Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Red Star Rising! Uncle Billy's Proud Nephews

As I mentioned earlier, I've a lot of different projects on the go.

Way too many honestly; but this is a hobby, variety is the spice of live, and anyway it has all been giving me a lot of pleasure.

So there.
These days I've been revisiting the ACW. One of my earliest loves in wargaming, thanks to a combination of two things.

First, as a kid, my brother and I each got a set of the old 54mm Britain's ACW horse artillery battery, with firing Napoleon guns. I was given the Rebs, my brother the Union.

Small wonder that between the two of us, we never took anyone's eye out.

The second was getting the classic book by Donald Featherstone, Battles with Model Soldiers. In it was a chapter called "Stepped-up situations", where he went through three very basic scenarios for beginners using the old Airfix HO/OO ACW figures. 

I loved it; it was my gateway drug to wargaming, so I was thrilled when just last week Norm revisited both the game and the book in his excellent blog post here.

Since those days, interest in the ACW has peaked and waned in cycles, but it's always been there. I find it far more fascinating than the AWI, and I even managed to plough through watching the movie Gettysburg (fast-forwarding my way through the turgid, tedious- and frequently embarrasing- speeches).

Before I came to Japan, the gang I gamed with were playing the ACW in a big way.

This pic is from a monster not-Antietam game we once played with several thousand figures, and all insanely individually based. Here the Irish Brigade is about to impale itself on my own line of Reb bayonets- Dick Taylor's Louisiana Brigade.
ACW game.jpg (262.23KiB)

The battles of Pepperidge Farm, Petticoat Junction, First and Second Taffyville; all became household names in our pantheon of great tabletop conflicts.

Almost all were Dixon and Rafm figures, which we bought and painted by the bucketful back then. I had- indeed still have- loads.

It helped that one of our group was Dave Morgan, then owner of Sentry Box West, one of the largest wargaming shops in the country- he stocked both ranges in industrial quantities.

I wore the grey back in the day; since then I (stupidly) sold off a bunch, but at least I kept my brigade of veteran Louisiana troops that I still have (again, stupidly) packed away somewhere back in Vancouver.

Later I turned my back on rebellion- not to mention all the Lost Cause, "it wasn't really about slavery" bullshit that I kept coming across in my reading- and decided instead to begin collecting a Union army. 

The "heritage, not hate" argument can be a contradictory one, which hasn't always been made convincingly- nor sincerely. I think it's pretty clear that much of the more overtly romantic bilge has been used as a fig-leaf to draw attention away from Joe Crow in the long years after the war.

Anyway, 'nuff politics, and suffice to say I haven't changed my mind. But Billy Yank needs an opponent, so now I am indeed working on some Confederates as well. 
The Dixon figures still hold their own; over the years I learned to weed out the codes with the worst of the pumpkin heads.  Although were I to start again I'd begin with the box set of plastics from the Perry twins. 

Fast forward to the next century, and the pre-covidian era.  We had of course been playing lots of Napoleonics using Black Powder, and I always had an eye to doing the ACW using the same rules. 

But that means a lot of figures to get mustered, equipped and uniformed, so the Rebels & Patriots rules from Osprey look appealing for getting started gaming using smaller numbers of miniatures. 

The Pig Wars of the Pacific Northwest are also an option- if Matt ever gets his British Intervention Force painted.

More on rules, specifically Rebels & Patriots, for a future post. 

But whatever the rules, over the past year I just found myself slowly, sporadically- but steadily- painting up more and more Union miniatures. 


*****

So which Union formation did I choose?


After some consideration, I decided these were the boys I wanted to do: 

Union XII (later XX) Corps, 1863-1864
1st Div (Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams),
2nd Brigade (Col. Thomas H. Ruger, 3rd Wis.)

