Say what you want about the dumpster fire Twitter can be, the wargame community in the Twittersphere is awesome. Fellow gamer Nicola sent me a game that I coveted for a long time but never got around to acquiring. Now The Hunt for Red October (TSR, Inc., 1988) is sitting on my game table being dissected. First impression…a lite family wargame that Grognards (and Grognard spawn) can embrace.
With RockyMountainNavy Jr. supporting his high school team, it was left for RockyMountainNavy T and myself to find entertainment for a short evening. So it was that Santorini (Roxley Games, 2016) landed on the table for several rounds. We usually play without the God Powers but this time added Simple Powers. We’re both not really sure what to make of it as the basic game is a great challenge while the God Powers seem…well, we’re unsure.
This Wargame Wednesday entry is courtesy of @TheGascon who sent me down this rabbit hole from Twitter by simply asking me which Hammer’s Slammers rules I prefer. In my typical way, the answer is not simple and to understand my thinking we need to look at several decades of wargaming history. Come along as I dig into a bit of my gaming past (and present) to show you my Hammer’s Slammers wargaming evolution from the early 1980’s to today.
When I think of Hammer’s Slammers stories and wargames, the final battle in the novel Rolling Hot immediately comes to mind. Here, a severely understrength Task Force Ranson consisting at this point of a single hovertank and a handful of combat cars faces a (slightly) understrength local armored battalion. To me, a Hammer’s Slammers wargame needs to be able to recreate this battle—not necessarily the exact outcome but definitely the situation. Here is that situation as laid out so dramatically in the book:
Blue Three’s sensors had greater range and precision by an order of magnitude than those crammed into the combat cars, but the cars could process the data passed to them by the larger vehicle. The sidebar on Ranson’s multi-function display listed call signs, isolated in cross-talk overheard by the superb electronics of the tank pretending to be in Kawana while it waited on Chin Peng Rise north of the tiny hamlet.
There were twenty-five individual call signs. The AI broke them down as three companies consisting of three platoons—but no more than four tanks in any platoon (five would have been full strength). Some platoons were postulated from a single call sign.
Not all the Yokel tanks would indulge in the loose chatter that laid them out for Task Force Ranson like a roast for the carving; but most of them would, most of them were surely identified. The red cross-hatching that overlay the relief map in the main field of the display was the AI’s best estimate thus far of the the armored battalion’s disposition.
Blue Three was the frame of the trap and the bait within it; but the five combat cars of the west and east elements were the spring-loaded jaws that would snap the rat’s neck.
And this rat, Yokel or Consie, was lying. It was clear that the leading elements of First of the 4th were already deploying onto the southern slope of Sugar Knob, half a kilometer from the store and shanties of Kawana rather than ten kays their commander claimed.
In the next few seconds, the commander of the armored battalion would decide whether he wanted to meet allied mercenaries—or light the fuse that would certainly detonate in a battle more destructive than any citizen of Prosperity could imagine. He was being tested….
The two sharp green beads of Lieutenant Cooter’s element settled into position.
She heard a whisper in the southern sky. Incoming.
Rolling Hot, Chapter 12
Now let’s look back on the history of my Hammer’s Slammers wargames, or at least those titles I use to play out Hammer’s Slammers battles, and see how they did.
I discovered David Drakes Hammer’s Slammers paperback book not long after it was published, likely around 1980 or the year after it entered print. This was around the same time I discovered the (now) Classic Traveller role playing game from Game Designers’ Workshop. In early 1980 I found the three Little Black Books in my first FLGS, Fascination Corner, in south Denver. I’m not sure which came first, Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary or Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, but the two books are forever linked in my mind.
From a wargaming perspective, Mercenary is an interesting collection of rules. There are actually three rules for combat resolution given in the book: The Traveller Combat System taken from LBB Book 1: Characters and Combat, the Abstract System which is just like the name says, and a Free-Form System which is undefined. As much as I seem to remember differently the truth is that looking back at the Tech Level advancements in Mercenary they don’t even discuss hovertanks. At Tech Level 9 military vehicles transition from track-laying/wheeled to grav—ground effect is never discussed. Back then I passed on buying Striker, a set of 15mm miniatures rules, that also had the Classic Traveller vehicle design system. If I had Striker I “think” I would have tried to design the Regiment. Regardless, the lack of Striker meant I used the Abstract System in Mercenary but never truly had a force specifically-built based on the Slammers’ universe.
The closest I came to a wargame with hovertanks in these early days actual was Steve Jackson’s Ogre/G.E.V. microgames from Metagaming. I say “close” because, like Mercenary, Hammer’s Slammers was inspiration for play but not closely simulated on the tabletop. Another set of Metagaming titles, Helltank and Helltank Destroyer, actually came a bit closer but, like Ogre/G.E.V., were just not quite Hammer-like to be honestly called a Hammer’s Slammers wargame.
The first “proper” Hammer’s Slammers wargame I owned was the namesake Hammer’s Slammers from Mayfair Games published in 1984. I am sure I got this one not long after it was published. Described by some as “PanzerBlitz in Spaaaace” this simple wargame with it’s interlocking modular map and asymmetric array of forces gives one a taste of the Hammer’s Slammers universe. Looking back on the game nearly 40 years later I still see a great simple wargame that, when played by savvy players and with attention to scenario design, is not always a walkover for The Regiment like some BoardGameGeek comments imply. Although published before Rolling Hot, this Hammer’s Slammers wargame can be used to recreate the signature battle if one is wiling to design the light tanks of the First of the 4th.
