Monthly Archives: October 2018

Iron Cross: an outing for my adapted rules

We tried out my rather extensive house rules for Iron Cross, the WW2 system, last night at the club. It was an attack defence games, using the game’s hidden deployment rules. It was also an outing for quite a few of my 1943 20mm figures and vehicles, since the person with  Normandy ones I had planned to use was ill. Verdict: my gaming friends like the system, but my adaptations need more work.

In my scenario the British were defending a two building farm with an infantry platoon, supported by a mortar, a Vickers machine gun and a six pounder. A separate command was in the rear to offer support, consisting of an M10 and Sherman at first, plus a further three Shermans on Turn 3. The Germans were attacking with two weak infantry platoons (3 sections each) with a pair of mortars, and two tank platoons, one of Panzer IIIs and one of Panzer IVs. I had originally planned to use two Panthers in place of the Panzer IIIs, and for one of the German platoons to be mounted in halftracks, and for the British to have 2 M10s and one Firefly along with two Shermans. But without Bernie’s stuff I had to make substitutes. I did have Tigers available for the Germans, but I thought that would unbalance things a bit, even with just one, without any very strong antitank guns on the other side.

We didn’t get very far, declaring a draw most of the way through the third turn out of what was supposed to be seven. The German armour had fared badly: they lost two Pz IVs and one Pz III as the British opened up on them from concealed positions. Their infantry were slow to get stuck in, but once they did they were making steady progress. All the British armour was still in play, but could it rescue the beleaguered infantry in time?

The first point was that we were slow. according to the rule booklet we should have had time for that size of scenario, as we had four players. I think there was quite a bit of learning curve, but moving each init one by one does make a much slower game the Fistful of TOWs, which we use for micro armour. But it creates a more engaging game. I had each player operating a separate command with two extra tokens, which may be a bit generous – though it did help recreate patchy cooperation between infantry and armour, which is what I hoped. But I’m hoping that we speed up quite a bit.

On the rules, I think the concealed deployment  worked well. I’m sure my simplified firing rules speeded things up, though each firing usually involved two dice throws, and sometimes three. That is part of the core system, so I hesitate to fix it. My indirect fire rules, which we used for mortars, were not particularly intuitive, though the fire was a little less accurate than I thought. The game’s original system isn’t particularly intuitive either, so that’s no great loss. The spotting phase was an extra faff, and could be dropped – but I think this was an important part of how things actually worked. However, we could just go straight to the placement of the marker without the placement throw, once the spotter is activated, and leaving the vagaries to the actual firing. That would cut a dice throw. We also need to be a bit sharper in deciding where a unit is for the purposes of near misses – is the the centre of a section, or the nearest figure? If the latter, then it could lead to a bit of gamesmanship.  Mortar fire wasn’t that effective though – perhaps because there isn’t the automatic morale marker for each hit.

The bit of the rules that my fellow players weren’t happy with was close combat, which arose when the infantry attacked buildings.  The separate morale test, which doesn’t play until the assault phase looked unrealistic. Also my attempt as treating buildings as terrain units, rather than just areas of rough terrain (as the main rules do), was clunky, especially with the rather large building models we were using.  The morale test stage needs to come at activation, not later. The buildings rules need to be rethought. I’m tempted to go back to the original, albeit with clearer guidance, rather than create a whole new structure -as this wasn’t an aspect of the rules that received much criticism.

One other aspect surprised me – that cover seemed to be relatively little use, especially against infantry weapons. This aspect is largely in the original rules, though. Cover doesn’t affect the to-hit throw, and the first morale marker is automatic regardless of cover. Of course troops in cover are as liable to being suppressed as those outside, so there’s some logic to this. But both the 6 pounder and the Vickers gun proved quite vulnerable with a morale rating of just 3. Since this looks like core rules I don’t want to think about fiddling with it until we have started to learn the system better.  And that’s important: it takes a bit of experience to use the rules well. I started to learn that pulling back vehicles into cover after they have fired is useful. This is especially true of vehicles like the M10, which usually don’t last very long on the table because of their thin armour. But classing it as “light” so that it can react better starts to make sense – and you have to deploy it where there’s cover to dodge back into! In fact I forgot to make use of this “light” rating -but then I was also too generous with moving and firing – it should have been 2 off the to-hit throw rather than 1.

