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Review: Patton versus the Panzers

This book is written by US author Steven Zaloga, who is an expert on WW2 armoured warfare. As I try to get to grips with warfare in this era, especially in the Western theatre (including Italy), I thought this would be an interesting study. It has indeed given me a lot to think about.

The main purpose of this study is to use a series of battles in 1944 to gain an understanding of the dynamics of tank battles between the US and German forces, and in particular the idea that German tanks were vastly superior to their US counterparts. Somewhere there is a powerful meme that the Americans (or Allies perhaps) lost five Shermans to every Panther they engaged. Mr Zaloga shows that this is nonsense; his main case is that tactical factors determined which side fared better, more than the quality of their tanks.

The subject is a series of encounters between General Patton’s Third Army and an attempted counteroffensive by the Germans, in September 1944, in the French province of Lorraine, near the border with Germany. It is interesting because it is a rare encounter battle between two forces moving forwards, and it stands alongside the bigger Battle of the Bulge as being one of the very few big tank battles that the US Army experienced in Europe in the WW2. In Normandy the Germans concentrated their tanks against the British/Canadian forces. Mr Zaloga concentrates on the main tank engagements, rather than providing a complete picture of the campaign. It starts with two disastrous attacks by the Germans on the US 90th Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armoured Division. The main substance is a series of battles against the US 4th Armored Division around the town of Arracourt. The book is topped and tailed by discussions of US v German armoured clashes and the relative merits of the main tanks involved (the US Sherman and the German Panther and Panzer IV). This includes a contemporary article by an American tanker Lt. Col. Albin Irzyk on why the Sherman was a superior tank to the Panther or Tiger tanks.

The quality of the account follows the availability of the evidence. There is a fair amount of detail on the plans and senior command decisions of either side, and tallies of vehicles involved (quite a few tables, not all of wh9chnadd much value), but not all that much on the tactical detail. There are maps (though the topography is a little hard to make out) and photos of the ground now, as well as what photos there are of the fighting in Lorraine. At this stage in the war the Germans didn’t produce after-action reports, so there is only the sketchiest detail from that side, mainly highly exaggerated claims of tanks knocked out. There is more from the US side, but this is very patchy; I wanted much more detail on what happened, but at least the outcomes of each phase are clear.

The whole episode was a disaster for the Germans in terms of losses, though they did stabilise the front, which had been completely open – though this has as much to do with stretched US supply lines as German action. It has received little attention from historians. For the Germans it was doubtless forgettable; the Americans didn’t realise the significance of their success, and for them it was overshadowed by the heroics of the Bulge. At the time was also overshadowed by the Arnhem offensive further north. Mr Zaloga has interesting things to say on this, and on armoured warfare generally. The only fault I would pick is that I would be interested to know how the US experience differed from the British one; we only get some airy references which only invite more questions.

As wargames scenarios there is a big problem with these battles. This is in spite of the fact that they are encounter battles over relatively open ground – the easiest sort of battles to game. The problem is that they are too one-sided. The Americans destroyed large numbers of German tanks while losing very few of their own, and a lot of these were the obsolete M5 Stuart light tanks, even though the Germans generally had a numerical superiority. It’s lambs to the slaughter, if your rules are going to reflect the reality at all. Actually not so different from sending British tanks into the German trap in Normandy, or the US experience in Kasserine.

Of course the interesting question was why were the battles so one-sided? The Germans were mainly equipped with newly manufactured Panthers, and the Americans (and French) with old 75mm Shermans with only a few of the better armed M4A3 76mm. There were quite a few Panzer IVs too, and M10 and M18 tank destroyers on the US side (as well as those Stuarts). Under the war-games rules I was brought up with, the battles would have been one-sided all right, but not in the US’s favour.

There were two main reasons. The most important was that the Germans were mainly fresh recruits with very little training, and mainly in freshly raised units that had only been together for days – whereas the Americans and French were confident, well-led veterans. A lot of the German leadership had been drafted in from the Russian front, so not used to fighting Americans, and besides they were not being given any latitude by the German High Command, who insisted on premature attacks (of course Patton’s constant movement forward made the German command problems even more difficult). In the fighting it is clear that the Americans often got the first shot in, and were able to achieve several shots to every German one. Their leaders often charged in with heavy concentrations of armour but little reconnaissance – an approach that may have worked against the Russians, but were fatal in this theatre. The Americans were often able to counterattack the Germans in the flank. The second reason for the one-sided outcome was that the Americans had vastly superior artillery support, as well as air support. The Germans often didn’t have any of either; even when they did have artillery it often ended up in the wrong place and unable to assist. American artillery in quantity and doctrine was the best of any army in the war. Air support was intermittent because of the weather, and Mr Zaloga suggests that its effect was exaggerated especially by the Germans (as a convent excuse), but its effect on inexperienced tank crews was clearly considerable. They sometimes abandoned their tanks under air attack.

