History games 7 – De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) – Rivers and Gardens of Babylon: The Near East in the 8th Century BC

DBA Portsmouth 519 my Assyrians moving troops.JPG

As well as History of the World (History games 6), I have two other “Civilisation” board games: Through the Ages and 7 Ages. But Through the Ages, when I looked at it, is more of a parlour game than a history game. 7 Ages is a hard core history game, by the Australian Design Group; but I found that I’ve mislaid the pack of cards that animates it. I wouldn’t play the one; I couldn’t play the other; and skipping over them both, I have now entered the territory that “proper” wargames cover.

I’m not so sorry about this. If, though, emptying removal boxes, I find the cards for 7 Ages, I should still play it if it has a later scenario that would fall in chronological sequence.

The first truly historical game I have is Call it Qids – A wargame of the Battle of Qadesh (1274 BC) (by Ian Russell Lowell of the UK’s Society of Ancients; 2012).

This is a tactical game. Wargames are conventionally described as tactical, operational or strategic. Tactical games depict battles; turns are measured in minutes or hours. Operational games depict campaigns; turns are measured in days or weeks. Strategic games depict wars; turns are measured in months or  years.

This is a blog about board games. But I rarely play tactical board games because in my opinion, “figures” games are better – tactical games that use model soldiers.

First, this is because while the maps that board games use are great for the operational and strategic level – you can imagine commanders looking at them, or at least having a mental picture of what they are doing that corresponds to one – figures give a more satisfying representation of an individual battle.

(Incidentally, for the ancient period, that remark about operational and strategic games may not really hold true. Mary Beard, in SPQR – A history of ancient Rome (2015), writes that [T]he Romans did not plan to conquer and control Italy. No Roman cabal in the fourth century BCE sat down with a map, plotting a land grab in the territorial way we associate with imperialist nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For a start, simple as it sounds, they had no maps. What this implies for how they, or any other ‘precartographic’ people, conceived the world around them, or just over their horizons, is one of history’s great mysteries. I have tended to write of the spread of Roman power through the peninsulaof Italy, but no one know how many – or realistically, how few – Romans at this date thought of their homeland as part of a peninsula in the way we picture it.)

Second, like chessboards, the maps used in board games are cut up into spaces that structure how units can move. Hexagons (“hexes”) are the commonest. I find this simplification of reality to be fine in strategic and operational games, but it jars in tactical ones, where subtleties of unit facing matter. In figures games, turns can be of any amount; in board games, they have to be in multiples of 60°.

I’ve decided, therefore, that the project this blog will describe is not “Playing all the history games I have in chronological order”. It is “Playing all the operational, strategic and civilisation games – plus tactical games that I fancy”.

I didn’t fancy Qids. This gave me a chance to play some games using my favourite set of figure rules: De Bellis Antiquitatis, known as DBA. I could do this without infringing chronological order because by a nice coincidence, the next figure wargames tournament I went to, organised by the Portsmouth and Allied Wargames Society in late May, had as its theme The Rivers and Gardens of Babylon:  The Near East in the 8th Century BC. I don’t have any boardgames set between 1274 BC and 800 BC, so chronologically this was perfect.

The tournament used the third edition of the DBA rules, written by Phil and Sue Barker. Phil Barker was a founder member of the British “Wargames Research Group”, which published complicated rulesets that I grew up using. In the early 90s WRG came out with the first edition of DBA, a reversal of this style. No fine distinctions between types of weapons and armour, no morale tests, no keeping side notes of a unit’s losses, every army composed of just 12 “elements”. I used these rules when they first came out and came back to them with pleasure around 2010.



DBA Portsouth 519 my Assyrians.JPG

To Portsmouth I took an early Neo-Assyrian DBA army (on the left). My elements were two heavy chariots, two light chariots, two ‘fast blades’, four ‘fast auxiliaries’,  skirmishers and a Horde. We fought five battles in an afternoon. (I won two, lost three and came down near the bottom of the table; last time I fought with the Assyrians I did just as badly; I enjoyed it nonetheless.)

There are two mechanics at the heart of DBA.

First, when it is your turn you throw a dice to determine the number of moves you can make. Each point on your dice allows you to move one of your 12 elements – or, if you have managed to keep them formed up together, a group. The stresses of combat, some units hesitating, others pressing forward, tend to break your nice groups up and reduce your ability to manage your army in a way that I find “realistic”.

Second, combat has a side of scissors, paper, stone. For example, cavalry will make short work of skirmishers; elephants will usually beat cavalry; but skirmishers can tie elephants down indefinitely, distracting them from the rest of the battle.

