Category Archives: Games & rules

Albuera 1811: refight for BNB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Napoleonic Battles – prototype rules published

Our latest game reaches its climax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Napoleonic Battles – nearly there!

Our club game on Monday night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to BBB: American Civil War

Last night at the club we played a game put on my regular club colleague Terry, using his American Civil War figures, and based loosely on the battle of Peachtree Creek. We went back to the original, unmodified Bloody Big Battles rules. This is interesting since I’ve spent so much energy rewriting these rules for the Napoleonic era, so that they are now far distant from the original.

The game confirmed my contention that BBB is fine for the era it was designed for (the second half of the 19th Century) but flawed for earlier battles. The game played very well. There were four of us with half a dozen infantry units a side, plus artillery. We easily accomplished five moves, at which point it was clear that the Confederate attack had failed, in spite of relative unfamiliarity with this version of the rules.

What is so different about this era? First is that firing is much more important. Infantry weapons are more lethal because the are effective over a much longer range: 9in rather than 3in, reflecting the use of rifled muskets. We represented two Union units as having early breech-loaders, which gave them extra lethality at short range. This extra range meant there was much more firing, featuring occasional base losses. Artillery was more effective too, especially rifled guns. There was more of it too – in original BBB each base represents twice as many guns as in our Napoleonic rules. One Confederate division was wiped out by artillery fire alone.

We were left with one of our frustrations with these rules: inflicting a disruption on a unit has no effect if it is already disrupted, rendering much fire ineffective. But in context that seemed to matter less. One aspect of the rules was striking though: the effect of the “out of ammo” provision, which happens when units throw an 11 or 12 in firing. In our rules we have replaced this with a disruption, which is not far from mimicking its effect on artillery. But for infantry the effect is halve its firepower and it is very hard to shake: the unit must spend a move out of range of the enemy. This is nearly impossible in such a closely-fought game with such long weapons ranges. It is not a bad way of representing the progressive fatigue of troops, when the other method, base loss, is more drastic. Both units of breech-loaders suffered this, though not before some serious damage had been done to their opponents. This was quite neat example of play balance: not allowing an advantage and lucky throwing to get out of hand.

The game itself revolves around lots of dice throws, whose effects can be dramatic: movement throws, firing and melee. However over time these tend to balance out, and the rules overall do feel well constructed and balanced. It is interesting that when applying them to a slightly different era that this balance seemed to fall apart, especially when we tried to adapt them to the rather different role played by cavalry, and the effect of cavalry on infantry.

The small arms ranges used in this game are interesting. Nine inches is about 1,350m, or over three-quarters of a mile. Rifled small arms were technically effective at these ranges, but I doubt that such long range fire was important, and the ranges have been extended for games purposes. They doubtless represent a rather more dispersed use of forces than represented by the bases on the table. On that basis the Napoleonic ranges could be extended to six inches – and yet that would run counter to the feel of the era. Napoleonic battles were largely about tightly managed masses of infantry (and cavalry) engaging at relatively close ranges. Skirmishers were used extensively, but the three inch range (450m) captures this, as the actual effective range was under one inch.

Our conclusion is that we will use original BBB for future ACW games. If we ever get into the Bismarck Wars, we can use them there too. I did try them in a solo game for an 1866 encounter between Prussians and Austrians, and they were similarly entertaining then. But we’ll use our new rules for Napoleonics: we plan another game of these next week.

A big step towards own-brand Napoleonic rules

At the start. Three Prussian columns converge

Regular followers will know that I have been trying to develop my own rules for Napoleonic army-level games, and that meanwhile I have using “house rules” to adapt Bloody Big Battles (BBB) to the Napoleonic era. These two ideas have taken a big step towards convergence when we played a game using a draft version of new rules which are a rewrite of the BBB house rules, with further modifications, and are free-standing. The umbilical cord with BBB has been cut.

This follows a change in my thinking on the project. I have quietly been drafting more radical Napoleonic rules in parallel with the BBB house rules, though the two sets overlap. A couple of excellent articles in October’s Miniature Wargames have forced on me some home truths about wargames rules. First was by Conrad Kinch on the features of successful rules systems. This told me what I really knew already, that any rules I develop will attract no more than a few hobbyists of a certain age. To develop them into something more mainstream I would have to team up with people who have the time and inclination to create a more complete offer. Still it has got me thinking about how you might create a successful army-level Napoleonic game. One point made by Conrad is the strong link to successful rules and the miniatures. I use 15mm (or 18mm in fact) for a number of reasons, not least is that I already own hundreds of them. Nowadays, though, the big fashion is for 28mm. This really won’t do for army-level games without a massive table. In fact even 15mm is too big. A system based on 6mm or 10mm would look better, especially if a range of terrain aids, like battle mats and so on, could be developed to give the games a really good look without having to invest enormous amounts of time and money.

