Thursday, July 20, 2017

Putting Physics into your Gaming, Part 1

The title, of course, has been selected to put the readership to sleep. But it is a fair description of a very personal approach I've adopted over the years.

In this approach, "putting physics into your gaming" does not mean things like detailed ballistic simulation in your arrows' and cannonballs' trajectories, or exaustive modelling of ground pressure to see if your T-34s can pass through the mud without getting stuck. It is more a mental and analytical process.

I'll try to explain (or, if there is too much, to sum up) using a Wavre scenario as an example, developed for the local event marking the 200th anniversary of the 1815 campaign. This battle is the poor relative where games of that eventful summer are considered. Waterloo was decisive for the fate of Europe, Ligny was Napoleon's last battlefield victory, Quatre Bras makes for a nice small game and gets a lot of attention in the english-speaker-dominated wargames world due to the presence of the British army, Wavre...has nothing catchy like that to offer. The only high stakes attached to the battle -if Grouchy's French will get through in time to help Napoleon at Waterloo- have no tangible presence in the action itself, which features a Prussian rearguard defending three bridges over an otherwise impassable river from its pursuers- as the historical action, a lot of the game is a series of frontal assaults in the teeth of hard resistance, not the most exciting of tactical problems to solve.

So, how to make this overlooked event an enjoyable game? This is where we start putting Physics into the mix.
First thing is a "literature review", i.e. getting your paws on as many accounts of the battle and campaign as easily possible. This builds an understanding of the greater context of the campaign, where the battle fits in it, and stocks up the memory banks with information that working on the scenario will utilise to shape into ideas. For some folks this will probably include looking at other people's scenarios for the battle, my preference is not to actively look out for them. Volley&Bayonet has a rather abstract and high-level approach to representing units and terrain compared to most other more traditional sets, which means they're not very easily compatible (although the past few years have seen several new sets imitating V&B's abstract approach, so that's changing). All the games for the anniversary would be based on Napoleon Returns, the V&B supplement on the campaign, so there was at least one in the pile of things to read anyway.

The second thing Physics contributes is a problemsolving process. In late high school and as a young undergraduate, teachers and professors were drilling particular techniques to use when trying to solve a problem or excercise. And more often than not the first steps were to determine Initial Conditions (=what your system starts like) and Boundary Conditions (=what are the limits, constraints and final states of your system). Solving the puzzle consists of determining either the Boundary Conditions that will result from the Initial Conditions ("If I release a lead ball from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, how fast will it be travelling when it hits my research assistant standing at its foot?") or the Initial Conditions that will bring about the desired Boundary Conditions ("How fast must I launch a rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome to escape Earth's gravitational pull?").
Does everyone understand this jargon so far?
Erm, yes, possibly. Those who are still awake are probably wondering what all this mumbo jumbo has to do with designing a game scenario. The answer is...well...everything:
Initial Conditions are how you start your game, Boundary Conditions are how you frame your game and how you frame winning the game.

Let's see this in action. What are the Initial Conditions? The scenario in Napoleon Returns begins at 3pm on June 18th. It's not unreasonable, since that's the time Grouchy's forces were complete and deployed (a bit of rummaging around online as I was writing this post shows most Wavre scenarios kick off at 3-4pm, probably for the same reason). The Prussians start deployed behind the river Dyle, in position to defend all the possible crossings.

How about Boundary Conditions? There are two kinds. The first are physical: the actual boundary of the map and the game's duration and ending time. The second kind are imposed: the game's victory conditions. Starting with the physical ones, let's look at a very simplified version of the scenario map (adapted from the more detailed one in Napoleon Returns):

It's a fairly large table, each square being 1' (=33cm). For a good part of the game the action takes place in the lower right corner, where the dark oblongs represent Wavre and its nearby villages, each of which borders a bridge over the Dyle river (the dark straight line). Marking the two armies' positions at the start of the game -Prussian blue and French tricolore- gives us this:

As to time, the game runs in two large phases, one lasting until nightfall on the 18th and second until 10am on the 19th. Historically, the French managed to get a foothold on the far side of the Dyle as darkness was falling on the 18th, and started pushing back the Prussians on the 19th until 10-11am when they found out about Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

