Friday 1 December 2023

Stolberg's Death Ride: pivotal moments in wargames

This reflection is prompted by last week's Franco-Prussian War game of the battle of Loigny/Poupry (1870). Rather than picking out various aspects of the game to reflect on, this time I've picked out just one to discuss in a little more (slightly rambling and disjointed) depth: the 'pivotal moment'. I'll give a brief summary of the game, then get to my point.

Loigny/Poupry was one of the first major battles of the Republican phase of the war, after the fall of Napoleon III. The French Army of the Loire was therefore a mixture of regular troops (depot battalions or units such as the Foreign Legion, freshly arrived from Africa) and masses of newly-mustered, relatively poorly-trained and -armed gardes mobiles. It faced a German army that was by now battle-hardened and had honed its skirmish tactics. The Loire campaign was directed at breaking the German siege of Paris. This battle saw the Army of the Loire hitting a Bavarian covering force that was then rescued by other German contingents. Consequently it makes for a nice open game where both sides are bringing forces onto the table and have to manoeuvre in their respective efforts to break or hold the line.

Nine captioned photos below the map tell the tale of the game, followed by reflections at the end if you want to jump straight to those.

The scenario map. (Loigny is one of the nine Franco-Prussian battles in the linked campaign in the BBB rulebook.) It's a pretty open battlefield, dotted with villages, three of which (Poupry, Lumeau and Loigny) are the objective locations. One big wood behind Poupry. Bavarians start on table in the lower half. French 16 Cps (Chanzy) arrives first from lower right. German reinforcements will arrive from top left at start of Day 2 (Turn 4), followed by French 15 Cps from top right T5, then 17 Cps in the centre T8/9.

The map as translated into a lovely snowy battlemat by Crispin. The wintry orange woods set it off beautifully. View looking north, French approaching from bottom edge. White counters mark the three victory locations. One Bavarian brigade in Guillonville (bottom left) to act as a tripwire; a second holds Loigny on the ridge; a third plus cavalry are behind that; the fourth follows on T2.

Close-up of the Bavarians holding Loigny. 6mm figures by Baccus.
The windmills are a nice historical touch.

View from Loigny as Chanzy's troops screen off and bypass Guillonville.

French Turn 4 (first move on the second day). Chanzy's corps has developed its line nicely towards the central objective, Lumeau (lefthand edge of pic) which is held only by Bavarian cavalry. Poor Bavarian movement rolls meant the infantry were just a little too slow so they will get caught in the open instead of being able to defend the village. French artillery is rumbling up to form a gun line to dominate the centre of the battlefield. 

I was commanding the German left. (John had the Bavarians; Dave and Crispin were French.) My lads were also stymied by lame movement dice, so the French would steal a march on us and get into Poupry first as well. Note the little cluster of cavalry just this side of the big Poupry wood upper left. This is Count Stolberg's 2nd Cavalry Division. The French infantry nearest to it, top centre, is about to leap into Lumeau (the white counter to their right), leaving their guns unescorted.

This was a pivotal moment in the battle - as in, if the dice had gone differently, it would have significantly changed the course of the game. Seeing the ominous French gun line still in the process of forming up, with half its batteries still limbered and the others already low on ammo from pounding the Bavarians, I gambled and launched Stolberg's cavalry at the few guns already deployed. There was about 40% chance that they would charge home; if they did, they would probably chase off or wipe out much of the French artillery. As this picture shows, though, French fire repelled them with the loss of one of their three bases. French cavalry then finished them off.

Meanwhile, my infantry used the cover of the wood to press into deadly needlegun range of Poupry, The garde mobile had got in there ahead of us but a few casualties soon rendered them spent (blue counter). 

However, reaching the front edge of the wood, we were in a 'fire sack'. The orange counter shows that these troops in Artenay on the French extreme right are chassepot-armed regiments de marche. Behind them, the Foreign Legion contributes its firepower. French artillery are out of pic to the right, including some mitrailleuses that would take a toll. On the penultimate turn, I finally managed to eject and wipe out the garde mobile, then repel a French countercharge on the last turn. However, French fire had cost me nearly half of my infantry. Still, at least we held that objective at the end.

