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BBB: the new system is settling in

The game at the start

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Iron Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another BBB Napoleonics game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

More BBB Napoleonics

Last night at the club I tried out my new house rules to convert Bloody Big Battles to Napoleonics, using a smaller scenario. This was a success, though I will tweak the rules some more.

The scenario was loosely based on Albuera (1811 in the Peninsular War), but using my 1815 Franco-Prussian armies, so that I did not have to print new unit labels, as well as getting more feel for how these armies work. On the French side I had four standard 4 base infantry units of Veteran line troops. Two of these were assigned to the flank march, one to the pinning attack and one to the reserve. In support were three cavalry units. One light cavalry unit (3 bases) supported the pin attack, while a further one (using my Polish lancer figures) combined with a cuirassier unit of 4 bases to support the flank attack. They had three artillery units: one field unit for the pin, one further field unit and a horse unit for the flank attack. There were two generals. One overall (Vandamme taking the place of Soult) and one for the cavalry (Grouchy taking the place of Latour-Maubourg, though in 1815 he was the senior officer). The Prussians had two corps. One, to take the place of the Spanish, had three 4 base landwehr infantry units and a 3 base landwehr cavalry unit and a field artillery unit. To take the place of the Anglo-Portuguese were two 6 base line infantry units (Trained) and a 4 base dragoon unit, also with artillery. The Prussians were classed as Passive. This is hardly an exact correspondence on the Allied side (given that the British had the best infantry on the field), but the overall challenge remained similar. The terrain available for a club night encounter was very approximate.

The scenario worked fine. Doing proper historical scenarios, as envisaged by the creators of BBB isn’t really feasible for a club night. They tend to be too big, and there isn’t a good way of getting the terrain relief right – real terrain is subtle and flowing; club hills are blobby – and most gamers don’t actually bother with them, using other terrain features to break things up. Since hills are probably the most important aspect of terrain militarily, this is a pity, if understandable.  Also getting the armies right takes quite a bit of prep. But you can’t beat a historical scenario for creating a narrative and interest. So my compromise is to use real battles for game purposes drawing units from historical armies, but not those f the battle itself. We didn’t quite finish this one, but we started late, and there were only two and a half of us, instead of the usual four. So the size was about right, until we speed up. I need to find a few more battles of this sort of size.

How did it play? Terry did not follow the historical precedent. He immediately threw the reserve division into the frontal attack, turning the pinning attack into the main deal. On the flank he set up his artillery to play on the allied units, pushed his cavalry towards the Allied rear, and held his infantry back. The Prussian regulars moved to handle the flank attack, while the landwehr dealt with the frontal attack. In the former case the dragoon unit did most of the work. It did sterling service, beating off a combined attack from the two French units, and with some help from fire support, destroying the lancer unit. At the end the French cuirassiers were in the Allied rear, but allied dragoons were still facing them off. The regular infantry allowed themselves to be pinned by the cavalry, but took up the challenge of the French infantry when it eventually advanced. This infantry battle wasn’t resolved at the end of Turn 5 (or 6) when we called it a draw. Meanwhile the French frontal attack was slowly grinding down the landwehr after capturing the village, though at the cost of being neutralised itself. The landwehr cavalry managed to neutralise the French cavalry, using the stream.

So how did the rule modifications play? The most dramatic: the new cavalry v. infantry combat table, and squares. Infantry became fearful of cavalry, and often took up square formation (on the Prussian side), limiting its effectiveness. So it played a bit like Waterloo. Whether this is overdone is hard to test. There were not many attacks by cavalry on infantry, so this aspect wasn’t properly stress tested.

I was most nervous about the skirmisher rules, as this seemed to add the most complexity. But they worked pretty smoothly, and it captured the most important aspects. Skirmishers could shield the main body from disordering fire, but also represented a drain on strength. Cavalry was good at neutralising them, giving cavalry a further (and historical) function. The unhistorical thing is that firing is alternating, which doesn’t capture the mutual attrition aspect of this warfare, where most of the damage in fact arises from fatigue and ammunition loss. That is pretty much baked into the BBB system, though.

