Tag Archives: Great Northern War

In Deo Veritas – a trial game for Great Northern War

More than a year a go I bought the In Deo Veritas rules by Philip Garton, which cover 17th Century conflicts. My plan was to use this for my 6mm Great Northern War (GNW) Russians and Swedes. The GNW was actually in the 18th century but the tactics were similar. In fact Philip Garton later brought out a supplement, Captain General, to cover the early 18th Century. I published my first thoughts here. I have now had the opportunity to run a small solo game.

The rule supplement did not add very much in terms of new rules, and its main value is the four extra scenarios. Alas there were no battles between Russians and Swedes – it is in fact quite hard to find suitable historical battles for the Poltava campaign that my figures are based on. It suggested giving all-musket infantry units an extra fire dice, and treating large dragoon units (such as the Russians used) as poor quality cavalry.

In my game I set a small Swedish force of three infantry and two cavalry units against a larger Russian force of six infantry, two dragoon and one cossack unit, plus two artillery. The Swedes were all Veteran except one Trained infantry unit; the Russians were all Raw except one infantry unit and the cossacks, which were Trained. Both armies were divided into two wings (the infantry and cavalry for the Swedes, four infantry and the cossacks, and two infantry and the dragoons for the Russians), with an overall commander for both armies. This captures the basic asymmetry between the two armies which is one of the things that drew me into gaming these armies. The Swedes are heavily outnumbered but should still have the edge – provided that they are aggressive. The battle was played out on a featureless flat table.

The first issue I had was how to adapt to my miniatures. The rules are designed for most of the units to be based on 3 inch (75mm) bases. My units use 20mm square bases, with three for an infantry unit and four for cavalry. These are actually meant to be infantry battalions and cavalry regiments, rather than the brigades of the rules (roughly twice the number of men) – but I glossed over that. I decided to deploy my infantry bases in line, and cavalry units in two by two blocks, and hope that the variation in frontage wouldn’t matter. It didn’t, and the visual effect was good. A trickier problem how to translate the distances – I used them as published. That was a bit of an issue because I was using tiny playing area of about 24 inches by 36 inches. This meant that some of the move distances (especially cavalry) were a bit long – but there was no easy-to-apply conversion factor. As I write I remember that I had made up some rulers marked out in two-thirds inches (“Canadian inches”) to use with Grande Armée – which would have been perfect. But I don’t think these have survived the house move. One of the advantages of having 6mm figures though is that you can use a smaller playing area, so I want to find a way around this in future. My basing system (developed for Gå På!) may be unusual but it is common to put 6mm units on a single base with 60mm frontage – so solving this problem would help more than me!

How did the game play out? The Russians started the game on Hold orders, and the Swedes on Attack. The Swedes tried to focus on the Russian left flank and refuse the right. This might have worked under Gå På! rules, but not with these. In the second turn the Russian right switched to Attack and caught the two of Swedish infantry units as they tried to make their way across, and outflanked them. Meanwhile the Swedish cavalry attacked the Russian dragoons, but one unit stalled and the other only made slow headway. This was when I took the picture above. It was not going well for the Swedes. But slowly they prevailed. One of the left wing Swedish infantry units escaped the outflanking move and charged forward to attack the infantry to its front. Forcing back first one unit and then the next; when the second unit was forced back it had to pass through the disrupted first unit, causing it to rout. Meanwhile the outflanking Russians routed the remaining Swedish infantry unit (the poorer quality one), but effectively lost one of their units as it ran off in pursuit; the other unit had been disordered in the process. The Russian right, facing one Swedish infantry and two cavalry, bogged down their opponents and started to force them back. But then the Swedes renewed their attack and managed to rout one infantry and one dragoon unit. That proved enough to collapse the Russians.

This was an absorbing game and a close fight. The Swedes probably had the edge, but I now see that their army (ex leadership) was worth 1,500 points to the Russians 1,375. Unlike Gå På! leadership did not have much influence on game play, hence the quick switch to attack by the Russians on their right. Whether this is realistic in a bit dubious – there is no activation step for new orders – but it probably helps to create a more enjoyable game. I used the random generator for leadership quality, with the Russians classed as “new” and the Swedes as “professional”. The dice tilted the Russian way and there wasn’t much difference in leadership quality between the two sides. This had very little impact on the game, though, which was surprising. I still don’t understand the difference between an “experienced” and “normal” general in game play. Unless I have missed something 9always possible), leadership quality does not have as much influence on the game as many modern rules.

Overall I found things a bit slower than I expected. I kept having to look things up. It did not help that the game took three separate sessions, the second a few days after the first, the third a full two weeks later, including a holiday. I don’t think the quick reference sheet is all that well designed – and it would help to slim it down for just the troop types within my armies. A second problem was that the rules are quite thin, though the big type and pictures still mean that they are spread over many pages. A lot of issues just aren’t covered, but it can take a bit of a search to realise that. I had to put in place my own interpretations several times, on matters that rule books should be cover, though often don’t. Less is often more, but not always! With a confident games master, though, most of these issues would disappear. This small battle, featuring lots of raw troops, still took quite a few moves more than I expected (I wasn’t counting though – in the region of ten I think, and about five hours). Melée combat quite often got stuck in a draw; even raw units had to be ground down before being destroyed. Some features of the rules jarred at first outing. I found the three stylised orders that each wing is bound to (Hold, Attack, Withdraw) a bit restrictive at first; the Russians on Hold couldn’t send out their cossacks to do a bit of probing. But this made more sense as the game progressed.

The only historical issue I came up with the that it did not reflect Swedish Gå På! tactics well. In attack the Swedish infantry (still pike-armed) only fired a single shot before going in close; the cavalry did not do any prep fire at all, contrary to general practice at the time. In these rules all units fire at each other as they close. I think this calls for some kind of special rule. Swedish cavalry and pike-armed infantry should be allowed to charge attack; when they do so they do not fire before they go in (but must take fire from their opponents) but get a melee advantage, such as an extra die. A further historical issue is that it is hard to reflect Swedish elite (i.e. Guard) units, if their better line ones are classed as Veteran. You can overdo this sort of thing though, and any extra advantage should be quite subtle.

Before I try these rules out again though, I need to prepare my own QR sheet, focused on my GNW troops, and with reduced distances (roughly two-thirds, perhaps using centimetres rather than inches) – and trying to make the layout clearer.

My first article asked whether these rules were an answer to a prayer (to find rules for my GNW figures). The answer is “yes”. All I need now are opportunities to game!

In Deo Veritas – answer to a prayer?

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 unbased. 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!