New website, new blog!

My company, Surprised Stare Games, now has a fresh new look – a new website in fact. Integrated into the SSG website is a new blog called Something To Do With Games. I’ll be using the new blog in place of this one to avoid repetition and extra work. It will cover a variety of different topics. As you might expect, there will be posts to do with designing, making, producing, demoing, and selling games, especially games that Surprised Stare is producing. But also, I will write or record posts about the investigations I’m doing into historical backgrounds, wargaming (including occasional posts on professional wargaming and military history), and I hope to have guests here to give different perspectives. In fact, one of my first posts is a podcast about designing the ideal introductory wargame, with my friend Dr Lew Pulsipher, a leading designer and author of game design books, articles and videos from the USA.

Over the coming weeks, I will include Designer Notes from some of our recent publications, and a look at what happened from SSG’s perspective at the very recent 2021 UK Games Expo.

Please join me over at Something To Do With Games.

A Critique of the Manpower Crisis of 1944

Western Allied infantry manpower shortages in the European Theatre in 1944

Much ink has been spilt about the apparent US and British manpower shortages in the European Theatre in 1944. There was indeed a planning headache caused by the US decision to maintain their 90 division Army ceiling, despite constant conflicting demands across theatres, and by British and Commonwealth sensitivity to infantry losses. However, I argue here that the actual significance of this problem may have been grossly overstated. I should probably stress that I have not by any means read all the literature on this topic, and I’m happy to be enlightened by more suggestions!

The US manpower balance was between the conflicting needs of the Army’s strategy, US production requirements and the demands of other services. For the strategy question, US planners estimated their manpower requirements for the Germany First policy in terms of how many divisions would be required to defeat Germany. One of the tools they used was to compare the number of US divisions with the number of German divisions as a rule of thumb. Simplistically, they calculated that they needed at least as many as the Germans, plus reserves, bearing in mind that the British had a large number available too, and the Allies had overwhelming air and naval power. The US planners major concern was that their reserve of 18 divisions (in fact, this was later increased to 25) would be insufficient, bearing in mind the German reserve of 11 divisions.

Unfortunately, this crude tool grossly distorted the actual position in terms of manpower and combat strength. Some distortions should possibly have been taken into account at the time, others only become visible with hindsight. I’ve used Niklas Zetterling’s Normandy 1944 for most of the figures here.

German infantry divisions in the West were comparatively small in numbers of men compared with US divisions. In addition they had grossly inferior combat strength, even taking into account their small size, owing to largely horse-drawn or immobile artillery. It is also worth noting that German mobile divisions were significantly below establishment in AT units, especially important in defence, especially at the start of the Normandy campaign.

The US and British command echelons often complained about their lack of infantry. Tanks were not generally a problem, because the reserve tank park was huge. As evidence of this infantry shortage, the British were forced to disband at least 1 division in order to redistribute men to other units. The US in turn, though later, professed a major shortage in December 1944 as a result of the requirements to repel the Ardennes Offensive. This soaked up their reserve divisions in the US. However, note that these reserves did exist and were used for their purpose. The concern was that a further major crisis after the Ardennes would be problematic.

The nature and relative importance of the Western Allied problem is revealed by looking elsewhere. In Normandy by the end of July, total German combat unit strength was somewhat under 400,000, taking into account casualties. The Germans received relatively few replacements for their frontline divisions – about 10,000 men by 23 July and maybe between 30,000 and 40,000 in total by the end of the campaign (Zetterling, Normandy 1944, p31-2). German casualties in Normandy had been nearly 120,000, reflecting a shortfall of around 100,000 in front-line divisions by the end of July. Mean infantry division strength at the start of June was around 10,500, with a divisional slice (average divisional strength plus a share of non-divisional manpower) of around 14,900. This compares to an average Western Allied slice of slightly greater than 40,000, and Allied combat unit numbers at the end of July of about 1.5 million.

As planned by the Allies, the Germans found it impossible to match the Allied force build-up in Normandy, partly because of their adherence to the Pas de Calais defence till July, partly due to Allied air power, and mostly because of the demands of the East. From the German perspective, the only way the Ardennes Offensive in December was possible was through denuding the East so much that it crippled defence against the invasion of East Prussia by the Soviets in early 1945; the defeat in Normandy and the loss of East Prussia due to the requirements of the Ardennes Offensive were prime examples of German manpower difficulties in the West.

German divisions were expected to fight on without replacements, and with virtually no time out of the front line for the entire Normandy campaign. Whole divisions were frequently disbanded and absorbed into other formations (for example, 16 Luftwaffe into 21st Panzer Division) or simply became a collection of flotsam and jetsam attached to kampfgruppe from other divisions (for example, 716 Infanterie), until withdrawn or disbanded.

The Soviets too, far from having a never-ending supply of manpower, were suffering. They were recruiting under 18s and possibly even under 17s by 1945. Their major difficulty all through the war was recruiting enough troops in order to train some of them adequately prior to commitment. Extensive losses forced them to commit significant quantities of troops whose training would, in the West, have rendered them unfit for commitment to combat, leading to even greater losses, in a cycle only ended by victory at horrendous manpower costs in 1945.

Japan, in contrast, despite commitment of over a million men to the China theatre, knew that its production capacity, not manpower, was the limiting factor in the Pacific Theatre. In fact, it proved to be shipping in particular that was critical, removing their ability to transfer troops and logistics to counter threats. So, despite no shortage of manpower, they were not able to deploy combat strength to resist allied amphibious attacks effectively. The US was able to exploit the Japanese lack of mobility once command of the air and sea had been established, negating Japanese manpower strength by bypassing and isolating powerful positions such as Rabaul. The Japanese expenditure of manpower was profligate, including the loss of around 180,000 army troops to sinkings by submarine, and further hundreds of thousands left stranded.

So, looking over the other side of the hill, Western Allied manpower shortages, though they were a planning headache, were as nothing compared to their enemies’, and arguably the Soviets too. When assessing combat strength, it’s also important to look beyond crude comparisons of numbers of divisions. A Western Allied division had about two-and-a-half times the divisional slice of a German one, so already represented a huge numerical superiority, even before we take into account the Western Allies massive preponderance in materiel and air power. Rough parity of divisions in Normandy represented a combat power superiority of at least 4 to 1 and very likely much much more. It may be that the US had reached its Army manpower limit by December 1944. It’s not difficult to argue that Germany had reached its effective manpower limit by the Spring of 1944. Some of the evidence for this was concealed from Allied planners, but there was significant intelligence about German divisional manpower totals and concomitant combat strengths that may have been missed.

Postscript: This blog post represents an idea that needs further investigation and research. It’s a starting point for a hypothesis. It suggests that realistic and hard-headed assessment of enemy strategic capabilities was either not attempted except at a very broad-brush level, or was very difficult to apply. Perhaps it was less important in Allied decision-making than the more straightforward application of our own resources and capabilities, and a more suck-it-and-see approach to strategy than might appear.

Horses for Courses: cavalry charges in miniatures wargames

This post has been inspired by Dr. Brett Devereaux’ blog, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry – a look at the history of battle in popular culture. Brett is an academic historian (ancient history) at North Carolina State University. While his research interests are Roman economy and the Roman military, he has a broad and deep understanding of ancient Mediterranean history, including “the nuts-and-bolts” of everyday life in the ancient world, and a broad and deep understanding of military history too. His blog examines films, TV series, books and other artifacts of popular culture and their portrayal of battle and other military topics, critiquing them against his understanding of the topics as an historian. This is important in his view, and I concur, because the popular understanding of the ancient and medieval worlds – and later periods I might add – is coloured by their portrayal by Hollywood and Netflix. If you’ve not seen his blog before, I recommend you go and have a look at it – for cavalry in general, here; and those famous cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings here and here.

I’m going to be a bit of a pedant myself here. I want to examine in some detail how cavalry charges against formed infantry ready to accept the charge are depicted in miniatures wargames, and how these representations match with some historical evidence. I should stress that I’m not a historian, and my research is not comprehensive. Some of the issues here are controversial amongst military historians (and wargamers!), so I will start by saying that there may not be “a single simple truth” out there – it may be impossible to dissect the minutiae of cavalry charges because of the lack of incontrovertible evidence.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m restricting this blog post to cavalry versus infantry, and further to what I will term “heavy cavalry” versus “heavy infantry”. By the former, I mean cavalry armed with spears, lances, or swords whose tactical purpose was to charge and destroy infantry (and secondarily other cavalry), and who were often armoured and usually mounted on large horses trained for war. By heavy infantry, I mean close order infantry, whose tactical purpose was to form the front line in the battle, and to defeat the enemy’s front line in the battle (and secondarily to defend against heavy cavalry). In pre-musket days, these would usually have been armoured in some way and armed with long pointy objects – mainly pikes, spears, and the like. Later, these would be armed with muskets and bayonets. You might notice that I’ve not specified any particular period. I’m hoping that what I’ll say will cover the generality, from Alexander’s Companions (Hetairoi) to Napoleon’s Cuirassiers, though I’m remaining more tentative when thinking about very heavily armoured cavalry in the early modern period, particularly with fully armoured horses.

What happens when cavalry charges infantry in a miniatures wargame? I’m interested in a fairly typical wargame situation, where a line of heavy cavalry launches a charge at a line (or square in Napoleonics) of heavy infantry that is more or less ready, so I won’t be examining different formations, or cases where one side has been outmanoeuvred. My main examples here are the Napoleonic rules called General de Brigade (GdB), designed by David Brown, with De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM; by Phil Barker and Richard Bodley Scott) and Fields of Glory (FoG) by Richard Bodley Scott, Simon Hall, and Terry Shaw, as more generic examples each covering both ancient and medieval battles. There are many other rulesets out there that are relevant, and I cannot claim to be familiar with all of them! Don’t worry, I won’t descend simply into the “this is unrealistic” stance. I’m intending to be more nuanced.

Typically in a miniatures ruleset, a cavalry charge is governed by distance – is the cavalry close enough, but not too close – the morale of the cavalry, and the morale of the target infantry. Terrain, formations of the units, surprise, and fire at them, will almost invariably affect morale, as you might expect. If both sides have good morale, a melee ensues, and after some time, dependent on period and rules, one side will prevail. If the cavalry has bad morale, then its charge generally won’t go ahead. If the infantry has bad morale (usually strongly influenced be the observable fact that it is being charged by heavy cavalry – a discouraging circumstance), then the cavalry win the day, with greater or lesser certainty and decisiveness, again dependent on period and rules.

In General de Brigade, to charge, the cavalry must be within charge range of the target infantry and the infantry must be to their front. The cavalry formation will typically be a line. A formed regular body of infantry in close order receiving cavaly would typically be in square formation, though line with protected flanks is not unheard of. In simplified form, the charge sequence in GdB is as follows.

  • Cavalry must declare their charge, then they move half of the distance to the target.
  • They then receive fire from the target and any others in range.
  • At this point, the cavalry must roll morale dice, and they can only proceed with the charge if their morale is still OK.
  • If they succeed with this test, they “charge home”,
  • and the target infantry must roll morale dice too.
  • If the infantry succeeds, they stand, if they fail, they might retreat or rout. They might instead “falter”, possibly the most dangerous result, because they do not fall back, but suffer disadvantages in the subsequent melee.
  • If both units’ morale is good, a melee happens later in the turn.
  • If the infantry retreated or routed, the cavalry charge might still catch them, in which case a melee happens with the infantry at a terrible disadvantage.
  • The cavalry may be able to pursue.

In DBM, each individual element in the game acts as the smallest unit capable of independent action, though there are features that permit blocks of elements to act together. These features are vital in DBM, lest an element be flanked, leading to often critical attacker advantages against some unit types. There is no distinction between close up shooting (rather than at a great distance) and melee; it’s all assumed to be close up enough combat to count. This is important, because it means horse archers attacking infantry are not in melee with them! There is also no real concept of morale checks for charging cavalry or for charged infantry in DBM – these are to an extent factored into the d6 dice-vs-dice run-off at the element level, with modifiers for situation, terrain, and element type of attacker and defender. Instead, formal morale stuff is handled at the higher level of a ‘command’ – a significant proportion of an army – and then at army level itself. Heavy cavalry are represented by ‘knight’ elements, with ‘cavalry elements’ usually a combination of melee weapons and bow, though occasionally they could be classed as heavy cavalry. Heavy infantry would be primarily ‘spears’, ‘pikes’, or sometimes ‘blade’. A bunch of knight elements charging a line of spear-armed infantry elements from the front will be able to close to hand-to-hand combat. Combat factors (all other things being equal) favour the infantry; the knights gain +3 to the dice roll v other foot, the infantry gain +4, but with an additional +1 for extra ranks (pikes get even more for extra ranks). Each overlap (adjacent element with no enemy element to its front) gives +1 to the dice roll, so tactical factors like this are very important, particularly on the flank ends of a formation, even if the contact is front to front. On average, the infantry will win. However, we know that “on average” doesn’t happen all the time, and it can be worth charging and hoping, especially if you have a lot of cavalry. My own example is a number of Scythian light horse of mine, inexcusably trapped between my lines and the enemy lines; a charge into the enemy spears should have resulted in their demise, but they managed a rather unlikely breach, and we won the battle.

Field of Glory offers a further example, like DBM covering ancient and medieval battles. FoG has battle groups as its smallest formation that can act independently, each usually made up of several bases of the same troop type. Like General de Brigade, a cavalry charge has several stages:

  • Declaring charges
  • Responding to charges
  • Moving chargers to contact
  • Resolving combats for battle groups in contact

While there are complexities around wheeling, units that may charge without orders, and formation changes to avoid other battle groups, in essence a frontal charge is literally straightforward. Once it is established that a battle group can charge, the target can opt to receive the charge or evade (technically, there might be interception charges, but that involves more units, and not infantry ones at that). As it happens, heavy infantry cannot evade, so they must receive the charge. There is an Impact Phase for when the contact occurs, then later in the sequence of play, a Melee Phase, presuming that neither side has broken. There are Points of Advantage (modifiers, PoA) for combat dice rolls. In short, spearmen (“Heavy Foot”) get a PoA against “Knights”, “Cataphracts”, and other cavalry that we might term as heavy cavalry. A PoA basically gives the spearmen 4+ to hit on a d6, whereas the cavalry have 5+ to hit, and as it happens, this PoA is relevant for both Impact and Melee phases, though if one has heavier armour it will cancel out a PoA in the melee. Deep formations of pikemen will get an extra PoA to the great detriment of charging cavalry. If a battle group loses a close combat (Impact or Melee), then it must take a morale check – in FoG, this is called a Cohesion Test and reflects both morale and organisation, or lack thereof. Losing is a result of taking more hits than your battle group inflicted. Failure to pass a Cohesion Tests drops the battle group a cohesion level – Steady > Disrupted > Fragmented > Broken. Against Steady spearmen, the heavy cavalry charge is not expected to result in victory, though this would be an uncommon occurrence, rather than a rare one. Against Steady pikes in deep ranks, it’s very unlikely that the cavalry will prevail, because of the double disadvantageous PoAs (3+ versus 5+ in rolls). However, FoG like DBM is a d6 dice game, and with enough combats, very unlikely results are possible.

Let’s review this against some historical evidence, with particular focus on the close quarter interaction between the cavalry and the infantry, the part where contact is or is not made. Some of the best evidence derives from John Keegan’s seminal work The Face of Battle. His section on Agincourt is not really relevant to our example, as it deals with cavalry against archers, and I am not. Chapter 3, Cavalry versus Infantry, which provides examples from the battles of the Waterloo campaign is certainly relevant. The focus of the chapter is on French heavy cavalry – mainly Cuirassiers – charging British infantry, which happened several times at Quatre Bras and Ney’s cavalry charges at Waterloo, and British cavalry charging French infantry, famously through Uxbridge’s overthrow of d’Erlons attack columns. The main thrust of Keegan’s argument is that formed infantry invariably got the better of cavalry. “Formed” in this case means that they kept their formation and cohesiveness, presenting a bristling front of bayonet points and occasional volleys of fire towards their assailants. The key point here was that the infantrymen’s morale was not shaken sufficiently to disturb their cohesion as a unit. Where there was disturbance to morale through the unexpected appearance of cavalry, or where the infantry was caught changing formation leading to a collapse in morale (for example, 69th Foot at Quatre Bras), or a freak occurrence (for example, at Garcia Hernandez in the Peninsula War a dead dragoon horse “did not collapse until directly above the bayonets of the front rank”), the infantry could disintegrate. Infantry casualties could be great in these cases – possibly as much as 2,000 prisoners were taken from D’Erlons Corps during the charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo – although many could escape by playing dead or forming small groups to discourage the horses. When in square with flanks protected, cavalry was invariably unable to engage the infantry at Waterloo in hand-to-hand combat, and instead suffered casualties from musketry till driven off.

Scottish Highlanders at Waterloo

A couple of rather older examples may suffice for further illustration. At the battle of Hastings, the English well-formed infantry remained safe from William’s knights on Senlac Hill, though not from his missile-firing infantry nor his own heavy infantry. Early in the long battle, only the attacks of the Norman infantry could help the Norman cavalry make any impression on the shield wall by creating gaps to be exploited. This was insufficient to shift the English, until an initial flight of the cavalry (whether feigned or not) encouraged parts of the English infantry line to pursue. After this first occurrence of “feigned flight”, William continued with these alternating tactics of infantry attack, cavalry support and flight, to provoke pursuit by elements of the English line that lacked the discipline to remain in place.

A bit of the Battle of Hastings, showing Norman knights

The third example is from the wars of Edward I against the Scots. At Falkirk in 1298, the Scots formed their heavy infantry – primarily pike-armed and used in deep formations (schiltrons) – in an all-round defensive position behind a swamp. The English knights quickly dealt with the Scottish cavalry and archers in combination with Edward’s longbowmen, but they could not readily disturb the schiltrons. There must have been contact, because accounts talk of heavy losses in horses at least. Several charges were made by the impetuous knights before Edward put a stop to it. Then, the English brought up their archers and the battle was effectively lost from the moment the shooting started, as the pikemen had no answer. As gaps began to appear in the ranks, the formations started to break up and the knights shattered them.

A charge at Falkirk

My small contention in this post is that our wargaming rules enable effective cavalry charges against formed infantry from the front, while the historical evidence suggests that this is nigh on impossible. Designers have properly recognised that heavy cavalry charging formed heavy infantry from the front will suffer from a disadvantage, but it seems to me that the extent of that disadvantage is often downplayed.

