Category Archives: Games & rules

Seven Days to Iron Cross

Last night at the club we tried out a game of Seven Days to the Rhine, reverse-engineered for World War 2, as a sort of update to Iron Cross, on which 7 Days is based (both are published by Great Escape Games). We encountered issues both with the core system and specifically to 7 Days.

First the good news. The adaptation of 7 days was quite clean, amounting to just one page of supplementary rules, plus another half-page adapting the chance cards. This compares to my 8 pages of “house rules” for Iron Cross. As I have written earlier, 7 Days is cleaner and better-written than Iron Cross, so it is a lot less tempting to fiddle with it. The second bit of good news is that we used my new 1943 vehicles on the tabletop for the first time, alongside my slightly earlier miniatures in the project. They looked really good, though I say so myself. Especially the Dingo and Humber armoured car, which, alas, don’t come out in the picture above. The one taken from the British lines came out blurred. In the low light conditions of an evening game any flaws are less visible (I don’t think the dust on the wheels tracks is particularly good…).

For a scenario we used the Breakthrough scenario in both rulebooks. We didn’t use the chance cards in 7 Days, because of the issues of adapting them to period. The forces were of equal size, but the defending force (British) had more infantry, and started the game dispersed and unprepared. They had two Shermans, a 6-pounder, the armoured car, and four infantry sections, one with a PIAT. The Dingo was used as a command vehicle. The aim for the Germans, with three PzIIIs and three infantry sections mounted in SdKfz 251s and an SdKfZ 251/10 command vehicle, was to get a third of their force to the other end of the table. They were given extra command points. They didn’t manage to do this, taking some heavy casualties. They were probably too hesitant at the start and should have picked a flank and gone for a combined arms attack… However we did finish the game, for the first time with the Iron Cross system, which shows that we had the right number of units on the table for a two player game. Unfortunately having more players doesn’t speed things up with a sequential system like Iron Cross’s.

So, what were the issues? First specific to Seven Days. There were two significant problems. First there is no advantage to closer range for fire by or against vehicles: just one d10 and the same required score to hit. And no penetration benefit either. This led to a rather absurd encounter between a Pz III and a Sherman a couple of inches apart blasting away and either missing or shells glancing off. I think the justification is that the whole table is short range, and that in the stress of combat it is all too easy to fail at short range. Also vehicles would not stand still. Well up to a point. Range seems to be about 100 yards for 12in (maybe a bit less) based on the range of bazookas et al, so we can get vistas of 500 yards across the table. Not long ranges, but enough to make a difference. This is probably less true of armour penetration than of scoring hits in the first place (especially with WW2 technology) – though even then it is easier to place a hit on a vulnerable spot at close range. In original Iron Cross it is slightly easier to hit at 12in or less; in my house rules you got an extra d10 (as you do for fire against infantry in 7 days). You also got an extra 2 penetration points in Iron Cross at under 12in

The second problem is that to react to infantry in cover (to return fire, for example) takes 5 on a D6, compared to 3 against infantry in the open (which is what it was for all units in Iron Cross). This is fair enough against infantry opening up for the first time. No so much after it has being firing at you for several rounds, by which time you are needing a 6 to react. This allowed a British infantry section to wipe out a German one before the initiative could be passed back. This happened quite a bit.

What about the wider problems? My partners didn’t like the scenario. The German player felt it gave too much advantage to a side that could stay static. Realistic tactics such as suppression fire were hard to replicate. To do well in a scenario you had to game the rules as much as play the tactical situation on the table. In particular the idea that you concentrate your command points on a small number of units while leaving the rest static was a bit counter-intuitive. Trying to overwhelm your opponent with a coordinated move forward is not really feasible (though it is too easy in other systems like Fistful of TOWs and Rapid Fire!).

What to do? Some of the issue is with scenario design, and with lack of familiarity with the rules. The withdrawal option, for example, could be really quite useful. But that wouldn’t have helped that German infantry under fire from British infantry – as a failed reaction freezes your command points which stops any possible action later in the turn – too big a risk to take. The card system in 7 Days would also help, allowing re-throws and a bit of artillery intervention, for example. Though it isn’t hard to redesign the era specific cards, this is quite hard to do without producing a new set or defacing the original – which is hard with home-made resources. I might give this a try anyway.

