Category Archives: Games & rules

Big Napoleonic battles

A view of a recent Albuera based game with Prussians standing in for Spanish. Albuera is not a big battle by Napoleonic standards, and not all the forces are in view – but it gives some idea of the visual effect I am heading for.

It is one of the strange aspects of Napoleonic wargaming that historically the main focus is on big battles, with over 50,000 men on each side (and on occasions over 150,000 and once double that), while the games themsleves are generally designed to represent much smaller encounters. The January and February issues of Wargames Illustrated feature articles which explore this paradox, from veteran games designers Sam Mustafa and Bill Gray. But my approach to this conundrum is different again from these.

This strange situation is readily explainable. The fashion in the early days was to design games from the bottom up, based on the known capabilities of men, horses and weapons. This led quickly to the basic unit being the battalion, which in turn tied the games to the myriad of accounts of the wars written by the men who took part. There is a lot of drama at this level, and it makes for a cracking game. From a wider perspective it also made a bit more sense than it might first appear: one of the innovations of the age was the use of the division as a manoeuvre element and semi-independent locus of command – and the division was the higher level of organisation around which battalion-based games naturally focused.

So far, so good. But this sort of game makes fighting the big battles, like Waterloo or Borodino impossible without doing strange things – like the practice of “bath-tubbing” – making each battalion stand in for a brigade or division. And the big battles, incorporating the works of the big celebrity generals, like Napoleon, Wellington or Kutusov, are one of the era’s main sources of interest. You are told that you can step in the footsteps of Napoleon, and then given no more than a dozen battalions to play with! It gets worse. One of the attractions of the era is the variety of troop types, and especially elite troops. It’s hard to bring these into an honest division-level game without losing much of the drama that surrounds their use. And you might be able to work in one unit of Imperial Guard, or one of Cuirassiers. But both? And then there are tactics such as massed cavalry or massed artillery that are also very hard to do at divisional level.

And so was born the brigade-unit game. Sam started this with his Grande Armée rules, and then his current Blucher system. Bill did so with his Age of Eagles, based on the Fire and Fury system for US Civil War games. Many gamers are understandably not interested in these systems, so wrapped up are they in the dramas of battalions. It’s simply not Napoleonic without them they say. But for people like me, drawn to the drama of bigger battles, these rules were manna from heaven. For a long time GA, and especially its fast play variant, were my go-to systems. For a number of reasons I outgrew this system, which had weaknesses that Sam himself recognises, and were the reason that he replaced it with Blucher. Meanwhile I developed my own brigade-based system, which I used for my Vitoria game in 2013. These rules were quite innovative – using playing cards instead of dice for example, and did well representing Vitoria, which we played as a four-player game.

But I had a serious problem with brigade games, acknowledged by Bill in his article. The units are too small – and indeed the time interval for a move is too short too – for properly big battles. There are too many units and too many moves to make them accessible either to two players in a day, or to multiple players in an evening – which are the typical formats for most games. This is actually less of an issue with Blucher than Age of Eagles. Blucher is highly abstracted and slick, and a number of its systems are designed to speed up play. I can say similarly for another highly abstracted brigade system – Horse, Foot, Guns by Phil Barker. I have successfully had two player day games with HFG: Salamanca and a stripped back Waterloo (a version that ignores the Prussians but takes out Lobau’s command and the Young Guard). I have played Blucher about three times in evening games with made-up scenarios very loosely based on the core forces at Ligny. But there is something about both the game mechanisms and the look and feel of these games that I don’t like, but that I can’t really articulate. Visually I don’t think they work well with my 15/18mm figures. More seriously they start to get more difficult when the battles get bigger – Salamanca and Waterloo redux are medium-sized battles.

I decided that I had to bite the bullet and use the division as the base unit. Bill says about this: “You lose so many painted miniatures from your visuals that I’d suggestion might as well simply play a board or video game.” Actually the aim is to have the number of miniatures about the equivalent of a normal battalion-based game – say 250-500 a side for 15mm. But he has a point of course – reducing a division of 5,000 men down to a group of 24 miniatures is a stretch. It is probably more tolerable with 6mm or 10mm figures, but that is a road not taken a long time ago for me.