Unarmoured horses, such as French Napoleonic cuirassiers or Norman knights at Hastings, were, I believe, generally unable to make effective contact with the heavy infantry, which would have required urging a horse onto a wall of spikes. By “effective contact”, I mean the reality of a physical attack with a sword against infantry brandishing bayonets at the end of muskets, or with a lance against a shield wall bristling with spears. There is no evidence that unarmoured horses carried out effective impetus attacks by charging into and through lines of formed heavy infantry. This would not be expected, on two grounds: firstly, by definition there are no gaps for the horses to penetrate, and secondly, the horse is not a battering ram, and any attempt to use it as one would be disastrous for the horse. So, the horseman’s weapon has to be used against the defending infantryman, and the horseman with a sword is at a terrible disadvantage. From shoulder to end of sword is insufficient to reach an infantryman across his horse’s shoulder in a charge movement, and to lengthen his reach by avoiding the horse’s head and shoulder, he has to turn his horse, thereby denying it impetus. This then leaves him and his horse extremely vulnerable to a bayonet or spear thrust.

The Norman lance is a slightly better proposition, though it is worth bearing in mind that in the 11th century, this is not the couched lance of the high middle ages or Renaissance, but the overhand thrusting or even thrown spear. This might have some chance of damaging the shield wall, as these thrown spears could probably penetrate the Anglo-Saxon shield. However, this would not result in hand-to-hand combat, as contrary to Hollywood presentations, formed infantry do not immediately break up into a multitude of one-on-one personal duels, but rather they stay formed up and will happily deal collectively with any horseman careless enough to try to get within spear, sword or battle axe reach.

Heavy cavalry with armoured horses may be a slightly different case, though I remain to be convinced. It’s clear from Falkirk, and probably other late medieval or early modern battles, that impetuous (foolhardy?) knights did charge into pikes, and predictably suffered many killed horses and men doing so. I looked at Charles the Bold’s battles against the Swiss that he famously lost despite having ostensibly the most powerful army in Western Europe at the time, including many knights, eventually dying at Nancy probably at the hands of a Swiss halberdier, but in these examples the Burgundians seem to have been uniformly outmanoeuvred and scarcely able to mount a knightly charge at all. Most of the melees seem to have been instigated by the swiftly moving Swiss heavy infantry in situations where the knights were unable to manoeuvre effectively.

I would like to see our wargame rules cover this types of situation better. I contend that heavy cavalry on unarmoured horses cannot charge into contact against formed heavy infantry; charging heavy cavalry on armoured horses can make contact by some form of short-lived impact attack, but it would be extremely rare for this to do damage to the infantry. In neither case should formed heavy infantry be engaged in melee with heavy cavalry, as this is simply not a practical proposition. If the heavy infantry’s cohesion and morale remain good, the cavalry can do nothing, and should at least retire from contact, if not flee.

The implication for General de Brigade is that it matters not if the heavy cavalry pass their morale test; if the heavy infantry to their front stand, the cavalry will not complete their charge, and no melee will ensue. This is likely to be disadvantgeous to the cavalry, and the designer might well choose to have cavalry automatically fall back if this happens.

DBM seems more abstracted, more chesslike if you will, but nevertheless the outcomes are perhaps reasonably accurate at the element level, and the design of DBM does neatly do away with some of these difficulties in the interests of game play. With the concept of “recoil” in DBM, an element can separate from its opposing element, though the winner may sometimes choose to follow up and stay in contact. Knights recoil from spears and pikes if beaten (though are destroyed if well beaten), and cavalry will usually recoil from these troops if the cavalry don’t beat them. Only if the modified dice rolls are equal will full contact be maintained. However, it looks to me as if DBM has avoided the difficulty here by abstracting the concepts of formed troops and morale at anything higher than the element level. In practice, a bunch of knights/cavalry and infantry can still look like they are meleeing in circumstances where a melee would not have occurred historically, with the possible exception of knights with fully armoured horses. Instead, either the cavalry should bounce – recoil with no follow up, or flee – or the infantry should be destroyed. In fairness, it is quite possible that DBM’s potentially chaotic outcome, but favouring the infantry, has it right, but with no strict concept of ‘units’, it’s difficult to assess it conclusively.

In the circumstances described above, FoG has a much more organised view of things, as it depends on its battle groups for battle structure. The whole charge, impact and melee process is as structured as GdB, possibly more so. This makes for a good game experience, but has the same difficulty as GdB, in that we have formed heavy cavalry charging into formed heavy infantry, with impact followed by melee, and the attrition of losses causing one side or the other to collapse. Unfortunately, this seems to be historically incorrect, as shown by examples above, with the previously noted possible exception of cavalry with fully armoured horses. It’s possible to envisage an Impact Phase to reflect the charge, but if the infantry hold, melee is not practical, and the cavalry should be forced to fall back.

In conclusion, I’m proposing that charging cavalry will not close to effective contact with formed heavy infantry, with the possible exception of cavalry with fully armoured horses. By “effective contact”, I mean a melee engagement with the disorder of the cavalry and infantry that this implies. For the rather long-winded “heavy cavalry with fully armoured horses”, an impact is perhaps possible, but no follow-on melee unless the infantry break or at least lose cohesion. An advantage of this change is that the purpose of battlefield heavy cavalry becomes much clearer and more historically accurate. It is to place the heavy infantry at a sufficient disadvantage that it becomes disorganised or demoralised or both, and therefore vulnerable to a charge. This can be effected by manoeuvre, typically to flank or rear, or combination with other arms. A good cavalry commander will try to manoeuvre, not carry out a direct charge, except where the infantry are wavering. With the type of change I am suggesting, it may still be possible to carry out a speculative frontal charge. Perhaps the formed heavy infantry in front of the cavalry will not unreasonably quail at the sight of the massive horses bearing down on them, will lose their cohesion, fail to stand their ground, “falter” in GdB terminology, “disrupted” or “fragmented” in FoG, with terrible results for them. On the other hand, if the heavy infantry are able to stand firm, points to the fore, then all would be well for them.

Why might this be important? It’s not as important as the focus of Brett’s blog, which is to reduce the impact of misconceptions about history in the public mind. Wargamers are hardly the general public, after all. However, there are some aspects of some wargames rules that seem to me to take a mechanistic, or “gamey” if you like, view of some aspects of combat. Often, these issues are established by a false reading of history, or at least one lacking in nuance. There is a tendency for rules to enable offensive action, often risky offensive action, as a way of injecting more drama into the game (I like a good cavalry charge as much as the next wargamer!). But, commanders were often more circumspect than we plastic soldier heroes. And I think our rules should reflect this more, while still allowing the Marshal Ney in us to escape occasionally, but with predictably disastrous results.

Obviously, I have not here presented overwhelming evidence, but simply a small sample – as ever, further research is necessary.

Busman’s holiday on the number 1460 to Northampton

I decided to take a break from my Kingmaker playtesting on Discord and Tabletopia by playing a solo physical game. My choice, rather bizarrely perhaps, was Northampton 1460, Graham Evans’ excellent storytelling game of the battle of Northampton in the Wars of the Roses.

The game can be played solitaire or 2-player, and there are also 2 modes: you can play it using the historical timeline or freeform. The structure of Northampton 1460 is similar to W1815, in that the armies are not free to deploy where they like, they must occupy their historical deployment grounds and carry out more-or-less the actions that they did during the historical battle. The freeform version allows you to experiment with doing things in a different sequence from the historical one, whereas the historical timeline constrains you into the historical order, with variation only from your own particular dice rolls for your particular enactment of the battle.

Without further ado, I present:


Northampton 1460 game cover: note that this is a game in a book!


Game set-up

Here we see the full components of the game itself, though I note that I’ve managed to clip III, VI and XI on the Weather and Turn Track. I hope you can imagine Quarte, None and Compline to the right! The game book contains rules and historical background material in addition to pull-out pages to enable you to construct your copy. Of course, you might decide to scan the game pages so as to leave the book intact.

The armies are represented by 3 Battles each – Yorkists at the bottom, Lancastrians in their camp at the top. In addition, we have the small cavalry contingents – Scrope and Greriffin – on the left, and the Papal Legate and Archbishop of Canterbury on the right of the Yorkists by the Eleanor Cross (now re-furbished, go and see it if you have the opportunity!), Henry VI in his tent in the camp, and finally Margaret of Anjou, with her son Edward, Prince of Wales in the Delapre Abbey. The cavalry only have 1 hit each and generally carry out a bit of skirmishing prior to the main engagement. The Battles each have from 4 to eight hits, each hit represented by a square counter illustrated with an appropriate coat of arms. The Lancastrians start on 11 Morale, the Yorkists on 10. There is also a stack of weather cards, because rain was an important factor in neutralising the artillery, particularly the preponderance of the Lancastrians in this arm. Finally, each side has 8 cards that describe the actions that can be taken and their effects. I’m going to carry these out in the historical sequence, which is largely denoted by the circled number in the top right of each card, guided by instructions at the back of the rules.

Turns alternate between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, and the game lasts up to 9 rounds. You draw a weather card at the start of each Yorkist turn, the Yorkists going first, then the Lancastrians.

Cavalry Skirmish

Bolton 1 Northampton 0

The first weather card today is sunny! Just what the Lancastrians need, because 2 or more suns in a row will dry out their guns and make them more effective.

In Prime (Round 1), the first action of the battle is for Lord Scrope’s cavalry to attack that of Greriffin in a preliminary skirmish. Scrope has a 4 in 6 chance of driving off the Lancastrian cavalry, which he duly does. Turning over Scrope’s card, we see that Scrope plays no further part in the battle, preferring to sack the town. Even before the battle is truly joined, it’s not a good day for the people of Northampton.

There is no effective Lancastrian response to this outrage. Henry VI is content to pray in his tent for victory and peace for all England; this prayer has an outside chance (1 or 6) of affecting the morale of either army, but has no effect for now. This ends the first round.

The Archbishop of Canterbury intervenes to try to stop the bloodshed

Terce: Thomas Bourchier, the Archbish of Canterbury, attempts to negotiate.

Terce (Round 2) turns wet, so no benefit to the Lancastrian guns.

Warwick (the Kingmaker) leading the Yorkist army sends emissaries led by Thomas Bourchier, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to the King’s advisers to try to negotiate a settlement. Unsurprisingly, the negotiation fails. Henry continues ineffectually to pray for peace. The failure of the negotiation makes the Yorkist army despondent (they lose a point of Morale).


Quarte: Anathema!

Quarte (Round 3) is perchance of a damp persuasion.

For a different type of persuasion, there now occurs one of those ‘most weird’ happenstances – truly this happened in 1460! Present at this battle was Bishop Francesco Coppini, the Papal Legate, under some instructions from the Pope to support the Yorkists, though as a Legate he carried the Pope’s full authority. At this point, he excommunicated the entire Lancastrian Army! While it is unclear what effect this had at the time, or indeed whether excommunication was a tactical ranged weapon, in this game at least some Lancastrians are downcast at being cast out of the Church (they lose 1 Morale). In a kind of “how many battalions has the Pope?” response, the Lancastrian guns attempt to fire upon the Yorkists. The result is that God seems not to like artillery much, and the Lancastrians do no damage and lose 1 of their 3 guns.

At the end of this round, both sides have suffered 1 Morale loss, but the main Battles have not yet engaged.

Artillery duel?!

Sext Guns

Sext (Round 4) is sunny again, but really too little too late for the gunnery.

Both sides try to get their guns to work, but it’s the literal damp squib! To add insult to lack of injury, the Lancastrians lose yet another gun. Maybe that excommunication is having physical aftereffects?!

Forward for Richard!

Octe: naught to see here

At Octe, the sun is again not sunny; ’tis verily wet for 10th July.

The first Yorkist battle to attack is that led by William Neville – no, not THAT Neville, one of the other ones – Lord Fauconberg. It seems this part of the camp is too strong and coupled wtih Egremont’s counterattack, the Yorkists take considerable casualties and fear spreads among their solders (they lose 2 casualties and 1 Morale in total). Will it be the Lancastrians’ day after all?

A Warwick, A Warwick!

None: Warwick 1 Buckingham 2

None sunne. But just 1 sun does no good.

Now Warwick leads his own Battle forward to battle. This kingmaking malarky is proving a tad tricky! Warwick’s troops are also stopped at the barricades and lose heavily, though their opponents also lose men and morale.

After None, Lancastrian morale is at 9, but the Yorkists are becoming increasingly desperate at only 7, as they’ve not made much impression on the Lancastrian position. If their morale drops to 5, they’ll have to take a test and risk their army collapsing.

The Future King!

Decime: March marches.

Decime’s weather is also sunny, so the Lancastrians at last have 2 suns in a row. Unfortunately, it’s far too late for their artillery to have a significant effect now that battle is being joined all along the line.

Edward of March, the future Edward IV who never lost a battle, now shows his mettle. His determined attack wrecks Shrewsbury’s Battle, aided by the turncoat Grey of Ruthin, who lets Edward’s soldiers into the Lancastrian camp. Edward rolled a 6, unnecessarily high as there were positive modifiers because all the Yorkist Battles are engaged. However, a roll of a 1 or 2 would probably have been disastrous, as it would have repelled this Yorkist attack and hit their morale hard. The fortunes of war have favoured the Yorkists for now.

Grey’s treachery means the Yorkists are in the Lancastrian camp, which flips a lot of cards to their alternative side, and favours now a Yorkist victory. Buckingham’s men try to resist Edward’s assault into the camp, but they’re starting to lose the struggle.

The Lancastrians have to take a morale check, because they only have 5 Morale left. If the roll exceeds their current Morale, they have to ask for Quarter, in other words, try to surrender. They pass the test – for now.

Margaret calls it

No Quarter at Vespers

Now they’re in the camp, it’s pretty much all over for the Lancastrians. Edward’s soldiers sweep through Buckingham’s ranks and capture the King. Seeing the writing on the wall, Margaret of Anjou, unable to reach her husband, sweeps up her son and flees. She escapes from the Abbey and manages to avoid capture in the Lancastrian rout that follows. The Lancastrians troops, seeing the King captured and with Margaret running, suffer a collapse in their morale (they lose their Morale check), and ask for Quarter. This is denied by the enraged Yorkists, who proceed to butcher anyone they can catch. In the rout that follows, Buckingham is captured and executed, while somewhat surprisingly Egremont survives and is merely imprisoned.

The Outcome of the 9th November 2020 battle

Graham helpfully provides a method for translating your version of the tactical battle result into a comparative scale of strategic victory, dependent on who survives, who was imprisoned and who got away. In this re-fighting of the battle, Margaret of Anjou and Prince Edward got away, the Lancastrian army was routed, and were given no Quarter, while Henry was captured as was Egremont. The remaining Lancastrian commanders, Shrewsbury and Buckingham, were slain. No Yorkist commanders were killed. Totting up, this gives the Yorkists +9 points, which equates neatly to the historical outcome: “a major Yorkist victory. York/Warwick faction take control of the Government. No one ever considers using artillery forts again for the rest of the war.”

Many thanks to Graham Evans for designing such an excellent, fun and informative game, and to the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society for publishing it.

If you’d like a copy of the game, it is available either from the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society or from myself at All proceeds in both cases go to the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society.

The Society has also published a book by Mike Ingram on the battle, available from their website. – live and kicking

22 to 25 October saw the SSG team at, albeit from the comfort of our own home-offices / lounge / library / other (insert here).

Although had its disadvantages, in that we couldn’t actually meet actual people in actual person, we did achieve an impressive amount of live streaming. Impressive, bearing in mind that the only previous live streams we had run ourselves were a couple of toes-in-the-water at Virtually Expo. All of these are available on our Twitch stream at, but it may be easier to get them from YouTube. We have a channel there too, now; just search for Surprised Stare Games.

A History of Surprises

Under the admirable chairmanship of actor, wordsmith, game reviewer and apocalypse-juggler Ben Maddox (see 5G4D), Tony, Charlie and I rummaged through the attic-spaces of SSG’s history and back catalogue of games. This perambulation into the past took 4 sessions of live streaming, and it seemed, at the time at least, to provide an entertaining and informative account of SSG’s first 20 years. It was also a celebration of Tony’s massive contribution to SSG over the years, in the light of our decision to part company. Tony will now plough his own intrepid furrough, while Charlie and I continue to build on SSG’s 20 year old foundations. To find out more about all of this, have a listen to the recordings of A History of Surprises. game design live streams

In addition to our inward-looking history streams, we talked to quite a few famous guests about many aspects of game design. We had a lot of fun making these videos over the 4 days of – see what you think!

Creating Differently – Bez Shahriari and Alan Paull talk about their different approaches to game design. We look at “doing what we want to do”, design versus development, iteration and testing, amongst other things.

Ideas into Mechanisms – Rob Harper and Alan Paull chat about how we convert ideas into practical game mechanics. We use as our main example our latest prototype of Snails & Grails, a weird medieval themed adventure game that we are designing with David J Mortimer.

Remaking Kingmaker – Alan Paull presents a live stream about the re-development of Kingmaker for Gibsons Games (to date). Aided by two notable playtesters, Mike Oliver and Peter Piggott, Alan explains the reasoning behind the current prototype of the classic 1974 board game, originally designed by Andrew McNeil. The session contains a look at the new short format game on Tabletopia. Mike and Peter offer their views on the changes, and we have a few questions from the audience.

Greater Than The Sum of its Parts – Alan Paull and Tony Boydell chat with famous designers Brett Gilbert and Matt Dunstan about the pluses and perils of co-designing games. Brett and Matt collaborated on, amongst other things, the award-winning Elysium (2015), and the recent game Chocolate Factory (with David Digby).

What makes a good wargame? – Alan Paull and Graeme Tate muse on this age-old question, in relation to board wargames. We defined what we meant by ‘wargame’, then looked at and chewed over some criteria that might be used to determine a ‘good’ one, using examples both old and new.

A History of Surprises

At, Tony, Charlie and I mused for several hours on the history of Surprised Stare Games, from its earliest beginnings, nay prior even to that!

I’ve brought these live stream videos together in a YouTube Playlist, as a very introverted documentary about what happened, at least as we remember it now. Alternatively, please feel free to watch via Twitch at

Of particular note is the excellent chairmanship of Mr Ben Maddox of Berlin, and of the 5 Games 4 Doomsday podcast.

