Wednesday 20 December 2023

Spectacular Indian Mutiny Xmas special!

Mark surpassed himself with his latest spectacular Christmas special. These are big multi-player BBB games with a twist: unlike standard scenarios where time limits are clear and everyone knows what their side's common objectives are, in these Christmas games each player has different secret objectives depending on his own individual motivations - greed, glory, self-preservation, rivalry, ambition, etc.

The setting was the climactic assault of the siege of Delhi in 1857 during the Indian Mutiny. (Retaking the whole city actually took a week but this was compressed into 8 game turns.) Mark handcrafted some 15 feet of bastioned walls to represent Delhi's fortifications. Dave W and Phil joined me on the imperial side, outnumbered by five Indian defenders: Crispin, Luke, Ben, Dave T and Nick O.

It fell to me to take the role of Brigadier Nicholson, evidently a fellow of considerable pluck and determination, judging by my objectives. These included storming both the two breaches by the Water Bastion and the Kashmir Bastion (pic above).

Mutineer's-eye view of my force, which for game purposes included both Nicholson's 1st Column and Jones's 2nd Column: four 3-base regiments of European troops plus two larger regiments of loyal sepoys. (Figures from Mark's collection, made by Irregular Miniatures.)

I advanced boldly upon the leftmost breach. I won't be able to tell you much about what was going on along the other 13 feet of fortifications.

Indian artillery on the bastions induced a little more caution towards the righthand breach while we poured fire on the defenders to soften them up for a turn first. Note the small barrels behind my troops. These represent petards for blasting our way into bastions and the like.

Festive combat resolution mechanism! Turns 2 and 3 were spent effecting entry via both breaches, only for Crispin's savage counterattacking hordes to eject the 1st Column from the Water Bastion breach and wipe out a regiment of the 2nd Column, the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers. That loss provoked a cracker pull that I lost, resulting in Nicholson being wounded and rendered hors de combat, seriously handicapping my force for the rest of the game.

To my right was Colonel Campbell's 3rd Column (Dave W). Here he demonstrates one of our patent self-hoisting petards against the Kabul gate.

Turn 4: 2nd Column's 4th Sikhs storm in to avenge the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers
and rout their whiteclad foes, already reeling from the Fusiliers' gallant resistance.
(Yellow markers indicate Disrupted; blue is Spent.)

Turn 5: we are now solidly established inside the walls and driving the enemy before us. The Sikhs are the unit upper right. 1st Column has taken the St James suburb (the grey patch) and the 8th Foot supports its right flank. Heavy casualties are starting to tell on the mutineers.

Our casualties have not been light, though. Here the wounded Nicholson parades assorted wounded and stragglers from my force and Dave's on the table edge.

Start of Turn 8. The building top left is the Magazine, which is also one of my Objectives. In front of it is a shaky line of blue-countered Spent mutineer rabble. My leading unit, the 75th Foot (the line centre left) will shake off its Disruption and charge! Unfortunately, without Nicholson to motivate them, its tired comrades will watch it go in alone.

The 1st Bengal Fusiliers won't even stay to watch ... having rolled snake-eyes earlier, they actually retired outside the breach again. I rationalised this as them being detached to escort supplies and artillery moving up and wounded moving back.

My highwater mark! The 75th routed their spent opponents so comprehensively that they then impetuously charged the rather larger and more solid mob in the Magazine. Unsurprisingly, they bounced off with heavy loss, but their gallantry cannot be faulted.

One of our British team objectives was to find and capture the king of Delhi (Bahadur Shah, I think). Here we see him making his escape past the Red Fort. More splendid Irregular Miniatures.

So how did it turn out? As I said, I didn't have much idea what was happening beyond my scrap with Crispin. He and a couple of other Indian players did better than us on the personal objectives. However, what we didn't know was that there were two factions on the Indian side. Luke and Ben's faction achieved every one of their objectives and therefore achieved a team win. Hurrah for them! (The treacherous dogs, damn their eyes.)

If you enjoyed this and fancy trying some large-scale India games yourself, do take a look at Mark's scenario book, "Bloody Big Battles in INDIA!"


Just a seasonal one: the value and importance of good friends.

On which note, I wish all readers of this blog a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope you all get to spend some quality time with the people most important to you. See you in 2024!

Thursday 7 December 2023

Ferocious fighting at Chickamauga (1863 ACW)

Chickamauga was one of the biggest ACW battles, with about 60,000+ men on each side. I've fought it a couple of times before, back in 2016, but I see I only wrote brief reports (see here and here). Still, even seven years later I remember these were great games, so I suggested it for our club night this week and Crispin duly obliged. We had a good turnout so there were three of us on each side, plus Crispin as ref. Chickamauga is a good scenario for such a multi-player game because it is easy to just divide up sectors of the line and share the troops out on both sides.

The history is that in September 1863 (two months after Gettysburg), Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army of Tennessee, reinforced with a corps from the Army of Northern Virginia, crashes into Rosecrans's Union Army of the Cumberland south of the strategically important town of Chattanooga. The Confederates are trying to right hook and outflank the Union army to cut it off from Chattanooga, but it doesn't really work. Instead, it degenerates into a big line-out among the woods, a battle lasting two days with reinforcements for both sides turning up from various directions.

