Grantville Gazette 38

The Game of War

Robert E. Waters

"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

-Sun Tzu

April 1635, somewhere near Zernez, Lower Engadin, Switzerland . . .

Klaus Gremminger stared into the lifeless eyes of General Herman Dettwiler and imagined victory. The arrogant, brash, but well-respected leader of von Allmen's small army was lying dead in his own tent, caught unawares and overrun. Gremminger smiled as he placed his hand over the man's eyes, closed them, and made the sign of the cross. Dettwiler was a Protestant, but he deserved at least a modicum of respect. He'd fought bravely, dogging Gremminger's men from one Alpine pass to the next, and his defense of the narrow road leading to Davos had been more than admirable. But now here he was, in a pool of his own blood, his leg severed by an old French cannon and the left side of his body scarred with saber slashes. It's mine, Gremminger said to himself, making the sign of the cross again. The Fluelapass is mine.

Gremminger turned quickly and pointed a long, sharp finger at a youth standing beside the flap of the tent. "Get the men ready, Amon. We're going to follow those bastards all the way to Davos."

The expression on the boy's face left a cold sting in Gremminger's heart. So too did the cool air flowing into the tent. He winced. It had been mild just this morning, but something had changed. "What is it?"

The boy swallowed and said, "Sir, Captain Galli reports that snow is falling on the Wisshorn and that soon it will be upon us here." He swallowed again, apparently unsure of how to continue. "We cannot pursue in this weather . . . so he says, sir."

Gremminger slammed a fist onto the table where Dettwiler lay, jarring the dead man and jostling his head left to right. He pulled his hand back. Was he still alive? How silly. The general was dead and that was that. Moving his head in such a fashion was nothing more than force upon the table. It was not a response to what Amon had said, nor was Dettwiler mocking him from the afterlife. More likely, Gremminger concluded, Dettwiler's soul was on its way to Hell, where it would rot with the rest of von Allmen's men who had suffered a similar fate during the ambush. And they deserved nothing less than eternal pain for throwing their support behind the Zehngerichtebund, the League of the Ten Jurisdictions, despite the fact that von Allmen's lands and holdings lay within the borders of the Gotteshausbund, the League of God's House.


And now with those devil Americans, who had literally fallen out of the sky in an event being called the Ring of Fire, the Zehngerichtebund and its capital Davos was growing more powerful by the day. They had not officially thrown their support behind the Americans and the USE, but Gremminger knew it was just a matter of time. Gregor von Allmen had, on many occasions, publicly denounced the Hapsburgs, the League of Ostend, and their campaign against the Swedish king and his up-time wizard allies. What was going on inside Germany had not trickled down into Switzerland, into the Grisons, but it was coming. The winds of change were blowing, and it was not a cold, bitter wind like the one ruffling the flap of the tent. It was a wind hot with war, sorrow, blood and smoke.

A courier burst into the tent and stood at attention, a dusting of snow melting on his dark wool coat. The light-haired boy caught his breath and held out a scrap of paper. "A note from Tarasp, My Lord."

Gremminger took it and read it quietly. It was a short note, scribbled hastily with a rich man's quill. Gremminger read it again, and again, and the cold spot in his heart warmed. He was surprised at what the note contained, surprised at who had written it. Then again, the political and military situation in Tarasp, in Austria, and even in Tyrol was infinitely uncertain these days. Competing Hapsburg interests lay everywhere. Who was a friend, a foe? Who knew? He looked at the note again. He was surprised, but pleasantly so. "Do we know yet who has taken command of Dettwiler's men?"

The two boys shook their heads. Amon spoke. "No, sir, not for certain, but we suspect Captain von Allmen. He was the general's personal assistant."

"Thomas von Allmen? Gregor's runt?"

The boy nodded.

Gremminger huffed. "This gets better and better."

He turned back to Dettwiler and smiled into the pale, stiffening face. He read the note again. "All right, Amon," he said. "Spread the word: We'll set camp here and wait out this snow. And then, in a few weeks when the passes reopen, we'll face von Allmen . . . and bleed his army to death."

The boys left the tent. Gremminger looked at Dettwiler's face again, making sure his eyes were closed. They were. Thank God for that.

He read the note again. He loved the words. They were like poetry, verse for the heart. Four little words, initialed by a captain.

The Spanish are coming.