 

2nd Mass.advancingpacks/ bedrollssky blue trousers
27th Ind.advancingpacks/ bedrollsblue-grey trousers
3rd Wis.firing linelight ordersky blue trousers
13th N.J.firing linepacks/ bedrollssky blue trousers
107th N.Y.firing linepacks/bedrollsblue-grey trousers*
(*...and that, kids, is how to do the Union without needing labels on the bases)

It's a formation that never gets a lot of press; but it is an interesting one to do, as unusually it served both with the Army of the Potomac and out in the west under Sherman.

The XII Corps was formed from an unlikely- and unlucky- source; the army that had been commanded by General Nathanial Banks, and which had been thoroughly whipped by Stonewall Jackson in his celebrated Valley Campaign.

It was more a case of terrible (if well-connected) generalship than of poor troops, as they did much better at Antietam in 1862- at a high cost.  

There the 2nd Massachusetts in particular paid a high price, with many officers and men killed and wounded- including among the latter a Lt. Robert Gould Shaw (remember that opening scene of Glory?).  

In 1863 the brigade was at Chancellorsville (ouch!) and saw fierce action at Gettysburg, Almost immediately afterwards it found itself sent to New York to help put down the draft riots. 

Shortly afterwards, the XII Corps was transferred out west to bolster the Union western armies there in the dark days after Chickamauga. 

There would be some minor changes in commanders and in brigade/ division organization over the rest of the war, but with the Army of the Cumberland it gained an excellent reputation, no doubt helped by its experience in the major leagues, as it were.

Later the hard-luck XI Corps was absorbed into the XII, and a new organization was formed; the XX Corps. But to the relief of the veterans they all adopted the XII Corps red star insignia and its higher command structure.

Must of been something of a clash of cultures when the XII met their new comrades from the western theater; there was none of the Army of the Potomac's spit-and-polish about Sherman's men, as this picture attests:
Old sweats; western officers from the 105th Ohio Infantry Regt. Not much polish, but probably plenty of spit. Lt. Albion Tourgee, on the left, was to go on to become a well-known and tenacious civil rights lawyer.
Weary XII Corps men soon after arriving in Tennessee.
But on the other hand, apart from Chickamauga, the westerners had been used to actually- you know, like winning -most of their fights. 

The XII/ XX Corps went on to fight in the Atlanta campaign with great distinction, being the first Union troops to enter the city.
Looking over the old Confederate defences at Atlanta. Note the stripped-down Hardee hat with the Corps badge. Forage caps were not as popular with Union troops in the west.
The 27th Indiana Volunteers was a celebrated regiment in its own right, with a hard-fighting reputation. In 1862, it was some soldiers of the 27th who found the “Lost Orders”- that copy of Lee's orders to the ANV- which were promptly passed up on to Gen. McClellan. Thus the regiment was instrumental in sparking off the Battle of Antietam, leading to the Emancipation Proclamation.

At Gettysburg, along with the 2nd Massachusetts, it participated in the ill-fated charge at Spangler's Spring at Culp's Hill. 

Brig. Gen. Alpheus Starkey Williams: commander of the XII Corps' 1st Division, Williams was one of the more capable, if under-rated, divisional commanders in a rapidly-expanding Union army. 

Never a glory-seeker, "Pap" Williams was popular with his men- but he wasn't a West-Pointer, and he also wasn't inclined to suck up to the press or to politicians. 

To the detriment of his career, if not his character.
Proudly wearing his XII/ XX Corps red star badge.
His statue in his home state; Detroit, Michigan.  He's portrayed here on his favorite old war horse, "Plug Ugly".  A wonderfully un-heroic, yet workmanlike, pose.


Col. Thomas H. Ruger, former regimental commander of the 3rd Wisconsin, before being appointed commander of the 2nd Brigade. 


And in miniature, here accompanied by the flag of the 2nd Brigade, 1st. Division XII/ XX Corps: the 'Bloody Pentagram'.

"Go clear those people from those woods!"
*****

So far I have the 13th "Noo Joisy" done- or would have if I hadn't recently decided to add three more stands- along with some "Badgers'- the 3rd Wisconsin- coming hot on their heels. 


