Monthly Archives: November 2021

My latest Albuera game – how did Army rules do?

The allies have re-oriented they army as the French attempt to outflank them

At last another game, as my friend Rob was kind enough to visit! I had to put together a scenario quite quickly – and one that could use Rob’s British and allied Minifigs. I decided on Albuera 1811. It is a battle I know quite well, has plenty of action, and the terrain is relatively straightforward.

I have used this as a scenario at a club game using my big battle rules – but I was concerned that this would not be a big enough game for up to five hours of table time. So I decided to scale down (or up?) the rules to halve my normal figure ratio, so that the main units were brigades rather than divisions. Each infantry base was 600 infantry, 200 cavalry or 8 guns. I have just bought Sam Mustafa’s Lasalle rules, and funnily enough each base corresponds to one the standard-sized units in that ruleset. The only adjustment I made to game play was to extend the artillery bombardment ranges by 3 inches. Developing a version of the rules at this scale is certainly something I want to do, but at this stage I am not thinking too hard about what other changes might be needed. The ground scale is 75% of normal, so that each inch is 112.5m, or 150 paces in contemporary military measurement – over 14 inches to the mile compared to under 11. This meant interpreting the 50% figure ratio as relating to footprint rather than frontage.

The game starts at 8am. The French are lined up along the road from Seville that you can see on the left-hand side of the table. The allies are behind the village, with three units off the table on their way. There is a lot of empty space on the top right of the table. As I was setting up the game I realised that I had made a mistake in my previous versions of the game: the road from Badajoz is the one disappearing off the bottom table edge, rather than the one going off to the right. This is the critical campaign axis and the French objective, and the route along which allied reinforcements were coming. If I had appreciated that I would have shifted the table one foot up to have more space along this road, and less at the under-used far end. That would have crimped the French deployment, but that is surely not a fatal problem.

I chose the set-up because I wanted to give the French player the choice of carrying out the historical flank attack, or of something much more frontal, which tends to be the way the French player goes when I run it as a club game. The problem is that if the French do opt for the flank option, as I did this time, the allies have too much time to reorganise. I tried to give the French a head start, with a free move at the start, though one they couldn’t use to mount an attack, as well as the first move in the next turn. Though the French manoeuvred with impressive speed, the allies had little difficulty in repositioning their army to face the threat though. In practice I think the Spanish allies were harder to move around than they were in this game, when I gave them a -1 on the Activation throw. But there may also be a problem with the battle account that I have been following. The French main army may have deployed from the road before 8am – which was when the firing started.

The first few moves were taken up with manoeuvring, and some skirmishing around the village. These early exchanges did not go well for the French, so I did not press them. The photo shows the situation as the allies more or less completed their repositioning, after about two or three moves. After this the French continued their turning manoeuvre, led by the cavalry, and assembled the artillery in a grand battery. As historically, but in a different position on the field, Zayas’s Spaniards took the first brunt, and were pushed back. The grand battery (not a historical tactic in this battle) successfully caused consternation among Ballesteros’s Spaniards (there were some bad throws), and forced it out of the line. But the British troops plugged the gap, and weathered the artillery without difficulty. The game ended with the French hurling their infantry forward across the line into British and Portuguese troops; I needed some lucky dice, which were not forthcoming. By now it was 5pm, we were tired, our wives were back from a day’s exploring the shops in Lewes, and we called it a day. Here is the situation:

At the end

The Allied line has been bent right back, but the French would have to be very lucky to push the British troops back much further. Some units were looking a little worn, but remarkably few had been knocked out of play (the British heavy dragoons may have been the only one). We had played about 9 turns in roughly four hours. The game had started an hour late because of a navigation mishap by my guest.

The scenario clearly needs more work, but it makes for a good game – even if difficult for the French to win. As the French player I probably needed to get stuck in more quickly with the infantry while the cavalry tried to pressure he flank. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a good way to bypass the Spanish troops so the French run the risk of wearing themselves out on the poor troops before taking on the good ones.

