Sunday 28 July 2013

Guns Against the Reich Memoirs of an Artillery Officer on the Eastern Front by Petr Mikhin (2010)

Books to read by John Curry

"On the offensive, a private on average lasted for a couple of assaults; a platoon leader for a day; a company commander for a week, a battalion commander for a month. If you keep a person constantly in the front lines for a year or two, he'll go insane. That is why the Germans offered leave of absences for their soldiers at the front. We didn't have leaves. In fact it wasn't really necessary- who would survive to see his leave day?" 

This quote sums up why so few accounts of low level combat from the Russian perspective have made it into print in English. Few in the Russian front lines survived long enough to gain the perspective necessary to make valid observations. This officer survived as he was the forward observer for the artillery and so he saw combat first hand, but was often set back from it, running the indirect fire part of the battle. 

Although there is some Russian jingoism embedded in the writing, it comes across as honest and straightforward. The tactical snippets are many. The German 82mm mortar was their best weapon for killing infantry. The front lines were often confused, just lines on a map, with units too spread out to keep a continuous front. Camouflage was an obsession of Mikhin, perhaps was related to his survival.
Russia was able to win as the American lend lease sent 400,000 trucks and jeeps. Without this, they could not have resupplied their armies. German lost as they did not have enough trucks to support their divisions on the Eastern front. However, after that broad generalisation, this book helps give a good idea of how the Russians won in the company and battalion level battles that all major wars are decided by. The books is a worthwhile addition to Eastern Front literature.

Thursday 18 July 2013

The History of Wargaming Project and naval wargaming

I played the Fletcher Pratt naval wargaming rules over the years and did some work on the rules. For example, I created a program to create the ship cards needed to play the game. Sometimes, when I mentioned the Pratt rules (and the fact I had modified them), I was asked for a copy. John B. and Tony Hawkins advised me to try and sell some copies of the rules. So I produced a fairly amateur version, which to my surprise sold.

Over a year or so I started to proof read the rules, improve the layout and got the rules printed and bound cheaply by a local printer. Thus started the history of wargaming library project. Rather than just reproduce the originals, I decided to try to make the rules usable for a modern audience. The Fred Jane Naval Rules had an excellent fast play version in them (which allows a novice to quickly get into a game). The book was produced casually and really needed further work, but as I thought 10 copies would sell, and I would know 6 of the purchasers, I thought it was not worth the effort. I was a little surprised to find that when the Fred Jane Naval Wargame (1906) including the Royal Navy Wargaming Rules sold 11 copies, I knew none of the buyers. It has continued to sell.

My next naval wargaming was the classic Donald Featherstone's Naval Wargame. This was the book that did more to launch modern naval wargaming than any other. Its key feature was re-introducing the Fred Jane and Fletcher Pratt Naval Wargame, as well as simple naval rules by Tony Bath for ancient ship battles.
I realised that the version of the Fletcher Pratt game we all used was incomplete. It lacked a campaign system, examples of scenarios and rules updates that I knew existed. So over a year I set about tracing the owner of the Pratt game and she did have several boxes of previously unpublished stuff. The Fletcher Pratt Naval Wargame was a new book, full of additional material. I was also surprised to find that Pratt’s loyal fan base were eager to buy the book, not to play the game, but to learn more about Pratt.
When I did Phil Dunn’s Sea Battles revised edition he offered me new material for a couple of chapters and then Paddy Griffith (a big fan of Dunn’s book) offered a ‘Hunt the Bismarck Game’ as an appendix. The additional material added to the book and I was amazed that the book apparently launched several hundred solo naval wargaming campaigns.

Several other books have included naval wargaming material. Innovations in wargaming included a naval kriegspiel by Paddy Griffith; Bruce Quarries Napoleonic Campaigns in Miniature had a chapter on sea battles.

One advantage of being editor is the ability to commission more naval wargaming books. The next to go to print is Phil Dunn’s Fury at Sea, which is full of ideas for large scale simple naval wargames. Also included will be the Napoleonic naval rules of the Sandhurst Wargaming Club, written by Paddy Griffith and David Chandler at this semi-legendary club.

