Baltic retail therapy

As you might have noticed from my last blog entry, I did manage a bit of retail therapy during my cruise around the Baltic.

In Copenhagen I bought some very nice pre-painted model houses. They are very typical of the type found in that part of Scandinavia but are also useable in many other European city settings.

The ‘Budenny’ caps (or budionovka) I bought in Russia were – in my opinion – a bargain as I will be able to use them when fighting Russian Civil War battles. There is nothing like wearing a ‘silly’ hat to put players into the right mood!

The caps are named after Marshal of the Red Army Semyon Mikhailovich Buddeny (also spelt Budyonny), who commanded the First Cavalry Army during the Russian Civil War and the Russo-Polish War. He later went on to command troops facing the German invasion in 1941, where he proved to be a disaster. He lost 1.5 million men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner during the Battles of Uman and Kiev. Despite this he remained a favourite of Stalin’s, and was not executed. In fact he retired as a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and did not die until 1973.

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I have been on a … Baltic Cruise

As you may have gathered, my wife and I have been away on a cruise to the Baltic. This is the second year we have managed to ‘go north and east’ during the summer, and the weather was better than we had expected.

The only problem that I have with cruising is being away from access to my PC … and my blog! I take my small laptop with me – which is how I created the following blog – but the Internet connection from the ship is slow and costly (the cheapest time-plan they sell is 16p per minute, and it can take up to 5 minutes just to download a web page if the connection is poor). I am looking at alternative ways of connecting to the Internet from on board ship for future cruises. In the meantime, here is my somewhat belated cruise blog …

Day 1 – 16th July 2009 – Southampton

We boarded P&O’s MV ARTEMIS soon after midday, and after lunch we were able to go to our cabin and unpack. After a safety briefing we went on deck for ‘sail away’ – this involved drinking glasses of champagne and waving to the brass ‘band’ (all five of them!) who played a range of traditional patriotic tunes, including HEARTS OF OAK and RULE BRITANNIA.

Due to increasingly bad weather – blustery winds and rain squalls – we did not remain on deck for more than 30 minutes, and missed seeing the Victorian Sea Forts (known as ‘Palmerston Follies’) as we passed up the Solent.

Day 2 – 17th July 2009 – At sea

A quiet day which we spent relaxing and exploring the ship. It was during this ‘exploration’ that I discovered that the cost of using the Internet access via the on board cyb@study was 16p per minute! Hence the reason why this long blog entry was drafted as it happened but was not uploaded till I got back to the UK.

I did manage to do a bit of thinking about revising and redrafting WHEN EMPIRES CLASH! Having decided on the mechanics of how aircraft will be represented on the battlefield – including how they will ‘fly’ over the action without taking up too much space – I have begun putting some ideas about game mechanisms down on paper … well word processing them, if the truth be told.

Day 3 – 18th July 2009 – Kristiansand (Norway)

We had hoped to visit the Batterie Vara Kristiansand Kanonmuseum (the German-built, World War II Vara Battery that is now known as the Kristiansand Gun Museum) just outside Kristiansand, but persistent heavy rain prevented us from getting there. We were soaking wet by the time we managed to get to the centre of Kristiansand on the shuttle service from the ship’s mooring, and the prospect of travelling a further five or six miles – including a long walk from the road to the site of the battery – dissuaded us from going to the museum.

Batterie Vara was built by the Germans as part of the massive coastal defence system – the Atlantic Wall – that ran from the Franco-Spanish border in the south to the north of Norway. The battery was armed with 38cm guns that were manufactured by Krupp in 1940. Each gun and mounting weighed 337 metric tons, and had a maximum range of 55,000m.

Day 4 – 19th July 2009 – Copenhagen (Denmark)

Although the weather was not sunny, it was pleasant enough for us to take a walk from the ship’s berth into the city.

On the opposite bank is the Royal Danish Naval Museum. It has a variety of warships on view to the public including a frigate …

HDMS PEDER SKRAM was decommissioned in 1990. She and her sister ship – HDMS HERLUF TROLLE – were the only two ships of this class to be built.

