Sunday, 30 October 2011

Review of Wargaming on a Budget

Wargaming On A Budget: Gaming Constrained By Money Or Space by Iain Dickie
(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)
Iain Dickie is a genius. He has written a book that is clearly aimed at people who are new to wargaming yet and while staying true to this, has penned a manual that has something for all wargamers.
This book reads like a fireside chat from your father or grandfather and, in similar manner, you will find yourself agreeing with some sentiments and not with others, but nonetheless respecting the author of them all (hopefully!).

The book is enjoyable and easy to read. From the outset Dickie’s use of humour ensures that it is taken in the right frame of mind. His witty asides include warnings about going into garden (p 55), his quip about using foam hills for a pillow (p 68), his advice to cut insulation foam in someone else’s house (p 68) and warning to keep plaster glue away from the carpet because you’ll be “decidedly unpopular” as it is “not on the insurance” (p 69).
Throughout the book Dickie remains true to the idea of wargaming on a budget, giving the reader numerous ideas of how to beg, borrow, re-use, improvise and recycle materials for numerous uses associated with our hobby.
The book is packed full of useful tips. For example making a wall plug from a piece of wood rather than using a plastic wall plug—either I was not told this one by my grandfather or have forgotten; or perhaps just did not listen properly! “Measure twice so do not have to cut twice”. Making a wargames table from scratch using an old bed or a table as a base. Painting the table as sea so that it will be available for any naval wargames (since in usual circumstances it will be covered with terrain and a cloth, terrain squares or the like). Ideas for making trees, bushes and hills from materials that are easily obtained and the ‘stability test’ of terrain which is such an elegantly simple, practical idea.

The "stability test". A simple and practical idea.

Iain Dickie extends his budget theme to choosing an army, suggesting that the choice be made such that the army may be used across multiple eras or campaigns. Such an army, he says, presents “excellent value”. He presents a number of suggestions for games that require few figures, or perhaps none at all. This will appeal not only to the budget conscious but also to those keen to try some new eras, aspects or approaches.
The many examples throughout the book are described clearly, step by step, with accompanying black and white drawings and/or photos. The pictures are similar to the real and realistic ones that adorned the magazine Miniature Wargames which he formerly edited (and which I always preferred to the glossier, over-produced photos in other mags). Following his advice you’ll soon be producing functional terrain pieces that look good without being works of art.
After reading this book I am now regularly using lego supports in place of jars, books or cans for figures that I have altered to rest on or against while the glue dries. I also have a growing store of ‘flocking’ material of various hues obtained by drying tea from tea bags, leaf tea and coffee grounds. Thanks heaps Mr Dickie.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

River Côa: a Play-test of Grand Battery Rules

Grand Battery comprises a guide to Napoleonic wargaming and a set of rules. A full review of the book is provide elsewhere on this blog (review of Grand Battery). The rules are an interesting mix of ideas and mechanisms that are similar to aspects of other rule-sets.
Familiar mechanisms include card-based turns for movement (like Piquet), tests of the resolve of defenders and of attackers (common to many wargames rules of 1970s and 1980s, including Bruce Quarrie's), use of a number of combat dice (like Piquet & Blackpowder), command impact on responsiveness (similar to many boardgames, Empire & Napoleon's Battles), and quality of command affecting initiative (like Empire). That said, the mechanisms and ideas have been combined into a genuinely novel set of rules. Grand Battery uses the random drawing of cards for each brigade commander and higher plus specific orders to try to overcome the wargamer’s helicopter view of the battlefield. Their implementation of cards is preferable to that used in rules such as Piquet and Le Feu Sacre.
We chose the Battle of the River Côa (often called action at the River Côa) as the scenario to play-test the Grand Battery rules. This is an interesting scenario with a small body of elite troops (the British Light Division) against a larger number of good quality line troops (two divisions from Ney’s VI Corps plus accompanying cavalry). The battle is fought over challenging and ‘interesting’ terrain. A variety of troop types are involved with light and line infantry, light cavalry and dragoons, skirmishing cavalry and infantry piquets, horse and foot artillery and a Portuguese heavy artillery battery in Almeida.
The battlefield is a combination of open and rough terrain, with defensible slopes and a river crossing. The eastern ‘half’ of the battlefield comprises a fairly open plain which  extends from the village of Vale da Mula to the walls of the fortress town of Almeida (Photo 1). The plain is traversed by the small, easily fordable Alvercas stream. By contrast the western end of the battlefield features the River Côa which is passable only by the stone bridge and is surrounded by steep, rocky river banks on either side (Photo 2). A description of our scenario for this battle can be found at River Côa scenario.

