Tag Archives: Napoleonic

More Prussian landwehr

The two Pomeranian units. The officer o the corner of the font unit is from AB, almost all the rest are Old Glory.

After my WW2 aircraft modelling, I wanted to return to the attack on my lead mountain of Napoleonic 18mm miniatures. This time I experimented with new techniques for a large batch of figures (102) to help make more rapid progress in future. I have painted them up to form four battalions of four bases, painted for two different regiments, from Pomerania and Kurmark (Brandenburg).

For a number of reasons I had far more Old Glory 15s Prussian landwehr infantry in my unpainted pile than I ever really intended. The figures aren’t the finest, and the caps are a bit low. I already had 19 six-figures bases of these done up for Westphalian and Elbe regiments. I have 60 or so of the somewhat nicer AB landwehr miniatures unpainted, which I plan to paint up as Silesians. Still the OG figures are nicely animated and look well enough in bulk – and the Lasalle game system that I have recently acquired is quite expensive in miniatures the way I play it. I could always do a few more more battalions of landwehr. So I thought I would try out some techniques in mass batch painting, on a larger batch than usual. I decided to do four four- base units, from two different regiments, plus one extra base base of Elbe landwehr so that I could top up my current landwehr stock to a full five Lasalle units. Each unit was to have a flag (figure manufacturers are usually over-generous with standard bearers, and I had four spare landwehr flags). Each base was to consist of five ordinary infantrymen, and one “command” figure – standard-bearer, drummer or officer. One of the standard bearers, and two of the officers were AB figures (where I had more than I needed for my Silesians), the rest were OG.

I am not a follower of hobby fashion, and I am ploughing my own furrow on presenting my miniatures. I base them close together on small bases (six infantry on a base 25mm square). The current fashion is for beautifully painted miniatures spaced further apart, sharing bases with rocks, tufts of grass and such. I find photos of the more fashionable 28mm figures based four to a 40mm square base painful to look at (the equivalent of four 18mm figures to one of my 25mm square bases). All contemporary illustrations show infantry in tight-packed masses – tighter than even my basing. Also I often find that the exposed expanse of bases often clash with the terrain board. Of course there is a very good reason that people go for these looser presentations – the painting of the figures is usually of a very high standard, and time-consuming. Looser mounting mean fewer figures to a unit, and the extra space allows the paintwork to be shown off to better advantage. These miniatures always look much better up close and personal than they do en masse and in pictures. I want to achieve the opposite – something that looks better en masse, while requiring less work on each individual figure – something more impressionistic. But I don’t want the miniatures to look terrible up close either, though. My technique had been to paint the figures individually, mounted on strips of card, and then mount them on the bases when they were finished, with the application of flock to the base being the final step. This felt a painfully long process, especially with a batch size of 12 bases (72 miniatures), which I felt to be the minimum to make progress with army building.

This time I decided to mount the figures on the bases much earlier in the process. This wasn’t the first time I have tried this. I did it with my first batch of Prussian line infantry (again 16 bases plus bits), but I didn’t consider it a particular success, as it was hard to paint the figures mounted so close together. I thought it was worth another try. First I primed them by airbrush, using gesso mixed with a bit of black. I then did a quick paint job on the legs below the coat, and some of the feet, and brown on the bases. To get a bit of variation in coat and cap colours I applied an undercoat of dark brown or white on the coats and caps for one figure in six, not including the command figures. This was a bit of a failure on the end result – the variation is hard to see. And then I mounted them on the bases, using the matrix of sand, acrylic medium and paint that I usually use.

And then on to the rest of the painting. The coats were mostly blue (a slightly different mix for each regiment, not that this is very noticeable), with a few brown and grey ones. The caps were black (actually dark grey) for the Kurmark regiment and blue for the Pomeranians. And so on. Predictably the webbing was the hardest – but this is not so prominent on the landwehr, and most of the poses had muskets held close the front of the body, masking the straps. If anything was too hard to reach because of the close packing of the figures, I left it out. I tried to highlight the white cross on the cap front, but not always very successfully; I thought I could rely on the final wash to correct this by highlighting the outline. I could just about reach the collars for the facing colour (red for Kurmark, white for Pomerania), but I did not attempt shoulder straps except for the AB command figures – the straps aren’t moulded properly on the OG figures, and very hard to pick out – their line infantry castings have the same problem. I tried to limit the detailing, but I did paint the gun barrels, as these are very visible. Quite a bit of paint strayed onto neighbouring figures, requiring touching up later. This was basic block painting – nothing clever.

Finally, in order to pick out more detail on the figures I gave them a wash. I’ve tried a number of strategies on this over the years. From acrylic paint and water, to Quickshade, to acrylic ink (sometimes diluted). This time I tried something a bit new again. I had bought some alkyl-based oil painting medium for future use in my aircraft models, to speed up the drying time of the oil paint glazes I have been trying there. I thought I might try this mixed with a bit of oil paint (Payne’s Grey) for the wash. This worked a treat, once the right ratio of paint to medium was found – it needed more than I thought. It dried to a satin finish which was slightly glossier than I normally have, but which helped give the figures depth. And that was the figures finished. No final varnish.

All that remained was to flock the bases. I used the same mix as for my last batch of figures, but it didn’t go especially well. It was impossible not to get flock onto the figures, and not all that easy to brush it off – not helped by the relatively dynamic poses of the figures making them hard to brush. And the flock needed to be sealed with diluted glue once dry, with more risk of flock straying onto the figures. This is a lot of faff for an effect that looks very ordinary. I think I need to try something different. That surely means painting rather than flocking – but I still need to find something textured to cover the bases so that they merge with the basing matrix (without getting onto the legs of the figures!). The base painting would then be directly after this texture is applied and dried, and before the main painting of the figures. Something to think about. With such a density of figures on the base, there is less need to try so hard.

I think the overall result is a success. These aren’t fantastically finished figures, but they are fine on the table. And, though I wouldn’t describe the process of painting them as quick, it felt like a significant improvement on my previous method. The batch of 100 was quite manageable.

The Kurmark units

The Duke of York’s Flanders Campaign – Steve Brown

I have long been curious about Britain’s first campaign in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars – in Flanders in 1793-5. I was curious because I had seen so little written about it. For most people British military history in this era starts with the Maida campaign of 1807 or Moore in Spain 1808-09. There is sometimes a reference to the Anglo-Russian Expedition to North Holland in 1799. How much was the vaunted proficiency of the British army evident before these campaigns, I wondered? So when I saw this history published by Frontline Books, I couldn’t resist it. It proved a most interesting read, and shed light on an episode that wargamers should take more notice of.

The book covers the history of the First Coalition (1793 to 1795) more generally, which I found very useful, before looking at the Flanders campaign in detail. Until near the end, Britain’s contribution to this coalition effort, which was led by the Austrians until they withdrew at the end, was led by Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany, the second son of George III. It was his first experience of military command, but it was the fashion for armies to be led by “princes of the blood”, and this eased relations with coalition allies (the prince was fluent in German and familiar with the dramatis personae of high society in Austria, Prussia and Hanover). Apart from Austria, these allies were Hanover (part of George III’s realm), the Netherlands, and Hesse – with a theoretical contribution by Prussia that failed to materialise. The campaign was a failure for the Allies, mainly because of poor Austrian leadership. This resulted in Austria losing Belgium (as we now call what was then the Austrian Netherlands) to France, followed rapidly by the rest of the Netherlands.

Why did Austrian leadership fail? I didn’t find the book very satisfactory in explaining this. Two main reasons are offered: divergent strategic interests, and outdated strategic doctrines. While these were both doubtless true, I think that Steve Brown fails to explain them properly. What did Austria want to achieve? In the end what undermined Austrian resolve (and that of the Prussians) was a Russian threat to Poland. Was that their worry all along and did that make them hesitate to commit troops deep into France? This idea is not explored. The Austrians were not the only ones guilty of a lack of clear focus – the British government insisted on a diversion to try and take Dunkirk, and diverted troops to campaigns in the West Indies and the Mediterranean. Coalition warfare always struggles when it comes to clarity of objectives – and historians too often moan about this, rather than properly interpreting the conflicting aims. Warfare is politics by other means, after all, and not a be-all and end-all. On outmoded strategic ideas, Mr Brown makes much of the Austrian attachment to the “cordon system”, which let them to disperse forces. This builds on a narrative that was current at the time (the Duke of York himself refers to it), developed later by such writers as Clausewitz, and has been a staple of historians ever since. But that leaves a question: if it was so obviously wrong, why did the Austrians stick with it? If that was actually what they were doing. My main rule of historical analysis is that if you don’t understand how you yourself could have been tempted to take a particular course of action, then you haven’t actually understood it. Nobody defends the cordon system – which means that nobody is taking the trouble to understand what commanders who used it were trying to do. I was not able to pick up a deep enough appreciation of this campaign to develop a view myself. The maps in the book are generally unsatisfactory, and Mr Brown assumes too much knowledge of the local geography.

