Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Replaying scenarios: pros and cons?

Most of my wargaming for the past decade and more has been historical refights of nineteenth-century battles using the "Bloody Big BATTLES!" ruleset (BBB). Fortunately for us (if less so for many of the nations and peoples involved), the C19 covers a huge number of wars which generated a huge number of battles, so there's no prospect of us running out of fresh scenarios to game any time soon. Nevertheless, for various reasons, our group fights some battles multiple times. As we've done a couple of these refights this month, I thought this a worthy topic for another of my "Reflections on Wargaming". Basically, the question is: what is the point of going over the same ground again (and again and again)?

In my popular post on "Reasons not to refight historical battles", one of the main objections several commenters raised to any historical refight was "We know what happened": we already know what reinforcements will arrive where and when, which generals made what mistakes, there's no surprise element, it's obvious what one side or the other should have done. Replaying a scenario is effectively a refight of a refight, so if these factors are a problem the first time, surely they're a problem squared come the replay, right? Any novelty there might have been has to have worn off, the best plan for both sides will have been discovered if it wasn't already, we'll just be going through the motions. Why waste our time on such a tired game when we could be doing something new and different?

Well, let's take a look at this month's two re-refights and see how they played out and whether they were worth it. The games in question were Loigny/Poupry (Franco-Prussian War, 1870) and Nachod (Austro-Prussian War, 1866).


This is one of the scenarios in the BBB rulebook. I wrote it in 2013. Obviously we playtested it several times before publication, but it has made it onto the table several times since then as well. It has several virtues as a game: the terrain is reasonably easy to set up; both sides have plenty of manoeuvring to do and choices to make; it's a fun match-up of German quality vs French quantity.

I have never, ever seen it produce such an emphatic French victory as we saw this month. The battle revolves around three victory locations that define the German line. Two of them are vacant initially, as the only German troops on the table are the Bavarians around Loigny on the German right. It's a two-day battle, and on the first day the French only get one corps that arrives on their left to take on the Bavarians. Both sides get more troops on day two that arrive on the other half of the table around Poupry.

Initial setup. Bavarians deployed in the western (left) half of the table. French will enter from the south (bottom) edge. Three red counters barely visible are the three objectives. L-R: Loigny; Lumeau; Poupry.
Nevertheless, the German plan involved thinning their right immediately so as to race troops across to occupy all three objectives. There was certainly a logic to this: it is easier to defend villages than to take them, so stealing a march on the French in this way could have paid off. However, it meant that most of the German artillery was silent on day one, because it was moving away from the action around Loigny; and the troops left to defend Loigny were outnumbered and ultimately enveloped and overwhelmed. When the main forces arrived on day two, the Bavarian brigades that had raced across to Lumeau and Poupry found themselves isolated and outmatched in turn; the Hessians and Holsteiners doubling forward to help them chose to attack across the open ground on the extreme left instead of filtering through the woods and supporting the centre; massed French firepower drove them out of Poupry, and the Papal Zouaves led a massed assault to drive them out of Lumeau in the centre.

French left swings round to envelop  the Bavarians in Loigny (bottom right) who are about to be targeted by the French mitrailleuse. The opposing cavalry at top of picture did very little all game apart from cancel each other out. 

Western half of the table again, circa nightfall. The face-off in the villages top left lasted pretty much for all the next day with inconclusive mutual assaults, but that thick blue French line bottom of picture overwhelmed the defenders of Loigny and pressed on towards Lumeau.

Victors and vanquished alike were all stunned. Admittedly we had tweaked the scenario a little, treating the built-up areas as 'Villages' rather than 'Towns', which reduces their defensive value and makes it easier for the objectives to change hands. This perhaps favoured the French attackers more than the German defenders, but as there were lots of villages that the French could use from which to develop their attacks, it was a two-way street rather than a one-sided tweak, so we can't blame the German defeat entirely on that. The French may have had slightly the best of the dice, particularly in an artillery duel that developed in the centre and saw the German gun line driven back, but the dice weren't outrageously skewed either. It has to come down to the German plan misfiring.


Endex. All three red counters have turned blue to show they are now French-held. The German force has been reduced to a few scattered remnants in the top half of the picture north of the road between the objectives. French quantity beat German quality on this occasion.

So, was it stale and tired? No! Had the novelty gone? No! It was a most exciting and entertaining game that followed a most unexpected course. A previously untried German plan made for a very different battle from any of our previous refights and offered fresh grand tactical lessons. And, last but not least - it's always nice to field the Foreign Legion and the Papal Zouaves.


