Tag Archives: Napoleonic

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?

John Hussey’s Waterloo Vol I

I’ve just finished reading this book. It is Volume I of 2, so I’d normally wait to read the second book before reviewing here. But it proved too good to wait.

There is no shortage of books on Waterloo. Modern ones are often disappointing, while older ones have their own flaws. John Hussey’s aim is to look at the campaign as a whole, and to get the big picture right. This volume sets the scene in 1814, and covers Napoleon’s return up the the battles of 16 June 1815, at Ligny and Quatre Bras. This does mean taking a look at the what happened and why of the battles, but he avoids a lot of the detail, which is what most books on Waterloo take on.

Mr Hussey is not an academic, but he is a serious historian – which sets him apart from most modern writers on the Napoleonic Wars, who don’t get beyond being hobbyists or controversialists, or both. I like that. I am an avid follower of politics, and studied History in my final year at Cambridge. I enjoy the top-level stuff, along with the military narrative. Mr Hussey handles this confidently. The tensions between the main powers occupies a lot of the book, and some readers might think he overdoes it. There is also a lot on Wellington and Blucher/Gneisenau’s planning for the campaign – again this might be too much for some. But I was left with a very clear appreciation of the agendas of the various parties. By contrast there isn’t so much on Napoleon, after he reaches Paris.

But eventually we get into the meat: the day before the campaign starts (the 14th), and the first two days. Mr Hussey paints a compelling picture of this. The Allied deployment was flawed, because each commander was working to a different agenda. Wellington’s army was deployed in depth, so that he would concentrate his army for the second or third day of the campaign to defend Brussels, the critical objective from his point of view. Wellington’s main error was not picking up the evident signs on the 14th of what Napoleon was up to. He had the intelligence but he didn’t act. Mr Hussey doesn’t get to the bottom of why – but he just seems to have been too busy. The Prussians (and it is hard to distinguish between Blucher and Gneisenau), on the other hand, deployed forwards, with I Corps very close to the border. That pointed to concentration earlier and further forward than Wellington; they were not so bothered about Brussels, but more about their communications with Germany. They did respond to the intelligence (much gathered by Wellington’s men, especially Dornberg in fact) on the 14th, which ultimately allowed them to concentrate three corps at Sombreffe on the second day (their intended concentration point, near Ligny). Their massive mistake on the 14th was not giving clear orders to the fourth and more distant corps (Bulow’s), meaning that it couldn’t be there for another day or two.

Napoleon seems to have understood the weaknesses in the Allies’ deployment, as he so often did, and decided to hit the Prussians first before Wellington could help them. But muddled orders meant that he didn’t concentrate properly, and Gerard’s corps in particular was a day late. One important feature of the Allies’ deployment concerns the main road from Charleroi to Brussels – which went through Gosselies, Quatre Bras, Genappe and Waterloo. At the border up to Gosselies, this was in the Prussian sector; after this it was in the Anglo-Netherlands sector. On the 15th Ziethen, the Prussian I Corps commander, abandoned this road in his hurry to get to Sombreffe, without higher authorisation and without warning Wellington. The road to Brussels was left wide open and Wellington didn’t realise this until very late in the evening, and got quite a shock (“Humbugged, by God!”). He managed to concentrate a large part of his army with remarkable speed to get to Quatre Bras the following day however – this was critical to both cover Brussels and the Prussian flank.

A huge amount of ink has been spilt over two centuries about who is to blame for what in these first days. A lot of it is nonsense. Mr Hussey feels he has to deal with the main controversies (such as what did Wellington promise to the Prussians?). But from a grand tactical perspective the Allies got the better of things. Blucher managed to get three corps to Sombreffe, and significantly outnumbered Napoleon. Wellington stopped two French corps from joining the battle (or strictly one, the other was more a French shot in the foot). The problem was that the Prussians still managed to lose.

One disappointment is that Mr Hussey doesn’t spend much time trying to understand why so many of the French were slow to get going on the morning of the 16th. This delayed the serious fighting to the afternoon. The 15th had been a long and tiring day, but the troops were carrying three days of rations. Was it that distrust between commanders and troops meant that the former did not feel they could push as hard as they might in 1805?

Mr Hussey’s accounts of the battles are quite high level. He gets a decent overall perspective. He doesn’t quite manage to explain how the Prussians lost at Ligny, though he does point to mistakes in their deployment, which he thinks should have been further back – this had been the original plan in fact. How the Prussians lost bothers me, as I want to be able to simulate it on the tabletop. I have conducted a few games based loosely on Ligny, and the problem is always the same: the French are short of infantry, especially since the Prussians are defending built-up areas, which get quite a big bonus under many rules systems (such as Blucher). I suspect that there is a vital aspect of simulating larger battles that is missing from the rules systems – but I haven’t found it yet! Mr Hussey follows the conventional story that Vandamme’s two divisions attacked St Armand from the west, alongside Girard. Personally I’m convinced they came in from the south. But that’s a detail. All that we can say is that Prussian tactical management in this battle was weak, and they fed their reserves in too quickly – whereas Napoleon’s management was masterly.

What if d’Erlon hadn’t backed off when he approached the battlefield in the early evening? Mr Hussey does not address this question. Almost every commentator suggests that the Prussians would have been annihilated – but I think this conventional view needs to be challenged. It was late; the French were tired and the Prussians hadn’t yet exhausted their reserves (which Blucher did as soon as d’Erlon backed off). The Prussians may simply have started their retreat earlier.