Mr Brown is a bit better on the tactical details of the battles. These are extremely interesting. There were no great set-pieces along the lines of the Napoleonic period – but rather a series of much more scattered encounters, often relating to the capture of fortresses and strategic towns. The coalition troops fought very well for the most part, with the general exception of the Dutch (whose people were not bought into the defence of royalty and aristocracy). Often Allied troops won out against vastly superior numbers. The French forces were in a state of flux – with elements of the old royal army combining with various flavours of volunteers and conscripts. The French did start to develop tactics that made best use of their advantages – which were mainly numbers – which has been the main historical interest of these campaigns hitherto. This has been dealt with expertly by the late Paddy Griffiths in particular, and this account of the Flanders campaign bears Griffiths out, though it doesn’t dwell on this aspect of the campaign. Griffiths suggested that the French innovations, far from being a new and superior way of war, were developed as a way of using poor quality troops against superior professional armies – and were largely dropped as the French army regained its professionalism under Napoleon. But until I read this book I didn’t appreciate just how effective the coalition troops generally were. The Austrian army was considered the best of the major powers, and their performance in this campaign bears this out (though Mr Brown reckons the Hessians to be the best troops in this campaign). This should provide a lot of interest to wargamers. The two sides provide an interesting contrast. Coalition armies may be nightmare to command, but the variety of troops they incorporate is a wargamer’s delight. And what’s more the coalition’s cavalry arm was very strong – including a substantial British element, featuring Household cavalry, the Union Brigade, and many other units, who had a good campaign. Britain did not field such a strong force of cavalry until 1813, Mr Brown reckons. Of course, the uniforms are totally different to the Napoleonic phase of the wars, but even so this era deserves more attention form the hobby than it gets. If I was in the mood to take on another army-building project, I would be tempted!

As for British tactics, Mr Brown has not much to say – as the British contribution to the coalition effort was not a major one. Many of the British infantry units were freshly raised and of very poor quality. Officers were often inexperienced surplus sons from aristocratic families, who had acquired commissions through purchase. Having said that, the British units generally seem to have fought well enough, using the conventional three-deep line for infantry. They seem to have been used aggressively in bayonet attacks, rather than attempted much with musketry. The Guards units performed well, as well as the cavalry. The weaknesses of the British units was more a question of a loss of discipline off the battlefield, with a lot of looting in particular.

The campaign ended in ignominy, when the Austrians pulled out, and then the French attacked in the winter. The remaining coalition forces were forced into a calamitous retreat where the logistics and discipline broke down and many men were lost. This was doubtless a searing experience for those that were there. And this was something of a Who’s Who of British and Hanoverian officers who were to feature prominently later on, not least of whom was the future Duke of Wellington, who commanded a regiment of infantry. There is an interesting appendix listing these officers who came to prominence later. There are many familiar names on the French side too, such as MacDonald and Vandamme, but most of the famous French names of later were elsewhere. There was another important participant, whom Mr Brown barely gives a mention: Gerhard von Scharnhorst, who served as a staff officer in the Hanoverian army. His experiences of the new French tactics deeply influenced him, and this in turn was very influential in the rebuilding of the Prussian army after 1807.

The Duke of York’s performance was undistinguished, though Mr Brown suggests that much of the criticism he has received is unfair. However, he does suggest that he lacked the gravitas to stamp his authority on an unruly army. He moved on to command the whole British army, where he is reckoned to have done an excellent job, helping to make it become the effective force of the Peninsular campaign. For him, and for the many other British alumni of the campaign, the Flanders episode was a powerful lesson in how not to manage a military campaign. That can certainly been seen in Wellington’s insistence of stern discipline and focused command.

This is an interesting book on an interesting campaign. I think it falls a bit short on the analysis, where it too often follows conventional wisdom, often quoting other historians’ analysis verbatim, and not leaving me with the clarity on events that I had hoped for. The maps are disappointing. But it throws welcome light on an important episode of British military history.

Big Napoleonic battles

A view of a recent Albuera based game with Prussians standing in for Spanish. Albuera is not a big battle by Napoleonic standards, and not all the forces are in view – but it gives some idea of the visual effect I am heading for.

It is one of the strange aspects of Napoleonic wargaming that historically the main focus is on big battles, with over 50,000 men on each side (and on occasions over 150,000 and once double that), while the games themsleves are generally designed to represent much smaller encounters. The January and February issues of Wargames Illustrated feature articles which explore this paradox, from veteran games designers Sam Mustafa and Bill Gray. But my approach to this conundrum is different again from these.

This strange situation is readily explainable. The fashion in the early days was to design games from the bottom up, based on the known capabilities of men, horses and weapons. This led quickly to the basic unit being the battalion, which in turn tied the games to the myriad of accounts of the wars written by the men who took part. There is a lot of drama at this level, and it makes for a cracking game. From a wider perspective it also made a bit more sense than it might first appear: one of the innovations of the age was the use of the division as a manoeuvre element and semi-independent locus of command – and the division was the higher level of organisation around which battalion-based games naturally focused.

So far, so good. But this sort of game makes fighting the big battles, like Waterloo or Borodino impossible without doing strange things – like the practice of “bath-tubbing” – making each battalion stand in for a brigade or division. And the big battles, incorporating the works of the big celebrity generals, like Napoleon, Wellington or Kutusov, are one of the era’s main sources of interest. You are told that you can step in the footsteps of Napoleon, and then given no more than a dozen battalions to play with! It gets worse. One of the attractions of the era is the variety of troop types, and especially elite troops. It’s hard to bring these into an honest division-level game without losing much of the drama that surrounds their use. And you might be able to work in one unit of Imperial Guard, or one of Cuirassiers. But both? And then there are tactics such as massed cavalry or massed artillery that are also very hard to do at divisional level.

And so was born the brigade-unit game. Sam started this with his Grande Armée rules, and then his current Blucher system. Bill did so with his Age of Eagles, based on the Fire and Fury system for US Civil War games. Many gamers are understandably not interested in these systems, so wrapped up are they in the dramas of battalions. It’s simply not Napoleonic without them they say. But for people like me, drawn to the drama of bigger battles, these rules were manna from heaven. For a long time GA, and especially its fast play variant, were my go-to systems. For a number of reasons I outgrew this system, which had weaknesses that Sam himself recognises, and were the reason that he replaced it with Blucher. Meanwhile I developed my own brigade-based system, which I used for my Vitoria game in 2013. These rules were quite innovative – using playing cards instead of dice for example, and did well representing Vitoria, which we played as a four-player game.

But I had a serious problem with brigade games, acknowledged by Bill in his article. The units are too small – and indeed the time interval for a move is too short too – for properly big battles. There are too many units and too many moves to make them accessible either to two players in a day, or to multiple players in an evening – which are the typical formats for most games. This is actually less of an issue with Blucher than Age of Eagles. Blucher is highly abstracted and slick, and a number of its systems are designed to speed up play. I can say similarly for another highly abstracted brigade system – Horse, Foot, Guns by Phil Barker. I have successfully had two player day games with HFG: Salamanca and a stripped back Waterloo (a version that ignores the Prussians but takes out Lobau’s command and the Young Guard). I have played Blucher about three times in evening games with made-up scenarios very loosely based on the core forces at Ligny. But there is something about both the game mechanisms and the look and feel of these games that I don’t like, but that I can’t really articulate. Visually I don’t think they work well with my 15/18mm figures. More seriously they start to get more difficult when the battles get bigger – Salamanca and Waterloo redux are medium-sized battles.

I decided that I had to bite the bullet and use the division as the base unit. Bill says about this: “You lose so many painted miniatures from your visuals that I’d suggestion might as well simply play a board or video game.” Actually the aim is to have the number of miniatures about the equivalent of a normal battalion-based game – say 250-500 a side for 15mm. But he has a point of course – reducing a division of 5,000 men down to a group of 24 miniatures is a stretch. It is probably more tolerable with 6mm or 10mm figures, but that is a road not taken a long time ago for me.

I have encountered two systems with division-sized units. One was by Sam, and based on his GA system. This has a very long distance scale, and large units, represented on standard 2-inch or 3-inch squares. In my one trial game we did Waterloo incorporating most of the Prussian approach march on the table. This produced an interesting game, but it is too scaled down for me. It also suffers many of the faults of the GA system. Then came Bloody Big Battles by Chris Pringle. This is based on Fire and Fury, but is much more scaled up and stripped down than Bill’s game. The system is aimed mainly at mid-19th Century battles, and especially the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. But many have used it for Napoleonic. The scaling was exactly what I was looking for though – with 25/30mm square bases representing 1,000 to 1,500 men each, organised into units of three to six bases, usually. My first trial of the system was a solo game between Prussians and Austrians in the 1866 war, using Napoleonic figures. This gave a cracking game with fortunes swinging back and forth wildly. If I start up in this era – and I’m very tempted to – these are the rules that will use (but I’ll use 10mm or 6mm miniatures). It helps that Chris has produced a whole heap of interesting historical scenarios ready to play.