The new infantry combat table was fairly influential and meant that the French attack on the landwehr progressed more quickly. Again this needs more stress testing, but the early results are promising. Finally the new artillery system, with bases representing smaller units with reduced firepower worked well. Artillery remained influential enough. Replacing silenced batteries with Disrupted ones (like infantry) wasn’t tested, and neither was their vulnerability to charge combat. Artillery was incorporated into supporting infantry units, but this it was difficult to do this while the infantry was moving. In fact in the real battle of Albuera the artillery did keep up with the infantry.

So what changes to make? There should be some small tweaks to the skirmish rules. I think artillery movement can be more flexible – and the rules used in Age of Eagles (another system based on Fire and Fury) used, allowing artillery to limber/unlimber and move, or limber/unlimber and fire without penalty in a move (but not move, unlimber and fire). This leads me to a further thought. I have now eliminated all the causes to halve fire points except Disruption and Low on Ammo. Can I find a different way of handling these? Infantry fire with a single point per base; artillery Defensive fire at short range only. And treat Low on Ammo as Disruption instead?. I like ideas that reduce complexity!

There is something else, while I think of it. BBB allows for the recovery of bases on the movement throw (though not if Disrupted). This was very important in the first trial game I played (actually based on the 1866 campaign), when an Austrian unit that was badly mauled by concentrated artillery fire, retired behind a slope and mostly recovered. It has almost never been used in my games since, possibly because we forgot to apply it, but mainly because damaged units are in the thick of it and usually start their turn Disrupted. In the Napoleonic era I can’t think of a case where a division got badly roughed up, retired, recovered and went back into battle on the same day (overnight is another matter).  Units disintegrated during battle and proved very hard to recover until the end of the day, even when casualties were not that great. It is quite a striking feature of the Napoleonic battle. I think this could be dropped (it doesn’t feature in Fire and Fury or Age of Eagles). There is a case for not removing units reduced to a single base, but consolidating them into rump units to fight a rearguard with, but that is something else, and an extra complexity we don’t really need.

I think I’m really on to something with this adapted BBB. What I need to do now is to work on my 15mm armies to make them look a bit smarter and extend them a bit, especially the French. It would be fun to have Austrians and Russians too, but that’s a long way off! I still have unfinished business on my 1943 troops.

Using BBB for Napoleonic battles

Our all day game with a Napoleonic scenario (not a real historical one…) was a success. We finished a well-balanced game which preserved tension to the last turn of eight. We were becoming fluent in rules, which provided a good, workable game system. What to learn?

The scenario was the same one we tried last time: a miniaturised Koniggratz transposed to 1815, between French and Prussians. The forces were half sized, the table 80% in linear dimensions (64% by area). The game  length was reduced from 9-10 turns to 8. The terrain reflected the original BBB scenario a bit more faithfully than our first game at the club, but was still simplified. Six villages were represented, five in Prussian hands at the start. The French objective was to take five. Four (leaving two in Prussian hands) constituted a draw, which is where we ended up. Neither side was particularly close to winning, but each could have.

The first points to reflect on are scenario design. Following the BBB scenario quite closely clearly worked. The standard BBB scenarios set a number of geographical objectives and a time limit, rather than destroying the opponents’ army. Each player controlled about five infantry and cavalry units and two or three artillery units. It took us a bit over half an hour a turn (about 5 hours in total). I don’t think we’re going to get much quicker. For a club night we’ll need to come down to a single corps each with about 3 units, with a more compact playing area (though ours was just 4ft by 5ft) and all the troops on the table at the start, and a five or six turn limit. Or the balance of the rules needs to change.

