Category Archives: Thinking aloud

Long range artillery in wargames

A couple of weeks ago I considered the effect of skirmishing in wargames, with an especial focus on the grand tactical games that are my particular interest. This time I want to consider another topic that concerns such big-scope games: artillery fire at long range.

Looking at some standard works (Nafziger’s Imperial Bayonets; Dawson, Dawson, Summerfield’s Napoleonic artillery; the von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel) gives the following general picture. Effective artillery range is somewhere between 600m and 900m – with most commentators converging on the lower end of that range – no doubt this depends on conditions and weapon (a 12pdr might fire farther). Direct fire was theoretically possible up to 800m for a 6pdr, 1km for a 12pdr (Kriegsspiel figures). After this ricochet fire (or “random” fire or “Rollschuss”) could extend the range. Kriegsspiel suggests a maximum 1,350m for 6pdrs, or 1,500m for 12pdrs. Other evidence suggests that artillery could cause damage to targets for another 1Km. Howitzer ammunition couldn’t ricochet, but the Kriegsspiel statistics suggest similar maximum ranges (i.e 1.35Km for the 7pdr and 1.5Km for the 10pdr). The contemporary experts are quite clear, however, that firing at ranges beyond about 600m was a waste of ammunition.

But here we bump into one of the problems of simulation. What those sages pronounced in various manuals and treatises does not necessarily reflect the actual behaviour that we are trying to simulate. This is even starker, incidentally, with counter-battery fire, which the experts usually denounce as being a waste – but which was the almost universal practice of artillerymen (and, also, incidentally, quite successful at suppressing enemy artillery fire). The fact is that the  effects of artillery fire could be significant at the grand tactical level at ranges of 1km and over.

Two case studies make this clear to me. The first is at Wagram in 1809. The effects of artillery fire during this battle were much commented on. Given the vast size of the field I think that a lot of this was conducted at ranges greater than 600m, but that is hard to pin down. In one particular case this does look clearer though. Massena’s corps disengaged from its position in the centre and marched across Austrian lines, but behind the French Grand Battery, to reinforce the Napoleon’s threatened left wing. In Gill’s account of this it suffered terribly from Austrian artillery fire: “beyond all description” according to one witness. And yet the Austrian guns cannot have been very close. Looking at the maps suggests 1Km or more. Much of this fire may have been directed at the grand battery in the first instance – though Gill’s description also suggests that Massena’s troops were also shielded by the corps’ own artillery leapfrogging forward as the troops advanced. All this suggests that the infantry was an indirect target in wargames terms, but that significant damage was done. No doubt the effect of Austrian fire was increased by an enfilade effect, as the fire was to the flank of the advancing columns, and the fact in moving the troops would not have been able to use the ground to avoid losses.

The second case study comes from Waterloo. Napoleon established a grand battery at the start of the battle on the ridge alongside La Belle Alliance inn. This was 1km away from the Allied troops on the opposite ridge. Some commentators (including Adkin in his wonderful tome on Waterloo) have suggested that the grand battery was deployed some 500m further forward on a slight rise in the intervening valley, about 200m short of La Haye Sainte. But the evidence from French participants is pretty clearly against this, though some batteries may have advanced to this position later in the battle. And the previous night there was quite a fierce exchange between the two ridges. The French conducted a bombardment at this range for an hour or so on the day. This does not seem to have done a huge amount of damage, attributed to the fact that the Allied infantry was sheltering behind the ridge, and that the ground had been softened by rain, preventing ricochet effects. And yet the fire was intense enough to be remarked upon by British witnesses – and British cavalry units, well behind the ridge, shifted position to a more sheltered spot to reduce casualties.

So we are talking about artillery fire having an effect at least to about 1.5Km, even behind undulations in the terrain. This seems to take two important forms. The first (like Waterloo) is a general cannonade, firing blind into an area where you expect enemy troops to be concentrated. The second is collateral fire – overshoots and bouncethroughs from direct targets that may have been closer at hand. The Spanish author of a series of “maxims” about artillery usage, quoted extensively by Nafziger, mentions that it is not a good idea to deploy artillery directly in front of infantry, as they are liable to be caught by fire aimed at the artillery. French officer and raconteur Elzéar Blaze also mentions this – how he hated being posted behind artillery. The point though about both these types of fire is that we are not considering the effects of aimed fire.