Very interesting, but the second article was more directly relevant to my project: Core Mechanics in Game Design, by Joseph A McCollough, who wrote fantasy rules Frostgrave, amongst many others. His theme is that rules should focus innovation onto one or at most two core mechanisms, which dictate the flavour of the game, while leaving the rest to be generic. There is much wisdom in this. Having started to play at the club (South London Warlords) I have learnt much about developing rules systems that get buy-in from other gamers. Too much innovation creates bafflement and confusion; a more moderate amount generates interest and intrigue. There is another point which Joseph doesn’t make. The more innovation, the bigger the tendency for bugs and unforeseen problems, which can either lead to major delays, or to systems that don’t work (I can think of at least one of those…).

The core mechanism for BBB is the Movement Throw, as it is for the Fire and Fury system it is based on. This is where players’ decisions are mainly focused. Each player picks a unit takes the Movement Throw, which dictates how far the unit can move, and whether it rallies from disruption. The rest of the system has its quirks but is pretty generic and doesn’t need to involve players in much decision making. In my parallel rules project I have a number of innovative ideas, but there is a clear core mechanism, which is based on orders and activation. What I need to do is to keep the rest of the rules simple and generic.

Which brings me to my development of BBB. I am calling this Big Napoleonic Battles (BNB) for now. This retains the BBB core mechanism, but refines the generic mechanisms around it. Generally speaking these mechanisms are simpler (and even more generic) than BBB (a lot of which is down to the simpler technology of the era being represented). The exception is cavalry, which needs a new set of outcomes and modifiers for combats between it and infantry, and where squares are incorporated. What I hope to achieve down the road is a merger between these generic mechanisms and my new core mechanism.

The development of BNB has been interesting. Rewriting the rules has offered the opportunity to tidy up a lot minor aspects. Compared to our previous house rules, the main changes are the dropping of skirmishers, as discussed in my last post, and a new movement system, based loosely on Sam Mustafa’s Blucher. I also changed the Zone of Control rules a bit (what happens when opposing units get close to each other). I had to finish them in a hurry, so they are untidy with lots of typos, etc. For that reason I’m not publishing just yet.

The game? It was for five players. I gave each a corps (two French and three Prussian) consisting of two infantry units and two batteries, and for four of them a cavalry unit; the fifth, the central Prussian unit, had two large infantry units instead. The idea was that the Prussians were converging on the French and had to capture a river crossing and the crossroads behind it in 6 turns, before French reinforcements would arrive (not part of the game). The forces were based loosely those at Ligny in 1815, but the scenario came out of the air. It went pretty well. The six moves were completed before 10pm, which was what was required. At long last I found that the players were able to do much of their gaming without me (as games master) needing to explain it. Doubtless a few details were missed, but the flow was a bit quicker. The size of the player commands was right for the length of game – though larger commands could be attempted with fewer players. The Prussians were able to storm the river crossing at Turn 5, and the French position in the centre was close to collapse (though it was better to their right), but the crossroads was not under serious threat. The Prussian players said they didn’t realise that it was part of the objective. Nevertheless I thought the main problem was that they didn’t press hard enough and got too distracted by the French cavalry.

Two main aspects of the rules need fixing. When it came the Prussian storming of the bridge was a bit too easy. It wasn’t quite as unbelievable as the French player suggested, as there had been quite a bit of preparatory shooting, and no doubt the French garrison was feeling ground down. Also the movement rules didn’t quite work for half moves in the “Manoeuvre” category for more complex moves. Another complaint was an old one, that firing too often drew a blank. In principle that could be dealt with evening out the fire results (so making it less devastating for high throws) – something it might be worth experimenting with. But overall I was very pleased with this first outing.