I have encountered two systems with division-sized units. One was by Sam, and based on his GA system. This has a very long distance scale, and large units, represented on standard 2-inch or 3-inch squares. In my one trial game we did Waterloo incorporating most of the Prussian approach march on the table. This produced an interesting game, but it is too scaled down for me. It also suffers many of the faults of the GA system. Then came Bloody Big Battles by Chris Pringle. This is based on Fire and Fury, but is much more scaled up and stripped down than Bill’s game. The system is aimed mainly at mid-19th Century battles, and especially the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. But many have used it for Napoleonic. The scaling was exactly what I was looking for though – with 25/30mm square bases representing 1,000 to 1,500 men each, organised into units of three to six bases, usually. My first trial of the system was a solo game between Prussians and Austrians in the 1866 war, using Napoleonic figures. This gave a cracking game with fortunes swinging back and forth wildly. If I start up in this era – and I’m very tempted to – these are the rules that will use (but I’ll use 10mm or 6mm miniatures). It helps that Chris has produced a whole heap of interesting historical scenarios ready to play.

But, as I’ve said a few times here already, BBB does not transfer well to Napoleonic battles. One reason is that the fighting takes too long to resolve – I think because infantry firing is so restricted without long-range firearms. Second is that the command/activation system is very haphazard, so that things can freeze up too quickly in core parts of the battle. This may represent mid-century wars quite well. Central battle control tended to be weak, while local corps and divisional commanders were more used to taking the initiative than earlier in the century. The randomised activation system models this dispersion well enough, but in Napoleonic times the army command tended to be stronger, but lower levels were weaker. The battle flowed quickly in the areas where the army command focused, but tended to be slower elsewhere. Blucher and HFG model this well (HFG overdoes it in fact) – but not BBB. Finally cavalry was much more important in the earlier era, and its role much more distinct from the infantry.

And so for all these reasons I started the journey of writing my new rules with BBB as the jumping-off point. This has produced a series of false dawns, and I’m still not there yet. Partly inspired by Lasalle 2 I have now finally abandoned the I-go U-go turn system. There are other features that I have copied from these wonderfully designed rules. There will need to be more trials before I have anything fit to release, even as a beta.

But one thing is very clear from my journey so far. You lose a lot of the detail with divisional-sized units, and so rely a lot on random combat factors to give a realistic variety of outcomes. This came home forcefully when I tried a thought experiment of recreating d’Erlon’s attack at Waterloo in terms of my rules. The historical outcomes are all possible within the rules, but the route can be a bit indirect at times. But, of course, if you are going to reduce a big battle into something that two players can play in a day, it follows you have to lose a lot. The high randomisation and abstraction is bound to put many off. But it might draw as many others in.

A trial game with Lasalle II

I have read a number of excellent review of Sam Mustafa’s latest game, an updated version of his Lasalle rules, for Napoleonic divisional level games. So I splashed out and bought a copy. I have just tried it out on a solo game. What are my impressions?

As I have said many times here before, Sam Mustafa is one of the top wargames designers currently in business. His games are always elegantly designed, properly tested and clearly explained. However, since his first Napoleonic game, Grande Armée, I have taken a dislike to his various systems – they just didn’t provide kind of feel of game that I have been looking for. That was the case for his first edition of Lasalle. I found them too abstract and “gamey”. There was too big a gap between the way the game was played, and how battles were actually fought. I am very interested in the historical simulation side of the game, rather than it being just a game for toy soldiers. This is a balance, of course: I don’t have much patience for complex mechanisms and piles of detail these days – so a lot of abstraction is essential. And Sam does pay a great deal of attention to the history. The balance wasn’t quite right for me.

Lasalle II never promised to be more than a highly abstracted game for toy soldiers, albeit one that is heavily grounded in the history. However it intrigued me because I would like to have the option of this sort of system for shorter games and club play – in order to give my miniatures time on the tabletop and provide entertainment. This set of rules looked as if it could fill that gap.

What’s more they can quite easily be adapted for use with my miniatures. These are in 18mm and (mainly) based on 25mm (one inch) squares, with six infantry or two cavalry to each base. Lasalle uses standardised units of four bases (for infantry and cavalry). I thought this would look good with my figures, even though typically shallower bases are used. The most popular base width seems to be 40mm for 18mm figures (and this base width is used for 28mm as well – and for 6mm too, albeit with different base depths!). Like most of Sam’s current systems, all distances are given in base widths (BWs); since 1BW equals an inch, I have no need for specially made rulers.

