The Allure of Simple Wargaming – Black Powder

I recently read an entry on SOUND OFFICERS CALL! blog about simple wargames. I really liked the reflections on why and how simple wargames appeal to people. The author goes on and plays some of the simple rule sets and gives his feedback. An approach which I and others have done several times as well and which I find fascinating to read about.

I’m leaning to simpler rules more and more albeit for different reasons so I thought I chime in with one or two battle reports myself. Now, what is a simple rule set? We will probably all agree that One-Hour Wargames are simple rules but when it comes to Black Powder some would not agree.

I played the same scenario with different rules several times and Black Powder was competing against Bataille Empire and General d’Armee among others. Napoleonic Black Powder always did it for me. Other rule sets took longer because of more realistic rules but the results weren’t more realistic or more satisfying.

That said I put quite a bit of work into Black Powder house rules which make it play that way. Out of the box the rules have some serious problems which is the sole reason some people hat them. Sadly the 2nd Edition was an utter disappointment in that direction as next to nothing was changed.

My theory here is that with careful preparation and tweaking you can mold Black Powder Napoleonic into a rule set that is simple to play (after getting used to it), quick and feels believable. A big part of the latter is the simple but elegant command and control mechanism which is lacking in some many (simple) rules. It has actually become difficult for me to play any Napoleonic set without some friction modeled nowadays.

Preparations

To see if I can mirror a simple wargaming battle report we have to look at the scenario and rules before the battle commences.

I decided on the One-Hour Wargame scenario Pitched Battle (2) like the Simple Wargame #4 report. This will give me the same army sizes and I also decided to field the exact same composition without any national special rules. This makes possible balance problems less severe. The Austrians are the red army, the French take the blue side. Both armies consist of 3 line infantry, 1 light infantry, 1 medium cavalry (Dragoons), 1 foot artillery and one General SR 8.

Concerning the troops I decided to combine different approaches. The Hail Whoever house rules from Camp Cromwell simplify the troop stats by (mostly) getting rid of morale saves and adding more stamina points across the board. This shaves off another set of dice rolls in combat which will saves time as well. Artillery is less deadly with these modifications due to the save modifiers it normally has. This is actually a good thing as artillery was too strong in vanilla Black Powder.

I also took a page from the Bl├╝cher rules regarding skirmishing. Instead of one value for shooting which is used for close and long range, infantry now has volley (close) and skirmishing (long) values. Many extra rules regarding skirmishing (mixed formations, sharpshooters, etc.) are thrown out of the window, making the game simpler but actually not less detailed.

Here are the stat lines I’m using for 6mm figures with a unit width of 8cm (in line). Measurements are roughly 6″ to 4 cm. I use a measuring stick with 4 cm segemnts to further speed up gameplay. Infantry units are probably regiments in this scale:

Line/Light Infantry
Move 8 cm
H-t-H 4
Shoot 4/4 (cm/dice volley) 8/2 (cm/dice skirmish) +1 to skirmish dice if light
Morale – (a positive modifier like assault column will still result in a 6+ save)
Stamina 6
Light Infantry may use skirmish formation

Cavalry
Move 12 cm
H-t-H 5, 6 or 7 for light, medium or heavy cavalry
Shoot –
Morale –
Stamina 6

Foot Artillery
Move 8 cm
H-t-H 0
Shoot 4/3 – 16/2 – 32/1
Morale –
Stamina 2

Commander
Move 32 cm

I have more stats drafted for other troops like conscripts, horse artillery and elites but this will do. With this out of the way let us focus on other areas of Black Powder I changed.

The sequence of play has been simply reordered to address the problem that infantry can move up to defenders and shoot at them before they receive return fire:
1. Shooting
2. Command
3. Hand-to-Hand

Command is tweaked to even out the statistical odds. Rolls of command or 1 less gives one move, rolls of 2 or 3 less gives two moves and anything less gives three moves. Follow me orders from commanders are not used as these are highly unrealistic and silly.

Firing modifiers are based on the 2nd Edition. So no positive modifier for skirmishers. I also got rid of all range modifiers as these are already factored into the dice. Another modifier table cut in half.

When it comes to formations the rules have to be revised to reflect two different shooting values:
Attack Column: 2 volley / 2 skirmish (3 if light)
Square: 1 volley per face / 0 skirmish
Buildings: 2 volley per face / 1 skirmish per face

Note that attack columns retain their skirmish value. This makes it actually possible to use them historically by softening up the enemy with the skirmisher cloud before charging.