The centre was bitterly contested. My fourth brigade made three decent attempts to storm Lumeau. Had Stolberg's Death Ride succeeded, the defending fire would have been less and we might well have got in. As it was, De Sonis's 17 Corps raced up, led here by the Papal Zouaves (OK, the figures are just ordinary zouaves standing in) and took over the defence of Lumeau just in time to save it for the French. Meanwhile, Chanzy's fire had depleted the Bavarians enough for him to storm Loigny. Final score: Germans held only 1 of the 3 objectives, so it was a glorious victory for the French!


Pivotal moments: Sometimes, games are virtually decided at the start, when the two sides' deployments dictate how it will go (perhaps through one side's irretrievable error). Others are only decided at the end: a case of general ebb and flow, push and shove, where neither side is really on top until the last couple of turns, and maybe it comes down to the last few dice on the last few assaults. And then there is a third kind where some pivotal moment mid-battle seems in retrospect to be the one the whole thing hinged on. I think this Loigny game was one of these. As I described above, Stolberg's charge had a fair chance of succeeding; if it had, we Germans could reasonably have expected to draw and would have had a chance of a win.

Looking back over a few earlier reports, I see some others that we could put in that same category. A German victory at Spicheren owed much to a grand battery and a particularly deadly salvo of artillery fire mid-game (albeit the scenario was probably skewed towards a German win anyway). Oudenarde was a case where my audacious sally onto an enemy flank deserved better results than it got, so let's call that a pivotal moment. At Waterloo, the Allied heavy cavalry's charge turned the game. 

By contrast: my defeat at Tel-el-Kebir was due to my early indecision rather than any critical moment later, so let's say that one was decided at the start. Likewise Malplaquet was determined more by our deployment than by our dice; ditto Beaumont; similarly Dybbøl, where we were always playing catch-up after being distracted on the first couple of turns.

As an example of the second type, where the battle is more evenly poised, ebb and flow and in doubt throughout, let me offer Tudela or Borodino.

These are three different kinds of story, each enjoyable in their own way. Those that are nip and tuck all the way and go down to the wire are probably best in terms of overall tension and excitement. However, there is a special pleasure to be had from the games where you can look back and say "that was the moment everything hinged on - if only it had gone differently!" That pivotal moment, the critical scene in the movie that changes the situation dramatically, after which everything else is just tying up the loose ends ...

There is also pleasure at the time in the high-stakes gamble. Launching Stolberg in this Loigny game, or sallying from Eyne in the Oudenarde battle, I knew at the time that it was risky and would cost me if it went wrong (as it did in both cases). Still, I think Clausewitz would approve, as he prefers a gambler to the general who is paralysed by doubt. And at least I was only sacrificing little lead soldiers. Anyway, it's more exciting than sitting tight and hoping for the best! 

A full list of my 'Reflections on Wargaming' essays can be found here.

Friday 10 November 2023

Twice in one night! Spicheren revisited

This report is written in some haste, partly because I'm busy, partly because this is a report of a game several weeks ago that I've only just got round to writing up. Please forgive the resulting brevity. Maybe that's a virtue.

Spicheren was one of the small curtain-raiser actions in the first days of the Franco-Prussian War. It shows off the contrasting vices and virtues of the two sides: French passivity and Chassepot rifles pitted against energetic but unsubtle German command and Krupp guns. I last visited this scenario when I first wrote it in 2015 as reported here. Crispin rolled it out last month on one of his famous battlemats.

It's a small game - 7 units a side, 8 turns - with an option to play an even smaller version on 4'x4' with even fewer units that lasts only 6 turns. We were able to play the game twice in three hours at on a Monday night at OWS. Six annotated photos below tell the story of the first game. Some reflections after.

Frog's-eye view of the battlefield, i.e., looking northeast from Forbach (bottom centre) through the Sophie glassworks and Stiring Wendel (the two BUAs on the railway, left centre) towards where the Germans are debouching through Saarbrücken. Spicheren village is the red roof furthest towards the upper right.