The battle of Quatre Bras gets rather more coverage than Ligny (30 pages to 20), which shows up the book’s greater interest in the British story. In a couple of places I don’t think he quite gets it right. In describing the battlefield he misses the hedges to the north of the Gemioncourt stream – which I think are a tactically critical feature, as they blocked cavalry, as well as providing an important obstacle to infantry. Also he describes two charges by Kellerman’s cuirassiers, where most people think there was only one. But, as he says, untangling the sequence of events at this battle is very difficult given the very scrappy nature of the evidence.

There’s not a huge amount for gamers in this book, apart from getting a better understanding of the context, and the controversies surrounding the campaign. But here are some thoughts that the book provoked in me, relevant to gaming:

  • The French corps commanders seem remarkably uncommitted to the cause and hesitant, when confronted with uncertainty, when not directly under Napoleon’s eye. They remind me of what people say about Austrian generals in their earlier encounters with Napoleon. They are more afraid of getting it wrong than keen to do the right thing. Once in the battle French tactical handling (more down to divisional commanders perhaps) was top rate, however.
  • The role of wing commanders under Napoleon (i.e. Ney and Grouchy) was a problem because they lacked staff and proper authority. Ney was initially energetic in pushing the French practically up to Quatre Bras, but seems to have lost his way the following morning. He really needed his corps commanders to be on the ball. How to reflect all this in command systems on the table is an interesting challenge.
  • The command of I and II Corps for the Prussians got very entangled at Ligny. Often brigade-level integrity was lost too. This was function of having so many units in a tight space, and using the nearest units to hand to cover gaps. This again presents a challenge. Something similar, though more deliberate, is evident in Wellington’s army at Waterloo.
  • There is also the question of feeding in reserves to bolster tired units, as opposed to using fresh unit to conduct operations on their own. Both sides used both ways of using reserves at Ligny. Feeding is isn’t well simulated in rules systems, however, which like to deal with brigade or division sized units as a whole.
  • Artillery often seems to be used at longer ranges than the oft-quoted “effective” range of up to 700 paces or so, and had tactically significant effects these longer ranges. I noted this at Wagram too. Also overhead firing played an important role at Ligny (and also significant at Quatre Bras), something that some rules writers suggest was not done.
  • On the subject of artillery, Mr Hussey suggests that the Prussians were outgunned at Ligny, with their grand battery being initially effective but subsequently outclassed by the superior quality of French artillery. I wonder if quality difference was not so important as exhaustion and management of reserves. This is something that Blucher covers well (unlike BUA fighting) and most rules systems don’t. Most rules (including mine) don’t bother with quality differences in artillery – but I do find the issue quite hard to relate to hard evidence as opposed to boastful claims by contemporary commentators, which so often turn out to be based on hot air.

I’m looking forward to volume 2 – though I might read something else from my extensive library of books I haven’t read yet first.

My French Guard infantry

Back to the Napoleonic lead mountain for my next project. This is French Guard infantry circa 1809, using AB 18mm figures. In my original Minifigs army of the 1980s I had a couple of units of French Old Guard. I actually still have them – the only ones left from my French army. As befits Guard troops, I had taken more trouble to paint them than any of my other figures and they look quite smart. But not long after this I decided to upgrade the army with bigger, better figures from other manufacturers. The Guard was included in my schemes. My plan was to have 24 figures representing six types in 1809, with Grenadiers and Chasseurs from each of the Old, Middle and Young Guard. In those days I mounted them in strips of 3 figures, with four to a battalion, so this meant two units of each.

I started the upgrade with the Middle Guard, using AB figures for the Fusilier-Grenadiers and Fusilier-Chasseurs. After this I wanted to do the Young Guard with Tirailleur units. But at that time AB didn’t produce figures for them. Instead I used French light infantry figures, with Middle Guard figures for the drummers, half the officers, and NCOs – how realistic this is I don’t know. For the Tirailleur-Grenadiers this required the addition of a plume on the light infantry figures. I painted up 12 each of the Grenadiers and Chasseurs, leaving the same number unpainted, though converted. That’s where it stayed for more than 20 years, as I was distracted by other things. These 12 bases (in my new format of 6-figure bases) have seen a lot of active service, especially the Young Guard, but with only my diminutive Minifigs to represent the Old Guard, it was a bit of an embarrassment, though the Fusilier units often stood in for them. In 2019 I at last bought the AB Old Guard figures required to complete the project.

What I did this time was four bases each of the Old Guard units, and two each of Young Guard, to complete the original project. Here are the Old Guard:

Grenadiers of the French Guard
Chasseurs of the French Guard

These are represented in parade uniform with black winter gaiters. This is the most popular depiction amongst artists, whom we wargamers tend to follow. I think they would only rarely have looked like this on the battlefield though. In 1809 (presumably after the campaign that year) the Old Guard adopted a service uniform for the field, featuring a surtout and blue trousers, or greatcoats. Before that I expect they wore white gaiters in summer (which I don’t like as it makes them look like ballet dancers), or greatcoats in winter.