… a submarine …

HDMS SAELEN was originally built in 1965 for the Norwegian Navy, where she was named the KNM UTHAUG. She was bought by the Danes in 1990 and served from May 2002 until June 2003 in the Persian Gulf. On her return she was decommissioned and became an exhibit at the Royal Danish Naval Museum

… and a fast attack craft.

The Danish Navy’s fast attack craft HDMS SEHESTED of the WILLEMOES class.

During our walk through the city of Copenhagen we visited the Amalienborg Palace. This palace is guarded by members of the Danish Royal Life Guard, whose uniform and equipment are a curious mixture of old and new. The uniform is very much as it was in the mid-nineteenth century, but the Guards are equipped with modern automatic rifles.

The Danish Royal Life Guard was formed in 1658, and wear a red tunic for ceremonial duties. At other times a blue tunic is worn.

We also visited some souvenir shops during our stop in Copenhagen, and I was able to buy six ready-painted 1:300th scale models of typical Danish town houses. They were only 35 Danish Kronor each, and although I do not have any particular ideas as to when or how I can use them, they were too good a bargain to miss.

Day 5 – 20th July 2009 – At sea

The weather continued to improve, and after attending a cookery demonstration and a wine tasting in the morning, I was able to spend some time during the afternoon word processing the latest draft of WHEN EMPIRES CLASH!

Day 6 – 21st July 2009 – At sea

This morning we were supposed to moor off Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland and to go ashore by ship’s tender. The weather was reasonable – it was overcast and there was a slight wind – but a heavy swell meant that it would have been unsafe for passengers to land by tender. As a result the ship’s captain decided to sail on to Stockholm in the hope of docking there during the afternoon rather than early tomorrow morning.

Unfortunately, although the berth the ship would have been using was free by mid-afternoon, there was no ship’s pilot available to take her into Stockholm. As a result we spent the day sailing very slowly towards Stockholm and I was able to continue work on WHEN EMPIRES CLASH!

Day 7 – 22nd July 2009 – Stockholm (Sweden)

Although they sky was overcast when we left the boat, by the time we had reached the Royal Palace in Stockholm the clouds were beginning to clear and the sun began to shine.

Much of the Royal Palace is open to the public, and during out visit we saw several members of the Swedish Royal Life Guard Squadron guarding the various entrances. The Squadron has both male and female troopers, and several of them were on guard duty during our visit.

The Swedish Royal Life Guard Squadron was formed in 1949 from the Horse Guards Regiment (Livregimentet til Hest), which was itself originally formed by the amalgamation in 1928 of the Horse Life Guards (Livgarden til Hest) and the Guards Dragoon Regiment (Livregimentets Dragoner).

The uniform is very Germanic in appearance and includes a lobster-tailed helmet, tunic, riding breeches, and riding boots. Somewhat surprisingly they were all armed with bolt-action rifles – not automatic rifles life their Danish counterparts – and were equipped with hand held radios.

On display in one of the courtyards were what looked like some late nineteenth century field guns. They had Krupp-like sliding breechblocks and the maker’s nameplate on the carriages indicated that ATLAS in Stockholm made them in 1887.

A battery of four of these guns is displayed in a courtyard within the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

Day 8 – 23rd July 2009 – Helsinki (Finland)

The weather in the morning was bright, sunny, and warm, and we went by shuttle bus to the centre of Helsinki for a walk round. We found a market by the seafront, and spent a very pleasant hour wandering about browsing and buying a few odds and ends.

We were debating whether or not to take a boat trip to Sveaborg – the fortress that has guarded the entrance to Helsinki since the eighteenth century – when the weather took a turn for the worse. Grey clouds filled the sky and it began to rain. As a result we decided that a twenty-minute open boat trip to and from Sveaborg was probably not a good idea, especially as the fortress is very spread out and much of it is in the open.

We did manage to visit several souvenir shops on the quay near the ship’s berth, and I was able to buy a couple of t-shirts; one commemorated Finland’s part in World War II and the other was illustrated with a picture of the Suomi sub-machine gun. Other than a brief glimpse of a soldier in modern Finnish camouflage uniform, these were the only military-related items we saw all day.

