1943: what next?

My hope was not to spend too long messing around building up the armies for my 1943 project, but to get a small club-ready game as soon as I could – and for that game to look something like the finished product on the table – without the fielding of half-finished elements. I want a bit of a wow factor – in contrast to most of the games I play at the club.

So the logical thing was to build a tank and infantry platoon for each side, plus some command and support elements, and then turn to the scenery, with some thought for player aids (markers for knocked out vehicles. etc). I did the support elements first: mortars, heavy machines guns (German ones still need to be painted) and anti-tank guns. I now have a German tank platoon. But after that I need a bit of a rethink.

The obvious next step is to work on a British tank platoon. My first idea was to paint up my old Airfix Shermans. I’m not happy with that, though. The old Airfix models won’t be up to standard next to my new Pz IIIs, both because of size (they are 1/76 rather than 1/72) and general quality. The final straw was realising that I would not be able to open the hatches and put crew figures in. I think this adds to the appearance – and mostly commanders would only want to pull the hatch down in extremis – visibility is so much better outside. I still want to paint these old tanks up, and to use them to bulk up for larger games, and to provide a few extra options on the table (the Tigers for the Germans, for example). But for my first British tank platoon I’m going to need some new models.

And it is pretty obvious what those models should be: Shermans. In 1943 they dominate British armour. It’s true that in Tunisia you also have an assortment of other tanks: Grants, Honeys, Valentines and Crusaders (as well as Churchills, which continued into Italy). But few, if any of these make it to Sicily, let alone Salerno. And the Sherman type that predominates at this stage is the Sherman III, the US M4A2. This came with a diesel engine and was mainly used for export (to Britain and Russia). The examples I am most drawn to belonged to the Royal Scots Greys at Salerno. There are a few pictures, and they were heavily engaged. These have the classic sand-skirts covering a the top part of the running gear (as did the desert tanks) – though not all British/Canadian Shermans had these in Sicily or Salerno. It turns out that the Airfix Shermans aren’t such a good match for these anyway – they don’t have the engine deck for the M4A2, and no track-guards at all. Apparently they aren’t a precise fit for any known version of the tank, but look not that bad for the earlier Sherman I. My first point of call is now Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) – their products seem to have just the right balance of production values and options for me. But they only have the cast-hull M4A1 (Sherman II in British service – used in North Africa, but I haven’t seen pictures of them in use by the British in Italy) or the M4A4 (Sherman V) which had a longer engine deck and more spaced out wheels – though both seem to come with the sandguards as options. Neither is going to work.

After doing a little research I thought I had the answer: the Armourfast M4A2. Armourfast (who now produce models formerly by HAT) produce cheap models with few parts and low cost (£7.50 for a pair – compare PSC £17.50 for thee) for wargamers – but which are crisply moulded and accurately proportioned. I bought a box (alongside another couple of items). It was a bit of a shock. There is one simple sprue per tank (PSC have 2 bigger sprues each), and no options, stowage items, crew, etc. I actually knew this would be the case from reviews, but it was quite stark when I opened the box. But I thought there would be sandguards (from either misreading a review, or a review based on an earlier version). And the mantlet is the later war version, though I think this might be convertible. While pondering this I discovered Italeri made a version of the Sherman that was exactly what I was looking for, so I immediately ordered a couple of boxes (4 vehicles) – but they haven’t arrived yet. I will do something with the Armourfasts, but I haven’t decided what yet.

So how about the infantry? But there’s a problem here too! I fell in love with the AB metal figures, and bought a batch of them for command and support elements. It is these that I have painted up for the mortars, machine guns, and a 6-pdr crew. They are lovely figures. But the more I looked a pictures from 1943, the more I realised they weren’t quite right. The soldiers wore a hybrid between the 1944 north Europe kit most popularly portrayed in miniatures (including these AB ones) and the 1941/42 desert kit, also widely available, including at AB. This is within fudge range for the Germans, and can be covered mostly with a paint job. They mainly wore helmets in Italy (caps dominate in Afrika Korps representations) – and from a distance you can’t tell whether they are wearing shirts or tunics; no doubt some Afrika Korps figures can be mixed in to give more of a tropical look – these are usually made wearing trousers rather than shorts. For the British it’s a bit harder. They mainly wore trousers rather than the shorts they wore in the desert – but the helmet is an earlier version than 1944. They too typically wore shirts rather than the battledress blouse, and they usually had sleeves rolled up. I was going to overlook all of this (so at least my infantry would look OK for later war scenarios in Italy and France), but I saw that SHQ (whom I’m using for harder to get model vehicles) had a Mediterranean series for both British and Germans that might be suitable. Representing human figures is a very personal thing, though, and I don’t know if I will like them. I ordered some examples to take a look. That was last weekend and they haven’t arrived yet (it’s August I guess).

