Bloody Big Battles goes to Waterloo

BBB Waterloo startAlas the rest of my life intrudes and my wargaming projects proceed at the pace of a snail. When my friend Rob suggested that we celebrate the bicentennial of Waterloo in the only way you really can, I was unready. My rules are still in pieces, untested, and probably unfit. Even my French army was off its bases as part of an overhaul and rebasing exercise (Rob provides the Allies). The house was entering chaos as a major kitchen rebuild was just starting.

But these challenges help to focus the mind. I could get a reasonable number of French infantry ready. In spite of the domestic chaos I could get a temporary 3ft by 4ft table up for a day. But with limited numbers of figures available, and an even smaller table than usual, what rules to use? I thought of doing a tactical game, representing part of the bigger battle, another encounter or some wholly made-up scenario. And then I remembered Bloody Big Battles. This set of rules, written by Chris Pringe, is meant for a later era – the European conflicts from the Crimean War to the Franco-Prussian war. I had bought them because we considered their use for an 1866 game (Austro-Prussian War), but rejected them as we preferred the less abstracted feel of Bruce Weigle’s 1866. I had read on TMP that they could be used for the Napoleonic wars, which were not at such a technological distance from Crimea after all. These should fit the bill nicely – designed as they are for such large scales. I could even bring in my newly painted Prussians. We were on!

Apart from the scramble to get enough of my French ready, the two big challenges were to get the rules and table ready. On re-reading BBB there seemed a serious deficiency in its treatment of cavalry. They used the same figure scale (1,500 per base), but were treated in much the same way as infantry, except with more mobility and limited firepower. This might be appropriate for the later era, when cavalry’s role was somewhat peripheral, and where they were dominated by firepower. But the Napoleonic era was different – the rules would not produce anything like the seminal Waterloo events of the charge of the Union Brigade, or the French cavalry charges. A major aspect of Napoleonic warfare was lacking. A second deficiency was the lack of any rules that would cater for the fortified outposts of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, so important to the actual battle. To rectify these gaps, and fix one or two other things, I put together some house rules. These weren’t my finest hour, as things proved, but more of that later.

So far as the table was concerned, the challenge was harder. I have struggled to produce adequate representations of relief for my games. The more games I play, the more important I think this part of a simulation is. Terrain is a wonderful, complex thing that does not follow standard shapes. Dropping standard hills and other items onto a flat tabletop does not work. The gentle, rolling terrain of the Waterloo campaign are a big challenge. This folds in the terrain may not be big, but they are vital to an appreciation of the battles. How to create terrain quickly?

The solution I opted for this time was to buy 60cm by 40cm by 10mm cheap sheets of styrofoam, sold for packaging (not the denser insulation material) and a hot knife. I then built the table up in contours, representing about 10m relief (ignoring the edges), fixing everything in place with masking tape. This took a few hours the day before – longer than I had hoped. Over the styrofoam went the standard felt blanket, with the help of some pins and water spray to help it conform more closely. The rivers, roads, woods, etc were hastily added using masking tape, green flt and a few stock items of 10mm and 6mm scenery (in spite of 15mm figures!). You can see the result in the picture above of the start of the game. The non-relief bits (especially the rivers) looked awful, but they are a work in progress. The relief looked fine though, and was the best I have produced for any of the games I have hosted. My main learning is that it would have been better to build up modules, of say 30cm by 60cm, rather than build the whole table up with interlocking bits of foam. This makes dismantling, storage and reassembly much easier – and may even be quicker to put together – as working on such a large canvass can do your head in a bit.

And so the 18th June arrived and we were set.

The course of the battle

The game started at 11am in game terms, and about the same in real time, with the historical start positions and using Napoleon’s battle plan. My memory of the exact sequence of events is a bit vague, but this is my general recollection.

On the French left things got off to a bad start when Jérôme refused to move. Foy attacked Hougoumont in his place, and suffered a -5 dice difference on the assault, which left him retreating with a base loss. Subsequently Jérôme did move in and capture Hougoumont, which proved much easier under my rules than I intended. There was a counterattack by the Guards, but Jerome held on. But he made no headway. He lacked support on the ground to his right, which was dominated by the British artillery. French artillery reinforcements did help reduce the British artillery, and an attack by the cuirassiers on the Guards as they counterattacked was beaten off. The French dithered a bit, though managed to take La Haye Sainte after d’Erlon’s failure there.  But as the British threw all their horse artillery in to create a 3 unit grand battery (supposedly over 100 guns), Bachelu and Foy were thrown into the centre in an attack right along the line. The cuirassiers took on the newly arrived artillery. But this attack failed, apart from disrupting the British artillery. Foy and Bachelu were wiped out, leaving Jérôme isolated.