For a while it looked like my Hammer’s Slammers wargaming was going dark. In the 1990’s I was getting my military career started and science-fiction games fell to the wayside as I focused more on “modern” simulations. That said, three games did enter my collection that I (longingly) yearned to use for a Hammer’s Slammers game. Although Striker II by Frank Chadwick entered my collection, once again I lacked the Traveller: The New Era vehicle design system book so I could not design Regiment vehicles.
It was during this same period that two other rule sets entered my collection, both from Ground Zero Games in the U.K. Dirtside II and Stargrunt II, designed by Jon Tuffley and others, challenged my thinking about what wargame rules could be. Up until this point in my wargaming life, Frank Chadwick and Game Designers’ Workshop defined miniatures gaming for me. In particular, I viewed Frank’s Command Decision (World War II) and Combined Arms (Modern) rules, which Striker II was built upon, as the pinnacle of miniatures rules. I respected (prided?) the “realism” in the rules and how these games were almost hex & counter wargames on a miniatures tabletop. On the other hand, Dirtside II and Stargrunt II challenged my viewpoint by giving me a set of miniatures rules that were easy to learn and used “design for effect” instead of “realism.” I also had never thought to use anything other than a d6, d10, or d100 in a wargame. Now, instead of looking up which exact weapon was used on a table in the back of a book, I was rolling a d4, d8, or maybe even a d12 Quality Die for units. It totally changed my thinking as to what a set of wargame rules could be. The vehicle design rules in Dirtside II also gave me a chance to design a hovertank, something I had not been able to do up to this point with other rule sets. In particular Dirtside II, with its vehicle design system, made recreating the Rolling Hot battle quite easy.
The early 2000’s was a bad time for my wargaming hobby. Many issues conspired against me and the result was a lack of personal emphasis on wargaming. Instead, I leaned more into role playing games since, generally speaking, it took less space (and money) to buy a book than to buy a wagame. During this time, I rediscovered my passion for Traveller RPG with Mongoose Traveller (MgT). I loved MgT (at least the first edition) because it was basically an updated take on Classic Traveller. Starting with the core rules in 2008, the MgT line immediately added Book 1: Mercenary. Then there was a very exciting development….
In 2009, Mongoose Publishing printed a sourcebook for MgT titled Hammer’s Slammers. The book showed much promise as it was written with the support of David Drake himself. This book, featuring extensive background, showed me just how disconnected I had become from the Slammers universe and helped reenergize my interest in the series. As a wargame, however, the Mongoose Publishing Hammer’s Slammers was grossly lacking.
A decade ago I wrote on this blog my thoughts of the MgT Hammer’s Slammers. Alas, the years have not changed my thinking:
The Verdict: Let’s be clear about a bias first; I love the Hammer’s Slammers series of books and stories. More than anything else David Drake has defined for me what I think of when I hear the term “military science-fiction.”
This book is a true labor of love and worth the price for the background alone. Finally, in one place you have the entire history of the Slammers together; all the people and places, event and equipment. But how does it translate as an RPG?
Unfortunately, I feel that Mongoose fails to live up to the expectations here. Especially the boast on the back cover that claims, “With all vehicles created using the Traveller Vehicle Creation System, this book is guaranteed to be fully compatible with every other Traveller book, allowing you to mix and match supplements as you desire!”
So in no particular order, here are some thoughts on the book:
– What is up with the cover soldier? The outfit is nothing like I imagine a Hammer’s Slammers trooper to be like; blinking lights and the like and doesn’t even match the armor depicted on page 120 which is that used by the Slammers
– A “Mercenary Roster” is provided on page 21 comparing notable mercenary units; each is assigned a rating but ratings are never explained (ahh, on page 180 when making a Mercenary Contract the quality of a unit is used for a DM; quality similar to but not shown the same way as the ratings on page 21)
– Joining the Slammers can be direct or through The Connections Rule from the Core Book; you can also join the Slammers after finishing a military career as per the Core Rulebook or other supplement
– Who did the maps? They are HORRIBLE—gridded squares with cartoonish graphics don’t fit this high tech military setting; easily the worst part of the book
– The characters are great but again the kit doesn’t match what is provided elsewhere
– Errors abound when cross-referencing items; is the Protection for Light Ceramic Combat Shell (or is is called Clamshell, Light) 10 or 12?
– Tank Powerguns are really powerful; like they should be in this setting
– It is impossible to make any of the supertanks using the Vehicle Creation System found in Supplement 6: Military Vehicles; so much for “guaranteed to be fully compatible”
– Vehicle Combat introduces new range and hit systems; one should backfit this to the Core Rules
In sum, Hammer’s Slammers provides great background but it is not seamless in its integration with existing Traveller books and supplements. Putting them together can be done in places (character generation) but not in others (vehicle creation).
