Being a treatise on VSF and Mars, and on 19th Century colonial warfare in general

(with a nod towards Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan, lest I take myself too seriously)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


A couple of weeks ago I came across a comment on TMP about molds for some scenics, and it directed me to here.  So I picked up mold #93 from this page.  Lovely sloped walls - could almost be Chinese!  I've started making lots of "bricks" (or rather massive blocks) to make some Martian city walls.  The process is a bit fiddly, but I get to revert to childhood and be a bricklayer / lego builder again.  

I'll probably make them 3 blocks high to start with (that's 1.5" in old money) plus a parapet (the lotus-pattern bricks with an outward curve).  That should be plenty for a provincial town or outpost.   

It will probably need a pretty rigid base as I don't think they'll take happily to flexing, but we'll see where it takes me.

If anyone out there has some tips or tricks with using plaster of paris for builds, please let me know!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Jingals (San-bujaan)

"A jingal or gingall, (Hindi janjal) is a type of gun, usually a light piece mounted on a swivel; it sometimes takes the form of a heavy musket fired from a rest."

Here's how I'm making the "form of a heavy musket fired from a rest" as will be used by my Martians.  As always I'm using the Black Hat imperial martians. 

Raw materials: Figure firing from shoulder; pavise (from the imperial martian guard pack); a 28mm martian musket I picked up a while back from Bob Charette's Parroom Station range (two on a sprue); some skin and/or blood* 
*optional but inevitable  

Here are the bits I used:

First I trimmed back the stock and bayonet to make the jingal. I then hacked the musket off the figure, and "carefully" opened up a gap between right arm and body to accept the stock.  (That's where the blood donation came in.  Again.)  

Here's the half-way stage:

One of the two muskets is probably a bit short, so I'll see if it can be used for something else - perhaps an organ-gun or something.  It'll go off to the bits box for the moment.

Then assemble, with appropriate filing to fit, and mount on base with two other figures to maintain the 3-infantry-to-a-base ratio: 

I'm hoping that the pavise will help to secure and stabilise the figure.  I could have attempted a bipod/tripod, but the pavises weren't going to be used for anything else (and you get 8 in a packet for "free" with the Guards), so why sweat it?  It looks good, and I even get to use a handgun figure as a loader!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Polearm Infantry

I'm using Black Hat figures for my Martians.  It's a nice range; well-detailed and quite diverse.  You can find them here

There are three main types of infantry packs:
- Imperial Martian Guard infantry, with helmets and corselets and musket or polearm,
- Imperial Martians with guns or swords
- Askari with guns or swords
They have good command packs of each of them as well.  I'll get to mounted troops later.

So far so good.  I'll be using the non-guard troops as the mainstay of the army, and I need a mixture of muskets and pole arms. There are no polearm figures for the non-guard troops, and the packaging of the gun troops poses some problems.  Here's a pic of the contents:

As you can see three of the eight in the packet are armed with handguns, and I don't need handguns.  However I can use these handgun figures by converting them into polearm figures.  A bit of brass wire, a plasticard blade, et voila - here are before/after pictures:

My guns  and polearms are in a ratio of about 2:1, so I can use pretty much all of the figures. Being a Scot I hate wasting money on figures I can't use, so I'm glad I can use them pretty effectively.

They rank up pretty well, and hopefully the polearms will be fairly robust.  I'll probably replace the alloy polearms on the Imperial Guard figures with wire ones in due course.

Jingalls next - more conversions!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

OK, so when you say "100" ...

Call me a boring old accountant, but when I was thinking about unit sizes, I got to thinking about number systems, time and how your average Martian measures things in general.

As everyone knows(?), Martians have four fingers (or three fingers and an opposable thumb if you want to be pedantic) or toes at the end of each appendage.  So I can't think of any reason why they would have hit upon a decimal system of counting.  As for humans, two handsfull seems to be a good unit of measure (stop sniggering at the back!), so an octal system of numbering would make perfect sense.  To the dyscalculic amongst us, that means that Martians count on their fingers as follows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, and then 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20 after removing shoes and socks.

I can therefore imagine their military units being based on multiples of 8, giving theoretical values as follows:
Octal Decimal Macedonian title
Squad 20 16 Lochos ("file")
Platoon 100 64 Tetriarchia
Company 200 128 Taxis
(omitted 400 256 Syntagma)
Battalion 1000 512 Pentakosiarchia
Legion 4000 2048 Merarchia
Army 10000 4096 Apotome

Somewhat bizarrely, we end up with the nice octal round numbers used by my Martians being the same as appeared in classical Greek tactical manuals!  Maybe there really was something extraterrestrial about Altantis after all?