But the search goes on for a more satisfactory rule system. I have just bought Battlefront WWII from the makers of Fire and Fury, and I’m also working on my own system.

A new version for BBB

Foe some months I have been planning a new version of my house rules to cover Napoleonics for the Bloody Big Battles rules. Recently I drafted a version and tried them out at the club on Monday night. There are some issues to fix, but I think I’m making progress.

The changes represent a further migration away from the core BBB system, which is derived from the Fire and Fury ACW rules. However, there are some simplifications, making them shorter than the earlier version, and reverting back to the original in places. I like it when that happens – you know you are onto something when rules get simpler.

The biggest change is to make disruption cumulative. In the original system if a unit suffers disruption when it is already disrupted then nothing happens. In the new system the unit can acquire a second disruption marker. If it gets a further disruption then a base is removed (and the unit remains disrupted with a single disruption marker). A double disruption result may arise from firing or assault – if so a unit that is already disrupted (single or double) will lose a base, and retain a single disruption. A double disruption can be cleared through the movement throw, but it takes an extra half move.

This change makes firing and assault more lethal, so I adjusted both to compensate. On the fire table the bottom 1s (for single base loss) in each column were replaced by DDs for double disorder. I tried something more radical on the Assault table: the new system allows more increments in terms of losses – so in the +3 to -3 range each result has a different outcome. For -1/0/+1 the result is both sides suffer disruption, with the losing side falling back 3in; for a draw there is a further round of combat. For +2/-2 the loser takes a double disruption and falls back 3in, with the winner taking a single disruption. For +3/-3 it is similar except that the loser takes a base loss and the winner a double disruption. This table is intermediate between the original one (which we were still using for cavalry combats) and the house infantry table, which had base losses for both sides except the draw. So I decided on the radical step of moving back to one table for all combats. Cavalry attacks on infantry (which used a third table) were tweaked with some special rules on squares.

A second area of change was on formation changes. Here the main rules and artillery rules were re-merged, by infantry and cavalry taking on the new artillery rule. That means units can do two out of three of move, offensive fire or change formation, without any half-effect to either movement or firing. This is simpler and more flexible. There is a possible abuse: a unit could march up to musket range in march column, and snap into line or depth without the other side intervening except with defensive fire. So I added an opportunity charge rule, by which units changing formation within 6in of enemy units may be subject to a charge instead of defensive fire.

The third main area of alteration was skirmishers. Units don’t now have to break down one of their formed bases to deploy skirmishers. The skirmish bases live behind the unit when not deployed. Also normal firing rules apply when a unit with skirmishers is hit: the unit may suffer disruption, rather than removing a skirmish base. A skirmish base is removed whenever a main base is removed. This is simpler and tidier. I did like the idea of players choosing whether to put strength into the skirmish line or keep in the main body, but that was one too many more things for players to think about, and they never really engaged with it.

There was also a tweak on artillery fire, with bouncethrough fire allowed 3in beyond the main target, at reduced effect. The main effect will be that infantry can’t shelter behind artillery batteries with impunity, as happened in our Shiloh game. Finally I had written some special rules on artillery units close-supporting infantry in the earlier version. In fact I rediscovered a bit of the original rules about infantry and cavalry units supporting artillery units, which did much the same job, so I reverted to this.

So overall the new version is simpler and in many cases closer to the original, though the cumulative disruption and formation change rules are a change to the core system.

How did they play on Monday night? It was a question of so far so good. The skirmish rules need a bit of tidying up. This is about when they affect assaults, which wasn’t all that clear. Also I need to be clear about when you measure distances to the skirmish screen and when to the main body, though this was intuitively obvious. In the game I let the French player keep his skirmish bases very close together, as his divisions concentrated on a very tight front. This looked fine on the table, but made skirmish fire potentially very effective. Should I enforce a one inch gap rule between skirmish bases, or reduce the effectiveness of fire per base? This will need some thought.

The main issues with the game arose from core BBB – which in turn arose form poor scenario design by me. It was a trial game and I was in a hurry. I made the objective a town occupied by the Prussians, who were split between and initial occupying force and a reinforcement. But the town was way too big (I was using some of the clubs 15-20mm buildings – which had quite a big footprint). That meant the Prussians started to pile their infantry in and the French to concentrate five or six infantry divisions in a single attack. I also classed the town as a “town” rather than a village in the rules, which made it more like a massive fort. In fact a town should cover quite a small area (you pretty much have to use under-scale buildings – and use a clear base plate). And both armies needed to be spread across a wider front, with perhaps more than one objective.