From a wargaming perspective, the combat system in MgT Hammer’s Slammers built upon the core combat rules in MgT. That is, they retained the focus on “vehicles as characters” and a very tactical (skirmish?) level of combat. One could conceivably roleplay a member of the Regiment but to fight took much more effort and much interpolation in the rules. At the end of the day, MgT was a near-total failure as a rules set for Hammer’s Slammers-style combat. From the perspective of Rolling Hot, MgT Hammer’s Slammers could certainly recreate the personalities but, even though all the equipment was there, recreating the battle in a playable manner was near-impossible.
At nearly the same time Mongoose Publishing was giving us Hammer’s Slammers for Mongoose Traveller, another British publisher was also working with David Drake to give us a set of miniatures wargame rules very tightly focused on the Hammerverse. The Hammer’s Slammers Handbook, written by John Lambshead & John Treadaway, provided background, vehicle design and technical specifications, as well as, “an easy play gaming system.” The many shared graphics between the Handbook and MgT Hammer’s Slammers shows how closely linked the two products are. Which makes me wonder—why didn’t Mongoose use the Handbook and its combat system like GDW did with Frank Chadwick’s Striker 30 years earlier?
In 2010, John Treadaway and John Lambshead published the ultimate version of the Handbook. Now called Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible, what started as a 50-page, digest-sized softcover Handbook grew into a hardcover, full-color 203 page book that proclaimed to be the “Ultimate, all-in-one rules system for tabletop gaming plus technical specifications, vehicle designs, timeline & background materials for the Slammers Universe.”
Like Dirtside II/Stargrunt II published two decades earlier, both the Handbook and The Crucible are tabletop miniatures rules that emphasize “design effect” over strict “realism.” As the introduction to the combat rules state:
These rules allow wargamers to re-fight the battles of the Slammers Armoured Regiment on a one to one scale, i.e. where one model equals one vehicle or one infantryman. Turning modern armoured warfare into a game, of necessity, involves a great deal of compromise. Thus the aim has been to recreate the spirit of the fast moving armoured engagements so brilliantly described by David Drake and so emphasis here is put on command and training rather than technology. Also, a simple ‘clean’ game system is employed so that the game flows quickly; infantry warfare in particular is abstracted. The rules focus on recreating an armoured skirmish game, as opposed to an infantry skirmish game with a few vehicles in support.
“Fighting with the Slammers: Introduction,” Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible, p. 106
Finally, over twenty years after Rolling Hot was published, there is a set of wargame rules that can be used to faithfully recreate the battle situation. Resolving that battle also won’t break your sanity.
Although Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible is certainly the final word in my collection on a wargame for the Slammerverse, it did not enter my collection until very recently. In the meantime, I experimented with another set of rules. Between the time I was battling with MgT Hammer’s Slammers and now, I tried Tomorrow’s War (Second Edition) from Osprey Publishing. I had high hopes for Tomorrow’s War as it was based on the (somewhat) acclaimed Force on Force rules. Alas, Tomorrow’s War took exactly the opposite design approach from The Crucible. Unlike The Crucible which focuses on armored combat (very Slammer-like), Tomorrow’s War focuses on infantry combat first with a set of vehicular rules that feel are very “bolted on.” To be fair, all the elements of a good Hammer’s Slammers battle are in the rules, but the infantry-first focus leaves certain elements—like vehicular combat—lacking. One can recreate Rolling Hot using Tomorrow’s War but it doesn’t play out as smoothly as The Handbook or The Crucible allows.
At the end of the day, this Grognard is very comfortable stating that Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible really is the “ultimate” set of wargame rules. I like the rules enough that I am looking to invest in a line of 6mm miniatures to use for tabletop battles. Better yet, if @TheGascon makes a Tabletop Simulator (TTS) module for The Crucible, it may be enough for me to overstress my old laptop and play online….
Hammer’s Slammers works referenced:
“But Loyal to His Own” (c) 1975 by David Drake. Originally published in Galaxy, November 1974
“Supertanks” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
“Night March” (c) 1997 by David Drake. Originally published in The Tank Lords
“Hangman” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
“The Tank Lords” (c) 1986 by David Drake. Originally published in Far Frontiers, Vol. 6
“Caught in the Crossfire” (c) 1978 by David Drake, Originally published in Chrysalis 2
“Standing Down” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
This weekend being the 4th of July holiday in the States usually means I try to play either a Gettysburg or American Revolution game. As of the time of writing this post I had done neither, but I will call your attention to two recent “Rocky Reads” columns I did on the books Meade at Gettysburg and Longstreet at Gettysburg.
The title of this post is only partially true. True—There is little wargame and boardgame action in my schedule right now. Not True—It’s a lazy summer. Reality is I’m back to work 100% of the time with something like 120% of the taskings. My Game of the Week approach was designed to optimize my reduced gaming hours but even that schedule is being threatened by work demands. Add in family requirements for summer vacation activities and gaming takes a back seat.
Speaking of Wing Leader: Legends, I (belatedly) came across this awesome video explainer of air combat in the Wing Leader series by Joel Toppen. Joel’s careful explanation here seemingly draws out this combat example but I find that once you understand the system then combat resolution actually flows quite quickly.
RMN Jr. actually approached me this weekend to play a short, 2-player boardgame. He pulled Kahuna (KOSMOS, 1998) off the shelf so we played. As I quickly scanned the rules I missed the destroy bridges part…but Jr. had not forgotten. It put me at a disadvantage which he mercilessly reminded me of. Regardless of my stupidity a great game was had.
