Saturday, 16 December 2017

Eric Knowles R.I.P.

It is with great sadness, tinged with a certain degree of regret, that I have to report the death of Eric Knowles at the respectable age of 91. Eric was a contemporary of Grant, Featherstone, Lawford and Young as well as an old soldier to boot and whilst he may not be as well known as these worthies he possessed a formidable military intellect coupled with a politically incorrect NCOs sense of humour and with little patience for fools (or know it all teenagers).

I first met Eric when he and his wife Ivy owned and ran the New Model Army Limited wargames shop in Manor Park, East London way back in 1978. At the time Eric only worked in the shop at weekends as working full time was ruining his enjoyment of his hobby. As I recall he was working in security at the time and I remember him referring to the van he drove as the ‘Iron Zeppelin’.  I used to occasionally talk to him on Saturday mornings when the old Newham Wargames Club would meet to game in the cellar. There was also a meeting of Eric’s select few - including Chris Hardman, Neil Fox, Dave Weedon and others - on Wednesday evenings in the cellar to fight actions from his famous Madasahatta campaign. I can remember how proud I was when he asked me to come along on the Wednesday to take part - make no mistake, this was an honour, rather like being able to stay up with the adults at a party.

I was drafted in at the very end of the Madasahatta campaign but took my command very seriously - a pair of German gunboats during the allied bombardment of Port Victoria using Fletcher Pratt. They spent the entire battle circling in the inner basin of the harbour trying desperately to avoid 12 and 15” shells and then retaliating with single 3.4” guns....

I should also mention that it was about this time I had the good fortune to meet Bob Cordery.

Madasahatta (an island some 300 miles east of Madagascar which loosely mirrored the colonial scene in East Africa at the outbreak of WW1) came to an end and before the next great adventure started Eric decided that he wanted to make use of his huge 17th century Ottoman Turkish army (as I recall he had over a thousand 25mm Janissaries) to stage a refight of the siege of Vienna in 1683. I should mention that Eric was hugely fond of warfare in the early 18th century and possessed a vast collection of figures for the period. We duly fought this in the cellar with yours truly defending (or rather failing to) the walls. As I recall Vienna fell but the Turks were defeated in the field. It was great fun though and Eric was in his element as the director of operations. In fact he seemed to derive as much pleasure from organising these events as he did from fighting them. On a similar vein I can also recall taking part in a huge relight of the battle of Minden at a local school and Rossbach at Present Arms, the annual wargames show that used to be organised by SEEMS (the South East Essex Military Society). Eric certainly liked his battles in the grand manner. It was about this time that he and his son, Bill, made use of Eric’s collection for a wargame scene in the TV program Charlie Muffin.

Eric was also a very keen naval wargamer and owned a large collection of 1/1200th models. These, and his fertile imagination would form the basis of the South East Asia WW1 naval campaign fought using Fletcher Pratt rules on a tabletop - initially in the cellar but mostly at his house in Seven Kings. Yours truly was assigned command of the Turkish SE Asia squadron and again, I took this honour very seriously - in fact it started my lifelong interest in the Ottoman Turks. Eric churned out ship after after ship for this campaign, conversions of plastic kits (Eaglewall and Airfix) and also the Minifigs warships as well. All the participants contributed models  - I recall scratchbuilding a Goeben - and when the action commenced we had forces far in excess of what a colonial squadron would look like. Eric took command of the US Navy who initially were neutral. 

The central powers lost heavily from the outset, so much so that more and more outlandish ships were added to the mix to keep things going. When the US Navy declared war the Turks were there first target. I recall we had a number of very interesting actions with honours being even (I always felt that I went up a notch in Eric’s estimation as a result of this although he used to wince at the length and detail of my written orders we were required to submit).

Eric had a fairly elastic interpretation on any rules being used although he would always be able to justify any, shall we say, dubious decisions. He was very fond of making ‘umpirical decisions’ - usually delivered in a very tongue in cheek fashion - which occasionally did not sit well to those of us that were more closely wedded to the written word of the rule. He would brook no argument though and in retrospect his decisions were firmly grounded in historical precedent.

The campaign fizzled out after the Central Powers had been thoroughly trounced, several times.

When Eric retired he and Ivy moved to Lincolnshire where he continued his military interest by serving as a volunteer guide at Coningsby for, I believe, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. 

