Sunday 27 February 2011

PBEM Battles and Wargames

The battle of Marienborn
When I developed the wargame rules I wanted them to integrate with the then solo 1813 campaign. And whilst it was a solo campaign, they worked well. The 12 moves per day was based on the width of the wargames table, to allow sufficient time for two armies to march from opposite sides of the table and still have sufficient time for what I would call a prolonged battle. That is to say it would not all be decided on just one exchange of fire or melee. For the past couple of years we found that it worked well. It lasted long enough for an enjoyable wargame, but not so long that it because a drag to finish off a battle which would not end.
With the onset of the PBEM I find that few, if any, of the battles are decided in one 12 move game. If there is a clear winner or loser, then it is ok. The campaign rules insist that the loser retreats next day, and that the winner remains on the battlefield. But if there is not an obvious winner, it is then down to the campaign commanders and they usually decide to continue. Not unreasonable at all, and perfectly understandable from their point of view. And as we have a permanent wargames table, it does not create any great problem for us.
However I now find that there are two battles being fought on the same day, and it is likely that both will continue into a second day. This does create a problem.
At the end of the first day of the battle of Helmstedt neither side were obvious winners. Had Jan and I been wargaming on our own I would have decided a winner and loser, probably just to suit the campaign scenario. After all the aim of our solo campaign was just to provide a good wargame and I didn’t have to justify the results to anyone else. But in the campaign I was already in the dog house for not following campaign orders to the letter, and could see that I might well upset more players if I could not justify the outcome of the battle.
So I cleared the table and set up the battle of Marienborn. It was clear from the start that this battle would not be decided in one campaign day. First it was an encounter battle, which are often longer because of the amount of marching to deploy at the start. Secondly it started at midday, so there would only be 8 moves instead of 12. The game is still in progress, but it does not look like there is going to be an obvious winner and loser.
If both battles/games go into a second day I will fight Marienborn first, as that game is on the wargames table. But what happens if it is not concluded in a second day?
Whatever happens I will have to clear the table and set up Helmstedt. But due to the current campaign situation it is quite possible that reinforcements will arrive during the second day. So how do I handle a third day?
As most historical battles were decided in one day, I feel it should be possible to ensure that this will usually happen in the PBEM. But as long as the decision is left to the campaign players I do not see how I can ensure that it does.
Historically both armies attempted to concentrate before fighting a major battle. In the PBEM to date this has not happened. This is probably because most generals would not want to risk a battle before they could gather together overwhelming numbers. In earlier campaigns this has always been a problem, because if you fight a wargame with say two or three to one odds the smaller side is certain to win. The resulting wargame is a waste of time for anyone taking part, except the one with the bigger army of course. And as the object of our campaign is good wargames, that result is to be avoided at all costs.
If anyone has any suggestions I would welcome them.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

