Category Archives: Games & rules

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules 3: combat

One of the last club games with my previous rules, in February 2020. I think it is based on Montmirail 1814

While the game structure on my new rules was falling into place, I needed to rethink the combat mechanisms. What I was looking for was both a period feel and something that players could pick up quickly, with the minimum of referring back to tables and the like.

My old system was inherited from Bloody Big Battles, which in turn adopted the Fire and Fury system. There are two types of combat: firing and assault. Fire combat covered both artillery and small arms fire, and is carried out by each side in two phases – first by the passive player after movement (“Defensive Fire”) followed by the active player (“Offensive Fire”). All firing by the relevant side is resolved simultaneously. Fire points are totalled from all sources on each target, two dice are thrown and totalled (or a single D10 for F&F), and the result looked up in a table; there are no dice modifiers, but there are “column shifts” on the table. Assault combat occurs when units are brought into contact, but not resolved until the end of the turn, after firing, which both sides in the assault participate in. The combat is resolved by each side throwing a die (all dice in BBB are six-sided; F&F uses 10-sided dice), and the modified results being compared. One side always breaks off in some form after the combat, if only by three inches.

I have never been comfortable with this system in the big-battle context, and especially without long-range infantry weapons, for which the BBB game is designed. The narrative fits much smaller encounters and much shorter turns – especially the firing. At the big game level firing was more a matter of exchange than one side firing after the other, and the distinction between close combat and short range firing is artificial. Still I stuck to it because it seemed to work, and rewriting it would be a big job. But now I can’t avoid that rewrite, because of what I am doing do with the game mechanism.

This has proved quite long journey, but I have ended up with something that seems to work, but needs more play testing. I have three forms of combat (plus some special rules for pursuits), which I am calling, for now, bombardment, firefight and assault. Bombardment covers artillery fire at longer ranges – over 3in. This fire most closely resembles the old fire system. It can be used by the active player at the start of his turn in a Bombardment Phase, or when he activates the unit; the responding player can fire too during the active player’s turn. Each time a unit fires it picks up a smoke marker; it may not gather more than two of these in a turn. I also limit ammunition to six rounds – though I may yet drop this if it doesn’t have enough impact on play. Most fire creates a fire zone which troops cannot move through in that turn – but not preparatory fire in the opening Bombardment Phase, which is meant to represent a short burst of rapid fire.

All combat is resolved as being one unit to one unit – but I do allow three artillery units to combine fire on a single target, by allowing up to two supporting units for each attack. Fire, like all combat in my new rules, is resolved by both sides throwing a die. In this case the modified throw of the firer must exceed that of the target; more hits are scored for bigger margins. Funnily enough I found that this method can be crafted to exactly replicate the old fire table in its results. Of course it is easier to combine the fire of several units using the fire points and table method – but that is not so important for my system – and having kept modifiers down to a minimum, this method is now very quick and easy. It helps to strip out short-range artillery fire, which is wrapped up into firefight and assault combat.

I seriously considered whether I could combine short range fire and assault combat into a single system, based on the old assault rules. In the old system fire by infantry units was usually fairly ineffective, and certainly quite random; you would be unlikely to use it as a serious way of engaging the enemy on its own. Infantry firing (and short-range artillery) almost always came as an adjunct to assault. It was in the rules simply to add a bit more depth and complexity to the assault, which otherwise could have had too much hanging on the throw of two dice. But then I reflected that in this era (and later ones too) there were two distinct forms of infantry combat. Apart from the classic close assault, meant to displace the enemy, forces might enter a prolonged fire combat, which would wear down the opposition, but was unlikely to yield quick results. This was tempting for armies whose troops’ morale and training made them less effective at the close quarters fighting. This style of combat should not be confused with the exchange of volleys by formed troops within 100 paces of each other – which for my purposes is another version of close combat. Instead it is what Is often referred to in English as “skirmishing”. But a skirmish implies inconsequential exchanges between small numbers of troops., when in fact it typically involved serious numbers of men over a period of time. I have called it “firefight” for want of a better word – “tirailleur combat” might be better, though it often involved more than tirailleurs – it might include artillery, and sometimes troops in more close-packed formations.

Classic wargames rules, including the BBB system, do not handle firefight combat well. They tend to have one side throwing dice to determine losses on the other side, and the other side doing the same with a separate throw, either at the same time or, as in BBB, sequentially. There are two problems. First, specifically to BBB, the fire is often ineffective, so the whole thing is a pretty pointless. In fact such combats on the grand tactical scale (when troops might blast away for half an hour or often longer) almost always had an impact, though casualties might be relatively light (the shooting was often inaccurate and the target dispersed) – because firing a musket repeatedly is physically exhausting and ammunition was not especially abundant; troops low on ammunition often refused to fight, so this was important. Better troops often prevailed because they did not burn through their ammunition so quickly, rather than because their fire was more accurate. The other big problem is that there is much too much random variation between the effects of fire between the two sides. In fact a lot of the myriad variables that are represented by the dice applied pretty much equally to both sides – visibility, range and length of time engaged in particular.

Firefight combat in my game is resolved by both sides throwing a die, as usual, with same menu of modifiers is the same for both sides. Numbers of participating bases is part of the modifier process, and supporting artillery can be brought in. First the number of hits on the active player is determined, by looking at the responding player’s modified score. This is usually one or two hits; the responding player suffers the same number of hits unless the active player’s score is four points more or less than his. That is a little complicated to describe, but it is quick when you get used to it. The result is a bit boring; both sides usually suffer one or two hits. But that is intentional – the combat is meant to be low-risk, but (usually) a drain on both sides. Of course if one side masses lots of modifiers, the outcome will not be so even.

The mechanism for assault combat is nominally similar to the old one. The result (usually) depends on the difference between the two sides’ scores, but in this one side is forced o disengage. I wanted to do away with the results table, and have a set of simple outcome rules that would replace it, which would be able to handle the differences between infantry, cavalry and artillery. I also wanted to keep dice modifiers to a minimum. One of the complexities of the old system is that of conferring advantage for numerical superiority, which involves counting bases. There is also an advantage for sides in deeper deployments, as well as the a two point advantage for flank attacks, though these were quite strictly defined. Now that combat is reduced to one-to-one encounters between single units, I had the opportunity to rethink this. I took the view that the outcome of this sort of combat was primarily about momentum. Numerical advantage conferred staying power but not much else. This simplifies things dramatically. The modifiers for numerical advantage and deep formations disappear. This is not quite accurate. If a unit had more men, and its opponent had an open flank, it did have the possibility of using its superiority to tactical advantage. I also suspect that there are differences for units that deployed extended or in depth. But it is hard to reflect these ideas without the rules become too fiddly – so I’m keeping it simple for now. I have retained the flank attack modifier, but split it between a +1 for the attacker and -1 for the defender, with a lower threshold for the former.

I have also added outcomes that reflect the absolute size of each side’s score before combat is joined. If the attacker fails to get a positive score, the attack baulks, and the defender is not engaged. If the attacker fails to get a score of 4, then the attack stalls – if the attacker is infantry, then the attack converts to a firefight; if it is cavalry, the attack does not proceed, but the target unit is pinned, which may limit its options in the next turn. On the defence side, if the assault proceeds and the defender fails to achieve a positive score it routs without combat. The 4 threshold for an attack to progress as an assault is a high one – I want to use the same set of thresholds on all my resolution procedures (i.e. 1, 4 and 7) to make them easier to remember. In fact I think it was quite hard to make troops conduct a full-blooded assault.

That’s just an overview. I am quite pleased with the overall design – the process is simple, and yet it yields a wide range of historically plausible outcomes. Whether it achieves my aim of packing more decisive action into each turn is another matter. I have this habit of providing with one hand and taking way with the other.

So that is far as I am going to describe the rules for now. I am pleased that the length of the them has actually been reduced from 14 pages to 13; it was running at 12 until the last series of tweaks. (The text is quite dense and there are no pictures…). I will only know how well they work after further play testing. Until this testing is done I won’t post up on the website. If any reader is interested in reading them before then please contact me in comments.

