Monday, September 15, 2014

Looking for Booty on Pirate Island

Once again, I have offered "Simulation Games" as a 'minimester,' a zero-credit course for students who want to pursue a semi-academic interest. So, the kids don't get credit, I don't get paid, but we have a great time. The students have fun, and I daresay they learn a lot.

While I usually set up games on the table in my sunny and spacious classroom, there is so much traffic through my room this year that I thought it prudent to set up the first game in the Archives, a space I curate.  Once we moved a stack of unloved trophies out of the way, we had plenty of room for a fairly large Pirate Island setup.

I gave the students a list of periods in which they could game. Because a few of them had experienced my Pirate Extravaganza last winter, pirates were at the top of the list once again.  I wrote up a set of simple rules (see the end of the article for a one-page summary).  Each player received their own ten man pirate crew. Their goal was to plunder the buildings and sacred sites of Pirate Island, and to kidnap the Governor and the Governor's daughter.  Each time they plundered, they got to draw a treasure card, which would produce a find worth a certain amount of dubloons (or it could be a hazard, like the box of angry scorpions).  Players could plunder from each other, but early in the game, there was a good chance that they might end up with a bomb that was held in their opponent's treasure pile.  I programmed many locations with hazards.  Not surprisingly, the Royal Marines would fire on any pirates they saw, but pirates who came too close to the brothel or the grog shop might get lured inside for a few turns.  Looting the church would rouse an angry mob, and coming too close to the cute piglet would unleash an angry boar. 


An overview of Pirate Island

The Fort. Any player who captured the fort would win the service of Captain Jack Starling.

The Zombie Maroons.  The large wooden heads are actually Yoruba Twin figurines from the Archives collection.

A squad of Marines await the pirates in the courtyard of the Governor's Mansion.  My players tended to send their pirates off on solo missions. While six marines did not represent an overpowering force, a volley from them proved lethal to any pirate caught on their own.

One of the pirate crews aboard the Gato Gordo.

Two more crews, one based aboard the Alice and the other on a pair of small craft.

Town square and the front of the Governor's Mansion.

Four students signed up for my class and were able to fit it into their schedule.  Sadly, one had to drop as he switched his English class. Another was absent on our inaugural day.  Captain CJ is on the left and Captain Emily is on the right.

The House of Ill Repute casts its spell on one of CJ's pirates.

One of the treasures Emily drew early in the game was "The Big F'ing Cannon."  Sadly, because she dispersed her crew, getting enough pirates to the gun to man it proved challenging.

Emily was, however, able to kidnap the governor's daughter, who looks appalled at the her quarters on the Alice.

CJ captured the governor, who is trying to put a brave face in front of the pirate captain.

Emily tried to sneak around the landward side of the fort, where the cannon could not bear, but the marines provided a wall of musketry to protect themselves. Once again, the players failed to amass the numbers they needed to face a major challenge like this. 

One of CJ's pirates killed the angry boar.  It was a lot tougher than it looks. Bacon's on the menu tonight, boys!

One of CJ's pirates tried to loot the church.  Sadly this triggered an angry mob, who surrounded the church and trapped his two pirates inside.

Looks like was have another session to go before the game is resolved.  Tune in next time!



Friday, September 5, 2014

Sharpe's Classroom

One of the cool innovations at my school in recent years has been the way summer reading assignments have been handled.  In the past, every kid read the same book, usually something supposed to be inspirational.  Given that we read two books by narcissistic frauds within the space of three years (Three Cups of Tea and Twelve by Twelve), I looked forward to these assignments even less than my students did.

Then, an administrator had a brilliant idea: why not encourage students to read books that they might find engaging. Forty faculty members each chose a book that they would like to read themselves, then students signed up for the books they were interested in.  Some teachers chose books on science and the environment, a few chose science fiction novels. There were two this year who chose Christian-themed books and several books that centered around sports. It should come as a surprise to no-one that I usually choose a book about military history. Last year it was Ambrose's Pegasus Bridge, this year I chose Cornwell's Sharpe's Eagle. While hardcore Napoleonic fans will scoff and roll their eyes whenever they catch the scent of Sharpe, I honestly can't think of a better introduction to the period for young adults. Cornwell's books move quickly, they have an engaging central character, and they have plenty of historical data that is approachable.

Then, on the day after registration day, our Upper School dedicates a whole day to summer reading. We are meant to have a short discussion, followed by fun activities for the rest of the day.  I led off with the BBC production of Sharpe's Eagle, warning them in advance about the limitations of a BBC budget. Then, for kicks, we watched the Sean Bean death reel. If nothing else, the Sharpe TV series does an admirable job of keeping an actor alive who is usually killed off by the second reel.

Students who know me could predict what came next: a miniatures-based simulation of the Battle of Talavera.  While I adhered more to my historical model more closely than the BBC did, I must confess I took several shortcuts, including adding my beloved Bavarians to Spain and having Napoleon's Old Guard pop up.

The rules were based off of Black Powder, but I took a few shortcuts (like dropping rules for disorder) and simplifying rules for formations.  I also used the activation system used in our Ambler Gamers club games--for most units, roll 3 dice and get one action for every 4+ rolled.

First: the setup:
Looking south towards Talavera.  My daughter insisted that the town play host to a London Police Call Box.

Looking north along the British lines.

The northern end of the British lines. Please note my careful initial placement on the reverse slope of the hill. Cornwell made a big deal of this tactic, as Wellington later claimed that he had perfected his use of it in the 1809 battle.

The whole battlefield. For the sake of this simulation, I was happy to embrace the old myth of massed French battering ram columns against British firepower in line.  There's my daughter in the right background.

Et voila les Francais!

Monsieur l'Empereur, you do realize that you are facing in the wrong direction?

Merci, mon ami!