You can see how the I.C. and the B.C. define the game: the Prussian begins in a strong position and sits and waits behind the bridges, while the Frenchman keeps throwing his troops at whichever is less defended. If he breaks through, he has ample room to maneuver behind the Prussians or move off the left table edge to help Napoleon at Waterloo, and the Prussian is then faced with the dilemma of holding on the the other crossing points or abandoning them to cover his rear (...that could have been phrased better).
This not a bad game, there is a fair bit of action and tense moments, but the first few rounds will see the defending players simply sitting there and throwing dice to see if their soldiers are holding off the French or not. For some -although by no means all- this may seem
and in my view it also doesn't put them entirely in the mindset of the general they're representing. On 18th June 1815 Thielmann, the commander of III Korps, had been ordered to follow the rest of the Prussian army to Waterloo and was in fact carrying out those orders -some of his units had even started to move off- when news of serious numbers of serious Frenchmen approaching forced him to stand his ground at Wavre, redeploy and defend the riverline. Here he starts hunkered down ready for a defensive fight, against significantly superior numbers (call that an additional informal Initial Condition, if you will).

The final Boundary Condition is how to win. Not unexpectedly, this is for the French to decisively beat the Prussians. Napoleon Returns gives a bit of leeway, allowing the group running the game the flexibility of defining their own specific victtory conditions- however this could result in unwelcome ambiguity if the players are inexperienced or prone to vagueness themselves.

Part 2 (following soon) will describe the changes to the Initial and Boundary Conditions that resulted in a much different scenario- and a very enjoyable game.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Mulligan

In the words of Douglas Macarthur, "I have returned".
In the words of Lois Lane, "I didn't notice you were gone".

Back when this blog started, I wrote "let's see if the laziness that has stalled all my attempts at creating a website has met its match"....obviously not.  

But maybe the second time's the charm, so let's take another run at it. First of all, some catching up. We lost one of our little player triumvirate as he went and got himself happily married. However the remaining duo turned into the nucleus of a small gang, and there's about a half-dozen of us now, meeting relatively regularly, pushing tin and plastic and generally getting on each other's nerves.

We did get 'round to playing the Schellenberg eventually, although not in the exact version we'd been designing as by that time we had already begun to veer into the Seven Years War and Napoleonics. A few of us had a large and beautifully made 20mm collection for the period, and they were quickly repurposed into Volley&Bayonet-compatible stands. Three of us also joined a gaming club (contractually obligated plug: , legally mandated warning: it's in greek) which gave us a large gaming space that -most importantly- didn't also serve as someone's dining room, and came complete with storage space. So off we went, playing everything from Sacile to Fontenoy to Napoleon's brilliant but doomed battles defending France in 1814 (with the occasional non-V&B colonial, WWI or air combat game) .

But the crowning achievement in this whole shebang was the 200th anniversary of the 100 Days. With the befuddled but firm support and encouragement of the rest of the club, in June 2015 we set up and played all four significant battles of the campaign, one on each Saturday, culminating in a Waterloo refight with all told about a dozen players passing around the table and two thousand figures on it. This is what it looked like:

We were very happy gamers indeed.

I got a little bit of gaming burnout after that, to be honest, and dropped off, but the rest of the conspirators kept the flag flying and other metaphors, and they've finally brought me back into the fold. And one of the first things they said was "hey, how 'bout that blog, d'you still have it?". we are. Let's see how it will go- as Ian Anderson once wrote "some things reheat even better second time 'round".

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Of forts and time

One of the interesting features of the Schellenberg battlefield was the so-called "Fort Augustus" crowning the hill itself.

It's a throwback to the Thirty Years' War, when Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden marched across Germany like a hot knife through butter. The fort -or its daddy- are first seen in an engraving of the Swedish capture of Donauworth in 1632, the caption suggesting it was built by the Bavarian defenders of the town but abandoned to the Swedes (who are making good use of its command of the city to bomb it to bits).