I don’t want to describe the Lasalle II system here – there are plenty of online resources that do that for those that are interested. Suffice to say that it is everything you might expect from a great games designer like Sam. And it’s very abstract. What I want to do is talk about my game and the particular issues that came up for me.

My test game was based on the trial scenario in the rules, but replacing the Austrians with my Prussians (my beloved Austrian army is in a sad state at the moment). That actually changed things quite a bit. The Austrians don’t have the “Attack Column” trait, but did have some high-class cavalry. My Prussians do have “Attack column”, like the French, but five out of the eight infantry units were Landwehr. I still gave them three cavalry units, but these were bog standard quality dragoons and hussars, with the same characteristics as the two French units, of hussars and chasseurs. But I did get the points to balance! I also had to adapt the table layout so that I could use my Albuera table, which I haven’t taken down yet.

Half way through my game. You can just see the discrete pins that mark the edge of the playing area, and how cramped it is becoming for the advancing Prussians

The game length is meant to be eight moves – but mine ended in the fifth, as the Prussians reached their break point of four units lost. This was mainly because I misread the rules on artillery, so that the longer range “bombardment” fire was using the number of dice for canister “volley” fire. The French quickly set up two batteries together, and blasted away the Prussian horse battery before it could let off a shot, and then trashed one of the Prussian infantry units, which had seized the village, followed by one of the Prussian dragoon units. Both of these units were subsequently finished off by close combat, though the Prussians managed to retake the village, and it took a few moves before the cavalry was finally routed. The one Prussian battery to get going did manage to make a mess of one of of the French infantry units before I realised my mistake – and this was duly polished off by a Landwehr unit. This was all aided by good dice throwing; the third French battery did not manage to achieve much – until later. The final battery (Prussian) was never deployed as this was part of an over-ambitious Prussian turning move and it got crowded out.

The Prussians sent their strongest “brigade”, with two line and two Landwehr infantry, one cavalry unit and a battery, on a big turning manoeuvre, through and round a wood. This succeeded in giving them the initiative (in battle rather than game terms), messing up the French plans, and forcing their left brigade to come to the aid of the right one. But one prolong move was enough for them to swing round their battery just enough to face the threat, while there wasn’t enough table space for the Prussian cavalry to get round the rightmost French infantry unit, which formed square and bottled it up. The Prussians decided to risk everything on a charge on the French battery with its leading Landwehr unit (the same one that had routed the French infantry). Because the French had wisely held their fire, this meant that the Prussians had to endure one round of canister before they could close. With some fine French throwing, this time within the rules as written, they scored four disruptions (all the infantry and cavalry units have a strength rating of six, which is the maximum number of disruptions they can endure). The Landwehr rallied and pressed on – but the rally move succeeded in only pulling back one of the disruptions. The battery stood its ground and beat off the attack, inflicting more disruption. A series of charges by Prussian attack columns on the French infantry were also beaten off, and there was some largely ineffectual musketry between the sides – the musket power of attack columns (and squares) is quite limited. But the musketry did manage to finish off the very battered Landwehr unit, and the Prussians had lost their four units.

That was a fair verdict. The Prussians were running out of steam, and didn’t even have the space to deploy their third battery. Quite apart from misreading the rules on artillery fire, there were a lot of mistakes arising from the lack of familiarity wit the rules. In particular my usual method of rapidly throwing in attack columns without bothering much with musketry didn’t really work – and the congestion problems the Prussians had clearly had their root in unfamiliarity too. But there were a number issues that surprised me a bit, and might not be so obvious from the write-ups you see. These aren’t problems with the system, so much as warnings about how they work.

The first issue was space. One inch to a base width gives you a very compact table. The rules recommend a playing area of 24BW by 36: just two by three feet for me (60 by 90cm). I followed this for my trial game wanting, not to spend too much time in the game in early manoeuvring. That meant the playing area was a bit cramped with the suggested armies (8 infantry 2/3 cavalry and 3 artillery unit a side). Both sides were constrained by the opposite table edge. It didn’t help that my wood and crop field were a bit big – the official trial game would have had them smaller. My bases are quite deep, of course, which made them take up quite a bit of space. One-inch bases are doubtless more typical of 10mm or 6mm miniatures on shallower bases. That would still have led to problems with the table depth – and I didn’t even use the suggested unit labels, which are quite big. But this problem has an obvious solution – I have plenty of space to use a bigger playing area. But if you are using a 40mm BW I would recommend that you have a full 4ft by 6ft playing area (1.2 by 1.6m, rather than 0.96 by 1.44m), and space nearby for the routed units, reinforcements, etc.