Battle of Helmstedt
There is an old saying, something about “be careful what you wish for”. In my last post I bemoaned the lack of feedback on the PBEM campaign, well I have now got my wish.
It all started with the first battle of the campaign.
I thought that I had made clear before the campaign started that Jan and I would fight the battles/wargames as we thought best, but taking into account the current campaign orders. I was therefore quite surprised to receive feedback that one corps was not doing what the campaign player wanted it to do.
The corps in question was ordered to move to the south. The enemy corps commander ordered a surprise, or at least unexpected, attack on the town the first corps was leaving. This I thought would provide an interesting battle/wargame. And one which I would not have encountered in the old solo campaign.
Jan commanded the corps moving south. I commanded the one attacking. It seemed to me that there was a good chance that Jan’s corps could well be destroyed if attacked in the flank. Despite this I stipulated that Jan’s corps must move first, and must follow the campaign orders to move south. They would not be allowed to react to the threat to their flank until my corps actually came on the table.
In the first part of move one Jan set off south, and her leading brigade reached their objective. My corps came on after she had moved, and attempted to attack her flank. However the dice were against me, and I only made slow progress.
At the start of move two Jan ordered her corps to turn and face the threat, and her rear brigade to return to the town that they had just left to protect their left flank. It was at this point that I started to receive email because I, or rather Jan, had not followed the letter of the campaign orders.
I expected my explanation, along the above lines, to suffice but it was not to be so. The player seems unable to accept my explanation, and seems to think that I have deliberately upset his whole campaign plan.
I suggested that he post on the campaign forum, and that has sparked a good response. Fortunately, so far, most of the comments are in support of what we have done. But it has caused me to consider whether I need to change the command responsibilities in the campaign.
The whole campaign is designed to provide good wargames for Jan and I, and an enjoyable and fun campaign for the players. Clearly it is not working to everyone’s satisfaction at present.
At present I fill the role of chief of staff, to save the players having to do their own admin. I am wondering whether it might be better if I also performed the role of commander in chief. This would allow me to handle the campaign grand strategy, and give each corps commander the ability to plan his own little part of the campaign. The only problem is that this style of command is not at all Napoleonic – or at least not at all French Napoleonic.
I am toying with the idea of placing the next mini campaign in Eastern Spain. The allied players would all be Spanish, and be completely independent. The French players would have semi independent commands, and would have to communicate via the umpire.
It has the makings of a great campaign. But then again they all do until I hand it over to the players! I had no idea what a can of worms I was opening by allowing Jan to abandon the campaign orders in the light of developments on the wargame table. Who knows what might happen with eight players all doing their own thing in Eastern Spain?
I suspect that my current Hanover campaign will not be long lasting. I do not mind that at all, providing everyone enjoys the experience. But the current storm clouds do not look very promising. I hope that I am proved wrong, it would not be the first (nor the last) time.
And the wargame itself? Well Helmstedt proved to be one of our most enjoyable wargames for a long time. The advantage changed with each move. My well planned attack fell apart due to a particularly poor dice (not for the first time either). And, ironically, both corps achieved their orders. Jan's corps ended up where the campaign player wanted it. My corps took the town as ordered, but only just. Both sides suffered medium casualties, but both could fight again next day. Everything is still to play for.
On the campaign forum the debate continues!
Link to campaign forum

Sunday 20 February 2011

Campaign battles

Battle of Helmstedt

When I have taken part in campaigns in the past as a player, the most difficult aspect has always been battles/wargames. The last two campaigns are ended abruptly as soon as a battle was declared, without reason or explanation. Presumably the GM/Umpire just found it too difficult to resolve the battle/wargame.

I knew that this would not be a problem with my current campaign, because I have fought many battles/wargames whilst the campaign was solo. But now that it is PBEM I was faced with the problem of how much to tell the players.

All players were aware before they signed up for the campaign that Jan and I would wargame the battles. They were also aware that the whole purpose of the campaign was to provide good battles for us to wargame.
The purpose of the campaign for the players is strategic, and trying to outwit the enemy. And of course the battle/wargame is the result of all of their efforts. So we felt it was important that they should be as involved in the battle/wargame as possible. To this end we post a move by move account, with photographs, on the 1813 campaign blog.
As with most Blogs we get very little feedback, so I am never sure how interested others are in the content. We do get about 20 hits a day on the blog, so obviously quite a few people are reading the battle report.
But we were not prepared for the feedback from one or two players. It’s always good to get feedback, but some of this was critical of the battle/wargame tactics. It’s good that there is sufficient interest to prompt this response, but its put Jan and I on warning that our performance may come in for some critical response!
I had taken care to ensure that the game started with the same orders as the campaign. But once on the table I felt it was reasonable for us both to fight the game in the way we thought best, and to be free to react to changing circumstances. This caused the adverse response. One player felt that we should have followed his campaign orders, even though we both felt this would have resulted in the defeat of his corps.
This is something I will have to try to sort out on the forum once the current campaign is finished. We have to be very aware that the campaign battles involve more than just the two of us, and that we want to achieve an enjoyable game for all concerned.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Walking Napoleonic Battlefields

It was April 2009 when I started the first blog in the series Walking Napoleonic Battlefields. Since then I have done a blog entry each week covering our visits to battlefields in Belgium, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Italy. I have just started the last blog in the series, which will cover our one week holiday in 2002 to Aspern-Essling, Wagram and Austerlitz.

