Category Archives: Games & rules

BBB: the new system is settling in

The game at the start

Last night I played another game at the club with my Napoleonic Prussian and French armies using my version of Bloody Big Battles. This was a totally made up scenario with two corps on each side. Two were about to be locked into a contest for a stream and bridge. Two more started some distance away and had to choose what would be the most effective way to support their colleagues. We had four players.

My fellow gamers are getting used to the system, and doing more themselves without me needing to help them. This is gratifying. They also quite like the system: even better. We got through about five turns, as last time. The game probably needed another turn to come to a decisive conclusion. However, the French were weakening and had used up their reserves, while a fresh Prussian Brigade had appeared in their rear. They were the weaker side and perhaps I should have given them a bit more – cavalry perhaps. The scenario worked well. The gaps between the corps at the start meant that the players had to make some quite difficult choices about closing gaps and leaving flanks open.

Different aspects of the rules were tested this time. Partly due to the way I set things up and nudged them (I was games master for most of the game), skirmishers were used much more than last time. They did what they were supposed to, shielding the main bodies from disorder and taking the early strain in fire duels, but I don’t think the players find that their use comes naturally. It isn’t clear to them when they should deploy skirmishers and when the shouldn’t. The skirmish bases are also a bit messy when not deployed. I think the system needs a redesign of some sort, but I’m not yet clear on what.

We also played the rule on supporting artillery quite a bit – and that largely worked as intended. There was no cavalry versus infantry combat though, and no use of the square formation. The cavalry on both sides cancelled each other out.

I am continuing to leave the system unchanged for now. I need to get a better idea of how to take skirmishing forward before making a move; I need a system which makes choices as to their deployment more natural. My thoughts on tweaks of other rules from last time mainly stand. The most radical thought I have had since is to create an idea of “hits” to reflect losses. 3 hits mean a base removal. Perhaps 1 hit happens whenever there is a disorder result from fire or assault combat. This would allow cumulative casualties to be reflected better, and is an alternative to the idea of “double disorder”, as disordered units can take hits. It would also help for cavalry vs. cavalry combat, where there is a lot of back and forward without any cumulative effect.

A less radical idea is to reinstate the rule in main BBB that skirmishers are the first base to be removed. This helps tidy things up if nothing else.

Back to Iron Cross

Last night we did another Iron Cross game at the club, using the latest adaptation of my house rules. It was pretty much a repeat of the previous scenario, which we played way back in October, before my travels, Christmas and flu intervened. We had four players and I games-mastered.

This was version 1.1 of my house rules. These are actually slightly shorter than V1.0 we used last time, as I reverted to the original rules for buildings and the indirect fire rules were a bit simpler too. They still tipped into 8 pages though.

The game, using mainly my figures and vehicles for 1943 Italy, moved a bit faster, though we only completed three turns. The Germans tried to move too many of their forces forward at once, which did not leave them with enough command points to do the fighting, or to penetrate deeper into the British territory. Their tanks got badly mauled (three knocked out, two badly damaged out of six tanks), even before the British tank reinforcements arrived, while they only managed to knock out one M10 in return. The infantry cleared the wood next to hamlet that was the objective, without much loss (and destroying one of the British infantry sections), but hadn’t really got stuck into the main British position.

How did the adapted rules fare? Only the mortar fire rules got a serious test: they turned out to be a bit too effective, but that was mainly because as games master I was a bit too generous with “speculative” firing at unseen targets. On reflection I think all fire must be directed at seen targets, with maybe an exception for game objectives. Smoke would be the exception. There were a couple of attempts at close combat, and I think the “super-activation” idea works better than my previous two-step one.

A couple of the issues that I mentioned last time raised their heads. The firing rules are a faff and not very intuitive. By now the players should be getting the hang of it and able to resolve things with a quick reference sheet. The other is that cover doesn’t seem to offer infantry and support groups all that much protection. Both are core Iron Cross rules, which I’m loth to fiddle with. But the grey cells are working on it.

