Monday, December 31, 2012

End of the Year! Monitor lost 150 years ago

USS Monitor loss
The last day of 1862 saw the loss of the USS Monitor and 16 crewmen as the ship sank in rough weather. Seaworthiness was always an issue with the type. The same design characteristics which made it a tough target also meant that it couldn't deal with rough seas very well.

Amazingly most of the crew was saved.

More images here:

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ancient Kings -- review and comment

The newest expansion set for Wizard Kings is Ancient Kings, historically themed armies fully compatible with Wizard Kings 2d Edition. Some may wonder what, if anything, this expansion brings to the game.

The answer is both less -- and more -- than it seems.

The "less" is that there's literally nothing actually new as far as game mechanics go in this expansion. There are no new rules or abilities. The only point of departure, aside from naming the units after various historical forces, is a set of cards with Army-specific "Divine Rituals" that their associated clerics can invoke, much the same as the wizard spells in standard Wizard Kings.

It's also "less" in that there's nothing to prevent a player from mixing in the new units with his existing Wizard Kings armies or spicing up his Ancient Kings armies with Chaos creatures, were-beasts, artifacts, heroes or treasures from WK. In many ways WK is a game kit, more than just a game, and the exact nature of the game YOU play will depend not just on the scenarios selected, but the armies you own, the expansions you have bought, your choice of maps and even the specific units you build during the course of a game.

If you do mix, some of the combos might seem a bit unsettling. The block color matches are Chinese = Orcs; Japanese = Dwarves; Persians = Elves; Romans = Amazons; Greeks = Barbarians; Huns = Undead and Egyptians = Feudals/Ferkins.

It can be "more" however, in my opinion, if you exercise some restraint and play Ancient Kings more on its own terms, than just as more blocks for Wizard Kings. Played that way, the game will feel a little different.

One of the fascinating things about block games is how subtle changes can have a big impact in the way the game plays, despite relatively minor changes in game mechanics. Games such as Hammer of the Scots, Crusader Rex and Richard III: The Wars of the Roses share very similar game systems, but play quite uniquely.

Ancient Kings provides a much more military game than the more fantastic Wizard Kings. For one thing, the Chaos and Were-creatures do not figure in the game, unless of course you add some in from WK. This is not to say that the Ancient Kings armies are historical -- they are not. Aside from many anachronisms in the unit mix, there are also some fantasy elements in some of the armies. The Chinese have dragons, for example, and the Greeks have cyclops. And the there are the Gods, of course.

So Ancient Kings is clearly a history-themed game, not a historical wargame. This is not Julius Caesar.

The game will play out in a more military way because of the mix of unit capabilities that are present and what appears to be a deliberate attempt to accentuate the differences between the armies.

While every army has the same basic core units you'd expect -- such as cheap spearmen, some horse, forts and ships, there are also units unique to each and the mix provide by the semi-collectible nature of the expansion boxes mean that unless you spend a fortune, your armies are going to have different mixes of options when its time to build.

This is true of Wizard Kings as well, of course, although the Chaos units do a lot to blur those distinctions to the point that many scenarios put restrictions on how many Chaos units a player can have.

One very notable difference in AK compared to WK is in mobility. With the sole exception of the Chinese dragons, there are no flyers in Ancient Kings. The only Aquatics are ships and there are few Amphibians. Campaigns will play out along more conventional lines as far as approaches go. Whether this is a good thing or a drawback is a matter of taste. Things are likely to be a bit less free-wheeling than WK as a rule.

The role of clerics may at first seem to be a mere substitution for that of wizards, but that's misleading. There are some significant, if subtle, differences.

For one thing, clerics are not Flyers. They are more rare, on the whole, than wizards, on the counter sheets and you'll need to buy quite a few sets before you have more than a few.

Their Divine Rituals are generally similar to Wizard Spells. For example, The Chinese God Jurong Level 1 Ritual Spirit of Fire allows a 4 die attack at F2 with targeting allowed, whereas the Level 1 Orc Wizard Spell Fireball casts a 4 die attack at F2 with no targeting.

