Category Archives: Games & rules

Scream Aim Fire rules review

The author of these rules, Jamie Kirkpatrick, asked me to review them, and emailed a Word copy to me. I like to help out other people in the hobby, so I obliged.

Scream Aim Fire is available on Amazon for £7.50 (that link is to the WW2 – Napoleonic is here). It started life as a set of WW2 skirmish rules, and it was then adapted to Napoleonic wars. If you think that sounds a bit odd (I did) you need to understand what these rules are about. They are not about historical gaming. They are a bit like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie (or a video game). The uniforms, vehicles and terrain may look  historical, but the thing itself is designed for entertainment pure and simple. If that bothers you (it bothers me) then these rules aren’t for you (they’re not for me). But that doesn’t mean you won’t get the quick and entertaining game that the author promises.

The version of the rules I have for WW2 covers about 28 pages. That makes them sound a lot longer than they are. They are written in 24 pt font (the usual default is 12pt and professional texts are usually smaller still) and double-spaced. You might be able to get the text onto 3 pages of more conventional text. There are a few pictures but no more than normal these days (actually a bit less). Opinions vary on this sort of rule-writing approach. The upside is that they are very quick to read. The downside is that there are lots of gaps which you will have to fill in for yourself. For example, nowhere does it define what a unit is. But that’s pretty easy to figure out from context (a vehicle or squad of men).

What of the game system? It seems designed to produce a random pattern of play. There looks to be little point to applying any strategy; you need to go with the flow and grab whatever opportunities present. Play is by random activation (each unit has a token or card which you pick out blind). The rules don’t say if you put the card or token back, but by inference you must. There is also a random event token/card, which is quite a neat idea. Once you  pick a unit you have to throw dice to activate, and and see what it can do (you might be forced to move or fire, rather than choose which). At pretty much every stage a dice throw can thwart you. At regular intervals a “shock and awe” means that your unit might disappear if you throw a six. The rules cover artillery and even aircraft (if aircraft are brought on the other side brings on its own one and there’s a dogfight).

I have not tried playing them. The rules require you to prepare two things which aren’t part of the normal wargames kit before you start. You need those cards or tokens to see which units get picked (and a random event), and  you need a bag of tokens marked one to five, which are used at various stages. Neither is hard but it stopped me giving them a 20 minute go. Without playing them it’s hard to tell you how the game flows. My guess is very erratically, and that is the chief source of entertainment.

I have only had a glance through the Napoleonic version. But they share the same mechanisms. There’s no need to worry about columns, lines and squares!

The verdict? These are quite unlike anything I’ve looked at before. If you aren’t bothered by historical authenticity, and you like being entertained by random events, and don’t mind filling in any gaps in the rules yourself, then you might like them. They look very suitable for solo play (in fact they probably work better solo that with two or more players). If you want to make the transition from video games to the full 3-D experience of tabletop gaming then this may be worth a go. But I would be a little surprised if that covers any regular readers to this blog.

Back to Napoleonics – Bloody Big Battles

BBB in progress 21 May 2018

This week we took a break from our WW2 games. My Napoleonic figures got an outing as we decided to try out Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB) on club night. It went quite well.

BBB is a set of rules based on the Fire and Fury game system, designed for European wars in the later 19th Century. But they are quite usable for the Napoleonic era (and doubtless for the American Civil War too). I like them because they have a very stripped down simplicity, while also being a successful system for recreating big historical battles (as its name suggests). I have used them before for a recreation of Waterloo in 2015.

Their simplicity is one of the things that drew me to their use on club night. But there’s another factor: the Fire and Fury command system is ideal for multi-player games. So many rule systems require some sort of top down command process that makes it quite hard to run different parts of the table in parallel. But in BBB there is no higher command system; no PIPs to allocate; nobody decides which units to move and which to leave. You throw dice to see whether each unit moves, in any order you like. Commanders’ role is confined to affecting this dice roll if close enough.

This did not work so well on this week’s outing, as I was the only player who knew the rules, and I was a little rusty. So instead of players working in parallel, they worked in sequence guided by me. This slowed the game down a lot, and we were nowhere near finished at the end. But the players were starting to get the hang of it, and if every player has a quick reference sheet, I could see this working fine. Perhaps I need to step back and act as gamesmaster next time to facilitate this. But the players seemed quite happy – they were expecting more complexity than there was.

