This past weekend I got try Napoleonic wargaming for the first time!
Yes, I know the headline isn’t from a Napoleonic poem, but you can’t say no to the Light Brigade.
For all the years I’ve been a gamer historical wargaming is not something I’ve done much of, so this was something I was looking forward to. I was not disappointed. Six of us gathered round a large table to lead the Franco-Polish alliance against the Russian Empire, our armies arrayed in 15mm glory.
The rules set we used was Grande Armee, written by Sam Mustafa. It’s an excellent set of rules, crunchy enough to give you the feel of managing armies while streamlined enough that it is easy to pick up and run with. Only two of us had played the system before, but all of us were quickly up-to-speed without substantial pre-game instruction.
The game is divided into Turns and Phases. The number of Phases per Turn is variable, so unlike most games it’s best to measure the game by how many Phases were played instead of Turns. At the beginning of each Phase a die is rolled. If it’s higher than the last Phase number, the Turn continues. If it’s equal or lower, the Turn ends.
This is important for two reasons. The first is that each army has a number of Command Points to spend. These are used to automatically activate your sub-commanders, who can then issue orders to their troops. These commanders can also be activated by a sufficient die roll, but spending Command Points ensures that they are active and doing what you want them to do. Command Points are only replenished at the beginning of a Turn.
The second reason ending a Turn is important is that it gives you a chance to reinforce damaged units and rally routed units. Units have Strength Points. At the beginning of a Turn you can roll to “heal” them. A unit that has run out of Strength Points is routed and removed from the board, but you can try to return them to the field at reduced strength on the beginning of the next Turn. If that unit is routed again it is removed from the game.
The end result is that if a Turn drags on your command-and-control becomes strained as you run out of Command Points and your forces wear down. Our first Turn had five Phases and by the end it felt like our armies had been spent, slamming into each other without the opportunity to regroup for too long. It was a neat effect.
Another thing I like about the rules we used is that there is little down time. Everyone is planning, moving, and fighting and not waiting around for long. Even if one of your commanders doesn’t activate it doesn’t mean they are out of the action. A commander may sit inactive, but the corps will still defend itself. It may re-position itself without attacking. It may choose to go full attack on the nearest enemy forces. But an inactive corps isn’t truly inactive, it’s just not doing exactly what you want them to do. This does a good job of giving the feel of confusion that happens on a battlefield.
Best of all an inactive corps will not do anything stupid. It won’t choose to run away or move in an inane manner just because you failed your command role. This means that the mechanics of the game do not frustrate the players, which is a major plus for the rules.
After we’d gone through two turns we decided to assess the battlefield and decide if we should proceed with another Turn or call the battle. The scenario allowed for another Turn before the end of battle, but we decided that thanks to heroic efforts by the Don Cossack forces and a dramatic push by Russian guard troops, the Franco-Polish alliance would withdraw in good order, give the Russian Empire a marginal victory, and live to fight another day. Meanwhile we the players all had a great time and look forward to taking the field again.
This was a great first exposure to large scale historical miniatures gaming for me. I can see why so many people become ardent fans of the genre and if I had the time and resources to collect and paint my own armies, I could easily get sucked in. Maybe someday.
For now I’ll revel in the glory of past battles and look forward to leading lead across the field once more.
Polish and Russian Cavalry about to have a close encounter.