Finally there is the issue of scenario design. The attack-defence game format was much more fun than the encounter battles we have tried before. I also thing that keeping armour and infantry in separate commands works well in recreating the difficulties of cooperation between the arms – though this was more of an issue for the Allies than the Germans. In the scenario design this included separate break points. One more lost tank and the German armour would have pulled out! Another aspect of the scenario to think about is terrain.  This worked well enough last night, but I did spend quite a bit of time thinking about it first. One nice feature of the attack-defence format is that the defender has a greater depth of terrain to play with, so the action is spread across more of the table, rather than being a punch-up in the middle. One idea I have for the future is to design scenarios specifically for use with reconnaissance forces. Smaller numbers of lightly armed, but mobile forces on the attack, with spread out defenders, also relatively lightly armed and a fire brigade of some sort. I need to work on the vehicles though!

Waterloo – the Truth at Last by Paul Dawson

This is an utter disaster of a book. I was very critical of Paul Dawson’s companion book on Quatre Bras, but I started this one on the main battle of the campaign more hopefully. But that wasn’t to last. I have gained a few new insights, but I would only recommend this book to Waterloo fanatics who don’t have a blood pressure problem.

Mr Dawson’s claim to have found the truth rests on some new data that he has unearthed in 2016 from the French archives, with unit rolls and casualty reports. The best bit of the book is the Introduction where he explains what these are and what he did with them. If he had confined himself to presenting this material along with some basic interpretation, then this would have been fine. Alas he wanted to write a much bigger book in too short a space of time – a task that would have defeated a more talented writer than Mr Dawson.

What to say? Based on another book I have been reading, it is a very left-brained affair. Right-brained skills of common sense and grounding in context are absent, as is any empathy for the reader, or anybody else. There is a lot of formulaic repetition, and the book is padded out with short biographies of the French participants that really don’t tell you very much at all. A few of these would have provided a bit of colour: repetitive lists should be in an appendix if they are to anywhere, rather than interrupting the main text. A lot of his conclusions look very shaky. For example he rightly puzzles about the high casualties suffered by Donzelot’s division in d’Erlon’s corps. He points out that it was not hit by the cavalry charges which destroyed Marcognet’s division – something that I did not know, but for which he provides compelling evidence. He then assumes it must have come from attacks on the farm of La Haye Sainte. Elsewhere he criticises historians for describing the battle for Hougoumont as a version of Rourke’s Drift. But if he’s right about Donzelot, the battle for La Haye Sainte, was a Rourke’s Drift with muzzle-loading muskets and rifles in place of the Martini-Henrys. In fact the issue is mainly to do with large numbers of men posted as missing – and I suspect this has something to do with being caught by the Prussians at the end of the battle while the French army was disintegrating. That’s just one example of how he makes breathtaking leaps to conclusions, while criticising others for wandering beyond the evidence.

Alas weak analysis and loads of extraneous data are far from the only problems. There appears not to have been an editor. This is not something publishers do these days, so authors have to rely on their own self-criticism and make use of friends. But Mr Dawson doesn’t seem to be a good self critic, and probably was in too much of a hurry to allow friends to do much editing. The book is disorganised (the chapter heads are random), riddled with errors and in places incoherent. There are many quotes, which Mr Dawson mostly leaves uninterpreted (he said something somewhere about letting them speak for themselves). Often these are in the wrong places, sometimes they appear more than once, and frequently  it isn’t clear how he draws the conclusions from them he does. And much of the analysis is contradictory. For example he bangs on quite a bit about how Lobau held off the Prussians for hours near Frischermont, before later concluding that he must have retreated rather rapidly, given his low casualties. There are no maps. Maps are more than just a decoration. They make things much clearer for a reader and force authors to face up to contradictions in the evidence. This failure is evident in his extremely confusing account of the Prussian advance to Plancenoit.  Contrast this with Mark Adkins’s account (which Mr Dawson likes to pick holes in), where maps are central to the narrative, and he presents a clear account of the same episode.  Of course, trying to put together a clear account of this complex battle with its many contradictory sources, with maps, and disciplined editing takes time – and this work was published not much more than a year after its central research. So he should have attempted something much less ambitious.