The first question was how to adapt the rules to the era. This is where I came apart in my Waterloo game. I made several changes then, especially around the use of cavalry, and they worked badly. In fact I was assured that such changes were unnecessary. I had a very interesting dialogue with Chris Pringle, which you can read on my Waterloo post. Taking his comments to heart, I made very few changes this time. I looked up an old magazine article on adapting to BBB for a game of Borodino, and found myself rejecting most its modest changes (incorporating a square formation, for example). I made two main changes. First (which I had from my Waterloo game) I halved the figure scale for cavalry, so as to double the number of cavalry bases on the table. Second I adopted the fire table from the magazine article, which lengthened the ranges of artillery and musketry. The official versions were meant to reflect the relative strengths and weaknesses of these weapons compared to more modern ones. Two further adaptations were not changes. I did not use the rule on skirmisher bases. Regulars to this blog know that I get uptight about the treatment of skirmishers in wargames rules, and I wasn’t convinced by this one, both visually on the table (the skirmisher base is kept in close order in the main unit) and on historicity, in the Napoleonic context – it makes more sense when all armies used specialist jager/chasseur units at divisional level. More to the point I wanted to keep this first outing simple. I will return to this. A second change was to the way close combat assaults are determined. Instead of adding some factors and subtracting others from your dice, I arranged modifiers so that each side only had additions, which they could record on a D6, which could then be added to the score of the thrown dice; the result depended on the difference between totals thrown by each side. This worked very well, and Assaults did not get us into the tangle they did in my Waterloo game.

What of the scenario? Chris suggests that scenarios should be based on history, so that the game can be used to appreciate the choices that were available in real battles. There is no system points balancing and terrain choices. Scenario design is a very important element in how the system works – as Chris made very clear in his comments to my blog. I picked on Ligny – since that fitted with my French and Prussian armies (my Austrians not being table-ready). But this was too big for an evening game – so I took the situation of what would have happened if the French had pressed their attack a couple of hours earlier, as commentators suggested they should, before the Gerard’s and Thielmann’s corps arrived. I did some rapid standardisation of unit sizes. Prussian infantry units (four in each corps) were 6 bases (representing about 8,000 men), apart from one smaller unit which was 4 bases. I mainly classed these as Trained, but one unit in each of the two corps was Raw. The cavalry units were 4 bases, and all ordinary trained cavalry. Each corps had three artillery units, including one heavy. In the end I decided not to play horse artillery (which isn’t in fact catered for in the main rules). All the French infantry units were four bases (about 5,000 men). The line infantry (four units) was classed as veteran, the Young Guard as Trained Aggressive and the Old and Middle Guard as Veteran Aggressive. The cavalry units were 3 or 4 bases. They were mainly (three units) classed as Veteran, except the Cuirassiers (Trained Aggressive); the Guard cavalry was Veteran Aggressive. I gave the French three standard artillery batteries, on the assumption that any reserve batteries were still working their way up to the field.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to do a proper job on the terrain, and then I couldn’t find the stream pieces in the club’s terrain boxes. I plumped some hills randomly across the table, except one which was formed the basis of the Prussian I Korps position. We experienced a slight technical problem. The Tiny Wargames mat we were using proved too slippery when placed over hills, so we used some slightly incompatible hills placed on top.

How did the game go? We started with the Prussian I Korps in place with II Korps moving in from the Prussian left. The French had four divisions of line infantry ready for the attack (three from Vandamme’s corps in the centre and one, Girard, from Reille’s corps to the left. They threw Vandamme’s divisions into a frontal assault on I Korps position by attacking Ligny, though the left hand one wouldn’t budge. The line cavalry moved out to the right to counter II Korps. The attacks on Ligny didn’t have much effect, except that the defenders got a short on ammo result, and had to be relieved. After two moves of failed movement throws Vandamme’s left division finally got moving; it joined an attack with Girard (from Reille’s corps) on the St Armand complex. This they did at right angles: one frontally and one in the flank. Though Girard was beaten back by strong fire, the other division’s flank attack went better: a bloody assault with two drawn assault rounds gutted the Prussian unit, while the French veteran status meant that it could fight on. Meanwhile the II Korps moved in on the French right. The French cavalry was immobilised by first artillery and then infantry fire. One of Vandamme’s divisions was called off to face this threat, while two Guard units were also pushed into this sector. The battle was slipping away from the French.

There are a couple of pointers here relevant to the historical battle. First it shows why Napoleon waited for Gerard’s corps to arrive, even though this allowed the Prussians to strengthen their position. An  attack on the Prussian position really needed to be conducted from two directions: frontally on Ligny, and on the Prussian right flank through St Armand. They needed two corps to do that, and if Gerard wasn’t there he’d have to have used the Guard, which was a reserve formation. Second it shows how terrain protected the French right, and how important this was. In our game II Korps successfully did what on the day III Korps tried and failed to do. The terrain obstacles that got in their way weren’t in our game – though they looked relatively slight on the map – a shallow stream and some rather open villages. I will have to look at the detailed map more closely to understand what it was that made an attack from this direction so hard.

And the rules? I think the longer weapon ranges were probably OK. Though it means infantry engaging at the equivalent of nearly a kilometre apart (6 inches on the table) this represents the more spread out nature of warfare not fitting our wargames representation – this would have included the use of skirmishers and divisional artillery. But it did mean that infantry could pressure cavalry with firepower, and I’m not sure how historical this is (to be fair cavalry wasn’t supposed to be good at holding ground in this era though). The fighting is often pretty indecisive with units being pushed about and forth without suffering serious damage. This means that I suspect that one turn covers quite a bit less than an hour’s worth of fighting (though St Armand went more to type). I felt this with our Waterloo game too, especially with the Prussian advance being slowed down relatively easily. It was probably a mistake to class the Cuirassiers as Trained though, as this makes them much more likely to be stopped by a bit of firepower. The Young Guard should probably not be classified as such either – perhaps the Aggressive rating (which affects the Assault) should be dropped to distinguish them from the veteran Guard units.  Or the older Guard units could be given “Devastating Volleys”.

