Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Crossing at "El Arroyo Negro"

Somewhere in Spain, 1813...

This was the first of the small Black Powder games we have been having at the club.  In my last post, I explained why we wanted to return to small games for  a while.  So the week before the game I hit my books and surfed the Internet looking for a suitable scenario.

I found one here, on the Warlord Games forum.  While designed for the ACW, I saw no reason why it wouldn't work for Napoleonics.  

The scenario itself was based on the historical action at Blackburn Ford, just before the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.  It seemed just the kind of thing we were looking for; not only was there a small number of units involved, but it was possible for both sides to claim a win given the victory conditions.

It proved a very workable and enjoyable scenario, so thanks to robertrim for sharing it online.

What follows is based on the scenario notes that I sent out to the players the week before the game. These were lifted pretty much directly from robertrim's post on the Warlord forum, and I then reworked them to better suit the Napoleonic period, with some tweaks regarding force composition.
Map showing initial layout.
Terrain:  No buildings, two hills and lots of trees on one side of the river.

Background:  Spain, 1813, and a French brigade commander is assigned to do reconnaissance in force to see if the road to Vitoria is open at El Arroya Negro.  It isn’t; his forces meet as small deployed brigade from a newly-arrived British division. Although his orders were just to recon the area and not to engage, the aggressive French commander forgets his orders and engages anyway.  

This boldness may be rewarded; if, during the fighting his troops spot the rest of the British division, upon hearing this news the French army commander would then decide to alter his plan of march the next day to then try and outflank the British forces.   

So what is it to be, Hero or Goat? 

Scenario: We would ideally need three GW gaming mats, but two would do if space is a problem. There is a river running across the centre of the table; it is fordable in the middle. 

Order of Battle: 

French: one infantry brigade: 
  • 4 battalions (untried, freshly raised fourth battalions*)
  • 1 artillery battery
  • 1 battalion of infantry in reserve with the brigadier.  Reliable.
Command rating 7.  Note that the voltigeur companies can be converged into one unit, if desired. 

British: one infantry brigade:
  • 2 regiments (untried, freshly raised* newly arrived to the Peninsula)
  • 1 Light infantry battalion (small) crack
  • 1 artillery battery
Command rating 8
British Divisional HQ: command stand with 1 regiment reliable infantry.
Command rating 7 

* See Black Powder rules p.90/91 

Set up:  The French will deploy 4 regiments in column formation on their side of the ford. The battery is deployed on the hill (foot artillery).

The British battery is deployed on the other hill.

The British commander will deploy one regiment in skirmish formation within the tree line behind the hill. The other regiments are deployed in line behind the tree line

Objectives:  The French must reach the British side to see if the British army has arrived. The French will at first assume it is just an outpost defending the crossing.  If he spots the approaching division (the army commander stand) he will know this is part of a bigger force and will have to report this to his HQ. 

French strategic victory: At least one regiment spots the enemy and is able to reach the French side of the river in non-disordered and non-shaken condition.  Once a regiment reaches the French side within these conditions the strategic victory will be won, but the game continues. 

French tactical victory:  They break the British before their own brigade breaks.

British strategic victory: The French are not able to spot the enemy and/or is not able to carry the message home.

British tactical victory: They break the French brigade. 

Special rules:  To the rescue! The British divisional command stand and its supporting infantry arrive at the table at the end of turn 6 on the road leading down to the ford.  The unit will be placed at the table edge. The next turn he may freely move and participate in the battle.

Spotted: A French unit on the British side of the table within 24” from the British reserve regiment, which is able to draw a line from it’s commander to the British divisional commander stand, without any obstacles (trees, regiments, hills) in the way will spot early and may take the message home.

Fording: As soon as a unit touches the ford it may be positioned on the other side in the same formation as entered. The unit will become disordered and will stay disordered until the end of the next turn. 

Surprise: The French are not expecting any opposition and would be completely surprised. The very first volley of his brigade will -2 from the firing dice (excluding the cannon)

The game ends one full turn after all French regiments left on the table are returned to the French side of the river.  



First of all, apologies for the poor quality of my photos.  I forgot my digital camera and was relying on my less-than-stellar cellphone camera.  On top of that we were in the worst room in terms of photography, with dim lighting and the spring sunlight streaming through the windows.

You can see more (and better!) pictures on Sada's own write up of the battle here.
Sada uncrates the lads.  Note his new tree stands, which added a lot to the game.
Views from the French side of the table.

Les Grands Fromages confer...
Giovanni's latest unit, the Tirailleurs du Po.  His homage to his home team, which were to perform creditably on the day of battle.
Set off by a gorgeous GMB flag.  Figures themselves are Victrix.
British guns, which were well-sited to cover the river crossing.
What would a game be without those great dashers of French dreams, the Sweeps?
I did say it was a small game!  These two battalions were tasked with holding off the French horde.  They were to do so magnificently.

