Monthly Archives: October 2019

Big Napoleonic Battles – nearly there!

Our club game on Monday night

A couple of weeks ago I reported I had taken the radical step of creating a set of standalone Napoleonic rules, based on our house rules for Bloody Big Battles. For the time being I have christened these rules as Big Napoleonic Battles, until I can think of something better. At our club game this week we used the next iteration of these rules. And the verdict from my club colleagues is that they are nearly there. After the next series of tweaks I will post a copy here.

The scenario was one I put together in a hurry, and wasn’t helped by being caught in a horrendous traffic jam on the South Circular on the way. With five players (including one brand new one), each with two or three units plus artillery, we completed five moves, which was the limit I placed on the scenario. I am understanding how to design games that can be completed comfortably on a club evening, where we are limited to two and a half hours. The multiplayer aspect doesn’t speed things up as much as it might, since there is still a tendency for players on the same side to wait for each other. It also helped that I limited unit size to four bases. I hope that can I increase to four units per player, so that we can get bigger games, but the five move limit feels right. It is meant to represent 5 hours of real time, which in 1815 was the length of both Ligny and Quatre Bras – as well as the Prussian involvement in Waterloo.

Now that I have a game that my colleagues like, I am going to put my Napoleonic rule-writing on hold. Doubtless I will want to make small tweaks to BNB, or write some special rules to cover particular situations, such as strongholds (i.e. farmhouses, churches, etc turned into defensive structures). Perhaps extra rules on generals would add appeal. But my more ambitious thoughts on a new turn and movement mechanism will wait. I will switch my rule-writing to another era: WW2 probably.

The scenario had two Prussian corps, each one regular infantry, one landwehr and one cavalry unit and two artillery bases, defending a town, in a position with flanks anchored by a river and village on one side and a dense wood on the other. Attacking them where two French corps, each with two infantry units and two artillery bases, one with a cavalry unit. In addition there was a reserve cavalry corps with one unit of cuirassiers and one of dragoons, both classed as veteran (all other French were trained) and the cuirassiers classed as aggressive. The objective was to take the town in five moves.

The Prussians took a bit of a battering but held out pretty well. The town changed hands several times. I was a bit worried that French cavalry superiority would dominate, and indeed gave the Prussians their second cavalry unit at the last minute in order balance things better. But the cuirassiers performed poorly, in spite of having a +2 advantage on close combat. The Prussian artillery kept stopping them, and they threw badly in combat. The extra Prussian cavalry unit, on the other flank, contributed very little except as an artillery target.

The main rule feature on trial were rules on town combat. Each town block can only be occupied by a single infantry unit (and only attackable by one infantry unit at a time), and any loss on close combat would result in the attacker capturing it. The town provided good cover against fire, but only -1 in close combat. Though some details need to be tweaked, this worked very well. It changed hands on most attacks, with the attackers only to be turned out by an immediate counterattack. This is pretty realistic – historically this would only be complicated by the presence of a strongpoint. But rules to cater for such things would not be simple, and I am leaving it until later.

I have still have questions over the treatment of elite formations. The +2 for the cuirassiers looked a bit rich. That isn’t a problem with the rules as much as one of scenario design. In fact the indifferent performance of that unit showed that I may be worrying too much.

Which leads to the observation that there’s no getting away from the fact that these rules are very dice-heavy, even though they don’t take the fistful of dice approach (you never throw more than two at a time). The same scenario is likely to play very differently if repeated. Personally I don’t mind this: historians are too quick to suggest that historical outcomes are inevitable. Surprising events often happened. But tastes vary. Some of my colleagues loved it when their cunning plan failed because they threw a double one; others were frustrated when a blast on canister fire completely failed to register.

The game went so well that my friends asked for another game next week. I can’t ask for a stronger endorsement that that!

Back to BBB: American Civil War

Last night at the club we played a game put on my regular club colleague Terry, using his American Civil War figures, and based loosely on the battle of Peachtree Creek. We went back to the original, unmodified Bloody Big Battles rules. This is interesting since I’ve spent so much energy rewriting these rules for the Napoleonic era, so that they are now far distant from the original.

The game confirmed my contention that BBB is fine for the era it was designed for (the second half of the 19th Century) but flawed for earlier battles. The game played very well. There were four of us with half a dozen infantry units a side, plus artillery. We easily accomplished five moves, at which point it was clear that the Confederate attack had failed, in spite of relative unfamiliarity with this version of the rules.