Many of the issues reflect scenario design, and our inexperience. The French in the attack needed to think of more ways to achieve advantages for fire and assault. The skirmisher rules may give them more opportunities for this, though I remain sceptical of the BBB rule. Maybe introduce this on our next game. In fact I have an idea to represent skirmishers by deploying special bases in front of the units, and using this to extend the infantry firepower range (instead of the 6 inch allowance), but having cavalry able to suppress this. That’s for the future. I have learned to resist fiddling with mature rules systems like BBB.

One thing that will need more work is scenarios. I might try my Ligny minus scenario again, but with more historical terrain – but this doesn’t look the most exciting game for a club night. I have a battery of scenarios from the Crimean War onwards published by Chris Pringle, which I could try adapting for my French and Prussian armies. Otherwise I need to look at some mid-sized Napoleonic battles. I also need to think about getting my 15mm Napoleonic armies into better shape. I will resist trying to build some armies for Bismarck’s wars though!

I also like the visual appearance with my 15mm figures. The variable sized units of three or more bases look much better than the standard two base units required for Blucher or Horse, Foot, Guns, the two best alternatives. Cavalry units still look a little pathetic in 15mm. I am considering adjusting the figure scale down again, to be one third of the infantry (which means that the men to figure ratio would in fact be equal, as my cavalry bases have two figures and infantry six). I’m also thinking about something similar for artillery, which I think is a bit too compact (and adjusting the fire tables). But not until we have more experience under our belts. Meanwhile BBB Napoleonics look very promising for club nights.

An outing with Rapid Fire rules

Our journey with 20mm WW2 games at the club continued with yet another set of rules this week. These were Rapid Fire, which have been around for quite a while. Originally published in 1994, we used the second edition published in 2005. I think another edition might be in the works. We thought they might suit our style of play on club nights. The game wasn’t that successful, though how much of that was down to scenario design and how much to the rules is hard to say.

We played an encounter game, similar to the previous week’s game of Iron Cross, with the British beefed up by the addition of three Churchills to the infantry force, and the transfer of the two M10s to support a reduce armoured force of three Shermans, to which I also added a company of armoured infantry (I was gamesmaster). The points values of both sides were identical. But the game proved one-sided. The Germans moved first. Long road movement distances (30in for faster vehicles) let them seize the village at the heart of the scenario in the first turn. To compensate I let the frustrated British have reserved fire. So the Germans lost two tanks in the first move, out of the three in their right wing forces. The British lined up their five vehicles, with a 17pdr, two 76mms and two 75mms into a formidable wall of fire, which seemed to paralyse the attack from that side. On the German left, the other force, with stronger armour (including a Panther) decided to tangle with the Churchills. This wasn’t so one-sided. Both sides lost two tanks, and the Germans their Marder tank destroyer. But when the British left’s wall of tanks moved across it was able to knock out the remaining Panther without too much difficulty, and then threaten to use its wall of fire to systematically reduce the infantry in the village. The Germans needed to be less hasty and use a concealed approach to unite in the centre before taking the strong British armour on.

So, what about the rules? They have a very old-school feel about them. The simple IGOUGO turn structure (albeit modified for reserved or overwatch fire) with no random activation, is part of this, and a heavy reliance on D6 throws. Admittedly this is not so unlike so unlike Fistful of TOWs (FFT), the system we use for micro-armour, which is rather more modern. But FFT uses more dice to resolve fire. For example, in antitank fire you typically throw three dice to see if you hit, a handful to see if you penetrate, and maybe one more for a “quality check”. In RF you throw just one die in a combined hit/penetration throw, followed by another damage throw if you hit.  And in FFT you have a concept of suppression at unit level, unlike RF, where you just kill people off until morale of bigger units is affected.

The architecture is very basic. There are just 6 grades of armour (including soft-skinned) and 6 grades of gun for antitank effect. Also just three classes of movement for most vehicles. That leads to some curiosities at the margins. The German 88mm in the Tiger I is classed the same (grade 2) as the longer 75mm weapon in the Panzer IV (though it has better HE capability). The Panther (with its grade 1 gun) is classed as a fast vehicle able to keep up with light tanks and armoured cars. Given the long standing of these rules, I’m sure all of this has been debated at great length. Incidentally there is no distinction between front and side armour.

This sets the tone. They are very simplified rules, in reaction to a trend towards mind-numbing detail when they were first written. But, unlike Crossfire, the rules are pretty comprehensive. That made them quite slow at first, as you were tempted to look things up when something unfamiliar occurred. But before long they should become very quick – much quicker for the same size of forces than Iron Cross, though not necessarily that FFT. There is no thought to produce house rules, because these rules are well-written, cover all the things they should, and have been endlessly tested in action. The only thing I’m tempted to do is to slow down the Panther. Iron Cross is very immature by comparison.