So what I think I will do next is a large batch of upgrades to my existing 1/76 German tanks: 3 Pz IVGs, two Tigers and two Pz IIIs (which I will convert to a Flammpanzer and an N with short 75mm gun). Since the paint I so laboriously mixed up for the Pz IIIs is still on the go, this makes some sense. I also have more idea about how I want them to look than I do with the British. I’m not going to attempt the sames standards of finish as the mainstream elements, but I will take on some new challenges, such as representing the radio antennae. Here they are, with conversion work on the Pz IIIs under way:

Finishing my Panzer IIIs

My Panzer III platoon is very much a learning exercise, as it is the first time I have put together AFVs for the tabletop (except some microtanks) for 40 years. This has proved to be the case in particular with the finishing.

But first here are some pictures of a real Pz III on show at the recent Bovington Tankfest.

This is an L captured at El Alamein. Bovington have painted it dunkelgelb (dark yellow) which became the standard German base colour in 1942. I don’t know whether this because the original was painted this way, or whether it was in fact painted in one of the desert colour schemes in operation at the time. Regardless, it is this dunkelgelb that I want to reflect on my model. The first thing you get from these pictures is how different the colour looks in different lights! Still it looks nothing like the “authentic” Humbrol desert sand sold in my youth, which can be seen on the Pz IIIL model in my last post. That is a brighter and redder shade; quite where it came from I don’t know. The desert colours used before the dunkelgelb were  yellow-browns (alongside greys) – a bitter redder, no doubt, than the dunkelgelb but much more muted than that paint.

This is important because I have decided to use artists acrylics on my models and figures, and not hobby colours. I already do this for my Napoleonics, and I fancied the challenge. I get to skip those endless debates about which precise shade of Vallejo colour I should use, and mix a colour from standard pigments as an artist does. This means I need many fewer paint hues – and no new ones. But for WW2 this approach isn’t for the faint-hearted. Getting theoe muted browns, greens and greys to look right is hard work.

But first I wanted to prime the models. I don’t use aerosol paints, because I have no suitable space to apply them. I do have a patio at the back of the house, but it is palaver to get the gear down there and protect the garden furniture etc. from stray paint – and the weather conditions have to be right. I have tried this for my Napoleonics and given up. I also had a problem to make sure that every part of the miniature was properly covered. The exception for aerosols is the final coat of varnish, which I don’t think is as risky. So I apply primer by brush. I use a special metals primer from Fortress, acquired at a DIY store, in white – the water-based version. I works well enough for my metal figures, where I apply it diluted with water. But it was problematic on hard plastic (polystyrene). The surface was slightly repellant. But with a bit of poking I was able to get complete coverage – though it was hard work, and wrecked the brush I was using: I have ordered some cheap acrylic brushes for future work! Next time I will try the primer undiluted – though it is quite thick. But it dried quite nicely and provided a good surface for subsequent layers of paint. It may also help if the models are washed with detergent in advance.

Next came the base coat. This was going to represent the dunkelgelb. The important point to make here is that painting a model is not like finding an authentic shade for a full-sized replica or museum piece. Authentic shades for the latter will not look right on models. I think this may be the problem with the old Humbrol “authentic” dunkelgelb – which I used a lot on my teenage models (including the Pz IV in the picture on my last blog, with camouflage green). It looks too dark and a bit too green – this may simply be a scale effect – the darkness surely is. What counts is finding what looks right on a model in normal indoor light conditions (daylight for me).  German dunkelgelb is not an easy shade to mix (unlike practically all the colours used in Napoleonic uniforms!).

It was obvious that I should start with Yellow Ochre or Yellow Oxide (much the same thing), and that quite a bit of white should be mixed in. But this is too bright – it needs to be dulled down. Using conventional colour theory I at first used a deep purple pigment for this (purple is complementary to yellow, meaning that it will neutralise it rather than change its hue). But the result, on my Pak 38 AT guns was much too red. So my next attempt was to mix in a reddish blue (Ultramarine), but this came out a rather horrid green shade (there is some of it on the Leopard tank in the background of the picture on my last post. My ideal in colour mixing is to use two (complementary or near) colours and white. This wasn’t going to work – I would have to balance three colours and white – something that is a bit tricky. I used Prussian Blue and a red-brown to go with the yellow ochre). For the base coat, incidentally, I was using cheaper “student” paints rather than the higher quality “artist” ones – having noticed that 20mm models soak up paint much faster than 15mm figures. (The better quality pigments are much better for painting details, where you need sharp lines) This took three goes. On each occasion I was convinced that I had the right shade, but as it dried it looked wrong, compared to my pictures taken at Bovington, and other sources. The colours did dry a bit redder than when wet (perhaps because of the lower quality pigments – drying true is one of the marks of better quality pigment) – but a lot of it is simply that it is hard for such muted shades, where is slight shift in the mix makes a big difference. Provided the paint isn’t too thick (and it shrinks quite nicely on curing, so it’s generally OK), this layering isn’t such a bad thing – it can give a bit of texture and “depth” to the model. Still, there are a lot of nooks and crannies on a model tank (especially with the turret schurzen), and so it was hard work and not good for the brushes. Eventually I had something I was pleased with.

