Tuesday 20 March 2012

The Battle of Astrakhan (part 1) – A RussoTurkish wargame with toy soldiers.

Back in 1993 veteran wargamers Stuart Asquith and Jack Alexander published a set of rules, called “Big Wars” for use with 54mm toy soldiers after the style of H G Wells “Little Wars”.   Big Wars retained the simplicity of Little Wars but introduced mechanisms that would be recognisable to the modern wargamer of smaller scale figures.  Over on the FunnyLittleWars Yahoo Group messrs IJ and AG began a discussion about Big Wars and I offered to umpire a game between them to try out the rules for a bit of fun.

The umpires overview of the table

The initial dispositions, the Turks have concentrated to the south west of the field behind the cover of low hills and the ruins of a temple from an earlier civilisation.

The plan was that I would set up a terrain on my games table and allocate armies to each player.  H G Wells used to play his games on the floor and would rig up a curtain to go across the room so that each player could not see his opponents opening dispositions.  To emulate this I emailed Ian and Alan with photos of what could be seen at table top level from different points along their respective baselines.  The table measures 8’ x 6’ which we split into 6” squares annotated 1 to 16 along the length and A to L across the width so that the players could instruct me where to place their opening dispositions. 

To the north east the Russian forces prepare to occupy what appears to be a deserted village.

Infantry are formed in units of 10 plus officer and standard bearer, Cavalry comprise 5 troopers plus officer and an Artillery battery is 1 gun plus 4 gunners.  Each 6” square can accommodate two units of infantry or one of cavalry or one battery of artillery.  Infantry and artillery must start in a square on line A while cavalry can start from line A or B.  Units can also start off table but the player has to specify on which square they will enter the table.

The Turkish line begins it's advance

The background to the game is that the main campaign in the mountain passes of the Balkans has bogged down into siege and trench warfare around the city of Plevna.  To break the stalemate the Turks have sent a force over the Caucasus mountains in a raid to sweep across the Caucasian Plain, moving fast on a broad front living off the land and destroying everything in their path, emulating Sherman’s march to the sea during the American Civil War.

The Guard infantry, mountain guns and Naval contingent are deployed to the right flank.

Supported by mountain artillery, without any expectation of resupply or reinforcement their orders are to avoid pitched battle, march north in a feint towards Rostov then turn east avoiding Tsaritsyn (Volgograd) to attack Astrakhan from the landward while a naval flotilla makes a co-ordinated attack from the Caspian Sea.  Attached to the command are a group of Prussian advisers, veteran officers recently released from service after their victory in France, and a Naval contingent who will provide liaison with the flotilla for the attack on Astrakhan.

In the centre the Turkish light horse move to the crest of the hill.

The raid has two objectives, the first to draw enemy troops and resources away from the main theatre in the Balkans, the second to encourage a rising of the Kazakh and Uzbek cities of the Khiva Khanate, who have suffered the humiliation of Russian conquest in recent decades.  The capture of Astrakhan would provide a forward port through which they could be supplied with arms, the Cities are opportunists who will only back the winning side but it is hoped they will heed the call to jihad by their coreligionists but if that does not succeed the expedition will revert to bribery, it carries 30,000 pieces of gold provided by the British and American Governments who will are pleased to assist in any mischief which may cause the Russians some difficulty.

The light horse emerging from the ruins are conversions by Ross Macfarlane

Tomorrow, the Russians respond.

Monday 19 March 2012

The Battle of Astrakhan (Part 2) - a 54mm RussoTurkish sideshow between the Seas

Continuing the battle played by email with 54mm toy soldiers using the "Big Wars" rules devised by Stuart Asquith and Jack Alexander. 

News of the raid has caused consternation at Russian headquarters, reports are coming in that border posts in the mountains have been brushed aside and local garrisons overrun as the Turks advance in three swift columns, destroying everything in their path.  Orders have been sent out recalling all garrisons in the region to concentrate at Tsaritsyn to the north, no regular troops can be spared from the main front in the Balkans so the General Staff set to the job of improvising a command for the defence.
The Russian centre and left wing advance supported by field artillery.

