Category Archives: Games & rules

Horse, Foot, Guns goes to Salamanca

In my last post I tried out HFG rules with Rob in a cut-down Waterloo refight. That was successful enough to try the rules again. We wanted a less concentrated game, and I didn’t have long to set it up. I picked on Salamanca (or Arapiles as the Spanish and French have it), Wellington’s decisive victory over Marmont in 1812. We will be re-doing it!

I have avoided Salamanca to date as I thought to refight it as the battle happened would be a bit too one-sided to the British, and to refight it any other way would be historically false, as Wellington would not have started the battle. In fact, rereading the history (in Rory Muir’s seminal work), this is false on both counts. In the first instance Wellington was probably lucky to get the decisive initial success with Pakenham’s division slicing through Thomière’s, which then set up a chain reaction which rolled up the French left. In the second, Marmont was in the process of turning Wellington’s flank and threatening to capture Salamanca, and this was reason enough for Wellington to strike even without that decisive advantage. In fact I understand that in wargaming it is usually quite an even battle. And it presents some interesting challenges for simulators, and so a good one to study as I develop my own rules.

Meanwhile, I had been doing some homework on HFG, completing my own version of the rules on a simplified scope (by limiting it to Napoleonic land battles and cutting out the battle set-up, etc.). This cut 35 pages down to 12, with much greater clarity to boot, with a couple of really helpful tables on combat outcomes. I’m not how many games I’ll get, but it is instructive to pull apart a thoroughly thought-through but badly written set of rules and put it back together again.

The next challenge was the table. This is significant sub-plot in my wargaming project, and I like to try out new ideas. The first problem is that I did not have a decent contour map of the area. I had to base it on Muir’s diagrammatic maps, supported by some other published maps. The area around the Arapiles is gently rolling, except in three or four points were the ground is high enough for a sandstone strata to survive, creating craggy slopes – no doubt the sandstone from which the lovely city of Salamanca is built. These heights include the Greater and Lesser Arapiles, which dominate the battle’s centre, and slopes near the village of Calvarisa de Ariba, which anchored the French right. It was easy enough to represent the essential features with two contours, the second one featuring the crags. There is a lesson in this; my Waterloo field is over-engineered and has too many contours. I made the contours from expanded polystyrene, but placed them on top of the base cloth, rather than underneath, as before. I did this because I did not have enough styrene for a base layer and so had nothing to pin the cloth into. In any case the cloth method is not good for crags. I used paint, flock and sand to cover the hills. I had to represent the areas of light wood and streams with dark green felt. Here’s another picture:My verdict on this is distinctly mixed. The contours on top of the cloth certainly aided the movement of the troops, and the flock surface looks much better than bare cloth (as much from the texture as the variation in colour). The styrene warped a bit, and taping to the cloth did not resolve this entirely, as the cloth was lifted. I need a firmer base that I can pin the contours to. The table lacked coherence, though the contrast between the contours and the cloth was not as bad as I feared. The cloth is now a bit battered and stained, and this actually helps! But the base layer needs at least patches of flocked material that match with the contour layers, and it would probably help to mark in the more important tracks somehow – though that is trick at this scale. The villages need more work, and so do the stream and wooded areas. The most important requirement is a base layer (chip board or insulating foam) that I can pin things into. This will include trees.

And so to the battle. The scenario picks up from the point at which Pakenham is about to strike, while the French have already deployed a grand battery that is battering the Allied centre. There is an immediate problem with scenario design. Neither army used a corps system. They had commanders and then seven or eight divisions plus cavalry formations and (in the Allied case) a few independent brigades. In HFG (and following the published army lists) that means each army has only one general per side, which means a very small supply of pips (Player Initiative Points) to keep the battle flowing. This made it especially hard to move anything away from the centre of the action – though it also made the turns quite quick.

As a brilliant commander, Wellington was able to double his pips for two moves, which Rob (playing the Allies) used in the first two moves. Poor Marmont was away from the action and threw badly at first, so was able to do very little. This was not unlike how the historical battle started. But the Allies could not use this, and their flanking position, to gain a decisive early advantage. They needed some good combat throws, which were not forthcoming. Meanwhile the French artillery scored a lucky hit and took out one of Leith’s units in the first turn. The photos are taken early in the game, in about the third or fourth turn, when Leith was engaging with Maucune, and Pakenham grappling with Thomières – having beaten off le Marchant’s heavy cavalry. Eventually one of Thomière’s units was destroyed.

