Category Archives: Games & rules

House rules for Bloody Big Battles

After playing two games with very limited house rule adaptations (after my first with a more ambitious version that I didn’t think worked), I have plucked up courage to produce something more ambitious. After a limited play test I think they work well enough to publish here. I won’t be using them at the club for another couple of months, as I will be travelling, but while production is fresh in mind, I though I’d post something here. In my test I thought they worked surprisingly well. You can download from the Rules page.

First of all: scaling. For the standard scale of 1,000 infantry to a base, cavalry is now 333 to a base (from 1,000) or 12 guns (from 24). For the higher scale (1,500 infantry to a base) that gives 500 cavalry and 18 guns. For 1815 French and Prussians I find that an in between scale works well: 1,250/416/15. I am tempted to take the artillery scale down further, but that’s enough for now. Why? Cavalry takes up a lot more space than infantry (indeed I can only squeeze two cavalry miniatures on to the 25mm square bases, in place of six infantrymen). In the von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel (of 1824), an infantry battalion of 900 men takes up the same frontage as 375 cavalry or 10 artillery pieces. The lower scale gives much more scope to represent the variety of cavalry types, and stops them looking rather pathetically few. The British Union Brigade at Waterloo can now be its own unit of 4 bases, rather than being lumped into with the Household cavalry as a 3 base unit. And with French cavalry divisions having strength of 1,500 to 2,000, these are at the margin as two base units. Likewise artillery took up a lot space, and under BBB it is possible to create unrealistic concentrations of strength with devastating results. It also allows us to represent the different sorts of artillery (horse artillery, heavy guns and howitzers) more easily.

The next problem is that game progress is slow, because base removal only happens in quite extreme circumstances. The most common close combat result is for one side to fall back 3in with neither side taking a loss. This means that battles seem to be much slower than the time rate of one hour per pair of moves suggests. In fact Napoleonic divisions had a habit of disappearing after two or three hours of heavy combat. this wasn’t particularly from casualties, but sheer exhaustion. Muzzle loading black powder weapons made a big noise and packed a nasty recoil, and barrels got hot and clogged. Horses weren’t great on stamina either. If you look at the later stages of Ligny, after about three or four hours of fighting, neither side had many effective fighting units left. The same thing can be said for Waterloo. Under current BBB rules it isn’t hard for Lobau’s outnumbered corps to hold off Bulow’s Prussians for hours; historically they made a rapid retreat after about one hour.

The way I have tackled this is in the close combat table for infantry, where for marginal victories in either direction both sides lose a base. To balance this slightly, for a draw (where under the rules both sides lose a base, and go on to fight another round), neither side loses a base (the attacker falls back). Since infantry units are typically four or six bases, it means that the units will start to disappear rather quickly in heavy fighting. And because both sides lose a base, some of the capriciousness of base losses is removed. This is exactly how combat tended to work: both sides tended to get worn down quickly. Cavalry v. cavalry combats use the old table, as I thought this worked better. Cavalry battles had a tendency to go on for quite a time. Usually one side or other was playing for time, and it was quite easy for skilled commanders to slow things down by holding back reserves and such. Casualties were few. This is something wargames rules tend to miss.

The next point to tackle is cavalry attacking infantry. This should have an asymmetric feel that the BBB system mostly misses. When things went well, cavalry could be absolutely devastating (look at the charge of the Union Brigade, or Kellerman at Marengo). But when infantry was prepared it was often ineffective. To tackle this I have done two things. First is a new combat table for Cavalry attacking infantry, in which the asymmetry is reflected. Like the new infantry table, it is quite bloody. Attacks on infantry did wear down cavalry more than attacks on cavalry. And although infantry casualties tended to be low if discipline was maintained, muskets were still discharged and the stress doubtless took its toll. Still infantry won’t lose any bases if it wins or draws. But if it loses on a -7 result, the unit is gone. Also the infantry doesn’t fall back if it isn’t destroyed.

The second thing was to introduce the square. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole unit is in squares – it is more a state of readiness for cavalry attack. Squares move more slowly, are more vulnerable to fire, cannot skirmish and fire less effectively – but they offer better protection against cavalry.This has the advantage of fitting with players’ expectations, and making the game feel more Napoleonic. Also cavalry get an extra bonus if they are attacking disrupted troops – but they can’t attack infantry in difficult terrain.

The next thing is skirmishers. I hesitated on this – as my preferred approach requires some rather intricate rules. Units with skirmish capability have two or three skirmish bases (the same frontage as a normal base, but shallower and with two figures, not six). To use their special capabilities they have to be deployed in front of the unit. Small arms fire is limited to 3in (not the 6in of our previous rules). Skirmishers thus extend the range of fire for infantry, and shield the parent unit. If skirmishers take what would normally be a Disrupted result, there is no disruption but one skirmish base is lost. This means that skirmish attacks will burn out, and take a toll on the resilience of the whole unit. Finally, skirmishers can’t be used against cavalry.

And then artillery. The fire factors had to be taken down to reflect the smaller unit size; also there are slightly different capabilities between Horse, Field and Reserve (i.e.heavy) artillery, and the option of using concentrated howitzers (that’s an indulgence, as I like having howitzer models on the table). Horse artillery gets a movement bonus, so that it can move at cavalry speed if limbered, or move 6in, unlimber and fire at half effect, for example. More radically the “reduced” and “silenced” status is done away with, in about the only place where the rules are simpler than the original. In place of the former they are simply removed (they are smaller units, remember), and in the latter case they are Disrupted. My fellow gamers never liked the “silenced” rule with batteries limbering up and moving off, and it always felt a bit odd to me. The rule must have been there for a reason originally though, so we’ll see if it really works! Another radical departure is that artillery has no close combat capability. If it can’t stop attacker through fire, it is overrun. Also on artillery there are special rules for artillery attaching to an infantry unit and being treated as a joint unit for target and close combat – which reduces vulnerability to attack.