I already have all the flags I need for the brigade, courtesy of GMB.
"Down with the traitor, and up with the (red!) star!"

 

I'm in the middle of prepping a section of Federal artillery as I type- Foundry figures this time, destined to be Battery "I", New York Light Artillery, who were attached to the division. One of the packs of the Foundry artillery are in frock coats and campaign Hardee hats, and will be perfect for the western theatre.

On Dixon miniatures: there are more modern and more anatomically accurate figures out there, but when I got into the ACW it was easily the most comprehensive range available, and as I said, I had lots.

And they actually get painted, where sometimes more state-of-the-art miniatures never even make it to the painting table. They are fun to paint- being able to keep myself engaged in the painting process is essential. It’s a hobby, so I need to like what I am doing.

When I got back into the period, pre-Perry and post- ridiculous Foundry price rises, it was logical to pad out what I had with more Dixons.

And if I don’t “overdo” the painting (the heavily-sculpted folds and creases cast their own shadow and don't need much contrast), avoid the more oddball poses and pumpkin-heads, and don’t mix too many different poses in a unit, they look good. 

Seen close up, the exaggeration can jar; but a unit seen from a distance on the gaming table, they can look really effective.

They’re characterizations, not scale models.

I have just about all the Union (need one more advancing regiment) and most of the Confederates I’ll need. I may pick up a few Foundry units to flesh out the Secesh.

On basing: the round bases came into vogue with the Osprey Rampant rule series. I thought they looked good, even for closely-ranked units as here.

Although they are meant for semi-skirmish games, I see no reason why they can’t double-duty for Black Powder.

Besides, I was getting bored with rectangular bases; more base than figure, more often than not.

Here is the 27th Indiana which are next in line for cleaning up, here based as a twenty-four figure unit for Black Powder
The double- and singly-based figures can be used as skirmishers, although I may recruit the 150th NY, which joined after the Corps was transferred to the west, as a dedicated skirmish unit.

I like the round bases, as with only 24 figures they give me a line formation that bears at least some resemblance to the real thing- yet still gives the impression of some depth, helped by staggering the figures on their bases.

And here I have broken it down into two, twelve-figure “companies” for Rebels & Patriots (I’ll be playing it so that companies are the basic maneuver units, which I think makes more sense).
The basing system might not be to everyone's taste, but it works for me. Reminds me of the games I played as a kid! 

Need some terrain, though- currently working on a Renedra church and a Warbases barn. 
"Captain! Go organize me a painting detail!!"
Another project I'm thoroughly enjoying.



Monday, 27 April 2020

To Add Something New...

To what so far has been a less-than-wonderful year; but not, fortunately, on the hobby front, where a lot has been happening!

Back in February, before the Great Scurvy took hold, Matt and I had scheduled in gaming day for a Sunday. Hooray, of course. 

However, what was originally supposed to be Napoleonic amphibious landing scenario using Black Powder ended up at the eleventh hour being an age of sail naval wargame instead. 
Choices, choices...
And great fun it was, too. 

 *****

The day had arrived, I had woken up early, and had already set up the table and placed the terrain- only to get a message from Matt saying he would be quite late, and that he wouldn't be able to bring any miniatures.

Basically he had gone out drinking the previous night over of the other side of Tokyo.  When he got home he realized he had left his phone at the pub; so he had to go back in the morning to get it, and then come directly here- do not pass Go, do not pick up your troops. 

Naturally he could only let me know about this after he was able to get his phone back.

Well, I didn't have enough troops to provide both sides, so BP was shelved and the terrain put away.

I definitely need to get to work on the Prussians and Russians, as this is the second time this has happened.

Struggling for an alternative, I suggested an age-of-sail naval game instead, as both of us had been keen to give the period a go. I have always been fascinated by the battles between the wooden walls, and on a trip back to Vancouver last October, I had picked up a number of- hopefully playable- sets of naval rules.