Gustavus' brief campaign in Germany was methodical, and he built enough forts and outposts guarding his lines of communication that the term Schwedenschanze ("swedes' fort") almost became synonymous with "old fortification" in later years. The four-bastion style seen in the 1632 engraving is typical. Like a lot of siege and fortifying practices of the time it was probably inspired by Dutch efforts, like their little one in Pfaffenmütz dating to 1620:

The Swedes definitely followed the design, for example in Pommerania:

And the were not the only ones, as this detail from an engraving of the siege of Magdeburg in 1631 shows:

Whether Fort Augustus is the original Bavarian fortification or an improved Swedish one built in its place, this Merian engraving from the middle of the 17th century shows it's changed very little:

Moving closer to the time of the battle we are fortunate that in 1696, the Elector of Bavaria Max Emanuel had the bright idea to commission the engraver Michael Wening to produce pictures of his realm. Wening took to the task with gusto, and executed nearly 900 engravings of cities, monasteries and castles in Bavaria. And he made quite a nice one of Donauworth:

You can see that on top of the Schellenberg there are still the visible remains of Fort Augustus, somewhat worn by the passage of time:

The ditch around the fort seems to have disappeared and the bastions' centers have caved, probably the cummulative effect of rain and wind. Still, nothing a bit of work by the city's population cannot mend.
In case someone finds it hard to believe that a fort made of nothing more than packed earth could still be in good shape more than fifty years after it was built, check out this photo of one of the sights in the Rhön mountains in southern Germany:

That polygonal thing? It's the remains of another fort built in Gustavus Adolphus' time, three hundred and seventy years ago.

This is where I got the pics that accompany this little piece:
(most sites are in German) A brief description and a few more photos of the Rhön fort. Details on Michael Wening's life and work. An amazing, incredible project at the University of Augsburg, where they've digitised and placed online all 21 volumes of Theatrum Europaeum, covering European history from 1618 to 1718, and chock full of engravings, portraits and maps. The description of Donauworth in the 1644 work Topographia Bavariae.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Figuratively speaking...

The armies that fought at the Schellenberg had some interesting differences.

The Anglo-Dutch (and most of their german allies, supplying a sizable part of the total force) tended to deploy their infantry battalions in three ranks. The battalion's line was divided into platoons, and they alternated firing and reloading to provide a continuous rolling sort of fire.
One rather interesting effect of this was that the battalion commander, standing in front of the center of his unit, had to remember to get out of the way when it was time for the platoons deployed behind him to discharge their weapons- and to move back to his normal post before the platoons on either side started again.

The French and Bavarians used the more traditional system of deploying in a four-rank line, evolved form the ten- to six-deep rank battalions of the Thirty Years' War. The most common method appears to be each rank firing as one group while the ones in front would kneel down -but in those days of decentralised training regimes, platoon firing was also known and practiced. The Imperial Army also deployed in four ranks, and here also rank fire appears to have been the norm.

So we have two different army practices. The two important questions in connection with our game are: how do these differences affect game ratings, and will we reflect them in visually representing the units?

I'll start by taking a position a bit off-center. It seems (based on the research efforts of people more seriously engaged in study of the period) that there was little difference in the effect of "platoon fire" and "rank fire" under battlefield conditions. Excercises and experiments carried out at the time tend to suggest platoon fire is more destructive: apparently a steady stream of bullets killing or wounding a few men at the time without respite produces a higher casualty total than a few large, devastating volleys delivered at longish intervals. However on the battlefield it seems that in general, after the first couple of volleys order broke down and each soldier fired as fast as he could reload- at the time, not a very rapid process. So, the first decision (woohoo!) is that there is no difference between rank-firing and platoon-firing infantry in our game.

The second issue is frontage. A four hundred man battalion deployed in three ranks is wider than the same battalion deployed in four ranks. An army of three-rank battalions is wider than an army of four-rank battalions. It will have an advantage in combat, as it can envelop its opponent, and it will take up more space and maneuvering room. In Volley and Bayonet, each stand/element of troops is the same size, so how will this difference be reflected?
Well, thank you for that question, it's quite interesting and totally unexpected (and in rehearsal you delivered it differently!). The rules provide a nice way out of that problem, since each stand in VnB does not represent a fixed number of troops (expressed in strength points, with 1 SP per 200 men). Having the Anglo-Dutch on stands ranging from 2-3 SPs and the French, Bavarians and Imperials on stands of 4-5 SPs effectively "crams" the deeper army on fewer stands- since the players will be army rather than battalion commanders, that's a fair enough abstraction. That's the second decision.

