Saturday, 10 December 2022

(not quite) Quatre Bras—testing March Attack

Last weekend's session in Albany inspired me to 'change tack' with Napoleonics. I will work on my figures for 1815 so as to be able to play out Quatre Bras (and later Ligny and possibly even both). I want to see if I can achieve as well or better than Ney but, more importantly, to try out the legion of different rules that I have under consideration. 

I did not expect to put figures on the table for some weeks. I have more forces for the Hundred Days in a 'good enough' state than for any other campaign of the Napoleonic era, but it will still take time to finalise even those needed for Quatre Bras. Ah, plans and intentions. Such things are always fluid. Fast-forward to the middle of this week...

Stephen was coming out to catch up on Friday (yesterday) with Julian and me. A change in commitments meant that Julian was not able to make it, so we needed an alternative to a potential game trying out some of his 1/700th planes. I asked Stephen if he'd be interested in a game of 'not quite' Quatre Bras to test out the rules March Attack? He answered in the affirmative!

I only have French and British that are 'good enough' for the table, so adjusted the orders of battle to pit a British-Hanoverian advance guard (part of Picton's 5th Division) around the Bois de Bossu and Ferme de Gemioncourt against part of Reille's II Corps.

View from the French (south) side of the table. An oversized Ferme de Gemioncourt in the centre-right, Bois de Bossu left and above that, crossroads in the distance.

Above and below: modern views of the same from the website of J.F. Schmitz Photography. Circa September 2012 (sans Bois de Bossu). These are just two thumbnails of a series of gorgeous photographs in his 'album' Waterloo 1815.
In the end I only brought on Jérome's division, but it was enough for this playtest over a few hours.

Changes to the look of the game

I have been waiting to play March Attack since I first purchased and read them in 2018. They are an Empire-successor set, having taken Empire as their starting point and made some adjustments and changes to simplify the detail and, some would say, encumbrances of Empire (more on that later). A really clever concept in March Attack is the use of a grid of the quality grade of troops (untrained, militia, conscript, regular, veteran, élite, guard) with the strength in hundreds to produce a 'combat value' from 1 to 10 (even higher for units of over 1 000 men). Combat value is then used as the basis of firing, mêlée and losses. In the rules as writ, each unit is represented by just two bases. I knew from the outset that this would not suit me, so decided to have each of my bases represent a 'point' of combat value. This had the two-fold impact of a range of size of the units (and generally larger units) and also immediately being able to determine what the combat value of any unit is. For artillery, I would represent this by the number of artillerists, something straight from Empire, (although for this game all of my bases had three artillerists each, so we just had to remember).

These increases in the size of units meant that I needed to adjust the ground scale. March Attack uses the same ground scale as Empire: 1" represents 60 yards. While increasing this I wanted to make it a more 'natural' scale as well. Thinking about the frontage of my units in line (double bases) and approximate frontage of the units in reality, it seemed that an increase of about one-third should do the trick. I used this distance in inches, converted to yards (based on the now 1" represent 45 yards) and then metres and rounded to produce movement distances and ranges in mm. This rather bizarre and somewhat questionable mathematical approach gave me a ground scale of 1 mm representing 1.5 m (1: 1 500). Edited tables and notes on the quick reference sheet saved these for posterity (and use in the game!).

In a similar manner I decided to represent the skirmish combat value of a division with an equivalent number of skirmish bases. In a more-complex-than-the-average-wargame-rules calculation, skirmish combat rating is calculated from the sum of the combat value for each of line and light infantry, divided by a factor (which varies according to the skirmish combat rating of the army—good, average, poor—and whether line or light) which is rounded up if 0.5 or more. The resulting skirmish combat value for the line and light are then added to together to give the division's initial skirmish combat value. As with most things, it sounds far more convoluted in description than it is to do. It is, though, part of the considerable 'overhead' of preparation of army lists that is required for these rules. Doing army lists is a joy for people like me, but it is not for all...