On the French right things went worse still. Although the initial French bombardment made some headway, the leading French division in the centre was disrupted by long range artillery, meaning that the attack was severely weakened, and failed across the line. At one point the British conducted a vigorous counterattack with Picton and Bijlandt, which attracted a cavalry charge, which bounced off. As the battle progressed three of d’Erlon’s divisions were destroyed. One by cavalry, another by a good throw on combined artillery and infantry fire, and the third from a double draw in an assault which took out 2 bases.  Durutte managed to take the Papelotte complex and hold it for a while, but was eventually ejected with loss. Eventually the French threw in the cavalry and the Middle Guard in a general attack across the front (as already referred to). The Middle Guard made some headway, but in the end the attack failed, and the Middle Guard was destroyed. The British lost Picton and Best and a light cavalry unit. They brought in their heavy cavalry and the Brunswick division to shore things up.

The French did quite successfully keep the Prussians at bay though. The Prussians were as aggressive as they could be, and drove the French back some distance, causing some losses on Lobau. But by 7pm they had not got beyond the Papelotte complex. The Prussians had overwhelming numbers, but found it difficult to advance quickly enough.

It was about this point that I threw in the towel as the French player. I had very little infantry left. Reille was reduced to an isolated Jérôme. D’Erlon had a weakened Durutte, drawn into holding the Prussians back. That left two Guard units. The British infantry was a bit battered but still looked very robust. The French cavalry was faring much better though – but there was little it could do against all that infantry!

This was how things looked at the end:

Waterloo BBB the endOverall verdict on the battle

The game followed the overall historical path – except that the British did not suffer as heavily, the French cavalry fared better, and the Prussians did not advance as quickly. My performance as Napoleon was a bit tired – I needed to fight a tighter, more vigorous game in those early moves.

The game was affected by the rules. My rule modifications on outposts and cavalry both worked badly. The former were much too easy to take, but cavalry had very little ability to make much headway against infantry – though did not suffer heavy losses.

Also I was a bit generous with the British. On the right they had two big, six base units, rated as veterans. The French mainly had three base units, rated as Trained. The big units had a lot of stamina, while the smaller units disappeared after their second base loss.

We were unfamiliar with the rules – and the tactics that were needed to succeed. We didn’t play them accurately either. We weren’t recovering losses until very late in the game, or reducing fire from disrupted units.

For the attacker the best tactics seem to be to create disruption and then take advantage using fresh troops before the other side had the opportunity to recover. By and large that disruption comes from Defensive fire and assaults resolved in the enemy’s previous phase – or a failure to recover from disruption inflicted in your previous move.

Reflections

Scales

With 1,500 men per base (750 cavalry in my adaptation), against the recommended 1,000 for the ground scale, I was expecting it to relatively uncluttered. It wasn’t. True, Reille looked a bit spread out at the start, and there was room enough to deploy the British – but the French reserve areas were very congested. And as the forces closed it got very crowded. Similarly with the Prussian attack – though Lobau did look a bit challenged to defend his front, that worked out OK in practice.

I think 1,000 per base might just have worked. It would certainly have reduced the number of three base units – which lacked stamina. But with my DTN rules have 750 infantry or 250 cavalry per base – and that adds up to a major design problem. A shame because the distance scale worked fine for Dining Table brief – in what was a historically compact battlefield. I want to leave four foot tables for bigger battles so changing the distance scale isn’t really on.

Core rules

Unfamiliarity didn’t help us – but I was struck by the strength of the core design, reducing complications to the minimum. The temptation is often to add details, but further thought often suggests that the concern is met within the rules. Overall they fitted the dining table brief rather well. They gave a decent two player game in a relatively confined space. The core mechanism, adapted from the ACW Fire & Fury rules, is quite an elegant one, if a little abstract.

Still there are frustrations:

  • Firing was very hit and miss – by and large needing high scores to inflict disruption and very high ones to inflict base losses. Mostly it was a lot of dice throws to no effect. The heavy lifting in the combat rules was done by the Assault. This was the main reason, I think, that cavalry got away with so few losses. This is partly a common problem with representing small but cumulative losses on such granular units – a bane of many rules that are designed to play fast. It may be that the original rules are too harsh on smoothbore muskets – it is less easy to criticise the artillery rules.
  • The Assault was rather unsatisfactory process. I remember my friend George complaining about it when we rejected it for an 1866 scenario. Looking back at his emails I think the rules as written are not as bad as we feared – apart from the cavalry v infantry problem. I didn’t think that there was anything inherently unsatisfactory with the way the factors were calculated, apart from the special situations covered by the house rules. Two things jarred. First was that the process of comparing the difference between two dice scores and then modifying is quite hard work, especially if the modifiers work in two directions. Second the “draw” result results in two lost bases, which is a very severe result, especially if it repeats, when dealing with typically quite small units.
  • Command and control works purely through an activation step with a modifier for being within radius of a leader. I prefer something more hierarchical and based on PIPs.
  • There seems quite a serious advantage for larger units. Smaller units are liable to disappear as they hit the minimum unit size. The two 6-base veteran British units (Alten and Clinton) proved very hard to make headway against.
  • “Low on ammo” is a particular irritant to many with this rules system. It is interesting that Chris retained it. You need some kind of mechanism to ensure that artillery especially doesn’t just fire forever – but since an 11 or 12 was required for any decisive result, it immediately posed a penalty. It’s quite hard to reconcile this with historical narrative.
  • Charges against artillery. What happens? The rules are unclear about what happens when they are disordered and compelled to retreat – do they limber? Subsequent close reading gives the result that losing artillery are silenced – which means limber up and disappear. My feeling is that unsupported artillery should be a bit more vulnerable.
  • Silencing artillery. Sound in principle, but making them limber up and retreat doesn’t feel right – though this may just be the easiest play mechanism to get the right overall outcomes.
  • Artillery is dealt with very abstractly, with each unit representing 36 guns. I don’t think this approach worked too badly overall – but the frontage of 150m for a unit would take many fewer pieces. So it is possible to build a very compact grand battery, able to deliver a huge weight of fire on a single unit. When Wellington did just this in the game by bringing forward his horse artillery reserves.

Overall I think some of this is because of poor calibration for the Napoleonic era, since we used the original fire factors, for example. A bit of recalibration and tweaking could accomplish much. .

House rules

A bit of a disaster, which rather spoiled the game. A lesson to be learned there! Always play test.

I think halving the number of men per base worked OK for cavalry. I’m not sure that reducing their vulnerability to firing was right. The big trouble was that it was much too hard for cavalry to overcome infantry. The new Square mode proved largely irrelevant – but cavalry also needed to suffer more (I had assumed that defensive firing would do the trick – but this did no damage in multiple attacks). This needs recalibrating.

The outposts proved quite easy to take. The terrain plus points were matched with depth formation and numerical superiority – even as I limited the latter to one point. Attacker occupation was unclear.

I added an artillery bounce-through rule which worked OK, though I hadn’t defined whether it affects the low on ammo rule. However there was nothing stopping the British engaging in offensive fire – to quite good effect. Wellington didn’t do this in the historical battle because it made his artillery more vulnerable to counterbattery fire. I had deliberately not created a rule to reflect this, as it would be another bit of complexity.

I also incorporated a horse artillery rule, since both sides were able to deploy it on a grand-tactical scale – this worked quite well.

Resources

If you are interested in using BBB yourself for Napoleonic battles, or want to look in closer detail on how I set up the Waterloo battle, then I have posted resources here, under Waterloo. The rules have been revised to take account of many of the issues mentioned above, though I have not had the courage to recalibrate the firing rules. BBB is available from a variety of dealers, like Caliver Books here in the UK

Unfortunately the one thing that is missing is the table map. This is on a very non-digital piece of squared paper with pencil and crayon markings on it – with features other than contours only vaguely represented. Doing a digital version would not be impossible, but would take more time than I’m prepared to give! On contact I can email a scanned version though.

10 thoughts on “Bloody Big Battles goes to Waterloo

  1. After following the link from your posting on TMP I would love to see your Waterloo amendments to BBB, but cannot access them because I do not use WordPress.
    Is there any other way I can obtain them?
    Regards,
    Arthur

  2. Matthew, thanks very much for posting this nice AAR, and for your thoughtful discussion of using BBB for Napoleonics. We have actually had good experiences using the rules as written, both for actual Napoleonic battles, and for post-Napoleonic ones that used the same technology. See for instance the Crimean War battle of Kurudere, in the “Bloody Big European Battles!” scenario book.

    I could answer your various points in more detail if you want.

    Chris
    Bloody Big BATTLES!
    https://uk.groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/BBB_wargames/info
    http://bloodybigbattles.blogspot.co.uk/

    1. Thanks Chris. I should be very pleased to have any further comments. I am very conscious that neither of us had played the rules properly before (I had a brief solo trial for an 1866 scenario) – so comments based on the experience of actual play are very welcome – as well those of the rules designer!. Either as a public comment on this blog or by email: diningtablenapoleon@icloud.com

  3. Hi Matthew,

    Always happy to discuss matters of military history and wargaming philosophy! Let me respond, not in a spirit of argument but of friendly discussion. To address your list of “Frustrations” one by one:

    “Firing was hit and miss”:
    My view is that an even, frontal, Napoleonic musketry duel should not usually be decisive in itself. It will usually need to be combined with other factors, either significant artillery support, or assistance from a flank, or some particular tactical superiority (such as the “Skirmisher”, “Devastating Volleys”, or “Tactical Ineptitude” column shifts). Most often it will just Disrupt, which should be the prelude to a more decisive Assault. (I should just check: you were combining all the factors of all the units firing at a single target, rather than rolling for each individual firing unit, weren’t you?)

