All posts by admin

Update on Dining Table Napoleon

First, an apology to my email subscribers. The notification for my most recent post (yesterday) never went out. I don’t think the one for the previous post to that (back in December) went out either. I think I’ve resolved the problem, but I’ll only know once I’ve posted this one.

What I announced yesterday was my plan to digress into WW2 gaming with my 1943 20mm project. Apart from that digression, my hope is to post more frequently, to provide a record of what I’m doing.

How is my original, Napoleonic, project going? My last game was Salamanca when I used a personally adapted version of Horse, Foot Guns rules. I will probably rerun this game later this year, amending the command rules a bit to address the problems faced in that game.

Meanwhile I have been plodding on with my new rules for big battles. I have had several false starts. The pattern is that I have several bright idea, but as I work them into a prototype, I realise that my creation is vastly over-engineered, and so I’m back to the drawing board. My basic concept now is to have units similar to Bloody Big Battles (BBB), but with more cavalry and artillery bases. The game will be divided into hourly “turns” but these may be subdivided into two or three moves by each side where there is interaction. That is quite a complicated idea, so it’s no wonder than I am struggling to turn it into simple mechanisms. But the show goes on – I think something very interesting will emerge eventually.

Meanwhile, I will give some serious thought to reviving BBB. There have been a couple of interesting articles in the wargames mags on adapting it to Napoleonic or near-Napoleonic, away from its original brief for Bismarck’s wars. This presents the best chance of getting my Napoleonic metal into a club night game. The rules are simple, and relatively easy to bring into a multi-player format.

But the focus for now will be 1943!

Matthew

1943: my new project

My main passion in wargaming is Napoleonic big battles. This is what my rule writing efforts are directed at. But as I labour with this, I have been up against a major snag. It is a long and complicated process, with very little in the way of playable games in the meantime. So what do I play?

And then there is a second problem. These big battles aren’t easy to set up on a wargames club night. It needs a day game at home. Maybe I’m giving up too easily on this – perhaps I could adapt BBB to a club game. But that doesn’t suit my current figure collection. What would work best is an 1813 style game with multinational armies. So I would need to digress from my Prussians. Even then it takes quite a bit of lead on the table.

So at the club I have been playing mainly micro-armour modern (and some WW2) games using Fistful of TOWs (FFT3) rules. This hasn’t proved very satisfactory, and I’m not sure I want to build up the terrain and armies needed (though I bought a US WW2 army), even though they are quite quick to build. Other players at the club have their own stuff, and I don’t have a unique take on this.

Then I became entranced by something else. When going through my attic I dug up some 1/72 and 1/76 (generally 20mm) British and German models that I had made as a teenager for WW2 mid-war – Tunisia and Italy. Why not try something with these? So I bought some rules based on a magazine review: Battlegroup. I put together some forces based on what I had, including my Airfix plastic figures. And I ran a four player game. It wasn’t a particular success. There are all sorts of reasons for this, all them retrievable. But the question, was: did I leave it there?

The answer was no, because by then I had the bug. The main thing that was attracting me (apart from quite a bit of hinterland from my teenage enthusiasm for WW2 stuff) was that it is (relatively) easy to build up a really good looking club night game in this format. The forces fielded by each side can be kept relatively small. The BG rules play quite quickly (or should…), and what the club has that I don’t is space. At home I can’t do wider than a 3 foot table (unless a buy something to go on top of the dining table, but that would only extend it to 4 foot). At the club 5ft by 5ft is standard, and you can get bigger (though given the time limits, that isn’t advisable for an evening game). I have seen some great looking games, including WW2 Normandy-style in 20mm and 15mm.

By concentrating on 1943, I can do something a bit different, with a Mediterranean-look table. The forces are relatively evenly matched too, provided that I’m sparing with the Tiger tanks (my use of my two Tigers in the club game was one of the things that didn’t work so well – though they gave a lot of tension to proceedings). They will be different from the very popular 1944 games, and also quite popular early war ones.

Quite exciting but also a lot of work. My current armies look awful. I love attractively put together games, with nice terrain, vehicles and figures. None of what I have matches up. The vehicles will need a repaint and general facelift, and there are quite few gaps needing new purchases. I really don’t like my plastic infantry. And I need to make a fresh start on the terrain. But by developing each of these in parallel I hope I can get a really good looking visual appearance. This is something I want to achieve for my Napoleonics, but that’s a much bigger job. I can learn a lot from this smaller, project.

And I will blog about it as I progress. One of the issues I have is that I don’t always remember exactly what I have done and why, when coming back to things later. If I create a record on the blog, this will be useful. And if other people are interested in reading it, then so much the better!

Horse, Foot, Guns goes to Salamanca

In my last post I tried out HFG rules with Rob in a cut-down Waterloo refight. That was successful enough to try the rules again. We wanted a less concentrated game, and I didn’t have long to set it up. I picked on Salamanca (or Arapiles as the Spanish and French have it), Wellington’s decisive victory over Marmont in 1812. We will be re-doing it!

I have avoided Salamanca to date as I thought to refight it as the battle happened would be a bit too one-sided to the British, and to refight it any other way would be historically false, as Wellington would not have started the battle. In fact, rereading the history (in Rory Muir’s seminal work), this is false on both counts. In the first instance Wellington was probably lucky to get the decisive initial success with Pakenham’s division slicing through Thomière’s, which then set up a chain reaction which rolled up the French left. In the second, Marmont was in the process of turning Wellington’s flank and threatening to capture Salamanca, and this was reason enough for Wellington to strike even without that decisive advantage. In fact I understand that in wargaming it is usually quite an even battle. And it presents some interesting challenges for simulators, and so a good one to study as I develop my own rules.

Meanwhile, I had been doing some homework on HFG, completing my own version of the rules on a simplified scope (by limiting it to Napoleonic land battles and cutting out the battle set-up, etc.). This cut 35 pages down to 12, with much greater clarity to boot, with a couple of really helpful tables on combat outcomes. I’m not how many games I’ll get, but it is instructive to pull apart a thoroughly thought-through but badly written set of rules and put it back together again.

The next challenge was the table. This is significant sub-plot in my wargaming project, and I like to try out new ideas. The first problem is that I did not have a decent contour map of the area. I had to base it on Muir’s diagrammatic maps, supported by some other published maps. The area around the Arapiles is gently rolling, except in three or four points were the ground is high enough for a sandstone strata to survive, creating craggy slopes – no doubt the sandstone from which the lovely city of Salamanca is built. These heights include the Greater and Lesser Arapiles, which dominate the battle’s centre, and slopes near the village of Calvarisa de Ariba, which anchored the French right. It was easy enough to represent the essential features with two contours, the second one featuring the crags. There is a lesson in this; my Waterloo field is over-engineered and has too many contours. I made the contours from expanded polystyrene, but placed them on top of the base cloth, rather than underneath, as before. I did this because I did not have enough styrene for a base layer and so had nothing to pin the cloth into. In any case the cloth method is not good for crags. I used paint, flock and sand to cover the hills. I had to represent the areas of light wood and streams with dark green felt. Here’s another picture:My verdict on this is distinctly mixed. The contours on top of the cloth certainly aided the movement of the troops, and the flock surface looks much better than bare cloth (as much from the texture as the variation in colour). The styrene warped a bit, and taping to the cloth did not resolve this entirely, as the cloth was lifted. I need a firmer base that I can pin the contours to. The table lacked coherence, though the contrast between the contours and the cloth was not as bad as I feared. The cloth is now a bit battered and stained, and this actually helps! But the base layer needs at least patches of flocked material that match with the contour layers, and it would probably help to mark in the more important tracks somehow – though that is trick at this scale. The villages need more work, and so do the stream and wooded areas. The most important requirement is a base layer (chip board or insulating foam) that I can pin things into. This will include trees.

And so to the battle. The scenario picks up from the point at which Pakenham is about to strike, while the French have already deployed a grand battery that is battering the Allied centre. There is an immediate problem with scenario design. Neither army used a corps system. They had commanders and then seven or eight divisions plus cavalry formations and (in the Allied case) a few independent brigades. In HFG (and following the published army lists) that means each army has only one general per side, which means a very small supply of pips (Player Initiative Points) to keep the battle flowing. This made it especially hard to move anything away from the centre of the action – though it also made the turns quite quick.

As a brilliant commander, Wellington was able to double his pips for two moves, which Rob (playing the Allies) used in the first two moves. Poor Marmont was away from the action and threw badly at first, so was able to do very little. This was not unlike how the historical battle started. But the Allies could not use this, and their flanking position, to gain a decisive early advantage. They needed some good combat throws, which were not forthcoming. Meanwhile the French artillery scored a lucky hit and took out one of Leith’s units in the first turn. The photos are taken early in the game, in about the third or fourth turn, when Leith was engaging with Maucune, and Pakenham grappling with Thomières – having beaten off le Marchant’s heavy cavalry. Eventually one of Thomière’s units was destroyed.

