Being a little Cavalier

I’ve always felt it’s important for those of us engaged in the wargaming hobby – if not the wider public – to support the smaller, more local, wargaming shows and not just turn up for the big events like Salute. Which arguably makes me a bit of a hypocrite as I think the last time I made it to Cavalier, the annual show organised by the Tunbridge Wells Wargames Society, was over twenty years ago. There have been reasons. I don’t drive (long story involving a visual disability, that I won’t go into here), and trying to travel north to south, or south to north, through Kent on public transport is about as easy as crossing the Sahara on a skateboard. For six months, many years ago, I was working one day a week in Tunbridge Wells, and I am still scarred by the memory of those rail journeys, and the convoluted connections I had to make in order to get there, and then come home again; on one occasion I found myself stranded in Swanley, which would be enough to put even Sir Ranulph Fiennes off travelling.

However, my partner does drive, and since retiring last spring has become surprisingly forgiving and indulgent of my strange (to her) interests. Which is how, at long last, I managed to attend Cavalier this year.

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Society of Ancients, ‘The Battle of Raphia’.

I’m going to start by levelling a criticism, not at Cavalier in particular, but at wargames shows in general – or at the attitude of, it seems, some wargamers at them. There is a problem with the way demonstration games are presented. Not with the visual elements – the painting, modelmaking, and so on – but with the apparent disinterest in actually demonstrating things to, and interacting with, the general public. This might be down to widespread shyness. But I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve obviously taken an interest in a demonstration game at a show, and been studiously ignored by the people who are putting it on, even to the extent of some pretending not to hear me when I’ve asked questions. Being a wargamer myself, at least I have some inkling of what’s happening on the tabletop. For a member of the non-wargaming public, the whole thing must remain utterly perplexing, not to mention a bit unwelcoming.

At Cavalier, only the guys from the Anti-Alchemists, with their game set during the 1835 Texan War of Independence, broke that mould, at least within my experience of the day (note: this is easily subjective enough to be unfair to others!). If anything, Diane probably learned more about General Santa Ana than she ever wanted to know, but the principle of actually engaging her, a non-wargaming member of the public, in a conversation about the game and its background was a sound one.

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Anti-Alchemists, ‘Come and Get It! 1835 (Texan War of Independence)’.

Another good approach to presentation was exemplified by the North London Wargame Group’s refight of the Battle of Crug Mawr 1136. The historical background was set out on a large noticeboard, with illustrations and maps to accompany the text, and a bit of a hook to the story to draw people in (think headlines – “Freddy Starr ate my hamster” – that sort of thing); in this case, if I recall correctly, “Birth of the Longbow”, as it did indeed mark the first significant impact of the longbow on a mediaeval battlefield.

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North London Wargame Group, ‘The Battle of Crug Mawr 1136’.

As for the other aspects of Cavalier…Free parking on a Sunday, in Tonbridge, is a bonus and there’s a main car park right outside the venue at the Angel Centre. There was a good mix of traders, although I’m saving much of my wargaming fund for a couple of new releases due at Salute this year, meaning I was hardly a big spender this time around. In fact I limited myself to some Thracian heavy cavalry from Essex Miniatures, thereby plugging a small gap in the 15mm Thracian army I’ve been building, and with Gaslands car conversions in mind I picked up a handy bag of machine guns in 20mm scale from Sgts Mess.

Naturally, I envied the painting and modelling skills on display as well. Probably my most-used phrase at these events is, “I wish I could do that”. Because, all too often, I can’t. Special mention must go to Crawley Wargames Club and their ‘Siege of Girona 1796’, especially the modelled section of the city of Girona and its fortifications, altogether an impressive looking game and a deserving winner of the “Best Demonstration Game” award on the day.

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Crawley Wargames Club, ‘The Siege of Girona 1796’.
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A closer view of Girona itself.

Will I go to Cavalier again? Yes, I am sure I will, non-wargaming driver allowing. It’s only a 45 minute drive from Medway, even when the residents of West Malling barricade the main route with a Farmers’ Market for the day, and as I say these local wargaming events can only survive as showcases for the hobby if we wargamers keep on showing up at them. Which is, I suppose, the moral of the story.