There are quite a few changes, though I have confined them to four pages of text (just).In the play test I thought they worked quite well. As expected, things moved quickly. The French tried a combined infantry and cavalry attack on the Prussians, with two infantry units and one cavalry; the Prussians had one of each (though the infantry had 6 bases to the French 4). At first it went well for the Prussians; its infantry got the better of the French, reducing both units to two bases. But in the process it became disrupted and low on ammo; it hadn’t formed square and the cavalry hit it in the flank. And it threw badly. It was wiped out. In exploitation the cavalry caught a battery in the flank and overran it. The Prussian cavalry then tried to counterattack, but it was held to a draw (both lost a base) and in the second round suffered a -4 and was wiped out. In the next French turn the cavalry then picked off another battery, annihilating the Prussians on that flank. On the other flank, the Prussians attacked but, didn’t press (confining itself to skirmishing), with French cavalry lurking on the flank. One of the infantry units tried to come to its colleague’s aid on the other flank, but too late.

This decisive result owed quite a bit to some good dice by the French at the vital moment. But it proved most unwise for the Prussians to press ahead with un-neutralised cavalry to the flank; it felt not unlike Marengo, though following up to disperse the nemy cavalry was a bonus. I thought the skirmish rules played well too, placing some interesting choices on the player. With players thinking about vulnerability to cavalry, and whether or not to skirmish, the whole game felt much more Napoleonic. It also played briskly. My main doubt now is whether cavalry becomes too dominant.

But so far, so good. Until now I have never really thought that an adapted BBB might do in place of my home grown ones. I’m a bit less sure now!

 

 

Using BBB for Napoleonic battles

Our all day game with a Napoleonic scenario (not a real historical one…) was a success. We finished a well-balanced game which preserved tension to the last turn of eight. We were becoming fluent in rules, which provided a good, workable game system. What to learn?

The scenario was the same one we tried last time: a miniaturised Koniggratz transposed to 1815, between French and Prussians. The forces were half sized, the table 80% in linear dimensions (64% by area). The game  length was reduced from 9-10 turns to 8. The terrain reflected the original BBB scenario a bit more faithfully than our first game at the club, but was still simplified. Six villages were represented, five in Prussian hands at the start. The French objective was to take five. Four (leaving two in Prussian hands) constituted a draw, which is where we ended up. Neither side was particularly close to winning, but each could have.

The first points to reflect on are scenario design. Following the BBB scenario quite closely clearly worked. The standard BBB scenarios set a number of geographical objectives and a time limit, rather than destroying the opponents’ army. Each player controlled about five infantry and cavalry units and two or three artillery units. It took us a bit over half an hour a turn (about 5 hours in total). I don’t think we’re going to get much quicker. For a club night we’ll need to come down to a single corps each with about 3 units, with a more compact playing area (though ours was just 4ft by 5ft) and all the troops on the table at the start, and a five or six turn limit. Or the balance of the rules needs to change.

The problem with the rules is that there is a lot of slugging to no great effect. In our whole game the Prussians lost 7 bases out of 47, and the French 10 from the same number.  Only two units lost two bases. Mostly fire resulted in opponents being disrupted, and assaults in one side falling back 3 inches without a base loss. This is consistent with earlier outings. But how to make it crunchier? My first thought was that our experience was because weaponry was deadlier in the later conflicts that the rules were designed for. Except that our  fire factors have already been beefed up, based on suggestions in a magazine article (though these were more or less the only suggestions adopted). Perhaps it’s bad luck. Only two of our many assaults had a difference of 4+, which is a decisive victory, and there were only two draws, which wear units down quickly. Or maybe it reflects inexperience with the rules. The problem is to make combat deadlier without making it more capricious – which would mean one side suffering serious losses compared to the other from an ordinary bad run of dice. The only way I can think of doing this is fiddling with the assault table to that more combats resulted in the loss of a base by both sides. That’s playing with fire, but I don’t think that Napoleonic divisions were able to survive more than two or three hours of hard infantry to infantry combat, if you take exhaustion and ammunition depletion into account.

The next issue is Napoleonic feel. As I wrote last time, this boils down to cavalry, skirmishers and artillery. In this game we used cavalry to capture and recapture villages from infantry. The clashes between infantry and cavalry really don’t feel right. But this is an area that went badly when I last tried to tinker with it. One method might be to adopt the idea of “squares”, making infantry more vulnerable when not so formed, but less mobile when in square. Infantry also needs to be able to push away cavalry holding ground, when appropriate. But would it just be extra complexity for a slower game? Also cavalry should be more limited in difficult terrain. Funnily enough though I think the rules as they stand work fine for cavalry v. cavalry combat – better than most rule systems in fact.

Then there are skirmishers. We effectively accommodate this with a 6in musket range. I want to use skirmish bases. In principle this is easy. All musketry would be limited to 3in range. Skirmish bases would have a fire factor of 2, but no use against cavalry.  I have crafted an elegant draft rule on this, but my fear is that it just makes things fiddlier, and that players won’t bother with it. An alternative would be to incorporate a version of the main rules on skirmishers (with a skirmish base being part of the main unit formation), and link this to the extra weapon range.

And so to artillery. Artillery, rightly, has a big impact on the game. But each unit acts like a grand battery, while being much more flexible than was realistic, especially in evading threats. Two or more units ganging up can be very formidable. Each one is meant to represent 24 guns. One way of trying to handle this is reduce both the unit size and firepower (and also the provision for units to fire at reduced rate). The close range fire factor might be rounded down as well. We could just do this for horse artillery and give it extra mobility. In some ways this would not change things that much – given that each artillery unit would need a movement throw to move, and that artillery would take up more space (I may enlarge the bases), this could help.

The issue with artillery goes  deeper than this, though. Artillery and adjacent infantry units are treated as separate units. On more than one occasion infantry would retreat, leaving batteries isolated. In this game the isolated artillery showed a remarkable ability to survive.  It didn’t look right, even if it was possible to rationalise it.  In fact artillery had two distinct uses: one was close support to divisions, and the other was forming grand batteries at corps or army level. The rules don’t do a particularity good job of reflecting the former, while they make the latter the manoeuvrability of single batteries. It doesn’t scale up so well from the original Fire and Fury. One idea is to allow artillery to be attached to infantry units, allowing them to fight as joint units. When not doing so, artillery would suffer an automatic walkover when assaulted, though they may still stop an assault in the fire phase (unless defending works, maybe). This approach would work better with the smaller artillery units.