What is so different about this era? First is that firing is much more important. Infantry weapons are more lethal because the are effective over a much longer range: 9in rather than 3in, reflecting the use of rifled muskets. We represented two Union units as having early breech-loaders, which gave them extra lethality at short range. This extra range meant there was much more firing, featuring occasional base losses. Artillery was more effective too, especially rifled guns. There was more of it too – in original BBB each base represents twice as many guns as in our Napoleonic rules. One Confederate division was wiped out by artillery fire alone.

We were left with one of our frustrations with these rules: inflicting a disruption on a unit has no effect if it is already disrupted, rendering much fire ineffective. But in context that seemed to matter less. One aspect of the rules was striking though: the effect of the “out of ammo” provision, which happens when units throw an 11 or 12 in firing. In our rules we have replaced this with a disruption, which is not far from mimicking its effect on artillery. But for infantry the effect is halve its firepower and it is very hard to shake: the unit must spend a move out of range of the enemy. This is nearly impossible in such a closely-fought game with such long weapons ranges. It is not a bad way of representing the progressive fatigue of troops, when the other method, base loss, is more drastic. Both units of breech-loaders suffered this, though not before some serious damage had been done to their opponents. This was quite neat example of play balance: not allowing an advantage and lucky throwing to get out of hand.

The game itself revolves around lots of dice throws, whose effects can be dramatic: movement throws, firing and melee. However over time these tend to balance out, and the rules overall do feel well constructed and balanced. It is interesting that when applying them to a slightly different era that this balance seemed to fall apart, especially when we tried to adapt them to the rather different role played by cavalry, and the effect of cavalry on infantry.

The small arms ranges used in this game are interesting. Nine inches is about 1,350m, or over three-quarters of a mile. Rifled small arms were technically effective at these ranges, but I doubt that such long range fire was important, and the ranges have been extended for games purposes. They doubtless represent a rather more dispersed use of forces than represented by the bases on the table. On that basis the Napoleonic ranges could be extended to six inches – and yet that would run counter to the feel of the era. Napoleonic battles were largely about tightly managed masses of infantry (and cavalry) engaging at relatively close ranges. Skirmishers were used extensively, but the three inch range (450m) captures this, as the actual effective range was under one inch.

Our conclusion is that we will use original BBB for future ACW games. If we ever get into the Bismarck Wars, we can use them there too. I did try them in a solo game for an 1866 encounter between Prussians and Austrians, and they were similarly entertaining then. But we’ll use our new rules for Napoleonics: we plan another game of these next week.

A big step towards own-brand Napoleonic rules

At the start. Three Prussian columns converge

Regular followers will know that I have been trying to develop my own rules for Napoleonic army-level games, and that meanwhile I have using “house rules” to adapt Bloody Big Battles (BBB) to the Napoleonic era. These two ideas have taken a big step towards convergence when we played a game using a draft version of new rules which are a rewrite of the BBB house rules, with further modifications, and are free-standing. The umbilical cord with BBB has been cut.

This follows a change in my thinking on the project. I have quietly been drafting more radical Napoleonic rules in parallel with the BBB house rules, though the two sets overlap. A couple of excellent articles in October’s Miniature Wargames have forced on me some home truths about wargames rules. First was by Conrad Kinch on the features of successful rules systems. This told me what I really knew already, that any rules I develop will attract no more than a few hobbyists of a certain age. To develop them into something more mainstream I would have to team up with people who have the time and inclination to create a more complete offer. Still it has got me thinking about how you might create a successful army-level Napoleonic game. One point made by Conrad is the strong link to successful rules and the miniatures. I use 15mm (or 18mm in fact) for a number of reasons, not least is that I already own hundreds of them. Nowadays, though, the big fashion is for 28mm. This really won’t do for army-level games without a massive table. In fact even 15mm is too big. A system based on 6mm or 10mm would look better, especially if a range of terrain aids, like battle mats and so on, could be developed to give the games a really good look without having to invest enormous amounts of time and money.