But, as I’ve said a few times here already, BBB does not transfer well to Napoleonic battles. One reason is that the fighting takes too long to resolve – I think because infantry firing is so restricted without long-range firearms. Second is that the command/activation system is very haphazard, so that things can freeze up too quickly in core parts of the battle. This may represent mid-century wars quite well. Central battle control tended to be weak, while local corps and divisional commanders were more used to taking the initiative than earlier in the century. The randomised activation system models this dispersion well enough, but in Napoleonic times the army command tended to be stronger, but lower levels were weaker. The battle flowed quickly in the areas where the army command focused, but tended to be slower elsewhere. Blucher and HFG model this well (HFG overdoes it in fact) – but not BBB. Finally cavalry was much more important in the earlier era, and its role much more distinct from the infantry.

And so for all these reasons I started the journey of writing my new rules with BBB as the jumping-off point. This has produced a series of false dawns, and I’m still not there yet. Partly inspired by Lasalle 2 I have now finally abandoned the I-go U-go turn system. There are other features that I have copied from these wonderfully designed rules. There will need to be more trials before I have anything fit to release, even as a beta.

But one thing is very clear from my journey so far. You lose a lot of the detail with divisional-sized units, and so rely a lot on random combat factors to give a realistic variety of outcomes. This came home forcefully when I tried a thought experiment of recreating d’Erlon’s attack at Waterloo in terms of my rules. The historical outcomes are all possible within the rules, but the route can be a bit indirect at times. But, of course, if you are going to reduce a big battle into something that two players can play in a day, it follows you have to lose a lot. The high randomisation and abstraction is bound to put many off. But it might draw as many others in.

A trial game with Lasalle II

I have read a number of excellent review of Sam Mustafa’s latest game, an updated version of his Lasalle rules, for Napoleonic divisional level games. So I splashed out and bought a copy. I have just tried it out on a solo game. What are my impressions?

As I have said many times here before, Sam Mustafa is one of the top wargames designers currently in business. His games are always elegantly designed, properly tested and clearly explained. However, since his first Napoleonic game, Grande Armée, I have taken a dislike to his various systems – they just didn’t provide kind of feel of game that I have been looking for. That was the case for his first edition of Lasalle. I found them too abstract and “gamey”. There was too big a gap between the way the game was played, and how battles were actually fought. I am very interested in the historical simulation side of the game, rather than it being just a game for toy soldiers. This is a balance, of course: I don’t have much patience for complex mechanisms and piles of detail these days – so a lot of abstraction is essential. And Sam does pay a great deal of attention to the history. The balance wasn’t quite right for me.

Lasalle II never promised to be more than a highly abstracted game for toy soldiers, albeit one that is heavily grounded in the history. However it intrigued me because I would like to have the option of this sort of system for shorter games and club play – in order to give my miniatures time on the tabletop and provide entertainment. This set of rules looked as if it could fill that gap.

What’s more they can quite easily be adapted for use with my miniatures. These are in 18mm and (mainly) based on 25mm (one inch) squares, with six infantry or two cavalry to each base. Lasalle uses standardised units of four bases (for infantry and cavalry). I thought this would look good with my figures, even though typically shallower bases are used. The most popular base width seems to be 40mm for 18mm figures (and this base width is used for 28mm as well – and for 6mm too, albeit with different base depths!). Like most of Sam’s current systems, all distances are given in base widths (BWs); since 1BW equals an inch, I have no need for specially made rulers.

I don’t want to describe the Lasalle II system here – there are plenty of online resources that do that for those that are interested. Suffice to say that it is everything you might expect from a great games designer like Sam. And it’s very abstract. What I want to do is talk about my game and the particular issues that came up for me.

My test game was based on the trial scenario in the rules, but replacing the Austrians with my Prussians (my beloved Austrian army is in a sad state at the moment). That actually changed things quite a bit. The Austrians don’t have the “Attack Column” trait, but did have some high-class cavalry. My Prussians do have “Attack column”, like the French, but five out of the eight infantry units were Landwehr. I still gave them three cavalry units, but these were bog standard quality dragoons and hussars, with the same characteristics as the two French units, of hussars and chasseurs. But I did get the points to balance! I also had to adapt the table layout so that I could use my Albuera table, which I haven’t taken down yet.

Half way through my game. You can just see the discrete pins that mark the edge of the playing area, and how cramped it is becoming for the advancing Prussians

The game length is meant to be eight moves – but mine ended in the fifth, as the Prussians reached their break point of four units lost. This was mainly because I misread the rules on artillery, so that the longer range “bombardment” fire was using the number of dice for canister “volley” fire. The French quickly set up two batteries together, and blasted away the Prussian horse battery before it could let off a shot, and then trashed one of the Prussian infantry units, which had seized the village, followed by one of the Prussian dragoon units. Both of these units were subsequently finished off by close combat, though the Prussians managed to retake the village, and it took a few moves before the cavalry was finally routed. The one Prussian battery to get going did manage to make a mess of one of of the French infantry units before I realised my mistake – and this was duly polished off by a Landwehr unit. This was all aided by good dice throwing; the third French battery did not manage to achieve much – until later. The final battery (Prussian) was never deployed as this was part of an over-ambitious Prussian turning move and it got crowded out.

The Prussians sent their strongest “brigade”, with two line and two Landwehr infantry, one cavalry unit and a battery, on a big turning manoeuvre, through and round a wood. This succeeded in giving them the initiative (in battle rather than game terms), messing up the French plans, and forcing their left brigade to come to the aid of the right one. But one prolong move was enough for them to swing round their battery just enough to face the threat, while there wasn’t enough table space for the Prussian cavalry to get round the rightmost French infantry unit, which formed square and bottled it up. The Prussians decided to risk everything on a charge on the French battery with its leading Landwehr unit (the same one that had routed the French infantry). Because the French had wisely held their fire, this meant that the Prussians had to endure one round of canister before they could close. With some fine French throwing, this time within the rules as written, they scored four disruptions (all the infantry and cavalry units have a strength rating of six, which is the maximum number of disruptions they can endure). The Landwehr rallied and pressed on – but the rally move succeeded in only pulling back one of the disruptions. The battery stood its ground and beat off the attack, inflicting more disruption. A series of charges by Prussian attack columns on the French infantry were also beaten off, and there was some largely ineffectual musketry between the sides – the musket power of attack columns (and squares) is quite limited. But the musketry did manage to finish off the very battered Landwehr unit, and the Prussians had lost their four units.

That was a fair verdict. The Prussians were running out of steam, and didn’t even have the space to deploy their third battery. Quite apart from misreading the rules on artillery fire, there were a lot of mistakes arising from the lack of familiarity wit the rules. In particular my usual method of rapidly throwing in attack columns without bothering much with musketry didn’t really work – and the congestion problems the Prussians had clearly had their root in unfamiliarity too. But there were a number issues that surprised me a bit, and might not be so obvious from the write-ups you see. These aren’t problems with the system, so much as warnings about how they work.

The first issue was space. One inch to a base width gives you a very compact table. The rules recommend a playing area of 24BW by 36: just two by three feet for me (60 by 90cm). I followed this for my trial game wanting, not to spend too much time in the game in early manoeuvring. That meant the playing area was a bit cramped with the suggested armies (8 infantry 2/3 cavalry and 3 artillery unit a side). Both sides were constrained by the opposite table edge. It didn’t help that my wood and crop field were a bit big – the official trial game would have had them smaller. My bases are quite deep, of course, which made them take up quite a bit of space. One-inch bases are doubtless more typical of 10mm or 6mm miniatures on shallower bases. That would still have led to problems with the table depth – and I didn’t even use the suggested unit labels, which are quite big. But this problem has an obvious solution – I have plenty of space to use a bigger playing area. But if you are using a 40mm BW I would recommend that you have a full 4ft by 6ft playing area (1.2 by 1.6m, rather than 0.96 by 1.44m), and space nearby for the routed units, reinforcements, etc.

A second issue is skirmishers. This is a problem that Sam has struggled with for a long time – they were historically important, but are very hard to represent in game terms without making the whole thing too fiddly. Sam has abstracted them away, so that while they have an important effect on the game, no models on the table. Each infantry unit has a number of skirmish points. These are totalled up at the start of each turn and a die thrown for each (an awful lot of dice incidentally) – a 6 is required to sore a “hit”, and this determines who goes first, and may give you extra “Momentum” (MO) points, which drive the game. This is very clever, and further ideas are incorporated into the advanced rules. I would still like skirmishers to be on the tabletop, even if only as markers. At first I thought that I could put one base on the table for each skirmish point, and just use them as decoration. But there are far too many skirmish points for that, in an already crowded table. One base per hit would be fine, but since these have no significance beyond who goes first and MO points, this looks pointless. In fact one of the Advanced rules does give a role for skirmish markers, and adopting this rule is probably the best thing to do.