This unfortunately meant that we would have to- gasp!- use unpainted, bare-metal miniatures, along with a (mostly completed but not-yet painted) island fortress.

A cardinal sin, I know. But given the circumstances, there really was no choice. I didn't even have time to give the ships a quick coat of primer. Time was an enemy, and anyhow you have to start somewhere.

I had about an hour and a half until Matt got here, so decided on what appeared to be the simplest of the three rule sets I had available: Osprey's Fighting Sail: Fleet Actions 1775–1815 by Ryan Miller. 

I set myself to getting up to speed on the rule essentials, while at the same time quickly drawing up and cutting out the movement and arc of fire templates- by hand. As luck would have it, my printer cartridges needed replacing that weekend. 

Talk about gaming on the fly.

But with the help of a ruler, index cards and some bluetack, ultimately I was ready; British vs. French, East Indies 1782. Both sides had two third-rates each.

The French: Incontinent, 74; Malheureux, 64
 
The British: HMS Righteous Indignation, 64; HMS Forgettable, 64


The French were trying to get to the harbour at l'Isle de la Reine, and under the safety of its guns. The British, to intercept them.

"It's the cat fer ye, ye whoreson lubber!"
Each ship has a stat for the number of dice rolled; sailing, discipline, boarding, gunnery and hull. Discipline allows players to repair damage. Hull dice are basically saving throws.

We never got close enough for boarding actions, more's the pity.

As we were just getting the basics down, we decided before the game that for the sake of simplicity, once we determined its direction the wind would not change during the course of the game. As it turned out, the rules proved intuitive enough, so we will do this in future games.

The wind turned out to be blowing directly from the south. Aeolus was clearly an Anglophile, as this meant the French had it blowing directly into their bows. The RN came on with the wind off their port quarter- they very much had the weather gauge. 

Consequently the French- who rolled five D6 to the RN's four, as their ships tended to be better built- got one movement point on every roll of six. They sailed on at a crawl. 

Fortunately for me the British- who in theory should have swooped down on les Frogs like hawks on paraplegic mice as they got movement points on a roll of 4 to 6- were rolling abysmally. 

Most of the firing took place at long range as a result. For firing, you roll the number of dice allowed under the gunnery stat; at long range, 5-6's are hits. The player receiving the hits rolls the number of dice listed under the hull stat, with 4-6's being saves. 

So at long range firing is generally inconclusive, but it got a lot more lethal when we got into medium range- explosive hits mean damage re-rolls on 6's. This was bad enough- we never got into short range combat, which must have been murderous. The British get more gunnery dice than the French, so long range suited me fine, thank you very much. 

NB: the term 'explosive' seemed odd, but it was really just unfortunate terminology. In subsequent amendments this has been renamed critical hits, or something similar, which makes more sense.

I lost Incontinent early in the game, as she came under fire from both RN ships, her consort being too far out of range off her starboard beam to come to her assistance. After taking four hits in one turn, she foundered. Round one to rum and salt pork.

Now outnumbered, Malheureux slowly tacked and wore her way around the edge of the table trying to outrun her tormentors. 

Luckily the British were unable to put on any speed, and in a drawn out long-range gunnery duel I managed a magnificent firing roll of all 5's and 6's, all of which the Righteous Indignation failed dismally to save. 

She, too, went to the bottom. 

The Forgettable sought vengeance, and pursued the Malheureux relentlessly in an effort to stop me making the port, but as dreadful British movement rolls continued, it was clear that I had enough of a head start to reach the safety of the harbour and the guns of the fort.

The game ended in a bang- literally- when Forgettable carelessly got within close range of the fort's battery, and plunging heated shot detonated her magazine in true, David Beatty tradition. 

So I was able to enter harbour to the heartfelt welcome of cheers, bouquets of flowers and patriotic music, followed by a slap-up feed at the governor's table where I regaled the admiring ladies with tales of my martial prowess. I even let the governor win at vignt-et-un, such was my good humour.