Finally on potential rules revisions I am thinking of a different treatment for built-up areas. This is to treat building models as obstacles, rather removing them when the villages or towns are occupied. The models have to be quite small (though the 6mm I use are fine), and in larger areas you have to have streets wide enough to take bases. This is a bit more complicated, but the internal layout of built up areas did matter.

How do the rules look historically? The French outfought the Prussians: numerical equality left them with a clear upper hand. This was mainly achieved through rating the French as Veteran (with a small number of elite units counted as Aggressive) and the Prussians Trained or Raw. But the Prussians but up a pretty good fight. This feels like the right balance for Ligny and Waterloo – though how to bring the British into this is an interesting question. (I suspect many British units have to be rated Aggressive or Devastating Volleys as well as veteran; many French may be rated as Fragile). The main problem historically is that things are taking too long if one move is meant to represent one hour.

Which leaves me with a dilemma. Is BBB broken enough to fix? If you start fiddling with settled rules systems you quickly run into unintended consequences. Or you make them more complicated to no great purpose. I hesitate.

More BBB Napoleonics

As stopgap measure I have been using Bloody Big Battles to give my Napoleonic armies an outing at the club. The scope of these rules is very similar to that for my Dining Table Napoleon, though the feel is very different, so this is a learning experience.

I reported on our first game, which was a contrived Ligny scenario. One of the learnings from this was how important scenario design is. That scenario was flawed, as I have found for all my loosely Ligny-based scenarios. I will try this battle properly one day, but it needs about double the number of troops on the table that I am currently using – and even that’s too much at the moment! What I have been looking for is scenarios with more tension and choices for the player. Ligny is a fairly straightforward slugging match; a combined Ligny-Quatre Bras scenario would be another matter…

I searched for ideas amongst the scenarios published in the BBB rule book , which covers the Franco-Prussian War, and the supplementary scenario book which covers other battles from the Crimean War onwards. These aren’t Napoleonic, of course, but quite a bit of effort has been put into scenario design to get a good game. Unfortunately these were mostly not obvious multi-player club night choices. The terrain was generally rather complex, and not feasible from the club’s bits and pieces. Quite often forces arrive later in the game – great for dramatic tension, but that means there is nothing for some of the players to do until they arrive. Nevertheless I decided that there was one I could work on: Koniggratz in 1866.

That might look strange. It’s a very big battle. The scenario book uses 2,500 men per base instead of the more normal 1,000 to 1,500. Even then it is double the size of the armies I thought we could manage in an evening with four players. But actually if you represent the forces at one unit per corps (about half size) it works reasonably neatly. The 1815 French, as the better quality army could take on the role of the 1866 Prussians, and the 1815 Prussians could stand in for the 1866 Austrians. I organised my armies into the 1815 units at 1,250 men per base (for the infantry) as this give nicely sized units (4 bases for the French infantry divisions; 4 to 6 for Prussian brigades). For the weakened Austrian corps classed as “Fragile” in BBB I used the mainly Landwehr brigades of III Korps (classed as Raw, not Fragile). The French I classed as Veteran, to make up for the superior armament and tactics of the Prussians in 1866. A large number of Prussians were not due to arrive until Turn 3, but it was easy to split the Prussians between the two players for the first two turns.

The next problem was the terrain. I used roughly the same distances as the BBB scenario. This was a bit of a gamble since I was using half the number of troops. I found that it wasn’t too hard to simplify the rest of the terrain into something that would present similar choices. I did not include the Austrian entrenchments; only the six villages counted as objectives were included (villages in BBB not having a big impact on play).  Although I couldn’t do the hills properly with what the club had (some other members had got to the ones I wanted first), I managed to set up something acceptable in under 30 minutes, we got the game going with four players.

By 10pm we had only got through three and a half moves, though; it needed eight. One player was new to the rules, the two others only had a single game. Even I had to look some things up. But even allowing for that it would be quite hard to finish the game in an evening, even with only six infantry and cavalry units per player. That was the bad news. The good news was that the scenario itself was much more fun. Each player had interesting choices to make. The gaps in the dispositions allowed some dramatic moves to be made. We decided to play it again as a daytime game at Pete’s.

What of the rules? Bernie, probably the most experienced of my co-players, was experiencing them for the first time. He didn’t really like them. Pete and Terry were quite happy; it helped Pete that he had played with the Fire and Fury system before. I think that Bernie was reacting against two major problems. The first is that the rules system was designed for a much smaller scale game (for the American Civil War) and so its mechanisms don’t feel right for the bigger scale. This is the same issue with have with Rapid Fire and Fistful of TOWs for WW2 games, except worse. The BBB system doesn’t have a Napoleonic feel for the smaller scale either. The musketry range is very short; there are no squares to combat cavalry; hitting a unit in the flank is not necessarily decisive, and so on. This means that it looks wrong both as a big division game and as a pretend battalion one.

The other problem is that losses are very lumpy. A lot of not very much happens (getting into and out of disruption) punctuated by occasional dramatic disasters. That’s because a casualties are by base removal, which are a very high proportion of unit strength. This doesn’t reflect a steady accumulation of casualties well at all.

I’m learning to live with these two problems. They do seem to come out in the wash by and large: you get a stimulating game with reasonably realistic results. However my DTN rules should address both issues. They will have an unabashedly big game feel, and I am working on ways to reflect accumulation of fatigue and casualties better – at the same time as being punchy. That’s the hope.

We’re learning how to play BBB. You really need to get units to combine and support each other, to accumulate as many advantages as possible in attack.  Head-on one to one collisions don’t achieve very much unless your objective is simply to delay. But there are aspects where I want to try and make the rules feel more Napoleonic. There are three things I am thinking about: cavalry, skirmishers and artillery.

The thing about cavalry in BBB is that it isn’t very special. It doesn’t fire; it has a longer move. That’s it. I used a Prussian cavalry unit to eject a French infantry unit from a village, unsupported by infantry. Bernie attacked one of my Prussian cavalry units with a combined force of infantry and cavalry (though it only succeeded in pushing it back a bit). The long cavalry move can mean that it appears out of nowhere to make an attack – especially in a game like ours with gaps between the units – though such attacks will be less decisive that people might think. It doesn’t feel right, but I still don’t know what to do. My first attempt to tackle this (long ago for a Waterloo game) was a bit of a disaster. I can think of a lot of possible tweaks but I’m not sure they’d benefit the game.