The French struggled to bring up reinforcements, while the British brought in Cole’s division. With this they gradually overwhelmed and pushed back Thomières and Maucune, now consolidated into a single formation. French units started going down. The tally reached five infantry units and an artillery unit as the British pushed forward, for the loss of only two more units themselves. The French had a break-point of 8 units (counting artillery as double), so one more and the game was lost. I was on the point of giving up. But by now the French had Taupin in play and the British hqd pushed past Bonnet’s division in the centre, exposing their flank. Clauzel and Sarrut were coming up too, blocking further Allied reinforcements. I counterattacked and quickly knocked out three Allied units. One unit was close to an unsupported British artillery unit. If it was able to take this out then the British would also be on a knife edge. But we were out of time. I was happy to concede, but Rob thought the momentum was with me – the game had become very close.

Elsewhere there was a rather ineffectual artillery dual. After that first lucky kill, the French artillery were able to disrupt the Qllied advance somewhat, but no more. A single British artillery unit troubled the French unit occupying the Greater Arapile, frequently pushing it off the top. The cavalry on the flank roughly neutralised each other and were not able to secure much influence.

We weren’t counting the turns, but we got through an awful lot. If we were counting 15 minutes per pair of moves, we would have been long into the night. And large parts of both armies were untouched – stuck in their starting positions. The pip famine was the main issue with the rules, and when we repeat the game we will have to do something about it – probably have each side throw two dice rather than one. Also there is not good way in the rules of replicating Pqkenham’s ambush of Thomières. In terms of the broad evolution of the battle, though, it was surprisingly close to the historical one. The battle did have a strong focus point, with little action elsewhere, which moved from the French left to the centre, wit little happening on the right.

I still don’t think the rules give a proper Napoleonic feel, and aren’t really strategic (or grand tactical, depending on your terminology). But they are very nicely crafted, and use the troop and distance scales that I want. We will keep using them until my own rules are ready – which won’t be for some time, I’m afraid. Meanwhile I’ll dig deeper into Salamanca, as it is an interesting battle to simulate.

 

Horse Foot Guns goes to Waterloo

img_1126

Horse, Foot, Guns is a set of rules by wargaming legend Phil Barker, whom many gamers of a certain age will remember through the Wargames Research Group in the 1980s – which produced a series of ancient period rules of which I still have fond memories.  He then revolutionised wargaming with his De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) rules which were radically simplified and produced good, short games. HFG has been long in the making. I played an early version a few years ago. It covers the period 1701 to 1914. It plays out on the same ground scale and similar figure scale to Bloody Big Battles (BBB) which I used last year to refight Waterloo. I thought I would try them out on the same battle this year with my friend Rob.

The timing proved less than ideal. The rest of life intervened and I did not have the time I would have liked to prepare. The main problem proved to be the rules themselves. They are extremely simple and elegant at core, but they suffer from two problems. First is the breathtaking scope, from the War of Spanish Succession to the Balkan Wars of the 20th Century – basically up to the serious use of aircraft and, more importantly, the use of large numbers of machine guns, and massed indirect artillery. And it isn’t just the date range that is ambitious – it brings in naval elements too. That means there is a lot of unnecessary complexity for a simple land battle in 1815. But it is also quite densely and legalistically written, with many sentences having to be read quite a few times to be comprehended. There is also quite a bit of false economy of verbiage – Mr Barker doesn’t like repeating himself. That means, for example, some key rules on terrain are in quite a different section to the ones on combat where you search in vain for them – also he combines processes, like firing and close combat, that would be clearer kept apart. My solution to this was to produce a cut-down and rewritten version of my own, both to simplify and aid comprehension. Alas I neither had time to finish this, nor try the rules out in a solo game. In reflection of this I cut the scenario down to exclude the Prussians and the French forces they drew off, to give a shorter, simpler scenario – and one that is still quite balanced.

I was able to use the same terrain elements as last time, with a cloth draped over contours cut from expanded polystyrene, which I had stored in the loft. I used map pins to fix the cloth and bring out the contours (dampening the cloth with a water spray). This worked very well, except that my pack of pins (I needed all 100) was multi-coloured, so they stood out a bit, as the picture shows. Sadly I did not have time to develop the terrain elements further to give it a more impressive visual appearance. But I think the concept is a sound one. Rivers and streams are the main unsolved problem. Fields and trees need to be added too, the former for purely visual purposes. And I should not be using Mediterranean buildings.

The HFG rules work on bases (“elements” – Mr Barker has a careful language all of his own, with “bounds” in place of turns, “shooting” in place of firing, and so forth) with a standard width, each comprising a separate unit. This is recommended at 4cm, and represents 400 paces (i.e. 300m). I used 5cm, as my existing base size for 15mm figures, which also happens to be the same distance scale I use for my DTN rules. I did not fit artillery onto 50mm bases though, and not the “Command Parties” – the senior officer groups – either. These worked OK on smaller bases, though some extra rules would be needed to prevent abuse. The infantry bases were 2.5cm deep, as recommended (or 3cm in fact), but the cavalry were deeper at 5cm. This was following quite a few comments on my Blucher games, where cavalry units with just 4 figures looked a bit pathetic. The bigger (8 figure) units certainly looked a lot better. Pleasingly, this basing format seemed to work OK on the table. Waterloo is a very dense battle, and often defeats wargames basing systems. It was cramped, and it should be, but not too much so. BBB left a little more space, perhaps even too much on the scaling I used. Each base was about 2,500 infantry or 1,500 cavalry – just over 200 men per figure for both arms. I was using the separately published army lists published for HFG, though changed some classifications.

The structure of the rules is a clear lineal descendant of the DBA system, which has spread across so many other rules systems. Command and movement is based on “PIPs” based on a D6 roll; each move costs one or more PIPs, but groups of touching bases moving the same way move as single units. Combats are resolved by comparing D6 rolls from each side. This takes getting used to, but it is extremely elegant. Rob loved the essential simplicity, as do other friends who are using the rules. We nevertheless did get a bit bogged down, in large part through lack of familiarity. But it was quite a big battle for two players anyway, I suspect. BBB used not many fewer figures, but played faster. That is partly because it operates through division-sized units, rather than the brigade bases of these rules (and also Blucher and Grande Armée). That will be an important lesson for my own rules, when they eventually emerge!

What happened? Like with BBB I played the French and started with Napoleon’s battle plan, except I launched Durutte at the Papelotte complex early – evicting the Nassauers quickly after a lucky throw. Reille bumped into Hougoumont, which we treated as a strong-point under the rules, along with La Haye Sainte. Strong-points are a hard nut to crack under the rules, made much harder by our misreading of them, and I gave up after some heavy losses. After that Reille remained large dormant, bar some skirmishing on the far left. I wanted the offensive on the right to mature before committing strength.

On the French right I tried the grand battery for a couple of moves, and quickly decided it was useless. I then sent forward d’Erlon’s infantry (the point at which the picture was taken). But I did not bring along the artillery in close support until much later. On the left LHS proved just as tough as Hougoumont, and over the game I lost 3 or 4 bases (10,000 men…) without coming near to taking it. In the centre I failed to make much impression on the allies, who were more effective at bringing their artillery in support. The French simply did not have enough infantry for the job. After Rob reinforced his cavalry on his far left and started to look menacing, I sent round three units of reserve cavalry (including the Guard lights) to my far right. This caused him to scurry back and refuse the flank. Just to see how the rules worked I threw all three units to attack in a line. They were all beaten off. In fact the historical terrain was probably too cut up by small woods and a stream that I did not bother to represent for the cavalry to have had such freedom.

By this time I had brought up the Guard, but after losing a unit on LHS I decided enough was enough. Napoleon had failed. For the French at Waterloo the art is learning how to use superiority in artillery and cavalry to boost the odds for the infantry. This I had failed to do. I needed to bring the artillery up in close support of the infantry. A wider flanking move (given its relative openness on my table) may have worked better too.

And the rules? My big criticism is the same as that with BBB: in order to avoid bookkeeping and other tiresome complexity, losses come off in big lumps or not at all. Firepower attacks tend to deliver a lot of nothing, punctuated by the occasional major detonation.  This is not a very satisfactory way of representing the attritional tactics that were such a part of the era – notably the use of grand batteries to deliver long range fire. Having said which, once a corps loses one third of its elements it becomes “defeated”, and loses a lot of its effectiveness. This might be something for attritional tactics to aim at. Once two or three lucky throws had eliminated opposing units, possibilities might start opening up.

Compared to BBB the rules did seem hard work. That was partly for a good reason: the use of PIPs gives players more work. Another problem was that for BBB each pair of moves is meant to represent an hour, while it is meant to take 3 pairs for HFG. Actually in BBB is looked near impossible for the Prussians to make the historical progress they did – so it doesn’t look properly calibrated. We got through 10 pairs in this HFG game, supposedly 3 hours. This feels better calibrate as the French had not made all that much impression on the Aliies, and still had plent of troops – though d’Erlon was about played out. This took about 4 hours of playing time. To get through the 8 hours (24 pairs) or so of the real battle looks a tall order, especially if the Prussian are there. But that is what I would like to do for a two player game.

