Thursday, 30 June 2011

Shako Rules

We have now played six games using these rules (first edition with the Fields of Glory amendments) and have been impressed. Our games have all been corps-level historical re-fights, the Battles of Montmirail, Utitsa (southern sector of Borodino), Plancenoit, Pultusk, Golymin and Albuera. The summaries of each of these will appear as blogs.

Shako are divisional-scale rules suitable for corps and army level games; although some scaling is required to make the latter manageable. The basic unit of movement is the 'division' and the nominal figure scale is around 40 to 1 (although no precise scale is used). Divisions in Shako may be real divisions or brigades. Game turns, which are conducted with alternate movement by division, represent about 30 minutes The rules have the important concepts that make for a good set of rules for Napoleonic wargaming; primacy of command and control, battlefield attrition leading to a loss of effectiveness of units, troop class, terrain and situational impacts on combat and an insistence on historical formations. None of these concepts would be foreign to anyone who does the ‘real stuff’; Napoleonic wargaming.

No doubt the rule’s author, Arty Conliffe, has been influenced by, and then himself influenced, other sets. For example, I can see the legacy of Empire, but also a concerted effort to avoid the frustrations associated with those rules. The sequence of play, which is artillery fire, then movement, then small arms fire, then mêlée and finally command (new orders, rallying, divisional morale and army morale) is simple, logical and creates a good flow. Orders may either be defend, attack, or timed versions of these and are simply indicated by arrows on a game-map. Changes in orders need to be carried by an aide-de-camp who moves in the command phase. Alternating movement by ‘divisions’ prevents any of the little traps and potential gamesmanship of ‘simultaneous movement’, without being too stylised nor clumsy. The key to the rules, and their defining mechanism, is the use of a morale rating for all calculations.

The morale rating is a single figure, which ranges from one to six for ‘second rate‘ to ‘guard’ units respectively. This single figure is used as the basis for combat, unit morale, rallying and, in aggregate form, for divisional morale. This is the 'gold' in these rules. It produces an elegant simplicity in calculations and related speed of play. Mêlée results are decided in one turn, with anything from a retire to break possible depending on the degree of the loss. Units can retire, reform again and enter the fray once more. As divisional losses reach one-third and one-half, tests for divisional morale determine whether they will carry on, change to defend orders, retire or break. Once losses reach three-quarters, divisions automatically fail the test and are removed from play.

Skirmishers, an important part of Napoleonic battles that rule writers seem to struggle with, either making the rules too complex or merely including them in a nominal fashion, are also well handled in these rules. Each division has a stand or two of skirmishers (three figures in loose formation) which clearly indicate their presence and position on the battlefield. The skirmishers move with the division, fire and modify the fire of the enemy and are moved back a full move distance when attacked. All in all, this is a pretty big wrap, but we are wargamers and so are not completely satisfied with the rules as written.

Aspects of the rules that we, either individually or collectively, have indicated that we would like to modify or to add are quality of commanders, a greater range of unit quality factors, less impact of the die rolls, better representation of fighting in towns and villages and skirmishing cavalry. In the basic rules the ‘army’ commanders do not move and provide neither morale nor organisational benefits (nor restrictions). The only distinction that is made is that orders to French divisions are changed in the command phase on which they arrive, while the non-French ‘think about it’ for a turn. There are rules for the quality of divisional commanders in the optional rules (albeit largely ‘self-service’), but nothing for ‘army’ commanders. The use of a range of morale ratings from one to six makes for simple, fast-play rules, but does limit the differentiation of different troop types. It also means that the random factor (die roll) is of the same range.

Fighting in towns and villages is always a tricky thing for rules that seek to work at the divisional, corps and army level. The approach in Shako is to divide built up areas into sectors into which up to one unit (battalion-equivalent) of infantry may enter. All combat and fire mechanisms are as for field combat, except for a cover modifier and restriction on the use of canister.

While villages are covered at some level, skirmishing cavalry are not. There is now Shako II, but the reviews on the web suggest that this may have been more about presentation than anything else (dare I suggest ‘milking’ the market?) and the rules have not changed in any dramatic manner.

These points aside, we have been generally really impressed with the rules, especially the fact that they have been able to answer all of our questions simply and clearly. We’d recommend them to anyone.

Bruce Quarrie's Rules

As with many wargamers who entered the hobby in the late 1970s/early 1980s, Julian and I began with Bruce Quarrie’s Napoleonic Wargaming (1974). Mark on the other hand is one of the few who had never used them! So, there was a high degree of nostalgia for Julian and I when we came to test these rules.

Our battle for these rules was the fictitious 'Pont du Bois' scenario that has been Julian's 'standard' play-test scenario. As the name implies, the scenario involves a bridge (over a river that divides the battlefield) with nearby woods on either side. The report of this battle can be found in our battle reports elsewhere on this blog.

When I re-read the rules in preparation for our play-test, apart from the nostalgia, I realised that they had much of what I consider to be important in a set of rules for Napoleonic wargaming; national characteristics, good morale and control rules and effective, or so I thought, mechanisms for firing and mêlées (although artillery fire was always too devastating—my father and I used to halve the effect!). I considered the main problems with the rules to be the short (2 1/2 minute) moves, lack of rules for command and control, requirement for written orders, need for detailed recording of losses, and the problems associated with simultaneous movement—where one player always seems to move after everyone else—sound familiar?

Playing them again, in the light of other sets past and current, highlighted further short-comings. The rules do not require players to utilise higher order formations (above unit level) and parts of units, especially cavalry, can 'waltz off' in an entirely different direction to the parent body. What I considered to be effective rules for firing, combat and morale turned out to be long, tedious and somewhat cumbersome. The scales of time and space do not work when you add the turns up and discover what has occurred in a (supposed) total of ten to twenty minutes!

Our verdict was that we, and the hobby, have largely moved on from these rules. They do not have the historical feel that we are seeking, they are not enjoyable to play and struggle to work for a small, fictitious scenario, let alone a corps-level game!

It was not all negative however as we consider that they may well have a niche for small-scale, detailed sections of a battle, particularly for combat involving buildings. In such circumstances, with the need for manoeuvre and deployment removed, the factors that are their achilles heal (detailed control, firing, morale and casualty recording) may well prove to be an advantage. They are likely to generate a far more realistic recreation of such actions than is possible with the more stylised approaches that are of necessity part of rules for higher-level actions.

Bruce Quarrie's Napoleonic Wargaming is still a great little book that remains a treasured part of my library. We won't be using the rules for another game in a hurry though; save perhaps if we decide to do a detailed re-fight of the attack on the granary at Essling or on Hougoumont on 18th June 1815.