Tag Archives: BBB

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.

Prussians at Waterloo game

Our club game this week was another game using our adaptation of BBB. I devised a scenario based on the Allied left flank from about 2pm, with the Prussians advancing in masses and Wellington’s army hanging on. The French had enough forces to beat the latter but the main focus of the scenario was a Prussian race against time towards Plancenoit.

The battle north of Frichermont intensifies

First the rules. This version represents a significant development of the core BBB system, to the extent that I can’t really call them house rules. We still use the main rule booklet to deal with some queries, but it is getting to the point where I should do a complete rewrite which can be published as a standalone. The double-disruption rule, formation change rule and new assault table were carried forward from last time. This time lost bases were replaced by “Morale Markers ” with the same footprint as a base. The idea is to put casualty figures on them. Each marker gives -1 on both the Movement Throw and Assault, replacing the -2 for Spent status. Veteran and Raw status are given +1/-1 on the same throws. The other big change from last time is that cavalry attacks on infantry are dealt with sequentially rather than in one great punch-up.

The scenario was highly simplified so that we stood some chance of setting it up and finishing the game in an evening. There were no hills; only the major areas of forest were included. The ridge at the centre of the Allied position was represented by a hedge. None of the Allied or French units involved in the earlier combats were given base losses. Instead two French divisions from d’Erlon’s corps, some of the French artillery, and Bijlandt’s Netherlands troops were removed, and the British troops downgraded from Veteran to Trained.

The French (played by Terry) weren’t interested in following the historical precedent and launched into the Frichermont and Smohain area with three out of their four infantry divisions and all three cavalry divisions. The remaining infantry advanced on the British to the (French) left. This left the road to Plancenoit wide open, but it worked. They pushed the Nassauers out of the Smohain complex and drew the two British cavalry units in (releasing one of these units would have given the Allies a victory point). The Prussians were drawn into this combat, as they preferred to skirt the Bois de Paris via the Frichermont area rather than push through it. The French cavalry were badly mauled. The British also beat off the attack on their main line with a cracking artillery throw. Meanwhile the French activated the Young Guard, which managed an unsuccessful attack on La Haye Sainte. We reached Turn 6 out of 8, with the French holding four victory points to the Allied one, and with no prospect of losing the key Plancenoit (two points) being taken by the Prussians.

It is clearly very hard for the Prussians to win this scenario. I found something similar a few years ago when I tried BBB on a full game of Waterloo. That time Lobau’s troops held up the Prussians to the west of Bois de Paris. The interesting question is how much this reflects a weakness in the BBB system in representing less static battles, and how much it reflects historical problems. There are arguments for both. Pete, who played the Prussians, complained that he was hampered by movement throws which restricted his movement. The maximum infantry move of 12in is only just over a mile, which is slow for an unimpeded advance in an hour, never mind being restricted to random half-moves. But historically the Prussian focus on Plancenoit was more relentless than that used in either of the games. Critically they turned Lobau’s right flank early, forcing him to retreat rapidly to a more secure line. Blucher resisted the temptation to get embroiled in the Frichermont area.

How realistic was the scenario design? I don’t think I got the Frichermont/Papelotte/Smohain area right. I split it into two, but left a small gap between each part, which in the game the French used to infiltrate cavalry and artillery through. There is a gap on some of the maps, but I’m not sure it was a very practicable one. Also I’m not sure that representing each area as a wood quite reflected the good defensive qualities of the terrain. However nobody historically tried to throw three infantry divisions at it, so it is hard to assess this properly. The terrain is much more complex than I represented it, with small woods and a stream. It would repay a bit more research, as it played an important role in the battle, even if it is neglected by most historians. The same comment can be made for other parts of the battlefield. Having said that, the heroic simplification wasn’t as much of an issue as I thought it might be. Representing the main British ridge line with a hedge worked well enough, and I think the rules for La Haye Sainte were fine in principle, though not seriously tested. Compared to the other games at the club, though, the table didn’t look very attractive. I need to think of simple ways to make it look better. More building models would help (the use of 6mm models was fine – though less good that they were meant for a Spanish scenario!). Representing some of the tracks and streams better would help – but this isn’t easy to do for a club night. Having some fields to scatter over the terrain is an idea worth looking at though.