The problem with the rules is that there is a lot of slugging to no great effect. In our whole game the Prussians lost 7 bases out of 47, and the French 10 from the same number.  Only two units lost two bases. Mostly fire resulted in opponents being disrupted, and assaults in one side falling back 3 inches without a base loss. This is consistent with earlier outings. But how to make it crunchier? My first thought was that our experience was because weaponry was deadlier in the later conflicts that the rules were designed for. Except that our  fire factors have already been beefed up, based on suggestions in a magazine article (though these were more or less the only suggestions adopted). Perhaps it’s bad luck. Only two of our many assaults had a difference of 4+, which is a decisive victory, and there were only two draws, which wear units down quickly. Or maybe it reflects inexperience with the rules. The problem is to make combat deadlier without making it more capricious – which would mean one side suffering serious losses compared to the other from an ordinary bad run of dice. The only way I can think of doing this is fiddling with the assault table to that more combats resulted in the loss of a base by both sides. That’s playing with fire, but I don’t think that Napoleonic divisions were able to survive more than two or three hours of hard infantry to infantry combat, if you take exhaustion and ammunition depletion into account.

The next issue is Napoleonic feel. As I wrote last time, this boils down to cavalry, skirmishers and artillery. In this game we used cavalry to capture and recapture villages from infantry. The clashes between infantry and cavalry really don’t feel right. But this is an area that went badly when I last tried to tinker with it. One method might be to adopt the idea of “squares”, making infantry more vulnerable when not so formed, but less mobile when in square. Infantry also needs to be able to push away cavalry holding ground, when appropriate. But would it just be extra complexity for a slower game? Also cavalry should be more limited in difficult terrain. Funnily enough though I think the rules as they stand work fine for cavalry v. cavalry combat – better than most rule systems in fact.

Then there are skirmishers. We effectively accommodate this with a 6in musket range. I want to use skirmish bases. In principle this is easy. All musketry would be limited to 3in range. Skirmish bases would have a fire factor of 2, but no use against cavalry.  I have crafted an elegant draft rule on this, but my fear is that it just makes things fiddlier, and that players won’t bother with it. An alternative would be to incorporate a version of the main rules on skirmishers (with a skirmish base being part of the main unit formation), and link this to the extra weapon range.

And so to artillery. Artillery, rightly, has a big impact on the game. But each unit acts like a grand battery, while being much more flexible than was realistic, especially in evading threats. Two or more units ganging up can be very formidable. Each one is meant to represent 24 guns. One way of trying to handle this is reduce both the unit size and firepower (and also the provision for units to fire at reduced rate). The close range fire factor might be rounded down as well. We could just do this for horse artillery and give it extra mobility. In some ways this would not change things that much – given that each artillery unit would need a movement throw to move, and that artillery would take up more space (I may enlarge the bases), this could help.

The issue with artillery goes  deeper than this, though. Artillery and adjacent infantry units are treated as separate units. On more than one occasion infantry would retreat, leaving batteries isolated. In this game the isolated artillery showed a remarkable ability to survive.  It didn’t look right, even if it was possible to rationalise it.  In fact artillery had two distinct uses: one was close support to divisions, and the other was forming grand batteries at corps or army level. The rules don’t do a particularity good job of reflecting the former, while they make the latter the manoeuvrability of single batteries. It doesn’t scale up so well from the original Fire and Fury. One idea is to allow artillery to be attached to infantry units, allowing them to fight as joint units. When not doing so, artillery would suffer an automatic walkover when assaulted, though they may still stop an assault in the fire phase (unless defending works, maybe). This approach would work better with the smaller artillery units.

Finally on potential rules revisions I am thinking of a different treatment for built-up areas. This is to treat building models as obstacles, rather removing them when the villages or towns are occupied. The models have to be quite small (though the 6mm I use are fine), and in larger areas you have to have streets wide enough to take bases. This is a bit more complicated, but the internal layout of built up areas did matter.

How do the rules look historically? The French outfought the Prussians: numerical equality left them with a clear upper hand. This was mainly achieved through rating the French as Veteran (with a small number of elite units counted as Aggressive) and the Prussians Trained or Raw. But the Prussians but up a pretty good fight. This feels like the right balance for Ligny and Waterloo – though how to bring the British into this is an interesting question. (I suspect many British units have to be rated Aggressive or Devastating Volleys as well as veteran; many French may be rated as Fragile). The main problem historically is that things are taking too long if one move is meant to represent one hour.