Before the game, Guillaume (himself an alumnus of a very distinguished French wargaming club) played a game of Saga with Giovanni.  They had also bagged one of our usual GW battlemats, so we played the game on a darker green felt cloth that we usually use for our WW2 games.  It did the job, although it made taking pictures more difficult due to the colour contrast.
The whole British force available at the start of the game.
The game got off to a roaring start, but not as planned.  One French battalion received order to go straight ahead to the river, which they did with great speed, rolling for three actions.  

Unfortunately, their more cautious comrades managed to fail their command rolls, leaving the leading battalion alone and unsupported.  The difficulties of trying to deliver a coordinated attack was to bedevil the French commanders throughout the game.
Ever so slowly, the rest of the brigade advances piecemeal.
The lead battalion is met by accurate rifle fire, delivered from the safety of the opposite side of the river.
Unsupported outgunned, outranged, & outraged...
Attempts to form column and charge across the ford are stymied by casualties and disorder.
It all proves to much, and the regiment dissolves in panic- and in disgust. 'L'enfer, c'est les autres!"
As luck would have it, the supports finally arrive, but too late.  This evens the odds a bit for the British.
Recriminations and slurs ensue as the French try to recover the situation
I was sitting this game out as I was the umpire, but it was interesting hearing Guillaume and Giovanni assess the situation in French!  Contributed to the atmosphere.
Turn 6, and British reinforcements arrive- well out of sight of the French, who were really struggling to find a way across the river.
This was where we discovered a glitch with the scenario which I hadn't foreseen.  The scenario rules have French spend one move in disorder having crossed the river.  

However, the way we play Black Powder is that at the beginning of every new turn we roll to see which side gets the initiative.  This is a straight up die roll independent of command ratings, and the British were consistently winning this roll.  As a result, the French would effectively find themselves just standing stupidly in the middle of the river and get shot at for two phases, which effectively meant they spent much of their time unable to change formation or to clear the ford.

This needed a rethink and quick change to that part of the scenario rules.
The British go Sumo; just push the blighters back into the river!  Close contact prevented them from being shot at by the French supports.  It was a good tactic.
Sada and Chris handled their British assets with caution- and good sense.
The first French unit that tried to cross the river was sent packing, but the French had by now realized that the way ahead was to make use of their superior numbers, and to rely on overpowering musketry to clear the way.  

They also decided that their artillery would serve them best by being redeployed further forward.  This was a good idea, but came too late in the game to make any impact.  Moving forward took time and needed favorable command rolls.
Too little, too late!
The impact of this change in tactics soon made itself felt, and the British found themselves short two units as the Rifles and a line unit crumbled under the French fire.  The British player was left just with his artillery and two line units.  By now the French had started getting their act together, and were beginning to gain the upper hand. 

However, our available time was running out; although half of a British brigade had been destroyed, the French had so far failed to spot the approaching divisional supports.  There was not enough moves in hand for the French to force the crossing and then locate the British divisional command stand, let alone to get back across the river.  

A halt was duly called, and although tactically indecisive for both sides it ended up a British strategic victory. The French army was fated to march unwittingly into the disaster of Vitoria.

Despite a few glitches, (and our forgetting the first fire special rules in the heat of combat), the scenario went well and was a nail-biter throughout; there isn't much margin of error for either side.  

The challenge to the French is coordinating an attack- not easy with a less-than-stellar command rating.  If they succeed, they are pretty much guaranteed of overpowering the weak British brigade in front of them.  

But the need to spot the British reserves means that just beating les Rosbifs is not enough- they have to get over the river, spot the approaching division, and make their way back to the other side in order to gain a strategic win.  This takes time (and favourable dice rolls in the command phase), so they have to get there "fastest with the mostest"- without getting too much of a bloody nose in the process.

For the British, it is a case of trying to frustrate French efforts without taking too many casualties!  Damage or disorder as many of the enemy at long range, and buy time with (enemy!) lives.

Intelligent use of skirmishers, and keeping the artillery protected behind the hill while at the same time covering the crossing at a safe distance, can make the difference.  A good dose o' luck never hurts either.


The week after the game, Giovanni and I headed to Akihabara where Japan's first historical wargaming store had opened!  
Kazuhiro (seen here) is now the Warlord Games' sales representative for Japan, and has just set up a Warlord Games shop.  He is in partnership with Arrow Hobbies, who previously dealt only with GW and other fantasy gaming products.
So if you have an interest in Warlord Games' products, and should you ever find yourself in Tokyo and that capital of all things otaku, Akihabara, do drop by and give Kazu your support. 

And of course, be sure to contact the West Tokyo Wargamers should your visit coincide with one of our gaming days!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Les limites de la Gloire?

Still catching up with reports of games past.  Here is a selection of photos from a game we had way back on December 1st last year.   I thought I may have lost them all in a hard drive crash a few months ago, but it turns out they survived.