Please do nip over the YouTube and watch A History of Surprises.

To live stream or not to live stream, that is the question

I’ve been pondering whether to commit to weekly live streams. This has been provoked by our Surprised Stare Games live streams over, which seemed quite successful. Having the tech now suggests taking advantage of it might be good for SSG marketing (we’ve not traditionally been good at social media).

If I was to do a weekly Surprised Stare live stream, what topics might you like to see? Game design stuff? Designer notes? Military history? Special guests?

And also, what time of the week would be best? Friday afternoon? Some time at the weekend? A weekday evening?

Surprised Stare Games will be at!

To track us down, use the Search facility, or browse for our virtual stand in the “Expert” or “2-player” games themes.

We will have our new games The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress on display, including various how-to-play videos.

We will be running an exciting series of live streams during

Creating Differently
with Bez Shahriari and Alan Paull, Thursday 1300 – 1400
A History of Surprises part 1
with Tony Boydell and Alan Paull, chaired by Ben Maddox (5G4D), Thursday 1500 – 1600
Remaking Kingmaker!
with Alan Paull, Mike Oliver and Peter Piggott, Thursday 1900 – 2000
Ideas into Mechanisms
with Rob Harper and Alan Paull, Friday 1100 – 1200
Greater Than The Sum of its Parts?!
with Brett Gilbert, Matthew Dunstan, Tony Boydell and Alan Paull, Saturday 1100 – 1200
Ask Us Anything!
with Tony Boydell and Alan Paull, Saturday 1230 – 1330
A History of Surprises part 2
with Tony Boydell and Alan Paull, Saturday 1500 – 1600
What makes a good wargame?
with Alan Paull and Graeme Tate, Sunday 1300 – 1400
A History of Surprises part 4
with Tony Boydell and Alan Paull, Sunday 1500 – 1600

SSG: 20th Anniversary Retrospective – the first 10 years

I’m not usually a visual or graphics oriented person. However, I felt that I should put together a post about SSG in its 20th Anniverary Year; a look back at our published games, mainly through pictures.

Surprised Stare Games was officially born in November 1999, according to our Certificate of Incorporation. Tony Boydell and myself were and are directors, our spouses are share-holders, so that they have an interest in keeping us on the straight and narrow. Reg (our somewhat movable surprised guy) was also born.

In the beginning, there was the word, and the word (according to Tony) was “Coppertwaddle”.

Box cover for Coppertwaddle by Judy Stevens

“To Thee The Coppertwaddling Man and Mayde, Be Thou Sure Thy Debts are Payde.” We had so much fun with this spoof medieval game! It came with its own long history, learned articles and even a notation for recording games. Nadia Marrocco drew the cards and Judy Stevens did the cover. Coppertwaddle was published in 2000, and we took it to Essen 2002 and sold a few. At Essen, we were right next to Richard Breese, who taught us all we should have known before we went to Essen! He had brought his excellent game Keythedral, and promptly sold out, while our very prettily medieval stand remained somewhat devoid of customers. We’re still learning from Richard.

A sample of Coppertwaddle cards. Thanks to silverpenny for uploading the image to BGG.

Mappa Mundi was our first promo card – we (mainly Tony) have been altogether more extravagent with promos since.

Our next offering was Bloody Legacy, “An Unnecessarily Violent & Offensive Card Game for All the Family”. This included a classic scene at Essen 2004: an older lady approached our stand and admonished us for producing such a horrible and disgusting game, concluding with “I’ll have 2 copies, please!”. Bloody Legacy was possibly our simplest card game, a fun last-man-standing game that was produced, artwork and all, in-house. Tony did all the line art for the cards, Charlie did the layout and colouration, I did rules and production. For some reason, Eclectic Games in Reading sold about a quarter of our total stock. It was our first game that flew off the shelves.

A favourite BL image

Notice that we were producing our games in English and German, reflecting our keenness to sell at Essen Spiel each year. Bloody Legacy was translated into German by Melanie Koster, who coped well with idiomatic translations of Tony’s visual and textual jokes.

Our first year at Essen Spiel was 2002 with Coppertwaddle. In 2003, we went as ‘punters’ without a stand. Then, in 2004 back with a stand for Bloody Legacy.

A rather young and proper looking Tony Boydell! We also sold some BL Ts.

As part of our marketing for Bloody Legacy, we produced a little puzzle on our website. The winner was a certain David Brain, puzzle compiler and game designer extra-ordinaire! His victory led to our lasting friendship.

Having produced “only” card games so far, our next venture was our first proper board game. My design started as a pyramid-shaped set of blue cards and some conical pieces, which transmogrified into a rather abstract game called the King of the Castle. After a couple of years of development, we had a much better 2-4 player ancient Ireland themed board game called Tara, Seat of Kings. We indulged ourselves with a rather splendid box cover overflowing with gold leaf.

Tara, Seat of Kings box top

Tony managed to incorporate us into the scene, though I’m a bit unrecognisable now. I never did ask Tony how long it took him to do the Celtic scrollwork. I’m happy to say that it was generally well received in the gaming community – we sold out, but didn’t set the world alight. At this stage in our company’s development, and the development of our game design processes, we’d not yet got to grips with co-authoring or working with other publishers. I suspect Tara would have been a better game if we had.

2007 brought Scandaroon. I nearly said “nuff said” and moved along. However, while Scandaroon has been the butt of many of our jokes about failed games, there remains a good game in there, in my opinion. The primary reason for Scandaroon’s failure was really our lack of marketing experience and expertise. The game itself is a very tight card manipulation game with a bit of strategy on top, and reviews are generally very positive, praising its innovation and depth. Unfortunately, we rushed the theming (why Scandaroon? It’s from Iskenderon, a seaport in southern Turkey, suggesting a kind of medieval, oriental thingy; or possibly a pigeon!). The box turned out to be very bland. It was quite a hard sell, because at heart it’s an abstract tactical/strategic game with a paper-thin theme.

Scandaroon box top

My medium-heavy Euro board game, Confucius, had been under development for a considerable while before its publication in 2008. A bit like with Tara, it started life as a card game and rapidly got out of hand. With at least 3 years from conception to publication it had a reasonable gestation period.

Confucius box top

Many people liked the gift-giving mechanic, and it has been a welcome addition to the SSG catalogue – certainly, I considered it my best design to date. In a sense, Confucius announced us as a serious games company. In keeping with our desire to sell into Germany, we again produced a German translation of the rules, though not a full-blown dual language game. Instrumental in the German side of the project was our great friend Daniel Danzer, who volunteered his services to us poor indie company with little to no resources. We were privileged to have Daniel’s professional help, and he has been a good friend to SSG over the years.

It was also our first game where players made extensive custom pieces!

Customised Confucius board

We were also in partnership with another company, an arrangement that I will not dwell upon, because it was A Bad Thing, and came very close to ending SSG. Despite the negatives around that relationship, Confucius sold well, particularly in the English-speaking world, though surprisingly (to me at least), slightly less well in Germany.

“For me? Really …. you shouldn’t have.” Thanks to MyParadox for uploading to BGG.

Another positive was meeting up with Moritz Eggert (a renowned avant garde musician as well as a gamer who appeared on The Dice Tower). Moritz, I learned, was a fan of my earlier game City of Sorcerers, which apparently had a cell of fans in Munich! I asked Moritz’ group to blind test Confucius, and this was very helpful in the development of the final product.

2009 was our 10th anniversary as a company. 5 games had emerged from the SSG stable. It was touch-and-go after the unpleasantness of 2008 whether we would maintain our 1 / 2 year rate. My own game design inspiration was curtailed for a long while. However, Tony’s seemed to start to ramp up. Fzzzt! I’m guessing this is the only game on BGG with a triple ZZZ, the sound of a rapidly terminating robot.

Fzzzt! pic from our website

Tomorrow’s world is here today!

A world where strange and crazy robots are built in a crackpot factory, and the players (mechanics) compete to collect them as they fall off become available on the conveyor belt.

Fzzzt! was a real pleasure for all of us. Yet another card game from Tony’s endless supply, full of life (well, robot life anyway), humour and fun. This was the first game we launched at UK Games Expo, rather than Essen Spiel. We sold well over 100 copies there, which, considering 2009 was only its third year, was very good; if I recall correctly it may have been the first time we made a profit at the Expo! And the icing on the cake was the award of Best Card Game.

Tony being awarded Best Card Game at UKGE 2009

Now, we started to work more consciously and more effectively with partner companies. Fzzzt! was produced in 2010 by Eagle-Gryphon Games in the States, and also by Lifestyle Boardgames Ltd in Russian!

I’ve just noticed that I started drafting this post before lockdown. I’d better publish it, or it may languish as a draft forever. Then I can start on Part 2.

Kingmaker: The Carisbrooke Anomaly

Many older games have little quirks and foibles that would nowadays be smoothed away in the interests of consistency and playability. Kingmaker has some of these. One of my jobs in the re-development of the game for the new version is to identify them and take my knife (and sandpaper) to them.

The Carisbrooke Anomaly: Carisbrooke is a royal castle in the centre of the Isle of Wight. It wasn’t particularly important in the Wars of the Roses, though its existence did discourage French raids. It was held by the Woodville family for Edward IV for a while. It is more famous for its royal occupant at the end of the English Civil War, when Charles I was imprisoned there.

In the original Kingmaker, Carisbrooke was represented by a Crown card with just its name (left), updated for the Avalon Hill/Gibsons version with some graphics (right):

Within the Crown deck, the ownership of royal castles is generally indicated on an Office card, such as the Constable of Dover Castle (for Dover), or the Chancellor of England (for Caernarvon). Except for Carisbrooke. This royal castle, and only this one, has its own specific Crown card with no associated Office. In every respect, except for its picture and fortified location type, Carisbrooke is equivalent to a fortified Town, like, say Southampton. This has the unfortunate side-effect that this type of Crown card cannot be accurately called a “Town card”, because one of them is a castle. As an aside, there’s also Bristol with its own card, though it’s a City not a Town; nothing’s perfect.

I’m experimenting with a resolution of the Carisbrooke Anomaly by removing its current card and introducing a new Office: Warden of the Isle of Wight. This Office would have 50 troop strength and control of Carisbrooke Castle. In addition, it would have a ship, Le Maudeleyn of Newport (Isle of Wight) with a capacity of 150 men. The ship and troops represent the considerable efforts that the crown took to contain piracy in the area, both locally and from across the Channel. Furthermore, to reinforce this anti-piracy role, the Warden of the Isle of Wight is called away by 2 Piracy Events on the South coast.

Here is the new card, not tested as yet:

I’m hoping that this will make Carisbrooke Castle a little more relevant and interesting in the game.

Kingmaker re-developing: playtest version on Tabletopia

First cut of re-developing Kingmaker on Tabletopia:

Re-developing Kingmaker (1st cut on Tabletopia)

Re-developing Kingmaker (1st cut on Tabletopia)

Time Out at Waterloo: a W1815 session report

W1815 – the components (plus dice shaker and tray!)

As a way of relaxing from game design, I decided to play my newly acquired W1815, using Jim McNaughton’s solo rules, 7th Coalition Bot for Solo Games. In this version, the solo player is Napoleon and all the allied turns are handled by the bot.

  • For the events in the game I’ll use this notation: Action followed by dice roll with any mods followed by effects.

The set-up

Napoleon (me!) believes there’s only a few thousand weak Anglo-allied troops in front of us, so we shall sweep them away with no trouble!

I decide on the conventional artillery bombardment to soften up the enemy line. It’s how the master started the battle, so who am I to argue? With no French infantry or cavalry attacking, Wellington’s lads will just have to take it – the allies actions are to put Prussians on the field.

  • Grand Battery 3 1AM
  • Blücher 3 1PD
  • Grand Battery 4 1AM
  • Blücher 1+1 1NE
  • Grand Battery 4 1AM
  • Blücher 3+1 1PD
  • Grand Battery 5 1AC
  • Blücher 3+2 1PD

It seems the ground has dried out pretty well, as the Grand Battery does better than average. Over 4 turns allied morale is down from 10 to 7, and Orange’s Corps has taken a loss. I guess Perponcher’s Dutch-Belgians took a bit of a pasting at Quatre Bras and couldn’t take any more. The Prussians have marched 3 divisions onto the battlefield over this time, so there is a threat to Plancenoit, but we should see off this ragtag army before they can interfere. Besides, Grouchy will surely be along shortly.

I figure it is now time to force Hill’s corps into square and then exploit Kellerman’s cuirassier counter-attack (+1 to the roll) when Hill inevitably re-deploys into line…

  • Kellerman 6 Ney

…but Ney has misinterpreted the order and launched all the cavalry! This is a tad premature even for le brave des braves! C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.

I didn’t mean ALL the cavalry!

  • Blücher 4+3 1FM 1PD

The Prussians are getting pesky, but I cannot react while the French cavalry are doing their stuff.

  • KL-NEY 4 1AM 1FC
  • Blücher 6+4 plancenoit captured

That fellow Blücher is a thorn in the side. Plancenoit has fallen, and still the cuirassier ride at the British squares.

Plancenoit has fallen!

  • KL-NEY 4-1 1AM 1FM 1FC 1FM (Kellerman’s Corps gone)

Kellerman’s cavalry corps lost

  • Blücher 5+4 1FC 1FM

Kellerman’s corps is used up and French morale is down to 6. The only plus is that our casualties are relatively low.

  • KL-NEY 4-2 1AM rally

Mon Dieu, the cavalry has rallied and there’s still some left! Also, the allied line looks shaken. Hill has to reform his line, but we have none of Kellerman’s cavalry to exploit. Time for d’Erlon to redeem himself from his abject failure to engage at Ligny!

The cavalry rallies!

  • Hill forms line
  • D’Erlon 5 2AC 1FC

A very rash cavalry charge!

  • Uxbridge 1 2AC 1FC
  • Rout test FR 1 BR 1 All OK

C’est bon! 1st Corps has delivered a splendid attack, and together with our artillery we have crushed the impetuous British Guard cavalry. Both armies look fragile, but as we go into the afternoon, the French have more esprit.


The major problem is the Prussians in Plancenoit. Should I deal with that threat first? I think not. It is time to risk all and trust my veteran Guards! I shall lead them myself! We’ll hit the Prince of Orange’s Corps, right where the artillery and d’Erlon’s attack fell earlier. It’s about 3 o’clock, and it could all be over by 4.

  • Napoleon: Guard v Orange 2 or 4; take the 4; 1AC 1AM 1FM

Les Grognards!

  • Rout test BR 3+1=4 > allied morale 3 so FR win.

The Old Guard went through the left of Orange’s Corps like a knife through butter. Despite the enemy’s unexpected remaining numbers, their morale collapsed, and we are victorious. On to Brussels!

Pursuit: 41 for the French. 9 for the Allies.

What can we learn from this?

The model portrays the fine balance of the battle. Either side could have collapsed during the British cavalry charge. And the final rout test could have gone either way reflecting the actual and potential performance of the French Guard. I would have preferred a 2AC result there, because that would have portrayed more clearly a collapse of the Anglo-allied I Corps by removing its last division.

The broad plan of this play of the battle follows what I see as Napoleon’s tactics against an army whose size and quality he underestimated. Reille’s Corps was to pin the allied right and attempt to take Hougoumont. Meanwhile, the massed artillery were to demoralise the allied centre and then d’Erlon’s I Corps (best in size and quality except for the Guard) supported with cavalry would attack and rout the remainder, forcing them from the field and enabling a strong pursuit to Brussels and beyond. Lobau and the Guard stay in reserve for the unexpected.

When the Prussians start to appear, the plan cannot fundamentally change, because Napoleon needs a victory. Therefore, I threw in the Guard, but noticeably earlier than the historical battle, which worked for 3 reasons: (i) the French cavalry had caused more loss of allied morale than historically, and (ii) didn’t spend all the cavalry, and (iii) d’Erlon’s attack was much more effective than the real one.

The solo mode makes it easier than a human opponent. Wellington is not so flexible! No reserves were used. These are critical parts of the allied battle management.

I like the “Ney’s cavalry charge” mechanism. It means you cannot calculate everything, and reflects the command and communications problem of the real thing. Knowing the historical outcome, no player would choose to do it, but here you may have to.

The cards show the potential variability of outcome in specific tactical options. I think they can form a good starting point for discussions about the reality of tactical options and their results. For example, Uxbridge’s counter-attack automatically doubles the adverse effects on d’Erlon, but can vary between destruction of the British cavalry or destruction of the whole Grand Battery.

I think the game can help to address the question: did Napoleon underestimate the size of the Anglo-allied army? His deployment and plan give the French a very good chance of a major victory against a significantly smaller army, even with a Prussian threat. The plan, which includes a long wait for the ground to dry out, and quite a long time for the artillery to pound away, is very risky against a large army and a skilled opponent. Especially when it becomes clear early in the battle that Grouchy is in the wrong place.

Back to game design tomorrow!

The March of Progress: final artwork

Showing off Klemens Franz‘ artwork and layout!

Rules and scenario booklets

Introductory scenario: hand of cards for Orange player

Age of Marlborough scenario cards

Game development components!

New style of boxes!

Boxes for The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress

From our soon-to-be-finished Kickstarter at:

There are only 2 Tomatoes…

…and they are Jordi and Alvaro!

Although 2Tomatoes do sell a lot of The Walking Dead products, there is a lot more to it than zombies. 2Tomatoes is a relatively new Spanish publisher based in Barcelona. They have a good range of products, including Belfort, Yokohama and Root, amongst others, mostly localised for Spain and France. We were impressed by their ability to work successfully across companies in different countries with different cultures and to create their own products too.

Our first partnership with 2Tomatoes was for Tony’s excellent Guilds of London, back in 2016.

Cover of the Spanish version of Guilds of London

Then, as with our colleagues at Frosted Games, we embarked on the Pocket Campaigns series, starting with the 2nd Edition of The Cousins’ War. I must admit I didn’t know that the Wars of the Roses would be a popular topic outside the English-speaking world, but it has proved to be welcomed by both Spanish and German players. There is a possibility we may be looking at a French edition too, if we collectively decide to make a third edition.