A second issue is skirmishers. This is a problem that Sam has struggled with for a long time – they were historically important, but are very hard to represent in game terms without making the whole thing too fiddly. Sam has abstracted them away, so that while they have an important effect on the game, no models on the table. Each infantry unit has a number of skirmish points. These are totalled up at the start of each turn and a die thrown for each (an awful lot of dice incidentally) – a 6 is required to sore a “hit”, and this determines who goes first, and may give you extra “Momentum” (MO) points, which drive the game. This is very clever, and further ideas are incorporated into the advanced rules. I would still like skirmishers to be on the tabletop, even if only as markers. At first I thought that I could put one base on the table for each skirmish point, and just use them as decoration. But there are far too many skirmish points for that, in an already crowded table. One base per hit would be fine, but since these have no significance beyond who goes first and MO points, this looks pointless. In fact one of the Advanced rules does give a role for skirmish markers, and adopting this rule is probably the best thing to do.

A third point is that the rules for built-up areas are too abstracted for my liking. At this sort of scale – one base width is something under 40m – you should be able to differentiate streets from blocks of buildings, and so start to represent how street fighting actually worked (it was almost all on the streets, with buildings used as strongpoints only occasionally – otherwise they were just used by skirmishers). I guess the problem is that most wargamers like to use buildings that are “in scale”, and this means the are far too big to leave enough room for streets. On the plus side built-up areas confer no cover or defence benefits unless the defenders have taken time out to “garrison” the block. This is a much more realistic treatment than you usually see in wargames, though the garrisoning is maybe a bit too easy (just a formation change, albeit one that costs two MO rather than the usual one).

But overall this is an excellent game system, fully justifying the rave reviews I have seen of it. The turn play system – both sides interact without the use of phases or player-turns – is especially clever and works really well. There are intricacies which you can miss on first play, but generally the rules should be very quick to pick up. When I get back to club play (some way off – I haven’t found a nearby club yet in my part of East Sussex), I will certainly be trying to introduce these. They are a great way of getting the miniatures onto the table for a bit of fun. The high level of abstraction means they will not be to many tastes, but they are the basis for an absorbing and entertaining game. And the reference to history is much more than a token one, even if it is highly abstracted.

My latest Albuera game – how did Army rules do?

The allies have re-oriented they army as the French attempt to outflank them

At last another game, as my friend Rob was kind enough to visit! I had to put together a scenario quite quickly – and one that could use Rob’s British and allied Minifigs. I decided on Albuera 1811. It is a battle I know quite well, has plenty of action, and the terrain is relatively straightforward.

I have used this as a scenario at a club game using my big battle rules – but I was concerned that this would not be a big enough game for up to five hours of table time. So I decided to scale down (or up?) the rules to halve my normal figure ratio, so that the main units were brigades rather than divisions. Each infantry base was 600 infantry, 200 cavalry or 8 guns. I have just bought Sam Mustafa’s Lasalle rules, and funnily enough each base corresponds to one the standard-sized units in that ruleset. The only adjustment I made to game play was to extend the artillery bombardment ranges by 3 inches. Developing a version of the rules at this scale is certainly something I want to do, but at this stage I am not thinking too hard about what other changes might be needed. The ground scale is 75% of normal, so that each inch is 112.5m, or 150 paces in contemporary military measurement – over 14 inches to the mile compared to under 11. This meant interpreting the 50% figure ratio as relating to footprint rather than frontage.

The game starts at 8am. The French are lined up along the road from Seville that you can see on the left-hand side of the table. The allies are behind the village, with three units off the table on their way. There is a lot of empty space on the top right of the table. As I was setting up the game I realised that I had made a mistake in my previous versions of the game: the road from Badajoz is the one disappearing off the bottom table edge, rather than the one going off to the right. This is the critical campaign axis and the French objective, and the route along which allied reinforcements were coming. If I had appreciated that I would have shifted the table one foot up to have more space along this road, and less at the under-used far end. That would have crimped the French deployment, but that is surely not a fatal problem.

