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A trial game with Lasalle II

I have read a number of excellent review of Sam Mustafa’s latest game, an updated version of his Lasalle rules, for Napoleonic divisional level games. So I splashed out and bought a copy. I have just tried it out on a solo game. What are my impressions?

As I have said many times here before, Sam Mustafa is one of the top wargames designers currently in business. His games are always elegantly designed, properly tested and clearly explained. However, since his first Napoleonic game, Grande Armée, I have taken a dislike to his various systems – they just didn’t provide kind of feel of game that I have been looking for. That was the case for his first edition of Lasalle. I found them too abstract and “gamey”. There was too big a gap between the way the game was played, and how battles were actually fought. I am very interested in the historical simulation side of the game, rather than it being just a game for toy soldiers. This is a balance, of course: I don’t have much patience for complex mechanisms and piles of detail these days – so a lot of abstraction is essential. And Sam does pay a great deal of attention to the history. The balance wasn’t quite right for me.

Lasalle II never promised to be more than a highly abstracted game for toy soldiers, albeit one that is heavily grounded in the history. However it intrigued me because I would like to have the option of this sort of system for shorter games and club play – in order to give my miniatures time on the tabletop and provide entertainment. This set of rules looked as if it could fill that gap.

What’s more they can quite easily be adapted for use with my miniatures. These are in 18mm and (mainly) based on 25mm (one inch) squares, with six infantry or two cavalry to each base. Lasalle uses standardised units of four bases (for infantry and cavalry). I thought this would look good with my figures, even though typically shallower bases are used. The most popular base width seems to be 40mm for 18mm figures (and this base width is used for 28mm as well – and for 6mm too, albeit with different base depths!). Like most of Sam’s current systems, all distances are given in base widths (BWs); since 1BW equals an inch, I have no need for specially made rulers.

I don’t want to describe the Lasalle II system here – there are plenty of online resources that do that for those that are interested. Suffice to say that it is everything you might expect from a great games designer like Sam. And it’s very abstract. What I want to do is talk about my game and the particular issues that came up for me.

My test game was based on the trial scenario in the rules, but replacing the Austrians with my Prussians (my beloved Austrian army is in a sad state at the moment). That actually changed things quite a bit. The Austrians don’t have the “Attack Column” trait, but did have some high-class cavalry. My Prussians do have “Attack column”, like the French, but five out of the eight infantry units were Landwehr. I still gave them three cavalry units, but these were bog standard quality dragoons and hussars, with the same characteristics as the two French units, of hussars and chasseurs. But I did get the points to balance! I also had to adapt the table layout so that I could use my Albuera table, which I haven’t taken down yet.

Half way through my game. You can just see the discrete pins that mark the edge of the playing area, and how cramped it is becoming for the advancing Prussians

The game length is meant to be eight moves – but mine ended in the fifth, as the Prussians reached their break point of four units lost. This was mainly because I misread the rules on artillery, so that the longer range “bombardment” fire was using the number of dice for canister “volley” fire. The French quickly set up two batteries together, and blasted away the Prussian horse battery before it could let off a shot, and then trashed one of the Prussian infantry units, which had seized the village, followed by one of the Prussian dragoon units. Both of these units were subsequently finished off by close combat, though the Prussians managed to retake the village, and it took a few moves before the cavalry was finally routed. The one Prussian battery to get going did manage to make a mess of one of of the French infantry units before I realised my mistake – and this was duly polished off by a Landwehr unit. This was all aided by good dice throwing; the third French battery did not manage to achieve much – until later. The final battery (Prussian) was never deployed as this was part of an over-ambitious Prussian turning move and it got crowded out.

The Prussians sent their strongest “brigade”, with two line and two Landwehr infantry, one cavalry unit and a battery, on a big turning manoeuvre, through and round a wood. This succeeded in giving them the initiative (in battle rather than game terms), messing up the French plans, and forcing their left brigade to come to the aid of the right one. But one prolong move was enough for them to swing round their battery just enough to face the threat, while there wasn’t enough table space for the Prussian cavalry to get round the rightmost French infantry unit, which formed square and bottled it up. The Prussians decided to risk everything on a charge on the French battery with its leading Landwehr unit (the same one that had routed the French infantry). Because the French had wisely held their fire, this meant that the Prussians had to endure one round of canister before they could close. With some fine French throwing, this time within the rules as written, they scored four disruptions (all the infantry and cavalry units have a strength rating of six, which is the maximum number of disruptions they can endure). The Landwehr rallied and pressed on – but the rally move succeeded in only pulling back one of the disruptions. The battery stood its ground and beat off the attack, inflicting more disruption. A series of charges by Prussian attack columns on the French infantry were also beaten off, and there was some largely ineffectual musketry between the sides – the musket power of attack columns (and squares) is quite limited. But the musketry did manage to finish off the very battered Landwehr unit, and the Prussians had lost their four units.

That was a fair verdict. The Prussians were running out of steam, and didn’t even have the space to deploy their third battery. Quite apart from misreading the rules on artillery fire, there were a lot of mistakes arising from the lack of familiarity wit the rules. In particular my usual method of rapidly throwing in attack columns without bothering much with musketry didn’t really work – and the congestion problems the Prussians had clearly had their root in unfamiliarity too. But there were a number issues that surprised me a bit, and might not be so obvious from the write-ups you see. These aren’t problems with the system, so much as warnings about how they work.

The first issue was space. One inch to a base width gives you a very compact table. The rules recommend a playing area of 24BW by 36: just two by three feet for me (60 by 90cm). I followed this for my trial game wanting, not to spend too much time in the game in early manoeuvring. That meant the playing area was a bit cramped with the suggested armies (8 infantry 2/3 cavalry and 3 artillery unit a side). Both sides were constrained by the opposite table edge. It didn’t help that my wood and crop field were a bit big – the official trial game would have had them smaller. My bases are quite deep, of course, which made them take up quite a bit of space. One-inch bases are doubtless more typical of 10mm or 6mm miniatures on shallower bases. That would still have led to problems with the table depth – and I didn’t even use the suggested unit labels, which are quite big. But this problem has an obvious solution – I have plenty of space to use a bigger playing area. But if you are using a 40mm BW I would recommend that you have a full 4ft by 6ft playing area (1.2 by 1.6m, rather than 0.96 by 1.44m), and space nearby for the routed units, reinforcements, etc.

A second issue is skirmishers. This is a problem that Sam has struggled with for a long time – they were historically important, but are very hard to represent in game terms without making the whole thing too fiddly. Sam has abstracted them away, so that while they have an important effect on the game, no models on the table. Each infantry unit has a number of skirmish points. These are totalled up at the start of each turn and a die thrown for each (an awful lot of dice incidentally) – a 6 is required to sore a “hit”, and this determines who goes first, and may give you extra “Momentum” (MO) points, which drive the game. This is very clever, and further ideas are incorporated into the advanced rules. I would still like skirmishers to be on the tabletop, even if only as markers. At first I thought that I could put one base on the table for each skirmish point, and just use them as decoration. But there are far too many skirmish points for that, in an already crowded table. One base per hit would be fine, but since these have no significance beyond who goes first and MO points, this looks pointless. In fact one of the Advanced rules does give a role for skirmish markers, and adopting this rule is probably the best thing to do.

A third point is that the rules for built-up areas are too abstracted for my liking. At this sort of scale – one base width is something under 40m – you should be able to differentiate streets from blocks of buildings, and so start to represent how street fighting actually worked (it was almost all on the streets, with buildings used as strongpoints only occasionally – otherwise they were just used by skirmishers). I guess the problem is that most wargamers like to use buildings that are “in scale”, and this means the are far too big to leave enough room for streets. On the plus side built-up areas confer no cover or defence benefits unless the defenders have taken time out to “garrison” the block. This is a much more realistic treatment than you usually see in wargames, though the garrisoning is maybe a bit too easy (just a formation change, albeit one that costs two MO rather than the usual one).

But overall this is an excellent game system, fully justifying the rave reviews I have seen of it. The turn play system – both sides interact without the use of phases or player-turns – is especially clever and works really well. There are intricacies which you can miss on first play, but generally the rules should be very quick to pick up. When I get back to club play (some way off – I haven’t found a nearby club yet in my part of East Sussex), I will certainly be trying to introduce these. They are a great way of getting the miniatures onto the table for a bit of fun. The high level of abstraction means they will not be to many tastes, but they are the basis for an absorbing and entertaining game. And the reference to history is much more than a token one, even if it is highly abstracted.

My latest Albuera game – how did Army rules do?