I’m much closer to developing something on skirmishers. I have rejected the standard BBB rule, which uses skirmish bases as part of the main body. I want to deploy small skirmish bases in front of infantry units. I have drafted a rule that does this, and which also helps the game. But, though I have stripped it down as far as I can, it’s still a bit complicated, and I want us to become more fluent in the main game system first.

My thoughts are altogether less developed on artillery. I think the game can take more artillery units on the table, and allow the possibility of smaller horse artillery units (which can move and fire) and howitzers (to supplement other artillery against cover).

Meanwhile I can take heart from the success of the scenario. I am starting to understand how to craft and adapt scenarios for these rules. Though I need something smaller for club night.

Scream Aim Fire rules review

The author of these rules, Jamie Kirkpatrick, asked me to review them, and emailed a Word copy to me. I like to help out other people in the hobby, so I obliged.

Scream Aim Fire is available on Amazon for £7.50 (that link is to the WW2 – Napoleonic is here). It started life as a set of WW2 skirmish rules, and it was then adapted to Napoleonic wars. If you think that sounds a bit odd (I did) you need to understand what these rules are about. They are not about historical gaming. They are a bit like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie (or a video game). The uniforms, vehicles and terrain may look  historical, but the thing itself is designed for entertainment pure and simple. If that bothers you (it bothers me) then these rules aren’t for you (they’re not for me). But that doesn’t mean you won’t get the quick and entertaining game that the author promises.

The version of the rules I have for WW2 covers about 28 pages. That makes them sound a lot longer than they are. They are written in 24 pt font (the usual default is 12pt and professional texts are usually smaller still) and double-spaced. You might be able to get the text onto 3 pages of more conventional text. There are a few pictures but no more than normal these days (actually a bit less). Opinions vary on this sort of rule-writing approach. The upside is that they are very quick to read. The downside is that there are lots of gaps which you will have to fill in for yourself. For example, nowhere does it define what a unit is. But that’s pretty easy to figure out from context (a vehicle or squad of men).

What of the game system? It seems designed to produce a random pattern of play. There looks to be little point to applying any strategy; you need to go with the flow and grab whatever opportunities present. Play is by random activation (each unit has a token or card which you pick out blind). The rules don’t say if you put the card or token back, but by inference you must. There is also a random event token/card, which is quite a neat idea. Once you  pick a unit you have to throw dice to activate, and and see what it can do (you might be forced to move or fire, rather than choose which). At pretty much every stage a dice throw can thwart you. At regular intervals a “shock and awe” means that your unit might disappear if you throw a six. The rules cover artillery and even aircraft (if aircraft are brought on the other side brings on its own one and there’s a dogfight).

I have not tried playing them. The rules require you to prepare two things which aren’t part of the normal wargames kit before you start. You need those cards or tokens to see which units get picked (and a random event), and  you need a bag of tokens marked one to five, which are used at various stages. Neither is hard but it stopped me giving them a 20 minute go. Without playing them it’s hard to tell you how the game flows. My guess is very erratically, and that is the chief source of entertainment.

I have only had a glance through the Napoleonic version. But they share the same mechanisms. There’s no need to worry about columns, lines and squares!

The verdict? These are quite unlike anything I’ve looked at before. If you aren’t bothered by historical authenticity, and you like being entertained by random events, and don’t mind filling in any gaps in the rules yourself, then you might like them. They look very suitable for solo play (in fact they probably work better solo that with two or more players). If you want to make the transition from video games to the full 3-D experience of tabletop gaming then this may be worth a go. But I would be a little surprised if that covers any regular readers to this blog.

Back to Napoleonics – Bloody Big Battles

BBB in progress 21 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An outing with Rapid Fire rules

Our journey with 20mm WW2 games at the club continued with yet another set of rules this week. These were Rapid Fire, which have been around for quite a while. Originally published in 1994, we used the second edition published in 2005. I think another edition might be in the works. We thought they might suit our style of play on club nights. The game wasn’t that successful, though how much of that was down to scenario design and how much to the rules is hard to say.

We played an encounter game, similar to the previous week’s game of Iron Cross, with the British beefed up by the addition of three Churchills to the infantry force, and the transfer of the two M10s to support a reduce armoured force of three Shermans, to which I also added a company of armoured infantry (I was gamesmaster). The points values of both sides were identical. But the game proved one-sided. The Germans moved first. Long road movement distances (30in for faster vehicles) let them seize the village at the heart of the scenario in the first turn. To compensate I let the frustrated British have reserved fire. So the Germans lost two tanks in the first move, out of the three in their right wing forces. The British lined up their five vehicles, with a 17pdr, two 76mms and two 75mms into a formidable wall of fire, which seemed to paralyse the attack from that side. On the German left, the other force, with stronger armour (including a Panther) decided to tangle with the Churchills. This wasn’t so one-sided. Both sides lost two tanks, and the Germans their Marder tank destroyer. But when the British left’s wall of tanks moved across it was able to knock out the remaining Panther without too much difficulty, and then threaten to use its wall of fire to systematically reduce the infantry in the village. The Germans needed to be less hasty and use a concealed approach to unite in the centre before taking the strong British armour on.

So, what about the rules? They have a very old-school feel about them. The simple IGOUGO turn structure (albeit modified for reserved or overwatch fire) with no random activation, is part of this, and a heavy reliance on D6 throws. Admittedly this is not so unlike so unlike Fistful of TOWs (FFT), the system we use for micro-armour, which is rather more modern. But FFT uses more dice to resolve fire. For example, in antitank fire you typically throw three dice to see if you hit, a handful to see if you penetrate, and maybe one more for a “quality check”. In RF you throw just one die in a combined hit/penetration throw, followed by another damage throw if you hit.  And in FFT you have a concept of suppression at unit level, unlike RF, where you just kill people off until morale of bigger units is affected.

The architecture is very basic. There are just 6 grades of armour (including soft-skinned) and 6 grades of gun for antitank effect. Also just three classes of movement for most vehicles. That leads to some curiosities at the margins. The German 88mm in the Tiger I is classed the same (grade 2) as the longer 75mm weapon in the Panzer IV (though it has better HE capability). The Panther (with its grade 1 gun) is classed as a fast vehicle able to keep up with light tanks and armoured cars. Given the long standing of these rules, I’m sure all of this has been debated at great length. Incidentally there is no distinction between front and side armour.