Our game pretty much replicated that. I can't be sure - despite only having three or four units to command on the Union extreme right, I found the action there so intense and absorbing that I don't have much idea what was going on elsewhere. I also only took a couple of photos at the start and then forgot to take any more. Let me offer those pics to orient the reader somewhat, then a brief summary of the game so far as I can provide it, followed by some reflections.

I commanded the Union extreme right, including Van Cleve's 3rd Division of Crittenden's XXI Cps. Here we see Van Cleve arriving from the right (southern) table edge to close the gap in the line around the Brock and Viniard farmsteads (white objective markers). Reynolds (4th Div of XIV Cps) and Palmer (2nd Div, XXI Cps) are visible top left of picture. Top right is Hood's ANV I Cps, part of the Confederate storm about to break over the Union line.

View from behind the Poe farmstead (white objective counter) in the Union center. Baird and Brannan (1st & 3rd Div's of Thomas's XIV Cps flank it and hold Kelly's field to the left and Brotherton's farm to the right. Bedford Forrest's cavalry visible on the Confederate extreme right (top left) and Walker's corps top center.

The battlefield all looks like this, mostly wooded with some patches of open ground, criss-crossed by trails. There are two lines of objectives representing the Union defensive lines. The Confederates must hold two of the first line objectives at game end for a draw, plus one second line objective for a win.

How did the battle go? Roughly: the Confederate center was sacrificed in furious charges. Although these did not breach the line, they took so much US effort to repel that Forrest's cavalry were able to seize a couple of objectives on the US left. The US left wing eventually managed to drive the Confederates out of some but not all, but was unable to spare any support for the US right. Meanwhile, a Confederate left hook, eventually supported by a Confederate grand battery in front of the Viniard property, was able to break through in a couple of places and seize two objectives to earn a draw.

The whole game was intense, everyone really engaged, bloody fighting, objectives taken and retaken, ebb and flow and heart-in-mouth moments. It could easily have gone either way. Honourable draw was a fair result.


Ebb and flow, no 'pivotal moment': Last week's Franco-Prussian game prompted me to write a whole 'Reflections' essay on 'Pivotal moments in wargames'. The heavily wooded terrain on the much denser battlefield at Chickamauga made it much harder for a defender to cover gaps, either with fire or by moving reserves across quickly; on the other hand, it also made it much harder for an attacker to exploit success and roll up flanks or dash through to green fields beyond. There were plenty of tough fights, gallant charges and big swings of fortune, but they only had local consequences. The dense terrain created 'firewalls' between these local actions and made it difficult for them to produce rapidly cascading effects.

Cover yourselves in glory, lads! When the troops are first put on the table, they all look a lot alike. During the course of the game, though, one little bunch of bits of painted metal can really distinguish itself from the rest. That was the case for several here, even just on our Union right wing. On the US side, we pinned high hopes on Negley's 2nd Div of XIV Cps, with their famous Colt revolving rifles. Unfortunately, Negley let us down badly: the first rebel yell sent his boys reeling back to the field in the SW corner of the battlefield, where they spent most of the game rallying; eventually they pulled themselves together to try to retake the Glenn house (lost partly due to their absence from the line), but bounced feebly off.

On the Confederate left, by contrast, a couple of the units facing us distinguished themselves, much to Luke's satisfaction as their commander. The greenhorns of Preston's division belied their Raw rating, fighting hard throughout and keeping many Union troops busy. Cheatham's division suffered terrible casualties early on, as a result of which they then spent most of the next four turns in involuntary retreats almost back to their baseline - only to rally near the Alexander house, form a march column, and race up the road in time to seize the Viniard objective on the penultimate turn.

Thus, in their different ways, all these three units stood out. It's always nice when our little metal men take on a character of their own like that.

Commanding cavalry is a distinct art. Cavalry can be a potent weapon but as the nineteenth century goes on it becomes harder to use them right. I've noted before that it's not my forte. This time, I handled them better and caused the Confederates some problems on their left. But meanwhile on their right, Dave W (whose entire command in this game was all the Confederate cavalry) discovered that he's "no JEB Stuart".

The Chickamauga scenario is available from the BBB group files here.

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! 

Update 3 Dec 2023: the original reflection was a little brief as I was pressed for time. Here's some more of what I wanted to say about this, as expounded in a nice discussion on the Lead Adventure Forum:

I think the pivotal moment really has to be a high-stakes decision. (Me citing an artillery bombardment rolling a 12 was a bit of a cheat.)

'Decided at deployment': well, it's not really so black and white, you're rarely necessarily doomed. It's more a case of poor early decisions skewing the odds against you for the rest of the game.

To offer an analogy, imagine a battle as being like a long-term illness, where the disease is the enemy.
'Decided at Deployment' might be the fact that you became a chain-smoker at the age of 12, making it harder to fight the disease for the rest of your life and likely it will kill you.
'Ebb and Flow' would be just trying to manage it with diet, exercise and medication, to more or less effect - maybe ending in a draw (live to a decent age, albeit quality of life a bit diminished).
'Pivotal Moment' - that's the decision to go under the knife for that kill-or-cure operation.

Safety professionals use a 'bowtie diagram'
in which multiple possible Mechanisms can lead to a single critical Event that can then have multiple Outcomes. Our situation is similar except that the Event (the Pivotal Moment) generally won't result from one Mechanism but from the cumulative effects of several contributing circumstances (activation failures, an exposed flank, a battery's fire slackening from low ammo ...). It then has multiple ramifications, more so than a lower-risk decision elsewhere that does not change the situation so dramatically.

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