I wanted the figures to be reasonably compatible with the original ones., though my painting style has changed quite a bit in the intervening period. I undercoated with white gesso, applied with an airbrush for the first time (I mounted them on strips of card, one for each base). This worked pretty well. Coverage wasn’t perfect, but better than using an aerosol, and without the clouds of droplets. The blue for the uniform came from a mix of Indantherene Blue and Payne’s Grey, as per the originals. My usual go-to dark blue is now Prussian Blue Hue, but back in the day I used Indantherene, which is a bit darker and a touch redder. It’s actually a pretty decent starting point to represent indigo dye, and I bought myself a new tube when the original one died out (it wasn’t one of the everlasting Liquitex paints). For dark brown I used Burnt Umber rather than the more usual Raw Umber; I used this mixed with the blue to get the black. I didn’t mix a little white with everything, as is my current habit, as I didn’t for the old figures – but the primer was a brilliant white, so this helped to lighten things a bit. The rest of the paint choices were unremarkable; the white was Titanium White with a little Burnt Umber; I cooled down the Cadmium Red Hue with a little green; the green was Sap Green with some added blue and a touch of white. I suffered a bit of a disaster after the first painting session, when I left the top off my Stay-Wet palette, letting all the mixes dry out. When I renewed the water I put too much in, which meant that my subsequent paints were all too thin, making things much harder to manage than they should have been. I didn’t attempt quite as much detail as the old figures – no gold buttons for instance. But I did have a go at the moustaches and the gold rings on the muskets.

The AB figures were lovely, making the task much easier and more satisfying than my my Old Glory French Chasseurs. Still there were some gaps. AB don’t attempt the grenade patch on the Grenadiers’ caps, and the cuff flaps (which should be white) were vague and hard to find. I gave up trying to do blob for the former, as it just looked a mess; with the cuff-flaps I did attempt the first few and then gave up. Once the paint was on, I decided to do a wash, as I had for the original figures. I didn’t want to use the usual W+N Peat Brown ink, as this looks awful on white. I experimented with Daler-Rowney Antelope Brown ink (heavily diluted with water), but this stained the white with yellow, so I added quite a bit of black to it. I put it on quite generously; at first application it was too heavy on the white on the front of the figure, but I was able to brush most of this off (it tended to gather in the crotch, which needed attention). I was quite astonished by how much it improved the look of the figures, bringing out the beautiful detail in the mouldings. A wash produces a sharper contrast than the more subtle glaze method, like Quickshade, that I have used a lot. It lines the details more crisply – but it does this without being too cartoonish. Perhaps for 28mm figures the glaze technique works better than a wash, but this is the way to go for my 18mms, with my skill level anyway. I decided not to highlight or varnish.

Meet the Young Guard:

Tirailleur-Grenadiers of the Guard
Tirailleur-Chasseurs of the Guard

The two bases on the viewer’s left are the new ones, the ones on the right are the originals. The new ones are distinctly duller and darker, and the wash used on the originals was plainly a bit browner. But the two should work well enough together on the table. In particular the green on the Chasseurs’ pompoms and plumes doesn’t zing in my new figures (I have the same issue with the Old Guard Chasseurs); this is partly because the paint had become over thinned, and was mainly painted over black, overlapping from the headgear.

A word about the bases. I had rebased the old figures last winter. I used my usual method, with a gunk of acrylic gel with sand and Raw Umber paint to set the figures in. On top of that I put mix of mainly Woodland Scenic flock. I now feel that this combination is a bit dark, and the a lighter colour would show the figures off better. This time I put a bit a bit white in the gunk, with old railway ballast mix in place of the sand. I lightened up the flock mix with the addition of more light olive flock. I put some of this flock mix on the old bases, to reduce the contrast between old and new. The flock was sealed with diluted PVA; it wasn’t dry when I took the pictures, hence bits falling off. The bases themselves are just cut from artists’ paper, with magnetic material stuck underneath. This is much thinner than the modern convention: the magnetic material adds thickness and I wanted to balance this and not raise the figures too high from the table. This carries extreme risk of warping, so there is no water in the gunk (I used to use plaster), and I leave the bases on a metal surface when setting or drying, so that the magnetic strip can hold the base flat.

And now for the Middle Guard:

Fusilier-Grenadiers of the Guard
Fusilier-Chasseurs of the Guard

These are my originals from long ago, rebased last winter. The striking thing about them compared to my new figures is the gleaming white of the lapels and breeches. I used pure white paint, even though it was subjected to a wash. Also the red (and green) is much brighter, again with the use of pure pigment. In each unit half of the figures were painted with a white primer and half black; it is hard to tell the difference from these photos. Perhaps I should consider a little highlighting on the front with pure white on the new Old Guard units to reduce the contrast – but I actually think they look fine on their own.

These units represent the original incarnation of the Middle Guard, although they would be better regarded as Young Guard when they were formed in 1806. They wore shakoes in place of the bearskins, with tall plumes, which, apparently, were worn in the field, along with some Young Guard units. These plumes made quite an impression on British observers in the Peninsula in 1811, but things never got as far as combat. The might-have-been battles at Fuente Guinaldo and Aldea da Ponte, between Wellington and Marmont and Dorsenne (who had the Guard units), would be interesting to try out.

I am not done with French Guard infantry. I have figures for late period Young Guard that I want to paint up. That will be part of a late war French infantry project that is not near the top of the list, though. Finally it seems disrespectful not to show some pictures of my retiring Minifigs Guards. A glimpse into a more innocent age. These old figures might be a little crude by modern standards, but they were crisp and actually include details that eluded the AB figures. The main problem is that they are small, when representing big men.

My French light cavalry

What a year 2020 was! From early March meeting up for wargames became impossible. Trapped at home with social activities drastically curtailed, most hobbyists had a ready outlet – preparing more figures for the tabletop (plus terrain items). Almost all of us have a “lead mountain” (though these days with a large plastic component in most cases) of miniatures waiting to be painted up, so this was a good opportunity. Alas many of us also browsed hobby suppliers online and added to the mountain as well. Hobby manufacturers were doing a roaring trade.