But the biggest problem is that we are all in the early stages of mastering how to play the game. Holding reserves, retiring to regroup, passing the initiative are all plays that should be made more. The command rules (for example with one re-throw per turn) need to be brought in. I only discovered how useful the fall back rule is at the end of the game (I took over the German armour, which desperately needed to regroup). I should be trying to push all this onto my fellow gamers – but the truth is that I’m on a learning curve myself. But generally they seem happier with this game than with Rapid Fire, so there is plenty of scope to keep going. I need a new scenario though. This one is now stale.

Meanwhile I’m very tempted to devise a WW2 system based on the Fire and Fury move system (used in BBB). I have taken this on in a little rule-writing project – but this for a battalion level game, and one that doesn’t pretend that platoons are individuals. That’s very different from Iron Cross, which is an unashamed company game, where at least the tanks are scaled 1:1 – though not a true skirmish game like Chain of Command.

Another BBB Napoleonics game

After a six week trip to Australia, followed by Christmas and flu, I’ve had rather a long break from gaming and modelling/painting. Now I’m starting to work my way back in. Last night I ran another Napoleonic game at the club, using my heavily adapted BBB rules.

For a scenario I dusted off an old one I had from Grand Armée days, called Three Roads. It is actually a disguised ACW scenario, reset to 1815, though alas I don’t know what the original battle was. In the GA version Napoleon’s I and II Corps attack the Anglo-Netherlands forces based near Hal under Prince Frederick to the right of Wellington’s main army. In my version it is the French III and IV Corps (reinforced by a couple of brigades of infantry) who pounce on the Prussian III Korps. Only after I put the scenario on the table did I realise that the OB was strikingly similar to the battle of Wavre, on the opposite flank of Waterloo, where the French had less infantry and more cavalry. The French have a big advantage in quality and quantity, but their force is split across three lines of advance, and they are time-limited. We played this scenario a couple of times back in the day, and it produced an intriguing game, asymmetric games often do.

We got about 5 turns played (though one flank only completed 4 turns, it was clear where that was heading). This is probably right for the length of the scenario – the GA and BBB timescales are hard to compare. Though by then the Prussian were close to collapse (but with reinforcements coming) , they were holding one of the two bridges that were the battle’s objectives securely (being the Prussian escape route), though the other was close to falling. If darkness fell the Prussian would be able to get out, and the French had taken some pretty heavy losses. A draw. With a little tweaking this works OK for an evening game. We had two players each side, with me as games master.

My companions are getting the hang of BBB, and things are moving much faster than before, which is gratifying (we got through 5 moves last time, but with smaller forces). One feature of play that threw me a bit was that both French players threw their infantry into combat in march column. I don’t think we played this quite right. I think this was a mistake on their part, but they didn’t think they had time to deploy into proper combat formation, and on the French left they wanted to take advantage of a bridge. I wonder if it is too slow to redeploy from march – but then reorganising your forces could be a slow business.

My rule modifications worked OK. Artillery proved very influential: it help the Prussians a lot, as those march columns made good targets. Both sides had more artillery than in previous games with these new rules (which double up the number of bases), as I was doing an artillery-lite Peninsula scenario before – this time I used historical ratios. This anyway answered the previous issue with artillery not being effective enough – it’s a matter of quantity. Artillery can be devastating with good dice (11 or 12) but it is often ineffective. I don’t really like this balance, but it’s core BBB. The replacement of “out of ammo” with “disrupted” is simpler but clearly less harsh, as artillery tends to bounce back from disrupted quickly – though if it happens on Offensive fire, it will affect Defensive capability. Another point is that artillery is quite vulnerable to an exploitation attack, where they can’t fire defensively. This could be realistic, but I’m not comfortable with it.

Others of my new rules didn’t have much impact. There wasn’t much infantry v infantry assault combat. Those French march columns tended to get stopped before they could get involved. The skirmisher rules weren’t really used at all. The players were too impatient, and I don’t think they’ve internalised this new feature yet. Whether this new feature is worth the bother remains in the balance. Nor did we have any artillery in direct support of infantry units – though the Prussians should have done this, and I could have guided them into doing so. So I can’t say that my rules have properly proved themselves yet. I need to give them more time. Squares were used a bit – and I did allow all-round firing, though it was ineffective.