The allies have re-oriented they army as the French attempt to outflank them

At last another game, as my friend Rob was kind enough to visit! I had to put together a scenario quite quickly – and one that could use Rob’s British and allied Minifigs. I decided on Albuera 1811. It is a battle I know quite well, has plenty of action, and the terrain is relatively straightforward.

I have used this as a scenario at a club game using my big battle rules – but I was concerned that this would not be a big enough game for up to five hours of table time. So I decided to scale down (or up?) the rules to halve my normal figure ratio, so that the main units were brigades rather than divisions. Each infantry base was 600 infantry, 200 cavalry or 8 guns. I have just bought Sam Mustafa’s Lasalle rules, and funnily enough each base corresponds to one the standard-sized units in that ruleset. The only adjustment I made to game play was to extend the artillery bombardment ranges by 3 inches. Developing a version of the rules at this scale is certainly something I want to do, but at this stage I am not thinking too hard about what other changes might be needed. The ground scale is 75% of normal, so that each inch is 112.5m, or 150 paces in contemporary military measurement – over 14 inches to the mile compared to under 11. This meant interpreting the 50% figure ratio as relating to footprint rather than frontage.

The game starts at 8am. The French are lined up along the road from Seville that you can see on the left-hand side of the table. The allies are behind the village, with three units off the table on their way. There is a lot of empty space on the top right of the table. As I was setting up the game I realised that I had made a mistake in my previous versions of the game: the road from Badajoz is the one disappearing off the bottom table edge, rather than the one going off to the right. This is the critical campaign axis and the French objective, and the route along which allied reinforcements were coming. If I had appreciated that I would have shifted the table one foot up to have more space along this road, and less at the under-used far end. That would have crimped the French deployment, but that is surely not a fatal problem.

I chose the set-up because I wanted to give the French player the choice of carrying out the historical flank attack, or of something much more frontal, which tends to be the way the French player goes when I run it as a club game. The problem is that if the French do opt for the flank option, as I did this time, the allies have too much time to reorganise. I tried to give the French a head start, with a free move at the start, though one they couldn’t use to mount an attack, as well as the first move in the next turn. Though the French manoeuvred with impressive speed, the allies had little difficulty in repositioning their army to face the threat though. In practice I think the Spanish allies were harder to move around than they were in this game, when I gave them a -1 on the Activation throw. But there may also be a problem with the battle account that I have been following. The French main army may have deployed from the road before 8am – which was when the firing started.

The first few moves were taken up with manoeuvring, and some skirmishing around the village. These early exchanges did not go well for the French, so I did not press them. The photo shows the situation as the allies more or less completed their repositioning, after about two or three moves. After this the French continued their turning manoeuvre, led by the cavalry, and assembled the artillery in a grand battery. As historically, but in a different position on the field, Zayas’s Spaniards took the first brunt, and were pushed back. The grand battery (not a historical tactic in this battle) successfully caused consternation among Ballesteros’s Spaniards (there were some bad throws), and forced it out of the line. But the British troops plugged the gap, and weathered the artillery without difficulty. The game ended with the French hurling their infantry forward across the line into British and Portuguese troops; I needed some lucky dice, which were not forthcoming. By now it was 5pm, we were tired, our wives were back from a day’s exploring the shops in Lewes, and we called it a day. Here is the situation:

At the end

The Allied line has been bent right back, but the French would have to be very lucky to push the British troops back much further. Some units were looking a little worn, but remarkably few had been knocked out of play (the British heavy dragoons may have been the only one). We had played about 9 turns in roughly four hours. The game had started an hour late because of a navigation mishap by my guest.

The scenario clearly needs more work, but it makes for a good game – even if difficult for the French to win. As the French player I probably needed to get stuck in more quickly with the infantry while the cavalry tried to pressure he flank. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a good way to bypass the Spanish troops so the French run the risk of wearing themselves out on the poor troops before taking on the good ones.

How about the rules? This was a very good test of game play, as all arms got a good look-in and there was opportunity for manoeuvre. More work is needed, unfortunately. The good news as that they played quite quickly, but the combat needs to be more decisive. The armies need to be crumbling at the stage we ended the game. The ability to recover from one or two disruptions may be the issue, rather than the rate at which disruptions are handed out. My new rule mechanism for “pinning” – causing the responding side to “borrow” moves from its following turn – proved a damp squib. I also think the combat and casualty mechanisms need to be more intuitive. Command and control also needs more thought. While the French army moved fast enough, the allied army had it too easy, even with not very strong command resources. The game needs to move a little closer to the “PIP” system where the action follows from command focus, which can’t be across the field. It is probably too easy to get two or three actions on the activation throw without intervention from senior command – but probably OK for one action. One idea that did work was limiting artillery to six shots – this made players think more carefully about how to use guns, and limited the temptation to keep blasting away forever.

I will be thinking hard about revisions to the rules – which also need to be a bit clearer in places. What a long journey rule-writing can be!

Using caulk for roads and rivers

Another view of my Albuera table

Last time I posted about the first stage of creating a wargames table for my Albuera game – which I dealt with by placing a fleece mat over a contoured surface of extruded polystyrene. Next come the roads and rivers. I have been trying out new techniques on this – by using decorators’ caulk.

I am not a fan of the standardised lengths of road or river that you can buy commercially. Nature doesn’t usually conform to these shapes, and there are lots of joins. All this is fine for an evening club game when you need to set up in minutes, and the game is usually quite generic. But you should aim higher for historical battles. Hitherto my technique has been to use masking tape, painted over with tempura. But these don’t handle bends well – especially in rivers and streams, and painting the edges of the tape means a bit of spillage onto the terrain mat, which also softens the edges. That was OK for my old felt mat, but not my lovely new printed fleece. So I decided to try a technique described on the Altar of Freedom website – using caulk. This is meant for 6mm terrain in the American Civil War, but my features aren’t that much bigger.

Two types of caulk are needed: opaque for the roads, and transparent for the rivers. The material needs to be paintable – so you need acrylic caulk rather than silicone. For the opaque sort I decided to use coloured material rather than the standard white. It would still need to be painted, but any gaps and damage would be less visible. I bought Unika ColorSealant on Amazon in medium oak. It comes in tubes designed for use with a “gun” – which I also had to buy. It proved trickier to work with than I hoped.

First off I tried spreading it on an old plastic document wallet (I have dozens of these) – but one of caulk’s properties that makes it so useful in DIY is adhesion – and it was impossible to get it off the backing cleanly. I experimented by spreading it on jay cloth that had been pre-cut. That was fine, and gave a more robust product, but a bit of a faff. I also tried wax paper – as recommended by Altar of Freedom – and I found that I could peel it off that with a bit of care. Once off the backing though, the product was a bit fragile and retained a slight stickiness. It is unlikely to survive most types of storage, so it will usually need to be remade each time a table is put together. One thing I learnt on my experiments is that this stuff hates water – which dilutes it rapidly. I tried spreading it on damp jay cloth (so that it was nice and flat) – which was a bit of a disaster.

Transparent acrylic caulk is much harder to find, and (usually) pricier. Most transparent caulk is silicone, which can’t be painted. Eventually I found some on Screwfix – No Nonsense All Weather Clear. This is very different stuff from the opaque material: it is less adhesive, dries quicker and is much harder to paint. Spreading it on plastic document folder was fine, but painting the underneath afterwards not so much.

So much for the experimentation. I want to describe what I did for my Albuera table. I decided on using wax paper. It can be rolled out nice and long, and it is transparent enough so that you can trace felt-tip markings through it. The first step was to trace out the course of the roads and rivers in felt-tip on the XPS base board. I could then mark up the lengths required (using the felt-tip) by tracing through the wax paper. The river bottom was then painted onto the wax paper, over the felt-tip. I then spread the caulk. This means laying beads onto the paper from the caulk gun, and then spreading it into a reasonably flat surface with a spatula. And then I applied paint to the road sections. I did this all in a single session of one to two hours, which meant laying things down before the previous stage was fully dry. The sequence, after the tracing, was: paint the rivers; lay the caulk for the roads; lay the caulk for the rivers; paint the road. A bit of wet on wet is fine, so long as there is no water. Small traces of water in the paint I used for the road (student acrylics) caused issues, though fortunately not fatal. Acrylic paint blends well with he caulk, though, and white caulk would probably probably have been fine. This is how it looked when I left it overnight:

I came back after nearly 24 hours. The river sections peeled off fine, with the paint sticking to the caulk rather than the wax paper, as planned – a bit of wet-on-wet probably helped; the sections just needed a bit of trimming with scissors. Alas the roads did not peel off as nicely as they did in the experiment. In the end I had to leave the backing paper on and cut them out. At least that made the end product a bit more robust, though less flexible. I found that there was a bit of spreading on the road, as a result of water in the paint mixture; in some cases this created a slight ridge at the edge – actually quite a pleasing effect!