This scenario is of more recent vintage: I wrote it in early 2020, just before COVID lockdown struck. Consequently it provided one of our first remote games that April (AAR here), but it hadn't yet made it onto the table for a face-to-face encounter. Crispin was keen to lay it on again. In fact he was the only one of our group this time who had played it first time round (I GM'd then), as we had some different personnel for the reprise, including a new recruit - Philip - whom we only met and roped in 5 minutes before kick-off.

It's a fun battle. The Prussians start with just a small advance guard on table, which has to deploy quickly into suitable positions to hold off advancing swarms of Austrians in increasing numbers until the Prussian main body arrives mid-game. This makes it a game of two halves, as the Austrians have to seize vital ground initially, then fend off the inevitable Prussian counter-attack. It also makes it a good game for a new player such as Philip, who was able to learn the rules while handling just a couple of units at first, then get more to do as more troops marched on.

Looking south across the battlefield. Prussians are marching out of the pass through Nachod, lower left; Austrian columns visible arriving from top right, with more to come on from the right. Pink lines are contour lines marking the edges of hills; white lines are roads; white counters are objectives.

The Austrians definitely had the rub of the green in the crucial early turns. A combination of dire dice on Philip's part and a careless error on mine, squandering von Wnuck's improvised cavalry brigade, saw the Austrians swiftly occupy the three (out of a possible six) objectives they needed for victory, inflicting heavy losses on our Prussians as they did so.

The tide turned, though. It took us half the game before we caused a single Austrian casualty, but once we got serious numbers on the table, Austrian losses mounted exponentially. Philip particularly remarked on seeing the asymmetry of weapons and doctrine between the two armies play out on the tabletop. In classic BBB fashion, several objectives were in play on the last couple of turns, thus all three results were still possible; but, again in classic BBB fashion, while we Prussians were able to kick the Austrians out of one objective, they comfortably held a second and just clung onto the tiniest toehold in another for a draw.

Game end. This scruffy table littered with counters and paraphernalia is an indication of how frenetic the game became as it entered the last few turns. The Prussians (on the darker bases) have retaken the wood in centre of pic, but have not quite managed to eject the Austrians from the square village to its right. The Austrian ranks have been thinned considerably, as they were historically: Ramming's corps was unfit to fight next day at Skalitz.

Given the mostly different players, it was only a refight of a refight for Crispin and me, but we certainly both got value out of it as we were playing different roles. It was also a rollicking seesaw game. It played out somewhat differently from the remote game too: in that, the Austrians steamrollered as far forward as they could and at their highwater mark held five of the six objectives, too many for the Prussians to roll them back from, hence a (suitably Pyrrhic) Austrian win; in this one, Crispin and Dave chose to consolidate once they had the minimum three for a win, but could only hang onto two for a draw.


- The only real reason against (or perhaps two sub-reasons), (a) the risk of staleness/lack of novelty, and (b) 'we know what happened', were emphatically dispelled in both games. Both played out differently from their previous incarnations, Loigny radically so.

There turned out to be plenty of reasons in favour of wheeling out the same game again:

- It gives you a chance to try solving the same grand tactical problem with a different plan (which can backfire entertainingly, as the Prussian one did at Loigny)

- You can see the problem from the other side, as Crispin did by playing the Austrians at Nachod (he'd been Prussian in the remote game)

- If you've painted up some exotic unit like the Papal Zouaves that only featured in one or two battles historically, a refight may be the only way to get them on the table again in a historical scenario

- Refights allow exploring different 'what-ifs'. For Loigny, we tried a tweak that changed how the terrain effects were depicted (reducing the defensive value of the villages). Other scenarios offer historical options such as the arrival of troops that didn't quite get there historically, etc.

- Refights are obviously essential for playtesting. Nachod is still in draft. After the first outing, the remote game, I did a second draft that handicapped the Austrians by making them Passive. But we didn't apply that change in the second game, and having seen how that went I think it unnecessary.

- Some scenarios become 'old friends' because they offer enduringly enjoyable tactical challenges; others because they are easy and convenient to set up quickly for a club night. Loigny qualifies on both these counts; Nachod more so on the first (though Crispin had prepared another of his battlemats so actually we were able to just roll it out and set up in 5 minutes); the ones I always recommend as BBB 'training scenarios', Montebello and Langensalza, meet these criteria too.

- What is familiar to some may still be fresh to others. For Crispin, Nachod was a refight wearing a different hat; for me, it was a refight where I got to play rather than umpire; for Mark and Dave it was their first go at the scenario; and for Philip it was his BBB baptism of fire.

Final reflection:

- Saying it myself, I know, but BBB just makes for exciting, fun games - the HQGE. I hadn't played for a few weeks before coming back to these two games in succession. Both were dramatic and exciting in different ways: Nachod a classic ebb-and-flow, will-they-won't-they rollercoaster; Loigny more of an oh-my-god that just got worse and worse for the Germans to the extent that the German players had to laugh at their own misfortunes. The games were as fresh now as when we first started kicking rules ideas around in 2009, and showed why BBB has attracted such a diverse group of players to our corner of the club and remained our staple ruleset for over a decade.


