Sunday, 10 September 2023

A bad day at Malplaquet (WSS, 1709)

Matt Bradley treated us to the fourth of his Marlburian games: Malplaquet. When he ran it previously with another group, it ended in emphatic Allied victory (see his report here). It is with mixed feelings that I tell you we demonstrated scenario balance by incurring an Allied defeat.

Five captioned photos tell the story, followed by post-battle reflections.

This shows the French deployment before we set out the Allies. The French hold a line of fortifications between two large woods. The fleurs de lys mark the three objectives: the redoubt on the left, the crossroads in the centre, and the road to the exit top right. The Allies must take one for a draw or two to win, while not losing Aulnois or Rieu de Bury. Allied forces deploy >12" away from the French line. Note how the ground the Allies have to cross is cut up by streams that seriously impede any attempt to shift pressure from one sector of the line to another, while of course the woods hinder their advance on the right and any efforts at outflanking. By contrast, note also the entirely open space behind the French line, meaning they can shift reserves to wherever they may be needed with relative ease and counter any Allied move.

The Allied left is deployed. Our plan on this flank was for Tilly's Dutch (commanded by David B) to move through the woods against the flank of the French redoubt (as they did in Matt's game) while Lottum's force (my command) attacked its front.

The Allied right. The scenario allows Withers's force to flank march and arrive on the west or east edge after mid-game, but Luke and Ben opted to commit it here to back up Prince Eugene from Turn 1. The limbered grand battery looks impressive but achieved nothing.

I used up all my good dice on Turns 1 & 2 with all my infantry conducting absolutely balletic manoeuvres to wheel into position. Unfortunately David was less fortunate and took a little too long to blunder through the woods, so Crispin was able to react and move reserves to protect his flank before we got there. No more pictures are necessary on this flank. After one turn of waiting for David, he and I then spend the next five turns banging our heads repeatedly against the brick wall of entrenched French and their flank support. Perhaps we only needed to be lucky once, but we weren't. Nil points.

A similar story on the right - if anything, worse. As we had committed Withers, Mark knew he had no flank threat to worry about and could immediately redeploy his reserves. While Luke and Ben struggled through the woods, the French fluently deployed into an enveloping line. Again, no more pictures necessary. Top left you see a French infantry unit storming out of its redoubts to see off the unwary grand battery before it could set up its guns. Next to them, Luke's infantry then got enveloped, enfiladed, assaulted and driven back. Right of pic are the French dragoons who got on Ben's flank, creating a succession of devastating French assaults from front and flank that shattered Ben's force.

Thus we Allies failed to take a single objective and were roundly defeated.


Allied errors. Well, we made a few. What you won't notice in any of the pictures is the two biggest and best Allied cavalry units. I had these loiter behind Lottum to exploit the breakthrough that never came. Maybe they'd have been better held in the centre where they could have deterred the French artillery-killing infantry charge. Our boys on the right kind of put their heads in a French noose by exposing both flanks, but in fairness it is hard enough to manoeuvre 18th-century troops in the open, so in the woods you've got no chance of doing anything efficient or coordinated. Likewise with our left flanking move that maybe could have been slightly better directed initially, but really it was down to the woods and the dice to stymie us.

Linear warfare and limited decisions. To grind one of my favourite axes ... at one level I had enough to do, wrestling with small tactical decisions like which brigade should lead the next futile assault or how best to get a cavalry brigade across a stream. But at a grand tactical level, my situation didn't change and I had hardly any choices to make. I marched up to the redoubt, I assaulted it four or five times in essentially the same way and I bounced off it every time. Not that I didn't have a good time - we all did and everyone was smiling and laughing at the end despite our emphatic defeat - but I'd say the game was absorbing rather than exciting, at least on my sector.

That'll have to do for reflections this time as it was Colours yesterday and I have a Peninsular War game tomorrow and things to do today, so right now let's publish and be damned!

Monday, 21 August 2023

From 2mm to 28mm, Malplaquet to Spion Kop, FB to YouTube!

It has been a bumper weekend, not for playing, but for observing the creativity and enthusiasm of other BBB players. In the space of a couple of days I saw reports from four different players on games covering four different conflicts spanning 200 years, using 2mm, 6mm and 28mm figures and terrain, and disseminated via Facebook, blogs, and even a YouTube video. Here they are:

Malplaquet (1709)

Matt Bradley has written and played a scenario for this, the last of Marlborough's 'Big Four'. On his 'Pushing Tin' blog you can see Matt's beautiful 6mm layout.

