Thursday, 14 March 2013

Rules & Rivers (or, "The Gordons Get Given a Bath")

Bridge to Nowhere?
Two posts in less than a week.  Someone must have spiked my Chianti.

I have to admit being pleasantly surprised with the amount of nice comments I've been getting about my monastery!  Thanks one and all.   I think a lot of it has to do with just how many gamers of my generation-and even later- recognize the old Airfix HO/OO models. It certainly seemed to touch off some nostalgia in a few of you.

But they were a big part of gaming back in the day.  I'd say 90% of all the wargames I played in my youth were fought over the old Waterloo Farmhouse (the remaining 10% being naval games!), and clearly Airfix products are part of many a wargamer's hobby history.  Mine was trashed years ago as a result of heavy use.  I'd love to get my hands on one again to see what I could do with it now. One day!

I want to share some ideas for the Black Powder rules we have been using for our Napoleonic games.  I have been re-reading my copy of Warlord Games' Perfidious Albion supplement, as well as having read changes posted on various blogs and forums out there, and there are some things I think are worth trying out, or at least talking over with our group here in Tokyo. 

Firing: at the club, we discussed changing the firing sequence so that the enemy gets to fire after movement, rather than the phasing player moving and then firing.  We agreed that is worth a try, but that if we do it should be with a small game at first lest it all goes pear-shaped. We are worried about whether it would lead to too much caution, as one of the nice things about Black Powder is that it encourages bold movements!  We'll see. 

Elite units: the rules allow for designating selected units as Elite at +4.  This means that on a roll of 4 or higher at the start of the Command Phase,  an elite unit will overcome disorder.  We haven't tried this yet (or if we did, we had forgotten about it in the heat of combat), but having a unit or two that could take disorder in stride would be a damned useful thing to have when making an assault.

Ordering actions against "hidden" units:  I frothed about this during last Sunday's game, when a player wanted to charge a cavalry unit with one of his own.  The target unit was placed behind a hill and thus out of sight to the chargers.  While this was perfectly legal in the rules as written, it seemed counter intuitive to me that this should be the case.  

Now, I understand that all wargames feature a degree of suspension of disbelief, and compromises have to be made in order to make it work as a game.  

But it falls outside my own "comfort zone" for commanders to be able to order attacks on units behind hills or in cover; units that would, in the Real World (TM), be hard or well nigh impossible to see, especially given a field covered in black powder smoke, noise, and confusion.   Seeking out "what is on the other side of the hill" is what advanced skirmishers and reconnaissance patrols were for. 

I also think that such a rule as stated prevents players from having to account for and make the best use of the ground, a skill which was (and remains) a large part of the tactical art. 

One tentative solution is this; in cases where an enemy unit which is in cover and/or out of line of sight, and which has not yet fired, and which is more than one move away,  an order to attack can be issued by a commander. 

However, there would be a +1 penalty per move distance to the command roll (so that ordering an action against a target between three and four moves away from the commander would mean +2 to the command roll).  This would mean that if the roll is passed, scouts are assumed to have reported the presence of the target unit to the commanding officer.  Once within one move from the enemy, simply assume that the target is known to all. 

Nothing has been decided yet, we still have to thrash this one out! 

Forming Squares: in Black Powder, units automatically form square when charged.  It has been suggested that more tension can be built into the game by using a rule where non-elite regiments, charged by cavalry from no more than one move distance away, and being charged for the first time in a game, have to pass a roll lower or equal to their morale factor in order to do this successfully.  This would force players into making the decision whether to form square when threatened by the approach of cavalry. 

We would also like to try out the following special rules from Perfidious Albion.  I won't explain them in detail here; if you want to know how they work, buy the supplement!

British: Shrapnel, Gallop at Anything; Steady Line; Cannot Form Attack Column (except in some specified circumstances).

The Steady Line rule in particular seems to reflect a lot more accurately British tactical doctrine of the time against attacks in column.

French: Deploy Dismounted for French dragoons (but this would be most unlikely in large actions, and is more suited for skirmish games); Sharp Shooters (French voltigeurs) Skirmish for elite light infantry. 

The last means that French light infantry battalions that are rated Elite can form skirmish in attack or defense. Historically, French light infantry units are generally considered to have evolved pretty much into line units with a little more self esteem by the time of say, the 1809 campaign.  But allowing whole battalions to skirmish if they are Elite (assuming better training and experience) seems a good way of at least going someway towards dealing with all those nasty, wicked British and Allied riflemen.


Finally, here is a photo report of the game we had way back in January.  Much more satisfying for the French player than last Sunday's debacle (I'm considering hypnosis therapy to purge the experience from my tortured memory), it featured some new terrain, some newly-painted units, and in this case we concocted a workable scenario!

As the game took place two months ago,  I've forgotten some of the details.  Basically, we decided on an Anglo-Allied attack on a small fortification guarding a bridge across a river.  There would be a small French garrison holding the crossing, and an unsuspecting contingent of Bavarian infantry and rifles billeted in a farmhouse on the Allied side of the river.  
I had just finished my new redoubt (my second one now- Borodino here we come!), along with its magazine which can be seen placed behind it. The building behind it at the foot of the bridge is the plastic medieval cottage from the Perrys, and is part of Sada's collection, as is the bridge
The redoubt was built around a polyurethane resin emplacement I bought in Vancouver many, many years ago, and which I brought back with me the last time I visited the Auld Country.  It's the piece in the center of the model.   