A third point is that the rules for built-up areas are too abstracted for my liking. At this sort of scale – one base width is something under 40m – you should be able to differentiate streets from blocks of buildings, and so start to represent how street fighting actually worked (it was almost all on the streets, with buildings used as strongpoints only occasionally – otherwise they were just used by skirmishers). I guess the problem is that most wargamers like to use buildings that are “in scale”, and this means the are far too big to leave enough room for streets. On the plus side built-up areas confer no cover or defence benefits unless the defenders have taken time out to “garrison” the block. This is a much more realistic treatment than you usually see in wargames, though the garrisoning is maybe a bit too easy (just a formation change, albeit one that costs two MO rather than the usual one).

But overall this is an excellent game system, fully justifying the rave reviews I have seen of it. The turn play system – both sides interact without the use of phases or player-turns – is especially clever and works really well. There are intricacies which you can miss on first play, but generally the rules should be very quick to pick up. When I get back to club play (some way off – I haven’t found a nearby club yet in my part of East Sussex), I will certainly be trying to introduce these. They are a great way of getting the miniatures onto the table for a bit of fun. The high level of abstraction means they will not be to many tastes, but they are the basis for an absorbing and entertaining game. And the reference to history is much more than a token one, even if it is highly abstracted.

My latest Albuera game – how did Army rules do?

The allies have re-oriented they army as the French attempt to outflank them

At last another game, as my friend Rob was kind enough to visit! I had to put together a scenario quite quickly – and one that could use Rob’s British and allied Minifigs. I decided on Albuera 1811. It is a battle I know quite well, has plenty of action, and the terrain is relatively straightforward.

I have used this as a scenario at a club game using my big battle rules – but I was concerned that this would not be a big enough game for up to five hours of table time. So I decided to scale down (or up?) the rules to halve my normal figure ratio, so that the main units were brigades rather than divisions. Each infantry base was 600 infantry, 200 cavalry or 8 guns. I have just bought Sam Mustafa’s Lasalle rules, and funnily enough each base corresponds to one the standard-sized units in that ruleset. The only adjustment I made to game play was to extend the artillery bombardment ranges by 3 inches. Developing a version of the rules at this scale is certainly something I want to do, but at this stage I am not thinking too hard about what other changes might be needed. The ground scale is 75% of normal, so that each inch is 112.5m, or 150 paces in contemporary military measurement – over 14 inches to the mile compared to under 11. This meant interpreting the 50% figure ratio as relating to footprint rather than frontage.

The game starts at 8am. The French are lined up along the road from Seville that you can see on the left-hand side of the table. The allies are behind the village, with three units off the table on their way. There is a lot of empty space on the top right of the table. As I was setting up the game I realised that I had made a mistake in my previous versions of the game: the road from Badajoz is the one disappearing off the bottom table edge, rather than the one going off to the right. This is the critical campaign axis and the French objective, and the route along which allied reinforcements were coming. If I had appreciated that I would have shifted the table one foot up to have more space along this road, and less at the under-used far end. That would have crimped the French deployment, but that is surely not a fatal problem.

I chose the set-up because I wanted to give the French player the choice of carrying out the historical flank attack, or of something much more frontal, which tends to be the way the French player goes when I run it as a club game. The problem is that if the French do opt for the flank option, as I did this time, the allies have too much time to reorganise. I tried to give the French a head start, with a free move at the start, though one they couldn’t use to mount an attack, as well as the first move in the next turn. Though the French manoeuvred with impressive speed, the allies had little difficulty in repositioning their army to face the threat though. In practice I think the Spanish allies were harder to move around than they were in this game, when I gave them a -1 on the Activation throw. But there may also be a problem with the battle account that I have been following. The French main army may have deployed from the road before 8am – which was when the firing started.

The first few moves were taken up with manoeuvring, and some skirmishing around the village. These early exchanges did not go well for the French, so I did not press them. The photo shows the situation as the allies more or less completed their repositioning, after about two or three moves. After this the French continued their turning manoeuvre, led by the cavalry, and assembled the artillery in a grand battery. As historically, but in a different position on the field, Zayas’s Spaniards took the first brunt, and were pushed back. The grand battery (not a historical tactic in this battle) successfully caused consternation among Ballesteros’s Spaniards (there were some bad throws), and forced it out of the line. But the British troops plugged the gap, and weathered the artillery without difficulty. The game ended with the French hurling their infantry forward across the line into British and Portuguese troops; I needed some lucky dice, which were not forthcoming. By now it was 5pm, we were tired, our wives were back from a day’s exploring the shops in Lewes, and we called it a day. Here is the situation:

At the end

The Allied line has been bent right back, but the French would have to be very lucky to push the British troops back much further. Some units were looking a little worn, but remarkably few had been knocked out of play (the British heavy dragoons may have been the only one). We had played about 9 turns in roughly four hours. The game had started an hour late because of a navigation mishap by my guest.

The scenario clearly needs more work, but it makes for a good game – even if difficult for the French to win. As the French player I probably needed to get stuck in more quickly with the infantry while the cavalry tried to pressure he flank. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a good way to bypass the Spanish troops so the French run the risk of wearing themselves out on the poor troops before taking on the good ones.

How about the rules? This was a very good test of game play, as all arms got a good look-in and there was opportunity for manoeuvre. More work is needed, unfortunately. The good news as that they played quite quickly, but the combat needs to be more decisive. The armies need to be crumbling at the stage we ended the game. The ability to recover from one or two disruptions may be the issue, rather than the rate at which disruptions are handed out. My new rule mechanism for “pinning” – causing the responding side to “borrow” moves from its following turn – proved a damp squib. I also think the combat and casualty mechanisms need to be more intuitive. Command and control also needs more thought. While the French army moved fast enough, the allied army had it too easy, even with not very strong command resources. The game needs to move a little closer to the “PIP” system where the action follows from command focus, which can’t be across the field. It is probably too easy to get two or three actions on the activation throw without intervention from senior command – but probably OK for one action. One idea that did work was limiting artillery to six shots – this made players think more carefully about how to use guns, and limited the temptation to keep blasting away forever.

I will be thinking hard about revisions to the rules – which also need to be a bit clearer in places. What a long journey rule-writing can be!

Napoleon and the World War of 1813: Lessons in Coalition Warfighting

It’s been a while since I have posted anything. I’ve been reasonably busy on the hobby front, but I’m getting a bit bogged down on improving my terrain – which involves many parallel paths with a rather distant endpoint. Meanwhile I have been reading a bit, and I’m reporting back on this book by Lieutenant-General Jonathan Riley (or J.P. Riley) published back in 2000. I remember reading a review of it in The Economist, and I eventually picked it up at a bookstall in Salute a number of years later; it languished a number more years before I eventually read it. Since my Napoleonic hobby projects are increasingly focusing on 1813, after 1815, it struck me as relevant.

The book is a high level account of three campaigns in 1813: in Central Europe, with the decisive battle of Leipzig, in Spain (with Vitoria as the centrepiece) and in North America, especially in Canada as the War of 1812 played out. The nominal theme of the book is the study of how multinational coalitions work in warfare, where he draws out parallels from later wars, right up to NATO. The coalitions are self-explanatory in the case of the first two campaigns (and include Napoleon’s armies in Central Europe, albeit that the French allies were highly subordinate); in Canada the British side is presented as a coalition between the British government, French and British colonists, and the Native American tribes (which he, back n 2000, is able to call “Indians”, though his account does accord them full respect). The narrative and the commentary on coalitions don’t integrate entirely satisfactorily though – the narrative tends to take over, and it is not especially penetrating on his main subject. I read a very interesting study of coalition fighting a few years ago which was based on a research thesis by an American military academic, which used the Russian-Prussian alliance in 1813 as a case study – and which got much more into the weeds of coalition warfare. It was able to do this because the researcher got behind the mainstream campaign accounts and into some of the telling details. An example was the complaint that Russian generals were a bit too free and easy with exposing their troops to artillery bombardment, according to their Prussian subordinates.

General Riley does hit on some important insights, though, showing features of coalition warfare which military historians tend to present as command failures. It is the nature of coalition warfare that campaigns only continue for as long as common objectives remain agreed. For example as the allied armies reached the Rhine at the end of the year they stopped; some commentators (starting with, at the time, Jomini) regretted this as a wasted opportunity, as Napoleon was vulnerable. But the allies had never agreed to enter France as a coalition, as some members (notably Austria) had reservations about what might happen next – they liked the idea of a reasonably strong France, and were not signed up to a restoration of the Bourbons. The coalition simply had to stop to consider their next move, and see if Napoleon would come to terms. This in turn delayed Wellington’s invasion of France. This is not unlike the first Gulf War after Kuwait was recaptured more easily than many thought. The coalition could not simply proceed to Baghdad.