There are specific points that are highly relevant to wargames rules, apart from the importance of troop quality. The 75mm and 76mm guns were effective enough at the ranges used, generally about 800 yards, and often closer. Irzk reckoned that the problem with superior German armour and guns was at ranges in excess of 1,500 yards. A lot of popular rules systems (Battlegroup, Iron Cross, I Ain’ Been Shot Mum and Bolt Action, for example) reflect smaller scale actions at shorter ranges. At 1mm to 1m, for example, 1,500m would be five foot; some of these rules have an even bigger distance scale. The 75mm/76mm weapons should be quite effective at these ranges: I’m not sure how well rules reflect this. On reflection the issue may be the number of shots the US tanks can fire to each German one.

Which brings me to another interesting point, which is the effect of such things as gunsights and turret rotation. The Sherman’s were much superior (the periscopic sight gave the gunner much greater situational awareness; the rapid traverse enabled it to line up on target much quicker, even on the move). This surely allowed the Sherman to get more shots in and quicker, but I haven’t seen it reflected in any rules. One further thing intrigues me. Mr Zaloga isn’t very interested, but the US tank destroyers (M10s and M18s armed with the 3in AT gun) seem to have performed very well, doing more than their fair share of the killing. This is interesting because I had read that the US doctrine that tank destroyers should do the heavy lifting in tank hunting was considered a failure because they were too lightly armoured. Mobility was not a substitute. In war-games the life expectancy of these weapons is pretty short, in my experience, as wargamers use them as if they were tanks. But in the context of these battles, and with correct tactical use, the US doctrine looks sound enough. Interestingly in one engagement later in the battles a unit of M18s refused to get engaged; the tactical context was wrong (in this case charging over a ridge line to engage tanks already in action). Actually it’s quite hard to use a tank destroyer correctly on the confines of a war-games table – you need to move them as soon as they’ve revealed their position. But I’m convinced of a further point too: their open-topped turret gave the crews better situational awareness, so that they could react to battlefield events more quickly than tanks. In wargames rules open-tops are a purely negative characteristic.

And finally, Mr Zaloga mentions some of the tactics developed by Sherman crews – such as firing white phosphorus smoke shells at German tanks, or even HE shells. These served to distract the German crews and give the Sherman time to get out or work round the flank (something that slow German turret traverse wouldn’t have helped them deal with); inexperienced tank crews might even think their tank had been damaged and even abandon it. There was also an incident where a German tank was forced back by small arms fire, after its commander was killed. Modern wargames rules have a useful concept of “suppression” or being “pinned”. This clearly applies to tanks, though these have the option of retreating, and can arise from fire that is very unlikely to do serious damage to the tank.

So a lot to ponder. Do I want to recreate these battles on the tabletop? They would be a good test of wargames rules. My 20mm WW2 armies are 1943 British and German. But I do have a job lot US 6mm miniatures, and some German models that might be used. 6mm armies are quick to build, so I might well give it a go in this scale. Maybe it is a good opportunity try out Battlefront rules, which seem to have been designed with US-German encounters in mind.

The Persian War – William Shepherd

As part of my lockdown reading I have just read William Shepherd’s The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices, on the attempt by Persia to conquer Greece in 479/480 BC. This is a bit off-period for me, but it looked to be a very interesting book. It was.

First a word of caution. The book is published by Osprey Books, and the author has written the Osprey Campaign study on this topic. But an Osprey book it is not. It is heavy with 488 pages of text plus bibliography etc. There are some pictures in two sets of plates, but these aren’t integrated with the text. It is heavy where an Osprey is light. It is a serious study.

The driving structure of this book is the narrative of the campaign by the ancient Greek author and near contemporary Herodotus, which comprises most of what we know of the episode. This is by no means all of the ancient work – Mr Shepherd misses out great chunks not relevant to the military narrative. The quoted passages are interspersed with the author’s own commentary, and fragments of what other ancient authors have said about the events. The result is a narrative of what happened and why, and an exhaustive study of what little evidence there is. The extensive quotation of the sources is a necessity I think for ancient history. In an earlier life I took up the Second Punic War (i.e. Hannibal et al). I found I had to get a copy of Livy, and then Polybius, to get any feel for the history.

The book is interesting on a number of levels. Herodotus’s narrative is the earliest piece of historical writing we still have, certainly in the Western world. He is known, justifiably, as “the father of history”, as it is possible to trace a succession from this all the way from this piece of writing to the modern art of history, but nothing before it. Modern historians don’t count his work as a true history, but more a collection of stories strung into an overall narrative. Herodotus does not attempt to resolve conflicts in the evidence, and his critical faculties are only employed sparingly: the numbers he gives for the size of the Persian army are nonsensically huge. Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War, which followed the Persian War, is usually given the accolade of being the first historian. But Thucydides was following Herodotus’s lead. What is so interesting about Herodotus is that he spent so much time gathering stories from all sides. He shows real interest and respect for the Persian side of things. In fact a huge part of his book is about explaining the Persians and their empire to his Greek audience. He was originally from Halicarnassus, on the south cost of what is now Turkey, and a Greek colony that was part of the Persian empire, fighting on the Persian side in the war. Not that you are left with any illusion about whose values he sympathises with. Democracy, as then understood, is equated with freedom, where as the royal Persian system was enslavement. It is the earliest development of this sort of narrative, which still rings out in modern Western thought.