How about the rules? This was a very good test of game play, as all arms got a good look-in and there was opportunity for manoeuvre. More work is needed, unfortunately. The good news as that they played quite quickly, but the combat needs to be more decisive. The armies need to be crumbling at the stage we ended the game. The ability to recover from one or two disruptions may be the issue, rather than the rate at which disruptions are handed out. My new rule mechanism for “pinning” – causing the responding side to “borrow” moves from its following turn – proved a damp squib. I also think the combat and casualty mechanisms need to be more intuitive. Command and control also needs more thought. While the French army moved fast enough, the allied army had it too easy, even with not very strong command resources. The game needs to move a little closer to the “PIP” system where the action follows from command focus, which can’t be across the field. It is probably too easy to get two or three actions on the activation throw without intervention from senior command – but probably OK for one action. One idea that did work was limiting artillery to six shots – this made players think more carefully about how to use guns, and limited the temptation to keep blasting away forever.

I will be thinking hard about revisions to the rules – which also need to be a bit clearer in places. What a long journey rule-writing can be!

Using caulk for roads and rivers

Another view of my Albuera table

Last time I posted about the first stage of creating a wargames table for my Albuera game – which I dealt with by placing a fleece mat over a contoured surface of extruded polystyrene. Next come the roads and rivers. I have been trying out new techniques on this – by using decorators’ caulk.

I am not a fan of the standardised lengths of road or river that you can buy commercially. Nature doesn’t usually conform to these shapes, and there are lots of joins. All this is fine for an evening club game when you need to set up in minutes, and the game is usually quite generic. But you should aim higher for historical battles. Hitherto my technique has been to use masking tape, painted over with tempura. But these don’t handle bends well – especially in rivers and streams, and painting the edges of the tape means a bit of spillage onto the terrain mat, which also softens the edges. That was OK for my old felt mat, but not my lovely new printed fleece. So I decided to try a technique described on the Altar of Freedom website – using caulk. This is meant for 6mm terrain in the American Civil War, but my features aren’t that much bigger.

Two types of caulk are needed: opaque for the roads, and transparent for the rivers. The material needs to be paintable – so you need acrylic caulk rather than silicone. For the opaque sort I decided to use coloured material rather than the standard white. It would still need to be painted, but any gaps and damage would be less visible. I bought Unika ColorSealant on Amazon in medium oak. It comes in tubes designed for use with a “gun” – which I also had to buy. It proved trickier to work with than I hoped.

First off I tried spreading it on an old plastic document wallet (I have dozens of these) – but one of caulk’s properties that makes it so useful in DIY is adhesion – and it was impossible to get it off the backing cleanly. I experimented by spreading it on jay cloth that had been pre-cut. That was fine, and gave a more robust product, but a bit of a faff. I also tried wax paper – as recommended by Altar of Freedom – and I found that I could peel it off that with a bit of care. Once off the backing though, the product was a bit fragile and retained a slight stickiness. It is unlikely to survive most types of storage, so it will usually need to be remade each time a table is put together. One thing I learnt on my experiments is that this stuff hates water – which dilutes it rapidly. I tried spreading it on damp jay cloth (so that it was nice and flat) – which was a bit of a disaster.

Transparent acrylic caulk is much harder to find, and (usually) pricier. Most transparent caulk is silicone, which can’t be painted. Eventually I found some on Screwfix – No Nonsense All Weather Clear. This is very different stuff from the opaque material: it is less adhesive, dries quicker and is much harder to paint. Spreading it on plastic document folder was fine, but painting the underneath afterwards not so much.