But Clerics don't have anything like a Henge for cheap rebuilding, so their spells are a little more costly. They are also a little harder to get off as well. While wizards in Wk come in two speeds. A+ and B+, all clerics are B# units. This means they can fight in a battle without casting spells, which is good, but it also means that an enemy army with a lot of A-speed units is going to get to act before the opportunity to invoke a ritual arises. So, while a defending Wizard in WK caught by a superior force gets a chance to do something to whittle down his foes, a Cleric in Ancient Kings will be ridden down and slaughtered instead.

The main thing lacking in Ancient Kings right now are scenarios suited to its nature. A handful of Wizard Kings scenarios from the scenario book downloadable from the Columbia Games Web site seem like they would work well for AK armies. Exxxtreme Conquest, Gold Train, Neutral Buffer Zone, Lost Relics, Sleeping Wyvern and Two Front War all seem playable with no changes. Many other scenarios can probably be adapted as well, but a few Ancient Kings specific scenarios would be a positive development.

So is Ancient Kings worth getting? Probably not if you're just looking for something to add to your Wizard Kings games. It doesn't really add anything you don't already have. Probably yes if you'd like to play a Wizard Kings style game that's a little less chaotic and random and more strategic. In most block games strategic play involves the execution of a plan over several turns and it is very hard to recover from being outwitted. Wizard Kings, because of the proliferation of flying units and the powers and ubiquity of magic users and chaos units can be more chaotic in play and less strategic. If you are out maneuvered in Ancient Kings, you won't be able to fly over a wizard leading a corps of pixies, dragons and hippogrifs to save the day.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The ships of 1914 -- Spee's armored cruisers

Scharnhorst -- model by Navis

The central players in the drama of the 1914 affair were the sister ships KMS Scharnhorst and KMS Gneisenau. These two warships represented the heart of the military threat posed by Von Spee’s squadron.  The accompanying light cruisers had a role to play, but they were minor warships and could be countered by similarly minor combatants that would have negligible affects on the naval balance.

                The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in contrast, were capital ships, albeit of an obsolescent type in 1914.  They were armored cruisers – a type of capital ship that had a relatively short heyday as such major warships go. The first “armored cruiser” were in the 1870s and the very last armored cruiser was the HMS Defense, completed in 1908, so the total length of time this type was in first-line service was barely four decades.
                Still, while they didn’t serve very long as first-line units, they did play prominent roles in the several of the battles that occurred during the pre-dreadnaught era, notably the Battle of Santiago in the Spanish-American War and the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. 

                The main reason why armored cruisers enjoyed their brief time in the sun was the undeveloped state of naval gunnery during the closing decades of the Nineteenth Century. Cannon technology grew by leaps and bounds during that era, resulting in naval artillery that could fire at unheard-of ranges with great accuracy. During the naval battles of the American Civil War and the Battle of Lissa, gunnery duels between ships were often still  measurable in hundreds of yards and it was practicable for ships to get close enough to use ramming tactics. This was despite the fact that the guns, themselves, could easily hurl projectiles for many miles.  The ranges the guns could fire increased even more over the ensuing decades but the problem of actually hitting the target remained. Long-range gunnery was inherently challenging, but naval gunnery added additional complexities as both the target and the firing ship were constantly changing position. At the Battle of Manila, Dewey’ fleet managed to achieve only 2-3% hits on the nearly immobile Spanish squadron. The destructive power of modern artillery was sufficient, however, that this was enough to annihilate the Spanish squadron. 

                Under the gunnery conditions of the late nineteenth century there seemed to be a lot to be said for volume of fire. The very largest naval guns, like those carried on battleships, were very destructive, but had such a slow rate of fire that there was little opportunity a gunner to successfully use the information from a miss to adjust  his fire to get closer on the next shot. Too much time would pass between shots and the relative positions of the ships would likely be so different that each shot was basically starting anew.  The higher rate of fire of smaller guns would not only throw a lot more metal in the vicinity of the target, but provided some chance for adjusting fire from misses.  Because of this, battleships of the ear commonly carried a mixed armament of some very heavy ship-smashing main guns, some medium caliber secondary guns and a tertiary battery of quick-firing guns for defense against light craft. 