Next step was detailing – the tracks, the tyres, the commander figures, the exhausts and the stowage. I had a little trouble with the uniforms of the commanders – where I was trying to get a faded tropical look. Another problem was the tyres on the running gear – as these were a single moulding in order to reduce the assembly time, so you don’t get the double wheels, so they don’t look quite right – I just hope they won’t be very visible. All this took slightly longer than I wanted – a couple of sessions rather than the one I hoped. I finished with a bit of drybrush with a pale dusty mix – this was a bit heavy handed in places – it’s a technique that is going to need more work. Next came a layer of Quickshade. This is to pick out the recessed detail and generally create depth. It also creates a good surface for decals (otherwise the flash will show horribly, as they do on my old models). I was a bit worried that the brown in the Quickshade would distort the base colour by reddening and darkening it -though the end result is OK, and the photos below sho it to be a bit too green if anything. I have three tins of Quickshade (three grades of colour), though one is dying. Once these are done with I will try to create my own with the floor polish the product it is based on – and that will allow me to have more control over the colour of shading – a dull purple would have been better in this case (the French Impressionists would have approved of that!).

And then the decals. This has been a bit of a headache. I want turret numbers for tanks in the same platoon (with the platoon commander in tank 1). Commercial decals have two problems: they tend to focus on individual tanks from different formations, and they supply two numbers (one for each side), rather than the three that was more typical at this stage of the war (one at the back too). And they are pricey. None come with the PSC box kit. I acquired some generic numbers on eBay. But I decided to base my platoon on some tanks of the Hermann Goering division in Sicily, with numbers 531, 532 and 533. My decal sheet not only had only pairs of numbers, but they did not have any starting with 5 or above (this is the company number – the second battalion in a regiment usually had company numbers 5 to 8). This meant I had to assemble the turret numbers in pieces, and individual numbers in some cases. So applying them was a bit trickier than it might have been, and I did well to lose only one number. Balkankreuse were applied at the back of the hull, from a commercial sheet. I did not attempt a divisional insignia. After that I decided to seal them with some polyurethane varnish. That was very nearly a catastrophe. The decals are quite delicate, and unless the varnish was dabbed on softly, they get damaged by the application. One number was quite badly damaged; I applied a bit of paint to represent the damaged bits being obscured by mud (it was a rear number, and is obscured by some jerry-can when the turret is facing front, which helps). It could have been a lot worse. For the British I’m going to have to print my own decals; this will solve some problems – but white or white-outlined numbers can’t be done this way – (nor balkenkreuse for that matter). Fortunately the Germans used quite a lot of straight black numbers, which can be home-printed.

Finally an application of Windsor & Newton aerosol matt varnish. And here’s the result (albeit shot in partially artificial light given a very overcast sky this morning) – and with less than ideal focusing from my iPhone):

I have to say that I’m pretty happy. Each of the models has mistakes, and they aren’t “professional” quality. But they’ll look great on the wargames table.

1943: PSC Panzer III platoon

I started my 1943 project with a couple of Pak 38 50mm anti-tank guns, and two 81mm mortars for the Germans, and a 6pdr, two 3in mortars and two Vickers machine guns for the British. These were trials for painting and basing techniques. I will come back to them. I want to start my regular blogs with a full-scale platoon. These are Panzer IIIL/M tanks, with the long 50mm guns, using the 1/72 plastic kits from Plastic Soldier Company (PSC).

Why these? I wanted to break away from the late-war pattern of games being dominated by superior German armour. This is what happened with my initial game and its Tigers. So I thought that one platoon of Pz IIIs and one of Pz IVs would be the core of my German tank force. I already had the Pz IVs (Airfix F2s in 1/76), so I thought late Pz IIIs would work well beside them. I had two 1/76 models in my collection, not enough for a platoon. One was a conversion from an Airfix StuG III model (my first ambitious armour conversion), and the second a Matchbox model, which came out after I had made that model (rendering the need for that conversion redundant), and which doesn’t look too bad beside it. Rather than try to find a 1/76 model (like the Matchbox one) and make that up, I though I would try out PSC’s fare, designed for wargamers. The surplus models could then be used as Ns, with the short 75mm guns, to operate alongside my Tigers, as was the German practice at this stage of the war (the Pz IIIN in the Bovington tank museum was captured in Tunisia alongside its famous Tiger). So I ordered a box of three PSC Panzer III J-Ns.