But for me it was different. I had (and have) a substantial lead mountain, but 2020 was the year we chose to move house. In January we readied the house for a sale; in February we were frantically sorting and packing our accumulated 24 years of possessions, and the lead mountain disappeared into boxes. In March we moved out. We had chosen but not legally acquired our new house in rural East Sussex, and lockdown slowed the acquisition process right down; we did not complete until the end of July. In the four month interval we stayed at a friend’s holiday home on the coast, with a small fraction of our possessions, and almost all hobby material in storage. Once we moved into the house the early priority was settling in, and getting on with the myriad of tasks associated with a new home, and then their was a health crisis with my father’s health deteriorated and he passed away (at 96 after a period of deteriorating health). It wasn’t until later in November that I was able to get back to painting miniatures. I have just finished my first lockdown project: upgrading my French light cavalry. This is a report on how the went. Warning: it is quite a long one, as I find it useful to keep a record of the main points – you’d have to be quite deep into the hobby’s obsessions to find most of it interesting!

This project has been a couple of decades in the making. My original Napoleonic armies, back in the 1970s, built up with my brother, were Airfix plastics for Waterloo. In the 1980s I decided to move to 15mm metal figures, with French and Austrian armies, using Minifigs. But I became tired of these fairly quickly – the figures were quite crude – so I decided to upgrade. This was mainly a mix of Old Glory 15s, Battle Honours and AB figures. This upgrade still hasn’t been finished for my Austrians, where my line infantry is still the old Minifigs, and the whole army is in a sorry state. But in a major push I have managed to upgrade the French, mainly with the OGs. While doing this I bought the figures I needed for the light cavalry. In those days OG sold their cavalry in packs of 30, with two sets of command figures. I bought one each of chasseurs and hussars. 12 of the hussars got painted up relatively early, but the rest languished as I was distracted by other projects. My Minifigs chasseurs soldiered on for quite a while but , but eventually I retired them as they were generally the only old Minifigs on the table for the French.

I have been short of French light cavalry ever since. My hussars (painted up as the 8th regiment) did sterling service, joined by a unit of AB Polish lancers and occasionally dragoons making up the difference. The 8th Hussars have green uniforms, so they resembled chasseurs from a distance, and it sort of worked. My main efforts went into upgrading the French infantry. After that the big push was to create an army of 1815 Prussians. while doing so my French cavalry was looking tired. So at the end of 2019 I decided that I really had to find those OG chasseurs and bring them into service. While doing this I found the other 18 hussars (or most of them), and started to think I could paint these up too, and bring in some more visually striking units than my faithful 8th. At this point I was thinking that the way to paint horses was to use large batches without riders (then glue primed riders to their backs and paint these mounted). So I decided to do all the horses in one batch; this morphed into doing all the riders in a single batch too. Normally I do two 8 figure cavalry units in a batch (though for infantry it is usually three 12 figure units). This time I wanted to do three chasseur units (of 8) and one hussar unit. The single hussar unit became two, as I decided to repaint four of my 8th Hussars, bringing it down to my new standard size and giving me an extra unit.

The horses

Many hobbyists struggle with painting horses. Look at the lovingly painted figures in wargames magazines (usually 28mm), and you will often see splendid riders sitting on very flatly painted horses, conforming to no common natural colour pattern. I have had my own struggles, and I still haven’t hit on a technique that I’m really happy with. This time I decided to paint a large batch without riders, with a white primer, and building up layers of relatively thin artists’ acrylic. I divided the group of 36 horses into subgroups: the biggest being bays, then a smaller group of chestnuts and smaller still groups of blacks and greys, with a single dun. I upped the number of blacks when I decided to mount the 4th Hussars on black horses, though four of these were to come from repainting the mounts from the 8th, and not the 36 new ones.

The priming and very first coats were actually done in early January before I realised how incompatible this project was with getting the house ready for sale. With some of the horses I tried a bright orange undercoat. I have long wondered how to paint a horse to get that wonderful glow that some chestnut and bay horses have, so I though that a bright undercoat with layers of. duller paint on top was a possible way to go. It didn’t really work as the coverage of each layer was generally not quite 100%, so there would be tiny patches of bright colour coming through! The process of layering took a long time before I started to get anything that looked satisfactory. what I did learn was that it was easier to put on thin layers of pure pigment, rather than try to mix them in advance, except with a little white maybe. I use artists paints, and the main ones I used were Raw Umber, Raw Sienna and Burnt Umber, with Payne’s Grey for the black and grey, with some Titanium White as required. I also needed to introduce some red, but my Burnt Sienna (the most suitable pigment for this) had given out, so I used some old Venetian Red, which was a bit too bright and had to be used in sparing quantities.

The greys were he hardest. I started all but one with a thin coat of Payne’s Grey (which is actually a decent match for horses’ skin), and then built up lighter grey colours, with a bit of speckling. Grey horses a generally pretty textured, and moving from dark to light (rather than the more usual light to dark) is one way of achieving this. However my white came from a free sample tube, and I don’t think the quality was quite up to scratch. I had to rescue some of the models with a thin layer of Liquitex white. In the end I was more or less happy with the bays and chestnuts, though I did not achieve the glow I wanted, and the blacks were pretty easy (one I painted as a very dark bay, which turned out to be nearly indistinguishable from the others – as in life, as I remember noting from the Horse Guards in Whitehall). The greys, and the dun I was much less happy with, but they were OK to put on the table. I didn’t manage to achieve a proper white horse among the greys – I find these very hard to do; they look quite simple at first, but look closer and you see sort of textures an slight colour variations..