I chose the set-up because I wanted to give the French player the choice of carrying out the historical flank attack, or of something much more frontal, which tends to be the way the French player goes when I run it as a club game. The problem is that if the French do opt for the flank option, as I did this time, the allies have too much time to reorganise. I tried to give the French a head start, with a free move at the start, though one they couldn’t use to mount an attack, as well as the first move in the next turn. Though the French manoeuvred with impressive speed, the allies had little difficulty in repositioning their army to face the threat though. In practice I think the Spanish allies were harder to move around than they were in this game, when I gave them a -1 on the Activation throw. But there may also be a problem with the battle account that I have been following. The French main army may have deployed from the road before 8am – which was when the firing started.

The first few moves were taken up with manoeuvring, and some skirmishing around the village. These early exchanges did not go well for the French, so I did not press them. The photo shows the situation as the allies more or less completed their repositioning, after about two or three moves. After this the French continued their turning manoeuvre, led by the cavalry, and assembled the artillery in a grand battery. As historically, but in a different position on the field, Zayas’s Spaniards took the first brunt, and were pushed back. The grand battery (not a historical tactic in this battle) successfully caused consternation among Ballesteros’s Spaniards (there were some bad throws), and forced it out of the line. But the British troops plugged the gap, and weathered the artillery without difficulty. The game ended with the French hurling their infantry forward across the line into British and Portuguese troops; I needed some lucky dice, which were not forthcoming. By now it was 5pm, we were tired, our wives were back from a day’s exploring the shops in Lewes, and we called it a day. Here is the situation:

At the end

The Allied line has been bent right back, but the French would have to be very lucky to push the British troops back much further. Some units were looking a little worn, but remarkably few had been knocked out of play (the British heavy dragoons may have been the only one). We had played about 9 turns in roughly four hours. The game had started an hour late because of a navigation mishap by my guest.

The scenario clearly needs more work, but it makes for a good game – even if difficult for the French to win. As the French player I probably needed to get stuck in more quickly with the infantry while the cavalry tried to pressure he flank. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a good way to bypass the Spanish troops so the French run the risk of wearing themselves out on the poor troops before taking on the good ones.

How about the rules? This was a very good test of game play, as all arms got a good look-in and there was opportunity for manoeuvre. More work is needed, unfortunately. The good news as that they played quite quickly, but the combat needs to be more decisive. The armies need to be crumbling at the stage we ended the game. The ability to recover from one or two disruptions may be the issue, rather than the rate at which disruptions are handed out. My new rule mechanism for “pinning” – causing the responding side to “borrow” moves from its following turn – proved a damp squib. I also think the combat and casualty mechanisms need to be more intuitive. Command and control also needs more thought. While the French army moved fast enough, the allied army had it too easy, even with not very strong command resources. The game needs to move a little closer to the “PIP” system where the action follows from command focus, which can’t be across the field. It is probably too easy to get two or three actions on the activation throw without intervention from senior command – but probably OK for one action. One idea that did work was limiting artillery to six shots – this made players think more carefully about how to use guns, and limited the temptation to keep blasting away forever.

I will be thinking hard about revisions to the rules – which also need to be a bit clearer in places. What a long journey rule-writing can be!

David Rowland’s The Stress of Battle – quantifying the human factor

This is an astonishing book, first published back in 2005, with a second edition in 2019, which recently came into the Caliver bookshop. Despite the subtitle the book is not aimed at hobby wargames – more the sort of thing armed forces would run. But there is a lot of interest for us hobbyists. Like a lot of highly insightful works, what it says is bloomin’ obvious once you have read it, but somehow it changes the way you think about things profoundly – in this case the behaviour of men in battle conditions.

The book describes a journey in what is called “Operational Research” in the context of analysing military combat. It started with trying to understand why the combat performance of weapons was so far below what went on in the firing rage, and to quantify this “degradation” and the various factors that affected it. It describes a journey of analysing progressively more complex situations, to get a better understanding of the components of weapon and human effectiveness.

