Back to Napoleonics – Bloody Big Battles

BBB in progress 21 May 2018

This week we took a break from our WW2 games. My Napoleonic figures got an outing as we decided to try out Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB) on club night. It went quite well.

BBB is a set of rules based on the Fire and Fury game system, designed for European wars in the later 19th Century. But they are quite usable for the Napoleonic era (and doubtless for the American Civil War too). I like them because they have a very stripped down simplicity, while also being a successful system for recreating big historical battles (as its name suggests). I have used them before for a recreation of Waterloo in 2015.

Their simplicity is one of the things that drew me to their use on club night. But there’s another factor: the Fire and Fury command system is ideal for multi-player games. So many rule systems require some sort of top down command process that makes it quite hard to run different parts of the table in parallel. But in BBB there is no higher command system; no PIPs to allocate; nobody decides which units to move and which to leave. You throw dice to see whether each unit moves, in any order you like. Commanders’ role is confined to affecting this dice roll if close enough.

This did not work so well on this week’s outing, as I was the only player who knew the rules, and I was a little rusty. So instead of players working in parallel, they worked in sequence guided by me. This slowed the game down a lot, and we were nowhere near finished at the end. But the players were starting to get the hang of it, and if every player has a quick reference sheet, I could see this working fine. Perhaps I need to step back and act as gamesmaster next time to facilitate this. But the players seemed quite happy – they were expecting more complexity than there was.

The first question was how to adapt the rules to the era. This is where I came apart in my Waterloo game. I made several changes then, especially around the use of cavalry, and they worked badly. In fact I was assured that such changes were unnecessary. I had a very interesting dialogue with Chris Pringle, which you can read on my Waterloo post. Taking his comments to heart, I made very few changes this time. I looked up an old magazine article on adapting to BBB for a game of Borodino, and found myself rejecting most its modest changes (incorporating a square formation, for example). I made two main changes. First (which I had from my Waterloo game) I halved the figure scale for cavalry, so as to double the number of cavalry bases on the table. Second I adopted the fire table from the magazine article, which lengthened the ranges of artillery and musketry. The official versions were meant to reflect the relative strengths and weaknesses of these weapons compared to more modern ones. Two further adaptations were not changes. I did not use the rule on skirmisher bases. Regulars to this blog know that I get uptight about the treatment of skirmishers in wargames rules, and I wasn’t convinced by this one, both visually on the table (the skirmisher base is kept in close order in the main unit) and on historicity, in the Napoleonic context – it makes more sense when all armies used specialist jager/chasseur units at divisional level. More to the point I wanted to keep this first outing simple. I will return to this. A second change was to the way close combat assaults are determined. Instead of adding some factors and subtracting others from your dice, I arranged modifiers so that each side only had additions, which they could record on a D6, which could then be added to the score of the thrown dice; the result depended on the difference between totals thrown by each side. This worked very well, and Assaults did not get us into the tangle they did in my Waterloo game.

What of the scenario? Chris suggests that scenarios should be based on history, so that the game can be used to appreciate the choices that were available in real battles. There is no system points balancing and terrain choices. Scenario design is a very important element in how the system works – as Chris made very clear in his comments to my blog. I picked on Ligny – since that fitted with my French and Prussian armies (my Austrians not being table-ready). But this was too big for an evening game – so I took the situation of what would have happened if the French had pressed their attack a couple of hours earlier, as commentators suggested they should, before the Gerard’s and Thielmann’s corps arrived. I did some rapid standardisation of unit sizes. Prussian infantry units (four in each corps) were 6 bases (representing about 8,000 men), apart from one smaller unit which was 4 bases. I mainly classed these as Trained, but one unit in each of the two corps was Raw. The cavalry units were 4 bases, and all ordinary trained cavalry. Each corps had three artillery units, including one heavy. In the end I decided not to play horse artillery (which isn’t in fact catered for in the main rules). All the French infantry units were four bases (about 5,000 men). The line infantry (four units) was classed as veteran, the Young Guard as Trained Aggressive and the Old and Middle Guard as Veteran Aggressive. The cavalry units were 3 or 4 bases. They were mainly (three units) classed as Veteran, except the Cuirassiers (Trained Aggressive); the Guard cavalry was Veteran Aggressive. I gave the French three standard artillery batteries, on the assumption that any reserve batteries were still working their way up to the field.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to do a proper job on the terrain, and then I couldn’t find the stream pieces in the club’s terrain boxes. I plumped some hills randomly across the table, except one which was formed the basis of the Prussian I Korps position. We experienced a slight technical problem. The Tiny Wargames mat we were using proved too slippery when placed over hills, so we used some slightly incompatible hills placed on top.

