Category Archives: Scenario Design Module

The State of the Game

Grant’s Overland campaign that began at the Wilderness and ended at Petersburg. It can be argued that Grant did not win one battle but, clearly, achieved a great strategic victory. This was the beginning of the end for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the beginning of the end of the American Civil War. Map by Hal Jespersen (, found on Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

I had just sat down to write this blog when a derecho,1)Ironically, the first person to use the Spanish word “derecho” to describe this type of storm was Gustavus D. Hinrichs, a German immigrant who settled in my hometown of Davenport in 1861. with wind speeds that peaked at 117 mph, flattened much of Iowa and dropped a hundred year old maple tree on my ’98 mustang. We also lost power and internet for a week. I spent much of that time reading old favorites including Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant. Porter, who served on Grant’s staff during 1864-5, provides a first person account of many extraordinary events from the start of the Overland Campaign to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Admittedly, the 19th century prose does get a bit flowery at times, but the he was actually there when it happened aspect of this memoir makes it invaluable.

I was struck by this passage from the beginning of the campaign and how it felt like what I wanted to write about to explain where we are on completing General Staff:

“[Grant] said,… “The only time I ever feel impatient is when I give an order for an important movement of troops in the presence of the enemy, and am waiting for them to reach their destination. Then the minutes seem like hours.” – Campaigning with Grant

At this point Grant was now General in Chief, commander of all U. S. armies including the Army of the Potomac. Orders had been issued and every U. S. army was to be on the march at this very moment and there was nothing more that Grant could do. Grant was confident that his plan would ultimately be successful. If we look at the map of the Overland campaign (above) we see that Grant wanted to fight Lee in the open. If that was not possible he would move by his left and Lee would have to respond. Eventually, Lee would be forced to entrench around Richmond and Petersburg and Grant would trap him. It was like a chess master looking sixteen plies ahead: there was nothing Lee could do, his defeat was inevitable.

There are two programmers coding General StaffAndy O’Neill is working on the actual game from my design documents and me (I’m working on AI).  Andy specializes in Microsoft Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) development of business applications. General Staff is a wargaming system that utilizes multiple interlocking programs (like Microsoft Office) so it is logical to use Microsoft WPF for development. Andy is literally a  Microsoft gold medal developer. Andy also specializes in the Model-View-View Model (MVVM) development technique. This is a method commonly used in Microsoft business applications.  Despite repeated efforts to learn MVVM I confess that I am just an old coder, set in my ways, and I can’t get it. While Andy and I both write in the C# programming language, it’s best if I do not muck about with Andy’s code. What I do is write AI routines in C# and Andy imports them into his code.

In early July or late June Andy, who lives and works in Liverpool, England, fell very ill with an undefined infection. He became very dizzy and nauseous and was unable to write any code for over a month. Andy reports that he is now, “sort of…nearly…better.”

And this is why I felt like Grant on May 2, 1865: there wasn’t anything I can do to move the game forward. I’m working on the AI Engine and researching battles, maps and OOBs but that’s it. And then we lost power and the internet for a week.

My wife says that when I can’t work I get, “very testy.” Grant, however, outwardly was imperturbed. This is how Porter describes him this day:

General Grant Whittling Again – Civil War Reenactor Kenneth Serfass portraying Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant whittling at the site of Grant’s headquarters knoll at the Battle of the Wilderness. 150th Anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness, 1864-2014

“… most of the day he sat upon the stump of a tree, or on the ground, with his back leaning against a tree. The thread gloves2)It is assumed that Mrs. Grant gave him the gloves. Grant wore them out whittling and never wore them again. remained on his hands, a lighted cigar was in his mouth almost constantly, and his penknife was kept in active use whittling sticks. He would pick up one small twig after another, and sometimes holding the small end away from him would rapidly shave it down to a point, at other times he would turn the point toward him and work on it as if sharpening a lead-pencil, then he would girdle it, cut it in two, throw it away, and begin on another.” – Campaigning with Grant

So, in summation, almost nothing has been done in the last six weeks to move development of the actual game (what we call the Game Engine application) forward. For this I can only sincerely apologize and repeat what you know: there’s only two of us coding it and when the lead coder falls ill everything stops.

What’s Going on with the Scenario Editor?

There are three stand alone programs that create data files used by the General Staff Game Engine: The Army Editor, the Map Editor and the Scenario Editor. The first two have long been available to early backers. What’s holding up the release of the Scenario Editor?

The Scenario Editor is actually done, and has been completed for some time. I use it to create the scenarios that you’ve seen and that I use to test the AI:

Screen shot of Antietam with battle groups, range of influence and objectives displayed. Click to enlarge.