A further reason to be interested is that the events Herodotus describes are of seminal historical importance. It is generally agreed that if the Persians had won this war, then modern Western civilisation would have been a very different thing. It was a pivotal moment in world history. Mr Shepherd treats this as self-evident, as writers from that day to this generally do, though the contrarian in me would like to explore an alternative view. But the events, taking in the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, form part of our cultural heritage. The war was the making of Athens as a major power, and Athens is second only to Rome as a centre of Western heritage. Strangely enough, from our distant historical perspective the Persians civilisation seems no stranger to us than the Greeks’. The Persian empire looks more like a modern state, and its religion, Zoroastranianism, is much closer to our own. The Greeks thought it was unmanly to wear trousers. We find the importance they placed on oracles and portents a bit baffling; the Persians look a bit more modern on this front, though they had to play the game for the benefit of their Greek allies.

The book is a good read, though on occasion I find that Mr Shepherd comments a bit too much. But he is very knowledgeable and it is clearly a labour of love. I do enjoy the detective work that goes into the working out of ancient history, and there is a lot of it here.

Is there much here for the Wargamer? Not as much as I hoped. The battles are few; most of the drama is around the wider campaign, the diplomacy and the various ructions, especially amongst the Greeks. Little is actually known about the land battles, and not much more about the sea ones, and the climactic battle, Plataea is messy. There was a ten-day stand-off between the two sides, and an accidental quality to the final day’s fighting, with many forces on the field not taking part (apparently on both sides, though the Persian element of this is a bit mysterious). The two sides were highly asymmetric, with the Greek heavy infantry on one side, and the Persian lighter infantry and cavalry on the other. Neither side wanted to fight unless it could play to its own strengths, which meant that it was rare that both sides wanted to fight at the same time. In fact there is an accidental quality to all the main battles. Trying to convey this tactical essence of only engaging by mistake would be something of a challenge. A campaign board game, on the other hand, could be an interesting proposition.

And there are some mysteries about the way they fought, and how this could be represented on the tabletop. Each Greek hoplite took with him one or more servants, who apart from carrying armour and supplies while on the march, and so on, took part in the fighting as psiloi. But how many? Where did they go? What did they do? They seem to have taken cover in the hoplite formations (only much later referred to as “phalanxes” incidentally) when the Persian cavalry attacked – otherwise they would have been massacred. Also the hoplite formations seem to have been a bit more flexible than I had supposed too. Each file (if that is a correct concept) took about a metre frontage – something a later era would call “loose files”. The depth of the formation varied according to need. Representing all this on the tabletop would be a bit of a challenge. The Persian side is relatively less mysterious – though there are complexities too. The heavier infantry had shield bearers to carry and deploy their shields up front while they used their bows; once close quarter fighting was imminent the infantry would take up their shields. The Persians had a lot of hoplites too from allied greek cities, though mostly these fought less hard than the other side, it seems. One thing would be a definite plus for warmers though: visually both armies would be a lot of fun. That goes for the ships too: the naval side was critical (Salamis was a sea battle), but no less challenging to recreate – though at least much more symmetric.

But much as I would enjoy putting together tabletop armies for this era, I will give it a miss!

In Deo Veritas – answer to a prayer?

My wargaming energies are mainly devoted to two periods: the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. But I do have another set of miniatures that rarely get an outing these days: some 6mm Swedes and Russians for the Great Northern War, circa 1709 (the year of the world-changing battle of Poltava). One reason they have not seen the tabletop for so long is that I lack a suitable set rules to use.

When I acquired them my friend George and I used a set of rules called Ga Pa! These are a very clever, written by a Swede, Thomas Arnfelt, with the GNW in mind, though they can be used for other early 18th Century Wars. What was wrong? They were too innovative; George and I liked them, but they would be hard to introduce on a club night, as there were too many new ideas. And even for us, they could be a bit slow at times. They weren’t particularly clearly written either, which meant that quite a lot of time can be lost trying to interpret them for a new situation. Since I used them I notice there’s a second edition, though, which might be an improvement.

My second try was with Barry Hilton’s Under Lily Banners. They are written by a very experienced gamer with a deep love for the era (built mainly by studying conflicts further west – but he has taken on the GNW with a vengeance since). They are quite old-school and designed with bigger figures and fewer units per player than I wanted to do, though. But they were quite usable substituting centimetres for inches. What I really didn’t like about them was cavalry v cavalry combat that owed more to Hollywood than realism, which, given that cavalry is so big in this era, ruined the whole feel. I abandoned them after a single game with George. Perhaps I should have tried harder, but I still felt they were not designed to play the sort of game I wanted.

And so for years the figures stayed in their box, with large numbers of them unpainted and unbiased. I had an idea to adapt Horse Foot Guns by Pat Barker. This very expansive system did cover this era, along right up to just before WWI, but would have needed a bit of work with my basing system. Also these rules need a heavy era-specific edit to be workable (I did a Napoleonic rewrite, which I have described on this blog). Too much work.