    “The Assault was a rather unsatisfactory process”:
    I admit totting up the factors can be a bit clumsy. But given that the Assault is something of a climactic event, I feel it’s worth it, and it produces the desired results. If you don’t like the heavy casualties from a tie, OK, that’s a matter of taste. (And problems caused by having small units are in part a matter of scenario design rather than the rules.)

    “Command and Control – I prefer something more hierarchical and based on PIPs”:
    Pros and cons to PIP systems. What I don’t like about them is that they generally guarantee you can do the thing you most care about. Scenario design matters a lot here: Generals should usually be few enough in number that players have to think carefully about where to allocate their commanders’ attention. The interaction between presence/absence of Generals and the other few factors affecting movement rolls produces subtle and powerful effects and really does reflect differences in armies’ command and control qualities well.

    “There seems quite a serious advantage for larger units”:
    Yes and no, it also depends on troop quality. Being large and veteran is great, the unit will fight and fight and fight. Being large and raw is not, as after 1 base lost the unit becomes Spent and much less useful, even a liability. One large unit is good of being sure of getting a large force into an Assault. Two small units is better if you want to get one of them round an enemy’s flank. There are pros and cons, and again it is a scenario design question as to which is appropriate for a given force.

    “Low on ammo”:
    You’re not alone in finding the Low Ammo rule irritating. There are plenty of historical battles where artillery or infantry fire alike slackened because of ammo shortage, and this is a low-brain-pain way of doing it. If you prefer a house rule such as limiting the number of shots, or to make it a scenario-specific thing, you should use that instead, of course.

    “unsupported artillery should be a bit more vulnerable”:
    You need +4 in an Assault to cause loss of a base. A 3-base unit charging an artillery base while formed In Depth comes in at +4, so the average result would be destruction of the artillery (if they can get past the canister).
    If you get a below-average result that just Disorders/Silences the artillery who then bug out: we’re talking about 36-gun units with 1-hour turns, and I think it is entirely plausible that one or two batteries should fire long enough to delay the assaulting enemy while the rest limber up and leave.

    “Silencing artillery doesn’t feel right”:
    Maybe this is more of a later C19 thing than a Napoleonic one. We were happy with it for Napoleonics too, but if you’re not, you could just make the Silenced arty miss a shot or two.

    “Artillery frontage”:
    Yes, the “death star” tactic is possible. Maybe you could just put your artillery on 3″-wide bases rather than 1″. Having said that, again, scenario design can mitigate the problem. If there are multiple objectives, then massing the artillery around one will mean it is less able to defend the others.

    In summary: the things you found frustrating are due partly to scenario design, partly to deliberate BBB design decisions. I hope that I’ve provided some justification for the latter, and given some tips to address the former. But most of all, I’m just happy that BBB has enabled you to have a fun game. Maybe you’ll even look at it again for 1866?

    Cheers,
    Chris

    1. Many thanks for this Chris. It always helps to get the designer’s thoughts. I think a lot of our problem was the small size of many of the units, especially the French. Pairing up some of the divisions would have been one way round this. Though in my revised game design and house rules (published here) I have done the opposite, and split the big veteran British units down – and then softened some of the rules penalties for small units.

      On firing, yes I did combine all firing units – and when one of them was an artillery battery it made a big difference! Also I was a bit erratic early in the game on doing the right-shift for devastating volleys, which makes a difference. I have no real problem with the Assault taking the main strain, but the number of failed dice throws on infantry firing was quite striking!

      Thanks again for your comments and explanations!

      Matthew

  4. Matthew, I’m glad my comments help. Still on small units, here’s another tip. More units = more decisions and resolution = longer games. My rule of thumb for my BBB scenarios, derived from empirical data (hundreds of games), is that the combined total of both sides’ infantry and cavalry units, multiplied by the number of turns, divided by 100, is the number of hours a game will take 4 players who know the rules reasonably well.

    The ideal number of inf+cav units for a 4-player game is about 12 to 16 a side. For a more compact 2-player game of the kind you’re after, I’d go lower, say 10-12 a side. That may mean generally opting for eg 2 x 6-base units rather than 3 x 4-base.

    Chris

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