                Armored cruisers essentially traded the large main battery guns for additional endurance and speed compared to battleship, but were often armored at similar levels and carried as their main battery guns equal in size to the secondary batteries of battleships.  As such they were generally able to stand in the line of battle alongside the battleships, as they did at Tsushima.

                By 1914, however, the situation had dramatically changed, and the armored cruiser was no longer able to stand in the line of battle. The Dreadnought concept of an all-big gun battleship and the similar Invincible class battle cruiser had changed the equation. Improvements in the large guns had increased their rate of fire and improvements in gunnery techniques were promising improvements in accuracy that suggested that having a uniform battery of large guns would be more effective than the mixed armament of earlier ships and that armored cruisers could no longer safely operate in the main battle line. 

                Still, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were still powerful ships, especially on detached stations such as the Far East, where dreadnought-type warships were still uncommon. 

                The two German ships were conservative designs, very well-built as was usual for German naval construction and well-armed. They were identical sister ships, and therefore worked well together as unit. Their main battery was a total of eight 8.1-inch guns,. Four of the guns were mounted in twin turrets fore and aft, but the other four were mounted in casements on the side, which meant that the total broadside was only six heavy guns.  Also in casements were the secondary battery guns, eight 5.9-inch guns, for total broadside of four. 

                They were well-protected with belt armor of 6 inches and a 2-inch armored deck and, like most German warships, well compartmented. 

                They were not especially speedy for armored cruisers, with maximum rated speeds of around 22 knots. This was enough to outrun any pre-dreadnought battleship but markedly slower than many British armored cruisers and hopelessly insufficient to outrun one of the new battle cruisers. This speed deficiency would play a major role in the outcome of the campaign and was a major consideration a Spee weighted his options.

                A bare recital of stats is not the sum total of a warship’s effectiveness in any era, but its especially important to note the more intangible aspects when evaluating the ship in this campaign. 

                The nature of the German East Asia Squadron’s mission, as  a detached squadron on a distant foreign station, had a major impact on its efficiency. All the crew members were long-service regular navy men, without any of the conscripts that filled out the rosters of homeland-based vessels. It was an elite posting and the two ships were widely regarded as efficient and well-led.

                This manifested itself in at least two ways. First, both ships were noted for their proficiency in gunnery, being recent and multiple-year winners of the German Navy’s gunnery competition. This had obvious implications in the coming engagements, as the tow German ships could be counted on to be very dangerous adversaries.

                Less visibly, but also vital, is that the two ships were evidently very well-served by their engineering crews. In an era when large ship engineering plants were still relatively new and often temperamental, the exceptional reliability of the two ships played a key, if little noted roles in the campaign. Von Spee confidently set forth on a journey of extraordinary length and with little available support if something should go wrong with his systems. In the event both ships performed exceptional feats of steaming right up until their final moments.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Great admirals and Jackie Fisher

I've been doing a lot of research recently about the Dreadnought era for a project I'm working on, and if there's an unavoidable figure when you are talking about dreadnoughts, it's John Arbuthnot Fisher, known as "Jacky," twice First Sea Lord of the Admiralty and the father of the modern Royal Navy.

From midshipman ...
Fisher is a fascinating character study, of course, but there are a lot of fascinating characters who are disastrous leaders. Leaving aside his indelible personality, I'd like to consider the prejudice against non-"fighting" commanders among many when they consider the "greatness" of  a leader.

Now, undoubtedly, combat is the final arbiter, when it comes to a clash of arms. In the end, the man in the trench has to be given due consideration on the day of battle. But, especially in modern war, events at the trench level are usually the culmination of a long progression of events and forces that begin long before the trench was dug -- and sometimes even before the trench digger was born.