I last saw Eric some 30 years ago although I did speak with him around 15 years ago - he was looking to offload some of his collection but nothing came of it which was a shame as it was something to see. His house in Seven Kings had books and figures all over the place - I can only but wonder at Ivy’s patience!

It seems funny to be writing about someone that I have not seen for some 30 years but I am keen to acknowledge the debt I owed Eric in terms of my Wargaming career so to speak. Eric was a great exponent of telling a story around a game, of putting the tabletop action into some context. Madasahatta was a great example of this and the whole background was a labour of love. It gave the games some meaning. He also believed that rules should fit the history and not the other way round - the ‘flavour’ was all important. He could be encouraging and would always have time for a sensible conversation but did not suffer fools gladly and I know because I was certainly rather naive about history that he was well versed in.

Aside from the games I took part in Eric added to my lifelong interest in both naval wargames and anything Ottoman Turkish. He also gave me an understanding of the importance of gaming narrative - a lesson I have tried to conduct my games by because if you dont have a before and after then the middle loses its value.

I do not claim to have known Eric well and was never one of his closest circle of gaming friends but I consider myself to have been fortunate to have known him and and his family and am grateful for his impact on my enjoyment of Wargaming.

My regret is that I did make more effort to stay in contact but it does not lessen the respect I hold him in and the appreciation for what he indirectly inspired in me.

He was one of a kind and we shall not see his like again.

R.I.P. Eric Knowles - ‘the sea has risen and the mist has fallen’.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

A Chip off the Old Block

A long time ago in a man cave far, far away....

One of my ongoing projects is making use of my block armies. These have been used for a wide variety periods ranging from the 18th to the 20th century. Invariably the games have been Command and Colours derived or else from the Portable Wargame stable and in the case of the latter very much during the earlier phase of its development. As an aside I am embarrassed to say that I have yet to tackle a Portable Wargame since the books came out although I am naturally familiar with the system.

All of these games have one thing in common in that 'units' are made up of (usually) 4, 3 or 2 blocks. This has worked well where removal of blocks as a result of combat is the norm. It is well known that the Command and Colours system has a fairly elastic scaling criteria as far as units are concerned and so it depends on the historical scenario being fought to define what the notional scale is. I have no problem with this as I have long since abandoned using any definitive scales for my games.

So far so good but the system falls down when you are using Heroscape tiles rather than Hexon. The blocks I use are basically unmarked Jenga blocks cut in two. They are roughly 3cm by 2cm x 1cm and so fitting four of them (a typical infantry unit) on a Heroscape tile is nigh on impossible. I had no such problems using Hexon so perhaps my disposal of the same was a little on the rash side...The only way you could comfortably fit a unit on a Heroscape tile would be to use single block units and mark them in some fashion when they take hits. I have a number of options as to how I can do this so I am not overly concerned at present. I have some very nice two coloured counters (black and white) from a travel version of the game Othello which I will use. The black can represent two hits whilst the white will do for one. Using one block per hex will have the advantage of meaning that having terrain features in the hex will not cause too many issues with a single block unit also deployed therein.

The blocks of the good doctorphalanx made from a set of Mah Jong tiles acquired from a charity shop.

On the subject of blocks and using them for wargames I came across a series of block related posts over at doctorphalanx. For his blocks the good doctor made use of Mah Jong tiles with basic home made labels. I must confess to not having thought of this but the tiles are a useful alternative source.
Whilst I am happy with the standard horse and musket blocks I have I am less enthusiastic with the 20th century equipment - vehicles etc. I have used standard NATO type symbols which are OK but, to be honest, are a little soulless when used in a 3D setting. I have produced too may of them to redo the collection so will make do with them as they are. I will be doing something a little different with them though as I plan to use models for vehicles and artillery for the 20th century. These will be the Tumbling Dice 1/600th types. This will mean wooden blocks for the infantry and models for everything else - with the infantry blocks being replaced with figures in due course. This is the plan for the new year and I will need to get some extra bits and pieces to realise this part of the project.
I have a few other ideas rolling around for use with the block armies which will feature in later posts but for the meantime I shall be using them as they are on my Heroscape terrain tiles with a single block representing a unit and travel Othello counters for hit markers.
Best get some games organised then.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Where we are and why we are there....

