Friday, May 26, 2017

A Battle South of the Border


Last weekend, I enjoyed gaming on two consecutive days.  Quite an unusual occurrence for me although my gaming frequency has picked up dramatically in 2017.  One of my 2017 goals was to increase the number of games played.  Oh wait.  I never actually published my 2017 goals.  You will have to believe me on this point.
Mexican casualty markers from Eureka
In anticipation of a Mexican-American War game, a half-dozen Mexican casualty markers rolled off the painting desk.  These six markers were presented to Terry for his 25mm Mexican-American War collection.  While his collection is comprised of "true" 25mm Scruby figures, these 18mm markers will fit in nicely, nonetheless.  Each of the six markers is painted in the uniform of one of the Mexican regiments in the collection.  I left the markers unflocked so they can be matched to the existing collection.  Six more American casualty markers linger in the painting queue.  With positive feedback on the the Mexican markers, I will forge on with the Americans.

For Saturday's game, Terry set up the Mexican Army in a good defensible position on high ground dominating the surrounding landscape.  Even in a strong defensive situation, I find the Mexicans are really no match for the American Army.  Using an amended version of Regimental Fire and Fury specifically for the Mexican-American War, all advantage lies with the Americans.  In many games played, I have yet to see the Mexicans beat the Americans in a stand up fight.  This game may provide the exception.

With no foresight into the game being presented, I joined the game with no preconceptions of troop dispositions, deployments or strategies.  After a brief battle overview from Terry, the Americans attacked.
Mexicans hold the high ground as the Americans prepare to attack
Mexican cavalry deployed forward of the line,
 charge into the oncoming Americans.
One American battalion is sent reeling to the rear.
With depth, Americans advance against the Mexican left.
Americans attack the left in overwhelming numbers
While the American right consolidates,
the center attacks the heights
Mexican right takes a pounding as the brittle,
 Mexican battalions withdraw to the rear.
Counterattack in the center!
Americans repulsed on the right!
Mexican cavalry find a gap and charge in!
Mex. cavalry charge home driving the Americans back
Situation when game called.
The game was forced to a premature conclusion due to time constraints but the Mexican position was still viable.  The American right and center were feeling significant pressure and their left had been halted.  Likely the Americans would regroup and charge in again.  With a much weakened Mexican right, could they hold out a second time?  Guns were being redeployed from the Mexican left to the right to lend support for the crumbling right flank.  This might have been the battle where the Mexicans actually pull off a victory.  Could it be? 

While these Mexican-American War games are often lopsided, it is always a pleasure to see Terry's Old School collection on the gaming table.  Especially pleasurable since two of the Mexican battalions present on the field were painted by me.  To see those earlier works see 10th Line Regiment and  San Blas Militia.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Austrian Grenz Liccaner, 1859

During the recently completed long series of Montebello 1859, I discovered a shortage of Austrian Grenz in the collection.  To help remedy that shortfall, off the painting desk is the second battalion of the Austrian Grenz Regiment, Liccaner.  
In 1859, the kittel of Liccaner was identified by two yellow tabs on the collar.  No cuff facing in the more informal and loose fitting kittel.  Unlike the line regiments, the grenz regiments maintained black webbing vs white for the line. 
Figures are Old Glory sculpts produced and sold through 19th Century Miniatures.  While the Old Glory figures from their Franco-Austrian War range, are nicely sculpted, the figures have a tendency towards weak neck joins and under-poured swords.  Fortunately, neither situation was an issue for these light infantry.  No one lost his head during fielding and with luck, no one will.
In line at the painting desk are a number of 28mm units including an elephant stand for the Punic Wars project, two crossbow stands for the Reconquista project, and four stands of Assyrian missile troops.  With weather getting very pleasant, more time has been spent out on the bike (yes!) and in the yard performing routine maintenance (meh).  Will the good weather slow painting?  Perhaps a little.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914

Having recently been motivated to give the early years of WWI some study with the purchase of GMT's 1914: Serbien Muss Sterbien,
I ordered James Lyon's 2015 book on the heretofore little covered 1914 Serbian campaign to help provide historical context to the boardgame.  Did Lyon's book provide the historical context I sought towards enhancing my understanding of the situation and campaign?  Did reading Lyon increase my anticipation of cracking open the game?  Yes, on both counts !  James weaves a well-told story providing background leading up to the campaign, its prosecution, and eventual outcome.