OK that worked out pretty well, and gives comparable unit sizes to terran counterparts.

Next stop ... Calendars and Time.  I'm betting the answer is 42, but we'll see.

Real World Footnote:
Apparently the Yuki language in California and the Pamean languages in Mexico use octal number systems because the speakers count using the spaces between their fingers rather than the fingers themselves.  Ain't Wikipedia a wonderful thing?

Translating SC into DoB2

SC (the Soldier's Companion ruleset by GDW, now published by Heliograph) gives a great deal of useful information on building Martian states and armies, and it is as good a starting point as anything for building up scenarios and "consistent" backgrounds for battles and campaigns.

The norm in SC is for units of 20 foot or mounted (including 3 or 4 officer/NCO figures).  The implied scale is about 1:10, and the British army has 4 "companies" of 20 figures making a full battalion which confirms this.  It also states that "most Martian Regular infantry is armed with smoothbore musket as well as some sort of melee weapon" which somewhat belies the typical 50/50 split of a Martian band between "cutters" and "shooters", but we'll go with the flow.  For random cities, the base force strength is 2 bands of infantry, 1 band of mounted and 2 guns per "army number", so your basic building blocks  are of 60 figures plus 2 guns.

But as I want to use Piquet's DoB2 (Din of Battle 2) in company scale, I need to do some translation work.  Company scale in DoB2 has each infantry unit (12 figures) representing 80-150 men, and an 8-figure mounted unit representing 40-80 men.  A gun model (and 3 crew) represents a gun section of 2-3 guns.  We're therefore talking about a similar figure/man ratio to that used in SC.

In my "typical" regular Martian unit I have a 4-company battalion consisting of
- 2 companies of infantry armed with muskets
- 1 company of infantry armed with polearms
- 1 company of infantry armed with jingals and rockets
That's 48 figures, and is close enough to the 2 bands of 20 infantry in SC.  The 20-figure mounted band will be represented by 2 troops of 8 mounted under DoB2.  That's 64 figures in all, so pretty good.  And 2 gun models is 2 gun models, as both rules sets have a model representing a gun section.

SC also attaches both mounted and foot mercenary bands to much of the regular forces, again on the 20-figures per band model.  I'll therefore have each band represented by two DoB2 units of the relevant type.  That's overweight in infantry and underweight in mounted but balances out fairly well.  I haven't decided whether I'll split the foot units into one each of "shooters" and "cutters", or whether I'll have them as mixed-weapon units.  Splitting will make them more specialised, but also less versatile.  They are intended for "light scouting and skirmishing" duties, so versatility would seem to be more appropriate, and it would also help to differentiate them from regulars.  Time will tell.

Battalions or Companies?

OK, this is all bit of a diversion, but it has been keeping me thinking.

The 1877 British Field manual specifies that a Battalion in attack would have a frontage of 400 paces - call it 320 yards.  This assumes 2 of the 8 companies in extended line, skirmishing forward, supported by 2 more in line formation 100 yards to their rear.  The other 4 companies (the main body) will be in company columns 250 yards behind that.  As the enemy is contacted, the support line will feed into and reinforce the firing line, and the main body hold itself in readiness to support the attack (frontally or by moving against the enemy's flank) or to cover a withdrawal.

The way this is normally represented on a gaming table is by a single battalion unit in a line, maybe 6" wide (if using 25/28mm and representing, say, 150 yards), and one rank deep.  That's only half the frontage of a British formation in the 1870's.  Or you can put the entire unit into skirmish, in which case it becomes very brittle if threatened as it has nothing to fall back on.  But whichever way you do it, it looks like a "thin red streak tipped with a line of steel" rather than a box about as deep as it's wide, incorporating supports and reserves as it did.

To represent actual battlefields and tactics on a table will always demand a certain suspension of disbelief, but unsupported thin lines is a suspension too far for me.  By using 4 "company" units, deployed two up and two back, I think it will look better, and make a battalion self-supporting to some extent.

So I'll go with company scale representation for my DoB2.

Another reason for using company scale is a sense of verisimilitude.  I can't see divisions of troops being shipped out from Earth - it's too far, it's too expensive, and it denudes the homeland of available troops. Getting three British divisions into Egypt in 1882 was tough enough.  Shipping a similar force half way across the solar system with very limited transport - and keeping it supplied there - just beggars the imagination.  SC has a division (8 battalions) of British infantry plus a cavalry brigade and supporting troops on Mars, but it just feels too heavy.  For me.  YMMV - your Mars may vary.