The latest offering from the indefatigable Bob Cordery

After the previous bout of Jutland related posts I figured it would be a good idea to sit back and see exactly where I am with other 'stuff'. Jutland is not dead by any stretch of the imagination - I have a couple of admin related tasks to tackle before I can say it is a done deal. I need to cut out the remaining counters and draw up a play sheet for the map moving part of the system. I will also need to make some copies of the ship damage record cards as well as tweaking the formatting ever so slightly on the tactical playsheet. This is not a show stopper but is one of those things that is a niggle and so will need some attention at some point.

The 1/2400th scale ships will be on their way once again - the next batch (18 x RN 'B' class 4 funnelled destroyers) are based and undercoated although I am seriously thinking about cutting the down the funnels as they seem too tall. This needs to be carefully done! Once these are ready it will then be full steam ahead (no pun intended) with the cruisers and battleships.

Next year will see me tackling the 1/600th scale kit in earnest for use with the Portable Wargame and a few other things besides. I am thinking of Rommel and possibly Blucher by Sam Mustapha although the latter may be further away than the former. Aside from the ground based action I have planned for this set (WW1 and 2 with a side dish of something colonial) I also have some aircraft to tackle as well.

By way of a diversion I also have a whole pile of 54mm French Foreign Legion and their Tuareg opposition to tackle. This will be suitable for use with not only the Portable Wargame but also The Men Who Would Be Kings.

Another twist in the tale was the welcome news that Bob Cordery has released a third edition of his masterful Spanish Civil War wargamers' guide La Ultima Cruzada (see the picture above). I am really looking forward to getting this (it will be a Christmas present to me from me) as I know that Bob has added a lot of new material from the earlier version. I have a copy of the out of print second edition - which I thought was excellent in any event - but I am looking forward to the new version, especially as it is available in hardback as well. The 1/600th scale land stuff could well be used for this period and it will perhaps provide sufficient inspiration for me to tackle the naval side in 1/3000th. As if to inspire me further I noticed that this morning Bob has posted the following The Smallest Dreadnoughts.

The naval side of the SCW is perhaps more interesting in theory than it was in practise but it does have the advantage of not needing much in the way of material. It would be very much a self contained mini project at some point.

Finally, I have a hankering to cobble up some HOTT/DBA armies on the cheap which will mean using Risk figures from their Medieval version. These are rather nice and would paint up readily enough.

All in all then there is a good selection of stuff for me to be getting on with. Some of the ideas are bigger and more expansive than others and to be honest this list is pitched very firmly 'in an ideal world'. I also hope to get some games in along the way - Jutland naturally but also with the block armies. All in all then it helps to have an idea of what one may do rather than to have no idea of what one can do.

Or not, as the case may be.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Jutland Part 12: Necessity is the mother of invention

The newer version of the Jutland rangefinder - the folded pink and white card on the left. You had one for each side.

The playsheet for Jutland is ready. To be fair it was merely a case of adding a few extra bits and pieces from some of the myriad of articles on the game I have access to. There are a few formatting issues to address but  I will get this attended to over the next couple of days. I had previously drafted most of the playsheet back in 2013 and to be honest was pleasantly surprised to see how close to completion it was even from back then. I should point out that the playsheet only covers the tactical game and so one for the map game will need to be tackled in due course although the need is not quite so pressing.

The older version (which I have) of the rangefinder which is in two halves. You can also see the movement gauges and battle area markers used to aid deployment from the map to the playing area.

The only remaining problem I have - aside from punching out several sheets of counters that is - concerns the movement and turn device and the firing rangefinder. The rangefinder uses a different scale to the movement device. The rangefinder uses a scale of 20mm to 1,000 yards - a curious mix of metric and imperial measures. the movement device uses a scale of 15mm to 2 1/2 knots. I am going to settle on 1 inch equalling 1,000 yards across the board which will mean that new 'devices' for both firing and movement may be needed.

I say 'may' be needed because in reality you do not really need to use the devices supplied in the game - a ruler would serve just as well. The rangefinder device quotes distances in 1,000 yard increments and also shows maximum ranges for weapons and visibility. It also shows the ranges at which hits are doubled, tripled or halved. All of these detail will be (and indeed have been) incorporated into the tactical playsheet so the only thing needed apart from a ruler marked off in inches will be a turning device of some kind.