So what sort of damage could it do? Casualty rates are probably quite low, though an occasional direct hit on dense formations could be quite lethal. But Napoleon at Waterloo still thought it was worth doing. Damage could also be psychological. Direct hits could could cause disruption, perhaps. But I think the main effect is more subtle. Standing around under bombardment which you have to accept passively is often described as one of the most difficult tasks in war. It is likely to be psychologically draining in some way. But how this plays out is less easy to see. When the bombardment stops, as it must before any direct attack, the targets experience relief, which can take the form of fierce desire to get to grips with the enemy to relieve the pent-up frustration. I’m not sure how much evidence there really is of this kind of softening up causing the rapid collapse of trained troops. It happened in neither of the two instances I quoted above. At Wagram the Saxons did collapse on the second day from near Aderklaa after not much more than artillery fire. But that came after heavy losses on the first day, and then enduring fire “en potence” – from two directions. Much of this fire was likely was from less than 1Km, I suspect, though, at least for the units at the front.

My personal theory is that there is some sort of stamina limit, after which men feel that they have had enough – a come-down after a prolonged exposure to adrenaline. Towards the end of big battles there seem to be few troops available to do anything – far fewer than can be accounted for by dead and wounded. This was perhaps regarded as a bit shameful, so few people would write about it. But all knew it was a factor – and it comes through from Clausewitz’s writing. Exposure to bombardment perhaps sets the clock ticking, hastening that moment of eventual collapse, even if the men are perfectly capable as the bombardment ends. Wargames usually simulate this by having much higher rates of casualties than is justified by killed an wounded – and this is often very successful in simulating that end of battle scenario – though less good when it comes to simulating the effects of cannonades.

Fot tactical rules, matters are quite straightforward. Artillery fire at ranges of over 600m is probably not worth worrying about, though for games mechanics longer range brackets might be helpful. Though Lasalle isn’t very specific about its distance scale, this does seem to be the case with these rules. Older rules allow longer ranges, but these tended to tolerate useless detail more.

Turning to grand tactical rules Grande Armée and Volley & Bayonet have very similar mechanisms. Artillery units would target individual units (generally brigades), throw a small number of dice, and hope for high scores, which would give you hits. Ranges are quite long (1,000 to 1,600 yards) and little attempt is made to distinguish between long and effective range. In GA a hit immediately reduces combat effectiveness, in V&B the unit keeps going at the same capability until it is burnt out. The problem for both is similar to the one I was referred to in skirmishing – a low standard deviation attritional tactic comes out as a high standard deviation one. It has to be admitted though this may have a stronger basis in fact – as the results could indeed be quite variable, at least in terms of dead and wounded. There is no attempt to deal with bouncethroughs and indirect fire. In GA at least (I haven’t played V&B) players tend not to bother with preparatory bombardment for more than a token turn or so. The results seem to unreliable. Artillery can do a lot of damage, though its main impact is defensive.

Bloody Big Battles faces a similar issue, but it’s more extreme. A hit amounts to removing a base, which represents an extreme level of damage – that would not be realistic. Instead a lesser level of damage is inflicted: temporary disruption. But you have to act quite quickly to capitalise. Suppression of enemy artillery is probably a more useful goal for an attacker, though still requires a good score. Ranges are much longer than for other systems (2.4Km or more!), but they are designed mainly for a later era when artillery was punchier. Having said that I thought the ranges worked OK for my Waterloo simulation – in which I provided for bouncethrough and indirect fire in a house rule.

And now for my latest set of favourite rules: Et sans résultat! These are quite interesting in that they have a game mechanism referred to as “fatigue”, which operates at divisional level. This degrades the responsiveness of the division, and increases the risk of eventual panic or collapse. It has much less direct effect on combat. I think this models the psychological effects in a realistic way. And so these rules have two mechanisms with which to register the effects of bombardments. The first is direct damage to units , in the form of fairy conventional “hits”, which it handles at quite a low level of granularity (thus a 2,000 man brigade might have 20 or so strength points split between three “battalions” rather than a single brigade with about 4-5 points, as with GA or V&B, or just over a single base for BBB); and it has divisional fatigue with which to model the longer-term psychological impacts. The fatigue process also allows the effect of bombardments on the firing artillery – which was an important consideration for commanders at the time, but rarely bothered with by games designers. The core design, therefore, is very strong  – though I can’t comment on what I would call “calibration” without more time on the games table.

But there’s a big snag with ESR. The weapons ranges are too short. Apart from point blank, there are two weapons ranges, up to 450 yards (400m) and up to 900 yards (800m). There’s another 200 yards or so of bouncethrough effect. This really only caters for the sort of short-range directly aimed fire that was mainly used on the defensive. The paradox is striking. At last a rules systems comes up with a good way of modelling the effects of long range cannonading – and then makes no allowance for players to actually do it. There is probably a deeper design problem here. The time frame of ESR moves is quite short (three an hour – it’s an hour for V&B or BBB!). If targets suffered one fatigue point a turn under long range bombardment, then this could be quite devastating. And yet if the effects were reduced in the typical way through randomisation (say a 50% chance of a fatigue loss) then this would give a high standard deviation over the typical 3 or 4 moves of a historical cannonade. It may well be that weapons ranges were brought down because cannonading proved to be too effective.