I'm happy that going for company scale will allow me to field more units without having too many battalions Mars-side.  They'll just have to recruit lots of local askaris/sepoys/whatever-the-martian-term-is, especially for the mounted arm.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Technology - Armour

Armour is not a standard issue on Mars, but is also not uncommon.  Armour built to withstand a properly-made ceramic slug would have to be extremely thick and heavy, and would render the wearer immobile.  But short range fire is often with a cannister round.  Add to this the danger from flying sabots, and it becomes apparent that a lighter form of armour will suffice for protection from a significant portion of musket fire.

Unsurprisingly, metal armour is too expensive (and probably too heavy) to be in common use.  Most armour is therefore made from boiled, shaped leather or from laminated wooden strips.  Both armours are usually coloured, often by dying (leather) or in the lacquering and sealing of the wooden strips. Shaped leather helmets are quite common, as are breastplates, vambraces and greaves.   Armour is nevertheless often limited to officers and to royal troops due to its expense. 

Technology - Melee Weapons

A proportion of infantry (typically around a quarter) are armed solely with melee weapons, normally halberd-like pole arms.  
At first glance this appears quite anachronistic for such an ancient civilisation.  However, like the smoothbore musket, these are actually a sign of adaptation to straitened circumstances rather than of backwardness. Given the inability to mount a decent bayonet on their musket, the halberd was probably (re)introduced to provide a degree of protection to the musketeers.  The halberd is basically a large lump of metal on the end of a hardwood pole, and so is an expensive piece of kit.  Over time they have developed into a status symbol to reward the loyalty and bravery of troops.  Only the best and bravest therefore tend to be so armed*, which also limits the number that are likely to go missing upon desertion!  Halberds are also more effective than muskets in a policing role, and when putting down civil disturbances with minimum force, so have rightly earned their place as a useful weapon on Mars.

The typical Martian sidearm is a sword of some description.  Steel swords do exist, but these are museum pieces and family heirlooms rather than a commonplace.  Most blades are made from a laminate of bone, wood, leather and sinew.  Blades come in all shapes and sizes, and can be extremely strong and flexible, holding a good edge if properly maintained.  Even those of poorer quality are quite capable of causing dreadful damage and of severing limbs. 

*This also helps to explain the ease with which Earth governments have been able to raise such good quality auxiliary forces.  In essence, and initially unknowingly, they have entrusted each Martian recruit with a Prince’s ransom of steel in the form of a rifled musket and bayonet.  It is little wonder that such “trust” is returned. 

Technology - Infantry Firearms

The relative paucity of refined metals on Mars means that rulers are reluctant to hand large lumps of very valuable metal to their troops in the form of weapons.  Wherever possible the amount of metal has been reduced over the millennia to a point where only the bare minimum is carried by your average ranker.

The standard infantry weapon is a wooden-barrelled smoothbore firearm.  Metal gun barrels and rifling are certainly known and are even made on Mars, but these tend to be for the wealthy or for select guard troops.  For the common ranker, metal barrels have been replaced by a specially-bred form of wood, known locally as “Jee-oo”, whose lattice-like structure can resist rapid deformation in a manner analogous to modern kevlar.  This makes them suitable for use as gun barrels once dried and treated.  The breech-end of the barrel is secured within a metal block and trigger mechanism – the only significant lump of metal in the firearm - with a light wooden stock and fore stock.  

The standard ammunition round is a ceramic slug and sabot together with the smokeless propellant and ignition all wrapped in a sealed waxed package.  The ceramic slugs can take a variety of forms.  The most common has a square cross section, is slightly tapered towards the tip and has a quarter twist along its length.  This tapering and twist provides an element of aerodynamic form and spin to the round, and so these smoothbores have a decent range compared with Earthly ones.   The sabot also allows the manufacture of shotgun-style rounds for use at close range, without excessive wear and tear on the barrel.  

The loading process is relatively quick: a first pass down the barrel with a ramrod to clear the worst of any residue, followed by the sealed round being forced down until seated against the firing block.  The waxing of the round ensures an element of lubrication and also better sealing within the barrel, while the base of the sabot expands upon the ignition of the propellant to reduce windage.  The weapon is cocked manually by pulling back a hammer which is then released by the pull of the trigger.  The hammer drives the platinum-coated firing pin (actually a cone) forward, sealing the block and piercing the base of the round.  There the cone acts as a catalyst causing the two dry chemicals to flare, igniting the propellant and driving the sabot along the barrel.  The force of the ignition returns the firing cone back into the breech and the hammer into a “safe” position (so that the loading process will not result in firing). 