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New year, new projects

Like, I suspect, most wargamers, I begin any new calendar year with resolutions for the months ahead, and especially a stack of new gaming and modelling projects queuing up to get started. I have all the usual sort of wargamer resolutions, obviously – reducing the size of the lead-and-plastic mountain of unassembled miniatures, getting around to painting all those 15mm Napoleonics and the SAGA Irish warband I acquired last summer, actually playing that copy of Campaign for North Africa that I bought in the early 1980s, that kind of thing.

But I’m thinking that it might help me to stick with a few of my planned new projects if I flag them up here, in the full glare of public view. That way, at least guilt or embarrassment may kick in and ensure that I make progress with them.

First off, a new 15mm Ancients army, the Carthaginians. These should have a blog post to themselves in the near future, but I’ll just say for now that it’s been in the back of my mind to build up a Carthaginian army for nigh on twenty years. I never quite managed it, until a few weeks ago I discovered that my local hobby shop is now stocking the excellent Xyston Miniatures range. A flurry of impulse buying ensued. And now Carthaginians are awaiting their turn on the assembly line.

A very different project – and the immediate inspiration for writing this blog post, as it happens – has come with this morning’s post. Gaslands (published by Osprey) is the latest in a family of games involving post-apocalyptic vehicles fighting for control of resources, or roads, or just for the hell of it. I still have my copy of Car Wars somewhere, though Battlecars was lost along the way, and have retained a fondness for this kind of scenario that was only fuelled (excuse the pun) by the release of Mad Max: Fury Road a couple of years ago. Gaslands, by all accounts, reinvigorates the genre. It also gives me a fine excuse to go foraging for battered old Hot Wheels cars in the local charity shops, and to spend hours happily converting them into suitably tooled-up monstrosities. Gaslands

Then there are some new (to me) games to figure out and play. I have eight Blood Bowl teams in the collection, enough for a league. My mother bought me a copy of Guild Ball as a Christmas gift. I may not leave the house for the next twelve months.

The last objective that I’ll mention here, for now, is that I intend to crack on with some determined terrain making this year. It’s always been a weaker point in my modelmaking, but with a little help from YouTube tutorials – not least from the brilliant Terrain Tutor – I’m hoping I can get to grips with it. In my head, at least, I have plans to build a Celtic hill fort, and some boards for Malifaux.

There you have it. I’ll still be trying to whittle down the aforementioned mountain of unmade miniatures, making progress with the ongoing campaigns, and certainly digressing into a multitude of other gaming directions. Somehow, in between, I might even manage to do some work.

A Boxing Day battle

At something of a loose end on Boxing Day, I decided to run through a relatively quick solitaire game using the 15mm miniatures that happened to be at the top of a stack of storage boxes. Thus a typically ahistorical encounter, for an Ancients wargamer, between Normans and Parthians…

The battle unfolded in three distinct phases. The Normans (ie me!) deployed with a small hill on either wing occupied by their knights, while archers and spearmen occupied the low ground in between. The Parthians formed up in an obvious fashion, horse archers in front and cataphracts behind them, though some of the horse archers were detached with the aim of trying to outflank the Norman left. Boxing Day battle 1

The Parthians advanced, the detached horse archers seeking to probe around the Norman left flank as ordered. The Parthian intention was to use the main body of horse archers to break up the opposing Norman archers, while the detached elements at least kept the Norman knights on that flank entertained, so that the cataphracts would then be able to rumble through the centre and trample the Norman spearmen beneath their hooves. Things did not go according to plan.

The Norman archers put up stiffer resistance than had been expected. The Parthian horse archers were also shaken by the knights on the Norman right charging downhill at them. They withdrew in some haste, and the Parthian general busied himself with reorganising his forces for another effort. This was the second (and rather quiet) phase, as the cataphracts shifted across to mass on the Parthian left wing. Meanwhile, the knights on the Norman left wheeled to face and counter the approach of those cheeky Parthian horse archers who were trying to sneak past them. Boxing Day battle 2

The third and final phase of the action saw the Normans suddenly become more proactive. There were all-out cavalry melees as knights clashed with cataphracts on one wing, and with horse archers on the other; while in the centre the Norman bowmen, having been whittled down somewhat by the Parthian horse archers’ persistent shooting, pulled back and allowed the spears to make an aggressive move towards the Parthian line. This belated infantry advance would have been futile as an attempt to catch light cavalry, of course, but it did force the horse archers to evade back in their turn and thus provided useful support for the knights, particularly those on the Norman right who were hard pressed in a fight with the cataphracts and in some danger of being overwhelmed. Boxing Day battle 3

At this point, the Norman general was relieved by nightfall and a decision by the Parthian command to withdraw from the battle under cover of darkness, leaving the Norman army bloodied but still holding their position.