And the rules? The new rules on double Disruption and base removal worked pretty well, including the new unified Assault table. But the morale markers and changed rules on Raw and Veteran units I am much less sure about. I rated the French (and British) light cavalry as Veteran. That made it quite a formidable proposition against the Prussian infantry rated as Raw. It didn’t feel right, but the simplest thing is not to class light cavalry as Veteran. But the new system is intuitive and easy to for players to understand. There is more work to do around this, but I suspect the thing to do is for the Raw/Veteran status to affect the Movement Throw and not Assault, which can be left to the Aggressive/Fragile classification.

Meanwhile I continue to chip away at some more radically different rules of my own. These will address the problem of slow moving troops in more dynamic battles.

A new version for BBB

Foe some months I have been planning a new version of my house rules to cover Napoleonics for the Bloody Big Battles rules. Recently I drafted a version and tried them out at the club on Monday night. There are some issues to fix, but I think I’m making progress.

The changes represent a further migration away from the core BBB system, which is derived from the Fire and Fury ACW rules. However, there are some simplifications, making them shorter than the earlier version, and reverting back to the original in places. I like it when that happens – you know you are onto something when rules get simpler.

The biggest change is to make disruption cumulative. In the original system if a unit suffers disruption when it is already disrupted then nothing happens. In the new system the unit can acquire a second disruption marker. If it gets a further disruption then a base is removed (and the unit remains disrupted with a single disruption marker). A double disruption result may arise from firing or assault – if so a unit that is already disrupted (single or double) will lose a base, and retain a single disruption. A double disruption can be cleared through the movement throw, but it takes an extra half move.

This change makes firing and assault more lethal, so I adjusted both to compensate. On the fire table the bottom 1s (for single base loss) in each column were replaced by DDs for double disorder. I tried something more radical on the Assault table: the new system allows more increments in terms of losses – so in the +3 to -3 range each result has a different outcome. For -1/0/+1 the result is both sides suffer disruption, with the losing side falling back 3in; for a draw there is a further round of combat. For +2/-2 the loser takes a double disruption and falls back 3in, with the winner taking a single disruption. For +3/-3 it is similar except that the loser takes a base loss and the winner a double disruption. This table is intermediate between the original one (which we were still using for cavalry combats) and the house infantry table, which had base losses for both sides except the draw. So I decided on the radical step of moving back to one table for all combats. Cavalry attacks on infantry (which used a third table) were tweaked with some special rules on squares.

A second area of change was on formation changes. Here the main rules and artillery rules were re-merged, by infantry and cavalry taking on the new artillery rule. That means units can do two out of three of move, offensive fire or change formation, without any half-effect to either movement or firing. This is simpler and more flexible. There is a possible abuse: a unit could march up to musket range in march column, and snap into line or depth without the other side intervening except with defensive fire. So I added an opportunity charge rule, by which units changing formation within 6in of enemy units may be subject to a charge instead of defensive fire.

The third main area of alteration was skirmishers. Units don’t now have to break down one of their formed bases to deploy skirmishers. The skirmish bases live behind the unit when not deployed. Also normal firing rules apply when a unit with skirmishers is hit: the unit may suffer disruption, rather than removing a skirmish base. A skirmish base is removed whenever a main base is removed. This is simpler and tidier. I did like the idea of players choosing whether to put strength into the skirmish line or keep in the main body, but that was one too many more things for players to think about, and they never really engaged with it.

There was also a tweak on artillery fire, with bouncethrough fire allowed 3in beyond the main target, at reduced effect. The main effect will be that infantry can’t shelter behind artillery batteries with impunity, as happened in our Shiloh game. Finally I had written some special rules on artillery units close-supporting infantry in the earlier version. In fact I rediscovered a bit of the original rules about infantry and cavalry units supporting artillery units, which did much the same job, so I reverted to this.