German 5th and 14th Divisions on the march through Saarbrücken. Note the brown-chalked hills south of the town. This is where the German artillery will be set up as a massed battery.

French defenders await on the Rotherberg. Red marker behind them belongs to a half-strength mitrailleuse unit. White counter denotes an Objective.

We Germans were too scared of French firepower to march straight up the Rotherberg. We opted for a pincer movement. Half our force hooked left through the Pfaffen woods to even things up between Chassepot and needlegun. This photo shows the right hook running into French resistance north of Stiring Wendel. A firefight breaks out across the pond.

Now the left hook develops into an enveloping attack on the Rotherberg. By now the massed battery has done great execution, obliterating a French brigade. We like these odds better. Snake-eyed dice top left betray the French cavalry's reluctance to tangle with Prussian hussars who are on a wide sweep around the French right. 

Germans seize Forbach unopposed. Victory! The scenario provides for the German 26th Brigade to arrive mid-game from the west and attack Stiring Wendel (as it did historically) or to arrive even later from the southwest to threaten the French supply depot at Forbach (a concern that hamstrung the French command on the day). In our game, the French gambled, left Forbach undefended, and paid the price. 


Short and sweet. With four players, this game romped along so swiftly that we were able to change hats and play it again. In years gone by, I've played too many games that were left unsatisfactorily unfinished (see my Reflections essay on "Who cares if we don't finish the game?"). Hence BBB where we virtually always get a result in an evening. On this occasion we managed two.

Replay value. As one of the joys of historical scenarios is to replay them and explore different plans, it was a bonus to be able to fight this twice in quick succession. I think in game two the French deployed further right to cover better against the German left hook from the first game; the Germans responded by pushing more strongly in the centre. Different plans, different games, similar end result (emphatic French defeat).

Victory conditions. The French were so soundly beaten that we wondered if the scenario was skewed. Another club had recently reported playing this so I consulted them. In their go, the Germans actually got trounced! But apparently this was down to new players testing the rules (and their German army) to destruction. I do think BBB is less forgiving of novice errors by attackers than by defenders. Anyway, the collective playtests indicated I just needed to up the German victory targets by one extra Objective. Updated version of the scenario is now available from the BBB files here.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Kassassin & Tel-el-Kebir (1882) as a single scenario

After last week's excursion among the sun-kissed vineyards of northern Hungary, this week we were transported to the sun-baked sands of northern Egypt. As part of the "Bloody Big AFRICAN Battles!" project, we playtested Mark's scenario for Tel-el-Kebir (1882), the major action during the British conquest of Egypt.

Tel-el-Kebir on its own is not very exciting as a situation to wargame: a frontal assault on a simple line of entrenchments that was over in an hour after a rather one-sided fight. (See my post here on whether frontally assaulting redoubts can make a good game.) Mark's creative solution was to combine it with the preceding action at Kassassin. This entailed some compression of both time and space: Kassassin should really be another four feet away from the entrenchments, rather than on the table edge; and the 'Night Interval' between the two actions is actually the fortnight between 28 August and 13 September 1882. This compression did not create any distortion or other problem and produced a scenario in which both sides get to do some maneuvering and have some genuine decisions to make.

Herewith a brief photo-AAR followed by some reflections:

It really was a very pretty table. Proper sand-coloured cloth, sandy hills, sand-embanked railway, exquisite palm trees, and a tidy British tent encampment in the foreground. The loco is pushing a flatcar-mounted 40-pdr gun. The British 2nd and 4th Brigades are all that stands between the 15,000 Egyptians debouching from their entrenchments (top of pic) and the British camp and the village of Kassassin (lower left). If either of these two objectives is taken, however briefly, the Egyptians earn a victory point - in effect, establishing a 'highwater mark'.

The open sandy plain on the British right. A small Egyptian force threatens from top right, opposed by British guns bottom left. Just visible at top of pic, to the left of the QR sheet, is pale felt representing the soft sand ('Difficult Terrain') protecting the Egyptian lines' left flank.