The French struggled to bring up reinforcements, while the British brought in Cole’s division. With this they gradually overwhelmed and pushed back Thomières and Maucune, now consolidated into a single formation. French units started going down. The tally reached five infantry units and an artillery unit as the British pushed forward, for the loss of only two more units themselves. The French had a break-point of 8 units (counting artillery as double), so one more and the game was lost. I was on the point of giving up. But by now the French had Taupin in play and the British hqd pushed past Bonnet’s division in the centre, exposing their flank. Clauzel and Sarrut were coming up too, blocking further Allied reinforcements. I counterattacked and quickly knocked out three Allied units. One unit was close to an unsupported British artillery unit. If it was able to take this out then the British would also be on a knife edge. But we were out of time. I was happy to concede, but Rob thought the momentum was with me – the game had become very close.

Elsewhere there was a rather ineffectual artillery dual. After that first lucky kill, the French artillery were able to disrupt the Qllied advance somewhat, but no more. A single British artillery unit troubled the French unit occupying the Greater Arapile, frequently pushing it off the top. The cavalry on the flank roughly neutralised each other and were not able to secure much influence.

We weren’t counting the turns, but we got through an awful lot. If we were counting 15 minutes per pair of moves, we would have been long into the night. And large parts of both armies were untouched – stuck in their starting positions. The pip famine was the main issue with the rules, and when we repeat the game we will have to do something about it – probably have each side throw two dice rather than one. Also there is not good way in the rules of replicating Pqkenham’s ambush of Thomières. In terms of the broad evolution of the battle, though, it was surprisingly close to the historical one. The battle did have a strong focus point, with little action elsewhere, which moved from the French left to the centre, wit little happening on the right.

I still don’t think the rules give a proper Napoleonic feel, and aren’t really strategic (or grand tactical, depending on your terminology). But they are very nicely crafted, and use the troop and distance scales that I want. We will keep using them until my own rules are ready – which won’t be for some time, I’m afraid. Meanwhile I’ll dig deeper into Salamanca, as it is an interesting battle to simulate.

 

Horse Foot Guns goes to Waterloo

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Horse, Foot, Guns is a set of rules by wargaming legend Phil Barker, whom many gamers of a certain age will remember through the Wargames Research Group in the 1980s – which produced a series of ancient period rules of which I still have fond memories.  He then revolutionised wargaming with his De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) rules which were radically simplified and produced good, short games. HFG has been long in the making. I played an early version a few years ago. It covers the period 1701 to 1914. It plays out on the same ground scale and similar figure scale to Bloody Big Battles (BBB) which I used last year to refight Waterloo. I thought I would try them out on the same battle this year with my friend Rob.

The timing proved less than ideal. The rest of life intervened and I did not have the time I would have liked to prepare. The main problem proved to be the rules themselves. They are extremely simple and elegant at core, but they suffer from two problems. First is the breathtaking scope, from the War of Spanish Succession to the Balkan Wars of the 20th Century – basically up to the serious use of aircraft and, more importantly, the use of large numbers of machine guns, and massed indirect artillery. And it isn’t just the date range that is ambitious – it brings in naval elements too. That means there is a lot of unnecessary complexity for a simple land battle in 1815. But it is also quite densely and legalistically written, with many sentences having to be read quite a few times to be comprehended. There is also quite a bit of false economy of verbiage – Mr Barker doesn’t like repeating himself. That means, for example, some key rules on terrain are in quite a different section to the ones on combat where you search in vain for them – also he combines processes, like firing and close combat, that would be clearer kept apart. My solution to this was to produce a cut-down and rewritten version of my own, both to simplify and aid comprehension. Alas I neither had time to finish this, nor try the rules out in a solo game. In reflection of this I cut the scenario down to exclude the Prussians and the French forces they drew off, to give a shorter, simpler scenario – and one that is still quite balanced.

I was able to use the same terrain elements as last time, with a cloth draped over contours cut from expanded polystyrene, which I had stored in the loft. I used map pins to fix the cloth and bring out the contours (dampening the cloth with a water spray). This worked very well, except that my pack of pins (I needed all 100) was multi-coloured, so they stood out a bit, as the picture shows. Sadly I did not have time to develop the terrain elements further to give it a more impressive visual appearance. But I think the concept is a sound one. Rivers and streams are the main unsolved problem. Fields and trees need to be added too, the former for purely visual purposes. And I should not be using Mediterranean buildings.