These muskets do have a number of drawbacks.  They foul quite easily, and can suffer from splitting at inopportune times.  They are therefore replaced at regular intervals – quite a simple process if you still retain both hands - and this can even take place in the field.  The propellant used is smokeless, but there is always some visible discharge from the weapon, with the combustion of the packaging, sabots flying around, and so on.  Finally, Jee-oo barrels are not a suitable fixing for a bayonet, and neither does it make a good club, so troops are reliant on a sidearm (sword or axe) for melee. 

A proportion of infantry in a unit (typically a quarter) comprise teams armed with a long-barrel musket (referred to as jingals by Earthmen).  

Jingals are essentially Jee-oo muskets with longer and larger barrels (up 2.5m long, with a bore of as much as 5cm in some cases).   The loading teams carry a variety of rounds depending on need and availability.  Most will be solid slug rounds which are effective at 800 yards.   Others are a form of cannister which can be devastating are close range. Each weapon requires a crew of four – one to carry and fire, one to carry a spare barrel plus a bipod rest, and two loaders.  This weapon is especially effective against Giant Martian troops and mounts, but also as a siege weapon and as light artillery in the field. 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Technology - General thoughts

It is certainly true that the level of Martian technology is far below what it once was.  Even the means of making the canals so long ago, surely their greatest achievement, is wreathed in legend myth and folklore.  If any Martian knows or understands how it was done, then they are not telling the Earthmen. 

As a society they also suffer from a lack of resources.  Fossil fuels were exhausted long ago - coal-burning came as a surprise to this generation of Canal Martians.  Iron ore is abundant – this is the red planet after all – but it is difficult to turn it into good quality iron or steel in any quantity for two reasons.  Firstly, the thinner air on Mars, with its lower oxygen levels, makes it difficult to achieve the temperatures needed to smelt iron.  Secondly, the general shortage of fuel means that it becomes an economic and environmental impossibility to feed any large-scale production.  Iron and steel are made, but Martians have gone back to small-scale production and use alternative materials wherever possible.  In part they use softer metals, such a copper and tin, but these minerals are also in relatively short supply and so a great deal of recycling takes place.  But Martian society has also developed the use of plant materials – and other renewable resources – to replace metals in many areas of life.

Canal Martians cultivate a great many crops that have been bred for very specific reasons other than for food.  Some are for straightforward uses such as coloured dyes and cloth (similar to cotton and linen/flax).  But many more are quite different form any earthly forms.  Presumably these have been selectively bred from now-extinct species to meet specific requirements.  

Two examples.  

They have a plant very similar to bamboo, “Jee-oo”, but which is far stronger when treated.  It has a resistance to deformation that makes it very valuable as building frames, scaffolding, fencing, and even as weapon barrels.  When split and treated it can be moulded into extremely hard plates.  

Another plant with a much spongier interior, is also used in construction.  This “Betaan” is mashed and left to break down in water for several weeks.  It is then mixed with sands with a high iron content to create a substance similar to concrete when dry.  In its liquid form it can be poured into moulds or forms to create beams and panels.

Canal Martians and Technology

Over time I will be posting some rambling thoughts on the technology used by "my" Canal Martians, in particular, and as it trickles down to the other denizens of the Red Planet.  Obviously I'll be mostly be looking at the technology used in warfare, but you can't totally divorce that from more peaceful pursuits.

As stated before, I do like to follow a great deal of the Space:1889 descriptions of society and technology (so liftwood is definitely in!).  However, and unsurprisingly, Mr Chadwick had to be a bit sparing on some of the details. Some ideas did pop up in various TRMGS publications and in some of the published scenarios, but I just wanted to add a bit more colour to help me picture the Martian way of life.

Rather than creating a long thesis I will probably just jot down ideas as they occur to me.  With a bit of luck they might even be internally consistent, but I'm not holding my breath.  There is far less chance of them being scientifically viable, so I apologise in advance to the more practically-minded out there.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Martian Terrain - wishlist

OK, so I want to build some really atmospheric terrain for my Martian games; but what?

First I will have to work out what "My Mars" looks like.