So how about my gestating grand tactical rules? I’m aiming for much higher granularity than ESR – boiling down to something quite similar to V&B (with bases of 1,500 men like BBB, but able to survive one or two hits). But I also want an equivalent of the fatigue system in ESR, to be operated by divisions. However, I was thinking of quite high granularity on that – say six levels (so that is can be marked by a six sided die). But with check points at hourly intervals, this might work. I plan to use hourly turns (though movement articulated in shorter time spans if required), with a cannonade phase at the start. Artillery must be committed at this stage, and markers placed on targets far and wide, including generous bouncethrough and indirect fire, up to at least 1.5Km. This is evaluated at the end of the turn – though I’m a bit vague on just how this will work. Finally the divisional fatigue/morale/cohesion will be assessed. The devil will be in the detail, as usual, though.


Skirmishing in wargames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Combat – basic logistics

Time to move on from command and control in my thinking aloud series, to tackle a different set of problems for V3 of the system. Now I want to get to the basics of representation of the men on the table, and the implications of this for combat mechanisms.

V2 of DTN was based on the Grande Armée system of strength points which combined actual strength with effectiveness. This was creating increasing stress as I took the simulation side more seriously. I want to make the representation a bit less abstracted, and allow more subtleties to the combat mechanism, and a more straightforward narrative. So I want strength points to be based on actual numbers of men, as with Volley & Bayonet. As V+B I think 500 men per SP would work for infantry. This is quite high – but with one-hour turns these rules need to be quite crunchy. A unit will be in the range of 4-8 SPs. My cavalry units are going to be much smaller, regimental size, as I think that is typically how cavalry was used at this level. That means I need a smaller number, say 200 men per SP, which means 2-3 per unit typically.

According to my Prussian kriegsspiel rules the 400p base frontage would be covered by about 1,400 men – 3SP. The maximum frontage, double this, means about 6SP. So the unit tends to cover the base frontage in a double line, or extended frontage in a single line. A single line has less chance of being overlapped, but is fragile – one hole in the line and it is gone. A double line is more resilient, and can also handle flank threats. Which type of formation the unit is in will have to be inferred from context. I’ll deal with that later.

First there is a bigger issue. How to represent loss of effectiveness due to casualties, fatigue/clogging of weapons and loss of cohesion? These factors are long-term and short-term. Previously this was represented by loss of SPs, some of which might be recovered; one hit meant that one SP was lost. This is how both GA and V+B work. In other words loss of cohesion was treated as the same as loss of men. Very often, though, the men would still be in formation, occupying the same frontage. The number of men is critical to stamina.

The alternative is to reflect loss of effectiveness purely through a qualitative factor, usually referred to as cohesion or disruption, depending on which way up you are looking at it. I’ve seen this idea referred to on TMP, and it is the way Sam Mustafa’s Lasalle works – and Paddy Griffith in his Napoleonic Wargaming for Fun of 1980. If I use a morale grade, then a “hit” means a loss of one grade.

Of course a hit could mean both a loss of an SP and loss of a morale grade. Let’s think this through.

Morale grade will determine fragility in impact combat. The lower the grade, the more chance of a refusal (for an attacker) or fracture (for the defender). Strength determines what a unit can achieve tactically – the frontage it can cover and the reserves it can call on.

I am very tempted by the cohesion loss idea. Units did tend to cover their frontage more thinly with the loss of men, rather than shrink; and the more important loss effects were qualitative.  But then what’s the point of SPs when the bases are on a standardised frontage?

Let’s think of an infantry unit (cavalry and artillery are going to work in very different ways, so I’ll leave them until later). It takes 3SP to cover its front. Smaller units are compromised. SPs beyond this are reserves, which be used to extend the line, or be available to plug gaps, or deal with threats to the flank or rear. The problem is that designing a combat mechanism that reflects this in detail gets out of hand. Players have to do too much mental work to figure out what is going on – so say nothing of a detailed knowledge of the rules.

If hits represent a qualitative loss, then it is difficult to avoid units being of a standard size. In that case they do not accurately represent historical units, and a dimension of the simulation process is lost. .