The HFG rules work on bases (“elements” – Mr Barker has a careful language all of his own, with “bounds” in place of turns, “shooting” in place of firing, and so forth) with a standard width, each comprising a separate unit. This is recommended at 4cm, and represents 400 paces (i.e. 300m). I used 5cm, as my existing base size for 15mm figures, which also happens to be the same distance scale I use for my DTN rules. I did not fit artillery onto 50mm bases though, and not the “Command Parties” – the senior officer groups – either. These worked OK on smaller bases, though some extra rules would be needed to prevent abuse. The infantry bases were 2.5cm deep, as recommended (or 3cm in fact), but the cavalry were deeper at 5cm. This was following quite a few comments on my Blucher games, where cavalry units with just 4 figures looked a bit pathetic. The bigger (8 figure) units certainly looked a lot better. Pleasingly, this basing format seemed to work OK on the table. Waterloo is a very dense battle, and often defeats wargames basing systems. It was cramped, and it should be, but not too much so. BBB left a little more space, perhaps even too much on the scaling I used. Each base was about 2,500 infantry or 1,500 cavalry – just over 200 men per figure for both arms. I was using the separately published army lists published for HFG, though changed some classifications.

The structure of the rules is a clear lineal descendant of the DBA system, which has spread across so many other rules systems. Command and movement is based on “PIPs” based on a D6 roll; each move costs one or more PIPs, but groups of touching bases moving the same way move as single units. Combats are resolved by comparing D6 rolls from each side. This takes getting used to, but it is extremely elegant. Rob loved the essential simplicity, as do other friends who are using the rules. We nevertheless did get a bit bogged down, in large part through lack of familiarity. But it was quite a big battle for two players anyway, I suspect. BBB used not many fewer figures, but played faster. That is partly because it operates through division-sized units, rather than the brigade bases of these rules (and also Blucher and Grande Armée). That will be an important lesson for my own rules, when they eventually emerge!

What happened? Like with BBB I played the French and started with Napoleon’s battle plan, except I launched Durutte at the Papelotte complex early – evicting the Nassauers quickly after a lucky throw. Reille bumped into Hougoumont, which we treated as a strong-point under the rules, along with La Haye Sainte. Strong-points are a hard nut to crack under the rules, made much harder by our misreading of them, and I gave up after some heavy losses. After that Reille remained large dormant, bar some skirmishing on the far left. I wanted the offensive on the right to mature before committing strength.

On the French right I tried the grand battery for a couple of moves, and quickly decided it was useless. I then sent forward d’Erlon’s infantry (the point at which the picture was taken). But I did not bring along the artillery in close support until much later. On the left LHS proved just as tough as Hougoumont, and over the game I lost 3 or 4 bases (10,000 men…) without coming near to taking it. In the centre I failed to make much impression on the allies, who were more effective at bringing their artillery in support. The French simply did not have enough infantry for the job. After Rob reinforced his cavalry on his far left and started to look menacing, I sent round three units of reserve cavalry (including the Guard lights) to my far right. This caused him to scurry back and refuse the flank. Just to see how the rules worked I threw all three units to attack in a line. They were all beaten off. In fact the historical terrain was probably too cut up by small woods and a stream that I did not bother to represent for the cavalry to have had such freedom.

By this time I had brought up the Guard, but after losing a unit on LHS I decided enough was enough. Napoleon had failed. For the French at Waterloo the art is learning how to use superiority in artillery and cavalry to boost the odds for the infantry. This I had failed to do. I needed to bring the artillery up in close support of the infantry. A wider flanking move (given its relative openness on my table) may have worked better too.

And the rules? My big criticism is the same as that with BBB: in order to avoid bookkeeping and other tiresome complexity, losses come off in big lumps or not at all. Firepower attacks tend to deliver a lot of nothing, punctuated by the occasional major detonation.  This is not a very satisfactory way of representing the attritional tactics that were such a part of the era – notably the use of grand batteries to deliver long range fire. Having said which, once a corps loses one third of its elements it becomes “defeated”, and loses a lot of its effectiveness. This might be something for attritional tactics to aim at. Once two or three lucky throws had eliminated opposing units, possibilities might start opening up.