There was no time to do more work. The roads could have done with a bit of dry-brushing, and perhaps painting the edges in a contrast colour, or even flocking. It would have been nice to do something with the river margins. Both look a lot better than using tape, though, and the more complex features, like junctions, come out nicely. The rivers are fine by wargames standards, but still aren’t very realistic. The grey colour was a bit of an accident – I mixed too much blue in with the brown – I had wanted something browner. Watercourses should run in a bit of a depression – but that could only be achieved with a lot more cut XPS. In fact rivers and streams (especially in Spain) look more like strips of green than blue, grey or brown, as the banks are vegetated, and this tends to dominate the usually trickling flow of water. I could potentially achieve something by using flock while the caulk is still wet – though I would need to be careful about bridges and fords. But as already mentioned, caulk terrain is not robust, and it is best regarded as throwaway – so it is not worth investing too much in it. Flocked margins would make storage even trickier. On the table, the pieces did have a slight tendency to be knocked out of position. Pinning down with tree models may be a solution, but they should really be a bit wider to accommodate this.

I will try to store these pieces, along with the cut pieces of XPS, so that I can run the game again, but my expectations are low. Anyway I’m sure I will be using some variation on the technique for my next project. Once the basic techniques are mastered, this is very quick and easy -the wet on wet technique in particular saves a lot of time. I will post about the trees and villages on another day!

A table for Albuera- fleece mat and XPS

Apart from reading, much of my recent hobby time has been devoted to the long-neglected aspect of terrain. I focused on one-third of the field of Waterloo, representing the line of advance of the Prussian IV Corps on Plancenoit. Pretty much all aspects of my terrain needed work, and this is still unfinished. Meanwhile my friend Rob offered me a game. This was not just a chance for me to road-test my new wargames rules, but also an opportunity to try out some terrain ideas.

I picked the Peninsula battle of Albuera. This is on the small side for my rules – suitable for an evening game, but not for the day game we planned. I decided to scale it down, with each base being 600 men or 200 cavalry, and the units being brigades or regiments for the most part. The game-design aspects of this are another story. For now I’m going to look at the table. Albuera was fought in Spain, near the border with Portugal, on terrain that was remarkably empty. It has just one significant habitation, very gentry rolling hills and two streams that merge. This was quite easy to put together quickly – and a good test run for some of my new ideas.

The first problem was how to shape the table. I wanted something between the two extremes of beautifully sculpted boards as seen in exhibition games, and the rapidly assembled table from standard bits that you use for a club game. I decided to go for contoured rather than sculpted hills, at least for the gently rolling terrain that most of the battles I’m interested in were fought on. This is much simpler to assemble, and its flatness makes it much easier to put things like models of buildings on. The big problem is that I want to represent the sweeping shape of valleys and ridges, and not just plonking a few hills on hill pieces on the table, or just leaving the whole thing flat – which are the normal wargames solutions. The technique I have been working on is to place a mat over cut polystyrene. The mat softens the sharp edges of the contours, as well being the fasted way to get a respectable looking surface.

This time I retired by well-worn green felt mat, replacing it with a modern printed fleece mat produced by Geek Villain. I picked their “Sicily” mat, which has the muted colours I am looking for and enough pattern to break things up, without dictating the shape of the terrain. You can see it in the picture. One side is mainly beige, which fades into mainly green. This suits Albuera well, as one side of the table is lightly wooded, and the other dry, featureless farmland. The green is a little strong for my liking, but I think it is as good as it gets when buying off the shelf.

The next innovation was to abandon the lightweight expanded polystyrene (EPS) for the denser extruded polystyrene (XPS). EPS is cheap, and a common packing material (lots of it comes free when you buy stuff), but quite hard to work with. XPS is mainly sold as insulation, and cuts easily with a knife – so long as it is sharp. It is much nicer to work with. It is pricier though. I have been buying off Amazon. My first attempt was a pack of six sheets (10mm thick) of 60cm by 100cm in bright yellow. This cost £40. As I decided I needed more, I found a pack of 5 sheets of 60cm by 120cm (fewer sheets but same area overall) for just £26. This stuff is designed for hiding under floorboards, not for craft use, so the sizes are not precision, and the surface is not always smooth – but as I’m putting a mat over it, that doesn’t really matter.

One thing I had learnt from experiments though, is that it is very useful to be able to stick pins into the board. That means you need a bottom layer covering the whole table – the main reason I needed two packs. That bottom layer can be re-used for different projects, though. Another thing I have learnt the hard way is that to represent gentle terrain you need to keep the number of layers a minimum – preferably just one on top of the base – and represent only the critical features. That means you can’t just work it out from a contour map; it is more art than science. For Albuera the critical terrain was a low ridge passing the length of the table. I had enough bits of board to put in another feature on the top left of the photo. Strictly there should be another low feature running along the right of the table – but this has no game significance, and I decided to save material. I stuck the top layer to the bottom with masking tape and put the mat on top. The fleece forms beautifully over the XPS sheet, and there was no need to use pins – which is what I needed to do when I experimented with my Sorauren table, which has much bigger hills.

The next big task (at least so far as this narrative is concerned – I actually did it before the contours) was the roads and rivers. That will be my next topic.

David Rowland’s The Stress of Battle – quantifying the human factor

This is an astonishing book, first published back in 2005, with a second edition in 2019, which recently came into the Caliver bookshop. Despite the subtitle the book is not aimed at hobby wargames – more the sort of thing armed forces would run. But there is a lot of interest for us hobbyists. Like a lot of highly insightful works, what it says is bloomin’ obvious once you have read it, but somehow it changes the way you think about things profoundly – in this case the behaviour of men in battle conditions.

The book describes a journey in what is called “Operational Research” in the context of analysing military combat. It started with trying to understand why the combat performance of weapons was so far below what went on in the firing rage, and to quantify this “degradation” and the various factors that affected it. It describes a journey of analysing progressively more complex situations, to get a better understanding of the components of weapon and human effectiveness.

The main journey started in the 1970s with trials using real (British Army) troops in staged battles using laser pulse devices mounted on guns and sensors on the vehicles and people to simulate fire without risk of injury. The first set were tank battles, and then there were a series of infantry battles with armoured support. The tank exercises revealed a number of interesting insights n how battles evolved, and quickly descended into mini-battles with just a few tanks on either side (or one to one) – this was staged in Germany in classic rolling terrain. The infantry exercises showed huge amounts of degradation – reduced weapon effectiveness compared with the effective maximum on shown on firing ranges. Rifle effectiveness was just 5%, and machine-guns 21%.

The next step was to look at historical data, using the trial data as the basis for estimating some of the variables (such as the relative effectiveness of rifles over machine-guns). They looked at the effectiveness of defence fire against an attack, starting with the simplest situation of attacks in the open. They used data going back to the US Civil War, on the basis that the dynamics of small arms fire have not changed much since the rifle replaced the musket. Still, later wars tended to provide more usable data, so WW2 tended to dominate. They progressively added complexities – preparatory bombardments, suppression fire from tanks, prepared defences and so on. They moved on to consider fighting in built-up areas, including the effects of rubble, and woods. Overall they found a further degradation compared to laser-simulation trials of 90%. In other words rifle fire was at just 0.5% of theoretical effectiveness (depending on various conditions), and machine-guns 2%.

The researchers were clear that this degradation had a lot to do with how individuals responded to danger. Two observers from WW2 were particularly on their minds. The first British Lt-Col Lionel Wigram, who went to Sicily in July 1943 to observe infantry behaviour:

His principal finding was that in every platoon there were “six gutful men who will go anywhere”, with “twelve ‘sheep’ who will follow that short distance behind if they are well led”. But there were also ‘”four to six who will run away”. It made uncomfortable reading and apparently General Montgomery suppressed it on the grounds that it would be bad for morale. In addition, Wigram himself lost his temporary rank and was posted to a battalion in Italy as a Major, only to be killed.

David Rowland’s Stress of Battle p61-62

Also quoted was Lt-Col SLA Marshall of the US Army who was commissioned study to infantry behaviour immediately after the war. He observed that only on average only 15% of men took an active part in battle with their weapons, and rarely more than 25% even under intense local pressure. The average was higher for heavy weapons. This was based on battles in NW Europe and the Pacific; he claimed the rate of participation was much higher in Korea. This analysis was pretty subjective but it clearly pointed to an important truth.