Photo 1: Looking across the eastern part of the battlefield towards Almeida

Photo 2: The bridge over the River Côa

The first problem we noticed with Grand Battery was that they do not seem quite sure at what scale they want to operate. The authors suggest that units are regiments, but no system is proposed to, for example, account for a single battalion British regiment against a three-battalion French one. The orders of battle seem to indicate a flexible system whereby a unit may be a battalion or a regiment depending on the size of the game. As the River Cóa is a small battle, we chose to have units as battalions. The next problem was the ground scale. Once again, no scale is given, but we assumed a nominal scale of around 1 mm to 1 metre as indicated by the movement rates and frontages of units.
As mentioned above, the rules use a simple and realistic system to reflect command and control, based around the historical command structure. Allowable orders to lower levels of command (e.g. brigades and units) are dictated by the orders given further up the command hierarchy. This approach was first used in the Empire rules however, unlike Empire’s percentage chance to change orders based on command quality, Grand Battery uses a command radius and leadership factors to determine whether a formation is in command. These factors vary with the quality of a commander. The entire system is simple and effective and is reminiscent of many board-games.
The heart of the rules are a series of tables that are used to determine firing, determination to charge or to receive a charge, results of mêlée and morale. At first these appear complex, but they are simple and effective. Ratings of the experience and training of units serve as the basis of most of these tables and are the sole factor in the attacker’s resolve to charge and defender’s resolve to a receive a charge.It was our first use of these tables that indicated that these rules were unlikely to be for us.
The first turn produced some “interesting” developments. The French 3rd hussars tried to charge the British cavalry piquets around Vale da Mula (Photo 3). They duly took the attacker’s resolve test. A nine was rolled on the die resulting in an immediate rout. Clearly those British skirmishing cavalry were scary! The detachment of British rifleman in Vale da Mula then fired on the French 15th chasseurs à cheval and destroyed two bases. Not to be outdone, the chasseurs à cheval fired at the piquets of the 16th light dragoons and eliminated them. This fire was clearly devastating stuff, even when from horseback.

Photo 3: Lamotte's light cavalry brigade approaching the British piquets around Vale da Mula

These astonishing results continued in turn two. A regiment of French dragoons (15th) charged the KGL hussar piquets, pushing them back but losing two stands in the process! Another three stands were removed due to firing from the 95th posted in the village (a single stand only) and from the KGL hussars. More amazing still, especially after the result with the 3rd hussars in turn one, was that the dragoons passed their morale. Ferey's infantry brigade moved up to Vale da Mula, fired on the 95th and destroyed them.

The devastation wreaked by the piquets was not over. In turn three the KGL hussars fired on and destroyed the remainder of the 15th dragoons.
Satisfied that the piquets would soon be eliminated, the French moved up past Vale da Mula on turn four. Determined to clear the village Lamotte’s horse battery fired at the 95th in Vale da Mula, inflicting some casualties, but with no further effect. Gardanne’s remaining regiment of dragoons moved towards the Alvercas stream only to be shaken by artillery fire from Ross’ troop of RHA. At the southern end of the French line, Simon’s foot battery was shaken by long-range fire from the Portuguese heavy battery in Almeida and retired. This was just the beginning.
Photo 4: Gardanne's 25th dragoons and horse battery advancing past Vale da Mula

In turn five the heavy gun again fired at long range, this time inflicting two stands of loss on the French 15th chasseurs. They the passed morale test. The French retaliated and Gardanne’s horse gun fired at Ross’ horse battery at long range destroying a gun and 1 crew. Not to be outdone, Ferey's foot battery fired at and destroyed the remaining KGL hussars around Vale da Mula.
The tremendous casualties from firing continued in turn six. The Portuguese heavy gun fired at long range and inflicted two further stands of losses on the French 15th chasseurs, destroying the unit. Anson’s KGL hussars standing in line around the mill were mauled by fire from Gardanne’s horse guns as were the French 25th dragoons when fired upon by the main body of the 95th rifles that were posted in front of the mill.
Photo 5: 95th rifles and Ross's troop RHA defending the mill (note the Portuguese battery in the bastion of Almeida)

Photo 6 and 7: French 25th dragoons advancing on Anson's cavalry suffer devasting fire from the Portuguese heavy battery in Almeida

Turn seven saw more casualties from firing before we gave up. This artillery fire was reminiscent of Quarrie’s "machine guns", but on steroids!
So ended our dalliance into the world of Grand Battery. As Julian said, they are somewhere between Warhammer 40K and a real set of rules! While they are easy to use, with a mechanism that is quick to understand and even to predict results, any relationship between these rules and a Napoleonic battlefield are purely coincidental.
We concluded that the rules may work in a multi-player game with an umpire to adjudicate any ‘ridiculous’ results, like our charging French hussars, but as a stand-alone set they leave a lot to be desired.
The experience was not a complete waste of time. While not a Napoleonic wargame we did have a lot of laughs; mainly at the expense of the rules. In addition, we will be considering including two aspects in our preferred rules as a result of this test of Grand Battery. The first is an optional rule for firing by cavalry. The second is to utilise a system like the one in Grand Battery for valuing objectives differently for the two sides and using these values in the determination of victory.
We are now looking forward to replaying the battle of River Côa with a proper set of rules.