The north end of the French lines, looking towards my daughter. I really love my oval Harkness table. Great for classroom discussions, great for holding toy soldiers.

A large gap between the English and their Spanish allies. Might the French exploit it?

And then the students arrive. Here are the Anglo-Spanish generals. Poor Shayne was the only girl among a group of ten rowdy boys.  I think she had chosen the book because she had enjoyed the freshman history course I had taught her two years before.  I knew that she was plucky enough to stand her ground.

The French generals. They had a lot of fun saying the word "dragoon" over and over again.

After the first turn.  The French took a long time to advance.  Not only did they get crap command rolls, but they seemed terrified of the English guns all out of proportion to the threat they posed.  With only three batteries, the guns along could not hope to do much to stem a determined advance.

After turn two. The French are starting to get over their hesitancy. Note that many of the English battalions have crept over the crest of the hill to get a better look at the French.  Did these kids even read the freakin' book?

The British have advanced to the narrow stream, which was not a major obstacle to movement, but it did prevent charges across it. In the center of the table, a fierce firefight erupted over the stream.   Note that two English battalions in the center have actually crossed, exposing themselves to the dragoons (DRAGOOOONS!) on the French side. In the distance, some French columns have charged the Spanish.  One Spanish battalion took a beating and retreated, but the other two held on.

Pinned by British muskets, the French light horse finds itself flanked by the British light dragoons and hussars.  A back and forth cavalry battle erupts, with neither side conceding defeat until the last turn.

The dragoons (DRAGOOOONS!) rout one British battalion.  The other gets lucky, and their defensive volley causes the charge of the French horse to come up short.

meanwhile, on the French left, the attacking columns shake out of their initial formations and form line.  Again, there is a fierce exchange of musketry. Both sides find a majority of their units at the breaking point.

We call it quits around 2:00 in the afternoon.  Other reading groups had ended, and we had about six spectators for the finale.  The Brits clearly had an advantage on their left flank, where they had repulsed the french and were in pursuit.  However, the units around Talavera  had collapsed, and the French were able to take the town. The center fought to a draw across the streambed.  Overall, I called it a draw. 

Nous avons Le TARDIS!

The victorious Light Brigade...but alas both units are shaken and will have to retire.
 All in all, it was a fun day. The kids had a blast with the game, and they learned a lot in the process. Sharpe got good reviews and at least one kid said he picked up other titles. I also got a few inquiries about the Military History course I teach (and a possible new recruit or two for my simulation games club).

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Field of Lost Shoes

So, I had a spare moment after preparing my classroom for the start of school next week, so I brought out my 10mm ACW figs and refought a palimpsest of the Civil War Battle of New Market.  Like the Battle of Iuka I did with my students last year, this was a small engagement between roughly even forces.  While the maps make it look like a straight up encounter, there are some itneresting choices for each side to make along the way. Essentially, the Confederates under Breckinridge were able to surprise Franz Sigel's Union army in the Shenandoah Valley.  Historically, the ferocious Confederate assault sent the Union troops reeling before they could mount an organized resistance.  Cadets from VMI played a key role in this battle, an element I have always found interesting (some kids will do anything to get out of an algebra quiz...)

The rules are Black Powder (distances converted from inches to centimeters). Most Minis are Pendraken, but there are a few Perrins mixed in for variety.  Most of the terrain is scratchbuilt.


The long view from the southern edge of the battlefield.  Two Confederate infantry brigades with cavalry support stand ready to attack.  One Union brigade is scattered across the battlefield, while the other is in a long march column that is just entering the battlefield's northern edge. In hindsight, a random entry turn for the Union reinforcements would have been more fun.

The view from the Union position.

The long road that would deliver help to the beleaguered Union troops

The first Confederate objective was to drive the 18th CT off the hill ahead of them so that they would be able to get their guns into a commanding position.

The other rebel infantry brigade stalled in its approach, but Imboden's cavalry swept into a good flanking position.

On the Union left, Billy Yank falls back to a position where two regiments could support each other. Meanwhile, on the hill, the boys from Connecticut put of a fierce resistance, but get too disorganized to withdraw.

The end of Turn 1.  The attack on the Confederate left went in piecemeal, but the slow pace of the Union reinforcements means that the situation is not as dire as it might be...yet.

The Virginia brigade finally drives the hill's defenders away.  The valiant Union artillery section blasts cannister until the bitter end.

The Union reinforcements finally get close enough to begin deploying.  Take your time, boys.

Both Confederate brigades begin pushing forward.  The Virginia units are pretty roughed up, while Echols' brigade, while still fresh, continues to move at a snail's pace.  The Confederate cavalry dismounts and begins to threaten the left flank of the Union line.

The lead Union regiments begin to take a punishing fire, having double their number of rifles to their front.  On the Union right, the first regiments of the relief column form a line behind their friends, determined to check the Confederate advance at the crest of the hill.

Finally, Wharton's brigade has enough and melts away. In a game with only a handful of brigades, moments like this can be teliing, and the survivors on the losing side can find themselves heavily outnumbered and outgunned.

But not for long! The Confederate right coordinates an attack that drives the defenders away from their front.  The sides are once again roughly even.

And it starts to look bad for the Union. Those pesky dismounted cavalry remain buzzing around the Union flank, pouring enfilade fire in and pinning the Bluebellies as the VMI cadets enter the fight.

But just when it looks like a final push will win it for the Confederates, things fall apart for them.  Though they routed one union regiment, a botched command roll meant that the cavalry could not continue to press their attack. At the same time, the Union troops who had cleared the Confederates from the hill finally regrouped and swung around, hitting Echols' brigade in the flank.  The Confederates call it a day, having seriously bloodied a larger force but unable to hold the field in the end.  Let's call it a draw.