So, why haven’t we released it? Because as we (that is to say, Andy) works on the Game Engine we discover that we need to make changes in the data files. For example, I left out the time it takes for a unit to change formations. To correct this, we need to add that value to the scenario data files and that, in turn, means a change to the Scenario Editor, itself. And, even worse, it means that previously created scenario files are no longer compatible and have to be redone. Andy, specifically, said he didn’t want to make the Scenario Editor available to early backers for this very reason: you could lose your earlier work.

So, in conclusion, again please allow me to apologize for these delays. There will inevitably be more delays before General Staff is completed. But, like Grant at the beginning of the Overland campaign, I am supremely confident in our inevitable success. Grant famously said at this time, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”  It actually took all summer, fall, winter and next spring before Lee surrendered. But the ultimate success of the campaign was never in doubt.

And, as always, please feel free to email me directly at Ezra [at]

References   [ + ]

1. Ironically, the first person to use the Spanish word “derecho” to describe this type of storm was Gustavus D. Hinrichs, a German immigrant who settled in my hometown of Davenport in 1861.
2. It is assumed that Mrs. Grant gave him the gloves. Grant wore them out whittling and never wore them again.

“What Ifs” at Little Bighorn

I‘m used to learning a lot when researching a battle but nothing prepared me for the ‘what ifs’ of Little Bighorn. My doctorate is in computer science but I have been an American Civil War buff since I was about five years old. I’m very familiar with brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer’s achievements during the Appomattox campaign where he commanded a division that smashed Pickett’s right flank at Five Forks. I knew that after the war Custer returned to his previous  rank in the U. S. Army of Lt. Colonel, that he fell under a cloud with U. S. Grant, was stripped of his command, and had to beg for it back from President Grant, himself, at the White House.

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer taken May 1865. Credit: Civil war photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.  Click to enlarge.

And, of course, I knew of the debacle at the Little Bighorn.

After I wrote UMS, the first computer wargame construction system, users began to send me Little Bighorn scenarios that included Gatling guns. I assumed that these were science fiction ‘what if’ scenarios. such as a story I read back in the ’60s about what if Civil War units had automatic weapons from the future. But, recently, while reading Stephen Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer I learned that General Alfred Terry, Custer’s superior and the commander of the expedition, had indeed offered Custer not just three Gatling Guns (manned by troops from the 20th Infantry 1)The Guns Custer Left Behind; Historynet
) but four extra troops from the 2nd U. S. Cavalry.  Custer turned down Terry’s offer of reinforcements and more firepower with these infamous words:

“The Seventh can handle anything it meets.” – Custer to Terry

Photo taken by F. Jay Haynes of one of the Gatling guns that were available to the 7th Cavalry. Click to enlarge.

Screen capture of the Order of Battle of the 7th US Cavalry with the addition of 3 Gatling guns and 4 companies of the 2nd US Cavalry. Click to enlarge.

As for the battle of Little Bighorn, itself, I didn’t know much more than the broad outline that Custer and his command were killed to the last man by an overwhelming number of Native American warriors (this, of course, wasn’t correct as members of Reno’s and Benteen’s columns survived). Custer, himself, was the text book image of hubris and became the butt of late night comedians and humorous pop songs. But the reality turned out to be much more complex and nuanced.

Custer had a reputation of being dashing, headstrong, and gallant; the iconic description of a cavalry commander. The traditional narrative of the disastrous battle of Little Bighorn is that Custer impulsively attacked a vastly superior enemy force; possibly propelled by a belief that Native American warriors were no match for organized cavalry armed with 45-70 trap door carbines. Indeed, Napoleon’s maxim was that, “twenty or more European soldiers armed with the best weapons could take on fifty or even a hundred natives, because of European discipline, training and fire control.” 2)Crazy Horse and Custer” p. 425 Stephen Ambrose To make matters worse, Custer had pushed the 7th mercilessly and by the time they arrived at the battlefield both men and horses were exhausted.

Custer’s plan of attack is also widely condemned as overly optimistic. He split his command of 616 officers and enlisted men of the 7th cavalry into three battalions. If the four companies of 2nd Cavalry had come along, Custer’s force would be 30% larger.3)Ibid The main force led by himself would be the right flanking column, Reno would have the left flanking attack column and Benteen and the pack train would be in the middle.  Custer also drastically underestimated the Native American force at about 1,500.

In theory, Custer’s plan of attack wasn’t that bad:

  • If Custer was up against a force that was only two or three times his size and
  • If Reno had pressed home his attack drawing the Native American warriors east toward him and
  • If Custer had been able to cross the Little Bighorn above the Native American camp and
  • If Custer had been able to attack the village while the warriors were engaged with Reno

Custer might have, indeed, had a great victory that would have propelled him to the US Presidency (as he had hoped). But none of these suppositions were correct.

Screen shot of the General Staff Scenario Editor where the battle of Little Bighorn scenario is being set up. Not the Order of Battle of the 7th Cavalry (with attached units of the 2nd Cavalry and Gatling guns) on the left. Units are positioned by clicking and dragging them from the Order of Battle Table on the left onto the map. Click to enlarge.