Thomas von Allmen dreamed of Vietnam. It was a recurring dream and one that he had begun having after his return from Grantville. It was a war that had not yet occurred in his time, in a place a world away, dealing with strange, exotic people he had never seen. Yet the dream was always there: the places where Americans and Viet Cong clashed in dense, lush jungles and where bombers rolled like thunder, dropping napalm to scorch the ground in hellfire. The Battle of Bong Son. The Battle of An Lao. The Tet Offensive. Ripcord. Saigon. Men clashing with weapons and materiel only magic could conceive. It was a waste of time for him to lose precious sleep on such a dream when there were far more pertinent ones he might be having. The American Revolution. The Napoleonic Wars. Even the American Civil War was more appropriate to his situation. But perhaps that was why he dreamed of Vietnam, for it took his mind off the reality of his world, his situation. Here he lay dreaming, slumped over a hastily constructed table, covered in cartography roughed out over hexagon paper, cluttered with tiny wooden blocks sporting NATO symbols carved into them like the initials of lovers on a spring tree. He was a member of Charlie Company, Third Platoon, dressed in jungle camouflage. He stepped through the thick underbrush in the humidity of a hot Asian night, caught his boot on a trip-wire, and screamed as his body ripped apart.

He awoke and the white dice clasped in his hand tumbled to the ground. He was not as sweaty as he usually was after such a dream, but perhaps that was because the flap on his tent was open and cool air swept in. It was getting warmer, and the late snows were melting away, but up here among Alpine rock, with the Silvretta Range in view, a cool breeze was a welcome change from the bitter wind that had plagued his disgruntled army.

My army.

The truth of it was just as strange now as it had been when he took command three weeks ago, after General Dettwiler's bitter and untimely death. Despite the odds against it, he had managed to rally the general's routing men and put them into a defensive position around a small village just ten miles east of Davos. Von Allmen shook his head at the memory and scooped up the loose dice. Routing Swiss. It was almost a contradiction in terms, as the Swiss had been known for centuries to be the toughest and most stalwart soldiers on any battlefield. They simply did not retreat, did not give ground or quarter. Swiss mercenaries were the prize possession of any European army, and his men had diminished that reputation.

But he could not blame the men. It wasn't their fault. They weren't to blame for Dettwiler's blunder. Von Allmen had warned his commanding officer about where he had deployed the army, had told him that Gremminger's troops, especially his cavalry, could make the distance from Zernez quicker than he realized. "How do you know such things?" the general had asked. Thomas' simple reply was, "Because I've played it out."

That was the wrong choice of words, Thomas realized now, but it had been too late to fix the error. An hour later, their surprised army was falling back onto itself, desperate to find protection from Gremminger's men who had outflanked a forward advance of fifty pike with flailing sabers, relentless hooves, and snaphaunces. Dettwiler lost his leg and bled out before anyone could do anything . . . and his body was left behind in the chaos and worsening weather. Such a disgrace!

What Thomas should have done from the very start was to pull the general into his tent and show him what he meant, how the narrow road up from Zernez was not as narrow as everyone thought, and that a determined commander could push his troops a little harder and reach the critical road juncture in half the time. Thomas knew this. He knew, because he'd walked that same narrow pass but five months ago and had painstakingly mapped out the road himself on hexagon paper. He knew because he'd played out the ambush with dice and blocks. He knew, because he'd gone to Grantville and studied American methods of war.

He could have easily gotten copies of books that had come out of Grantville. Even in Switzerland, there were plenty of texts about American wars fought from the eighteenth Century up to the Ring of Fire. But that hadn't been good enough. Thomas had needed to see these Americans up close and in person. He needed to divine their secrets by being in their town, by seeing how they walked, how they talked. These up-timers had handled themselves in battle surprisingly well since their arrival. Breitenfeld. Luebeck Bay. The Baltic Sea. It came as no surprise to Thomas that a large part of their prowess in battle was their superior weaponry. The League of Ostend had learned of that power the hard way. But there had to be something more, something tangible and qualitative that could only be discerned by being among them. Thomas had to find out.