I am resisting the temptation to fiddle with them some more. But here are some things to think about:

  • I could make formation changes like limbering and unlimbering is for artillery: a two out of three idea. So changing formation doesn’t stop you from making a full move, but you do lose the ability to Offensive Fire. This would have the benefit of aligning the infantry and cavalry rules with artillery. Formation change could be extended to more general “reorganisation”. Though what about a a dash across a bridge in March Column to quickly change to Depth or Line before the enemy can counterattack?
  • Squares could behave a bit more like tactical squares – in which case they would need to be based on the Depth formation. Or perhaps squares in depth get a no flank benefit to infantry attacks also.
  • Artillery might be a little less vulnerable, especially to exploitation attack. Perhaps it gets an extra round of defensive fire.
  • Artillery bases in the same corps could combine to form temporary units for the purposes of movement throws and assault combat.
  • What happens when a unit that is disrupted suffers a second disruption result? At the moment nothing. Perhaps have a “Shaken” status, which takes 1 point of movement throw, and perhaps increased combat effects (no advance into a ZOC maybe, but no modification to firing and assault modifiers).

Apart from this some wider problems with the BBB system are becoming apparent. I have already mentioned the issue with artillery being alternatively devastating and ineffective. The activation system is a strength and a weakness. One throw deals with command friction and morale. This is very good in situations like the multiplayer setups I get on club nights. For example it was no trouble to split the Prussians between two players in this game. But it can be very disruptive. The Prussian regular unit got stuck for at least two turns, as did one of the French units. This sort of thing happens in real battles, of course, but it gets in the way of player agency. Other systems get players to concentrate command resources so that disruption is less likely to happen to areas of high priority. Perhaps this could be moderated with a bigger effect for a CinC – allowing a re-throw of a Movement Throw perhaps?

Still with my gaming companions getting used to the system, and with my modifications getting most of what I wanted, I’m holding back on developing my own system for now. I have an 80% draft for a prototype, but I already know that it is over-engineered.

Meanwhile the success of Three Roads means I should look at a scenario based on Wavre.

Postscript

Another thought on a possible rule amendment: the cavalry opportunity charge. Before defensive fire cavalry can charge enemy units within 6in that have shown vulnerability by changing formation. They require a movement throw as usual, and in any subsequent combat there is an advantage. This actually fits in with something one of the players said in our game – but it would fit well with more flexible rules on formation changes suggested above. This could be allowed for infantry too, instead of Defensive fire. Inf act it could be brought into the same phase.

Iron Cross: an outing for my adapted rules

We tried out my rather extensive house rules for Iron Cross, the WW2 system, last night at the club. It was an attack defence games, using the game’s hidden deployment rules. It was also an outing for quite a few of my 1943 20mm figures and vehicles, since the person with  Normandy ones I had planned to use was ill. Verdict: my gaming friends like the system, but my adaptations need more work.

In my scenario the British were defending a two building farm with an infantry platoon, supported by a mortar, a Vickers machine gun and a six pounder. A separate command was in the rear to offer support, consisting of an M10 and Sherman at first, plus a further three Shermans on Turn 3. The Germans were attacking with two weak infantry platoons (3 sections each) with a pair of mortars, and two tank platoons, one of Panzer IIIs and one of Panzer IVs. I had originally planned to use two Panthers in place of the Panzer IIIs, and for one of the German platoons to be mounted in halftracks, and for the British to have 2 M10s and one Firefly along with two Shermans. But without Bernie’s stuff I had to make substitutes. I did have Tigers available for the Germans, but I thought that would unbalance things a bit, even with just one, without any very strong antitank guns on the other side.

We didn’t get very far, declaring a draw most of the way through the third turn out of what was supposed to be seven. The German armour had fared badly: they lost two Pz IVs and one Pz III as the British opened up on them from concealed positions. Their infantry were slow to get stuck in, but once they did they were making steady progress. All the British armour was still in play, but could it rescue the beleaguered infantry in time?