But how much of the hard work came down to unfamiliarity is the critical question. The real verdict is that it is too early for me to judge these rules. I was frustrated this time, but Rob liked them. And my other friends who play HFG said they struggled at first, but have now come round to them. So I will keep going. For that reason I am not going to publicise this review on TMP – too many premature reviews get on there as it is. But I will be writing up my own, Napoleonic only, version of the rules. Unfortunately ethics, if not copyright law, will prevent me from publishing them.

 

 

 

Reflections from Salute 2016

Yesterday I went to Britain’s foremost wargaming show: Salute, by South London Warlords. As it happens I joined the Warlords a couple of months ago – so I might have been one of the team of helpers. However I decided that I could put aside my other commitments for a day and turn up only a week ago.

Salute is held in Excel in London’s dockland district, to the east, not far from City Airport. It is massive and rather overwhelming. I have been going for a number years, off and on. My impression this time was that there were fewer games, but more commercial stands selling things. I’m sure the second of those is true, but the first may be an optical illusion. Most of the crowds were around the stands rather than the games. People largely came to look at and buy stuff. We may buy mostly online, but you can’t beat the physical presence, I guess.

And the show covers the whole range of the hobby. That means a lot of fantasy and science fiction games. I’m not keen on these personally, but it is drawing younger people into the hobby, and there is quite a bit of crossover and symbiosis. So I’m not complaining. Some of the fantasy games had quite a following – queues at some of the stands.

As to the games, there weren’t that many of the historical sort. My interests now extend to postwar armour battles (I hesitate to use the word “modern” since the 1980s seems to be a popular time point to represent, with two games at the show), and World War 2, as well as Napoleonic, with sidelines in early 18th C (Great Northern War in particular) and Bismarck’s wars in the mid-19th C. There was a scattering of Napoleonic games (but not including the currently popular Blücher rules), in 15mm, 28mm and 54mm, but many fewer than previous years. Likewise with WW2. Little or nothing on early 18C (not actually ever well represented at this event) or 19th C – I saw an ACW game, and one colonial one. Looking at the directory, somehow I missed a Königgrätz game.There were some references to Garibaldi’s uprising, but not a proper game that I could see. In addition there was at least one Seven Years War game. Much more popular were the various flavours of fantasy and sci-fi, often played on quite small areas – no doubt in response to often limited space that people have to play in.

Thin pickings, but enough to help me with some ideas as I ponder my future direction in the hobby. What I don’t want to do is what I saw quite a bit of: tables packed with model soldiers lined up for a slugfest. This is really just an excuse to display and use lovingly collected models, leaving little opportunity for a proper test of tactical skills or appreciation of historical dynamics. I want a game where the terrain is a star, and shapes tactical choices, rather than being dealt in a abstract and secondary way, as seems to be the case so often. As ever, Bruce Weigle comes to mind, though not necessarily with the huge effort he takes to put together his playing tables. This puts the challenge onto scenario design. One challenge in the shorter term is how to create interesting games, say using Blücher, for a club night, using the club’s standard terrain pieces, that can be put up and taken down in 10-15 minutes.

This leaves me not much further forward in terms of Napoleonics. Except that I am haunted by the thought that 15mm doesn’t really work – and that I should be in 6mm. That anyway is my conclusion for postwar armour games, which is were it is easiest to find games at the club at the moment. I am thinking of putting together a couple of 1980s/1990s armies in micro-scale (probably the GHQ 1/285 – the Heroics 1/300 items on display didn’t quite pass muster for me, except the aircraft). Of course such armies should be quick to build. But the smaller models undoubtedly work much better on the tabletop too.

Meantime I am struggling with similar issues for WW2, which I am also tempted to reenter after leaving it aside as a teenager (I still have some of my Airfix figures and tanks in the attic). I love the look of 15mm models (and I have a handful of US M10 tank destroyers from a free offer). But I have nagging doubts. Interestingly a couple of players at the club have put on good looking WW2 games in 15mm, using the same rules as we are on micro armour (a Fistful of TOWs 3 – a horrid name!). They populated their table with a lot of terrain items (hedges, woods, buildings), which is surely the way to go. But, as with the Napoleonics, the temptation is to put too many troops on the table. We even do that with our micro armour!

I made a number of purchases. The most interesting is an English translation of Pelet’s memoir on the French campaign in Portugal in 1810-11. I had heard of this because it has some important descriptions of the battle of Bussaco. Histories of the Peninsular War are dominated by British accounts, who tend to ram encounters between the French and British infantry into a rather formulaic narrative, revolving around French columns being taken apart by British lines. This formula has its roots in contemporary British accounts – it was refined but not invented by later historians. French accounts are few, but not constrained by this formula, and so offer fresh perspective. In Pelet’s case he, apparently, suggests that encounters between rival skirmishers played a much more important role than is suggested by British accounts. It will be interesting to see if this emerges from this book, and what other insights might come out.

I also bought a new book the battle of Barossa; I haven’t read reviews of the book, and I don’t know the authors. The quality of much recent historical writing is not good, so my expectations are not high: but it is an interesting battle, and under researched , so this looked worth a shot at half price. An even more speculative, but cheap, purchase was a paperback version of WW2 German General Raus’s account of tank fighting on the Eastern Front. This had been recommended as a friend. As I am inexorably drawn back into the period, this might offer me some insights into tactics.

Other stuff I bought included static grass basing materials, in various colours. I have a lot of base decoration to do, especially on my French units. I’m not short of materials, but the static grass I have is a bit long, so I went for shorter material, some of which may be useful for 6mm. I bought some beige, or “dead”, coloured grass, thinking to mix this in to reduce the intense greens of standard materials. Finally I could not resist buying some more dice: a box of D10s, and a couple of packs of 7mm D6s. D10s are quite popular in many rules systems, and I only have four. I may start bringing tem into my systems, perhaps as markers, so I though it useful to have a few at hand. The small 7mm dice might be useful as markers.

However, wargames is going to have a back seat in my priorities until the summer. I will invest available time mainly in the club, slowly building on my contacts there, and understanding what works best in this format. I had forgotten how much fun this sort wargaming is, so absorbed have I been by the historical side. I have much to learn.

Blucher: does this system fulfil my brief?

Blucher 7 Mar 16The idea behind my Dining Table Napoleon project was to get a game between two players on a dining table, that achieved satisfactory levels of historical faithfulness. There is one popular set of rules on the market that in principle fulfils that brief: Sam Mustafa’s Blucher system. Does it fit the bill?

It’s taken me some time to try the system out. A number of things put me off. First of all it is quite steeply priced. The basic rules cost £40, though it is quite nicely produced. Many add-ons can raise the price if you want to buy into the full system as Sam has created it. This is not something you can download for a fiver to check out. Second, I have been put off by Sam’s previous creations. I got a lot of mileage out of Grand Armée, Sam’s previous system in this field, but I have outgrown it. I have bought Lasalle the tactical Napoleonic rules in Sam’s Honour range, and played a game of Maurice, a set designed for 18th century. These were slick but too gamey. By that I mean too much historical detail has been sacrificed for free flow, and that players are pushed to design their game strategy and tactics around rules mechanisms, rather than something that looks more like historical tactical situations. In Maurice this included looking at a hand of cards and making choices as to which cards to play when. From all I could gather about Blucher it would be too gamey for my project.

But my perspective has changed a bit. One of my biggest handicaps in pursuing the hobby has been a lack of opponents in game play. I have a couple of wargaming friends, but no proper network. This year I decided to rectify this, and I have joined the South London Warlords. They meet on Monday nights in Dulwich, which is easy for me to get to, and even easier to get home from, so that I’m back early enough not to disrupt domestic life – though an evening’s game play is not the best preparation for a good night’s sleep. But, of course, entering a community means going along with other people’s wants and needs; that means playing the sort of games they want to play (including looking at other periods). And the challenge of playing games that are done in two to three hours is quite different to the one I am designing for – but exactly in the spot for Blucher. And that would give my miniatures a tabletop outing, and some payback for the many hours spent painting them up. So I decided to splash out and invest in Blucher. I’ve had two games with it plus a play at home trial. So how am I getting on?

First the good news. Sam Mustafa is one of the hobby’s top designers, and it shows. The rules are pared down, but have lots of subtlety. They are a big advance on Grand Armée. First of all units are represented by cards at the start of play, which are only replaced and revealed when they are discovered by your opponent or moved. This far from replicates the real knowledge gap in historical warfare, but it is an advance. You might want to invest something in reconnaissance. A second feature is a much more sophisticated system of command points to regulate movement. You throw two or three dice (depending on size of army), and this gives you a Momentum (or MO) score. Or rather your opponent does it, and keeps the result secret until you have used it up. It costs one or two points to move a unit. If units are close together it is easier to coordinate them. Contrast this with GA, where once you had activated a corps, you pretty much had free reign to move it as you liked, provided that you observed a command radius.