Somewhere in Prussia, 1626

Having managed to assemble all my 15mm miniatures for Swedish and Polish armies of the Thirty Years War, the time came to put both forces to the test of battle. I broadly based this game on the very first scenario from a now-venerable but still useful book by Charles Stewart Grant, Programmed Wargames Scenarios – very handy for solitaire gaming, as it provides a primitive kind of AI for the lone wargamer to fight against.

I took personal command of the Swedish army, on this occasion, and deployed my regiments on a low line of hills to meet the advancing Poles. A distinguishing feature of Polish armies in this period was their heavy dependence on massed cavalry. It means they really have to act aggressively; so my assumption was that they’d launch themselves at my line as fast as possible and that their cavalry – a mix of the famous winged hussars and lighter cossack-style horsemen (pancerni) – were going to be my main problem, rather than the lower-quality foot units.

With that in mind, I anchored my infantry regiments and supporting guns on the hills, while massing my own cavalry, two large units of reiters, on my left wing with the idea that I could counter-attack and overwhelm the Polish units on that flank.

The Polish army emerged from the south and deployed with infantry – mostly haidouks, irregular footsoldiers inspired by a type of Balkan outlaw, but with a few levies of variable enthusiasm as well – in the centre with the guns, and cavalry on the wings. To my slight consternation, the Poles stationed two-thirds of their horse on their right, facing off against my own reiters. Any counter-attack was going to prove tougher than I’d hoped.

As luck would have it, the Polish general turned out to be the impetuous type. Even as the artillery on both sides fired the opening shots, he chose to throw everything forward, perhaps hoping that the sheer speed of the attack would break through the Swedish defence. Swedish vs Polish map

Artillery bombardments began to have an effect on both sides. The Yellow Regiment in my centre started to take casualties, though a greater toll was being taken on the haidouks, whose advance slowed as a consequence. Meanwhile, the Polish cavalry on their left came into the range of shot from the Blue Regiment and the little leather regimental guns seemed to have an unnerving impact on them; their advance also slowed.

Action on the other flank was more intense. As the Polish husaria swept forward, I moved one of my reiter regiments into contact with them, and a fierce hand-to-hand fight ensued. I might well have been in trouble had it not been for the fact that, instead of supporting their compatriots in melee, the second line of pancerni wheeled to their left and set off to try to engage my Red Regiment. Even so, the struggle between the two cavalry forces pushed back and forth without a clear advantage going to either side.

At this point fate, in the shape of a chance card, intervened. A fire broke out in the Polish gun position. The Polish artillery was silenced while the gunners worked frantically to extinguish the flames (and while two Russian mercenaries quietly crept away amid the confusion!). This was a relief for the Yellow Regiment, who’d been suffering a steady trickle of casualties, and left the haidouks without artillery support just as they marched into the range of Swedish musketry and of those little leather regimental cannon.

I sent my second regiment of reiters into the swirling melee on my left. That did the trick. The husaria put up a brave fight but were at last overwhelmed by the number of Swedish horse they were facing. With the nearby pancerni now closely embroiled with the Red Regiment, this suddenly exposed the whole right flank of the Polish army to my cavalry counter-attack.

Realising the danger, the Polish general thus took a sensible decision, choosing to withdraw as much as he could of his army and fight again another day.

All in all, it was an enjoyable game to play through, even if it didn’t really reach a decisive conclusion. I think luck was on my side, with the fire in the Polish battery and the husaria being left unsupported in the big cavalry melee both being crucial factors. These two armies will certainly meet again quite soon. It would be interesting to see how the Poles might fare if they are trying to hold a position – not the easiest of tasks for an army so reliant on its cavalry arm.

Meanwhile, in the shipyard…

A couple of years ago, browsing in the local branch of a certain discount store, I happened across a few boxes of a “collectable card game” called Pirates of the Cursed Seas. At £2 or so per box, buying them was inevitable.