So overall the new version is simpler and in many cases closer to the original, though the cumulative disruption and formation change rules are a change to the core system.

How did they play on Monday night? It was a question of so far so good. The skirmish rules need a bit of tidying up. This is about when they affect assaults, which wasn’t all that clear. Also I need to be clear about when you measure distances to the skirmish screen and when to the main body, though this was intuitively obvious. In the game I let the French player keep his skirmish bases very close together, as his divisions concentrated on a very tight front. This looked fine on the table, but made skirmish fire potentially very effective. Should I enforce a one inch gap rule between skirmish bases, or reduce the effectiveness of fire per base? This will need some thought.

The main issues with the game arose from core BBB – which in turn arose form poor scenario design by me. It was a trial game and I was in a hurry. I made the objective a town occupied by the Prussians, who were split between and initial occupying force and a reinforcement. But the town was way too big (I was using some of the clubs 15-20mm buildings – which had quite a big footprint). That meant the Prussians started to pile their infantry in and the French to concentrate five or six infantry divisions in a single attack. I also classed the town as a “town” rather than a village in the rules, which made it more like a massive fort. In fact a town should cover quite a small area (you pretty much have to use under-scale buildings – and use a clear base plate). And both armies needed to be spread across a wider front, with perhaps more than one objective.

The town fighting was rather unrealistic: it didn’t have the characteristic ebb and flow of the era, because of its size and classification. A second issue was that the French player was able to concentrate up to five four-base divisions in depth onto the single Prussian 6-base division in line. This allowed some extraordinary concentrations both in firepower and in assault , though it took four moves before he was able to get a properly coordinated attack in to send the Prussians packing. This highlighted two rules issues. First when about four infantry units and two artillery units concentrated fire they threw an 11; this wasn’t all that effective because of the double left-shift arising from the cover, but it did mean that all the units had to take a disruption (which replaces the out of ammo rule), which delayed the main attack. This felt a bit farcical, though actually it probably isn’t that hard to rationalise away. The French were spending too much time trying to reduce the enemy by firepower and so didn’t have time to organise a proper assault. In the assault the French were eventually able to concentrate 3:1 on the unfortunate Prussian unit. What this drew attention to was the looseness of the BBB rules on which bases can be involved in a combat. Four bases piling in on each flank didn’t look quite right, especially when the Prussian were reduced to five bases by assault fire. Mainstream Fire and Fury looks a bit tighter, so maybe something can be learned from that. Still a six-base division deployed in a single line covering practically a kilometre is going to be rather vulnerable!

Another curious episode came when the French were able to pile up one infantry and two cavalry units in a combined attack on a single Prussian unit in depth (with an exposed flank). In the previous version combined arms attacks were resolved with infantry and cavalry kept separate, not least because they used two different combat tables. I rather liked that because it was in fact hard to coordinate the two arms at such a grand tactical level. Also there is a scaling issue each infantry base has three times the men of a cavalry base (unlike mainstream BBB), so using bases to stack up odds doesn’t feel quite right either. There is something to be said for forcing the separation again, and taking the odds out of the infantry-cavalry combats. Cavalry vs. infantry combats were more about psychology than numbers after all.

And finally we had rogue cavalry units in the rear – a familiar problem in wargames – but artillery is very at risk under my rules. These seem far too effective. Of course cavalry in rear areas could be a problem, but it was hard to direct. And cavalry exploitation for half a move (9in – pretty much a mile) looks a bit heavy: cavalry were often exhausted by the initial assault – though there was the Union brigade at Waterloo, but that came at the expense of utter disorganisation. We also had a case of a french cavalry unit able to catch up with the retreating Prussians from a previous combat. I don’t think this kind of long-range pursuit combat with cavalry actually. A more limited exploitation rule looks better (3in or 6in perhaps), and disruption for winners on a big combat win (7+) looks sensible too (though this is presumably meant to represent the defeated side collapsing without a fight).