And then a recent magazine article tickled my fancy. It was describing the launch of a new set of rules by Helion called In Deo Veritas by Philip Garton. These are designed for 17th Century warfare, but GNW marks the transition between this and the next era, and has a late 17th Century feel. And it has been designed with bigger armies and smaller figures in mind. They sounded exactly what I was looking for, so I bought a copy as lockdown reading.

I was not disappointed. They have exactly the right level of detail for me. Unit level combat is dealt with briefly, allowing more focus on higher level issues such as command and cohesion. GP covered both levels well, but that led to the rules being too arduous as a whole. ULB focused on the unit-level stuff, as it would be relatively rare to have big armies on the tabletop. Focusing on the right level is one of the critical aspects of war-games design, and this is clearly understood by Philip. Play is based on one-base units, organised into a number of “wings”. Units are mainly “brigades” of about 1,000 men, on bases of 3in by 1.5in; smaller units on 1.5in squares; larger ones (such as early tercios featuring in the early part of the era) and irregular cavalry on 3in squares. 1in corresponds to about 40 yards.

I don’t want to describe the mechanics in too much detail. Anyway I haven’t played them yet (though I can’t wait). Each wing is given an order (Advance, Hold or Withdraw). Movement is one wing at a time activated in random sequence of both sides (they suggest using cards – but it’s the same as Warlord’s bag of dice). Then there is simultaneous combat, with firing, then melee. Finally the cohesion issues are resolved. There is almost no attempt to model the different types of armament of the units (e.g. pikes v muskets or matchlocks v flintlocks). If that kind of tactical detail is your thing, then you need a lower level set of rules. Cohesion/fatigue is modelled at unit, wing and army level.

How would they adapt for 1709 GNW? In this period the Swedes fought a modernised Russian army under Peter the Great. Flintlock muskets were the main armament, but the Swedes still armed up to a third of their infantry unis with pikes. The Russians used pikes too, but in smaller numbers. The formations were deep by 18th Century standards, the three-rank, platoon-firing units were in the future (except maybe the contemporary Dutch and English). So it has a late 17th century feel. There are two issues that I think might need rules modification. The first is the Swedish Ga Pa! doctrine of shock tactics, both for infantry and cavalry, which were unique at the time (even the cavalry indulged in extensive mounted firefights). I’m not sure if the Swedes need special advantages in melee (and probably disadvantages in firing), or whether quality differences in the rules already will suffice. A Swedish army should be able to take on much larger opposing armies, provided that it is very aggressive. The other issue is the Russian cavalry. They had almost no cavalry as commonly understood, but lots of dragoons served the role, and these rarely fought on foot (but could and sometimes did). In the rules dragoons fight in small units; the Russians often used them en masse. Russian dragoons could be treated as inferior cavalry brigades, or they could be mounted on brigade bases with special provisions. A further possible issue (I don’t have my GNW books with me) is that brigades are a bit on the large side in this war – but I think these rules would work by substituting battalions for brigades.

A much bigger issue for me is basing. All my miniatures are based on 20mm squares, with three bases for a typical infantry unit and four for cavalry. I like the visual appearance of this (especially the Swedes with a central block of pikes), and that is one of the reasons I got into this era in the first place. The basing was quite an effort too (many of the infantry figures were cut off their strips and placed individually). I am not rebasing. I have some ideas on how this might adapt my current basing system, but they have to be tried out. Since I am between homes at the moment, as well as lockdown, with most of my possessions, including my GNW figures, in storage, this will have to wait.

It was very interesting to read the book’s accounts of six battles at the end, turned into scenarios.17th Century warfare is not something I know much about. What struck me from these accounts is how disorderly the battles were, with sometimes fortunes changing at the very end, and how independently the different wings operated from each other. They look to be great subjects for wargaming, especially multi-player games. These rules seem to reflect that very well, and should be a great basis for club games. Alas that will be some time in the future for me!

WW2 – I Ain’t Been Shot Mum

Domestic circumstances mean I can’t go back to painting miniatures (we’re about to put the house onto the market), so my hobby time at home is largely devoted to pondering rules. After spending quite a bit of time (successfully) on Napoleonics, I switched to WW2, where my group at the club has failed to find anything satisfactory for our club games.

So far I have been trying to create a mash up of Battlefront WW2, Battlegroup, and Iron Cross. This uses the (largely) the IC game scales (units, distances, etc.), the BF turn system and BG armour and gun ratings, with quite a lot of other ideas thrown in. It’s a struggle, though the sort of challenge I enjoy. It is much harder doing WW2 rules than Napoleonic! While making some progress I thought I was missing a certain something, and decided to acquire yet another set of rules for inspiration. This was I Ain’t Been Shot Mum (IABSM) from Too Fat Lardies. These are used by other players at the club, and TFL are an interesting publisher, whose motto “play the period, not the rules” I wholeheartedly agree with. This post is my reaction from a read-through. I haven’t tried them out.

Trying them out would in fact be less than straightforward. They are card-driven, and a set of cards would have to be created first, or bought; the current logistics at home would make it even harder for a solo trial game (though the system is an excellent solo system). In terms of game scale they fit my brief quite nicely: company level actions with mixed infantry and armour, with a 1to1 scaling of vehicles. Ground scale is 12in to 80 yards, probably not far from Iron Cross (which does offer a scale) – and a bit higher than my current working model (1in to 10m). But game play is not such a good fit.

