Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Groovy New Dice Tower

I just got this bad boy through a chap I met on Ebay. This was acquired in an effort to save my figures and terrain from over enthusiastic dice rollers (tossers? throwers? hurlers?). You know who you are (<cough> Arthur, Dan...).

Anyway, this is pretty darn cool in a dorky kind of way. It was custom made for me by Bob Giesen in the U.S. who is a very nice fellow. He allows you a choice of wood, stain, felt colours, sanding finish, etc.

Its in two pieces and fits together nicely for storage. Pretty posh, eh? Eh?! Anyway, I'd now like to get one shaped like a windmill that would blend in with the table. You think that's too much? Naaa.

'Republic to Empire' First Play: Rearguard on the Minho II

Last week, as our first playtest of Barry Hilton's  Republic to Empire, I set up the same battlefield we used for our inaugural 'Black Powder' game in November, a rearguard action on the Minho River as a quasi-fictional scenario set during Moore's retreat to Corunna in the winter of 1809. Dan took the British defenders and Sylvain led the French attack. As in the last game the British had two battalions of line infantry, two companies of Rifles and two sections of Royal Horse Artillery (a section each of 6 pounders and 5.5" howitzers). The British have to hold out long enough to allow the Engineers time to rig the bridge for destruction. Some monks from a local monastery have come out to help the heretics from the depredations of the French. (Each of the six monks serves as a turn counter for the engineer work party.)

This was the table a turn after set-up with the French rolling forward.
The French came on with four battalions of infantry, two squadrons of Dragoons and as a new addition: two sections of 8 pounder foot artillery. 

The French Brigade advances on a lonely regiment of Welsh fusiliers supported by two companies of Rifles and a couple detachments of Royal Horse Artillery.
We knew the rules to be much more dense than 'Black Powder' so I kept it simple for this first go and classified the majority of the troops as being from Seasoned brigades and of  Drilled quality (with the only exception being the Rifles which were classed as Veterans). Each of the  commanders were rated as Skillful.

The French Dragoons negotiate their way through a field as the rest of the Brigade marches in attack columns on the flanks. The foot artillery begins to deploy for action.
Republic to Empire (R2E) uses a movement point mechanism to enable players to pay for orders, actions and reactions.  These 'Maneuver Points' are modified by each level in the chain of command. So, for example, if you were playing a  corps-level game you would get a modifier from the Corps Commander (the C-in-C), each of your Divisional Commanders, along with  each of your Brigade Commanders within the Divisions. We were playing a very tiny game so all of this upper level command structure was not present as we only had a Brigade for each side. As each commander was rated as 'Skillful' they were given a +1 on the roll for Maneuver Points each turn.

Nearing the British defensive line the French brigadier is about to change orders from Advance to Attack.

Sylvain won the first initiative roll (something he would repeat pretty much through the entire scenario) and kicked-off the game. His forces started with an 'Advance' order which he maintained for this first turn. In R2E there are seven different orders that can be given to brigades. They are Advance, Attack, Defend, Move, Reform, Ready and Rest. Each order has a price in Maneuver Points (adjusted by the quality of the Brigade) and a set of conditions that has to be complied with, along with a series of caveats and options. It all sounds rather complicated but its really quite straightforward. One of the nuances to the game is the planning for appropriate orders for possible upcoming situations. Brigades can often stutter-step while changing orders or stall out completely.

We used the optional rule put forward by Clarence Harrison that in a small game such as this there is no need to spend MPs on maintaining an order which is required in larger actions. This allows the players more points to spend on other actions such as individual unit actions, charges and exploitation moves.

'Exploitation Moves' are a pivotal aspect of Republic to Empire as it enables players to focus their energies on a particular point of the battle in an effort to achieve that stunning breakthrough or critical defensive holding action. Essentially what happens is that after all the costs of maintaining orders is completed any remaining points can be allocated to allow either single units or entire brigades to continue their impetus. To me this is pretty exciting as it enables players to have a better chance of faithfully recreating actions such as Davout's brilliant defense at Auerstaedt.

Back to the game, Sylvain, eager to get to grips with adversary, duly uses his extra MPs to perform an Exploitation Move with his Brigade and they grind further towards the bridge and the awaiting British.

Dan's British, being on Defend orders and seeing a target-rich environment emerge in front of them, open up with the two sections of Royal Horse Artillery and the skirmish line of Rifles. The French units hit by artillery are compelled to check their resolve and one battalion retreats to get away from the  grueling canister fire.