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules part 1 – scope

The Prussians drive the French back into a rather Mediterranean-looking Plancenoit in my trial game

After a spate of painting this spring and early summer, my energies turned to rule-writing. It proved a much longer and harder road than I expected. But the end result might be very close to my final “Dining Table Napoleon” product. Or it might yet collapse into a heap of broken pieces. I want to take this opportunity explore the choices I had to make and the solutions I have come up with.

But first: what is the game for? As the blurb on my blog suggests, I want to fight big Napoleonic battles. Wagram and Leipzig might be a stretch, but a medium-sized encounter of 30,000-50,000 a side should count as a relatively small game, and a Waterloo (with about 70,000 a side plus 40,000 Prussians) should be quite possible to handle with two players (plus one for the Prussians) on a moderately-sized table. I want to use my 15-18mm figures (while catering for smaller ones) and I also want rules that will be quite easy to pick up and play for occasional players. I want to recreate the ebb and flow of a Napoleonic battle reasonably faithfully, so that game outcomes are historically plausible, and historical outcomes within the bounds of the game’s possibilities. But the game needs to evolve reasonably quickly, with a turn representing about an hour of action.

If that sounds straightforward, we are left with the puzzle of why so few games systems take this on. Only one mainstream system that I know of does: Sam Mustafa’s Blücher. This is a clever system with a lot of interesting features. I played three games with it at the club with my French and Prussians, and the experience was decidedly unsatisfactory. Why? A lot of it was visual. In order to make it fit the table sizes I wanted meant having two bases to a unit, giving 12 infantry figures and four cavalry. This didn’t look right, for reasons that I find hard to pin down – but my fellow club members thought so too. Too few men to a unit? It would have looked better with 10mm or 6mm figures (or bigger bases and a fuller ground scale). Certainly that was true of the cavalry. I also didn’t like uniformity of the unit sizes in this context (as opposed to a smaller game). Other aspects of the rules failed to float my boat too. The rules on built-up areas felt entirely wrong – they became fortresses against which attacking units were dashed in vain, rather than stages for gory and confused fighting that was costly to both sides with frequent changes of fortune. Leaders are not generally represented, and neither is the divisional level of organisation – all for very good games-design reasons, but which spoiled the historical narrative for me. The rules did not handle the Prussians very well. They are a pretty boring army in terms of classic gaming features (elite units, heavy cavalry and so on), while their flexible battlefield organisation, where the battalions from different regiments were mixed up in task groups, did not lend itself to a system where the basic unit is a regiment or small brigade.

So I let Blücher go. In fact I thought that brigade-sized units were not the route to go. This is really the minimum-sized unit for big battle games, unless you have big tables and many players. This is the reason why so few rule systems don’t fit the scope I am looking for. For many players, representing battalions is the essence of Napoleonic wargaming, with classic decisions about line, column and square. I have even read some rather implausible arguments that numbers of battalions determined the effective size and capability of armies more than numbers of men (in fact generals of the time tended to measure army and corps strengths in 1,000s rather than battalions). But even if you reduce battalions to a relatively vestigial role (such as in the very interesting Et Sans Resultât rules) you find you find that a single player can’t control more than a corps. If you want to play with battalions, that is fair enough – but it annoys me when any such battalion-based system claims that it is for big battles, which is often the case. Smaller battles (20,000 or less per side) were quite rare historically, so you are left with refighting a corner of a bigger battle. Or fictional encounters between two corps or reinforced divisions – which, to be fair, can make fun game. With the modern preference for games between smaller forces chosen from army lists, it is not surprising that most Napoloenic rules are based on battalions.

Old school wargamers in the 1970s simply fudged things by scaling down, with each battalion representing a brigade or division, and the table being scaled to fit the battle. But in due course proper brigade-based games were created. I investigated three systems in particular. The first was Volley and Bayonet by Frank Chadwick and Greg Novak, published in 1994. In this system units were represented by square (or sometimes oblong) bases with a standard 3in frontage. The system covered the whole era from the Seven Years War to the Franco-Prussian War. I never played it. The table sizes required for 3in bases was large, and at the time I had few gaming opportunities. But the stripped down nature of the system was inspiring. They also published a very useful scenario book for the 1809 campaign. Next came Age of Eagles. This is based on the ACW Fire and Fury system, a revolutionary set of rules published in the 1990s. Age of Eagles is based on deep historical knowledge, but it is not a stripped down system. The units might be brigades, but they are made up of multiple bases, and perform battalion-like evolutions. I played them once (a recreation of Quatre Bras), but let it go after that. In my view it ia player per corps game – and if you are going down that route I would prefer the vestigial battalions route of ESR. And thirdly there was Sam Mustafa’s Grande Armée and its fast-play derivative. Sam is for my money the best games designer out there, and it showed with this system. Like V+B, its units were brigade represented by squares. The system was based on 3in squares (which gave me a space problem) but I followed the recommended option of 2in squares with special rulers marked in 2/3 inches. This was the system I settled on for many years, using the fast play version with house rules. But a number of features were unsatisfactory, both from a visual point of view, and as a historical representation. Sam moved on and the system gradually became ossified.

This brings me to the 2010s and where I started this blog. I wanted to write my own system. I was focusing on a project to refight Vitoria on its bicentenary. This was definitely a brigade-based battle, and so I keep the brigade-based system using 30-minute moves. These rules are quite clever and innovative (they used playing cards in place of most dice), and they are published on this blog. But Vitoria took all day with four players, though my fellow players were very kind about the rules. Incidentally we did not use my miniatures for this, but my friends 6mm GA bases. This left me the conclusion that I must move forwards to division-based games and one-hour turns.

Divisional-based games do produce headaches, especially for Peninsular War battles, as my Sorauren game showed. But I did have an interesting place to start: Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles. This is not a mainstream commercial system like Blücher with well-produced booklets and player-aids. But it is very well designed and comes with a host of big battle scenarios. The system is based on Fire and Fury, again – but unlike AoE it is properly stripped down. But the big problem is that it is primarily designed for the Franco-Prussian War, and then extended to other campaigns of that era. Small arms ranges were much greater in relation to move distances. But quite a few people used them for Napoleonic games, and so I started out on that path. What worked especially well for me was the way units are built – on variable numbers of bases, based on unit size. I found that this got me much closer to the look I sought than the standard brigade blocks – though trying to use 15mm figures on such a reduced distance scale (1in to 150m) is always going to be a visual challenge.

By this time my journey is well-documented on this blog. At last I was getting regular games as a club member – and the system proved suitable for that. But it was slow going by historical standards, and the cavalry rules did not have the Napoleonic feel. The latter was mainly dealt with when I rewrote them into Big Napoleonic Battles V0, published here, which became our settled rules for club games. But then lockdown hit and I moved away from the club. This year I started to think hard about how to rewrite the rules to address their less satisfactory aspects – notably that a game turn packed less than an hour of action, and so games were going on for too long.

But in a phenomenon that will be very familiar to rules writers, what started as a few tweaks turned into a full-on rewrite and rebalance. To be continued.

Sorauren 1813

The game at start of play from the French lines. The great hill is in the centre, and you can see my representation of the col, defended by a Portuguese unit. n the far right Pack’s division advances.

At last! My first proper live game in 14 months. My friend Rob came over with his Minifigs of British and Portuguese (with some Brunswickers taking the pace of Spanish) to take on my French army. We always base our games on a historical battle, and this time I chose the battle of Sorauren on 28 July 1813.