So that's the whole "different doctrines affecting the game ratings" bit done, how about the visual aspect? After all, that's the main reason those of us in the hobby like it so much: the games and figures look interesting, and fun, and cool, and -if done right- sometimes even beautiful.
Here...we're in trouble. The standard base size in VnB is 3"x1,5", or 8cm wide by 4cm deep (rounded up to avoid going nuts over fractions). There's just no way four ranks of 1:72 scale figures can get on a 4cm deep base. None. At. All. See? Trouble.
The next best thing, seems to be to shave the rear rank off, and have the Anglo-Dutch in two ranks of figures and everyone else on three, to at least retain that "my army is thinner than yours" feel (the editor welcomes jokes on the "Your army is so thin, ...." theme). That's a crucial issue, because the three of us working on the game are really keen to make something visually appealing. So I sat down briefly with some nice Zvezda infantry and a, base, and arranged them to see what this might look like. The appearance is marred by the figures being unpainted, parts of the sprue still being on them (handles for painting, m'lud), my crap photo skills and other assorted ills. I tried to be clever and have half the figures on the two-rank base firing and the other half loading or standing, to give a visual cue of platoon firing. We'll see what the other two participants think. Apart from "Aris, your photo skills suck" that is.

Two ranks:
Three ranks: 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What happened at the Schellenberg anyway?

Giving the whole background to the War of the Spanish Succession is more than I can handle on a Saturday, and there's bound to be a more or less informative Wikipedia entry for it anyway.

The battle of the Schellenberg itself is rather more simple: the army composed of the Anglo-Dutch forces of John Churchill (the Duke of Marlborough, and great-great-great-great-relative of the other famous Churchill) and those of the Holy Roman Empire under Louis, Margrave of Baden, needs to get across the Danube and moves to do so at the town of Donauworth. The Bavarian army commanded by the Count d'Arco -that's a real title, despite the comic book villain overtones- wants to stop them, and decides to do that by parking itself just outside town on the Schellenberg, the tallest hill for miles.

Marlborough and Baden disagree over what to do, the englishman wanting to attack before more Bavarian reinforcements arrive, the german favouring taking things at a more measured pace. Since command is shared, there is no direct way for either of them to impose his will. However the solution comes from one of the charmingly weird practices of the time: Marlborough and Baden take turns to command the full army on alternate days. July 2nd, 1704 is Marlborough's turn in the seat, and he decides to push through with the attack. Baden goes along, presumably mumbling under his breath, and the two wings of the "Allied" army converge on Donauworth.

The Anglo-Dutch wing gets there first. Marlborough has formed an advance guard of roughly 15 battalions of infantry, and they deploy in the small valley below the Schlellenberg, while his artillery under Colonel Holcroft Blood (enough with the comic book names already) sets up outside the village of Berg and begins bombarding the Bavarian positions. Count d'Arco, who was not expecting an attack that day, hastily deploys his men behind the half-finished earthworks on the hill. A misunderstanding with the commander of the Donauworth garrison results in the fortifications between the hill and the city -and, indeed, the city's own outer fortifications- being left unoccupied (this is where an ominous chord would sound if this were an audio tape).
Marloborough's initial plan was to send half his army through the Boschberg woods and attack from two directions- a plan d'Arco's deployment suggests he expected. However the wood turns out to be too thick, and the few hours left until dusk are insufficient for the maneuver to be completed. Moving closer to Donauworth and its fortified walls is too big a risk. So, as the main body of the army begins to appear, the advance guard infantry charges up the hill and is met by a hail of fire.
 The attack falters; many of the officers, attempting to lead their men by example, are killed and wounded. After the first line is beaten back, the second line surges forward. It is also met by spirited Bavarian resistance, and d'Arco begins bringing up more troops as he recognizes there will not be an attack on his right flank. Some of the attacking soldiers are beginning to retreat- the english and dutch cavalry advances, forming a wall to keep them in their positions. Marlborough, trying to find an alternative to the slaughter, sends a lieutenant and a few men to see how strongly the outer works around the city are held.