The town fighting was rather unrealistic: it didn’t have the characteristic ebb and flow of the era, because of its size and classification. A second issue was that the French player was able to concentrate up to five four-base divisions in depth onto the single Prussian 6-base division in line. This allowed some extraordinary concentrations both in firepower and in assault , though it took four moves before he was able to get a properly coordinated attack in to send the Prussians packing. This highlighted two rules issues. First when about four infantry units and two artillery units concentrated fire they threw an 11; this wasn’t all that effective because of the double left-shift arising from the cover, but it did mean that all the units had to take a disruption (which replaces the out of ammo rule), which delayed the main attack. This felt a bit farcical, though actually it probably isn’t that hard to rationalise away. The French were spending too much time trying to reduce the enemy by firepower and so didn’t have time to organise a proper assault. In the assault the French were eventually able to concentrate 3:1 on the unfortunate Prussian unit. What this drew attention to was the looseness of the BBB rules on which bases can be involved in a combat. Four bases piling in on each flank didn’t look quite right, especially when the Prussian were reduced to five bases by assault fire. Mainstream Fire and Fury looks a bit tighter, so maybe something can be learned from that. Still a six-base division deployed in a single line covering practically a kilometre is going to be rather vulnerable!

Another curious episode came when the French were able to pile up one infantry and two cavalry units in a combined attack on a single Prussian unit in depth (with an exposed flank). In the previous version combined arms attacks were resolved with infantry and cavalry kept separate, not least because they used two different combat tables. I rather liked that because it was in fact hard to coordinate the two arms at such a grand tactical level. Also there is a scaling issue each infantry base has three times the men of a cavalry base (unlike mainstream BBB), so using bases to stack up odds doesn’t feel quite right either. There is something to be said for forcing the separation again, and taking the odds out of the infantry-cavalry combats. Cavalry vs. infantry combats were more about psychology than numbers after all.

And finally we had rogue cavalry units in the rear – a familiar problem in wargames – but artillery is very at risk under my rules. These seem far too effective. Of course cavalry in rear areas could be a problem, but it was hard to direct. And cavalry exploitation for half a move (9in – pretty much a mile) looks a bit heavy: cavalry were often exhausted by the initial assault – though there was the Union brigade at Waterloo, but that came at the expense of utter disorganisation. We also had a case of a french cavalry unit able to catch up with the retreating Prussians from a previous combat. I don’t think this kind of long-range pursuit combat with cavalry actually. A more limited exploitation rule looks better (3in or 6in perhaps), and disruption for winners on a big combat win (7+) looks sensible too (though this is presumably meant to represent the defeated side collapsing without a fight).

So a few things to think about before I settle on a definitive 2019 version. There is also another idea which I picked up from a wargames magazine which might be worth a try. How about replacing lost bases with “morale makers” with the same footprint (e.g. a base with some casualties,say)? This means the unit footprint stays the same and it is obvious how many bases have been lost – which perhaps reflects better how things worked in this era. More radically the “spent” status could be replaced with a deduction for each base lost. That would then mean making adjustments for veteran and raw units in movement and assault throw. There’s an interesting idea in there!

A BBB version of Shiloh

End of Move 2 I think the French attack on the Prussian right develops

Last night Terry and I used my cloth for the Altar of Freedom game on Shiloh to refight a Napoleonic version using our version of BBB. It was fought using my Napoleonic French and Prussian armies. It is interesting to compare the two systems.

The distance scales are the same, which meant there was not problem in using the same terrain layout. The main difference in game layout is that BBB is played using brigade units (two or three to a division), while BBB has division sized units. Each AoF brigade corresponds to two BBB bases. That means a two brigade division has four bases and a three brigade one six. That makes BBB a bit more compact, but the frontages are broadly similar using the 40mm bases for AoF that we have being doing. Using the recommended 60mm bases would mean that two brigades could cover five inches easily and six at a pinch. A BBB equivalent division would cover four inches. Artillery units are pretty much the same between the two systems. Cavalry is different mainly because of the different cavalry role between the Napoleonic and ACW eras. In BBB we use a much lower figure ratio, since firepower is unimportant. A typical BBB cavalry unit is a brigade, the same as AoF, but it has a bigger footprint.