The game is quick – 5 minutes to set up and 45 minutes to fight a battle. (Of course, you first have to paint the model soldiers – but Mr eBay does this for me. This means that I am not quite seen as a proper wargamer, like the son of old friends who used to hang out with skateboarders and photograph them but did not skate.)

For me, DBA is a lovely game. People say that luck plays a big part. Maybe – but I never win the tournaments in which I take part (though I usually do better than at this one); and the people who do win are often the same.

In the weak sense of “looking” historical, people say DBA doesn’t look as good as games with more figures, and I agree.

DBA Hydaspes Amsterdam Sixshooters 519 Mark.JPG

This picture above shows a bigger game I took part in the following week at the Amsterdam SixShooters club, a refight of the Battle of the Hydaspes (326 BC, Alexander the Great vs. Classical Indians) – again we used the DBA rules, just with three times as many elements on each side. (As Alexander, I lost.)

In the strong sense of historicity, it is clear who you represent – the general commanding your army. Perhaps you have a little more control than your historical counterpart, but not much – the limitations on how many elements you can move each turn, and how you can move them, ensure this.

I have to give DBA 10 points. The best game I’ve played so far in this series, by far.As I go along I will be interested to see if other games equal it.

Game Subject Designer Date Blog post Score/10
De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) 3.0 Ancient and medieval battles with figures Phil and Sue Barker 2014 (first edition 1990) History games 7 10
History of the world Civilisation Ragnar Brothers 1993 History games 6 4
Origins Evolution (human) and civilisation Phil Eklund 2007 History games 5 6
American Megafauna Evolution (animals) Phil Eklund 1997 History games 4 4
Evolution Evolution (animals) Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitri Knorre, Sergei Machin 2014 History games 3 5
Эволюцияи Evolution (animals) Dmitri Knorre 2010 History games 2 1
Primordial Soup Evolution (amoebas) Doris and Frank 1997 History games 1 3

Electricity pricing in Mexico City in the 1950s (according to Señora C)

energy public plug London 1017.JPG
(London, 2017)

Señora C at a tea party in Mexico City: “You don’t pay for the current you consume, you pay for the number of sockets you have in the house. Of course the system is quite mad. It comes to as much for a ballroom chandelier blazing away all night with hundreds of watts as for the bulb on your attic steps. So far so bad. Now comes the collector, who is so ill-paid that he couldn’t exist without bribes, literally not exist. You have just taken a house, he goes into your living-room and counts the sockets – ceiling-light, standing lamp, side lamps, unos, dos, tres, cuatros… “Nonsense”, he says, “you must put in one point and connect all your lights with extension wires.” It saves you four-fifths of the bill, and you split the saving. This is where your troubles begin. The one point is overstressed, your lights fuse, you keep tripping over wires. Then a controller appears and threatens to denounce you for what he quite correctly calls fraud. You bribe him as expected, and at the end of the year you are fined by the company anyhow. If you refuse this arrangement to begin with – we all did – you never get any current at all.”

(Sybille Bedford, A visit to Don Otavio – one of my favourite travel books)

Writing is thinking; Philip II of Spain

public spider Bxl train Bxl-Koln 315.JPG(Brussels, 2015)

For Netherlandish reasons I’ve been reading a biography of Philip II, king of Spain in the sixteenth century, by Robert Kamen.

Philip’s deprecators called him the Spider of the Escorial. Kamen isn’t a deprecator but he shows that Philip spent much time at the Escorial palace, which he had built outside Madrid; that he liked to do business in writing; and that his handwriting meets the dictionary definition of spidery: consisting of thin, dark, bending lines, like a spider’s legs.

(I suspect, though, that then and later, everyone wrote like that. Here, for example, are pages from the will of Travelling Companion’s great-grandfather.


I suspect that no-one wrote in rounded letters like this:

public writing Leo ich liebe dich Ahrweiler 215.JPG(Leo ich liebe Dich– Leo I love you – Ahrweiler, Germany, 2015);

La révolution ça se passe pas que sur les écrans ! public writing Bozar 617.JPG(La révolution ça se passe pas que sur les écrans– the revolution is not only televised – Brussels, Belgium, 2017),

or in square letters like this:

public writing LA MANERA DE HACER ES SER Oviedo 816.JPG(La manera de hacer es ser– the way to do is to be – Oviedo, Spain, 2016)

public writing FUCK RULES LETS ART Levkas 817.JPG(Fuck rules let’s art – Levkas, Greece, 2017)

public writing DRESS HER LIKE A SQUIRRELL Manarola 516 railway tunnel.JPG(Dress her like a squirell – Manarola, Italy, 2016)

public writing I AM NOT KATE BUT I LOOK LIKE HER Orsha 618.JPG(I am not Kate but I look like her– Orsha, Belarus, 2018)).