Now we have embarked on the next phase of the Pocket Campaigns series together, with The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress. Our Kickstarter has funded within 42 hours of its start! This is mainly due to the expertise of Jordi and Alvaro, who have really shown us a thing or two about marketing (not one of SSG’s strong points).


2Tomatoes in their own words: “We met at uni and after having adventures more or less all over the world we founded the company with a simple goal in mind: make games that are different, that stand out. We’re very passionate about what we do and we only publish games that we love. It is a lot of work but we can live with the burden. Expect more from us soon…

“We fell in love with The Cousins’ War in the first game. Simple rules yet meaty decisions in a small box for 2 players. It’s not only a great game, but also an amazing product. When we tested The March of Progress & Ming Voyages some months ago we felt the same way. It was an easy decision to make to join SSG Pocket Campaigns series.”

Frosted Games with a cherry on top

As you’ll know from elsewhere in this blog, we at Surprised Stare Games have partnered with 2Tomatoes Games and Frosted Games for our latest presentations, The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress. We’ve had a long association with Matthias and his team. Our serious co-publishing history going back to Guilds of London in 2016, though I think we had some expansions in the inventive Advent Calendar that Frosted produced around that time. Besides their help in bringing our games to the German market, Matthias has also generously helped us, a small UK indie company with no paid staff, to navigate the intricacies of the German VAT system – for which I am personally very grateful!

In 2018, we co-published The Cousins’ War 2nd edition, also including 2Tomatoes, to form our Pocket Campaigns partnership.


More recently, Frosted Games published the German version of:

our solo science fiction game, designed by Tony and illustrated by Alex Lee. But why are Frosted Games special? Well, in their own words:

“Frosted Games is meant to be just that: providing games, that are done to perfection. As you would finish a marvelous cake right up to the frosting. Frosted Games is a small publisher focusing on a select group of excellent games – as long as they are innovative or if their mechanisms are deeply intertwined with their theme. We publish historical highlights like Watergate or expert mindbenders like Cooper Island, but also localize exciting titles like Dawn of the Zeds, Lux Aeterna or Sidereal Confluence. Frosted Games‘ hallmark is excellence in games, both in gameplay as well as in execution.

We love the Surprised Stare Games designs because they combine what we stand for and love: innovative mechanisms wrapped in an enticing thematic coat of history. It is a great way to make history a fun thing and we even have a line for this in Germany called „Playing History“. The Pocket Campaigns are a great addition to this line and we are happy to partner with Alan and Tony.”

Their track record of excellence certainly bears out their aims.

Our Kickstarter campaign for the Pocket Campaigns games The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress went live today.


The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress Kickstarter is now live!

It’s the first Kickstarter we’ve done ourselves, so we’re a bit excited!

Here’s the link to the project:

Additionally, I’ve just updated the online rule books for the games, as an added bonus. These aren’t final layouts with artwork, but they’re very very nearly final text:

The March of Progress rules:

The March of Progress scenarios:

The Ming Voyages 2-player rules:

The Ming Voyages solo rules:

Click to access TheMingVoyages_SoloRulebook_ForKickstarter.pdf

Countdown to launch!

We’re nearly there. The Kickstarter page is drafted and ready to launch. Pre-launch page is here:

Official launch of the Kickstarter is 17:00 UK time on Monday 24 February 2020 (18:00 Central European Time).

Pocket Campaigns in a Can(nes)

SSG is not at The International Games Festival in Cannes in person, unfortunately. However, thanks to 2Tomatoes, our new games The March of Progress and The Ming Voyages are being advertised, so we’re there in spirit!

The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress at The International Games Festival at Cannes. Thanks to 2Tomatoes for being there. And to Bez for the picture.

Our Kickstarter for the games starts on Monday 24 February 2020 at 17:00 UK time.


Pocket Campaigns video tutorials and playthroughs today!

Quick reminder: Paul Grogan @ Gaming Rules! will be doing live tutorial and playthrough videos today of The Ming Voyages at 2pm and The March of Progress at 4pm. Come along if you can! The videos will be available shortly after transmission if you can’t make the live show.

The Ming Voyages: Treasure and Conquest for 2 players

The Ming Voyages is one of our new Pocket Campaigns games. It’s the closest to the first Pocket Campaign, The Cousins’ War. David J Mortimer and I designed it as a different take on the multi-use cards and separate dice-based battle system introduced in the earlier game.

The Ming Voyages box 3D

The Ming Voyages box 3D

The initial idea was that an asymmetric 2-player game would be very interesting, in contrast to simply drawing from the same deck and having identical starting positions. The Ming Emperor starts with 3 cards and draws 2 cards per round creating a hand of 5 cards. The Barbarain Overlord starts with 4 cards and draws none. Players swap hands when each one has played a single card. Then, rinse and repeat.

As in The Cousins’ War, a player can use a valid action in their opponent’s turn, and part of the game is to limit the efficacy of these extra reactions. For the Ming Emperor, the added complication is that only actions keyed to completed voyages – each voyage being numbered – can be used as reactions. For the Barbarian Overlord, the least powerful cards have no useable action at all (they can only be used for 1 Command Point on the Overlord’s own turn), and many reactions are positional, so may not always be available. This is balanced by a number of cards whose power for the Barbarians is increased when the Ming have completed 4 voyages.

Examples of cards from The Ming Voyages, near-final artwork

Examples of cards from The Ming Voyages, near-final artwork

This new system enables each player, particularly the Ming Emperor to seed the opponent’s hand with cards that might contain actions useful to the non-active player as reactions. The thematic background to this idea was that the Chinese, throughout their Imperial history and including during the Ming dynasty, used Imperial personnel, agents, traders, courtiers and ambassadors to penetrate into the ‘lands of the barbarians’ (basically, any non-Chinese was a barbarian). Besides the usual rounds of negotiations and trading relations, the Chinese had networks of spies and gift-giving officials, whose purpose was to discover the aims and intentions of potentially hostile peoples beyond their borders. Gifts of silk and other luxuries were bestowed on chieftains and rulers in order to bind them to the Chinese economy, and thereby ward off aggression; at least in theory. From these historical traits, we developed the notion that only the Ming Emperor draws cards, and they effectively choose within limits what cards the Barbarian Overlord receives. At the least they know what’s in the Barbarian Overlord’s hand. The Ming Emperor can take cards out of the stream of cards given to the Barbarian Overlord by playing cards into their reserve, or by timing the use of cards to minimise the Overlord’s ability to take advantage of actions during the Ming turn. The Barbarian Overlord can also do this, but to a more limited degree, because their hand is only what they’ve received from the Ming.

Although it might seem that the Barbarian Overlord is weaker, in fact, besides the obvious attack cards that enable them to invade and conquer Chinese Borderlands, they have many cards that can impact on the Ming’s ability to set sail on voyages by raiding for gold and by disrupting the ocean-going junks. In addition, only the Barbarian Overlord can use Command Points from their reserved cards to reinforce their normal CP actions. Where a normal CP action can produce an attack of 3 Horde pieces, this can be increased to a potentially devastating 6 Hordes using reinforcements.

The Ming Emperor can win a major and immediate victory by completing all 7 treasure voyages. But pressure from the Barbarians on the borders cannot be ignored, because the Barbarian Overlord can win a major and immediate victory by conquering all 5 Chinese Borderlands. If neither player can achieve their major victory, a minor victory is awarded from the number of voyages completed plus Borderlands controlled (for the Ming Emperor) and the number of voyages not completed plus Borderlands controlled (for the Barbarian Overlord). The Overlord wins a tie, so the Ming Emperor has to be resourceful.

Players operate the battle sub-system with our signature 3 dice each side to resolve invasions and defensive counter-attacks. Rather than bluffing, as in The Cousins’ War, in this version the attacker rolls their 3 dice first, and chooses whether to use reserved cards to re-roll. You can spend each CP on reserved cards for one re-roll of any number of your dice, the target being to get the best triple, double or single that you can muster. Then, once the attacker has finished, the defender rolls their dice similarly, and can also use reserved cards to re-roll. As in the earlier game, a better triple beats an inferior triple, a better double beats a double and a better single beats a single (ties are re-rolled); these result in the loser removing 1 Troop or Horde. However, triples beat doubles, and doubles beat singles – but these are Devastating Blows and the loser removes 2 pieces. Battles continue until only one side occupies the Borderland, so they can be bloody affairs. Of course, as in The Cousins’ War, the luck of the dice can play a part. This wouldn’t be war without a chance element, and you have to take into account in your tactics and strategy that you might unluckily lose or fortunately win.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for The Ming Voyages. If you’d like to know a bit more, Paul Grogan @ Gaming Rules! will be doing a live tutorial and playthrough of The Ming Voyages on Thursday 13 February at 2pm. Please feel free to join us!

The March of Progress: the basics

Here’s a little bit about the basics of The March of Progress, one of our new Pocket Campaigns series games.

The introductory scenario gives you the fundamentals of the mechanics of the game. It’s primarily abstract at this stage; the historical stuff comes in the other scenarios. Each player has a home country card, and between these cards is the neutral country. The maneouvre space is restricted to just these 3 spaces. You start with 1 army each, in your home country, and 2 armies in stock. The neutral country has no armies. Each of your armies is worth 1 combat strength, and your home country can generate 3 VPs whenever you score. The neutral country generates 2 VPs if you control it when you score.

Initial set-up for The March of Progress, Introductory Scenario

Initial set-up for The March of Progress, Introductory Scenario

You have 8 Action cards that enable you to move your armies, attack enemy armies in the same country, recruit new armies, fortify your armies – gaining 1 combat strength in defence -, increase your armies’ strength and finally, score VPs while also returning all your cards back to your hand. Each turn, you each play a card face down, simultaneously reveal the cards, then carry out the actions you’ve chosen in a standard order. Your played cards stay in your discard pile till you play your Score card, at which point you score VPs and get all your cards back into your hand. You can choose when you Score, but you cannot Score unless you have discarded at least 1 other card, so you can’t simply Score every turn.

A key feature of the strategy of The March of Progress is increasing your armies’ combat power. The Strength card enables you to add 1 permanently to all your armies. However, to do this you have to decrease the VP potential of a Country you control. This is a bit like devastating the countryside in order to gain military strength or resources. Ideally, you want to increase your military might by decreasing the VP potential of enemy or neutral countries, not your own, but to do that you’ll likely have to fight, or at least get into the neutral country before the enemy. But you also want to recruit extra armies, which can only happen in your home country, and you want to earn as many VPs as possible from your own and the neutral country, because you win by getting the most VPs. So, there are a lot of choices to make right from the start. Do you advance rapidly into the neutral country with a weak force in order to gain VPs or strength before the enemy arrives? Or do you stay put and recruit, or stay put and strengthen your armies before moving? You only have 1 Recruit card, so before you can recruit your third army, you’ll have to Score – is it worth scoring quickly, but possibly with less VPs, in order to get your third army into play soon? It’s also worth noting that the Strength card that increases the combat strength of your armies only comes into effect after the Attack actions – this reflects the time it takes to deploy new weapons and train with them. So, you might lose a battle with your existing weak army before your new power matures.

A game in progress. As the Blue player has the initiative, they will win the battle in the Neutral Country.

Owing to the multitude of choices that you and your opponent might make, reading your enemy can be a vital part of the game. If you know your enemy is cautious, maybe you can risk a score when they have the option to move, hoping that they will recruit or strengthen their armies, rather than moving into a country you control. But if your enemy is aggressive, maybe you can take advantage by fortifying your armies, and watching the enemy hurl themselves forlornly at your positions. You also need to pay attention to who has the initiative – this can enable you to force the enemy to move first, so you can react accordingly, or even help you to defeat your opponent before they can attack you.

These are the types of choices you’ll need to address in the introductory game. After that, the 4 historical scenarios provide glimpses of the new strategic imperatives from the 18th through to the mid-20th century.

If you’d like to learn more about The March of Progress, Paul Grogan will be running through the game on a live stream video at 4pm on Thursday 13th February. The video will be available online afterwards.

The March of Progress: Marching On!

Thanks to Klemens Franz’s hard work, we now have near-final artwork for The March of Progress, due for launch soon. It’s come a long way since the old days when it was called ‘Politics By Other Means’!

Here’s a picture of WW2 in the West in progress. It’s the biggest of the scenarios, a 2-parter in fact. The Germans start with stronger armies and a better ATTACK+1 card for Blitzkrieg, whereas the Allies can pay to play both their MOVE cards in the same turn, reflecting their potential for greater resources. The Germans have to win both halves to win the scenario, whereas the Allies ‘only’ have to occupy Berlin! The second half of the game introduces German V Weapons and Allied Air Power. This picture includes artwork prior to final layout, so it still has some rough edges – but I hope you get the general glory of it all.

Partly as a result of the development of this scenario, I’m beginning to wonder about the possibility of a World War 2 Total War Pocket Campaigns game!

The Ming Voyages: cards

Some of the cards from Surprised Stare Games’ coming-soon Pocket Campaigns game The Ming Voyages. Near-final artwork.

Size of the cards will be 105mm x 75mm, same as The Cousins’ War 2nd edition.

Artwork by Klemens Franz.

A couple of Pocket Campaigns

Coming soon…

Following on from our Wars of the Roses game “The Cousins’ War” by David J Mortimer, we are continuing our SSG Pocket Campaigns series of small box games with The March of Progress and The Ming Voyages.

The March of Progress (by yours truly) has an introductory scenario The Thirty Years War that sets out the core rules of the game. It uses a limited hand of 8 Action cards per side, ranging from Move to Attack to Recruit. Each player simultaneously chooses 1 card to play each turn, then reveals and carries out the Action. Cards stay discarded until the Score card is played; then, the player regains all played cards and scores VPs. The aim of The March of Progress is to control countries, in order to generate VPs during scoring. The winner is the player with most VPs at the end of the game, unsurprisingly.

There are a further 4 historical scenarios in the box, The Age of Marlborough, Vive l’Empereur, World War 1 in the West, World War 2 in the West. Each scenario changes the set-up and tweaks the rules to give a flavour of strategy in different time periods. The scenarios create a varied and challenging 2-player game with cards, a small number of armies, VP cubes and dice to indicate VP generation and army strength.

The Ming Voyages (by David J Mortimer and myself) is set in the era of the oceanic treasure fleet voyages led by the Chinese Admiral Zheng He. One player is the Ming Emperor trying to complete all 7 Treasure Voyages as well as protecting the Chinese Borderlands from invading barbarians. The other player controls the 3 disparate barbarian factions trying to settle on the Borderlands with China.

The Ming Voyages has a similar approach to The Cousins’ War with multi-function cards for actions or command points. However, it’s asymmetric – only the Ming Emperor draws cards, and the 2 players swap hands at the end of each turn. This means the Emperor knows what’s in the Barbarian player’s hand. The Emperor wins automatically if he completes all 7 voyages. The Barbarian wins automatically if he occupies all the Chinese Borderlands. As in The Cousins’ War, players can exploit out-of-turn actions. Battles can occur in the Borderlands. Here, players use their 3 dice to roll for triples, doubles and singles that are better than their opponent’s rolls. Reserved cards can be used for re-rolls – but if you reserve a card, you don’t get the Action.

We’re currently working on the final artwork for both games. Here’s a sneak peak at The Ming Voyages board (work-in-progress).

Kingmaker: moves afoot!

I’ve been working on a proposed revision to the Kingmaker board using ‘regional’ movement. In this idea, noble pieces using non-road land movement simply move from 1 region to an adjacent region, rather than having to count up to 5 ‘squares’. In this way, players can avoid many of the difficulties and inconsistencies with the original Kingmaker map, and also the slightly counter-intuitive diagonal movement that is available in many places in the original board. Although there are some necessary compromises, the actual distancies moved are similar in the new mechanism compared with the old one.

When a noble piece lands in a new region, the player selects a specific area within the region for the piece to occupy. This enables a noble or stack of nobles to end up in a specific named location (town, city, castle), in the ‘open field’ or on the road network, ready to exploit road movement in a future move. For ease of play, and maybe a bit of historical realism, I don’t force nobles to decide immediately whether they are in a specific location, thereby avoiding potential random plague death; the decision about the noble’s precise whereabouts can be made when a potential hostile force enters the area. However, if your noble is sent to a location by a raid or revolt, then he should be in that location – so, if it’s a fortified town or city, the noble will be risking plague in this case.

We played the revised map last weekend at Eclectic Games, and it will have another outing or 2 at HandyCon this weekend. It was well received. In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview. Bear in mind that this is a prototype version for playtesting purposes, based loosely on the old game board; it is not a newly created production version; that will only be commissioned once we have the prototype finalised.

In this map, the purple lines are ‘region’ boundaries, the white lines are area borders. Wooded areas are passable only on roads. I would also note that the current draft hasn’t been fully checked, so there may be the odd line missing or spelling mistake; it’s very much a work-in-progress. Also, many thanks to my wife Charlie for much sterling work on this board. Finally in addition, we’ve not yet addressed the heraldry and any geographical anomalies that fans of Kingmaker have identified.

Combined arms and command in hobby wargames – early thoughts

The following comments are a few early thoughts on combined arms and command in hobby games. I wrote a version of this brief note a while back; now I’ve finished reading Piercing the Fog of War: The Theory and Practice of Command in the British and German Armies, 1918-1940 by Martin Samuels, I hope to add a bit more depth to these reflections. I wish I’d read that book before Pete Connew and I wrote the Mission Command Players Manual, because it has an excellent analysis of British and German doctrinal development prior to and in the early part of WW2. It would be interesting to take this forward into the late war period, when practice, on the German side at least, was severely restricted by a lack of experienced officers and men, and a lack of resources in comparison with the Allies. Much of our development of the Mission Command game was focused on how the armies used combined arms to try to deliver successful outcomes. My comments below cover combined arms in WW2 and Napoleonics, owing to my recent activities.

In practice in the real world, co-ordination of combined arms is difficult, and this should be reflected in a model that includes command and control as significant features. This is both a mechanics issue and a decision-making issue for a game-as-model. Mechanics simplified for playability can make co-ordination easier or too easy, or too predictable for players. For example, in a WW2 game, calling in artillery by rolling for availability at point of use is over-simplified. You know in advance the probability of success and can factor that into your planning. Alternatively, if you must put the request in in advance, it has to be co-ordinated in space and time, requiring player decisions and possibly player interactions.