The river was a club purchase made by Giovanni.  We were disappointed with it when we opened the box, as the paint was sticky, and had picked up the print from the packing material.  But Giovanni did a fine job on making it table-worthy.  He repainted it brown rather than the original dark blue, and it looks much better for it.  Much more convincing, in fact.
Looking from the French side of the table, towards the area where the Allies would come on from.  In the far distance can be seen the farmhouse where the Bavarians were having their sauerkraut and enjoying a Meerschaum.
Trinken!  Essen!  Singen!
The Allies had two tasks.  Take out the Bavarians, and go on to seize and destroy the redoubts guarding the bridge, by blowing the magazine (a pioneer figure was designated as an engineer contingent, and would accompany the column designated to carry out that part of the Allied plan). 

The French garrison at the crossing consisted of two sleepy battalions of infantry and some dismounted dragoons, who would be activated as soon as the first shot was heard to be fired.
Lots of marshes around the crossing area would restrict movement as well as slowing down troops (not to mention probably leading to an outbreak of malaria amongst the unfortunate garrison).
But lurking off-table were a whole mess of French reserves!  

This was the debut of Sada's French Lancer regiment.
And splendidly painted they were, too!
Likewise Giovanni's new Bavarian Hussars (the ones with the light brown bases).
These would be activated upon receiving a message from an orderly officer, who would be sent galloping off by the French officer commanding the Bavarians at Chez Bratwurst as soon as the Allies opened fire.  

The lucky messenger would be tasked with the great responsibility of riding full-tilt all the way across the table towards French headquarters (that is, the edge of the table on the French side of the river) with the news of the dastardly and unsporting Allied attack
Mon Dieu!  Call for Brigadier Gerard!
"There's some strange noise out there in the woods!"
"Relax.  It's probably just Gefreiter Hartmann taking a wee."

So with everyone in position, and just before dawn, the Allies launch their assault...
...and as the first musket shot cracks out, Brigadier Gerard is called upon to take the vital message back to headquarters; "Send help, fast!"
"I will not fail you, mon cher Colonel!"
The Bavarians man the wall- but it doesn't look good!  But being professional soldiers all, they will sell themselves dearly.

Meanwhile, the brave Brigadier Gerard races towards the river!  Every turn we had to roll to see if he would advance.  Standard command roll, with a command rating of eight.
It would cost one move to cross the river.
Fortunately for our gallant equestrian hero, the Gods were smiling on the French- this was Brigadier Gerard, after all!  A fortuitous roll of the dice resulted in him getting three moves in one turn.  Our plucky, if lucky, bugger even managed to avoid getting bogged down in the marsh in front of the river ford. 

In the space of two complete turns, Gerard had made it back to French headquarters and to a well-earned bottle of the best wine of Suresnes.  Not to mention the wholesome acclamation of his brother officers, all of whom were clearly lost in admiration of the brigadier's prowess as he stood in front of the French general, proud and unbowed in his soiled (but impeccably well-tailored) hussar uniform.  

But what else would one expect of the First Light Cavalryman of France? A true legend in his own mind.
"Brigadier Gerard has done it again, bien sur!"

As icing on the cake, a further roll of the dice dictated that first all the French cavalry, and then all our infantry, would soon be entering the fray.  Now, this meant that the French army was coming on in force a lot earlier than any of us had anticipated, and beads of sweat started to break out on English stiff upper lips.  We Frogs were ecstatic, of course...

While all this is going on the French garrison deploy to protect the crossing at all costs.
A Spearhead of Savage Scots...
All this is small comfort to the Bavarians, who face an unstoppable tide of Prussians and Englishmen, all chomping at the bit for action.
"This does not look promising, Hauptmann..."
And for some reason known only to the Almighty and the colonel of the Scots Greys, the British cavalry dash down the riverside to try to come in through the ford... 
 ...unsupported, hee hee. 

And back at the farmhouse, the inevitable comes to pass as the hapless and beleaguered Bavarians are routed.  First blood to the Allies.
The same move, French infantry race to the ford in an effort to halt the Scots Greys.
And by this time, the French reinforcements begin to appear!  First on is the biggest friggin' horde of cavalry that it has ever been my pleasure to command...
Ah, the drumming of hoof-beats!
...and even more hoof-beats!
The Scots seemed to come up with a novel way of confusing the French, by turning broadsides to them.  Maybe some kind of land-torpedo attack?
Whatever they had in mind clearly didn't work, and the French gleefully empty a few saddles and disorder the cavalry- leaving the luckless horsemen frozen in position.  

Note horde of Gallic equestrian enthusiasts on their way to take part in the fun.  "Jolly rum luck old boy, what?"