The British gird their loins for the coming test of battle (or something like that).
Sylvain now realizes that he has to change his orders from Advance to Attack to enable his troops to get stuck in. Due to a poor MP die roll he only has enough points to change his orders and deploy his artillery. Dan's British have a breather to decide what they want to do.
The RHA 6 pounders in action, firing canister at the advancing Neuchatel infantry battalion (which breaks from the fire).
The 'Canaries'  shown here in the foreground are about to take a pounding from the pair of 6 pounders. They will break under the artillery fire and fall back.

A local monk berates the Welsh to make peace with their Maker. Meanwhile the RHA 6 pdr bangs away at the approaching French.
The Brits bravely decide to fight on and continue to bang away at the redeploying French. Nevertheless the French press their numerical advantage and prepare to charge the British line. To make a long story short both sections of guns are charged and since they are separated they do not have the firepower to see off the French assaults. The result is that all the guns are silenced and the Rifles are forced to pull back behind the Welsh infantry. In the British turn the Welsh give a blistering fire but the French take it and prepare to extract their pound of flesh.
The British general, ignoring the harranging of the monk,  knows the next few minutes will be critical to the success of his mission.
The French now have two infantry battalions and the two squadrons of Dragoons ready to charge. Sylvain wants to go in with his cavalry but the local Dragoon commander apparently doesn't like the ground and decides to allow the infantry the honour of the assault instead. The infantry duly goes in and the Rifles loose their bottle and route! This in turn cause the Welsh to check their resolve and they retreat after them. Its now a foot race to get across the bridge to which the engineering party below has very choice words at this turn of events!

The British engineer partly, aided by local 'colour', scrambles to prepare the bridge for demolition.

The 28th, feeling uneasy about the long odds, get a fire-and-brimstone speech from one of the local monks.
The British try to rally but fail and so the Welsh collide with the formed line of the 28th which disorders it. We call the battle there due to the late hour. It looks pretty grim for the British but we hypothesize that if they are lucky with some of their rolls they might yet buy enough time for the Engineers as they only need another turn or so to rig the bridge to blow. To be frank it looks pretty touch-and-go.

The British advance force caves in and its now a foot race to get across the river to escape the attacking French.

The retreating Welsh slam into the formed 28th causing disorder in their ranks.

Thoughts and Opinions:

On the whole I really liked these rules and I think I can say the same for Dan and Sylvain. Certainly they are aimed to a specific audience, one which has access to a large collection of miniatures,  an expansive playing surface and who are passionate about the Napoleonic period, but like the authors of Black Powder Mr. Hilton makes it very clear what type of game he likes to play and how it should look.

The core mechanics, once understood, are elegant, nuanced and effective. We especially liked the limitations placed upon players through the structure of Orders, Exploitation and the use of Maneuver Points. Artillery, often glossed over in other rules, is given its due by being both powerful but at the same time restrained. Cavalry is refreshingly treated as it is allowed to be used as it often was: more of a threat than a promise. The rules for combat in urban environments are simply brilliant as they reflect the brutality of this type of fighting, with great emphasis put on reserves, leadership and assault preparation.  

Some Criticisms: The rules, while beautifully laid out and obviously a labour of love, are simply too verbose and overwrought. For example, for a simple question such as "what are the rules regarding a unit's line of sight" (as opposed to arc of fire) the book has a full three-column page dedicated to it (pg 59). This loquaciousness could be forgiven if it answered the question - but it doesn't. To be frank we really don't care about the author's thoughts regarding ground scale vs figure scale vs thickness of bases, we just want to know if a unit has a 360 degree line of sight or not. The rules remind me of what a wry gentleman from the American South once said to me, "Why use ten words when ten thousand will do?'

There needs to be more examples of each aspect of gameplay. This is a set of rules that reflects a certain level of tactical detail and as such players need clear confirmation of the rule's intent through diagrams and text. I know this is asking a lot from a book that is already tipping in close to 150 pages but I think this could easily be accommodated by foregoing some of the eye candy. 

Finally, and this is a quibble, the terrain movement cost table (pg 61) needs to be on the reference sheet as it is too regularly referred to be excluded.

So would I play these rules again? Most definitely, but not with every group of players. For a large group of players who don't live and breath the Horse & Musket period then I would tend to lean towards Black Powder, but for 'Old Moustaches' I'd certainly use Republic to Empire.

'Black Powder' First Play: Rearguard Action on the Minho

This is a repost from a report I did for The Fawcett Ave Conscripts that I wanted to put on this blog to bookend with my upcoming 'Republic to Empire' first-play report.