Dennewitz (1813)

This was David Lopez's first go at BBB and I'm pleased to see he says "really enjoyed the rules". He shared a nice set of photos on the BBB Facebook page. He used 6mm armies with 2mm terrain, including a lovely town and some convincingly forested forests.

Hatchie Bridge (1862)

Another Facebook report, this time from Michael Peccolo. He ran his own Hatchie Bridge scenario at Nashcon. Most BBB players use small-scale figures to fight large-scale battles. Michael used large 28mm figures to fight this small division-sized action. It looks good and it works!

Spion Kop (1900)

Finally, some Boer War action. Eric Elder has cut custom hills to reproduce the Spion Kop scenario battlefield faithfully. You can see his YouTube video about it here. Looking forward to the episode where he fights the battle!

I was actually a bit stunned to see all of these in rapid succession. I was struck by the quantity, the quality, and the range of games, figures and terrain on display. Each of them seems to me to meet the criteria I listed in my essay about the 'High Quality Gaming Experience' (one of my series of 'Reflections on Wargaming'). Those criteria are: The Terrain, The Troops, The Venue, The Rules, The Scenario, The Company. The terrain and troops all look great. Venue-wise, whether basement or garden room or gaming convention, all good. Naturally, I cannot praise the choice of ruleset highly enough. OK, I can't absolutely vouch for the scenarios as I've only played one of them, but it sounds as though they produced entertaining games; nor can I comment with any authority on the company, as I wasn't there to judge, but I'm sure all present were estimable characters and gallant gaming companions.

My compliments to Matt, David, Michael and Eric on their good work and my thanks to them for sharing it with us all.

Wednesday, 9 August 2023

Beaten up at Beaumont (FPW 1870)

So often, my AARs finish by saying something like, "so after a nailbiting climax that could have gone either way, with multiple objectives contested on the final turn until the last throw of the dice, it ended as a classic BBB draw". Not so this week!

Crispin offered us one of the Franco-Prussian War scenarios from the BBB rulebook: Beaumont. This is a fighting withdrawal, one of the more interesting situations to wargame and one that doesn't find its way onto our tables often enough, but a tricky one to pitch the victory conditions just right. At Beaumont, a French corps gets caught and mauled by the advancing Germans as it is about to try to move away from them across the Meuse. The BBB scenario actually makes the situation more interesting by including additional forces further west, where another French corps ended up being forced apart from the others.

Dave and I took the part of Failly (French 5th Corps) and Douay (7th Corps) respectively, while Matt took the Bavarians and German V Korps, leaving John with IV Korps and the Saxons.

The French deploy first. They have one important decision to make immediately: whether to deploy part of 5 Cps forward in Beausejour (forcing IV Kps to start further back) or hold it all further north in and behind Beaumont. We opted for the forward deployment. As it turned out, that may have been an error. The captioned pictures below illustrate why. (Skip past them if you can't wait to read my perceptive, witty and erudite reflections and resulting profound insights arising from the game. If they disappoint you, you can ask for your money back.)

The battlefield, looking east. French 5 Cps top right facing Germans in the woods. French 7 Cps bottom right, most of it out of shot bottom right corner. We need to traverse the whole table and get across the Meuse to join 12 Cps at Mouzon, top left. This is made more difficult by the terrain. Brownish areas are hills; pinkish edges indicate steep slopes. Green chalked areas are woods. Unfortunately, after going to all the trouble of making this custom mat, Crispin forgot to bring his trees.

A better view of my command. Most of it is forced to set up having responded to the Germans' proximity by instinctively deploying to fight them off. First order of business will be to get it back into march columns. Top right can be seen the two brigades of 5 Cps that we pushed forward into Beausejour and onto the hill next to it. 

Two brigades of Bavarians start the game in the woods between 5 and 7 Cps. These would swiftly push into the gap between our French formations and make life extremely difficult for 7 Cps.

End of Turn 1. Both Bavarian brigades have reached the edge of the woods, top centre, with another two following them. No such slick efficiency on the French side: my lead column failed to move at all, blocking the road, while all my artillery managed half-moves only. This was rather crucial - I really needed to get something, anything, deployed around La Besace (the town left center) to screen the rest of my troops marching towards Mouzon.