Changing and issuing orders takes time. This is doubly so, if you are trying to co-ordinate more than one unit. Again, in a WW2 context, withdrawing under cover of smoke requires co-ordination of the smoke and the withdrawing unit, which is probably under pressure! Command elements need to communicate both up and down, and sometimes sideways. Commanders must be free to communicate, and inability to or restrictions on communications is part of what Clausewitz called ‘friction’. Where mechanics in the game take away the human interaction element, they impoverish the environment’s friction. I’m suggesting that ‘rich friction’ is good in wargames!

It happened inadvertently in a game I played on Saturday. This was a General de Brigade 2nd edition game using the Katzbach 1813 scenario. Towards the end of the game the Prussian C-in-C changed the orders of a brigade to send it in a different direction – but the player moving it failed to implement the change and the brigade kept going on its previous trajectory. When this was discovered, the Prussians were allowed to rewind a turn and correct the move – in accordance with the changing orders mechanic. It would have been better to have retained the realistic friction generated naturally by the players.

More in some later blog posts.

(War)games as models

I’ve been having some game-as-model thoughts over the last few years of a more philosophical than perhaps practical nature. As a way of at least getting them out of my brain, and hopefully as a way of stimulating some discussion, I’ve started to post them here. Tell me what you think!

A played ‘game-as-model’ is an instance or instantiation of a model rather than the model itself. This echoes comments by Volko Ruhnke, who, like me only better, applies systems thinking to games design.

It’s useful to realise this when thinking about game-as-model. It means that there are variables specific to a particular instance of the game. You could think of this as a specific ‘run’ of a process. Individual players have their own unique understanding of their particular role in that game. They also have their own psychological states while playing, and these are likely to vary between different plays of the game. There might be specific scenario details, for example, relationships between terrain components, peculiarities of actual combat elements, and unique mechanisms for the scenario.

Each play of a miniatures game is a unique experience, with fewer similarities between plays than most board games, I think. There are (nearly) always variations in troop composition, and in layout – precisely where terrain is placed will be different – even if the same scenario is being played. In contrast, successive plays of a board game have greater commonalities through perhaps gridded layouts for movement and stricter rules interpretations – firmer rules if you will – especially when compared with an umpired figure game.

However, there may be some general lessons to draw in terms of the interaction of players with instances of the model. One of these lessons may be not to draw too many conclusions from one instance!

I hope to return to this topic in a later post.

Kingmaker: Raids, Revolts and other shenanigans

I don’t want to change the Kingmaker Event deck much at all, as so much of the flavour of the classic game comes from there. One of the basic mechanisms in the Event deck is to break up turtling stacks of nobles through raids and revolts that send powerful office-holders hither and yon. Part of the game is to be in a position to exploit this, either by picking off individual travellers, or by instigating a major engagement before a key noble can get back into position.

Offices can give a noble many more troops, the Marshal of England doubly so, in that he has 100 extra troops anywhere in the country, whereas others have only 50, with some having extras in restricted geographical locations. However, allocating the Marshal of England and the Bishop of Norwich to Mowbray for example isn’t a great idea. In the original game, this would be the cards for that allocation:


It’s not obvious to a new player why this might not be a good idea. A difficulty for new players is not knowing the details of who gets sent where by the Raids and Revolts in the Event deck. I think one way to help resolve this issue is to put more information on the Court deck cards to reference the Events that might occur. At the moment, I’ve put a simple number at bottom left in square brackets – this probably needs a better graphical and layout treatment, but it’s a start:

Although Mowbray in this example has 160 starting troops, there are 16 cards in the 90 card Event deck that move him involuntarily around the country. That’s slightly more than 1 in 6 times per Chance Phase. So, in a 4-player game, he’s likely to get moved approximately every other round (1 Chance Phase per player). This grossly reduces his effectiveness, and you need to take this into account when allocating the cards.

Hopefully, putting some of this information on the cards will help. I wonder whether increasing the information to ‘Events: 4/90’, ‘Events: 11/90’, ‘Events: 1/90’ might be better – at the expense of more clutter.

Kingmaker: Red-faced

Hmmm. The colours on the Events cards didn’t work. My print facilities failed to differentiate between the 2-1, 3-1 and 4-1. Now revised:

Not exactly pro graphics standard, but I hope good enough.

Playtests of Kingmaker upcoming: Sat 11 January at Eclectic Games in Reading; HandyCon 17-19 January.

Kingmaker: Events, dear boy, Events

I’ve been re-doing the Events Deck to make the lookup of odds easier for players to process. I’m using a bit of colour and a bit of layout amends. I’m still unsure whether to completely overhaul Events card wording (for clarity and consistency) – that sounds to me more like a final production process, so I may not. Also, I’m pondering the whys and wherefores of revising the Event content; I’m wary of that, because the ubiquitous Peasant Revolts, along with Marshal to Black Heath, are iconic.

However, there are 90 Event Deck cards – it takes a while to scan, prep, stick ‘em into InDesign and then add stuff and check! Here are a couple of examples:

Without InDesign and Photoshop (other s/w programmez are available) this would have been pretty much impossible. I now have an intimate knowledge of the makeup of Kingmaker cards. Apparently, left align wasn’t a thing in those days, and neither was consistency of positions on a card. Also, consistency of font size and CAPS was not pursued. Ah, well sans DTP, I guess it was very tricksy.

The ‘victory block’ will match up with the lookup table, currently much like the original in the Gibson’s rules, but with added colour and amended heading. This will be subject to proper design and layout by graphics experts – this is just my prototyping.



Starting to make a new Kingmaker

A few months ago Gibson’s asked me to develop the new edition of Kingmaker. This was the result of a conversation at UK Games Expo, brought about significantly by a meeting between my fellow Surprised Stare Games director, Tony Boydell, and the good folks at Gibson’s, about another project entirely. Serendipity in action. It took only a few weeks to sort out details, which, amongst other things involved a brief conversation with the original designer of Kingmaker, Andrew McNeil; I wanted to check he was happy – which he was, thank goodness.

I suspected there would be some talk on BGG about the game – and was I right! There’s an immense amount of fan-based material developed over the years, including extensive sets of house rules, and a whole other game, Bella Rosarum by Greg Sarnecki, alias shturmovik14. I have to confess that I will not be able to contribute more than a jotting to the painstaking research carried out by Kingmaker enthusiasts. However, my commitment, alongside the Gibson’s team, is to create the best Kingmaker yet, while retaining the essence of the classic game that we don’t want to lose.

I played many a game of Kingmaker back in the day, and I have the original Ariel edition, a Gibsons 1983, an Avalon Hill v1 and a TM Games copy. I had a small involvement in the TM Games version, though it’s probably best to draw a veil over that (in short, I felt that TM Games didn’t want to invest any significant time and effort into improvement, so it was very much a lost opportunity).

So, I am very familiar with the game.

My starting point in the development was to read and digest the hundreds of comments about Kingmaker on BGG, leavened by further discussions with my design and development friends and colleagues here in the UK. This has included conversations with Andrew McNeil and Charles Vasey, in order to gain an understanding of how Kingmaker was designed and developed. I now have a rather large inventory of issues and pointers, as well as a vast array of suggested solutions, some good, some bad. Also, I have extensive notes of my own initial reactions, again, some good, some bad. I’m very conscious that I’m unlikely to satisfy everyone in the Kingmaker community; I won’t be able to implement many of the suggested solutions, because changing a part of a complex system is apt to have knock-on effects elsewhere, or might destroy the kernel of the game experience I’d like to retain.

Development and playtesting of the revised version started earlier in the autumn 2019. I’m focusing on making the play of the game run more smoothly, but with the same feel as the original. There are elements of the map that need clarification – for example, does the road go through Shrewsbury or meet outside? Does Oxford block the London to Bristol road? Is Chillingham in The Cheviots and does it matter? There are some ambiguities in the rules to tidy up – mainly in the Avalon Hill version, to be fair – for example, where precisely in a square does a noble end up when he’s finished movement? what happens if a ship-board force has to battle its way into an unfortified port? How is the movement of stacked allied pieces tracked?

In view of the perceived length of the full game with 7 players to the traditional end point of controlling the last crowned royal piece, I am developing and testing a revised ‘short format’ game, aiming to come in at 30 minutes plus 30 minutes per player. Based on scenarios for 3, 4 or 5 players, this is intended to produce a 2 to 3 hours game that still captures the traditional feel of Kingmaker. I envisage that we will include the full length 7-player game too. In addition, I would like to make a 2-player scenario based on Henry Tudor versus Richard III.

Current ideas that I am testing include:

  • Big game scenario: 4-7 players for the classic Kingmaker experience with the original end conditions, and optional alternatives.
  • Short format game: 3-5 players with a time limit of 30 minutes plus 30 minutes per player. This would involve alternative win conditions currently under development and called ‘Dominion over Territory’ (conquering cities), ‘Dominion over Government’ (obtaining most of the Offices in play), and ‘Dominion over the Church’ (obtaining most of the Archbishops and Bishops, plus Canterbury and York). I’m currently testing the details of the win conditions, so I won’t share the full mechanics here yet. There is also a relatively simple method for assessing victory after the time limit (not votes in Parliament!).
  • 2-player game: Henry Tudor versus Richard III. Missing from the original game, but should be a fun addition.
  • 3- and 4-player scenarios: with set factions specifically to make these balanced. I envisage these based loosely on specific historic starting positions, such as Warwick’s rebellion against Edward IV.
  • Game board – I am now testing an idea for a major change to the board to make it regional movement rather than “squares”. The idea here is that this will help with playability. I’m thinking that we could have a new regional movement map on one side of the board, and a version of the traditional map on the other. So, players with feelings of nostalgia could opt to play the original movement system, but with an unambiguous implementation of the board.
    Crown deck and Event deck much as now, but with different layout for playability, and proper playing card stock. There will be some amendments, but retaining the current balance of the combat system, so the game feels the same.
  • Pieces: hunky Eurogame style counters for nobles and royal pieces. For ease of play, each player might have a set of noble pieces with their player colour in the background, so everyone can see who owns which stack. Royal pieces could be flippable when crowned, so it’s obvious who are the current monarchs.

If you’re in the UK, please do get in touch about the possibility of playtesting at various conventions, including AireCon, HandyCon and UK Games Expo.

Airfix Battles: Juno Regina

I’ve been dreaming up some scenarios for Open Battles, our working title for the extension to Airfix Battles. These are mainly D-Day ones (or shortly thereafter), based on a mixed old and new set of Unit cards and rules.

Rather than getting carried away with the expensive acquisition of actual terrain models, I decided to playtest using map boards derived from artwork from the original game, plus some fairly lame extra pieces of terrain that I’ve created in Photoshop. This all makes it easier to focus on design and playtesting rather than the looks of the thing, so bear with me.

My current Juno Beach board represents a piece of Nan Green beach, assaulted by the Regina Rifle Regiment supported by 1st Hussars. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve not attempted to replicate the full intricacies of either the defences or the attacker’s plan – this would complicate the scenario immeasurably and might threaten to turn it into more of a simulation that we would expect or enjoy.


A Piece of Nan: Draft Juno Beach board

This board has a fairly narrow beach; the beach landing squares are water+sand, the beach proper is 1 square deep. Then, there is the sea wall, displayed here as a normal wall Edge Cover, but tracked vehicles cannot traverse Sea Walls. Note that the slipway “road” is blocked by a concrete block, also Sea Wall Edge Cover. On the grassy “promenade” are a couple of pillboxes, providing inter-locking fire to the front. Behind them is a line of single storey beach huts, then a beach-side road – I think this would now be Avenue de la Combattante, but presumably a different name in 1944!

Courseulles is fairly flat, but there is a slight rise as you move into the town, as you’d expect coming up from the sea front. The buildings are also more substantial. Therefore, I’ve allowed that this would enable firing from the village itself towards and into the beach area over the beach front properties. Though not something you’d normally call a “hill”, I’ve represented this slope as a Gentle Hill in Open Battles terminology. This will be common in our Normandy representations where a few metres of height would be of great importance. More houses continue beyond this rise.

In terms of defences, I’ve provided the Germans with a couple of pillboxes on the beach front and a bunker on the rise into town. The Germans will also be able to stick down some barbed wire. For a more flexible game, you could allow the Germans to place all their Static Defences wherever they liked – mine is a starting suggestion.

In this scenario, I wanted both players to get some experience of the new equipment in Open Battles. For the Germans, this is primarily the Static Defences, and they have very few actual troops: a couple of PaK 40 guns, an MG section and some Osttruppen. Therefore the German player’s actions will be mainly limited to selecting targets, rather than any game of maneouvre. However, the bunker has height advantage on the beach area, so troops in there get +1 range, which may be significant.

I’ve also given the Canadians (using the British Unit cards) fixed Units for this scenario. Sometimes, you just have to work with what you’ve got. In this case, they’re fairly officer-heavy with a Captain for their tanks and a Captain for their infantry. New men and equipment include a Preparatory Artillery Barrage – unlikely to destroy the fortifications, but you may pin the occupants – Engineers, a Sherman DD tank (hull down when in water!), a Churchill AVRE (with Petard Mortar firing AT8) and a Churchill Bridge Layer.


Essen prep: The March of Progress


World War 2 in the West, starting setup, though the Germans should also start with 2VP cubes and the Western Allies with 1VP cube.

I’ve been working on the World War 2 in the West scenario for a while now, mainly with Pete, but also playing extensively with others. This scenario is the longest one (usually!) in the set – it’s a 2-part affair with the Germans only winning if they win both parts by achieving 15 VPs each time. The Western Allies only win by taking Berlin, but they can do this in either part, if they’re good enough.

Like the Napoleonic scenario, this one is asymmetric, so balance is tricky. We’ve played around a lot with varying the starting dice and varying the starting VP cubes, as well as looking very carefully at the transition between parts 1 and 2. Much depends on what card each player chooses right at the start and the immediate follow-ups. There’s also a change in the rules, so that the scenario is heavily based on logistics. For example, rather than reducing your VP dice to increase your army strength, you can pay 5 VP cubes. That sounds hefty, but, for the Allies at least, VP cubes are not their victory condition – it’s all about taking Berlin.

The situation changes in this scenario at the start of part 2. The side with most VP cubes at the end of part 1 will start part 2 with VP cubes equal to the difference between the 2 sides. So, it’s possible for either player to start part 2 with a VP cube advantage. The Germans primarily need to get VP cubes to win, whereas the Allies need them to increase their army strength, to move all 3 armies up at the same time and to boost their attacks with air power – this last is through swapping out the ATTACK+1 card for a new ATTACK+1 WITH AIR POWER. This can lead to some stark choices, particularly as the Germans have VWEAPONS to hit the Allies VP cubes.

I’m taking the prototype of The March of Progress to Essen, with copies for our potential partners, Frosted Games and 2Tomatoes. Hopefully, there will be the opportunity for some demos!

Intro to 6mm

Being my first major effort at portraying Mission Command: Normandy troops in 6mm scale.

I’ve started with Mission Command: Normandy’s Introductory Scenario, which pits a British Regimental Group against a German outpost. This blog post just covers the ad hoc British Regimental Group used in the scenario.


The whole shebang

The Regimental Group consists of an infantry battalion (called a regiment in British terminology) with a tank battalion (ditto), plus supports of a couple of batteries of 25-pounders, one of them self-propelled. The infantry battalion has 3 rifle companies together with a large support company containing 3″ mortars and 6-pounder anti-tank guns, as well as a hefty chunk of universal carriers with machine guns. The tank battalion has 3 Sherman squadrons, each with a 17-pounder armed Firefly element, plus an HQ with a couple of elements of Stuarts for reconnaissance.


This shows the tank regiment. Each model represents 2-5 real tanks – at full strength, the regiment is over 70 tanks strong. We don’t model the internal structure of the squadrons, so each is represented by 4 models. The Fireflies were distributed on a ratio of 1:3 to the squadrons for the Normandy campaign. Although these were often distributed to troops, we show this as a single Firefly for each squadron. These squadrons are NOT deployed for combat (except perhaps for use in Operations Totalise or Tractable, as these used very unsophisticated tank tactics).


British artillery

Artillery: Here we have a battery of towed 25-pounders and a battery of Sextons. Note that British field gun batteries at this time were of 8 guns (in contrast to the German’s 4-gun batteries), so each is represented by 2 models. Each has a forward observation officer, the towed battery FOO is transported in a universal carrier, the SP gun battery in a Sherman for protection – for simplicity, we represent the latter as an unarmed Sherman; technically, they were armed, but in any case they had only 1 tank, so this cannot be used as an extra free tank element.



This is the anti-tank component of the support company, consisting of 2 elements of 6-pounders, plus a couple of PIAT elements. One slight problem with 6mm is that it can be difficult to tell at a glance the PIATs from the LMGs, particularly Brens. These elements would often be parcelled out to rifle companies, rather than centralised.


Infantry Company

The British infantry company is modelled with 7 elements. 2 of them are full-sized integrated infantry elements, represented by 5 figures, usually 1 with a Bren. Then we have 4 reduced size elements: an LMG element, a PIAT element, a 2″ mortar element, and command element; plus a jeep for transport. This construction gives the company a lot of resilience. Each full-sized element can take 5 casualties – 3 will result in replacing it with an LMG element, then each reduced size element can take 2 casualties. So the whole company can take 18 casualties (plus the jeep). It also has some flexibility, as it can move its PIAT element under cover of terrain to protect tank-threatened areas, while the 2″ mortar can give supporting fire to most company areas in the form of smoke or HE, though for decent fire support the company relies on the regiment’s 3″ mortars and the MGs on the universal carriers.

The Regimental Group can easily be run by 3 players: a C-in-C in command of the artillery and maybe support company, while 2 players handle the infantry and tank regiments. A single player can run the whole thing – I’ve done this several times when teaching the game; take it relatively slowly with suitable umpire suggestions, and it works well, especially with wargamers already experienced at other systems. The important point to put across during the game is the command, control and communications situation; the tanks and infantry cannot communicate easily with each other once the action has started, and their lines of command do not link below the regimental group HQ.