Compared to BBB the rules did seem hard work. That was partly for a good reason: the use of PIPs gives players more work. Another problem was that for BBB each pair of moves is meant to represent an hour, while it is meant to take 3 pairs for HFG. Actually in BBB is looked near impossible for the Prussians to make the historical progress they did – so it doesn’t look properly calibrated. We got through 10 pairs in this HFG game, supposedly 3 hours. This feels better calibrate as the French had not made all that much impression on the Aliies, and still had plent of troops – though d’Erlon was about played out. This took about 4 hours of playing time. To get through the 8 hours (24 pairs) or so of the real battle looks a tall order, especially if the Prussian are there. But that is what I would like to do for a two player game.

But how much of the hard work came down to unfamiliarity is the critical question. The real verdict is that it is too early for me to judge these rules. I was frustrated this time, but Rob liked them. And my other friends who play HFG said they struggled at first, but have now come round to them. So I will keep going. For that reason I am not going to publicise this review on TMP – too many premature reviews get on there as it is. But I will be writing up my own, Napoleonic only, version of the rules. Unfortunately ethics, if not copyright law, will prevent me from publishing them.

 

 

 

Blucher: does this system fulfil my brief?

Blucher 7 Mar 16The idea behind my Dining Table Napoleon project was to get a game between two players on a dining table, that achieved satisfactory levels of historical faithfulness. There is one popular set of rules on the market that in principle fulfils that brief: Sam Mustafa’s Blucher system. Does it fit the bill?

It’s taken me some time to try the system out. A number of things put me off. First of all it is quite steeply priced. The basic rules cost £40, though it is quite nicely produced. Many add-ons can raise the price if you want to buy into the full system as Sam has created it. This is not something you can download for a fiver to check out. Second, I have been put off by Sam’s previous creations. I got a lot of mileage out of Grand Armée, Sam’s previous system in this field, but I have outgrown it. I have bought Lasalle the tactical Napoleonic rules in Sam’s Honour range, and played a game of Maurice, a set designed for 18th century. These were slick but too gamey. By that I mean too much historical detail has been sacrificed for free flow, and that players are pushed to design their game strategy and tactics around rules mechanisms, rather than something that looks more like historical tactical situations. In Maurice this included looking at a hand of cards and making choices as to which cards to play when. From all I could gather about Blucher it would be too gamey for my project.

But my perspective has changed a bit. One of my biggest handicaps in pursuing the hobby has been a lack of opponents in game play. I have a couple of wargaming friends, but no proper network. This year I decided to rectify this, and I have joined the South London Warlords. They meet on Monday nights in Dulwich, which is easy for me to get to, and even easier to get home from, so that I’m back early enough not to disrupt domestic life – though an evening’s game play is not the best preparation for a good night’s sleep. But, of course, entering a community means going along with other people’s wants and needs; that means playing the sort of games they want to play (including looking at other periods). And the challenge of playing games that are done in two to three hours is quite different to the one I am designing for – but exactly in the spot for Blucher. And that would give my miniatures a tabletop outing, and some payback for the many hours spent painting them up. So I decided to splash out and invest in Blucher. I’ve had two games with it plus a play at home trial. So how am I getting on?

First the good news. Sam Mustafa is one of the hobby’s top designers, and it shows. The rules are pared down, but have lots of subtlety. They are a big advance on Grand Armée. First of all units are represented by cards at the start of play, which are only replaced and revealed when they are discovered by your opponent or moved. This far from replicates the real knowledge gap in historical warfare, but it is an advance. You might want to invest something in reconnaissance. A second feature is a much more sophisticated system of command points to regulate movement. You throw two or three dice (depending on size of army), and this gives you a Momentum (or MO) score. Or rather your opponent does it, and keeps the result secret until you have used it up. It costs one or two points to move a unit. If units are close together it is easier to coordinate them. Contrast this with GA, where once you had activated a corps, you pretty much had free reign to move it as you liked, provided that you observed a command radius.

One consequence of this is that attritional tactics make much more sense than in GA. There it made little sense to indulge in preparatory tactics of artillery and skirmish fire. You were better off piling in with you first wave as soon as possible. But attrition costs no MO in Blucher. So it makes sense to move a group of units into range, and let them fire away while you use your MO to bring other formations into position. Also fire has been made a little more effective, and charge attack riskier for the attacker. That changes the balance of play in an interesting way, which probably reflects history better. Artillery, incidentally, is limited by ammunition, so it can’t keep banging away forever. Many other design details are pleasing – the movement system is simply but effective.