Grand Battery: guide and rules for Napoleonic Wargaming reviewed

(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)

Authors often pose the rhetorical question “why another book about Napoleon?” Now, with a plethora of guides and sets of rules, it is pertinent to ask “why another introduction to Napoleonic wargaming and set of rules for the period?” After reading this book and play-testing the rules, the question remains largely unanswered. Alas, it could have been so much better...”

I read and reviewed this book with a sense of excited expectation. I am from the generation of Napoleonic wargamers who were introduced to the hobby with the Airfix guide written by Bruce Quarrie. While we would never now use these rules for our wargaming—a fact reinforced when we recently pulled them out for a nostalgic game, only to quickly shelve them again—the book remains one of my favourites. I still enjoy flicking through the pages, enjoying Quarrie’s turn of phrase and recalling how it generated a sense of excitement and anticipation in a 14 year old boy at the prospect of painting and building an army, setting up a wargame and getting on with the contest. I thought that Grand Battery could have been akin to a 'Quarrie' for another generation of Napoleonic wargamers; not the 'last word' on the subject by any stretch of the imagination, but a book that would provoke interest and enquiry in the period and help to stimulate, or foster, a life-long interest. I was sadly disappointed.
The book lacked ‘flair’ or ‘enthusiasm’ in the writing, had a strange structure, a disappointingly large number of major typos and errors (as my four pages of handwritten notes and corrections attest!) and then there are the rules... Any connection between these rules and a Napoleonic battle are purely coincidental!
Grand Battery is beautifully presented with many wonderful colour and black and white photos of Napoleonic wargames figures of various scales. The picture on page 73 of Prussians running up against French cavalry and guns is even reminiscent of the picture on page 6 of Quarrie’s Napoleonic Wargaming! Yet, as with so much of this book, these photos do not stand closer inspection. Where are the captions? What do the figures represent? Which manufacturer do they come from? How do the photos relate to the text?

Two examples of the excellent photos that adorn this book. The top one of Prussians running up against French cavalry and guns, reminiscent of a similar photo in Quarrie's Napoleonic Wargaming and the bottom one of British infantry in line, skirmish and column formation. Sadly, no such captions are provided in the book.