Finally some thoughts on the appearance. I am trying to think of ways to make the game look better, even on a club night. The game was set up with standard club equipment: the map, the roads and the river. I supplied the bridges (10mm TimeCast) and buildings (6mm Total Battle Miniatures). The biggest issue is the mat (from Tiny), partly because it represents prairie rather than European fields, and also because it is thin and shiny. I’m not a fan of the trees either – these are standard wargames items, and very robust (so very suitable for club stock), but based on the shape of single trees out in the open. They work a lot less well for woods, even when grouped at the edge, as I tried to do. I did not even attempt hills – increasingly looking to use proxies to achieve a similar effect. I think the next step is to look for a felt mat that achieves a nice generic field pattern.

At end. Th French have stormed the bridge.

Playing an 1859 game with Bruce Weigle

The Italians mass for their attack on San Martino

It was my privilege to play a game with Bruce Weigle at the Colours show at Newbury Racecourse last weekend. Bruce is famous for two things: his rule system (and series of informative rule books) for the series of European wars fought out between 1859 (Second Italian War of Independence) to 1871 (close of the Franco-Prussian War), and for his superb terrain boards for his 5mm miniatures, which give you the feeling of being there. Our game was the Battle of San Martino, on the fringe of the main battle of Solfarino in 1859 (which was so bloody it led to the foundation of the Red Cross). It has caused me to reflect on wargames terrain.

The attack develops as Austrian reserves rush in of the left

First, a little about the game. The scenario is the Austrian defence of the villages of San Martino and Pozzolengo from an onslaught by the Italian (or more correctly, Sardinian) army. I commanded the division of Italians on the left, who carried out the first assaults on San Martino. These did not go well. The Italians were armed only with smoothbore muskets, had weak artillery, and inferior morale/discipline. Though I was careful to ensure that each regiment I sent in had one alongside it that could conduct a follow up attack, fire from the defenders, artillery or rifles, stopped the attack on all three (or was it four?) attempts before they could close. By this time Austrian reserves, which under the scenario conditions were supposed to be unlikely to get involved, were hurtling up on my left, and I had to reorganise to face these off. There were a number of small but spectacular cavalry forays that wargamers find hard to resist, and that generally ended badly, but the main fight petered out. I considered realigning my attack to sweep round to the left of San Martino, but the Italians’ chances were better elsewhere (especially after I had drawn in those reserves), so that was not to be. Meanwhile Italians to my right flooded in, while the Austrians were quick to commit. This developed into two fights. One was a further assault on San Martino, which got further than my attacks, but also failed. And then there was a sweep to the right of the village. This did unexpectedly well, and suddenly an opportunity to attack Pozzolengo, the main prize (which would cut off the Austrians committed to San Martino), opened up. But the Austrian regiment whose rout had opened up this chance rallied, and did enough to delay this attack so that time ran out for the Italians. Bruce had always said that the scenario was hard for the Italians to win (historically they claimed a victory, but really it was an orderly Austrian withdrawal after the rest of their army was thrashed by the French). But both Austrians were more aggressive, and the Italians more successful than he had seen before – he awarded it to the Austrians marginally.

The Italian centre attacks San Martino

We used Bruce’s 1871 rules, adapted for 1859 technology. He has published rules specifically for 1859 (the same book also with rules for the 1864 Second Schleswig War with Denmark); these are a version of his original 1870 rules, of which there is a further version for 1866 (Prussia’s war on Austria). After 1866 Bruce decided that the rules need a streamline, leading to his much simpler 1871 rules, which has a two-page quick reference sheet, rather than a four-page one. The adaptions for 1859 are in fact quite straightforward, and fully contained within the QR sheet, which is published online, albeit without explanation (the small Italian battalion size reduces their combat performance, for example). I was familiar with the 1871 rules (see my initial comments here), but never used them – though I had played with the 1866 and 1870 predecessors with my friend George, who at Colours commanded the Italian centre. The basic playing piece is a battalion, mounted on a 30mm wide stand. The scale is one inch to 100m. To start with we needed quite a bit of help from Bruce. That slowed things down as he was in quite high demand from members of the public (which, after all, is what a demo game is all about), but we mastered the basics quite quickly. The most interesting feature was the simultaneous move system; this was more problematic as it helped a lot to have the umpire’s arbitration, and depends a lot on both players being fair minded. And some people are pushier than others… but it does give the game a stronger simulation feel. Other than that I don’t have much more to say on the rules system from my article when the rules were released.