So much for the experimentation. I want to describe what I did for my Albuera table. I decided on using wax paper. It can be rolled out nice and long, and it is transparent enough so that you can trace felt-tip markings through it. The first step was to trace out the course of the roads and rivers in felt-tip on the XPS base board. I could then mark up the lengths required (using the felt-tip) by tracing through the wax paper. The river bottom was then painted onto the wax paper, over the felt-tip. I then spread the caulk. This means laying beads onto the paper from the caulk gun, and then spreading it into a reasonably flat surface with a spatula. And then I applied paint to the road sections. I did this all in a single session of one to two hours, which meant laying things down before the previous stage was fully dry. The sequence, after the tracing, was: paint the rivers; lay the caulk for the roads; lay the caulk for the rivers; paint the road. A bit of wet on wet is fine, so long as there is no water. Small traces of water in the paint I used for the road (student acrylics) caused issues, though fortunately not fatal. Acrylic paint blends well with he caulk, though, and white caulk would probably probably have been fine. This is how it looked when I left it overnight:

I came back after nearly 24 hours. The river sections peeled off fine, with the paint sticking to the caulk rather than the wax paper, as planned – a bit of wet-on-wet probably helped; the sections just needed a bit of trimming with scissors. Alas the roads did not peel off as nicely as they did in the experiment. In the end I had to leave the backing paper on and cut them out. At least that made the end product a bit more robust, though less flexible. I found that there was a bit of spreading on the road, as a result of water in the paint mixture; in some cases this created a slight ridge at the edge – actually quite a pleasing effect!

There was no time to do more work. The roads could have done with a bit of dry-brushing, and perhaps painting the edges in a contrast colour, or even flocking. It would have been nice to do something with the river margins. Both look a lot better than using tape, though, and the more complex features, like junctions, come out nicely. The rivers are fine by wargames standards, but still aren’t very realistic. The grey colour was a bit of an accident – I mixed too much blue in with the brown – I had wanted something browner. Watercourses should run in a bit of a depression – but that could only be achieved with a lot more cut XPS. In fact rivers and streams (especially in Spain) look more like strips of green than blue, grey or brown, as the banks are vegetated, and this tends to dominate the usually trickling flow of water. I could potentially achieve something by using flock while the caulk is still wet – though I would need to be careful about bridges and fords. But as already mentioned, caulk terrain is not robust, and it is best regarded as throwaway – so it is not worth investing too much in it. Flocked margins would make storage even trickier. On the table, the pieces did have a slight tendency to be knocked out of position. Pinning down with tree models may be a solution, but they should really be a bit wider to accommodate this.

I will try to store these pieces, along with the cut pieces of XPS, so that I can run the game again, but my expectations are low. Anyway I’m sure I will be using some variation on the technique for my next project. Once the basic techniques are mastered, this is very quick and easy -the wet on wet technique in particular saves a lot of time. I will post about the trees and villages on another day!

A table for Albuera- fleece mat and XPS

Apart from reading, much of my recent hobby time has been devoted to the long-neglected aspect of terrain. I focused on one-third of the field of Waterloo, representing the line of advance of the Prussian IV Corps on Plancenoit. Pretty much all aspects of my terrain needed work, and this is still unfinished. Meanwhile my friend Rob offered me a game. This was not just a chance for me to road-test my new wargames rules, but also an opportunity to try out some terrain ideas.

I picked the Peninsula battle of Albuera. This is on the small side for my rules – suitable for an evening game, but not for the day game we planned. I decided to scale it down, with each base being 600 men or 200 cavalry, and the units being brigades or regiments for the most part. The game-design aspects of this are another story. For now I’m going to look at the table. Albuera was fought in Spain, near the border with Portugal, on terrain that was remarkably empty. It has just one significant habitation, very gentry rolling hills and two streams that merge. This was quite easy to put together quickly – and a good test run for some of my new ideas.

