Another week , another outing for my Big Napoleonic Battles rules at the club. This time I wanted to try something historical. I had already worked out a scenario for the epic Pensinsular battle of Albuera in 1811, so I dusted it down. Unfortunately I brought the wrong box of French, so the French army looked very scrappy, including some ancient Minifigs Old Guard and Union ACW troops in skirmish order. So no pictures.
The scenario was quite stylised. I am avoiding close adherence to the historical terrain and orders of battle. This makes the games quicker to set up and play. The terrain is simplified to essentials, and the units mostly of standard size. However the overall number of bases was close to historical for each side. Apart from the French infantry (using my usual four bases) the unit sizes were smaller than I have used for 1815: three bases. The figure ratio was set at 1,000 infantry per base, less than the 1,250 I am using for 1815, but this reflects the toll the Peninsula took on grand tactical formations. Each of the two British divisions were represented by two units (allowing the Portuguese to be separated in Cole’s division). There was one four-base Spanish unit: Zayas’s division. Not too much distortion was needed with these unit sizes. The French got an extra unit, attributed to the reserves. Alten’s KGL light infantry was merged with Collins’s independent Portuguese brigade.
All the British and French infantry was classed as Veteran, including the KGL/Portuguese unit, and the British (but not the merged unit) were also classed as Aggressive. The two Portuguese units and Zayas were classed as Trained. The other Spanish units were Raw and Fragile, along with the Spanish and Portuguese cavalry. The British cavalry unit was Trained and Aggressive. The French light cavalry units were classed as Veteran, with one (the Polish lancers and 2nd Hussars) also as Aggressive. The two French dragoon units were classed as Trained – the French dragoon arm seems to have had problems in 1811/12 in the Pensinsula. To mimic the command problems on the Allied side, they were given no generals, and the Spanish were additionally classed as Passive. The French had two generals.
As with the original battle the French pushed most of their infantry into a left flank attack, with the lead unit feinting on Albuera village in the centre. Unlike the day the main French attack the Allies had more time to respond, notwithstanding command issues, so the flank was not fully turned, and all the cavalry was thrown into the attack in the centre. This succeeded drawing in British infantry to the centre, where the French held their own, though the sight of two French cavalry units scrapping for the village jarred a bit (the village wasn’t treated as a dense built-up area, so cavalry could operate in it). The Spanish were left holding off the main French onslaught, but were helped by cavalry superiority. By the time we called it a day, the Spanish were holding on, though the fight had lasted only two moves: a longer battle would have been uglier for the Spanish. The French had started to relocate some of their cavalry from the centre to counter the Allied cavalry superiority.
So how did the rules do? Such historical refights need to be judged on three aspects. Scenario design, player performance and the rules themselves. The scenario had one major weakness: it allowed the Allies to react to the French battle plan at least one move earlier than they did historically. Their ability to react needs to be constrained. Also I think Coles’s division is available too early. I was playing closer attention to the French, and their their use of generals and the veteran status meant that the army didn’t suffer too much friction in the early stages. The Allies suffered more, but I’m not sure if it was enough to reflect the historical situation. Perhaps they should all be Passive (with maybe a British general to compensate). I am broadly happy with the troop classifications: if the Spanish were too effective that is a rules problem, as they had nearly the lowest grade possible. On terrain I think it was broadly OK except I don’t think the hills on the Allied side were right, and could do with another look – but the restraint is using club terrain, which does not allow relief to be represented exactly right. I think some way of showing a watershed on the table might be worth considering.
And the players? You can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. If wargamers behave unhistorically on the tabletop there nothing much that rules and scenarios can do about it except nudge them in the right direction. The first unhistorical thing was the way the French threw their cavalry into the centre, leaving the left unsupported against three Allied cavalry units. This followed the way I split the commands, giving both the advance guard and the cavalry to one player, and the rest of the infantry to the other. Each player then focused on their own personal battle rather than the battle as a whole. Historically the French had a strong overall commander, Marshal Soult, and this strong unified command showed in a coherent battle plan. A second issue was that the French threw all their infantry in at once on the left, leaving no reserve. Soult left a substantial reserve which he threw in at the critical point once the initial attack got bogged down. This is a classic wargames issue, exacerbated by the fact it was an evening game with a maximum of five moves. The Allies were no better. A further wargamer issue is that the players are much more aggressive with cavalry than historically. On the Allied side this meant moving units far out to each flank in the hope of taking the attacking units in the rear. This isn’t historical, though the natural response – for the attacker to cover flanks with cavalry certainly is historical, and this would be an effective way of neutralising the tactic. I have noticed the very aggressive cavalry before and I’m not sure what, if anything, to do about it.
And the rules themselves? In terms of the broad sweep my chief concern is that battles don’t evolve quickly enough: each turn is meant to represent an hour, and the battle seems to develop more slowly. In this case I don’t think it was because the players were hesitant. There are two possible culprits: slow movement and combat mechanisms. The move distances are already uncomfortably long for the simplest moves, especially where roads are involved. Of course terrain and command friction can slow things down a lot, but that wasn’t the issue in this game. The big infantry battles perhaps take too many moves to resolve. But given that they are already very dice-heavy you need to resolve in several rounds to the dice a chance to balance out. In an earlier incarnation I added to the losses on both sides in close combats – that might be worth looking at again, so that units are worn down faster (allowing multiple combat rounds may be the best way of doing this). The jury remains out. It is hard to draw out where the rules are at fault rather than the scenarios or players. A key learning from Chris Pringle (author of Bloody Big Battles) is not to rush in to fiddle with the rules to fix every problem.
There are some lesser points that I will add to my list of ongoing issues and modifications. The cavalry had it too easy in the village – and indeed I worry a bit about the way “open villages” work. I think they need to be disadvantaged in this type of terrain (and open woods too). Also what happens when two cavalry units hit an infantry unit? Simultaneous combat , as the rules imply, or sequential, which I think makes more sense? The second unit would benefit form disruption in the infantry (+2), but it will be in square (-2). A more radical thought on combat is to make all multiple attacks sequential – this might help make combats more decisive, but creates problems if units are of different sizes (three and six bases for example). That’s much too radical for now, of course.
Life away from the hobby is going through a busy patch, so I will have limited opportunity to develop further scenarios. But I’m keen to get going. Something that helps is that I have bought some lovely British infantry from another club member, which means that doing Pensinsula scenarios is a more realistic proposition. It is much easier to use Prussians as a stand-in for Portuguese and Spanish rather than British redcoats.