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!

Update: Bash Day V will be held at Battlefield Hobbies, Daventry, on Sunday 19 May. Details here.


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'.