I was a bit disappointed with the campaign narratives for Central Europe and the Peninsula. The book was never meant to deliver anything special here, but it is very British Old School, based on secondary sources in turn derived primarily from British and French sources. Doubtless this was under the influence of the great historian David Chandler, who contributed the forward. His work was largely where I started my serious history reading back in the 1970s, but we’ve moved on. The Central Europe account is very much centred on Napoleon, with the deliberations of the allies treated very superficially – a big weakness for a book on coalition warfare. I am still none the wiser as to why the allies did not withdraw after the first day of Dresden, for example. And he keeps to the generally accepted story that Napoleon nearly beat the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig, with the day being saved by the intervention of Tsar Alexander. I simply don’t think that Napoleon had enough hours in the day to accomplish what he needed to do to win the battle, and this story has evolved from the typical French historian’s downplaying all Napoleon’s failures. The allied armies of 1813 were very resilient, had plenty of cavalry, and were very hard to beat properly. But I don’t know enough about the events of this day to present a convincing case – or any opinion on the Tsar’s intervention. The focus on Napoleon and the French also brings forward the lack of initiative shown my most of his senior commanders – and this is discussed as a downside of his highly centralised system of command and control. This is fair enough, but the obverse is not commented on. This is that the allied subordinate commanders often showed good judgement and initiative – something that had not been noted earlier in the wars.

I had similar problems with the account of the Peninsular campaign. Here the problem is the tendency to shoehorn the account onto a very standard British stereotype, of the French coming on “in the same old way” at steadfast British infantry, and increasingly steadfast Portuguese and Spanish, with every encounter being on a ridge. I have only researched Vitoria properly, where General Riley does underplay the French tactical successes, without being seriously wrong on the overall narrative. For Sorauren I noted that he did not follow Oman’s somewhat more nuanced narrative, and went for a very old-school version that this was a typical encounter – though I don’t think the overall distortion matters all that much in the end.

General Riley’s account of the War of 1812 was much more interesting, as this was something I knew little about. The actual campaigns are not all that interesting in themselves – though doubtless a good source of small scale encounters of the sort that make interesting wargames without all the difficulties large scale battles bring. The interesting bit was the differing interests of the various groups, from American settlers to Canadians to native Americans. I hadn’t appreciated that one of the big issues that drove the original conflict between the colonies and home government in America was that the colonists wanted freedom to displace the Native Americans – which is why the latter sided with the British. It goes to show just how ethnically-centred the concept of freedom was that drove the American revolution.

Overall this a flawed book that hasn’t aged well; I wouldn’t recommend that anybody buy it. The subject matter is interesting, but we can surely do much better these days. Good military history demands confident coverage of the big stuff – the bigger context and politics – and a willingness to look hard at the small stuff. General Riley does the first part well enough, but is disappointing on the second.

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules 3: combat

One of the last club games with my previous rules, in February 2020. I think it is based on Montmirail 1814

While the game structure on my new rules was falling into place, I needed to rethink the combat mechanisms. What I was looking for was both a period feel and something that players could pick up quickly, with the minimum of referring back to tables and the like.

My old system was inherited from Bloody Big Battles, which in turn adopted the Fire and Fury system. There are two types of combat: firing and assault. Fire combat covered both artillery and small arms fire, and is carried out by each side in two phases – first by the passive player after movement (“Defensive Fire”) followed by the active player (“Offensive Fire”). All firing by the relevant side is resolved simultaneously. Fire points are totalled from all sources on each target, two dice are thrown and totalled (or a single D10 for F&F), and the result looked up in a table; there are no dice modifiers, but there are “column shifts” on the table. Assault combat occurs when units are brought into contact, but not resolved until the end of the turn, after firing, which both sides in the assault participate in. The combat is resolved by each side throwing a die (all dice in BBB are six-sided; F&F uses 10-sided dice), and the modified results being compared. One side always breaks off in some form after the combat, if only by three inches.

I have never been comfortable with this system in the big-battle context, and especially without long-range infantry weapons, for which the BBB game is designed. The narrative fits much smaller encounters and much shorter turns – especially the firing. At the big game level firing was more a matter of exchange than one side firing after the other, and the distinction between close combat and short range firing is artificial. Still I stuck to it because it seemed to work, and rewriting it would be a big job. But now I can’t avoid that rewrite, because of what I am doing do with the game mechanism.

This has proved quite long journey, but I have ended up with something that seems to work, but needs more play testing. I have three forms of combat (plus some special rules for pursuits), which I am calling, for now, bombardment, firefight and assault. Bombardment covers artillery fire at longer ranges – over 3in. This fire most closely resembles the old fire system. It can be used by the active player at the start of his turn in a Bombardment Phase, or when he activates the unit; the responding player can fire too during the active player’s turn. Each time a unit fires it picks up a smoke marker; it may not gather more than two of these in a turn. I also limit ammunition to six rounds – though I may yet drop this if it doesn’t have enough impact on play. Most fire creates a fire zone which troops cannot move through in that turn – but not preparatory fire in the opening Bombardment Phase, which is meant to represent a short burst of rapid fire.

All combat is resolved as being one unit to one unit – but I do allow three artillery units to combine fire on a single target, by allowing up to two supporting units for each attack. Fire, like all combat in my new rules, is resolved by both sides throwing a die. In this case the modified throw of the firer must exceed that of the target; more hits are scored for bigger margins. Funnily enough I found that this method can be crafted to exactly replicate the old fire table in its results. Of course it is easier to combine the fire of several units using the fire points and table method – but that is not so important for my system – and having kept modifiers down to a minimum, this method is now very quick and easy. It helps to strip out short-range artillery fire, which is wrapped up into firefight and assault combat.

I seriously considered whether I could combine short range fire and assault combat into a single system, based on the old assault rules. In the old system fire by infantry units was usually fairly ineffective, and certainly quite random; you would be unlikely to use it as a serious way of engaging the enemy on its own. Infantry firing (and short-range artillery) almost always came as an adjunct to assault. It was in the rules simply to add a bit more depth and complexity to the assault, which otherwise could have had too much hanging on the throw of two dice. But then I reflected that in this era (and later ones too) there were two distinct forms of infantry combat. Apart from the classic close assault, meant to displace the enemy, forces might enter a prolonged fire combat, which would wear down the opposition, but was unlikely to yield quick results. This was tempting for armies whose troops’ morale and training made them less effective at the close quarters fighting. This style of combat should not be confused with the exchange of volleys by formed troops within 100 paces of each other – which for my purposes is another version of close combat. Instead it is what Is often referred to in English as “skirmishing”. But a skirmish implies inconsequential exchanges between small numbers of troops., when in fact it typically involved serious numbers of men over a period of time. I have called it “firefight” for want of a better word – “tirailleur combat” might be better, though it often involved more than tirailleurs – it might include artillery, and sometimes troops in more close-packed formations.

Classic wargames rules, including the BBB system, do not handle firefight combat well. They tend to have one side throwing dice to determine losses on the other side, and the other side doing the same with a separate throw, either at the same time or, as in BBB, sequentially. There are two problems. First, specifically to BBB, the fire is often ineffective, so the whole thing is a pretty pointless. In fact such combats on the grand tactical scale (when troops might blast away for half an hour or often longer) almost always had an impact, though casualties might be relatively light (the shooting was often inaccurate and the target dispersed) – because firing a musket repeatedly is physically exhausting and ammunition was not especially abundant; troops low on ammunition often refused to fight, so this was important. Better troops often prevailed because they did not burn through their ammunition so quickly, rather than because their fire was more accurate. The other big problem is that there is much too much random variation between the effects of fire between the two sides. In fact a lot of the myriad variables that are represented by the dice applied pretty much equally to both sides – visibility, range and length of time engaged in particular.

Firefight combat in my game is resolved by both sides throwing a die, as usual, with same menu of modifiers is the same for both sides. Numbers of participating bases is part of the modifier process, and supporting artillery can be brought in. First the number of hits on the active player is determined, by looking at the responding player’s modified score. This is usually one or two hits; the responding player suffers the same number of hits unless the active player’s score is four points more or less than his. That is a little complicated to describe, but it is quick when you get used to it. The result is a bit boring; both sides usually suffer one or two hits. But that is intentional – the combat is meant to be low-risk, but (usually) a drain on both sides. Of course if one side masses lots of modifiers, the outcome will not be so even.

The mechanism for assault combat is nominally similar to the old one. The result (usually) depends on the difference between the two sides’ scores, but in this one side is forced o disengage. I wanted to do away with the results table, and have a set of simple outcome rules that would replace it, which would be able to handle the differences between infantry, cavalry and artillery. I also wanted to keep dice modifiers to a minimum. One of the complexities of the old system is that of conferring advantage for numerical superiority, which involves counting bases. There is also an advantage for sides in deeper deployments, as well as the a two point advantage for flank attacks, though these were quite strictly defined. Now that combat is reduced to one-to-one encounters between single units, I had the opportunity to rethink this. I took the view that the outcome of this sort of combat was primarily about momentum. Numerical advantage conferred staying power but not much else. This simplifies things dramatically. The modifiers for numerical advantage and deep formations disappear. This is not quite accurate. If a unit had more men, and its opponent had an open flank, it did have the possibility of using its superiority to tactical advantage. I also suspect that there are differences for units that deployed extended or in depth. But it is hard to reflect these ideas without the rules become too fiddly – so I’m keeping it simple for now. I have retained the flank attack modifier, but split it between a +1 for the attacker and -1 for the defender, with a lower threshold for the former.