The first point was that we were slow. according to the rule booklet we should have had time for that size of scenario, as we had four players. I think there was quite a bit of learning curve, but moving each init one by one does make a much slower game the Fistful of TOWs, which we use for micro armour. But it creates a more engaging game. I had each player operating a separate command with two extra tokens, which may be a bit generous – though it did help recreate patchy cooperation between infantry and armour, which is what I hoped. But I’m hoping that we speed up quite a bit.

On the rules, I think the concealed deployment  worked well. I’m sure my simplified firing rules speeded things up, though each firing usually involved two dice throws, and sometimes three. That is part of the core system, so I hesitate to fix it. My indirect fire rules, which we used for mortars, were not particularly intuitive, though the fire was a little less accurate than I thought. The game’s original system isn’t particularly intuitive either, so that’s no great loss. The spotting phase was an extra faff, and could be dropped – but I think this was an important part of how things actually worked. However, we could just go straight to the placement of the marker without the placement throw, once the spotter is activated, and leaving the vagaries to the actual firing. That would cut a dice throw. We also need to be a bit sharper in deciding where a unit is for the purposes of near misses – is the the centre of a section, or the nearest figure? If the latter, then it could lead to a bit of gamesmanship.  Mortar fire wasn’t that effective though – perhaps because there isn’t the automatic morale marker for each hit.

The bit of the rules that my fellow players weren’t happy with was close combat, which arose when the infantry attacked buildings.  The separate morale test, which doesn’t play until the assault phase looked unrealistic. Also my attempt as treating buildings as terrain units, rather than just areas of rough terrain (as the main rules do), was clunky, especially with the rather large building models we were using.  The morale test stage needs to come at activation, not later. The buildings rules need to be rethought. I’m tempted to go back to the original, albeit with clearer guidance, rather than create a whole new structure -as this wasn’t an aspect of the rules that received much criticism.

One other aspect surprised me – that cover seemed to be relatively little use, especially against infantry weapons. This aspect is largely in the original rules, though. Cover doesn’t affect the to-hit throw, and the first morale marker is automatic regardless of cover. Of course troops in cover are as liable to being suppressed as those outside, so there’s some logic to this. But both the 6 pounder and the Vickers gun proved quite vulnerable with a morale rating of just 3. Since this looks like core rules I don’t want to think about fiddling with it until we have started to learn the system better.  And that’s important: it takes a bit of experience to use the rules well. I started to learn that pulling back vehicles into cover after they have fired is useful. This is especially true of vehicles like the M10, which usually don’t last very long on the table because of their thin armour. But classing it as “light” so that it can react better starts to make sense – and you have to deploy it where there’s cover to dodge back into! In fact I forgot to make use of this “light” rating -but then I was also too generous with moving and firing – it should have been 2 off the to-hit throw rather than 1.

Finally there is the issue of scenario design. The attack-defence game format was much more fun than the encounter battles we have tried before. I also thing that keeping armour and infantry in separate commands works well in recreating the difficulties of cooperation between the arms – though this was more of an issue for the Allies than the Germans. In the scenario design this included separate break points. One more lost tank and the German armour would have pulled out! Another aspect of the scenario to think about is terrain.  This worked well enough last night, but I did spend quite a bit of time thinking about it first. One nice feature of the attack-defence format is that the defender has a greater depth of terrain to play with, so the action is spread across more of the table, rather than being a punch-up in the middle. One idea I have for the future is to design scenarios specifically for use with reconnaissance forces. Smaller numbers of lightly armed, but mobile forces on the attack, with spread out defenders, also relatively lightly armed and a fire brigade of some sort. I need to work on the vehicles though!

BBB: new house rules

Following my last post, I have produced a new edition of my house rules for Napoleonic wars on the Rules Page. The modifications are now quite extensive, so I have produced a set of design notes to go with it.

