Monday 26 October 2015

Waterloo 200 display game at SOFO!

It's been a good weekend. 100 years ago this month the battle of Loos ended. To honour that, on Sunday I converted part of my front garden into a WWI-style mudscape. Or maybe that's just what happens if you have to dig out dead bushes in October.

A more serious attempt at marking an anniversary occurred on Saturday at our local regimental museum, Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum (SOFO). Just over 200 years ago, in June 1815, the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment played a notable part in defeating Napoleon's Imperial Guard as he threw the dice for the last time at Waterloo. We therefore laid on a BBB demonstration/participation game of Waterloo at SOFO.

We really didn't know what to expect. It's a decent museum but not a major tourist attraction, so while we hoped we'd have dozens of visitors, I feared it might be closer to zero. So our objectives were two-fold. If any members of the public did come by, we would give them our full attention, pause the game, and seek to engage, educate, and entertain them. To that end, we had Nigel's photos and souvenirs from the Waterloo 200 re-enactment, Ben's "Waterloo Companion" reference work, and other informational material. But in between times, we would play the game as normal, in a leisurely way.

As it turned out, it was an epic day. It got off to a great start. We had just finished setting up, shortly after the doors opened, and a young teenager looked into the room we'd been given and said "That looks cool!". In short order we'd got him seated next to Napoleon, rolling dice, and being briefed about the battle, about Napoleonic warfare, and about wargaming in general. Turned out he was the son of one of the museum staff, he knew of Warhammer but hadn't played. He stayed for the duration, earned more brownie points by periodically saying things like "This is really fun", asked lots of newbie questions about uniforms and weapons and ranks and everything ... he was a good lad, genuinely interested, and we may well have attracted a new member to the hobby. If so, the day was worth it just for that.

Apart from our new recruit, visitors were a trickle rather than a flood, but every half hour or so someone would stick their nose in. People's reactions were very positive, admiring the layout, asking questions, happily rolling a few dice, and we had some good conversations. I think we gave a good impression and weren't too anorakish - some of us had even showered and shaved - and enhanced the visitor experience. We must have, because SOFO has invited us to do more such events in future.

Oops, I nearly forgot to talk about the actual game. Did I mention it was an epic day? It was an epic battle. It turned out to be perfectly paced. Apart from me as referee, and our young drummer boy, we had four players initially, and a fifth arrived later in time to command the Prussians. Two of the players were experienced wargamers but had not played BBB before. Despite novice players, and interactions with the public, and a leisurely lunch at the museum cafe, we finished the game in 6 hours, in time to pack up just before the museum closed.

Initial deployment: basically historical

The French players had learned from a previous playtest. Anton having rashly lost the game last time by committing the Guard very early and getting them destroyed, this time kept them out of harm's way garrisoning Plancenoit. He and Dave had decided there was no future in attacking on the right, nor in the centre. Their plan was for D'Erlon to switch left and help Reille to take Hougoumont, then drive on Mont St Jean. Lobau was to shift right to pin Picton and screen against the eventual Prussian threat.

Well, the plan went pear-shaped on Turn 2. Anton noticed the garrison of La Haye Sainte was mildly discomfited by French artillery fire and had a Ney-like rush of blood to the head. Napoleon's order headed "Hougoumont" went in a ditch, and D'Erlon attacked La Haye Sainte. A couple of difficult turns ensued for the French. On their right, Milhaud and other cavalry made repeated efforts to dislodge Saxe-Weimar's Nassau brigade from Papelotte. A combination of poor French coordination and good Nassau dice made these a costly failure. La Haye Sainte fell, but by that time Reille, obliged to attack Hougoumont unsupported, had lost a division. A French grand battery formed up on the French left, on the ridge SW of Hougoumont, but it was slow to get into position and slower to warm up its dice.

Emboldened by the arrival of the first Prussians on Turn 4, and by Reille's repulse, Wellington decided to attack on his right in order to break up the grand battery before it could do serious damage.
Chassé's Dutch, the Brunswick corps, and Mitchell's and Clinton's brigades surged across the lanes and hedges. French cavalry fell back in disarray and the flank of the grand battery was in dire peril. Meanwhile, a first attempt having failed, a second Allied counterattack retook La Haye Sainte. Repulsed on their right, ejected in the centre, assailed on the left, and with Prussians looming closer, the French position looked desperate.

But then on the last couple of turns, the balance shifted again. The grand battery finally found its range and blew away Clinton and the Brunswickers. Reille rallied a couple of divisions and some cavalry and was able to smash the Union Brigade and KGL cavalry, who in the finest tradition of the British mounted arm had exploited their success a little too far. Suddenly the British Guards holed up in Hougoumont looked dangerously isolated, while the Nivelles road to Mont St.Jean lay open, a French advance impeded only by mobs of fleeing Allied soldiery.

Lobau on the French right had finally succeeded in expelling the Nassauers from Papelotte. He then fought a skilful delaying action against Bluecher, such that only the Prussian advance guard cavalry had a chance on the last turn of defeating a French cavalry screen to seize Plancenoit.

For Plancenoit had meanwhile been vacated by the Old Guard. Our new junior member had been urging this for hours. At last Anton's caution was overcome and columns of bearskins nodded up the road towards La Haye Sainte. Allies stormed forward to meet them. This backfired somewhat, as the OG defeated the brigade that attacked them, and then stormed the reduced garrison of La Haye Sainte. All Allied reserves had been committed, so here too the road to Mont St.Jean was open, albeit covered by some Allied artillery. However, the Allied advance had succeeded in shattering the last of D'Erlon's corps and part of Lobau's, leaving the Guard surrounded without support.

This was a battle which become more and more tense and exciting as it went on, building to a real climax on the last turn. Three objectives were all contested - Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Plancenoit - with the French needing all three for a win, and the Allies needing two. The Guard seizing LHS had earned a draw. Could Reille take Hougoumont for a win? French infantry and cavalry converged on the chateau - but Allied fire drove some off, and the weakened assault failed. Then it was the Allies' turn. Could they retake either LHS or Plancenoit? A feeble attempt on LHS predictably bounced off. All now rested on von Buelow's cavalry ... who were repulsed.

Final situation. White arrows: advancing Prussians.
Red: Anglo-Dutch. Blue: French. 

Thus the French were left in possession of Plancenoit and La Haye Sainte. Both the French and Anglo-Dutch armies were pretty much exhausted; the Prussians, having been too slow to get into any serious fighting, were fresh but still mostly at some distance. End result: in historical terms, Bonaparte barely thwarted and doomed to eventual defeat; but in game terms, an honourable draw.

The full scenario is in the BBB Yahoo group files, and also in Flickr.