One consequence of this is that attritional tactics make much more sense than in GA. There it made little sense to indulge in preparatory tactics of artillery and skirmish fire. You were better off piling in with you first wave as soon as possible. But attrition costs no MO in Blucher. So it makes sense to move a group of units into range, and let them fire away while you use your MO to bring other formations into position. Also fire has been made a little more effective, and charge attack riskier for the attacker. That changes the balance of play in an interesting way, which probably reflects history better. Artillery, incidentally, is limited by ammunition, so it can’t keep banging away forever. Many other design details are pleasing – the movement system is simply but effective.

So, what are the problems? It is very gamey, as expected. Many favourite historical details are lost. Artillery can’t do overhead fire, for example, even though there are clear historical precedents (notably at Ligny, the battle that is at the heart of my current project). For my taste attrition warfare still depends too much on lucky dice throws, though much better than GA. And at least one thing is downright wrong. A unit can occupy and “garrison” a built-up area block with just one move of preparation. That makes it very hard to dislodge. In my second game the Prussians occupied a block with a landwehr unit of just five strength points. It took four rounds of artillery fire, and three attacks (twice with two units) to finally get in – costing 9 strength points, plus the artillery. This wasn’t a fluke; the rulebook says it is difficult. This is not how historical contests for build-up areas played out (again: look at Ligny) and seems to be shaped from translating the heroic contests of the granary at Essling or Hougoumont at Waterloo into a general rule for buil-up areas. This is one of the trickiest aspects of Napoleonic wargames design, admittedly, but Blucher has it wrong. There is a strong incentive to bypass occupied built-up areas in the rules; in real warfare they seemed act like a magnet to opposing forces. To be fair, something much more historical is feasible if defenders aren’t given their move to prepare – but to do that all they must do is survive one counterattack.

There are some minor quibbles as well. The quick reference sheet is spare to the point of being misleading, ignoring all-important exceptions. I tried creating my own, which put some of the missing bits out – but there were still issues. The idea of the MO die being thrown by your opponent is an interesting one, but it is problem for solo play. I tried re-throwing after each round of activations in my solo game, but this feels a bit too generous. Solo play is actually quite an important part of the hobby, and it is surprising that a set of rules that is so commendably market-focused doesn’t have some guidelins for solo play. The unit concealment rules are somewhat lost in solo play, of course, but not meaningless, as it affects long range firing.

The games themselves could have been more exciting. In each case the opposing sides consisted of 200 points (the recommendation is 200 to 300 points), with a Prussian army of 16 infantry and four cavalry units, playing a French one of 9 infantry and 6 cavalry; both sides had three artillery units. The French infantry was medium quality; the Prussians were diluted by 6 landwehr units, and 6 reserve units without a skirmish bonus. The French quality difference showed most in the cavalry. They had two elite cuirassier units, plus dragoons with a shock bonus; the Prussians had one landwehr cavalry unit. In all cases the French were on the attack; but lacked the depth of infantry resources to make any real headway. Technically the results were draws rather than Prussian victories, because neither side was broken, and the French still held an objective. But at the time we concluded, it was getting late, we were tiring, and there was game time enough for the Prussians to mount a counterattack on the exhausted French. I can’t blame the rules for this. The main problem was that (my)French battle plan flawed, and destined not to give a very exciting game. A better plan would have been to concentrate two corps on one flank to try and crush one of the three Prussian corps, while holding off the other two with the remaining corps. This strategic flaw was nothing to do with the rules being too gamey. It is true that a frontal assault between equally matched forces is likely to fail (actually unlike GA), but there is nothing unhistorical about that.

Another point is worth mentioning, though a bit tangential. And that is the visual appearance. My units (infantry and cavalry anyway) were comprised of two bases on 25mm squares placed side by side. With my 15mm figures this gives 12 infantry or four cavalry; this was in fact the system that the last incarnation of my in-house rules were moving towards. It was inspired by the strong visual appearance of similar but smaller scale units in Bruce Weigle’s 1870 system. But more than one of the other club members looking at our game suggested that it would look much better with 6mm figures on similar sized bases (which incidentally is how we played my Vitoria game in 2013). The 15mm units looked to small to convey the idea of mass formations of troops. The cavalry units of just four figures look particularly pathetic. Weigle’s system probably works for two reasons: first his terrain is much more detailed and draws visual attention away from the figures. Second, there just more units, closer together, in more interesting formations. On this last point, my current idea is to deploy my bases more flexibly into division-sized units, without a fixed formation. I think that will look a lot better. I stil think that a lower cavalry figure scale is needed so that more cavalry units are in play, though.

Terrain is a big issue with the club format, where you need to set things up quickly and flexibly. There is nothing in the rules that stops you from using a more realistic and detailed terrain format, of course, but I suspect it would clutter things up and slow things down. So we are left with relatively few terrain features, each of which is quite small in size (apart from rivers and streams, of course). Real physical relief is in fact a matter of complex systems of valleys and ridges, though, which is much harder to represent on the tabletop. You can get away with stripping the terrain for historical battles into something very simple. For example at Waterloo a longish ridge to cover the Allied position between Hougoumont and the Piraumont complex is arguably all you need. But I can’t begin to number the insights I have gained into historical battles by taking a much more detailed look at terrain features when setting up a game. For example that the farms of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte at Waterloo are in hollows, and can’t be seen from the French positions, making direct artillery bombardment a problem. Bruce Weigle’s focus on the terrain is both stunning visually and the best approach to simulation. How something of that feel can be brought into more conventional wargames is a problem I am wrestling with.

And Blucher? It’s worth some more outings at the club, though the games need to be made more interesting.I may well start to warm to them more.  But it is not an alternative to my own Dining table Napoleon rules, still in bits, unfortunately.

Blucher 22 Feb 2016

Long range artillery in wargames

A couple of weeks ago I considered the effect of skirmishing in wargames, with an especial focus on the grand tactical games that are my particular interest. This time I want to consider another topic that concerns such big-scope games: artillery fire at long range.

Looking at some standard works (Nafziger’s Imperial Bayonets; Dawson, Dawson, Summerfield’s Napoleonic artillery; the von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel) gives the following general picture. Effective artillery range is somewhere between 600m and 900m – with most commentators converging on the lower end of that range – no doubt this depends on conditions and weapon (a 12pdr might fire farther). Direct fire was theoretically possible up to 800m for a 6pdr, 1km for a 12pdr (Kriegsspiel figures). After this ricochet fire (or “random” fire or “Rollschuss”) could extend the range. Kriegsspiel suggests a maximum 1,350m for 6pdrs, or 1,500m for 12pdrs. Other evidence suggests that artillery could cause damage to targets for another 1Km. Howitzer ammunition couldn’t ricochet, but the Kriegsspiel statistics suggest similar maximum ranges (i.e 1.35Km for the 7pdr and 1.5Km for the 10pdr). The contemporary experts are quite clear, however, that firing at ranges beyond about 600m was a waste of ammunition.

But here we bump into one of the problems of simulation. What those sages pronounced in various manuals and treatises does not necessarily reflect the actual behaviour that we are trying to simulate. This is even starker, incidentally, with counter-battery fire, which the experts usually denounce as being a waste – but which was the almost universal practice of artillerymen (and, also, incidentally, quite successful at suppressing enemy artillery fire). The fact is that the  effects of artillery fire could be significant at the grand tactical level at ranges of 1km and over.

Two case studies make this clear to me. The first is at Wagram in 1809. The effects of artillery fire during this battle were much commented on. Given the vast size of the field I think that a lot of this was conducted at ranges greater than 600m, but that is hard to pin down. In one particular case this does look clearer though. Massena’s corps disengaged from its position in the centre and marched across Austrian lines, but behind the French Grand Battery, to reinforce the Napoleon’s threatened left wing. In Gill’s account of this it suffered terribly from Austrian artillery fire: “beyond all description” according to one witness. And yet the Austrian guns cannot have been very close. Looking at the maps suggests 1Km or more. Much of this fire may have been directed at the grand battery in the first instance – though Gill’s description also suggests that Massena’s troops were also shielded by the corps’ own artillery leapfrogging forward as the troops advanced. All this suggests that the infantry was an indirect target in wargames terms, but that significant damage was done. No doubt the effect of Austrian fire was increased by an enfilade effect, as the fire was to the flank of the advancing columns, and the fact in moving the troops would not have been able to use the ground to avoid losses.

