My wargaming energies are mainly devoted to two periods: the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. But I do have another set of miniatures that rarely get an outing these days: some 6mm Swedes and Russians for the Great Northern War, circa 1709 (the year of the world-changing battle of Poltava). One reason they have not seen the tabletop for so long is that I lack a suitable set rules to use.
When I acquired them my friend George and I used a set of rules called Ga Pa! These are a very clever, written by a Swede, Thomas Arnfelt, with the GNW in mind, though they can be used for other early 18th Century Wars. What was wrong? They were too innovative; George and I liked them, but they would be hard to introduce on a club night, as there were too many new ideas. And even for us, they could be a bit slow at times. They weren’t particularly clearly written either, which meant that quite a lot of time can be lost trying to interpret them for a new situation. Since I used them I notice there’s a second edition, though, which might be an improvement.
My second try was with Barry Hilton’s Under Lily Banners. They are written by a very experienced gamer with a deep love for the era (built mainly by studying conflicts further west – but he has taken on the GNW with a vengeance since). They are quite old-school and designed with bigger figures and fewer units per player than I wanted to do, though. But they were quite usable substituting centimetres for inches. What I really didn’t like about them was cavalry v cavalry combat that owed more to Hollywood than realism, which, given that cavalry is so big in this era, ruined the whole feel. I abandoned them after a single game with George. Perhaps I should have tried harder, but I still felt they were not designed to play the sort of game I wanted.
And so for years the figures stayed in their box, with large numbers of them unpainted and unbiased. I had an idea to adapt Horse Foot Guns by Pat Barker. This very expansive system did cover this era, along right up to just before WWI, but would have needed a bit of work with my basing system. Also these rules need a heavy era-specific edit to be workable (I did a Napoleonic rewrite, which I have described on this blog). Too much work.
And then a recent magazine article tickled my fancy. It was describing the launch of a new set of rules by Helion called In Deo Veritas by Philip Garton. These are designed for 17th Century warfare, but GNW marks the transition between this and the next era, and has a late 17th Century feel. And it has been designed with bigger armies and smaller figures in mind. They sounded exactly what I was looking for, so I bought a copy as lockdown reading.
I was not disappointed. They have exactly the right level of detail for me. Unit level combat is dealt with briefly, allowing more focus on higher level issues such as command and cohesion. GP covered both levels well, but that led to the rules being too arduous as a whole. ULB focused on the unit-level stuff, as it would be relatively rare to have big armies on the tabletop. Focusing on the right level is one of the critical aspects of war-games design, and this is clearly understood by Philip. Play is based on one-base units, organised into a number of “wings”. Units are mainly “brigades” of about 1,000 men, on bases of 3in by 1.5in; smaller units on 1.5in squares; larger ones (such as early tercios featuring in the early part of the era) and irregular cavalry on 3in squares. 1in corresponds to about 40 yards.
I don’t want to describe the mechanics in too much detail. Anyway I haven’t played them yet (though I can’t wait). Each wing is given an order (Advance, Hold or Withdraw). Movement is one wing at a time activated in random sequence of both sides (they suggest using cards – but it’s the same as Warlord’s bag of dice). Then there is simultaneous combat, with firing, then melee. Finally the cohesion issues are resolved. There is almost no attempt to model the different types of armament of the units (e.g. pikes v muskets or matchlocks v flintlocks). If that kind of tactical detail is your thing, then you need a lower level set of rules. Cohesion/fatigue is modelled at unit, wing and army level.
How would they adapt for 1709 GNW? In this period the Swedes fought a modernised Russian army under Peter the Great. Flintlock muskets were the main armament, but the Swedes still armed up to a third of their infantry unis with pikes. The Russians used pikes too, but in smaller numbers. The formations were deep by 18th Century standards, the three-rank, platoon-firing units were in the future (except maybe the contemporary Dutch and English). So it has a late 17th century feel. There are two issues that I think might need rules modification. The first is the Swedish Ga Pa! doctrine of shock tactics, both for infantry and cavalry, which were unique at the time (even the cavalry indulged in extensive mounted firefights). I’m not sure if the Swedes need special advantages in melee (and probably disadvantages in firing), or whether quality differences in the rules already will suffice. A Swedish army should be able to take on much larger opposing armies, provided that it is very aggressive. The other issue is the Russian cavalry. They had almost no cavalry as commonly understood, but lots of dragoons served the role, and these rarely fought on foot (but could and sometimes did). In the rules dragoons fight in small units; the Russians often used them en masse. Russian dragoons could be treated as inferior cavalry brigades, or they could be mounted on brigade bases with special provisions. A further possible issue (I don’t have my GNW books with me) is that brigades are a bit on the large side in this war – but I think these rules would work by substituting battalions for brigades.
A much bigger issue for me is basing. All my miniatures are based on 20mm squares, with three bases for a typical infantry unit and four for cavalry. I like the visual appearance of this (especially the Swedes with a central block of pikes), and that is one of the reasons I got into this era in the first place. The basing was quite an effort too (many of the infantry figures were cut off their strips and placed individually). I am not rebasing. I have some ideas on how this might adapt my current basing system, but they have to be tried out. Since I am between homes at the moment, as well as lockdown, with most of my possessions, including my GNW figures, in storage, this will have to wait.
It was very interesting to read the book’s accounts of six battles at the end, turned into scenarios.17th Century warfare is not something I know much about. What struck me from these accounts is how disorderly the battles were, with sometimes fortunes changing at the very end, and how independently the different wings operated from each other. They look to be great subjects for wargaming, especially multi-player games. These rules seem to reflect that very well, and should be a great basis for club games. Alas that will be some time in the future for me!