A new version for BBB

Foe some months I have been planning a new version of my house rules to cover Napoleonics for the Bloody Big Battles rules. Recently I drafted a version and tried them out at the club on Monday night. There are some issues to fix, but I think I’m making progress.

The changes represent a further migration away from the core BBB system, which is derived from the Fire and Fury ACW rules. However, there are some simplifications, making them shorter than the earlier version, and reverting back to the original in places. I like it when that happens – you know you are onto something when rules get simpler.

The biggest change is to make disruption cumulative. In the original system if a unit suffers disruption when it is already disrupted then nothing happens. In the new system the unit can acquire a second disruption marker. If it gets a further disruption then a base is removed (and the unit remains disrupted with a single disruption marker). A double disruption result may arise from firing or assault – if so a unit that is already disrupted (single or double) will lose a base, and retain a single disruption. A double disruption can be cleared through the movement throw, but it takes an extra half move.

This change makes firing and assault more lethal, so I adjusted both to compensate. On the fire table the bottom 1s (for single base loss) in each column were replaced by DDs for double disorder. I tried something more radical on the Assault table: the new system allows more increments in terms of losses – so in the +3 to -3 range each result has a different outcome. For -1/0/+1 the result is both sides suffer disruption, with the losing side falling back 3in; for a draw there is a further round of combat. For +2/-2 the loser takes a double disruption and falls back 3in, with the winner taking a single disruption. For +3/-3 it is similar except that the loser takes a base loss and the winner a double disruption. This table is intermediate between the original one (which we were still using for cavalry combats) and the house infantry table, which had base losses for both sides except the draw. So I decided on the radical step of moving back to one table for all combats. Cavalry attacks on infantry (which used a third table) were tweaked with some special rules on squares.

A second area of change was on formation changes. Here the main rules and artillery rules were re-merged, by infantry and cavalry taking on the new artillery rule. That means units can do two out of three of move, offensive fire or change formation, without any half-effect to either movement or firing. This is simpler and more flexible. There is a possible abuse: a unit could march up to musket range in march column, and snap into line or depth without the other side intervening except with defensive fire. So I added an opportunity charge rule, by which units changing formation within 6in of enemy units may be subject to a charge instead of defensive fire.

The third main area of alteration was skirmishers. Units don’t now have to break down one of their formed bases to deploy skirmishers. The skirmish bases live behind the unit when not deployed. Also normal firing rules apply when a unit with skirmishers is hit: the unit may suffer disruption, rather than removing a skirmish base. A skirmish base is removed whenever a main base is removed. This is simpler and tidier. I did like the idea of players choosing whether to put strength into the skirmish line or keep in the main body, but that was one too many more things for players to think about, and they never really engaged with it.

There was also a tweak on artillery fire, with bouncethrough fire allowed 3in beyond the main target, at reduced effect. The main effect will be that infantry can’t shelter behind artillery batteries with impunity, as happened in our Shiloh game. Finally I had written some special rules on artillery units close-supporting infantry in the earlier version. In fact I rediscovered a bit of the original rules about infantry and cavalry units supporting artillery units, which did much the same job, so I reverted to this.

So overall the new version is simpler and in many cases closer to the original, though the cumulative disruption and formation change rules are a change to the core system.

How did they play on Monday night? It was a question of so far so good. The skirmish rules need a bit of tidying up. This is about when they affect assaults, which wasn’t all that clear. Also I need to be clear about when you measure distances to the skirmish screen and when to the main body, though this was intuitively obvious. In the game I let the French player keep his skirmish bases very close together, as his divisions concentrated on a very tight front. This looked fine on the table, but made skirmish fire potentially very effective. Should I enforce a one inch gap rule between skirmish bases, or reduce the effectiveness of fire per base? This will need some thought.

The main issues with the game arose from core BBB – which in turn arose form poor scenario design by me. It was a trial game and I was in a hurry. I made the objective a town occupied by the Prussians, who were split between and initial occupying force and a reinforcement. But the town was way too big (I was using some of the clubs 15-20mm buildings – which had quite a big footprint). That meant the Prussians started to pile their infantry in and the French to concentrate five or six infantry divisions in a single attack. I also classed the town as a “town” rather than a village in the rules, which made it more like a massive fort. In fact a town should cover quite a small area (you pretty much have to use under-scale buildings – and use a clear base plate). And both armies needed to be spread across a wider front, with perhaps more than one objective.

The town fighting was rather unrealistic: it didn’t have the characteristic ebb and flow of the era, because of its size and classification. A second issue was that the French player was able to concentrate up to five four-base divisions in depth onto the single Prussian 6-base division in line. This allowed some extraordinary concentrations both in firepower and in assault , though it took four moves before he was able to get a properly coordinated attack in to send the Prussians packing. This highlighted two rules issues. First when about four infantry units and two artillery units concentrated fire they threw an 11; this wasn’t all that effective because of the double left-shift arising from the cover, but it did mean that all the units had to take a disruption (which replaces the out of ammo rule), which delayed the main attack. This felt a bit farcical, though actually it probably isn’t that hard to rationalise away. The French were spending too much time trying to reduce the enemy by firepower and so didn’t have time to organise a proper assault. In the assault the French were eventually able to concentrate 3:1 on the unfortunate Prussian unit. What this drew attention to was the looseness of the BBB rules on which bases can be involved in a combat. Four bases piling in on each flank didn’t look quite right, especially when the Prussian were reduced to five bases by assault fire. Mainstream Fire and Fury looks a bit tighter, so maybe something can be learned from that. Still a six-base division deployed in a single line covering practically a kilometre is going to be rather vulnerable!

Another curious episode came when the French were able to pile up one infantry and two cavalry units in a combined attack on a single Prussian unit in depth (with an exposed flank). In the previous version combined arms attacks were resolved with infantry and cavalry kept separate, not least because they used two different combat tables. I rather liked that because it was in fact hard to coordinate the two arms at such a grand tactical level. Also there is a scaling issue each infantry base has three times the men of a cavalry base (unlike mainstream BBB), so using bases to stack up odds doesn’t feel quite right either. There is something to be said for forcing the separation again, and taking the odds out of the infantry-cavalry combats. Cavalry vs. infantry combats were more about psychology than numbers after all.

And finally we had rogue cavalry units in the rear – a familiar problem in wargames – but artillery is very at risk under my rules. These seem far too effective. Of course cavalry in rear areas could be a problem, but it was hard to direct. And cavalry exploitation for half a move (9in – pretty much a mile) looks a bit heavy: cavalry were often exhausted by the initial assault – though there was the Union brigade at Waterloo, but that came at the expense of utter disorganisation. We also had a case of a french cavalry unit able to catch up with the retreating Prussians from a previous combat. I don’t think this kind of long-range pursuit combat with cavalry actually. A more limited exploitation rule looks better (3in or 6in perhaps), and disruption for winners on a big combat win (7+) looks sensible too (though this is presumably meant to represent the defeated side collapsing without a fight).

So a few things to think about before I settle on a definitive 2019 version. There is also another idea which I picked up from a wargames magazine which might be worth a try. How about replacing lost bases with “morale makers” with the same footprint (e.g. a base with some casualties,say)? This means the unit footprint stays the same and it is obvious how many bases have been lost – which perhaps reflects better how things worked in this era. More radically the “spent” status could be replaced with a deduction for each base lost. That would then mean making adjustments for veteran and raw units in movement and assault throw. There’s an interesting idea in there!

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