Scenario Modifications

The movement and shooting ranges above are tried and tested but are vastly different from the original rules / scenario conditions as I play on a small table with small unit footprints. Therefore I have to scale everything accordingly.

In the Horse and Musket rules of One-Hour Wargames the slowest unit can cross the entire table in 6 moves. Due to command rolls units in Black Powder have a variable move. With a command rating of 8 and ignoring any blunders this gives us 1.3 moves on average. Multiplied with the movement distance of the slowest unit (see above) and again multiplied by the number of turns a One-Hour-Wargame unit needs to cross gives us the table size we need.

8 cm x 1.3 x 6 = 62.4 cm rounded to 63 cm

For terrain scaling this gives me a factor of 1″ to 1.75 cm. I only need 6″ and 12″ measurements for terrain and deployment which translates to 10.5 and 21 cm respectively.

To check if this is valid we cross check with the army width. If I would deploy 6 infantry corner to corner I would field a formation 8 cm x 6 = 48 cm. This give me an army frontage that roughly fits with the average of the original rules.

The turn limit of 15 stays in effect. The scenario does not put much more time pressure on one side or the other so even if the number is wrong it won’t affect the outcome too much.

Battle Report 1

The battlefield and set-up. Austrians to the north, French to the south. Images will generally be takes from the French side. This should be known as my trademark already ­čśë Yellow markers are for disruptions, red dice are for hits lost and red markers are for shaken units.

Austrians took the hill (far back) and try to march a flanking force around to the crossroads (right) covered by their Dragoons. The French advanced steadily, deployed into assault columns and blasted the Dragoons with artillery. Austrian artillery had managed to throw the light infantry into disarray though, which would hamper the assault on the hill.

More problems for the French. Early assaults were beaten back and French Dragoons are apparently not what they once were. They charged their disrupted counterparts and broke on first contact. The Austrians further complicated the situation by continuing the on board flank march to the crossroads (far right).

The attack on the hill was stuck.

Note the absence of French troops near the crossroads. With flanking fire/charges the Austrians absolutely obliterated their enemy. After a mere 6 turns the French had to retreat. With their cavalry lost early in the battle the Austrian cavalry was free to roam and the battle ended in a complete and utter French defeat. Cannons, eagles and prisoners were captured a plenty.

The Questions 1

How long did it take to play: 1 hour. I did consult the rules for post melee movement once and looked up a modifier or two.

What was the scenario: Scenario #2 Pitched Battle from One-Hour Wargames.

What happened, who won: The French neglected the crossroads while the Austrians performed a battlefield flank march towards it. This brought the French into a precarious position early on. After their Dragoons broke, one unit after another tumbled. With no chance to win, the battle ended on turn 6 with a major Austrian victory. A good example of two battle plans clashing with one being superior.

Extraordinary Events: The bad morale roll of the Dragoons was unfortunate but as mentioned this was a battle of two plans. To see this in such a small game was unexpected and quite nice. The on table flank march was also quite a cool thing to see. It confirmed my good scaling efforts.

Did you enjoy the game: I watched in horror as one of the two armies simply fell apart! It was very unexpected but felt realistic and fun. Some problems with the rules presented themselves but I decided that I needed more data before meddling.

Battle Report 2

I played the same scenario with the same troops again but changed the battle plans.

French forces in a dense formation that can swing to either flank or stay center. Dragoons in reserve (concerned about their morale ;).

Austrians deploy similar to game one but in lines and with their artillery in a more central position. I made a judgement call to at least use some period tactic constraints so the French favored assault columns and the Austrians lines.

Austrians had marvelous command rolls and took the opportunity to advance far with one of their columns. The French were lucky as well and began to surround the column. The image shows what I like about Black Powder. Some games are slow, some are basically all action from turn 1 on.

Austrians managed to support their column with a regiment from the hill (left). They also formed a line in the center. The French decided to ignore the Austrian skirmishers as the Dragoons could counter them effectively. Instead they tried to shift their central infantry to the sides. On the right the French commander rolled a blunder and the assault column awkwardly wedged in between skirmishers and the enemy.

After failed Austrian command rolls the French disrupted the Austrian lines with musketry and double charged on both flanks. The images show the moment of contact. This looked very grim for the overextending Austrians and like textbook for the French.

And here is the result. On the left closing fire was telling but then the Austrians lost heart and fled the field. On the right their brothers in arms not only held but broke one French column entirely. Disaster averted for the soldiers in white.

After the intense combat of the first turns the battle entered a lull. Both commanders tried to organize their mauled troops but only minor moves were made. Meanwhile the artillery of both sides blasted away turn after turn.