This sets the tone. They are very simplified rules, in reaction to a trend towards mind-numbing detail when they were first written. But, unlike Crossfire, the rules are pretty comprehensive. That made them quite slow at first, as you were tempted to look things up when something unfamiliar occurred. But before long they should become very quick – much quicker for the same size of forces than Iron Cross, though not necessarily that FFT. There is no thought to produce house rules, because these rules are well-written, cover all the things they should, and have been endlessly tested in action. The only thing I’m tempted to do is to slow down the Panther. Iron Cross is very immature by comparison.

In this day and age, we find simplified mechanisms quite acceptable, so this is a feature rather than a criticism. The first thing that tends to stick in the throat with RF, though, is their basic design concept. They are meant to be brigade level rules, with whole battalions of infantry on the table, and three tank models to a company. That means a 5:1 ratio for vehicles and 15:1 for infantry. And yet it plays as a 1:1 skirmish game, with vehicles being knocked out by single shots and troops storming individual houses. One my fellow players said that the best thing to do was to play it as a 1:1 game, and forget that you are dealing with bigger scales. There is deliberately no designed distance scale (in common with most modern rules, it needs to be said), which no doubt means that shorter ranges are longer, if you see what I mean. Overall it is probably about 1mm to the metre (like Battlegroup, I think; Iron Cross is about 2.5mm to the metre; FFT is 0.25mm to the metre unless you scale it up). Of course what this scale up means is that you can have all sorts of nice toys on the table, up to artillery pieces. This is a bit of a fudge, but actually not so very different from games like Bolt Action and Battlegroup, which try to recreate the flavour of larger encounters in a 1:1 skirmish. For a club game I’m not going to stress too much.

The big problem with the game is similar to that with FFT. The sequence of shooting is critical, as your force can get  shattered in a single round depending who fires first, because you can fire all your stuff at once. Hence the effectiveness of Pete’s row of British armour. Fire is often very effective. It does not have the big problem with FFT of the move distances being too long relative to weapons ranges, though road movement is generous compared to other sets of rules. You still have the mobile ambush problem that I discuss further below. Iron Cross overcomes this by its much more interactive play, which turns encounters into duels rather than one side blasting the other to pulp before it can reply. It also limits the number of pieces you move and fire. And further, in Iron Cross there is a lot of firing and missing. The basic chance to hit is 60%, or 70% at short range (though it goes up to 74% at short range in my rules if everybody sits still), an even then it often bounces off. If you have a powerful gun in RF it is much higher than this (often 5/6 to inflict a guaranteed damage). In Battlegroup activation rules limit the number of pieces you can move and fire in one turn, so it is harder to deliver this sort of overwhelming blow, plus direct fire is subject to an “observation” test. Also the concept of suppression, much used in modern rules, allows an intermediate step, though less so in tank to tank combat. (It isn’t really fair to call suppression rules modern, since I first came across them in the Wargames Research Group rules published in 1973). There are observation rules in RF, to be fair, which we should have used more than we did.

I think a big problem with rules like FFT and RF is that they allow mobile ambushes. That is you can move a substantial force of armour out from a concealed position (or from out range in the case of FFT) and gun down an opposing force that is moving forward before it can fire back. I have a conceptual preference for rules that force you to either move or fire; or if you must allow units to do both, to do the firing first (as per the old WRG rules). Move and expose your self; or fire and never get anywhere. That, to me, is the essential choice at the heart of mid-20th Century warfare.

Still, I’m not writing off RF for club games yet. They play fast and are well-crafted in their way. What clearly doesn’t work so well is the sort of contrived scenario that we played this week. Encounter battles did happen, but it is rare for both sides to know where the other side was and was not even then. We will try an attack-defence game next time, using concealed placement tokens. Also I want to bring in indirect fire from mortars at least. But that’s not going to be for quite a few weeks now.

Iron Cross house rules – first go

Following my previous post I have been inspired to draft my first set of house rules for Iron Cross. For interest I publish them here. They are not playtested, and I expect them to throw up problems. But they might be of interest even so. I probably won’t be trying them out for a bit (my next game at the club is likely to be Rapid Fire), but while it is fresh in my mind, I want to set down what I was thinking.

These house rules are quite extensive: 8 pages of fairly small text. However, they only make sense when compared to the original booklet, though this is written in a very different style. So I think it is perfectly OK to publish without treading on the original publishers’ toes. The main changes are to the firing rules, which have been extensively rewritten, though the basic framework remains the original one. The other big change is the addition of close combat rules, based on an idea from the Iron Cross forum. Further to that there are extensions to bring in buildings, observation rules and a new mechanism for indirect fire. The classifications have been played around with too, including some ideas from the free extension sheets on the official website.

Best to start with the firing rules. These are where most of the criticisms of the original come. There are both questions about the balance (too generous to tanks vs. infantry? Or too difficult to kill infantry?), and how fiddly they are when you start to bring in all the different types of weapon, especially against infantry. The basic framework is quite simple. You throw one or two D10s to see if you hit, then there is a penetration throw and a damage throw for vehicles – or a casualty throw for infantry targets. But there’s a twist at each step. One or two D10s for the first throw? Normally one, but 2 for infantry targets at close range. Except machine guns, which have 2 dice against infantry at all ranges. If you throw two dice, and hit with both, do you get two morale markers straightaway or not? That depends. Ditto with the casualty throw. One of the tests of writing rules is the Quick Reference Sheet (QRF). Is it easy to summarise on a QRF, with a table perhaps? I have tried with the original rules, and it is a struggle.

So I have tried to put together something that is, if not actually simpler, is at least simpler to describe. Unfortunately this simplification process runs against another one that makes things a bit more complicated: filling in the gaps. For example the treatment of vehicle-mounted machine guns, which are not mentioned in the original. We used the rules for tripod machine guns in our trial game, which made them too effective. Machine guns in tanks are not the same as tripod guns, which are geared up for sustained fire. When the targets are close, the tank is usually battened down and visibility is limited. That’s especially true of the hull gun.