This is a medium-sized battle with about 30,000 men a side that is very neglected by historians and gamers. Historians seem to lose interest in the Peninsula War (and its appendix in the south of France) after Vitoria in June 1813. To them this was the decisive battle, and everything afterwards was a side show. But in fact there was plenty of drama, and not least in this battle, which is bigger than many earlier battles – comparable in scale of engaged forces to Busaco in 1810, and bigger than Albuera in 1811. This neglect means that there is little information available on the battle. I tried Googling for wargames scenarios and I got back practically nothing – a few games which revealed little historical research. I didn’t have much time to put the scenario together, so mine too suffered inaccuracies. But researching battles is one of the joys of the hobby for me. Even as an amateur historian you can always add a bit of value to received wisdom with just a little careful research and asking the sorts of difficult questions warmers must resolve but historians can gloss over.

So the background: after Vitoria (incidentally my biggest wargaming project and the starting point of this blog – my maps now come top of a Google search!), the French rapidly evacuated Spain outside Catalonia (another neglected wargaming topic, for another day), leaving garrisons in the fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona. Napoleon gave command of the defeated French forces to Nicholas Soult, who reorganised and reinvigorated them with the sort of speed that so often caught France’s opponent’s off guard. He counterattacked, seeing that the allied forces were dispersed. To cut the story short, he massed two corps, those of Clausel and Reille, a few miles from Pamplona after storming through the Pyrenean passes, brushing aside British forces at Roncevalles. The first French forces, Clausel’s corps, arrived on 27 July, but these were not enough to take on the allied forces there, based on the British divisions of Picton and Cole and the Spanish ones of McDonnell (conducting the siege) and Morillo. Reille eventually arrived, but too late to be mobilised fully that day. Soult himself was their together with army level reserves of cavalry and artillery. Also arriving on 27 July was Wellington, who, seeing the threat, immediately summoned reinforcements, of which Pack’s division was the only force within a day’s march. The great man’s presence greatly reassured the allied forces.

I didn’t have much time to research the battle; I was hoping to find something readily available that I could use, notwithstanding imperfections. My first port of call was a booklet by Terence Wise that I had bought for £1.50 in 1977. This was part of the Battles for Wargamers series published by Bellona – I also have the booklet from the same author for Tunisia 1943. The Peninsular War booklet covered the series of battles after Vitoria – mainly Soult’s offensive and Wellington’s counterattack, but also covering Suchet in Catalonia. A nice idea, but the battle map was highly inaccurate (including quite the wrong ground scale) and the narrative was suspect. I went back to good old Oman as my main source. Oman makes mistakes, and he can be irritating in his period way – launching into criticism of the decisions of officers at the time, rather than making much attempt to understand why they took them. But it is proper history, and reasonably transparent about its sources. He also surveyed the ground. Alas few modern authors do this and are more interested in painting a dramatic picture which fits into a broader narrative about the Peninsular War. The only other account I read was that in Lipscombe’s Peninsular War Atlas. This was pretty superficial too. The map is a pretty decent one, though the British forces are depicted as being far too far forward. It does provide additional details on the Spanish, though.

And what about rules? My big wargames project for the last month has been a rewrite of my Big Napoleonic Battles rules to get to a “Version 1”, so succeed my “Version 0” which we used successfully at the club, but which I felt wasn’t right for historical refights. This was a classic case of one idea leading to another, which turned into a radical rewrite, about will I will write separately. I had carried out some small scale trials, simulating the Prussian advance on Plancenoit at Waterloo. but Ithe opportunity of something bigger was too good to miss. These are big battle rules, with divisions being the principal unit – so not all that well suited to the Peninsular War, were the big battles were large fought between brigades of around 2,000 men (as well as Wellington’s habit of deploying individual battalions). The battle is too big for rules based on battalion units (still by far the most popular format) – but one based on brigades, such as Blucher, would have been a more natural choice. That would have been a bigger game though. I would like to find some way of making my big battle rules work in the Peninsula, as a number of battles there could make very good smaller games; so I tried to adapt as best I could.

The most difficult thing about refighting this battle is the terrain. I am a big believer that terrain dictates the course of battles, and that even small details matter. It puzzles me that many historical wargamers seem to take a lax attitude to it – though getting it right is undoubtedly hard work. Which isn’t to say you can’t achieve this with a greatly simplified presentation, just that this requires an understanding of which features were critical. Sorauren was fought over terrain dominated by steep hills. This is tricky for wargamers at the best of time. I didn’t have time to do more than a rushed job of taping some 1in chunks of styrene to the table (in two contour layers) and a couple of thinner bits for lower hills, and throwing my green felt cloth over it. This was completed using paper tape for roads and rivers (painted over with tempera paint) and scattering some buildings and bridges on it. You can see the result in the picture, and its not very pretty. With such steep and complicated hills the time-honoured method of using cloth over formers is problematic. I used map pins, but rumples in the cloth are everywhere.

The central feature of the battle is a large hill referred to by Oman as the Heights of Oricain, but otherwise un-named on the maps, which rises to about 200m above the plain. Wise referred to it as “Cole’s Ridge” – but it isn’t ridge-shaped. This is rather typical of the way historians have tried to bend this battle into the shape of a classic Peninsula reverse slope encounter that historians try to do for all Wellington’s defensive battles. In several important respects I got the terrain wrong, as a close examination of Google Earth revealed afterwards, and these do much to explain some of the deviations of the game from history. If I do this again, I will use more contours, as this is a better way of dealing with many of the important complexities. For most battles two contours is more than enough, but alas not here.

I am also left with the challenge of how to improve the visual appearance of the table. One thing I had in hand is to use a different cloth, or battle mat. The day after the game a new fleece mat from Geek Villain arrived, in their Sicily pattern, designed to represent arid terrain. I had a chance to see how it worked over the formers, though I did not try the pins.

A lot of the same problems emerged as for the felt, as can be seen from the rumples, but the material does fall more easily over the shapes, and the colours are much better. My bête-noire is the over-use of saturated colours in wargames products (like my felt mat) – and this product does not fall into that particular trap. The big question is whether I create the hills to sit on top of the mat, using paint and flock as best as possible to blend in. A point to ponder. Other questions are whether I manufacture lengths of roads and streams to look a bit better than the painted tape – perhaps using caulk. On Google Earth the watercourses are marked by vegetation along their banks, and this may well have been the case at the time – replicating this make make them too wide though.

There does not seem to be too much doubt about the forces involved, fortunately. The only doubt I had concerned the French cavalry. The maps (I also have Fortescue’s – but not his text) show that the French deployed cavalry from Pierre Soult’s division – which did engage with the British hussars on the day, having deployed to the far left of the French positions, alongside Foy’s division of Reille’s corps. P. Soult’s division was in fact a very large cavalry formation, especially by Peninsular standards, with nearly 4,000 men. It is highly unlikely that all of it picked its way across the difficult hill paths to reach the positions shown on the battle maps. I divided this unit into three, and placed one of the sub units with Foy, with the rest backed up along the mountain pass with the artillery. To represent the forces on the table I dropped the normal ratio of 1,250 infantry (or 400 cavalry) to a base to 1,000 (or 333 cavalry), and limited the maximum unit size to four bases rather than six. This reflects the terrain which made it hard for large formations to operate cohesively, as well as the relatively small numbers of the forces involved. Using this system for the French was quite straightforward – each unit was a small division or large brigade. The British infantry divisions were another matter. They typically had 6,000 men organised into three brigades, one of which was Portuguese. The whole division is too big to be a single unit; the brigades are too small. I allowed two units per division, the second unit being Portuguese for Pack and British for Picton. Cole’s division was another matter, as it was reinforced by additional British and Portuguese British brigades, and a couple of Spanish battalions. I represented this formation as four three base units, two British, and one each Portuguese and Spanish.