A hit might just “delete” an SP, so that a unit Is withdrawn from play once it receives as many hits as it has SPs. The question then is whether hits should affect the morale level too? Is it double jeopardy? Wouldn’t a larger units be at a disadvantage to smaller ones? (The same number of hits would do less damage to the same number of SPs if he units were smaller in size). The idea of separate hits for morale and strength will fail the complexity test – I found this from an earlier rules incarnation where I experimented with temporary and permanent hits. Some form of percentage casualties system is an alternative (e.g. a unit is “tired” if 25% or more of its SPs are lost, and morale reduces by one level). This looks a bit more promising – Fire & Fury (ACW rules with a Napoleonic development under the name Age of Eagles) uses this arrangement.

That then leaves the tactical options for units of different strengths . 3SP needs to be the minimum unit size (unless we create a special sort of small unit, on a smaller base). But a unit of this size has little resilience. One idea is to grade units as small (3SP), medium (4,5 SP) and large (6SP or more). Two units would be allowed to pool by being in base contact (forward to back), so two small units would then fight as a single large one.

There are three situations where this matters: standard combat (one unit against another on the same frontage); overlapping; and flank or rear attacks. How these situations are defined and handled is a subject for another time.

Formation and coordination

In my previous post in this series of thinking aloud pieces on simulating command and control, I was stumbling towards a turn structure that might work with one-hour periods. Next phase in the design process is to take a step back and come at the problem from another angle. What does command and control mean for the various sub-units of the army: unit, division and corps?

An infantry unit in DTN represents a group of two to four battalions, which might be a brigade or regiment, or an ad-hoc combination. It sits on a base 50mm by 25mm, which directly covers a frontage of about 400p (p=pace=0.75m), potentially double that, and with the possibility of skirmishers probing out in front. This covers a whole variety of configurations and formations. Users of DTN have to get beyond the idea that they decide whether to array their men in column, line and so on. That is left to junior commanders and arises from context. Judging from the TMP forum, the whole battalion formation thing is so much part of the Napoleonic atmosphere to some wargamers, that this is too much, and they don’t attempt to play this sort of grand tactical game. But to get a bigger battle into a two player game (never mind the physical space of a dining table) you have to get through this.

But in DTN V2 I developed unit “modes” which say something about what the unit commander is trying to achieve, and which have implications for movement and combat. These are:

  • Reserve/attack. The default has the units in battle line but ready to move off and deploy to attack. Think of one or two lines of battalions in attack or manoeuvre columns. Since movement is an important part of their role, they do not make any particular use of the terrain.
  • Defend. This is not dissimilar, but the unit is not deployed to move, but to hold its ground. They may well be already deployed into line formation, and they will certainly make use of any terrain features they can.
  • Movement. In this case the units are formed to advance rapidly. They will not usually be in march columns, but they may be in a narrower column than the default. The battalions are likely to be arrayed one behind the other, so that one picks the quickest way through the terrain, and the others follow without worrying about alignment. This makes them vulnerable in combat.

I think this still works. I think the first two modes should be represented with the base front-on, and the movement mode with the base sideways-on in a sort of column. My bases are made of two stands of 25mm square on a sabot – so these can be arrayed in “line” or “column”, amking this visually easier. A further mode might be “square” – rather exposed and immobile, but able to fend off cavalry attacks. I’m not sure about this. A further issue is whether the units are deployed wide or deep – but I think this can be inferred from context – strength and distance from neighbours.

How movement and switching mode works in the one-hour period is yet to be resolved, but I can leave that for now. How about the division? A division is a group of units (two or three infantry units typically with some artillery or cavalry support perhaps), with an officer figure (DG = Divisional General) in command. In V2 this unit would be given a general purpose “Action” order, or “Move” or “Regroup”. These might or might not be fully activated, and it is quite likely that there would be no order, which restricted them to a limited menu of “free” moves. Moving to a one-hour turn this might give too much friction. So what might command and control situations be?

  • Fully controlled, with all unit commanders having orders and knowing what they are supposed to be doing. this takes time to prepare and no doubt authority from a higher level. But in this state the division can deliver a fully coordinated attack or other manoeuvre. The more complex the plan, the more difficult.
  • Quick action. Single move actions. The DG can direct one of these; others might act on initiative, but with quite low probability.
  • Response only. A limited menu of reaction moves.

If I move to an interchangeable initiative move, this would work more easily than one player moving all his units followed by the other. I hesitate as this might throw away all the time gains from the one-hour turn route! The fully controlled mode corresponds to a fully activated order in DTN. The critical insight is that it needs a certain amount of time to set up, as well as linking in to the army command system.

One further idea is to allow two (or more) units to be placed in base to base combat to signify close cooperation; this might include artillery; infantry cooperating with cavalry in this way may not work so well, though is worth a thought.

