Sunday, 28 June 2020

Whatever rows your boat - the Battle of Pylos (425BC) re-enacted

Sometimes mistakes can turn out for the best, in wargaming as in real life. I ordered triremes by mistake - mine, not theirs - from the excellent Outpost Wargaming, a deliciously inexpensive and suitable way to create as large an ancient fleet as one could possibly want. Could I find a way to utilise a hundred or so triremes as a way to try out David Manley's ancient fleet naval rules? It turned out that I could: the battle of Pylos was ideal in size, and an exciting scenario into the bargain. 

At this battle, a Spartan force sent to relieve their men ended up being trapped in the harbour - later to become even more famous for the Battle of Navarino - and was defeated by Demosthenes' Athenians, fleeing out to sea and leaving their men eventually to be ransomed, a key event in the history of the Peleponnesian War. Could I recreate something like his victory? 

The geography of the battle was tricky, according to a nineteenth century summary of the principal account:
Thucydides describes the harbour, of which the promontory Coryphasium formed the northern termination, as fronted and protected by the island Sphacteria, which stretched along the coast, leaving only two narrow entrances to the harbour, - the one at the northern end, opposite to Coryphasium, being only wide enough to admit two triremes abreast, and the other at the southern end wide enough for eight or nine triremes. The island was about 15 stadia in width, covered with wood, uninhabited and untrodden, (Thuc. iv. 8.) Pausanias also says that the island Sphacteria lies before the harbour of Pylus like Rheneia before the anchorage of Delos (v. 36. § 6)

(William Smith, 1854).

A map:

Here's what it looks like now, time having wrought some changes to the harbour, essentially increasing  it in size by creating a lagoon to the North.

I ended up rendering it like this - here, the Spartans are in the bay awaiting their fate:

A first for me: the ground scale for this battle (though not quite the vertical) was the same as the ship scale, i.e. 1/3600. That really is the approximate size of the harbour. 

And here, the Athenians approach:

They are 49 strong, in seven squadrons of seven ships, each, plus one Admiral, facing a Spartan force of 43 in six squadrons, but of more varied size, and their Admiral. Notice the narrow entrance to the harbour - and that's the wide one to the South, shown in the photo above. Although there is some debate about how wide the entrance actually was, there is general agreement that the Northern entrance to the harbour is extremely narrow, possibly only wide enough to allow a single ship through at a time. No place to be making an entrance, though, was my view as Demosthenes.

At this point, a brief digression on the rules. David Manley himself says this in the introduction to the rules, 'Greek Fire and Roman Fury'.

'One of the regular debates that my wargaming chums and I seem to have is the one about “whose role are we taking when we play a wargame?” Are we playing ship’s captains or fleet admirals? In general naval wargamers tend to assume the role of admirals whilst demanding a level of detail more appropriate to games set at the lower level. For most cases this is isn’t too much of a problem as the numbers of ships tends to be relatively small, and there are fleet level rules with appropriate levels of abstraction available for most periods. However, the ancient period seems to one where all available rules operate at the ship level. Obviously this makes battles such as Salamis, with hundreds of ships involved, difficult to handle. I wanted a set of rules that could be used to recreate these enormous battles whilst placing the players truly in the roles of admirals and squadron commanders. At this level the fate of individual ships is unimportant. Hence, “Greek Fire and Roman Fury” was born. 
The basis for these rules is a theory that the naval battles of antiquity were fought in a similar style to land actions. Therefore, in these rules, the respective fleets are represented by squadrons rather than individual ships, which are manoeuvred around the “battlefield” in a similar manner to armies. After a few false starts I decided to use “Fire and Fury” as the basis for the system, hence the name I finally selected..'.
On this basis, you can be sure of what you are getting, and GFARF do not disappoint. Squadrons are represented by a base with anywhere between two and eight ships, commanders have qualities that affect their performance, ship data are provided for a wide range of ancient types - we were both Aphract Triremes, so no shooting on this occasions, just melee. Squadrons have a limited range of formations - the Athenians were in the Diekplous - whilst morale and movement are combined in a single table, as in F&F. Simple, straightforward rules that will be well-suited to a major ancient fleet action once David has finished his final tweaks.