Day 9 – 24th July 2009 – St Petersburg (Russia)

For once the weather was good all day. We went on a tour to the Peterhof just outside St Petersburg. This palace was pretty well destroyed by the Nazis – the Russians never refer to the invaders as ‘Germans’; they are always called ‘Nazis’ – and has been painstakingly restored since 1946.

The trip culminated in a hydrofoil journey back to the centre of St Petersburg, and we were dropped off at a landing stage on the River Neva just outside the Winter Palace. As we got off we found a street trader selling various types of Russian hat, and I managed to buy three reproduction ‘Budenny’ caps of the type worn by the Red Army from the time of the Revolution up to the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.

On the coach journey back to the ship we passed a line of Russian warships moored on the River Neva in preparation for Navy Day. The ships included a tank landing ship …

A ROPUCHA class tank landing ship.

… a ‘stealth’ corvette …

The prototype Project 20380 or STEREGUSHCHY class corvette.

A close-up of the corvette’s radar display, bridge, and forward armament.

… and an attack submarine.

A KILO class diesel-powered attack submarine.

Day 10 – 25th July 2009 – St Petersburg (Russia)

It was raining when we got up, and it stayed like that until just after lunch … just in time for our trip.

We had signed up to visit a Russian family in their home, and this formed part of a tour that took in a journey on the St Petersburg Metro system and a visit to a local food market. The Metro is over 100m deep, and you are not allowed to take photographs inside because it is still part of the city’s underground refuge system in the event of a nuclear attack. This is a great pity as each station is decorated in its own style and reflects the name of the station. For example, at Pushkin Station there is a statue of the poet in a very prominent position, and at Baltic Station there is a marble mosaic that commemorates the role of the Baltic Fleet in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

The food market was much as we expected it to be; plenty of produce but not quite up to the standard that people in the West have come to expect. There seemed to be a constant buzz of flies around the food hall, and some of the fruit and vegetables seemed to be infested with tiny grubs and insects. The standard of food hygiene also left a lot to be desired, with people handling all sorts of different foodstuffs without washing their hands or wearing plastic gloves.

The Russian family we visited were a mother and son. The mother had been an engineer in one of the military aircraft design bureaus before the fall of Communism, but since then she has moved over to teaching English in a local school. Her son – who had an amazing collection of 1:35th scale model military vehicles – is what they termed a ‘general trader’. They did not elaborate on this, which makes us think that he buys and sells whatever is available in order to make a profit.

We returned to the ship just before she sailed. The route out to the Baltic took us past the Russian Navy’s base at Kronstadt. The was little evidence of the Russian Navy’s presence there other than a training ship, …

A SMOLNYY class training ship.

… some research and support ships …

This is a member of the AKADEMIK KRYLOV class of oceanographic research ships.

This appears to be the KARPATY, a submarine rescue ship that was built in the early 1980s.

… and a couple of attack submarines.

A pair of KILO class diesel-powered attack submarines.

There was also a very odd looking vessel, that looked like a highly modified submarine.

One suspects that it is some form of static training craft, but as its function is unclear this is purely surmise.

This appears to be an old submarine hull with a series of deckhouses added to it.

Day 11 – 26th July 2009 – Tallinn (Estonia)

Tallinn is an old Hanseatic League port, and despite many years of Russian ‘occupation’ it retains its late medieval atmosphere as well as many of its old buildings.

We spent a couple of hours just wandering around the ‘Old Town’, which still has a substantial part of its ancient walls still in place. In parts these have been restored to the way they looked when the town was at the height of its economic power.

I did manage to see some ships of the Estonian Navy from some distance away. The most modern members of the fleet appeared to be some minesweepers, but even with my binoculars details were difficult to make out.

Day 12 – 27th July 2009 – At sea

Although it was not sunny, the weather was not unpleasant and we looked forward to a quiet day at sea.