The game itself turned out to be a disappointment, to be frank. Essentially, the concept is to build up a fleet of ships and then go sailing to islands, grab some treasure, and sail back home with it, while avoiding the ships of more predatory players. There are some fantastical elements tossed in – sea monsters, undead crews, captains with special abilities, and so on – but fundamentally it’s a variation on good old Buccaneer with a few extra bells and whistles (presumably influenced by the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise). I played the rules twice, and that was enough to bore me with the whole thing. The game ended up being put away in a storage box, with most of the ships I had remaining unbuilt.

And there it stayed until recently.

Finding myself at a loose end one evening, and feeling too tired to do much, I picked up the box of unmade ships and set to work assembling them. This is the gimmick at the heart of the whole Pirates game (it apparently had a few other “Pirates of…” iterations besides the Cursed Seas title). Each ship comes in pieces that punch out of plastic cards, a little bigger than a credit card, and then has to be slotted together.

St George unpunched
HMS St George, before assembly.

The resulting models are not what you could call detailed representations of sailing warships, and are fantasy vessels rather than historical ones, but in spite of their relatively crude appearance and the lack of a consistent scale they do have something appealing about them – if only the fact that they were dirt cheap!

A couple of hours punching and slotting, and I have 33 of these little plastic ships, from four nationalities (Britain, France, Spain and the USA) plus a squadron of pirate ships. But what to do with them?

Shipyard
The crowded shipyard.

This is where my memory kicked in, at last. I recalled an article in one of the wargaming magazines, some time ago, I think by a couple of Belgian wargamers, describing how they’d played a game on a patio using these same sort of CCG models. Any further thoughts about using the actual Pirates of the Cursed Seas rules went out of the window at that point, and an old set of Napoleonic naval rules was duly hauled down from the crowded, dusty bookshelf where it had languished for too long.

The ships have now been glued to bases. Not wanting to spend much of my precious modelmaking time on them, I decided to stick with crudity when basing. Some mounting board, Copydex and a blue marker pen did the job well enough for my purposes.

I’ll play through a small test game soon, if only to remind myself of the rules. Then? Memory stirring again. I recently acquired a copy of the book Honor Among Thieves: Captain Kidd, Henry Every and the Pirate Republic of Libertalia, by Jan Rogozinski.  This is a great account of historical pirate activities in the Indian Ocean, and of the independent pirate republic that was established on Madagascar.

So, I have the model ships, and I have a suitable context.  The campaign must surely follow…

Styrenia campaign update

Too many things have been tripping up the serious business of wargaming, over the last couple of months (having said it was all settling down, it didn’t). Hence, both progress on the Styrenia campaign and construction work for the Italo campaign have been much, much slower than I would have liked. I suspect, and hope, that the Christmas holiday will present me with plenty of free time to work on things more.

Anyway, there has been some movement in Styrenia, at least. Any actual movement has been considerably slowed down by the winter snows, particularly in the hill country, and armies have barely begun to muster, although King Vajnayar and, to the north, the satrap Artamenes are making their preparations for war.

In the meantime, entering the Month of the Fox, there has at least been a flurry of diplomatic activity. Negotiations have taken place between Vajnayar and the King of the Natori hill tribes, Micipsa, with the latter being induced to join an alliance with the Uttaran invasion forces. This has been somewhat delayed owing to the demise of the Uttaran envoy on his way to meet with the Natori, ambushed and murdered by bandits – a fate as yet unknown to either Vajnayar or Micipsa.

Vajnayar has also despatched three agents northwards on a long journey to Pramanda, hoping to co-ordinate the Pramandan invasion plans with his own. One of these agents has fallen ill and is currently in hiding, not far from Dariush, and is obviously at increased risk of being captured by Styrenian militia patrols.

What all this has entailed, in gaming terms, has been some tinkering and experimentation with rules for diplomacy and espionage. In all honesty, I remain dissatisfied with what I have so far – largely a combination of using playing cards to generate chance events, dice rolls, and a certain amount of Kriegspiel-style narrative “rulemaking” as situations arise. I suppose the issue is that on the level of politics and diplomacy, it is never going to be practical to narrow all the possible circumstances and outcomes to a relatively small, defined pool that can be governed by either dice or cards. It’s a bit of a puzzle, really, but I’ll keep working on it. I suspect that the Kriegspiel-flavoured approach is always going to be optimal, though of course that’s difficult to play well (to say the least) in the context of a solitaire game.