The second case study comes from Waterloo. Napoleon established a grand battery at the start of the battle on the ridge alongside La Belle Alliance inn. This was 1km away from the Allied troops on the opposite ridge. Some commentators (including Adkin in his wonderful tome on Waterloo) have suggested that the grand battery was deployed some 500m further forward on a slight rise in the intervening valley, about 200m short of La Haye Sainte. But the evidence from French participants is pretty clearly against this, though some batteries may have advanced to this position later in the battle. And the previous night there was quite a fierce exchange between the two ridges. The French conducted a bombardment at this range for an hour or so on the day. This does not seem to have done a huge amount of damage, attributed to the fact that the Allied infantry was sheltering behind the ridge, and that the ground had been softened by rain, preventing ricochet effects. And yet the fire was intense enough to be remarked upon by British witnesses – and British cavalry units, well behind the ridge, shifted position to a more sheltered spot to reduce casualties.

So we are talking about artillery fire having an effect at least to about 1.5Km, even behind undulations in the terrain. This seems to take two important forms. The first (like Waterloo) is a general cannonade, firing blind into an area where you expect enemy troops to be concentrated. The second is collateral fire – overshoots and bouncethroughs from direct targets that may have been closer at hand. The Spanish author of a series of “maxims” about artillery usage, quoted extensively by Nafziger, mentions that it is not a good idea to deploy artillery directly in front of infantry, as they are liable to be caught by fire aimed at the artillery. French officer and raconteur Elzéar Blaze also mentions this – how he hated being posted behind artillery. The point though about both these types of fire is that we are not considering the effects of aimed fire.

So what sort of damage could it do? Casualty rates are probably quite low, though an occasional direct hit on dense formations could be quite lethal. But Napoleon at Waterloo still thought it was worth doing. Damage could also be psychological. Direct hits could could cause disruption, perhaps. But I think the main effect is more subtle. Standing around under bombardment which you have to accept passively is often described as one of the most difficult tasks in war. It is likely to be psychologically draining in some way. But how this plays out is less easy to see. When the bombardment stops, as it must before any direct attack, the targets experience relief, which can take the form of fierce desire to get to grips with the enemy to relieve the pent-up frustration. I’m not sure how much evidence there really is of this kind of softening up causing the rapid collapse of trained troops. It happened in neither of the two instances I quoted above. At Wagram the Saxons did collapse on the second day from near Aderklaa after not much more than artillery fire. But that came after heavy losses on the first day, and then enduring fire “en potence” – from two directions. Much of this fire was likely was from less than 1Km, I suspect, though, at least for the units at the front.

My personal theory is that there is some sort of stamina limit, after which men feel that they have had enough – a come-down after a prolonged exposure to adrenaline. Towards the end of big battles there seem to be few troops available to do anything – far fewer than can be accounted for by dead and wounded. This was perhaps regarded as a bit shameful, so few people would write about it. But all knew it was a factor – and it comes through from Clausewitz’s writing. Exposure to bombardment perhaps sets the clock ticking, hastening that moment of eventual collapse, even if the men are perfectly capable as the bombardment ends. Wargames usually simulate this by having much higher rates of casualties than is justified by killed an wounded – and this is often very successful in simulating that end of battle scenario – though less good when it comes to simulating the effects of cannonades.

Fot tactical rules, matters are quite straightforward. Artillery fire at ranges of over 600m is probably not worth worrying about, though for games mechanics longer range brackets might be helpful. Though Lasalle isn’t very specific about its distance scale, this does seem to be the case with these rules. Older rules allow longer ranges, but these tended to tolerate useless detail more.

Turning to grand tactical rules Grande Armée and Volley & Bayonet have very similar mechanisms. Artillery units would target individual units (generally brigades), throw a small number of dice, and hope for high scores, which would give you hits. Ranges are quite long (1,000 to 1,600 yards) and little attempt is made to distinguish between long and effective range. In GA a hit immediately reduces combat effectiveness, in V&B the unit keeps going at the same capability until it is burnt out. The problem for both is similar to the one I was referred to in skirmishing – a low standard deviation attritional tactic comes out as a high standard deviation one. It has to be admitted though this may have a stronger basis in fact – as the results could indeed be quite variable, at least in terms of dead and wounded. There is no attempt to deal with bouncethroughs and indirect fire. In GA at least (I haven’t played V&B) players tend not to bother with preparatory bombardment for more than a token turn or so. The results seem to unreliable. Artillery can do a lot of damage, though its main impact is defensive.

Bloody Big Battles faces a similar issue, but it’s more extreme. A hit amounts to removing a base, which represents an extreme level of damage – that would not be realistic. Instead a lesser level of damage is inflicted: temporary disruption. But you have to act quite quickly to capitalise. Suppression of enemy artillery is probably a more useful goal for an attacker, though still requires a good score. Ranges are much longer than for other systems (2.4Km or more!), but they are designed mainly for a later era when artillery was punchier. Having said that I thought the ranges worked OK for my Waterloo simulation – in which I provided for bouncethrough and indirect fire in a house rule.

And now for my latest set of favourite rules: Et sans résultat! These are quite interesting in that they have a game mechanism referred to as “fatigue”, which operates at divisional level. This degrades the responsiveness of the division, and increases the risk of eventual panic or collapse. It has much less direct effect on combat. I think this models the psychological effects in a realistic way. And so these rules have two mechanisms with which to register the effects of bombardments. The first is direct damage to units , in the form of fairy conventional “hits”, which it handles at quite a low level of granularity (thus a 2,000 man brigade might have 20 or so strength points split between three “battalions” rather than a single brigade with about 4-5 points, as with GA or V&B, or just over a single base for BBB); and it has divisional fatigue with which to model the longer-term psychological impacts. The fatigue process also allows the effect of bombardments on the firing artillery – which was an important consideration for commanders at the time, but rarely bothered with by games designers. The core design, therefore, is very strong  – though I can’t comment on what I would call “calibration” without more time on the games table.

But there’s a big snag with ESR. The weapons ranges are too short. Apart from point blank, there are two weapons ranges, up to 450 yards (400m) and up to 900 yards (800m). There’s another 200 yards or so of bouncethrough effect. This really only caters for the sort of short-range directly aimed fire that was mainly used on the defensive. The paradox is striking. At last a rules systems comes up with a good way of modelling the effects of long range cannonading – and then makes no allowance for players to actually do it. There is probably a deeper design problem here. The time frame of ESR moves is quite short (three an hour – it’s an hour for V&B or BBB!). If targets suffered one fatigue point a turn under long range bombardment, then this could be quite devastating. And yet if the effects were reduced in the typical way through randomisation (say a 50% chance of a fatigue loss) then this would give a high standard deviation over the typical 3 or 4 moves of a historical cannonade. It may well be that weapons ranges were brought down because cannonading proved to be too effective.

So how about my gestating grand tactical rules? I’m aiming for much higher granularity than ESR – boiling down to something quite similar to V&B (with bases of 1,500 men like BBB, but able to survive one or two hits). But I also want an equivalent of the fatigue system in ESR, to be operated by divisions. However, I was thinking of quite high granularity on that – say six levels (so that is can be marked by a six sided die). But with check points at hourly intervals, this might work. I plan to use hourly turns (though movement articulated in shorter time spans if required), with a cannonade phase at the start. Artillery must be committed at this stage, and markers placed on targets far and wide, including generous bouncethrough and indirect fire, up to at least 1.5Km. This is evaluated at the end of the turn – though I’m a bit vague on just how this will work. Finally the divisional fatigue/morale/cohesion will be assessed. The devil will be in the detail, as usual, though.

 

French artillery in 1:100 – Part 8 Finishing off and conclusion

My French artillery
The end result all lined up. From left to right the 12-pdr, 8-pdr, 6-pdr, 4-pdr, and the 10-pdr, 6 pouce and 24-pdr howitzers

I can now declare the project closed. The final stage was painting up some additional crew figures, correcting the old ones I wanted to re-use, and doing the bases. But this is the article I am linking to TMP, so before describing the finishing touches, I want to summarise what I have done.

I have described the scope in my introductory post. I wanted to provide fresh models for my 15mm French army, whose tin men have grown to more like 18mm over the years – which approximates to 1:100. This is not well catered for in the market, because by the time more accurate information emerged, manufacturers had moved on to other scales, mainly 28mm. My main aim was to produce models for wargames that look approximately right – but there is also an element of building a collection too. Having said that I have neither the patience nor the manual dexterity to produce models of collector standard – the standard that I see so often displayed in TMP. Eye candy this is not.

But I hope it is useful to anybody building French armies in 15/18mm. Many of my models are pulled together from old bits and pieces I have had around for years, and I describe how I did this in my posts. But in this article I will summarise what I recommend to people wanting to use what is out there in the market. This is not based on a comprehensive survey of what is there, but what I know of the more popular makes. They are all Blue Moon and AB, though I have considered others along the way. The headings link to the main articles. So here goes:

The 4-pdr

Not easy to get right. Easy for me because I had lots of old Battle Honours models to start with, and plenty of wheels of the size I wanted – but these aren’t easily obtainable these days. The only model of the right scale out there that I know of is Blue Moon. But this is let down by wheels that are too small – and the bigger wheels are in important part of the look of French artillery.