I have another batch of OG horses which I have started to paint in acrylic (bays and chestnuts); I will use these for a batch of Prussian cavalry using acrylic, but my next big experiment on horses is to use oil paint. I did think that doing large batches of horses worked though, especially when being a bit experimental. It’s easier to try different ideas out, though also have to do a lot of repainting. But many layers of paint is supposed to give depth, so I’m not stressed about this.

The chasseurs

9th Chasseurs
13th Chasseurs
16th Chasseurs

I was always going to do three regiments in my new standard unit size of eight. Initially I chose 13th, 16th and 23rd, all serving in Lasalle’s division at Wagram, alongside the 8th Hussars. But the 23rd had capucine facings – a sort of orange-brown. With the 13th having proper orange facings, I thought the contrast wasn’t enough on 15/18mm miniatures. So I picked an alternative colour, I’ve always liked pink, and chose the 9th regiment, which served in Army of Italy in 1809 (including at Wagram) alongside the dragoon regiments in my army. All the cavalry figures were to be painted as at 1809, approximately, since that was how the castings were made. In fact most of my future campaigns are likely to be 1813-1815, but that is a detail! The chasseur uniforms of 1809 were more interesting anyway, especially the trumpeters. I didn’t research the uniforms too heavily, as I wasn’t prepared to go in for head-swaps and other conversions that would doubtless have resulted (though I did exactly this for my French line infantry). So the uniforms are quite generic, based on the regulation facing colours, reversed for the trumpeters. My main priority was to get theses figures table-ready, and to finish in 2020 if possible. I didn’t try much detailing especially in the lower body, which is not so visible on the table.

As usual I used artists’ acrylics (mainly Liquitex). Each colour was mixed for the occasion. The most important colour was the green for the basic uniform. Since taking up artists’ pigments I have struggled with greens more than any other colour. I wanted a slightly blue hue for the chasseurs. The best place to start would have been Hooker’s Green, but my tube from Daler-Rowney had dried up. This is not the first time this has happened recently with Daley-Rowney paint, which I initially put down to poor cap design, but I think may be deeper. I am still using Liquitex and Winsor & Newton paints bought in the 1980s. That left a choice between Sap Green, a well-behaved pigment which is a bit warmer than I was looking for, and Viridian, a bluer green which I had bought following a recommendation form an artists’ book. I chose the latter because it was closer to the bluish hue I was looking for. I immediately regretted it, as it is a thin an nasty paint that needs multiple coats on miniatures. I mixed it with a bit of Venetian red to tone it down, and a little white – which these days I do for all paints I mix.

To finish the figures I used a wash of Winsor & Newton Peat Brown ink. This went on undiluted from the bottle – a little risky but it worked. This has a sightly reddish hue, which worked fine against the green of the uniform, as well as the brown and flesh, but stained the white belts in an unhelpful way; these needed to be restored with some white highlight paint. It was a disaster on the pale grey and roan horses, which I had rescue with some white paint. Apart from these snags the wash lifted the figures beautifully, and brought out the details very nicely. I decided not to try a dry-brush highlighting. I’m not sure this makes enough difference on figures of this scale; I’m often too impatient and start with too much paint on the brush; and it is expensive on brushes. The ink wash left a slight sheen, which I don’t mind on Napoleonic miniatures, and helps bring out the detail (for example the breast buttons on the pictures above, which I had not attempted to pick out in paint). I decided not to try applying varnish either, as I was OK about the sheen from the ink.

The hussars

4th Hussars
5th Hussars
8th Hussars

Hussars are irresistible for collectors of Napoleonic miniatures, with their flamboyant uniforms, and I chose to paint up more units than I will ever be likely to need on the table at one time – simply because I had the castings. I had originally picked the 8th Hussars as this was the hussar unit most engaged in the 1809 campaign against Austria, the main focus of my collection at the time. It turned out to have the dullest uniform of all the French hussar regiments. This was made worse by the fact that I decided to paint the legs in overalls, rather than boots and breeches – the breeches were red. The detailing of the OG casting on the legs is a bit vague, and it wasn’t clear which it was. There was a uniform from this regiment on display in the National Army Museum in Paris, which showed the overalls, so I decided to follow this. As noted above, this unit served as generic light cavalry, frequently standing in for chasseurs, so predominantly green uniform was appropriate.

The first of the new regiments I chose to depict was easy: the 5th. This regiment with its white pelisses, has always been my favourite. My brother and I painted up a unit of this in our original collection, converted from Airfix figures. I now want to replicate all the identifiable regiments from this original collection in my current one, though in this case an earlier uniform will be depicted, as the shakos are in an earlier style (a shame, as I like the later cylindrical shakos for the hussars, and the 5th had them in red). But which other unit? The main candidates were the 4th, which served alongside the 5th in the Waterloo campaign in Pajol’s division, and the 3rd, whose grey and red uniform I have long been attracted to, ever since it was depicted in a film about two feuding French light cavalrymen, whose title I can’t remember [It was The Duellists, directed by Ridley Scott]. But the 3rd wasn’t part of the French army of the Waterloo campaign, and it was in Spain in 1809. What tipped it was when I read that the 4th was mounted on black horses. It is doubtful that the regiment would have been able to sustain such pickiness in wartime (though at least it wasn’t in competition with the heavy cavalry regiments, which loved dark horses, as it would have used smaller mounts), but it was an appealing idea for the table. It also solved a problem about repainting the four the horses from my old 8th Hussars unit – a repaint to black is much easier than trying to replicate my layering technique for bays and chestnuts.