As my ships passed the headland to their North, with Pylos to their South on the other side of the entrance to the harbour, I felt quietly confident:

The Spartans did not lack courage: they came on immediately.. Out we went into single line to face theirs:

And some tough melees ensued. At first it did seem that the larger Athenian squadrons would have the advantage, despite the fact that a significant proportion of my force was still trapped in the entrance, undoubtedly the right thing for the Spartans to do:

But as the fight began to break up into squadron actions, the numerical advantage of the Athenians was not available to their best advantage. 

At the height of the battle, the forces were still struggling around the harbour entrance, a quite different state of affairs than in history, where by this time the Spartans had fled. 

The Athenian formation had not played to their advantage, and their losses became heavy - two squadrons in a single move, in fact, and even a couple of ships lost to collision. By the end of the battle, ten moves in total, all their remaining ships could do was to decide to turn tail and flee, leaving the harbour to the Spartans, no doubt a significant number of Athenian prisoners from those who had escaped sinking ships and swum to shore, and most importantly - no ransomed Spartan army. What misplaced confidence on my part!

This was a most enjoyable and rewarding test action, which gave us confidence that in due course we would not only be able to fight much larger ancient naval actions, such as those of the Punic Wars, but would be able to integrate naval actions and land actions into a campaign, should we choose. 


Kagan. D. (2003) The Peloponnesian War. London, Penguin

Outpost Wargaming 1/3600 galley range

Smith, W. (1854) Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography. London, Walton & Maberly. Available [extract] at at: Retrieved 1 June 2020. 

Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. 4:11-14.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Book review: Setting the East Ablaze

I follow numerous blogs. They are a constant source of interest, stimulation and often lead me to topics of history about which I was not previously aware. So it was that a post on Keith’s ‘Bydand’ blog about a Russian Civil War game using ‘The Back of Beyond’ rules lead me to a search on the internet, to ’discover’ Hopkirk’s book and hence to borrow it through our local library.

This book, ostensibly, is about the Bolshevik’s attempts, under Lenin and then Stalin, to spread the Revolution to central and western Asia, particularly then British India. At one level it is a boys own adventure, “like a Buchan novel” as Hopkirk describes it; but it has a darker and more menacing edge. To me it is more akin to a Le Carré novel or an episode of Callan, except that, as is so often the case, fact is stranger (and far more harrowing) than fiction.

Spanning 1918–1949 the book describes British clashes with Russia—spying, espionage as well as political manoeuvring and grand-standing. This began in the late 19th century with what was known as the Great Game, ceased when the two were allies in the First World War and then re-started under Bolshevist regime. Thus the concurrence of the Russian revolution with what were to be the last months of the First World War intersected with the struggle for empire. As I said previously though, there is far more to the book than this.

The ‘more’ is that the book is really about nations and individuals using central-west Asia as their ‘playground’. The events described by Hopkirk occurred to the north and north-east of Afghanistan and northern India, along the silk road—modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang and Mongolia. Where Bolsheviks, White Russians, English, Chinese, Japanese or assorted ‘exiles’ from these various camps, sought to dominate the region through espionage and manipulation, or simply by force of arms or terror, for their own interests and/or aggrandisement.

Events in the book take place around modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang and Mongolia. Detailed maps help the reader to place the location of people and events.

Amongst the individuals and actions that Hopkirk relates are the coup in Tashkent lead by former junior Czarist officer Osipov, the Bolshevik reprisals following its defeat, brutal actions by the White Russian army and Bolsheviks alike and, perhaps the worst of all, the activities of the ’bloody baron’, Baron Ungern-Sternberg.

Sixteen pages of black and white plates show contemporary photographs of the key participants and some of the locations and actions described in the book.

The appalling actions of the baron make for particularly difficult reading. Even though Hopkirk spares us from too many details, the three days of excesses of his men, upon the capture of Urga (modern Ulan Bator), amongst other horrific actions, are described in sufficient detail to convince me that he was worse than most, if not all, of the most infamous, sadistic tyrants of history.