In this day and age, we find simplified mechanisms quite acceptable, so this is a feature rather than a criticism. The first thing that tends to stick in the throat with RF, though, is their basic design concept. They are meant to be brigade level rules, with whole battalions of infantry on the table, and three tank models to a company. That means a 5:1 ratio for vehicles and 15:1 for infantry. And yet it plays as a 1:1 skirmish game, with vehicles being knocked out by single shots and troops storming individual houses. One my fellow players said that the best thing to do was to play it as a 1:1 game, and forget that you are dealing with bigger scales. There is deliberately no designed distance scale (in common with most modern rules, it needs to be said), which no doubt means that shorter ranges are longer, if you see what I mean. Overall it is probably about 1mm to the metre (like Battlegroup, I think; Iron Cross is about 2.5mm to the metre; FFT is 0.25mm to the metre unless you scale it up). Of course what this scale up means is that you can have all sorts of nice toys on the table, up to artillery pieces. This is a bit of a fudge, but actually not so very different from games like Bolt Action and Battlegroup, which try to recreate the flavour of larger encounters in a 1:1 skirmish. For a club game I’m not going to stress too much.

The big problem with the game is similar to that with FFT. The sequence of shooting is critical, as your force can get  shattered in a single round depending who fires first, because you can fire all your stuff at once. Hence the effectiveness of Pete’s row of British armour. Fire is often very effective. It does not have the big problem with FFT of the move distances being too long relative to weapons ranges, though road movement is generous compared to other sets of rules. You still have the mobile ambush problem that I discuss further below. Iron Cross overcomes this by its much more interactive play, which turns encounters into duels rather than one side blasting the other to pulp before it can reply. It also limits the number of pieces you move and fire. And further, in Iron Cross there is a lot of firing and missing. The basic chance to hit is 60%, or 70% at short range (though it goes up to 74% at short range in my rules if everybody sits still), an even then it often bounces off. If you have a powerful gun in RF it is much higher than this (often 5/6 to inflict a guaranteed damage). In Battlegroup activation rules limit the number of pieces you can move and fire in one turn, so it is harder to deliver this sort of overwhelming blow, plus direct fire is subject to an “observation” test. Also the concept of suppression, much used in modern rules, allows an intermediate step, though less so in tank to tank combat. (It isn’t really fair to call suppression rules modern, since I first came across them in the Wargames Research Group rules published in 1973). There are observation rules in RF, to be fair, which we should have used more than we did.

I think a big problem with rules like FFT and RF is that they allow mobile ambushes. That is you can move a substantial force of armour out from a concealed position (or from out range in the case of FFT) and gun down an opposing force that is moving forward before it can fire back. I have a conceptual preference for rules that force you to either move or fire; or if you must allow units to do both, to do the firing first (as per the old WRG rules). Move and expose your self; or fire and never get anywhere. That, to me, is the essential choice at the heart of mid-20th Century warfare.

Still, I’m not writing off RF for club games yet. They play fast and are well-crafted in their way. What clearly doesn’t work so well is the sort of contrived scenario that we played this week. Encounter battles did happen, but it is rare for both sides to know where the other side was and was not even then. We will try an attack-defence game next time, using concealed placement tokens. Also I want to bring in indirect fire from mortars at least. But that’s not going to be for quite a few weeks now.

Iron Cross house rules – first go

Following my previous post I have been inspired to draft my first set of house rules for Iron Cross. For interest I publish them here. They are not playtested, and I expect them to throw up problems. But they might be of interest even so. I probably won’t be trying them out for a bit (my next game at the club is likely to be Rapid Fire), but while it is fresh in my mind, I want to set down what I was thinking.

These house rules are quite extensive: 8 pages of fairly small text. However, they only make sense when compared to the original booklet, though this is written in a very different style. So I think it is perfectly OK to publish without treading on the original publishers’ toes. The main changes are to the firing rules, which have been extensively rewritten, though the basic framework remains the original one. The other big change is the addition of close combat rules, based on an idea from the Iron Cross forum. Further to that there are extensions to bring in buildings, observation rules and a new mechanism for indirect fire. The classifications have been played around with too, including some ideas from the free extension sheets on the official website.

Best to start with the firing rules. These are where most of the criticisms of the original come. There are both questions about the balance (too generous to tanks vs. infantry? Or too difficult to kill infantry?), and how fiddly they are when you start to bring in all the different types of weapon, especially against infantry. The basic framework is quite simple. You throw one or two D10s to see if you hit, then there is a penetration throw and a damage throw for vehicles – or a casualty throw for infantry targets. But there’s a twist at each step. One or two D10s for the first throw? Normally one, but 2 for infantry targets at close range. Except machine guns, which have 2 dice against infantry at all ranges. If you throw two dice, and hit with both, do you get two morale markers straightaway or not? That depends. Ditto with the casualty throw. One of the tests of writing rules is the Quick Reference Sheet (QRF). Is it easy to summarise on a QRF, with a table perhaps? I have tried with the original rules, and it is a struggle.