When I opened the box I found the models up to expectations. I quickly decided that the PSC models should be made up as a complete platoon. I could use the parts in the box to make the Ns from my existing models. I then realised that in the sorts of games I was likely to play, I would only want to use one model for such supporting weapons as the N. The other model could be used for an FL, the flamethrower version. There is a picture of one these, knocked out, at Salerno, which is becoming the central campaign for my project, so I know they are in theatre. I can use the Matchbox model for that, and my conversion can be the N, as that means I can discard the rather ropey mantlet that I made for it.

The next decision was what sort of Pz III for the main tank platoon. My first idea was an L, like the Matchbox model, done up in Afrika Korps colours, as seen in Tunisia (to face of against my Grants, which never made it to Italy, and which I plan to do in desert paint). But as I started to focus on Salerno as my central campaign, I decided to go for M, with its schurtzen – spaced armour. However, since the Germans in Italy mainly only kept the schurtzen on the turret, I would skip the side-skirts. Apparently the narrow roads in Italy made the side armour more trouble than it was worth.

And so on to assembly. I decided to assemble the complete model, including commander and stowage, before painting. I think this adds to the artistic coherence of the resulting model (if I can be so grand) – but we’ll see how that goes. Assembly took slightly longer than I thought. It needs to be done carefully, and the first one took me nearly an hour, in spite of it having many less parts than the old models of my youth (most of the wheels are moulded into the track assembly, for example). Particular care was needed on the turret shurtzen, as this is in two pieces, and the join needs to be as inconspicuous as possible. A modelling knife and file were needed to deal with the sprue attachment points. The next two models were much quicker, perhaps half an hour each. Mostly the mouldings were of very high standard, and fitted together very neatly. The one problem as a bit of a dimple on the extra armour plate on the front hull below the turret. I have tried to fill this in using a bit of gesso (as well as using it to cover the join on the schurtzen). I used to use a product called “body putty” for this, but I don’t have it now and haven’t seen it on offer anywhere. We’ll see if the gesso works.

After the main assembly, which included the tank commander poking out of the turret (in contrast to the closed turrets of my youthful models), I added various items of stowage. These I got from a separate PSC item of tank crew and stowage. I was a bit underwhelmed by this offering, which consists of three identical sprues, with crew figures (for poking out of hatches), jerry-cans, bits of track, tarps and ammunition boxes, and other bits. It also has various small arms. I used one of the crew figures, to contrast with the two alternative poses that came with the main kit. And tarps and jerry cans from one of the sprues. The original kit comes with a few short lengths of track, which are useful. Mostly I piled things up on the rear hull, as this seems to be where the stowage mostly went in practice, with a few other bits elsewhere. We’ll see how it looks in the final mode, but it looks promising. One nice thing is that stowage helps to individualise the tanks.

The next point to ponder was a radio antenna. These are almost never provided in models of this scale, but can add a lot to the tabletop appearance (it is tricks like that, rather than detailed painting that lift the appearance of tabletop models). However, with the Pz III (and Pz IV) there is a problem. They had a big aerial poking out of the track guard next to the turret.  It got in the way of the turret gun as the turret rotated. They were design so that they would fold down when this happened – they could be folded down by the crew in advance (in the case of the Pz III this could be done from inside the tank). In many photos the aerial is folded away. Rather than find ways of dealing with the issue on models, I decided to model with folded aerials, allowing the turret to rotate fully. The mouldings represent this quite adequately. Did this mean the radio was not operational in combat? Or just that the range was reduced? No doubt I will find out in due course!

And now to the big issue (before painting – which I haven’t got to yet). How do they look? Generally excellent, but there is a problem. They’re quite big. Modelled at 1/72 I expected that – but I was surprised at how well my two old Tigers worked together (one at 1/76, the other at 1/72). I have a suspicion the PSC models are a tad over-scale. Putting the PSC models next to the Matchbox model (in front in the picture), and they look a lot bigger. They even look bigger than the 1/76 Pz IV (also in the picture). What also doesn’t help is that the moulded plastic tracks are a bit prouder than the flexible polythene ones on the older models. Part of the point of my project is to re-use my old models, if only for old times’ sake, but this going to need more care than I thought. Most modern plastic models are 1/72, so I going to have to find ways of living with this. And these are much cheaper than the 1/76 resin models from people such as SHQ and Milicast. Still, let’s not exaggerate. The different scales can be kept in separate units (except the Tigers, which I think are OK).

But the next point is to finish these models. This means handling another set of issues – which I’ll deal with in my next post.

 

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

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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.