Welcome to my blog!

News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. I hope you find it helpful and entertaining.

Sunday, 19 February 2017


Swordpoint is Gripping Beast's new big battle rules for the ancient and medieval period. This is a pretty crowded space, but one chased by many WAB gamers looking for a replacement.

You certainly get a very nice rule book, with the production values you would expect from Gripping Beast. Plenty of eye candy, but not overly gratuitous.

Units are made up of variable numbers of bases. Typically 4 figures to a base for foot, 2 for cavalry and 2 for skirmishers. The 4 to a base (in two ranks, 40mm x 40mm) for foot is a bit irritating for us ex-wabbers who usually start with 3 to base on a 60mm frontage. However, as a typical unit will have six bases it's not a huge problem and doesn't require rebasing. There are a number of army lists in the main rulebook to get you going and the first separate book is for the Dark Ages. The standard army is 1000 points and that means around 150-200 figures a side on a 6' x 4' table. The profiles for each base are much simpler than many rules with factors for defence and cohesion only.

The first innovative mechanism is Momentum Points. You start with five and can gain more as a result of successful combat and shooting. You can then spend them to give an edge in combat or to grab the initiative when you really need it. Moves are generally simultaneous, rather than 'I go, you go', although there are exceptions.

The phasing is also unusual. After the initial admin phase you shoot before movement and combat. This means that shooting can soften up your opponent before charging in. However, because you don't remove figures unless a whole base is killed, this means long range shooting is rarely effective. Shooting is fairly conventional, hitting on 4's +/- modifiers, and then saving depending on armour, shields etc. Shooters don't get the value of shields if they are firing, which I like. The use of percentages to calculate if you have to test, requires more mathematical agility than I would prefer on a Sunday afternoon, but it's not that tricky.

Movement is pretty conventional, although there is an interesting mechanic limiting manoeuvres. It's important to get the order of events right, but otherwise it's all fairly normal.

Combat is also fairly conventional, with hits and saves as per many rule sets. You have to lose badly to be routed quickly, so melee can be prolonged. There is an interesting mechanism to encourage armies to fight in line of battle, by allowing defeated units to dissipate their casualties to supporting units in the line. The maths of this is a bit more than I can be bothered with, but it does mean that armies fight as you would expect ancient armies to do, and it reflects Dark Age scrums very well. It also encourages the formation of big units with depth, as these are pretty tough to budge. Being pushed back is damaging, but not necessarily a disaster you can't recover from. Commanders add dice to the melees they join, but they don't overpower the game as they did in WAB.

There are special rules covering all the obvious ancient troop types and tactics.

There is a useful discussion with the authors on the Meeples podcast(182), although the usual health warning, allow plenty of time, there is little script discipline on this podcast. They can ramble on for hours! Gripping Beast are supporting the rules with a range of materials.

Is this the holy grail of a replacement for WAB? Clash of Empires remains the closest match for me, but it doesn't seem to have taken off. Swordpoint offers a few interesting mechanisms, and few irritating ones as well. However, I can't say it grabbed me with the same level of enthusiasm as Lion Rampant, albeit for smaller games. For the occasions when I have the time to set up a big battle, I suspect Hail Caesar will remain my first choice.

In fairness, playing either side of watching Fulham getting knocked out of the FA Cup, may have affected my judgement! So I will play them again.

On to the tabletop. My test game was Christians and Moors in Spain. The army of Al-Andalus triumphed.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Flodden revisited

Sunday was an opportunity to play once again with Scott's superb 10mm collection of forces for the Battle of Flodden 1513 - or as it should have been named, Branxton. The battle was actually fought below the village of Branxton. Flodden Hill is some way off to the north.

Anyway, the battle was fought in Northumberland on 9 September 1513 between a Scottish army led by King James IV and an English army led by the Earl of Surrey. It was the largest battle ever fought between the two kingdoms and resulted in a major defeat for the Scots and the death of King James.

We first refought this battle, with the same figures, almost a year ago at the Scottish Battlefield Trust Open Day. On Sunday we had another go at Scott's place using his nice new Cigar Box battle cloth.

As usual, too much chat and not enough gaming, meant we didn't finish the game (its an age thing). However, as per the real battle, the Scots defeated the Cheshire levies and on the other flank, Surrey saw off the highlanders. Bizarrely, King James didn't move the whole battle, content to watch his guns blast away, too little effect.

Some photos to enjoy.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Barbary Pirates: 15th-17th Centuries

The latest Osprey Elite covers the history of the Barbary pirates. Written by Angus Konstam, who has written extensively on the subject of pirates and is an Edinburgh based wargamer as well. If that's not enough, it is lavishly illustrated by Gerry Embleton.