Immersed in these events, Hopkirk describes the ‘adventures’ of Colonel Bailey and Paul Nazaroff (a White Russian leader in Tashkent) and  Lt. Col. P.T. Etherton, British Consul-General at Kashgar. Here we are treated to amazing tales that outdo any ‘boys own’ annual as well as some truely humorous incidents.

Photographs of Colonel Bailey in some of his many guises. 

For example, in the case of Colonel Bailey, when it became too dangerous to remain in Tashkent, we follow him through a series of narrow escapes in his various hiding places—examples of boldly hiding ‘in plain view’—escaping to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, being walled in to a room to avoid a house-to-house search and even entering the Soviet secret service in the guise of an Albanian army clerk. Early on (in fact in October 1918, before he had left the city), the Cheka had assumed that Bailey had likely escaped or been eliminated by the Germans. “The evidence for the latter, it seems, rested on the fact that he had disappeared without his toothbrush. This, the Bolsheviks felt, no Englishman would ever do” (p. 59).

Hopkirk’s book is engrossing from the first page, although it took me until around chapter four to weave the various threads of events and individuals together in my mind (as a complete newcomer to the period). It is a little-known part of the 20th century, but one can see how these events contributed to those that many of us lived through (vicariously for most) and gave it the now often-used epithet of the ‘violent century’. While much of the subject matter is gut-wrenching, the book is fascinating, at times entertaining and always enlightening.


Hopkirk P (1984) Setting the east ablaze : Lenin's dream of an empire in Asia. John Murray, London.


Sunday, 24 May 2020

A tiny test of Twilight: Fraustadt 1706

The ’Twilight of the Sun King’ rules were first brought to my attention by a review on the marvellous 'Un Marius Sinon Rien' blog. Reading a further review on website convinced me to purchase them. They arrived in April and I was immediately keen to give them a go. I threw some Great Northern War Saxons into the ever-expanding group of figures that I am painting. Having brought these, a few Russians and some additional Swedes to the stage of ‘good enough’ (base-coat completed, awaiting black-wash, addition of basing mix and then final highlights/details), my impatience could wait no longer; it was time for a test game.

Set-up for this first test game, the Battle of Fraustadt 1706 at brigade scale (a scenario provided in the rules). This also gave me a chance to have a go with my new latex rivers and roads. The scale meant that 15 mm and N-gauge railway buildings were most appropriate.

Twilight of the Sun King, revised edition 2019

The Rules

The authors of Twilight of the Sun King are members of the Pike and Shot Society, so it is little wonder that the rules have a strong historical focus. That said, they are not complex; I consider them to be the definition of elegant simplicity. The rule book is 22 pages long, with a further three devoted to the introductory scenario and a one-page 'advert.' for the Pike and Shot Society. The rules could easily have been written on around four pages, I'd estimate. The longer presentation is due to them having been printed in a large font, with clear, large diagrams and the odd reproduction of a painting from the period—all most pleasing aspects. The booklet is a simple, A4 production printed in black and white (apart from the cover) and is not especially cheap (£12 plus postage). It does not, though, suffer from the problem of gloss over substance that besets so many of those expensive, hard cover sets of rules that seem to be churned out all to regularly.

I was drawn to purchase the rules because they featured a truly novel system which sounded like it could work well (and was certainly worth a go to find out). They take the familiar 'I go you go' approach, but the similarity with other set of rules stops there. The turn sequence for each side comprises but three phases: opponent's bombardment, test morale of own troops (for effects of bombardment, firing, mêlée), move own troops. In each turn the attacker moves first followed by the defender.

All movement and ranges are calculated in base widths, so the rules are completely scalable. Units can always move straight ahead, so there is none of this business of troops sitting around waiting for someone to tell them how to march. More 'elaborate' manoeuvres (including charging, formation changes, crossing terrain, entering difficult going, undertaking more than one move) require a successful 'action test'. This is simply a roll of a D6 with anything but a 1 or 2 being a success. There is a negative one modifier to the die roll for the action test if the unit failed a morale test in the current turn (and/or is charging a platoon firing unit—for the Great Northern War this is limited to "probably Russians from 1710").