So, what are the problems? It is very gamey, as expected. Many favourite historical details are lost. Artillery can’t do overhead fire, for example, even though there are clear historical precedents (notably at Ligny, the battle that is at the heart of my current project). For my taste attrition warfare still depends too much on lucky dice throws, though much better than GA. And at least one thing is downright wrong. A unit can occupy and “garrison” a built-up area block with just one move of preparation. That makes it very hard to dislodge. In my second game the Prussians occupied a block with a landwehr unit of just five strength points. It took four rounds of artillery fire, and three attacks (twice with two units) to finally get in – costing 9 strength points, plus the artillery. This wasn’t a fluke; the rulebook says it is difficult. This is not how historical contests for build-up areas played out (again: look at Ligny) and seems to be shaped from translating the heroic contests of the granary at Essling or Hougoumont at Waterloo into a general rule for buil-up areas. This is one of the trickiest aspects of Napoleonic wargames design, admittedly, but Blucher has it wrong. There is a strong incentive to bypass occupied built-up areas in the rules; in real warfare they seemed act like a magnet to opposing forces. To be fair, something much more historical is feasible if defenders aren’t given their move to prepare – but to do that all they must do is survive one counterattack.

There are some minor quibbles as well. The quick reference sheet is spare to the point of being misleading, ignoring all-important exceptions. I tried creating my own, which put some of the missing bits out – but there were still issues. The idea of the MO die being thrown by your opponent is an interesting one, but it is problem for solo play. I tried re-throwing after each round of activations in my solo game, but this feels a bit too generous. Solo play is actually quite an important part of the hobby, and it is surprising that a set of rules that is so commendably market-focused doesn’t have some guidelins for solo play. The unit concealment rules are somewhat lost in solo play, of course, but not meaningless, as it affects long range firing.

The games themselves could have been more exciting. In each case the opposing sides consisted of 200 points (the recommendation is 200 to 300 points), with a Prussian army of 16 infantry and four cavalry units, playing a French one of 9 infantry and 6 cavalry; both sides had three artillery units. The French infantry was medium quality; the Prussians were diluted by 6 landwehr units, and 6 reserve units without a skirmish bonus. The French quality difference showed most in the cavalry. They had two elite cuirassier units, plus dragoons with a shock bonus; the Prussians had one landwehr cavalry unit. In all cases the French were on the attack; but lacked the depth of infantry resources to make any real headway. Technically the results were draws rather than Prussian victories, because neither side was broken, and the French still held an objective. But at the time we concluded, it was getting late, we were tiring, and there was game time enough for the Prussians to mount a counterattack on the exhausted French. I can’t blame the rules for this. The main problem was that (my)French battle plan flawed, and destined not to give a very exciting game. A better plan would have been to concentrate two corps on one flank to try and crush one of the three Prussian corps, while holding off the other two with the remaining corps. This strategic flaw was nothing to do with the rules being too gamey. It is true that a frontal assault between equally matched forces is likely to fail (actually unlike GA), but there is nothing unhistorical about that.

Another point is worth mentioning, though a bit tangential. And that is the visual appearance. My units (infantry and cavalry anyway) were comprised of two bases on 25mm squares placed side by side. With my 15mm figures this gives 12 infantry or four cavalry; this was in fact the system that the last incarnation of my in-house rules were moving towards. It was inspired by the strong visual appearance of similar but smaller scale units in Bruce Weigle’s 1870 system. But more than one of the other club members looking at our game suggested that it would look much better with 6mm figures on similar sized bases (which incidentally is how we played my Vitoria game in 2013). The 15mm units looked to small to convey the idea of mass formations of troops. The cavalry units of just four figures look particularly pathetic. Weigle’s system probably works for two reasons: first his terrain is much more detailed and draws visual attention away from the figures. Second, there just more units, closer together, in more interesting formations. On this last point, my current idea is to deploy my bases more flexibly into division-sized units, without a fixed formation. I think that will look a lot better. I stil think that a lower cavalry figure scale is needed so that more cavalry units are in play, though.