At the close, from the Italian left

The main thing I hoped to learn from the day was not about the rules system, but the terrain presentation. Is there anything that can be taken from Bruce’s fantastic table that I can use for more ad-hoc games without the creation of a detailed board? What helped to give the terrain its authentic look? The first point is scale. Quantity beats quality, and the smaller the terrain scale, the more you can cram in. The terrain scale is 1:4,000. The terrain features about 1:500 (or more, maybe), and the troops about 1:300. Some wargamers, in larger scales, get upset when the doors in their buildings are too small for their miniature soldiers. But scaling the buildings to the miniatures comes at a huge cost, both because you must have fewer buildings, and the tendency for those buildings to look toy-town by having oversized doors and windows. So 6mm buildings with 15mm figures is probably a price worth paying.

Second is irregular shapes: the sinuous roads and streams and the irregular field boundaries and woods. We often use standard sections made up straight lines and sharp bends for roads and rivers/streams (which are generally too wide for the terrain, though not the figures). We don’t usually bother with field boundaries outside skirmish games, though at least the availability of printed terrain cloths is helping here. Third is sculpted hills with natural shapes, blended into the terrain. Fourth there are the trees. Lots of them are scattered as embellishments to villages, roads and rivers. And wood boundaries are marked by a continuous line of trees, with the interior left open but coloured dark green. This is an idea of genius though he could go even better by showing the undergrowth layer that is usually at the edge of woods (i.e. so the wood boundary is a sort of tall hedge rather than a line of trees). You tend not to see rows of tree trunks when looking at a wood from outside – foliage grows where the light is. And finally there is a more subtle point that has only just occurred to me – the use of unsaturated colours – in other words colours with a bit of white in them. Saturated colour comes on bright and strong, and are OK when you are representing strong sunshine an clear air (the Sahara perhaps), but not so much in northern or central Europe. Also there is a scale effect – colours become less saturated with distance, or the more air the light has to travel through. Since small scales represent a greater distance between model and viewer they should be represented in less saturated colours. This is a well-established technique when painting models and figures (often achieved in the weathering effects rather than the original paintwork), and I use it a lot in my 20mm WW2 models. But terrain is more of a problem, because of the use of pre-coloured materials (dyed cloth, flock, teddy-bear fur and so on) which tends to be saturated. Bruce hand paints his scenery (within airbrush often) onto white T-shirt cloth, allowing a more faded, water-colour look. I think this adds to the authenticity.

At the end. Pozzolengo in the foreground

And on the other side of the coin, what does Bruce not bother with? There is little texture to boards, which are essentially painted cloth. That painting is quite artful, with subtle shading for slopes, but it is flat. No teddy bear fur here. The vineyards and characteristic of this part of the world are just painted in. Of course the small scale of both men and terrain helps here.

There are good reasons why wargamers don’t do what Bruce does, but there may be ideas that we can use. A printed or painted cloth for one, more sinuous pre-made roads (using caulk, perhaps), and the more imaginative use of tree models. Hills are a big headache – and always have been for me. In the 1871 book Bruce suggests shortcuts to achieving a good-looking board without going through the whole rigmarole. He suggests the age-old technique of placing a cloth over polystyrene formers, of which he has a collection. Historically precise matching of contours is not needed for the sorts of games we play. The problem is that the cloth needs to be pinned in place. In fact pins are useful for a lot of terrain items, including trees, since they do away with the need for obtrusive bases. But what do you pin into? When playing “away”, such as at the club or a friend’s, it is not practical to bring large boards with you, leaving you with hard surfaces that in any case should not be damaged. Besides you don’t have much time for set up and take down. One answer (that increasingly I see at the club) is not to represent relief at all, and play on a flat surface. We did this for our Shiloh and Antietam games, as well as the Waterloo scenario. Other terrain features can dominate hills, and in our large scale games weapons ranges aren’t that long. Where a ridge line is important (as with our Waterloo scenario), alternative ways can be found to simulate it (we used a hedge), or perhaps just mark it unobtrusively.

Food for thought. There is an important difference to Bruce’s tables though: I am trying to create tables for 15mm or 20mm miniatures. These are bound to look different, and some of Bruce’s effects will be impossible to achieve. But I still think we can do much better.

At the end from behind the Italian centre. San Martino is in the upper centre and Pozzolengo on the top right. This picture gives an idea of the overall effect of the terrain board.