For the game I chose to start it at midday, an hour before Soult planned to launch his attack, but when the French spotted Pack’s arrival and Clausel responded. In fact I had Pack too far back historically (or I should have started with the British moving first). The objective was for the French to break through to the far side of the table and relieve Pamplona; the game was six turns long. Playing the French, I got nowhere close to this objective, though not radically far from the historical positions. On the their right, the French benefited from Pack’s late arrival, which was compounded by the British component of this formation grinding to a halt due to poor activation throws. The Portuguese took the brunt and the unit was eventually eliminated. But Rob brought forward McDonnell’s Spanish division, which was more than able to to contain the remaining threat. On the French left, Rob could not resist the temptation to use his considerable body of cavalry (which included two fine units of heavies, not actually used on the day), to push forward up the valley. This brought out all of the French cavalry, and I also pushed forward Foy’s infantry. This was eventually reduced to a stalemate, with the French infantry rather battered. Rob then started to move his infantry to the centre to contain the French threat there. Subsequent research showed that this highly unhistorical course of events was shaped by errors in my terrain layout – the river valley was too narrow to take such troop movements while the main heights were being contested. The front of Picton’s position was also more difficult terrain, with a steep slope and a river bed – which would have limited the movement of cavalry.

The main battle was in the centre, as the French tried to take the hill. Cole’s four units looked distinctly vulnerable as they could barely cover the front, against the six French units, some of which were large four-base ones, notwithstanding the steep slopes. It didn’t help I forgot that the British units had a discipline bonus (allowing them to recover more easily from disruption). But once Rob had brought forward the British unit in reserve (Byng’s brigade), the slope was enough to keep the French contained on the British left, while the Portuguese holding the famous col in the centre (inasmuch as anything in this battle is famous) where the slope was not steep, also held their own. But that left two French units to gang up on the Spaniards on the British right. These were pushed back and French breakthrough beckoned. I saw an opportunity to push through to Pamplona; Rob was worried that the French units would turn to take his other units in the rear, where his reserves had been committed. He brought forward Murillo’s Spanish division, which contained the threat to Pamplona.

And there the game concluded. The French objective is pretty much impossible to reach. Even if the battle on the hill had gone better, there was not enough time to get to the other side of the table, especially as there was likely to be some form of last line of defence. It would perhaps have been better to either focus the game on the hill, or perhaps leave a path to victory for the French in destroying a substantial part of the allied army. Not that I had nailed the battle particularly well; I devoted too much strength to the centre, and could easily have deployed an extra unit to the right after the good initial progress there.

Here’s how the game looked at the end:

As the evening approached at the end. Foy’s division on the far left is looking battered, but the French have made good progress on the left of the hill.

It was very good to have a proper live game at last. But it has left me with plenty of food for thought, about the scenario, the appearance of my games, and the rules.

In Deo Veritas – a trial game for Great Northern War

More than a year a go I bought the In Deo Veritas rules by Philip Garton, which cover 17th Century conflicts. My plan was to use this for my 6mm Great Northern War (GNW) Russians and Swedes. The GNW was actually in the 18th century but the tactics were similar. In fact Philip Garton later brought out a supplement, Captain General, to cover the early 18th Century. I published my first thoughts here. I have now had the opportunity to run a small solo game.

The rule supplement did not add very much in terms of new rules, and its main value is the four extra scenarios. Alas there were no battles between Russians and Swedes – it is in fact quite hard to find suitable historical battles for the Poltava campaign that my figures are based on. It suggested giving all-musket infantry units an extra fire dice, and treating large dragoon units (such as the Russians used) as poor quality cavalry.

In my game I set a small Swedish force of three infantry and two cavalry units against a larger Russian force of six infantry, two dragoon and one cossack unit, plus two artillery. The Swedes were all Veteran except one Trained infantry unit; the Russians were all Raw except one infantry unit and the cossacks, which were Trained. Both armies were divided into two wings (the infantry and cavalry for the Swedes, four infantry and the cossacks, and two infantry and the dragoons for the Russians), with an overall commander for both armies. This captures the basic asymmetry between the two armies which is one of the things that drew me into gaming these armies. The Swedes are heavily outnumbered but should still have the edge – provided that they are aggressive. The battle was played out on a featureless flat table.

The first issue I had was how to adapt to my miniatures. The rules are designed for most of the units to be based on 3 inch (75mm) bases. My units use 20mm square bases, with three for an infantry unit and four for cavalry. These are actually meant to be infantry battalions and cavalry regiments, rather than the brigades of the rules (roughly twice the number of men) – but I glossed over that. I decided to deploy my infantry bases in line, and cavalry units in two by two blocks, and hope that the variation in frontage wouldn’t matter. It didn’t, and the visual effect was good. A trickier problem how to translate the distances – I used them as published. That was a bit of an issue because I was using tiny playing area of about 24 inches by 36 inches. This meant that some of the move distances (especially cavalry) were a bit long – but there was no easy-to-apply conversion factor. As I write I remember that I had made up some rulers marked out in two-thirds inches (“Canadian inches”) to use with Grande Armée – which would have been perfect. But I don’t think these have survived the house move. One of the advantages of having 6mm figures though is that you can use a smaller playing area, so I want to find a way around this in future. My basing system (developed for Gå På!) may be unusual but it is common to put 6mm units on a single base with 60mm frontage – so solving this problem would help more than me!

How did the game play out? The Russians started the game on Hold orders, and the Swedes on Attack. The Swedes tried to focus on the Russian left flank and refuse the right. This might have worked under Gå På! rules, but not with these. In the second turn the Russian right switched to Attack and caught the two of Swedish infantry units as they tried to make their way across, and outflanked them. Meanwhile the Swedish cavalry attacked the Russian dragoons, but one unit stalled and the other only made slow headway. This was when I took the picture above. It was not going well for the Swedes. But slowly they prevailed. One of the left wing Swedish infantry units escaped the outflanking move and charged forward to attack the infantry to its front. Forcing back first one unit and then the next; when the second unit was forced back it had to pass through the disrupted first unit, causing it to rout. Meanwhile the outflanking Russians routed the remaining Swedish infantry unit (the poorer quality one), but effectively lost one of their units as it ran off in pursuit; the other unit had been disordered in the process. The Russian right, facing one Swedish infantry and two cavalry, bogged down their opponents and started to force them back. But then the Swedes renewed their attack and managed to rout one infantry and one dragoon unit. That proved enough to collapse the Russians.

This was an absorbing game and a close fight. The Swedes probably had the edge, but I now see that their army (ex leadership) was worth 1,500 points to the Russians 1,375. Unlike Gå På! leadership did not have much influence on game play, hence the quick switch to attack by the Russians on their right. Whether this is realistic in a bit dubious – there is no activation step for new orders – but it probably helps to create a more enjoyable game. I used the random generator for leadership quality, with the Russians classed as “new” and the Swedes as “professional”. The dice tilted the Russian way and there wasn’t much difference in leadership quality between the two sides. This had very little impact on the game, though, which was surprising. I still don’t understand the difference between an “experienced” and “normal” general in game play. Unless I have missed something 9always possible), leadership quality does not have as much influence on the game as many modern rules.

Overall I found things a bit slower than I expected. I kept having to look things up. It did not help that the game took three separate sessions, the second a few days after the first, the third a full two weeks later, including a holiday. I don’t think the quick reference sheet is all that well designed – and it would help to slim it down for just the troop types within my armies. A second problem was that the rules are quite thin, though the big type and pictures still mean that they are spread over many pages. A lot of issues just aren’t covered, but it can take a bit of a search to realise that. I had to put in place my own interpretations several times, on matters that rule books should be cover, though often don’t. Less is often more, but not always! With a confident games master, though, most of these issues would disappear. This small battle, featuring lots of raw troops, still took quite a few moves more than I expected (I wasn’t counting though – in the region of ten I think, and about five hours). Melée combat quite often got stuck in a draw; even raw units had to be ground down before being destroyed. Some features of the rules jarred at first outing. I found the three stylised orders that each wing is bound to (Hold, Attack, Withdraw) a bit restrictive at first; the Russians on Hold couldn’t send out their cossacks to do a bit of probing. But this made more sense as the game progressed.