So let’s move on to corps. In V2 the corps commander acted as a postbox for the overall commander – who passed on CPs for him to distribute as orders to the divisions, which moved independently. Fully coordinated corps actions, with divisions attacking simultaneously, did happen though. Think of Soult’s counterattack at Austerlitz, or d’Erlon’s main attack at Waterloo. If I do interchanging initiative, this matters! Obviously such levels of coordination took time to prepare.

Another aspect is the strength of corps staff. At Wagram it appears that the Austrian corps staff did not add much value to plans drawn up by army command. Napoleon routinely delegated this level of planning. At Waterloo (and Salamanca) Wellington did not use the corps system at all – but at Vitoria it appears that he did entrust quite a bit of the detail to Hill and Graham – though his own staff was quite weak. The extent to which other nations ever developed the depth of corps level command that the French did I don’t know. The Prussians did in theory, but may have been hindered by lack of officers. The Russians were notoriously weak. Did the Austrians fare better in 1813 than in 1809? But Marmont in 1812 in Spain decided that the corps system was too cumbersome, and abolished it, operating much like Wellington. Personally I rate Marmont in this campaign highly – he outfoxed Wellington until he became overconfident and made that fatal mistake outside Salamanca. So corps level command does not always add value.

There’s something very important lurking in here. I tried using corps commanders as a sort of mini Commander in an early incarnation of V2, with their own CPs, but it overloaded the system, however theoretically correct. I think solutions to this conundrum will only emerge as I get into the detail of the orders system.


Planning and simulation

So far in my thinking aloud pieces on command and control the main idea to emerge is the importance of planning in battles. Other ideas are some thoughts on how sub commanders influence the battle, the idea of chaotic episodes versus inertia, and initiative and army morale. Without disregarding these latter thoughts, I want to develop the idea of planning and think about methods it might be simulated.

What is a plan? It is a series of orders which set out how formations are to be deployed and move, and when and where to deliver attacks on the enemy. An active plan implies movement. A passive plan is defensive. A further passive stance is the holding of forces in reserve – which might better be described as “no plan”. It gets a bit more complicated if a plan has both active and passive elements – like Napoleon’s at Austerlitz, where he delayed his attack.

A plan allows different elements to be coordinated, and for more remote elements to move. It may work at all four levels in the game structure: unit (brigade/regiment), division, corps and army. as you progress up the hierarchy, complexity increases and they take longer to prepare and implement. It requires information (on the position of your own units, on the enemy’s and on geography), and time to put together and communicate. Active plans expire as they are executed or as the enemy or unforeseen events interfere with them. A defensive plan expires if an enemy attack displaces the formation.

One further point may be added. The technology of time was still very basic in this era; synchronisation would not have been a precise affair. I haven’t looked at any actual plans – but I don’t think they contained much in the way of detailed timings, as modern plans do. (I have a memory that Austrian staff general Weyrother had a tendency to put extreme detail onf time and movement in his plans – but these seemed not to have meant much in practice).

Now to simulation. The most obvious way to simulate, at least at the army level, is for players to draw up some kind of plan themselves and issue orders. This was quite popular in early wargames systems, and still survives in some, but it has generally fallen out of fashion. It is quite time-consuming and the results are often rather unsatisfactory, especially without the use of an umpire to intermediate. Since my basic idea is for a two player game, this can’t be designed into the system. Instead we usually have some form of alternate move system, subject to constraints. Volley & Bayonet, the nearest published rules system to what I am trying to do, has a fixed alternate move system where players are free to move their units, subject only to a control radius for the senior officers. The plan is purely in players’ heads; the attacker moves first. Since the attacker is the side with an active plan, this simulates the effect of such a plan on the way forces move.

In V2 of DTN the alternate move system is maintained except for an attrition phase where artillery bombardment and skirmish firefights are resolved. But who moves first varies with the number of Command Points (CPs) that each side holds. CPs were meant to simulate a combination of planning and information – and they were used to drive forward active orders. A problem with this in the Vitoria game is that any advantage the attacking side has can be short-lived, as the passive side rapidly accumulates points and tends to move first. Moving first is not necessarily an advantage, of course. Many gamers prefer to react to the other player. One feature of this variable initiative is the “flip-flop”, which happens when initiative changes hands. In this case the flip-flopper moves twice before the other side can respond – an unequivocal advantage, which adds spice to proceedings. This might be said to simulate the shock an unexpected turn of events.

Two further innovations are worth bearing in mind – which I first came across in Geoffrey Wootten’s Corps d’Armée rules in the late 1980s.  These are stylised orders and interchanging initiative. Stylised orders mean giving each command a simple order chit such as “Assault”, “Break-off”, etc. which then give players a more limited menu of options. The ability to move from one order type to another is constrained. I brought an element of this into DTN V2, and it is used in the 1870 system – though in both cases the menu was very limited. With interchangeable initiative, the initiative passes between the players in the same movement period, as they move different units or unit groups. Gå På uses a version of this system. This brings coordination issues to the fore, and makes the who moves first issue less winner takes all, as well not confusing unrelated events in different parts of the battlefield. The DTN V2 movement structure has the possibility of such a system within it – I didn’t use it because I thought it would add complexity and take time – a judgement I still think is quite sound!