I have also added outcomes that reflect the absolute size of each side’s score before combat is joined. If the attacker fails to get a positive score, the attack baulks, and the defender is not engaged. If the attacker fails to get a score of 4, then the attack stalls – if the attacker is infantry, then the attack converts to a firefight; if it is cavalry, the attack does not proceed, but the target unit is pinned, which may limit its options in the next turn. On the defence side, if the assault proceeds and the defender fails to achieve a positive score it routs without combat. The 4 threshold for an attack to progress as an assault is a high one – I want to use the same set of thresholds on all my resolution procedures (i.e. 1, 4 and 7) to make them easier to remember. In fact I think it was quite hard to make troops conduct a full-blooded assault.

That’s just an overview. I am quite pleased with the overall design – the process is simple, and yet it yields a wide range of historically plausible outcomes. Whether it achieves my aim of packing more decisive action into each turn is another matter. I have this habit of providing with one hand and taking way with the other.

So that is far as I am going to describe the rules for now. I am pleased that the length of the them has actually been reduced from 14 pages to 13; it was running at 12 until the last series of tweaks. (The text is quite dense and there are no pictures…). I will only know how well they work after further play testing. Until this testing is done I won’t post up on the website. If any reader is interested in reading them before then please contact me in comments.

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules part 1 – scope

The Prussians drive the French back into a rather Mediterranean-looking Plancenoit in my trial game

After a spate of painting this spring and early summer, my energies turned to rule-writing. It proved a much longer and harder road than I expected. But the end result might be very close to my final “Dining Table Napoleon” product. Or it might yet collapse into a heap of broken pieces. I want to take this opportunity explore the choices I had to make and the solutions I have come up with.

But first: what is the game for? As the blurb on my blog suggests, I want to fight big Napoleonic battles. Wagram and Leipzig might be a stretch, but a medium-sized encounter of 30,000-50,000 a side should count as a relatively small game, and a Waterloo (with about 70,000 a side plus 40,000 Prussians) should be quite possible to handle with two players (plus one for the Prussians) on a moderately-sized table. I want to use my 15-18mm figures (while catering for smaller ones) and I also want rules that will be quite easy to pick up and play for occasional players. I want to recreate the ebb and flow of a Napoleonic battle reasonably faithfully, so that game outcomes are historically plausible, and historical outcomes within the bounds of the game’s possibilities. But the game needs to evolve reasonably quickly, with a turn representing about an hour of action.

If that sounds straightforward, we are left with the puzzle of why so few games systems take this on. Only one mainstream system that I know of does: Sam Mustafa’s Blücher. This is a clever system with a lot of interesting features. I played three games with it at the club with my French and Prussians, and the experience was decidedly unsatisfactory. Why? A lot of it was visual. In order to make it fit the table sizes I wanted meant having two bases to a unit, giving 12 infantry figures and four cavalry. This didn’t look right, for reasons that I find hard to pin down – but my fellow club members thought so too. Too few men to a unit? It would have looked better with 10mm or 6mm figures (or bigger bases and a fuller ground scale). Certainly that was true of the cavalry. I also didn’t like uniformity of the unit sizes in this context (as opposed to a smaller game). Other aspects of the rules failed to float my boat too. The rules on built-up areas felt entirely wrong – they became fortresses against which attacking units were dashed in vain, rather than stages for gory and confused fighting that was costly to both sides with frequent changes of fortune. Leaders are not generally represented, and neither is the divisional level of organisation – all for very good games-design reasons, but which spoiled the historical narrative for me. The rules did not handle the Prussians very well. They are a pretty boring army in terms of classic gaming features (elite units, heavy cavalry and so on), while their flexible battlefield organisation, where the battalions from different regiments were mixed up in task groups, did not lend itself to a system where the basic unit is a regiment or small brigade.

So I let Blücher go. In fact I thought that brigade-sized units were not the route to go. This is really the minimum-sized unit for big battle games, unless you have big tables and many players. This is the reason why so few rule systems don’t fit the scope I am looking for. For many players, representing battalions is the essence of Napoleonic wargaming, with classic decisions about line, column and square. I have even read some rather implausible arguments that numbers of battalions determined the effective size and capability of armies more than numbers of men (in fact generals of the time tended to measure army and corps strengths in 1,000s rather than battalions). But even if you reduce battalions to a relatively vestigial role (such as in the very interesting Et Sans Resultât rules) you find you find that a single player can’t control more than a corps. If you want to play with battalions, that is fair enough – but it annoys me when any such battalion-based system claims that it is for big battles, which is often the case. Smaller battles (20,000 or less per side) were quite rare historically, so you are left with refighting a corner of a bigger battle. Or fictional encounters between two corps or reinforced divisions – which, to be fair, can make fun game. With the modern preference for games between smaller forces chosen from army lists, it is not surprising that most Napoloenic rules are based on battalions.

Old school wargamers in the 1970s simply fudged things by scaling down, with each battalion representing a brigade or division, and the table being scaled to fit the battle. But in due course proper brigade-based games were created. I investigated three systems in particular. The first was Volley and Bayonet by Frank Chadwick and Greg Novak, published in 1994. In this system units were represented by square (or sometimes oblong) bases with a standard 3in frontage. The system covered the whole era from the Seven Years War to the Franco-Prussian War. I never played it. The table sizes required for 3in bases was large, and at the time I had few gaming opportunities. But the stripped down nature of the system was inspiring. They also published a very useful scenario book for the 1809 campaign. Next came Age of Eagles. This is based on the ACW Fire and Fury system, a revolutionary set of rules published in the 1990s. Age of Eagles is based on deep historical knowledge, but it is not a stripped down system. The units might be brigades, but they are made up of multiple bases, and perform battalion-like evolutions. I played them once (a recreation of Quatre Bras), but let it go after that. In my view it ia player per corps game – and if you are going down that route I would prefer the vestigial battalions route of ESR. And thirdly there was Sam Mustafa’s Grande Armée and its fast-play derivative. Sam is for my money the best games designer out there, and it showed with this system. Like V+B, its units were brigade represented by squares. The system was based on 3in squares (which gave me a space problem) but I followed the recommended option of 2in squares with special rulers marked in 2/3 inches. This was the system I settled on for many years, using the fast play version with house rules. But a number of features were unsatisfactory, both from a visual point of view, and as a historical representation. Sam moved on and the system gradually became ossified.

This brings me to the 2010s and where I started this blog. I wanted to write my own system. I was focusing on a project to refight Vitoria on its bicentenary. This was definitely a brigade-based battle, and so I keep the brigade-based system using 30-minute moves. These rules are quite clever and innovative (they used playing cards in place of most dice), and they are published on this blog. But Vitoria took all day with four players, though my fellow players were very kind about the rules. Incidentally we did not use my miniatures for this, but my friends 6mm GA bases. This left me the conclusion that I must move forwards to division-based games and one-hour turns.

Divisional-based games do produce headaches, especially for Peninsular War battles, as my Sorauren game showed. But I did have an interesting place to start: Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles. This is not a mainstream commercial system like Blücher with well-produced booklets and player-aids. But it is very well designed and comes with a host of big battle scenarios. The system is based on Fire and Fury, again – but unlike AoE it is properly stripped down. But the big problem is that it is primarily designed for the Franco-Prussian War, and then extended to other campaigns of that era. Small arms ranges were much greater in relation to move distances. But quite a few people used them for Napoleonic games, and so I started out on that path. What worked especially well for me was the way units are built – on variable numbers of bases, based on unit size. I found that this got me much closer to the look I sought than the standard brigade blocks – though trying to use 15mm figures on such a reduced distance scale (1in to 150m) is always going to be a visual challenge.

By this time my journey is well-documented on this blog. At last I was getting regular games as a club member – and the system proved suitable for that. But it was slow going by historical standards, and the cavalry rules did not have the Napoleonic feel. The latter was mainly dealt with when I rewrote them into Big Napoleonic Battles V0, published here, which became our settled rules for club games. But then lockdown hit and I moved away from the club. This year I started to think hard about how to rewrite the rules to address their less satisfactory aspects – notably that a game turn packed less than an hour of action, and so games were going on for too long.

But in a phenomenon that will be very familiar to rules writers, what started as a few tweaks turned into a full-on rewrite and rebalance. To be continued.

Sorauren 1813

The game at start of play from the French lines. The great hill is in the centre, and you can see my representation of the col, defended by a Portuguese unit. n the far right Pack’s division advances.

At last! My first proper live game in 14 months. My friend Rob came over with his Minifigs of British and Portuguese (with some Brunswickers taking the pace of Spanish) to take on my French army. We always base our games on a historical battle, and this time I chose the battle of Sorauren on 28 July 1813.