For uniform details I consulted a number of sources, plus googled images. This gave a bewildering number of alternatives and variations for both regiments. In the end I went for a version that was close to Martinet’s depiction in his series of contemporary prints, though not the elaborate officer’s dress uniform shown for the 5th.

The main colours for the 4th were blue and red. The blue is usually depicted as being brighter and richer (a Royal Blue) than the standard infantry uniform blue (or that used by the various French heavy cavalry units, come to that), so I based my colour on Ultramarine, a very bright pigment, compared to my normal Prussian Blue hue (and a bit redder). It needed toning down, though, which I did with raw umber, plus a little bit of white. I also toned down the red (with green from the chasseur uniform, and white). The four newly-painted figures were undercoated in Payne’s Grey, to help them match with the 8th Hussar conversions, which also had a dark undercoat. All of this meant that the figures ended up quite dark (though the blue is nice and rich), so I didn’t think the Peat Brown wash would be strong enough. I decided to use Daler-Rowney black ink instead – but this needed a lot of diluting with water. This worked very well in picking out the lacing on the pelisses (which were done in Yellow Oxide, a close match to Yellow Ochre).

For the 5th I needed a sky blue for the base of the uniform, which was also needed for the facings of the 16th Chasseurs. I tried mixing a bit of white in the deep blue used for the 4th – but this came out a bit on the red side – a distinct hint of an unmilitary violet. It looked OK after mixing in some green; generally the best way of getting sky blues for uniforms is to mix white with Prussian Blue. The white for the pelisse (and in fact all the white elements on all the uniforms) was in fact an off-white made by adding a little Raw Umber in with the white. The yellow lace work was Yellow Oxide again. For the wash I decided to use the diluted black ink I used for the 4th – notwithstanding that these are much lighter figures (including the horses). I had learned that peat brown and white don’t go, and opted for the neutral black. I had to be careful to brush it off the white pelisses as far as I could, but overall it helped to lift the figures a lot.

You may notice that I am trying not to make the colours too bright and contrasty, in order to get a more authentic look. There is no black anywhere (except the ink washes), instead I used Payne’s Grey ( a dark blue-grey) and a more neutral mix of blue and raw umber – in ,most cases with a touch of white in there. Yellow Oxide is not a bright yellow (though better behaved than most yellow pigments, which tend to be thin and runny, like the Viridian). The red is only a bit brighter than a classic brick red. I am still developing these ideas about colour palette. In general I still have a tendency to make them a bit too dark – though in this case that only really applies to the 4th Hussars. This is all part of the adventure of mixing my own colours, rather than going for Vallejo paint-by-numbers, as most hobbyists do.

I have included the remaining eight figures from the 8th Hussars in the photos. These present an interesting contrast to my more recent work. I had only started my journey with artists paints at this point, but I think these were mainly done in Humbrol enamels. There was only one green artist pigment that I was confident with at that stage, which was a bit lighter than the one used here (I used it for my dragoons, painted at about the same time). The horses have a distinct Dark Earth hue – though I was mixing horse colours at this stage, and attempting to distinguish between bay and chestnut. The grey is very flat. My detail work is sharper than it is now, though I did not attempt the waist sashes either then or now (except one or two of the 4th). That clear detailing holds the whole composition up, though, allowing them to hold their heads high compared to my more recent work, in spite of the flatter and denser paintwork. Starting again, the main thing I would do differently (apart from the horses) would be to make the green a bit lighter and brighter. Having said that, the uniform in on display in Paris was very dark.

The Polish lancers

Polish Vistula Legion Lancers

Finally I have pictured the faithful Polish lancer unit. These are later work than my 8th Hussars. They are AB castings, which are much sharper than my OG figures. The men are probably a bit bigger (true 18mm rather than the OGs which are from the period when the 15mm was inflating to 18mm), though the horse aren’t bigger – as befits light cavalry. I much prefer the AB range to OG, though their early French figures aren’t their best (these lancers are later). All ranges tend to improve with time; they usually start wit the standard French types and as a result these tend to be their weakest. That is true of OG too; these French castings (the infantry as well as this light cavalry) are not as good as their later Prussians, which I happily mix in with the ABs. This unit was not my most successful paint job, and one day I might repaint it. The horses are a bit flat and matt; on the men I was too heavy-handed with a white dry brush. I was using a technique recommended in one of the rule books I used, but it didn’t really come off. Still they have a dusty on-campaign look, which is appropriate for the Peninsula theatre where they did their main service. The unit’s greatest triumph was at Albuera in 1811, which has been one of my favourite tabletop battles.

I have 15 OG French lancers, which I intend to bring to the table, though I want to find a way of topping them up to 16 to get two complete units. Another thought is to do a unit of Polish Guard lancers… but that would involve buying more miniatures. For now the priority is to paint what I have.

Basing

Finally came the bases. I wanted to get the bases of all seven units looking consistent. The two old units were mounted on un-flocked plaster painted in a washed-out olive green colour (Humbrol Hemp, I think). All bases are 25mm squares, and have magnetic material underneath. I cut the new bases from thick artists’ paper. This is thinner than the customary mount board or MDF, but with the magnetic material already increasing the height my recent practice is to use thinner mounting material. This means you have to be careful about warping. The gunk I use to set the miniatures in uses no water: acrylic medium mixed with some paint and some old railway ballast material (in place of the sand I usually use, which I hadn’t brought in the move). I let this mix cure with the bases placed on a metal surface, so that the magnetic material ensures they say flat.