IABSM follows the current trend of individual unit activation, with units from both sides being mixed up. In this case it is driven by cards. Each unit (platoon) has a card, which is shuffled up and then drawn, together with a “tea break” card which ends the turn, usually before all units are activated. A lot of other cards are added to the pack, including for “Big Men” – leaders. This is a very TFL feature – they love to represent the way that individual leaders can shape a battle. This is a very interesting and flexible system, and it would be fun to see how it works. Once activated each unit has a number of actions (up to four), which be used to move, fire, etc. I find this problematic on a number of levels, though these issues plague other rules systems too. You can loose off several rounds while the other guy just sits there; you can do a “moving ambush” – moving into view of the enemy and then firing before he can react; the highly sequential way in which things are played potentially slows things down, especially for multiplayer games. I may well have exaggerated all these concerns. You can put troops on overwatch, which allows them to react to enemy movement in the enemy turn (though your unit must have been activated earlier in the sequence). A lot of the firing actually takes place at the end of a turn, which is simultaneous (as far as I can tell, I haven’t found that bit of the rules).

A second issue is that the rules are actually quite complicated, though making the usual claims about fast play and simplicity. Infantry sections are made up of men 1to1, with individual casualties; “shock” is tracked for all units as an accounting for morale; AFVs can acquire several varieties of damage. Firing looks quite involved with quite a few dice, because of the number of different effects a hit can have (killing figures, shock, two levels of suppression, and vehicle damage), with different processes for infantry fire, fire on vehicles and HE fire, not to mention indirect fire and air strikes. This makes it much more complicated than any of the systems I am familiar with (Iron Cross, Battlefront, Battlegroup in particular). Now this is probably all quite easy to pick up and play, and overall the rules seem less complicated than Battlefront, though not the other systems, which partly because these other systems have gaps. You would definitely want to play your first game with somebody that knows them, though that is true of most systems.

I won’t be trying them out on my usual gaming partners at the club, but these look very interesting rules, put together by experts in game design. I will find myself filching a number of ideas. I especially like the blinds system, which is particularly flexible. This is part of a spotting system, which looks like an elegant compromise, though I am confused about one or two aspects. (Why is there +1 to the dice for spotting a target that is firing, when blinds can only fire if they reveal themselves?).

I did not find the answer to my missing “certain something” on my current project. I am working on a more traditional IgoUgo turn system, where all units on the same side fire at once, if eligible, but units react faster to each other. This system is based on the Fire and Fury one (and used by Battlefront), but with a twist. A static unit can fire at the beginning and end of its turn, with the enemy eligible for defensive fire in between. This means the fire sequence across a pair of turns for static units is ABABAB, and not BAAB as with the classic system. What I am missing is an idea of what I call “game narrative”. This game is played across a relatively small area (500 to 600m across) with powerful and very noisy weapons. This means that the action should not be too complex – as implied by the activation systems of IABSM, IC and even BF. Events should evolve as a single battle rather than a complex multiple interaction between individual units. For example, when an artillery bombardment is going on (or an airstrike), nothing much else should happen – it is an interruption to the flow of events. This leads me to the idea that one side or the other holds the initiative, for example when conducting an assault, with the other hunkering down and firing like mad. The initiative idea doesn’t have to be baked into a game system, as players should respond to the tabletop situation in that way without special rules. But the idea of one side having the initiative and the other having fewer options might be a way to speed the game along.

But how do you determine who has the initiative, and integrate into this a system for bringing on off-table resources, such as bombardments and reinforcements? I’m still pondering on that one. But I’m hoping to get a fast, highly interactive game that is suitable for a club night, while retaining something of the feel of WW2 warfare.

Albuera 1811: refight for BNB

Another week , another outing for my Big Napoleonic Battles rules at the club. This time I wanted to try something historical. I had already worked out a scenario for the epic Pensinsular battle of Albuera in 1811, so I dusted it down. Unfortunately I brought the wrong box of French, so the French army looked very scrappy, including some ancient Minifigs Old Guard and Union ACW troops in skirmish order. So no pictures.

The scenario was quite stylised. I am avoiding close adherence to the historical terrain and orders of battle. This makes the games quicker to set up and play. The terrain is simplified to essentials, and the units mostly of standard size. However the overall number of bases was close to historical for each side. Apart from the French infantry (using my usual four bases) the unit sizes were smaller than I have used for 1815: three bases. The figure ratio was set at 1,000 infantry per base, less than the 1,250 I am using for 1815, but this reflects the toll the Peninsula took on grand tactical formations. Each of the two British divisions were represented by two units (allowing the Portuguese to be separated in Cole’s division). There was one four-base Spanish unit: Zayas’s division. Not too much distortion was needed with these unit sizes. The French got an extra unit, attributed to the reserves. Alten’s KGL light infantry was merged with Collins’s independent Portuguese brigade.