This is a medium-sized battle with about 30,000 men a side that is very neglected by historians and gamers. Historians seem to lose interest in the Peninsula War (and its appendix in the south of France) after Vitoria in June 1813. To them this was the decisive battle, and everything afterwards was a side show. But in fact there was plenty of drama, and not least in this battle, which is bigger than many earlier battles – comparable in scale of engaged forces to Busaco in 1810, and bigger than Albuera in 1811. This neglect means that there is little information available on the battle. I tried Googling for wargames scenarios and I got back practically nothing – a few games which revealed little historical research. I didn’t have much time to put the scenario together, so mine too suffered inaccuracies. But researching battles is one of the joys of the hobby for me. Even as an amateur historian you can always add a bit of value to received wisdom with just a little careful research and asking the sorts of difficult questions warmers must resolve but historians can gloss over.

So the background: after Vitoria (incidentally my biggest wargaming project and the starting point of this blog – my maps now come top of a Google search!), the French rapidly evacuated Spain outside Catalonia (another neglected wargaming topic, for another day), leaving garrisons in the fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona. Napoleon gave command of the defeated French forces to Nicholas Soult, who reorganised and reinvigorated them with the sort of speed that so often caught France’s opponent’s off guard. He counterattacked, seeing that the allied forces were dispersed. To cut the story short, he massed two corps, those of Clausel and Reille, a few miles from Pamplona after storming through the Pyrenean passes, brushing aside British forces at Roncevalles. The first French forces, Clausel’s corps, arrived on 27 July, but these were not enough to take on the allied forces there, based on the British divisions of Picton and Cole and the Spanish ones of McDonnell (conducting the siege) and Morillo. Reille eventually arrived, but too late to be mobilised fully that day. Soult himself was their together with army level reserves of cavalry and artillery. Also arriving on 27 July was Wellington, who, seeing the threat, immediately summoned reinforcements, of which Pack’s division was the only force within a day’s march. The great man’s presence greatly reassured the allied forces.

I didn’t have much time to research the battle; I was hoping to find something readily available that I could use, notwithstanding imperfections. My first port of call was a booklet by Terence Wise that I had bought for £1.50 in 1977. This was part of the Battles for Wargamers series published by Bellona – I also have the booklet from the same author for Tunisia 1943. The Peninsular War booklet covered the series of battles after Vitoria – mainly Soult’s offensive and Wellington’s counterattack, but also covering Suchet in Catalonia. A nice idea, but the battle map was highly inaccurate (including quite the wrong ground scale) and the narrative was suspect. I went back to good old Oman as my main source. Oman makes mistakes, and he can be irritating in his period way – launching into criticism of the decisions of officers at the time, rather than making much attempt to understand why they took them. But it is proper history, and reasonably transparent about its sources. He also surveyed the ground. Alas few modern authors do this and are more interested in painting a dramatic picture which fits into a broader narrative about the Peninsular War. The only other account I read was that in Lipscombe’s Peninsular War Atlas. This was pretty superficial too. The map is a pretty decent one, though the British forces are depicted as being far too far forward. It does provide additional details on the Spanish, though.

And what about rules? My big wargames project for the last month has been a rewrite of my Big Napoleonic Battles rules to get to a “Version 1”, so succeed my “Version 0” which we used successfully at the club, but which I felt wasn’t right for historical refights. This was a classic case of one idea leading to another, which turned into a radical rewrite, about will I will write separately. I had carried out some small scale trials, simulating the Prussian advance on Plancenoit at Waterloo. but Ithe opportunity of something bigger was too good to miss. These are big battle rules, with divisions being the principal unit – so not all that well suited to the Peninsular War, were the big battles were large fought between brigades of around 2,000 men (as well as Wellington’s habit of deploying individual battalions). The battle is too big for rules based on battalion units (still by far the most popular format) – but one based on brigades, such as Blucher, would have been a more natural choice. That would have been a bigger game though. I would like to find some way of making my big battle rules work in the Peninsula, as a number of battles there could make very good smaller games; so I tried to adapt as best I could.

The most difficult thing about refighting this battle is the terrain. I am a big believer that terrain dictates the course of battles, and that even small details matter. It puzzles me that many historical wargamers seem to take a lax attitude to it – though getting it right is undoubtedly hard work. Which isn’t to say you can’t achieve this with a greatly simplified presentation, just that this requires an understanding of which features were critical. Sorauren was fought over terrain dominated by steep hills. This is tricky for wargamers at the best of time. I didn’t have time to do more than a rushed job of taping some 1in chunks of styrene to the table (in two contour layers) and a couple of thinner bits for lower hills, and throwing my green felt cloth over it. This was completed using paper tape for roads and rivers (painted over with tempera paint) and scattering some buildings and bridges on it. You can see the result in the picture, and its not very pretty. With such steep and complicated hills the time-honoured method of using cloth over formers is problematic. I used map pins, but rumples in the cloth are everywhere.

The central feature of the battle is a large hill referred to by Oman as the Heights of Oricain, but otherwise un-named on the maps, which rises to about 200m above the plain. Wise referred to it as “Cole’s Ridge” – but it isn’t ridge-shaped. This is rather typical of the way historians have tried to bend this battle into the shape of a classic Peninsula reverse slope encounter that historians try to do for all Wellington’s defensive battles. In several important respects I got the terrain wrong, as a close examination of Google Earth revealed afterwards, and these do much to explain some of the deviations of the game from history. If I do this again, I will use more contours, as this is a better way of dealing with many of the important complexities. For most battles two contours is more than enough, but alas not here.

I am also left with the challenge of how to improve the visual appearance of the table. One thing I had in hand is to use a different cloth, or battle mat. The day after the game a new fleece mat from Geek Villain arrived, in their Sicily pattern, designed to represent arid terrain. I had a chance to see how it worked over the formers, though I did not try the pins.

A lot of the same problems emerged as for the felt, as can be seen from the rumples, but the material does fall more easily over the shapes, and the colours are much better. My bête-noire is the over-use of saturated colours in wargames products (like my felt mat) – and this product does not fall into that particular trap. The big question is whether I create the hills to sit on top of the mat, using paint and flock as best as possible to blend in. A point to ponder. Other questions are whether I manufacture lengths of roads and streams to look a bit better than the painted tape – perhaps using caulk. On Google Earth the watercourses are marked by vegetation along their banks, and this may well have been the case at the time – replicating this make make them too wide though.

There does not seem to be too much doubt about the forces involved, fortunately. The only doubt I had concerned the French cavalry. The maps (I also have Fortescue’s – but not his text) show that the French deployed cavalry from Pierre Soult’s division – which did engage with the British hussars on the day, having deployed to the far left of the French positions, alongside Foy’s division of Reille’s corps. P. Soult’s division was in fact a very large cavalry formation, especially by Peninsular standards, with nearly 4,000 men. It is highly unlikely that all of it picked its way across the difficult hill paths to reach the positions shown on the battle maps. I divided this unit into three, and placed one of the sub units with Foy, with the rest backed up along the mountain pass with the artillery. To represent the forces on the table I dropped the normal ratio of 1,250 infantry (or 400 cavalry) to a base to 1,000 (or 333 cavalry), and limited the maximum unit size to four bases rather than six. This reflects the terrain which made it hard for large formations to operate cohesively, as well as the relatively small numbers of the forces involved. Using this system for the French was quite straightforward – each unit was a small division or large brigade. The British infantry divisions were another matter. They typically had 6,000 men organised into three brigades, one of which was Portuguese. The whole division is too big to be a single unit; the brigades are too small. I allowed two units per division, the second unit being Portuguese for Pack and British for Picton. Cole’s division was another matter, as it was reinforced by additional British and Portuguese British brigades, and a couple of Spanish battalions. I represented this formation as four three base units, two British, and one each Portuguese and Spanish.

For the game I chose to start it at midday, an hour before Soult planned to launch his attack, but when the French spotted Pack’s arrival and Clausel responded. In fact I had Pack too far back historically (or I should have started with the British moving first). The objective was for the French to break through to the far side of the table and relieve Pamplona; the game was six turns long. Playing the French, I got nowhere close to this objective, though not radically far from the historical positions. On the their right, the French benefited from Pack’s late arrival, which was compounded by the British component of this formation grinding to a halt due to poor activation throws. The Portuguese took the brunt and the unit was eventually eliminated. But Rob brought forward McDonnell’s Spanish division, which was more than able to to contain the remaining threat. On the French left, Rob could not resist the temptation to use his considerable body of cavalry (which included two fine units of heavies, not actually used on the day), to push forward up the valley. This brought out all of the French cavalry, and I also pushed forward Foy’s infantry. This was eventually reduced to a stalemate, with the French infantry rather battered. Rob then started to move his infantry to the centre to contain the French threat there. Subsequent research showed that this highly unhistorical course of events was shaped by errors in my terrain layout – the river valley was too narrow to take such troop movements while the main heights were being contested. The front of Picton’s position was also more difficult terrain, with a steep slope and a river bed – which would have limited the movement of cavalry.