Update 2 July 2022: this was another popular post that generated a good 100 or so comments on various forums. These are the links if you want to see the full discussion there:





To summarise/paraphrase the negative ones first:

“You can’t actually do a historical refight” or “I don’t like historical refights” or “Is a refight just an exercise in seeing who can roll better dice?”. (I like your cynicism, hammurabi70!) I think this was sufficiently addressed in my previous post on “Bloody Big BATTLES Blog: Reasons NOT to refight historical battles” so I’ll say no more on that here.

“Historical battles are too big for my table”. Hmm: well, that’s why we created BBB, to fit pretty much any battle on a modest 6’x4’ …

“Generally not – there are so many battles to choose from, there’s no need to fight any of them more than once unless you feel like it.” Isn’t that “no but yes”?

“Don’t use dice. As random number generators they are indifferent at best.” A bit left field, John – where did that come from? There’s a discussion to be had there, but probably in a future post rather than this one.

Some scenarios lose their charm, particularly if not balanced or not many tactical choices, or once you’ve worked out the optimal play. Certainly true. Others lose their charm if they rely on some surprise event/element that can’t be repeated. Even more certainly true. Deephorse sums it up well: “Ultimately it’s down to the quality of the scenario”.

“No – each game should push me to paint more figures. That means minimum repetition!” I quite like this one. For me, the primary motivation is the game, but I can sympathise with those for whom the game is secondary to the aesthetic of the collection of armies. Bravo.


As for the positive:

“Yes, if only to play the opposite side.” Several made this point. I might add, if the scenario itself is unbalanced, playing it from both ends evens that out in a way. Or maybe it just gives players two chances to complain that the scenario is biased against them and they couldn’t have won anyway …

That “what if?” question. It’s the main reason for doing a historical game to start with; it still applies to refighting the refights to explore all the options or even see if a plan that failed can succeed with a bit of better luck.

Replaying the same scenario with different rules has value. Certain scenarios can become standard ones for testing rulesets.

Replaying the same scenario with different armies in a different period has value. Fighting Waterloo with the armies from Gettysburg was the example given. I’ve played Blenheim with Napoleonic armies.

Scenarios, historical or otherwise, are a good way to get a game started; replays reduce the (practical and mental) effort to set up.

Several commented from a gamemaster/umpire point of view. Of course if you’ve prepared a game for a convention, for instance, you probably want to run it a couple of times beforehand to test and practise it; and you might want to run the same game several times at one or more conventions, or even just for different groups of players at your club.

Yes, especially if you’ve invested in designing a scenario, creating bespoke terrain, painting specific armies or units for it – you should replay at least a couple of times to justify the effort!


Summing up: the consensus (among those who actually like to do historical refights at all) was that not every scenario is suitable, and you wouldn’t want to do the same one again and again forever, but there are so many good reasons in favour that “yes, of course you should do refights of refights”.

Huge thank yous to everyone who took the trouble to comment – it’s enthusiastic feedback like yours that keeps this blog going.

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Brittany: fortifications and museums

I took advantage of a week's holiday in Brittany to explore several centuries' worth of fortifications and museums. (See also my previous military museum raid on Brittany to St Cyr.) Most of this reconnaissance was done during day's tour of the Crozon peninsula along the Route des Fortifications. The Crozon tourism office provides a nice downloadable brochure here.

Captioned photos below give the details. In summary:

Wars of Religion: Pointe des Espagnols

C17: Tour Vauban

French Revolution/Napoleonics: coastal batteries and garrison towers; Musée Vendée Chouannerie; Phare d'Eckmühl

C19: Fort Kador; coastal batteries

WWI: 32cm gun

WWII: lots of coastal bunkers; Battle of the Atlantic museum; Lorient submarine pens.

(The photos are grouped by site rather than in any special chronological or geographical order, so if you're interested in one conflict or site in particular, sorry but you'll just have to search/scroll.)

The Pointe des Espagnols

Spanish Point commands the approaches to Brest. The placard below tells the story. In 1594 the Spanish landed; 400 of them fortified the place and defended it for a month against the Huguenots and their English allies. Subsequent centuries saw layers of batteries and fortifications added.

This massive piece of ordnance is a 32cm gun that was deployed here in the 1880s. During WWI it was used as a railway gun at the Somme. It fired so much, it wore out its rifling and was rebored to 34cm calibre!

Fort Kador

Morgat is the small port of Crozon on the south coast of the peninsula. In the mid-C19 a system of fortifications was built to defend it, including the upper and lower Kador batteries.