The 8-pdr

Much easier, though I cobbled mine together from bits and I did not buy any of the current models. But both Blue Moon and AB look fine – but these will look best beside models in the same stable, though.

The 12-pdr

The BM carriage is too much too long, based on reviews I have read. The AB one is the right size, and nicely detailed, but the trail doesn’t look quite right in my view. I have two of the ABs and three cobbled together models based on the Blue Moon French Howitzer carriage (!).

The 6-pdr

The Blue Moon model is essentially sound, but has some errors. The barrel needs to be smoothed; you need a new and higher elevating plate from card. The AB model is nice but based on the 8-pdr carriage, which might be accurate for a few, late weapons, but not for most of the era. The barrel also needs to be smoothed. Also on my old AB models the wheel track was much too wide and had to be cut down. This may have been corrected in current models. This is the main artillery piece for my armies, so I needed lots. I made up six from Blue Moon, to go with my 3 old AB ones, and three more I made up from old Battle Honours Prussian pieces.

The 6 pouce howitzer

By this I mean the classic French “6 inch” short-barrelled howitzer that is the subject of most illustrations, often described as “Gribeauval”, but which was probably not all that much used in fact. None of the 15mm models I have seen get this right. The carriage for the Blue Moon model is vastly oversized (I used it for the 12-pdr, and it was a bit too big even  for that!). The AB model is of generally the right proportions, but looks a bit weedy. And the latest model (mine are old ones) might not even be right based on their illustration. I used a BM barrel on the AB carriage, but still wasn’t too happy!

The 10-pdr howitzer

This is another “6 inch” howitzer, and used in the heavy batteries, right up to Waterloo. But the only pictures I have seen are of the barrel.  It was based on an old Prussian design. In fact the simplest way of producing this is to take the AB Prussian “7-pdr” howitzer, which is probably quite close to what this weapon looked like in the later years with a later-style carriage. You can “Frenchify” this by adding trail handles (bend some fuse wire or even a staple) and cut out the ammunition box retaining struts. To get an earlier look I put the AB Prussian barrel on the AB French howitzer carriage.

The 24-pdr howitzer

This was the main howitzer in use by the French, and also, confusingly, usually referred to as “6 inch”. There are no 15mm models of this anywhere that I know of. The closest model is the Blue Moon Prussian howitzer. But the French barrel was slightly longer, and the trunnions further back, so that the barrel projected more from the front. I opted to make my own barrel, but this looked too heavy, and was bit more than my clumsy fingers should have taken on. The Prussian model needs an elevating plate (easy to make from card) and its trunnion recesses are too deep (I filled them with plasticine) – these are applicable to using it in Prussian mode too. Also you may want to Frenchify it – which I chose to do on my 3 models. If you are making your own barrel you can also use the Blue Moon French 6-pdr carriage (or the Prussian 6-pdr come to that).

Now a few words about the finishing. I decided to reuse my existing crews. These were Battle Honours foot crews and Old Glory horse crews for the 1809 period, and AB Guard foot crews. I decided not to use my Battle Honours Guard horse crews – they are too small and not impressive enough, or my BH standard horse crews, as these are bit dull. The BH foot crews are bit underscale for the job, though, and this is a bit noticeable if you get the correct 1:100 scale wheels. Still, I use them to make up the numbers.

BH French crew
The Battle Honours crews manning a couple of 6-pdrs, made from different sources.

The Old Glory figures are fine for both scale and appearance – though the gun models that come with them are not particularly useful if you want them to look right (though mine provided carriages for my 8-pdrs and wheels for the 4-pdrs! These were from an old pack, though, and I don’t know whether this would work nowadays).

OG HA Crew
The Old Glory horse artillery crews with a 4-pdr and a 6-pdr

I don’t particularly like the AB Foot Guard figures either, though they were fine for size and detailing. There is no officer and the pose of figure carrying a n ammunition round looks laughable (casually holding a 12-pdr round as if it was a tube of Pringles), and they are mostly wearing backpacks.  Another problem is that I had painted them in too bright a shade of blue (Army Painter spray colour with dark Quickshade). I tried calming this down with washes of dark blue-grey, and then touching up – but this wasn’t altogether successful.

AN OG Crew
The AB Guard crew with one of my made-up 12-pdrs and the 10-pdr howtizer.

These figures needed reinforcements. I had some Fantassin/Warmodelling crew figures lying around unpainted (bought in Fantassin days). I have been very critical of this range’s artillery pieces, but these figures are perfectly respectable. They are depicted in greatcoats and backpacks, which covers up some uniform details and makes them quite generic – they can double as line artillery or marine gunners. I painted the shakos appropriate to later uniforms.

Fantassin French crew
The Fantassin crews man a 6-pdr and a 24-pdr howitzer

I supplemented these with later era Blue Moon crews. These are nice figures, depicted with shako covers,  tunics and without backpacks. I painted some as line and some as naval gunners (there were some of these at Waterloo, apparently) – though you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference (the naval gunners have red collars).

BM crew
Blue Moon crews man 6-pdrs

I am still playing with painting methods. I undercoat with specialist metal undercoat from a DIY store. This comes in a lifetime-sized tin, but the only one I could lay my hand on was water-based and white. A mistake. Diluted paint (it’s much too thick to go on direct) leaves you with issues of surface tension and coverage (not so good as filling the holes). White undercoat is not a particularly good choice for relatively quick-painted 15mm figures. I gave the figures a first thin coat of raw umber after the undercoat, followed by several coats of a blue mix. In another experiment: I created this mix from ultramarine and raw umber (I use artists colours), instead of my usual Prussian blue base. But this needed lots of coats before it started to look right. I tried to highlight with the brighter ultramarine, but the effect was hardly noticeable. The overall effect was rather nice though (incomparably better than Army Painter Navy Blue plus dark Quickshade!), but not as quick as I wanted! Even if it doesn’t come out in my pictures. I did not feel the need for Quickshade, so just did a raw umber wash on the faces.

The bases were new. I need smaller sizes these days. The standard is 30mm square, with 25mm (wide) by 30mm for light guns, and 30mm (wide) by 35mm for the heavies. Two figures populate the bases, except for the heavies, which have three. These aren’t eye-candy. The position of the figures is not realistic. It is all dictated by the needs of  games played on a small table. I am also avoiding the thick MDF (or mounting board) bases that are so popular – they do frame the figures nicely. But I feel that height is my enemy on the table, especially since I am forced into using miniaturised terrain. And I already have magnetic strip on the bottom. So I used 300gsm artist’s paper. That’s thick for paper but thin for a base, especially a larger one with a greater risk of warping. Never mind. I have magnetised bases and I store on steel paper, which should stop the warping.

I use a home-made gloop, consisting of sand, artist’s gesso and paint (I used a dark burnt umber this time – I have used raw umber before). I apply this with a sculpting tool after gluing the figures to the base. After touching up with burnt umber paint, I  covered the bases with a combination of flock and static grass. I’m not expert with the static grass, which comes out  a bit matted in my hands. The flock represents the flattened areas – and only in very small areas is the base of burnt umber left exposed. They haven’t set up in a Japanese garden amongst decorative tufts and rock features. To unify the flock and static grass I give it all a wash of yellow green (using ink and flow enhancer rather than water as a base). I then give a bit of a dry brush with a white/yellow ochre mix. The overall effect is textured and the figure bases are nicely covered up, and the colour doesn’t jar with the table covering. In my earlier batch of bases for my Prussians the overall effect was too dark, which made my dark figures look even duller. So I used a brighter colour of static grass, more yellow in the wash, and was rather heavier (and less dry) with the dry brushing. This looks much better, and I will have to reverse engineer my Prussians somehow. But I don’t think I’d recommend this approach particularly – I think you can get nicer looking results than this.

And now my thoughts turn to my next project. Prussians probably. I have it in mind to do a similar article (or articles) on Prussian artillery, and one on limbers too. But I need more Prussian landwehr!

 

 

 

 

Skirmishing in wargames

Wargamers have had a difficult relationship with skirmishers. In the early days they were always there. After all they were a constant feature of historical battle accounts, and many commentators suggested skirmishing was an important part of war in this era. Besides the light troops provided interesting variety in their uniforms. Advancing bodies of miniatures would always have a scattering of skirmish figures before them, usually mounted on single bases. Rules were designed to accommodate them, albeit very crudely, usually without any provision for reserves and so on.

But at some point gamers got fed up with them. They seemed to require an awful lot of work for not a lot of effect. They started to disappear, with gamers rationalising that the effects of skirmishers were taken care of in other game processes. Or else there would some kind of tokenistic  “skirmish phase” which could be quickly got through as a preliminary to the main combat. The deeper truth is that most historians, and wargamers in their wake, never really understood what skirmishing was all about. I want to try and unpack this a bit.