However at midday the Captain announced that due to a cracked casing on one of the engine turbochargers, the ship would have to miss the final stop of our tour – Gothenburg in Sweden – and make best speed for Southampton to ensure that we arrived there on time on Thursday 30th July.

I managed to finish the redraft of WHEN EMPIRES CLASH! during the afternoon. The main change is the addition of rules to allow aircraft to be used on the tabletop, although I have also redrafted one of two existing sections in the hope of making my intentions clearer. Now that I have an extra day at sea I hope to be able to read through the redrafted rules tomorrow, and to identify and correct any inaccuracies, typographical errors, and contradictions.

Day 13 – 28th July 2009 – At sea

Today we should have visited the maritime museum in Gothenburg (Sweden). It contains a variety of different ships including a Swedish destroyer – the Småland – and a submarine – the Nordkaparen. However the problem with the cracked turbocharger casing has meant that we have not made landfall and have continued on our journey towards Southampton at less than the ship’s optimum speed.

I have had time today to go through WHEN EMPIRES CLASH! in some detail, and have corrected some anomalies and typographical errors. I have also reformatted the rules in the hope that it will make them easier to use.

During the early part of the evening we turned around the northern tip of Denmark and passed out of the Baltic and into the North Sea.

Day 14 – 29th July 2009 – At sea

During the night, whilst making passage back to the UK, the ship passed through the area where the Battle of Jutland was fought in 1916. The weather today was overcast and the horizon was hazy, and it was easy to imaging what the lines of grey ships would have looked like as they steamed across this grey sea under a grey sky.

I was able to spend some time today creating a series of Army Lists for WHEN EMPIRES CLASH! They are not definitive lists but are intended to help players to put together the armies they need to fight a battle.

The ship managed to maintain a reasonably steady speed of around 17 knots throughout the day. This means that the ship should dock in Southampton on schedule tomorrow morning.

Day 15 – 30th July 2009 – Southampton

We docked ahead of schedule and were off-loaded by 9.00am. We had a good run back home on the M3 and M25 and were back home by just before 11.30am.


It all gone a bit quiet …

For reasons that will be come apparent later this month, I have not been able to make any blog entries until today. This does not mean that I have given up blogging … far from it! … due to technical reasons it has just been difficult to get Internet access.

I have managed to do some work on WHEN EMPIRES CLASH!, and the rules for using aircraft are nearing completion; they just need a bit of tidying up.

I have also been giving my ‘Nostalgia’ project some thought, and it is probably going to be set in the late 1930s/early 1940s and have a vaguely Scandinavian/Eastern European feel. There will be opportunities for me to use all sorts of different tanks and vehicles, and the uniforms are quite easy to paint.


Going solo

Some time ago I was asked if I could explain how I play solo wargames. At the time I promised that I would write a blog entry about the methods that I use or have used, and that time has now arrived.

Using Playing Cards 1

One of the problems associated with solo wargaming is the natural bias a wargamer can show to one side or the other. One method of ensuring that a solo wargamer can only activate the units under their command randomly is to use playing cards. The playing cards are thoroughly shuffled at the beginning of each turn and dealt face down to each unit on the battlefield. Once all the units have been dealt a playing card, the cards are turned over. The value of the card them determines the order in which the units are activated. The order of activation is numerical (i.e. Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King) and by suit (Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades). Thus any unit dealt the Ace of Hearts is activated first, followed by the Ace of Clubs etc. through to the King of Spades. Once the unit has been activated, its card is returned to the pack before being shuffled for the next turn.

It is worth noting that the playing cards that are used are not of the standard size, as these are far too large for a normal tabletop battlefield. Smaller cards designed for playing Patience or Solitaire are much better and are not too intrusive when dealt onto the tabletop.

I first came across this mechanism in Ian Drury’s REDCOATS AND REBELS, although as far as I know it had initially been used by Richard Brooks. I subsequently used it in my rules REDCOATS AND DERVISHES, REDCOATS AND NATIVES, and RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES, and it is a fundamental mechanism in all the RED SQUARE games that have been developed over recent years.