From the back page of the book, a summary of the work is provided hinting to the importance of the campaign in the grand scheme of WWI.
Winner of the 2015 Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. Book Prize
Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914 is the first history of the Great War to address in-depth the crucial events of 1914 as they played out on the Balkan Front. James Lyon demonstrates how blame for the war's outbreak can be placed squarely on Austria-Hungary's expansionist plans and internal political tensions, Serbian nationalism, South Slav aspirations, the unresolved Eastern Question, and a political assassination sponsored by renegade elements within Serbia's security services. In doing so, he portrays the background and events of the Sarajevo Assassination and the subsequent military campaigns and diplomacy on the Balkan Front during 1914.
The book details the first battle of the First World War, the first Allied victory and the massive military humiliations Austria-Hungary suffered at the hands of tiny Serbia, while discussing the oversized strategic role Serbia played for the Allies during 1914. Lyon challenges existing historiography that contends the Habsburg Army was ill-prepared for war and shows that the Dual Monarchy was in fact superior in manpower and technology to the Serbian Army, thus laying blame on Austria-Hungary's military leadership rather than on its state of readiness.
Based on archival sources from Belgrade, Sarajevo and Vienna and using never-before-seen material to discuss secret negotiations between Turkey and Belgrade to carve up Albania, Serbia's desertion epidemic, its near-surrender to Austria-Hungary in November 1914, and how Serbia became the first belligerent to openly proclaim its war aims, Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914 enriches our understanding of the outbreak of the war and Serbia's role in modern Europe. It is of great importance to students and scholars of the history of the First World War as well as military, diplomatic and modern European history.
What I did not realize before reading Lyon was just how important this campaign was for providing the Triple Entente its first victories of the war and for drawing needed Austrian resources away from the Eastern Front. 

Lyon begins by laying the historical foundation for the cause of the conflict's eruption in the Balkans in 1914.  In many respects, 1914 was a continuation of previous Balkan Wars as prior conflicts had not released existing pressures in the region.  From the assassinations of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in Sarajevo in 1914 through the conclusion of the Balkan 1914 campaign, Lyon recounts important events during the early stages of WWI.

Lyon smoothly moves from the strategic to the operational to the tactical level of the Serbian conflict providing details on the thinking and decision making at all levels of command.  Fascinating study of the motivating factors from both sides of the conflict.

This is really a story of David (Serbia) vs Goliath (the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary) and how Serbia overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to defeat the powerful Dual Monarchy.  Time and time again, the under supplied Serbian Army came back from near defeat against unfavorable odds to stop the aggressions of the mighty A-H Empire.  Without proper food, clothing, weapons, and ammunition, the Serbian Armies struck back to thwart Austrian attacks time after time.  

How could this result happen?  Lyon presents a number of arguments for Austria-Hungary's defeat.  Poor strategic planning coupled with poor A-H generalship allowed the Serbs to hang on and then turn the tables on the Dual Monarchy.  On a tactical level, the Dual Monarchy failed as well.  Its artillery advantage was rarely fully employed and infantry attacks repeatedly went in without proper artillery support.  Artillery was seldom concerted and A-H infantry often used massed formations on the attack.  In an age of machine guns, this tactic was a recipe for mass casualties for little gain.  Finally, when the Dual Monarchy was successful on the battlefield and had wrong-footed the Serbian forces, the Dual Monarchy was slow to pursue.

To counter these Dual Monarchy shortcomings, the Serbs relied on battle tested commanders and troops motivated by the cause to defend their homelands.  Throughout the campaign the Serbs exhibited terrific initiative  and staying power that the Dual Monarchy troops could not match.  While the Serbian Army might suffer demoralization due to losses or lack of supplies, as soon as supplies began to flow to the front line troops, over to the offensive they went.  Hardy souls, no doubt.       