I’m digressing.

I think Philip worked this way, in writing, out of shyness. According to Kamen, “Unlike other European monarchs, he preferred information to be given not verbally but in written form. Council meetings, for instance, were normally held without him: ‘He never attends the discussions of his councillors,’ ambassadors observed in the first decades of his reign…. When Vàzquez [his secretary] in 1576 suggested that in several matters it might be quicker to conduct business orally with his ministers, he conceded that it might be a good idea. ‘But,’ he said, ‘my experience of nearly thirty-three years dealing with affairs, is that it would be onerous to have to listen to them and afterwards see them to make a reply, and much worse with those who speak a lot.’”

At least, Philip wrote fast. “One night in April 1578 he had just finished a quantity of papers for his secretary at 9.30 p.m. when he was handed yet another report. He continued what he was writing and then scribbled his protest: ‘Now they’ve given me another file from you. I have neither the time nor the head to look at it so I won’t open it until tomorrow. It’s past ten and I haven’t had dinner and my table is full of papers for tomorrow; I can’t manage any more for now.’ In that half an hour his hand wrote exactly 468 words.”

Nevertheless his centralised system, the many matters touching his broad empire that had to wait for his written decision, made things slow. Granvelle, the viceroy of Naples, “quoted a previous viceroy as saying that ‘if one had to wait for death he would like it to come from Spain, for then it would never come’”.

(At A-level I studied 17th-century European history. I have remembered for forty years a quote I learned then, If death came from Spain, we would all be immortal. Is this a different translation of the same remark, or was it a cliché? Googling, I find yet another version attributed to Granvelle himself: If death came from Spain, I should be immortal. I suspect that Kamen is more reliable than Mr Google or the source used by my teenage self.)

For Philip, writing was thinking. “The king’s annotations on correspondence were a manner of thinking aloud, rather than a deliberate baring of feelings. He did not invite an answer. ‘There is no need to reply,’ he scribbled once to Vàzquez. ‘I am writing only to relax from weighty matters with you.’

For my part, face to face is how I like decisions to be come to and to be communicated.

(The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, for which I’ve worked since March, has six sites in five countries. I am still learning the skills you need to work “face to face” when meetings are by videoconference.)

But I like to write too.

I write in my diary for ten minutes most mornings, about anything, about buses, about Brexit. When I don’t write it, I feel things getting mixed up. For me, writing certainly is thinking.

(For example, the other day I made another attempt to divine how Brexit might come out. It was only when I was writing down my conclusion that a general election in the autumn was likely that I realised that Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt could alternatively offer Parliament No Deal subject to a Second Referendum.)

No thought is properly thought till you’ve tried to write it down, I find. Often, writing it down, I discover that my pretty thought has holes in it.

(Andrés Neuman, How to travel without seeing, about a book tour in Latin America: A journal supposedly reflects our thoughts, experiences and emotions. Not at all. It creates them. If we didn’t write, reality would disappear from our minds. Our eyes would remain empty.)

When I was 14 I would sneak into my father’s study to get onto his typewriter. Later I got my own typewriter and learnt to touch type. I’m not sure why I did this, perhaps to contribute to a school wargaming magazine. Typing is the only manual skill I have and it has served me well. In my diary I typically write forty words a minute.

But handwriting is slower than typing. At the start of last year, over a few days, I  wrote my diary longhand. I liked it physically, but my word count fell to twenty-five a minute. And, writing a diary is freer than writing for work. For work I think I’ve done well if I manage thirteen words a minute – and that’s typing. For work the Spider was managing sixteen, longhand. Not bad.

public spider and access to bridge Bilbao 1216.JPG(Bilbao, Spain, 2016)

PS I recently read Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This is the story of a happy marriage. Until her novel Bel Canto made it big, she made her living writing 800 or 900 word articles for magazines. I’ve since been feeling inferior because my blogs boil down to half that.  I’ve made this one longer. It wanders.

Rotterdam or anywhere – place names in pop songs

surfers Santa Cruz 818 2.JPG
(Santa Cruz, California, 2018)

I love place names in pop songs. Recently I’ve been collecting them. Today, on a late Sunday early summer afternoon in Alkmaar, looking out lazily at boats puttering on the canal, following the cricket on the BBC website, I listened to the Beach Boys – and they have some crackers! Surfin’ USA:

You’d catch ’em surfin’ at Del Mar
Ventura County line
Santa Cruz and Trestle
Australia’s Narabine
All over Manhattan
And down Doheny Way
Everybody’s gone surfin’
Surfin’ U.S. A.