Last Monday I ran another club game with my Albuera scenario transposed to Franco-Prussian 1815, where we used these rules. We lasted 5 turns and did not have a decisive result, again. I will need to try other scenarios, but this is clearly a problem. The battles are going on for too long. The extra attrition in infantry combat isn’t having the hoped for effect. Too often infantry is held back. I’m not sure what the answer is. Corps break points would be one approach. In this battle one Prussian corps took almost all the strain, while the other lurked in the background, apart from its cavalry. It was nearly wiped out, but still held on for four turns. Perhaps they should have been treated as fragile as well as Raw – though I don’t think that properly applies to the Prussian originals. I don’t want to introduce such a radical change, though. For now I must think more about scenario design.

Otherwise I think the rules worked pretty well. My fellow players complained that artillery was rather ineffective. But, faithful to the original Albuera, there wasn’t that much of it – two or three units a side. I think the extra flexibility of artillery movement worked well. Replacing Out of Ammo and Silenced with Disrupted worked well, as did the elimination of half-effect firing.

I’m not entirely sure about the new cavalry-infantry combat rules, as they weren’t fully stress-tested. But they induced the right sorts of responses in players. I am cautiously optimistic. On the other hand I am very pleased with my skirmisher rules. Within the limits of BBB mechanisms they work well. Players are being forced into realistic choices – which are important but not too important.

One issue that I probably want to fix in due course is the rules on squares. At the moment the squares behave in combat much as normal formations: they still have flanks for infantry attacks, and there is no all round firing. This is not how players instinctively feel how squares should work, so there is too much that is counter-intuitive. I also think movement restrictions could be clearer. But I don’t want them to be used to provide all-round defence against infantry. I think all round firing could be put in (remembering that it is reduced effect) and the Depth formation in square could have safe flanks against infantry attacks.

I have come across an old scenario book for Shako rules. these look about the right size for the smaller games I want to put on – and I think I can adapt them. And there are two specifically for 1815 Prussians (Wavre and Planchenoit). I am also thinking of trying Shako out itself!

More BBB Napoleonics

Last night at the club I tried out my new house rules to convert Bloody Big Battles to Napoleonics, using a smaller scenario. This was a success, though I will tweak the rules some more.

The scenario was loosely based on Albuera (1811 in the Peninsular War), but using my 1815 Franco-Prussian armies, so that I did not have to print new unit labels, as well as getting more feel for how these armies work. On the French side I had four standard 4 base infantry units of Veteran line troops. Two of these were assigned to the flank march, one to the pinning attack and one to the reserve. In support were three cavalry units. One light cavalry unit (3 bases) supported the pin attack, while a further one (using my Polish lancer figures) combined with a cuirassier unit of 4 bases to support the flank attack. They had three artillery units: one field unit for the pin, one further field unit and a horse unit for the flank attack. There were two generals. One overall (Vandamme taking the place of Soult) and one for the cavalry (Grouchy taking the place of Latour-Maubourg, though in 1815 he was the senior officer). The Prussians had two corps. One, to take the place of the Spanish, had three 4 base landwehr infantry units and a 3 base landwehr cavalry unit and a field artillery unit. To take the place of the Anglo-Portuguese were two 6 base line infantry units (Trained) and a 4 base dragoon unit, also with artillery. The Prussians were classed as Passive. This is hardly an exact correspondence on the Allied side (given that the British had the best infantry on the field), but the overall challenge remained similar. The terrain available for a club night encounter was very approximate.

The scenario worked fine. Doing proper historical scenarios, as envisaged by the creators of BBB isn’t really feasible for a club night. They tend to be too big, and there isn’t a good way of getting the terrain relief right – real terrain is subtle and flowing; club hills are blobby – and most gamers don’t actually bother with them, using other terrain features to break things up. Since hills are probably the most important aspect of terrain militarily, this is a pity, if understandable.  Also getting the armies right takes quite a bit of prep. But you can’t beat a historical scenario for creating a narrative and interest. So my compromise is to use real battles for game purposes drawing units from historical armies, but not those f the battle itself. We didn’t quite finish this one, but we started late, and there were only two and a half of us, instead of the usual four. So the size was about right, until we speed up. I need to find a few more battles of this sort of size.