In putting together the armies I wanted to keep my standardised 1815 units rather than do a new lot of labels. The French took the Confederate role. Bragg’s corps of six brigades translated into three four-base divisions, but otherwise the conversion was quite simple. Command and control was harder. I did not provide leaders for the counterparts of Polk and Breckinridge, but Bragge and Hardee’s counterparts were on the table, as well as Johnstone represented by Napoleon himself. On the Union side all the divisions were three brigades, so it was quite easy to give them Prussian six-base units as equivalents. I divided them into two corps, each with a general, and a commander. I gave the French a slight quality edge: with one Aggressive infantry unit (the Young Guard in the reserve corps) and veteran cavalry. The Prussian had one Raw infantry unit.

We started a bit earlier than a normal club night and got three hours of game time in. In that time we played four and a half moves. That was no quicker than AoF, in spite of the smaller number of playing pieces. But there were only two of us (rather than four) and more did happen. The French (played by Terry) started with an aggressive assault on their left and centre. This went badly, with some effective firing by the Prussians, followed by a good close combat result. In the second move one of the French units was destroyed, and that left three of the smaller French units facing off against two Prussian ones in a static stalemate. I was mulling a counterattack.

But with this failure, the French decided to switch to the left, throwing in their reserve corps against the open Prussian flank. This fared much better, with the Prussians struggling to hold off superior numbers. A spectacular cavalry counterattack managed to do for a second French infantry unit, but the two front line Prussian infantry units were flagging to the point of near collapse, though the lead French infantry was similarly flagging. But they had two fresh infantry units (including the Young Guard), backed by two cavalry units, to face one not so fresh Prussian infantry unit and the triumphant cavalry. Meanwhile the wooded terrain was making the artillery hard to organise. I thought the Prussians were losing at the end (given that we had only reached midday), but it wasn’t hopeless. It was an exciting game.

How did the systems compare? The French/Confederates were able to deliver a much quicker and better coordinated attack in BBB. The Prussians/Union were not able to organise their defence so easily. Vital movement throws failed to come up on several occasions, limiting my ability to pull the defensive line back (something that the Union did very effectively in our AoF games). Not that I can complain too much: I had good combat dice on several critical occasions. The BBB game was much more decisive. By the end of our game the French had lost two infantry divisions and a battery out of action, two spent and another one damaged (one base loss), and one cavalry unit damaged. The Prussians had lost no units, but two infantry units were spent and the other three damaged (they only had five, until the possibility of reinforcements much later). At the equivalent stage in our AoF games at most one brigade had been put out of action.

This reflects each system’s strengths and weaknesses. In AoF command and control limitations were much greater on the Confederate side, making their attack much slower to progress, and limiting them to two or three divisions a turn. The Union side had much more flexibility. But BBB combat handles attrition much better. A lot of this is due to my modified rules for Napoleonics. Core BBB would have meant many fewer losses. This may be a fair reflection of the difference between the two eras, before the needle gun and chassepot suddenly upped the casualties.

Another difference is that artillery movement is much more flexible in AoF. In BBB you cannot limber and unlimber in the same turn, which makes it harder to move artillery around. We have made it more flexible in our version than core BBB (so that you can limber/unlimber and move a full move), but it is still hard, as I found as the Prussian line faltered. If the infantry gave ground it effectively meant the accompanying artillery couldn’t operate; it was similarly hard for artillery support to keep up with the attack without pausing it. The artillery needed to fall back further to occupy a new defensive line behind the infantry. This is something I should have been thinking about as the Prussian player. It is exactly how the French approached their withdrawal at Vitoria in 1813, so I don’t think BBB is unrealistic.

Overall I’m quite pleased with our house BBB system. It is working much as intended, and produced an exciting game. The skirmisher system remains scrappy and needs some cleaning up. The cavalry flowed through the woods and conducted attacks there a bit too easily. I am planning a substantial revision which will also address the disruption issue: inflicting disruption on a unit that is already disrupted doesn’t affect it. But I’m also working on something much more original that deals with some of BBB’s deeper problems. Meanwhile I think AoF works perfectly well for ACW, and represents command and control issues much better.