Anyway, it looks like a bad winter in Styrenia, so it’ll be mostly more diplomacy throughout the month of the Fox, until temperatures begin to rise again…

Of Crusaders and Flashing Blades

It’s sometimes relatively easy to trace at least some of the childhood influences that led to taking up a hobby like wargaming. I was reminded about a couple of mine, recently, when a discussion cropped up in the pub (as it will) about remembering old television programmes.

I don’t know why English television during the late1960s and early 1970s imported so many French series aimed at children, dubbed them badly into English, and then broadcast them during every school holiday, over and over again. I’ll say now that one exception to the bad dubbing,The Magic Roundabout, was blessed with a splendidly surreal narration by Eric Thompson, but that stands out because it really was the exception to a rule.

The same few French (and I may be wrong here, but I am pretty sure they were all French) serials came back again and again. Belle and Sebastian, White Horses, and Robinson Crusoe were all school holiday staples – although the first two were commonly regarded as being “for girls” – to the point that, even now, I can clearly recall their theme tunes and even some of the lyrics that accompanied those tunes. This is not necessarily a good thing.

There were two other French serials that really stood out for me, though, and which I loved, and could watch however often they were broadcast – which, in the case of the second one, was I believe only once.

The Flashing Blade was a historical adventure set during a war between France and Spain in 1530. With the French-held fortress of Casal besieged by Spanish forces, the Chevalier Recci and his faithful servant, Guillot, set out to fetch help for the beleaguered French garrison, their adventures stretching across twelve episodes. Actually, thirteen episodes, as for some reason the last of them was never shown on British television.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-ZEDNkZ2L4

That wasn’t the only issue. At the time, of course, I had no idea that The Flashing Blade was set during the Second Mantuan War (1528-30), or that the Siege of Casal was a real historical event. Therefore it slipped my notice that while the story was set during 1530, the real-life Casal had been relieved from the Spanish siege in 1529. But I’m sure that, even if I had known, such historical inaccuracy wouldn’t have spoiled my enjoyment at the time. After all, how many children’s television programmes have landsknechts appearing in them?

Another French series that popped up on our television, and that I think had an influence on my evolution into becoming a wargamer, was Thibaud ou les Croisades, or in its slightly more prosaic dubbed-into-English form, Desert Crusader. As far as I know, this was only broadcast once, unlike those recycled holiday shows. Perhaps that has made it seem all the more precious in my memory, a dash of colourful mediaeval romanticism sandwiched between the other post-schoolday teatime children’s television shows like Blue Peter and The Doubledeckers, which seemed to me rather grey programmes in a grey world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q22FxOdEYLc

I am reaching back through the haze of memory to write this, so I may be wrong, but as I recall the eponymous Thibaud was half-Saracen, which suggests there may have been some wider liberal message about race and religion, though frankly at the age of around twelve (I think) I was too taken with the aforementioned colourful mediaeval romanticism to notice.

It set my imagination afire, anyway. For some time, a lot of my games after watching Desert Crusader centred on the Airfix model of Fort Sahara, with a mix of Airfix plastic miniatures that could vaguely represent (to me, at the time, at least) the period of the Third Crusade; the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood, and Arabs sets. It so happened that the Arabs contained one figure that I always thought particularly looked like Thibaud himself, in his flowing white robes, and that’s the role it took in my games. In more recent times I re-acquired an Airfix Fort Sahara playset, including sprues of Foreign Legion and Arab miniatures, and was genuinely cheered to find that same “Thibaud” figure still included, even if he is now cast in orange rather than in his original white plastic form. 

Fort Sahara basic

I’m pretty sure that both programmes could even now provide inspiration for wargaming. The Flashing Blade is available on a DVD (and yes, I do own a copy) that even includes the “missing” thirteenth episode. Sadly, I can’t find an English-language version of Desert Crusader, although all the episodes appear to be available on YouTube in the original, undubbed, French and under the original French title. I just wish my grasp of the French language was good enough to follow it!