My middle boy approached me about restarting our Traveller RPGor Star Wars Roleplaying: Edge of the Empire campaigns. While I’m quite happy to run a Traveller RPG campaign loosely set in the Third Imperium using the “modern” Cepheus Engine, I am a bit hesitant to jump into a Star Wars campaign. The setting is the problem. The RMN Boys are huge Di$ney Star Wars fans and voraciously consume all the new content. I am not as excited about the new stories and therefore have limited familiarity with shows like Rebels, The Mandolorian, or the newest Bad Batch. Add into the equation the fact that RMN T is the actual owner of most of the Star Wars RPG splat books in the house and I am at a bit of a disadvantage.
Or maybe not….
In this case my familiarity with non-Star Wars might be an advantage. With a bit of some prep (like reviewing the splat books to see what additional rules are there) I can probably run a campaign that leverages history and is Star Wars but avoids much of their canonical characters. It’s a big galaxy out there.
In his book Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019) author Cory M. Pfarr doesn’t simply try to retell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of Lieutenant General James Longstreet but instead he addresses Longstreet’s critics. As Pfarr writes in the Prologue:
This book significantly addresses Longstreet critics and historians who wrote about Gettysburg prior to 1965 because those parties largely created the biased and often misinterpreted source material used by many modern historians. In most cases, pre-1965 critic or historian references are juxtaposed against modern historian claims, and often both assertions are found to be tainted with similar Lost Cause falsehoods that have stood the test of time with little or no supporting evidence. In other words, it was deemed not to be prudent, or actually possible, to discuss modern historians’ treatment of Longstreet’s Gettysburg performance without also discussing older critics and historians. With that said, the main focus of this work is certainly on how old, erroneous Lost Cause claims about Longstreet at Gettysburg persist into many modern historians’ accounts.
Longstreet at Gettysburg, “Prologue: Abandoned by History,” p. 15
While Cory Pfarr focuses on the critics and historians who pilloried or otherwise studied Longstreet in Longstreet at Gettysburg, the reader gets a master class in narrative deconstruction. How did Longstreet go from being described by Robert E. Lee himself as “my old war horse” to singularly being blamed for the loss at Gettysburg because he supposedly disobeyed orders? The critics are many and the writing by historians prolific. Pfarr helps us discover that Longstreet was victimized by a groupthink narrative that was repeated and reinforced from one book to another. As Harold M. Knudsen writes in the Forward, “Audiences were trained to believe what writers said was gospel, rather than educated to examine the true records” (p. 1).
Lost Cause Wargaming?
Reading Longstreet at Gettysburg challenged many narratives in my mind that coexist with wargames. Even before reading Pfarr’s book, I never fully bought into the Lost Cause claims that General Robert E. Lee was an infallible man. Nor did I buy the narrative that Gettysburg was the singularly most important battle of the American Civil War and the high-water mark of the Confederacy. But somewhere deep in my mind those narratives had been heard, and maybe even reinforced through playing wargames. After all, who doesn’t want to play a Gettysburg wargame and upend history with a win as the Confederates?
Most importantly, wargames are opportunities for players to interact with history. I can read a history book on the Battle of Gettysburg and (maybe) passively learn something. If we were to describe reading books in terms of John Boyd’s famous OODA Loop, books allow us to Observe and Orient only. However, it is a far different learning experience to actively command the forces on the field of battle that day (even if they are only tiny cardboard chits), make decisions, and experience the outcome. In effect, the learning process from playing a wargame makes us go through all portions of the OODA Loop—Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. But for the outcomes of wargames to be fully understood you must understand the underpinnings—and especially any biases— of the game design and narrative. All of which means you need to evaluate the game.
The underlying message in Longstreet at Gettysburg is that one should not blindly accept the “historical record.” This caution applies equally to a book or a wargame. Wargame designers may consciously (or even unconsciously) use game mechanisms or a narrative that perpetuates myths rather than critically analyzing them and evaluating if they are truly appropriate for that wargame.
According to the scenario set-up information, this engagement portrays an attack by advance elements of the Liebstandarte SS Adolph Hitler Division against the defending Soviet 170th and 181st Tank Brigades of the 18th Tank Corps starting around 1000 hours. The scenario points out this important part of the battle, “The intensity of the fighting is summed up in a single incident: one of the KVs of the Soviet 395th Tank Battalion, damaged and burning, rammed a Tiger tank at full speed, destroying both vehicles in the resulting explosion.”
Problem is I can’t find this event in either the Glantz or Lawrence book.
Glantz doesn’t go down to the battalion level, but reports that the 170th Tank Brigade on July 12, “lost its commander and as many as thirty of its sixty tanks” (p. 189). The types of tanks lost are not specified, nor is the loss of a KV-1 against a Tiger called out. Lawrence recounts the battles of the 170th Tank Brigade on pages 314-319 and notes that by noon (Moscow time) it, “had lost 60% of its tanks, its brigade commander had burned to death in his tank, and one battalion commander was mortally wounded” (p. 316). Lawrence notes the 170th Tank Brigade consisted of T-34 and T-70 tanks; no KV-1s were assigned to it. It was not until later in the day that battles against Tiger tanks were fought, and then it was elements of the 181st Tank Brigade against Tigers likely from the Totenkopf SS Panzer Regiment. Lawrence does point to data that the Adolph Hitler SS Division was down one (1) Panzer VI (Tiger) by July 13 (p. 341), but also shows that the only KV-1s on the battlefield, a single track in the XXIX Tank Corps and another single track in the 1529th Heavy SP Artillery Regiment, both were operational at the end of July 12 (p. 342).