End of Turn 4 or 5, I think, and the battle has moved on. Top centre: 5 Cps has lost its two forward units and been kicked out of Beaumont, overwhelmed by German numbers, while Saxon reinforcements from top right are arriving on its left flank. That solitary unit left centre of pic is not an escaping French division, unfortunately, but the lead Bavarian brigade barring our way. I now have a division in La Besace (centre of pic), but too late to be useful. Three brigades and my artillery have made it through the large wood but still have a long way to go. My other brigade has disappeared, as German V Kps (bottom right) caught the tail of my column and chewed it off.

A closer look at the ominously tight-packed and well-drilled assault columns of V Kps, with batteries of Krupps rumbling up behind them.

And a close-up of their prey, my 7 Cps columns desperately sweating up hill and down dale to escape.

Turn 6 or 7. One of my units is winning the firefight against the lead Bavarian brigade, but that has done its job by forcing my columns to detour so far that it is doubtful whether they can reach the bridges in time. My unit stuck in La Besace (top right) seems doomed to fight a rearguard action that it will not survive.

Game end. Dave got some of his 5 Cps artillery away but none his infantry escaped. This shot shows the only unit of mine to reach the bridge, about to be shot up badly by Prussian needleguns as it crosses. We fell a little short of our victory target: we needed to extract five infantry units and three artillery for a draw, or six and four to win. Dave got enough guns away, but one solitary infantry unit was all we managed between us. Hence we were utterly trounced.


Is the Scenario Balanced? When you lose a game as badly as we did, you can't help wondering whether the scenario is skewed against you. The French have 10 infantry units south of the Meuse, of which five or six have to escape, so they can only afford to lose/leave four or five at most. They are also handicapped by being Passive. Did we have an impossible task?

Well, maybe not. From looking at the report in the BBB group files of our epic campaign in which we fought all 9 battles in a 3-day weekend, I see that although Beaumont was a German victory then too, it was a lot closer - the French actually got enough infantry off the table and were unlucky not to get the guns away too.

 In this week's game, a few things all went wrong straight away. In some game situations, a run of bad dice early on can be made up for by good ones later. In a fighting withdrawal like Beaumont, it can harder for the withdrawing side to recover from initial setbacks - once you're caught, you really have to stop and fight; if someone gets in your way to start with, getting through or past them becomes so much more difficult.

In our case, (a) we committed troops forward instead of sitting back to exploit the longer range of our massed chassepots; (b) all the crucial units at the head of my column failed to get enough movement to cover the rest; and (c) Matt's Bavarians then got the good rolls they needed to get in my way. From there it just cascaded bad to worse. I think it fair to say that, on my side of the pitch at least, it was compounded by Matt rolling plenty of deadly high firing dice, while mine were consistently ordinary.

Regardless, the boys are keen to roll this one out again in the near future, so maybe we'll find that it can go very differently with a few different dice (and better French plans).

Does Scenario Balance Matter? Even if the scenario is skewed and we were doomed from the start - how much does it matter? We all had fun and kept smiling (even if the smiles were wry ones as Matt rolled another 11 to kill off my chasseurs, or as one of my columns yet again refused to demonstrate any sense of urgency and stopped for coffee and croissants in the woods). We're not tournament gamers, so it's about the journey, not the destination.

All true, but still, the journey is more exciting when it's not so obvious where you're going to end up. I enjoyed the game but I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it more if we'd still had a chance of getting enough troops away towards the end. That makes it a qualified 'yes', in that a balanced scenario where both sides have a decent chance of winning isn't essential but does add to the game. (Though I note again - I'm not saying Beaumont definitely isn't balanced.)

Possible tweaks. Historically, the French ended up divided on both sides of the Meuse and headed downriver to Sedan. Perhaps rather than just having to try to cross the Meuse, 7 Cps should be allowed an alternate (nearer, historical) escape route, say anywhere within 6"-12" of the NW corner of the board. Units getting off there might count half as much as if they cross the Meuse. It's always good to have more than one way of winning. Another simple tweak would be just to remove the French 'Passive' rating.


Wednesday, 2 August 2023

We oohed 'n' aahed at Oudenarde

Having entertained us royally last year with his recreations of  Blenheim and Ramillies, Matt moved on to offer us Marlborough's third big battle of the War of the Spanish Succession: Oudenarde (1708).