The first problem was how to shape the table. I wanted something between the two extremes of beautifully sculpted boards as seen in exhibition games, and the rapidly assembled table from standard bits that you use for a club game. I decided to go for contoured rather than sculpted hills, at least for the gently rolling terrain that most of the battles I’m interested in were fought on. This is much simpler to assemble, and its flatness makes it much easier to put things like models of buildings on. The big problem is that I want to represent the sweeping shape of valleys and ridges, and not just plonking a few hills on hill pieces on the table, or just leaving the whole thing flat – which are the normal wargames solutions. The technique I have been working on is to place a mat over cut polystyrene. The mat softens the sharp edges of the contours, as well being the fasted way to get a respectable looking surface.

This time I retired by well-worn green felt mat, replacing it with a modern printed fleece mat produced by Geek Villain. I picked their “Sicily” mat, which has the muted colours I am looking for and enough pattern to break things up, without dictating the shape of the terrain. You can see it in the picture. One side is mainly beige, which fades into mainly green. This suits Albuera well, as one side of the table is lightly wooded, and the other dry, featureless farmland. The green is a little strong for my liking, but I think it is as good as it gets when buying off the shelf.

The next innovation was to abandon the lightweight expanded polystyrene (EPS) for the denser extruded polystyrene (XPS). EPS is cheap, and a common packing material (lots of it comes free when you buy stuff), but quite hard to work with. XPS is mainly sold as insulation, and cuts easily with a knife – so long as it is sharp. It is much nicer to work with. It is pricier though. I have been buying off Amazon. My first attempt was a pack of six sheets (10mm thick) of 60cm by 100cm in bright yellow. This cost £40. As I decided I needed more, I found a pack of 5 sheets of 60cm by 120cm (fewer sheets but same area overall) for just £26. This stuff is designed for hiding under floorboards, not for craft use, so the sizes are not precision, and the surface is not always smooth – but as I’m putting a mat over it, that doesn’t really matter.

One thing I had learnt from experiments though, is that it is very useful to be able to stick pins into the board. That means you need a bottom layer covering the whole table – the main reason I needed two packs. That bottom layer can be re-used for different projects, though. Another thing I have learnt the hard way is that to represent gentle terrain you need to keep the number of layers a minimum – preferably just one on top of the base – and represent only the critical features. That means you can’t just work it out from a contour map; it is more art than science. For Albuera the critical terrain was a low ridge passing the length of the table. I had enough bits of board to put in another feature on the top left of the photo. Strictly there should be another low feature running along the right of the table – but this has no game significance, and I decided to save material. I stuck the top layer to the bottom with masking tape and put the mat on top. The fleece forms beautifully over the XPS sheet, and there was no need to use pins – which is what I needed to do when I experimented with my Sorauren table, which has much bigger hills.

The next big task (at least so far as this narrative is concerned – I actually did it before the contours) was the roads and rivers. That will be my next topic.

David Rowland’s The Stress of Battle – quantifying the human factor

This is an astonishing book, first published back in 2005, with a second edition in 2019, which recently came into the Caliver bookshop. Despite the subtitle the book is not aimed at hobby wargames – more the sort of thing armed forces would run. But there is a lot of interest for us hobbyists. Like a lot of highly insightful works, what it says is bloomin’ obvious once you have read it, but somehow it changes the way you think about things profoundly – in this case the behaviour of men in battle conditions.

The book describes a journey in what is called “Operational Research” in the context of analysing military combat. It started with trying to understand why the combat performance of weapons was so far below what went on in the firing rage, and to quantify this “degradation” and the various factors that affected it. It describes a journey of analysing progressively more complex situations, to get a better understanding of the components of weapon and human effectiveness.

The main journey started in the 1970s with trials using real (British Army) troops in staged battles using laser pulse devices mounted on guns and sensors on the vehicles and people to simulate fire without risk of injury. The first set were tank battles, and then there were a series of infantry battles with armoured support. The tank exercises revealed a number of interesting insights n how battles evolved, and quickly descended into mini-battles with just a few tanks on either side (or one to one) – this was staged in Germany in classic rolling terrain. The infantry exercises showed huge amounts of degradation – reduced weapon effectiveness compared with the effective maximum on shown on firing ranges. Rifle effectiveness was just 5%, and machine-guns 21%.