Now let’s start with the traditional view. Skirmishers would be drawn from an elite company, the British Light Company (often topped up with riflemen) or the French Voltigeurs. (The reluctance of British historians to properly understand Austrian and Prussian practices, with no elite companies, is one of the many dimensions of this issue). These men would run out in advance of an attack and deliver fire on the target, which would help shake it as the attack was actually delivered. The main body would advance without stopping, with the skirmish screen melting away as it approached.

At first this looks like quite a plausible tactic. A typical battalion frontage would be about 200 paces. Across this frontage 20 or more pairs of skirmishers would be deployed – say 50 men. That would be about half a voltigeur company, the other half being held back as supports. This screen would advance about 200 paces, say, in front of the main body (though in wargames it would typically be less). That gives them two minutes to soften up the target. Fresh troops in an elite company could be expected to loose off six aimed rounds in that time – 300 rounds altogether. There is a suggestion (see Nafziger’s Imperial Bayonets) that nearly half of these rounds would score – say 120. Well in real battlefield conditions we know this is unlikely. But say on average each of the men in the screen found his mark at least once – 50 men killed or hurt. The target might be 700 men strong, so you could easily get 5-10% casualties. Surely enough to rattle a unit? The picture of the opposite – defensive skirmishers harassing advancing troops is more complicated, as the skirmishers would have to both move and fire. But perhaps they could make up for this by using the support line as the attackers advanced.

This is highly idealised, of course – but then these things look so simple for people moving tin men on a tabletop – without the minor terrain features that can hide whole units, or smoke, or noise that interferes with command. But there a much bigger and more obvious problem. What happens if both sides have a skirmish screen? Wargamers seem to resolve this by deciding that one or other of the screens rapidly gives ground, leading the winning screen free to do its stuff. But how? Well something like a bayonet charge would be needed to get that sort of result quickly enough. And here the historical evidence vanishes. This happened only rarely, if at all. It wasn’t that light troops were deficient with the bayonet – they often led the way in broken ground or villages, where most bayonet fighting took place. I think there is something about the dispersed nature of a skirmish screen that makes this impossible. One issue might be that the psychology of dispersed formations makes it much harder for men with loaded muskets to go forward to contact. Or it could simply be command and control – a charging skirmish screen could not be rallied in time to do any meaningful skirmishing afterwards.

No. What happened when two skirmish screens met is that they stopped and took potshots at each other. Given the dispersed nature of the target, which could make use of any ground cover going, and the fact that the firers were themselves under fire, this fire would be pretty ineffective and would not achieve very much in the two minutes it took for the advancing formed troops to catch up. At this point the attacking side has a decision to take. He can press on through his own screen, drive back the enemies’ and then onto the main body. The attacking skirmishers would have achieved nothing, and the defending skirmishers probably not much more. I think the French attacks at Vimiero and Victor’s at Talavera were much like this – as were the British attacks at Salamanca. And if this is the typical pattern of events, then the wargamers’ loss of patience with skirmishing becomes understandable. They just cancel each other out.

But the attacker has another choice. He can halt the advance and give his skirmish screen a chance to take effect. If his skirmishers are superior, he will cause the opposing screen to wilt, and he can advance his own men up to the main body. The attacker can try to make sure of this by feeding extra men into the screen. The skirmish supports go first, and then men from the main body can be sent in. But the same options are available to the defender. We might then get an escalating skirmish combat, which starts to become the main event, rather than the clash of formed troops. Of course the more men you sent into the skirmish, the weaker the formed body would become. It was one of the more difficult tactical decisions that field officers would have to make.

Here are a couple of examples – sticking to British/French encounters, as these familiar and well documented. Ney’s attack at Bussaco, got into just such an escalating exchange with the British Light Division. But the better-trained British proved to have the better of this. In desperation the main body charged in, only to be ambushed by the reserve troops from the Light Division. Reynier’s attack at Bussaco also developed into a big skirmish exchange. In the end the British charged and drove the weakened French off – but I haven’t studied this episode in detail – the French may have tried a bayonet charge first. A further example is Quatre Bras. The French seem to have made no serious attempt to charge home with their infantry, being content to wear down the Allies with skirmishers and artillery, and then test their mettle with cavalry attacks. The British skirmishers could not compete with the numbers of French skirmishers thrown at them, and so the formed bodies took the strain, though helped by some cover. They tried counterattacking with some success, but Allied casualties were high.

There is good reason to think that these prolonged encounters between skirmish lines, fed by supports, were quite normal. If you read the generic accounts of  warfare from Prussian author Clausewitz (who served Prussians and Russians in the wars, right up to the Waterloo campaign) you would think it was the norm. Such combats marked what he called the “destructive” stage of a battle, before the “decisive” stage was arrived at.

Something important needs to be added to this. I have painted a picture above of six shots being loosed off in two minutes, and causing quite a bit of damage. But after those first few shots a number of things would conspire to reduce the effect of fire. The firers would tire, their weapons start to clog and become hot and harder to handle, shoulders would become bruised, making men reluctant to hold their weapons properly. And volumes of smoke would appear. Often shots would be fired at an unseen enemy without any true aim. Less experienced troops were notorious for loosing off as many shots as possible as quickly as possible, the quicker to be taken out of the firing line due to ammunition depletion. The expenditure of musket ammunition was many times higher than the casualties they inflicted in this era  (a notable contrast with artillery stats for the period, incidentally). Things slow down drastically. Instead of matters being resolved in minutes, as would be the case with close range volleys and bayonet charges, time slips by very quickly. An exchange could use up a couple of hours quite easily.

A further point needs to be made, which takes a little grasping, but which is critical to simulation. Of lot, even most, of the destructive effect of skirmish warfare arises from fatigue and ammunition loss, not from the casualties inflicted. Troops would burn out, a process graphically described by Clausewitz’s references of men becoming “extinguished volcanoes”. The damage was, in a sense, self-inflicted. Superior discipline counted for a lot, because good troops would tire out less quickly. The slower rate of fire of rifles might actually be a benefit. If that sounds bizarre, consider this. Why, in the 1860s, were so many armies reluctant to introduce faster-firing breech-loading small arms? The grizzled, veteran generals were worried that their troops would simply burn off the ammunition too quickly and then become useless – they had reckoned without the superior accuracy of rifled weapons, and, perhaps, the better discipline of armies raised in peacetime.  A consequence of this is that skirmish combats almost always caused significant wear and tear to both sides. The number of times I have seen a tabletop encounter were the better side gets off Scott-free is legion! The idea wasn’t so much to kill your opponents as to force them to throw more men into the combat, making them useless in the “decisive” phase.

A more subtle point flows from this. Differences in training and morale would cause different rates of attrition between the sides – but otherwise the main variables tended to affect both sides equally. These might be the length of time of the exchange, the amount of smoke and ground cover (though one side might have an advantage here), and the aggressiveness with which each side pursued the combat (which would stimulate a response in their opponents). This runs counter to the way most skirmish combat mechanisms work: typically each side throws a dice to judge losses (usually on the other side) and these are only weakly correlated.

The problem for tactical wargames rules becomes obvious – I’m thinking of systems like Lasalle (which I have played) and Black Powder (which I haven’t even read). Typically a move represents quite a short space of time. You don’t want your game to degenerate into many moves were little happens – even if this quite a legitimate, battle-winning tactic in real warfare. They have similar problems with representing artillery, which real soldiers often used in prolonged bombardments that no wargamer would have the patience for. Skirmishing is dealt with very formulaicly in Lasalle, so as to be resolved quickly without disrupting play too much. But I don’t think the challenge insuperable, what is needed is an elastic approach to representing time. I have a few ideas on this, but not tested them yet. My current energies are going into grand tactical rules.

In grand tactical games a move usually averages out to 30 minutes, with 20 minutes or an hour used as well. And elasticity (some moves represent longer elapsed time periods than others) is pretty much a given. The challenges are different at this level. The “So what?” issue is an important one. Combat mechanisms avoid the detail, so who cares if what is going on is a conventional clash of formed troops, or a skirmish exchange? Because there are different risk calculations to be made. A volley and bayonet approach, with only a limited role for skirmishers, will yield quick results, but those quick results can often be bad ones. It did not go well for Junot at Vimiero or Victor at Talavera after all. Or Leith at Salamanca. A skirmish-led approach is classic attrition warfare, on the other hand, and neither leads to quick victory nor quick defeat. In modern language, it has a low standard deviation. If you have a numerical advantage it is one way of making it tell. Your opponent may be forced to throw the dice and counter with cold steel – usually with the odds stacked against them.

I am not sure if I have ever seen this trade-off represented properly in grand tactical rules. In Grande Armée skirmishing is represented by throwing one or two dice, and hoping for a six. It is a high standard deviation approach, and pretty ineffective at that. I haven’t played Volley & Bayonet but I think it suffers from a similar problem. Slow rates of casualties in a typical game mechanism, is represented by having to score high on a dice, which means that losses are very uneven – and completely unlike the way attritional tactics worked in life.