All this became clearer in the next phase of the research, when the team looked at battles involving armour. This started with looking at the effectiveness of anti-tank guns against tank attacks, as these data were easiest to make sense of. Their data came initially from encounters by British guns in the Western Desert and Tunisia. Unlike infantry battles, they were examining relatively small numbers of weapons, and the individual performance of weapons was more apparent. They saw that the results were heavily influenced by what they called “heroic behaviour”, which usually resulted in a gallantry award. This covered 20-30% of guns. To cut a long story short, they found support for a model closely approximating to Wigram’s observations for infantry. There were three groups of men: “heroes”, those with degraded performance, and those who took no part at all. The ratios were consistent with Wigram’s observation (18:55:27). Incidentally Wigram’s ratio of ‘gutful” is quite high; anti-tank crew performance tended to be led by the best performer in the group, who was usually at least sergeant rank – Marshall’s ratio of 15% would be typical of infantrymen. I think Wigram was following the British 78th Battleaxe division, who were veterans. There was some variation of performance within each group, but these were minor compared to the variation between the groups; there was no continuum of individual performance. The heroic group operated at a similar level to the soldiers in the non-lethal trials, the “followers” (my terminology) operated at about 30% of this level, and the “shirkers” did not participate in the battle at all. They picked out examples from the battles that they studied, of some guns killing over a dozen tanks, while other guns from the same unit were abandoned without firing a shot. Looking more closely at the heroes, they found that this correlated strongly with rank. A much higher proportion of NCOs than other ranks, and higher proportion of officers to NCOs. Doubtless the causality of this worked both ways.

The studies went on to look at progressively more complex situations in armour combats, and then to look at the effects of surprise and shock, but the three classes of behaviour was the critical finding. There were a number of other findings that will be of interest to wargamers. Two were very striking:

  • Defenders of urban areas proved to be at a substantial disadvantage to the attackers, usually suffering very heavy casualties. The most effective strategy for defence was to hold back forces in reserve and launch a counter-attack. This runs contrary to the expectations of those who aren’t infantrymen, but I think that experienced soldiers knew this. The Germans at Salerno seem to have understood this, for example, in their defence of Battapaglia. This does not apply if the built-up area has been reduced to rubble, which turns it into a more normal battlefield – though not if the bombardment is just before the attack, when the shock can have a major effect. Wargamers rarely understand this dynamic over built-up areas, suffering something of a Hougoumont complex – treating all built-up areas like the heroically defended farm complex at Waterloo (and its neighbour La Haye Sainte). It doesn’t help that in larger scale games a village is often represent by a single building model. While this result was derived mainly from WW2 data, I think it is timeless.
  • Anti-tank guns proved two to three times more effective than tanks at destroying tanks, in spite their lack of mobility and protection. Mobile anti-tank guns (portees and self-propelled guns) had similar performance to towed guns, and even the open-turreted M10 (generally highly disadvantaged in wargames) was more similar to its towed equivalent than tanks. The authors explanation is equally unexpected: it is because they had a higher proportion of “heroes” manning them, specifically they were more likely to have an officer or senior NCO in command, or an officer could easily move from gun to gun and exert influence (or actually take over the firing himself). They had no need to look for alternative explanations, though they were able to dream up a few.

For me the dog that didn’t bark was differences in troop quality. Of course the data was seldom good enough to produce different estimates for different types of troops. It was drawn overwhelmingly from battles between British, American and German troops. These men came from similar societal backgrounds, were trained in roughly similar ways, and they were mainly conscripts. So, although modern writers like to talk up the superior quality of German troops, it shouldn’t be so surprising that when you get down to platoon and company level the troops behaved similarly. On two occasions did the researchers try to distinguish elite units. When looking at troops defending rubble they noted that the defenders on several occasions were German paratroops (Monte Cassino loomed large, but there were other battles covering 40% of the data). Allowing for their greater allocation of machine-guns, the researchers found a slightly better performance for the paratroopers, but not a significant one. The also looked at the performance of Gurkha troops, and found a slightly higher proportion of gallantry awards, indicating a higher proportion ‘heroes”, and so better combat performance. The effects were not decisive.

The three types of behaviour in combat, and their rough proportions and linkage to seniority is timeless, I think – and much of the art of warfare is based on managing this fact, from the invention of the Greek phalanx onwards. I have often said that the relatively lacklustre performance of Austrian troops in Napoleonic times came down to a lower ratio of cadres in their large companies. When a period of campaigning had increased the cadre ratio (attrition affects the cadres less), they performed better, such as in 1800, when they nearly ended Napoleon’s career at Marengo. Elite units are created to increase the proportion of “heroes” and eliminate the shirkers – though possibly at a substantial cost to the rest of the army.

And for wargamers? In most games we use large figure scales and we can average out the effects. Even in WW2 games, where the figure ratios are often 1 to 1, we like to group people together in teams, so that the individual behaviour is averaged, and let the dice do the rest. But this works less well for armoured warfare, where we tend to assume all vehicles are crewed by heroes. This produces a better game, given that tank numbers tend be quite low, and so an only one in four chance of the tank being fully functional can easily take the fun away. Still the examples given of a single 6-pounder destroying multiple German tanks (mainly Panzer IIIs I think) could not happen if those tanks had been manned by fully functioning crews.

This book has been around for a bit, and it must have influenced some rules writing. I can see its influence on the Too Fat Lardies offerings, especially I Ain’t been Shot Mum and its Big Men. But generally our games work more like those non-lethal trials with laser-pulse weapons.

This book isn’t a particularly easy read. It uses a lot of technical language and even for someone like me that knows a bit about statistical analysis, it is quite to follow at times – the blurb suggests that its many charts help make things clear, but they didn’t for me. But you can skip through those bits – and I don’t hesitate to recommend this book for anybody who wants to understand land warfare better, especially WW2.

Napoleon and the World War of 1813: Lessons in Coalition Warfighting

It’s been a while since I have posted anything. I’ve been reasonably busy on the hobby front, but I’m getting a bit bogged down on improving my terrain – which involves many parallel paths with a rather distant endpoint. Meanwhile I have been reading a bit, and I’m reporting back on this book by Lieutenant-General Jonathan Riley (or J.P. Riley) published back in 2000. I remember reading a review of it in The Economist, and I eventually picked it up at a bookstall in Salute a number of years later; it languished a number more years before I eventually read it. Since my Napoleonic hobby projects are increasingly focusing on 1813, after 1815, it struck me as relevant.

The book is a high level account of three campaigns in 1813: in Central Europe, with the decisive battle of Leipzig, in Spain (with Vitoria as the centrepiece) and in North America, especially in Canada as the War of 1812 played out. The nominal theme of the book is the study of how multinational coalitions work in warfare, where he draws out parallels from later wars, right up to NATO. The coalitions are self-explanatory in the case of the first two campaigns (and include Napoleon’s armies in Central Europe, albeit that the French allies were highly subordinate); in Canada the British side is presented as a coalition between the British government, French and British colonists, and the Native American tribes (which he, back n 2000, is able to call “Indians”, though his account does accord them full respect). The narrative and the commentary on coalitions don’t integrate entirely satisfactorily though – the narrative tends to take over, and it is not especially penetrating on his main subject. I read a very interesting study of coalition fighting a few years ago which was based on a research thesis by an American military academic, which used the Russian-Prussian alliance in 1813 as a case study – and which got much more into the weeds of coalition warfare. It was able to do this because the researcher got behind the mainstream campaign accounts and into some of the telling details. An example was the complaint that Russian generals were a bit too free and easy with exposing their troops to artillery bombardment, according to their Prussian subordinates.

General Riley does hit on some important insights, though, showing features of coalition warfare which military historians tend to present as command failures. It is the nature of coalition warfare that campaigns only continue for as long as common objectives remain agreed. For example as the allied armies reached the Rhine at the end of the year they stopped; some commentators (starting with, at the time, Jomini) regretted this as a wasted opportunity, as Napoleon was vulnerable. But the allies had never agreed to enter France as a coalition, as some members (notably Austria) had reservations about what might happen next – they liked the idea of a reasonably strong France, and were not signed up to a restoration of the Bourbons. The coalition simply had to stop to consider their next move, and see if Napoleon would come to terms. This in turn delayed Wellington’s invasion of France. This is not unlike the first Gulf War after Kuwait was recaptured more easily than many thought. The coalition could not simply proceed to Baghdad.