The French were victorious, albeit at the cost of their most powerful man-of-war.

*****


So what of the rules? Overall, they were a big hit.

They were fast to learn and to play. There was no bookkeeping to mess about with, and we picked up the mechanics both of sailing and gunnery very quickly. The rules appear to do the job without players having to first spend some years familiarizing themselves with Norie's Epitome of Practical Navigation, and the intricacies of celestial navigation and Euclidean geometry.

We got in lots of turns, and the game was over in well under three hours. Not bad for a first outing with a new set of rules.

Naval engagements in Fighting Sail are bloody- too bloody. Three ships lost, which would have been a rarity indeed in naval combat as wooden ships were hard to sink with the weapons of the time. The loss of the Forgettable was a reasonable outcome given the circumstances, but the other two ships really should have remained afloat.

This is a criticism of Fighting Sail I have come across online- and was a result of a desire to make large multi-player fleet actions play a lot more quickly and decisively.

But there are modifications to the rules available out there that get around this- by having them strike instead of sink, for example. Given that I invariably tweak rules to suit my taste, I have no problem with this.

Gunnery and damage really are simplified; for example, a lack of bow and stern fire which would have added something to the game as we were using so few ships. There doesn't seem to be anything in the rules for this- likely a result of the games being geared towards fleet actions. Still, an easy enough fix.

In fact it seems an robust system where changes and additions to the rules won't break the basic rules engine.

FS really plays best with at least a squadron per player. But having two ships each still produced an enjoyable game. 

We both liked the fact that these rules play so smoothly; after less than an hour we only had to consult the rule book a few times. 

Someone wanting more granularity and "sea salt" to their naval rules, or who want to do frigate actions such as HMS Shannon taking the USS Chesapeake, would probably prefer a more detailed rule set. 

I still wouldn't mind trying a few different sets for comparison- especially Blood, Bilge & Iron Balls, but I'm not sure I'll ever get the opportunity. I'm aware that Matt is no sailor, nor are most of the guys here. 

I'm not sure a more "meaty" set would appeal to them if it meant a long learning curve. If FS can engage and interest them in the genre, then I'm happy to continue with it. 

Fighting Sail are also easily available in some bookshops here, so accessibility isn't an issue.  

I know there are purists out there who really dislike the rules, and the dreaded phrase "dumbing down of the hobby", or variants thereof, has raised its head in a number of online discussions.

But hold on there one moment, mateys.

Now, I grew up voraciously reading the adventures of Hornblower, Aubrey & Maturin, Ramage and Bolitho.

Despite my landlubber credentials, I come from Hampshire and Sussex stock, with a long tradition of naval service, to whom the Royal Navy ranked second in British institutions just behind the Monarchy and a good cable's length ahead of the Church of England; beliefs which were instilled in me since childhood. 

Wouldn’t be surprised if Dad hadn't slipped a slug 'o rum into my baby formula. 

So being immersed in books and tradition, as a teenager I of course had the chance to play Wooden Ships & Iron Men at the club in high school. Later on in life I even tried rules like Action Under Sail and Hearts of Oak, (the rule set that came with the Privateers & Gentlemen role-playing game).   

Most rules like these were extremely well-detailed, and clearly labours of love.  

They were also virtually unplayable, and inevitably they never got any traction with us (Avalon Hill's classic, much-loved WS&IM excepted). 

For the most part, the rules I enjoyed most were Don’t Give Up the Ship! I press-ganged my younger brother into playing the French and- when I was feeling magnanimous- the Yankees. We had plenty of decent games with this one, mostly with just one or two ships involved (the games when we didn’t end up in fistfights, that is).   

So personally, I’ve been interested in wargaming the Age of Sail ever since I can remember, and have over the years developed a good- if certainly by no means expert- knowledge of the tactics and ship handling of the period.

But that’s my point. Naval warfare in the age of sail is a really complex (not to mention arcane) subject both to model and to really understand.