Or Kokomo:

Aruba, Jamaica, oh I want to take ya
Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t we go
Off the Florida Keys, there’s a place called Kokomo

Delightfully, all the places in Surfin’ USA are in California – except one, Narabine, which is in Australia. All the places in Kokomo are in the Caribbean – except one, Kokomo, which doesn’t exist.

Years ago I remember someone writing that this is an American thing. To sing of Birmingham, Alabama is romantic; Birmingham, West Midlands, not. So it’s probably not surprising that the city I’ve noticed hearing sung about most is New York (Count Basie, Going to Chicago blues; Kim Carnes, Bette Davies eyes; Johnny Cash, The beast in me; Dillinger, Cocaine all around my brain; Paul Simon, Graceland).

However the Newcastle singer Jez Lowe – who I saw a couple of times at the sadly-defunct Brussels Folk Club – is also good at it. This is from his shipbuilding song Taking on men:

The gates are wide open they’re taking on men
There’s keels to be laid in dry dock and dry pen
To build on a fine reputation
Well there’s good lads have died for it, fought with the Clyde for it
Rivalled with Barrow from Wallsend to Jarrow
Now it’s gone in our favour, it’s good times again
I tell you it’s just like the old days

(Barrow is where my parents come from, it’s the town that still builds the Royal Navy’s submarines, which makes me like this song all the more.

Round House Chinese restaurant Walney Barrow 1118.JPG

My auntie Sylvia and uncle Bill lived on this street, on Walney island, facing the shipyard across the channel.  The streets on Walney are named after ships built in the yard. Most were for the British navy. Mikasa Street, though, for example, was named for the Japanese flagship at Tsushima.)

Somewhere tonight is a Dutch folk singer singing about Alkmaar?

A possible origin story for a phenomenon for which an explanation is difficult to conceive (cycling tour of Friesland)


A woman (she will later drive the truck) and a man (he will later drive the boat) are having a drink in the pub one evening.

– I think there’s a gap in the market for a ferry service between Texel and Vlieland, says one. There’s any number of cyclists who’d love to make use of such an island-hopping option.

– Oh yes you’re right, says the other. We could run it between the harbour of De Cocksdorp, the main port at the north end of the island of Texel, and the harbour of Oost Vleland, the only town on the island of Vlieland, where all the people live.

– Well that’s an option, of course; but actually I have a better idea. Why don’t we, instead, run our ferry between the open beach, a couple of km outside De Cocksdorp, and the other end of Vlieland – you know, at the far end of the deserted 9-kilometre stretch of sand known as the Sahara of the north, which our Dutch army uses for its exercises? After all, all we’d need is a boat,


a rickety planked structure on Texel,


a rickety planked structure on Vlieland,


and an enormous sand truck from an early Star Wars film.


– Oh, I see where you’re coming from. And you know what we could do, we could get people to position their bikes in a tight loop around our boat’s gunwhales to enable us to fill it absolutely as full as possible.


Then, when we get to Vlieland, we could get all the passengers to weave their way past the bikes down to the stern, so as to make it feasible for us to ram our raised bow firmly up onto the beach…

– Yes, yes, and then when we’re beached, we’ll ask if there are any strong guys (sterke jongens) among the passengers, to help us get the gang plank across to the rickety planked structure – because you know, we won’t be able to do it on our own.


– Yes, and after that, we’ll get the passengers on the boat to cram themselves onto the right hand side. We’ll get the passengers on the enormous sand truck from an early Star Wars film to file down the rickety planked structure, down the gang plank and onto the left hand side of the boat, where they too will cram themselves. Then, we’ll get the passengers on the boat to push their loaded bicycles up the gang plank, along the rickety planked structure and onto the enormous sand truck from an early Star Wars film.


– We’ll interleave the bicycles in a herringbone pattern and they will exactly fill the back of the truck. As for the passengers, they will sit around the sides and we will tell them to be careful of their knees against the bicycles as we bump across the sand.

P6200237 2.JPG

And off we’ll go.

– Exactly! But one more thing. It seems to me essential that the tread of the enormous tyres of the enormous sand truck from an early Star Wars film should be composed of letters that spell out a poem.


As we drive across the sand, we will leave our poem spelt out across it.

– Sounds like a plan.


(Of course, this is fiction. If you can think of a better explanation for this wonderful thing – or even if you know the truth – please let me know.)