The calculation above gives the skirmish combat value of the division, which can drop two levels as the division loses units (battalions and/or cavalry regiments only) to become 'shaken' and then 'spent'. Skirmish combat is conducted on an area basis with the total skirmish combat value of divisions in each area of the battle (which is left to the players to decide) are compared and the side with the higher value rolls on a table based on the difference in skirmish combat rating to determine impacts (loss of one or more combat value of a unit(s) of the opponents).

The rules intend for this to be a completely abstracted concept, but I like the look of skirmishers on a table and, once again, having the number of skirmish bases represent the skirmish combat value saves looking up the orders of battle during the game. Having only one 'front' in this small game, the French had the advantage in skirmish combat (just three), so were able to produce a few losses of combat value to some of the British-Hanoverian units.

With that, let's go back to the table...

My deployment was pretty ordinary, as happens so often when I think more about the rules and game. The lead battalion of the 1er légère charged a battalion of Hanoverians, taking three losses of combat value form the defender's fire and that of their artillery mates, causing them to halt at 25 mm-ish. These rules are brutal.
Skirmish combat (exchange of musket v rifle fire) around the Bois de Bossu. But hang on, there is no tactical skirmish formation or combat. What? It's amazing how such big things can slip past when reading rules. That would not do. We made modifiers on the fly and the exchange occurred; in favour of the rifles inside the wood.
Those cheeky Hanoverians added insult to injury by charging my weakened and demoralised  battalion of the 1er légère. They had lost another 'point' of combat value to further fire from the artillery—fire is simultaneous and occurs in each of the players' phases. Demoralisation has two levels D1 and D2 and I represented it with the bases with the little 'pimples'.
The battalion broke (combat value of zero).
Not to be deterred, I sent the next battalion against those Hanoverians (who had again been demoralised), this time breaking through.
They pressed on and joined the other two battalions of the 1er légère in attacking those dastardly rifleman. Three to one advantage, surely they would be toast? Perhaps not. Stephen was consistently out-rolling me in mêlée.
Time for some casualty figures to represent the outcome.

We had played three turns, not bad for a new set of rules with a break for lunch, so it was now the 'last turn special'.

The luck was not all one way though. My die rolling for artillery fire had been excellent—low values are good here. Having caused a 50% loss of combat value to the unit in Ferme de Gemioncourt, it was time to try an assault.

My 1/3e ligne had a combat value of six, no modifiers. Stephen's 1/28th line had a combat value of three, plus three for the defences. Odds even. It came down to the rolls of the dice. Stephen's superior die rolling in mêlée one the day!
March Attack has 'strategic' and 'tactical' movement rates, an adjustment of the grand tactical and tactical movement in Empire. I used strategic movement to put my lancers over on the British left flank (they moved about a kilometre and remained outside 'engagement range' (350 mm or some 525 m). In his phase of the turn, Stephen then charged his hussars in his phase of the turn, my lancers counter-charged so we got to test out a cavalry mêlée
One match up had my combat value four against his five, the other we were four each. Guess who rolled better?! :)
Xena was paying close attention to Steve. I am sure that her licking helped his die rolling hand!

Assessement

As many of you will know, I have a real thing about plagiarism amongst the writers of rules wargames (here he goes again...)— or, at the very least, the lack of acknowledgement of influences and ideas from elsewhere. It is as if the ideas and mechanics of a set of rules came 'as a vision' to the author while in the shower. Mark Sims' March Attack, published in 2011, takes the cake in this. These rules are clearly derived from Empire. Some things are exactly the same, such as move distances, engagement range, the text in the mêlée results table (and much more). It is so glaringly evident. Yet, there is no mention of the influence anywhere. Not in the Introduction, nor in the Design Notes. This is very, very poor.

That said, the 'framework' of Empire is a good one to build on as far as I am concerned and Sims introduced some novel and clever mechanics to simplify the Empire rules. What results is different, but clearly derivative.

