Friday, 21 August 2020

Let’s make tracks

Early Modern road in the dusk. Actually the sky was darker than this but the phone’s camera has lightened everything.

A comment by David in Suffolk about Paddy Griffith got me thinking about the practical uses we, as wargamers, can make of getting out for a walk. This rung a bell. I may have read one of his articles in the old Miniature Wargames about it. Or it may have reminded me of something I read on an ACW blog called ‘McPherson and Revenge’. 

The blogger was explaining his thinking behind a set of rules he was developing, as he went along. When he got to roads, he made the (to me) revelatory comment that it wasn’t the better surface that made marching on roads quicker (at least not before metalled roads) but the fact you could be reasonably confident that they went somewhere. We’ve all read how pre-metalled roads were rutted when dry and quagmires when wet, so they weren’t particularly good surfaces to march on a lot of the time. Once you’d (thought you’d) identified the road you wanted you could follow it until you got to where you wanted to. No stopping every few minutes to reorientate yourself and checking that you were heading in the right direction. No risk of wandering around the countryside in a big circle because you couldn’t see your destination from your start point. Having spent enough time getting lost in the countryside, I totally agree it was quicker to march down roads.

The lesson was brought home on a recent walk in Richmond Park. Before I go on, we need to be clear that this isn’t like the Royal Parks in central London, this is an old hunting park. The terrain is very hilly, criss-crossed with streams and channels, and wooded where it’s not open heathland.  As the nights have drawn in, it’s been getting dark before we finish our evening walks. We know this park pretty well having spent many many hours getting to know it over several years. We can each draw a reasonable map from memory showing where all the key features are. So we’re not phased by it getting dark. We know where we’re going. In our heads. One evening when the Sun had gone down too far, we used the fence of a familiar plantation to guide us, yet somehow in the dark we failed to spot our turn off and ended up trekking further than we needed to. Early this week we had to switch to using the torches on our phones yet still managed to go slightly wrong.

This evening we elected to take the track above. A nice wide bridleway which we knew would deposit us close to where we wanted to be. No messing about tonight.

Only problem is, it passes a perfect place for firelock men to launch an ambush.

Again the clever trickery of the phone makes it seem lighter than it really was. In fact it looks a bit like a typical ‘night’ scene in a Hammer horror film.

What difference does all this to make to wargames rules? If roads help speed up movement, does it matter why they do as long as we have a move bonus in the rules? Well in one sense it doesn’t. But in another sense it does. It’s part of the bigger picture that it can be bloody difficult to find your way round even when you know roughly where you are going. And that it’s difficult to see everything at ground level. And this has implications for visibility, movement and firing in our wargames.

Late Edit: hi Iain, inadvertently deleted your comment. Sorry! That’ll tach me to try to click on things while I’m a passenger in a car. Happy to publish it if you want to re-post it.


  1. Pulling ourselves away from the gaming table to take a good look at Mother Nature is a useful distraction. When I am out walking, cycling, driving, etc., I frequently pass a terrain feature and wonder "how do I attack it", "how do I defend it", or where is the dead ground?

    This exercise was especially enlightening when walking the Antietam battlefield years ago. I wondered how the Federal attacks were not cut to pieces before closing with the enemy. Having my compatriot stand in the Bloody Lane, I advanced as the Federals did on that day. I only became visible to the observer about 50 yards from the Confederate lines. Using that crest line to block LOS, the Federals were able to conduct close range firefights without over-exposing themselves to enemy fire.

    Your Knotel and Rochling book arrived in today's post! Neat little book. Thank you very much for your generous gift!

    1. Excellent! That’s exactly the type of thing. That’s something you will never get from anything but the highest scale, detailed map. Thanks for sharing that.

      Glad the book got there. You are most welcome. I hope you enjoy it Jon.

  2. Walking does make you think about how troops could move across different types of terrain and the trouble of trying to maintain formation etc. Our local hills are cropped for hay and when the grass is wet and long, boy does it take time to walk through compared to when cut. I'm lucky in having an ECW battlefield nearby (Landsdown Hill) and you do look at the terrain and wonder how some of the attacks went in, given the extremely rugged nature of some of the features.

    As for getting lost in the dusk, you can see why pursuits stopped 'early on' as it would be so hard to see friend for foe, talk less of becoming disorientated etc.

    1. I’m no spring chicken but with all the advantages of a modern diet and health care I find it hard to imagine how you could march in heavy wooden and leather clothing, carrying a 15 foot pike, and then assault up a steep hill.

      Then again, I’m from the flatlands if Lincolnshire, and a lot of those Roaylist foot were Cornish lads used to hills 😊

  3. Good post - I'm honoured to get a mention for triggering it with my impromptu remarks! I do like the point about the advantage of roads, I had not really ever thought of that, but of course it's obvious when you think about it. For campaign games, it is probably entirely accurate to use 'point to point' moves on a road network for pretty much all marches in most periods, I suspect.

  4. Nice post,I enjoy your walking posts, I used to walk my dog across one of the possible battle of Barnet sites pretty regularly, you get a really good sense of the terrain when you're shouting yourself hoarse because you're dog is homicidaly fixated by rabbits!
    Best Iain