Napoleonic Antietam – the journey from BBB continues

I have just finished a Napoleonic game based on the ACW battle of Antietam . No pictures I’m afraid: it wasn’t very pretty. After this I had a chance to talk over our rules with my colleagues, and I am now ready to take my adaption of the Bloody Big Battles rules to the next stage, which is maybe where I will leave it.

As usual this battle was cast as an encounter between Prussians (who took the Union role) and the French (Confederates). It could conceivably have been a battle in 1813, when cavalry was often scarce (especially on the French side), though in that event there should have been Russians there too. All troops other than the French cavalry (Veteran) were classed as Trained, to keep things simpler. To represent leadership differences the French were given three generals and the much larger Prussian army just two.

Without going into details the tension in an Antietam battle is a small well-led Confederate force fending off a much larger but clumsy Union army, with things teetering on the brink for about 12 hours. In our case the French collapsed after four moves (i.e. four hours). The leadership deficit was not enough to stop the Prussians from delivering three strong attacks simultaneously. The French successfully held them off at first, but counterattacked on two of the three fronts when it looked as if they held the advantage (I was leading them, I should point out); both counterattacks failed spectacularly, and the French right and centre was overwhelmed, with Sharpsberg (the battle’s objective) falling in the rout.

Does this say anything about the rules, rather than my lack of generalship skills? BBB (based on the Fire and Fury system) doesn’t model leadership differentials well. A system such as Altar of Freedom would have forced the Union side to focus their efforts more, and made it near impossible to deliver three simultaneous attacks (in fact historically they delivered three attacks in sequence as the day progressed). The Prussians did suffer friction, but not conspicuously less than the French did. The French catastrophe occurred when the French suffered a series of terrible movement throws just after their counterattacks failed, while the Prussian side did the opposite in the next and final move. The French did have the opportunity to throw the Prussians back across the Antietam creek with severe loss, though, but the dice…

This is a feature of the BBB system; a lot can depend on a few critical dice throws – the spread of possible outcomes can be very wide, and the long move distances mean no second chances. Some of my fellow players didn’t like this – but the game is highly abstracted and represents a situation that is much more complex than it looks. Unexpected outcomes are, well, to be expected.

This goes back to the core system, and is very hard to fix without making it more complicated, building in second chances for unlucky outcomes in some way, or longer, by making the move distances shorter (so each move would be 30 mins rather than an hour). I am working on a system with a fundamentally different mechanism which addresses some of this, as well as modelling the command process better. But these rules are our working Napoleonic system, and the new rules won’t be ready for a bit. Meanwhile I am thinking about some lesser fixes.

First I need to draw a line under my attempt to represent skirmishers. They just got in the way and didn’t add anything. The effects are too minor to be worth troubling with. Instead I should perhaps extend the small arms range out to 6 inches (from 3) except against cavalry and when in square. This is sad. I have taken a great deal of trouble to manufacture skirmish bases, and I think skirmishers are an important part of the visual appearance of a Napoleonic battle. In my new rules I am thinking of using them as markers to denote a prepared defensive position, short of field works – to distinguish it from units held in reserve, advancing, or preparing to receive cavalry. Under this idea we’d still miss skirmishers covering advancing troops – but distinguishing a careful, measured advance from a rush forwards is a step of detail too far, I suspect. But I digress, such ideas belong to systems with a more detailed modelling of tactical options than BBB.

One problem that came up in our game was that cavalry disrupted after a failed sortie could get frozen in an exposed position trying to rally. Surely there should be an option for cavalry to complete an evade move to a rear position, and rallying later?

I also need to think again about the consequences of taking away the melee capability of artillery. The French lost a grand battery of three units overrun by a charge of two infantry units, one of which was badly battered. This mechanism had provided a second chance in the event of a bad fire throw. Perhaps it should be replaced by an evade option, subject to a dice throw. Still, unsupported artillery was quite vulnerable in this era, so this shouldn’t be overdone.

A further thing I want to rethink is offensive fire in the Assault. Currently second row units take part. This is a curious rule, but part of the F&F system, so must have been put there for a very good reason. But it is counter-intuitive and doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to me. I suspect it is a case of something put there for ACW brigade games that makes less sense for Napoleonic divisional ones. In this case perhaps one or two of the three of the three batteries might have escaped to return to the fray a couple of moves later.