Which leaves me with a dilemma. Is BBB broken enough to fix? If you start fiddling with settled rules systems you quickly run into unintended consequences. Or you make them more complicated to no great purpose. I hesitate.

More BBB Napoleonics

As stopgap measure I have been using Bloody Big Battles to give my Napoleonic armies an outing at the club. The scope of these rules is very similar to that for my Dining Table Napoleon, though the feel is very different, so this is a learning experience.

I reported on our first game, which was a contrived Ligny scenario. One of the learnings from this was how important scenario design is. That scenario was flawed, as I have found for all my loosely Ligny-based scenarios. I will try this battle properly one day, but it needs about double the number of troops on the table that I am currently using – and even that’s too much at the moment! What I have been looking for is scenarios with more tension and choices for the player. Ligny is a fairly straightforward slugging match; a combined Ligny-Quatre Bras scenario would be another matter…

I searched for ideas amongst the scenarios published in the BBB rule book , which covers the Franco-Prussian War, and the supplementary scenario book which covers other battles from the Crimean War onwards. These aren’t Napoleonic, of course, but quite a bit of effort has been put into scenario design to get a good game. Unfortunately these were mostly not obvious multi-player club night choices. The terrain was generally rather complex, and not feasible from the club’s bits and pieces. Quite often forces arrive later in the game – great for dramatic tension, but that means there is nothing for some of the players to do until they arrive. Nevertheless I decided that there was one I could work on: Koniggratz in 1866.

That might look strange. It’s a very big battle. The scenario book uses 2,500 men per base instead of the more normal 1,000 to 1,500. Even then it is double the size of the armies I thought we could manage in an evening with four players. But actually if you represent the forces at one unit per corps (about half size) it works reasonably neatly. The 1815 French, as the better quality army could take on the role of the 1866 Prussians, and the 1815 Prussians could stand in for the 1866 Austrians. I organised my armies into the 1815 units at 1,250 men per base (for the infantry) as this give nicely sized units (4 bases for the French infantry divisions; 4 to 6 for Prussian brigades). For the weakened Austrian corps classed as “Fragile” in BBB I used the mainly Landwehr brigades of III Korps (classed as Raw, not Fragile). The French I classed as Veteran, to make up for the superior armament and tactics of the Prussians in 1866. A large number of Prussians were not due to arrive until Turn 3, but it was easy to split the Prussians between the two players for the first two turns.

The next problem was the terrain. I used roughly the same distances as the BBB scenario. This was a bit of a gamble since I was using half the number of troops. I found that it wasn’t too hard to simplify the rest of the terrain into something that would present similar choices. I did not include the Austrian entrenchments; only the six villages counted as objectives were included (villages in BBB not having a big impact on play).  Although I couldn’t do the hills properly with what the club had (some other members had got to the ones I wanted first), I managed to set up something acceptable in under 30 minutes, we got the game going with four players.

By 10pm we had only got through three and a half moves, though; it needed eight. One player was new to the rules, the two others only had a single game. Even I had to look some things up. But even allowing for that it would be quite hard to finish the game in an evening, even with only six infantry and cavalry units per player. That was the bad news. The good news was that the scenario itself was much more fun. Each player had interesting choices to make. The gaps in the dispositions allowed some dramatic moves to be made. We decided to play it again as a daytime game at Pete’s.

What of the rules? Bernie, probably the most experienced of my co-players, was experiencing them for the first time. He didn’t really like them. Pete and Terry were quite happy; it helped Pete that he had played with the Fire and Fury system before. I think that Bernie was reacting against two major problems. The first is that the rules system was designed for a much smaller scale game (for the American Civil War) and so its mechanisms don’t feel right for the bigger scale. This is the same issue with have with Rapid Fire and Fistful of TOWs for WW2 games, except worse. The BBB system doesn’t have a Napoleonic feel for the smaller scale either. The musketry range is very short; there are no squares to combat cavalry; hitting a unit in the flank is not necessarily decisive, and so on. This means that it looks wrong both as a big division game and as a pretend battalion one.