There is no firing. WHAT?!!! If you have read reviews of the rules you'll already know this 'shocking fact'. Actually, it is not really correct. There is plenty of firing (as you'll see in the photos below), but it is not conducted in the familiar manner where a roll is made against factors and ranges to determine the casualties on the enemy unit(s) (or other mechanic being used). Rather, in Twilight of the Sun King being fired upon, involved in mêlée or infantry with cavalry in close proximity (1/2 base width) are causes to test morale and any artillery fire, small arms fire, mêlée, terrain/defences, supports/flanking (as appropriate) are modifiers to the test.

Failing a morale test (modified score of two average dice below eight) results in a morale failure (four or below is a rout). Generally infantry will break on their third failed test, cavalry and artillery on their second. A unit classified as 'large' and/or 'determined' gets an extra morale failure before breaking, while one classed as 'wavering' gets one fewer (units classed as 'small' and those classed as 'raw' receive a negative one modifier in the test). There is no way to 'rally' troops or otherwise recover morale, but a commander may have an impact.

The presence and proximity of commanders is important in Twilight of the Sun King to bolster morale (i.e. re-take a morale test if 'attached' to the unit—within a base width) and to encourage the troops to undertake some of those more elaborate manoeuvres mentioned above (i.e. re-roll an action test). In the former case a commander is a commander (provided that he may command the unit, is close enough and is not 'attached' elsewhere), while his quality is important for the latter (and for a brigade or army test if required).

I was pleased that the introductory scenario provided in the rules is for the Battle of Fraustadt, 2nd February 1706 (by the Julian calendar—one day later by the Swedish calendar of the time and eleven days later by the modern Gregorian calendar) as the Great Northern War is one of the two conflicts in the eighteenth century that interest me greatly—along with the French and Indian War, not being particularly 'fussed' with the rest (apologies to the devotees out there). The scenario in the rules allows for the game to be played at either the brigade or regimental scale. I decided to test the rules initially at the brigade scale, moving to a larger game if I liked them sufficiently. I used the scenario largely as provided, but adjusted the order of battle, chiefly using the Great Northern War Compendium, to one that I considered more historically accurate.

Volume one of the Great Northern War Compendium includes a chapter by Oskar Sjöstrom and Stephen Kling about the Battle of Fraustadt. I used this source, principally, to adjust the order of battle for the game.

Playing the game solo meant that I carried out turns as and when it suited, playing two turns over two nights last week and then finishing the game on the Friday. This was really helpful as it allowed me to proceed slowly and to double-check the rules between mini-sessions. 

The Game
This has been a wordy post so far, by my standards, so let's proceed to the pictorial description of the game.
Table set-up, showing the map from the rules. The area is tiny, being 10 base widths x 15 base widths or 500 mm x 750 mm for my figures.

The Russo-Saxon army had been lured by Rehnkshold from its strong defensive position on the heights near Schlawa when the latter had moved his Swedish army away from their positions in a seeming headlong retreat. Schulenburg, commanding the Russo-Saxons, advanced, then hastily formed a new, improvised and 'messed-up' defensive position north-east of Fraustadt when Rehnkshold turned to give battle.

View from the Saxon side of the table. Note the far inferior Swedish force, odds roughly 2:1 in the Saxon favour.

A map from Sjöstrom and Kling's chapter in the Great Northern War Compendium. I began the game by copying these moves (as far as possible, allowing for the scale).

As per history, the Saxon guns opened fire on the advancing Swedes (bombardment range in the rules).
"From right to left, one cannon after another spewed its deadly content onto the field... however, aside from the battery at the right end of the line that managed to slow down a couple of Swedish battalions, the salvoes had had more or less no effect at all" (Sjöstrom and Kling 2016). We were going fairly well to script, the Södermanlands regiment at the right of the line failing the morale test (indicated by the black piece of straw).

Rehnkshold encouraged his centre forward towards the Saxon positon (successful action test for a second move).

The Saxon cannons fired "... a third at short range and canister" (Sjöstrom and Kling 2016).
Another morale failure for the Södermanlands.