This example touches on just one of many myths in wargaming. The problem is we, as wargamers, don’t always know the assumptions or biases of a designer or what myths the game may be built on—or even perpetuating. I mean, do you know of any World War II tactical armored combat game that doesn’t make the German Tiger tank neigh-invincible? Those wargames perpetuate a myth, much like games will award “elite” unit status to the (always) white-on-black Waffen SS units. Sometimes the status is earned, but just as often (arguably more often) it is simply not true.
Surprisingly, Longstreet at Gettysburg is the first book to take on Longstreet’s critics in any sort of comprehensive manner. Through Pfarr’s analysis of Longstreet, I see a different view of Gettysburg. In turn, I then ask myself if there is any good single wargame title that “gets it right.” This is not to say that a game that is “wrong” is not worth playing; I’m just saying that before one makes any judgements on history they should be aware of the biases of the history, game mechanisms, and maybe even the designer.
Maybe the wargame community needs to look at ourselves again and ensure that our games are not perpetuating myths or misrepresenting history and if they are, understand why and make sure that is the right decision.
NEW ARRIVAL! I was able to make a trade on BoardGameGeek for a copy of Strike of the Eagle (Academy Games, 2011). I really wanted this game to explore its Fog of War system. Here is how the ad copy for the game describes it:
To simulate the tension of the era from the fog of war, players alternate placing secret orders on their armies in order to bluff, mislead and misdirect their opponents. These concealed orders make it difficult to deduce an opponent’s plans and are used to hide a player’s true intentions and objectives. Players then reveal and resolve the issued orders. They can then disrupt their opponent’s moves, cut off supply and much more. Once orders are resolved the next turn begins.
Units are represented by wooden blocks. Battles are fought with no dice, but with a simple and quick combat system.
Action cards are pivotal to the game in that they allow players to either modify how many orders they may issue, add army reinforcements or modify a battle’s resolution.
I continue to read through Cory Pfarr’s Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment. The book is not so much a reanalysis of the battle as it is a critique of the many critiques and myths that grew over the years debating Longstreet’s actions (or inactions, depending on your viewpoint) at Gettysburg. It’s caused me to dip into Ludology, or “the study of games and gaming.” I can already feel another Rocky Reads for Wargame entry coming….
Feature image: USS Saratoga at Diego Garcia in the 1990s.
As a wargamer, there are a few battles one can count on to be the subject of a wargame. The number of Battle of the Bulge wargames is uncountable and, in a similar way, the Battle of Gettysburg has been getting the wargame royalty treatment since the Avalon Hill Game Co. published Gettysburg by the Father of Wargaming, Charles S. Roberts, way back in 1958. The book world is much the same—it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Gettysburg may be one of the most written about battles in American history. Which means that picking up any Gettysburg book, or wargame, runs the risk of of it simply being a rehash of the old.
Much of the criticism emanated from Lincoln’s notion that Lee’s army, somehow, could have been destroyed if Meade had only vigorously pursued the enemy then blindly attacked it when the Army of the Potomac came face to face with it on 13 July. Incredibly, no civilian official from inside Lincoln’s administration ever gave Meade credit for out-generaling General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and thereby delivering the first victory of the Army of the Potomac since its formation in November 1861. Few historians have done so either.
“Epilogue”, p. 371
In Meade at Gettysburg, Kent Masterson Brown uses published and unpublished papers as well as diaries, letters, and memoirs to try and gain a better understanding of Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg. He does so by looking at Meade in four phases: From assuming command on 28 June 1863 through the advance to Gettysburg on 1 July, his tactical actions on 2 July, his decisions on 3 July, and the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army after the battle.
In wargames, we take the mapboard for granted. Indeed, a mapboard is often a necessity by defintion for a wargame. It is amazing to me that Meade and many of his generals fought the Gettysburg campaign without a decent map. As Brown tells us, “What Meade could not discern from the maps were any topographical features such as hill and ridges. Meade was using what were called residential maps, and they did not include such topographical features, although the Frederick County, Maryland and Adam County, Pennsylvania, maps provided outlines of the South Mountain range, but nothing more” (p. 57). Further, not only did Meade lack detailed maps, but he had a hard time understanding where his own forces were, much less that of the enemy. To use more modern terms, the Union generals in the field had no “common operating picture.” Indeed, Meade’s understanding of both the terrain and location of his own forces was so poor that on 1 July he ordered his corps commanders to sketch “their respective corps, their artillery, infantry, and trains” and to share this sketch with the army headquarters (p. 208).
The lack of maps and hidden force location is hard to duplicate in a wargame which all-too-often delivers a “God’s-Eye,” information-rich view of the battlefield. For example, Roads to Gettysburg II is played on a map with lots of information—far more than either army commander had at hand at the time.