So a few things to think about before I settle on a definitive 2019 version. There is also another idea which I picked up from a wargames magazine which might be worth a try. How about replacing lost bases with “morale makers” with the same footprint (e.g. a base with some casualties,say)? This means the unit footprint stays the same and it is obvious how many bases have been lost – which perhaps reflects better how things worked in this era. More radically the “spent” status could be replaced with a deduction for each base lost. That would then mean making adjustments for veteran and raw units in movement and assault throw. There’s an interesting idea in there!

A BBB version of Shiloh

End of Move 2 I think the French attack on the Prussian right develops

Last night Terry and I used my cloth for the Altar of Freedom game on Shiloh to refight a Napoleonic version using our version of BBB. It was fought using my Napoleonic French and Prussian armies. It is interesting to compare the two systems.

The distance scales are the same, which meant there was not problem in using the same terrain layout. The main difference in game layout is that BBB is played using brigade units (two or three to a division), while BBB has division sized units. Each AoF brigade corresponds to two BBB bases. That means a two brigade division has four bases and a three brigade one six. That makes BBB a bit more compact, but the frontages are broadly similar using the 40mm bases for AoF that we have being doing. Using the recommended 60mm bases would mean that two brigades could cover five inches easily and six at a pinch. A BBB equivalent division would cover four inches. Artillery units are pretty much the same between the two systems. Cavalry is different mainly because of the different cavalry role between the Napoleonic and ACW eras. In BBB we use a much lower figure ratio, since firepower is unimportant. A typical BBB cavalry unit is a brigade, the same as AoF, but it has a bigger footprint.

In putting together the armies I wanted to keep my standardised 1815 units rather than do a new lot of labels. The French took the Confederate role. Bragg’s corps of six brigades translated into three four-base divisions, but otherwise the conversion was quite simple. Command and control was harder. I did not provide leaders for the counterparts of Polk and Breckinridge, but Bragge and Hardee’s counterparts were on the table, as well as Johnstone represented by Napoleon himself. On the Union side all the divisions were three brigades, so it was quite easy to give them Prussian six-base units as equivalents. I divided them into two corps, each with a general, and a commander. I gave the French a slight quality edge: with one Aggressive infantry unit (the Young Guard in the reserve corps) and veteran cavalry. The Prussian had one Raw infantry unit.

We started a bit earlier than a normal club night and got three hours of game time in. In that time we played four and a half moves. That was no quicker than AoF, in spite of the smaller number of playing pieces. But there were only two of us (rather than four) and more did happen. The French (played by Terry) started with an aggressive assault on their left and centre. This went badly, with some effective firing by the Prussians, followed by a good close combat result. In the second move one of the French units was destroyed, and that left three of the smaller French units facing off against two Prussian ones in a static stalemate. I was mulling a counterattack.

But with this failure, the French decided to switch to the left, throwing in their reserve corps against the open Prussian flank. This fared much better, with the Prussians struggling to hold off superior numbers. A spectacular cavalry counterattack managed to do for a second French infantry unit, but the two front line Prussian infantry units were flagging to the point of near collapse, though the lead French infantry was similarly flagging. But they had two fresh infantry units (including the Young Guard), backed by two cavalry units, to face one not so fresh Prussian infantry unit and the triumphant cavalry. Meanwhile the wooded terrain was making the artillery hard to organise. I thought the Prussians were losing at the end (given that we had only reached midday), but it wasn’t hopeless. It was an exciting game.

How did the systems compare? The French/Confederates were able to deliver a much quicker and better coordinated attack in BBB. The Prussians/Union were not able to organise their defence so easily. Vital movement throws failed to come up on several occasions, limiting my ability to pull the defensive line back (something that the Union did very effectively in our AoF games). Not that I can complain too much: I had good combat dice on several critical occasions. The BBB game was much more decisive. By the end of our game the French had lost two infantry divisions and a battery out of action, two spent and another one damaged (one base loss), and one cavalry unit damaged. The Prussians had lost no units, but two infantry units were spent and the other three damaged (they only had five, until the possibility of reinforcements much later). At the equivalent stage in our AoF games at most one brigade had been put out of action.