GåPå! The Swedish infantry charged the fortifications.

On the Swedish left, the Livdragonregementet moved to confront the Saxon cavalry.
On the Swedish left, in a break from history, the Saxon garde du corps and Goltz Dragoon Regiment attempted to advance through the marsh, only making it half-way (failed action test to exit). At this point, I realised that I had mucked up my left and right and so put two Saxon cavalry units on their right, instead of three, the reverse on their left. Ah well, that's what test games are for!

The Saxon infantry opened fire on the attacking Swedes. (Note dear reader, that is more of that firing that does not exist in the rules!).

This time the Västmanland regemente (Södermanlands in support) failed a morale test (above), but the Närke-Värmlands regemente, an élite unit with the Pommerska dragoons in support, passed (below).

Breaking with history, the Saxon infantry behind the chevaux de frise, represented by the zig-zag fences here, continued to hold. The foot guards (right of photo) passed their morale test, forcing the Västmanland regemente to withdraw 1/4 base-width. The Drost regiment failed a morale, but were still able to hold on and continue the mêlée with the Närke-Värmlands.

Cavalry mêlées on the Swedish right (above) and left (below) flanks.
Having pushed the Västmanland regemente back, the Saxons fired off another round of volley and artillery (intense enough to make the camera shake).

On the Swedish right, the élite Livdragonregementet had beaten back the Beust cuirassiers, who retreated behind their supports (Dünewald dragoon regiment) who then charged the Swedes.

Not so good on the Swedish left, the Skanska Standsdragon regemente losing the mêlée (failed morale test) and, having no supports, retreated their full measure, caring not about the marsh. Keeping up the pressure, the Goltz dragoon regiment followed-up (below).

In the centre the Swedish infantry tried again and were blunted once more.

More Saxon fire, a second morale loss for the Västmanland regemente (below).

Hope again for the elusive breakthrough, as the Närke-Värmlands continue in mêlée.

It was not Hummerhjelm's day. Two failed action tests made the Skanska Standsdragon the Skanska stranded-dragoon.

Not missing the opportunity of a charge in the rear, the Goltz dragoon regiment finished them off.

As with the historical action, the von Krassow's brigade (represented here by the
Livdragonregementet) were getting the better of their more numerous Saxon opponents, aided by the fact that the Saxon's poor deployment had them attacking piece-meal.

Having forced the Närke-Värmlands regemente back, Schulenburg ordered an exchange of the lines, replacing the Drost regiment with the Koningin. I really enjoyed mixing up the paint to make those Isabella facings and base colour for the flag of the Koningin.

For the Queen! The Koningin immediately out-did their line comrades, Närke-Värmlands failing a morale test (now represented by the little red 'pimple—utilising some silly little plastic covers from some pens that I bought, making more attractive markers).

Having 'sat on his bum' for eight turns, and with the Västmanland broken, Rehnskold was finally spurred into action, sending cavalry left and right. Too little too late?

Perhaps not, von Krassow's Livdragonregementet broke the Beust cuirassiers (above), von Dunewald sending in the Wrangel dragoons supported by his own unit (below).

Now getting desperate and unlikely for the Swedes in the centre: a volley against the
Närke-Värmlands and artillery fire on the Södermanlands (which did not agree with them, as you'll see later).

The Pommerska charged the exposed left of the Russian line,...

... breaking the raw unit, while the Livdragonregementet continued on their winning way.

That flank looks attractive!

Left exposed by the breaking of the Södermanlands, Schulenburg liked the look of the Närke-Värmlands' flank, sending out the Saxon foot guard.

The Wrangel dragoon having retreated from the mêlée, von Dünewald's dragoons again charged the Livdragonregemente.

Flank fire on the Pommerska and a loss of morale.

A second morale loss to the Närke-Värmlands, now unsupported.

In charged the Pommerska...
... a morale loss to the Patkul Infantry Regiment, but they held.

von Dünewald's boys fought bravely, but incurred a morale loss.

The Norra Skanska tried a desperate, headlong charge against the Saxon guard, with predictable results, the Pommerska dragoons were broken by the Patkul Infantry Regiment and even the Närke-Värmlands had given up the fight.