The large number of errors in this book are inexcusable. They diminished my enjoyment of it and made me question the veracity of all of the content. I would dearly have liked to have been a proof-reader as with a bit more attention to detail, a few additions and some corrections this could have been a classic wargamers’ guide. I will not bore you by listing all of the numerous errors that I found, but present a few of the worst cases to serve as an illustration of the type of errors and their wide distribution throughout the books 212 pages.
  • Page 29 says that “The Peninsular War battles detailed as distinct wargame scenarios in both Chapter 8 of this book (where three have been selected)...”, but there is no Chapter 8. This refers to Chapter 4.
  • On page 33, the description of the Battle of Arcola ends “in the New Year another attempt would be made”, but the result of that attempt, the Battle of Rivoli is not included in this period history.
  • Several incidences of mis-spellings are present with most referring to well-known places or people. We have “the Danbube” on page 52, “Bessiere’s cavalry” on page 54, “Thomiere” on page 63 (several occasions), Latour Manbourg and Nansonty on page 67 and Davout spelt as Davoüt throughout.
  • On page 65 outlining the Battle of Borodino, the forces involved include Britain, 120,000 commanded by Kutuzov.
  • On page 70 the description of the Battle of Vittoria ends with “the French army disintegrated and the losses totalled, with 151 or 153 guns captured”.
  • In chapter 2 figures from Waterloo are often quoted, but this was not a typical battle so it is not indicative of the general situation that prevailed for much of the period.
  • Page 93, erroneously states that “the new war with Austria broke out in 1808”.
  • On page 107 it is stated that “target practice was very important...” but then on page 108 “infantry were not trained to necessarily aim at their targets...” Such inconsistencies are a source of confusion to the novice and annoyance to experienced or knowledgeable reader.
  • Page 152 of the rules refers the reader to “see section XX XX Objectives and Winning”
Most of these are simple typographical errors, but they point to a lack of final proof-reading and detract from the quality of the book.
Grand Battery beings with a ‘no nonsense’ introduction. This is fine, but it does not create a sense of anticipation or excitement about what is to come in the book nor about the hobby that the reader is about to embark on (if new to wargaming). It is in this introduction that one finds the first of the many errors and omissions. The book claims to include information about combatants of nations from the Austrians to the Ottoman Turks and including the numerous minor nations, but the chapters on “The Armies” and “Weapons and Tactics” only cover the major nations although, to be fair, the chapter on “Organising Troops” does have army lists for numerous nations, both large and small. The introduction also mentions that the Pen & Sword website has “additional scenarios, rules clarifications, battle reports, downloadable cards, templates and ready reference sheets and a host of other game support”, but I could find none of it by either a search of the site or by clicking and browsing.
Chapter 1 is a chronology and description of ‘major’ battles. This is largely a descriptive narrative of the wars which needs maps and an overview of each campaign to draw it together and make it easier to read. Not surprisingly, I questioned the choices of some of the ‘major’ battles. For example, Maida and Roliça are included but there is no mention of any of the famous six days’ battles of 1814 (Champaubert, Montmirial, Chateau-Thierry, Vauchamps and Montereau). I would also question the assessment of the outcome of several of the battles listed. As with the rest of the book, this opening chapter is written in a ‘workmanlike’ style, lacking flair, with many misconceptions and far too many errors.
Chapters 2 & 3 describe the “Armies” and “Weapons and Tactics” respectively of the major nations. I’d like to compare what is in these chapters with what I think wargamers need. After a brief and general introductory paragraph the authors launch into a description of the armies of each of the major nations using terms regarding types of troops, weapons and equipment that would be familiar to experienced Napoleonic wargamers or ‘students’ of the period but would likely bemuse the novice. In my opinion the chapters should have been combined into one and opened with some general statements about Napoleonic armies. The authors could then have introduced the troop types and roles of each, showing how they relate to the rules. Having done this, the descriptions and specific details related to each of the armies could have followed logically and without the repetition and contradiction that besets the current text.
These chapters do contain some useful snippets of information, such as the cavalry to infantry ratio in the Austrian army compared with the French and the numbers of Austrian heavy cavalry compared with other nations. No matter how much I read and despite 30+ years as a ‘student’ of the Napoleonic period, I can always learn more. Unfortunately though, these chapters suffer from the same problem as all of the others so that, for example, the ratio of cavalry to infantry in French army quoted in Chapter 2 (one to three) is contradicted in Chapter 3 (one to six).
Chapter 4, “Organising Troops” provides examples of the organisation and relative qualities of troops from nearly all nations that fought in battles in various European campaigns between 1799–1815. This is a useful reference and overview, but it is not clear how one list relates to another, how they are derived from historical orders of battle and how they may be used for competitive games (although I suspect that the rules are not intended for this latter purpose).
The rules themselves (Chapter 5) are an interesting mix of ideas from other sets. Mechanisms such as card-based turns for movement (Piquet), charges including resolve of defenders and then of attackers (common to many wargames rules of 1970s and 1980s, including Quarrie's), use of a number of combat dice (Piquet, Blackpowder), command impact on responsiveness (similar to many boardgames, Empire, Napoleon's Battles), and quality of command affecting initiative (Empire) are familiar. That said, these mechanisms and ideas have been combined into a genuinely novel set of rules.
It is one thing to read a set of rules, but to evaluate them properly it is necessary to trial them by play-testing. We chose the Battle of the River Cóa (often called action at the River Cóa) for this purpose. This action has many elements that make it ideal for play-testing a new set of rules; the action is relatively small, it involves all troop types, terrain is a major factor and command and control are crucial to the outcome.
A full report of this battle is provided on our blog (Battle of River Cóa report). In short we concluded that if you want a fast, furious game with lots of quick action and casualties that will play easily for a group of novice wargamers or wargamers unfamiliar with the rules, then these are for you. If you want a set of rules with a Napoleonic “feel”, an historical look and results that reflect history, then they are not.
The last two chapters of the book were two of the most useful and interesting. Chapter 6 lists three scenarios to use with the rules, but in truth they could easily be utilised with any rule-set. Refreshingly, three little-known battles are chosen—Neerwinden 1793, Raab 1809 and Ligny 1815. This makes them a particularly useful resource for wargames scenarios. Sadly the errors that beset the rest of the book are also here, with the aim for Neerwinden stated as “to route the enemy forces”!
The final chapter, “Buying guide” is a gem. It contains well presented, useful and objective information about figures from a wide range of manufacturers. The authors resist the temptation to push their favourite scale or style of sculpting. This chapter is of great use and interest for the novice and experienced gamer alike. It is particularly pleasing that manufacturers of 1/72nd plastics are included, since the hobby often has a snobbery around metal figures compared to plastics and we are devotees of the latter type.

Thus, while the numerous errors and misconceptions are disappointing and frustrating and the rules do not offer much, Grand Battery is still a useful book. Yet it could have been so much better.