Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Holiday Read: A Sailor Of Austria

A Sailor of Austria is naval military fiction, with the unusual subject of the Habsburg navy during the First World War. If that was not a niche enough topic, it largely involves the submarine service of the Austrian navy, very much a junior player in World War One. Starting in 1915, this novel makes plain that the Austrians were running a tiny fleet of second rate submarines, attempting to keep the British and French navies from operating with impunity in the Adriatic Sea.

The main character in A Sailor of Austria is Otto Prohaska, a Czech officer in the Austrian fleet who is assigned to command a U-boat operating out of Pula and the Gulf of Kotor, in 1915. When he steps aboard, he has had less then 90 minutes of experience on submarines.

The challenges of the Austrian submarine service were many. With the Austrian surface fleet largely bottled up in Adriatic ports for most of the war, never risking a stand up fight with the Allies, it was down to the submarines to take the fight to the enemy. Austrian submarines were technologically inferior to their German counterparts. 

That said, the Austrian submarine fleet produced some propaganda coups for the empire early on in the war, especially when the army was taking some early defeats in Serbia and against the Russians in Galicia. Georg von Trapp, patron of the Trapp Family Singers, themselves the inspiration for the 1965 film The Sound of Music (played by Christopher Plummer), was, you guessed it, an Austrian submarine commander before he got into the family singing game. He was commander of the U-5 and U-14 and sank 14 Allied vessels. This included the French armoured cruiser Leon Gambetta and the Italian submarine Nereide.

The Germans managed to transport some of their U-boats to the Mediterranean by moving them in parts overland by rail, putting them together in Pula, and then using them in the Eastern Mediterranean. One of the key targets were the Allied ships moving between Suez and Gibraltar, carrying troops and supplies for the Western Front.

The Austrians and the Germans, although allies, had some cultural abrasion going on, particularly when you consider that the Austrian navy was staffed with a polyglot group of nationalities, including Hungarians, Croats, Czechs and Poles. 

When Italy entered the war against Austria in 1915 (with its eyes on Trieste), it declined to declare war on Germany initially, meaning that the German subs in the Adriatic were forced to re-flag as Austrian ones and carry an Austrian officer on board. This was done to avoid the possibility of a German crew torpedoing an Italian ship by mistake and potentially being prosecuted and hanged for piracy.

In the book, this still happens, of course, with a German U-boat carrying Prohaska as its token Austrian, sinking an Italian ammo ship before itself sinking off Corfu. The German crew is forced to evade Italian troops on the island, with Prohaska valiantly playing a rear guard role.

The novel covers Prohaska's career throughout the war, ending with the tragic demise of the empire as it folded in on itself ahead of the armistice in 1918. It is remarkable how fast the many nationalities turned on their Austrian masters once they could see Austria was on its knees. The empire seems to have largely been driven to total economic collapse rather than outright military defeat, its fall hastened by the onset of Spanish flu.

Prohaska is no apologist for the Habsburgs and the book is written in a colourful, slightly tongue in cheek style, with more than a touch of humour. For example, the submarine's visit to North Africa carrying an envoy and silver for a Sanussi revolt against the British and Italians, is entertainingly told, including the crew's efforts to get a white baby camel, a present from the leader of the Sanussi tribes to Emperor Franz-Josef, back to Austria in one piece.

This theatre of operations is not really written about much in English, even though the Royal Navy was an active participant. The British seem to have been largely concerned with protecting their convoys and in keeping the Austrians bottled up safely in the Adriatic. Towards the end of the war, the RN was involved in supporting amphibious landings up the Adriatic coast, with British and even US troops taking key cities like Split and Zadar. These were subsequently handed over to the new kingdom of Yugoslavia as part of the Versailles treaty settlement.

It is also important to remember that WW1 submarines were nowhere near as advanced as their WW2 successors. They had very limited speed, and needed to spend a lot of time on the surface, using their diesel engines to re-charge the electric motors they used when submerged. They seem to have experienced constant technical problems, at least in the Austrian fleet, and being on the surface made them vulnerable to air attack, especially once Allied planes started operating out of Italy.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Monster of the Week - a playtest review

We managed to get a session of Monster of the Week away a few weeks ago. I'd been wanting to give the game a try, having already sampled it one year at Free RPG Day. I've been interested in Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games for some time now - namely those games which use Apocalypse World as their rules engine.

One of the reasons I reached for Monster of the Week this weekend is that it is something you can run at relatively short notice. Players can be sent their character 'play books' chosen from a list of key milieu tropes, make a few decisions - more of a box ticking exercise - and you can quickly end up with a new party within a very short time indeed.

Monster of the Week, in case you are not familiar with it, re-creates the monster hunting fiction of television drama of the last 30 years, with special reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X-Files and Supernatural. Characters are 'professional' monster hunters.