The next step was to look at historical data, using the trial data as the basis for estimating some of the variables (such as the relative effectiveness of rifles over machine-guns). They looked at the effectiveness of defence fire against an attack, starting with the simplest situation of attacks in the open. They used data going back to the US Civil War, on the basis that the dynamics of small arms fire have not changed much since the rifle replaced the musket. Still, later wars tended to provide more usable data, so WW2 tended to dominate. They progressively added complexities – preparatory bombardments, suppression fire from tanks, prepared defences and so on. They moved on to consider fighting in built-up areas, including the effects of rubble, and woods. Overall they found a further degradation compared to laser-simulation trials of 90%. In other words rifle fire was at just 0.5% of theoretical effectiveness (depending on various conditions), and machine-guns 2%.

The researchers were clear that this degradation had a lot to do with how individuals responded to danger. Two observers from WW2 were particularly on their minds. The first British Lt-Col Lionel Wigram, who went to Sicily in July 1943 to observe infantry behaviour:

His principal finding was that in every platoon there were “six gutful men who will go anywhere”, with “twelve ‘sheep’ who will follow that short distance behind if they are well led”. But there were also ‘”four to six who will run away”. It made uncomfortable reading and apparently General Montgomery suppressed it on the grounds that it would be bad for morale. In addition, Wigram himself lost his temporary rank and was posted to a battalion in Italy as a Major, only to be killed.

David Rowland’s Stress of Battle p61-62

Also quoted was Lt-Col SLA Marshall of the US Army who was commissioned study to infantry behaviour immediately after the war. He observed that only on average only 15% of men took an active part in battle with their weapons, and rarely more than 25% even under intense local pressure. The average was higher for heavy weapons. This was based on battles in NW Europe and the Pacific; he claimed the rate of participation was much higher in Korea. This analysis was pretty subjective but it clearly pointed to an important truth.

All this became clearer in the next phase of the research, when the team looked at battles involving armour. This started with looking at the effectiveness of anti-tank guns against tank attacks, as these data were easiest to make sense of. Their data came initially from encounters by British guns in the Western Desert and Tunisia. Unlike infantry battles, they were examining relatively small numbers of weapons, and the individual performance of weapons was more apparent. They saw that the results were heavily influenced by what they called “heroic behaviour”, which usually resulted in a gallantry award. This covered 20-30% of guns. To cut a long story short, they found support for a model closely approximating to Wigram’s observations for infantry. There were three groups of men: “heroes”, those with degraded performance, and those who took no part at all. The ratios were consistent with Wigram’s observation (18:55:27). Incidentally Wigram’s ratio of ‘gutful” is quite high; anti-tank crew performance tended to be led by the best performer in the group, who was usually at least sergeant rank – Marshall’s ratio of 15% would be typical of infantrymen. I think Wigram was following the British 78th Battleaxe division, who were veterans. There was some variation of performance within each group, but these were minor compared to the variation between the groups; there was no continuum of individual performance. The heroic group operated at a similar level to the soldiers in the non-lethal trials, the “followers” (my terminology) operated at about 30% of this level, and the “shirkers” did not participate in the battle at all. They picked out examples from the battles that they studied, of some guns killing over a dozen tanks, while other guns from the same unit were abandoned without firing a shot. Looking more closely at the heroes, they found that this correlated strongly with rank. A much higher proportion of NCOs than other ranks, and higher proportion of officers to NCOs. Doubtless the causality of this worked both ways.