Its been great fun reading through the diaries and scrap books I kept of each visit to prepare the blogs. In fact its been a little like revisiting the battlefields. I shall miss the weekly research when I finish this last holiday.

The first entry in this last series is about the planning which went into preparing for the weeks holiday. It took the best part of a year to decide how to tackle the visit, to read up on the battlefields to be visited. To photocopy descriptions of the battles to take with us to read on the spot. To get suitable modern maps which would allow us to find our way around the fields and villages where the battles were fought. To book accommodation as close as possible to the battlefields.

In preparing the blog I listed the books used, most importantly David Chandler's "Campaigns of Napoleon". I have used this excellent book to prepare for almost every battlefield we had visited. It was one of the first books I bought, and has been read and re read many, many times. Before each holiday I would read through the appropriate chapter. I would then consult the West Point "Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars" for maps of the area. These two books are now falling apart from frequent use, but are still used on a regular basis.

Chandler's book is the best introduction you could hope to find for the whole of Napoleon's military life. It is easy to read and covers all aspects of each campaign. It is short on personal histories, but that is to be expected with a one volume book.

The West Point Atlas is very difficult to read, or at least I found it to be so. I remember that it took me weeks, if not months, to read from cover to cover. Each page explains the map opposite, and I remember spending hours going from description to map and back again trying to make sense of it all. I still find the text hard going. But the maps are the best I have seen. I recently used them to make the maps for my 1813 wargame campaign.

The blog covering the planning and preparation for Aspern to Austerlitz can be found at

Friday 11 February 2011

Too Many Battles

French move out of Helmstedt
The PBEM campaign is working too well!
We are only on the second campaign day, and already there are two battles/wargames to fight. As the whole reason for the 1813 campaign is to provide Jan and I with wargames this is good news. However it has happened on the second day of the campaign, and that caught me unprepared.
The big advantage of the solo campaign was that I could manage it to provide games as and when I wanted. I could also do four or five campaign days in an hour or so. So the early part of the campaign, where there is a lot of marching to and fro, could be handled very quickly.
By contrast the PBEM campaign movement is VERY slow. Just one campaign day can take a whole week to process. This is largely due to my attempt to increase the decision making of the corps commanders, and add to the “fog of war” for the two commander in chief.
The campaign daily process works like this
CinC sends me orders for their corps commanders
I calculate how long they will take to reach their destination and send them to the corps commanders with any necessary delay
The corps commanders send me their orders for their brigades. They also send any messages for the CinC or for another corps commander.
I work out the movement on the map, and decide whether there is a contact. If there is I set up a wargame which Jan and I fight. To keep everyone interested whilst we are fighting the wargame, I publish a move by move battle report on the campaign diary blog.
I then write a chief of staff report for each CinC and corps commander. This will include any intelligence gathered by cavalry patrols, the current order of battle, and any supply problems and such like. The one for the CinC will only contain information from spies or other friendly town mayors. The one for the corps commander will be much more detailed. Attached to the report are any messages from other commanders now due for delivery.
The corps commanders then send me their daily report to the CinC. This will be based on the chief of staff report I have written, plus any suggestions they might have to exploit local conditions.
I calculate how long each will take to deliver to the CinC, and place them in the appropriate chief of staff report folder.
The campaign daily sequence is now complete, and I ask both CinC to write their orders and send them to me.
Because all of this takes so long to process, I require an optional “one off” type wargame to keep Jan and I occupied. At present this is a series of wargames based on Wellington’s peninsular battles, with the imaginative title “Wellington’s Battles”.
When the new PBEM campaign started I set up the latest battle, based on Salamanca. I expected we would have at least two or three weeks to wargame it, before the campaign produced its own battle to be wargamed. On the second campaign day I was presented with not one, but two, battles!!
It only took a few days to complete Salamanca, and now we have set up the first campaign battle which is a one corps per side engagement at Helmstedt. The “fog of war” is already having its effect. The French commander had ordered his corps to vacate Helmstedt on the very day that the Prussian commander had ordered his corps to attack the town. It could never have happened with a solo campaign, and is already proving the superiority of the PBEM campaign.
You can follow the battle report here