A regiment of Cossacks and Riflemen from the Caucasus are being shipped across the Caspian Sea to Astrakhan where they will make a forced march to Tsaritsyn.  Hussars, Cuirassiers and Cossacks from the Imperial Guard are being ferried down the River Don, from Moscow. 

From his position in the centre the Russian commander surveys his right wing, covered by a screen of Cuirassiers his Lancers, Montenegrins and Caucasian Riflemen shelter behind the gentle slopes of Windmill Hill.

At Odessa a Brigade has been formed from dispossessed Montenegrin and Albanian refugees, they are being trained by Polish and Walachian Officers recruited from the French Foreign Regiment, recently disbanded.  Their lack of formal training is more than made up for by their fighting spirit, they are being shipped across the Black Sea to Rostov where they will be rushed east to join the general concentration.

The Russian right wing begins it's advance.

We join the action where the Russian forces have concentrated and moved to block the Turks advancing on Astrakhan, they are surrounded on all sides by the wastes of the Circassian Depression and there is no way round so the only option is to break through the Russian line.
On the left wing the Caucasian Cossacks and Albanians have occupied the village.

The two commanders have no idea what size or composition the forces opposing them will be or where they will appear on the battlefield, they can only discover this through probing with reconnaissance patrols.  In the north east sector a village built with stout mud walls nestles in the bend of a river making it potentially a very formidable defencive position and the Russian commander quickly moves to occupy it.
The Russians discover the village is empty and the plains opposite across the river are unoccupied.

The Turkish commander has deployed to the south west, avoiding the risk of excessive casualties from attacking a fortified position across a river, while the Russians discover that they have nearly a third of their force cut off from where the main action will take place.

Umpires note
I had originally intended the size and composition of the two forces to be very diferent but purely by chance rather than design they came out fairly even, they both had roughly 100 infantry, 20 cavalry, 2 guns and 6 Command.  The Russian field guns had an advantage in range over the Turkish mountain guns but in practice this was found to give no benefit. 
The players were not aware of each others victory conditions: for the Turks it was to break through the enemy line by taking at least 50% of their forces across his baseline, for the Russians it was to defeat the raid by preventing the breakthrough to Astrakhan and inflicting at least 50% casualties.  For both sides there was a bonus for whoever possessed the gold at the end.
Nearly all the figures used are conversions, the Turkish light horse, Guard infantry (in light blue zouave tunics), Montenegrins and Albanians as well as the buildings in the village were all made by Ross Macfarlane and featured in his Emir's Lair scenario (many thanks Ross).  The Russian Hussars and recast Britains Cossacks came from the collection of John Ruddle.  All the rest are my own humble efforts.

Tomorrow the combat begins in earnest.

Saturday 17 March 2012

The Battle of Astrakhan (part 3) - A diversion from the Balkans

Continuing the battle played by email with 54mm toy soldiers using the "Big Wars" rules devised by Stuart Asquith and Jack Alexander.

For those who prefer the game of Imagi-Nations this started out as a conflict between the Sublime Porte of the Levant and The Balkan League, sadly due to my general lack of imagination we soon reverted to the historical scenario of the somewhat RussoTurkish intrigues and incursions of the late 1800's.
The Turks have set up a command post on the hill in the shelter of the ruins.

The Turks being concentrated to the west have begun a general advance of their entire line, their infantry command the heights, artillery cover the central plain between the river and the hills while their cavalry sweep into the valley.

The Turkish cavalry thunder across the valley between the Ancient Temple and Windmill Hill unaware of what they may face ahead of them.....or the Cuirassiers rounding the hill to fall on their right flank.

The Russian right wing is painfully thin, two regiments of infantry and two of cavalry facing an assualt by nearly three times their number......but they don't know this! 

The Turkish light horse career on in their wild charge.

