Tuesday 19 July 2011

On Holiday

It’s July, the British weather is pretty dreadful…..oh yes, it must be time for my summer holiday. While I try out my terrain building skills with beach sand, there’ll be a short gap of Blog posts for a couple of weeks.

Plenty to come in early August to catch up, however, so stay tuned. And have a great time yourselves if you’re heading off for a holiday anywhere.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

"Night of the Hunter" - A night fighting playtest

“It’s a stalking, watching-and-waiting game in the darkness, a very different kind of feel to a daylight action”.

So said one of the playtesters at the end of last night’s game, “Night of the Hunter”, at Lard Island. The game was a night fighting action played with the “Through the Mud and the Blood” rules for the Great War. The opposing forces were two fairly large British and German patrols, both of which had been tasked with reconnoitring a set of abandoned and shell damaged trenches which now lay in No Man’s Land.

Both sides were also asked to try and capture an enemy prisoner to try and discern more about their opponent’s deployment and future plans.

I also wanted the game to be a playtest for some refinements to the night fighting rules in “Through the Mud and the Blood”. I’ve mentioned before that we have, as a club, found night fighting difficult to simulate. The accounts of night fighting from the Great War emphasis chaos, mistakes, confusion and terror. Trying to replicate the same thing on the tabletop is challenging.

However, I was fairly happy by the end of the game that we were grasping slowly to towards that goal. I have posted the player briefings and a summary of some of the rules we are playtesting in the “Playtesting Scenarios” on the right hand side of this Blog. Any comments are very welcome.

The Game

In the depths of Soldier’s Copse, something stirred. It was hard to see anything through the thin rain and smoke drifting languidly through the No Man’s Land night. However, the dark, hooded eyes of Private Thomas Gunne were used to making out strange shadows on nights like this. Before the war he had been a gamekeeper on one of the sizeable landed estates in Suffolk. Whereas he once stalked poachers drifting through the beech woods to steal off a brace of rabbits or pheasants, he now stalked the German soldiers along their front line trench.

He shifted slowly, and soundlessly, turning to face the camouflaged figure of “Me Gentleman”. Major The Honourable Archibald Barrington-Smythe said nothing, but gave an almost indiscernible nod, indicating that he had seen the movement in No Man’s Land as well. Gunne held up three soot blackened and dirt encrusted fingers with a scowl, angling his fingers downwards. Three groups of friendly British forces, moving towards the abandoned trenches in the chalk pits. Definitely not the prey that they were stalking for. Both men moved silently and slowly forward, inching steadily through the shell shattered wood, searching for their enemy.


The game started with both British and German forces moving slowly into position in No Man’s Land, close to a set of abandoned trenches near the chalk pits at Hulluch.

Neither force deployed flares and both were content to stalk the other around the edge of the wood and the abandoned trenches, the tension rising. Both teams of snipers crept towards each other in Soldier’s Copse.

The British section led by Sergeant Alf Blackwall reached the abandoned trenches first, slipping down the wrecked parapet and into the flooded passageways. Nerve jangling moments followed for a game turn as the British and German sections knelt on either side of an old shell-damaged parapet, trying to spot or hearing each other without success.

Back on the German lines, the tension must have been mounting as well, as a large flare was fired suddenly, illuminating the British side of the table (under a draw of a Random Event card). One of the British sections was caught in the glare of a falling star-shell, and was quickly spotted and then raked with fire from three German sections (their muzzle flashes designated by a single figure on the table).

As the firing started, Sergeant Blackwall took the initiative and led his men over the top into a close combat with the section of Fahnrich Lothar Schmidt. In the darkness, now illuminated by the distant star-shell slowly falling to earth and the whickering of tracer rounds, the two sections clashed in a vicious hand-to-hand combat. The Germans, defending what was left of the trench parapet, managed to repel the British but heavy losses on both sides, a Very pistol flare eventually illuminating the savage scene.

The noise of fighting brought more attention from the front lines of both sides, with a British mortar and German minenwerfer being fired off on consecutive turn into Soldier’s Wood (two Random Event cards, drawn in quick succession). Amongst the noise of the explosions, a sharp crack was heard from the edge of Soldier’s Wood – the hunting rifle of Major The Honourable Archibald Barrington-Smythe had struck again. As the German soldier fell to the ground not 40 yards from him, the prone figures of the Major and Private Gunne crept back into the shadows.

By now, Lieutenant Whitechapel had joined Sergeant Blackwall’s section and led the survivors in a bombing attack against Fahnrich Schmidt’s forces, with the British bombs being hurled over the trench traverse. The Germans suffered badly (receiving four “shock” points to add the shock caused in the close assault), and were stunned to effective reply (rolling badly on the “Snifter” card at the end of the turn).