Oudenarde is an exception to the conventional 18th-century simple line-out, being that rare thing, a genuine meeting engagement. Both armies are in motion, the French marching to seize the small fortress of Oudenarde and its bridges over the Scheldt, the allies racing to intercept them. Hence, only the two sides' small advance guards start the game on table, the main bodies having to march on over the first several turns.

Seven photos and captions tell the story of the game, followed by the usual post-battle reflections (and a link to the scenario).

Matt's games are always works of art. Here we see the fortress of Oudenarde. It played no direct part in the historical battle, nor in our game, but it does make a beautiful table ornament.

I commanded the French advance guard, seen here on parade before deploying: two Swiss brigades and some old-style caracoling cavalry. My role would be brief and inglorious. Admire Matt's handiwork - not only the beautifully painted troops but also the nice printed labels and a French royal banner to mark a French-held objective.


The enemy arrives! The allied advance guard has already raced off to the west. Here the allied right wing under Prince Eugene debouches through Oudenarde. It will follow the advance guard (and in doing so become the left wing).

My force concentrates in one of the village objectives, Eyne. 18th-century maneuver is slow and laborious, so it will take me another two turns to cross the stream in front of Eyne and take a second objective (Schaerken), despite being entirely unopposed. 

The whole battlefield, end of Turn 1 before the battle lines have formed. Essentially the battle will be fought up the middle of the table, from Eyne (foreground) through Schaerken, the high ground beyond, the orchards and farms surrounding that, and in front of Oycke (top left). Allied advance guard is in and approaching Oycke; the first of the French main body arriving from upper right. 

Several turns later and battle is well and truly joined. As massed allied infantry finally started to pay attention to my side of the battlefield, I launched a couple of spoiling moves. First my cavalry sallied forward into a gap in the allied line. The allied infantry responded by diverting left to drive them off. That exposed a flank, so I boldly pushed a Swiss brigade out of Eyne to enfilade them. Two volleys @ 42% chance failed to register any effect at all. By contrast, both large allied brigades then got the movement dice they needed to able to turn, assault and crush the Swiss. After that, they turned their attention to my remaining troops in Schaerken. Pic shows the ensuing assault, maneuver dice again favoring the allies. Top of pic, both sides' lines are forming up and preparing to contest Oycke.

Close-up of the assault on Schaerken. Yet another Swiss volley misfired, so the overwhelming allied numbers closed in, wiped out my second Swiss brigade and chased out the cavalry. That effectively ended my part in the game, so I'll have to summarise without further pics. Meanwhile, another chance to admire Matt's craftsmanship. Note how important it is to paint the lace on 6mm tricornes - very helpful to tell which way a unit is facing.

The conquerors of Schaerken turned their attention to Eyne and pushed Crispin's French out of there as well. However, he brought up more troops, including elite guard cavalry in the centre, counterattacked Eyne unsuccessfully, but retook Schaerken, where he fended off allied counterattacks in turn.

In the western half of the table, Dave's French maintained pressure on Oycke, could not take it, but obviated any allied attempt to take the central hill or interfere with Crispin's attack on Schaerken.

Thus, another seesaw game with objectives taken and retaken and several contested on the last turn. It ended, as so often, as an exciting and hard-fought draw.

My own early elimination from the game was fortuitous, as it freed me up to chat with a visitor from Yorkshire, Paul, who was checking out OWS for an Oxford friend. We had a good old natter but it does mean readers must forgive me for not taking more photos.


C18 maneuver constraints again. After both our previous WSS games I commented on how Matt's rule mods capture the limitations of linear warfare and force us players to think a bit harder and anticipate a bit more carefully. It was no different this time (in fairness it has been a year since the Ramillies outing). I'd just add that occasionally people forgot and tried to move a bit too freely and easily (including myself). Next time we should probably have a pre-game reminder briefing just to help cement the mods into our brains.

Never say die. My personal morale broke along with my command. My dice had been as dismal as Mark's were destructive. The allied line looked denser and more solid than ours. About halfway through the game I thought we had no chance and the French were just going through the motions before inevitable defeat. I reckoned without Crispin's spirited counter-attack and the quality of his elite guard troops that salvaged the battle for us and even gave a chance of victory.

Love the aesthetic. Matt's games are gorgeous: the figures, the custom hills and painted mats, the fortress, the printed unit labels, the flags for objectives, the figures for status markers. Just exquisite. Looking forward to his redoubts for Malplaquet already.

