Wednesday, 29 February 2012

And was Jerusalem builded here...

Photos of the city terrain coming soon, I promise.  To be honest I've been spending more time working on the terrain than blogging about it, but I'll get some pictures online soon.

As I might have mentioned previously, unlike a lot of other VSF gamers who base their games in colonial settings (like Africa, Arabia or Mars) all my current VSF games are based on a hypothetical Invasion of England 188x.  The premise is that a Russo-German alliance launched a two-pronged invasion, Russia in the north, Germany in the south.  There are of course dozens of reasons why this would never have happened in real life, but we can twist and turn a bit and make something at least remotely plausible.

In real life, despite his reputation Bismarck advocated against further wars of expansion against Germany's European neighbours.  Once they'd spanked the French in the war of 1870-71, Kaiser Wilhelm I was more than content to focus on matters at home.  The short-lived Kaiser Frederick III professed a hatred of warfare, and so would be unlikely to launch an invasion.  It falls to Kaiser Bill II as our likeliest candidate.  Despite being a grandson of Queen Victoria, I've read somewhere that there was no love lost there, as he blamed English doctors for both the death of his father and his own crippled arm (caused by his traumatic birth).  Early in his reign, he dismissed Bismarck and set German on a more militaristic, expansionist path that would eventually lead to World War One.  It doesn't take too great a leap to imagine conflict breaking out earlier in his reign.

Russia presents us with a bit of a problem though.  The Tsar at this time, Alexander III, was nicknamed "Alexander The Peacemaker".  Not only that, but he frequently expressed anti-German leanings, favouring the French during the Franco-Prussian war.  It's altogether highly unlikely that he would have allied with Germany in a military adventure against his English cousins.  However, this is the era of the "Great Game", the cold war between Russia and Britain over India and the North West Frontier and in 1885 there was the Pandjeh Incident which came perilously close to triggering outright armed conflict between the two Great Powers.  If the incident hadn't been defused diplomatically, it doesn't take much to imagine things escalating into an all-out Russo-British war.  In such an instance, it's not inconceivable that Tsar Alexander might consider Germany in a kinder light as "the enemy of my enemy".  An alliance, albeit a strained one, becomes a possibility, especially if Germany offers some significant advantage against the British, such as a way to neutralize the might of the Royal Navy and make invasion a possiblity.

This last point is possibly the strongest argument against the possibility of an invasion of England in the late 19th century.  Britain still clung to the policy of fielding a navy strong enough to defeat the next two most powerful navies together.  Any invasion of England would have to contend with the Royal Navy's complete mastery of the seas - while a surprise attack might be able to land troops, they would soon find their supply lines cut off once the navy responded.

The solution of course is the same thing that historically ended the era of the battleship - air power.  Graf von Zeppelin had been working on his concept of military airships since his experience with observation balloons in the American Civil War, and while historically his LZ-1 didn't fly until 1900, again it's not too much of a stretch in our steampunk universe to bring that forward in time to the point where a German aerofleet could neutralise the Royal Navy, or at least keep it at bay enough to maintain supply lines for an invasion.  Until Professor Cavor can iron out the problems with the new Cavorite-lifted aerial gunboats, at least.

So there, we've twisted and turned like a twisty-turny thing, but we've arrived at our joint Russo-German invasion of England.  Added to the mix we have a more than historically successful Fenian uprising which results in a Free Irish State powerful enough to send an expeditionary force to take advantage of the turmoil in England.  Plausible?  Don't know.  Don't care.  at the end of the day all this mental gymnastics is just an excuse to get toy soldiers and steam tanks on the table in uniforms that I like.

Now with all that settled, we can continue with the "campaign".  Rather than a traditional campaign game,with strategic units moving on a map, I'm running this narratively.  Battles are setup to be fun tactical games first and foremost.  The overall result of the game (victory or defeat) determines the overall strategic course of the campaign, and may suggest the following battle scenario.  Although strictly speaking no map is needed for this sort of campaign game, I thought it would be fun to sketch one up in order to visualise the overall lay of the land.  I found a map online showing 19th century counties which I traced and simplified somewhat, so that each county is a zone of control (except for Yorkshire, which due to its size is divided into the three historical Ridings)

(Apologies to those of the hibernian persuasion, the map didn't extend north of the border, so I've lazily assumed all of Scotland to be under Russian control, although possibly with fierce guerilla resistance in the Highlands)

The markers on the map just show overall control rather than specific units.  We can see with London so close to the front lines, The Queen Empress (gawd bless 'er) has retired to the relative safety of Sandringham (much to the chagrin of the Prince of Wales, no doubt).  Although the upcoming game is nominally set in Aldershot in Hampshire, it's actually going to represent a push north into Berkshire.  If the Germans win, Berkshire will get a German control marker and the British "front line" will fall back to Oxfordshire.