The Egyptian assault inflicted casualties (you can see both British 3-base infantry units are now reduced to 2-base) and came close to breaking through and taking the camp. However, the thin red line held firm long enough for the Household Cavalry to come to the rescue (upper right), to be followed on Turn 3 by the Guards Brigade. Egyptian losses were heavier (blue cube indicates a Spent unit; another brigade was wiped out entirely). The scenario gives the Egyptian player the option of pressing his attack for 4 turns rather than 3, which has two advantages: it not only gives another bite at the cherry to take the camp or Kassassin, it also means the British player will have one turn less when it comes to assaulting the entrenchments. However, Mark opted not to take the extra turn, preferring to have his troops spend it defending entrenchments rather than being ridden down by Horse Guards in the open.

Cavalry action on the British right. I sent the Indian cavalry brigade (top left of pic) through the gap between the two advancing Egyptian contingents and then wheeled it right to take on its Egyptian counterparts (right foreground). This put it in a crossfire from Egyptian guns, not to mention an infantry brigade. Fortunately, my enfilading artillery helped to wipe out the infantry. Still, I was lucky not to lose the Indian horse entirely. Don't give me cavalry to command, I clearly don't know how to use them.

I only took photos of the first third of the game, so apologies that you will have to make do with my 1,000 words to paint a picture of the rest of it. Having repulsed the Egyptians from Kassassin, I needed to take 5 of the 9 remaining objectives to win. Two of these were villages among the palm groves and farms south of the canal (top left in first pic), the other seven being redoubts dotted among the entrenchments (all marked by white counters in first pic). In the Night Interval, my troops set up in the historical deployment for the assault on Tel-el-Kebir: Indian brigade on my left south of the canal; Highland Bde and 4th Bde north of it; a grand battery in the centre; 2nd Bde and Guards Bde on the right; Cavalry Division on the right flank.

Honestly, I found the prospect of assaulting the Egyptian fortifications daunting. Most of the Egyptian troops had modern breechloading rifles, with long effective range and deadly short range; they also had a lot of Krupp breechloading cannon, which are no fun to assault frontally. I was especially concerned about the risk to my cavalry (the BBB rules make them a more vulnerable target than infantry) so I fannied about trying to hide them initially, rather than using them to outflank or assault.

Still, I got stuck in eventually. On the left, the Indians took one objective village but ran out of time to reach the second. Next along, the Highlanders and 4th Bde took a long time to storm one objective redoubt, so although they then had another at their mercy, they only had one turn left to take it and failed the movement roll to do so. On my right, the Guards and the Household Cavalry broke in and took one redoubt; the HC were so successful they had a compulsory exploit that actually put them in a position where they had a chance at taking another redoubt in the second line of entrenchments, but didn't quite manage it; redoubts to right and left of the Guards' incursion were at risk on the last turn, but all my three units in range failed to get the necessary movement rolls.

Thus, I took 3 objectives, and had chances at 5 others on the last turn. As none of these came off, I was left with a defeat, but it was by no means a crushing one-sided one, as victory had been very much a possibility until those last few dice. It was a thoroughly entertaining game and should go down well when Mark takes it to the club.


Too much artillery. The typical BBB figure ratios are either 1,000 men / 24 guns per base or 1,500 men / 36 guns per base. For this scenario, Mark had used 500 men / 6 guns per base. That meant artillery was 100% overrepresented - no wonder I was daunted! It evened out to some extent, of course, because the British have plenty of artillery too, but it advantaged the Egyptians more because their guns were in fortifications and we had to approach in short range of them. Fixing the gun ratio shouldn't change the game balance radically but should make it a shade easier for the British to storm the redoubts they need to take.

Characterful units: it's always fun to be able to point out the Highlanders or the Guards. On the British side, Indian troops and the railway gun added further colour. On the Egyptian side, at one end of the scale were the Sudanese veterans - hardcore! - and at the other, a rabble of fellahin conscripts and Bedouin bashi-bazouks.