The project will include more naval wargaming material, with at least two more books on the subject (in addition to Phil Dunn’s) over the next 12 months.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Why the UK Conference of Wargamers is the best model for a conference and the worst

In July in the UK each year, there is a unique wargaming event, The Conference of Wargamers (COW). It is a weekend conference set in a sprawling country house that explores developing wargames for the hobby, professional use and academic research. Started by Paddy Griffith, the well-known military historian, it has outlasted several other attempts. Saying that, there is now the American Connections Conference which focusses on the use of professional use of military wargames and the UK equivalent.  There is also the UK London based Chestnut Lodge conference that is non-residential, but it also looks at the subject of developing wargames. Before discussing why COW is the best and worst model for a conference, it is necessary to briefly outline how academic conferences have developed over time.

Academics have gathered for conferences to develop their learning for centuries. The traditional model, until the last 20 years or so, was for conferences to consist of a series of lectures, punctuated by key note speakers. Everyone attended every lecture as it was based on the foolish notion of learning cascading down by listening to established experts in the subject. The radical departure from this was for two or more tracks to be running concurrently, with the audience deciding who to go to listen to. Key note lectures were kept (where everyone attended), as it was too risky to allow the potential risk of the audience the choice of not hearing ‘the great and the good’ of their subject. It would be really embarrassing if a significant proportion of the attendees did not choose the ‘important’ speakers. These speakers might never come again.

More recent innovations have seen 4 or 5 parallel tracks; poster sessions that consist of people putting up a poster summarizing their research and people talk to them in the coffee break; short sessions of 20 minutes (for those who feel they can make their point more effectively in less time), practical sessions (with presenters showing people how to actually do something); and panel question and answer sessions. The latter are opportunities for specialists to be interrogated by the masses, but they can lead to embarrassing moments where existing understanding is overturned by the simplest of questions. While old school academics challenge these new-fangled developments over the last 20 years, most people agree they make conferences a lot more interesting and useful.
COW went through all of these innovations a long time ago and is an example of a new, far more effective and somewhat scary conference model.

The conference commences with a plenary session, this may consist of some great speaker or it may simply be an icebreaker. From then on it is parallel tracks. COW is actually multiple conferences in one; there are sessions for those who believe wargames are tools as aid understanding military history (Griffith school), others for commercial games developers who are testing their ideas/ games (Wallace and Peter Pig school), serious games development (Young School) and for those who are on the elusive hunt of how to make money out of wargaming. Attendees casually move between these sessions seamlessly as the mood or whim takes them.
COW has a timetable, but the attendees dynamically change the timetable as soon as the conference starts. If there is a gap in a room, anyone can fill it with a session. Prior to running a session (a game, lecture, demo, seminar etc.) the session leader puts up a short briefing sheet to describe what the session is about. No longer do people have to guess from the leader’s name and session title what is being covered, they can read a short summary. People usually sign up prior to a session to help the leader organise things in advance.

Even more disconcerting is the lack of respect for people’s job titles. One may have published half a dozen books on the subject (so have many other people at the conference), but that will not stop someone engaging one in lively conversation if they are inspired. This good natured testing of concepts, ideas, game mechanisms, understanding of military history, is like the very finest of undergraduate teaching seminars. However, this rigorous discourse is simply not done at any of the other hundreds of conferences I have been at over the last twenty years.
Some of the wargaming output of the conference has been at the active edge of wargaming and military. The conference has seen some small part in the development of DBA, DBM, DBR, Matrix games, Peter Pig rules, Martin Wallace’s board games, the History of Wargaming Project, Mega Games and countless other wargaming products.

The COW conference is what I term a post-modernist conference. It has not been designed that way, but has evolved into an attendee led conference. What the attendees want more of gets more time, the less popular receives less attention. The downside to the conference is the lively and energetic engagement of the participants can be bewildering and challenges the normal academic ‘pecking order’ that some might be used to. The conference is no respecter of rank. Ideas, concepts, game designs will be dissected, applauded and/ or shot down in flames; often all of these within a 10 minute discussion.  My own view, for what it is worth, is the conference is wildly successful as a tool to develop the attendees as wargamers.
Each conference is a fascinating and unique experience for those taking the time to attend. However, as a more general model for conferences, it is will not catch on. Yet…