Not being that familiar with Balkan geography, I found myself flipping back to find the few maps included to pinpoint the villages, towns, and geographic features described in the text.  More maps would have aided my understanding and enjoyment of the well-written battle accounts.  Overall, I highly recommend Lyon's work on this often overlooked start to the First World War conflict.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Assyrian Heavy Infantry II in 25mm

A second, sixteen figure stand of heavy infantry marches out from the painting desk.  Like the heavy infantry before, this stand is comprised of either elite or guard footmen on a standard Impetvs-sized base.
With two heavy foot units in the books, time to turn attention towards a couple of bow units as support.  Under Impetvs, archers can be joined with heavy foot to form a large unit.  The caveat is that the bow and spear must be of the same class.  That is, elite foot can only be joined with elite bow.  Given that, the bowmen will have helmets and likely follow a similar color scheme to their accompanying heavy foot.  Of course, not so many figures will be present for a bow stand.
Figures are from Wargames Foundry's excellent Biblical range.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Battle of Montebello 1800 - the Setup

Montebello battlefield 
Having finished the long running series of battles covering the conflict at Montebello in 1859, attention now turns toward the earlier 1800 battle of Montebello.  Since the gaming table was set up with the intention of fighting both battles over the same layout, it seemed a waste of effort to remove the game board before completing the second of the planned, dual battles.

The only change from the 1859 battlefield was the removal of the railroad.  Rather than fighting the battle over the left two-thirds of the table as in the 1859 battle, the 1800 battle focuses on the rightmost two-thirds of the gaming table.  Deployments for the battle are annotated on the map above with key terrain features highlighted.

Montebello 1800 marks the first battle for my long-in-progress 1799 project.  The first battle for the project was likely to be a French vs Russian affair with Suvorov leading the Allied cause but with Montebello 1859 on the schedule, why not kill two battles with one table?  Suvorov will get his chance to match wits with the French at another time.

The Battle of Montebello was a clash occurring five days in advance of the larger Battle of Marengo near Alessandria.  Sandwiched between the Po River to the north and the Apennines to the south, the road bisecting the battle was the major East-West conduit connecting Alessandria in the west and Piacenza in the east.  Actually this road runs from Turin in the west all the way to Venice in the east.   

What may seem odd at first glance is that the French are attacking west (towards France) while the Austrians are attacking towards the east.  Why this situation?  A few days before, Genoa fell to Austrian FML Melas after a lengthy siege.  Rather than attacking west towards Nice and the Riviera, Melas finds the French Army of Reserve in his rear after Napoleon's daring passage of the Alps.  With Lannes in Piacenza and Napoleon in Milan, the Austrians are cut off from the safety of Mantua and a path back to Austria.

That sets the stage for the Battle of Montebello.  Lannes is pressing west towards Voghera and Alessandria with instructions to destroy the Austrian field army.  The Austrians under Ott are pressing east to destroy what they believed to be a weak French force.  Even if the destruction of Lannes is not possible, preventing Lannes from linking up with Napoleon is of utmost importance. 

The Order of Battle, Reinforcement Schedule, and Victory Conditions are presented in the graphic below.  Each box on the OB denotes one battalion of infantry, one squadron of cavalry, or one battery of guns.
OB, Reinforcement Schedule, and Victory Conditions
The plan is to go through this scenario initially on the next Friday Night at the Fights episode.  Note that the French have better quality troops and leadership but no artillery.  Lannes will also be outnumbered a little less than 3:2.  Will history repeat itself?  We will see.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Measuring Perceptions of Uncertainty

An interesting study came across my desk recently.  The study highlighted experiment results of classifying event likelihoods based on textual descriptors rather than assigning explicit probabilities.  After reading the study, my thoughts turned towards the application of these results to wargame design.  Yes, wargaming never seems too far out of mind.

The study discussed in the book, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Heuer, 1999), details the results of an experiment whereby 23 NATO military officers accustomed to reading intelligence reports were tasked with assigning probability of occurrence given "verbal expressions of uncertainty" typically found in an intelligence report.

Having recently read Michael Lewis' latest book, The Undoing Project
Heuer's work struck a familiar chord.  Lewis retells the careers of noted Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and their groundbreaking work on decision analysis and bias.  Turns out that Heuer cites Tversky and Kahneman in his work.