Overview of the  field at moves 3 and 4.

The umpires view, shared with you dear reader but denied to the two players who can only see what is visible from the position of their commander at table top level.  The result of this is that their ability to judge distances on the table, the effect of terrain on movement and the actual position of some of their troops starts to become impaired.

The impressive advance of the Turkish line, the mountain artillery deploy.

The Russian right ambles forward in the lee of the hill unaware of the full force of the assault about to break upon them.

The Turkish artillery tries a ranging shot and finds it falls far short.

The Russian battery on the left replies and finds it's mark comfortably.

The second Russian battery in the centre on the line finds the range of the Turkish light horse with ease.

Commander of the Turkish forces, a Swiss emigre, Wolfgang Feyler with his Prussian advisors and the "Diplomatic Mission" Colonel Sharpe of the British Political Agency and Master Sergeant Harper of the United States Cavalry, with the "Diplomatic Bag".
The Caucasian Cossacks leave the village and prepare to swim their horses across the river to rejoin the main body.

Having discovered that the village is unoccupied and there appear to be no enemy troops opposite their left wing the Russians rapidly recall their troops back to the centre while the gathering threat on their right builds ominously.  Is this a knee jerk reaction?  Is the action on the right a feint to draw off Russian troops from the left so that Turks concealed off table can swoop in and occupy the village?  Who knows? ...it's a risk.

The Russians pour back over the bridge to rejoin the main body in the centre, the one small bridge proves to be a major problem causing a bottleneck as the men jostle with on another to get across.

The old bridge creaks and threatens to colapse under the pounding of hobnailed boots as the Russian conscripts are driven on by the blows and curses of their officrs. 

Desperately trying to buy time the Russian artillery on the left continues the counter battery work to deflect attention from the troops hurrying to get back to the main body. 

The Russian central battery continues to play on the Turkish cavalry charge trying to blunt the effect they will have when they hit the lightly held right wing. 

Tomorrow - which way will the combat turn?

Friday 16 March 2012

The Battle of Astrakhan (Part 4) - 54mm wargame with toy soldiers

Continuing the battle played by email with 54mm toy soldiers using the "Big Wars" rules devised by Stuart Asquith and Jack Alexander.

This was the first time we three, players and umpire, had used these rules so this was very much a learning experience for us as well as a bit of fun.

The Russian cavalry move to the top of the hill to meet the attack of the Turkish horse, the Montenegrin infantry and Rifles move up in support

Checked momentarily by the appearance of enemy lancers lining the crest of the hill ahead of them the Turkish light horse are unaware of the Cuirassiers emerging from behind the hill to attack them in the flank..........

......... but as the Cuirassiers round the hill they move within range of the Turkish guns and pay a terrible price.

Meanwhile the transfer of forces from the Russian left to the centre continues

The Russian infantry begins to reform in the centre

The Russian Command group in the left foreground are lead forward by the Emigre General Hagen von Tronek (in blue) and the Tsar's cousin, Grand Duke Michael (in black).  It was considered politically unacceptable for a mercenary officer to have command of the defence so the Grand Duke is nominally in command while his subordinate von Tronek is actually the effective Commander.  When victory is announced the Grand Duke will be rewarded by his cousin and hailed by a grateful nation. However should things go wrong von Tronek will take responsibility, his adjutant will hand him a loaded pistol and he will be invited to "do the right thing - pour encourager les autres".

The infantry of both sides halt on opposite hills to watch the outcome of the cavalry melee taking place in the valley below them.

The Cuirassiers, ranks thinned by the pounding from enemy guns, find themselves outnumbered two to one but give good account of themselves.  Elsewhere on the field the Turkish cavalry find they are no match for the Lancers .........

....... they break and are pursued back through their own lines.

The Turkish infantry takes up a strong position occupying the line of hills and halts.

As the Cossacks begin to cross the river they stray into the sights of the ever vigilant Turkish gunners........

.......... who open up a sustained fire on them.