Seeing is believing. This was our visitor Paul's first chance to see BBB in action. A serious game designer himself, he commented favourably on the flow of the game, the level of player engagement, and the way it achieved its aim of rocking through an entire battle in an evening club session - sufficiently so that he told me he plans to invest in a copy. Cheers, Paul!


Scenario available from the BBB files.

Wednesday, 26 July 2023

Waterloo: "I have never felt so emotionally immersed in a game!"

The grand projet of compiling a book of BBB scenarios for all of Napoleon's bloodiest, biggest battles approaches completion. One rather important ingredient of that set is Waterloo. We first visited this for the bicentenary in 2015, when we did a demo game at our local military museum; reprised it later that year; then I ran it for my US buddies in 2016. Mark has now taken my original scenario and tweaked and polished it a bit. This week we playtested his version.

Everyone knows Waterloo. Napoleon is trying to prevent Wellington and Blücher from combining against him, so he needs to beat Wellington before Blücher turns up. In game terms, he has to hold 4 of the 5 Objectives for a win or 3 for a draw. These are Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Papelotte, which define the Allied line (Papelotte also represents a wedge between Wellington and the Prussians); and Plancenoit and Mont St Jean representing the French and Allied lines of communications. The French also lose an objective if either of the two Old Guard infantry units becomes Spent. (I know there are wargamers who think it is stupid to make Hougoumont an objective. I refer you to my essay, 'Victory Conditions in Wargames'. See also the thoughts at the end of this post.)

Dave donned Picton's top hat. Crispin put on his Wellingtons. Phil, with his particular affection for d'Erlon's corps, took the French right, leaving me to command the left and the Guard. Mark refereed and controlled the Prussians once they arrived.

The Allied line looked dauntingly solid. Phil and I decided not to attack it head-on. Our plan was an initial right hook with both d'Erlon and Lobau, while we built a grand battery to pummel the Allied centre. Reille was to shift right and sit behind the grand battery to keep us balanced. As for where to commit the Guard, that would depend how the first few turns went.

Eight pics below tell the story of how this plan worked out, followed by some reflections on the game as usual.

View from behind the French centre. Allied position on the ridge at top of pic. Hougoumont behind its orchard top left, La Haye Sainte top centre, Papelotte next right. D'Erlon's corps in the lead upper right, followed by Lobau around La Belle Alliance middle of pic. Reille is queuing up lower left, with the Guard bottom left. The Corsican ogre himself lower right, complete with Mameluke. (Nice armies, Mark, but come on - flock those bases, please!)

British view from behind a thin red (and green, black and blue) line along the sunken Ohain road atop the ridge, with a few reserves behind the centre in and around Mont St Jean, and garrisons posted forward in the three defensive bastions of Papelotte, La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. Note how the left is hanging in the air. This is what our right hook targeted, much to Dave's consternation.

One last panoramic pre-game shot, this time from the west. Top centre and left of picture are the woods through which the Prussians will eventually emerge. The Allied right is also somewhat open, though Hougoumont is an obstacle to any left hook and there is also Chassé's Dutch-Belgian brigade in Braine l'Alleud just out of shot at bottom left corner.

French Turn 3: plan view of almost the whole battlefield (still couldn't quite get Chassé in). D'Erlon was slow to move out, thanks to a series of poor activation rolls, but there are now six French units across the stream upper right beyond Papelotte and Smohain/Frischermont. Saxe-Weimar's Nassauers (not 'masseurs', Dave - that's a different game) have been expelled from Papelotte and are now Spent.

Close-up of the exploitation from Papelotte. Lobau's men are about to complete the rout of the Nassauers, then pile into Picton's best infantry and shove them back as well.

Now the French plan evolves. Lobau's success and the menace of Milhaud's cavalry on the Allies' left flank have drawn every reserve away from the Allied right. The grand battery has formed with Reille behind it in the centre. The time is right to commit the Guard and Kellermann's cuirassiers in a left hook. not least because there isn't much space anywhere else. Here we see them advancing along the ridge that leads around the left of Hougoumont. Green cubes denote 'Aggressive' and the purple counter 'Shock' - good things to have on your side when it comes to the assault.

The high point of Lobau's and d'Erlon's attack. Out of shot to the right, one of d'Erlon's divisions will storm an Allied artillery position and deliver deadly fire into the flank of the Hanoverian Landwehr bottom right. Top left, Allied reserves frantically march east to contain the breach. Top centre is our nemesis, the Household Brigade, kept in hand by Old Nosey himself. These heavy cavalry are about to unleash a series of devastating charges.