The other problem is that losses are very lumpy. A lot of not very much happens (getting into and out of disruption) punctuated by occasional dramatic disasters. That’s because a casualties are by base removal, which are a very high proportion of unit strength. This doesn’t reflect a steady accumulation of casualties well at all.

I’m learning to live with these two problems. They do seem to come out in the wash by and large: you get a stimulating game with reasonably realistic results. However my DTN rules should address both issues. They will have an unabashedly big game feel, and I am working on ways to reflect accumulation of fatigue and casualties better – at the same time as being punchy. That’s the hope.

We’re learning how to play BBB. You really need to get units to combine and support each other, to accumulate as many advantages as possible in attack.  Head-on one to one collisions don’t achieve very much unless your objective is simply to delay. But there are aspects where I want to try and make the rules feel more Napoleonic. There are three things I am thinking about: cavalry, skirmishers and artillery.

The thing about cavalry in BBB is that it isn’t very special. It doesn’t fire; it has a longer move. That’s it. I used a Prussian cavalry unit to eject a French infantry unit from a village, unsupported by infantry. Bernie attacked one of my Prussian cavalry units with a combined force of infantry and cavalry (though it only succeeded in pushing it back a bit). The long cavalry move can mean that it appears out of nowhere to make an attack – especially in a game like ours with gaps between the units – though such attacks will be less decisive that people might think. It doesn’t feel right, but I still don’t know what to do. My first attempt to tackle this (long ago for a Waterloo game) was a bit of a disaster. I can think of a lot of possible tweaks but I’m not sure they’d benefit the game.

I’m much closer to developing something on skirmishers. I have rejected the standard BBB rule, which uses skirmish bases as part of the main body. I want to deploy small skirmish bases in front of infantry units. I have drafted a rule that does this, and which also helps the game. But, though I have stripped it down as far as I can, it’s still a bit complicated, and I want us to become more fluent in the main game system first.

My thoughts are altogether less developed on artillery. I think the game can take more artillery units on the table, and allow the possibility of smaller horse artillery units (which can move and fire) and howitzers (to supplement other artillery against cover).

Meanwhile I can take heart from the success of the scenario. I am starting to understand how to craft and adapt scenarios for these rules. Though I need something smaller for club night.

1943: my Royals Scots greys Shermans are finished

At long last this project is done. This has been my most complicated project to date, and I hope the most complex in my whole 1943 programme. And there has been a lot learning curve too. In spite of some mistakes, I’m pretty happy with how they’ve turned out.

My posts so far on this have covered the research, the build and finding the right colour. It remained for me to paint the things, apply decals and finish off. I covered the base colour, Light Mud, in my last post – and I’m very pleased with the end result on the finished model.

The next step was to apply the Blue-Black disruptive camouflage. The first problem was to identify the camouflage pattern. Here I managed to find Dick Taylor’s Warpaint Volume 2 which has copies of the official camouflage patterns. I then used photos of actual tanks from the RSGs and other regiments. The colour was a mix of the same three pigments used for the Light Mud: raw sienna, Prussian blue and white. Not very much white! This gave bluish grey. The actual colour may have been blacker, so maybe I needed a touch more raw sienna in the mix, but overall I think it looks OK.

The first model I decided to do following the official pattern for Sherman tanks quite closely – though this diagram was only loosely accurate for the Sherman’s shape. However, when looking at the photos it didn’t look quite right in a couple of places, especially on the upper surfaces. There was too much black. It seems as if the actual painters wanted to conserve the black paint, and so used rather thinner stripes (more like the desert disruptive patterns in fact). As I progressed through the other models referring to photos, I started to get the hang of it and became a lot quicker. I went back to the first model to paint over the excess black. The Blue Black required two coats. After that it was the tracks, stowage and crew. For the metallic bits I used a mix of black and silver with a bit of white and my Light Mud mix, highlighting with a mix stronger in the silver for the tracks. The stowage and crew required the same three pigments that I used for the rest of the model. I did not paint the blanket box at the back of the turret the same as the body of the tank, though this was usual. For the RSGs this box appears to have been fitted after the body had been painted. Instead I painted it a sort of greenish-khaki (a little oxide yellow got into the mix), based on one of the standard British equipment colours of the time. This was one of several oddities for the RSG. I have already talked about the turret hatch doors (with one half-door applied to front of the driver’s position). Also, thought it was common to remove the rear part of the sand guards for tanks in Italy, in other regiments these were welded to the rear deck to aid stowage. This doesn’t seem to have been done on the RSG tanks.