So last autumn he had been given permission by his rather reluctant father to visit Grantville (with "quiet" allowances from the USE). General Dettwiler nearly dropped from his chair when he heard. "The kalbfleisch is going off to learn war in a bookshop!" he had said, laughing, shaking his head and slapping his knee. "Be careful not to cut your throat on their wicked parchments, for I would dearly miss my young, bookish, half-baked boy!" Thomas was happy that he could give the old mercenary such a cozy chuckle, but patiently took his leave before anything else was said. General Dettwiler was a skilled field soldier and mercenary and he had fought bravely on many battlefields. But he lacked imagination, and that, Thomas knew, was the future of warfare. With the arrival of the Americans, everything had changed.

He did not find what he was looking for initially. Day after day he pored over the books, much to the curiosity of the librarian Marietta Fielder, who watched him arrive each morning and then leave each night. There were dozens upon dozens of books and old war movies, some with amazing pictures and footage showing the allied offensive in the Argonne Forest during World War I, and the landings of the US 29th Infantry Division at Omaha Beach, World War II. He marveled at the bravery of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, and sat glaring in terror at a mushroom-shaped cloud over a Japanese city called Hiroshima. Page after page and reel after reel of war stories and eye-witness accounts. It was slow going with his elementary knowledge of English, but he pressed on, with eyes blood-red and weary by each day's end. He could not find what he was looking for. What was he looking for? He asked himself again and again. What do I hope to find? He knew the answer, but was afraid to admit it. I want to learn how to fight. I want to learn how to beat Gremminger and his Ostend dogs! But the answers were not lying there on the pages of those marvelous books or in the bright images of those wonderful films.

He was about to "throw in the towel," as the American expression went. Then he saw two boys, only five or six years younger than he, sitting in a corner hunched over a table covered with a map, with tiny pieces of cardboard strewn around in hexagon-shaped locations. It was a map of Europe and Northern Africa. It was a better-looking map than many hanging in the richest homes in Zurich. The boys were talking, ribbing each other, throwing dice and checking charts and tables. Occasionally they would move the cardboard pieces, flip them over, add new ones to this country or that, and were having a grand old time generally. Thomas hadn't realized just how close he'd gotten to them until one of them spoke.

"Hey, man, you're hogging the light!"

Thomas had no idea what that meant, but he backed away. "May I ask? What are you doing?"

He spoke in broken English, which neither seemed to understand fully. He tried again slower and with more care.

They nodded but were surprised at the question. One of the boys screwed up his face as if he'd bitten a lemon. "We're playing a game."

"A game?"

"Yeah. Have you never played a game before?"

Thomas nodded. He knew chess and was himself a pretty fine player, but he had never seen anything like this. "What kind of . . . game?"

They looked at each other. Then one said, "A wargame."

Kriegspiel? He'd never heard of anyone playing that on a tabletop. Chess was considered an abstract form of war, of course, but this? This seemed much more complicated and exacting, and he was enthralled.

So he sat with them and watched for the next three hours, studying their moves and listening to them talk. When they took a break, he asked questions, studied the pieces. "What do all these symbols mean?" he asked, and they pointed out each number, each symbol on the front and back of the counters. Some were infantry units; others, armor or artillery. The unit size of each counter ranged from Division up to Corps and Army. They were playing a "Strategic-Level World War II" game, one that had been donated to the library by friends of a young man named Larry Wild who had died in a naval battle just over a year ago. Thomas was so fascinated by this game that he found himself talking to them about his own problems.

"What you need are some good pike and shot or Napoleonic miniatures rules," said the boy named Joe Straley as he dumped his German counters into their plastic bag.

"Yeah," said the other boy, Sandy Eckerlin, as he folded up the map. "Something with a small unit count, something on the tactical level."

Thomas shook his head. "How do I find those?"

Sandy put the bag back into the game box and scratched his head. "I don't know. Let's see if there are any on the shelves."

Alas, there were not. Larry Wild's collection included many wargames, but no miniatures rules. "Well, no problem," said Joe. "We can figure something out."

For the next two days, they used one of the research rooms and hammered out some rules, decided that using a hexagon-based movement system (like the game they had been playing) was the best approach. A half mile per "hex" seemed appropriate; the distances between Davos and Zernez and its surrounding smaller towns weren't excessive; thirty to thirty-five miles at the most. They discussed the kinds of weapons the armies had, the number of men, the appropriate movement speeds of foot versus cavalry versus cannon. Sandy recommended that they find some old army men and glue them to bases to serve as "proxies" for Thomas' soldiers. Joe laughed. "Are you kidding? Who's gonna believe German grenadiersposing as Swiss pike?"