Angus gives us the historical background that explains why the Barbary coast of North Africa became a haven for pirates. He also helpfully takes us through the various descriptions of pirates - Buccaneers, Privateers, Corsairs etc. Most of what became the Barbary States, were under loose Ottoman control and as a consequence the Corsair fleets fought with the Ottomans on many occasions.

Outwith periods of declared war, their operations were commercial. Raiding for goods and slaves that were handled, in accordance with clearly set out rules, in the Barbary ports. Angus explains who the pirates were, including large numbers of renegades - many from Britain. I hadn't appreciated that the fighting crews included significant numbers of Janissaries.

While the Galiot was the archetypal Corsair ship, they also used the larger galleys as well as a range of smaller ships. These are described and illustrated.

This is an excellent introduction to the subject. There are a number of more detailed histories, covered in the bibliography, but few are so well illustrated.

I am currently playing the small battle renaissance rules 'Pikeman's Lament'. So this book was all the inspiration I needed to get the Barbary pirates onto the table. The mission is a raid by the pirates to capture slaves from an inland village in Spain. On their way back to the coast, the pirates are intercepted by a local garrison.

The pirates have two units of Janissaries (I used the Forlorn Hope category for these) and three units of pirates (using Clansman). The Spanish have a unit of trotters and mounted arquebusiers, plus two shot and one pike. A priest is attached to the pikemen. The Spanish won comfortably and the slaves liberated.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Historically Inevitable? Turning points of the Russian revolution

This year is the centenary of the Russian revolution of 1917, so we can expect a fair few volumes on the subject. My first dabble has been Historically Inevitable?, edited by Tony Brenton.

There has been a broad sway of opinion amongst historians, not just in the old Soviet Union, that the revolution was inevitable. A rotten, autocratic Tsarist regime was replaced by the Bolsheviks, whose ideals were corrupted by Stalin. Others argue that the Tsarist regime was being modernised and liberalism would have been the outcome had the Bolsheviks not seized power.

The essays in this book, by leading historians of the period, look at key moments in the period and asks them to describe the background and the events, before engaging in a bit of 'what if?' history.

The events include the role of Rasputin in trying to dissuade the Tsar from entering the war, as he had done in the earlier Balkan war. Better known, is the role of the Germans in facilitating Lenin's return to Russia, in the famous sealed train. It is also argued that Lenin's personality and drive was crucial to the revolution, and so when he was stopped by police in Petrograd, but not recognised, an opportunity was lost. Similarly, there was a failed assassination attempt by Fanny Kaplan (or possibly not) that very nearly ended Lenin's life.

Other events include the earlier 1913 assassination of the reforming Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin. As an 'authoritarian moderniser' he might have been able to make the necessary economic reforms. Interestingly, Stolypin is much admired by the current Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

In the military sphere another chapter looks at the Civil War and the role of Admiral Kolchak. The original opposition was much more broadly based than the subsequent right-wing 'White' forces.

The value of 'counterfactual history' is controversial, but I think it works in the way it's done in this book. The historical events are properly narrated and the 'what ifs?' are narrowly drawn.

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Pikeman's Lament

The Pikeman's Lament is the new pike and shot variant to Daniel Mersey's popular Lion Rampant rules. I love these rules, so I was very keen to get my hands on a copy, for a period that has always been a favourite.

The format is very similar to Lion Rampant so I will focus on the differences. You command a company rather than a retinue, but the scale is the same. These are often called skirmish rules, but they are really small battles with 40-60 figures a side. Officers have a background as well as traits and these can change as part of the campaign system. You start as an Ensign and can end up as a Colonel. Of course death and dishonour stalks any battlefield, so your officer can still be killed with a lucky blow, although there is now a recovery table after each game. Officers can still issue challenges to a duel - personally I am not convinced this is right at this scale of battle and period, but you can ignore it if you want.

Unit profiles are very similar with morale and stamina replacing courage and armour, albeit with similar functions. Unit types cover all the obvious western European renaissance types. Gallopers and Trotters for the horse, plus Dragoons, which can be adapted for light horse as they have the skirmish and evade moves and similar factors to the mounted yeoman in Lion Rampant. Foot units are pike and shot, not in mixed units as I read somewhere. Commanded Shot perform the skirmishing role and we have Forlorn Hope for more aggressive shot, with the ferocious rule and an upgrade to aggressive which cancels shooting, but makes them more effective in combat. There are Clansman units as well which are cheaper and slightly less effective, and Clubmen who are cheap rabble. Shot are encouraged to hold their fire with a first shot salvo benefit.