I digress. The basic principle is that for all firing you use two D10s at short range (up to 12in) and one at long. Except when you don’t. Tripod MGs use 2 D10s at all ranges and all targets. Other support groups, and vehicle MGs use one D10 at all ranges and all targets. This may simulate the use of personal weapons if the main weapon (a mortar say) isn’t appropriate. There is only one morale marker for even if you score two hits, but if you get two hits on the casualty die, both stand. The dice modifier for short range is dispensed with. There is table for the casualty throw showing how the different weapons differ. This includes a reclassification of guns into light, medium and heavy HE.  And what happens for anti-vehicle fire at close range? If you get one hit, the normal rules apply (but no modifier to armour at very close range). If you score two hits though, you add two to the penetration throw. I rationalise this as being that at close ranges you are more likely to aim at and hit a weak spot, like the turret ring or track. All this feels a lot like throwing away a careful bit of play balance in the original design. Close range anti-tank fire is more deadly; but there was a lot of firing and missing in our first game, so I think this is OK.

I also played with moving and firing. Support squads (tripod machine guns, anti-tank guns, snipers, flamethrowers) cannot move and fire at all. I reason that these weapons take some careful setting up. And everybody, including infantry, suffer the deduction for moving and firing in the same activation. I didn’t really understand why infantry should have gone without the deduction. But they should still be more effective if static. What if the target moves? A deduction for this is commonplace in wargames rules. But moving means you expose yourself more, rather than lurking behind whatever cover is there. It’s dangerous, especially for infantry. So I restricted the deduction to guns, with a lower rate of fire, though I’m tempted to dispense with it altogether.

Other details are changed. There is rule that if your penetration throw is a 1, then it isn’t treated as a proper penetration. I felt this was too fiddly and didn’t make enough difference. Also a shot is treated as being on side armour on if you are more than 60 degrees of the centre line (as in Fistful of TOWs); this is quite generous to the vehicles, but there is reason that nations invested much more in frontal armour than all-round.

A further change to firing is a different mechanism for indirect fire. In the original this only applies to mortars, and the mechanism is highly abstracted. I get this if indirect fire is not meant to play a major part. But I wanted to leave scope for more. The designers suggest that at the sort of skirmish combat being recreated the only important indirect fire came from mortars. But I cannot read an account of WW2 fighting without seeing that artillery played a major role in all combat – so I wanted something which could be expanded. The new rules are still very abstracted and simplified. But there is a stronger role for spotters (which must be equipped with radios), and a mechanism for deviation of fire, which will make artillery fire more use against more densely packed formations. Like the old ones, they are quite expensive on Command Tokens, but on reflection I think that is right. Indirect fire is something you do while everything else sits still. I haven’t gone for off-table assets yet, but just for weapons that are under battalion control (so mainly mortars, but also infantry guns). We’ll see if this works.

And the next major change is the addition of close combat rules. These were left out deliberately from the original. This was considered by many as a weakness, since without it infantry combat tends to get bogged down. This may be perfectly realistic, but it makes the rules less good for infantry-heavy games. So in my version, troops cannot get closer than 3in to the enemy without a close combat action, which requires a sort of morale test before being initiated (AFVs can roll past infantry though, but not through them). For infantry the combat consists of two rounds of firing without cover (grenades and close range being assumed to negate this). If the attackers do not destroy their opponent, they retreat.  There are other rules to cater for vehicles, though soft and open-topped vehicles cannot enter close combat, while tanks may try an “overrun”. Again, we’ll see!

There are other changes. Troop quality is incorporated, mainly by consolidating rules in one of the supplementary sheets, though changing the names a bit. There are observation rules, coding what blocks views, and setting some observation distances for units that are not moving and firing.  Buildings are dealt by treating each model as one or more units, rather than as terrain areas – which I think works best in this sort of skirmish setting. High explosive fire on a building has the potential to damage all units within it. These rules will not cover fortified bunkers and the like, but these are an easy topic for special rules.

I managed to contain the QR sheet to one page (with the reverse available for data). This involves quite small text, and I had to leave bits out. I felt it wasn’t necessary to describe the basic turn mechanism, for example, since players have no difficulty in picking this up. I also left out the rules on buildings, as these should not be hard to look up if needed. As I have already said, the QR is an important part of overall rules design in my mind, and it certainly helped me pare down the rules. The number of pages is quite a decent guide to overall complexity – and the fact that I have managed to keep it to one page is encouraging – if it works!

In due course I will report back on how these rules work. Inevitably there will need to be changes!

 

Iron Cross WW2 rules: our first outing

One of my current quests is to find rules appropriate for a club night. I’m building my WW2 20mm partly with this in mind. And now that one of my regular gaming gang has come into a job lot of 20mm vehicles and figures (nicely painted), we are in business. I had read quite a bit about the Iron Cross rules in this context. They’re quite cheap, so I thought I would give them a try. We held a trial game last night, with two players a side.

The rules may not cost much (£12), but first sight is distinctly unimpressive. The graphic design is poor. The iconography of the German Iron Cross and ribbon is in your face, on every page. I happen to be wary of the common wargaming fashion for all things German (and especially SS units), and I found this bit much. A second design problem is the fonts chosen for headings: a heavy gothic that’s hard to read, and a rather naff stencil, though this does have a period military resonance. The main font is an inoffensive and perfectly legible Roman, with an italic, though – I’ve seen much worse in wargames publications. The pictures are pretty basic, but that doesn’t bother me. If I ever publish rules of my own I’m unlikely to go to town on pictures, as some (very expensive) sets of rules do. One touch is text boxes adorned by specially drawn pictures of Feldwebel Coburg (Cross of Iron) and Sargent Denver (Band of Brothers) offering advice on how to play. They don’t particularly talk in character, but this device is quite a nice way to break up the text and give the reader a change of angle.

The text is short, just 12 pages of core rules, 4 pages of a game demo, 7 pages of special rules and “orbats”, and 7 pages on scenario rules and design. This is too short as it leaves a lot out (nothing on line of sight, for example). As games master I was often asked things that weren’t in the rules, though at least I knew they weren’t there so didn’t waste time looking things up. However, being stripped down is selling point, as the fashion moves away from the over-complex rules, which the era invites.