No photos of what ensued on the French left as I was too busy actually doing it. The left hook ran into some murderous Allied volleys but managed to push the supporting units back from Hougoumont. The Old Guard stormed the chateau, then survived a sanguinary counter-attack. The Allied right was in tatters, its fragile Dutch-Belgian formations Spent and the British ones severely reduced.

'Die Teutschen kommen!' The Prussians began arriving halfway through the battle. They reached the environs of Papelotte at the same time as the Household Brigade smashed d'Erlon. Lobau was unable to resist this fresh force on his flank and was brushed aside in turn. Papelotte was retaken, though the Prussian focus there meant Plancenoit was never threatened.

However, in the meantime, the grand battery had done its work and Reille had taken La Haye Sainte. Counter-attacks were bloodily repulsed and the Allied centre was largely shredded as well. Little stood between us and Mont-St Jean! Albeit our right was collapsing even faster than the Allied right and centre.

Thus, as night fell, the French held Plancenoit, La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont - another classic BBB honourable draw.


Waterloo - it's a classic. Obviously it gets played and replayed so much because it is so famous and such an emblematic pinnacle of a quarter-century of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. But it also gets replayed because it has genuine replay value. We players try all sorts of different plans to prove that we're smarter than Napoleon. Left hooks, right hooks, smashmouth, combinations thereof, and the ultimate question of where to commit the Guard ... Mark described our French plan this time as 'very elegant'. Maybe so, but it still didn't work!

Identifying (and identifying with) units. Another good thing about Waterloo is that the commanders, formations and regiments are so familiar. It definitely helps bring a game to life when we can talk about 'committing the Household Brigade' rather than 'those red cavalry', or say 'stand firm the 52nd!', or when Dave can command his beloved Nassauers, etc. That in turn helps with players' engagement with the game. Quote of the night: 'I don’t think I have ever felt quite so emotionally immersed in a game – from frustration to elation to admiration to regret and finally despair!' (and bear in mind this was not that player's first rodeo).

Marshalling large forces. Echoing what I said after January's Borodino game, with over 20 units a side you really feel as though you are shifting weighty masses of troops around the table. Committing the Guard becomes a much more substantial decision when it's five potent units (plus artillery) rather than just one or two. It definitely gives a meaty, bloody big battle feel and makes it easier to pretend you're a Marshal of France.

Hougoumont: red herring or precious prize? I mentioned the fact that some think it is stupid to make Hougoumont an objective. There is certainly a case to be made that the historical French attack on Hougoumont was poorly planned and executed and didn't need to happen when it did. I am less sure about whether Napoleon could have ignored entirely. In our game, it wasn't my initial focus - I wanted to win by scrubbing away the weaker and less well ensconced units supporting it - but the chateau was a thorn in my side, and I actually found I needed to storm the chateau to break the line behind it anyway. If Napoleon wants to ignore the chateau, that means ignoring the Allied right. What does he do instead? As the scenario stands, the French don't have to take Hougoumont to win, but making it an Objective rewards them if they do capture this key to unlocking one sector of the Allied position. I think that's reasonable.

Monday, 10 July 2023

Bash Day IV brief report (Leeds 2023)

Pre-COVID we ran three Bloody Big Battles 'Bash Day!' conventions in 2016, 2017 and 2019. I see all three reports mention 'by popular demand' and 'convivial' and I see no reason to break with tradition now. Hence: by popular demand, we were all set to run Bash Day IV in 2020 when plague struck and cancelled everything.

By the time normality returned, our BD IV organiser, Colin, had emigrated to Yorkshire and become a member of Leeds Wargames Club. LWC is blessed with its own large premises, Hicks Hall, thanks to the generosity of the late Brian Hicks. LWC kindly let us have the use of the hall to take Bash Day oop north and away from Oxford for the first time.

Colin has put a full report with plenty of pretty pictures on his own blog here, so I will try to avoid duplicating his comments in making my own. Do read his as well.

Numbers were smaller than the previous events in Oxford, as distance made it unfeasible for quite a few regulars to attend, but BBB is about quality rather than quantity and we met some high-quality people for the first time. I'm only sorry I didn't get to chat to everyone as much as I'd have liked.