A motley host of dour Germanic and hot-blooded Mediterranean types.
Rifles prepare to defend a bridge.
Russians sent to destabilize the Confederation.
I keep meaning to paint these bases!
The French guns didn't see as much action as they would have liked, mostly due to a lack of clear targets.
French shock cavalry.  This was to be their best day to date.
Poor (i.e. nonexistent) scenario design;  Allied cavalry placed in an unintended cul-de-sac.
Giovanni passes on advice based on his extensive tactical acumen to a newcomer.  This would have taken all of ten seconds...
The Fickle Finger of Fate: "You there, go see what's on the other side of that hedge!"
"Maneuver be damned- straight at 'em, mes braves!"
Horse, Foot & Guns
"Traffic is expected to be heavy on the main roads this weekend, so plan accordingly"
The ultimate target-rich environment.
Gen. Sparre was to lead his brigade of Cuirassiers and Lancers to great glory this day!
An exposed flank!
Redcoat purée.  The KGL is mercilessly ridden down.
Never were the French so happy to have won the initiative roll at the beginning of the turn!
Pressure takes its toll; "Sauve qui peut!"

Sharpie gets a taste of what he so richly deserves.
A sudden and dramatic decrease in local property values.
On the French left, things were very much going their way.
KGL Hussars about to get skewered.
The world turned upside-down; my Dutch Guard Lancers, actually winning a melee for once!
And the 95th find out that they cannot evade faster than a horse can advance.
All in all, this had turned out to be a bad day for the Allied Rifles.
But the French cavalry were in a state of sublime ecstasy!
The action around the farmhouse was long and drawn out.
Command roll of 11.  Sada berates an insubordinate subordinate.
The centre still under dispute.  By now, we had run out of time and the game ended here.
As a game it certainly had eye candy galore.  But despite some moments of laughter and suspense, something was missing this time around.  It was evident that we were pushing the envelope for the size of game we could reasonably handle for a typical gaming day. 

Due to a number of factors the game was lacking in terms of challenge, in speed of play, and in any kind of a clear result.  Not what we had come to expect from Black Powder, a set of rules we are very happy using.

As time is increasingly becoming an issue with us all, we had fallen into the trap of showing up at the club, quickly unpacking all our toys and terrain, forming up the troops largely where we had plonked them down on the table, and then just getting stuck in with little regards to scenario design or to plausible victory conditions.

As a club we don't have the luxury of a permanent gaming table that can be left set up from one gaming day to the next.  And of course the greater the number of figures, the longer it takes to set up and then clear the table, leaving us with less time to actually play the game.  

It was just before 1:00 by the time we were ready to roll the first initiative dice, and we had to finish at 5:00 in order to leave enough time to pack everything away so that people could get home reasonably early on a Sunday night.  That meant only four hours of actual gaming- not nearly enough for a game this size.

The poorly thought-out terrain layout meant that there were too many "dead zones" on the table so that masses of troops ended up being funneled into what were pretty much unintended killing zones.  Not fun if you found yourself with cavalry stuck between a river and your own troops, well in range of enemy guns.

The result of all this was, bien sur, a bloodbath.  Any pretense of tactical finesse went straight out the window as the armies just lunged at the nearest enemy.  Damn, and we were all mere pounders after all, by God.

Think the first day of the Somme, revisited.  Or the crater at Petersburg.  A turkey shoot for both sides, albeit with some very well-dressed and colourful turkeys on the menu.

All this was no fault of the rules; I've never played any set of Horse-and-Musket rules that has played faster or as smoothly as does Black Powder.  But large games need planning, enough space for troops to maneuver and- above all- enough time to play them. This game lacked all three.

This was made worse by the fact that two of the players were new to the rules, and to Napoleonics.  Now this is no problem, we welcome new blood.  But aside from speeding up the game, it would have been easier for us grognards to teach, and for new players to learn, had the number of units involved been more manageable and the table less cluttered.

I need to stress that the game was by no means an unmitigated disaster.  It certainly had it's moments; in particular I cherished seeing our brigade of cuirassiers and lancers run down the Allied right flank.  But elsewhere on the table we did not see any really dramatic developments.  It was a battle of attrition, and such games are never so much fun for the participants.  

Unsurprisingly, by the time we had to pack everything up we had come to the conclusion that we needed to approach our games differently.  Our collections had reached a point where having us field everything we had on the gaming table just wasn't an option for your average pick-up game on a regular gaming day. 

In the past, particularly when we were starting off with Napoleonics some five years ago now, our games were by necessity small engagements; often with half-painted units while we waited for our collections to reach critical mass.  Yet they were no less entertaining for that, and indeed provided some wonderful wargaming experiences, as I have posted here and here.

Certainly Black Powder lends itself to smaller engagements just as well as it does larger ones.

Since this game, we have returned to our small game "roots", and have been having great fun.

Fans of gaming in the Grand Manner fear naught, we fully intend to put on large games in the future.  But they will not be undertaken lightly, and will have to be for those special occasions when the planets line up regarding table space and timing.