Confessions of an old geek

In my early twenties I encountered home computers, in the form of my boss’s son’s Sinclair ZX81 (1Kb memory).  Amazingly, thanks to a fan magazine, it was possible to find and programme games to play on your home TV with this machine.  This was in the late 1970s.

A few months later I bought a Sinclair Spectrum 48Kb machine.  This one had 8 colours, and with it I taught myself to programme in BASIC.  I also bought a spreadsheet programme which I later used to replace the pencil and paper production planning systems for my employer.  I also bought a book of Commodore 64 games programmes and translated them for use on the Spectrum.  With the idiosyncratic “three band” display screen map used by Sinclair this was not easy!

Later I bought a 128Kb Sinclair QL, which used small disk drives instead of a tape recorder to load and save programmes.

In the mid-1980s my company bought an IBM desktop PC, followed by two “portable” machines, which were the size and twice the weight of a household sewing machine.  Each had a postcard sized orange on black screen, but could be connected to a separate monitor.  They used the new Disk Operating System (DOS) and were loaded from 256 Kb 5¼” floppy disks.  There was no built-in memory storage.  I translated my “Spectrum” spreadsheet to Lotus 1-2-3 and I used to lug one of these to Italy and back each month for planning meetings because our Italian colleagues had no computers.

Our next progression was to a Toshiba “Lap-top” machine.  This had a red on black screen and a keyboard which would be recognisable nowadays.  It was still basically “text only” and relied on the four direction keys rather than a mouse.  We had moved to 3½” disks.

It was around this time (over about 2 years in the late 1980s) that three things happened.

  1. Our Italian company was bought by a Scandinavian company.
  2. The new owners developed a planning system run on a network of IBM AS/400 computers to link factories to sales organisations.  I was on the first training course.
  3. Someone developed e-mail so that everyone could communicate outside the system and thus circumvent it.

By this time Lotus products were being replaced by Microsoft.  I was well skilled in the Lotus versions and had to learn new skills.

Some years later (the mid-1990s) the company planning system was revised and redeveloped using then current ideas for computer-aided-planning.  I was, as a user, partially involved in the development of this, although most of my opinions seemed to be ignored.

Anyway, the new system was implemented and I was again on the first training course.  Soon afterwards a vacancy occurred for a trainer/support person for the new system.  I applied and became part of the support team.  One of my first jobs was to write a user manual.  As a former user I like to think that I struck a balance between what the user needed to know and what they actually wanted to know. I also used to test new developments from a user perspective and suggest small changes to our developers, mainly in the form of screen layout and improved English abbreviated wording (they were Swedish).

I also went on several lecture tours around Europe to spread the gospel and teach the users the new system.  Interesting times, particularly around the former communist countries.  One that remains in memory was a trip to Istanbul where I found the local company, now headed by my former boss from the days when we bought the first desktop, was still using an Excel version of my original Spectrum spreadsheet!

These trips were to continue, covering all new users until around 2000 when the company training budget was slashed and all training was henceforth done remotely and far less efficiently.  In those days you could share your screen but not see (even if you knew) that the trainee was actually reading their e-mails, etc.

One of my major support problems was the “handover” to new users whereby their predecessor passed on what they could remember and then the remnants of that were passed to the next user and so on.  Then I would receive a question: “Why can’t the system do xyz?”.  My reply was usually in the form of: “It can.  Please read page zz of the attached user manual and then call me if you need more help.”  If I received a call back, the manual might be adjusted for greater clarity. I used to maintain daily a set of dummy factories and sales organisations for demonstration purposes.

Entering the 21st century it was decided to introduce a new, off the shelf, modern planning system and phase out the one I had been working with.  I helped with the transition, mainly by resolving differences between a dynamic real-time system and one which should be accurate at midnight (but whose midnight? – this was now running from California to Moscow the long way round!).

Six years ago, in December 2014, and as the world expert in a redundant system designed for the 1990s, I handed over the remains of the support operation and retired.   I was pleased to receive many plaudits from my former friends, customers and fellow workers (all the same group really).  I recently heard that the system has now also been retired, but the historical databases still exist.

It was brought home to me how long I had been in the job when the last person I ever trained said to me: “You started working for this company the year my mother was born!”

Now, as an older person, I still use Word and Excel and occasionally create programmes for my hobby using Visual Basic.  I have e-mail and subscribe to Twitter and Facebook, but often forget which platform I am using, and with which Group I am communicating.

But I can still write you a programme for a ZX Spectrum.