There are ways that a poor map can be duplicated in a game, but the cost in playability is astronomical. Maybe a computerized version can simulate the gradual “discovery” of map details as units move and scouts operate, but I prefer tabletop wargames not screens. The reality is the lack of maps, topographical knowledge, and “common operating picture” that Meade faced at Gettysburg is not easily duplicated in a wargame.
What Year Did You Graduate West Point?
Whether one wants to admit it or not, whenever you play a historical wargame you almost always, inevitably, benefit from hindsight. Nobody wants to be like Sickles’ Third Corps and push out ahead only to be shattered by Longstreet. Often times players do things “differently” than in the past because they “know” what works…and doesn’t (didn’t?). On the other hand, sometimes players want to “try to get it right” and do one-better than history. After reading Meade at Gettysburg I found just such a moment in Meade’s orders to Reynolds’ First and Eleventh Corps: “Meade’s directive that the First Corps, followed by the Eleventh Corps, ‘advance on Gettysburg’ was not an order directing Reynolds to occupy the town or hold a position near there; rather, Meade intended for the presence of the First Corps along the turnpike axis to cause the enemy to coalesce and show its intentions” (p. 99).
Kent Masterson Brown in Meade at Gettysburg demonstrates the power of understanding not what we know today, but what the historical participants understood when describing Reynold’s mission as assigned by Meade on 30 June:
To force the enemy to concentrate and deploy so as to reveal its intentions was what Meade ordered Reynolds and his First Corps—followed by the Eleventh Corps—to do; it is identified as one of the most dangerous tasks in mid-nineteenth century warfare. Th strategy requires using an “Advance Guard,” according to Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of military and civil engineering and the science of war at West Point. Mahan published a book on the use of an advance guard in 1847, entitled An Elementary Treatise on Advance-Guard, Out-Post and Detachment Service of Troops and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in the Presence of an Enemy. Mahan taught military science to Generals Meade, Reynolds, Slocum, Sedgwick, Hancock, Howard, and many others in the Army of the Potomac when they were West Point cadets. General Reynolds and Mahan had in fact taught strategy and tactics together at West Point just before the war. Likewise, many of Lee’s lieutenants studie under Mahan at Wet Point, and Lee was superintendent of West Point during Mahan’s tenure. Much of what Mahan taught was incorporated in the Revised Regulations of the Army of the United States of 1861.
“Force Him to Show His Hand”, p. 101-102
One of the key requirements of a leader is to understand the commander’s intent. As wargamers, we don’t always have a professional military education and, if we do, it more often than not the military science of today and not that of the past. In Meade at Gettysburg, author Kent Masterson Brown explains Meade’s intent as his fellow generals likely understood it. After reading the book, now I understand it too. This new understanding totally changes how I would play out a 1 July scenario in a Battle of Gettysburg wargame.
The Tactical General
The Army of the Potomac was about to enter the struggle of its life. What happened on 1 July was difficult enough. Now, the insubordination of a corps commander had placed not only his own Third Corps but the entire army at risk. No cavalry screened the army’s left flank. The troops would have to fight as they had never done before, and even that might not be enough, given the sheer magnitude of the attack the enemy was about to unleash on Meade’s left. Although Meade was the operational commander of the army, he was about to take tactical command of the fighting on 2 July.
“I Wish to God You Could, Sir”, p. 228
While Meade at Gettysburg focuses on the operational campaign, for 2 and 3 July it digs into the tactical level. That’s because Meade personally took command on the battlefield. This situation is most often what wargamers experience—direct tactical command of the pieces on the board. Here is your chance to “out-general” General Lee (or Rob, your longtime wargame partner). As a wargamer, this part of Meade at Gettysburg was what I could most easily relate to. It was also very disappointing. That’s because I suddenly felt “railroaded” by certain wargames.
Take for instance Mark Herman’s Gettysburg. The game starts on 1 July with Buford’s cavalry to the northwest of Gettysburg as they were historically. The Union First and Eleventh Corps enter on turn 1 from the south again like history. It is at this point the game diverges from history.
Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is played for up to six turns (three days) and victory is determined as follows:
The game usually ends at the conclusion of game turn 6. However, if at the end of any turn the Confederate player can trace a continuous road path from Entry Point A to any one or combination of Entry Points I, J, or K, uninterrupted by Union units or Zones of Control, not Influence, they win the game. If this condition does not occur by the conclusion of turn 6, then the player with the higher VP total wins. Each player receives 1 VP for each eliminated enemy unit. The Union player wins ties.
C3i Magazine – Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 – Rules of Play, p. 11
In other words, Mark Herman’s Gettysburg assumes that Meade wanted the battle to be fought at Gettysburg and not at Big Pipe Creek like he planned and Kent Masterson Brown explains in Meade at Gettysburg. Mark Herman’s entire game is predicated on the assumption that the player will be like Sickles and violate his commander’s intent and bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. Sure, it makes for a nice wargame, but at this point is it even really historical, or just another counterfactual?
[Don’t take the above part wrong—Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is a very well designed wargame from the perspective of mechanics and does a great job for what is designed to do—”distilling history to it’s essence.”. It’s just that this game, like many other Gettysburg wargames, is designed to play the battle as it historically occurred—not as it was planned—and in the process makes several assumptions as to how the battle developed and the decisions of non-player commanders.]