This reflects each system’s strengths and weaknesses. In AoF command and control limitations were much greater on the Confederate side, making their attack much slower to progress, and limiting them to two or three divisions a turn. The Union side had much more flexibility. But BBB combat handles attrition much better. A lot of this is due to my modified rules for Napoleonics. Core BBB would have meant many fewer losses. This may be a fair reflection of the difference between the two eras, before the needle gun and chassepot suddenly upped the casualties.

Another difference is that artillery movement is much more flexible in AoF. In BBB you cannot limber and unlimber in the same turn, which makes it harder to move artillery around. We have made it more flexible in our version than core BBB (so that you can limber/unlimber and move a full move), but it is still hard, as I found as the Prussian line faltered. If the infantry gave ground it effectively meant the accompanying artillery couldn’t operate; it was similarly hard for artillery support to keep up with the attack without pausing it. The artillery needed to fall back further to occupy a new defensive line behind the infantry. This is something I should have been thinking about as the Prussian player. It is exactly how the French approached their withdrawal at Vitoria in 1813, so I don’t think BBB is unrealistic.

Overall I’m quite pleased with our house BBB system. It is working much as intended, and produced an exciting game. The skirmisher system remains scrappy and needs some cleaning up. The cavalry flowed through the woods and conducted attacks there a bit too easily. I am planning a substantial revision which will also address the disruption issue: inflicting disruption on a unit that is already disrupted doesn’t affect it. But I’m also working on something much more original that deals with some of BBB’s deeper problems. Meanwhile I think AoF works perfectly well for ACW, and represents command and control issues much better.

One more learning is on terrain. I have constructed a terrain cloth for Shiloh, with painted masking tape for roads and revers, and patches of felt taped on for woods. It can be folded up and is very portable, while representing complex terrain much better than using just standard club equipment. Last night we put the cloth on top of another felt cloth – this didn’t work well and led to it rumpling easily. Felt needs to be placed on a frictionless surface to lie flat. I think the idea can be developed – though hills are an unsolved issue and the rivers don’t work as well as the roads.

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.

BBB: new house rules

Following my last post, I have produced a new edition of my house rules for Napoleonic wars on the Rules Page. The modifications are now quite extensive, so I have produced a set of design notes to go with it.

Last Monday I ran another club game with my Albuera scenario transposed to Franco-Prussian 1815, where we used these rules. We lasted 5 turns and did not have a decisive result, again. I will need to try other scenarios, but this is clearly a problem. The battles are going on for too long. The extra attrition in infantry combat isn’t having the hoped for effect. Too often infantry is held back. I’m not sure what the answer is. Corps break points would be one approach. In this battle one Prussian corps took almost all the strain, while the other lurked in the background, apart from its cavalry. It was nearly wiped out, but still held on for four turns. Perhaps they should have been treated as fragile as well as Raw – though I don’t think that properly applies to the Prussian originals. I don’t want to introduce such a radical change, though. For now I must think more about scenario design.

Otherwise I think the rules worked pretty well. My fellow players complained that artillery was rather ineffective. But, faithful to the original Albuera, there wasn’t that much of it – two or three units a side. I think the extra flexibility of artillery movement worked well. Replacing Out of Ammo and Silenced with Disrupted worked well, as did the elimination of half-effect firing.

I’m not entirely sure about the new cavalry-infantry combat rules, as they weren’t fully stress-tested. But they induced the right sorts of responses in players. I am cautiously optimistic. On the other hand I am very pleased with my skirmisher rules. Within the limits of BBB mechanisms they work well. Players are being forced into realistic choices – which are important but not too important.

One issue that I probably want to fix in due course is the rules on squares. At the moment the squares behave in combat much as normal formations: they still have flanks for infantry attacks, and there is no all round firing. This is not how players instinctively feel how squares should work, so there is too much that is counter-intuitive. I also think movement restrictions could be clearer. But I don’t want them to be used to provide all-round defence against infantry. I think all round firing could be put in (remembering that it is reduced effect) and the Depth formation in square could have safe flanks against infantry attacks.