One more learning is on terrain. I have constructed a terrain cloth for Shiloh, with painted masking tape for roads and revers, and patches of felt taped on for woods. It can be folded up and is very portable, while representing complex terrain much better than using just standard club equipment. Last night we put the cloth on top of another felt cloth – this didn’t work well and led to it rumpling easily. Felt needs to be placed on a frictionless surface to lie flat. I think the idea can be developed – though hills are an unsolved issue and the rivers don’t work as well as the roads.

Seven Days to the River Rhine: a cleaned up Iron Cross

Last night at the club we played our first game of Seven Days to the River Rhine (7DTTRR). This is a new version of Iron Cross designed for the Cold War in the 1980s, which I (and gaming colleague Terry) also bought at Salute. Though the game is designed with 15mm miniatures in mind, we used our usual 6mm models, but kept the distances unchanged.

In our scenario we had a Soviet attack with T72s and infantry support on a hamlet held by British with Challenger I tanks. The Soviets had a 2:1 superiority in tanks, but less for infantry, but a concealed approach. We didn’t play helicopters in this introductory game.

So how did the rules play? The rules managed to be both very close to IC and a big improvement. Some of the changes related to technology (missiles and helicopters for example), but mostly they are just cleaner. IC is a tangle of different rules for different types of weapon, mostly confusingly relegated to an appendix and kept out of the Quick Reference sheet. Now the categories are simplified and to-hit and damage throws simply presented in a table. The armour penetration rules are simplified (making them deadlier though), and all short-range effects come in at 12 inch range (rather than 6, 8 or 12). The rules on moving and firing have been cleaned up, so that the moving target deduction now applies just to reaction firing.

A further innovation is the use of cards to bring in such factors as off table artillery, electronic warfare, air strikes and so on in a random way. This is quite like the Battlegroup system, though that doesn’t use cards.

How about our game? We had one big issue. The Challenger’s frontal armour was pretty much invulnerable to any of the weapons that the Soviets had at their disposal. The side armour was hard enough. And there was no penetration benefit for short range (though it was easier to hit). It didn’t help that we didn’t play the rules quite correctly, in that hits by the Russians with most weapons would still have inflicted single morale marker, which would have reduced the effectiveness of the British forces. But it was clear that the soviets weren’t going to win, so we ended slightly early, putting it down to experience.

But the rules generally worked well, in spite of missing a few things (in addition to the single MMs for all hits theoretically capable of penetrating) we ignored the minimum range for ATGWs, and the restrictions for armour in the presence of infantry. The use of 6mm models with full distances worked fine. The rule writers do not admit to a distance scale, but if 12 inches is about 100m, as I suspect, then the ground and model scales are close to equal – a big bonus when buildings are part of the set-up, as they so often are.

The small tweaks to IC have ended up with a greatly improved set of rules. My plan now is to ditch my IC house rules, and adapt 7DTTRR to WW2. How to deal with the cards side of things will take a bit of thought, but mostly it looks straightforward.

Altar of Freedom: Shiloh again

View across table towards Pittsburgh Landing: about Move 3
I different angle, with Pittsburgh Landing off-picture to left

My usual club partners were intrigued enough about the Altar of Freedom rules to give the Shiloh game another go: this time as an all day game. The verdict remains mixed.

We used Terry’s 15mm figures again, put together on ad-hoc bases, about 8cm by 4cm in size. We played these using the standard distances for 6mm figures, where the the bases are usually 6cm by 3cm: which was no real problem. We were able to take a bit more trouble with terrain. I put together a felt cloth with masking tape painted in gouache tempera for roads and rivers (with a bit of gloss impast gel for the water), and felt patches for the forests. We didn’t have access to supplies of tree models, though. The small streams and hills were ignored as of not being of major significance for this rules system. I even bought a 1/600 model of the USS Tyler at Salute and painted it up, which came out rather nicely. So the table looked much nicer, though hardly exhibition standard.

We played the same teams of two a side as the original – I was part of the Confederate team with Terry, and Bernie and Pete taking on the Union. We started at about 10.30 am and finished after 6pm after 9 moves of the 11, with an adjudicated Union victory. The Confederates made better progress than in our first game. Our right, played by Terry, got quite close to the objective of the Pittsburg Landing, but they were flagging and the Union line was holding. My left tied down three Union divisions and steadily pushed them back, but did we put too much effort on that side? The Union strategy was to steadily retire and hold a coherent line. Only when their right had very little further ground to give did the fighting get really up to pitched battle level, and the Confederates were looking the more battered, although consistently being able to push forwards.