The main journey started in the 1970s with trials using real (British Army) troops in staged battles using laser pulse devices mounted on guns and sensors on the vehicles and people to simulate fire without risk of injury. The first set were tank battles, and then there were a series of infantry battles with armoured support. The tank exercises revealed a number of interesting insights n how battles evolved, and quickly descended into mini-battles with just a few tanks on either side (or one to one) – this was staged in Germany in classic rolling terrain. The infantry exercises showed huge amounts of degradation – reduced weapon effectiveness compared with the effective maximum on shown on firing ranges. Rifle effectiveness was just 5%, and machine-guns 21%.

The next step was to look at historical data, using the trial data as the basis for estimating some of the variables (such as the relative effectiveness of rifles over machine-guns). They looked at the effectiveness of defence fire against an attack, starting with the simplest situation of attacks in the open. They used data going back to the US Civil War, on the basis that the dynamics of small arms fire have not changed much since the rifle replaced the musket. Still, later wars tended to provide more usable data, so WW2 tended to dominate. They progressively added complexities – preparatory bombardments, suppression fire from tanks, prepared defences and so on. They moved on to consider fighting in built-up areas, including the effects of rubble, and woods. Overall they found a further degradation compared to laser-simulation trials of 90%. In other words rifle fire was at just 0.5% of theoretical effectiveness (depending on various conditions), and machine-guns 2%.

The researchers were clear that this degradation had a lot to do with how individuals responded to danger. Two observers from WW2 were particularly on their minds. The first British Lt-Col Lionel Wigram, who went to Sicily in July 1943 to observe infantry behaviour:

His principal finding was that in every platoon there were “six gutful men who will go anywhere”, with “twelve ‘sheep’ who will follow that short distance behind if they are well led”. But there were also ‘”four to six who will run away”. It made uncomfortable reading and apparently General Montgomery suppressed it on the grounds that it would be bad for morale. In addition, Wigram himself lost his temporary rank and was posted to a battalion in Italy as a Major, only to be killed.

David Rowland’s Stress of Battle p61-62

Also quoted was Lt-Col SLA Marshall of the US Army who was commissioned study to infantry behaviour immediately after the war. He observed that only on average only 15% of men took an active part in battle with their weapons, and rarely more than 25% even under intense local pressure. The average was higher for heavy weapons. This was based on battles in NW Europe and the Pacific; he claimed the rate of participation was much higher in Korea. This analysis was pretty subjective but it clearly pointed to an important truth.

All this became clearer in the next phase of the research, when the team looked at battles involving armour. This started with looking at the effectiveness of anti-tank guns against tank attacks, as these data were easiest to make sense of. Their data came initially from encounters by British guns in the Western Desert and Tunisia. Unlike infantry battles, they were examining relatively small numbers of weapons, and the individual performance of weapons was more apparent. They saw that the results were heavily influenced by what they called “heroic behaviour”, which usually resulted in a gallantry award. This covered 20-30% of guns. To cut a long story short, they found support for a model closely approximating to Wigram’s observations for infantry. There were three groups of men: “heroes”, those with degraded performance, and those who took no part at all. The ratios were consistent with Wigram’s observation (18:55:27). Incidentally Wigram’s ratio of ‘gutful” is quite high; anti-tank crew performance tended to be led by the best performer in the group, who was usually at least sergeant rank – Marshall’s ratio of 15% would be typical of infantrymen. I think Wigram was following the British 78th Battleaxe division, who were veterans. There was some variation of performance within each group, but these were minor compared to the variation between the groups; there was no continuum of individual performance. The heroic group operated at a similar level to the soldiers in the non-lethal trials, the “followers” (my terminology) operated at about 30% of this level, and the “shirkers” did not participate in the battle at all. They picked out examples from the battles that they studied, of some guns killing over a dozen tanks, while other guns from the same unit were abandoned without firing a shot. Looking more closely at the heroes, they found that this correlated strongly with rank. A much higher proportion of NCOs than other ranks, and higher proportion of officers to NCOs. Doubtless the causality of this worked both ways.