So I have tried to put together something that is, if not actually simpler, is at least simpler to describe. Unfortunately this simplification process runs against another one that makes things a bit more complicated: filling in the gaps. For example the treatment of vehicle-mounted machine guns, which are not mentioned in the original. We used the rules for tripod machine guns in our trial game, which made them too effective. Machine guns in tanks are not the same as tripod guns, which are geared up for sustained fire. When the targets are close, the tank is usually battened down and visibility is limited. That’s especially true of the hull gun.

I digress. The basic principle is that for all firing you use two D10s at short range (up to 12in) and one at long. Except when you don’t. Tripod MGs use 2 D10s at all ranges and all targets. Other support groups, and vehicle MGs use one D10 at all ranges and all targets. This may simulate the use of personal weapons if the main weapon (a mortar say) isn’t appropriate. There is only one morale marker for even if you score two hits, but if you get two hits on the casualty die, both stand. The dice modifier for short range is dispensed with. There is table for the casualty throw showing how the different weapons differ. This includes a reclassification of guns into light, medium and heavy HE.  And what happens for anti-vehicle fire at close range? If you get one hit, the normal rules apply (but no modifier to armour at very close range). If you score two hits though, you add two to the penetration throw. I rationalise this as being that at close ranges you are more likely to aim at and hit a weak spot, like the turret ring or track. All this feels a lot like throwing away a careful bit of play balance in the original design. Close range anti-tank fire is more deadly; but there was a lot of firing and missing in our first game, so I think this is OK.

I also played with moving and firing. Support squads (tripod machine guns, anti-tank guns, snipers, flamethrowers) cannot move and fire at all. I reason that these weapons take some careful setting up. And everybody, including infantry, suffer the deduction for moving and firing in the same activation. I didn’t really understand why infantry should have gone without the deduction. But they should still be more effective if static. What if the target moves? A deduction for this is commonplace in wargames rules. But moving means you expose yourself more, rather than lurking behind whatever cover is there. It’s dangerous, especially for infantry. So I restricted the deduction to guns, with a lower rate of fire, though I’m tempted to dispense with it altogether.

Other details are changed. There is rule that if your penetration throw is a 1, then it isn’t treated as a proper penetration. I felt this was too fiddly and didn’t make enough difference. Also a shot is treated as being on side armour on if you are more than 60 degrees of the centre line (as in Fistful of TOWs); this is quite generous to the vehicles, but there is reason that nations invested much more in frontal armour than all-round.

A further change to firing is a different mechanism for indirect fire. In the original this only applies to mortars, and the mechanism is highly abstracted. I get this if indirect fire is not meant to play a major part. But I wanted to leave scope for more. The designers suggest that at the sort of skirmish combat being recreated the only important indirect fire came from mortars. But I cannot read an account of WW2 fighting without seeing that artillery played a major role in all combat – so I wanted something which could be expanded. The new rules are still very abstracted and simplified. But there is a stronger role for spotters (which must be equipped with radios), and a mechanism for deviation of fire, which will make artillery fire more use against more densely packed formations. Like the old ones, they are quite expensive on Command Tokens, but on reflection I think that is right. Indirect fire is something you do while everything else sits still. I haven’t gone for off-table assets yet, but just for weapons that are under battalion control (so mainly mortars, but also infantry guns). We’ll see if this works.

And the next major change is the addition of close combat rules. These were left out deliberately from the original. This was considered by many as a weakness, since without it infantry combat tends to get bogged down. This may be perfectly realistic, but it makes the rules less good for infantry-heavy games. So in my version, troops cannot get closer than 3in to the enemy without a close combat action, which requires a sort of morale test before being initiated (AFVs can roll past infantry though, but not through them). For infantry the combat consists of two rounds of firing without cover (grenades and close range being assumed to negate this). If the attackers do not destroy their opponent, they retreat.  There are other rules to cater for vehicles, though soft and open-topped vehicles cannot enter close combat, while tanks may try an “overrun”. Again, we’ll see!

There are other changes. Troop quality is incorporated, mainly by consolidating rules in one of the supplementary sheets, though changing the names a bit. There are observation rules, coding what blocks views, and setting some observation distances for units that are not moving and firing.  Buildings are dealt by treating each model as one or more units, rather than as terrain areas – which I think works best in this sort of skirmish setting. High explosive fire on a building has the potential to damage all units within it. These rules will not cover fortified bunkers and the like, but these are an easy topic for special rules.

I managed to contain the QR sheet to one page (with the reverse available for data). This involves quite small text, and I had to leave bits out. I felt it wasn’t necessary to describe the basic turn mechanism, for example, since players have no difficulty in picking this up. I also left out the rules on buildings, as these should not be hard to look up if needed. As I have already said, the QR is an important part of overall rules design in my mind, and it certainly helped me pare down the rules. The number of pages is quite a decent guide to overall complexity – and the fact that I have managed to keep it to one page is encouraging – if it works!