The studies went on to look at progressively more complex situations in armour combats, and then to look at the effects of surprise and shock, but the three classes of behaviour was the critical finding. There were a number of other findings that will be of interest to wargamers. Two were very striking:

  • Defenders of urban areas proved to be at a substantial disadvantage to the attackers, usually suffering very heavy casualties. The most effective strategy for defence was to hold back forces in reserve and launch a counter-attack. This runs contrary to the expectations of those who aren’t infantrymen, but I think that experienced soldiers knew this. The Germans at Salerno seem to have understood this, for example, in their defence of Battapaglia. This does not apply if the built-up area has been reduced to rubble, which turns it into a more normal battlefield – though not if the bombardment is just before the attack, when the shock can have a major effect. Wargamers rarely understand this dynamic over built-up areas, suffering something of a Hougoumont complex – treating all built-up areas like the heroically defended farm complex at Waterloo (and its neighbour La Haye Sainte). It doesn’t help that in larger scale games a village is often represent by a single building model. While this result was derived mainly from WW2 data, I think it is timeless.
  • Anti-tank guns proved two to three times more effective than tanks at destroying tanks, in spite their lack of mobility and protection. Mobile anti-tank guns (portees and self-propelled guns) had similar performance to towed guns, and even the open-turreted M10 (generally highly disadvantaged in wargames) was more similar to its towed equivalent than tanks. The authors explanation is equally unexpected: it is because they had a higher proportion of “heroes” manning them, specifically they were more likely to have an officer or senior NCO in command, or an officer could easily move from gun to gun and exert influence (or actually take over the firing himself). They had no need to look for alternative explanations, though they were able to dream up a few.

For me the dog that didn’t bark was differences in troop quality. Of course the data was seldom good enough to produce different estimates for different types of troops. It was drawn overwhelmingly from battles between British, American and German troops. These men came from similar societal backgrounds, were trained in roughly similar ways, and they were mainly conscripts. So, although modern writers like to talk up the superior quality of German troops, it shouldn’t be so surprising that when you get down to platoon and company level the troops behaved similarly. On two occasions did the researchers try to distinguish elite units. When looking at troops defending rubble they noted that the defenders on several occasions were German paratroops (Monte Cassino loomed large, but there were other battles covering 40% of the data). Allowing for their greater allocation of machine-guns, the researchers found a slightly better performance for the paratroopers, but not a significant one. The also looked at the performance of Gurkha troops, and found a slightly higher proportion of gallantry awards, indicating a higher proportion ‘heroes”, and so better combat performance. The effects were not decisive.

The three types of behaviour in combat, and their rough proportions and linkage to seniority is timeless, I think – and much of the art of warfare is based on managing this fact, from the invention of the Greek phalanx onwards. I have often said that the relatively lacklustre performance of Austrian troops in Napoleonic times came down to a lower ratio of cadres in their large companies. When a period of campaigning had increased the cadre ratio (attrition affects the cadres less), they performed better, such as in 1800, when they nearly ended Napoleon’s career at Marengo. Elite units are created to increase the proportion of “heroes” and eliminate the shirkers – though possibly at a substantial cost to the rest of the army.

And for wargamers? In most games we use large figure scales and we can average out the effects. Even in WW2 games, where the figure ratios are often 1 to 1, we like to group people together in teams, so that the individual behaviour is averaged, and let the dice do the rest. But this works less well for armoured warfare, where we tend to assume all vehicles are crewed by heroes. This produces a better game, given that tank numbers tend be quite low, and so an only one in four chance of the tank being fully functional can easily take the fun away. Still the examples given of a single 6-pounder destroying multiple German tanks (mainly Panzer IIIs I think) could not happen if those tanks had been manned by fully functioning crews.

This book has been around for a bit, and it must have influenced some rules writing. I can see its influence on the Too Fat Lardies offerings, especially I Ain’t been Shot Mum and its Big Men. But generally our games work more like those non-lethal trials with laser-pulse weapons.

This book isn’t a particularly easy read. It uses a lot of technical language and even for someone like me that knows a bit about statistical analysis, it is quite to follow at times – the blurb suggests that its many charts help make things clear, but they didn’t for me. But you can skip through those bits – and I don’t hesitate to recommend this book for anybody who wants to understand land warfare better, especially WW2.