I was a bit disappointed with the campaign narratives for Central Europe and the Peninsula. The book was never meant to deliver anything special here, but it is very British Old School, based on secondary sources in turn derived primarily from British and French sources. Doubtless this was under the influence of the great historian David Chandler, who contributed the forward. His work was largely where I started my serious history reading back in the 1970s, but we’ve moved on. The Central Europe account is very much centred on Napoleon, with the deliberations of the allies treated very superficially – a big weakness for a book on coalition warfare. I am still none the wiser as to why the allies did not withdraw after the first day of Dresden, for example. And he keeps to the generally accepted story that Napoleon nearly beat the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig, with the day being saved by the intervention of Tsar Alexander. I simply don’t think that Napoleon had enough hours in the day to accomplish what he needed to do to win the battle, and this story has evolved from the typical French historian’s downplaying all Napoleon’s failures. The allied armies of 1813 were very resilient, had plenty of cavalry, and were very hard to beat properly. But I don’t know enough about the events of this day to present a convincing case – or any opinion on the Tsar’s intervention. The focus on Napoleon and the French also brings forward the lack of initiative shown my most of his senior commanders – and this is discussed as a downside of his highly centralised system of command and control. This is fair enough, but the obverse is not commented on. This is that the allied subordinate commanders often showed good judgement and initiative – something that had not been noted earlier in the wars.

I had similar problems with the account of the Peninsular campaign. Here the problem is the tendency to shoehorn the account onto a very standard British stereotype, of the French coming on “in the same old way” at steadfast British infantry, and increasingly steadfast Portuguese and Spanish, with every encounter being on a ridge. I have only researched Vitoria properly, where General Riley does underplay the French tactical successes, without being seriously wrong on the overall narrative. For Sorauren I noted that he did not follow Oman’s somewhat more nuanced narrative, and went for a very old-school version that this was a typical encounter – though I don’t think the overall distortion matters all that much in the end.

General Riley’s account of the War of 1812 was much more interesting, as this was something I knew little about. The actual campaigns are not all that interesting in themselves – though doubtless a good source of small scale encounters of the sort that make interesting wargames without all the difficulties large scale battles bring. The interesting bit was the differing interests of the various groups, from American settlers to Canadians to native Americans. I hadn’t appreciated that one of the big issues that drove the original conflict between the colonies and home government in America was that the colonists wanted freedom to displace the Native Americans – which is why the latter sided with the British. It goes to show just how ethnically-centred the concept of freedom was that drove the American revolution.

Overall this a flawed book that hasn’t aged well; I wouldn’t recommend that anybody buy it. The subject matter is interesting, but we can surely do much better these days. Good military history demands confident coverage of the big stuff – the bigger context and politics – and a willingness to look hard at the small stuff. General Riley does the first part well enough, but is disappointing on the second.

Two books on Sicily 1943

My 1943 project focuses on British troops in the Mediterranean that year. I started it as a teenager in the late 1970s, but suspended it, like so much else, when I left home in 1979. I have so far focused my research on two campaigns: Tunisia in January to May (and especially the First Army) and Salerno in September. Between these two comes the battle for Sicily in July to August, which I have neglected. I bought these two books to start to fill the gap.

The first is James Holland’s Sicily ’43. Mr Holland seems to be one of the most popular British historians of WW2 at the moment, but this is the first of his books that I have read. I am impressed. This is how history should be written for general consumption. Wargamers will find that it lacks detail, but it should offer inspiration for further research – or may put them off trying to recreate the combats on the tabletop altogether – more of that later.

The 38 day battle for Sicily (starting from the date of the invasion itself rather than the pre-campaign, as the cover of the other book does) has been somewhat neglected by historians – along with the rest of the subjects of my 1943 project. In between the battles of the Western Desert 1940 to 1942, and Normandy and north west Europe 1944 to 1945, and the Russian Front 1941 to 1945, Tunisia, Sicily ad Italy don’t get much of a look-in. Inasmuch as historians have dealt with it, they have tended to be very critical of the Allied command. They have suggested they were too cautious, and should not have let so many Germans and their equipment get out at the end. Mr Holland seeks to set the record straight.

In this he is mainly convincing. Only on one issue do I think he needed to say more – could the Allies have succeeded with a smaller invasion launched earlier? The Axis defence was in disarray at the start of the attack, and things would have been even worse if the attack had been conducted earlier. The key is the Etna area in the north east. This was very easy to defend, and the Germans managed to do so successfully with reinforcements sent in shortly after the invasion started – and most of all with airborne troops. The Allies would have had to get there very quickly to head this off, across terrain that made movement difficult. It probably was too risky, at a time when the Allies did not want defeats – but it would have been worth exploring this a bit more by looking at the resources available to both sides. Incidentally one of the interesting aspects of Sicily was the use of airborne forces. Theses were an innovation for both Allied powers, who learnt the hard way the difficulties of inserting them directly into enemy territory. There were disasters, especially for the British glider troops, and the shooting down of many American transports by friendly fire by the navy. The Germans showed that they had learned the lesson by using airborne forces for a rapid insertion behind their own lines, mostly landing the troops in airfields. It turned a rout into a hard-fought battle which bought time and cost the Allies many casualties.

Mr Holland’s style is to range from the top command to the front line, not neglecting the experience of civilians caught in the middle. He looks at all participants sympathetically – this is the best way to draw out telling insights. Too many histories just look at one participant (based on the sources most readily accessible to the author); this can be good for drama, but not so much for understanding what was happening and why. Another mistake is historians being too eager to criticise the decisions of participants. My rule of thumb when doing historical analysis (which I developed as a history student) is that unless you understand how you yourself could have taken a decision, especially a bad one, you have not understood why it was taken. That requires a sympathetic approach. It also makes more enjoyable reading – though that may just be down to my personal taste. Mr Holland scores well on both counts. It is fluently written too, another plus in an era when history writing is often badly edited. I found some clichés, such as the frequent use of “to say the least”, a bit annoying, but that’s small stuff.

The second book, which is shorter, and which I read first, is not so well-written: Eagles over Husky by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black. It concentrates on the air campaign, and plays to my increasing interest in the use of air power in support of military campaigns. It too seeks to set the record straight – as a number of authors criticised the Allied air effort in the campaign. The air forces were accused of fighting a private war and not supporting the armies well enough, and then letting the Germans get away at Messina. Mr Fitzgerald-Black has little difficulty in putting the counter-arguments. For my taste he overdoes it; Mr Holland comes to the same conclusions, but with much less argument. Mr Hamilton-Black feels it is necessary to take apart the criticism line by line, showing how it is not based on facts. This is a bit tiring for readers like me, as it just seems to give air time to nonsense.

That’s my only real criticism of this work though. It draws heavily from sources on all sides to give a convincing picture. Like Mr Holland he combines a strong strategic narrative with many vignettes of the action. He makes an interesting case that the Allies forced the Germans to make a similar commitment of resources to this theatre as the eastern front (while Kursk was going on) and the north (where the Allied strategic bombing had got going), but suffered vastly more losses than in either other theatre. The campaign was an important step in the breaking of the Luftwaffe across the whole continent. Perhaps that argument can be challenged – but I’m not the person to do it!

So what is in the Sicilian campaign for wargamers? There is quite a bit of interest at a strategic level – but his can only really be tackled in a board game (which I think has been done). A Rommel-style grand-tactical game may be feasible, most easily for the Axis counterattack against the Americans at Gela, where you even get to use a unit of Tigers. (Incidentally Tigers proved hard to use in the difficult terrain and primitive roads – they mostly broke down through being over-worked). The early battles are pretty unsatisfactory from a gaming point of view though, one or two episodes excepted. The defence was very disorganised; the Italians have little stomach for a fight, and the Germans lacked decent leadership; the main challenge for the Allies (and it was considerable) was logistics. Later the fighting got much tougher; a Rommel game would encounter the sorts of problems with mountain warfare that I described for Longstop Hill in Tunisia.

Tactical gaming is more promising, but a bit limited in a different way. There are a lot of important clashes at company and even platoon level, as it was hard to deploy larger formations in the terrain. The problem for the Allies was crossing open (but rough) terrain which exposed their troops to concealed weapons and indirect fire, while canalising them onto mined roads. Their trump card was plentiful artillery and air power. I don’t think this makes for a great tabletop game. There is much less of the Normandy-style fighting in close terrain. Still you can create a game with orchards, olive groves, farms and villages. It should really involve hills and rocks too. A battle for a hilltop village could be visually very attractive, if much harder to recreate than a bit of bocage country. You get to use German paratroops too.