Scenario design: the concept of combining Kassassin and Tel-el-Kebir in a single game absolutely worked and made it far more interesting than the simple assault would have been. Punctuating games with a Night Interval always seems to have that effect, providing a significant pivot point that entails significant decisions before and during it and gives different aspects to the game.

Cavalry: nope, still don't really know how to use 'em. Any advice? Maybe we should dispense with the wretched nags and replace them with some kind of armoured landship powered by the new-fangled engines those German fellows invented in the 1870s.


Tuesday 10 October 2023

The Value of Playing "What-Ifs"

I don't usually do "what-ifs". By that I mean, my staple fare is straight recreations of historical battles, in which forces have to start deployed broadly where they did historically and both sides are trying to achieve the objectives they were aiming for historically. The purpose of these (apart from providing a few hours' entertainment, obviously) is to let players explore various plans as different possible routes to victory - cracking tactical puzzles, if you like.

Occasionally, though, in the historical scenarios I write I might provide for some not too remote alternative possibility, such as the Russians at the Alma choosing to present a flank threat rather than a direct blocking position.

This week we explored a quite radical alternative. The scenario in question is the Second Battle of Vác (1849) from the Hungarian War of Independence, as found in the "Bloody Big Hungary '48 Battles!" scenario book. The standard historical scenario is an unusual and interesting one to start with, as it is an initial advance guard action followed by a fighting withdrawal. I did the straight refight back in January 2022 (in-depth report with lots of gorgeous photos here). The scenario provides an option that assumes the Hungarian C-in-C, Görgei, chooses the bold course of attempting to break through the Russian army that has intercepted him, rather than withdrawing to find another way around it as he did historically.

The following photos show how that went, with some reflections at the end.

'Der Donau ist blau.' The Hungarians start with an advance guard and two corps on table with a third due later. Here Leiningen's III Cps conducts its forced march along the Danube ...

... preceded by Nagysándor's I Cps, seen here marching through the town of Vác. Behind it is the railway embankment for Hungary's very own HS2. (At this time, the Hungarian rail network consisted of one line from Budapest southeast to Szolnok and another from Budapest north to Vác. The leg to Pressburg aka Bratislava was under construction.) Out of shot to the right is the Hungarian advance guard. This spent the first four turns driving back the Russian advance guard and making space for I Cps to push down the road to the south.

OMG that's a lot of Russians ... after the advance guard action, the scenario provides a Night Interval, a lull for everyone to have a rest after their forced marching and deploy for the next day's withdrawal or breakthrough attempt, as applicable. The Russians can deploy anywhere >6" from the Hungarians and south of the Csörög stream. Here you see about 50,000 men poised to crush the reckless Magyars, with a formidable gun line already deployed lower right. Only two of the units in shot are Hungarian: one in the bottom left corner and the other above that in the edge of the vineyard.

Plan view gives the full picture. The Hungarians are trying to push from left to bottom right. Victory depends on how wide a gap they can maintain at game end, as measured by how many of the four white counters they hold (the two bridges and the village of Sződ at lower right, and the vineyard above that). Russians are all in the upper right quarter. Hungarian I and III Cps are facing them, lower right. Pöltenberg's VII Cps has arrived around Vác (left centre) and will try to put pressure on the Russian right flank.

Most of I and III Cps immediately falls back to try to defend the line of the railway embankment, apart from one brigade that advances to occupy Sződ. VII Cps pushes forward on the Hungarian left. 

A view from behind the railway embankment before the Russian hordes arrive there.

Turn 7 of 12. The solitary forward Hungarian brigade in Sződ has been demolished. Initial Russian assault on the Hungarian extreme right has been rebuffed, but worse is about to come.

Russian highwater mark - eight regiments assault the embankment.

Plan view, end of Turn 7 or 8. Russians continue to press forward bottom right but have been repulsed in the centre. Centre of pic, two Hungarian brigades and some hussars have crossed the embankment to attack the right flank of the massed Russian assault. Upper left, VII Cps and the Russians facing it find themselves in a stand-off.

