Rewriting my Napoleonic rules 2: game structure

Another view of my Plancenoit trial game

In Part 1 I described how I settled on a game based on divisional units with a game turn representing one hour (or more – I will return to this). I described the journey that led to that conclusion. If that was clear before I started the project, the game structure – the basic framework for the two sides to interact – certainly wasn’t.

It is worth explaining a bit more on the representation of the armies. I started with the Bloody Big Battles system where troops are represented by bases, in my case 25mm square, though I have also acquired some on 30mm squares. I mount these with six figures for infantry and two for cavalry, as I like my miniatures to be more densely packed than the modern fashion, though still looser than actual close order formations, where you would get four rather than three infantry figures across 25mm in 18mm scale. In BBB each base represents 1,000 to 1,500 men for both infantry and cavalry, meaning that each of the figures would stand for 167 to 250 infantry, or 500 to 750 cavalry. Artillery bases represent 30 or more guns. I kept the infantry scaling but I felt this did not do justice to Napoleonic cavalry; I base these at the same figure ratio as the infantry, which means 333 to 500 men per base. I wanted more cavalry on the tabletop, and besides they did take up more space than infantry. Cavalry did not deploy dismounted and engage in fire combat in this era, so that was a complication I did not need to think about. I also halved the artillery ratio – though I adjusted the fire factors to reflect this. While the high artillery ratio in BBB worked better than I thought it would, each base is still an awful lot of hardware, when artillery was not always massed together. Each artillery base is 12 to 18 guns.

The elapsed time that each game turn represents needed a bit of thought. Other large scale games, such as Et Sans Resultât and the 1870 series use 30 minutes, as I did in the brigade-based rules that I used for my Vitoria game. But this creates too many moves for a game, even in a fast-playing system. Also a longer turn length is one way of simulating the communication delays in these large scale encounters. It takes longer to react to your opponents’ moves. A one hour turn is the logical next step – and it is what BBB is based on nominally (and Volley and Bayonet). But one-hour turns are not the only option. You can go for a two hour turn, but with a more complex interactive system for sub-moves within this. This is what Grande Armée did and another old system – Legacy of Glory – that I bought in the 1990s, but never played properly. I actually designed a system based on this idea with a rather interesting interactive system of sub moves. I may yet bring this into the light of day, but I was worried about the complexity of it.

Somehow I needed to pack a bit more action into the move, and especially combat action, while maintaining simplicity. I gradually realised that I had to rethink the turn structure. Like BBB I was using the Fire and Fury system. This was innovative for its time. Prior to that the fashion was for an alternate move system, where each player took turns to go through all their armies, with phases for movement, firing, mêlée, morale an so forth. Or (how my games started) with a simultaneous move system based on written orders. F&F retains the alternating structure, with each player taking it in turns to be the active player. But the passive player gets a firing phase directly after the active player moves, and before the active player fires or mêlées. This creates a very interesting dynamic, but firing and mêlée is done on a whole army basis, with complex interactions possible between several units on each side. Two units can gang up on one. This is one of the things that makes the writing of traditional rules so complicated.

Then I had a lightbulb moment as I was reading about innovations in modern fantasy games, less tied to notions of realism. In one system all actions are one on one; there were no multiple combats. If two units were to gang up one one it had to be done sequentially. This means that a player can pick a unit and go through the whole action sequence, including combat, before moving on to the next. In systems terms this is much simpler than the traditional wargames approach – indeed this is how computers tend to do things, in my rather limited experience. It then hit me that this could work for Napoleonic warfare for divisional level units. It was impossible to coordinate divisions closely, and it rarely happened. There was something sequential about how they moved and entered combat. On the few occasions where more than one division operated closely with another (I could think of two examples – McDonald at Wagram and the French main attack at Albuera) the divisions became entangled and in effect merged into a single tactical entity. The sequential approach could be adopted for my game – though artillery would be a complication.

So now a player picks a unit, activates it and goes through the complete sequence. This includes allowing it to carry out more than one attack per turn. The old Movement Throw (a combined movement randomisation and morale test which is a central feature of the F&F system) stays (now called Activation) and gives the unit zero to three actions (and can cause a battered unit to retreat). Each action can be used for movement, rallying or an attack. The player also has an opportunity to focus command resources on particular units to improve their activation result – allowing players to manage the risk of being slowed down by bad dice throws – one of the issues/features (depending on your point of view) of the F&F system.

This approach opens up the whole turn sequence. It is now possible, as it is with many modern wargames systems, for the I-go/U-go sequence to be broken down, with moves from both sides being mixed up. Here I decided to be more cautious. I quite like the idea of a player surveying the scene, deciding what he is going to do, and then trying to do it -rather then everything being lost in an interactive muddle. The typical narrative of a Napoleonic big battle does seem to work this way, with each side moving into action or response across the whole field. I also worried that a more mixed up sequence would take longer to play out. So I left the basic idea of alternating active and passive phases for each player, but allowing the passive player more opportunities to respond (e.g. opportunity charges or turning to face a flank).