In respect of the game and its components it is becoming more and more difficult to find replacements. The game has been out of print for some years and prices on Ebay seem to get higher and higher. The rangefinder I have is from an earlier printing of the game and is thick cardboard and in two halves. A later version was one piece of card that folded in half  to fit in the box. I doubt if I will be using either device as a ruler is far more practical and having all the details on a play sheet is far more convenient.

One thing I have discovered though is that our friends in the US are far better served in respect of spares for boardgames - even ones that are no longer available. the only downside is the inevitable postage and customs charges which add to the cost in some cases quite dramatically.

Still, I have enough to be going with and so can use the game virtually as is. There are a few administrative details to tackle - printing ship charts being he main one - but as far as my Jutland collection is concerned we have lift off.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Jutland Part 11: Postscript - "More drama, less accounting"

Avalon Hill's Jutland in all its glory - and not a play sheet in sight!

It was a strange evening last night when I eventually returned to Chez Crook and too late to do anything meaningful. SWMBO had one of her headaches (mercifully not frequent but quite debilitating when they do make an appearance) so retired early on leaving the lounge to myself, one of the three cats and the Christmas tree. I resolved to get something done in order to take advantage of having time of my own as, if I am honest, I was feeling pretty flat about matters gaming related in the light of my recent decision re the Jutland project. My decision was made for all the right reasons and I have no regrets but I do have that nagging feeling that Jutland and I will reunite once again in the future - it what shape though I cannot tell.

Charles Litka very kindly commented on my last post with some interesting ideas and experiences - especially playtesting the 2nd edition of Jutland some 50 years ago! It was a pleasure to read and one expression he used struck me as summing up everything I am trying to achieve in terms of naval wargame rules - in fact I used it for the title of this post (many thanks Charles!).

Emboldened by his comment (and others - thanks to Dave and Ken) and with the lounge to myself I decided to finish up sorting out the collection of Jutland related magazine articles and the folder that they now live in. It was a very therapeutic experience and I rediscovered several important pieces. I should mention that I have everything written on Jutland that appeared in the old Avalon Hill General and Boardgamer magazines on a very useful CD that features the same for all of the Avalon Hill naval titles. I also own a facsimile copy of the Avalon Hill gamers guide to Jutland. What I rediscovered though was something entirely different.

Some time ago (and I wrote a blog post about it) I purchased a whole series of replacement game counters from a chap based in Canada. these included replacements for the original game and supporting a series of articles that appeared in the General and the Boardgamer. As well as additional types for the North Sea there are also counters (and scenarios) for the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The Mediterranean set is of particular interest as you get the French, Austrians, Italians, Black Sea Russians, Turks and the RN. Not only do you get the ship counters and control sheets there is also a complete set of plot maps for the Mediterranean and a detailed campaign/scenario set of rules. Of particular interest is the use of colliers as well as formation counters for use on the map itself. Finally, there is also provision for the use of light cruisers as individual ships.

With the North Sea additions there are a number of interesting tactical and strategic scenarios including a 1906 'What if' featuring lots of pre-dreadnoughts, a 1914 'What if' when the RN and Germans had virtual parity in capital ships for a short while and two scenarios featuring the return to Germany of Von Spee and also of the Goeben and Breslau.

Having been enthused by all this lot I figured it was about time I cut the counters out - 8 sheets of them - and actually used them. Remember that Jutland is in effect a miniatures game in a box and the counters (scaled at 1/4800th) can be readily substituted for models. A couple of things struck me whilst sorting through all this lot. Firstly, the game badly needs a playsheet - especially with the advanced and optional rules, both official and unofficial. This is something I have in hand and it will make life a whole lot easier than referring across multiple magazine articles during a game. Secondly, and most importantly, Jutland really is a naval warfare game that is 'more drama, less accounting'.

In short then, perhaps I should be making use of what I have for what it is rather than trying to fashion something I have not.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Jutland Part 10: Endgame

S.M.S. Seydlitz - battered, bloodied but unbowed, limping home after Jutland. She would spend some time in dock being repaired but was back with the fleet by November.

I am truly sorry but my mind is made up. I have spent the last few days pondering a whole series of things associated with the naval rules I have been working on and however I dress it up it simply does not work in the way I would like. I have therefore decided to abandon the attempt.