Very interesting, but the second article was more directly relevant to my project: Core Mechanics in Game Design, by Joseph A McCollough, who wrote fantasy rules Frostgrave, amongst many others. His theme is that rules should focus innovation onto one or at most two core mechanisms, which dictate the flavour of the game, while leaving the rest to be generic. There is much wisdom in this. Having started to play at the club (South London Warlords) I have learnt much about developing rules systems that get buy-in from other gamers. Too much innovation creates bafflement and confusion; a more moderate amount generates interest and intrigue. There is another point which Joseph doesn’t make. The more innovation, the bigger the tendency for bugs and unforeseen problems, which can either lead to major delays, or to systems that don’t work (I can think of at least one of those…).

The core mechanism for BBB is the Movement Throw, as it is for the Fire and Fury system it is based on. This is where players’ decisions are mainly focused. Each player picks a unit takes the Movement Throw, which dictates how far the unit can move, and whether it rallies from disruption. The rest of the system has its quirks but is pretty generic and doesn’t need to involve players in much decision making. In my parallel rules project I have a number of innovative ideas, but there is a clear core mechanism, which is based on orders and activation. What I need to do is to keep the rest of the rules simple and generic.

Which brings me to my development of BBB. I am calling this Big Napoleonic Battles (BNB) for now. This retains the BBB core mechanism, but refines the generic mechanisms around it. Generally speaking these mechanisms are simpler (and even more generic) than BBB (a lot of which is down to the simpler technology of the era being represented). The exception is cavalry, which needs a new set of outcomes and modifiers for combats between it and infantry, and where squares are incorporated. What I hope to achieve down the road is a merger between these generic mechanisms and my new core mechanism.

The development of BNB has been interesting. Rewriting the rules has offered the opportunity to tidy up a lot minor aspects. Compared to our previous house rules, the main changes are the dropping of skirmishers, as discussed in my last post, and a new movement system, based loosely on Sam Mustafa’s Blucher. I also changed the Zone of Control rules a bit (what happens when opposing units get close to each other). I had to finish them in a hurry, so they are untidy with lots of typos, etc. For that reason I’m not publishing just yet.

The game? It was for five players. I gave each a corps (two French and three Prussian) consisting of two infantry units and two batteries, and for four of them a cavalry unit; the fifth, the central Prussian unit, had two large infantry units instead. The idea was that the Prussians were converging on the French and had to capture a river crossing and the crossroads behind it in 6 turns, before French reinforcements would arrive (not part of the game). The forces were based loosely those at Ligny in 1815, but the scenario came out of the air. It went pretty well. The six moves were completed before 10pm, which was what was required. At long last I found that the players were able to do much of their gaming without me (as games master) needing to explain it. Doubtless a few details were missed, but the flow was a bit quicker. The size of the player commands was right for the length of game – though larger commands could be attempted with fewer players. The Prussians were able to storm the river crossing at Turn 5, and the French position in the centre was close to collapse (though it was better to their right), but the crossroads was not under serious threat. The Prussian players said they didn’t realise that it was part of the objective. Nevertheless I thought the main problem was that they didn’t press hard enough and got too distracted by the French cavalry.

Two main aspects of the rules need fixing. When it came the Prussian storming of the bridge was a bit too easy. It wasn’t quite as unbelievable as the French player suggested, as there had been quite a bit of preparatory shooting, and no doubt the French garrison was feeling ground down. Also the movement rules didn’t quite work for half moves in the “Manoeuvre” category for more complex moves. Another complaint was an old one, that firing too often drew a blank. In principle that could be dealt with evening out the fire results (so making it less devastating for high throws) – something it might be worth experimenting with. But overall I was very pleased with this first outing.

Finally some thoughts on the appearance. I am trying to think of ways to make the game look better, even on a club night. The game was set up with standard club equipment: the map, the roads and the river. I supplied the bridges (10mm TimeCast) and buildings (6mm Total Battle Miniatures). The biggest issue is the mat (from Tiny), partly because it represents prairie rather than European fields, and also because it is thin and shiny. I’m not a fan of the trees either – these are standard wargames items, and very robust (so very suitable for club stock), but based on the shape of single trees out in the open. They work a lot less well for woods, even when grouped at the edge, as I tried to do. I did not even attempt hills – increasingly looking to use proxies to achieve a similar effect. I think the next step is to look for a felt mat that achieves a nice generic field pattern.

At end. Th French have stormed the bridge.