Almost at the same time as the lieutenant returns to report there's hardly any soldiers between the city and the Schellenberg, Louis of Baden arrives with his wing of the army. The Bavarians are still heavily engaged with the Anglo-Dutch wing, so d'Arco can spare only a few dragoons to shore up his exposed left. The commander at Donauworth appears to wake up to the situation, but the force he sends to defend the outer works is weak- the battalions have to deploy in two rather than the customary four ranks to cover the whole frontage.
Baden's troops surge forward against the hasty works between Donauworth the hill, while at the same time Marlborough leads part of his reserve and the remnants of the advance guard against the Bavarian works once more.
The Bavarians on the hill hold the Anglo-Dutch at bay, even as the troops of the Holy Roman Empire steamroller through the weak French battalions near the city. Baden sends a few of his battalions to assist the hard-pressed Marlborough.
On the top of the Schellenberg Lt.Col. de Colonnie, the sole officer left uninjured, sees the Imperials approaching and realises the battle is lost. He attempts a slow, deliberate retreat back to the Danube and the bridge leading to the other side and safety. However, as Baden's troops get closer and the Anglo-Dutch finally enter the fortified perimeter, order breaks down. The retreat becomes a rout, and the fleeing soldiers are cut down or captured in their hundreds. The battle of Schellenberg is a glorious victory for Marlborough and Baden.
The battle has a considerable aftermath. Not only is a great part of the Bavarian army gone, their campaign plan is totally disrupted. The garrison commander of Donauworth crowns his lacklustre performance during the battle with a hasty retreat from the city, abandoning considerable stores of ammunition and supplies intact. Marlborough and Baden (engaged in a slowly burning but bitter rivalry over who made the greatest contribution to the victory) have won the initiative, and their army will subsequently join more of the Imperial army under Eugene of Savoy and trounce the French and Bavarian forces at Blenheim a month later.

What's not to like?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Disrupting a Bavarian summer: The assault on the Schellenberg

The first thing that's going onto the blog is the grandiosely named Project 2011.
It's held at the Guild, probably the most friendly and cheerful assembly of wargaming crazies you could ever imagine (there's a link below if you want to check it out). Along with two other gamers, we've undertaken to set up a complete game of the 1704 battle at the Schellenberg, with 1:72 scale figures.

I'll be tracking the progress of this megalomaniac idea, and the blog will also show our discussion of ideas and concepts for the game. Don't be surprised if you see strange characters on your screen...some of our communications will be in greek. Like the fellow said "there is nothing wrong with your set".

We have already settled on the rules, Frank Chadwick's "Volley and Bayonet", an old favourite of two of us (hey, democracy in action!). Right now we're discussing the scale we will use- the original rules are written on a scale of 1 "strength point"= 500 men or 6 guns, but versions with 1 SP =200 or even 100 men have been successfully playtested, with attendant changes in the ground and time scales.
The driving force here is not the size of the forces so much as the size of the table: we want something big and impressive, yet manageable. Coupled with a desire to properly reflect the colourful variety of military
uniforms during the early 18th century, we're leaning towards 1 SP = 200 men, which very nicely makes each base of troops a battalion.

At this scale, the game board will be 160x120cm, and cover this area:

(the ticks are at 10cms, the grid is 20x20cm, and the numbers show the elevation). The base sizes for various troop types are on the right, to give a sense of the size of the game.
The light grey traces the fortifications built by the Bavarian and French army, however those tiny little bastions are probably below the "grain" of the rules. The thin black line marks where the fortifications will run for the game (we can still dress them up, of course).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ouverture new blog.
My first blog!
And only a few years after blogging revolutionised online publishing. Let's see if the laziness that has stalled all my attempts at creating a website has met its match in the easy interface of this little corner.

(frantic whispering from stage left)

Oh yes, I suppose it would be appropriate to actually mention what this blog will be all about. It was going to be filled with exposés that would bring down the edifices of modern worldwide government, but it seems much more fun to instead cover my somewhat more risqué hobby of wargaming (hence the "war" in the title). After all, the web is all about having fun, and communicating our little pleasures in life, is it not?