Because of this, its not uncommon for a leader to play an enormous role in the eventual victory of his side, while never being close enough to hear the sound of the guns, From World War II we have the example of George C. Marshall, who was sorely disappointed when Eisenhower was picked to be Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. FDR was convinced that Marshall did much more for the war effort as Chief of Staff -- and few doubt that FDR was entirely correct. Marshall, himself, probably realized it.

... to First Sea Lord -- twice
 Admiral Chester Nimitz is another well-known example. Many accounts consider Yamamoto's opponents at Midway to be Fletcher and Spruance, the admirals in tactical command. But in many ways his real opposite number was Nimitz -- and in a real sense, the fact that Yamamoto was at sea and Nimitz was not is an irrelevant detail.

Likewise, Jackie Fisher was not at sea in 1916 when the Battle of Jutland was fought. Indeed, he wasn't even First Sea Lord any more, having been retired from the job for the second time the year before. But the British Grand Fleet at Jutland was Jackie Fisher's fleet -- as sure as it would have been if he had been on the bridge of the HMS Iron Duke himself. Admiral John Jellicoe, who was on that bridge, was Fisher's hand-picked man to lead the fleet. There was hardly a ship in the entire fleet that was more than a decade old. With the exception of a handful of older types, nearly all the ships were directly or indirectly his brainchild. The dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers were his conception. The fleets of destroyers, too. He coined the term "torpedo boat destroyer" for the new class of ships.

Circumstances prevented Fisher from ever leading a fleet into battle, but I'd rank him right along with Nelson, myself. 

Adm. Chester Nimitz is another  was a

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Firepower in Connecticut

Let me start with a disclaimer that Friday's tragic events in Newtown, CT, hit very close to home and it's not my intention to reopen this blog for political debates. I decided a few years ago to separate my US politics comments from the game blog.

But I do think its instructive to point out that the norms of political debate in the US surrounding guns is fraught with language designed to obscure the issue rather than illuminate it.

It appears that the main weapon, if not the sole weapon, used by the shooter in the school massacre was something known as a Bushmaster .223. This is the sort of weapon that the media likes to call an "assault weapon," which gets all sorts of juices flying -- for all sorts of wrong reasons, really.

Strictly and technically speaking, it is not an "assault rifle." It's not capable of fully-automatic fire and I wouldn't be surprised if it falls short of military grade requirements for robustness and accuracy as well. It's not a military weapon.

But, once we understand that the requirements of media reporting require the use of various shorthand terms that are quickly grasped by a non-technical public, the use of the term "assault weapon" becomes more understandable. Nearly everybody who has ever seen a general media story about a topic they happen to know well sees all sorts of errors, over-simplifications and instances of misplaced emphasis. It really seems to be an inherent part of the beast. There are very few topics or species of human endeavor that could be adequately explained in the 500 to 1,000 words that a print reporter has. Broadcast media, naturally, has just a fraction of that.

So calling something like the Bushmaster an "assault weapon" does clue the general, non-technical reader in that this weapon has features that distinguish it from older semi-automatic weapons. The weapon bears an obvious relationship to the M-16 family of weapons.

The shooter made the distinction. Aside from the two pistols, which had obvious advantages in handiness and ease of transport, the shooter evidently had four long-arms to choose from in his mother's collection. Aside from the Bushmaster, which is a magazine rifle, there was a Henry Repeating Rifle and two blot-action weapons.

There are still conflicting reports on exactly which weapons were used. Many reports still say that he used the pistols and the Bushmaster was still in his car. Today's report indicates that the children were all killed by the rifle and that all of the kids had between 3-11 wounds! I was always dubious that a shooter would choose to NOT use the rifle and use pistols but there is, frankly, no way that you could shoot that many people that many times using a couple of pistols. Even using the rifle would seem to require changing the magazine several times during the rampage.

I think few members of the general public have a real appreciation for the effects of modern firepower. Sometimes I think that many gun owners don't. The effects are not always really apparent  from the firing end of the weapon, which is all most people who are not hunters will ever see. TV and movies don't help. For every Saving Private Ryan there are a dozen Rambos. Video games also obscure as much as they reveal. Sure, there's a lot of dramatic gore, but after their heads blow off the zombies/commies/aliens etc. usually disappear.