This past November Dan, John and Sylvain came over to my place to try out a small Napoleonic scenario using my unblooded copy of the 'Black Powder' rules. The scenario I came up with is a fusion of Clarence Harrison's starter scenario and a series of historical rearguard actions that the British conducted during their retreat to Corunna in January of 1809. During the retreat it was not uncommon for the British to attempt to forestall the French by fighting a delaying action at a river crossing, fall back and then demo the bridge. Accordingly, the scenario has a small British force trying to buy time for the engineers to rig the bridge to blow while a large force of French press on in an attempt to push the rearguard aside, force the bridge crossing before it is destroyed and carry on to threaten the main British force up the road.

In this action the British have two infantry battalions as their mainstay. One is the solid 28th which historically fought in many of these rearguard engagements. They are solid regulars. The other is a composite battalion made up of bits and scraps of several battalions that have largely disintegrated during the retreat. I classed them as 'Untested' which means that once they take their first casualty they test to see how they react for the rest of the battle. This can range from near-collapse to raising-up to fight like heroes. The British line infantry is also aided by two companies from the 95th Rifles. These specialized skirmishers can either fight on their own or be attached to any battalions to reinforce their own light companies. The British infantry is also supported by two sections (4 guns - basically a half battery) of Royal Horse Artillery, one section of 6-pound canons and the other of 5.5 inch howitzers.

The French vanguard has a full brigade of infantry composed of four line battalions (roughly 2400 men). One battalion is considered large in size and all are classed as Regulars. In addition the French force benefits from being supported by two squadrons of Dragoons (around 160 troopers). The French commander, a General of Division, knows that the Emperor wants the British 'brought to ground' so I've rated him as a bit of a fire-eater to help keep the French moving forward aggressively.

We rolled for sides with John taking the British while Sylvain and Dan having joint command of the French.

Though this scenario could easily be played on a 4x6, or smaller, we played down the length of a 5x8 table with the bridge about 2 feet away from one end. The British (John) set-up first with one battalion, the 28th, a bit forward of the bridge with a 6 pound section of guns from the Royal Horse Artillery in support. The 28th also benefited by having the both companies of 95th Rifles in skirmish order to their front. John chose to make the 95th as in integral part of the battalion so they would benefit from the rules of 'mixed order' but risk the same fate if things went bad. The RHA howitzer section was deployed behind the river on the British right flank. The remaining British composite battalion was also back behind the river, arrayed in line next to the bridge.

The 28th positioned in front of the bridge with the 95th Rifles acting as skirmish screen and a section of 6pdrs as artillery support.

The untried British composite battalion arrayed in line near the bridge awaiting orders. Note the local monks cajoling the heretics and helping the engineering party with the powder kegs. Better the devil you know...

The French deployed 12" in from the opposing narrow edge. They chose to place the majority of their battalions in attack columns so they would benefit in the better command roll modifier (the rationale being that the compressed nature of an attack column makes it easier to manage as opposed to the more fragile and disjointed battleline formation). I believe the Dragoons also started in column as well to facilitate greater mobility.

The base mechanics for Black Powder are reminiscent of Warmaster but perhaps a little more streamlined and sophisticated. Basically each unit only gets one chance with a command roll but if the roll is especially good (i.e. low) they can benefit with up to 3 actions (moving, formation change, charging). Alternatively if the roll is pooched then that unit does nothing and the commander is done for the turn. This mechanic makes the command phase entertaining as there is much arguing of who should 'lead off', general nail biting, groans and cheers. It also makes movement and charging interesting as a lucky unit can potentially take the bit by the teeth and streak across the table to engage the enemy while other poor souls can have an unlucky streak and flounder.

The French roll forward to attempt to push back the lead British battalion and gain access to the bridge.

The French moved first and decided to keep their formation as tight as possible for maximum impact. The British opened up with long range artillery fire causing a bit of disruption in the French ranks but nothing that a few bawling sergeants couldn't handle. The rifles tried a shot at the cavalry but were just short of their maximum range. The Dragoons arched their collective eyebrows at the rifles' longer range and knew they had to get these fellows sorted quickly.

In the next turn the French managed their initial moves but did not get the rolls to allow them to charge home. John 'held his bottle' a bit longer to give the approaching cavalry and march columns some more galling fire, all the while risking the coming charge. Next turn, the French used their initiative moves to declare a series of charges from both the infantry and cavalry. The fact that the cavalry were threatening caused the British battalion to automatically recall the Rifle skirmish screen and attempt to form square. The Brits made their roll and formed a solid square to repulse the cavalry. BUT the wily French, knowing the English were vulnerable in this compressed formation have also sent in their infantry to take advantage of the situation. The Brits gave a good account of themselves but were forced to fall back from the combined arms threat. But here was the rub: The bridge hampered their retrograde movement in square and with nowhere else to go the men panicked. The 28th's square broke and its men were swept aside by the French assault columns (the Rifles sharing their fate). The now isolated British horse artillery section fired canister at short range and scampered back to redeploy at the river's edge. The remaining British battalion gaped at the slaughter in front of it while its commander screamed ineffectively at his men to move to the bridge to thwart the French. The Brits needed to hold for three more turns to have the bridge ready to be blown.