Incidentally, one advantage this method has over many others is that if the game is interrupted for any reasons, it can be resumed without a hitch because it is obvious which unit is next inline to be activated.

This is my default choice of rule mechanism for unit activation because it can be used in rules designed for both solo and face-to-face wargames, and it will probably remain as such for all my future designs.

Using Playing Cards 2

An alternative method of using playing cards is to allocate a colour or suit to each side. The pack is shuffled as normal, and the top card is turned over. If the card is from the colour or suit allotted to one side, that side may activate a unit or – in certain cases – two units. This continues until all the cards in the pack have been turned over.

I devised this method when I wrote BUNDOK AND BAYONETS, and used it again in RESTLESS NATIVES. It randomises unit activation, but does not force a solo player to choose to activate a particular unit. It is possible, therefore, for the player’s bias to be exercised, something that I try to avoid in mechanisms used in solo wargames. It does have the advantage of being useable in both solo and face-to-face wargames, although it is probably more suited to the latter than the former.

Using Playing Cards 3

Larry Brom has used a third method of unit activation using playing cards in his rules THE SWORD AND THE FLAME. His method is similar to that outlined in Using Playing Cards 2, with the exception that once every unit on the battlefield has been activated, the pack of playing cards is shuffled again and reused.

This method remains very popular, and works for both solo and face-to-face wargames; however if one side has more units than the other it is likely to end up with some of its units inactive until late in a turn.

Activation Cards

I first used a pack of specially made Activation Cards when I designed MIMI AND TOUTOU GO FORTH, a wargame about the battles between British and German gunboats on Lake Tanganyika during the First World War. The pack of Activation Cards comprised ten each for the MIMI and TOUTOU and five for the KINGANI. The pack had different numbers of cards for each participant to reflect the fact that MIMI and TOUTOU were twice as fast as their opponent and carried guns that fired twice as fast.

A similar method was used in SOLFERINO IN THIRTY MINUTES except that the Activation Cards were for each of the commanders present (e.g. Emperor Napoleon III, Emperor Franz Josef, and General Niel). Each commander had a different number of Activation Cards in the pack; this reflected their ability.

This method has several advantages over the use of ordinary playing cards. Firstly it is possible to skew the number of each Activation Card in the pack to achieve a level of differentiation between units or commanders. Secondly it is possible – using one of a number of desktop publisher programs, an inkjet printer, and sheets of pre-cut business cards – to produce Activation Cards that make it easy to identify which unit or commander is next to be activated.

Travel Risk Dice

TRAVEL RISK uses a set of special dice. The have a different symbol on each face of the dice; a General’s head, a cannon, a cavalryman, a single infantryman, two infantrymen, and three infantrymen. I have used them to determine how many of each type of unit either side can activate during a turn, with a different number of dice being thrown by commanders of different abilities (e.g. a ‘Poor’ commander throws two dice; an ‘Average commander throws three dice, and a ‘Good’ commander throws four dice).

Whilst this method works well with ‘Horse and Musket’ era battles, it seems out of place with other historical periods. It also allows player bias, which militates against its use.

Memoir ‘44/Battle Cry Command Cards

Both these games use a form of activation card (called Command Cards) that players use – and then discard – to determine how many units they can activate in one or more of the three sectors of the battlefield (e.g. Issue an order to two units on the left flank and two units on the right flank).

By shuffling these Command Cards and dealing one or more face down to each side at the beginning of a turn, and then turning them over it is possible to have a variable number of units on each side activated each turn and reduces the level of player bias.

Like the TRAVEL RISK dice, the Command Cards work well with World War II (MEMOIR ’44) or American Civil War (BATTLE CRY) era battles, but seem out of place if used with other historical periods. That said it would be possible to copy the method without too much trouble.

– o 0 o –
The above is by no means an exhaustive list of methods that can be used to help players fight solo wargames. It is, however, a list of the methods that I have used, and as will be obvious from my comments, I have found some of them to be more effective than others.


Is it me … or do they look very similar?