In many ways, Meade at Gettysburg is a good primer for wargamers playing almost any Gettysburg game. Here you, the player, nominally are the commander at the head of the Army of the Potomac (like Meade). However, you often also assume the role of a corps or division commander, and depending on the game you might even devolve down to the brigade level. This “sliding command perspective” is part-and-parcel of wargames. Meade made it work; can you?
Let’s Play Operation!
Reading Meade at Gettysburg not only provided an interesting look at the campaign around the Battle of Gettysburg, but it also helped me understand more about my taste in wargames in general. Meade at Gettysburg reminded me that it is the operational level of war that is the most fascinating to me. Now, I certainly like tactical games and getting down to the nuts & bolts of battle. There is a certain joy at employing a weapon system in such a way to outfight your enemy, but to out-campaign an opponent is truly another level of achievement.
I understand that when a wargamer picks up a Battle of Gettysburg wargame they kinda expect to fight a battle at Gettysburg and not someplace else. Meade at Gettysburg shows readers—and wargamers—that fate is fickle and what one calls history is sometimes accidental and far from what the participants intended.
But what if….
What if you could do as good as Meade did? Wargames let us be like General Henry Jackson Hunt, Meade’s Chief of Artillery, who was not a fan of Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg. Yet, in 1888, he saw the battle in a new light:
Meade was suddenly placed in command. From that moment on all his acts and intentions, as I can judge of them, were just what they ought to have been, except perhaps in his order to attack at Falling Waters on the morning of the 13th, and especially on the 14th of July, when his Corps Commanders reported against it, and I was then in favor of the attack, so I can’t blame him. He was right in his orders as to Pipe Creek, right in his determination under certain circumstances to fall back to it; right in pushing up to Gettysburg after the battle commenced; right in remaining there; right in making his battle a purely defensive one; right, therefore in taking the line he did; right in not attempting a counter attack at any stage of the battle; right as to his pursuit of Lee. Rarely has more skill, vigor, or wisdom been shown under such circumstances as he was placed in, and it would, I think, belittle his grand record of that campaign by a formal defense against his detractors, who will surely go under as will this show story.
I am very interested in getting Wing Leader: Legends to the table as it includes the “Decision Over Kursk” campaign system. Some readers may recall several “My Kursk Kampaign” postings from earlier this spring where I dove in-depth into that battle. At the time I wanted to explore the air war more:
As I start this exploration, my copy of Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) is “At the Printer” meaning it may deliver sometime in mid-2021. If it delivers in time I would certainly like to play the campaign system which focuses on the air battles supporting the Battle of Kursk. I really want to explore a point Glantz makes on page 63 in his book; “Red aircraft might be inferior to their German counterparts, but they were certainly sufficient in numbers to deny the Luftwaffe undisputed command of the air.”
Although you can’t see it in the photo of The Dark Summer, I am, frankly, a bit surprised the game shipped in a 1.5″ deep box. One can interpret this as a sign that the game is smaller, and with a single 22″x34″ map and two countersheets that appears true. I guess I thought a Normandy campaign game just “has to be” big but this one-mapper is already challenging my preconceptions.
Game of the Week
Now that I’m back to a pretty regular work schedule (office is basically 100% reconstituted) I need to work on getting back to a “regular” gaming schedule. Thus, I will be starting a “Game of the Week” approach to play. Basically, the Game of the Week approach gives me seven days to unbox, learn, play, and consider a game. I have a rough idea of how a week might progress:
Sunday – Unbox new game, start rules learning/review
Monday – Rules learning/review, set up first play
Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday – Play
Friday – (Skip Day)
Saturday – Considerations/Clean up (Family Game Night?)
I have a backlog of games on the “To Play” shelf that I need to get to over the next few weeks of summer before getting to Wing Leader: Legends and The Dark Summer: I’m trying to play games in the order of their arrival:
While playing games I also am also committed to reading more. When possible, I like to mix a book with the Game of the Week but that’s not always possible as I have other books on the “To Read” pile. I finished up Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2021) and it will be the subject of this coming week’s “Rocky Reads for Wargame” column. I am pretty sure that 2034: A Novel of the Next War by Eliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis will likely be read in conjunction with Indian Ocean Region when it is up for Game of the Week.
One of my favorite online sources for plastic models closed due to bankruptcy late in 2020. Thanks to a new owner, www. squadron.com is back. The reopening has not been the smoothest, but they are trying to work out the kinks. Given how few good plastic model retailers there are online I hope they make it!
The RockyMountainNavy family tried a new-to-us restaurant this week. The Capital Burger bills itself as purveyors of “luxe” burgers. They use a proprietary blend of beef to make their burgers; I never imagined it could make a difference—but it does. Their Kung Pao Brussel Sprouts are my new favorite and a great replacement for french fries. Oh yeah, it all pairs well with a good ale….
In the modern world, a naval commander has at his disposal a vast array of intelligence tools. Strategically, that enterprise is devoted to delivering the commander knowledge of the enemies capabilities and (hopefully) intentions. At the operational and tactical levels, the burning intelligence question is often, “Where is the enemy?” In the Age of Nelson the operational question was often the most important, and where intelligence made the greatest contribution towards victory.