Monday 7 February 2011

Some Favourite Books of the Peninsular War

Nick Liscombe - The Peninsular War Atlas

I got a copy of this book for Christmas. It’s a heavy book, in weight and in content – not really bedside reading. So I am not making such good progress reading it as I might have wished.
Its one of those books which really live up to expectations. Excellent maps of all the Peninsular battles, both Wellington’s and the Spanish ones. But its also one of those books you might never get around to READING.
I was determined to do so, and I have made a good start. I am currently on page 103 of 350. Part of the problem is that I only get to read it when the sun is shining and I can sit on the naya with a coffee or a glass of wine, and the book on the table in front of me. We have not had a lot of sunny days since our return to Spain from UK, hence only page 103.
As soon as I saw the book I was reminded of the West Point Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, which is also in my library. I remember back in the early 1970s reading that tome and trying to remember what I had read. Both are really just descriptions of the maps on the opposite page, rather than a real history of the conflict.
All of this made me think back on my early reading of the Peninsula Wars - I will not widen it to the whole Napoleonic Wars.
My first interest was from a uniform reference point of view. I belonged to a Public Library for as long as I can remember, and I have always found them to be most helpful in finding any book I wanted to read, providing I knew the title and author. For many years I would ask the library to get me a copy which I would read. And if I found it worth while I would then buy a copy
Commandant Henry Lachouque - Napoleon’s War in Spain

This is the first book on the Peninsular War which I actuallly bought - as opposed to borrowing from the Public Library. It is another of those books which I have found to be difficult to read, and I regret to say that I have never really read this one. I have glanced through it many times, but never actually read page by page. It does however have excellent colour illustrations of the uniforms of the war, less well known black and white illustrations and period maps of Portugal and Spain.

Bernard Cornwell - Sharpe series

In 1988 Mr Sharpe made his appearance in Sharpes Rifles. I got each book from the library as they were published, and read them with relish. Some deride Shape, I love him. This is not an original print, I never bought paper backs then. But I have since collected the whole series, and have read them all again since we moved to Spain in 2006. If anything I enjoyed them more the second time I read them. They have a real feel for the period, and he has obviously visited the locations for each novel.
Sir William Napier – History of the War in the Peninsula
In the early 1990s the six volume were reprinted one by one. I bought each volume as it became available, cost £20 each if I remember correctly. To be honest I was a little disappointed in them. I personally found them hard going to read, and the maps not very good. Just before we moved to Spain I sold more than half of my book collection, mostly wargaming and uniform books. I kept all of the historical books, except this series. I regret selling them, as I would like to read them again and see if they are better the second time.
Sir Charles Oman – A History of the Peninsular War

Shortly after the Napier books, this series was reprinted. Again I bought them as they became available, and about the same cost per volume. But these I really enjoyed. I found them easier to read, all seven volumes. And the maps are much better. I have also read them again since we moved to Spain, and enjoyed them even more the second time around.

David Gates – The Spanish Ulcer

I am not sure when I first read this. I suspect it might have been before the Napier and Oman series. I borrowed it from the library, and enjoyed it so much I bought my own copy. It is a surprisingly comprehensive history of the war in 469 pages. It is very easy to read, and has excellent orders of battle. The maps are the worse I have seen, but you can’t have everything in one volume.

Donald Featherstone – Campaigning with the Duke of Wellington & Featherstone

I used to have all of Don’s wargaming books. I found them very hard going, and never even glanced at one after I had read it once. But I found this book to be one of the best I have read on the Peninsula. It has extensive first person quotes from each campaign, a brief description of Don’s visit to the area and some boring notes on his wargaming the battle concerned. I often read through sections of this book.