Taking a step back, I think the most surprising thing about these various alternate move and written order-free systems is not that they have problems, but that they work as well as they do.  My Vitoria game, for example, gave quite an acceptable flow of events without the British player committing a plan in advance. The worry is that a player will be able to change plans mid game will relative ease. But the plan tends to flow from where the units are positioned, and it is quite hard to “un-commit” a unit. There is possibility for abuse – but it can be contained.

One further approach needs to be mentioned before I move into solution mode. Card driven systems are quite popular, as in the Picquet system or Sam Mustafa’s Maurice. Cards are used, amongst other things to mix up moving and firing sequences, creating fog and uncertainty for the players. While I don’t rule out the use of event cards or some such to mix things up a bit I don’t like them in simulation games. The mechanism and the cards become the game. In Maurice, players are looking at their hand of cards more than their forces on the table. And events on the table stray far from historical narrative – even if it is possible to construct a plausible historical narrative after the event. They do help recreate the uncertainties of war, so that events such as ambushes can form part of the action, but it strays from what I am trying to achieve. They have a more plausible role in resolving battles in campaign simulations, where the battles are completely counterfactual, and it is more important to recreate the fog of war.

That looks like a bit of a natural break. Next post: ideas for DTN2.

Deconstructing Waterloo, Salamanca and Austerlitz

I’m thinking aloud about command and control in wargames. My original, over-long piece started to develop thoughts about plans, initiative and how they were influenced by calibre of corps commander. Let’s draw out some general points:

  1. Plans have an important role in battles in allowing acts of complex coordination and allowing more distant corps to take the initiative. By and large, the side with an active plan holds the initiative.
  2. Plans take time to draw up, though a strong corps command function, as the French possessed, may speed the process up.  They also have a shelf life, as units move under the plan, or as the enemy fights back, the plan loses its power.
  3. When a plan is weak, corps commanders are liable to behave more erratically. A relationship of mutual understanding and trust is critical between the army and corps commander. Only rarely is this strong (e.g. Napoleon with Davout or Massena) ; very poor relations can happen (Napoleon and Bernadotte) – but most relationships are intermediate, and intentions can get misinterpreted – attacks being too aggressive, for example.

These thoughts started to come out of an examination of the battle of Wagram. Since that was a profitable exercise, let’s look at some others. While I have a rough idea about a lot of battles, I have a deeper understanding of only a few. But that’s a start. Let’s do Waterloo first.

  • It starts with a curiosity. There is a 7-8 hour gap between first light and Napoleon getting the battle started. The French army started the day somewhat scattered, it is true, and overnight storms caused the ground to get waterlogged, impeding the movement of artillery. Interestingly this sort of slow start characterises earlier battles in the campaign: Quatre Bras and Ligny.
  • Napoleon did have a plan, though it was a pretty simple one. A grand battery was assembled drawing elements from across the whole army. Reille’s corps pinned Wellington’s right with an attack on Hougoumont. D’Erlon’s corps delivered the main attack on Wellington’s left, with the intention of swinging round to the centre and Mont St Jean. The grand battery must have taken a bit of planning effort, and the poor ground made it slow going. D’Erlon’s attack involved four infantry divisions and supporting cavalry, and took quite a bit of planning at corps level.
  • Wellington’s plan was to hold the ridge line and await the Prussians. This wasn’t really an active plan, but his divisional generals (there being no functioning corps system) clearly understood the defensive nature of their task, and had certain standing instructions (for example the artillery was not to counterbattery).
  • The French plan was executed properly at first, but it faltered when attacking the British line itself. It was shattered by the intervention of British reserve cavalry (ordered from the top command). The dense French formations meant that there were no reserves to speak of in D’Erlon’s corps, and the whole plan was halted, beyond Reille’s continued pinning attacks, which required only limited coordination.
  • The French then threw in their main uncommitted reserves: their cavalry, in what later came to be viewed as a series of hopeless charges. There are suggestions that these cavalry attacks were started in error and continued in order to save face. Personally I am sceptical of this explanation. But it did seem to be the only way of the French retaining the initiative. Why was that important? I think it is a matter of army morale. Loss of the initiative does imply a blow to morale, especially to the attacking side.
  • Meanwhile Bulow’s advancing Prussians halted a short distance from the battlefield for a matter of hours, so as to draw up proper battle formation from their march formations. When they eventually arrived, they delivered a concerted attack, which no doubt benefited from the time spent gathering and planning.
  • After this the battle degenerates into a series of ad-hoc interventions by groups no bigger than a division in strength, with the main impetus coming from top command.  Perhaps only Zeithen’s intervention was a corps level initiative based on only a very general directive – though arguably it was this final intervention that broke the French army.

