Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Napoleonic Wargaming For Fun Revisited

I was  cleaning up some of my old gaming directories on my laptop, and I found a file dated March 2011 that contained a submission for the Classic Wargamers Journal. The CWJ stopped around that time putting out new issues, so the article below never got published. But here it is, saved from the forgotten corners of my hard disk!

Since this was written in 2011, a few things have changed. We have experimented quite a lot with Black Powder and Oh My God, Anything but a Six for Napoleonic games, so take some of the bold statements below with a grain of salt :-)

A snapshot of the game played with the Napoleinc Wargaming For Fun rules.
Yes, those are unpainted Airfix plastics. The Horror!
Napoleonic Wargaming For Fun Revisited

In my gaming group, we have the habit of writing our own rules for our wargames. I am a strong believer in simple rules that capture the feel of the period, yet avoid all complications, modifiers and exceptional cases that do not add substantially to the game. My aim usually is to get all the rules on a double-sided A4, such that one has a nice reference sheet handy at the table. In my experience, designing an elegant but workable set of rules is more difficult than writing an extensive ruleset, which often suffers from disparate procedures and mechanisms. Simplifying a set of rules to its most basic and elegant form is an exercise often overlooked when designing wargaming rules. Or, to paraphrase Goethe, “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister.”

That said, when coming up with a set of rules to play a specific period, it always helps to look for inspiration in existing publications. So it happened that when I wanted a Napoleonic ruleset for our 20mm divisional-scale games, we rediscovered the book Napoleonic Wargaming For Fun by the late Paddy Griffith. This book was published in 1980, but has recently been made available again through the History of Wargaming Project by John Curry. I will not discuss each of the seven different games presented in this book (see issue 24 of Battlegames for an in-depth review), but only focus on the modifications we made to the divisional game as originally described by Paddy Griffith.

The divisional game (1 infantry unit on the table = 1 battalion) has a number of features I find attractive, and which resonate with the playing style of my gaming group:

  • One unit only has a single characteristic – its combat effectiveness. No figures are removed due to casualties, no extensive bookkeeping required. The combat effectiveness (or morale level, as its called in the book) of a unit can have different levels. Most units start at A or B, and all casualties taken by a unit are expressed as tenths of a grade. Thus, a unit could be at A-0.8. Once a unit reaches a -1.0 modifier, it drops down to the next  level (A to B to C and so on). A unit reaching F flees the battlefield. 
  • The entire rules of the game firmly use the ground scale w.r.t. the footprint troops actually occupy. All further measurements and distances are derived from that, providing an internal consistency and an easy manner to calibrate your own ideas and modifications.
  • The movement rules assume a gentlemen’s attitude towards the game. Movement is simultaneous, and thus is not restricted by a alternate movement sequence. This works very well in my group. When in doubt about the possible influence of a move by the opponent, we reserve the right to require written orders, but this seldom happens.

The rules had a good enough foundation, but I wanted to streamline them a bit more. That meant substituting some mechanics without altering the probabilistic outcomes or actually changing some of the rules. Here’s an overview of what we did:

  • The original rules had the combat effectiveness go down by one-tenth of a grade. This implied record-keeping on paper. We changed the mechanic such that morale would always go down by half a grade, thus going from A to A- to B to B- and so on. The obvious advantage is that record-keeping is much easier, and can be done by simply placing a counter or dial next to each unit.
  • To recalculate the probabilities from dropping one-tenths of a grade to half-a-grade, we changed the mechanics for determining the results of small arms and artillery fire. Small arms fire in the original rules required to roll a target number on a D10, and if successful, half a grade was lost. Artillery doesn’t require a die roll at all, but depending on the circumstances, a fixed number of tenth-grades were lost. E.g. field artillery targeting infantry in column caused a 0.3 morale loss. We wished to make all losses equal to half-a-grade or 0.5 (so to be consistent with small arms fire). So, to keep the same expected result artillery should hit with a 60% probability – which can be translated immediately in a target number on a D10.
    At first sight, this is a minor change, and something most wargamers would not consider as a critical, but it does streamline the rules and unifies the mechanics used for firing small arms and artillery.
  • The given movement distances are dependent on troop type and terrain. E.g. Infantry in column can move 170 meters during a turn (another aspect I like about the rules is that all distances are given in meters, and thus makes it easy to translate to your preferred ground scale, which in turn might depend on your basing conventions). Of course, movement distances by themselves are pretty meaningless, unless compared to firing distances. The maximum range of muskets is given as 200 meters, and close combat procedures are used when troops come within 50 meter of each other. This all sounds very reasonable, but during our first playtest it became immediately obvious that when infantry was approaching the enemy in column, in many cases said enemy would not have a chance to shoot back, being involved in melee immediately.
    One can abstract this away by reasoning that the first volley would be factored in in the melee procedure, but it still felt wrong. Hence, we experimented with various modifications, and simply decided to reduce all movement distances by 40%. Thus, approaching infantry still would take some musket fire before closing in. 
Are such modifications heresy? I say no! I make the bold assumption that even Paddy Griffith probably made some broad assumptions about the relative movement capabilities of troops vs. range and effect of musket fire; so playing around with some of the parameters would not do much harm. Actually, it does make you think about how all distances are related to each other, and exercises like this give you a deeper insight in the rules under consideration.

The latter principle was also used to alter some of the close combat mechanics. The original rules state that all units within 50 meters of each other contribute to the same melee. Each unit brings a combat factor to the fight. After adding up all factors and applying some modifiers, a final modifier is applied. This final modifier meant throwing a die, and a bonus could be awarded ranging from 0 to 400%. With the winner being determined by who ended up with the highest factor, this seemed to be a bit too random to our tastes. So we rewrote the close combat procedures, still keeping the spirits of the original rules, but greatly reducing the random bonus. Again, we rationalized this by saying that a random modifier of +400% most likely was pulled out of thin air anyway, and could not really be justified apart from the desired randomness in-game.

A last thing we changed was doing away with many of the bonuses in several of the mechanics. E.g. in melee, bonuses were provided for armored cavalry, cavalry with lances, etc. – the usual staple of rulesets developed in the seventies. We eliminated all of the weapon-dependent bonuses, and kept only the ones depending on formation of the unit and terrain. The reason is twofold. We wanted a game in which minimum bookkeeping was necessary, and thus players should be able to deduce any modifiers from the visual situation on the table. Secondly, reading several accounts on tactics in the Napoleonic age (most notably Rory Muir’s ‘Tactics and Experience of Battles in the Age of Napoleon’ ) led me to believe that individual weaponry and equipment was of not much importance for determining the final outcome of a melee – morale factors were the determining factor in most cases anyway.

What I really want to show with this article is that one can take a ruleset published several decades ago, and that there is plenty of room for modifications and alter it to your own needs; but at the same time, still remain faithful to its original intents and design principles. Old-school wargaming is a fine pursuit, but sometimes one has to inject some modern-day insights instead of stubbornly clinging to the holy books of yesteryear. I don’t think this is heresy, but I will swallow my words when convicted to the burning pyre!

Another, somewhat surprising result is that this set of rules now has become our ruleset of choice for divisional-level Napoleonic games. Knowing that our ruleset is rooted in the rules published by Paddy Griffith is an additional bonus, and a firm link with a fine piece of wargaming history.

Finally, some more pictures:

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