The results of this study are summarized in Figure 18 from Heuer Chapter 12.

Each analyst was given a number of sentences typically found in intelligence reports and asked to assign a probability to each.  Sentences were the same with the exception of the verbal expression of uncertainty.  For example, a sentence might begin, "There is a very good chance that..."

The descriptors are based Kent's 1964 work (see Kent) who suggested standardizing phrases and their associated probability ranges.

A similar experiment was repeated in 2015 based on input from 46 Reddit users (see Zonination).


Since a number of the descriptors resulted in either overlapping ranges or the same median in the Zonination experiment, I reduced the number of classifications to a more manageable level.  My results below:
What do these results suggest?  To me, the rows suggest an odds ratio using verbal expressions of uncertainty rather than precise odds.  Also, the distribution of responses are variable depending at which row of the table one finds oneself. Some responses have narrow ranges with few outliers; others have wider ranges will more outliers.  Think of this table as a CRT with Combat Odds (Statements) along the Y-axis and Combat Results spread out along the X-axis.  
What does this have to do with wargame design?  Maybe something; maybe nothing.  I could envision situational modifiers moving a result either up or down the rows either increasing or decreasing the probability of success.

In most games, the exact probability (or range of probabilities) of a particular outcome is known or can be computed with relative certainty.  Did our historical counterparts have that precision in results?  Not likely.  They assessed the outcome based on limited evidence at hand.  In their own decision-making process, commanders assessed and concluded that an attack had a "very good chance" of succeeding.

A few questions for thought until the next time I pick up this topic:
  1. What if we approach game design from this mindset?
  2. If this experiment was repeated with the survey given to wargamers, would the probability assignments look similar?
  3. With our experience in games and game theory, do we assign probabilities differently from intelligence analysts?
  4. Is there interest in conducting a similar experiment? 
If this topic has stirred up some interest, I encourage reading Heuer (especially Part III) and Kent.  Both have links to the original texts.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Bourbaki Panorama - Luzern, Switzerland

Nancy and I returned late Sunday night from a ten day holiday in Switzerland.  Riding the rails and plying the waters across the beautiful Swiss countryside was a pleasure.  Even with a late April/early May travel itinerary, the Swiss weather, on balance, was quite cooperative.  On days when good weather mattered, it was.  One stop on our two day visit to Luzern was the Bourbaki Panorama in downtown Luzern.
Illustrating an episode of history from the Franco-Prussian War, the Bourbaki Panorama artist, Edouard Castres, painted a large circular panorama covering 1,100 square meters. Completed in 1881, the panorama was initially designated the Panorama des Verrieres and displayed in Geneva.  In 1889, the panorama was moved to Luzern and a building was built specifically to house the work.
The Bourbaki Panorama depicts the situation at the Swiss border post of Les Verrieres in February 1871.  On that date, the French Army of the East under General Bourbaki chose to cross the Swiss border and subject itself to internment in Switzerland over capitulation to the Prussians who were hounding its every move.
After negotiations, on 1 February 1871 over 87,000 Frenchmen crossed the border, laid down their arms, and were shipped off to cities throughout Switzerland until their release on 14 March 1871.  The French government agreed to reimburse Switzerland 12 million francs for the care of these soldiers during this internment.
The scenes of the panorama show the point when the French cross the border and lay down their arms to be marched off to internment camps under the watchful eye of the Swiss.
Augmenting the circular painting are three dimensional displays of camp scenes using full scale wax figures and period artifacts.  The effect of 360 degree circular painting combined with 3D displays lends a great deal of depth to the experience and draws the viewer into the painting.  An observer experiences a sense of being a part of the spectacle.  The effect is a bit eerie but marvelous nonetheless.
Castres was a logical choice for this commission since he was a volunteer stretcher-bearer at Les Verrieres.  Really, a stunning piece of work.

If in Luzern, I recommend a stop at the panorama.  For more details on Bourbaki, Castres, and the panorama, see, The Arrival of Bourbaki's Army at Les Verrières on the International Committee of the Red Cross website.  
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