As for air power the key is finding a game where the player chooses between air superiority, interdiction and close support – out of scope for a tactical game, but a possibility in an expanded Rommel-style game perhaps. Air superiority was settled very quickly though.

I have not settled on rules for my 1943 project. I have just bought a second-hand copy of Chain of Command, and this looks very promising. There are other good systems for one-to-one games (Battlegroup and I ain’t been shot Mum) which I’m a bit less convinced about. Rommel also looks quite exciting – but hard to use out of the box in this theatre. I would like something in between – Rapid Fire! and Fistful of TOWs nominally fill that space, but I’m not that happy with either. The long journey continues.

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules 3: combat

One of the last club games with my previous rules, in February 2020. I think it is based on Montmirail 1814

While the game structure on my new rules was falling into place, I needed to rethink the combat mechanisms. What I was looking for was both a period feel and something that players could pick up quickly, with the minimum of referring back to tables and the like.

My old system was inherited from Bloody Big Battles, which in turn adopted the Fire and Fury system. There are two types of combat: firing and assault. Fire combat covered both artillery and small arms fire, and is carried out by each side in two phases – first by the passive player after movement (“Defensive Fire”) followed by the active player (“Offensive Fire”). All firing by the relevant side is resolved simultaneously. Fire points are totalled from all sources on each target, two dice are thrown and totalled (or a single D10 for F&F), and the result looked up in a table; there are no dice modifiers, but there are “column shifts” on the table. Assault combat occurs when units are brought into contact, but not resolved until the end of the turn, after firing, which both sides in the assault participate in. The combat is resolved by each side throwing a die (all dice in BBB are six-sided; F&F uses 10-sided dice), and the modified results being compared. One side always breaks off in some form after the combat, if only by three inches.

I have never been comfortable with this system in the big-battle context, and especially without long-range infantry weapons, for which the BBB game is designed. The narrative fits much smaller encounters and much shorter turns – especially the firing. At the big game level firing was more a matter of exchange than one side firing after the other, and the distinction between close combat and short range firing is artificial. Still I stuck to it because it seemed to work, and rewriting it would be a big job. But now I can’t avoid that rewrite, because of what I am doing do with the game mechanism.

This has proved quite long journey, but I have ended up with something that seems to work, but needs more play testing. I have three forms of combat (plus some special rules for pursuits), which I am calling, for now, bombardment, firefight and assault. Bombardment covers artillery fire at longer ranges – over 3in. This fire most closely resembles the old fire system. It can be used by the active player at the start of his turn in a Bombardment Phase, or when he activates the unit; the responding player can fire too during the active player’s turn. Each time a unit fires it picks up a smoke marker; it may not gather more than two of these in a turn. I also limit ammunition to six rounds – though I may yet drop this if it doesn’t have enough impact on play. Most fire creates a fire zone which troops cannot move through in that turn – but not preparatory fire in the opening Bombardment Phase, which is meant to represent a short burst of rapid fire.

All combat is resolved as being one unit to one unit – but I do allow three artillery units to combine fire on a single target, by allowing up to two supporting units for each attack. Fire, like all combat in my new rules, is resolved by both sides throwing a die. In this case the modified throw of the firer must exceed that of the target; more hits are scored for bigger margins. Funnily enough I found that this method can be crafted to exactly replicate the old fire table in its results. Of course it is easier to combine the fire of several units using the fire points and table method – but that is not so important for my system – and having kept modifiers down to a minimum, this method is now very quick and easy. It helps to strip out short-range artillery fire, which is wrapped up into firefight and assault combat.

I seriously considered whether I could combine short range fire and assault combat into a single system, based on the old assault rules. In the old system fire by infantry units was usually fairly ineffective, and certainly quite random; you would be unlikely to use it as a serious way of engaging the enemy on its own. Infantry firing (and short-range artillery) almost always came as an adjunct to assault. It was in the rules simply to add a bit more depth and complexity to the assault, which otherwise could have had too much hanging on the throw of two dice. But then I reflected that in this era (and later ones too) there were two distinct forms of infantry combat. Apart from the classic close assault, meant to displace the enemy, forces might enter a prolonged fire combat, which would wear down the opposition, but was unlikely to yield quick results. This was tempting for armies whose troops’ morale and training made them less effective at the close quarters fighting. This style of combat should not be confused with the exchange of volleys by formed troops within 100 paces of each other – which for my purposes is another version of close combat. Instead it is what Is often referred to in English as “skirmishing”. But a skirmish implies inconsequential exchanges between small numbers of troops., when in fact it typically involved serious numbers of men over a period of time. I have called it “firefight” for want of a better word – “tirailleur combat” might be better, though it often involved more than tirailleurs – it might include artillery, and sometimes troops in more close-packed formations.

Classic wargames rules, including the BBB system, do not handle firefight combat well. They tend to have one side throwing dice to determine losses on the other side, and the other side doing the same with a separate throw, either at the same time or, as in BBB, sequentially. There are two problems. First, specifically to BBB, the fire is often ineffective, so the whole thing is a pretty pointless. In fact such combats on the grand tactical scale (when troops might blast away for half an hour or often longer) almost always had an impact, though casualties might be relatively light (the shooting was often inaccurate and the target dispersed) – because firing a musket repeatedly is physically exhausting and ammunition was not especially abundant; troops low on ammunition often refused to fight, so this was important. Better troops often prevailed because they did not burn through their ammunition so quickly, rather than because their fire was more accurate. The other big problem is that there is much too much random variation between the effects of fire between the two sides. In fact a lot of the myriad variables that are represented by the dice applied pretty much equally to both sides – visibility, range and length of time engaged in particular.

Firefight combat in my game is resolved by both sides throwing a die, as usual, with same menu of modifiers is the same for both sides. Numbers of participating bases is part of the modifier process, and supporting artillery can be brought in. First the number of hits on the active player is determined, by looking at the responding player’s modified score. This is usually one or two hits; the responding player suffers the same number of hits unless the active player’s score is four points more or less than his. That is a little complicated to describe, but it is quick when you get used to it. The result is a bit boring; both sides usually suffer one or two hits. But that is intentional – the combat is meant to be low-risk, but (usually) a drain on both sides. Of course if one side masses lots of modifiers, the outcome will not be so even.

The mechanism for assault combat is nominally similar to the old one. The result (usually) depends on the difference between the two sides’ scores, but in this one side is forced o disengage. I wanted to do away with the results table, and have a set of simple outcome rules that would replace it, which would be able to handle the differences between infantry, cavalry and artillery. I also wanted to keep dice modifiers to a minimum. One of the complexities of the old system is that of conferring advantage for numerical superiority, which involves counting bases. There is also an advantage for sides in deeper deployments, as well as the a two point advantage for flank attacks, though these were quite strictly defined. Now that combat is reduced to one-to-one encounters between single units, I had the opportunity to rethink this. I took the view that the outcome of this sort of combat was primarily about momentum. Numerical advantage conferred staying power but not much else. This simplifies things dramatically. The modifiers for numerical advantage and deep formations disappear. This is not quite accurate. If a unit had more men, and its opponent had an open flank, it did have the possibility of using its superiority to tactical advantage. I also suspect that there are differences for units that deployed extended or in depth. But it is hard to reflect these ideas without the rules become too fiddly – so I’m keeping it simple for now. I have retained the flank attack modifier, but split it between a +1 for the attacker and -1 for the defender, with a lower threshold for the former.

I have also added outcomes that reflect the absolute size of each side’s score before combat is joined. If the attacker fails to get a positive score, the attack baulks, and the defender is not engaged. If the attacker fails to get a score of 4, then the attack stalls – if the attacker is infantry, then the attack converts to a firefight; if it is cavalry, the attack does not proceed, but the target unit is pinned, which may limit its options in the next turn. On the defence side, if the assault proceeds and the defender fails to achieve a positive score it routs without combat. The 4 threshold for an attack to progress as an assault is a high one – I want to use the same set of thresholds on all my resolution procedures (i.e. 1, 4 and 7) to make them easier to remember. In fact I think it was quite hard to make troops conduct a full-blooded assault.

That’s just an overview. I am quite pleased with the overall design – the process is simple, and yet it yields a wide range of historically plausible outcomes. Whether it achieves my aim of packing more decisive action into each turn is another matter. I have this habit of providing with one hand and taking way with the other.

So that is far as I am going to describe the rules for now. I am pleased that the length of the them has actually been reduced from 14 pages to 13; it was running at 12 until the last series of tweaks. (The text is quite dense and there are no pictures…). I will only know how well they work after further play testing. Until this testing is done I won’t post up on the website. If any reader is interested in reading them before then please contact me in comments.