There are no obvious units to cover all the eastern European and further afield units. However, while the descriptors may seem a bit strange, I can see how you could fit them all in. My beloved Ottomans will still get on the table!

There is also a nice twist to spend the last couple of points by having agitators or priests to boost morale tests. Artillery is formed as regimental guns, appropriate for this scale of battle, but with the option of an upgrade to longer range field guns.

The order of action is largely unchanged with rally, wild charge and then normal activations. There is a new blunder type rule if you roll double 1 or double 6. The first leads to cowardly actions and the latter heroic ones. Shooting, combat and morale are similar, albeit with different weaponry.

Instead of scenarios, you get missions. These encourage specialist forces, like all cavalry and dragoons, to fight what look like some interesting games. Finally you get a few sample forces, just to start you off.

And so, onto the tabletop. I picked a Polish and a Swedish company. They fought a series of wars in the early 17th century, before the Thirty Years War kicked off. Some photos below. The Swede's succeeded in capturing the village, but not without serious loss. The game flowed well and was every bit as good as Lion Rampant. If you like those rules you will enjoy The Pikeman's Lament.

After first moves.

Pancerni v Dragoons

Finns storm into the Winged Hussars

Polish Haiduk foot

The Polish officer's last stand.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Roman Legionary AD 284-337

This is not so much a new Osprey as me catching up. Warrior 175 by Ross Cowan takes the story of the Roman legionary up to the age of Diocletian and Constantine the Great.

This was a period of great turbulence for the Empire, not least because of the religious conversion of the state from Diocletian's pagan persecution of Christian soldiers (they had to perform a sacrifice), to Constantine's Christianity. The conversion was inevitably gradual and Constantine was fairly tolerant for a period, even devising a special parade for pagan soldiers.

This period marks the climax of the traditional legionary system and the organisation into cohorts and centuries would be recognisable to a Roman of an earlier period. What started to change was the organisation of legions, dividing them up into detachments, leading to the frontier units (Limitanei) and the elite field army units (Comitatenses). While infantry remained the backbone of the army, cavalry was becoming more important.

The book explains how legionaries were recruited, trained and equipped. Then we get chapters on the organisation of the legions and some examples of campaigns. Specific soldiers are used to illustrate the system, showing that they certainly travelled a lot - at least in the field army.

This encouraged me to dust down my late Roman figures, more accurately Arthurian in my case. A number of years ago we had a fun WAB 'Age of Arthur' campaign at the club. I used my current favourite set of rules, 'Lion Rampant' for the game, with grateful thanks to David Sullivan for his work on taking the rules back to this period. I see Gripping Beast are also bringing out a supplement for this period next month.

I chose the Carpi as the opponents. There is some disagreement about the ethnic basis for this tribe, but if not a Dacian tribe, they are very similar. They resided in the eastern parts of modern Romania and fought a series of wars against the Romans during this period. Constantine defeated them in 316-17 and they were resettled into the Empire.

The scenario involved a legionary unit defending a village where there is a rather robust religious conversion going on. The Carpi attack the village and the remaining units in the Roman force come to the rescue.

In the game, while the legionaries did get pushed back, the Carpi movement dice were pretty bad and a series of piecemeal attacks were repulsed. Rome triumphant again!

And here is the army list for two 24 point 'retinues'

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Serpent Sword

My latest fiction read has been The Serpent Sword by Matthew Harffy - the first in his Bernicia Chronicles.

The setting is Dark Ages Bernicia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom that roughly covered Northumbria and south-west Scotland in the 6th and 7th centuries, before it merged with its southern neighbour Deira to become Northumbria.

Our hero is Beobrand, a young farmer who follows his warrior brother to Bernicia, only to find he has been murdered. With some minimal training, he joins the army of King Edwin, only to be present at the disastrous defeat at Hatfield Chase, to Cadwallon of Gwynedd. Escaping the battle, his wounds are patched up at a monastery, before he joins a small group of warriors who roam the countryside.

He then leaves the group and joins the army of the new king, Edwin. I won't spoil the outcome, which as you would expect ends with not one, but two, climatic battles. There is a sub-plot regarding his brother's murderer and a bit of romance as well.

This is everything you would expect from historical fiction. It's very much in the Cornwell mode and has some similarities with the Kingdom series, although earlier in time. We even revisit Bebbanburg.

I found the earlier parts of the book a little slow going, but by the end it was hard to put down. There are four more in the series so far and are very reasonably priced on the Kindle. I have the next one downloaded already.

For the wargamer, the battles are small scale, best suited to large skirmish rules like Saga, or the adaptations of Lion Rampant.