Another minor tweak comes with the vexed question of the effect of troop quality on Assault combat. Something was needed after Spent status was replaced by Morale Markers. But +2 for Veteran troops over Raw ones felt too big, especially for cavalry attacking infantry. So perhaps +1 for any quality superiority will be better proportioned. One request from my colleagues was for quality to affect fire effectiveness. This is harder, but a I’ve just had the idea that I can use the “out of ammo” disruption for this. It could apply to veterans for a score of 12 only, for Trained on 11 or 12, and for Raw troops on 10 to 12. And perhaps not at all for Disrupted units. Well maybe…

But my colleagues did like many of my innovations. The double disruptions get round the previous invulnerability of disrupted units, even if some of the rules around base removal are slightly counter-intuitive. For example if a double-D unit suffers a base loss, it is left with a lost base and a single D – just the same as if it not been disrupted at all. My idea was to increase the chances of base loss (which the new rules do), but not by that much… so a base loss is a bit of a re-set event. They also liked the morale markers for each base loss, though I need to think about whether a four base unit with two MMs can claim to be in Depth formation (yes, but with only one base in the front line, I think). Generally my simplifications (no half-effect firing, no damaged batteries, no special out-of-ammo status, no silenced batteries) have gone down well too.

That will probably end my journey on the BBB system. I need to concentrate on my new system (using the same representation of troops, but mainly new mechanisms). But it’s been a long journey and maybe it’s a good idea to cut the umbilical cord with the BBB booklet and write a standalone version in different words.

Prussians at Waterloo game

Our club game this week was another game using our adaptation of BBB. I devised a scenario based on the Allied left flank from about 2pm, with the Prussians advancing in masses and Wellington’s army hanging on. The French had enough forces to beat the latter but the main focus of the scenario was a Prussian race against time towards Plancenoit.

The battle north of Frichermont intensifies

First the rules. This version represents a significant development of the core BBB system, to the extent that I can’t really call them house rules. We still use the main rule booklet to deal with some queries, but it is getting to the point where I should do a complete rewrite which can be published as a standalone. The double-disruption rule, formation change rule and new assault table were carried forward from last time. This time lost bases were replaced by “Morale Markers ” with the same footprint as a base. The idea is to put casualty figures on them. Each marker gives -1 on both the Movement Throw and Assault, replacing the -2 for Spent status. Veteran and Raw status are given +1/-1 on the same throws. The other big change from last time is that cavalry attacks on infantry are dealt with sequentially rather than in one great punch-up.

The scenario was highly simplified so that we stood some chance of setting it up and finishing the game in an evening. There were no hills; only the major areas of forest were included. The ridge at the centre of the Allied position was represented by a hedge. None of the Allied or French units involved in the earlier combats were given base losses. Instead two French divisions from d’Erlon’s corps, some of the French artillery, and Bijlandt’s Netherlands troops were removed, and the British troops downgraded from Veteran to Trained.

The French (played by Terry) weren’t interested in following the historical precedent and launched into the Frichermont and Smohain area with three out of their four infantry divisions and all three cavalry divisions. The remaining infantry advanced on the British to the (French) left. This left the road to Plancenoit wide open, but it worked. They pushed the Nassauers out of the Smohain complex and drew the two British cavalry units in (releasing one of these units would have given the Allies a victory point). The Prussians were drawn into this combat, as they preferred to skirt the Bois de Paris via the Frichermont area rather than push through it. The French cavalry were badly mauled. The British also beat off the attack on their main line with a cracking artillery throw. Meanwhile the French activated the Young Guard, which managed an unsuccessful attack on La Haye Sainte. We reached Turn 6 out of 8, with the French holding four victory points to the Allied one, and with no prospect of losing the key Plancenoit (two points) being taken by the Prussians.

It is clearly very hard for the Prussians to win this scenario. I found something similar a few years ago when I tried BBB on a full game of Waterloo. That time Lobau’s troops held up the Prussians to the west of Bois de Paris. The interesting question is how much this reflects a weakness in the BBB system in representing less static battles, and how much it reflects historical problems. There are arguments for both. Pete, who played the Prussians, complained that he was hampered by movement throws which restricted his movement. The maximum infantry move of 12in is only just over a mile, which is slow for an unimpeded advance in an hour, never mind being restricted to random half-moves. But historically the Prussian focus on Plancenoit was more relentless than that used in either of the games. Critically they turned Lobau’s right flank early, forcing him to retreat rapidly to a more secure line. Blucher resisted the temptation to get embroiled in the Frichermont area.