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules 2: game structure

Another view of my Plancenoit trial game

In Part 1 I described how I settled on a game based on divisional units with a game turn representing one hour (or more – I will return to this). I described the journey that led to that conclusion. If that was clear before I started the project, the game structure – the basic framework for the two sides to interact – certainly wasn’t.

It is worth explaining a bit more on the representation of the armies. I started with the Bloody Big Battles system where troops are represented by bases, in my case 25mm square, though I have also acquired some on 30mm squares. I mount these with six figures for infantry and two for cavalry, as I like my miniatures to be more densely packed than the modern fashion, though still looser than actual close order formations, where you would get four rather than three infantry figures across 25mm in 18mm scale. In BBB each base represents 1,000 to 1,500 men for both infantry and cavalry, meaning that each of the figures would stand for 167 to 250 infantry, or 500 to 750 cavalry. Artillery bases represent 30 or more guns. I kept the infantry scaling but I felt this did not do justice to Napoleonic cavalry; I base these at the same figure ratio as the infantry, which means 333 to 500 men per base. I wanted more cavalry on the tabletop, and besides they did take up more space than infantry. Cavalry did not deploy dismounted and engage in fire combat in this era, so that was a complication I did not need to think about. I also halved the artillery ratio – though I adjusted the fire factors to reflect this. While the high artillery ratio in BBB worked better than I thought it would, each base is still an awful lot of hardware, when artillery was not always massed together. Each artillery base is 12 to 18 guns.

The elapsed time that each game turn represents needed a bit of thought. Other large scale games, such as Et Sans Resultât and the 1870 series use 30 minutes, as I did in the brigade-based rules that I used for my Vitoria game. But this creates too many moves for a game, even in a fast-playing system. Also a longer turn length is one way of simulating the communication delays in these large scale encounters. It takes longer to react to your opponents’ moves. A one hour turn is the logical next step – and it is what BBB is based on nominally (and Volley and Bayonet). But one-hour turns are not the only option. You can go for a two hour turn, but with a more complex interactive system for sub-moves within this. This is what Grande Armée did and another old system – Legacy of Glory – that I bought in the 1990s, but never played properly. I actually designed a system based on this idea with a rather interesting interactive system of sub moves. I may yet bring this into the light of day, but I was worried about the complexity of it.

Somehow I needed to pack a bit more action into the move, and especially combat action, while maintaining simplicity. I gradually realised that I had to rethink the turn structure. Like BBB I was using the Fire and Fury system. This was innovative for its time. Prior to that the fashion was for an alternate move system, where each player took turns to go through all their armies, with phases for movement, firing, mêlée, morale an so forth. Or (how my games started) with a simultaneous move system based on written orders. F&F retains the alternating structure, with each player taking it in turns to be the active player. But the passive player gets a firing phase directly after the active player moves, and before the active player fires or mêlées. This creates a very interesting dynamic, but firing and mêlée is done on a whole army basis, with complex interactions possible between several units on each side. Two units can gang up on one. This is one of the things that makes the writing of traditional rules so complicated.

Then I had a lightbulb moment as I was reading about innovations in modern fantasy games, less tied to notions of realism. In one system all actions are one on one; there were no multiple combats. If two units were to gang up one one it had to be done sequentially. This means that a player can pick a unit and go through the whole action sequence, including combat, before moving on to the next. In systems terms this is much simpler than the traditional wargames approach – indeed this is how computers tend to do things, in my rather limited experience. It then hit me that this could work for Napoleonic warfare for divisional level units. It was impossible to coordinate divisions closely, and it rarely happened. There was something sequential about how they moved and entered combat. On the few occasions where more than one division operated closely with another (I could think of two examples – McDonald at Wagram and the French main attack at Albuera) the divisions became entangled and in effect merged into a single tactical entity. The sequential approach could be adopted for my game – though artillery would be a complication.

So now a player picks a unit, activates it and goes through the complete sequence. This includes allowing it to carry out more than one attack per turn. The old Movement Throw (a combined movement randomisation and morale test which is a central feature of the F&F system) stays (now called Activation) and gives the unit zero to three actions (and can cause a battered unit to retreat). Each action can be used for movement, rallying or an attack. The player also has an opportunity to focus command resources on particular units to improve their activation result – allowing players to manage the risk of being slowed down by bad dice throws – one of the issues/features (depending on your point of view) of the F&F system.

This approach opens up the whole turn sequence. It is now possible, as it is with many modern wargames systems, for the I-go/U-go sequence to be broken down, with moves from both sides being mixed up. Here I decided to be more cautious. I quite like the idea of a player surveying the scene, deciding what he is going to do, and then trying to do it -rather then everything being lost in an interactive muddle. The typical narrative of a Napoleonic big battle does seem to work this way, with each side moving into action or response across the whole field. I also worried that a more mixed up sequence would take longer to play out. So I left the basic idea of alternating active and passive phases for each player, but allowing the passive player more opportunities to respond (e.g. opportunity charges or turning to face a flank).

Artillery does not work this way though. In some cases I allow it to tag along with other units, but I also have a Bombardment phase when all the active side’s artillery can fire together, either in a quick burst of preparatory fire – or in a longer cannonade of up to an hour. The passive player’s artillery can also fire at any unit it can while it is moving. Artillery differs in many ways from other troop types – not least in that the noise and smoke means that the whole field knows if it is in action, so the same command and control issues don’t apply.

This is all very clever, but it brings with it some problems. The most obvious is that of sequential attacks. This could be very advantageous to the active player. The first attack will almost inevitably disrupt the defender, making it more vulnerable to further attacks, before it has any chance to respond. This is harder in practice than in theory – because the attacking unit tends to block other attackers. But it does bring to light a more fundamental problem – that while each unit is operating in its own time and space on the table, in reality other units on both sides are using that time and space too. If a unit has been fighting multiple rounds of combat while passive, won’t that reduce what it is able to accomplish when it becomes active?

All sequential move systems run into with some variation of the time problem. That is why simultaneous systems were so popular in the early days with gamers who wanted to move from games with toy soldiers to historical simulation. Still, a couple of ideas can help smooth things over. First is overlapping time. So if side A’s turn is 10am to 11am, side B’s might be 10.30am to 11.30. So each side spends part of its turn responding to the other player, and part setting the pace. Another idea is slack: the furthest a unit can move in my rules in one turn, across good terrain but not along roads, is 18in or 2.7 km in real space (1.7 miles). This is slow going, meaning that more action can be packed into that turn without it getting out of hand. A third idea is that the game turn is not strictly tied to the clock – an hour (or whatever) is only meant to be an average. Sam Mustafa is a particular exemplar of this line. He avoids tying his game turns down to particular time periods, and he has a similar flexibility towards space. This is too much for me – I like to have a clear crossover narrative from what is happening on the table to what might get recounted in a history book. That means creating reference points: naming the geographical points on the table, the units and commanders, and so on; the clock is an important such reference point, albeit on a rather approximated basis – this is before the age of precision timetables. As the game clock reaches 6pm I like to image the evening sun. You don’t get that from a system that just tells you it is Turn 12.

Using such reasoning I simply created rules to stop more obvious problems: limiting the number of attacks on any one unit to three for example. These were the rules we used for the Sorauren game. These worked OK, and we encountered only one clear problem on the time and motion side. One of the French brigades advanced into the field of fire of a newly-moved British artillery unit. This unit was able to give it the full hour-long cannonade before it had any chance to adjust its position – which was in fact enough to knock the unit off the table, coming on top of earlier wear and tear. As the French player I could have been warier and spotted the danger, but it still didn’t feel right.

That problem doesn’t require a big fix, even if it means another fiddly little rule of the sort I have been trying to avoid to keep things simple. But the time problem still nagged me. The idea that you would attack an enemy unit with the primary aim of pinning it down is certainly relevant to this era, but the ability to do so in this rule system is limited. Before Sorauren I tried out a simple scenario based on Bulow’s advance on Plancenoit at Waterloo, which I ran twice. This is quite an interesting time and motion problem. Loyal readers of this blog will know that I puzzle at the speed with which the Prussians were able to reach the village, in spite of the supposedly hard and skilful resistance of two French divisions and two kilometres of ground to cover. In this trial there was no issue. In move one (about 4pm) the Prussians went in hard against Lobau’s corps, with two rounds of combat. When it came to the French turn (on both trial games) they decided to fall back on Plancenoit in case their line was turned or broken in the next round, threatening the whole corps. They had plenty of opportunity to do so. Apart from needing to rally if they wanted to fall back in good order (problem that the pursuing + would also have to face) the effect of the first turn’s heavy fighting did not limit them. One hour (or one and a half) would cover both the heavy combat and the 2km withdrawal. This the point at which the photo above was taken. So in this game the Prussians attacked the French in turn 1 and engaged in two rounds of combat; the French withdrew in their turn. In turn 2 both sides reorganised. In turn 3 (6pm) the Prussians (in the one game I played that far), the Prussians attacked the village. This is not a bad tracking of historical events, but it still didn’t feel right.