So what of the rules? We were disappointed that the game did not play more quickly, as we had been led to believe from the blurb and one or two of the rules, though we were getting quicker by the end. The command phase, where the Priority Points are allocated, can be a bit tricky, and if two of you are playing as a team takes a little time. There are quite a few units to move around, and the turn system, which flips from one side to the other, can slow things down. BBB, the nearest rules set we have in scope, is faster, with fewer units, each side moving all its units together, and not allocation of PPs to manage. Overall we seemed to take about 45 minutes per move. The first moves took about 30 minutes, and our last moves were even quicker – so clearly there was some kind of an issue in the moves after lunch!

We were getting the hang of the PP system, which is the most innovative part of the game. It is a clever evolution of the “PIP” system first made popular with the WRG’s DMB game, forcing players to choose which units to move and which to leave. As with our first game, the Confederates suffered with many more limitations on hows its PPs oculd be used – which was realistic enough. This pushed them into a broad front strategy, and nothing very clever was possible. It was very hard for the two corps which comprised two divisions to be able to move both their divisions in the same turn, and one of the two single division corps had a very limited PP ration. Another problem for them was that it was very hard for them to control the “turn clock”, which was therefore controlled by the Union side for all except the first and last move. That allowed them to run it down quickly, also limiting the Confederate options. However, by focusing on moving just three or four divisions in a single PP round, by giving them all three or all four PPs each, the Confederates could still get a lot done before the move closed (with four divisions on three points each that was definitely risky – so it was mostly three divisions on four). But this leads to one of the other criticisms of the game system. A lot of effort needs to put into crafting your bids – which is a bit of a distraction from the tabletop and does not closely mimic any real process of battle management.

The movement and combat rules are very stripped down and simple. This is a bit abstract and generic, but that is a justifiable design decision given the focus on the command side. Though I’m no expert on the American Civil War, I think it actually captures the flavour of the rather loose ebb and flow of the era quite well. The main problem is that the rule book is too stripped down for my taste, and leaves too much unsaid, with only a short FAQ to help out, and no official online forum. So lots of details have to be worked out if players are unfamiliar with the rules, which clearly slowed us down. When can artillery interrupt advances to close combat? Can you shoot through narrow strips of woodland? If a unit starts on the edge of a wood, can it move at the full open-ground rate? And so on. Many rule writers (Iron Cross another case in point) deliberately keep the rule book short and loose, since adding extra detail makes the rules harder to read, and opens things out to rule-lawyers, as well as contradictions if you don’t do it quite right. I get that, but I don’t think these rules (or Iron Cross) get the balance right. We were able to settle down to a modus operandi, though I don’t think we got everything right. There’s only one thing I really don’t like and that is the total flexibility over movement and direction changes. Actually this works fine most of the time, but if a lone cavalry unit faces an isolated unit in the open, including another cavalry unit, it can almost always charge it in the flank (and without that unit being allowed to evade, as I found out afterwards). Also if a cavalry unit got into the rear, it is very easy for it to pick off generals even if they are in contact with their units. I can’t make too much of this. There aren’t many cavalry units (in this game one for Union, two for the Confederates), and moving them around requires command resources for their parent division. And historically they did harass rear areas. Flank attacks are easy in the rules by design – this is to liven up close combat, and in this context (i.e. the ACW) that’s fair enough. If I was modifying the rules, I think I would go down the BBB route of limiting direction changes during movement, but not as severely.

So what is the verdict on Altar of Freedom? I have criticised the command system, but it has a huge virtue in being a hook to hang command characteristics of different armies on. The system invests a lot in giving different generals different characters, not only in PP allocations, but on how they may use them. These characters were in fact too much for us: none of us remembered the re-throws which different generals were entitled to. But for Shiloh it allowed the game to simulate the different command strengths and weakness of the two armies, which added a lot to the game. This would be very difficult in BBB. However this works less well in a multiplayer context. It is quite important that the different allocations from across the army are coordinated. Because of the turn clock it helps for the army to use as few different bid numbers as possible – unless you are deliberately playing for time and need to run down the clock. However this is problem with all variations of the PIP system of game management.