Close-up of the Hungarian counterattack against the repulsed Russians. Their blurred images betray just how shaken those Russians are.

Unusually, we ended the game a couple of turns early because several of the guys had to leave a bit early. The rest of us could have finished it but we were happy to call it a draw. The Russian hordes had suffered enough infantry losses that they would have struggled to press another assault home, but they probably had enough guns to prevent the Hungarian counter-attack from carrying too far either.

The Hungarian army's historical withdrawal was seriously impeded by a column of thousands of refugees following it. Here we see the refugee column milling around and blocking movement through Vác. Even if the Hungarian army itself does break through the Russians, this tail of unfortunates is likely to be left at the mercy of Russian Cossacks and Caucasus Muslim cavalry.


An Illuminating 'What-If'. Görgei is widely regarded as Hungary's best general of the war. I think it fair to say that this what-if game confirmed the wisdom of his actual decision in this case. His historical withdrawal took his army into hilly country that aided rearguard actions to delay pursuit and made it difficult for the Russians to bring their superior numbers to bear; he was able to send his baggage and ammunition trains away first and give them a head start; the Russians were unsure about exactly where he was heading; his army escaped virtually intact (and then dodged behind and through the Russians, leading them on a merry dance for weeks). By contrast, our attempt to break through showed that it would have been pretty disastrous. Even if victorious, his army would have been mauled; it would then have had to march across open country, harassed by Russian light cavalry and Cossacks; it would probably have lost much of its supply train. No doubt I could have worked that out as the likely result beforehand, just as Görgei evidently did, but it was still highly instructive to see it play out on the table.

Shock and Awe: it's one thing to read (or indeed write) a scenario, and another to see the troops deployed. Once the Russian army appeared in full force after the Night Interval, we were all a bit gobsmacked - especially those of us on the Hungarian side tasked with fending it off. It goes to show that small figures can still make a big impression. 6mm is good for mass effect.

Quality vs Quantity: Görgei's army was a pretty well oiled machine at this stage, whereas the Russian one was a mighty but unsubtle steamroller. The Russians had also been ravaged by cholera, which killed more Russians than the Hungarians did in this war. The scenario therefore gives the Hungarians a quality advantage overall. By the time we stopped, this seemed to be on the way to compensating for Russian numerical superiority.

What is a 'What-If'? It's a bit of a stretch to claim this post as a genuine 'Reflection on Wargaming'. Really it's one battle report that prompted one particular thought that I've tried to expand on. I suppose I can expand on it a bit more by saying every game is a what-if to some degree (unless it is not a game at all but simply an exercise in pushing figures along courses utterly pre-determined by history, without any player choices or chance to deviate from that history). My typical historical recreations start the 'what-if' around the point at which historical opposing armies deployed for a historical battle, with their historical objectives and orders of battle, and explore how different plans might have worked out. The alternative version of Vác that I've reported here just changes the Hungarian C-in-C's aim - the mission, if you like - and explores a more radical strategic plan rather than grand tactical ones. A next step away from the historical event would be to have those same armies meet on a different battlefield, perhaps imagining a breakthrough attempt at a slightly different location; the step after that, to put historical opponents on some imaginary battlefield, tournament-style; beyond that, we get into competition-style games pitting ahistorical opponents against each other in battles that never happened, on terrain that didn't exist, in wars that were never fought. Which step of that progression we prefer depends on which 'what-if' question we want answered.

And finally: Thanks to Crispin for creating the custom battlemat, painting the armies and laying on the game.

For the full list of my (mostly rather more extensive and considered) 'Reflections on Wargaming' essays, see here.

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Zulus! Isandlwana game at Colours 2023

Surprised not to have seen many reports of the Colours wargames show that happened in Newbury as usual earlier this month. Here's my own modest addition to the literature on this subject.

I can't say much about the show in general as I spent most of it helping to run our participation game. I talked to a couple of traders who said it had gone well for them, which is always good to hear. It was swelteringly hot and my impression was that it was really busy in the morning but that a lot of people faded, wilted and went home early when they got too hot and bothered to stay for the afternoon.