How realistic was the scenario design? I don’t think I got the Frichermont/Papelotte/Smohain area right. I split it into two, but left a small gap between each part, which in the game the French used to infiltrate cavalry and artillery through. There is a gap on some of the maps, but I’m not sure it was a very practicable one. Also I’m not sure that representing each area as a wood quite reflected the good defensive qualities of the terrain. However nobody historically tried to throw three infantry divisions at it, so it is hard to assess this properly. The terrain is much more complex than I represented it, with small woods and a stream. It would repay a bit more research, as it played an important role in the battle, even if it is neglected by most historians. The same comment can be made for other parts of the battlefield. Having said that, the heroic simplification wasn’t as much of an issue as I thought it might be. Representing the main British ridge line with a hedge worked well enough, and I think the rules for La Haye Sainte were fine in principle, though not seriously tested. Compared to the other games at the club, though, the table didn’t look very attractive. I need to think of simple ways to make it look better. More building models would help (the use of 6mm models was fine – though less good that they were meant for a Spanish scenario!). Representing some of the tracks and streams better would help – but this isn’t easy to do for a club night. Having some fields to scatter over the terrain is an idea worth looking at though.

And the rules? The new rules on double Disruption and base removal worked pretty well, including the new unified Assault table. But the morale markers and changed rules on Raw and Veteran units I am much less sure about. I rated the French (and British) light cavalry as Veteran. That made it quite a formidable proposition against the Prussian infantry rated as Raw. It didn’t feel right, but the simplest thing is not to class light cavalry as Veteran. But the new system is intuitive and easy to for players to understand. There is more work to do around this, but I suspect the thing to do is for the Raw/Veteran status to affect the Movement Throw and not Assault, which can be left to the Aggressive/Fragile classification.

Meanwhile I continue to chip away at some more radically different rules of my own. These will address the problem of slow moving troops in more dynamic battles.

Battlefront WWII rules

As faithful followers will know, I have been diverted from my original focus on the Napoleonic Wars to WW2, with more modern extensions. This follows my joining a wargames club, and the discovery of some of my old Airfix models in the loft. Since then I have been dragged into the pursuit of a suitable rule system. At the club we have played Fistful of TOWS (FFT), Rapid Fire! and (once) Battlegroup. All have their virtues, but each falls short in important ways. The heart of the issue is that of how movement and firing is organised. Meanwhile I was struck by the idea that the Fire and Fury system, developed for those American Civil War brigade level rules, and used by us in Bloody Big Battles, could work well for WW2. And then I saw that Fire and Fury Games published a set of WW2 rules: Battlefront WW2 (BF). I couldn’t resist. I ordered a copy from Steve Barber Models, which arrived this week. I’m very impressed.

The rules aren’t new: they were published in 2000 (which makes them more recent than Rapid Fire! though). They bear the stamp of that era, and, indeed, of the original Fire and Fury rules, which were groundbreaking at the time. The gaming community has moved on, but not necessarily in a good way. Two things stand out. First is that it uses an Igo-Ugo system, where each side moves all their pieces with distinct phases for firing, moving and close combat, and then hands over to the other side. Modern systems (like Iron Cross and Battlegroup) are based on individual unit mobilisation where movement and firing are combined, and initiative can switch between the sides. This can produce intriguing games, but it slows things down and often makes it hard to relate game play to what it is supposed to be representing – you start playing the rules rather than historical tactics.

The second dated feature for BF is that the rules are heavy. You can read through Iron Cross in an hour or two; Battlegroup doesn’t take much longer. FFT and Rapid Fire! are a bit more detailed, though FFT is much shorter if you ignore helicopters, tactical nuclear weapons and so on. BF is well-written, but hard work: definitely more than Rapid Fire! or FFT. It has taken me several sessions to complete reading it. The reason for that is an interesting one, though. It is not that the rules are over-engineered in the manner of many older rule systems, before Rapid Fire! shook things up. All the tables you need for play are on a two-sided reference sheet; all firing from direct to indirect to airstikes is covered by a single table and not all that many dice modifiers. The armour categories for vehicles aren’t very different from Paid Fire!’s. This is quite a bit cleaner than FFT or Battlegroup. The reason that the rules are so heavy is that they are comprehensive. Two sections are particularly thorough: on spotting and on indirect artillery fire. Other rules writers struggle with these. Iron Cross says hardly anything at all on either. And yet both subjects come to the heart of what war in this era was all about. The rules on indirect fire are particularly good. To be fair both FFT and Rapid Fire! do try to take both of these topics on, but they work that well in practice. To be fair on Rapid Fire!, I haven’t played enough of it to judge properly, in FFT it is just easy for anybody to call down fire on targets that would most likely be invisible. The BF system tries to capture the important differences between the systems of the US, Germany and the Soviet Union. The main rules set concentrates on these nations from 1943 onwards. The British artillery system only gets a brief mention (it was very similar to the German one, apparently) – but it gets more treatment in supplements on North Africa and the late war.