All the British and French infantry was classed as Veteran, including the KGL/Portuguese unit, and the British (but not the merged unit) were also classed as Aggressive. The two Portuguese units and Zayas were classed as Trained. The other Spanish units were Raw and Fragile, along with the Spanish and Portuguese cavalry. The British cavalry unit was Trained and Aggressive. The French light cavalry units were classed as Veteran, with one (the Polish lancers and 2nd Hussars) also as Aggressive. The two French dragoon units were classed as Trained – the French dragoon arm seems to have had problems in 1811/12 in the Pensinsula. To mimic the command problems on the Allied side, they were given no generals, and the Spanish were additionally classed as Passive. The French had two generals.

As with the original battle the French pushed most of their infantry into a left flank attack, with the lead unit feinting on Albuera village in the centre. Unlike the day the main French attack the Allies had more time to respond, notwithstanding command issues, so the flank was not fully turned, and all the cavalry was thrown into the attack in the centre. This succeeded drawing in British infantry to the centre, where the French held their own, though the sight of two French cavalry units scrapping for the village jarred a bit (the village wasn’t treated as a dense built-up area, so cavalry could operate in it). The Spanish were left holding off the main French onslaught, but were helped by cavalry superiority. By the time we called it a day, the Spanish were holding on, though the fight had lasted only two moves: a longer battle would have been uglier for the Spanish. The French had started to relocate some of their cavalry from the centre to counter the Allied cavalry superiority.

So how did the rules do? Such historical refights need to be judged on three aspects. Scenario design, player performance and the rules themselves. The scenario had one major weakness: it allowed the Allies to react to the French battle plan at least one move earlier than they did historically. Their ability to react needs to be constrained. Also I think Coles’s division is available too early. I was playing closer attention to the French, and their their use of generals and the veteran status meant that the army didn’t suffer too much friction in the early stages. The Allies suffered more, but I’m not sure if it was enough to reflect the historical situation. Perhaps they should all be Passive (with maybe a British general to compensate). I am broadly happy with the troop classifications: if the Spanish were too effective that is a rules problem, as they had nearly the lowest grade possible. On terrain I think it was broadly OK except I don’t think the hills on the Allied side were right, and could do with another look – but the restraint is using club terrain, which does not allow relief to be represented exactly right. I think some way of showing a watershed on the table might be worth considering.

And the players? You can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. If wargamers behave unhistorically on the tabletop there nothing much that rules and scenarios can do about it except nudge them in the right direction. The first unhistorical thing was the way the French threw their cavalry into the centre, leaving the left unsupported against three Allied cavalry units. This followed the way I split the commands, giving both the advance guard and the cavalry to one player, and the rest of the infantry to the other. Each player then focused on their own personal battle rather than the battle as a whole. Historically the French had a strong overall commander, Marshal Soult, and this strong unified command showed in a coherent battle plan. A second issue was that the French threw all their infantry in at once on the left, leaving no reserve. Soult left a substantial reserve which he threw in at the critical point once the initial attack got bogged down. This is a classic wargames issue, exacerbated by the fact it was an evening game with a maximum of five moves. The Allies were no better. A further wargamer issue is that the players are much more aggressive with cavalry than historically. On the Allied side this meant moving units far out to each flank in the hope of taking the attacking units in the rear. This isn’t historical, though the natural response – for the attacker to cover flanks with cavalry certainly is historical, and this would be an effective way of neutralising the tactic. I have noticed the very aggressive cavalry before and I’m not sure what, if anything, to do about it.

And the rules themselves? In terms of the broad sweep my chief concern is that battles don’t evolve quickly enough: each turn is meant to represent an hour, and the battle seems to develop more slowly. In this case I don’t think it was because the players were hesitant. There are two possible culprits: slow movement and combat mechanisms. The move distances are already uncomfortably long for the simplest moves, especially where roads are involved. Of course terrain and command friction can slow things down a lot, but that wasn’t the issue in this game. The big infantry battles perhaps take too many moves to resolve. But given that they are already very dice-heavy you need to resolve in several rounds to the dice a chance to balance out. In an earlier incarnation I added to the losses on both sides in close combats – that might be worth looking at again, so that units are worn down faster (allowing multiple combat rounds may be the best way of doing this). The jury remains out. It is hard to draw out where the rules are at fault rather than the scenarios or players. A key learning from Chris Pringle (author of Bloody Big Battles) is not to rush in to fiddle with the rules to fix every problem.

There are some lesser points that I will add to my list of ongoing issues and modifications. The cavalry had it too easy in the village – and indeed I worry a bit about the way “open villages” work. I think they need to be disadvantaged in this type of terrain (and open woods too). Also what happens when two cavalry units hit an infantry unit? Simultaneous combat , as the rules imply, or sequential, which I think makes more sense? The second unit would benefit form disruption in the infantry (+2), but it will be in square (-2). A more radical thought on combat is to make all multiple attacks sequential – this might help make combats more decisive, but creates problems if units are of different sizes (three and six bases for example). That’s much too radical for now, of course.

Life away from the hobby is going through a busy patch, so I will have limited opportunity to develop further scenarios. But I’m keen to get going. Something that helps is that I have bought some lovely British infantry from another club member, which means that doing Pensinsula scenarios is a more realistic proposition. It is much easier to use Prussians as a stand-in for Portuguese and Spanish rather than British redcoats.