The paint was Raw Umber mixed with a bit of white. I used the same paint mix to touch up the base edges, and also the outer parts of the bases on two old units. I then applied flock, which I mixed from a couple of sources. I decided not to try static grass at the edges, as I wanted to develop my application techniques later, and I was in a hurry (it was nearly New Year’s Eve by now). However I did feel the need to apply a further layer of diluted PVA glue to fix the flock, which otherwise leaves a trail wherever the figures go. This was very necessary, as the initial bond was weak, but it did mean that there was a lot of lumping of the flock, which became very uneven. That meant that a lot of the basing material was exposed, as you can see from the pictures. That shouldn’t matter that much as this should resemble bare earth. But the paint mix should have had more white in it, and it all looks a bit dark. The flock is also on the dark side. Overall the bases are acceptable but not great.

Conclusion

This project isn’t properly finished. The standards need flags (which I have bought) and I think the bases could do with more work. I also need to revisit my decision not to highlight and/or varnish. But this project had taken a long time and I wanted to declare victory by 31 December. I will revisit when I do my next batch of 18mm miniatures. This is likely to French Guard infantry.

As usual I wasn’t that happy when I put down the paintbrushes. By this stage in a project you are very familiar with the flaws, and have to draw a line. But, again as usual, I became progressively happier with the outcome afterwards, apart from the bases. The 4th Hussars are just a little too dark I think. But all the units will do fine on the tabletop when this resumes, and are likely to get into action quite quickly.

My main learnings:

  • This project took a long time. Partly because I was rusty and had to unpack various materials, but only partly. The horses might be a bit quicker with improved technique, but the really time-consuming bit was the detailing. I have tried to reduce this as far as possible, but the detailing left is just the sort that has a big impact on the end result. It is these high-contrast features (facings, belts and straps, and so on) that are the making of horse and musket miniatures.
  • Technique on horses needs more work. I need to rethink the approach for greys, especially the paler ones. In due course I want to do a unit of Royal Scots Greys, so this will need to come right. For the bays and chestnuts I need to work more with layers of pure pigment, including the Burnt Sienna that I lacked this time. This will be interesting in oils!
  • Don’t use Viridian again if you can help it. Perhaps tweak Sap Green with some blue, or use Pthalo Green (though this is very bright and will need quite a bit of toning down). Buying a new tube of Hooker’s Green looks a bit wasteful when I have all these other tubes of green on the go.
  • Peat Brown ink is great to use as a wash because it can be used straight from the bottle, though application needs some care to prevent pooling, but not on expanses of white or grey. Otherwise I can use diluted Daler-Rowney Black or Antelope Brown (a yellower hue) ink, which doesn’t seem to mind heavy dilution in water.
  • Basing is a bit of a headache. I need to lighten up the earth colour, but also rethink the flock mix. Static grass isn’t necessary but it may enhance the edges of the base once I’ve improved my application technique.

Nafziger’s 1813 trilogy: a useful resource but a poor history

Back to this blog’s original focus: Napoleonics! My reading about this era has focused mainly on the Waterloo campaign, the Peninsula War (1808 to 1813) and the Austrian campaign of 1809. I have dabbled in other campaigns: Napoleon in Italy 1796/7, Suvarov’s campaign 1799, Marengo 1800, Austerlitz 1805, and Russia 1812. That left a huge gap: the epic Central European campaigns of 1813 (and to a lesser extent the battles in France in 1814). I thought I needed to do something about this, saw an offer on George Nafziger’s three books on the subject, and bought them.

I started the first book, on Lutzen and Bautzen, last year, read the second, centring on the battle of Dresden, during lockdown, and have now finished the third, centring on Leipzig. I have very mixed feelings about the whole experience.

Captain Nafziger is well-known amongst wargamers for his intricate research whose main output is orders of battle for many encounters in Napoleonic and other wars, where he went much deeper than the usual British and French sources. He has also ventured into wider military history, with an account of the 1812 campaign, which I have, and others which I haven’t). Unfortunately his ability to ferret out and absorb multiple sources does not make him a great historian, and this series of books doesn’t show him at his best. His prose is leaden. His editorial choices are rather strange. No detail about which unit was to the left or right of another unit is too small for him to note down, but swathes of more strategic information get left out. His accounts include strings of place names, many of which do not appear on the (usually) sparse maps, and little geographical context is offered. It really is very hard to understand what is going on. The result is that I’m still pretty confused about how the earlier campaign, resulting in the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, unfolded and why things happened as they did. The other books are generally a bit better, but still very hard going. Occasionally there do seem to errors. I found one case of what looked like the same episode being repeated. There are almost no eye-witness quotations to provide context and atmosphere (though in some ways this is a relief: some modern historians give too many undigested eye-witness accounts, and not enough interpretation).

Occasionally Captain Nafziger’s method works. His account of the prelude to Liepzig, the battle of Liebertwolkwitz, is much clearer than the two versions I had previously read (one by Digby Smith). but mostly it is thoroughly confusing. How accurate is all of this? I suspect him of giving too much credence to French accounts of their own prowess, though he does try to be objective. At Bautzen he describes dreadful execution done by French batteries firing across the river. And yet it was very hard to tally these with what he describes as happening to the Allied troops at the other end (which has a single horse battery being forced to retreat, if I remember correctly). There were other cases where praise for the conduct of French commanders is made for achievements that look quite modest. Where French sources are the main ones available, such as for many of the sieges a the end of the book, the accounts are very lopsided.