Another aspect I enjoy is how the game encourages you to tie together the back stories of the various characters. We quickly established that Shi Guan, our Chosen hero, had fought the Monstrous Grimshaw in one of her first missions, but quickly realised Grimshaw could be a source for good. Grimshaw is quite a unique entity - a fae demon that looks more like a short, blond, sexually ambiguous individual, but with pointed teeth and a joy of battle.

It is this sort of interesting detail that Monster of the Week readily brings to the fore. Shi Guan was teamed up with the Divine, Solas, her mentor, along with an old training camp buddy and failed candidate for the role of Chosen, Beatrix 'Bea' Blair, the Spooky (psychic).

Hey presto, you have a group of heroes with a backstory. We know Shi Guan wields an ancestral katana, and is mentioned in a prophecy involving hordes of monsters. We know Grimshaw is preternaturally fast, with an alien 'second mouth' attack. We know Bea has a dark side motivated by rage, violence and pain. These are already becoming very interesting characters that you would expect to see in a TV show.

And so off to Gloucestershire....

I used the introductory adventure in the game as I wanted to explore the mechanics of the system. This took the group to a small village in the Cotswolds where there had been freak storms and poltergeist activity. The key was getting the players used to the various basic moves they could use, coupled with familiarising themselves with the unique moves on their playbooks (character sheets).

We had great fun. The system uses a 2d6 + attribute bonus core mechanic. Players have access to a range of basic moves plus specialist moves from their own character playbook. I should have provided them with a cheat sheet explaining all the basic moves in detail, as this would have saved explanation, and is something I will do routinely for PbtA games going forward.

One area I was in two minds about going into this was the Use Magic move, which gives every PC access to low level magic as a routine move; I was a bit concerned this would make them too powerful, on top of their other powers, but in the end it did not come in for any abuse and there is scope with every use of magic for it to backfire. It was mainly used for relatively routine tasks - e.g. dispelling a glamour, waking a character that had been magically put to sleep, or eavesdropping on a conversation.

I had only played in a couple of PbtA games previously, and never run one, so it took me a while to get my head around the mechanics, which are a little different from other RPGs I have played previously, but I think we got there in the end.

I think I'd be happy to reach for Monster of the Week again in the future when a game is needed at relatively short notice - who knows, maybe Shi Guan and her team will venture forth again?

Friday, 22 May 2020

The Scouring of the Shire

I've stopped counting the number of weeks I've been in lockdown for. Here in the UK we are technically still in lockdown of some kind, but exactly what remains a somewhat confusing proposition. Certainly any stroll along the seafront in Brighton will reveal a population that looks more like they are on a beach holiday than anything else!

But that's not what I'm here to write about. I am brainstorming a game about the Scouring of the Shire, based on the penultimate chapter of JRR Tolkien's Return of the King. I've been reading some interesting reviews of The Hunt For The Ring, which I'm tempted to buy. But it has also got me thinking about the drama in the Shire at the other end of the saga, when the hobbits return home to find their old stamping grounds have been ruined by 'Sharky'.

Many years ago, when I was about 17 or 18, I wrote a wargame about the War of the Jewels, in Tolkien's Silmarillion. I adapted a set of wargames rules for the Hundred Years War to create a map game that would allow me and my brother to wage war in Beleriand in the First Age of Middle-earth. We used pins to keep track of regiments of orcs, elves, dwarves and Edain (men). Our original plan was to wage all the epic campaigns from the book. In the end we only completed the first, Morgoth's initial sally just before the arrival of the Noldor.

It actually went off well: my brother commanded the hosts of Thingol of Menegroth and Denethor of Ossiriand, backed up by the sturdy dwarves of Mount Dolmed. The action again converged on Amon Ereb. I felt I might have over-egged the strength of the dwarf units, as they gutted my orc host, being almost impossible to defeat in open battle (although not numerous). But the outcome was similar to the book, and Morgoth was defeated. We found Karen Wynn Fonstad's Atlas of Middle-earth invaluable, especially the chapter on the Battles of Beleriand.

It showed just how much fun you could have with a sheet of hex paper and some map pins.

I'm now pondering something similar, but this time a mini game involving the four hobbits returning to the Shire. One player takes the hobbits, with the objective of liberating the population from Sharky. The other controls Sharky and his cohorts of half orcs and evil men.

While Frodo and his friends are seasoned warriors and adventurers, there are only four of them. Their success will be determined by where they go and how successful they are in raising the revolt. The hobbit player needs them to start and manage the uprising. 