Big Napoleonic Battles – prototype rules published

Our latest game reaches its climax.

Since my last report we have played two more short games at the club with my new rules, Big Napoleonic Battles (loosely based on Bloody Big Battles). They have settled down enough for me to publish them on the Rules page of this website in pdf.

These rules are a working prototype, which I am calling V0. They should be all you need to play, but there are no pictures or diagrams, and very few examples. While these rules will never be published in the mainstream way, with lots of eye-candy and glossy paper, I might aspire to something with more explanation and perhaps even some scenarios. The model here is again Bloody Big Battles, though I can’t see that I will ever get the rules actually printed and sold for money.

Instead of updating these rules as I think of changes, which I have done a couple of times already, I propose to publish a separate sheet of updates and clarifications, which I can update regularly. That will make things easier for people who have printed the current version, as some of my club colleagues have. These will be consolidated into V1 in due course. At that point I will attempt examples and diagrams.

These rules are by no means perfect, but they give a good club game. My fellow gamers like them – something I take as a considerable complement: we often let go of rules that we find don’t quite work. That has happened with Fistful of TOWs, Battlefront, Rapid Fire and Iron Cross for WW2/Modern, and Altar of Freedom ACW. My next project indeed will be to develop something for my WW2 models! Foe us the rules have to play quickly in a multi-player format, and conform to some degree with how they expect wargames to work.

How realistic are they? I get fed up with claims made by rules promoters that are both simple to pick up and realistic, when they obviously have not been tested against historical reality. The original BBB has been extensively used for historical refights, though typically for battles later in the 19th Century, so it has a fair claim to realism. I can’t yet make the same claim for BNB, as the sort of quick scenarios we can do on club night are rarely historical. I might try out an Albuera game next week, though.

What I can say, as I said last time, there is high variability based on dice throws, making outcomes very unpredictable. I don’t think that is unrealistic, given the vast number of factors that have been abstracted away, but it will irritate some players just as it entertains others.

Do try them out and let me know how you get on!

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.

Playing an 1859 game with Bruce Weigle

The Italians mass for their attack on San Martino

It was my privilege to play a game with Bruce Weigle at the Colours show at Newbury Racecourse last weekend. Bruce is famous for two things: his rule system (and series of informative rule books) for the series of European wars fought out between 1859 (Second Italian War of Independence) to 1871 (close of the Franco-Prussian War), and for his superb terrain boards for his 5mm miniatures, which give you the feeling of being there. Our game was the Battle of San Martino, on the fringe of the main battle of Solfarino in 1859 (which was so bloody it led to the foundation of the Red Cross). It has caused me to reflect on wargames terrain.

The attack develops as Austrian reserves rush in of the left

First, a little about the game. The scenario is the Austrian defence of the villages of San Martino and Pozzolengo from an onslaught by the Italian (or more correctly, Sardinian) army. I commanded the division of Italians on the left, who carried out the first assaults on San Martino. These did not go well. The Italians were armed only with smoothbore muskets, had weak artillery, and inferior morale/discipline. Though I was careful to ensure that each regiment I sent in had one alongside it that could conduct a follow up attack, fire from the defenders, artillery or rifles, stopped the attack on all three (or was it four?) attempts before they could close. By this time Austrian reserves, which under the scenario conditions were supposed to be unlikely to get involved, were hurtling up on my left, and I had to reorganise to face these off. There were a number of small but spectacular cavalry forays that wargamers find hard to resist, and that generally ended badly, but the main fight petered out. I considered realigning my attack to sweep round to the left of San Martino, but the Italians’ chances were better elsewhere (especially after I had drawn in those reserves), so that was not to be. Meanwhile Italians to my right flooded in, while the Austrians were quick to commit. This developed into two fights. One was a further assault on San Martino, which got further than my attacks, but also failed. And then there was a sweep to the right of the village. This did unexpectedly well, and suddenly an opportunity to attack Pozzolengo, the main prize (which would cut off the Austrians committed to San Martino), opened up. But the Austrian regiment whose rout had opened up this chance rallied, and did enough to delay this attack so that time ran out for the Italians. Bruce had always said that the scenario was hard for the Italians to win (historically they claimed a victory, but really it was an orderly Austrian withdrawal after the rest of their army was thrashed by the French). But both Austrians were more aggressive, and the Italians more successful than he had seen before – he awarded it to the Austrians marginally.