Battle-scarred and disorientated, Fahnrich Schmidt withdrew his men from the trench to a nearby smaller copse, firing flares from his own flare pistol, and drawing a covering fire from his supporting sections to pin down Lieutenant Whitechapel. The resourceful Fahnrich would no doubt have fought on longer had be not been wounded by a bullet fired from Soldier’s Wood. The hunting rifle had struck again. As his men dragged him back to the safety of the German front Line, little did Fahnrich Schmidt know that he had become the latest entry in Major Barrington-Smythe’s dark leather bound game book...

So there we have it. A very different game for “Through the Mud and the Blood”. Tense and unpredictable, with some cinematic moments. But far from the titanic clash of nations fought in the daylight. With Great War wargaming, as with other periods, there’s more than one way to recreate the fighting....

Friday 1 July 2011

The Flooded Land

They found themselves in a “wide almost circular pit, high banked from the West. It was cold and dead, and a foul sump of oily many coloured ooze lay at its bottom. In this evil hole they cowered.

Cold and clammy water held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weeds on the dark, greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting weeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long forgotten summers.”

If you recognised this place, well done. I’ll wager that you’ve all been there before in your mind’s eye.

Yes, it’s not actually Flanders at all. It sounds like Passchendale, or perhaps the Somme. But its not.

It’s the Dead Marshes just near the Morannon Gate in Middle Earth. And the cowering wretches in the hole are Frodo, Sam and Gollum, and not a group of mud-drenched Tommies.

As many of you will also know, the two places – the Western Front and Middle Earth – are connected closely. J.R.R. Tolkien served in the British Army in the Great War, arriving in France in early June of 1915 and seeing combat in mid-July 1915. Tolkien lost some of his closest friends in the War, and a number of authors have made strong claims that his wartime experiences formed a turning point in his life.

My interest in the connection between the Dead Marshes of Middle Earth and the flooded lands of the Western Front came about in trying to recreate some truly abysmal terrain on a couple of terrain boards for our Great War set up. I had plenty of images of the battlefield of Passchendaele (perhaps the location most might first think of as a flooded and tortured battlefield) in Peter Barton’s outstanding book, “Passchendaele”. These often famous images conveyed a lot of the horror of the battlefield, the desolation and the unremitting grimness of having to fight through the elements and over a shattered land before finally confronting the enemy.

However, something also lingered in my mind from the Dead Marshes when I started thinking about flooded lands. Perhaps it was a memory from Sir Peter Jackson’s film of “The Two Towers” as Frodo falls into the water entranced by the haunting images of fallen soldiers and dead Kings. Perhaps it was from reading the chapter on the Dead Marshes, remembering that, in Tolkien’s own words, "My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself".

As I read more, I realised that in Tolkien’s own words from one of his letters, “[t]he Dead marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme”. I was also finding the connection hard to shake out of my mind.

At the same time, I was wanting to try and do something different with the next couple of terrain boards I wanted to work on. First, a few words of explanation. A couple of players at my local club have mentioned that our Great War terrain looks a little too dry, too neat, maybe even too ordered.

It’s a fair comment, as you can see from the above picture. Perhaps I need to introduce a little of the chaos of War into the terrain.

Whatever my clubmates had on their mind, it was perhaps a fortunate conversation. I’d wanted for a while to try and add a couple of No Man’s Land terrain boards featuring particularly difficult terrain. There’s a historical reason for this. Some of the terrain in No Man’s Land would have been simply abysmal, whether in Flanders, on the Somme and or elsewhere in bad weather. Bad terrain offers some interesting wargame opportunities. It might canalise an attack, impede movement, or bog down tanks. It offers challenges to the players, and that can only be a good thing in gaming terms.

The idea then took root for me to prepare a couple of terrain boards featuring bad terrain, whether flooded, broken, or otherwise marshy. I didn’t want to make a dozen of these, but I wanted enough to make a difference in a game. These boards needed to fit with the other terrain (at least plausibly). And they needed to be interesting to model.

Ah,....now you can see that this is where the Dead Marshes crept back into my mind.

I’m not at all saying that modelling a marsh or boggy ground is uninteresting by itself. Far from it. But I was wondering if there was more that I could do with that idea. I was wondering if it might be interesting to try and recreate historical terrain but inspired by a fictional setting (which was itself rooted in that historical setting). That's sort of a cross-over of a cross-over. Does that sound chaotic? If so, then perhaps I'm on the right lines.

Well, you’ll soon be able to see for yourselves whether this idea worked, won’t you....?
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