After detailing came a coat of dark tone Quickshade. I used Quickshade to act as “lowlights” and bring out the detailing – and dark because my mid tone has been drying up and my attempts to rescue it have turned it matt. I need a glossy surface for the decals. I also wanted a weathered, dirty look, so didn’t mind too much that it was dark. But it looked a bit messy on the smoother surfaces on the sides, front and turret. This was all fine after the later parts of the process, but I’m starting to think that there may be less sticky and easier to control methods of achieving the required effect. I can use polyurethane varnish as the base for the decals – or perhaps see if Micro Set decal fluid will do the same job – preventing the unsightly “flash” from appearing.

And so on to the decals. I decided to print my own, since I would be unable to find what I needed commercially. There is a problem when using a home printer for this: they don’t have white ink. So you either use transparent paper without any white in the design, or you print on white paper and cut out right up to the edge. This makes it useless for German markings. Turret numbers usually feature white edges; the balkenkreuz is too tricky to cut out at this scale. But British markings tend to be rectangular, and so feasible to cut out. The turret tactical markings don’t feature white (which does make them harder to see!). You don’t need white stars for British vehicles in 1943 Italy or earlier. So I bought packs of both sorts of decal paper, and drew up designs for that I hope will supply the whole project not just these models. This included a crude but adequate version of the thistle on a white over black square that the RSGs used in this period.

I started with the transparent paper and the turret markings. I set the printer to high quality but for normal paper. The quality of the output wasn’t as good as I hoped, but I pressed ahead. The next step was to seal the printed designs with gloss varnish: otherwise the water just washes the ink away (matt varnish is apparently toxic for decals). Unfortunately my spray-on gloss varnish was dead, and it is taking days to get a new supply (the stuff on Amazon is quite pricey). However, polyurethane with a brush was OK, provided the ink was dry (which took a bit longer than expected in the hot, humid weather we were experiencing). And so on to the models. Quite straightforward in principle (I used Micro Set to prepare the model, but I don’t know whether this helped). But the effect was very disappointing. The design was translucent and lost a lot its colour. The ink wasn’t strong enough without a white background. I tried, unsuccessfully, to use a bit of red paint to beef it up – tricky since it features numbers as well as a circle. By this time I had printed the white sheet, and discovered that if I set the printer to one of photo glossy papers it looked a lot better. I decided to take the decals off and reprint.

The white paper decals went on next. Three discrete red-white-red flashes and the RSG unit badge. This was a bit painstaking, but went OK. The decals were quite liable to damage in the process, so there were odd unsightly bits of white. I touched these up with a fine paintbrush after they were dry. With the white paper backing, the colours were wonderfully strong and not a good contrast to the one printed on transparent paper. Back to the reprinted turret markings. This weren’t much better than the first time, especially the bits laid over the black disruptive pattern. But I had lots of spares, so I decided to put a second decal on top to strengthen it. This was not quite as hard as I feared – lining them up was a bit like focusing. But the overall result was still a bit disappointing on the dark background. I put a little red paint on top, but this risked messing things up so that you couldn’t read the numbers.I decided to cut my losses and make do. The final step was to seal with polyurethane on the transparent ones, and Quickshade on the others, to dull them down a bit.

The next step went much better. This was the weathering. I needed to give the vehicles the dusty look so characteristic of vehicles in action. I was inspired by some of the illustrations in books, and especially one of a Light Mud/Blue Black Polish tank in Real Colors of WWII. With my previous German vehicles I had dry-brushed them with a dusty colour – but this wasn’t really very satisfactory. It helped highlight detail, but inclined to be a bit messy. After experimenting on some old models I developed a new technique. I applied diluted dust-coloured paint (Light Mud with a bit more white and some oxide yellow), and then dabbed it off with a cotton bud. This covered the whole vehicle with a fine patina, and left a bit of a bit of texture. The “dust” tended to gather in the recesses – but real dust does that too. I then put semi-dry brushed further dust colour on the tops of the sand guards and other bits near the tracks.  This also served to give the models a matt finish over the Quickshade. I still gave them a spray of matt varnish to deal with the bits of gloss showing through, and to add a bit of protection.