The main battle was in the centre, as the French tried to take the hill. Cole’s four units looked distinctly vulnerable as they could barely cover the front, against the six French units, some of which were large four-base ones, notwithstanding the steep slopes. It didn’t help I forgot that the British units had a discipline bonus (allowing them to recover more easily from disruption). But once Rob had brought forward the British unit in reserve (Byng’s brigade), the slope was enough to keep the French contained on the British left, while the Portuguese holding the famous col in the centre (inasmuch as anything in this battle is famous) where the slope was not steep, also held their own. But that left two French units to gang up on the Spaniards on the British right. These were pushed back and French breakthrough beckoned. I saw an opportunity to push through to Pamplona; Rob was worried that the French units would turn to take his other units in the rear, where his reserves had been committed. He brought forward Murillo’s Spanish division, which contained the threat to Pamplona.

And there the game concluded. The French objective is pretty much impossible to reach. Even if the battle on the hill had gone better, there was not enough time to get to the other side of the table, especially as there was likely to be some form of last line of defence. It would perhaps have been better to either focus the game on the hill, or perhaps leave a path to victory for the French in destroying a substantial part of the allied army. Not that I had nailed the battle particularly well; I devoted too much strength to the centre, and could easily have deployed an extra unit to the right after the good initial progress there.

Here’s how the game looked at the end:

As the evening approached at the end. Foy’s division on the far left is looking battered, but the French have made good progress on the left of the hill.

It was very good to have a proper live game at last. But it has left me with plenty of food for thought, about the scenario, the appearance of my games, and the rules.

1815 light cavalry for the Prussians

My attack on the lead and plastic mountain continues. For this project I wanted to draw a line under my remaining Old Glory Prussian cavalry. I had two packs of uhlans, with and without czapka, and a mixed pack covering Prussian friekorps, in reality a motley collection of British and Prussian figures from other packs. From these I have painted up five four-base units representing 3rd, 6th and 7th Uhlans, 8th Hussars and 3rd Silesian Landwehr cavalry. These are not outstanding examples of the figure-painters art, and there are minor inaccuracies, as well as the nonsense of that large infantry flag. But they will help to brighten up my 1815 Prussians, who can be a little dull.

The method was to paint the horses first, without riders, in batches depending on horse colour. I’m still developing technique on this. For these I tried oil paint for the first time, having read so many people recommending it. The idea is that you undercoat in white or some bright colour, and apply oil paint (Van Dyck Brown is usually recommended) over it and let it go tacky for about an hour or two. Then gently wipe off the paint with a rag from the raised areas. That leaves a patina of paint on these raised areas but deeper colour in the recesses. and it should dry to a nice off-gloss finish. After some early experiments I restricted this to bay and chestnut horses, which are about 80%. My Payne’s Grey oil paint came out very glossy and hard to work with, and this is what I wanted to use for the black horses. I wasn’t sure how the technique would work for grey and other pale horses anyway. I probably shouldn’t give up on the Payne’s Grey. Some oil medium had separated out and came out of the tube first; I may have mixed too much of this back into the pigment (I’m only using small amounts) – I think excessive oil may be the problem. All the horses were primed in white (using airbrush primer). I painted on Raw Sienna (a lovely orange-brown) and Burnt Sienna (a reddish hue) as undercoat in acrylic for the bays and chestnuts (more of the former for the chestnuts). I also experimented a bit with Yellow Oxide (a Yellow Ochre substitute), but not by itself. Then on went the oil. I rubbed it off after about an hour with a bit of old tee-shirt, better than using kitchen towel or tissue. I used various mixes of Van Dyck Brown, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna, with a little Zinc White mixed in. The results were mostly very nice. The main learning is that it is important that the undercoat and is compatible with the oil layer – if one is yellowish and the other reddish then the effect is rather awkward. While at first I didn’t think the results were markedly superior to my earlier method of using layers of acrylic, the more I handled the figures the more I liked them; I’m not sure what accounts for this.

For the other horses (blacks and greys and a sort-of dun or roan) I used layers of acrylic, starting with Payne’s Grey. I stippled on some white on the some of the greys using the cut down brush I used for the Bf-109. I wasn’t especially happy with these and I think I need to develop technique some more here.

After the horses were painted, I attached riders, ready primed but otherwise unpainted. Nothing particularly special about painting technique to note here. As usual I used muted colours and a bit of white with almost everything. All the figures were finished in a diluted black ink wash. Time to look at each of the units.

3rd Uhlans

This was the only unit in regulation uniform, with a blue overcoat, red collar and grey overalls. My source for the yellow over dark blue pennons was the centjours website, as it was for all my units. The photo might be unimpressive but I was very pleased with the blue of the coats (mixed from Prussian Blue) which had just the right brightness to set off the red and yellow elements nicely. Unlike my rather disappointing dragoons.

6th Ulhans

The 6th Uhlans were based on Lutzow’s freikorps; the unit was led by Lutzow himself and involved in some heavy and critical fighting, in which Lutzow was captured. I painted up the whole unit in the uniform of the first two squadrons; the third squadron had a hussar uniform and the fourth czapkas in place of the shakos. With so few figures in a unit there are limits to the variation that can be accommodated. I used standard uhlan figures, some of which were included in the freikorps pack, allowing me to dispense with standard bearers. The uniform is black with red piping on the collars and overalls and yellow shoulder-boards. Simple but striking.

7th Uhlans

This uniform is again based on the first two squadrons, which were formed from Hellwig’s freikorps. The third squadron, formed from Schill’s freikorps, were in blue British hussar uniforms. I had a rather embarrassing pack of Prussian uhlans with czapka to use up – czapkas were not incorporated into the Prussian uhlan uniform until after 1815. This unit, and the 3rd Silesian Landwehr, were as close as I was going to get, though they had lacing on their tunics – and their red jackets were very striking anyway. One problem with this pack was that it had 16 figures, just enough for two units, but including standard bearers, which Prussian light cavalry did not use. I was able to make a pennon from foil and turn one of them into a regular lancer, based alongside the officer. I did attempt to represent the white lacing with paint, but not very successfully. These are not good quality miniatures – the worst of all my Old Glory Prussians. The regular uhlans aren’t great, but not too bad by comparison.

3rd Silesian Landwehr cavalry

Here are the rest of the uhlans in czapka, this time painted as Silesian Landwehr. Apparently the 3rd regiment captured and appropriated Polish lancers’ uniform in 1813 and were still wearing it in 1815. There is no lacework this time, so the the paint job is more straightforward. This time I decided to use the standard bearer figure as designed. I had lots of spare Silesian landwehr infantry flags (from GMB). This is nonsense of course, as the flag would have been too unwieldy to use. But I thought it would add some visual drama and help mark the unit out as landwehr rather than regulars.

8th Hussars

The 8th Hussars consisted of three squadrons thrown together from different formations: the 2nd Lieb Hussars, the 3rd Hussars and Hellwig’s Friekorps (again). I have represented the first squadron, with its black uniform and death’s head insignia, and the Hellwig’s, in their red British hussar uniform with brown colpack. The figures were from the Freikorps set, originally being Death’s Head hussars and British hussars. The saddle cloths are wrong, but these are the nicest miniatures in the set and fun to paint. Overall it looks as if the British figures are amongst Old Glory’s best in the 15mm range, based on my experience with French and Prussians. Some nice riflemen came with this set too. Making a unit out of two such different uniforms is a bit awkward though, but the but these figures would sit respectably alongside the 6th or 7th Uhlans if I needed and extra base or two.

For the bases I decided to go back to static grass, and risk it sticking to the miniatures. I mount my figures on unfashionably small bases, as I want to represent the close formations the troops actually used, as opposed to the loose files. Most people use 30mm squares rather than 25mm. The bigger bases are better for showing off the paintwork, and they also allow more creativity on the bases. There is not much scope for variations my bases, so they get a uniform layer of flock or grass. No space for tree stumps, bushes, etc. This time I mixed static grass from a variety of sources, including a fair amount of beige. The mixing wasn’t overdone, so there is some variation. The beige helps lighten up the bases, part of my battle against darkness and saturation. I used a different glue this time – “strong artist’s glue”, though still a white liquid like the PVA. I did not dilute it. After plastering on the static grass I turned the assembly upside down and tapped the bottom hard, both to knock off the surplus and straighten out the strands. The results were OK, and better than normal. The strands were nothing like as straight as you can get using a static electricity applicator, but the bases are small and I don’t mind if it looks a bit trampled – it’s in the middle of a moving cavalry unit after all. There wasn’t too much trouble with the strands sticking to the figures, and when try only small amounts worked loose. This is just as well as you can’t seal static grass by plastering on dilute PVA. Overall this means that static grass is a bit less hassle than flock, a little unexpectedly, and it is especially suitable for cavalry.

So that’s all my Old Glory Prussian cavalry done. I have a few spare miniatures which will end their days in the corner of the junk box. I have just one Old Glory cavalry pack left: some 15 French lancers, which I want to turn into two units of 8 somehow. I plan just three more Prussian cavalry units; I have AB figures for one each of hussars and landwehr with British shakoes. I also want some cuirassiers for 1813 and 1814 scenarios, but I haven’t bought these yet. But I still have masses of Old Glory Prussian line and landwehr infantry. Do I have a big drive on painting these up, or do I switch to the more interesting AB figures that are also waiting for paint?