The upper battery actually dates back to the Seven Years War: a simple U-shaped mortar position supported by a garrison hut and powder magazine.

The battery (left of pic) - not much left to see!

... but the powder magazine is still there ...

... and so is this substantial casemate behind its earthen ramparts at the lower battery. This fortification now protects a bat colony.

On the west coast of the peninsula is a set of German bunkers. These were built on top of C19 mortar battery positions to house a coastal defence battery in WWII. Nowadays, one of them is home to the excellent Musée Mémorial Bataille Atlantique. 

The museum is approached via an avenue lined with anchors, mostly from French warships. These massive things are three times as tall as me. And it's not that I'm short.

The museum is also guarded by a sea mine and an 88mm off a U-Boat. (Not a very successful one - five missions, 64 days' sailing, no kills, captured in a French port, if I remember right.) The museum is absolutely packed with such treasures.

Stonework betrays the C19 ancestry of the position.

Fort de la Fraternité

On the west coast while heading up to Pointe des Espagnols we found this small fort complex. Originally built in 1793, then updated mid-C19, then taken over and added to by the Germans (of course) in WWII. The hyperlinked source explains better than I can.

The main fort has an extensive loopholed curtain wall (left of pic) and a central powder magazine (right of pic).

It is on the north shore of a cove. Looking south across the cove you can see the German bunker at the point, and a well protected building centre of pic. Incidentally, these sported some better-quality graffiti than the usual - quite artistic, in fact.

Toulinguet is the westernmost tip of the Crozon peninsula. Consequently for Vauban to install a battery, then more added in Napoleonic times, plus an enceinte and tower to protect the landward side; then further batteries in the late C19. A naval surveillance station still operates from the site, hence no entry past the enceinte wall..

The tower is outside the enceinte. This held 18 men.

The charming seaside town of Camaret boasts this fine tower and battery constructed by Vauban. It has a museum inside but time did not permit so I can't report on it. A pity, as apparently there was a serious battle here in 1694 with Vauban himself present. But I can report that Camaret has plenty of nice waterside bars and restaurants to refresh a thirsty student of military history.

Phare d'Eckmühl (Penmarc'h Lighthouse)

At the southwest corner of Brittany, near Penmarc'h, is the Eckmühl lighthouse - so called because it was built with funds donated by Marshal Davout's daughter to commemorate his exploits at the eponymous battle in 1809 which earned him the title of Prince of Eckmühl.

The Phare is just one of a series of four towers along the point. Two of the other three were previous lighthouses, superseded as taller lights were required. As at Toulinguet, the white tower at the end is still an active naval surveillance station.

Lorient U-Boat Base

A trip to Brittany would not have been complete without visiting the massive U-Boat pens at Lorient on the south coast. Three huge concrete bunkers had 17 docks in all and an elaborate lift and carriage mechanism to move subs between them.

K1 was closed on the day of our visit; K3 only visitable by guided tour in French; my French is OK but an hour and a half would have been too arduous; so we just went to the K2 exhibit about submarines in general.

That did include a tour of a 1950s French sub, the Flore. Sufficient to confirm that submariner would not have been an ideal job for me.

Didn't make it to Brest but here is a view of the Brest U-Boat pens across the water from Pointe des Espagnols:

Musée Vendée Chouannerie
(Saving the best until last - this one's for you, Vincent!) The Musée des Guerres de l'Ouest (as it also calls itself) is in a former hospital bunker, part of a large complex built by the Germans to defend Quiberon Bay. The museum is devoted to the Breton Chouannerie (a series of uprisings from 1794 to 1832) and the War in the Vendée (1793-1796).

The bunker complex:

I had not appreciated the scale of these conflicts. A map in the museum shows the locations of some 30 battles or significant skirmishes; the Vendéan army fielded 10s of 1000s of men; and well over 100,000 Vendéans died either in action, or of disease or hardship, or in Republican reprisals. Feelings can still run high today: while we were in the museum shop, one of the museum staff was in a heated argument with another visitor. It ran something like this: "The Vendéans were counterrevolutionaries - they had it coming." "What, the women and children burned to death in a church had it coming?" A grim business. As they say, war doesn't decide who's right, only who's left.

A French Revolutionary hussard de la mort - 'Death Hussar'

A distinctive feature of the museum is its rank upon rank of charmingly characterful model soldiers. Here we have some of the Republican forces sent to suppress the uprising.

Not so charming: Republicans pacifying a Vendéan village.

Towards the end, the Vendéan army tried to escape pursuit by crossing the Loire, as depicted in the painting and diorama below:

... and a close-up of the diorama:

The museum had far more than these pictures can do justice to, and more than we could absorb in a short hour's visit. Paintings, uniforms, documents, weapons, artifacts ... I came away armed with a book to learn a bit more about it all. Recommended!