Captain John Kincaid – The Rifle Brigade

I have read many, many more books on the Peninsula. Most were reprints of books written by participants in the war. But this is the only one in my personal library. I have always found these to be pretty hard to read, and this is the only book in my military library which I have not even read once. Not really sure why, but I have promised myself I will read it when I finally finish reading Nick Liscombe

Wednesday 2 February 2011


Table at start of Salamanca game

At this stage of the PBEM campaign there are lots of email to answer, as everyone settles in with the new orders system. All of this delays the actual map movement, and consequently the first battle.

So to keep us going, Jan and I have turned to our occasional series of wargames called "Wellington's Battles". These are wargames inspired by the battles Wellington fought in Portugal and Spain.

The aim is not to recreate the actual battle, but to fight a fun wargame based on the historical battle. The table usually bears some resemblence to the actual field of battle, but the orders of battle make no attempt to do so.

I try to start the wargame as the battle opened, but then Jan and I have complete freedom.

I have always considered it hopeless to try to recreate a historical battle. It is a huge task to get the order of battle correct, and the ground will never bear more than a passing resemblence to the historical battlefield. And what is the point, because once the game starts it is very unlikely to follow the same sequence as the historical battle.

But having said all of that, it is good fun to pretend you are Wellington or Napoleon and face similar tactical problems to them in a wargame that looks a little like Austerlitz or, in this case, Salamanca.

The game, as the battle, starts with Packenham's surprise attack on Thomiere’s division. The big difference is that I have allowed the leading French cavalry to be deployed in line, so that they have a chance of stopping the initial attack.

I have put the set up details on the blog, and I will be posting one move each day as Jan and I fight the wargame. If you would like to follow the progress of the game, you will find it at:

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Lifes little Disappointments

Its been a weekend of satisfaction and disappointment.

Disappointment first.

You will recall that a local 16 year old lad rang me last week to ask about the Jalon Wargames Club, and that I invited him to come and visit us. During the conversation I explained that the club no longer existed, but he asked if he could come and see our games room and find out about Napoleonic wargaming. I also mentioned the PBEM campaign, which I thought might be a good way of finding out what our gaming is all about, and he was interested in joining.

We live on the outskirts of a small village, and finding us on a first visit is always a problem. So we always ask new visitors to meet us at the Farmacia in the village, and they can then follow us to the house. I arranged to meet this lad and his dad at the Farmacia at 3pm on Sunday. I was surprised that there was no one waiting when I got there at 2.55, and by 3.15 I was also pretty angry.

I can understand that he might have had second thoughts and decided it was not something he wanted to do. I can not understand why he did not have the good manners to give me a ring and cancel his visit. It does make you realise that there are some very selfish and thoughtless people around.

I had set up a demonstration game for them to see. Jan had bought some nice cakes for afternoon tea. We had set aside an afternoon to entertain two strangers. I had only invited the young man to come because I did not want to disappoint him. He, and his father, could not be bothered to pick up the telephone and tell us they had changed their mind.

This is the first time that something like this has happened, and I would not let it influence how I react to any future enquiries. But it does make you realise that it can be a mistake to assume that everyone else has the same consideration and values as yourself.

Satisfaction second

On the other hand the new PBEM campaign is up and running. I have received all of the first day's orders, and am looking forward to plotting the first days movement. This is the exciting stage, when there is all to play for. Its interesting to see how the two CinC players have planned their campaign strategy, and to anticipate how the corps commanders will comprehend their plan.

There have been a few problems - of course.

I have rewritten the campaign rules, and there has been a few teething problems. The new campaign is similar to the test campaign, even the maps are similar. But there are important differences. One player has mixed up the old rules with the new. Another had written his orders based on the old map rather than the new. His corps is marching to a town that does not exist on the new map! Two players have had email problems. One has sorted it, the other has not. So I have already lost one of the team. I was expecting casualties, but not this early in the campaign.

This loss is due to email problems, not to lack of interest. Its disappointing, but completely understandable. Fortunately the CinC player has taken on the role at very short notice, and sent me the missing orders. I have told the player that if he can sort out his email problems he is welcome back into the campaign. No hard feelings on either side.

So there is a vacant post in the campaign. If anyone would like to take part, and has reliable email facilities, they would be very welcome!

Lets see what the rest of the week has to offer.