So the heaviness derives from thoroughness, not over-engineering. My feeling is that in fact the rules will play pretty quickly once players have got used to them. I like the thoroughness, even though this is very unfashionable – rule writers nowadays tout how their systems are simple and quick to read. But this comes at a cost. Firstly they leave a lot of things out, leaving the players and games masters with a lot to do to fill in the gaps. Iron Cross (and its derivative Seven Days to the River Rhine) are very bad at this. The other is that they give the players too much freedom and the games start to feel too much like games with toy soldiers without enough reference to history. BF is a welcome break from this. Indeed it could be a useful resource for games masters to help them resolve situations that other systems leave out.

So what about the system itself. On troop representation it is based on company level command, with platoon level missed out. Each model (or “unit”) represents two or three vehicles. Infantry are organised in bases, which represent six to 15 men. A typical infantry company would have a mix of rifle and light machine gun bases. They are mainly designed for 15mm miniatures, with two infantry figures to a base. Distance scale is one inch to 40 yards – essentially the same as Rapid Fire! though that uses 20mm models and a higher figure scale. The rule writers suggest that for 6mm figures you can substitute centimetres for inches, which would put it on a similar ground scale to FFT, though with a lower figure scale.

The play system owes a lot to Fire and Fury, but caters for much more complexity. There is an important difference, though. The Fire and Fury sequence is Manoeuvre, Defensive Fire, Offensive Fire, Close Combat. In BF Offensive fire is brought forward to before Manoeuvre – which is similar to the old Wargames Research Group’s fire then move system. This makes so much more sense than the usual move-then-fire sequence (used, more or less, by all the other systems I have quoted, but most outrageously by FFT) that I struggle to understand why it hasn’t taken over. What it means in BF is that that initiative side starts with its suppression fire, moves in, and then has to deal with defensive fire on those moving units, before resolving close combat. Moving and firing is not allowed in your own turn. At all. The unit can close combat, of course, and a moving unit is free to fire defensively in the other player’s turn. This has a good feel – though the original Fire and Fury system still has something going for it provided suppression fire is brought to the front of the turn, though perhaps more in post-WW2 when moving and firing was more feasible.

I could write a lot more description, as there is a lot to describe. But these rules beg to be tried out. Which is where I bump into a number of problems. My WW2 miniatures are mainly 20mm and the infantry mostly based individually. The rules recommend multiplying the distances by 1.5 for 20mm miniatures – but that is very clumsy. It wouldn’t be hard to modify the quick reference table (only the spotting table needs to be changed) – but unit data comes on cards for each unit type, which would have to be rewritten. Besides there are lot of odd numbers (one inch and five inches especially) which are a bit awkward. The obvious thing to try is 20mm models with the 15mm distances, which actually is probably a similar spacing to using centimetres for 6mm models, but I’m sure the extra space is a good idea.

A bigger problem is that the rules are quite detailed, which will try the patience of my companions on club nights. There are strategies for dealing with this, by keeping the first games simple (no indirect fire, for example). But it could be hard work.

There is another idea. And that is to write my own, rationalised version for our purposes. While the system is not over-engineered I think there are several opportunities to make the rules simpler. I have two possibilities in mind. One is a Rapid Fire! replacement with the same distances but a bigger model scale. Like most systems BF plays as if each model was a single vehicle or gun, even though it represents more. For a larger model scale this doesn’t wash in my view (it is one of my issues with Rapid Fire!), so that there needs to be some provision for damaged units, for example. The second possibility would be an Iron Cross replacement, with one inch to ten yards, and a one-to-one vehicle scale, and with the long-range features written out.

Both types of rewrite would be a lot of work (especially as I would quite like to use d6s, especially 2d6s, instead of d10s). But fun too!

Seven Days to Iron Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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