So what were the useful bits? The new data clearly has value. But it is problematic. The casualty data was compiled in chaotic conditions after large numbers of men had deserted, and others and had been rounded up as prisoners. There are large numbers of missing. So it is very hard to separate the battle from the aftermath. Mr Dawson does try to take this on, but not very successfully. The most useful thing I learned was about d’Erlon’s first attack. I have already mentioned that he shows that Donzelot’s division was not broken by cavalry at this time, which almost every account I have read has suggested. The data also help clarify what happened to the other divisions. This is very helpful. When devising wargames rules, I keep coming back to this episode to see how well any new system copes. That it now appears that the three regiments of the Union Brigade concentrated on just Marcognet’s division (and then moved on to one of Durutte’s brigades) makes much more sense of things. Another valuable insight comes at the end of the book when he looks at the data on the level of experience of the French army. He convincingly shows that it was not composed largely of veterans – but was comparable in experience to the Prussian, Netherlands and Hanoverian contingents (and unlike most of the British, which were in true veteran formations). The Guard seems to have been a shadow of its former self. This is contrary to what many historians have claimed, but does help make sense of both Waterloo and Quatre Bras.  I am also a bit clearer on what happened at Hougoumont, where the involvement of the different French regiments was very variable; not all of them seem to have been fully committed.

That’s about it. I am left with a number of mysteries. First and foremost is the advance of the Prussians. I really can’t make sense of the sequence of events – though Mark Adkins’s version looks entirely plausible. I want to do more work on this, and maybe I will find some nuggets if I trawl back through Mr Dawson’s book. But the absence of evidence from the French side must itself be quite revealing. I haven’t been able to find much from the Prussian side either – and Mr Dawson doesn’t seem to have bothered much with the Prussians, in spite of lecturing us on how important this episode was to the whole battle. This runs alongside the other big mystery of the campaign, which is why the Prussians did so badly at Ligny. One theory, that the French had tougher, more experienced troops is now looking shaky. Back to Waterloo  another mystery is why Bachelu’s attack was beaten back so easily. Mr Dawson makes a big deal on how this episode is overlooked by historians, but doesn’t throw light on how the whole division appears to have been beaten back by four battalions of the KGL in square formation. One theory is that they had been messed up by the fighting in Quatre Bras – but in his other book Mr Dawson suggests that they were not as heavily engaged as many thought. Perhaps they were low on ammunition?

Waterloo is the gift that keeps on giving. You would have thought that after all this time we would be quite clear on what happened. Alas no. This book offers some new evidence, but isn’t worth over 500 pages.

BBB: new house rules

Following my last post, I have produced a new edition of my house rules for Napoleonic wars on the Rules Page. The modifications are now quite extensive, so I have produced a set of design notes to go with it.

Last Monday I ran another club game with my Albuera scenario transposed to Franco-Prussian 1815, where we used these rules. We lasted 5 turns and did not have a decisive result, again. I will need to try other scenarios, but this is clearly a problem. The battles are going on for too long. The extra attrition in infantry combat isn’t having the hoped for effect. Too often infantry is held back. I’m not sure what the answer is. Corps break points would be one approach. In this battle one Prussian corps took almost all the strain, while the other lurked in the background, apart from its cavalry. It was nearly wiped out, but still held on for four turns. Perhaps they should have been treated as fragile as well as Raw – though I don’t think that properly applies to the Prussian originals. I don’t want to introduce such a radical change, though. For now I must think more about scenario design.

Otherwise I think the rules worked pretty well. My fellow players complained that artillery was rather ineffective. But, faithful to the original Albuera, there wasn’t that much of it – two or three units a side. I think the extra flexibility of artillery movement worked well. Replacing Out of Ammo and Silenced with Disrupted worked well, as did the elimination of half-effect firing.

I’m not entirely sure about the new cavalry-infantry combat rules, as they weren’t fully stress-tested. But they induced the right sorts of responses in players. I am cautiously optimistic. On the other hand I am very pleased with my skirmisher rules. Within the limits of BBB mechanisms they work well. Players are being forced into realistic choices – which are important but not too important.

One issue that I probably want to fix in due course is the rules on squares. At the moment the squares behave in combat much as normal formations: they still have flanks for infantry attacks, and there is no all round firing. This is not how players instinctively feel how squares should work, so there is too much that is counter-intuitive. I also think movement restrictions could be clearer. But I don’t want them to be used to provide all-round defence against infantry. I think all round firing could be put in (remembering that it is reduced effect) and the Depth formation in square could have safe flanks against infantry attacks.

I have come across an old scenario book for Shako rules. these look about the right size for the smaller games I want to put on – and I think I can adapt them. And there are two specifically for 1815 Prussians (Wavre and Planchenoit). I am also thinking of trying Shako out itself!