The golden moment had arrived for the French. The screening British battalion had been shattered, its supporting artillery pushed aside and the bridge was wide open. To make matters worse for the British their isolated battery was assaulted on its flank and silenced by a French regiment using its own initiative. Dan duly picked up the dice to send in the first column across the bridge - and uttered something unmentionable as (of course) his roll failed. John breathed a sigh of relief as he knew he had just been given a new lease on life. (Note: Particularly astute BP players will notice that the entire British force should have been 'broken' at this point as half or more of it's numbers were now out-of-action. I pointedly ignored this as the scenario was so small and I wanted to have as long a game as possible. I also reasoned that both combatants knew that the 'stakes were high' and would have greater resiliency for this action. Besides, why let a petty truth get in the way of a good story!)

In his turn, John rolled for a 'follow me' order and moved his command stand to join the British battalion (they used three actions to change formation, move to the bridge and shake-out into line). The howitzer section had a perfect target with the French battalion that had just silenced their brother unit. They fired canister which caused the battalion to fall back in disorder, out of the action. Two turns left.

Dan rolled for the French Brigadier and he led the leading column across the bridge to assault the British on the other side. The Brits fired a closing volley and prepared for the assault. As the French were on a very narrow frontage in order to cross the bridge they could only bring a limited amount of men to the fight whereas the British were arrayed in full battle order. The result was that the French battalion was shattered on the British line. Nonetheless they did cause enough casualties for the British to have to test their mettle as they were a composite battalion. If John rolled poorly they could route leaving the bridge entirely undefended. John's luck held and so did the British. John then redeployed the howitzers to enable them to give enfilading fire on a French column marching to the bridge. In a spectacular roll the artillery tore the guts out of the French formation making it combat ineffective. The French were running out of troops and they had only one turn left before the British could see if they could demo the bridge.

The 1st Neuchatel assault the bridge while the British prepare to give close range volley fire.

Sylvain suggested trying to soften the British up with musketry but Dan was chomping at the bit wanting to force the issue with the bayonet (watching the two 'debating' was as entertaining as the game itself). Dan won out and another French battalion was sent in, but alas it too was sent back reeling from the steady British volley fire. In his turn, John had the British stay put, give harassing fire and basically waited for the turn to end. The engineers completed their preparations and John rolled to see if the bridge would go up. The roll was too high so he girded himself to hold for at least another turn to try again (at this point we speculated that during the assault some French rear-rank fusilier had dropped his trousers while on the bridge and put out the fuse).

Things were getting desperate for the French. Dan and Sylvain decided to move the commander to the two squadrons of Dragoons to entice them with medals and easy women and then led them in a pell mell charge across the bridge to see if the British would fail in forming square. They did not. The square was formed and the cavalry were compelled to recoil. John rolled the dice for the bridge and was relieved to see it finally blast apart ending the French pursuit for that day.

The French Dragoons try to force the issue with the British. Note the Engineer by the bridge lighting the fuse with his cheroot...

We had a load of fun with the game with the result going right down to the last turn. The rule's mechanics were very easy to pick-up with us basically using the single quick-reference playsheet after only a few turns. Later I noticed I made a few slips here and there but I attribute that to the natural learning curve on any new ruleset and it did nothing to hamper the enjoyment of the game. I think they would be great for a large group of players as the command rules are quite streamlined promoting quick resolution of turns. On our part I think I can safely say that we'll be giving them another try.

In a couple weeks we'll give "Republic to Empire" a run through using the same scenario. We'll let you know our thoughts. (UPDATE: To check out the R2E playthrough please check out this link.)

Yes Virginia, yet another gaming blog. (Yawn...)

'I can't possibly endure this sober...'
Hello there. My name is Curt and this serves as a spot for stuff relating to what I call 'analogue hobbies'.  In my professional life I deal almost exclusively with digital media (often termed 'electronic crap'), which while being a great job, can be best described by Lenard Cohen, 'As Boring as Heaven on a Saturday Night'

This little space on the internet is for me to journal my interests in history, miniatures, games, books, and music. These are all related in that they don't require an annoying layer of technology to enjoy - they are my 'analogue hobbies'.

Yes, it's an odd lot, but one has to keep amused.

Anyway, over the next few weeks I'm going to post up a bunch of content that I've had sitting on my computer for ages, so bear with me.