Canal Zones
Canal zones are the fertile areas 20-50 miles each side of the Grand Canals.  This is where you will find agriculture, cultivated woodland (and what do "trees" look like?), villages, roads and minor canals.  There will be marshy areas where canals have deteriorated or as the result of a high flow of water.  The Grand Canals will be too big to represent on a gaming table except as a bank on one table edge.

You will also find permanent field defenses in the Canal Zones. Warfare on My Mars is channeled along the canals as these provide the only way to supply an army. Avenues of approach are therefore very predictable and trench works often develop an air of permanence.

Some of the Grand Canals silted up a long time ago. Where they still retain some water flow, they will only be recognizable in an otherwise flat plain by the greenery that springs up in the flow season. Most other features will have weathered away before living memory.

Upland Zones
The upland zones are the old "dry land" areas that lie outside the canal zones and which are now home to nomadic Hill Martians, and also to some barbaric Giant Martians.

The hills are now mostly dry, weathered and rounded. The lower areas of hills often have collections of large rounded rocks that have broken away form the higher ground. Rare areas containing harder rocks may have formed mesas, rising sharply from the surrounding terrain.

Watercourses have long-since dried up and been filled with dust, but these can also act as underground cisterns for what little rain does fall, or for the run-off from nearby canals. These will often be the only areas that offer year-round grazing and so are often the locus for warfare amongst the nomadic tribes of the area. Such areas tend not to be especially lush, but are more areas of scrubland, consisting of hardy grasses, sparse woodland and thorn bush.

Some Hill Martian tribes have been strong enough to control fertile areas and build permanent settlements, with some local agriculture, but most rely on nomadism for protection and survival.

Some mountainous areas do still exist, but do not support a great deal of life.

Desert Zones
The desert zones are the areas of the old seabeds that lie at a distance from the great canals. This terrain is the home of the Giant Martians who adapted long ago to the arid, dusty conditions.

The deserts tend to be flat and featureless, and water flow from distant canals will only feed groundwater deep underground, occasionally rising to form the oases that allow life to exist at all.  Such oases are often found at the foot of rocky outcrops - the remains of undersea ridges.  Some oases are permanent, but many are seasonal or require frequent maintenance to remove silt.

Mars is the "red planet".  I don't see it as a pillar box red, but terrain should definitely bear a red or pink tinge.  I need to find the right shades of sand and flock for this, which will have to be the subject of a later post.

Some plant life will have to be red (Wells' red weed, for example).  I have also decided that any woody growth tends towards red rather than brown, but leafy growth will still be predominantly green (with red veins maybe) as I don't want to have to posit an alternative to chlorophyll!

(Typos corrected periodically after posting)

Friday, 29 June 2012

New Blog!

OK, so here's the new blog - all I need to do is try to work out how to use it and what to put in it!

Basically, I have enjoyed reading so many wargaming blogs over the years, and it's about time that
1) I learned about this technology, and
2) I put something back in to the hobby

It is born out of my interest in colonial warfare of the 19th century, and of my love of Victorian Science Fiction, personified by RPGs like Space:1889.

So what follows will be sporadic posts as I create terrain and build units for warfare on the face of Mars in the twilight years of a fictional Earth's 19th Century.

I collect 15/18mm figures, largely from Black Hat's Martian Empires range, but also from Peter Pig and Old Glory.  These have been collected over the years, and work has been a bit too hectic to do much other that daydream over plans.  I really have to start painting my mountain of lead some time, and with a blog I just may have to bite the bullet!

And then there was a decision about the rules I wanted to use.  Should I write my own, or buy something else; but if so what?  Naturally I have done both.  My collection of rules is ... well-endowed, let us say.  From The Sword and the Flame to Black Powder, via Valor, Steel & Flesh and Martian Empires, not to mention various internet-published ones.  I have tried drafting my own, from a variant of TSATF (15mm Fighting Englishmen if you must know) to a standalone Colonial/VSF set entitled The Modern Major General.  Nothing has really worked for me.

Then, several years ago I came across Eric Burgess's wonderful Din of Battle blog, and have followed it eagerly ever since.   Eric is a Piquet rules system man through-and-through.  It is a system that has always piqued (ha-ha) my interest, and it is one that seems to provokes emotions of love and extreme dislike.  I am still fairly new to them, but I am tending towards the love end of the spectrum.  I do like the feeling of fog of war that they create, and as I do not have any wargaming opponents the card-guided nature of the game gives me the unpredictability that make solo play more satisfying.  And it means that I have a basing system and so I have no further excuses for further prevarication.

OK, enough writing ... on with it, man!
Clive G