How did the game go? We started with the Prussian I Korps in place with II Korps moving in from the Prussian left. The French had four divisions of line infantry ready for the attack (three from Vandamme’s corps in the centre and one, Girard, from Reille’s corps to the left. They threw Vandamme’s divisions into a frontal assault on I Korps position by attacking Ligny, though the left hand one wouldn’t budge. The line cavalry moved out to the right to counter II Korps. The attacks on Ligny didn’t have much effect, except that the defenders got a short on ammo result, and had to be relieved. After two moves of failed movement throws Vandamme’s left division finally got moving; it joined an attack with Girard (from Reille’s corps) on the St Armand complex. This they did at right angles: one frontally and one in the flank. Though Girard was beaten back by strong fire, the other division’s flank attack went better: a bloody assault with two drawn assault rounds gutted the Prussian unit, while the French veteran status meant that it could fight on. Meanwhile the II Korps moved in on the French right. The French cavalry was immobilised by first artillery and then infantry fire. One of Vandamme’s divisions was called off to face this threat, while two Guard units were also pushed into this sector. The battle was slipping away from the French.

There are a couple of pointers here relevant to the historical battle. First it shows why Napoleon waited for Gerard’s corps to arrive, even though this allowed the Prussians to strengthen their position. An  attack on the Prussian position really needed to be conducted from two directions: frontally on Ligny, and on the Prussian right flank through St Armand. They needed two corps to do that, and if Gerard wasn’t there he’d have to have used the Guard, which was a reserve formation. Second it shows how terrain protected the French right, and how important this was. In our game II Korps successfully did what on the day III Korps tried and failed to do. The terrain obstacles that got in their way weren’t in our game – though they looked relatively slight on the map – a shallow stream and some rather open villages. I will have to look at the detailed map more closely to understand what it was that made an attack from this direction so hard.

And the rules? I think the longer weapon ranges were probably OK. Though it means infantry engaging at the equivalent of nearly a kilometre apart (6 inches on the table) this represents the more spread out nature of warfare not fitting our wargames representation – this would have included the use of skirmishers and divisional artillery. But it did mean that infantry could pressure cavalry with firepower, and I’m not sure how historical this is (to be fair cavalry wasn’t supposed to be good at holding ground in this era though). The fighting is often pretty indecisive with units being pushed about and forth without suffering serious damage. This means that I suspect that one turn covers quite a bit less than an hour’s worth of fighting (though St Armand went more to type). I felt this with our Waterloo game too, especially with the Prussian advance being slowed down relatively easily. It was probably a mistake to class the Cuirassiers as Trained though, as this makes them much more likely to be stopped by a bit of firepower. The Young Guard should probably not be classified as such either – perhaps the Aggressive rating (which affects the Assault) should be dropped to distinguish them from the veteran Guard units.  Or the older Guard units could be given “Devastating Volleys”.

Many of the issues reflect scenario design, and our inexperience. The French in the attack needed to think of more ways to achieve advantages for fire and assault. The skirmisher rules may give them more opportunities for this, though I remain sceptical of the BBB rule. Maybe introduce this on our next game. In fact I have an idea to represent skirmishers by deploying special bases in front of the units, and using this to extend the infantry firepower range (instead of the 6 inch allowance), but having cavalry able to suppress this. That’s for the future. I have learned to resist fiddling with mature rules systems like BBB.

One thing that will need more work is scenarios. I might try my Ligny minus scenario again, but with more historical terrain – but this doesn’t look the most exciting game for a club night. I have a battery of scenarios from the Crimean War onwards published by Chris Pringle, which I could try adapting for my French and Prussian armies. Otherwise I need to look at some mid-sized Napoleonic battles. I also need to think about getting my 15mm Napoleonic armies into better shape. I will resist trying to build some armies for Bismarck’s wars though!

I also like the visual appearance with my 15mm figures. The variable sized units of three or more bases look much better than the standard two base units required for Blucher or Horse, Foot, Guns, the two best alternatives. Cavalry units still look a little pathetic in 15mm. I am considering adjusting the figure scale down again, to be one third of the infantry (which means that the men to figure ratio would in fact be equal, as my cavalry bases have two figures and infantry six). I’m also thinking about something similar for artillery, which I think is a bit too compact (and adjusting the fire tables). But not until we have more experience under our belts. Meanwhile BBB Napoleonics look very promising for club nights.

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