After the central Austrian light regiment quit the field the Austrian commander unleashed the cavalry reserve. French Dragoons counter-charged. This proved to be another pivotal moment and the Austrians won. This split the French in half which made command of the light infantry on the right almost impossible. What is it with French Dragoons these days?

The French commander rode to the right flank after a couple of uneventful turns but the Austrian commander had already rallied his forces. He would rally his Dragoons as well and overwhelm the French at the crossroads on the last turn of the game.

Meanwhile artillery dispersed one infantry regiment on each side. The only possibility to thwart an Austrian victory would be to throw the last French assault column up the hill to contest it. The roll needed to be a 6 or less on 2d6, it was a 7. A hard fought last minute win by the Austrians.

The Questions 2

How long did it take to play: 1 hour and 20 minutes. The game felt much longer and tense then the one before but was only 20 minutes longer in time. This is a good sign in my book. I looked up more post melee movement stuff. I need to put reminders on the QRS sheet to speed up gameplay.

What was the scenario: Scenario #2 Pitched Battle from One-Hour Wargames.

What happened, who won: Both forces started with very good command rolls which led to the Austrians advancing too far and the French encircling them. Both forces fought tooth and nail for every bit of real estate. Even though the Austrians saw a couple of turns with no action at all due to failed command rolls, their cavalry reserve was more successful. They eventually split the French in two forces making French unified command difficult. The French needed 1 less on their last command roll to contest the hill in turn 15. A close and bloody Austrian victory. Both sides lost three units.

Extraordinary Events: Due to command rolls the battle dynamic was great. An intense early game with sweeping maneuvers, a lull in the middle and small desperate actions in the end. French command produced 3 blunders which hindered them to develop their right flank.

Did you enjoy the game: There were many turns where tactical challenges had to be solved. We also saw the use of period tactics multiple times like softening up the enemy line and charging in with assault columns. This game also proved that I have to iron out some kinks. Overall a fun and insightful game.

Final Thoughts

With two games in about 2 and a half hours I think my quick and simple Black Powder experiment was a success. Games will obviously last longer with more units per side. But my thesis holds true, that good preparation can speed up gameplay and make it more satisfying.

I will address squares, post melee movement, artillery, shooting modifiers and initiative movement with what I have learned from these two battles. I sketched out some subtle national differences that I have to test as well.

The 2020 To Do List

After my review of 2019 I will now look into my plans for 2020:

Modelling & Painting

Still more terrain to finish. Especially woods and painting houses. Town bases to but said houses onto are also on the list. There are two terrain types I haven’t covered in a satisfactory manner: Swamps and rocky terrain. I have concepts how to build them easily, though.

The packing chips I use as smoke markers lately are not the best looking solution but they are very practical to use and stow away (space is at a premium). Maybe cutting some shapes will make them look better.

Still lots of painting to do on my Sword & Sorcery dungeon crawling games. It progresses nicely but will need many month before completion at my speed.

The look of the 2mm figures from Irregular Miniatures is not what I was looking for in Napoleonics. I need to use some different period paint schemes to see if I can salvage them. American and English Civil Wars come to mind.

The movement trays I sometimes use for Bl├╝cher are really barebones. Something nicer with re-useable unit labels is on the list. Tests were disappointing so far.

I did some experimentation with a Kriegspiel-look DBA set. It did turn out Ok but is only a side project. Even if I don’t continue I should probably write a blog post about it.

Campaigns

The For King & Parliament ECW campaign will continue. If I can make good progress I will be able to finish it this year.

I have a new, smaller Napoleonic campaign in the wings. Several posts are already written up.

There is also an Ancients campaign with DBA 3.0 campaign I started but packed away for Napoleonics quickly. Not sure if i’m motivated enough to finish this.

Battles

Playing games is of course the main focus every year. I mostly play fictional battles or campaign games but I’m interested in trying out scenarios. There are several good Bl├╝cher scenarios here. As I like Big Bloody Battles I would like to give the Aspern-Esslingen scenario a spin. I have enough forces to field the armies but need more road crossings and bendy river sections to set it up.

Then there is 2 Hour Wargames. I quite like the scenarios of the book but I have one or two new ideas to represent encircling and interior lines. Another idea of mine was to randomly combine two scenarios into one larger battle. Some groundwork has been done but a test has yet to be conducted.