So, the question remains: what value for Leadership would you give to Custer?

Screen shot of the General Staff Army Editor showing the slider that sets the Leadership value for a commander. What value would you give Custer? Click to enlarge

By the way, there will be three separate Little Bighorn scenarios for the General Staff Wargaming System: historically accurate Order of Battle for the 7th Cavalry, the 7th Cavalry plus four companies of the 2nd US Cavalry and 7th Cavalry plus four companies of the 2nd US Cavalry and 3 Gatling guns.

References   [ + ]

1. The Guns Custer Left Behind; Historynet
2. Crazy Horse and Custer” p. 425 Stephen Ambrose
3. Ibid

A Friend In Need Is a Friend Indeed

There’s a joke in the movie, What’s Up Doc? that goes something like this; “So you’re a doctor of music are you? Can you fix a broken record player?” “No.” “Well, sit down then!” Yes, I really do have a doctorate in computer science but that hardly means I know everything about computers (just watch me trying to fix my wife’s old machine running Windows XP). The higher up you go on the academic ladder in computer science the more you deal with algorithms, optimization and ‘big ideas’ and the less you do with learning the latest Microsoft programming environment.

When I began programming General Staff two years ago I decided to write it in Microsoft WPF (Windows Programming Foundation). This ensures that the program will run as a ‘standard’ Windows program and there shouldn’t be any compatibility issues. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no experience with WPF but, as I’ve done all my life, I gamely plunged in and started learning as I went.

For the most part things went pretty well and when I ran into trouble there was the Microsoft Developer’s Forum to ask for help. However, about a month ago, I had really coded myself into a corner and when I asked for advice about how to straighten out the visual representation of an Order of Battle Table a very nice gentleman by the name of Andy O’Neill kindly stepped in, took a look at my code and explained that I was doing it all wrong.

Andy is a superstar of the Microsoft Developer’s Forum. He is ranked in the top 0.1%, has 10 gold awards, 14 silver awards and 19 bronze awards. He was awarded the gold medal for the Microsoft Technical Guru in April 2015.

But, most importantly, Andy is a wargamer and knows what an Order of Battle Table is! 

Andy lives in Liverpool, England just up the hill from Strawberry Fields and John Lennon’s house. While, professionally Andy is known for his work with business application development, data visualization (and, really, isn’t this what a wargame is?), point of sale chip and pin credit card integration and end consumer applications (especially GUI, or Graphical User Interface), it’s his interest in table top wargaming that makes him invaluable to the General Staff project.

Andy has been involved in table top wargaming since the ’70s and his main area of interest is 1/72 WW2 skirmishes but he’s also interested in Fantasy, Ancients, the Seven Years War, Ultra Modern, Monster Rampage, Darkest Africa and the Boer War. He also works on modifying rule sets.

Below are some of Andy’s incredibly detailed miniatures:

With Andy’s expertise we have made a number of important changes to the underlying data files used in General Staff. This will result in a much more robust Windows program. Furthermore, Andy has made some substantial contributions to the user interface making the entire process of creating armies and scenarios much more intuitive and user friendly.

I can’t thank Andy O’Neill enough for all his help.



Using General Staff to Create a Simulation of the Battle of Isandlwana (January 22, 1879)

We recently asked you for your favorite 18th and 19th century (‘Age of Gunpowder’) battles to be included free for early backers of General Staff (see this link). We don’t want to spoil any surprises, but the Battle of Isandlwana was one of the top vote-getters.

Screen shot of the General Staff Scenario Design Module showing how to edit specific unit type versus unit type combat equations. In this example Blue Light Infantry (Zulu regiments) have been adjusted downward. Click to enlarge.

The Battle of Isandlwana is an especially challenging scenario to simulate because of the difference in technology (the British were armed with Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles while the Zulu warriors carried the traditional assegai iron spears and cow-hide shields). Yet, there are ‘Light Infantry’ unit types in both the Red and Blue forces, but clearly there is a very big difference between the Red (British) Light Infantry and the Blue (Zulu) Light Infantry units.

General Staff, which is based on the UMS Wargaming System, has the ability to adjust a unit’s combat firepower versus other unit types (see the above screen capture). In the above image we have set Blue’s Light Infantry (Zulu regiments) with a lower Attack Multiplier representing the Zulu troops lack of muskets and rifles. This matrix is available from the General Staff Scenario Design Module.

Screen capture of the British army Order of Battle for Isandlwana . Click to enlarge.

In the above screen capture from the General Staff Army Design Module we see a portion of the British Order of Battle at Isandlwana. The question is: what should Leadership, Morale and Efficiency be set for each of these units? How good were British commanders? What was the morale of native troops? How efficient were they? We would love to hear your comments.