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Friday, 23 January 2015

Review of "Bloody Big Battles!" in the Foreign Correspondent

BBB and BBEB have now been officially reviewed by Bob Mackenzie in the latest issue of the Foreign Correspondent, #105, journal of the Continental Wars Society. Bob and Ralph Weaver of the CWS have kindly agreed that I may reproduce the review in full here. Bob is an experienced rules author in his own right and a thoughtful critic who knows what makes a good game - see his essay on scenario design on his website here: Bob Mackenzie's homepage - 20mm & 1/300th Wargames


(I encourage you to join the CWS. Contact Rob Burke Burker1@aol.com  or Ralph Weaver ralphcws@hotmail.com for details.)

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Bloody Big Battles (BBB) and Bloody Big European Battles (BBEB)

Bloody Big Battles is a set of wargames rules designed to simulate the wars from the end of the Napoleonic Era up to the start of the 20th Century. It includes 9 Franco- Prussian War scenarios. Its companion volume is Bloody Big European Battles, which is a scenario book for BBB and contains 16 European scenarios from 1854 (the Crimean War) to 1897 (the Greco-Turkish War).

First a disclaimer … Chris Pringle, the rules’ author, is a good friend of mine. I have had the great pleasure of playing many excellent games of BBB with him over the 4-5 years the rules took to playtest. Despite this I have striven to be objective in my comments. This relationship means the review is  based on playing the rules many times rather than just taking a cursory look through the rule book. I am no C19th expert, so what follows are comments on how the rules play, not on their realism. Having said that I have glimpsed Chris’s personal library, which is awesome. This was not a set of rules knocked together after reading a pair of Ospreys.

What do I get for my hard earned cash?

The rules are $25 or £18, they are 54 pages long, they come in an A4 (US letter) stapled booklet with paperback quality covers. BBEB is a similar format. There are 24 pages of rules, which include copious examples; 29 scenario pages and a 1 page introduction. The rules buck the current trend for lots of extraneous fluff in rules: so no painting guides, army guides, or “codexes”. The rules are printed in black and white so completely lack the overwhelming amount of “eye candy” that can be found in some sets. The one useful thing omitted is a separate quick reference sheet. There is one bound in to the back of the book but you will have to copy and prepare the quick reference sheets yourself. So what you get are the rules and a bunch of scenarios and nothing else.

The Rules

The rules, it is fair to say, were inspired by the Fire and Fury ACW set, but ruthlessly simplified so as to deal with big battles in a reasonable time. As an example, I played the first two scenarios in BBEB, Kurudere and The Alma in an afternoon, in just under 6 hours. That excluded the first game set-up but included the set-up for the second game. Both of the games were played to the last turn and both came down to a nail- biting last turn finish.

Base sizes are flexible and the rules suggest 1 to 1.5” frontage, though I suspect bigger bases would work perfectly well too, which means you are unlikely to have to rebase. The rules make the point that the bases are considered the “centre of mass” of a unit so base size is not critical. It’s up to the players to determine the numbers and scales of figures to mount on a base; it’s irrelevant to the game mechanics. A base represents 1000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, 24 guns or 24 MGs, however this is flexible to allow bigger scenarios to fit on a reasonable 6x4ft table. An inch on the table represents an average of  200yds and a turn is roughly 1 hour,  though scales are somewhat elastic to allow for playability of scenarios.

The core of the rules is the “movement chart” which is actually a combined movement and morale chart. Each unit rolls dice to see how far it can move. If the unit’s morale is bad enough it may move backwards. The chart also deals with rallying. This system is unlike some other dice activation systems where it’s not unusual for all a player’s units to remain halted if they have poor quality troops. In BBB most units move at least half a move most of the time. I have yet to see an instance where a player was stymied in moving all of his units. The activation system is certainly an inconvenience to your plans and will make perfect co-ordination of your forces almost impossible, however it is not designed to frustrate players by preventing them moving anything. Movement distances are generous, 12” for infantry and 18” with cavalry if you roll well on the movement table. This makes the games very dynamic. The battlefield situation can change dramatically every turn, which to my mind makes for an exciting challenging game. Do not expect to spend half the game “playing” out a meaningless approach march.

The shooting and assault rules work smoothly and are competent. There are no radical mechanisms but they do produce results that feel correct. Fire often disrupts the enemy rather than kills, but combine enough firepower and the effect can be decisive.

Scenarios

The rules are good but they are not the highlight of BBB. Chris is a genius scenario designer and this is what sets the books apart from their competitors. The scenarios appear thoroughly researched. They tend to be asymmetrical in some way which adds considerable interest, and the victory conditions are cleverly thought out to provide an interesting and viable challenge to both sides. None of the scenarios represent bog-standard “line ‘em up” frontal assaults, all represent fluid situations which are interesting to game with many thorny decisions to be made. Each scenario has a smattering of special rules, not enough to overwhelm the players, but enough to capture the particular flavour of the battle.

Games Workshop aficionados may be disappointed.

Game play is based around the historical scenarios. There are no army lists and no points values. There are no generic scenarios and no mechanisms for balancing a fictional scenario. If competition gaming is your cup of tea then these are not the rules for you. Even if you like scenarios but feel the need to set up your own there is no guidance for creating your own, so you are very much on your own in this situation.

Other challenges

None of the scenarios are small (there is a hint in the name). Although the rules are simple and easy to pick up the game requires considerable investment before you can play. You need a lot of troops. Froeschwiller in BBB is a relatively small scenario but requires 90 assorted Prussian bases and 50 French bases. If you have a suitable collection already then all is good but this is not a set where you can dabble with a few troops before investing in bigger armies.
[ChrisBBB adds: actually there are now some small 'training scenarios' available in the files of the BBB Yahoo group.]

Scenarios have realistic terrain, which certainly makes them more engaging. However you need a great deal of terrain to make up the maps. The most challenging aspect will be hills. Nearly all of the maps are covered in contours and it ’s rather unlikely most gamers will have enough hills of suitable shapes to fit most of the maps. Books under a cloth is not suitable substitute as the game rules require clearly delineated contours and require all steep slopes to be marked clearly. Personally I feel a system of making ridgelines would have been more accessible to most gamers when trying to model the battlefield topography. Modelling the hills can be done, but will require some investment.

Maps

The maps in the game are its least attractive aspect. They are black and white with shading. In some the shading is tricky to follow, especially in those with many woods which sometimes use similar shading to the contours. Luckily all the maps are  on  the  BBB  Yahoo  group  in  glorious,  and  comprehensible,  colour: https://uk.groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/BBB_wargames/files , as are the quick reference sheets. Note you need to be a registered member of the group to access the files.  The maps (but not  the QR sheets) are also available on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/127771552@N03/sets/72157646425291544/ .

In Conclusion

Some of the best gaming I have had over the last four years has come from BBB. If you have the models and terrain to hand so you can start playing immediately I thoroughly recommend the rules. Even if you are not particularly interested in the period I recommend give it a go, the rules and scenarios produce great entertaining games. If you haven’t got the kit to play then find a friend who has so you can try it, it may well inspire you to build up your personal collection.

I’ll leave you with Chris’s final words from BBB: “And remember: if you lose, it’s due to bad luck; if you win, it’s due to your superior generalship! Have fun!”

“Bloody Big Battles!” and “Bloody Big European Battles!”. Chris Pringle. 2014. SkirmishCampaigns. RRP $25. Available in the US from Brigade Games or On Military Matters, and in the UK from Caliver Books or Irregular Miniatures. Reviewed by Bob Mackenzie.