I had to visit the bank this morning, and on the way back to he car I happened to pass a branch of MODELZONE … as a result of which I bought some more kits for my ‘Nostalgia’ project.

One of the kits was of the AIRFIX Vickers Light Tank Mk.VI. Whilst unpacking my latest acquisitions, I put the box on my modelling table next to a book about modern armour. The book just happened to be open at the section that covers modern German armour, and I noticed that the German Wiesel 1 airportable armoured vehicle seems to bear a passing resemblance to the Vickers Light Tank Mk.VI.

The Vickers Light Tank Mk.VI.

The Wiesel 1 Airportable Armoured Vehicle.

The Vickers Light Tank is longer (4.04m vs. 3.26m), wider (2.08m vs. 1.8m), higher (2.26m vs. 1.9m), and heavier (5.2 tons vs. 2.8 tons); the Wiesel 1 is faster (85 km/h vs. 54 km/h), has a longer range (300 km vs. 200km), and is better armed (20mm cannon vs. 12.7mm or 15mm machine gun).

Now I know that when Northrop began design work on the B-2 bomber, they were able to draw on earlier designs such as the Northrop XB-35, YB-35 and YB-49. They also looked at the Horten Ho229 jet fighter that is in storage at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. I wonder … did any of the Wiesel 1’s designers at Porsche ever get any inspiration from looking at a picture of a Vickers Light Tank Mk.VI?

We shall probably never know … but it is an interesting question nonetheless.


The ‘Nostalgia’ Project

I have mentioned my so-called AIRFIX Project a couple of times, and several of you have asked for more details … so here goes.

Firstly – and most importantly – I have renamed it the ‘Nostalgia’ Project for reasons that will become apparent.

Secondly, this project is a product of my age. As I grow older I look back to my earlier wargaming exploits for inspiration … and because they were FUN! That is not to say that my current wargaming is not fun; it is just that, with hindsight, the wargames of my youth have acquired a probably totally unjustified sense of importance in my mind. They now seem to have been epic struggles that lasted for days, whereas the truth is that they probably lasted a couple of hours and had to be packed away in time for the family’s evening meal.

Thirdly, it is a reaction against the seemingly endless progression of new ranges of new figures in a variety of scales – 6mm, 10mm, 12mm, 15mm, 20mm, 28mm … and more! My boyhood wargames were fought with a very restricted range of 20mm/1:87th scale figures and models – almost all came from AIRFIX and ROCO Minitanks, with the occasional Matchbox vehicle thrown in for good measure. The models were basic – and there was not a lot of choice – and the figures were small and the detail was minimal. Oddly enough, this made them easier to paint using what was then the ‘standard’ method of painting – blocks of colour with no shading.

So I am planning to indulge myself by creating a series of 20th century imagi-nations (just like the two I had as a boy: Opeland and Upsland) that will be ‘armed’ by AIRFIX, ROCO, and any other manufacturer of ‘proper’ 20mm/1:87th scale models. They will recruit their ‘armies’ from suitably sized 20mm/1:87th scale figures, and the uniforms will be generic.

Interestingly I know that I am not alone in going down this path. Chris Kemp outlines on his NQM (Not Quite Mechanised) website how he ran a Summer Holiday Toy Soldier Campaign in his youth, and lays down some very helpful rules for doing the same thing now.

Ross Macfarlane has done something similar, and has recently added a battle report to his website With Macduff on the Web.

I am currently acquiring suitable models and figures (including raiding the boxes of models I found in the garden shed), and hope to begin work on this project when my enthusiasm for developing WHEN EMPIRES CLASH! begins to lag somewhat (I find that it is always a good idea to have several projects on the go at the same time just in case).

So the ‘Nostalgia’ project is now officially underway … but don’t expect too much to happen in the near future.


News from the Front! – COW2009: Odds and Ends 4

Although I featured this game in News from the Front! – COW2009: Report 3, David Bradbury – who ran the session – has sent me a very nice photograph of the galleys used in the game.

Fire So Close You Are Splashed By His Blood (Image © David Bradbury)

A Venetian galley slips past to bring food to the starving garrison.