And look what else is on the way now...
Meanwhile, the fight hots up at the bridge.  Only one unit can cross at a time, with room for another on either side to fire in support.  But it also means that the French cannot easily make use of their superior numbers in such a confined area.  
Thus began a see-saw battle for control of the crossing, one of the most exciting close-quarter combats I can remember seeing in a game.  A real nail-biter.
The powder magazine, just begging to be set alight.
The misery of the Scots Greys continues as the Bavarian cavalry slams into them, supported by French hussars manfully prepared to fight to the last German.
The Bavarians are thrown back under the fierce blows of the British sabres, but now it is the turn of the French hussars to enter the fray.
"Honestly messieurs, if you want something done well, you have to do it yourself."
"And then there were none..."
...and the Scots Greys leave the field, having had enough.  No doubt they just can't wait for that referendum.

Back at the crossing, and the Gordons launch yet another attack over the bridge, this time to make it to the far side and then to fan out on to the side streets.  This incursion is contested vigorously by the desperate French, and a vicious bayonet fight takes place along the muddy banks of the river.
But the French eventually prevail, and the Ladies from Hell get their knickers wet (assuming they're wearing any) as the French infantry hurl them back into the water- to the accompaniment of much ribaldry and verbal abuse of the most earthy variety.
Still, the enraged Scots reform and come back for more, and this time manage to see off a battalion of now-exhausted French infantry.
And so it went on, attack and counter-attack, rinse and repeat as the French were more than willing to return the favour- with interest. 

The fighting here was eventually to suck in and bleed white much of the French infantry, including the reinforcement battalions.  In effect, a miniature Verdun. 

At about this time the French rolled a command blunder, and the unit of infantry guarding the ford found itself ordered to advance way out in no-man's land, unsupported, just as the Prussians and English were advancing from the farmhouse where they had seen off the Bavarians (having had now stuffed their own knapsacks with abandoned bratwurst and schnapps).
Here the forlorn French paid the supreme sacrifice for their general's folly.  "Dulce et decorum est!Humbug.
A fierce fight now gets underway at the ford, but the numbers are still on the French side.   

The Bavarian cavalry get cocky and cross the river to punish the Prussians for their impertinence, but the Prussians soon see them off.  By this time, the Prussians are building up an enviable reputation for success.
Allied hopes on this flank are rudely dashed when French counter-battery fire sees off the British artillery, allowing the French gunners to concentrate on blasting any Allied infantry that tried getting too close to the fordThe Allies were well aware that being forced to form square too close to the French guns, and being unable to reply, would be a recipe for woe.
Things are rapidly turning to stalemate here, as the overwhelming force of French cavalry supported by infantry and artillery makes an Allied attempt at forcing a crossing at the ford hopeless.  

For their part, the French are reluctant to attack the Allies in turn, as only one unit at a time could get across the ford, all the while under rifle and musket fire.  Not good odds for success either way. 

So both sides at this end of the field now settle down to glare menacingly at one another, and to take fairly ineffectual potshots at each other across the river.

Back at the main crossing, and now more British infantry prepare to assault the bridge.  Market Garden all over again.
The fighting here was truly bitter, and was getting very costly for both sides, but especially for the French.  Many of our beleaguered troops now found themselves caught in deadly crossfires as Allied battalions lined the meandering river bank opposite them, firing steadily into what had become a crowded salient. With our men dropping like flies, the terrain was working in the Allied favour.
But despite the punishment they were dishing out, by this time it was clear the Allied attack had stalled.  Things were by no means all one-sided, and their own battalions were clearly losing steam as they themselves suffered from increasing disorder.  Many battalions had by now taken grievous casualties, with more than a few of them hovering dangerously near their breaking points.

The Allies bore the burden of being the attackers, and it was becoming evident that by now, they lacked the strength and reserves to support any bridgehead that might possibly be gained, especially with all the fresh cavalry and artillery the French had to hand.    

It was time to call it a day.

The French may have been bruised and exhausted, but they still held the vital real estate; the river crossing remained in French hands and the redoubt and magazine were secure.  Success- but at a price! 

I feel that the one really big mistake that the Allied commanders made was to assign too many units for the task of winkling out the Bavarians.  They used four units, plus their only artillery battery, to accomplish this where just two battalions would have served quite adequatelyAfter all, the main objective was the river crossing and its defenses.  

I would have pinned the Bavarians with a few battalions while sending the bulk of the force rapidly towards the bridge in an all-out effort to quickly oust the French garrison before any reinforcements could turn up.  Certainly the 95th Rifles and the artillery would have been much better employed in shooting at the defenders from across the bridge, where they could have caused casualties from outside the French musket range and picked off our artillery crews.  

With the garrison dispersed, the artillery in the redoubt neutralized and the magazine blown, the Allies could then have stopped on the way back from their success to casually mop up the Bavarians, and the day would have been theirs. 

And of course, how would the French have fared without the bravery of the good Brigadier GerardHaving the whole reinforcing mass of French soldiery come in so early in the game clearly crimped the Allied chances of success.   

The brigadier was indeed the hero of the hour, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have had a field day with this episode as a source for one of his wonderful stories.

Great game!  A scenario that actually worked, one that was tactically challenging for both sides, and one where honour was satisfied all round.  One of our most interesting games, I reckon, and a very attractive layout too.

What gaming should be all about.