I wanted to address this problem. In my new (and untested) version of the rules each attack on an enemy unit causes it to gain a “pin” marker. Pins are also picked up picked up for response moves, such as opportunity charges, evades, or turning to the flank. Similarly responding artillery gets a smoke marker each time it fires. When it comes to the next turn, when the responding player turns active, these pins (and smoke markers) need to be cleared before the unit can move. So if the unit activated with two moves, it might have to use one to clear a pin marker, before using the next to rally or attack. However this rule could get out of hand, so the rule is that the first pin is cleared for free; only if a unit picks up two or three pins will it cost them a move (or two). I rationalised this on the basis of overlapping time and making use of slack. We will see how it plays out – but it could have a significant influence on play. I have two slight worries – that it will confer too much of a first mover advantage on attackers by not giving the defenders enough space to recover; and that it will slow things down again, after all that effort to put more action into a turn.

We will see how that works. Meanwhile I am pleased to find that the new turn structure has led to simpler rules. Next time I will describe how I handle combat.

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules part 1 – scope

The Prussians drive the French back into a rather Mediterranean-looking Plancenoit in my trial game

After a spate of painting this spring and early summer, my energies turned to rule-writing. It proved a much longer and harder road than I expected. But the end result might be very close to my final “Dining Table Napoleon” product. Or it might yet collapse into a heap of broken pieces. I want to take this opportunity explore the choices I had to make and the solutions I have come up with.

But first: what is the game for? As the blurb on my blog suggests, I want to fight big Napoleonic battles. Wagram and Leipzig might be a stretch, but a medium-sized encounter of 30,000-50,000 a side should count as a relatively small game, and a Waterloo (with about 70,000 a side plus 40,000 Prussians) should be quite possible to handle with two players (plus one for the Prussians) on a moderately-sized table. I want to use my 15-18mm figures (while catering for smaller ones) and I also want rules that will be quite easy to pick up and play for occasional players. I want to recreate the ebb and flow of a Napoleonic battle reasonably faithfully, so that game outcomes are historically plausible, and historical outcomes within the bounds of the game’s possibilities. But the game needs to evolve reasonably quickly, with a turn representing about an hour of action.

If that sounds straightforward, we are left with the puzzle of why so few games systems take this on. Only one mainstream system that I know of does: Sam Mustafa’s Blücher. This is a clever system with a lot of interesting features. I played three games with it at the club with my French and Prussians, and the experience was decidedly unsatisfactory. Why? A lot of it was visual. In order to make it fit the table sizes I wanted meant having two bases to a unit, giving 12 infantry figures and four cavalry. This didn’t look right, for reasons that I find hard to pin down – but my fellow club members thought so too. Too few men to a unit? It would have looked better with 10mm or 6mm figures (or bigger bases and a fuller ground scale). Certainly that was true of the cavalry. I also didn’t like uniformity of the unit sizes in this context (as opposed to a smaller game). Other aspects of the rules failed to float my boat too. The rules on built-up areas felt entirely wrong – they became fortresses against which attacking units were dashed in vain, rather than stages for gory and confused fighting that was costly to both sides with frequent changes of fortune. Leaders are not generally represented, and neither is the divisional level of organisation – all for very good games-design reasons, but which spoiled the historical narrative for me. The rules did not handle the Prussians very well. They are a pretty boring army in terms of classic gaming features (elite units, heavy cavalry and so on), while their flexible battlefield organisation, where the battalions from different regiments were mixed up in task groups, did not lend itself to a system where the basic unit is a regiment or small brigade.

So I let Blücher go. In fact I thought that brigade-sized units were not the route to go. This is really the minimum-sized unit for big battle games, unless you have big tables and many players. This is the reason why so few rule systems don’t fit the scope I am looking for. For many players, representing battalions is the essence of Napoleonic wargaming, with classic decisions about line, column and square. I have even read some rather implausible arguments that numbers of battalions determined the effective size and capability of armies more than numbers of men (in fact generals of the time tended to measure army and corps strengths in 1,000s rather than battalions). But even if you reduce battalions to a relatively vestigial role (such as in the very interesting Et Sans Resultât rules) you find you find that a single player can’t control more than a corps. If you want to play with battalions, that is fair enough – but it annoys me when any such battalion-based system claims that it is for big battles, which is often the case. Smaller battles (20,000 or less per side) were quite rare historically, so you are left with refighting a corner of a bigger battle. Or fictional encounters between two corps or reinforced divisions – which, to be fair, can make fun game. With the modern preference for games between smaller forces chosen from army lists, it is not surprising that most Napoloenic rules are based on battalions.

Old school wargamers in the 1970s simply fudged things by scaling down, with each battalion representing a brigade or division, and the table being scaled to fit the battle. But in due course proper brigade-based games were created. I investigated three systems in particular. The first was Volley and Bayonet by Frank Chadwick and Greg Novak, published in 1994. In this system units were represented by square (or sometimes oblong) bases with a standard 3in frontage. The system covered the whole era from the Seven Years War to the Franco-Prussian War. I never played it. The table sizes required for 3in bases was large, and at the time I had few gaming opportunities. But the stripped down nature of the system was inspiring. They also published a very useful scenario book for the 1809 campaign. Next came Age of Eagles. This is based on the ACW Fire and Fury system, a revolutionary set of rules published in the 1990s. Age of Eagles is based on deep historical knowledge, but it is not a stripped down system. The units might be brigades, but they are made up of multiple bases, and perform battalion-like evolutions. I played them once (a recreation of Quatre Bras), but let it go after that. In my view it ia player per corps game – and if you are going down that route I would prefer the vestigial battalions route of ESR. And thirdly there was Sam Mustafa’s Grande Armée and its fast-play derivative. Sam is for my money the best games designer out there, and it showed with this system. Like V+B, its units were brigade represented by squares. The system was based on 3in squares (which gave me a space problem) but I followed the recommended option of 2in squares with special rulers marked in 2/3 inches. This was the system I settled on for many years, using the fast play version with house rules. But a number of features were unsatisfactory, both from a visual point of view, and as a historical representation. Sam moved on and the system gradually became ossified.

This brings me to the 2010s and where I started this blog. I wanted to write my own system. I was focusing on a project to refight Vitoria on its bicentenary. This was definitely a brigade-based battle, and so I keep the brigade-based system using 30-minute moves. These rules are quite clever and innovative (they used playing cards in place of most dice), and they are published on this blog. But Vitoria took all day with four players, though my fellow players were very kind about the rules. Incidentally we did not use my miniatures for this, but my friends 6mm GA bases. This left me the conclusion that I must move forwards to division-based games and one-hour turns.

Divisional-based games do produce headaches, especially for Peninsular War battles, as my Sorauren game showed. But I did have an interesting place to start: Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles. This is not a mainstream commercial system like Blücher with well-produced booklets and player-aids. But it is very well designed and comes with a host of big battle scenarios. The system is based on Fire and Fury, again – but unlike AoE it is properly stripped down. But the big problem is that it is primarily designed for the Franco-Prussian War, and then extended to other campaigns of that era. Small arms ranges were much greater in relation to move distances. But quite a few people used them for Napoleonic games, and so I started out on that path. What worked especially well for me was the way units are built – on variable numbers of bases, based on unit size. I found that this got me much closer to the look I sought than the standard brigade blocks – though trying to use 15mm figures on such a reduced distance scale (1in to 150m) is always going to be a visual challenge.

By this time my journey is well-documented on this blog. At last I was getting regular games as a club member – and the system proved suitable for that. But it was slow going by historical standards, and the cavalry rules did not have the Napoleonic feel. The latter was mainly dealt with when I rewrote them into Big Napoleonic Battles V0, published here, which became our settled rules for club games. But then lockdown hit and I moved away from the club. This year I started to think hard about how to rewrite the rules to address their less satisfactory aspects – notably that a game turn packed less than an hour of action, and so games were going on for too long.

But in a phenomenon that will be very familiar to rules writers, what started as a few tweaks turned into a full-on rewrite and rebalance. To be continued.