One further thing needs saying about Waterloo. It was a very compact battle. Only the Prussian army was at all dispersed as it approached. Communication of orders was no doubt very straightforward for the French and British commanders.

Another battle. Thanks to Rory Muir’s excellent work, I have some knowledge of Salamanca.

  • This is an opportunist battle. There is no plan in the sense that I have used it. Wellington realised that the French army was exposed, and decided to attack. He then delivered orders to each division in turn, creating an echelon attack. This might be thought of as a series of ad hoc attacks ordered as Wellington worked his way down the line from right to left.
  • Each British division delivered a well-coordinated attack. The French were completely surprised at first, which compromised their ability to respond. Their overall command also suffered from wounds to both Marmont and his first successor, until Clauzel eventually took over.
  • The middle phase of the battle degenerates into something quite confused. The third British divisional attack (Cole’s) fails, and the French attempt counter moves. The British have the upper hand though and they manage to outlast the French, who fight a stout retreat.
  • Practically nothing happens on the British left (even though this is where the best British troops are). Probably Wellington did not get the opportunity to think about what to do with these troops, which he didn’t really need.

Now let’s think about another battle: Austerlitz. My knowledge of this battle is weaker – I have a couple of more recent books, each with much better information on the Allies – but I haven’t read them yet. So this account comes with a bit of a health warning.

  • The battle is interesting because it is a trap. Napoleon has a plan – but the plan involves conceding the initiative to the Allies, and letting their plan take its course until the critical moment.
  • The Allies duly draw up a very detailed plan, which allows them to get their whole army in motion in a coordinated way, using a series of columns of roughly corps size, although some columns get a bit delayed.
  • The French launch a counterattack. This is launched as corps level (let by Soult) with well coordinated attacks. The Allied plan collapses. They can only respond to the French in ad hoc way, with all their corps positioned in the wrong places. And Allied morale suffers as their plan fails and thy lose the initiative.

Next topic on thinking this through is how to simulate the effect a battle plan has on playing a game with one hour turns.

Command and control in wargames

In this post I’m going to do a bit of thinking aloud. As yet I have no evidence that people are visiting this site. I am waiting for the publication of my Vitoria article before trying to publicise it. So I’m not expecting this article to be actually read!

But I often try to resolve conceptual problems in my rules by thinking aloud in writing. So now I have the blog, why not do it on line? Maybe it will catch the interest of a passing reader, who can contribute their own observations.

The story so far. My last edition of the rules were all very well, but the games were taking too long, and needed too many moves. The obvious way around this was to move to hourly turns – like Volley & Bayonet (V+B) – rather than the half-hourly system. This needs a rethink of the command and movement system. Left on its own there is too much risk of large parts of an army staying immobile for game hours because of an unlucky run of card draws (I’m using playing cards instead of the more normal dice).

Is there a need for a command system at all? The already mentioned V+B doesn’t have one, beyond a fairly simple radius system (units need to be within a set distance of a general). This works better for one hour turns than it does for shorter ones. The long time period automatically builds in a lot of friction. You don’t have all that many moves to accomplish your aims, so the sort of gamesmanship that consists of waiting to see what the other side does before committing is riskier. But problems remain. I think it is an important facet of simulation to have some means of representing the constraints of different command and staff systems – and differences in information. I dislike the radius system anyway, as it does not relate to anything observable on the actual battlefield – though a softer version is virtually inevitable.

What about other rule systems? There are two that are particularly interesting, neither for the Napoleonic era. First there is Gå På, a Swedish set designed for early 18th Century. This is one of the most interesting rulesets I have encountered. Units, or groups of units are brought under control through a combination of initiative values of their commanders, and line of sight. Amongst other things, the more moving parts your plans have, the more likely that units or groups of them will be “out of command”. And if they are out of command then they are liable to move forward and get stuck in before you wanted them to. And as the battle progresses, visibility is reduced, and it becomes even more likely that units drop out of control. Battles start to descend into chaos. I’ve played with these rules a couple of time recently; we have approached our task in a rather Napoleonic fashion – but we are starting to learn that these have too many moving parts, and that it may be better to stict a more basic linear system. The advancing chaos makes the game fun.