There is a lack of strategic commentary. Where he provides it, it reads more like thinking aloud than properly-developed argument. Overall there is a very 19th century feel to his commentary. In this era commentators (including military theorists) felt that Napoleon’s early campaigns (from 1796 to 1805 in particular), with their rapid manoeuvre and decisive battles were the epitome of good generalship, and the standard to which all military leaders should aspire. So they are continually critical of Napoleon’s more “lethargic” later campaigns, and have a good laugh at the floundering grand tactical leadership of the Allies. But war was changing, with massed armies, deficient training and stretched officer cadres. You had to fight wars differently. I suspect many of Napoleon’s “errors” can be explained by such considerations, which, for example, did not allow him to expose the logistical centre of Dresden. And, there is a plausible interpretation of the the Allies’ second campaign, masterminded by the Austrian Prince Schwartzenberg, as being one of the most brilliant of the era. There is a more modern flavour to these campaigns, compared to the more 18th Century earlier campaigns. It reminds me rather of the classic comparison of the generalship of Lee and grant in the American Civil War: one seems to look forward and the other back.

What are the takeaways? First I was right about 1813: this is in many ways the pinnacle of the Napoleonic Wars. In a wargamers’ terms (let’s dance lightly over the pain and suffering) this is very rich source of action – with the two sides remarkably well-matched. The sheer scale of it is clearly one of the big problems the author faced in his account. I might very well like to compare this work unfavourably with such masterpieces as Rory Muir’s book on Salamanca, or Eric Gill’s trilogy on the 1809 campaign – but these were much smaller affairs. It is very strange that these epic battles in 1813 are so weakly covered by English-language historians. Captain Nafziger is to be congratulated on taking such a challenge on. The level of detail in this book will make it a useful resource. But I badly need to read a more strategic account to get a clearer idea of what was happening (there are a couple around).

Incidentally, something rather interesting does emerge from wading through the mass of detail: it is how well the Austrians performed, right up to leadership level. I would go as far as to suggest that they were the most aggressive of the troops in the alliance in the second campaign (they were the freshest of the combatants, so this should to be too surprising). This is a far cry from the standard English language account which suggests that they performed poorly because their heart wasn’t in it. Indeed Austrian and Prussian leadership at corps level seems to be every bit as good as that of Napoleon’s veterans, and often better.

There are some mysteries to me that these books throw up, and which my further reading will address. The first is to get some kind of coherent narrative around the first campaign. I don’t buy the standard account that Napoleon outwitted the Allies and had them on the ropes when the armistice was agreed. After all, why then did Napoleon agree to the armistice? There is surely a strategic narrative that tells a rather different tale. Second is why did the Allies accept battle at Dresden when they realised that Napoleon was there in strength, especially when their deployment was so flawed? Third, was Napoleon really so close to crushing the Army of Bohemia after the Allied calamity of Dresden? And finally how close was Napoleon really to achieving victory against the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig?

That last needs to be explored in a wargame. I really don’t understand why this part of the battle isn’t attempted more often by wargamers. It’s big, but so is Borodino. And it has everything – Guard units and cuirassiers aplenty on both sides, and lots of drama. There are lots and lots of other wargames ideas to be found in these books (though I in many cases these will require the finding of much better maps). There are a couple of very interesting smaller battles that caught my eye too.

Conclusion. 1813 is where I need to be directing my future energies on Napoleonic wargames, following the realisation of my Ligny project for 1815.

Albuera 1811: refight for BNB

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.

Big Napoleonic Battles – prototype rules published

Our latest game reaches its climax.

Since my last report we have played two more short games at the club with my new rules, Big Napoleonic Battles (loosely based on Bloody Big Battles). They have settled down enough for me to publish them on the Rules page of this website in pdf.

These rules are a working prototype, which I am calling V0. They should be all you need to play, but there are no pictures or diagrams, and very few examples. While these rules will never be published in the mainstream way, with lots of eye-candy and glossy paper, I might aspire to something with more explanation and perhaps even some scenarios. The model here is again Bloody Big Battles, though I can’t see that I will ever get the rules actually printed and sold for money.

Instead of updating these rules as I think of changes, which I have done a couple of times already, I propose to publish a separate sheet of updates and clarifications, which I can update regularly. That will make things easier for people who have printed the current version, as some of my club colleagues have. These will be consolidated into V1 in due course. At that point I will attempt examples and diagrams.

These rules are by no means perfect, but they give a good club game. My fellow gamers like them – something I take as a considerable complement: we often let go of rules that we find don’t quite work. That has happened with Fistful of TOWs, Battlefront, Rapid Fire and Iron Cross for WW2/Modern, and Altar of Freedom ACW. My next project indeed will be to develop something for my WW2 models! Foe us the rules have to play quickly in a multi-player format, and conform to some degree with how they expect wargames to work.

How realistic are they? I get fed up with claims made by rules promoters that are both simple to pick up and realistic, when they obviously have not been tested against historical reality. The original BBB has been extensively used for historical refights, though typically for battles later in the 19th Century, so it has a fair claim to realism. I can’t yet make the same claim for BNB, as the sort of quick scenarios we can do on club night are rarely historical. I might try out an Albuera game next week, though.

What I can say, as I said last time, there is high variability based on dice throws, making outcomes very unpredictable. I don’t think that is unrealistic, given the vast number of factors that have been abstracted away, but it will irritate some players just as it entertains others.

Do try them out and let me know how you get on!