I enjoy Jutland the 'board' game as is and within the context of what it is trying to represent (operational squadron/fleet sized naval combat) it is a wonderful game. I shall continue to use this (and all the various expansions) as it is an old favourite with much potential. As far as 'tweaking' the rules are concerned I shall not bother as they are fine as written, subject to my oft-repeated caveat of 'context'. In attempting to modify or port certain features of the system I have learned an awful lot from all of the research I have carried out as well as trying out the various game mechanisms I have explored, so the time and effort has not been wasted.

My plan instead is to revisit some old rules that were left unfinished and unloved and to 'dust them off' so to speak. These are rules that will definitely offend the purist and will also step away from the usual level of hard data that form the basis of so many sets of naval rules.

This will require something of a leap of faith from myself as I have been firmly wedded to the concept of translating technical data for naval rules for as long as I have been playing naval wargames.

It will be a refreshing change though, to tackle rules that are not set out to be quite so dogmatic.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Jutland Part 9: Stepping Forward

An oldie but goody - and is available via the History of Wargaming Project run by John Curry 

I thought long and hard about my recent play test and the changes I would need to incorporate in the next version of the rules. To be honest they are not many but they will make a difference. I mentioned that some of the processes were a little clumsy and so I hope that my changes have simplified things for the better.

I am satisfied with movement and all that need to happen with this is a little clarification around speed changes and turning so nothing too heavy. This kind of stuff is largely self-evident so I will not stress the point too much.

Firing is OK in terms of how you do it but damage allocation is the biggest problem as currently it involves some 'messy' calculations. These are OK when running a solo action but could get confusing in a multiplayer environment. I have taken a whole step out of the process in this case - it added little value - so damage inflicted will still remain at two steps (roll to hit and then for damage)  but the second will be a lot more straightforward. At this stage I will look to incorporate critical hits in due course.

One of the issues arising from my review of the play test concerns how ship protection/flotation values are calculated. Initially my thoughts were concerned with armoured cruisers As the playtest featured four of them) but they soon expanded to include smaller ship types. If you recall the base game of Jutland only reflected ships on an individual basis rated as CA (armoured cruiser) or larger. Light cruisers and destroyers were deployed on a combined basis so that 2 - 4 light cruisers were represented by a single counter and for destroyers it was complete flotillas. This worked well enough for Jutland but became a little too abstract when dealing with smaller ships. One of my aims was to allow for these ships on an individual basis so that lower level games had a little more depth to them. In both cases the ship record consisted of a number of boxes with each box representing a single ship in the formation.

I suppose what it comes down to is how do I want my ships to be represented? If an average dreadnought has, for example, 10 to 12 flotation points then other ships should be scaled back from this. Barry Carter, in his book Naval Wargames, adopted a fairly loose approach to damage points as he applied a notional figure to a type and then adjusted for other types accordingly. He liked his battleships(WW1) to have around 1,000 points or so (damage was based on the calibre of shell hitting the target) and then scaled back to light cruisers and destroyers with the later having around 100 or so points. The point is that he was fairly relaxed about how these scores were arrived out so long as they felt right and in relation to other ship types.

I must confess that being able to calculate a defence value for a ship based on a whole host of variables - tonnage, internal structural integrity, armour protection etc. - is a very difficult, if not impossible process. It is with this in mind that I am now not even going to try. Instead I will assign a notional value to a ship type and adjust classes either up or down from this benchmark depending on such factors as age, technological advances, actual historical performance etc. Selecting the baseline for these values will for the most part be a 'best guess' but I can make use of the values in Jutland (and the various additional articles etc.) and work with these as a guide.

With this in mind I envisage the following protection/flotation point ranges as being representative of the ships I shall be using.

BB - 10 to 14
BC (and yes, this is a new category!) - 6 to 12
PB - 7 to 10
CA - 5 to 8
CL - 4 to 6
DD - 2 to 4

I shall also refer to these henceforward as the flotation value rather than the protection/flotation value as this is more indicative of what the figure actually represents.

The figures above allow for a good spread of ship capabilities within the same notional type with classes dropped in as appropriate. I have allowed for some wider spreads for the older type of ships - the armoured cruisers and pre-dreadnoughts - simply because there was a bewildering variety of these in service during the Great War with many older vessels being pressed into use. This is also the case with the BC category as the early British types were effectively large armoured cruisers unlike their German counterparts. Of course there is also the late war RN oddities including HMS Repair and Refit....

In fact one could almost apply a similar approach to gunnery factors but that is a bridge I will fall off as and when (or even if) I get to it!