How did it play? Terry did not follow the historical precedent. He immediately threw the reserve division into the frontal attack, turning the pinning attack into the main deal. On the flank he set up his artillery to play on the allied units, pushed his cavalry towards the Allied rear, and held his infantry back. The Prussian regulars moved to handle the flank attack, while the landwehr dealt with the frontal attack. In the former case the dragoon unit did most of the work. It did sterling service, beating off a combined attack from the two French units, and with some help from fire support, destroying the lancer unit. At the end the French cuirassiers were in the Allied rear, but allied dragoons were still facing them off. The regular infantry allowed themselves to be pinned by the cavalry, but took up the challenge of the French infantry when it eventually advanced. This infantry battle wasn’t resolved at the end of Turn 5 (or 6) when we called it a draw. Meanwhile the French frontal attack was slowly grinding down the landwehr after capturing the village, though at the cost of being neutralised itself. The landwehr cavalry managed to neutralise the French cavalry, using the stream.

So how did the rule modifications play? The most dramatic: the new cavalry v. infantry combat table, and squares. Infantry became fearful of cavalry, and often took up square formation (on the Prussian side), limiting its effectiveness. So it played a bit like Waterloo. Whether this is overdone is hard to test. There were not many attacks by cavalry on infantry, so this aspect wasn’t properly stress tested.

I was most nervous about the skirmisher rules, as this seemed to add the most complexity. But they worked pretty smoothly, and it captured the most important aspects. Skirmishers could shield the main body from disordering fire, but also represented a drain on strength. Cavalry was good at neutralising them, giving cavalry a further (and historical) function. The unhistorical thing is that firing is alternating, which doesn’t capture the mutual attrition aspect of this warfare, where most of the damage in fact arises from fatigue and ammunition loss. That is pretty much baked into the BBB system, though.

The new infantry combat table was fairly influential and meant that the French attack on the landwehr progressed more quickly. Again this needs more stress testing, but the early results are promising. Finally the new artillery system, with bases representing smaller units with reduced firepower worked well. Artillery remained influential enough. Replacing silenced batteries with Disrupted ones (like infantry) wasn’t tested, and neither was their vulnerability to charge combat. Artillery was incorporated into supporting infantry units, but this it was difficult to do this while the infantry was moving. In fact in the real battle of Albuera the artillery did keep up with the infantry.

So what changes to make? There should be some small tweaks to the skirmish rules. I think artillery movement can be more flexible – and the rules used in Age of Eagles (another system based on Fire and Fury) used, allowing artillery to limber/unlimber and move, or limber/unlimber and fire without penalty in a move (but not move, unlimber and fire). This leads me to a further thought. I have now eliminated all the causes to halve fire points except Disruption and Low on Ammo. Can I find a different way of handling these? Infantry fire with a single point per base; artillery Defensive fire at short range only. And treat Low on Ammo as Disruption instead?. I like ideas that reduce complexity!

There is something else, while I think of it. BBB allows for the recovery of bases on the movement throw (though not if Disrupted). This was very important in the first trial game I played (actually based on the 1866 campaign), when an Austrian unit that was badly mauled by concentrated artillery fire, retired behind a slope and mostly recovered. It has almost never been used in my games since, possibly because we forgot to apply it, but mainly because damaged units are in the thick of it and usually start their turn Disrupted. In the Napoleonic era I can’t think of a case where a division got badly roughed up, retired, recovered and went back into battle on the same day (overnight is another matter).  Units disintegrated during battle and proved very hard to recover until the end of the day, even when casualties were not that great. It is quite a striking feature of the Napoleonic battle. I think this could be dropped (it doesn’t feature in Fire and Fury or Age of Eagles). There is a case for not removing units reduced to a single base, but consolidating them into rump units to fight a rearguard with, but that is something else, and an extra complexity we don’t really need.

I think I’m really on to something with this adapted BBB. What I need to do now is to work on my 15mm armies to make them look a bit smarter and extend them a bit, especially the French. It would be fun to have Austrians and Russians too, but that’s a long way off! I still have unfinished business on my 1943 troops.

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.