In Most Secret and Confidential the reader learns that there really was no national intelligence organization in the early 19th century. For a military organization like the Royal Navy, intelligence had a role but it was organized far differently from what many are familiar with today:
Without doubt, the collection, assessment, dissemination, and use of intelligence information was present throughout the fleet. Equally clear is that, subordinate to the Admiralty at whatever operational level one cares to consider, the most senior officer present on a given station was de facto the local premier intelligence officer. No other person had the time, availability, access to information, responsibility, qualifications, experience, or overview. Finally, no senior officer had anything resembling adequate staff support to even partially share such important responsibilities….
Most Secret and Confidential, p. 281
Wargaming Operational Intelligence in the Age of Nelson
1805: Sea of Glory places you in command of the Royal Navy or the allied fleets of France and Spain. You direct your far flung forces, raid enemy ports, and bring your wooden warships into combat with the enemy. Key ports must be protected and enemy harbors blockaded. With a constant eye to wind and weather, your ships must cross the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the West Indies. Your opponent will not know the composition of your forces until combat is joined. The fog of war complicates every decision. The fate of nations will once again be determined by wooden ships and iron men.
The cat and mouse game of breakout and pursuit has begun.
1805: Sea of Glory, publisher’s ad copy
After reading Most Secret and Confidential and as I started pulling out 1805: Sea of Glory, I expected that the “God’s Eye” wargaming view of the battle space would mean wargame mechanisms and the reality of intelligence in those days would not be compatible. What I discovered is that, while an imperfect simulation of intelligence, 1805: Sea of Glory actually captures the essence of the intelligence problems of the day and is much closer to replicating intelligence challenges described in Most Secret and Confidential than I expected.
Wargaming the “Nelson Touch”
From the intelligence perspective, a player of 1805: Sea of Glory is thrust into a very similar role to an operational naval commander of the Age of Nelson. To begin, with the player is their own intelligence officer and, though one could argue about qualifications, is solely responsible for all intelligence operations.
Like Nelson, players in Sea of Glory do not always know their enemy’s objectives but, through careful analysis and deduction from what they can see they may be able to divine their intention.
For naval commanders in the Age of Nelson the major question in their day—and any game of 1805: Sea of Glory—is how to find the enemy. At first I looked at the blocks, used to represent fleets, transports, and frigates in Sea of Glory, I thought they revealed too much information. Although I couldn’t see exactly what the block was, I could see it on the map, seemingly an advantage over naval commanders of the day. Further, in 1805: Sea of Glory when a French or Spanish fleet sorties from port a destination is often secretly selected based on the secret objectives of the game. This turns Sea of Glory into that cat and mouse pursuit game.
After reading Most Secret and Confidential I reconsidered my opinion and now see that the use of blocks is actually very appropriate to the actual intelligence revealed. As Most Secret and Confidential tells us, commanders often had fair intelligence as to the composition of the enemies forces and especially what ports they used. The presence of blocks reflects the collection and analysis of intelligence from a myriad of sources like passing merchant ships or intercepted coastal semaphore and even newspapers. To get more details the player must resort to similar tactics of their real historical counterparts like sending ships closer inshore to “count masts.” For fleets that sortie, players—like commanders in Most Secret and Confidential—must start looking for clues as to where the enemy could be going and then use their forces (like blockades, fleets, or frigates) to search the oceans to gain contact and bring them to battle. Even though players can “see” the block on the map it may not be enough to find the fleet as weather and chance play a role in the game—just like reality.
At the end of the day, to win in 1805: Sea of Glory the players really do need to be a bit like Nelson. In Most Secret and Confidential, author Steven Maffeo quotes C.S. Forester, the author of the Horatio Hornblower series, on why Nelson was a great intelligence officer and along the way also tells us what being a player in 1805: Sea of Glory really means:
It is hard to decide what to admire most: the accuracy of the deduction, the self-confidence which believed in it, or the force of mind with which he brought himself to [expose] England’s most valuable colonial possessions solely on deductions made from a series of individually conclusive facts.
C.S. Forester as cited in Most Secret and Confidential, p. 287
Maffeo concludes Most Secret and Confidential with a challenge that is appropriate to any wargamer and a reminder that, regardless of the era or game, intelligence has a role:
Whatever the specific case, in the final analysis the degree to which the naval commander uses, or fails to use, available intelligence in the decision-making process is crucial. Indeed, the commander’s possession and use of intelligence have been decisive in history, they are decisive now, and they will be decisive in the future.
I spent the past week looking through and learning each of the smaller games. Star Wars: Destiny will be turned over to the RockyMountainNavy boys as I know it’s not my thing but they are “modern” Star Wars fans so they can enjoy the characters. Samurai Spirit and Tiny Epic Defenders are actually quite similar cooperative tower defense-like games and either will make for a good family game night title—though I think the look of Samurai Spirit is more appealing. Tiny Epic Kingdoms will compete with Tiny Epic Galaxies (Gamelyn, 2015) which is already in the collection. Sylvion is actually more of a solo game and as such it will land on my table occasionally; if it has a drawback it’s because it’s more eurogame-like and therefore not my personally preferred gaming genre given it’s obvious preference for mechanism over theme (but the theme—what there is of it—is cute). Space Empires 4x is in the “wargame to play” pile…just behind Indian Ocean Region and Stalingrad ’42.