How do they play? The core of the rules rests on its activation system. Each players gets command tokens (CTs) at one per unit, plus two more if the commander is still active. You spend these by activating individual units; you can activate the same unit more than once, and interrupt the opposing player, so the initiative flows between the two sides. Once all the CTs are gone, you reset for a new turn. First the downsides. It isn’t intuitive and takes getting used to. Just what is this process of CTs representing? You move some units several times and leave others untouched. Coordinated multiple unit actions are hard. A second issue is that it is serial; you move one unit at a time. This can slow things down; and we struggled a little to make it work in a multiplayer format – though the reviews all suggested that multi-player games worked fine.  Never mind, what it does do is produce a very absorbing game which involves both sides throughout.  It is this aspect that drives the rules’ popularity. Otherwise the rules proved quite easy to pick up, though, as I will come to, the rules are bit more fiddly than they need to be. I will come to various problems later. But we’ll be giving these rules further outings. Which is frankly better than I expected after a first read through.

The game? A simple meeting encounter between two 1944 period British and German forces, moving into a village – a cross between Portugal and Normandy in appearance (north or central Italy?). The British had one force of tanks (three Sherman 75s and a Firefly) and one of infantry (four half tracks with infantry squads, a mortar and two M10s to give them more AT capability). The Germans had more armour and less infantry, mainly Panzer IVs, with a Panther and a Marder SP gun, among other things. Perhaps unused to the idea of unlimited weapon ranges (these are supposed be quite localised actions), the British lost their Firefly in the first move, and things never really got much better. The Panther’s armour proved too much for the PIAT; the M10s weren’t much cop as substitute tanks, especially when they were dire on activation throws. We British gave up, having lost 4 AFVs to the German one, and an infantry squad (though we did manage to kill an over aggressive anti-tank gun). The casualties weren’t that high for the time played, because we kept missing, and infantry proved quite hard to kill anyway. But all players were drawn in, and started to get used how you are meant to play the rules. Mass charges to try and get all your weaponry into the fight at once don’t work, though it’s how our games in Fistful of TOWs play. Now in open country, like the Western Desert or the plains of Ukraine, there is quite a bit to be said for the mass charge (I remember one German account of how they overcame a Russian force with just such a tactic, properly timed). So these rules probably aren’t appropriate for a wide open table. But in bitty fights amongst lots of terrain: that’s another matter.

Online, there are two criticisms of Iron Cross that don’t worry me much. One is that the army lists are weak. This is a whole side of gaming that I’m not into, the question about whether you buy a  Wespe battery in place of a Panzer IV, etc. Points can be used to get a general balance, but the gamesmanship over force composition I don’t get. The books and supplements provide enough, and it is quite easy to fill the gaps using systems with more detailed lists, like Battlegroup. One of the skills of gaming, as in real life< is making the best of what random availability gives you. A second issue is the absence of elite forces in in this rule book. I’m also not bothered by this – I like using mainstream forces. An obsession with SS units, visible in some places, is not something I’m comfortable with. They, and other elites like paratroops, have their place, though, and a free supplement brings them into play.

A third problem I’ve already mentioned: the missing bits. These aren’t so hard to fill in from other sets of rules, though Iron Cross would be a hard set rules to embark on wargaming in this era with. A gamesmaster helps here: but it always does. There are two more serious problems though. The weapons rules are too fiddly, and tactical balance doesn’t feel right.

Like many systems, core rules describe a basic game, with special rules to deal with further details. But Iron Cross gets the balance wrong. The special rules have to cover too much ground; almost every type of unit, other than a basic infantry squad or tank, is covered by the special rules, which then create a web of exceptions and different treatments in the various mechanisms, especially in combat against infantry. And the main rules turn out to tucked full of little exceptions here and there. The published quick reference sheets don’t cover any of this, so are pretty useless. I designed one of my own (though without flamethrowers). This is begging for a bit of redesign, and I’m not going to resist. Too much complexity is a puzzling mistake for a set of stripped down rules to make.

Tactical balance is a matter of opinion. Different players get worked up about different things. The Tiny Hordes blog thinks that Iron Cross doesn’t get infantry v. tanks balance right, with the tanks too strong, and also that infantry should get a penalty for moving and firing. So much that he fixed these with house rules before his first game. But I didn’t see these issues mentioned in other online sources. One problem does come up regularly: infantry squads are too resilient. Mostly this is in fact OK: infantry tends to get pinned down rather than wiped out. But when two squads get into base contact you expect things to happen more quickly: there are no close combat rules. In our game, a German squad went right up to a British one, and fired a set of blanks. The British calmly escaped. Well you can rationalise that, but a close combat mechanism is a common house modification, and seems to rebalance things a bit.

A couple of other points came up in our game, and in the forums. Side armour is very easy to hit compared to other sets of rules. In fact this would involve striking such armour at a very acute angle, which is not good for penetration. A 30 degree or even 45  degree rule would be better, or perhaps something even stricter. Likewise the effect of cover on fire is to reduce damage; this works fine for infantry targets, but not for anti-vehicle fire – where surely it reduces the chance of a hit capable of penetration? Mortars are very expensive on CTs to use. Actually I’m going to be patient on this. To use mortars you have to keep the rest of your activity down; that isn’t necessarily unrealistic – this underlies the point about these rules that you have to think about what you want to do, rather than just throwing in the kitchen sink every time.

The answer to so many of these problems is house rules. This is part of the hobby I enjoy I shall be developing a pretty comprehensive set. I suspect that this the way a lot of gamers have gone. The user forum is useful, but has gone very quiet. The two posts in 2018 are unanswered questions. People seem to be going there own way.

1871 – a lesson in the art of wargames design

As winter draws on and daylight vanishes, my pursuit of the 1943 project has come to a halt. The next step involves a lot of painting, and daylight is a big help. Also I need 2-3 hour sessions, and these have been in shorter supply over the last couple of months. Instead I have returned to my original project: writing rules for army-level Napoleonic games. After so many false starts, I have had a bit of a breakthrough on this, and I am closing in on a prototype version that I can try out solo on the tabletop. It has been my main activity of the quiet Christmas period. Alas this is fast drawing to a close, and progress may halt again.