I find this map is useful in suggesting scenarios for the next battle.  Somerset is clearly up for grabs.  The Germans might choose to push to capture London already, while a British counter-offensive might try to claw out some breathing room in Surrey or Kent.  Or they could try to split the german forces in two with a counter-push to the Hampshire coast.

In the northwest I assumed the Fenians would most likely land at Liverpool, securing it with the aid of the local ex-patriate Irish community.  Since a single point of invasion is too vulnerable (and remember, the whole point of this exercise is to be an excuse to play tabletop games) I assumed a second landing point securing Anglesey and Canarvonshire.   Linking up the two invasion points would be a priority, so once the Fenians are finally painted, the first couple of scenarios are likely to be pushes along the North Wales coast (which I know fairly well, having holidayed there a lot as a child). Comings soon - the battle of Llandudno. (?!)

There are several advantages to setting up a campaign this way.  For a start, it avoids a lot of front-loaded work and lets you get to the important business which, I'll say again because it bears repeating, is about getting toy soldiers onto the tabletop.  Think about it, if you were going to do a traditional style wargames campaign of this war, you'd probably start by doing a lot of research, starting with a historically accurate map.  Then you might look at potential objectives for the campaign, research troop movement speeds of the period, orders of battle.  Then you might find you don't have enough figures to properly represent the historical troops and have to buy and paint them and then....

I know, I started out down this route before I saw sense.  All this work has to happen before you actually get to play any games.  No wonder so many wargames campaigns wind up never getting off the drawing board!  What's worse is that then, if the participants play the strategic side of the campaign with any sense, you'll wind up with incredibly one-sided battles that aren't much fun to play.  The traditional wargames campaign, turns out to be a pretty rotten way of generating entertaining tabletop battles.

With a semi-abstracted, narrative campaign on the other hand, you can put together a fun tabletop game drawing on several sources of inspiration.  You can look at the rough area you want to play in and look for interesting   geographical locations or political or economic targets.  You can look at results of a previous game, making  the next scenario a natural progression from there.  Or you can look at what figures you have available, possibly focussing on new forces you're itching to get onto the tabletop and craft a scenario around them.

Let's take the "Battle of Llandudno" as an example.  That's going to be a scenario based on my wanting to get my long-delayed Fenian army into a game.  I picked Llandudno because I have happy childhood memories holidaying there, rather than any real strategic importance.  A quick Google shows that it was indeed a resort town back in Victorian times (and in fact still holds an annual Victorian Extravaganza) which makes for an interesting battle along a seafront.  Just to the north of the town nestled in the middle of  the Great Orme peninsula is "Happy Valley", a former quarry that was landscaped as gardens and miniature golf courses as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887.  That makes for an interesting patch of greenery along one table edge.

And so on and so forth.  Then once the battle is fought, it's unlikely that a particularly bad result for one side will end the campaign, as it might in a traditional game if the losing side suffers too many casualties or loses a particularly key part of the campaign map.

Narrative campaigns.  Definitely the way ahead.


  1. I quite agree with your ideas of managing the campaign. I've seen too many good ideas fold due to over-complications. KISS is my motto!

    I also holidayed in North Wales as a lad, and it does have plenty of potential. What about an attempt by the British to sever the Ffestiniog Light Railway, which brings supplies to the Fenian front line troops? ;)

  2. That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. On the map it might just be the Fenians pushing south from Canaervonshire into Merionethshire. On the tabletop, it's #29 Raid on a Train from "Scenarios For All Ages". But since you've tied it to the real world either through personal knowledge or Google-fu, suddenly it's got a lot more background colour.

    It's one of the things that's really impressed me about the Very British Civil War boys and their games. They build sometimes fanciful units based on snippets of local history, and often fight battles over roads and countryside based on their morning drive to work.

  3. I agree, there's a certain charm about VBCW. Had I the funds, I might well form a few units of my own. I can well imagine my grandfather, all of 35 or thereabouts, putting his WW1 military knowledge to work on behalf of an East Anglian Socialist faction.

  4. Well my Dad's side of the family hadn't come over from the auld country by '38 - not sure if there's any official line on how VBCW affected Ireland, which would have still been smarting from its own Civil War. And I have a nasty feeling my maternal grandfather would have leaned towards the chaps in the natty black uniforms!

    The only reason I've not given VBCW a go is that to all intents and purposes, most of the VBCW battles I see online look pretty much identical in style and tone to the GASLIGHT VSF games I already do. All I'd really be doing is swapping red coats for khaki.

    That said, I actually received an order of 28mm Zulu war Brits today, bought with a view to doing A Very Victorian Civil War at some point.