In due course I will report back on how these rules work. Inevitably there will need to be changes!

 

Iron Cross WW2 rules: our first outing

One of my current quests is to find rules appropriate for a club night. I’m building my WW2 20mm partly with this in mind. And now that one of my regular gaming gang has come into a job lot of 20mm vehicles and figures (nicely painted), we are in business. I had read quite a bit about the Iron Cross rules in this context. They’re quite cheap, so I thought I would give them a try. We held a trial game last night, with two players a side.

The rules may not cost much (£12), but first sight is distinctly unimpressive. The graphic design is poor. The iconography of the German Iron Cross and ribbon is in your face, on every page. I happen to be wary of the common wargaming fashion for all things German (and especially SS units), and I found this bit much. A second design problem is the fonts chosen for headings: a heavy gothic that’s hard to read, and a rather naff stencil, though this does have a period military resonance. The main font is an inoffensive and perfectly legible Roman, with an italic, though – I’ve seen much worse in wargames publications. The pictures are pretty basic, but that doesn’t bother me. If I ever publish rules of my own I’m unlikely to go to town on pictures, as some (very expensive) sets of rules do. One touch is text boxes adorned by specially drawn pictures of Feldwebel Coburg (Cross of Iron) and Sargent Denver (Band of Brothers) offering advice on how to play. They don’t particularly talk in character, but this device is quite a nice way to break up the text and give the reader a change of angle.

The text is short, just 12 pages of core rules, 4 pages of a game demo, 7 pages of special rules and “orbats”, and 7 pages on scenario rules and design. This is too short as it leaves a lot out (nothing on line of sight, for example). As games master I was often asked things that weren’t in the rules, though at least I knew they weren’t there so didn’t waste time looking things up. However, being stripped down is selling point, as the fashion moves away from the over-complex rules, which the era invites.

How do they play? The core of the rules rests on its activation system. Each players gets command tokens (CTs) at one per unit, plus two more if the commander is still active. You spend these by activating individual units; you can activate the same unit more than once, and interrupt the opposing player, so the initiative flows between the two sides. Once all the CTs are gone, you reset for a new turn. First the downsides. It isn’t intuitive and takes getting used to. Just what is this process of CTs representing? You move some units several times and leave others untouched. Coordinated multiple unit actions are hard. A second issue is that it is serial; you move one unit at a time. This can slow things down; and we struggled a little to make it work in a multiplayer format – though the reviews all suggested that multi-player games worked fine.  Never mind, what it does do is produce a very absorbing game which involves both sides throughout.  It is this aspect that drives the rules’ popularity. Otherwise the rules proved quite easy to pick up, though, as I will come to, the rules are bit more fiddly than they need to be. I will come to various problems later. But we’ll be giving these rules further outings. Which is frankly better than I expected after a first read through.

The game? A simple meeting encounter between two 1944 period British and German forces, moving into a village – a cross between Portugal and Normandy in appearance (north or central Italy?). The British had one force of tanks (three Sherman 75s and a Firefly) and one of infantry (four half tracks with infantry squads, a mortar and two M10s to give them more AT capability). The Germans had more armour and less infantry, mainly Panzer IVs, with a Panther and a Marder SP gun, among other things. Perhaps unused to the idea of unlimited weapon ranges (these are supposed be quite localised actions), the British lost their Firefly in the first move, and things never really got much better. The Panther’s armour proved too much for the PIAT; the M10s weren’t much cop as substitute tanks, especially when they were dire on activation throws. We British gave up, having lost 4 AFVs to the German one, and an infantry squad (though we did manage to kill an over aggressive anti-tank gun). The casualties weren’t that high for the time played, because we kept missing, and infantry proved quite hard to kill anyway. But all players were drawn in, and started to get used how you are meant to play the rules. Mass charges to try and get all your weaponry into the fight at once don’t work, though it’s how our games in Fistful of TOWs play. Now in open country, like the Western Desert or the plains of Ukraine, there is quite a bit to be said for the mass charge (I remember one German account of how they overcame a Russian force with just such a tactic, properly timed). So these rules probably aren’t appropriate for a wide open table. But in bitty fights amongst lots of terrain: that’s another matter.

Online, there are two criticisms of Iron Cross that don’t worry me much. One is that the army lists are weak. This is a whole side of gaming that I’m not into, the question about whether you buy a  Wespe battery in place of a Panzer IV, etc. Points can be used to get a general balance, but the gamesmanship over force composition I don’t get. The books and supplements provide enough, and it is quite easy to fill the gaps using systems with more detailed lists, like Battlegroup. One of the skills of gaming, as in real life< is making the best of what random availability gives you. A second issue is the absence of elite forces in in this rule book. I’m also not bothered by this – I like using mainstream forces. An obsession with SS units, visible in some places, is not something I’m comfortable with. They, and other elites like paratroops, have their place, though, and a free supplement brings them into play.