Terrain is a big issue with the club format, where you need to set things up quickly and flexibly. There is nothing in the rules that stops you from using a more realistic and detailed terrain format, of course, but I suspect it would clutter things up and slow things down. So we are left with relatively few terrain features, each of which is quite small in size (apart from rivers and streams, of course). Real physical relief is in fact a matter of complex systems of valleys and ridges, though, which is much harder to represent on the tabletop. You can get away with stripping the terrain for historical battles into something very simple. For example at Waterloo a longish ridge to cover the Allied position between Hougoumont and the Piraumont complex is arguably all you need. But I can’t begin to number the insights I have gained into historical battles by taking a much more detailed look at terrain features when setting up a game. For example that the farms of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte at Waterloo are in hollows, and can’t be seen from the French positions, making direct artillery bombardment a problem. Bruce Weigle’s focus on the terrain is both stunning visually and the best approach to simulation. How something of that feel can be brought into more conventional wargames is a problem I am wrestling with.

And Blucher? It’s worth some more outings at the club, though the games need to be made more interesting.I may well start to warm to them more.  But it is not an alternative to my own Dining table Napoleon rules, still in bits, unfortunately.

Blucher 22 Feb 2016

Skirmishing in wargames

Wargamers have had a difficult relationship with skirmishers. In the early days they were always there. After all they were a constant feature of historical battle accounts, and many commentators suggested skirmishing was an important part of war in this era. Besides the light troops provided interesting variety in their uniforms. Advancing bodies of miniatures would always have a scattering of skirmish figures before them, usually mounted on single bases. Rules were designed to accommodate them, albeit very crudely, usually without any provision for reserves and so on.

But at some point gamers got fed up with them. They seemed to require an awful lot of work for not a lot of effect. They started to disappear, with gamers rationalising that the effects of skirmishers were taken care of in other game processes. Or else there would some kind of tokenistic  “skirmish phase” which could be quickly got through as a preliminary to the main combat. The deeper truth is that most historians, and wargamers in their wake, never really understood what skirmishing was all about. I want to try and unpack this a bit.

Now let’s start with the traditional view. Skirmishers would be drawn from an elite company, the British Light Company (often topped up with riflemen) or the French Voltigeurs. (The reluctance of British historians to properly understand Austrian and Prussian practices, with no elite companies, is one of the many dimensions of this issue). These men would run out in advance of an attack and deliver fire on the target, which would help shake it as the attack was actually delivered. The main body would advance without stopping, with the skirmish screen melting away as it approached.

At first this looks like quite a plausible tactic. A typical battalion frontage would be about 200 paces. Across this frontage 20 or more pairs of skirmishers would be deployed – say 50 men. That would be about half a voltigeur company, the other half being held back as supports. This screen would advance about 200 paces, say, in front of the main body (though in wargames it would typically be less). That gives them two minutes to soften up the target. Fresh troops in an elite company could be expected to loose off six aimed rounds in that time – 300 rounds altogether. There is a suggestion (see Nafziger’s Imperial Bayonets) that nearly half of these rounds would score – say 120. Well in real battlefield conditions we know this is unlikely. But say on average each of the men in the screen found his mark at least once – 50 men killed or hurt. The target might be 700 men strong, so you could easily get 5-10% casualties. Surely enough to rattle a unit? The picture of the opposite – defensive skirmishers harassing advancing troops is more complicated, as the skirmishers would have to both move and fire. But perhaps they could make up for this by using the support line as the attackers advanced.

This is highly idealised, of course – but then these things look so simple for people moving tin men on a tabletop – without the minor terrain features that can hide whole units, or smoke, or noise that interferes with command. But there a much bigger and more obvious problem. What happens if both sides have a skirmish screen? Wargamers seem to resolve this by deciding that one or other of the screens rapidly gives ground, leading the winning screen free to do its stuff. But how? Well something like a bayonet charge would be needed to get that sort of result quickly enough. And here the historical evidence vanishes. This happened only rarely, if at all. It wasn’t that light troops were deficient with the bayonet – they often led the way in broken ground or villages, where most bayonet fighting took place. I think there is something about the dispersed nature of a skirmish screen that makes this impossible. One issue might be that the psychology of dispersed formations makes it much harder for men with loaded muskets to go forward to contact. Or it could simply be command and control – a charging skirmish screen could not be rallied in time to do any meaningful skirmishing afterwards.