Hell on Wheels 2: Frome Big Game for May 2019

Our Frome Big Game for May 2019 was a second version of the Mission Command: Normandy game we ran at Salute – All Hell (on Wheels) Broke Out. It was set in the area south of St Lo on 27 July 1944 during Operation Cobra, the American breakout
from Normandy. The scenario is mostly historical, but simplified for ease of play. The US aim for this stage of Operation Cobra was to break through the German positions south-west and south of St Lo, then strike to Coutances and the coast, thereby cutting off the majority of the German 7th Army and opening the way to Brittany. The German aim was to prevent the breakthrough, and later, to escape the encirclement. In the previous 2 days in the area of the front for the scenario, US 30th Infantry Division had cleared the way for the armoured advance, and the CCA of 2d Armored Division (Hell on Wheels) had broken through due south to Canisy. Now, CCB must create an angle of advance to the south-west and the roads to Cérences and the coast. The scenario starts in the morning of 27 July with leading units of US 2d Armored Division’s CCB advancing from Canisy.

The purpose of the scenario was to set the American players the problem of co-ordinating their forces quickly against a much smaller German force. Historically, CCB more-or-less brushed aside the mixed force of Panzer Lehr that the Germans pushed desperately at them here, then motored forward encountering little resistance for the rest of the day. For our purposes, we modelled the Advance Guard of CCB/2d Armored Division, consisting of a couple of tank companies, supported by 2 companies of armored infantry, 1 of tank destroyers, plus some reconnaissance and self-propelled artillery. It also had fighter-bomber support from P-47 Thunderbolts. To make a game of it, we boosted the Germans a little from their historical forces and gave them a day to dig in – so, only simple entrenchments and a small number of alternative positions. The Americans win if they can exit 3 companies (including 1 of tanks) off the German end of the table within 12 turns (2 hours of game time). This is effectively a 4 kilometre+ advance through the last German resistance and then off into open country.

For the Salute game, the Germans had a few tank obstacles, which had the effect of funnelling the American vehicles. This led to a bottleneck that enabled the Germans to focus their defence. With masterful play from Richard, one of our best MC:N players, the Americans failed to complete their conversion of the breakthrough to a quick exploitation. Holding up CCB would have meant that other components of 2d and 3d US Armored Divisions would have had more work to do. However, the purpose of the Salute demonstration game was to show off the MC:N system and that worked very well.

At Frome, we removed the rather unhistorical tank obstacles, widened the table a bit and modified both sides forces slightly. The Americans gained the rest of the tank battalion – as 2d Armored Div was a ‘heavy’ version, this consisted of a company of Stuarts – and the rest of the Field Artillery Regiment. The Germans gained a StuGIII element.

We had 6 American players, 2 German and myself as umpire. A few players had played at Salute, so knew the scenario. In fact, Richard switched sides to become the American C-in-C, while Lloyd flipped from American to German.


American setup

North is at the top of the board for simplicity! The Americans took note of the cramped nature of their development in the previous game, so their setup involved an infantry and tank company (in MC:N, ‘joint activation’) in the south, a second such grouping in the north, with recce supplied across the full length of the stream, with the Stuarts concentrated also in the north. A second echelon was to be provided by the tank destroyers and various assets of HQ units.

Artillery firepower was concentrated in a regimental force, for smoke (initially) and then for pounding various targets. Though it didn’t cause many casualties during the day, this was because the Germans were not forced to defend in static positions – and the artillery fire did make them move once they had been discovered.

The American recce was extremely unlucky. The Germans had put troops well forward, including their tanks, so some recce were hit as they crossed the stream. Unfortunately, each separate recce group managed to fail their morale tests, so they were largely thrown back and unable to report on the situation till the follow-up troops had already crossed. In fact, this joint infantry and tank group in the north should really have been delayed, owing to lack of the recce information, but it was hit almost immediately by flanking tank fire, so it started to lose Shermans. Therefore, it launched its attack despite the recce failure.

Standing orders from the American players for these experienced troops was always to have significant elements in overwatch to respond to fire. This worked very well and the Germans quickly lost most of their tanks in forward positions… leaving some StuGs as their sole remaining armour component.

Note the knocked out armoured car element in the stream above. In the distance is a knocked out Panzer IV element that had been giving flank fire onto the Shermans, defiladed from attack by the southern group. It was destroyed by the northern group’s overwatching units.

The northern companies ran into entrenched panzerfausts in a patch of brush. Although they inflicted losses, the Germans were relatively quickly overwhelmed. The yellow cubes are suppression markers. Note the empty entrenchment marker next to the panzerfaust element – an HMG element has just legged it, as it could do very little against the armour. The tank destroyer second echelon is just crossing the stream.


Southern companies advance by bounds

The southern companies advanced swiftly and by bounds against little opposition. The German tanks in the way were fixed on the northern advance and were dealt with by them, leaving the southern units with a relatively clear route.

In the picture above, the 2 leading Sherman elements (representing half a company) have taken up a position on the ridge – they will go into overwatch so the other elements of the companies can pass through to the village just out of shot to the south. Note the mortar elements at the back ready to give support by smoke or HE.


Pounding Le Sault

This is one of my own iPhone pictures to show an overview of the early part of the American advance. Note the good spacing of the tanks in the bottom right of the shot, contrasting with the necessarily bunched up vehicles near the road. If the Germans had had medium artillery, this bunching would have been a problem for the Americans.

The StuG towards the top of the picture has engaged the Shermans with opportunity fire. IIRC, return fire was inhibited, because of the shoulder of the woods. Hence, the importance of supporting artillery and air power – Thunderbolts were used to try to shift the Germans. Although the aircraft didn’t do much damage, they were a concern for the Germans, as it proved difficult to impossible for them to hold their positions. Without time to dig in properly, the Germans were to find it a very hard day.

The village of Le Sault above was being pounded by US artillery. Meanwhile the leading infantry of the southern group was hit by mortar fire – red cube is a casualty, yellows are suppressions. This was a well coordinated advance. If there *had* been opposition here, the Americans were well prepared.


Another advantage the Americans had was the ever-present Piper Cub spotter plane for the artillery. It was used primarily to continue to report the whereabouts of the StuGs, which therefore had to keep moving (largely back) to avoid reprisals from aircraft or artillery. Under MC:N rules, the spotter plane can stay in the air for 6 turns, so this was half of the game. It would have been vulnerable to antiaircraft fire, but in this scenario the Germans only had MGs and preferred to remain concealed. 2cm auto-cannons would have probably discouraged this brazen Piper Cub.


Taking the center

Part of the northern group of companies flooded over the raised ground in the centre, accepting some light casualties, primarily from mortar fire. Personally, I would have been a little more circumspect, but fortunately the Germans were unable to respond with an artillery strike (they had only 1 battery of Wespe, and limited ammunition).


The final ridge

The final ridge contained the main concentrated German infantry force – a single coherent element (in MC:N, this type has integrated MG and panzerfaust – this unit also has a command function).  An attempt to overrun it with half-tracks failed. It might have been better to have simply shot it to bits, but as speed was of the essence, I think an overrun attempt wasn’t a terrible idea. Note that it has now been suppressed thoroughly; each suppression is -1 on its chance to hit. As it is surrounded, it’s likely to surrender (in MC:N, if an element is forced to retire or retreat with no clear route, and enemy is within 5cm (100 metres), then it surrenders).


Smoke at the enemy position

This smoke (above) was used to prevent the StuGs from engaging the Americans in the centre. It’s good practice to put the smoke close to the enemy position, to minimise their field of fire.


Final position

By the end of the game, the American infantry and tank companies in the south had exited to the left (west), to continue the exploitation with no resistance ahead of them. They were quickly joined by the tank destroyer company to confirm the American victory. Only mopping up remains to be done, while the StuGs will pull back north and west to try to fight another day. Note the empty abandoned entrenchments over the battlefield.

The last action of the game was a massive bombardment of the woods to the bottom left of the picture. As luck would have it, this was the exact position of the German kampfgruppe. They managed to flee with only light casualties; it could have been much worse.

For a more historical version of this game, keep the Americans as indicated, but remove the German’s StuG element, give them no alternative positions and no proper tank positions. It’s important then to focus very much on American command control. We now prefer to separate the C-in-Cs from the tabletop, so they have rely on subordinates to tell them what’s going on.

Pictures: mainly from Neil Ford’s excellent work.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 5

Blowing Hot and Cold

A key concept in Mission Command is that of a hot situation or a cold situation. Our reasoning is that when it gets “up close and personal”, troops react differently. There’s a strong tendency to keep down, to remain out of sight as much as possible, and generally to avoid being targeted. So, this leads to some changes in actions that troops can take.

A situation is defined as “hot”, if there’s a visible enemy within 25cm or you are shot at within 25cm. This is 500 metres on the ground, so danger is imminent. In some circumstances, you can be shot at within 25cm without being able to see the firing element sufficiently to return fire – you know that they’re “over there”, but cannot pinpoint the fire. You’re still hot. If 1 element in the group is hot, the whole group is hot. Otherwise, the situation is cold.

To understand what this means in practice, it helps to know what you can do with the elements under your control. An element has 2 actions in a turn, unless it’s suppressed, in which case it gets only 1 action. The main actions are things like Move, Shoot and Communicate, and there’s also a bunch of specialist actions like Hedgerow Gapping, Overrun, Demolitions and so on. There are some important restrictions on when an action can be carried out. For example, a Shoot action is only a first action. This means that it’s Shoot then Move, if you want to do both in 1 turn. In this case, the firing element will take a -2 modifier on the firing, representing the reduced time spent shooting because it’s also moving in the time period. So, it’s best to do some forward planning with your elements. Moving in 1 turn, then setting up in Overwatch in the next turn, will enable your forces to immediately engage an enemy group with fire when it comes into view, for example, by moving or by firing itself and thereby revealing its position.

In a cold situation, an element can Move Twice (capital M, capital T) as 1 action. This means it moves up to 2 times its normal movement rate in 1 action. It can then do another Move Twice action as its second action, resulting in it moving 4 times its normal movement rate in 1 turn. An infantry element has a normal movement rate of 5cm (100 metres on the ground), so in a cold situation it can move up to 20cm or 400 metres. This enables us to overcome a common wargame difficulty that troops are fixed to a single, usually relatively low “combat movement rate” regardless of the actual circumstances. As a contrast, in a hot situation, our infantry element cannot do Move Twice actions, but only Move Once actions. It could therefore move up to 10cm or 200 metres in a single turn (2 Move Once actions), half the rate when it’s cold. But doing 2 Move actions in a single turn counts as moving fast, which makes the element more vulnerable to fire, so a more cautious movement is to do a single Move Once action in the turn. Furthermore, if the element has been shot at and suppressed – a relatively common occurrence – it only has 1 action anyway, so can only carry out 1 Move Once action, for 5cm or 100 metres in 1 turn.

Communication is a vital part of Mission Command, and is carried out through Communicate actions. It’s worth noting here that, with only 2 actions, an element cannot Shoot, Move and Communicate in the same turn – you have to choose. In a cold situation, Communicate can be a first action, a second action, or conceivably both. An element receiving a new order as its first action can then start to do it as its second action. However, in a hot situation, troops are more keen on staying alive than communicating, so Communicate can only be the last action of the 2 actions allowed for the element. So, it’s slower to change orders, report back or share information when bullets are flying round your head. This includes Forward Observation Officers in particular, as it can slow down calling in artillery support.

We give numerous examples of hot and cold situations in the Reference Manual and in the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement.


A bit of a hot situation

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 4

21 into 6 Won’t Go

hh:mm, 6 June 1944

The evening for the Germans has been unpleasant. Although our weather experts had suggested that the invasion was possible during 5 and 6 June, the weather hasn’t been particularly good, so we hadn’t really anticipated it. Some of our troops had even been on exercises overnight, with blank ammunition. The waiting was expected to continue, and everyone has been enjoying the Normandy butter, cheese, ‘crème freche’ and cider.

05:30 variant: From soon after midnight, local commanders received reports that paratroopers were dropping and gliders were landing in the area of operations. All units were alerted, and local resistance ‘in situ’ was ordered. Very soon the first prisoners were taken. Interrogation has revealed that the British 6th Airborne Division jumped during the night in order to take the bridges over the Orne at Ranville intact. In addition, paratroops have been reported from near Bayeux through to the Seine estuary, with many obviously targeting bridges across the Dives. It’s not yet clear whether this is a raid or the start of the invasion.

It is now 05:30. General Feuchtinger (CO 21st Panzer Division) has been in Paris for a few days and has not yet returned. Unfortunately the Division’s chief of staff is also away, so the Division’s overall leadership has not yet got a grip on the situation. Fortunately Rommel at Heeres Gruppe B HQ has acted quickly, has placed the 22 Panzer Regiment commander (Oberst Oppeln-Bronikowski) in temporary command and given direct instructions to the more junior staff at post. Rommel himself is expected at Divisional HQ in St Pierre sur Dives shortly. Combat formations of 21 Panzer Division have set up all round defensive positions during the night, and have started local counter-attacks. Our standing orders are to go into action immediately in the event of an airborne landing, using all available local forces, and including the whole division. In the absence of Feuchtinger, Rommel, via 7th Armee, has attached the Division to 84th Korps (General der Artillerie Erich Marcks) and ordered it to attack the airborne troops in its area, including in particular those around the Orne bridges to the north and those threatening Caen and the Dives bridges.

10:00 variant: As paragraph 1 in 05:30 variant above, then…

Fortunately, Rommel had managed to persuade Hitler that a face-to-face conference initially planned for early June should wait, so the German high command has been able to get some grip on the situation. Unfortunately, communication with Heeres Gruppe B during the night has been disrupted, and orders for a night attack had not been given. So 21st Panzer Division had set up a defensive front during the night and early hours of the morning, while the coastal division (716) has been subjected to extreme assault. General Feuchtinger has been in Paris for a few days, but has returned immediately on receipt of news of the attack. He has received orders from Rommel to organise an attack by the entire Division against the easternmost beaches and the airborne forces to the north. It is now 10:00.

Historical variant: As paragraph 1 in 05:30 variant above, then…

“Gradually we were becoming filled with anger. The clearance for an immediate night attack, so as to take advantage of the initial confusion among our opponents, had still not come… The hours passed. We had set up a defensive front where we had been condemned to inactivity… But clearance was strictly denied… If Rommel had been with us instead of in Germany, he would have disregarded all orders and taken action… Finally, [we’ve been ordered] to attack at once, with the whole division, east of the Orne…” [from Panzer Commander, The Memoirs or Colonel Hans Von Luck]

But now new orders have come from 7th Armee: “The bulk of the 21st Panzer Division will attack the enemy forces that have landed west of the Orne; only elements of von Luck’s combat group will attack the bridgehead east of the Orne.”

It is now 16:20 (!) and the attack starts.

Frankreich, Rommel bei 21. Pz.Div.

Rommel inspects the 21st Panzer Division

The purpose of this scenario, or rather set of scenarios, is to give some insight into the tactical situation facing the 21st Panzer Division and British 6th Airborne Division on 6 June 1944. As there is more coherent information about what happened on the eastern side of the Orne around Ranville than the western side around Bénouville, I’ve focused most of the action on the Ranville side. With up to 4 players per team, we recommend that the forces should consist of around a Brigade or so; roughly 2 to 4 battalions plus supports. Historically, Von Luck’s kampfgruppe (east side of the river) consisted of:

  • 4th Company, Panzerregiment 22 (Kortenhaus’ outfit, which is one reason his book covers this in some detail; see Notes from the Front 3)
  • 2nd Battalion, 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment
  • 9th and 10th companies
  • 3rd Company, 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment
  • Assault Gun Battalion 200
  • Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 21 (though this didn’t arrive till after midnight, so can effectively be discounted)
  • Elements of 716th Infantry Division

The British had 5th Parachute Brigade. On the eastern side of the Orne, this consisted of 12th and 13th Parachute Regiments, plus D Company, 2nd Battalion, the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, who had taken the bridges in the night. Plus supports. This, again, provides a solid set of forces for up to 4 players. With more players, it’s relatively easy to add in a small force on the western side of the bridges; 7th Para Regiment for the British and some companies from 192nd Panzergrenadiers, including their 8th heavy company for the Germans.

Both parachute battalions were comparatively weak early on, but later in the day they got stronger as more paras rallied to the drop zone. Therefore, it’s important to increase the parachute battalions’ starting strengths when playing later variants. For example, 3rd Company of 13th Regiment was dropped wildly astray, so this unit can either be omitted entirely or included as a fairly random late reinforcement.

One of the important things to bear in mind in this set of scenarios is that the British forces here are by no means the lightly-armed troops surrounded by masses of Panzers that legend would have us believe. Supporting forces included a strong battery of AT guns landed by glider that we represent by 3 6-pounder models and 1 17-pounder model. The paras also have access later in the day to 3 25-pounder batteries of the 76th Field Artillery from 3rd Infantry Division, as well as 6″ and 4″ naval gun support from HMS Mauritius. The naval guns are the equivalent of 4 medium artillery models and 2 field artillery models. So, from mid-morning at the latest, 5th Parachute Brigade will be able to use as much artillery firepower as the whole of 21st Panzer Division’s complement. However, in the earliest time variant, this firepower will not be available at the start.


HMS Mauritius firing

Both the inaccurate drops of the paras and the disparate left behind elements of 716th Division can be modelled by the use of pre-written Event Cards. These can be pre-programmed as timed “injects” into the scenario, or used through the umpires judgement to spice things up. A further fun event that we’ve used is the intervention of the German navy, as depicted in this photo (in contrast to the one above).


German gunboat on the Caen Canal – 6 June 1944

Details of 21 into 6 Won’t Go are on our website.

Mission Command: Normandy – Update on production

The Reference Manual is now being printed! Copies should be here in less than a week. A second proof of the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement is due shortly, then I’ll press the button on that one as well. I needed a second proof because I’ve made a few last-minute additions I’d like to check on paper.

The lead times have always impressed me (I’m easily impressed!) about producing wargames rules, rather than my more usual board games. With the wargames books, once the layout is done, I can have copies here from Lulu within a week (sometimes quicker), whereas making board games – wooden pieces, much cardboard, cards, rulebook, and so on – can take up to 10 weeks from a UK or Europe manufacturer, not to mention further flung factories. Even a small card game can take 4 weeks, though a print-on-demand outfit can be quicker.