At last year's show we ran a nice obscure Hungary 1848 battle in 6mm. This time we went much more mainstream as Bruce laid on a game of Isandlwana using his gorgeous 28mm figures. Lots of people are familiar with this battle. Indeed, several of our guest players or spectators had actually visited the battlefield and knew it very well indeed, one even having had a relative perish there in 1879. That being so, it was particularly gratifying that one of our knowledgeable guests played the whole game through and said at the end, "that felt right".

This is a tribute to Bruce's skilful scenario design, as he adapted BBB (a ruleset geared to making battles of 100s of 1000s of men feasible as wargames on 6'x4' in an evening) to an action in which the smaller side had fewer than 2,000. BBB's elastic scale proved capable of shrinking down that far and still producing a very plausible game.

I thought I took a bunch of photos of his work but apparently not. I can only assume I was too busy chatting with people and helping to run the game. All I can offer you is a view of the racecourse, a couple of pics of the terrain being created and one of the British deployment, followed by a few reflections.

The view from our splendid vantage point. We were as overheated as greenhouse tomatoes, but it still beats the Distelfink room at Historicon. Maybe it captured the right feeling of southern Africa and all we needed was some itchy woollen clothing with tight high collars.


Step 1 of laying out the terrain was to put together Bruce's cunningly crafted polystyrene jigsaw for the hills.

Drape a cloth over the top, add the most prominent hilltops, sprinkle tiny gravel to help to define the slopes. Dongas (streams) and campsite will follow. Top left of pic is the range of hills the main Zulu force camped behind and attacked across. Isandlwana hill is the rocky brown one. Zulu right horn came from left edge of pic, left horn from the right edge. Our visiting expert complimented Bruce on his choice of green cloth: apparently, the movie 'Zulu Dawn' gives a false impression of a dry brown battlefield because it was filmed in the more convenient dry season, whereas the actual battle took place when the grass would have been lush and green.

A thin red line awaits the storm. Each pair of redcoats represents a company, with one figure being equivalent to 50-80 men. Bottom right, Lt Raw's men gallop frantically back to camp, having discovered the Zulu army. To see more and better pics of Bruce's figures in action (including Zulus this time), see my report of his Nyezane game.


It's a thin red line. Inevitably, the much-debated question came up of whether the massacre was due to ammunition problems (difficulty opening ammo boxes, etc), along with the alternative theory that it was because of weapons fouling up and misfiring. My own feeling after playing the game is that it didn't need any one major factor to make it happen. The problem is, unless the British deploy in a proper tight square (preferably protected by improvised obstacles and with guns at the corners) as they did later in the Sudan, eventually the Zulus will find a flank somewhere. Once they do, the line will get rolled up and swarmed and it's game over.

Popular vs Obscure. I love to explore the esoteric corners of history. There's a particular pleasure to be had from researching wars and recreating battles that few people have ever heard of, especially when (as so often) they present unusual tactical challenges; colourful, even bizarre incidents; and strong characters. Bringing such games to the tabletop, especially at shows, is in its way a service to our little community. However, there is also a lot to be said for the 'headline acts': Gettysburg, Waterloo, Balaclava - the famous battles that everybody knows and can enjoy identifying the terrain features and notable regiments as portrayed on our tables; the ones where the 'what-ifs' have been discussed at length and it can be particularly interesting to see how alternative plans play out in a game. Our previous more obscure games at shows have been appreciated and gone down well enough, but I have to say I think Isandlwana was the most popular yet, so maybe we will go for more such better-known battles in future.

28mm vs 6mm or 10mm. Another factor in the popularity of the Isandlwana game may have been the use of 28mm figures. We usually use 6mm or 10mm because these give the right mass effect for the massed battles we normally lay on. However, larger figures are easier to identify and more eye-catching at a show. Another conundrum to chew over for future games - or maybe we could go in the opposite direction and try 2mm next time!

Update: Bruce's scenarios for Isandlwana and Nyezane are both freely available in the "BBB Zulu Wars" folder in the BBB io group files. 


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.