Sharky, on the other hand, has his more reliable troops, limited magical power, and the less reliable hobbit 'shiriffs'. These latter can help him enforce his rule, but will be less reliable when confronted by Frodo and Sam, or indeed enough hobbits to outnumber them. They may melt away, or even join the fight against Sharky.

The game starts with the four hobbits parting from Gandalf in Bree (Gandalf actually sets off across the Barrow Downs to visit Tom Bombadil). Sharky disposes of his units randomly across the Shire. The game relies on hidden movement and intelligence, which is an important factor in this. The Good player must be able to raise enough rioters to bring down Sharky. Neither player can see what the other is doing and is reliant on rumours and scouts for intelligence.

The Good player starts off with only four hobbits, but builds his army as the game goes on. Time is essentially on his side. He also has four 'leaders' which also have regional bonuses when it comes to raising bands - e.g. Pippin has a bonus in Buckland. Sharky only has one, with Wormtongue possibly of some use as a scout and assassin. Thus the hobbits can out-order him 4:1, which should be more telling as the game goes on.

The hobbit player's objective is to capture Hobbiton, while keeping his total dead to a minimum. Sharky must hold Hobbiton and quell the revolt, ideally by killing all four leader hobbits.

That's really as far as I've got. The precise mechanics are still to be determined. I might raid ICE's Fellowship of the Ring for some of them. The whole thing could form the basis of a wargames campaign using Dragon Rampant, but I simply don't have enough hobbits for that at the moment, although I could probably muster Sharky's forces.

My Alexander the Great campaign will continue next week - it has not been discarded!

Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Road to Sidon

Macedonian Phalanx

333 BC Early Summer. Alexander the Great is still at Issus. Visting his wounded at the field hospital there he quickly realises his light infantry have been mauled in the battle. They might have been useful, as he now needs to march west again to finish off the Persian garrison in Tarsus. The Persians still control the Eastern Mediterranean and are using the port at Tarsus. It needs to be closed to them.

Note: I forgot to deduct 1 Gold last turn for Harpalus' ongoing embezzlement from the Macedonian treasury. It now stands at 30.

The current Macedonian plan is to march west, capture Tarsus and then return east, moving down into Syria and the Lebanon.

Alexander's diplomats fan out ahead of him, armed with Persian gold. In Tarsus the garrison commander has increased the size of the fortifications there, which is not good news. Persian raiders are still threatening the Macedonian baggage train, requiring the detachment of some mercenaries to chase them off (-2G/28).

The Macedonian army marches west to Tarsus (-6G/22). Tarsus has some very formidable defences now, so Alexander decides he is going to try to intimidate the garrison into surrendering, on the back of his victory at Issus. He offers safe conduct out of the city. The Persian commander accepts this, packs his bags, and sails away, no doubt with a gift of bullion from the Macedonians.

Tarsus is handed over to Alexander, for +3 Glory and more booty! Another Macedonian governor is installed at Tarsus.

Now Alexander turns east again, returning to Issus (-2 Gold/20), then on to Biblos in Syria. In northern Syria the army takes some losses from night attacks from Persian raiders. Most of this is felt among the mercenary infantry tasked with protecting the baggage train and the siege weapons.

The Macedonian army appears before the walls of Sidon (-6 Gold /14) without further attacks. Following his success at Tarsus, Alexander decides to try to negotiate with the citizens of Sidon, who are mainly Phoenicians with little Persian military presence. This is the last big city on the coast before Tyre, which lies further south on the way to Palestine.

One look at Alexander's siege weapons and Sidon capitulates without a fight. The Mediterranean is almost closed to the Persian fleet. But Tyre lies to the south, unconquered. That is going to be a tougher nut to crack.

Alexander picks up 3 Glory for taking Sidon, plus 4 Gold in terms of loot, plus 44 Gold in terms of tribute from the rest of the empire. He takes the opportunity to beef up his light troops, raising two regiments of archers in Sidon (-4 gold).

He decides to recruit Aristander to manage his logistics (-6 Glory) and also spends 3 Glory training his officer corps while resting up in Sidon - call it an informal general staff college.

End of turn

  • Gold: 58
  • Glory: 6
  • Re-rolls: 1
  • Victory Points: 35 (total = 60)
For the curious, the COVID-19 Lockdown Alexander campaign is being played using Field Commander Alexander from Dan Verssen Games.

Monday, 11 May 2020

The Battle of Issus

333 BC Late Spring: Alexander the Great is at Ancyra with his army and the siege train. I should note at this point that I undercharged myself by 1 Gold for building the siege train outside a port, so will dock myself an extra Gold at the start of this turn.