No. What happened when two skirmish screens met is that they stopped and took potshots at each other. Given the dispersed nature of the target, which could make use of any ground cover going, and the fact that the firers were themselves under fire, this fire would be pretty ineffective and would not achieve very much in the two minutes it took for the advancing formed troops to catch up. At this point the attacking side has a decision to take. He can press on through his own screen, drive back the enemies’ and then onto the main body. The attacking skirmishers would have achieved nothing, and the defending skirmishers probably not much more. I think the French attacks at Vimiero and Victor’s at Talavera were much like this – as were the British attacks at Salamanca. And if this is the typical pattern of events, then the wargamers’ loss of patience with skirmishing becomes understandable. They just cancel each other out.

But the attacker has another choice. He can halt the advance and give his skirmish screen a chance to take effect. If his skirmishers are superior, he will cause the opposing screen to wilt, and he can advance his own men up to the main body. The attacker can try to make sure of this by feeding extra men into the screen. The skirmish supports go first, and then men from the main body can be sent in. But the same options are available to the defender. We might then get an escalating skirmish combat, which starts to become the main event, rather than the clash of formed troops. Of course the more men you sent into the skirmish, the weaker the formed body would become. It was one of the more difficult tactical decisions that field officers would have to make.

Here are a couple of examples – sticking to British/French encounters, as these familiar and well documented. Ney’s attack at Bussaco, got into just such an escalating exchange with the British Light Division. But the better-trained British proved to have the better of this. In desperation the main body charged in, only to be ambushed by the reserve troops from the Light Division. Reynier’s attack at Bussaco also developed into a big skirmish exchange. In the end the British charged and drove the weakened French off – but I haven’t studied this episode in detail – the French may have tried a bayonet charge first. A further example is Quatre Bras. The French seem to have made no serious attempt to charge home with their infantry, being content to wear down the Allies with skirmishers and artillery, and then test their mettle with cavalry attacks. The British skirmishers could not compete with the numbers of French skirmishers thrown at them, and so the formed bodies took the strain, though helped by some cover. They tried counterattacking with some success, but Allied casualties were high.

There is good reason to think that these prolonged encounters between skirmish lines, fed by supports, were quite normal. If you read the generic accounts of  warfare from Prussian author Clausewitz (who served Prussians and Russians in the wars, right up to the Waterloo campaign) you would think it was the norm. Such combats marked what he called the “destructive” stage of a battle, before the “decisive” stage was arrived at.

Something important needs to be added to this. I have painted a picture above of six shots being loosed off in two minutes, and causing quite a bit of damage. But after those first few shots a number of things would conspire to reduce the effect of fire. The firers would tire, their weapons start to clog and become hot and harder to handle, shoulders would become bruised, making men reluctant to hold their weapons properly. And volumes of smoke would appear. Often shots would be fired at an unseen enemy without any true aim. Less experienced troops were notorious for loosing off as many shots as possible as quickly as possible, the quicker to be taken out of the firing line due to ammunition depletion. The expenditure of musket ammunition was many times higher than the casualties they inflicted in this era  (a notable contrast with artillery stats for the period, incidentally). Things slow down drastically. Instead of matters being resolved in minutes, as would be the case with close range volleys and bayonet charges, time slips by very quickly. An exchange could use up a couple of hours quite easily.

A further point needs to be made, which takes a little grasping, but which is critical to simulation. Of lot, even most, of the destructive effect of skirmish warfare arises from fatigue and ammunition loss, not from the casualties inflicted. Troops would burn out, a process graphically described by Clausewitz’s references of men becoming “extinguished volcanoes”. The damage was, in a sense, self-inflicted. Superior discipline counted for a lot, because good troops would tire out less quickly. The slower rate of fire of rifles might actually be a benefit. If that sounds bizarre, consider this. Why, in the 1860s, were so many armies reluctant to introduce faster-firing breech-loading small arms? The grizzled, veteran generals were worried that their troops would simply burn off the ammunition too quickly and then become useless – they had reckoned without the superior accuracy of rifled weapons, and, perhaps, the better discipline of armies raised in peacetime.  A consequence of this is that skirmish combats almost always caused significant wear and tear to both sides. The number of times I have seen a tabletop encounter were the better side gets off Scott-free is legion! The idea wasn’t so much to kill your opponents as to force them to throw more men into the combat, making them useless in the “decisive” phase.