The Cossacks suffer heavy casualties but they deflect the attention of the enemy gunners from the vulnerable infantry formations concentrated around the bridge.

The Russian artillery replied, keeping up a steady but ineffective counter battery fire at long range, it soon became clear this was pointless and they ceased fire to conserve ammunition.   

The Russians reform in the centre and the threat of their overwhelming local concentration becomes apparent.

Umpires Note
To explain the mechanics of the game: at the start of a move the players would give me their orders for each unit - move, fire etc.  I would physically move the units on the table then send each player 3 or 4 photos of their new dispositions, then  would send them a second email with 3 or 4 photos of what they could see of the other players positions from table top level.  To maintain fairness they would both receive the same number of pictures each move.  I would then dice for any firing, then for any melee and send them a couple of pics showing the outcome of the combat.

Initially I gave them details of the number of casualties on both sides but then it occurred to me that in the real world a commander wouldn't get that level of information, he wouldn't get continuous detailed updates of unit effectiveness while the battle was going on he would mostly judge by what he could see, so I started t give them general descriptions of what the commander would be aware of such as "devastating volley tears holes in your lines" and then leave them to make out what they could from the pics.

As both sides move simultaneously the melee modifiers, in the action above, for cavalry charging cancelled each other out but the +1 for the lancers proved devastating, as you might expect it to. 

The artillery are required to dice for a hit then dice for effect every shot, this made the counter battery fire at long range quite ineffective (a throw of 2 sixes), on reflection I decided this was a good thing.  In Little Wars, Wells warns against allowing the game to be dominated by the guns and degenerating into a duel between artillery (I find this often happens when I play LW). The double D6 throw prevents this, after all it's supposed to be a Colonial scenario not the Great War Western Front.  The guns did their best work when enemy formations blundered into range.  The best way to handle them would be to gallop up close to an enemy formation fire a salvo then limber up and ride hell for leather back to the safety of friendly forces!

Our original target had been to play one move each day, the game finally ran to thirteen moves and the pics above are now at move six.  After allowing for various issues it actually took us about four weeks to play and I think it perhaps began to sag a little in the middle but soon picked up when the main combat commenced.  I think this number of moves might be fine if you are playing live across the table in one sitting but it's too long for play by mail with long intervals in between moves.  I think this is perhaps down to infantry moving only 6 inches, when I play Little Wars on the same table infantry move 12 inches and a game is usually done in 6 or 7 moves which is probably more manageable for mail games.  On the other hand the shorter move makes things a bit more interesting when the two sides get to grips so I might consider infantry moving 12 inches for say the first three moves then reverting to 6 inches.

Would this system work with smaller sized figures? I don't see why not, but the larger scale probably makes it easier to follow unit movements bearing in mind that a major element in the game is uncertainty, lack of information and even misinformation.  In my case the question is accademic because I only have 54mm toy soldiers.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

The Battle of Astrakhan (part 5)

Continuing the battle played by email with 54mm toy soldiers using the "Big Wars" rules devised by Stuart Asquith and Jack Alexander.

The Russian infantry column masses for an assault in the centre.

The Turkish line holds steady........

........... as the attack of massed Russian infantry gains momentum.

The Russian guns soften the enemy line in support of the main assault........

.........but the Turkish guns reply...........

.........with deadly effect.

The Russian column veers to the right to avoid the marshy ground around the bend in the river.

On the Russian right the cavalry have reformed and prepare to charge across the valley to support the infantry attack

The Turkish infantry moves forward.

While the Russian column takes a punishing fire from the Turkish line.

The Russian column finally reaches it's goal.........

............but as the cavalry charge uphill to distract the enemy attention..............

...........they receive a withering volley which wipes them out

The Caucasian Rifles and Montenegrins advance but become disordered moving through broken ground.

On the hill the Russian staff watch in horror as the cavalry are blown away............

............but then a cheer goes up on the left as the infantry final charge home...........

........and overrun the Turkish guns.