Setting up a “Rolling Campaign”

The first thing you will need is a set of geomorphic gaming boards.  I use “Travel Battle” boards and home-made compatible tiles, “Memoir ‘44” boards, “Squad Leader” Boards and various others.  You will also need a pack of playing cards, including at least one Joker identified for each side.

For the first battle set up two boards at random and decorate them with terrain as you fancy.  Ideas for randomising game boards are to be found elsewhere on this blog but you will have to do your own search.

Now take a pack of playing cards.  Deal 10 cards and refer to the chart below for Second World War battles.  You can create your own chart for your preferred period.  Discard any inappropriate cards for the period or location.  These are the starting forces which may be deployed anywhere on the “player’s board”.  In a head to head game the boards may be separated and forces deployed in secret.

Now your game progresses.  At the end of each turn (after both players have taken their turn), a card is dealt for reinforcements.  The appropriate forces are placed in reserve.  If a joker is dealt, any or all of the reinforcement pool for the appropriate side may be deployed next turn, by accessible roads.  Troops that cannot reach the battlefield this turn are placed off-board beside their approach road.

When one side has lost the battle, by whatever rules you are playing, that side retreats to a random new board placed in whichever direction they happen to be retreating.  Victorious units on the defeated player’s board remain in place.  Those on their “own” board are placed in the reinforcement pool and deemed to be re-supplied.  Their board is removed.

It may be worth noting as the game goes on which boards have been historically used and their “strategic map” location, in case a retreat to those boards is necessary.  Otherwise, it gives no game problem if every retreat is to a random board.

And that’s about it.  Just one extra point.  Dealing a five of diamonds or clubs from my chart provides a supply unit or dump.  I am trying to include supply into my solo campaigns and my idea is that every time a unit scores the highest combat result possible it becomes “short of supply” and may no longer advance or conduct offensive fire, but may defend.  They must be re-supplied by withdrawing to a supply point (or baseline) or be supplied by truck or wagon before becoming effective again.

A review of an old game.

In preparation for a quiet  Christmas at home I have been digging out two-player board games from the attic.

One such is an old “Spears” game: “Quandary”.

The mechanics are simple, but the possibilities are endless.  Well, not really endless, but the starting positions are randomised so there are many million ways a game may start and thus evolve.

The square board is composed of 144 squares in 8 colours.  Each player has 4 pieces, initially placed along his board edge according to the deal of four cards.

Taking alternate turns, each player may move one piece one square forwards, orthogonally or diagonally, but only into a square of the same colour as one of those directly in front of the opponent’s four pieces.  OK so far?

As far as I can see, the pattern of colours is not repeated anywhere on the board.

The object is to get one of your pieces to the opponent’s baseline.  The skill is to move your pieces so as to restrict the opponent’s options.

Here the red player has placed his pieces with only green squares to their front, and blue has no possible moves. Blue must miss a turn.

An absorbing game that takes minutes to learn but hours to perfect.

If you can find a copy, I recommend it.  Now, how can I translate the game system for wargaming?

An apology to bloggers

I would like to apologise to my fellow WordPress bloggers.

Whenever I try to add a comment to your blogs lately I receive the message: “Sorry, this comment could not be posted.”

It appears to be because I share the same platform as you and my iPad uses that ID as an unchangeable default for log in to comment.

Please rest assured tbat your contributions are appreciated.

Working on 1940 in 3mm

I have been looking at how best to represent forces in 3mm/1:600 for 1940 battles, with particular reference to using the “Portable Wargame” rules.

I am using battle boards with a 1”/25mm grid, but my idea is that a game “grid area” will be 2×2 of the smaller squares.  I have been working on re-basing my 3mm models on transparent <1mm thick plastic, using 1 base per strength point.  But for ease of play I am also creating multiple bases.

Thus, awaiting careful (re)painting, avoiding the clear plastic, I now have most of the French units for my next battle.  I need more infantry to complete the full duplication.

Because of the size of these models, to identify them I intend to put a spot of paint representing the appropriate nationality (e.g. blue for French) underneath the plastic base beneath one of the metal bases.  Further ID may be considered, but I think by careful storage and documentation, accompanied by occasional magnification, I can work out what is what!

Mostly unpainted as yet, here is a representative appearance on the game board, with a unit of 2 x 75mm guns, a unit of 3 x S35 tanks, 2 more 75mm guns on the road, 2 units of 16 infantry and one unit of 16 infantry in 4 sub-units, enabling the farm to be shown as occupied.

Careful painting required

Each sub-unit (4 men or 1 gun or 1 vehicle) is 1 Strength Point in the rules.