A third problem I’ve already mentioned: the missing bits. These aren’t so hard to fill in from other sets of rules, though Iron Cross would be a hard set rules to embark on wargaming in this era with. A gamesmaster helps here: but it always does. There are two more serious problems though. The weapons rules are too fiddly, and tactical balance doesn’t feel right.

Like many systems, core rules describe a basic game, with special rules to deal with further details. But Iron Cross gets the balance wrong. The special rules have to cover too much ground; almost every type of unit, other than a basic infantry squad or tank, is covered by the special rules, which then create a web of exceptions and different treatments in the various mechanisms, especially in combat against infantry. And the main rules turn out to tucked full of little exceptions here and there. The published quick reference sheets don’t cover any of this, so are pretty useless. I designed one of my own (though without flamethrowers). This is begging for a bit of redesign, and I’m not going to resist. Too much complexity is a puzzling mistake for a set of stripped down rules to make.

Tactical balance is a matter of opinion. Different players get worked up about different things. The Tiny Hordes blog thinks that Iron Cross doesn’t get infantry v. tanks balance right, with the tanks too strong, and also that infantry should get a penalty for moving and firing. So much that he fixed these with house rules before his first game. But I didn’t see these issues mentioned in other online sources. One problem does come up regularly: infantry squads are too resilient. Mostly this is in fact OK: infantry tends to get pinned down rather than wiped out. But when two squads get into base contact you expect things to happen more quickly: there are no close combat rules. In our game, a German squad went right up to a British one, and fired a set of blanks. The British calmly escaped. Well you can rationalise that, but a close combat mechanism is a common house modification, and seems to rebalance things a bit.

A couple of other points came up in our game, and in the forums. Side armour is very easy to hit compared to other sets of rules. In fact this would involve striking such armour at a very acute angle, which is not good for penetration. A 30 degree or even 45  degree rule would be better, or perhaps something even stricter. Likewise the effect of cover on fire is to reduce damage; this works fine for infantry targets, but not for anti-vehicle fire – where surely it reduces the chance of a hit capable of penetration? Mortars are very expensive on CTs to use. Actually I’m going to be patient on this. To use mortars you have to keep the rest of your activity down; that isn’t necessarily unrealistic – this underlies the point about these rules that you have to think about what you want to do, rather than just throwing in the kitchen sink every time.

The answer to so many of these problems is house rules. This is part of the hobby I enjoy I shall be developing a pretty comprehensive set. I suspect that this the way a lot of gamers have gone. The user forum is useful, but has gone very quiet. The two posts in 2018 are unanswered questions. People seem to be going there own way.

1871 – a lesson in the art of wargames design

As winter draws on and daylight vanishes, my pursuit of the 1943 project has come to a halt. The next step involves a lot of painting, and daylight is a big help. Also I need 2-3 hour sessions, and these have been in shorter supply over the last couple of months. Instead I have returned to my original project: writing rules for army-level Napoleonic games. After so many false starts, I have had a bit of a breakthrough on this, and I am closing in on a prototype version that I can try out solo on the tabletop. It has been my main activity of the quiet Christmas period. Alas this is fast drawing to a close, and progress may halt again.

I have allowed myself one diversion, however. I bought a copy of Bruce Weigle’s latest rules: 1871. Bruce’s rules cover a later period than the one that I am interested in, but they have intrigued me. I have bought them all, apart from the original 1870 rules (apart from 1871, these are 1866 and 1859). These are fascinating wars, which I would take to the table if I had time. The evolution from Napoleonic times is interesting, and the struggle to adapt tactics to changes in technology is of real interest. I have not been very interested in the contemporaneous American Civil War, but these battles between the professional armies of old opponents in the Napoleonic wars seems to offer something that conflict doesn’t. One of the many aspects that makes it so interesting is that the armies were deeply interested in what actually happened so that they could develop tactics. That has left historians with a lot of detailed accounts of what happened; and the wars were short, which meant that fewer participants were killed before they could describe what they had seen (though the battles were often very bloody). No doubt it helps that standards of literacy had advanced too.

Two things drew me to Bruce’s rules. First was the simply wonderful presentation of his games, with huge trouble taken over terrain boards, for his 6mm figures. These look, much, much better than the fashion for 28mm miniatures allows; the pictures of these in wargames magazines leave me cold, in a way that I find pictures of bruce’s games inspiring. Even though I struggle on with my 15mm figures (20mm for WW2), there are many lessons to be had from his terrain boards. The second interesting thing is the rules themselves. They have been carefully calibrated against the course of historical battles, move by move. At the same time Bruce tries to make them as playable as possible. This is a struggle that I deeply appreciate, when so many rules focus on playability and half-baked ideas of historical authenticity. There is much to learn from this. I have played a few games of 1870 and 1866 with my friend George, who built up 6mm armies for the games, which has given me a better understanding of the system.