A more subtle point flows from this. Differences in training and morale would cause different rates of attrition between the sides – but otherwise the main variables tended to affect both sides equally. These might be the length of time of the exchange, the amount of smoke and ground cover (though one side might have an advantage here), and the aggressiveness with which each side pursued the combat (which would stimulate a response in their opponents). This runs counter to the way most skirmish combat mechanisms work: typically each side throws a dice to judge losses (usually on the other side) and these are only weakly correlated.

The problem for tactical wargames rules becomes obvious – I’m thinking of systems like Lasalle (which I have played) and Black Powder (which I haven’t even read). Typically a move represents quite a short space of time. You don’t want your game to degenerate into many moves were little happens – even if this quite a legitimate, battle-winning tactic in real warfare. They have similar problems with representing artillery, which real soldiers often used in prolonged bombardments that no wargamer would have the patience for. Skirmishing is dealt with very formulaicly in Lasalle, so as to be resolved quickly without disrupting play too much. But I don’t think the challenge insuperable, what is needed is an elastic approach to representing time. I have a few ideas on this, but not tested them yet. My current energies are going into grand tactical rules.

In grand tactical games a move usually averages out to 30 minutes, with 20 minutes or an hour used as well. And elasticity (some moves represent longer elapsed time periods than others) is pretty much a given. The challenges are different at this level. The “So what?” issue is an important one. Combat mechanisms avoid the detail, so who cares if what is going on is a conventional clash of formed troops, or a skirmish exchange? Because there are different risk calculations to be made. A volley and bayonet approach, with only a limited role for skirmishers, will yield quick results, but those quick results can often be bad ones. It did not go well for Junot at Vimiero or Victor at Talavera after all. Or Leith at Salamanca. A skirmish-led approach is classic attrition warfare, on the other hand, and neither leads to quick victory nor quick defeat. In modern language, it has a low standard deviation. If you have a numerical advantage it is one way of making it tell. Your opponent may be forced to throw the dice and counter with cold steel – usually with the odds stacked against them.

I am not sure if I have ever seen this trade-off represented properly in grand tactical rules. In Grande Armée skirmishing is represented by throwing one or two dice, and hoping for a six. It is a high standard deviation approach, and pretty ineffective at that. I haven’t played Volley & Bayonet but I think it suffers from a similar problem. Slow rates of casualties in a typical game mechanism, is represented by having to score high on a dice, which means that losses are very uneven – and completely unlike the way attritional tactics worked in life.

The skirmish rules in Et Sans Résultat are much, much better. Both sides decide commitment (three levels – aggressively pressed, passively respond, reluctantly participate); dice are thrown to see if one side “wins”; each side then throws to see how many hits are suffered. There is a clear appreciation that losses (i.e. hits) flow from the numbers fed into the encounter, rather than actual casualties, and that depends on control as much as anything. But there are issues. Skirmishing comes over as an element of friction rather than a tactic. In the one game I played I tried to use it as a tactic but the rewards were poor. If you “aggressively press” you are quite likely to end up with damage (fair enough) but your odds on inflicting it are limited. Quite often one side would suffer nothing at all. It’s quite high standard deviation stuff. There are a couple of other issues. It seems inconsistent with the game design that players are given three options as to how to conduct skirmishing, when so many other things (for example the line/square/column decision) aren’t given to players. The level of commitment should sure follow from tactical doctrine and divisional orders, with the dice taking care of local variation? Also a round of skirmishing precedes most combats, including straight bayonet charges. In my view (see above) serious skirmishing only happens when the main bodies are halted, and there is enough time for the firing to take is toll. I suspect these issues are interrelated. As skirmishing is not really a useful tactic, why would you delay an attack to skirmish? In which case you wouldn’t get much skirmishing at all.

Skirmishing is not an easy thing to do justice to at any level of rules design. It is not a problem that I have solved in my dabblings with rules design. But cracking it is surely necessary to get the true flavour of Napoleonic warfare.

Bloody Big Battles goes to Waterloo

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

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

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

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

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

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

The course of the battle

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

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

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

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

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

This was how things looked at the end:

Waterloo BBB the endOverall verdict on the battle

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

Scales

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

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

Core rules

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

Still there are frustrations:

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

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

House rules

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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

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