The studies went on to look at progressively more complex situations in armour combats, and then to look at the effects of surprise and shock, but the three classes of behaviour was the critical finding. There were a number of other findings that will be of interest to wargamers. Two were very striking:

  • Defenders of urban areas proved to be at a substantial disadvantage to the attackers, usually suffering very heavy casualties. The most effective strategy for defence was to hold back forces in reserve and launch a counter-attack. This runs contrary to the expectations of those who aren’t infantrymen, but I think that experienced soldiers knew this. The Germans at Salerno seem to have understood this, for example, in their defence of Battapaglia. This does not apply if the built-up area has been reduced to rubble, which turns it into a more normal battlefield – though not if the bombardment is just before the attack, when the shock can have a major effect. Wargamers rarely understand this dynamic over built-up areas, suffering something of a Hougoumont complex – treating all built-up areas like the heroically defended farm complex at Waterloo (and its neighbour La Haye Sainte). It doesn’t help that in larger scale games a village is often represent by a single building model. While this result was derived mainly from WW2 data, I think it is timeless.
  • Anti-tank guns proved two to three times more effective than tanks at destroying tanks, in spite their lack of mobility and protection. Mobile anti-tank guns (portees and self-propelled guns) had similar performance to towed guns, and even the open-turreted M10 (generally highly disadvantaged in wargames) was more similar to its towed equivalent than tanks. The authors explanation is equally unexpected: it is because they had a higher proportion of “heroes” manning them, specifically they were more likely to have an officer or senior NCO in command, or an officer could easily move from gun to gun and exert influence (or actually take over the firing himself). They had no need to look for alternative explanations, though they were able to dream up a few.

For me the dog that didn’t bark was differences in troop quality. Of course the data was seldom good enough to produce different estimates for different types of troops. It was drawn overwhelmingly from battles between British, American and German troops. These men came from similar societal backgrounds, were trained in roughly similar ways, and they were mainly conscripts. So, although modern writers like to talk up the superior quality of German troops, it shouldn’t be so surprising that when you get down to platoon and company level the troops behaved similarly. On two occasions did the researchers try to distinguish elite units. When looking at troops defending rubble they noted that the defenders on several occasions were German paratroops (Monte Cassino loomed large, but there were other battles covering 40% of the data). Allowing for their greater allocation of machine-guns, the researchers found a slightly better performance for the paratroopers, but not a significant one. The also looked at the performance of Gurkha troops, and found a slightly higher proportion of gallantry awards, indicating a higher proportion ‘heroes”, and so better combat performance. The effects were not decisive.

The three types of behaviour in combat, and their rough proportions and linkage to seniority is timeless, I think – and much of the art of warfare is based on managing this fact, from the invention of the Greek phalanx onwards. I have often said that the relatively lacklustre performance of Austrian troops in Napoleonic times came down to a lower ratio of cadres in their large companies. When a period of campaigning had increased the cadre ratio (attrition affects the cadres less), they performed better, such as in 1800, when they nearly ended Napoleon’s career at Marengo. Elite units are created to increase the proportion of “heroes” and eliminate the shirkers – though possibly at a substantial cost to the rest of the army.

And for wargamers? In most games we use large figure scales and we can average out the effects. Even in WW2 games, where the figure ratios are often 1 to 1, we like to group people together in teams, so that the individual behaviour is averaged, and let the dice do the rest. But this works less well for armoured warfare, where we tend to assume all vehicles are crewed by heroes. This produces a better game, given that tank numbers tend be quite low, and so an only one in four chance of the tank being fully functional can easily take the fun away. Still the examples given of a single 6-pounder destroying multiple German tanks (mainly Panzer IIIs I think) could not happen if those tanks had been manned by fully functioning crews.

This book has been around for a bit, and it must have influenced some rules writing. I can see its influence on the Too Fat Lardies offerings, especially I Ain’t been Shot Mum and its Big Men. But generally our games work more like those non-lethal trials with laser-pulse weapons.

This book isn’t a particularly easy read. It uses a lot of technical language and even for someone like me that knows a bit about statistical analysis, it is quite to follow at times – the blurb suggests that its many charts help make things clear, but they didn’t for me. But you can skip through those bits – and I don’t hesitate to recommend this book for anybody who wants to understand land warfare better, especially WW2.

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules 3: combat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules part 1 – scope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorauren 1813

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the game looked at the end:

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

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

In Deo Veritas – a trial game for Great Northern War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Mustafa’s Rommel: first look

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Deo Veritas – answer to a prayer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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