Even paper wargames typically don't clutter up the map board with the debris of battle. The dead simply disappear, with a few notable exceptions. While I understand why designers don't want to clutter up the map -- and also probably don't want to make their games too gruesome, I think there's something to be said for keeping a little reality check in place.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Guns of Gettysburg heads for a Kickstart

Evidently the long-awaited Guns of Gettysburg is going to be published by an outfit by the name of Mercury Games instead of under Bowen Simmons' own Simmons Games imprint and it's going to be financed via Kickstarter, probably in January or February.

This is good news for those of us waiting for the game, of course, although on a personal note, it implies that the health problems that have delayed Bowen Simmons from getting the game published (it's apparently been basically finished for more than a year) are not expected to get better any time soon.

Some people don't like the new cover, shown above, preferring the old one, at right. I don't have a strong opinion. I think the old one is a little more period evoking and classy, but it was really geared towards the existing fan base. Kickstarter means exposing the project to a larger audience that is unfamiliar with Simmons' groundbreaking earlier work with Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph and therefore the cover will have to "sell" the game more than it did before.

On the other hand, I think this means that the initial print run for the game will be much larger than what we saw for BaM and NT.

The game, itself, is the sort of groundbreaking, paradigm shattering work we've come to expect from Simmons. The basic fact about Simmons is that unlike nearly every other wargame designer out there, he doesn't work off one of the existing wargame models, whether hex-based or area-based, whether CRT or bucket of dice, whether counters or figures, etc. He starts from first principles of terrain, order of battle and combat effects and designs a system from the ground up, as it were. So far this has resulted in a couple of elegant and outstanding games that are often pretty hard for the traditional hex-and-CRT-familiar wargamer to wrap his head around. Once you do, however, you're well rewarded. Both games really make you think as a player, intensely and deeply. Guns of Gettysburg looks to be much the same. Can't wait.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Big E lives on!!

USS Enterprise CVN-65 inactivation ceremony

The big news at the inactivation ceremony was the announcement that the next Ford class carrier, CVN-80, will be called the USS Enterprise!

USS Enterprise CV-6 in 1939
There have been eight ships named USS Enterprise (and a few historic British ons of that name as well) but the last couple were clearly the most famous of the lot.

The first "Big E" was CV-6, the USS Enterprise of World War II fame. Planes from that Enterprise sunk two Japanese aircraft carriers at the decisive battle of Midway and the Big E served to the end of the war -- the only one of her class to survive. The battle honors of the USS Enterprise CV-6 were extensive -- 20 Battle Stars -- including taking part in three of the four big carrier-to-carrier battles of 1942.
With the USS Bainbridge and USS Long Beach in 1964

The Enterprise also took part in the two big carrier battles of 1944, the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, so basically the ship only missed one of ALL the carrier battles ever fought.

Attempts to preserve her as a memorial did not pan out and the ship was scrapped in 1958. This may have been for the better, in a way, because it freed up the name for use in the innovative ship to follow.

USS Enterprise CVN-65 reprises the famous photo while home-bound in 2012
The USS Enterprise CVN-65 had a big act to follow, and the ship managed to do it, as proven today when it was finally inactivated after an astonishing 51 years of service. A few warships of the past have served similarly long periods, but I don't think any, since the Age of Sail, have served as first-line battle fleet units for more than 50 years. It's a tribute to the flexibility of the modern CVN that it's so adaptable that it can still be a main force battle unit even as weapons evolve over 50 years.

Because of the nuclear reactors, there was never any serious consideration of preserving this edition of the USS Enterprise. Decommissioning the reactors literally requires dismantling most of the ship, so that was that for that idea.

The next USS Enterprise CVN-80, will be a Ford-class carrier. This class is similar in appearance to the Nimitz class CVNs but will have many improvements. It's scheduled to enter service in 2025, so there will, sadly, be a pretty long gap without an active USS Enterprise, but at least an end is in sight.

Artists depiction of the USS Gerald R. Ford. The next USS Enterprise will be similar