This forced an army morale test, which Rehnskold easily passed!

von Dünewald's boys had fought bravely, but finally broke. I just realised that I forgot to do the brigade morale test, but it was of no consequence as, with only two cavalry regiments left, it was all over for the Swedes!

So, after nine turns I lost. As a fairly unimaginative Rehnskold I had failed to replicate the  dramatic Swedish victory that was his finest hour. Alternatively, as a more aggressive Schulenburg I achieved a better outcome. Still, since I lean strongly towards the Swedes, I have to say that I beat myself.

The result was not really the point of this though, for it was about the rules and they came out of this game with a win. On reading, I thought that I’d like them. I was not sure after the early turns. I re-read key sections, found things that I had not done quite correctly and, as I began to get the mechanics clear in my head and perform the tests correctly, I found myself liking them more and more. The rules are straightforward, as I said in my description above, but the completely novel approach meant that they took a bit of getting one’s head around.

As the 'mist' cleared I could consider the rules' mechanics. There are several aspects that I like, firing is central, units can always move, but it takes more to perform more 'elaborate' movement, supports, protected flanks and generally good positioning of your forces are paramount. Troop quality has an effect, but not an extreme one (either positively or negatively). Similarly, commanders are well represented in the rules, but not out of proportion.

Having enjoyed this playtest of Twilight of the Sun King, I'm keen to complete the additional troops necessary to play the game at regimental scale. I’ll then compare the rules with GåPå (that I have tried once and liked) and also the Polemos Great Northern War rules (by Nick Dorrell one of the authors of Twilight of the Sun King—one can see that he has included a lot of ideas from them into Twilight of the Sun King). I often find 'sticking points' with rules the more that I use them. Time will tell whether this is the case with Twilight of the Sun King. They passed their first test with a credit and I'll see how they go with further testing.

One of my long-term aims is to paint sufficient figures for the Great Northern so as to field Swedish, Saxon, Polish-Lithuanian, early Russian and Ottoman armies (these latter will also be fit for Napoleonics), as well as some later Russian and Danish troops. The eventual 'grand plan' is to work through the battles of the Great Northern War from go to whoa. This playtest has added fuel to that fire.


Twilight of the Sun King by Steven Thomas, Andrew Coleby and Nicholas Dorrell, revised edition 2019 (

Scales: 1:200–300 for brigade-scale games, 1:100–150 for regimental-scale games. Units of two bases each (one for artillery). All movement and ranges calculated in base widths. Ground scale 1:5 000 for brigade-scale and 1:2 500 for regimental scale at recommended base width. I used 1:6 000 for my game (base width 50 mm).


All figures in the game were 1/72 scale.

Infantry: Mars 'Swedish Infantry'
Cavalry: Zvezda 'Swedish Dragoons of Charles XII' and Strelets 'Reitars of Charles XII'

Infantry: Mars 'Saxon Infantry'
Cavalry: Strelets 'Russian Dragoons of Peter I' Artillery: Zvezda 'Swedish Artillery of Charles XII'

Infantry: Strelets 'Russian Dragoons of Peter I' and 'Swedish Infantry of Charles XII', Zvezda 'Russian Strelets Infantry' and Strelets various bonus Streletsi figures.
Some of these Russians were part of a huge haul from John of the Wargame Hermit blog that I got back in June 2018 (thanks John, if you are reading). I'm adding further streletsi as early Russians (for Narva, River Düna).


Sjöstrom O (2008) Fraustadt 1706 - Ett fält färgat rött. Map of the battle (sourced from

Sjöstrom O and Kling SL (2016) Warsaw, Fraustadt and the Grand Plan to Crush Charles XII. In Kling (Jr.) SL (Ed.) Great Northern War Compendium Volume 1. The Historical Game Company. pp. 197–210.

Thomas S, Coleby A and Dorrell N (2019) The Battle of Fraustadt - 1706, Introductory Scenario. In Twilight of the Sun King. The Pike and Shot Society Essex England.

Wye Forest Gamers (n.d.) The Battle of Fraustadt, 13th Feb 1706.