The only historical issue I came up with the that it did not reflect Swedish Gå På! tactics well. In attack the Swedish infantry (still pike-armed) only fired a single shot before going in close; the cavalry did not do any prep fire at all, contrary to general practice at the time. In these rules all units fire at each other as they close. I think this calls for some kind of special rule. Swedish cavalry and pike-armed infantry should be allowed to charge attack; when they do so they do not fire before they go in (but must take fire from their opponents) but get a melee advantage, such as an extra die. A further historical issue is that it is hard to reflect Swedish elite (i.e. Guard) units, if their better line ones are classed as Veteran. You can overdo this sort of thing though, and any extra advantage should be quite subtle.

Before I try these rules out again though, I need to prepare my own QR sheet, focused on my GNW troops, and with reduced distances (roughly two-thirds, perhaps using centimetres rather than inches) – and trying to make the layout clearer.

My first article asked whether these rules were an answer to a prayer (to find rules for my GNW figures). The answer is “yes”. All I need now are opportunities to game!

Sam Mustafa’s Rommel: first look

This game has been out for a few years now, and I’ve had my eye on it. It’s by Sam Mustafa, one of the world’s top wargames designers, for whom I have had a huge respect since the days of Grande Armée. Here he goes into a whole new era: WW2, and he has produced a game at operational level, to use the US military terminology (which I would otherwise call grand tactical). Each player has one or more divisions, and the playing area represents 72 square kilometres (or more…). Such games are commonplace as board games, but not on the tabletop, where games tend to have the flavour one-to-one representations, even when (for example Rapid Fire!) each piece actually represents a platoon or more. Now that I want to bring in such elements as artillery and air power to the tabletop, this is the sort of game I’m looking for. So at long last I splashed out on a copy.

I was rather underwhelmed at first. It’s quite a small book, like the Napoleonic Blucher from the same stable. The typesetting and visual appearance is similar to Blucher too, and overworked to my taste. The scantily clad 1940s girls adorning the chapter numbers may be very evocative of servicemen’s pin-ups, but it is just annoying to me, I’m afraid. The photos are a bit underwhelming too, and there aren’t many of them (though I don’t mind that so much). More seriously, as I got into the rules there seemed to be a lot missing: antitank guns, infantry guns (except when they aren’t), heavy mortars, recce units, AA units. Air power is dealt with in a very abstract way. Worse, the game structure seems very “gamey”, with each player having a “Command Post” sheet that reminds me of something similar in Saga, the very gamey Dark Ages game. The worry here is that you spend too much time playing the rules, rather than making decisions that resemble those of the historical counterparts. Sam badly overdid this in my view with his 18th century Maurice game, where players were playing hands of cards as well as troops on the table in a way that bore no resemblance to how actual generals went about their work.

But it quickly got better, though I still can’t reconcile myself to the visuals. Producing a game at this level is a tough gig if you are used to traditional style rules. You have to leave a lot out or else the whole thing gets overwhelming. This is the sort of thing that Sam is so good at. The game went through a lot of testing during which a lot of extraneous stuff was thrown out. I suppose if I want 120mm mortars, Bofors guns or Grille SP guns on the table then I need to go for a system like Rapid Fire. Likewise for model aircraft, though these could be brought in at a pinch as markers or tokens for “Events” or “Tactics”. The Command Post is much simpler than the Saga equivalent, and it is just a more sophisticated Command Point system. That may be too gamey in the end, but it’s not like playing a hand of cards.

So, what about the game? The first thing to say is that it is played on a grid of 1km squares. Practically these can’t be more than 6in (15cm) across, or else the table gets too big. That brings some challenges that I will come to. If you don’t like squares it is easy enough to adapt to hexes. The advantage of squares is twofold. Most important, they are very easy to mark out on the table using very discrete dots for the corners or the centres (the recommended method). Second is cosmetic; modern maps are marked up in a square grid, and maps played a critical part in the conduct of war at this level. Hexes make it look more like a board game. The use of squares to regulate movement, combat and artillery ranges feels like an excellent compromise for this sort of game. But it does mean that a lot geographical features get lost, like those support units: villages, roads, streams and so on.

Beyond that it really is quite hard to explain, especially since I haven’t tried playing it yet. It has an IgoUgo turn system. The player has a very limited budget of “Ops” (Command Points to you and me – I’m afraid I dislike Sam’s game terminology almost as much as his graphic design), which can be spent on movement, “Events” or “Tactics”. Doing well in combat looks expensive in points, while moving around is not so much. The combat resolution system is quite basic, but looks pretty appropriate. The whole thing is so unlike conventional games, though, it will take a little learning. As ever, Sam has thought of that, with basic rules and advanced rules, and a simple introductory scenario.

So what are my concerns? The first concerns my toys. For WW2 they are mainly 20mm, which is undoubtedly on the big side. It should be possible to get three Shermans into a 6in square (three is the stacking limit), but it would be a squeeze. There aren’t many photos of games in progress, but these mainly seem to be 6mm models on a 4in grid, with occasional 15mm or 2mm models. Undoubtedly the smaller models look better, though often I find their bases to be distracting. But 20mm models on a 6in grid will be not unlike 15mm ones on a 4in grid. Of course the missing toys grate, especially the anti-tank guns, which played such an important part in tactics of the time. The advanced rules allow what they call “tank hunters”, lightly armoured SP AT guns like the German Marder or Russian Su-76. That looked a bit of a cop-out to me – a bit of warmgamer’s bias to anything with tracks. These really are just mobile AT guns with almost no attack value. This clearly grated on early gamers too – as the downloadable optional rules contain an extra rule on massed AT guns. This is meant to represent such tactics as German Pakfronts, used by German, Soviet and British armies from mid-war on. There is also a “Tactic” to represent the presence of 88s and British 17pdrs (“Pheasants” – though I think that term only applied to the early improvised weapons on 25pdr carriages, of which I actually have a rather crude model). If you wanted to, it would be quite easy to put on heavy mortars or infantry guns, as after all the rules make occasional provision for 75mm howitzers. The issue is how concentrated these units were in practice – as an artillery unit needs to be quite beefy to get onto the table. Indeed it is quite hard for me to reconcile the presence of German 75mm guns in the early and late periods, and US pack howitzers for paras, but not American Chemical Mortar units, which played quite a significant role at Salerno, for example. Of course this game is doubtless plagued by dozens of issues like this, and you have to draw the line somewhere.

After the toys issue, I thought there was something else missing. There is no recognition of the significance of vantage points and commanding heights. That shows the influence of the Tunisian and Italian campaigns on my thinking, for my Project 1943. Commanding heights were critical objectives, and their possession influenced the direction of battles in these theatres. It was also a big deal on the Western Front in WW1, even around Ypres were on first impression the ground is pretty flat. On reflection I am feeling this is not such a big problem, as I don’t think it was such an issue in the relatively fluid battles fought across relatively flat terrain for much of the war. There are ways it can be dealt with too in the exceptional places, perhaps with the use of the Recce tactic, or other parts of the Command Post; exploiting a vantage point should surely require CPs. But that brings on another issue: the game has a fairly easy to understand open architecture when designing units, but the design of the Command Posts is less transparent. Each country (with the US and Britain treated as integrated allies) has a standard CP for each of the early, mid and late war periods. This looks as if it should work well enough for most of the time, but there will always be a case for tinkering with it, and the design aspects of this are not transparent.

Still, I feel I must give this a try. This means I must give some thought as to table design. I am not inspired by the photos of games In action. Firstly, with my 20mm models I think I need to go for an abstract look, bringing to mind maps rather than real terrain. That would men no physical terrain pieces on the table. There just isn’t room, and they look wrong. A tree is not a forest. A lone building is not a street. The terrain markings need to be flat, so that the models can go on top as glorified counters. Features can be named, including ones that have no game significance (like villages and major roads), but would have been important geographical markers. It might be a bit ambitious to give every square a name (72 squares!), but there should be enough to help navigation. I think that would do a lot to give the game atmosphere . I do have some 6mm models too, though only a US army that is ready for the table top. I was thinking of using these to try out Battlefront rules, based on the late war (perhaps the Lorraine battles in September 1944). Some thought needs to be given about these as well. It is more practical for these to have more representational terrain though the temptation is to have smaller (4in) squares, which make this harder. This is worth thinking about. I have a feeling that a weak visual appearance on the tabletop is one of the reasons these rules haven’t caught on as much as they might have done.