What do you get in our Mission Command: Normandy package? The Reference Manual and the players’ supplement are full-colour inside and out A4 paperback books. In addition, we have lots of support materials – scenarios, chits, area fire templates and play aids – available for free download from our website (

The Reference Manual is 128 pages long, aimed at umpires, those running or organising games and keen players. In addition to the sections you’d expect about the rules (sequence of play, actions, command, terrain, movement, shooting, spotting, morale and air), it has a section on how to umpire the game, including how to write your own scenarios. It has extensive tables at the back for reference, plus some sample unit organisations. The umpires section has an introductory scenario for umpires to use as an introduction to new players.

Playing Mission Command: Normandy is the supplement for players. It’s 80 pages long and is aimed at introducing the game, but without overwhelming players with the technicalities. It’s focused very much on getting inside the game quickly and easily. However, it’s not absolutely essential to read or own the book to play the game – it’s a helping hand. The introductory scenario in the Reference Manual is repeated here, but naturally only the material for players is included, and there’s a wealth of information about how to get started. The book also has sections on how to fight using the three main national forces in Normandy, the British and Commonwealth, US and German armies. We’ve focused on differences between these armies and how they’re reflected in the command, control and communications setup. The final part of the book is a fairly extensive example of combat, for which we’re also producing a video.

All this means that we’ll be ready for Salute in just over 3 weeks time! Now, where’s that scenario I’m writing…

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 3

21st Panzer Division, neu

An early part of my research into Normandy ’44 for the game was to look at 21st Panzer Division. As the closest Panzer division to the beaches, I figured it was a reasonable place to start, especially in the light of the controversies  – or discussion points at the very least – about the division’s D-day counter-attack. I thought it might be an idea to present a multi-variant “what-if” set of scenarios looking at this. It also meant I could indulge in getting hold of models of some of those French conversion vehicles produced by Major Becker’s workshop; the U304(f) half-tracks, Hotchkiss tank chassis with PaK 40, the 10.5 and 15 cm guns on Lorraines, and so on. This mini-project was assisted greatly by the publication of Werner Kortenhaus’ history of the division, initially in German and later in English. This source gives authoritative details of the strength and deployment of the division, so could form the basis of the scenario from the German point of view. There are, of course, loads of books in English on the British, Canadian, French and Polish units.


Most of a “gepanzert” Panzergrenadier company

Representing these units for 6 June 1944 in Mission Command: Normandy isn’t particularly difficult, though some care is needed in regard to some of the French converted vehicles and the tanks of II/Panzerregiment 22. At this point the division was pretty much wholly up to strength; there’s even a 1 June strength return to refer to. A Panzergrenadier company looks like this in our command card structure:

  • Coherent infantry element with command
  • 2x coherent infantry elements
  • HMG element
  • 4x U304(f) half-track elements
  • U304(f) half-track element with 3.7cm gun
  • U304(f) half-track element with 8cm mortar (with support element for dismount)

The “coherent” elements each have small arms, LMG and Panzerfaust capability and can fire 2 of these 3 weapon systems each turn. Most U304s had a forward-firing LMG mounted on it and a further pintle-mounted one on the back, and this multiplies up the number of MGs in the company considerably. Also, these French conversions (the original vehicles were unarmoured, the German ones are armoured) count as small vehicles, so they’re slightly harder to spot. Theoretically the vehicles can give supporting fire. However, that’s a dangerous practice, because they are very vulnerable. They have only Armour Class 1 (the weakest class) and can be knocked out by almost any AT weapon that hits; even an HMG has a 50% chance up to 300 metres away. The LMGs on the half-tracks were often used to supplement the AA defence of the battalion, which consisted of 3 2cm FlaK 38 mounted on half-tracks. The 3.7cm gun model (at the back in the picture above) represents the platoon leaders’ vehicles. I suspect the 3.7cm gun wasn’t used much at this stage of the war. The mortar could be used from the vehicles, or the element can dismount and use it conventionally.


Close-up of the U304(f), converted French Unic P107

The full Panzergrenadier Battalion has 3 of these companies, plus a 4th heavy company with PaK 40 guns on Somua half-tracks, plus the U304s with FlaK 38. Unusually, the first battalion of each of 125th and 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiments was “gepanzert”, the other 2 battalions were lorried. The Regiments also have a 9th company with 15cm guns on the Lorraine tractor and a 10th company with “Reihenwerfer” (20 French mortar tubes on the Somua half-track). The other artillery pieces of the division are mainly 10.5cm field guns on the Lorraine tractor, with a smattering of horse-drawn (!) 122mm Russian guns.


Panzergrenadier Regiment advancing; Reihenwerfer and 15cm guns on Lorraine tractors at the back

The tanks of Panzerregiment 22 are quite interesting. While initially the division wasn’t allowed to have German equipment, hence the French conversions, by June 1944 the division had been strengthened by replacing obsolete French tanks with Panzer IVs (not Panthers and Tigers as Allied intelligence surmised). Incidentally, the reconnaissance battalion was equipped, I think entirely, with German vehicles, probably because there were no suitable or reliable French equivalents. The 1 June strength return suggests that the whole of the 1st battalion of Panzerregiment 22 was equipped with Panzer IVHs, while the 2nd battalion still had only about 40% Panzer IVs, the rest being a mix of Somua S35 and Hotchkiss H38 vehicles. On the other hand, there are references to the rest of 2nd battalion having Panzer IVs “in June”, so I like to think that a couple of companies of Panzer IVs were rushed to the regiment at Falaise still in their factory paint jobs! There seems no evidence that the French tanks of the division were used in anger, which must have been a relief to the crews.

Our representation of Panzerregiment 22 would be as follows (roughly 4 real vehicles to each model):

Regiment HQ: Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen III (command)

1st Battalion

  • Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen III (command)
  • 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Companies: 4 Panzer IVH

2nd Battalion

  • Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen Somua S35 (command)
  • 5th: 2 Somua S35, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 6th: 3 Somua S35, 1 Hotchkiss H38, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 7th: 3 Somua S35, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 8th: 2 Panzer IVE (with short 7.5cm gun)

Or, replace the Panzerbefehlswagen Somua S35 with a Panzer III and all obsolete tanks with Panzer IVH; for the 6 June scenarios, paint them with the dark yellow factory paint only and no camouflage, presuming the crews had no time to paint them up properly.

More about the scenario next time.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 2


One of the first questions I hear from fellow wargamers is often “What scale (of miniatures) is it for?”

As a member of the “cardboard chits are fine” school of wargaming, I’m not offended by the use of unpainted figures on the tabletop, or the use of a block of wood with “Sherman” scribbled on it for a tank . I’m not really concerned about over-sized or under-sized models, or whether a piece of cloth can adequately stand in for a cornfield. So, as you might suspect, the design of Mission Command is not focused on a particular scale of figures. Instead, it’s basing that is important; not absolutely vital, but important.

We use 50mm frontage bases for full-size infantry elements, and around half that for reduced-size support elements. This means you can use troops from various other popular game systems. The full-size infantry elements have 5 or 6 figures, the reduced-size support elements 2 or 3; these are just for ease of recognition, so you could use other numbers of figures on the bases. With a 1 millimetre to 2 metre ground scale, this gives us an infantry element of 25 to 50 men a frontage of about 100 metres. A closed up company group could have a frontage of, say, 200 metres on the ground, while it could be extended, with up to 5cm gaps between elements to maintain communications, to about 500 metres, and even more with fixed line communications. The important thing is that players can readily see what the stuff represents. Similarly with vehicles. Frontage for vehicle models, each model representing 2 to 5 real vehicles, is 25mm to 30mm. Depth of bases isn’t critical.

Main Attack

The fairly minimalist approach to visuals

We don’t track time accurately. This is quite deliberate, because we were conscious of that “hurry up and wait” feeling expressed by many in combat; not much happens for a long time, then it all happens at once. So, a round (1 turn per side) is a variable length anywhere between 2 or 3 minutes up to a quarter of an hour. If the scenario requires people to know about durations, we use an average of 10 minutes per round. Interestingly, this gives us real time and game time at about the same pace in a moderately sized game with experienced players.

How to model infantry organisation was a bit of a challenge. We wanted to show different weapon types, so that decisions on where to deploy troops was important, but we didn’t want to overload players with micro-management. Our compromise was to make a “group” of elements of company size the smallest unit that would normally receive orders. This meant we didn’t need to model organisational structures below company level (platoons, and so on), but we could show the firepower capabilities of a company, together with its resilience. In addition, players can quickly “do the same thing” with all the elements in a company for speed of play. We have the full-size infantry elements with small arms and integrated LMG firepower (together sometimes with anti-tank, such as bazookas), and the reduced-size with only 1 weapon type, LMG, HMG, PIAT, flamethrower and so on. The larger element has the ability to absorb 3 casualties, then be replaced by a reduced-size element. These smaller “support” elements can only absorb 2 casualties. This means that in total a company group can absorb between 15 and 20 casualties. In contrast, a tank squadron would be about 4 models, each 1 representing 2 to 5 real vehicles. But each hit destroys a model, so armoured vehicle elements have a lot of firepower and manoeuvrability but little resilience, so they can’t really hold ground.

Gun elements are similar to tanks, 2 to 5 real ones per model, usually with separate vehicle tows represented by vulnerable vehicle models. Aircraft too are the same numerical scale as tanks (2 to 5 per model), but pretty much any physical scale will do – they’re up in the air after all.

In essence, the purpose of the figures and models is simply to represent the real thing, such that a participant can recognise what they are (though a German tank can always be represented by a Tiger till it can be seen close-up!). The game is not prescriptive about cosmetics, though we do try to make it look good for exhibition games.

A tanker's eye view from our Villers-Bocage scenario at Salute 2018. Courtesy of Neil Ford.

One of my favourite pictures. A tanker’s eye view from our Villers-Bocage scenario at Salute 2018. Courtesy of Neil Ford.

Oh all right… we normally use 15mm figures, because that’s what our main Frome group of players generally wants to use for WW2. However, I also recommend using 6mm figures, because its much cheaper.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 1

The full colour, final published release version of Mission Command: Normandy will be launched on 6th April 2019 at Salute in the London Excel centre. It’s been many years a-coming; my archives go back to 2007, and our first game approximating to Mission Command took place on 5th April 2008. In recognition of this very long gestation period and the release of the final Reference Manual and Playing Mission Command: Normandy players’ guide, I’m writing a few blog posts to describe the game.

Mission Command: Normandy Reference Manual cover

Reference Manual cover

In short, Mission Command is a system for umpired World War 2 tactical and operational level simulation-style wargames using miniatures. It’s designed by myself and my brother-in-arms Peter Connew. Pete leads the Abbeywood Irregulars, a now Frome-based wargamers group. Both of us have been playing and designing wargames for several decades in a variety of periods. Although we’ve played the Mission Command system across several theatres – mainly late war Normandy and Eastern Front, but also dabbling in the North African theatre with our late friend Stephen Welford – when we decided to publish something, we focused on Normandy 1944. This was largely because we’d played more games in this theatre than any other, and we had ready access to figures and interest from our compatriots in the Abbeywood Irregulars.

Part of our reason for starting and finishing this project was that we (and our fellow Frome-ish wargamers) were dissatisfied with the then-existing WW2 miniatures rules back around 2007. This is, I hope, reflected in our stated Mission Command approach, which:

  • captures the essence of tactical and operational combat command from roughly company level to division level without real warfare’s bloodshed, fear, death and destruction
  • models the differences in how different armies fight
  • reflects World War Two practice of tactical and operational command, control and communications.

Looking back at a designer diary I wrote back in 2015: “We favoured gritty realism over slick presentation, and historical authenticity over ‘hollywood wargaming’. We weren’t afraid of weighty tomes (for Napoleonics, our favoured rules were General de Brigade), nor did we shy away from excessive versioning or as some might put it, correcting, of published rule sets (DBM with slips of amendments stuck in was favoured over the more professionally presented Field of Glory).” So, we were prepared to go for more of a simulation approach than most modern wargames, while still retaining the idea of a “fun, but serious” experience.

The Mission Command system is not a “professional wargame”. It’s not been designed with the education and training of military people in mind, nor for the purposes of analysis, and therefore it lacks explicit evaluation and debriefing sections. The game system can, I believe, be readily adapted through scenario design to more educational or analytical purposes, and we do try to “offer a safe, vicarious reflection of some of the situational and decision dynamics associated with armed conflict” (Professor Phil Sabin, Connections UK, 2013). We hope that our umpires and players might learn something, as well as participating in an enjoyable and challenging wargame.

Mission Command addresses a problematic command level for wargames, namely between battalion and division. So, it doesn’t have only a small number of troops, as in a skirmish game, and neither does it go up the scale sufficiently to abstract out the difficulties of different troop types and their interplay. Quite the opposite: we attempt to take on the difficulties of command, control and communications (as well as the mechanics of moving the troops around and shooting at things) at the level where there is immense articulation of units, and where local tactical success might be converted into operational achievement. Regarding the complexity of this task, we worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, something that we fear can happen with wargames that over-simplify combat at this level for reasons of playability. On the other hand, we naturally wanted a playable game, so we’ve simplified things where necessary in an attempt to keep the baby in the bath, while reducing the water to manageable levels. Ahem.

In terms of playing Mission Command: Normandy, it’s all about scenarios. While the Reference Manual gives the umpires or other game organisers guidance on setting up and running the game, and the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement describes the game for players, the experience of a specific game lies in the historical or pseudo-historical scenarios designed for it. Some of these are available on the Mission Command website, and others will be designed by other groups. Our hope is that the processes of designing, playing and reflecting on these scenarios will lead participants to a greater understanding of combat in World War 2.

Oh, and if you’re at Salute in April, do drop by and have a chat; we’re at GC15 for our demo game, and TC16 for our trade stand.

The Cousins’ War: bigger and better roses

The Cousins’ War is Surprised Stare Games’ 2-player game of the Wars of the Roses. It was designed by David J Mortimer, who showed it to me in 2016. I was immediately struck by the elegance and depth of the game – such a lot of game in what was almost a micro-game format: 18 cards, 3 dice, a small board and 27 cubes. I really liked the theme too, as I’ve studied a lot of military history, and I’m a wargamer. So, I persuaded Tony (relatively easily I would say) that we at Surprised Stare Games should publish it.

The original edition was launched at UK Games Expo in June 2017. It came in a small box with beautiful artwork by Klemens Franz and was printed by NSF in the Netherlands. We weren’t sure how well it would sell, as it was a bit different from, not only other SSG products, but also from conventional micro-games or wargames. The Cousins’ War combines both the depth of multi-use action card play with secondary actions usable by your opponent, as in Twilight Struggle, and also a bluffing dice game – like Liar’s Dice – for the battle at the end of each round. The whole fits together very neatly, providing interesting and challenging decisions and a little dose of luck, with the additional advantage that it takes only about 30 minutes or so to play. The cards are highly thematic and the battles too feel very appropriate to the period with bluff and counter-bluff playing the parts of feint and treachery.

The Cousins’ War proved to be very popular. Not only did we sell large numbers at UK Games Expo, but lots of shops in the UK sold large numbers too. We had multiple re-orders very rapidly from multiple shops. By October we’d almost sold out, and we sold the last copies at Essen Spiel ’17.

Rather than immediately re-printing the original game, we decided to produce a new second edition with our international partners: Flying Lemur Game Studio in the USA, Frosted Games in Germany and 2Tomatoes in Spain. Producing more copies reduced the unit costs and made the game more viable commercially. These savings also enabled us to meet the new market demands: the small size of the original game was not good for the additional markets – a larger-sized box is easier to sell, and it enables us to show off the artwork to much better effect.


So, over the next few months, The Cousin’s War second edition was born. We retained all the strengths of the first edition: the artwork is basically the same, the rules in essence unchanged, so it is largely the same game. It’s also larger.

We turned the box art round, so that it is portrait orientation for a cleaner style. The larger box meant we could produce a larger board – much easier to handle the cubes on it; and on the reverse we have space for the full panorama of Klemens’ original artwork. The cards are about 50% larger, so that the text is easier to read, and the play aid card was completely re-designed to make it clearer. While the rules remain the same in principle, we took the opportunity to ask Gaming Rules! expert Paul Grogan to go through them with a fine-toothed comb. Klemens re-worked the layout on the larger pages, so now we have an excellent set of rules with many more examples of how to play. Finally, we could afford to produce better quality dice, so the new game sports 3 white-with-red-spots for the Yorkists and 3 red-with-white-spots for the Lancastrians.

Shortly after the launch of the first edition, we produced the Events expansion – a small number of additional thematic cards to change the game in a minor way each round. For the new edition, we have integrated this expansion into the main game as the Times of Change expansion. The Times of Change adds an extra level of replayability.

The Cousins’ War 2nd edition was launched at Essen Spiel ’18 and has been very well received. We aim to follow up The Cousins’ War’s success with more small games in the future; we have several more little gems in the pipeline.

In addition to Surprised Stare Games for the UK, The Cousins’ War 2nd edition is available from:



At last, I’ve completed the painting of a 15mm regular US Rifle Battalion (1944), in time for our 10 November Frome Mission Command: Normandy game. Pete’s making the other pertinent miniatures: most of a light armoured Division Combat Command. Scale: 1 figure is 5 to 10 men, 1 vehicle/gun/heavy weapon is 2 to 5 real ones.

For those that care, the figures in the figures below are mainly from the Plastic Soldier Company, with a smattering of Peter Pig (57mm gun and crew, most officers) with transports purchased from Mr Ebay. PSCs are Late War US Infantry 1944-45 – I quite enjoyed putting together and painting these – plus US Infantry Heavy Weapons – not so much. I found the latter very fiddly, sometimes seemingly unnecessarily, and some of the weapons are over-sized. But I would stress that the Late War US box is great. The Peter Pig stuff is good, but again the gun itself is over-sized, with a barrel nearly long enough to be a 17-pdr.

Figure 1 – US Rifle Company attacking


Figure 2 – Close up


Figure 3 – HQ with some heavy weapons


Figure 4 – US Rifle Company configured for AT wtih 57mm gun attached. In Mission Command: Normandy, you can supply one of your Rifle Companies with all the spare bazookas held at Battalion (making 4 elements, one’s unfortunately out of shot); the downside is you have to crew them with your own riflemen, so small arms fire is significantly reduced. But that’s a lot of bazookas!


Figure 5 – the Full Bradley (well, it’s not a Monty, is it?).