Will we keep playing it? The time it took us was a bit discouraging. But we may well speed up, so I wouldn’t rule it out. If we do, I want to write down a number of game conventions to cover the vague bits in movement and combat, so that we are all agreed in advance. We were probably a bit too loose in this game – which tends to happen when you are making this sort of thing up in the heat of a game. One thing is for sure, though: playing AoF has added to my appreciation of game design!

The Peter Pig model of USS Tyler. The rear flagstaff MIA

Altar of Freedom ACW rules

First an apology to my email followers. The email system broke down due to a technical issue, which is now fixed. So my most recent post a couple of weeks ago on our latest game of BBB didn’t go out on email.

For the last two weeks we have been trying the Altar of Freedom American Civil War rules. This started from a suggestion made as a comment to this blog, as the rules combine a very interesting command and movement system with simple movement and combat mechanics.

Last week we tried a scenario I devised based on the first day of Gettysburg. My fellow players liked the mechanics, by and large, but the game didn’t work that well. Partly that was to do with the way the game was set up. Our brigade units were made up of pairs of bases of 15mm figures that were put together on the night, using folded paper labels. These would not stand on the club’s sculpted hills. Also as an encounter battle there was a lot of manoeuvring and very little combat, as the Union side decided to pull off a withdrawal rather than try to defend the Seminary area.

Given the this failure, this week we tried the Shiloh scenario from the rule book, described as “small” for 2-3 players (we had 5…). It is of a similar size, but this time there were no hills, and the units were pre-based and labelled. We still only got through about five moves, and only in the last was there a major combat. The Confederates found it slow going amid the forests, and the Union side once again pulled back to defend a more cohesive defensive position.

The main point of interest in AoF is the command and bidding system. Each side gets a number of priority points (PPs) based on their leaders. These are allocated to divisions, to controlling the “turn clock” or to end of turn adjustments. Controlling the turn clock gives you the initiative and some control over how long the turn lasts. Each turn is effectively divided up into a number of moves depending on the number of PPs allocated to divisions. So, for example, all those with PPs of five would move first, then any with four, and so on. Their may be as few as two moves in a turn, or as many (theoretically, in the Shiloh scenario) as 12; more likely three or four. So if you allocate just one or two PPs to a division, it is quite likely that the turn ends before you reach it. This is all very interesting; players need to consider their bidding strategies very carefully – and there is also a lot of scope to vary different command structures for different armies. One of AoF’s design principles is to focus on these differences in command rather than different troop or weapon types. In the Shiloh game, the Union side is one combined army under Grant who has a single block of 20 PPs to allocate as the player chooses; the Confederates have 22 points but split between an army general and four corps commanders, each of which had further restrictions from leadership characteristics. That, and given the more passive Union stance in the earlier phases of the battle, meant that it was easy for the Union side to control the turn clock, and the Confederates soon gave up trying.

The movement and combat systems are, on the other hand, very simple. That caused some grumbles amongst players who expected some rules to work in ways that they didn’t – in particular that firing and close combat were alternatives, when players expect a fire first and close combat later system (such as in the Fire and Fury/Bloody Big Battles system). But it is one of the things that makes the rules playable, once you are over how they work and stop arguing that such-and-such looks wrong.

The verdict? Too early to tell. The command system is intriguing, but a bit gamey. Allocating your PPs and the various strategies needed to outwit your opponents in the bidding do not correspond closely to anything in actual warfare. It was quite slow going to build up forces for the attack. The combat did not play out to be quick and decisive, as billed. A lot of this is learning curve. Perhaps the Confederates needed to push forwards with a smaller number of divisions, and bring the rest up later once the path had been cleared. Because of the way the PPs were distributed between the corps commanders, it wasn’t so easy to refuse one flank and concentrate on the other. And the combat could be more decisive once we’ve worked out how to play to best advantage.

Another problem is that the representation of the battlefield was not very accurate, as we had to set it up quickly using whatever terrain pieces the club had. Perhaps there were more ways through without having to plough through forest… though the forest was very much a feature of the historical battle.

So far it looks as if we’ll appropriate the game as a club regular, once we’ve learned how to speed up, and represent the often rather complex terrain – based on actual battles. I’m less sure that I’ll be copying the mechanics for my Napoleonic venture. But the rules are a lesson in good game design.

BBB: the new system is settling in

The game at the start

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Iron Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another BBB Napoleonics game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

Iron Cross: an outing for my adapted rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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