I have come across an old scenario book for Shako rules. these look about the right size for the smaller games I want to put on – and I think I can adapt them. And there are two specifically for 1815 Prussians (Wavre and Planchenoit). I am also thinking of trying Shako out itself!

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.

House rules for Bloody Big Battles

After playing two games with very limited house rule adaptations (after my first with a more ambitious version that I didn’t think worked), I have plucked up courage to produce something more ambitious. After a limited play test I think they work well enough to publish here. I won’t be using them at the club for another couple of months, as I will be travelling, but while production is fresh in mind, I though I’d post something here. In my test I thought they worked surprisingly well. You can download from the Rules page.

First of all: scaling. For the standard scale of 1,000 infantry to a base, cavalry is now 333 to a base (from 1,000) or 12 guns (from 24). For the higher scale (1,500 infantry to a base) that gives 500 cavalry and 18 guns. For 1815 French and Prussians I find that an in between scale works well: 1,250/416/15. I am tempted to take the artillery scale down further, but that’s enough for now. Why? Cavalry takes up a lot more space than infantry (indeed I can only squeeze two cavalry miniatures on to the 25mm square bases, in place of six infantrymen). In the von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel (of 1824), an infantry battalion of 900 men takes up the same frontage as 375 cavalry or 10 artillery pieces. The lower scale gives much more scope to represent the variety of cavalry types, and stops them looking rather pathetically few. The British Union Brigade at Waterloo can now be its own unit of 4 bases, rather than being lumped into with the Household cavalry as a 3 base unit. And with French cavalry divisions having strength of 1,500 to 2,000, these are at the margin as two base units. Likewise artillery took up a lot space, and under BBB it is possible to create unrealistic concentrations of strength with devastating results. It also allows us to represent the different sorts of artillery (horse artillery, heavy guns and howitzers) more easily.

The next problem is that game progress is slow, because base removal only happens in quite extreme circumstances. The most common close combat result is for one side to fall back 3in with neither side taking a loss. This means that battles seem to be much slower than the time rate of one hour per pair of moves suggests. In fact Napoleonic divisions had a habit of disappearing after two or three hours of heavy combat. this wasn’t particularly from casualties, but sheer exhaustion. Muzzle loading black powder weapons made a big noise and packed a nasty recoil, and barrels got hot and clogged. Horses weren’t great on stamina either. If you look at the later stages of Ligny, after about three or four hours of fighting, neither side had many effective fighting units left. The same thing can be said for Waterloo. Under current BBB rules it isn’t hard for Lobau’s outnumbered corps to hold off Bulow’s Prussians for hours; historically they made a rapid retreat after about one hour.

The way I have tackled this is in the close combat table for infantry, where for marginal victories in either direction both sides lose a base. To balance this slightly, for a draw (where under the rules both sides lose a base, and go on to fight another round), neither side loses a base (the attacker falls back). Since infantry units are typically four or six bases, it means that the units will start to disappear rather quickly in heavy fighting. And because both sides lose a base, some of the capriciousness of base losses is removed. This is exactly how combat tended to work: both sides tended to get worn down quickly. Cavalry v. cavalry combats use the old table, as I thought this worked better. Cavalry battles had a tendency to go on for quite a time. Usually one side or other was playing for time, and it was quite easy for skilled commanders to slow things down by holding back reserves and such. Casualties were few. This is something wargames rules tend to miss.

The next point to tackle is cavalry attacking infantry. This should have an asymmetric feel that the BBB system mostly misses. When things went well, cavalry could be absolutely devastating (look at the charge of the Union Brigade, or Kellerman at Marengo). But when infantry was prepared it was often ineffective. To tackle this I have done two things. First is a new combat table for Cavalry attacking infantry, in which the asymmetry is reflected. Like the new infantry table, it is quite bloody. Attacks on infantry did wear down cavalry more than attacks on cavalry. And although infantry casualties tended to be low if discipline was maintained, muskets were still discharged and the stress doubtless took its toll. Still infantry won’t lose any bases if it wins or draws. But if it loses on a -7 result, the unit is gone. Also the infantry doesn’t fall back if it isn’t destroyed.