The second system is Bruce Weigle’s  1870 series (of which I have 1859 and 1866 – and played one game of 1870). These are quite different. Each player gets a limited flow of orders. If units don’t get orders then they sit still. The more moving parts, the more orders needed and more difficult this becomes to achieve. It is, however, based on 30 minute moves. You don’t get Gå På’s advancing chaos, but you get a realistic level of friction.

For  a grand tactical, Napoleonic game the latter system is probably closer to the mark – though it would be good to allow the possibility of an unauthorised attack. The idea of a steady breakdown of command and control as the day progresses is attractive – but if it just means that things grind to an exhausted halt, as I don’t think that’s how battles of this era worked – though it might for later ones.

So what are the factors that need to be reflected?

  1. More complex plans are more difficult. However, they may be feasible if sufficient planning effort is put in, based on good information.
  2. Corps level staff contribute to the process. In 1809 Napoleon could simply give his corps commanders a generalised order, and the details would be worked out by them. Charles’s staff drew up detailed plans for the Austrian corps commanders, slowing things down a lot.
  3. Speed is the enemy of coordination.

I am in the middle of reading about Wagram – though I have only started to get into the second day. This produces some insights.

  • Napoleon’s staff prepared very detailed plans for their attack from Lobau to the left bank. The Austrians were in the dark and made very little planning effort. The result was that the French started with the initiative, and they were able to deploy their forces very rapidly, with a high level of coordination, while the Austrians were hustled out.
  • By the time the French reach the Rossbach, though, it’s a different matter. Their plan is played out; they don’t know where the Austrian forces are. But on the spur of the moment Napoleon tells his troops to attack over the Rossbach and onto the plateau.
  • This attack goes badly – though they surprise the Austrians and hold the initiative. The attacks aren’t well coordinated; the fighting, in the failing light, descends into confusion, with friendly fire. Both side suffer from panics – but the French suffer the most.
  • The exception to this is that Napoleon’s ablest and most trusted marshal, Davout, contents himself with a little probing, and does not launch a rash attack. The other attacks are led by Oudinot, MacDonald and Bernadotte – all distinctly 2nd division in the corps commander role. This is as much question of their relationship of trust with Napoleon as it is of their abilities as commanders.
  • Overnight, the French pull their forces together into a tight group, but with no specific plan. They want to see what the new day brings and what the Austrians do. The Austrians, on the other hand, pull together a very detailed plan of counterattack. This counterattack takes much longer to communicate than anticipated, which means that coordination suffers. But with a series of attacks, the Austrians succeed in holding the initiative for much of the second day, until their plan is played out.
  • Marshal Bernadotte, with whom Napoleon’s relations are poor, overnight decides to pull his corps back from the village of Aderklaa, allowing the Austrians to occupy it uncontested.
  • Marshal Massena, along with Davout a 1st Division Corps commander, accomplishes a tricky repositioning of his corps, which helps stabilise the French rear.
  • The more remote Austrian attacks start well, if late, but eventually run out of steam as their commanders don’t really know how to exploit the advantages they have won.

I will get more insights on this as I continue to read Gill’s book on the battle, but writing this out does trigger some interesting thoughts.

Planning plays an important role in who holds the initiative, even if the implementation of that plan is delayed. The plan has a life cycle; after a degree of time and especially movement it plays out. When the plan is weak then a number of things can happen. Things can just fizzle out; corps commanders can interpret their orders in a variable way, perhaps over-aggressively (as with the French attacks on the evening of the second day), or perhaps with excessive circumspection (Bernadotte abandoning Aderklaa). Also coordination breaks down.

Another observation is that the traditional wargaming device of giving generals a character rating (aggressive or cautious for example) does not really count for much. The over-aggressive French evening attacks were conducted by a general noted for extreme caution (Bernadotte) as well as fire-eater (Oudinot). What matters more is confidence and trust. One can easily rate the French generals as good (Davout, Massena, maybe Marmont), bad (Bernadotte) or average (everybody else). In the trust stakes the Austrians would mainly count as average (maybe Bellegarde and perhaps Rosenburg count as good) – but they suffer a capability deficit compared with the French.

Translating this into gaming is interesting. I don’t particularly want to get the players to write up orders as part of the mechanism. I would like to stick to the paperless move system if I can. But plans do last for more than one hour, and may take more than one our to prepare and distribute. It is interesting how the commanders at Wagram decide to be either active or passive. This leads into the question of initiative. The classic system is alternate move – which is what DTN V2 is based on. Gå På has a system of interchanging moves between the units of both sides. 1870 uses simultaneous movement. But both are problematic. In the former case it takes too longer and is a bit complicated; in the latter you get problems if two commands move into each other.

And there I will draw a line under the musing. The deconstruction of Wagram has proved the most valuable part of the exercise. Next piece should look at other battles.