The Union V and XII Corps massed at the Chancellorsville crossroads, nestled in the heart of Virginia's famous rubberised horsehair woods. Battlemat and armies generously loaned by their creator, Crispin (much appreciated, thank you). Chancellor House also hand-crafted by Crispin. I don't usually bother with unit labels but I made the effort for Bash Day and they did help, especially the highlighted text to note distinctive unit attributes (yellow and green to show XII Cps is Fragile and Raw etc).

I ran my Chancellorsville ACW scenario, of which I'm rather proud, and it did not disappoint. On Day 1 everything that could go wrong for the Confederates did go wrong and they looked likely to be steamrollered. On Day 2 they turned it round completely, defeated a well-choreographed Union punch in the center, counter-attacked, smashed several Union corps and turned ignominious defeat into emphatic victory. I have to pay tribute to CSA C-in-C Ian for cheerfully laughing in the face of adversity, and also to his US opponents Guy and Stephen for equally cheerfully accepting their eventual defeat.

In the afternoon I got to play alongside Tom and against Guy in Matt Bradley's 2nd Manassas scenario, kindly run by Tim Carne - a good tough scrap, recommended. (Scenario is in the 1861 folder of the BBB group files.)

With the prior approval of Pete Berry at Baccus, we had scheduled Bash Day to happen the day before Baccus's Joy of Six show in Sheffield. The idea was that the prospect of the two events would attract more people to make the trip to Yorkshire and attend both. That may have worked in one or two cases; it may also have deterred some local gamers who could manage one wargames day in a weekend but not two. I've no idea what the net effect was really, but at least it meant we could go to JoS ourselves and have a convivial time there as well. (See what I did there?)

All told it was a thoroughly successful and enjoyable weekend. We met a lot of good people, entertained and inspired some new players sufficiently to invest in the BBB rules, caught up with some old friends, and generally had a great time. The guys are already talking about planning Bash Day V!


Sunday's entertainment at Joy of Six. Ian and the Deesside wargamers (IIRC) laid on this beautiful game of the German invasion of Leros in 1943. Cleverly streamlined rules for convention play produced a fast and close game in which the brilliant defence Mark and I planned was narrowly overcome by jammy German dice. (That's my story anyway.) Many thanks to our good hosts and our gallant opponents.


Finally, a propos of nothing, a different recent outing:
If you are ever in central Birmingham (UK) and fancy a WWI-themed lunch of superior pub grub, you could do worse than 'The Old Contemptibles'.

Thursday, 15 June 2023

Ukraine with FFT

My mate Graham spent the 1980s in Germany defying the Soviet threat. He still has a bucket-load of 1/300 West German and Soviet tanks from those days when he was winning the Cold War by playing it out on the tabletop.

We decided to dust them off to explore what is happening in the Ukraine right now. Apologies to any readers who feel current tragic real-world events are not an appropriate subject for a game. This was an exercise in technical curiosity, no political dimension and no bad taste involved. We set up a notional scenario loosely based on the Ukrainian offensive apparently in progress right now just to see how things might go. I say 'loosely' because we had only the sketchiest idea of what the Ukrainian and Russian forces look like and how they operate.

The scenario situation is that three battalions or so of Russians are dug in along a river line, some minor tributary of a larger tributary of the Dnepr. They have only a little armour on-table but a mechanized battalion in reserve. The Ukrainians will probe with three recce companies initially before deciding where to commit their main body.

Here is some grainy drone footage of the battlefield, looking north from the Russian side. Mostly open country with occasional villages and small woods. Light green patches are marshy ground. Yellow patches are Ukrainian sunflower fields. The main river runs across the centre of the table from left to right, with minor streams feeding it. Three bridges cross the main river. The Ukrainians' nominal mission is to take one of these for a draw or two for a win.

Ukrainian recce probed the eastern bridge first and found it strongly defended by two infantry companies (one dug in behind the bridge, the other in the sunflower field top right) supported by a mech company in the village in the foreground. Plumes of smoke top of pic show how Luchs armoured cars fared against T-72s' 125mm rounds and BMPs' missiles. However, Ukrainian troops have got into the village top left and are about to bring down lots of artillery fire on the Russians.