I’m pretty happy in the end. These aren’t display models, but good quality wargames ones. Having learnt a lot from these project, my next ones should be much quicker. Next is my British infantry platoon.

1943: Light Mud

At last! Back to the painting, which I had been forced to stop in February by pressures from the rest of life. Naturally I am starting where I left off, with my 1943 forces. I need to paint enough so that I can get a game going. When I broke off I was in the middle of my most complex project to date: the Royal Scots Greys’ Shermans at Salerno in September 1943. This means resolving one of the key issues when doing British vehicles in the Italian theatre. What is Light Mud?

Light Mud was the new camouflage colour introduced in 1943 by the British command in the Mediterranean, as British forces became embroiled in the mountains of Tunisia. The desert camouflage schemes based on Light Stone and Desert Pink were no longer appropriate – too pale. Meanwhile the service drabs of vehicles shipped from Britain (dark greens and browns) were too dark. Other colours had been used, including Mid Stone, and various mixes, but Light Mud became the new standard by order from April 1943. It was meant to be used in conjunction with a disruptive pattern in Blue-Black – though it often wasn’t.

But what was it? It was manufactured locally (in Egypt) and any specifications have been lost. I doubt whether many original samples of the paint survive, or not without irredeemable weathering. Almost all photos are black and white, and the colour pictures are unreliable. There are verbal descriptions that mention grey and khaki. This would appear to rule out one suggestion, that the colour was produced from a mix of Dark Stone (a dark yellow) and Desert Pink. That would have given a sort of light tan. It could have been a mix of Desert Sand and Dark Olive Green, the standard colour for disruptive patterns – my personal pet theory, as it would have been a good way of using up stocks of redundant paint. We are left with the idea that it was a light to medium grey, with a dash of khaki about it.

These illustrations from Star Decals is where most people seem to end up.

Another source has been a book published by AK paints called The Real Colors of WWII. This claims to based on careful research, including on surviving samples. It includes quality-controlled colour chits. Inevitably, almost, most of this effort seems to have been on German colours, because that is where most hobbyist interest is. They do have a chit for Light Mud, but I don’t know what sources it is based on. That looks greyer and darker than the star decals sheet, but then the same can be said of the Olive Drab. Tonally the colour seems to be very similar to Dunkelgelb, the standard mid to late war German vehicle colour. But it is greyer, though not that far from the grey end of the spectrum of different Dunkelgelbs. I have used the AK book as my main guide on hue, but looking for a rather paler tone than the chit, because of the scale effect and the use of Quickshade later in the process.

I decided to use the same method that I used to produce Khaki. Start with a base colour of Raw Sienna (an orange-brown), dull it down with Prussian Blue, and add white. I used student colours for the blue and the white, but used up some old Liquitex artist grade Raw Sienna, as I don’t yet have student paint for that pigment. My policy is to use student paints for vehicle base coats, and move to artist quality for finer work.

This took a few goes. After a few months out of practice I may have lost my touch a bit – though it took me just as long to reach a satisfactory Dunkelgelb for my Germans. On two occasions I thought I had it right, only to decide that it was too dark or too green once the model was fully dry. It may be that the paints aren’t drying true – a bit of a risk perhaps when you use student colours.  The result is here, with one of my German Pz IIIs for comparison. The German tank should probably be a bit greyer, but it looks to be within the authentic range. 

It does look a bit green, especially compared to the Star Decals sheets. But apparently that’s how it was. Incidentally it is one of the issues when with working with khaki – it sometimes looks green and at others brown.

The next step will be putting on the Blue-Black disruptive colour. The Salerno pictures show high contrast with the Light Mud, before the dust patina built up.

 

 

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.