I have allowed myself one diversion, however. I bought a copy of Bruce Weigle’s latest rules: 1871. Bruce’s rules cover a later period than the one that I am interested in, but they have intrigued me. I have bought them all, apart from the original 1870 rules (apart from 1871, these are 1866 and 1859). These are fascinating wars, which I would take to the table if I had time. The evolution from Napoleonic times is interesting, and the struggle to adapt tactics to changes in technology is of real interest. I have not been very interested in the contemporaneous American Civil War, but these battles between the professional armies of old opponents in the Napoleonic wars seems to offer something that conflict doesn’t. One of the many aspects that makes it so interesting is that the armies were deeply interested in what actually happened so that they could develop tactics. That has left historians with a lot of detailed accounts of what happened; and the wars were short, which meant that fewer participants were killed before they could describe what they had seen (though the battles were often very bloody). No doubt it helps that standards of literacy had advanced too.

Two things drew me to Bruce’s rules. First was the simply wonderful presentation of his games, with huge trouble taken over terrain boards, for his 6mm figures. These look, much, much better than the fashion for 28mm miniatures allows; the pictures of these in wargames magazines leave me cold, in a way that I find pictures of bruce’s games inspiring. Even though I struggle on with my 15mm figures (20mm for WW2), there are many lessons to be had from his terrain boards. The second interesting thing is the rules themselves. They have been carefully calibrated against the course of historical battles, move by move. At the same time Bruce tries to make them as playable as possible. This is a struggle that I deeply appreciate, when so many rules focus on playability and half-baked ideas of historical authenticity. There is much to learn from this. I have played a few games of 1870 and 1866 with my friend George, who built up 6mm armies for the games, which has given me a better understanding of the system.

These new rules are particularly interesting. Not so much for the period covered – I’m less interested in the Franco-Prussian war than in the other conflicts – but for how the rules have been developed. Bruce’s mission is radical simplification. He says that they are much faster to play, while leading to similar results. That looks evident. The quick reference sheets are down to two sides from four. This means chucking a lot of detail and nuance overboard – things that historians may say were important, but which turn out not be. For instance: there is little distinction between different types of artillery. The Germans get a longer maximum range and a dice advantage. The French mitrailleuse is simply treated as an artillery piece with a shorter maximum range. This is ruthless, given how much ink has been spilt on this early machine gun. There is much to learn from how Bruce has achieved his stripping down. Incidentally, I see a similar ruthlessness in Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB), though the choices are different. It covers the same period, but it is a very different game. My aim is to achieve something between the two for the Napoleonic era.

There was an unexpected bonus to 1871. At the back there is familiar section on how Bruce builds his boards (there are delicious examples in the book – including a table for Sedan with its city defences). He says little about these exhibition boards in this publication, but he does describe a much quicker way of creating quite respectable “test” boards. There may be some answers here for the creation of my tabletops, though these will never be in Bruce’s league. He uses a cloth pinned over polystyrene formers, with tape roads and acetate rivers pinned on top.

What of the rules themselves? They are what I describe as Corps-level rules. A single player will struggle to control more than one large army corps, though multi corps games feature in the scenarios, these will work best with more than one player per side. The ground scale is 1 inch to 100m (or 4m per mm). The basic playing piece is a stand with 30mm frontage which is nominally a battalion, organised in regiments of three. In common with earlier rules the 1871 rules give a “half-scale” and “quarter scale” variants. Both use the same distance scale, but the main units are battalions of two or four bases respectively. More interesting perhaps is the “two-thirds” variant, in which the main unit is a brigade of four bases, losing the correspondence of playing pieces with individual battalions. This is to allow bigger battles, like Sedan. There are a couple of interesting issues raised by this. First is whether the number of playing pieces should be based on army organisation (i.e. battalions), or on the numbers of men. Bruce has gone heavily for the former, as has David Ensteness his Napoleonic system Et sans Résultat. The argument is that the organisation structure drove the way battles were fought, and were written about. I’m not persuaded, and I would prefer to see the number of bases based on the number of men, setting the ratio to approximate to a battalion. Still, Bruce has made his system work, albeit he allows for a difference in average battalion size between the French and Prussian armies. How this works amongst the depleted formations of the later battles in 1871 I would be interested to know. A second issue is how well a rules system translates between different levels – how well does 1871 work at army and division levels? I suspect this is harder the more streamlined you make the rules, because different aspects are important at different levels. My view (following the world’s leading games designer, Sam Mustafa) is that different levels need different designs.

A further point about 1871 is its simultaneous move structure. When I started wargaming in the 1970s this was very fashionable. But since then (as indeed before then too), games have usually been based on alternate moves. I don’t want to develop the arguments here: but Bruce’s simultaneous system helps give the rules a simulation flavour, which is a nice contrast to the fashion the very “gamey” fashion of modern rules, such as Sam Mustafa’s. But it comes at a cost. It does require a certain standard of gentlemanliness  between the players (which, to be fair, I haven’t found lacking in my games) – and quite a lot of if-you-do-that-I-will-do this discussion. In fact quite a lot depends on who gets their move in first on the table. While playing I it did yearn for a bit more structure. But that’s just a quibble. I haven’t played them, but these new rules look a real advance on the previous versions, and they are better written too (the earlier ones left us with quite few “what does he mean?” puzzles and gaps), though the proof of that pudding is in the eating.

Could 1871 be used for Napoleonic battles? I’m tempted to try, especially when and if Bruce publishes his adaptation of the 1859 system to the new approach – the Sardinian army is pretty close to the Napoleonic smoothbore standard. Still, reading the book (which has welcome levels of explanation and historical illustration, I am very struck by how different the Franco-Prussian War is from was Napoleonic predecessor. At the moment I think David Ensteness’s system is the best for Napoleonic corps level games (to be clear, they are meant for army games, but with one player per corps). The 1871 system offers the potential for something more streamlined.

It is worth contrasting these rules with the other I have been studying for this period, if only for lessons in game design, which is BBB. BBB is an uncompromising Army-level game, though it is based on the Fire and Fury system for ACW, which is a corps-level game. By comparison, this feels much more gamey, with a less precise correspondence to historical reality. In particular the move distances look a bit low if the average turn is supposed to represent one hour. I have used the system in a full scale game only once, for Waterloo, and it was impossible for the Prussian advance on Plancenoit to be accomplished in the historical time. But its advocates use it to refight historical battles, and claim that it works well enough in general; I can’t dispute that.

If I ever do start wargaming this period (I fancy building an Austrian army), I will look no further than the 1871 system for gaming, with BBB as a backup.

 

 

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.