The second thing was to introduce the square. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole unit is in squares – it is more a state of readiness for cavalry attack. Squares move more slowly, are more vulnerable to fire, cannot skirmish and fire less effectively – but they offer better protection against cavalry.This has the advantage of fitting with players’ expectations, and making the game feel more Napoleonic. Also cavalry get an extra bonus if they are attacking disrupted troops – but they can’t attack infantry in difficult terrain.

The next thing is skirmishers. I hesitated on this – as my preferred approach requires some rather intricate rules. Units with skirmish capability have two or three skirmish bases (the same frontage as a normal base, but shallower and with two figures, not six). To use their special capabilities they have to be deployed in front of the unit. Small arms fire is limited to 3in (not the 6in of our previous rules). Skirmishers thus extend the range of fire for infantry, and shield the parent unit. If skirmishers take what would normally be a Disrupted result, there is no disruption but one skirmish base is lost. This means that skirmish attacks will burn out, and take a toll on the resilience of the whole unit. Finally, skirmishers can’t be used against cavalry.

And then artillery. The fire factors had to be taken down to reflect the smaller unit size; also there are slightly different capabilities between Horse, Field and Reserve (i.e.heavy) artillery, and the option of using concentrated howitzers (that’s an indulgence, as I like having howitzer models on the table). Horse artillery gets a movement bonus, so that it can move at cavalry speed if limbered, or move 6in, unlimber and fire at half effect, for example. More radically the “reduced” and “silenced” status is done away with, in about the only place where the rules are simpler than the original. In place of the former they are simply removed (they are smaller units, remember), and in the latter case they are Disrupted. My fellow gamers never liked the “silenced” rule with batteries limbering up and moving off, and it always felt a bit odd to me. The rule must have been there for a reason originally though, so we’ll see if it really works! Another radical departure is that artillery has no close combat capability. If it can’t stop attacker through fire, it is overrun. Also on artillery there are special rules for artillery attaching to an infantry unit and being treated as a joint unit for target and close combat – which reduces vulnerability to attack.

There are quite a few changes, though I have confined them to four pages of text (just).In the play test I thought they worked quite well. As expected, things moved quickly. The French tried a combined infantry and cavalry attack on the Prussians, with two infantry units and one cavalry; the Prussians had one of each (though the infantry had 6 bases to the French 4). At first it went well for the Prussians; its infantry got the better of the French, reducing both units to two bases. But in the process it became disrupted and low on ammo; it hadn’t formed square and the cavalry hit it in the flank. And it threw badly. It was wiped out. In exploitation the cavalry caught a battery in the flank and overran it. The Prussian cavalry then tried to counterattack, but it was held to a draw (both lost a base) and in the second round suffered a -4 and was wiped out. In the next French turn the cavalry then picked off another battery, annihilating the Prussians on that flank. On the other flank, the Prussians attacked but, didn’t press (confining itself to skirmishing), with French cavalry lurking on the flank. One of the infantry units tried to come to its colleague’s aid on the other flank, but too late.

This decisive result owed quite a bit to some good dice by the French at the vital moment. But it proved most unwise for the Prussians to press ahead with un-neutralised cavalry to the flank; it felt not unlike Marengo, though following up to disperse the nemy cavalry was a bonus. I thought the skirmish rules played well too, placing some interesting choices on the player. With players thinking about vulnerability to cavalry, and whether or not to skirmish, the whole game felt much more Napoleonic. It also played briskly. My main doubt now is whether cavalry becomes too dominant.

But so far, so good. Until now I have never really thought that an adapted BBB might do in place of my home grown ones. I’m a bit less sure now!

 

 

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.