What I liked

The overall 'feel and look' of the game was okay. It does not take long to get the turn sequence and key mechanics in 'front of mind' and the tables are clear and easy to use.

The rules are well written and, in the main, clear. It was easy to find those aspects that we needed to check during the game.

The big moves and action in a nominally 20-miinute turn mean that once you order your troops to move, they move and once engaged things happen.

The innovation of the combat value as a combination of strength and quality of the unit is really clever. As with so many scales in rules for wargames, only a portion of the full range is used most of the time. Hence most units end up with a combat value of from four to seven. There are a few threes, the odd eight and fewer nines or tens. This is not a big limitation, but it does give a large weighting to the roll of the die in firing and especially in mêlée (see later).

What I did not like

The rules are not really sure of their scale. While supposedly a battalion/regimental scale game, it plays more like brigade scale and would probably work better as such. Most of my negatives would evaporate at that scale.

Lack of tactical skirmishing is not something that I could accept. I am in favour of having the divisional skirmish screen and skirmish combat, but there needs to be the ability to have skirmishes fight against one another, or perhaps against formed troops. Quatre Bras and Friedland are two prominent examples without having to think to much or remind myself of other battles.

Casualties from combat applying to the loser only. This means that are victorious unit could be in combat several times and emerge unscathed, while the losers incurred two or three losses of combat value (sizeable losses in effectiveness)!

Picking up on this, firing and combat are brutal. The rules are intended to be 'fast play', so this is certainly achieved. Units that engage in combat are reduced to nought pretty quickly. Firing is a bit slower, but nonetheless losses of one or two combat value points are common. This is a core to the rules. Such fast play is not for me.

I mentioned above that the rules are well written in the main. A glaring contrary to this is with regards to changes or removal of disorder markers. March Attack has two levels of disorder, D1 or D2. They both represent disorder, but one last longer than the other. The simple mechanic is that D2 reduces to D1 and it reduces to no disorder. This is fine, but exactly how this occurs is not clear. The rules state that this is the last part of each players tactical phase (charge/move, firing, mêlée, change disorder markers). If this is followed, disorder can have little impact. For example, my attacking battalion loses, takes loses retires a distance and receives a D2 result. In the very next part of my phase I recover the D2 to D1? Surely not? We played it as occuring at the end of the turn, after both players' initiative. I am often left wondering whether anyone ever proof-reads rules! Do play-testers actually read the rules and play the game, or are they simply lead through them by the author? March Attack are not a set that leaves me thinking this, apart from this one, fairly glaring and important aspect.

Conclusion

I put a lot of thought and a fair bit of effort into March Attack. Such is never time and energy wasted and certainly not in this case. The overall mechanics, feel and look are there for me. I was pleased that using bases as combat value worked and my 1/3 increase in ground scale and 'metrification' seemed okay. Representing the abstracted skirmish combat value as bases of skirmishers was good early on, needed a bit of work as the forces got into the nitty gritty, but wasn't a failure. It was great to have Stephen's thoughts and comments on the rules and our insertion of tactical skirmishing 'on the fly' did the job. Overall, I was sufficiently happy with the first outing to use them again. "They are worth another go" was Stephen's assessment.

So, not a set of rules for the (metaphorical) furnace. However, the one-sided effects of combat and fast-play elements are too much at the heart of the rules to change and are a bit of a sticking point for me. In reality, with 18 other sets of rules for what I consider Corps/Army games at Battalion/Regimental level that I want to put through the ringer, it is unlikely that they will see the light of day again for a while (if at all)—unless I convert them to brigade scale?! Next up will be Bataille Empire.

As ever, it was a fine arvo', enjoying Stephen's company and wit, and appreciating his thoughts and suggestions about the rules.

Tangential Epilogue

Amongst the superb photos on the website of J.F. Schmitz Photography is this one of the old farm at the Quatre Bras crossroads. Poignant and pointed comment in an image, particularly given what occurred four years later.