The skirmish rules in Et Sans Résultat are much, much better. Both sides decide commitment (three levels – aggressively pressed, passively respond, reluctantly participate); dice are thrown to see if one side “wins”; each side then throws to see how many hits are suffered. There is a clear appreciation that losses (i.e. hits) flow from the numbers fed into the encounter, rather than actual casualties, and that depends on control as much as anything. But there are issues. Skirmishing comes over as an element of friction rather than a tactic. In the one game I played I tried to use it as a tactic but the rewards were poor. If you “aggressively press” you are quite likely to end up with damage (fair enough) but your odds on inflicting it are limited. Quite often one side would suffer nothing at all. It’s quite high standard deviation stuff. There are a couple of other issues. It seems inconsistent with the game design that players are given three options as to how to conduct skirmishing, when so many other things (for example the line/square/column decision) aren’t given to players. The level of commitment should sure follow from tactical doctrine and divisional orders, with the dice taking care of local variation? Also a round of skirmishing precedes most combats, including straight bayonet charges. In my view (see above) serious skirmishing only happens when the main bodies are halted, and there is enough time for the firing to take is toll. I suspect these issues are interrelated. As skirmishing is not really a useful tactic, why would you delay an attack to skirmish? In which case you wouldn’t get much skirmishing at all.

Skirmishing is not an easy thing to do justice to at any level of rules design. It is not a problem that I have solved in my dabblings with rules design. But cracking it is surely necessary to get the true flavour of Napoleonic warfare.

French artillery in 1:100 – Part 7 the 24pdr howitzer

24pdr howitzer

And so last but not least we come to the 24pdr howitzer. This became the standard French field howitzer in the Empire period, and it may have been the second most produced artillery piece for the French in the era, after the 6pdr, being in production from 1804. And yet until recently it has been nearly invisible to historians. No figure manufacturer has attempted to produce it in 15mm that I am aware of. Consequently this has been the single biggest modelling challenge in my project.

This howitzer was introduced as part of the An XI artillery reforms, and seems to have been generally well thought of. It had a smaller calibre than the 6 pouce howitzer it replaced, but it had a longer barrel, and was more accurate. Napoleon was pleased that each ammunition caisson could carry significantly more rounds. Like the 6pdr it was virtually the same calibre as its Austrian counterpart, the 7pdr (150-152mm) – presumably allowing ammunition to be interchanged – though likely to be of different dynamic characteristics. It took its name, 24pdr, from the being the same calibre as the 24pdr heavy cannon. This was a new, rationalised naming convention that does not seem to have taken, though. Some referred to it as 5 pouce 6/7 lignes, but it seems to have been quite common to round this to 6 pouce, or inches, causing confusion to later historians. Since it was about 6 English inches in calibre, English observers called it 6 inch too. In the Royal Armouries catalogue the two examples they have (both captured at Waterloo and cast in or about 1804) are both referred to as 6in howitzers, the same nomenclature as the two much larger 10pdrs. Sadly there are no drawings of these two, and just basic measurements (a single length measurement and calibre) in the catalogue.

It was quite distinctive of appearance, though. At 101cm (muzzle to breeech ring) the tube was about 5cm longer than the Austrian and Prussian equivalents. But the trunnions were further back, giving a barrel that stuck out well beyond the carriage, as the above illustration shows – quite the opposite of the 6 pouce howitzer it replaced. This picture is of one of the pieces captured at Vitoria  in 1813 and now in Lisbon (a picture of it also appears in David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon, inevitably referred to as a 6in howitzer). Did the design change as the wars progressed? DDS suggests it was modified. Indeed its table refers to two different howitzers: the “M1803 7-pdr” – calibre 151.5mm and 101cm in tube length, and the “M1808 24-pdr “,calibre 148mm and length 120cm. And yet I have seen no drawings or other pictures of the later piece. The Royal Armouries examples clearly conform to the former dimensions (allowing that their length includes the button at the rear), as does the photo of a “M1803 24-pdr” in DDS book itself.  The drawings that I have seen in another publication are also of the early version. I need rather harder evidence of that the later design was ever in fact operational in serious numbers.

And what of the carriage? This seems to be closely modelled on the 6pdr carriage. DDS carries a drawing of the “M1803” version. This shows a carriage identical to the 6pdr, alongside a drawing of a 10pdr barrel. Apart from the barrel being of a different piece, the issue with the carriage is that the elevating plate seems designed for the much longer 6pdr barrel. I would expect a much shorter plate for the howitzer, as we indeed see on the closely related later Prussian designs. The pictures of the 24pdr in Lisbon don’t reveal this detail, unfortunately, though otherwise the carriage design is consistent with drawing, allowing for the later addition of trail handles.

But how to model this piece? I wanted three of them. The carriage is easy – the Blue Moon 6pdr carriage would be the logical starting point. But their Prussian 6pdr and Howitzer carriages would be nearly as good, as indeed would be the AB Prussian Howitzer carriage, assuming a shorter elevating plate, or the 6pdr for a longer plate. The Prussians seem to have copied the An XI carriage for their later artillery pieces, with even the reinforcing metal bands on the trail being in about the same places. For the BM models an elevating plate needs to be added (e.g. from plastic card), or at least the rear end. I had some spare BM Prussian howitzer models (from the pernicious BM practice of selling their artillery pieces in packs of 6), so I used these, adding trail handles from bent bits of staple. Also I cut out the two retaining bars for the ammunition case at the bottom rear of the trail.

But the barrel? It is of unique shape, and I searched my bits and pieces for anything that could be adapted. The closest was the BM Prussian howitzer. But the trunnions are too far back, which means that the barrel does not have the characteristic projection from in front of the carriage. It is also a bit thin. I wanted the barrel to be noticeably thicker than the French 6pdr barrel. My first idea was to adapt the BM Prussian 6pdr barrel. This is quite thick (it does have the dolphins too – even though Prussians had eliminated these from their 6pdr in fact). I could saw off the ends,  shorten the remaining barrel, and then stick the ends back on. I decided not to because I had it in mind to use these barrels for their original purpose – to play the part of heavy Prussian 6pdrs, to work alongside the beautiful AB 6pdrs, which would act as the light version. I also thought the area around the middle, which has a bit of a “saddle” would not be easy to replicate. In hindsight I think I made the wrong decision, though, and I may yet try to make an additional piece this way.

But instead I decided to make the barrel from scratch! I took a piece of plastic sprue from a kit for two of the barrels, and rolled some Milliput epoxy putty for the third. On one I wrapped a slither of paper around the middle to get the “saddle”; for the other two I used some epoxy putty (grey stuff – I’m not sure which brand). Trunnions were added from a bit of plastic rod (from the same kit, which was a building). For the dolphins I fashioned something from putty for one, cut bits of plastic for the other two. For the rear I used the sawn off end of some old Minifigs 12pdrs. For the muzzle I used sections cut from a Minifigs artillery wheel hub, with quite a bit of filing down. All of which is easily said, but 1:100 is a small scale, and my fingers aren’t as nimble as they once were. And I didn’t find the putty that easy to work with (perhaps because mine is a bit old?). This was not a particulary neat or precise job. The trunnions and dolphins were particularly difficult – which is why I think my first idea was a better one. A further reason was that the barrel turned out to be a bit too thick. This is OK until it is put next to one of the other howitzer models, when it looks heavier than even the 10pdr. Never mind! One point worth adding is that the BM trunnion recesses are far too deep, which means that the barrel tends to go too low. I used a little bit of plasticine to sort this out – I didn’t find the epoxy putty easy to work with for this job.

And here’s the result!:

24 How

Here are the three types of howitzer together: the 10pdr, the 6 pouce and the 24pdr. in that order. You can see that the 24pdr barrel is too heavy in comparison with the other two. It is a tad over scale and the others a tad under.

 

3 Hows

And here it is with the 6pdr gun (Blue Moon version), its normal companion.

24 how 6pdr 2

And again with my Old Glory horse artillery crews:

24 how 6pdr 1

So what would I recommend for anybody that wants one of these to support their 15mm army? Straight out of the packet the closest fit is the Blue Moon Prussian howitzer. The barrel doesn’t poke out far enough, but actually the fit isn’t so bad. I would urge doing something about the trunnion recesses so the barrel doesn’t sit too low, and I would add an elevating plate under the barrel – advice that applies just as much to the Prussian version. If somebody quibbles you can always say it is a captured piece! The second alternative is to use the BM 6pdr and attempt the barrel conversion. You will need something to cut the barrel with though, like a jeweller’s saw. Using a knife has a tendency to squash the barrel.

And that completes my collection. Something is gestating on limbers, but BM have recently released their limber models, and these are well worth a look. I will complete my series of posts with a wrap-up piece though, and some pictures of all the types together.

Part 8 – Finishing off and conclusion