These new rules are particularly interesting. Not so much for the period covered – I’m less interested in the Franco-Prussian war than in the other conflicts – but for how the rules have been developed. Bruce’s mission is radical simplification. He says that they are much faster to play, while leading to similar results. That looks evident. The quick reference sheets are down to two sides from four. This means chucking a lot of detail and nuance overboard – things that historians may say were important, but which turn out not be. For instance: there is little distinction between different types of artillery. The Germans get a longer maximum range and a dice advantage. The French mitrailleuse is simply treated as an artillery piece with a shorter maximum range. This is ruthless, given how much ink has been spilt on this early machine gun. There is much to learn from how Bruce has achieved his stripping down. Incidentally, I see a similar ruthlessness in Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB), though the choices are different. It covers the same period, but it is a very different game. My aim is to achieve something between the two for the Napoleonic era.

There was an unexpected bonus to 1871. At the back there is familiar section on how Bruce builds his boards (there are delicious examples in the book – including a table for Sedan with its city defences). He says little about these exhibition boards in this publication, but he does describe a much quicker way of creating quite respectable “test” boards. There may be some answers here for the creation of my tabletops, though these will never be in Bruce’s league. He uses a cloth pinned over polystyrene formers, with tape roads and acetate rivers pinned on top.

What of the rules themselves? They are what I describe as Corps-level rules. A single player will struggle to control more than one large army corps, though multi corps games feature in the scenarios, these will work best with more than one player per side. The ground scale is 1 inch to 100m (or 4m per mm). The basic playing piece is a stand with 30mm frontage which is nominally a battalion, organised in regiments of three. In common with earlier rules the 1871 rules give a “half-scale” and “quarter scale” variants. Both use the same distance scale, but the main units are battalions of two or four bases respectively. More interesting perhaps is the “two-thirds” variant, in which the main unit is a brigade of four bases, losing the correspondence of playing pieces with individual battalions. This is to allow bigger battles, like Sedan. There are a couple of interesting issues raised by this. First is whether the number of playing pieces should be based on army organisation (i.e. battalions), or on the numbers of men. Bruce has gone heavily for the former, as has David Ensteness his Napoleonic system Et sans Résultat. The argument is that the organisation structure drove the way battles were fought, and were written about. I’m not persuaded, and I would prefer to see the number of bases based on the number of men, setting the ratio to approximate to a battalion. Still, Bruce has made his system work, albeit he allows for a difference in average battalion size between the French and Prussian armies. How this works amongst the depleted formations of the later battles in 1871 I would be interested to know. A second issue is how well a rules system translates between different levels – how well does 1871 work at army and division levels? I suspect this is harder the more streamlined you make the rules, because different aspects are important at different levels. My view (following the world’s leading games designer, Sam Mustafa) is that different levels need different designs.

A further point about 1871 is its simultaneous move structure. When I started wargaming in the 1970s this was very fashionable. But since then (as indeed before then too), games have usually been based on alternate moves. I don’t want to develop the arguments here: but Bruce’s simultaneous system helps give the rules a simulation flavour, which is a nice contrast to the fashion the very “gamey” fashion of modern rules, such as Sam Mustafa’s. But it comes at a cost. It does require a certain standard of gentlemanliness  between the players (which, to be fair, I haven’t found lacking in my games) – and quite a lot of if-you-do-that-I-will-do this discussion. In fact quite a lot depends on who gets their move in first on the table. While playing I it did yearn for a bit more structure. But that’s just a quibble. I haven’t played them, but these new rules look a real advance on the previous versions, and they are better written too (the earlier ones left us with quite few “what does he mean?” puzzles and gaps), though the proof of that pudding is in the eating.

Could 1871 be used for Napoleonic battles? I’m tempted to try, especially when and if Bruce publishes his adaptation of the 1859 system to the new approach – the Sardinian army is pretty close to the Napoleonic smoothbore standard. Still, reading the book (which has welcome levels of explanation and historical illustration, I am very struck by how different the Franco-Prussian War is from was Napoleonic predecessor. At the moment I think David Ensteness’s system is the best for Napoleonic corps level games (to be clear, they are meant for army games, but with one player per corps). The 1871 system offers the potential for something more streamlined.

It is worth contrasting these rules with the other I have been studying for this period, if only for lessons in game design, which is BBB. BBB is an uncompromising Army-level game, though it is based on the Fire and Fury system for ACW, which is a corps-level game. By comparison, this feels much more gamey, with a less precise correspondence to historical reality. In particular the move distances look a bit low if the average turn is supposed to represent one hour. I have used the system in a full scale game only once, for Waterloo, and it was impossible for the Prussian advance on Plancenoit to be accomplished in the historical time. But its advocates use it to refight historical battles, and claim that it works well enough in general; I can’t dispute that.

If I ever do start wargaming this period (I fancy building an Austrian army), I will look no further than the 1871 system for gaming, with BBB as a backup.

 

 

Horse, Foot, Guns goes to Salamanca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Horse Foot Guns goes to Waterloo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Blucher: does this system fulfil my brief?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blucher 22 Feb 2016

Skirmishing in wargames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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