Then the Ukrainian scouts snuck away to the west to investigate the central bridge. Amazingly, they found it undefended! (Rather than plot a prepared defence and map it, I had scattered twice as many counters as I had Russian units, then rolled a D6 as each was 'bumped'. On 4+ I deployed a company, otherwise it was a dummy. I had five or six counters around this bridge but they all evaporated. Our rationale was that the Ukrainians must have struck a seam between units like at the famous 'Bull Bridge' during Operation Bluecoat in 1944 - perhaps between the Wagner group and the Russian army?) The Ukrainian recce promptly jumped in and seized it, backed up by some prowling Leopards top of pic.

We decided that would probably trigger a Russian counterattack, so over the next two moves I brought on the reserve mech battalion. Here the first two mech companies approach from the southwest (we made reinforcement arrival points semi-random).

Graham's artillery fire had been singularly ineffective until now, struggling to roll any 5s or 6s. This is the reason why - he was using a couple of D3s. His luck improved after we realised this.

The Russian counterattack develops as a third mech company arrives from the southeast to envelop the Ukrainian defenders of the central bridge. Unfortunately for the Russians, the Ukrainians have decided to reinforce success, so more Leopards and Marders are arriving top of pic.

The ruleset we used was 'A Fistful of TOWs' (FFT). Combat in FFT is swift and lethal. Within a couple of turns, most of my mech battalion was burning wrecks as superior NATO equipment and training demonstrated the quality gap. The Ukrainians lost a few as well, but with their armour virtually all gone, the Russian infantry - though numerous - had no real option but to hunker down in their trenches. We stopped there, but the Ukrainians had secured a draw and looked good for an eventual win.

And to finish: a parade shot of just a fraction of Graham's collection that never made it onto the table. M113s, Jagdpanzers, Gepards etc, all in functional factory finish.


Just a Game: The first thing to say is that this bore little relation to reality. I just read yesterday that Ukraine is reporting advances of "200 to 500 metres" in fierce fighting, whereas our game of bold armoured manoeuvre produced a relatively swift and easy 3km+. I suppose what is actually happening is more like a WWII infantry assault against prepared defences, with lots of fire support on both sides to pin everyone down, and the Russians apparently conducting "manoeuvre defence" - planned fighting withdrawal through successive defensive lines - rather effectively. Our game was closer to a hastily improvised defence (albeit with trenches): none of the minefields and obstacles that I am sure the Russians have, minimal Russian artillery rather than the considerable support and effective fire plans they evidently have, we underrated the infantry's anti-armour weaponry, the undefended bridge was a highly unlikely fluke, and I played the Russian infantry as essentially passive rather than reacting as intelligently as they seem to be. Also, having read some studies that comment on the effects of drone surveillance and the resulting need for dispersion and mobility, I would have liked to add some scenario special rules to reflect those, but as I last played FFT a decade or so ago and Graham had never used them, that would have been a complication too far. All that said, I suppose our game with its unrealistic and unsuccessful Russian tactics at least partly illustrated why they have opted for the alleged manoeuvre defence instead.

Quality vs quantity: always a good match-up. You could say the game was rigged in that we rated the Russians as "Average" in FFT terms and the Ukrainians as "Good". This quality difference then plays out in both to-hit rolls and saving rolls. This really told once the HEAT and APFSDS started flying.

Lack of practice makes imperfect: although Graham and I are both broadly familiar with the characteristics of the modern kit we were using, how that translates into tabletop interactions using an unfamiliar ruleset is a different story. Our inept fumbling and consequent poor tactics probably made the game even less realistic than it already was.

Get the toys on the table: the gap since my last post betrays the fact that I've gone a few weeks without a game. It was good just to push some models around and roll some dice; doubly so because I rarely get to play a moderns game and some variety in gaming diet is both healthy and refreshing.

Unpredictability makes for interesting games: the semi-random mechanisms for revealing Russian defenders and for arrival of reinforcements worked very well, producing surprises of both pleasant and unpleasant varieties for both sides. While the undefended bridge was improbable in the intended real-world setting, it is by no means without precedent in other real-world situations, and it was great for creating a game narrative and giving both players something unexpected to react to.

Recommendations for future research (as academic papers usually end by saying): Notwithstanding my previous blog post about what dull games frontal assaults usually are, I just might try a more serious version of this, making a proper effort to set up a thoroughly prepared Russian defence - complete with successive defensive lines, obstacles, fireplans and planned withdrawals - and then try to crack it with a similarly well thought-out Ukrainian plan. It would take some effort but that could be justified by the reward.