A final issue for me is to think about ways to make the use air power less abstract. I totally understand why Sam never attempted this – it entails a whole new layer of the game. It is purely something I need to get off my chest. Air power did have an important part to play at this level, though it was often away from the main battle front. I would like players to have air assets which they then choose to deploy to influence the battle as best they can, through front line support, air superiority, interdiction or medium level bombing. I think space could be made for this in a game like this. But a while down the track on that one!

But overall Sam Mustafa is to be congratulated in taking on a very challenging project, and coming up with solutions I would never have thought of, and giving insights into the sorts of compromises that have to be made. I am looking forward to trying these rules out. One day.

In Deo Veritas – answer to a prayer?

My wargaming energies are mainly devoted to two periods: the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. But I do have another set of miniatures that rarely get an outing these days: some 6mm Swedes and Russians for the Great Northern War, circa 1709 (the year of the world-changing battle of Poltava). One reason they have not seen the tabletop for so long is that I lack a suitable set rules to use.

When I acquired them my friend George and I used a set of rules called Ga Pa! These are a very clever, written by a Swede, Thomas Arnfelt, with the GNW in mind, though they can be used for other early 18th Century Wars. What was wrong? They were too innovative; George and I liked them, but they would be hard to introduce on a club night, as there were too many new ideas. And even for us, they could be a bit slow at times. They weren’t particularly clearly written either, which meant that quite a lot of time can be lost trying to interpret them for a new situation. Since I used them I notice there’s a second edition, though, which might be an improvement.

My second try was with Barry Hilton’s Under Lily Banners. They are written by a very experienced gamer with a deep love for the era (built mainly by studying conflicts further west – but he has taken on the GNW with a vengeance since). They are quite old-school and designed with bigger figures and fewer units per player than I wanted to do, though. But they were quite usable substituting centimetres for inches. What I really didn’t like about them was cavalry v cavalry combat that owed more to Hollywood than realism, which, given that cavalry is so big in this era, ruined the whole feel. I abandoned them after a single game with George. Perhaps I should have tried harder, but I still felt they were not designed to play the sort of game I wanted.

And so for years the figures stayed in their box, with large numbers of them unpainted and unbased. I had an idea to adapt Horse Foot Guns by Pat Barker. This very expansive system did cover this era, along right up to just before WWI, but would have needed a bit of work with my basing system. Also these rules need a heavy era-specific edit to be workable (I did a Napoleonic rewrite, which I have described on this blog). Too much work.

And then a recent magazine article tickled my fancy. It was describing the launch of a new set of rules by Helion called In Deo Veritas by Philip Garton. These are designed for 17th Century warfare, but GNW marks the transition between this and the next era, and has a late 17th Century feel. And it has been designed with bigger armies and smaller figures in mind. They sounded exactly what I was looking for, so I bought a copy as lockdown reading.

I was not disappointed. They have exactly the right level of detail for me. Unit level combat is dealt with briefly, allowing more focus on higher level issues such as command and cohesion. GP covered both levels well, but that led to the rules being too arduous as a whole. ULB focused on the unit-level stuff, as it would be relatively rare to have big armies on the tabletop. Focusing on the right level is one of the critical aspects of war-games design, and this is clearly understood by Philip. Play is based on one-base units, organised into a number of “wings”. Units are mainly “brigades” of about 1,000 men, on bases of 3in by 1.5in; smaller units on 1.5in squares; larger ones (such as early tercios featuring in the early part of the era) and irregular cavalry on 3in squares. 1in corresponds to about 40 yards.

I don’t want to describe the mechanics in too much detail. Anyway I haven’t played them yet (though I can’t wait). Each wing is given an order (Advance, Hold or Withdraw). Movement is one wing at a time activated in random sequence of both sides (they suggest using cards – but it’s the same as Warlord’s bag of dice). Then there is simultaneous combat, with firing, then melee. Finally the cohesion issues are resolved. There is almost no attempt to model the different types of armament of the units (e.g. pikes v muskets or matchlocks v flintlocks). If that kind of tactical detail is your thing, then you need a lower level set of rules. Cohesion/fatigue is modelled at unit, wing and army level.

How would they adapt for 1709 GNW? In this period the Swedes fought a modernised Russian army under Peter the Great. Flintlock muskets were the main armament, but the Swedes still armed up to a third of their infantry unis with pikes. The Russians used pikes too, but in smaller numbers. The formations were deep by 18th Century standards, the three-rank, platoon-firing units were in the future (except maybe the contemporary Dutch and English). So it has a late 17th century feel. There are two issues that I think might need rules modification. The first is the Swedish Ga Pa! doctrine of shock tactics, both for infantry and cavalry, which were unique at the time (even the cavalry indulged in extensive mounted firefights). I’m not sure if the Swedes need special advantages in melee (and probably disadvantages in firing), or whether quality differences in the rules already will suffice. A Swedish army should be able to take on much larger opposing armies, provided that it is very aggressive. The other issue is the Russian cavalry. They had almost no cavalry as commonly understood, but lots of dragoons served the role, and these rarely fought on foot (but could and sometimes did). In the rules dragoons fight in small units; the Russians often used them en masse. Russian dragoons could be treated as inferior cavalry brigades, or they could be mounted on brigade bases with special provisions. A further possible issue (I don’t have my GNW books with me) is that brigades are a bit on the large side in this war – but I think these rules would work by substituting battalions for brigades.

A much bigger issue for me is basing. All my miniatures are based on 20mm squares, with three bases for a typical infantry unit and four for cavalry. I like the visual appearance of this (especially the Swedes with a central block of pikes), and that is one of the reasons I got into this era in the first place. The basing was quite an effort too (many of the infantry figures were cut off their strips and placed individually). I am not rebasing. I have some ideas on how this might adapt my current basing system, but they have to be tried out. Since I am between homes at the moment, as well as lockdown, with most of my possessions, including my GNW figures, in storage, this will have to wait.

It was very interesting to read the book’s accounts of six battles at the end, turned into scenarios. 17th Century warfare is not something I know much about. What struck me from these accounts is how disorderly the battles were, with sometimes fortunes changing at the very end, and how independently the different wings operated from each other. They look to be great subjects for wargaming, especially multi-player games. These rules seem to reflect that very well, and should be a great basis for club games. Alas that will be some time in the future for me!

WW2 – I Ain’t Been Shot Mum

Domestic circumstances mean I can’t go back to painting miniatures (we’re about to put the house onto the market), so my hobby time at home is largely devoted to pondering rules. After spending quite a bit of time (successfully) on Napoleonics, I switched to WW2, where my group at the club has failed to find anything satisfactory for our club games.

So far I have been trying to create a mash up of Battlefront WW2, Battlegroup, and Iron Cross. This uses the (largely) the IC game scales (units, distances, etc.), the BF turn system and BG armour and gun ratings, with quite a lot of other ideas thrown in. It’s a struggle, though the sort of challenge I enjoy. It is much harder doing WW2 rules than Napoleonic! While making some progress I thought I was missing a certain something, and decided to acquire yet another set of rules for inspiration. This was I Ain’t Been Shot Mum (IABSM) from Too Fat Lardies. These are used by other players at the club, and TFL are an interesting publisher, whose motto “play the period, not the rules” I wholeheartedly agree with. This post is my reaction from a read-through. I haven’t tried them out.

Trying them out would in fact be less than straightforward. They are card-driven, and a set of cards would have to be created first, or bought; the current logistics at home would make it even harder for a solo trial game (though the system is an excellent solo system). In terms of game scale they fit my brief quite nicely: company level actions with mixed infantry and armour, with a 1to1 scaling of vehicles. Ground scale is 12in to 80 yards, probably not far from Iron Cross (which does offer a scale) – and a bit higher than my current working model (1in to 10m). But game play is not such a good fit.