Alexander is faced with two options now that he has taken Ancyra - either head for Tarsus and besiege that port, or go through the Cilician Gates and descend on Darius and the main Persian host, encamped on the plain of Issus. With the army still at full strength, he is wary of getting into a siege that might cost men and resources, while committing a relatively fresh army into a battle with the Persian king seems more attractive. With Parmenion now on the war council, Alexander is more confident that he can win a battle against numerical odds. The Persian king has over 50,000 troops at Issus.

Alexander needs to spend 2 Gold to bribe some tribal chieftains in the interior to afford the army safe passage, but on the upside the Persian garrison at Tarsus remains quiescent. The Macedonian treasury drops to 25G.

The Macedonians march from Ancyra to Cilicia (4G), then on through the Cilician Gates (14G), to eventually descend onto the plain at Issus (8G). By this stage the treasury/supplies has been reduced zero. A big army is very expensive, as Alexander is starting to find out, especially with the Persians controlling the sea lanes. Just the feed costs for all the oxen pulling siege engines he could have built at Tarsus is a lesson in logistics for the young king. Still, his scouts sight the shores of the Mediterranean again and the plain of Issus, where Darius is waiting.

Once again Alexander is facing a Persian army, more formidable than Memnon's. This is going to be a decisive action. Alexander is fighting as a level 5 commander with Hephaistion. Darius is fighting at level 2. The Persians have brought the cream of their heavy cavalry to the party and outnumber the Macedonian light troops 2:1. Alexander has a slight edge in the heavy infantry with his formidable pike blocks.

Alexander contemplates trying to take out Darius, making the Persian general the target of an epic cavalry charge at the head of the Companions. This would mean committing the Macedonian king back into the heart of the fray, but if he can get to Darius, he runs a good chance of breaking the morale of the big Persian host. There is enormous Glory at stake here too. Parmenion is assigned to command the infantry in the Macedonian centre. Alexander sites himself at the head of the Companions where all can see him.

"Darius certainly had with him a much greater number of Asiatic foot soldiers than his generals had commanded at the Granicus. These he posted in large bodies in support of his forward troops, stringing them out in line as far as the battlefield would permit...in the centre of this motley array Darius himself rode in his chariot. The central position was normal to Persian kings in battle, and from it they were able to dispatch orders in one direction or another, to any part of their usually large armies." Alexander: Conquest of the Persian Empire, John Warry (Osprey Military, 1991).
 As ever the Macedonian scouts had underestimated the size of the Persian army, which was equipped with more archers than previous reports had indicated. In addition the Persians again managed to carry out a raid on the Macedonian supply chain (-2G applied retrospectively).

The battle opened with an exchange of arrows, though it appeared to be largely ineffective this time, with both sides inflicting few losses. The Persian horse looked restless and keen to get stuck in. Morale was high among the Iranian riders and it showed, with the Persian light cavalry getting the better of Alexander's Thessalian horse and driving it from the field. This was not an auspicious start.

As the infantry lines closed, Alexander went after Darius as he had promised. Surrounded by his elite horse, the Macedonian king crashed into the Persian Immortals, the crack Persian royal guard. He tried to get to Darius, but there were too many of his hand picked guards to get through. So far the Persian line was holding, even as the Macedonian phalanx under Parmenion engaged.

Another volley of arrows drove off the Macedonian light infantry but many of the Persian shooters were dropping too. The cavalry contest was starting to tell against the Persians as the Companions wrestled with the Iranians in the brutal battle on the right flank: They managed to rout some of the Iranians but there were still thousands of enemy cavalry all over the battlefield including deadly horse archers from Central Asia. And now the Companions were starting to run out of puff.

Things were looking a tad bleak for the Macedonians - the superior enemy numbers were starting to tell. Alexander and Hephaistion were still lost in the centre of the melee, trying to hack their way through to Darius. The Hypaspists managed to cave in some of the Persian infantry line, and it was at this point that Darius' nerve finally broke and he fled the battlefield. With his departure the Persian will to fight collapsed and the army started fleeing. In reality over half of the Persian army was still fighting at this point, but seeing their king leave, many of the subject regiments fled.

The Iranian heavy cavalry had taken some losses as had the Median infantry, but Darius' army was still relatively intact and many of his horse were coming around for another go, but they decided to save their own hides. Alexander receives 6 Glory for winning the battle, and also plenty of loot to be accounted for at the end of turn. Darius flees east.

Alexander rallies his Thessalian troops but his light infantry has been decimated. A small holding force is establised at Issus.With no gold left Alexander has to rest his army on the plain of Issus. He receives 25 Gold in re-supply, plus picks up 8 Gold from the Persian camp at Issus. Alexander decides against building anything at this stage as he wants to conserve his supplies for a potential siege at Tarsus and the march into Syria. Three Glory is spent on Diplomats, as the Macedonians will need their help to smooth their way into Syria next turn.

End of turn.
  • Gold: 31
  • Glory: 9