Napoleonic Antietam – the journey from BBB continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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