IABSM follows the current trend of individual unit activation, with units from both sides being mixed up. In this case it is driven by cards. Each unit (platoon) has a card, which is shuffled up and then drawn, together with a “tea break” card which ends the turn, usually before all units are activated. A lot of other cards are added to the pack, including for “Big Men” – leaders. This is a very TFL feature – they love to represent the way that individual leaders can shape a battle. This is a very interesting and flexible system, and it would be fun to see how it works. Once activated each unit has a number of actions (up to four), which be used to move, fire, etc. I find this problematic on a number of levels, though these issues plague other rules systems too. You can loose off several rounds while the other guy just sits there; you can do a “moving ambush” – moving into view of the enemy and then firing before he can react; the highly sequential way in which things are played potentially slows things down, especially for multiplayer games. I may well have exaggerated all these concerns. You can put troops on overwatch, which allows them to react to enemy movement in the enemy turn (though your unit must have been activated earlier in the sequence). A lot of the firing actually takes place at the end of a turn, which is simultaneous (as far as I can tell, I haven’t found that bit of the rules).

A second issue is that the rules are actually quite complicated, though making the usual claims about fast play and simplicity. Infantry sections are made up of men 1to1, with individual casualties; “shock” is tracked for all units as an accounting for morale; AFVs can acquire several varieties of damage. Firing looks quite involved with quite a few dice, because of the number of different effects a hit can have (killing figures, shock, two levels of suppression, and vehicle damage), with different processes for infantry fire, fire on vehicles and HE fire, not to mention indirect fire and air strikes. This makes it much more complicated than any of the systems I am familiar with (Iron Cross, Battlefront, Battlegroup in particular). Now this is probably all quite easy to pick up and play, and overall the rules seem less complicated than Battlefront, though not the other systems, which partly because these other systems have gaps. You would definitely want to play your first game with somebody that knows them, though that is true of most systems.

I won’t be trying them out on my usual gaming partners at the club, but these look very interesting rules, put together by experts in game design. I will find myself filching a number of ideas. I especially like the blinds system, which is particularly flexible. This is part of a spotting system, which looks like an elegant compromise, though I am confused about one or two aspects. (Why is there +1 to the dice for spotting a target that is firing, when blinds can only fire if they reveal themselves?).

I did not find the answer to my missing “certain something” on my current project. I am working on a more traditional IgoUgo turn system, where all units on the same side fire at once, if eligible, but units react faster to each other. This system is based on the Fire and Fury one (and used by Battlefront), but with a twist. A static unit can fire at the beginning and end of its turn, with the enemy eligible for defensive fire in between. This means the fire sequence across a pair of turns for static units is ABABAB, and not BAAB as with the classic system. What I am missing is an idea of what I call “game narrative”. This game is played across a relatively small area (500 to 600m across) with powerful and very noisy weapons. This means that the action should not be too complex – as implied by the activation systems of IABSM, IC and even BF. Events should evolve as a single battle rather than a complex multiple interaction between individual units. For example, when an artillery bombardment is going on (or an airstrike), nothing much else should happen – it is an interruption to the flow of events. This leads me to the idea that one side or the other holds the initiative, for example when conducting an assault, with the other hunkering down and firing like mad. The initiative idea doesn’t have to be baked into a game system, as players should respond to the tabletop situation in that way without special rules. But the idea of one side having the initiative and the other having fewer options might be a way to speed the game along.

But how do you determine who has the initiative, and integrate into this a system for bringing on off-table resources, such as bombardments and reinforcements? I’m still pondering on that one. But I’m hoping to get a fast, highly interactive game that is suitable for a club night, while retaining something of the feel of WW2 warfare.

Albuera 1811: refight for BNB

Another week , another outing for my Big Napoleonic Battles rules at the club. This time I wanted to try something historical. I had already worked out a scenario for the epic Pensinsular battle of Albuera in 1811, so I dusted it down. Unfortunately I brought the wrong box of French, so the French army looked very scrappy, including some ancient Minifigs Old Guard and Union ACW troops in skirmish order. So no pictures.

The scenario was quite stylised. I am avoiding close adherence to the historical terrain and orders of battle. This makes the games quicker to set up and play. The terrain is simplified to essentials, and the units mostly of standard size. However the overall number of bases was close to historical for each side. Apart from the French infantry (using my usual four bases) the unit sizes were smaller than I have used for 1815: three bases. The figure ratio was set at 1,000 infantry per base, less than the 1,250 I am using for 1815, but this reflects the toll the Peninsula took on grand tactical formations. Each of the two British divisions were represented by two units (allowing the Portuguese to be separated in Cole’s division). There was one four-base Spanish unit: Zayas’s division. Not too much distortion was needed with these unit sizes. The French got an extra unit, attributed to the reserves. Alten’s KGL light infantry was merged with Collins’s independent Portuguese brigade.

All the British and French infantry was classed as Veteran, including the KGL/Portuguese unit, and the British (but not the merged unit) were also classed as Aggressive. The two Portuguese units and Zayas were classed as Trained. The other Spanish units were Raw and Fragile, along with the Spanish and Portuguese cavalry. The British cavalry unit was Trained and Aggressive. The French light cavalry units were classed as Veteran, with one (the Polish lancers and 2nd Hussars) also as Aggressive. The two French dragoon units were classed as Trained – the French dragoon arm seems to have had problems in 1811/12 in the Pensinsula. To mimic the command problems on the Allied side, they were given no generals, and the Spanish were additionally classed as Passive. The French had two generals.

As with the original battle the French pushed most of their infantry into a left flank attack, with the lead unit feinting on Albuera village in the centre. Unlike the day the main French attack the Allies had more time to respond, notwithstanding command issues, so the flank was not fully turned, and all the cavalry was thrown into the attack in the centre. This succeeded drawing in British infantry to the centre, where the French held their own, though the sight of two French cavalry units scrapping for the village jarred a bit (the village wasn’t treated as a dense built-up area, so cavalry could operate in it). The Spanish were left holding off the main French onslaught, but were helped by cavalry superiority. By the time we called it a day, the Spanish were holding on, though the fight had lasted only two moves: a longer battle would have been uglier for the Spanish. The French had started to relocate some of their cavalry from the centre to counter the Allied cavalry superiority.

So how did the rules do? Such historical refights need to be judged on three aspects. Scenario design, player performance and the rules themselves. The scenario had one major weakness: it allowed the Allies to react to the French battle plan at least one move earlier than they did historically. Their ability to react needs to be constrained. Also I think Coles’s division is available too early. I was playing closer attention to the French, and their their use of generals and the veteran status meant that the army didn’t suffer too much friction in the early stages. The Allies suffered more, but I’m not sure if it was enough to reflect the historical situation. Perhaps they should all be Passive (with maybe a British general to compensate). I am broadly happy with the troop classifications: if the Spanish were too effective that is a rules problem, as they had nearly the lowest grade possible. On terrain I think it was broadly OK except I don’t think the hills on the Allied side were right, and could do with another look – but the restraint is using club terrain, which does not allow relief to be represented exactly right. I think some way of showing a watershed on the table might be worth considering.

And the players? You can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. If wargamers behave unhistorically on the tabletop there nothing much that rules and scenarios can do about it except nudge them in the right direction. The first unhistorical thing was the way the French threw their cavalry into the centre, leaving the left unsupported against three Allied cavalry units. This followed the way I split the commands, giving both the advance guard and the cavalry to one player, and the rest of the infantry to the other. Each player then focused on their own personal battle rather than the battle as a whole. Historically the French had a strong overall commander, Marshal Soult, and this strong unified command showed in a coherent battle plan. A second issue was that the French threw all their infantry in at once on the left, leaving no reserve. Soult left a substantial reserve which he threw in at the critical point once the initial attack got bogged down. This is a classic wargames issue, exacerbated by the fact it was an evening game with a maximum of five moves. The Allies were no better. A further wargamer issue is that the players are much more aggressive with cavalry than historically. On the Allied side this meant moving units far out to each flank in the hope of taking the attacking units in the rear. This isn’t historical, though the natural response – for the attacker to cover flanks with cavalry certainly is historical, and this would be an effective way of neutralising the tactic. I have noticed the very aggressive cavalry before and I’m not sure what, if anything, to do about it.

