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.