I have a large collection of starship miniatures begging me to use them. Maybe this year. Talking of maybe’s, Hordes of the Things arrived over Christmas…

Rules

Over the past years I have tried out a wide array of rule sets for Napoleonics and other periods. Lately I am more and more jaded about most of them. To a point where I’m thinking about getting rid of some. For a self proclaimed rules collector a sacrilegious thing to say! I will think more about this but so far here are my categories for Napoleonics alone:

Rule sets I currently play and like:

  • Bl├╝cher: It simply works.
  • Big Bloody Battles: With modifications that are not set in stone yet.
  • Black Powder: I’m using a fair bit of house rules. But this set is easily adaptable.
  • C&C Napoleonics: With the rule that a block can absorb two hits before it is removed.

On the fence:

  • 2×2 Napoleonics: I only played one game which I liked but the rules are all over the place. I started a re-write for my own purposes but it is not finished or tested.
  • General d’Armee: The rules are nice and give a good game but they simply seem less elegant and slower than Black Powder. If I had to replace Black Powder, this set would probably be it. The ADC system is a big draw towards General d’Armee but in order to really get it going you need sizeable forces on the table which is difficult for me figure- and spacewise.
  • Bataille Empire: Again, great rule set for people who want the detail and slower gaming speed. I still think I prefer Black Powder. The move away from YGO IGO will probably much more interesting for people who play this head to head. For solo play the sequencing is actually difficult to game through. Maybe I give it another try with a more traditional turn order, because most of the other rules are quite good.

Rule sets I tried and didn’t like:

  • Field of Glory: Napoleonics: The terrain generation and pre-battle rules are slick but the main rules are too complicated for me, given that it is a tournament set. I want to like them, but I cant.
  • Portable Napoleonic Wargame: Didn’t give me the period feel I’m looking for.
  • Polemos: Neither the small nor the large scale set convinced me. The rules are not written clearly and don’t give a satisfying period feel in my opinion. To be blunt, Polemos is probably the worst on the list.
  • DBN: It feels too much like DBA for me.
  • Age of Eagles: More detailed in scale and rules than Big Bloody Battles. It needs an absurd amount of bases and has some fiddly stuff that is thankfully abstracted away in Big Bloody Battles.
  • Twilight of the Sun King: Not Napoleonic but I tested them in order to modify them for the period. The concepts are great but the writing is quite vague and some details could have been omitted for my taste.
  • Several variants of 2 Hour Wargames Horse and Musket: All the variants I tried added more chrome to the rules but the game still felt very basic and too attritional in a sense that you nearly always inflict some damage to the enemy. Compare this with Bl├╝cher or Black Powder where fights can be over quick or last a long time with some regularity. There is no disruption or disorder of any kind which is key for the period in my opinion.
  • Shako: To be fair, I only started one game and it was Shako I not II. The order system is very good and has been nicked immediately for other games. All the other stuff… Somehow too fiddly for me. Hard to put a finger on though. It somehow felt too old school.

Rule sets I want to try:

  • Napoleon’s battles: Brigade scale and they don’t seem too complicated. Hard to obtain the rules or information about them, though.
  • Grande Armee: I already heard that it is very time consuming so I’m going into this to find new mechanics and ideas, not a new rule set.
  • Volley & Bayonet: Command & Control seems underdeveloped from what I read but it has a scenario system I ‘m interested in and maybe I like the combat mechanics.

Rules I want to write:

I developed my own starship combat rules quite often in the past. I even came up with something remarkably similar to early Starmada in the time of dial-up internet. I refrained from doing so for historical periods though, as my grasp on them wasn’t good enough and design space seemed less open. You can do crazy thinks in science fiction which are hard to explain in historical periods. Lately there are some ideas froming for a Horse & Musket rule set of my own:

  • Strong command system that makes it necessary to have a plan in advance. Some form of (written) orders which can be changed at a delay or lost in transmission or misunderstood.
  • A turn order that rewards the battle plan, not good initiative dice and moving unit X before unit Y to get into the building first. I have no solid idea for this yet.
  • A simple, free flowing movement system that is constricted by command and control and not by measuring degrees of wheeling.
  • A combat system a bit like Twilight of the Sun King but even more radical. There is no musketry, there are no charges! The driving concept is the proximity of units and the intensity of their orders and will. For example: My cavalry on attack orders, barely an inch away from your infantry is really hurting your infantry’s morale. Whether they fight or threaten each other is abstracted away in Brigade scale. This idea goes back to a quote I read about French infantry breaking next to Prussian cavalry (which didn’t charge).
  • A pre battle system for stratagems and terrain selection. My working idea is that one player has to offer battle at a battlefield but the enemy can decline, going to another battlefield.
  • Mechanics which allow strong period flavor and national differences.