And the rules themselves? In terms of the broad sweep my chief concern is that battles don’t evolve quickly enough: each turn is meant to represent an hour, and the battle seems to develop more slowly. In this case I don’t think it was because the players were hesitant. There are two possible culprits: slow movement and combat mechanisms. The move distances are already uncomfortably long for the simplest moves, especially where roads are involved. Of course terrain and command friction can slow things down a lot, but that wasn’t the issue in this game. The big infantry battles perhaps take too many moves to resolve. But given that they are already very dice-heavy you need to resolve in several rounds to the dice a chance to balance out. In an earlier incarnation I added to the losses on both sides in close combats – that might be worth looking at again, so that units are worn down faster (allowing multiple combat rounds may be the best way of doing this). The jury remains out. It is hard to draw out where the rules are at fault rather than the scenarios or players. A key learning from Chris Pringle (author of Bloody Big Battles) is not to rush in to fiddle with the rules to fix every problem.

There are some lesser points that I will add to my list of ongoing issues and modifications. The cavalry had it too easy in the village – and indeed I worry a bit about the way “open villages” work. I think they need to be disadvantaged in this type of terrain (and open woods too). Also what happens when two cavalry units hit an infantry unit? Simultaneous combat , as the rules imply, or sequential, which I think makes more sense? The second unit would benefit form disruption in the infantry (+2), but it will be in square (-2). A more radical thought on combat is to make all multiple attacks sequential – this might help make combats more decisive, but creates problems if units are of different sizes (three and six bases for example). That’s much too radical for now, of course.

Life away from the hobby is going through a busy patch, so I will have limited opportunity to develop further scenarios. But I’m keen to get going. Something that helps is that I have bought some lovely British infantry from another club member, which means that doing Pensinsula scenarios is a more realistic proposition. It is much easier to use Prussians as a stand-in for Portuguese and Spanish rather than British redcoats.

Big Napoleonic Battles – prototype rules published

Our latest game reaches its climax.

Since my last report we have played two more short games at the club with my new rules, Big Napoleonic Battles (loosely based on Bloody Big Battles). They have settled down enough for me to publish them on the Rules page of this website in pdf.

These rules are a working prototype, which I am calling V0. They should be all you need to play, but there are no pictures or diagrams, and very few examples. While these rules will never be published in the mainstream way, with lots of eye-candy and glossy paper, I might aspire to something with more explanation and perhaps even some scenarios. The model here is again Bloody Big Battles, though I can’t see that I will ever get the rules actually printed and sold for money.

Instead of updating these rules as I think of changes, which I have done a couple of times already, I propose to publish a separate sheet of updates and clarifications, which I can update regularly. That will make things easier for people who have printed the current version, as some of my club colleagues have. These will be consolidated into V1 in due course. At that point I will attempt examples and diagrams.

These rules are by no means perfect, but they give a good club game. My fellow gamers like them – something I take as a considerable complement: we often let go of rules that we find don’t quite work. That has happened with Fistful of TOWs, Battlefront, Rapid Fire and Iron Cross for WW2/Modern, and Altar of Freedom ACW. My next project indeed will be to develop something for my WW2 models! Foe us the rules have to play quickly in a multi-player format, and conform to some degree with how they expect wargames to work.

How realistic are they? I get fed up with claims made by rules promoters that are both simple to pick up and realistic, when they obviously have not been tested against historical reality. The original BBB has been extensively used for historical refights, though typically for battles later in the 19th Century, so it has a fair claim to realism. I can’t yet make the same claim for BNB, as the sort of quick scenarios we can do on club night are rarely historical. I might try out an Albuera game next week, though.

What I can say, as I said last time, there is high variability based on dice throws, making outcomes very unpredictable. I don’t think that is unrealistic, given the vast number of factors that have been abstracted away, but it will irritate some players just as it entertains others.

Do try them out and let me know how you get on!

Big Napoleonic Battles – nearly there!

Our club game on Monday night

A couple of weeks ago I reported I had taken the radical step of creating a set of standalone Napoleonic rules, based on our house rules for Bloody Big Battles. For the time being I have christened these rules as Big Napoleonic Battles, until I can think of something better. At our club game this week we used the next iteration of these rules. And the verdict from my club colleagues is that they are nearly there. After the next series of tweaks I will post a copy here.

The scenario was one I put together in a hurry, and wasn’t helped by being caught in a horrendous traffic jam on the South Circular on the way. With five players (including one brand new one), each with two or three units plus artillery, we completed five moves, which was the limit I placed on the scenario. I am understanding how to design games that can be completed comfortably on a club evening, where we are limited to two and a half hours. The multiplayer aspect doesn’t speed things up as much as it might, since there is still a tendency for players on the same side to wait for each other. It also helped that I limited unit size to four bases. I hope that can I increase to four units per player, so that we can get bigger games, but the five move limit feels right. It is meant to represent 5 hours of real time, which in 1815 was the length of both Ligny and Quatre Bras – as well as the Prussian involvement in Waterloo.

Now that I have a game that my colleagues like, I am going to put my Napoleonic rule-writing on hold. Doubtless I will want to make small tweaks to BNB, or write some special rules to cover particular situations, such as strongholds (i.e. farmhouses, churches, etc turned into defensive structures). Perhaps extra rules on generals would add appeal. But my more ambitious thoughts on a new turn and movement mechanism will wait. I will switch my rule-writing to another era: WW2 probably.

The scenario had two Prussian corps, each one regular infantry, one landwehr and one cavalry unit and two artillery bases, defending a town, in a position with flanks anchored by a river and village on one side and a dense wood on the other. Attacking them where two French corps, each with two infantry units and two artillery bases, one with a cavalry unit. In addition there was a reserve cavalry corps with one unit of cuirassiers and one of dragoons, both classed as veteran (all other French were trained) and the cuirassiers classed as aggressive. The objective was to take the town in five moves.

The Prussians took a bit of a battering but held out pretty well. The town changed hands several times. I was a bit worried that French cavalry superiority would dominate, and indeed gave the Prussians their second cavalry unit at the last minute in order balance things better. But the cuirassiers performed poorly, in spite of having a +2 advantage on close combat. The Prussian artillery kept stopping them, and they threw badly in combat. The extra Prussian cavalry unit, on the other flank, contributed very little except as an artillery target.

The main rule feature on trial were rules on town combat. Each town block can only be occupied by a single infantry unit (and only attackable by one infantry unit at a time), and any loss on close combat would result in the attacker capturing it. The town provided good cover against fire, but only -1 in close combat. Though some details need to be tweaked, this worked very well. It changed hands on most attacks, with the attackers only to be turned out by an immediate counterattack. This is pretty realistic – historically this would only be complicated by the presence of a strongpoint. But rules to cater for such things would not be simple, and I am leaving it until later.

I have still have questions over the treatment of elite formations. The +2 for the cuirassiers looked a bit rich. That isn’t a problem with the rules as much as one of scenario design. In fact the indifferent performance of that unit showed that I may be worrying too much.

Which leads to the observation that there’s no getting away from the fact that these rules are very dice-heavy, even though they don’t take the fistful of dice approach (you never throw more than two at a time). The same scenario is likely to play very differently if repeated. Personally I don’t mind this: historians are too quick to suggest that historical outcomes are inevitable. Surprising events often happened. But tastes vary. Some of my colleagues loved it when their cunning plan failed because they threw a double one; others were frustrated when a blast on canister fire completely failed to register.

The game went so well that my friends asked for another game next week. I can’t ask for a stronger endorsement that that!