I recall reading at the time about the demolition of the farm at the Quatre Bras crossroads in October 2016, but was taken back to it when a search for some background information about the buildings led me to this excellent, beautifully written post by Josh Provan "A Eulogy to Quatre Bras Farm". Well worth a read.

Of course, we cannot preserve and conserve all old buildings and sites. In this context one only has to consider the construction of the Lion Mound which forever altered the field of Waterloo all those years ago, or the lack of the Bois De Bossu in the photograph above from J.F. Schmitz. Surely these represent as great a loss as the old farm at the crossroads? Difficult choices are made and vested interests and the needs of the day will often have more weight than preserving the past. The Ferme de Quatre Bras joined the many, many sites, buildings and aspects of the past that first come to exist only in memory and then in books and writing. One of the great joys of our hobby is to bring the past back to life and in doing so to try to learn more about it and to do honour to the memory and the people involved.

12 comments:

  1. Excellent post James - the rules do sound a bit "bloody" but as long as you had sufficient units, I guess that would not be an issue. Mind you, if you have eighteen other sets to try, it seems likely you will find something you prefer to these.
    Re the farm - it seems bit short sighted to me but then, in reality, I guess Waterloo, Napoleon and Wellington are a more important part of "Anglo" history than Belgian - so maybe the historical importance isn't so great in the culture of the host nation?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Keith. This was a small test for a set of rules that are best suited for corps level games (and bigger). That's the scale that I am looking at, but I'd like more nuanced combat.

      Delete
  2. Interesting treatment of the battle and your approach to it with the rules "March Attack " for planning. Talking about Empire brings back memories from the 1980's and thousands of Minifigs on the tatable, navigating editions until the fun collapsed under the weight of flowcharts and minutae. The fate of the farmhouse is sad for this community, but all politics are local and the area suffers from too many historical battles taking place over time in a small area. At least there is a decent amount of documentation on the battle and era.
    Looking forward to your test bedding all those rules!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did not mention the (current) list of eight sets of rules for Corps/Army games at Brigade level.
      Rather than a 'holy grail', I am looking for a suite of rules that will be appropriate for different styles of games (needs/wants/time of the player(s)?) as well as size/level of simulation. Heaps did not made it to the 19 (which is not a definitive number either), as they did not pass the review and/or reading stage. Quite a number have been tried and discarded already. I expect that some of the current 19 will be for the 'furnace'. There may even be some brilliant mechanics that I may bolt on to others—or just lift all the ones that I like to make my own frankenstein rules—an extant list/idea that I make notes on from time to time. It is interesting to do (for me) and adds a drive to the painting too...

      Delete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, you need not stop at Empire influence. The notion of CV seems heavily influenced by Howard Whitehouse's Old Trousers Napoleonic rules. Inspired by or directly lifted? You decide.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I dunno Jonathan, you'll have to send me a link or somethin' (please! :) ).
      I could only find an Old Trousers II by a John Kelly or a 6 mm fast play version. The former has a base mêlée factor for each morale class (like Empire's ACE) and the latter has a grid of combat values from 1 to 20 (like many rules, especially boardgames).

      Delete
  5. Interesting post James. First as a review of the rules as written, and then to read through your thought processes on developing skirmishing rules. And to top it all, there's the nostalgia of seeing all though old Airfix figures. Lovely stuff!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Chris. You similarly like to try out and to 'mess with' rules don't you?
      With the Hundred Days, it is as much Airfix as possible for me, especially for French and British infantry and artillery!
      Regards, James

      Delete
  6. I often think you need to give rules at least three run throughs before the subtleties become apparent. When we try any set for the first time nothing really flows and I find it a constant source of frustration that this is often as far as we get before going back to the old tried and tested rulesets. It does seem as though you have picked the main features out of this set though, and it will be interesting to see whether your opinion differs on the second playing.

    ReplyDelete