The Italian centre attacks San Martino

We used Bruce’s 1871 rules, adapted for 1859 technology. He has published rules specifically for 1859 (the same book also with rules for the 1864 Second Schleswig War with Denmark); these are a version of his original 1870 rules, of which there is a further version for 1866 (Prussia’s war on Austria). After 1866 Bruce decided that the rules need a streamline, leading to his much simpler 1871 rules, which has a two-page quick reference sheet, rather than a four-page one. The adaptions for 1859 are in fact quite straightforward, and fully contained within the QR sheet, which is published online, albeit without explanation (the small Italian battalion size reduces their combat performance, for example). I was familiar with the 1871 rules (see my initial comments here), but never used them – though I had played with the 1866 and 1870 predecessors with my friend George, who at Colours commanded the Italian centre. The basic playing piece is a battalion, mounted on a 30mm wide stand. The scale is one inch to 100m. To start with we needed quite a bit of help from Bruce. That slowed things down as he was in quite high demand from members of the public (which, after all, is what a demo game is all about), but we mastered the basics quite quickly. The most interesting feature was the simultaneous move system; this was more problematic as it helped a lot to have the umpire’s arbitration, and depends a lot on both players being fair minded. And some people are pushier than others… but it does give the game a stronger simulation feel. Other than that I don’t have much more to say on the rules system from my article when the rules were released.

At the close, from the Italian left

The main thing I hoped to learn from the day was not about the rules system, but the terrain presentation. Is there anything that can be taken from Bruce’s fantastic table that I can use for more ad-hoc games without the creation of a detailed board? What helped to give the terrain its authentic look? The first point is scale. Quantity beats quality, and the smaller the terrain scale, the more you can cram in. The terrain scale is 1:4,000. The terrain features about 1:500 (or more, maybe), and the troops about 1:300. Some wargamers, in larger scales, get upset when the doors in their buildings are too small for their miniature soldiers. But scaling the buildings to the miniatures comes at a huge cost, both because you must have fewer buildings, and the tendency for those buildings to look toy-town by having oversized doors and windows. So 6mm buildings with 15mm figures is probably a price worth paying.

Second is irregular shapes: the sinuous roads and streams and the irregular field boundaries and woods. We often use standard sections made up straight lines and sharp bends for roads and rivers/streams (which are generally too wide for the terrain, though not the figures). We don’t usually bother with field boundaries outside skirmish games, though at least the availability of printed terrain cloths is helping here. Third is sculpted hills with natural shapes, blended into the terrain. Fourth there are the trees. Lots of them are scattered as embellishments to villages, roads and rivers. And wood boundaries are marked by a continuous line of trees, with the interior left open but coloured dark green. This is an idea of genius though he could go even better by showing the undergrowth layer that is usually at the edge of woods (i.e. so the wood boundary is a sort of tall hedge rather than a line of trees). You tend not to see rows of tree trunks when looking at a wood from outside – foliage grows where the light is. And finally there is a more subtle point that has only just occurred to me – the use of unsaturated colours – in other words colours with a bit of white in them. Saturated colour comes on bright and strong, and are OK when you are representing strong sunshine an clear air (the Sahara perhaps), but not so much in northern or central Europe. Also there is a scale effect – colours become less saturated with distance, or the more air the light has to travel through. Since small scales represent a greater distance between model and viewer they should be represented in less saturated colours. This is a well-established technique when painting models and figures (often achieved in the weathering effects rather than the original paintwork), and I use it a lot in my 20mm WW2 models. But terrain is more of a problem, because of the use of pre-coloured materials (dyed cloth, flock, teddy-bear fur and so on) which tends to be saturated. Bruce hand paints his scenery (within airbrush often) onto white T-shirt cloth, allowing a more faded, water-colour look. I think this adds to the authenticity.

At the end. Pozzolengo in the foreground

And on the other side of the coin, what does Bruce not bother with? There is little texture to boards, which are essentially painted cloth. That painting is quite artful, with subtle shading for slopes, but it is flat. No teddy bear fur here. The vineyards and characteristic of this part of the world are just painted in. Of course the small scale of both men and terrain helps here.

There are good reasons why wargamers don’t do what Bruce does, but there may be ideas that we can use. A printed or painted cloth for one, more sinuous pre-made roads (using caulk, perhaps), and the more imaginative use of tree models. Hills are a big headache – and always have been for me. In the 1871 book Bruce suggests shortcuts to achieving a good-looking board without going through the whole rigmarole. He suggests the age-old technique of placing a cloth over polystyrene formers, of which he has a collection. Historically precise matching of contours is not needed for the sorts of games we play. The problem is that the cloth needs to be pinned in place. In fact pins are useful for a lot of terrain items, including trees, since they do away with the need for obtrusive bases. But what do you pin into? When playing “away”, such as at the club or a friend’s, it is not practical to bring large boards with you, leaving you with hard surfaces that in any case should not be damaged. Besides you don’t have much time for set up and take down. One answer (that increasingly I see at the club) is not to represent relief at all, and play on a flat surface. We did this for our Shiloh and Antietam games, as well as the Waterloo scenario. Other terrain features can dominate hills, and in our large scale games weapons ranges aren’t that long. Where a ridge line is important (as with our Waterloo scenario), alternative ways can be found to simulate it (we used a hedge), or perhaps just mark it unobtrusively.

Food for thought. There is an important difference to Bruce’s tables though: I am trying to create tables for 15mm or 20mm miniatures. These are bound to look different, and some of Bruce’s effects will be impossible to achieve. But I still think we can do much better.

At the end from behind the Italian centre. San Martino is in the upper centre and Pozzolengo on the top right. This picture gives an idea of the overall effect of the terrain board.