Artillery does not work this way though. In some cases I allow it to tag along with other units, but I also have a Bombardment phase when all the active side’s artillery can fire together, either in a quick burst of preparatory fire – or in a longer cannonade of up to an hour. The passive player’s artillery can also fire at any unit it can while it is moving. Artillery differs in many ways from other troop types – not least in that the noise and smoke means that the whole field knows if it is in action, so the same command and control issues don’t apply.

This is all very clever, but it brings with it some problems. The most obvious is that of sequential attacks. This could be very advantageous to the active player. The first attack will almost inevitably disrupt the defender, making it more vulnerable to further attacks, before it has any chance to respond. This is harder in practice than in theory – because the attacking unit tends to block other attackers. But it does bring to light a more fundamental problem – that while each unit is operating in its own time and space on the table, in reality other units on both sides are using that time and space too. If a unit has been fighting multiple rounds of combat while passive, won’t that reduce what it is able to accomplish when it becomes active?

All sequential move systems run into with some variation of the time problem. That is why simultaneous systems were so popular in the early days with gamers who wanted to move from games with toy soldiers to historical simulation. Still, a couple of ideas can help smooth things over. First is overlapping time. So if side A’s turn is 10am to 11am, side B’s might be 10.30am to 11.30. So each side spends part of its turn responding to the other player, and part setting the pace. Another idea is slack: the furthest a unit can move in my rules in one turn, across good terrain but not along roads, is 18in or 2.7 km in real space (1.7 miles). This is slow going, meaning that more action can be packed into that turn without it getting out of hand. A third idea is that the game turn is not strictly tied to the clock – an hour (or whatever) is only meant to be an average. Sam Mustafa is a particular exemplar of this line. He avoids tying his game turns down to particular time periods, and he has a similar flexibility towards space. This is too much for me – I like to have a clear crossover narrative from what is happening on the table to what might get recounted in a history book. That means creating reference points: naming the geographical points on the table, the units and commanders, and so on; the clock is an important such reference point, albeit on a rather approximated basis – this is before the age of precision timetables. As the game clock reaches 6pm I like to image the evening sun. You don’t get that from a system that just tells you it is Turn 12.

Using such reasoning I simply created rules to stop more obvious problems: limiting the number of attacks on any one unit to three for example. These were the rules we used for the Sorauren game. These worked OK, and we encountered only one clear problem on the time and motion side. One of the French brigades advanced into the field of fire of a newly-moved British artillery unit. This unit was able to give it the full hour-long cannonade before it had any chance to adjust its position – which was in fact enough to knock the unit off the table, coming on top of earlier wear and tear. As the French player I could have been warier and spotted the danger, but it still didn’t feel right.

That problem doesn’t require a big fix, even if it means another fiddly little rule of the sort I have been trying to avoid to keep things simple. But the time problem still nagged me. The idea that you would attack an enemy unit with the primary aim of pinning it down is certainly relevant to this era, but the ability to do so in this rule system is limited. Before Sorauren I tried out a simple scenario based on Bulow’s advance on Plancenoit at Waterloo, which I ran twice. This is quite an interesting time and motion problem. Loyal readers of this blog will know that I puzzle at the speed with which the Prussians were able to reach the village, in spite of the supposedly hard and skilful resistance of two French divisions and two kilometres of ground to cover. In this trial there was no issue. In move one (about 4pm) the Prussians went in hard against Lobau’s corps, with two rounds of combat. When it came to the French turn (on both trial games) they decided to fall back on Plancenoit in case their line was turned or broken in the next round, threatening the whole corps. They had plenty of opportunity to do so. Apart from needing to rally if they wanted to fall back in good order (problem that the pursuing + would also have to face) the effect of the first turn’s heavy fighting did not limit them. One hour (or one and a half) would cover both the heavy combat and the 2km withdrawal. This the point at which the photo above was taken. So in this game the Prussians attacked the French in turn 1 and engaged in two rounds of combat; the French withdrew in their turn. In turn 2 both sides reorganised. In turn 3 (6pm) the Prussians (in the one game I played that far), the Prussians attacked the village. This is not a bad tracking of historical events, but it still didn’t feel right.

I wanted to address this problem. In my new (and untested) version of the rules each attack on an enemy unit causes it to gain a “pin” marker. Pins are also picked up picked up for response moves, such as opportunity charges, evades, or turning to the flank. Similarly responding artillery gets a smoke marker each time it fires. When it comes to the next turn, when the responding player turns active, these pins (and smoke markers) need to be cleared before the unit can move. So if the unit activated with two moves, it might have to use one to clear a pin marker, before using the next to rally or attack. However this rule could get out of hand, so the rule is that the first pin is cleared for free; only if a unit picks up two or three pins will it cost them a move (or two). I rationalised this on the basis of overlapping time and making use of slack. We will see how it plays out – but it could have a significant influence on play. I have two slight worries – that it will confer too much of a first mover advantage on attackers by not giving the defenders enough space to recover; and that it will slow things down again, after all that effort to put more action into a turn.

We will see how that works. Meanwhile I am pleased to find that the new turn structure has led to simpler rules. Next time I will describe how I handle combat.

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