Moving to Holland 12/12

bike racks in car rear view mirror dune beach Sint Martenzee 619.JPG

Jan Morris writes in The Venetian Empire that on Naxos in the Aegean, even in the 1950s, there used to be at least one family of the Kastro [a Catholic enclave in an orthodox comity] which, loading the necessary comforts upon strings of mules, set out each spring beneath parasols, attended by servants and household pets, seigneurially through the dusty suburbs for the annual migration to its summer estates in the interior of the island.

The distance from the town of Naxos to the interior of the island, to Apano Kastro for example, is 11 km.

We’ve done a comparable thing.

Emigrating Companion and I loaded our family (Daughter, Son-in-Law and Grandson), the household pet (Emigrating Dog) and the necessary comforts onto my bike and a rented Audi, left our home in Alkmaar and migrated for a week to a summer estate, a comfortable house in the next town, Bergen, 7 km away.

holiday house Breelaan Bergen 619.JPG

Emigrating Dog escaped from the comfortable house four times.

The first time we came back from a trip to the beach and she was not there, having been left in the garden. I walked up and down the road shaking her bag of food and shouting her name. A boy told me that a dog by that name had walked about in the forest and streets for some time and was now to be found penned in by a kind family up a side road.

The medal on Dog’s collar has her name and our phone number. The second time we got a call in the night. Neighbours had found her barking in the street in the night and taken her in.

The third time we got a call on behalf of the same neighbours. Dog had been found on their back lawn, traumatising the chickens.

The fourth time when she shimmied out the front door she ran directly to the neighbours’ chicken house. Luckily the chickens were shut up inside. Luckily the neighbours were out as I noisily pinned her down on the rainy lawn.

On Friday evening we went to the restaurant up the road. Those neighbours were there. They greeted us and Dog with bonhomie that we didn’t deserve. What about living here?, said Emigrating Companion. We are treated well and the houses have gardens.

What else is there to say about our holiday in Bergen?

Instead of pigeons picking up scraps at cafés Bergen has jackdaws, which seem preferable.

jackdaw Bergen 619.JPG

I took my bike to the bike shop and got them to give it Dutch characteristics.


I now have a natty handlebar bag (top left) to increase my bike’s freight capacity and a sturdy stand (bottom right) so I can leave it where I want.


I’ve left my heavy German lock at home because I now have a convenient Dutch one.  Most of the time, the key lives in the lock. When you stop you block the back wheel and remove the key with an easy gesture that makes cycling even more like it should be, even more like breathing. Of course your bike’s easier to nick than if you’d chained it carefully to a street sign as I used to do in Brussels. But a) the bike to street sign ratio is different here; b) no-one else bothers to do that, so your bike is no more vulnerable than any of the other thousands; c) while I love it dearly, my bike’s worthiness to be a prime target for theft is not apparent on its outside.

Although there’s been a fair bit of rain, Grandson and Dog love the beach. We’ve been to the beaches at Bergen-aan-Zee, Camperduin (our favourite) and Sint Maartenszee.

Jumble Camperduin 619.JPG(Dog, Camperduin)

To get into the car park at Camperduin a machine said druk blauwe knop. Press the blue button, I told Son-in-law, our driver. Are you deducing, he said, or do you know what the words mean? I realised that I knew.

bike racks in car rear view mirror dune beach Sint Martenzee 619.JPG(Bike stands in the rear view mirror of the rented car, Sint Maartenszee)

This is the last “moving to Holland”. Once you’ve taken a holiday within a country you’re no longer moving there, I think.

Soon I’ll take another holiday here. Friends from my university days are coming to cycle around watery parts of North Holland and Friesland.

Why do writers compare themselves to plumbers? (Giles Coren, Klaus Ove Knausgaard, Sathnam Sanghera)

In April (https://wordpress.com/post/paulhhodson.wordpress.com/3080) I remarked on how the writers Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sathnam Sanghera set what they do alongside what plumbers do. Now the journalist Giles Coren, in last Tuesday’s Times, is up to the same thing:

Coren: As columnists, we have to sit down week after week and go, “what do I believe very strongly today?” And usually the answer is “nothing, I wish I was a plumber”. 

Knausgaard: What I said was vague and not very good, but it was about literature and that in itself felt cathartic. I imagined it was a bit like how a shy plumber might feel after having to speak all day to the media about himself and his feelings, his family and friends, when at long last, late in the afternoon, he was able to talk about pipes and washers.

Sanghera: My own family don’t read my books! I’m not going to test you! You wouldn’t apologise to a plumber for not having appreciated their work!

postcode plumbers East Lothian 1216.JPG(I took the picture in East Lothian in 2016)