Rules that try to take it all into account might well end up satisfying the dedicated enthusiast, but aside from taking a long time to play, such rules would likely send newly-pressed men jumping over the side in their misery, bewildering and frustrating those who are either new or less committed to the period.

I don't do much solo wargaming; I always need to think about what would appeal to my opponents. So I can’t expect anyone in my gaming group to tolerate having to deal with the long learning curve needed to come to grips with the intricacies of late 18th C. naval warfare and sailing. Nor would they want to spend a lot of time referring to complex written record keeping, especially as it would never be a mainstream interest for most.  

The best I can reasonably hope for is to get them interested in a game that might scratch an itch after they have read or watched Master & Commander or Hornblower, and have them give a thumbs up to a set of rules that might from time to time provide a quick change of pace from their more regular gaming fare, in the same way as Wings of Glory or What a Tanker! does.

So for these reasons, I’m much more likely to get a game in if I stick with a set of rules that are simple and accessible, and which provide the opportunity to get models on the table, to roll some dice- and just focus on some good storytelling. 

That would satisfy me well enough.


*****

Now all that said, Sada here is a fan of the age of sail:
"A bloody war or a sickly season"

1/1200 Langton ships from Sada's superb collection.
He already has a magnificent collection of all the ships- British and Allied- from Trafalgar.

Unfortunately all the rules we have tried so far seemed unwieldy, and on most occasions we simply ran out of time and/ or energy. Given the number of vessels involved, it looks like Fighting Sail might do the trick.

Even then it wouldn't be a game to be undertaken lightly! In no way would my ping-pong table be big enough- a hall rental is in order post-virus.

As for my own shipbuilding program; given the breadth of Sada's collection, me going ahead building up fleets for, say, the 1805 campaign would be pointless.

Matt expressed interest in doing a Russian fleet of the era (not a bad choice, actually; I can see some "what-if" potential along the coast of the Pacific Northwest).

Fortunately however, I have long had an interest in the fascinating East Indies campaign of 1782-83, between the French admiral Suffren- a first-rate admiral (likely France's best) encumbered by having very much third-rate captains- and Admiral Sir Edward Hughes, a competent if second-rate commander with very much first-rate captains and crews.
This is a good read.
So is this; a great resource; there is not much out there on the French fleet.

Lots of fascinating detail.
Okay, they WERE all a little expensive...

Late last century I went overboard buying stuff from Rod Langton. I got most of the ships that I would need for both sides- along with various accessories like gunboats, lighthouses and harbour facilities- so it's just the trivial matter of assembling them (hah!). 

One modification the ships need is that the driver- the big fore-and-aft sail on the mizzenmast (big up-and-down pole at the back) was actually a feature of warships during the later Revolutionary/ Napoleonic wars. During the 1770’s and 1780’s, the earlier Mizzen Course was more common. 

The Langton models have the booms cast on to the drivers, which are a feature of the later settings. So the masts need some work with the clippers and files cutting off the boom at the bottom of the sail.  

Here’s a French 74 with the typical earlier mizzen rig:

Here are the mizzen masts as cast:
And modified using a fine drill and lengths of paperclips.
Fortunately, the early 1780’s were a period of transition, so not all ships need to be modified. The newer ships in both fleets will be left as is. 

This is a fun project. I already ordered some clear acrylic bases from Litko, as well as a set of playing aids for Fighting Sail. These are less hassle than having to cut them out from card- and way more robust.

The ships themselves aren't easy or quick to do- the masts in particular take time as I use slow-setting JB Weld epoxy for strength- but I really enjoy working on them. It's the modeller in me.

What with this pandemic still going strong, it will likely be a long time before I next get in a game, but when we do so I hope to have at least six ships done and ready to go.  Dreading the rigging part, but I'm sure I'll manage. 



*****

In my next post, the plan is to look at my rebooted ACW project along with some related future project possibilities.