in mind. Otherwise, we cannot properly separate our hobby from the real thing, and that way madness (and moral degeneration) lies. It is obvious from their published works that the early creators of the modern hobby (especially Don Featherstone and Charles Grant) grasped this completely. Triviality and whimsicality contribute to the peaceful nature of the hobby - and more on this below.

The trailer saves the worst for last. "Its an escape. For those few hours I can forget who I am". This comment comes (I believe) from an British Army veteran who appears to have found in wargaming some relief from his PTSD - which is great, and I don't want to be impolite here. But I've already mentioned this, and here also we return to the bottle of wine analogy. The bad news is, you can't escape from your life, and you can't escape from who you are; and it is very important to understand this.

Now then. Of course wargaming is a chance for some relaxation, for kicking back and chilling out. But it gets much better than that. The valuable (and now thankfully common) concept of mindfulness tells us that life will never give us peace - we must create our own place of peace, and carry it with us. With this in mind, wargamers can view their hobby as part of their 'place of peace'. This, however, is not somewhere we escape to, but somewhere we inhabit, as far as possible, all the time. It is somewhere that should be part of our everyday life. Taking up your hobby is an advance towards yourself, not an escape from who you are. To understand your hobby is to understand yourself, or at least one part of yourself - which ultimately is the reason why I am writing this piece. 

A number of reviews of the film dwell on the fact that it's not particularly cheerful - it doesn't seem to bring out the fun of wargaming. One reviewer on TMP entertainingly remarked that if you weren't depressed when you started the film, you would be once you'd seen it. I think this derives from the film's emphasis on the 'industry' side of things. In the past I would have said that making your hobby your work is always a mistake. These days, I'd say that making your hobby your work is usually a mistake. People as driven and motivated (and talented) as Rick Priestley or the Perry twins seem able to pull the trick off, and good luck to them. Having work that you find both fulfilling and worthwhile is a great achievement. But maybe for a lot of more ordinary people it remains a bad move - all the fun very rapidly goes out of things. This seems to be the experience of one participant in the film.

I myself have earned a small amount of money from the hobby, but this was always pin money to be re-invested in buying toy soldiers and books. You can be more involved than me (say, as a small-time figure or terrain maker) and still retain the concept that it's all just part of your hobby. But if you start to rely on that income - watch out. The film seems to explore this experience, and I think that is worthwhile.

This is not a film review, but from what I have seen I really want to watch the whole movie. I think it could be really valuable in trying to illuminate what a good hobby is, what it consists of, and how people relate to it, as well as reminding us of how important hobbies can be to people and what a positive influence they can have. Paradoxically, and intentionally or otherwise, the film partly demonstrates this by introducing us to people who don't seem to understand the true nature of a pastime like wargaming with miniatures. 

You need to understand what you're dealing with to get the right result, and it's never a good idea to just accept the lazy clichés. So I will conclude by saying that wargaming has brought me many moments of peace, and it constantly reminds me who I am.

Go well everyone. 'Til next time.

Monday 1 February 2021

The Battle of the River Elbow, 1794

Covid once again dictated that I would have to continue playtesting Shadow of the Eagles solo, using my SYW collection. For this particular game I went back to a battle I had enjoyed back in 2012, which in turn was based on a vintage game from back in 1979. The original post tells the story.

Anyway, here in 2021 I kept the same set up and number of units, but re-designated them for a playtest in the Revolutionary period. My Austrian figures would be playing themselves, just projected about 35 years into the future. My Prussians, however, faced the ignominy of representing Revolutionary French forces. Well, at least they had blue coats. The respective OOBs were:

France (attacking)
Infantry Brigade
3 infantry battalions, 1 foot battery
This was one of the new-fangled demi-brigades of 2 conscript units (rated inferior) and one regular unit.

Infantry brigade
4 infantry battalions, 1 foot battery
A slightly different make up. A combined grenadier battalion and a regular battalion led forward 2 more conscript battalions.

Cavalry Brigade
1 hussar regiment
1 dragoon regiment
1 horse battery
The dragoons were inferior

Independent cuirassier regiment
Badly deployed out on its own on the left flank. Only regular class.

Independent chasseur battalion
Deployed as skirmishers at Pampitz.

Austria (defending)
Hungarian Infantry Brigade
2 infantry battalions, 1 grenadier battalion, 1 foot battery
The heart of the Austrian force.

German Infantry Brigade
2 infantry battalions
One of the battalions is of inferior conscripts.

Light Infantry Brigade
2 battalions of skirmishing Grenzers
1 light foot battery

Cavalry Brigade
2 dragoon regiments
Both solid regular formations.

The only terrain detail worth mentioning is the state of the River Elbow. West of the bridge it was classed as impassable, then from the bridge to the centre of the table it was passable by infantry and cavalry. The final section running out of the marsh was a mere stream, easily crossable with a slight delay. 

And so without further ado, we turn to the photos to tell the story of the battle.

The initial set-up.
This must be a Revolutionary battle because the French infantry are all in columns.

The view from the Austrian centre.
The foot battery covers a genuine antique Bellona bridge.

The French cavalry have an 'inept' brigadier. They creak around to their right 
intending a flanking movement, providing their commander's nerve holds.

French left flank. The two conscript units (marked with yellow discs) are being sent forward
as cannon fodder, with the regulars behind. At least they have some artillery support.

The Grenzers await the French at Hermsdorf...

...and before they know it, some French hussars arrive and have the effrontery to try a charge!
The hussars overrun the light battery but are eventually seen off by musketry before they can get
in amongst the Grenzers with their sabres.

The French centre has crossed the Elbow and a firefight commences with the Hungarians.
The grenadiers rout the battalion opposite them.

By the bridge, a French conscript battalion breaks down under artillery fire
and retreats in skirmish order through their regular comrades.

Things aren't going too badly for the French. Note that on the right wing their
cavalry are almost back at Pampitz following a very stout defence of Hermsdorf by the Grenzers.

The French centre is commanded by an 'inspiring' brigadier. Obtaining a double move, he sends his
conscript battalion charging up the hill to take the Austrian battery. 'En avant!'

A little later in the game. The French battalion on the hill were smartly driven away from the abandoned Austrian guns by charging dragoons. In the centre, both sides have lost a further battalion. In the foreground the French cavalry push forward again, countered now by the second Austrian dragoon regiment. The French cavalry are carrying significant numbers of hits.

The Austrian dragoons have carried all before them and are approaching Pampitz.
The main fight is now on the western flank, where the French are dragging forward one of their batteries.

End game. The continuing firefight has ruined the 2 remaining French conscript battalions who have broken down into skirmish order, with orange hit dice indicating they are 'weakened'. They will be of no further use. At this point I decided the French could make no more progress and told them they had lost.

Overall an enjoyable and valuable playtest. The plan at the moment is that when the money starts rolling in from the published rules, some 15mm real Napoleonic armies will be obtained. Probably second-hand already painted units from Hinds. Yes, I'm afraid my painting days are over. A bit of re-basing and fixing-up will be quite enough work. I'm thinking 1812, French+Allies vs. the Russians. I guess we'll see.

For now, stay safe everyone. 'Til next time1