Open Battles Solo Mode: GI Joe versus the Romans

This post is about testing the solo rules in Open Battles with aircraft, using the 2-player version of the scenario I designed for the first anniversary of the Airfix Battles Appreciation Facebook group: GI Joe versus the Romans. Open Battles is our working title for the new game under development by Nick Fallon and I (for Modiphius) as a follow-up to Airfix Battles.

The historical background in brief is that on 15 July 1944 the hard-fought, intense battle for St Lo had not yet been won by the Americans of General Bradley’s 1st Army. XIXth Corps had attempted to outflank Hill 122 to the north-east of St Lo for several days, but stubborn German defence had blunted his lead divisions. Therefore, he called upon the recently-arrived 35th Division to carry out a more direct attack. Approaches to Hill 122 were covered by the villages of Emilie and Les Romains. The scenario represents part of the attack of the Nebraskan National Guard 134th Regiment on the hard-core survivors of the German 352nd Division, the same division that had opposed the Americans at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

I opted for the US in this game, as I’d already played (and lost) as the Germans. For the 2-player and solo versions we use only about half of the battlefield, so that we can limit each Force to 19 Stars apiece.


Initial German set-up


German troops. The Captain’s Air Defence Controller attachment is, as you can see, a very new card. He allows the player to buy a Field Fortification in any scenario without needing a Unit tab.


US set-up. The half-track contains my Engineers led by a trusty Lieutenant. I also have off-table Spitfire and Thunderbolt. Also, my Captain has a Forward Air Controller who can call in air strikes anywhere in line of sight.


My US troops. I have a preparatory air bombardment – this represents a few Marauders helping out before we go in.

Preparatory bombing: I chose to bomb the known field fortifications, hoping to pin the 88. But not particularly effective, caused a couple of German losses and pinned the PaK40.

My first card is Rolling Thunder, so I launched an immediate air raid on the PaK40 to clear the way down the left flank. Rolling Thunder permits 2 vehicles to Move then Fire, so it’s perfect for a couple of planes. I can target the PaK in the Field Fortifications only because I have the FAC attached to the Captain in LoS of the enemy square; normally aircraft cannot spot things in cover. The A-OK 88 starts the scenario ready to fire, so it opened up on the Spitfire. Brilliant flying from the pilot meant he avoided all 3 potential hits from the gun, completed his strafing run and caused a casualty on the PaK. The Thunderbolt following up decided to strafe and finished off the crew (terrible cover save rolling from the Germans, because they do get +1 on their cover saves in the trenches there).
However, on the very next turn the 88 fired again at the Spitfire (using its normal Order), scored 3 hits again, and this time the pilot’s luck ran out and he was shot down.

2018-09-16 11.44.15

Honours even?

End of Round 1: With the PaK knocked out, both US Infantry Squads have moved up ready to assault down the left flank. German fire has been intense and both have lost men and are pinned.

2018-09-16 12.26.26

End of Round 1: First US attack. Note the barbed wire – these “model” pieces are actually extraordinarily sharp! Handle with care because they’re very realistic!

Calamity in Round 2: My assault got under way, and eventually we pinned the dug-in Grenadiers #5 in front of us by using all our firepower including the half-track; the enemy was also down to 3 men. Then disaster! My engineers were hit by an artillery strike and forced to retreat; my plan had been to get them to clear the barbed wire so Squad 11 could get through. Then the 3 German Grenadiers rallied and charged my pinned squad 8, forcing them back as well. It’s not looking good.

2018-09-16 14.41.08

First attack beaten off. It was so hairy there that my Captain had to engage directly and beat off the Grenadiers himself.

Situation stabilised a bit. US troops regrouped. Another Thunderbolt strike failed, and the plane was damaged . But we eliminated the German Grenadier Unit #5 as well as the PaK, and caused casualties on their other Grenadier Unit (#4). However, that German Unit in the multi-storey building is tough – extra dug-in, plus it has height advantage, so better range than us and can fire over the hedges without them blocking LoS. We suffered a lot from flanking fire.


Getting ready for another assault.

Round 5: Thunderbolt’s last attack . Coupled with the loss of another squad that retreated off the board in the face of MG fire, it was nearly over for the good guys. I was hit hard by the Engineers’ failure to rally for 3 Rounds – they were supposed to be the mainstay of my attack!


Got to dig deep now! Squad 11 is about to retreat off-table.

Sudden change of fortune in Round 6: Our attacking Engineers, having eventually been persuaded to get back over the hedge, were immediately pinned in the open again, this time by the enemy’s command team consisting of their Captain and an Air Defence Controller (with just a pistol)! Fortunately, this was a very temporary setback. An Artillery Strike on the pinned German Grenadiers holding us up in the centre of the battlefield caused them to rout, so the flank fire was neutralised. At the same time our engineers rallied straight away (!) and shot down the German commander and his side-kick. This meant we just needed half-a-Star to demoralise them, and this was achievable by taking the empty Field Fortification. So, it looks like the US may have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat!


German command team is killed.

Final position: Technically, the game ends when the halftrack enters the field fortification square. I’ve adjusted the duration of the game by changing the victory conditions to – Game ends when all Forces of one side are demoralised; so, in a 2-player game, demoralisation of one side automatically means the other side wins. However, you can always play for the final denouement of taking the Pillbox. In this example, the Engineers have AT(6) + 1 for the Mechanised Assault + 1 for the flank attack. They manage to just about knock it out in this example. It’s quite possible that this will take more than one go, so it’s best to be prepared .

This was a very close game. I’d taken 8 Stars of losses, the Germans 9.5 by the end. For a proper assessment of balance, we’d need to play it a few more times.

The Solo Rules seem to be working fine. Important points to remember when reading the Enemy Behaviour table: aircraft are Vehicles! If the enemy is in a good position, don’t override that by interpreting the Enemy Behaviour table in your favour – for example, an enemy Unit in Cover won’t Move as a result of a Default Order if moving doesn’t improve its position or enable it to Fire.

One important point is to add a Default Order clause as the 1st clause of the current version: If the enemy has an unprepared AA gun, carry out an Air Defence Order to prepare it. For aircraft, I’m introducing a method within the AI for enemy planes – but not yet shared with my co-designer Nick Fallon, so I’m keeping it up my sleeve for now.


Final denouement: a very close finish, the US just squeaked it.

Connections UK 2018

On Wednesday 5 September I nipped down to my alma mater, King’s College London, for probably the best professional wargaming conference in the world, Connections UK. Within the over 200 delegates from across the globe were some of the finest wargames designers you could shake a stick at. Unfortunately, this year I could only attend the one day, rather than the whole 3 day conference, but there was a splendid packed programme (and also good nosh too).

There were excellent presentations from Professor Phil Sabin on Dilemmas and trade-offs in wargame design, and from Brian Train on Game design as a form of journalism. The former covered some of the material in the good professor’s book Simulating War. “Operationalise the dilemmas for players” was a phrase that stuck in my mind. Brian’s perspective was a new one for me, and I’d really like to review my thoughts on it once the transcript / audio has appeared. Matt Caffrey, who introduced the first plenary, mentioned a couple of new books to look out for: his own “On Wargaming” and a forthcoming book “Successful Professional Wargames” from John Curry’s History of Wargaming project.

The second plenary was on Wargame development, rather than design or implementation, and was a very welcome part of the programme. This is one of those areas where we could get into a bit more detail about the nuts and bolts, whereas I have felt that previous conferences had more of a focus on selling wargames to potential professional users than on advancing the craft. Dave Manley had an interesting presentation on nesting 3 games within the topic of conflict in the High North (the Arctic). It highlighted the difficulty of nesting, in that the implementation of a follow-on game can be perceived as very dependent on outcomes from the first game. Much of the development here is how to get credible traction with the follow-ups without predetermining too much – or in short, fudging it. Players need agency and, perhaps more importantly, need to be seen to have it. Volko Ruhnke gave a stimulating talk on model calibration, a central point being related to a systems thinking approach: calibration is the process of making your game outcomes interesting for the purpose of your game, as opposed to being accurate (true to reality). He involved his audience in a striking interactive session modelling the spread of an epidemic disease in less than 10 minutes including explanation. This involved a couple of simple rules: (1) If you are touched on the shoulder once, you must touch 3 others on the shoulder (you’re infected); but (2) if you are touched twice, you sit down (you’re dead). The point was that we could easily tweak the design to give interesting results about how to prevent spread or to experiment with different lethalities. This approach to calibration has direct impact on my own designs, and it’s easy to lose sight of the original purpose of the game when wrestling with development problems as a result of testing – for my own Mission Command: Normandy game, I’m focusing now much more on the player perceptions of command, control and communications rather than on mechanics, because the purpose of the game is to show differences in those areas.

The Games Fair is a central part of Connections. This year, there were about 20 games on offer during the afternoon and evening sessions. These ranged from the historical Western Approaches Tactical Unit Wargame, based on the exercise used during 1942-5 to help to train naval officers, through a modern naval wargame used in the education of postgrad naval architecture and marine engineering students, to Phil Sabin’s excellent brand of WW2 dogfighting, as well as the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset and the Strike! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame, both already used by the UK military.

I played Brian Train’s Guerrilla Checkers game, a cunning asymmetric abstract game with a squared board. The COIN player uses relatively few pieces on the squares, and the Guerrilla player has relatively large numbers of pieces played on the nodes. The COIN player takes in a fashion much like draughts, whereas the Guerrilla has to surround the COIN pieces. My interest was in its simplicity and how it was aligned to its purpose – showing the different approaches of each side; particularly in the light of my own abstract conventional historical strategy micro-game The March of Progress. As it happens, my own game has a couple of asymmetric scenarios, and it’s great to see how the world’s master designer at this type of game works his magic.

The key note address was by Volko Ruhnke on “Wargames and Systems Thinking” – so that’s 2 of my primary interests in 1 session! I won’t attempt to cover Volko’s address here in detail – however, I commend it to you for reading/listening, if and when it’s available on the internet. One of his main points was that wargames start out as mental models in the head of the designer. They’re simplified in accordance with their purpose. When you produce a wargame (in other words, when it’s out of your head), it’s then an external model subject to use and critique by others. This is a good thing. When we have many external models, we can synthesise them in order to get closer to reality. Many perspectives and many types of modeling media will get us closer to reality, as the different types have different strengths and weaknesses. So, implications for defence (and in my view for a discussion of history too) are to use a mix of models, a mix of people and to involve model users (consumers of models, if you will) in model building. It was a very stimulating talk.

Apart from the sessions themselves, an absolutely key component of the conference is chatting with leading experts in the field. I’m very grateful to so many fellow conference goers for putting up with my comments and also for engaging in constructive discussions.

The aim of Connections UK is “To advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming.” From my viewpoint, as a hobby gamer and commercial designer, it’s a highly successful conference, enabling the linking of professional wargamers and designers with those who wargame as a hobby and those of us involved in design for a variety of purposes. Though I’m not a “professional wargamer”, I’m keen that my designs might pass on some historical lessons to other wargamers. Connections UK gives a great many useful perspectives, and I hope to keep on going back to Kings.

It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

What wargamers know – 2

WW2: It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

This one has been debunked across the internet, so why do I include it? Well, it still forms a backdrop to many wargamers appreciation of the Normandy battle and later in the war, encapsulated in the overall statement “German tanks were superior to Allied tanks”.

However, other similar comparisons in WW2 should lead to questioning of this whole approach. For me, a good counter-example is the comparatively poor quality of German tanks in the early part of the war, particularly in 1940 but also extending to mid-1941. We don’t ask the question, for example, “How many Panzer IIs do you need to kill a Char B1?”

It’s something of a truism that the Germans had relatively inferior tanks, in both quality and quantity, to the French in the early war and it was their use of radio, their combined arms doctrine, high level of training and leadership that helped the Germans to win the 1940 campaign. So, a more useful approach to these tank versus tank questions is to take a look at how the tanks were used in combat.

Interesting questions to look at include:

  • Deployment – tanks were not deployed singly, but sometimes in squadrons/platoons of 3 to 5, or more usually in companies of a dozen to just over 20.  In fact, most armoured doctrines specified “mass”, which meant division-sized formations at least. This means you’ll very rarely find a combat between x Shermans and a single Tiger, whatever Brad Pitt might make you think.
  • Training – Fighting successfully in tanks was very difficult. Fighting in a Tiger tank was extremely difficult – just starting the engine and moving it required a very high level of expertise and care, because of its engineering complexity. Shermans were technically easier and more reliable. For a good example of the importance of training, see accounts of the Battle of Arracourt (September 1944), when the highly effective US 4th Armoured Division met relatively untrained 111th and 113th Panzer Brigades (Shermans v Panthers).
  • Leadership
  • Methods of fighting – by which I mean both formal doctrine and actual practice. Shermans very rarely met Tigers, but then again “every tank was a Tiger”, so there was a massive perception problem (probably caused by early German successes such as Villers-Bocage). What was the Allied reaction to encountering German tanks, and how did they cope?

I’m hopeful that some of our wargaming encounters in Mission Command can help with a useful perspective on these types of question.

Air Today, Done Tomorrow

Update on the Open Battles draft

Open Battles rules drafting continues apace. I’ve written up the resolutions to the air rules – now a bit simpler, I hope, so more fitting for the Airfix Battles oeuvre. I’m also quite pleased with my little icon for air Units: BlackPlane, though it will probably need to be re-drawn better, so it’s iconic at smaller size. Nothing says WW2 aircraft like a Spit!

Airfix Battles, The Introductory Wargame, didn’t have aircraft. We’re adding them in to Open Battles, but keeping it simple, because it will remain a basically on-the-ground game. I’ve shown 2 or 3 draft Unit cards on the Official Airfix Battles Facebook group, so folks can get a preview of how we see the aircraft operating in the game.

SpitfireIX ME109G

The basic anatomy of the aircraft rules is that each Unit is 1 plane, and they start off-table at their airfields. You use a Vehicle Move Action to bring a plane on, which changes its status from “Ready for Take-off” to “Engaged”. You can place the plane model anywhere convenient on the tabletop, because they don’t obey the same movement rules as ground troops. To carry out an attack, play a Vehicle Fire Action – then put your aircraft next to the target (no extra Move Action required) and shoot, using air to ground or air to air as appropriate. Most of the late war aircraft have AT and MG as well as AA weapon types. Rockets and bombs are commensurately better AT, as you’d expect.

Once you’ve carried out a ground attack, you turn the Unit card to show RETURN TO BASE, and it automatically goes away in Clean-up (no further Order needed). Turn the Unit card again to show REFUELLING, so your planes effectively skip the next Round and then can come back.

These cards are not yet final. We’re currently thinking that the “basic” late war fighter, like the Spitfire IX, should be 2 Stars, rather than 1, so that early war planes can be just a single Star, and obviously less effective. Perhaps MG(8) is a bit too much as well, so this might get dialled down a tad. The Me109 Ace would then be 3 Stars.

You’ll need Commanders with Air Unit tabs, so we’re developing these as both Officer Pilots and ground-based air controllers with Forward Air Controllers too.

We’ve also covered anti-aircraft fire. After wrestling a little with the balance of guns like the 88, we decided that AA guns can fire usually fire in 2 ways. First, they can shoot like normal Gun Units, using an Order with a Fire Action. For an 88 on the tabletop, that means you can target any aircraft over the battlefield, owing to its range – smaller AA guns are more limited, but we cannot miss out the 88! Second, you can use an ability called “Defensive Interrupt Fire”. This allows you to shoot at an attacking aircraft before resolving the aircraft’s attack. However, we didn’t want this to be a way for the 88 to shoot down everything that moves as a kind of permanent Interrupt Fire, so you have to prepare the Defensive Interrupt Fire by carrying out a Basic Order that places any Command card from your hand under the AA Unit card – a bit like a glorified Stay Frosty. Then your AA Gun is ready to shoot at aircraft carrying out a Fire Action, but you’ll only get 1 shot of this prepped fire before you have to prep it again. If you can inflict 2 hits on the aircraft, it has to take a Morale Check, and a fail result makes it return to base even though it might not be destroyed. This gives us, subject to more playtesting, a balanced set of Units, I think.

Reflecting the use of MGs against aircraft, we’ve given a blanket AA(1) versus aircraft attacking your square or an adjacent one to all Units with MG weapon types. Again, these Units will have to prep the Defensive Interrupt Fire, so that’s something to look out for if you’re playing against an opponent with aircraft. There will undoubtedly be some 50 cals around in future! Some vehicles might explicitly NOT get this, for example if they’ve only got a Hull MG; that will be on the new Unit cards.

Aircraft don’t follow exactly the same rules as ground troops for Morale results. The Morale Checks are the same, but if they fail, they can’t be Pinned or Retreat or Rout, they simply change to RETURN TO BASE and if they’ve not yet done their mission, they lose it.

Aircraft are likely to be very useful in your Force. However, you’ll need some skill to make them highly effective. For example, you can only see troops in the Open from the air, so you may well need spotters on the ground to help via Attachments and other Units with the Forward Air Controller ability. The enemy might have their own Fighters to keep yours away, so dog-fights can happen in the skies above the battlefield.

Any comments from AB players are very much welcomed!

The March of Progress (was Politics By Other Means): ACW scenario

My 2-player micro-game on strategic aspects of war has changed its name from Politics By Other Means, adjudged too esoteric, to “The March of Progress” (new title courtesy of Charlie, my wife).

In addition, I’m now extending it with another scenario, so that we have a better progression – there was a gap for most of the 19th century. Now we have 18th century Limited War to Napoleonic, then American Civil War (the new one), through World War 1 and finally to World War 2. As there is an Introductory Scenario too, that’s 6 scenarios, which I think is plenty for a micro-game.

Each scenario has various tweaks to make the strategy appropriate to the period. The new ACW one will probably be tweaked so that players start with Economic Points rather than VPs and lose them when they get their cards back by playing the Score card. The Confederacy can start with fewer Economic Points, so they want a quick war (ending by taking Washington quickly), while the Union want a longer affair so their economic muscle can take effect. That’s the overall concept; much work to do on bringing this scenario to fruition.

In the meantime the Napoleonic scenario has been tested a lot more, and is very nearly finalised. Napoleon now gets an extra attack point for each French army he’s using to attack with, in addition to the normal +1 for using the Attack +1 card.

Recent play-testing has suggested that, in order to avoid stalling (a slight problem for a couple of scenarios in certain circumstances) players should earn an automatic single VP when playing their Score card. This appears to be a very elegant solution! As ever, subject to playtesting.