March 29, 2013

Tinkering with General de Brigade

Sorry guys, unfortunately this is not another after-action report, but a rather lengthy rant about the ruleset itself and why, in my humble opinion, it is not The Holy Grail of Napoleonic period rulesets.

The good…

In many respects, General de Brigade is an excellent ruleset, especially if you like a strong whiff of traditional approach to game mechanics. There really isn’t anything surprising or revolutionary in it, as the turn sequence clearly indicates – initiative roll decides who is the ‘phasing’ player (i.e. has precedence in certain phases of the turn), followed by compulsory movement (routes, pursuits and such), attempts to change brigade orders, charge declarations/moves, normal movement, firing, melee and finally morale checks where necessary. Once done, rewind and repeat until a conclusion is reached.

Traditional thinking expresses itself in other ways. Both firing and melees are accomplished with 2D6 dice rolls subsequently being adjusted by a bunch of modifiers. Final outcomes are looked up on tables providing the casualty numbers alternatively results of the melee. While there is nothing innovative in this approach, I do like it (well, to a degree, see below) mainly because it allows for an approximate estimation of casualty rates. This in turn allows the player to actually plan his assault and defence and allocate forces necessary for accomplishment of a specific task.

Charges are a bit fiddly, but on the other hand I am yet to encounter a ruleset that handles this aspect of the battle in a smooth way. On the positive side, anyone familiar with Napoleonic period will understand why charge procedure works the way it does in GdeB.

GdeB’s handling of skirmishers needs to get an honorary mention. Rules governing this troop class are very simple and yet, they manage to reflect perfectly role of skirmishers during that period. What’s perhaps even more important, those simple rules also manage to reflect differences in skirmish doctrine of different nationalities in a way that actually has real impact on the ‘battlefield’.

the bad…

In my opinion, most rulesets can be described as either ‘historical’ or ‘gamey’. I’m sure other wargamers have different definitions for those words. For me, a ‘historical’ ruleset can be recognized by its more or less uncompromised adherence to history, even if it influences the game experience in negative way. ‘Harpoon’ is a perfect example of such a ruleset. A ‘gamey’ ruleset focuses on the other hand foremost on the game experience. History component in such rulesets is used to provide the flavour, but isn’t much of a speed-bump when creator’s ‘artistic freedom’ needs to flex its muscles (dare I use ‘Flames of War’ as an example for that type of ruleset?).

General de Brigade is a strange mix of those two styles. In some respects (order system, command&control, restrictions of brigade system, charge mechanism) it is obvious that author tried very hard to transfer the reality of Napoleonic period battlefield onto the tabletop. But at the same time, other aspects of the ruleset are surprisingly ‘gamey’.

The most evident example of ‘gamey’ approach is without a doubt the ‘Dispersal Point’. In it's entirety, this game mechanism is a fair bit more complex, but it essentially means that units that have suffered 50%+ casualties are to be automatically removed from the battlefield. Let’s disregard the historical implications of that rule, although it is quite amusing to wonder over how Napoleon would react if one of his marshals told him ‘Sir, this or that battalion has now lost half its strength, so it will be leaving the battle line now, if you don’t mind.’. My main objection to this approach to unit breaking due to excessive casualties is directed against its deterministic character and how it influences the players during the ‘battle’. If I know that a unit will literally disappear when it reaches a predetermined ratio of casualties, I will play in a way that will achieve that goal. That’s where ‘gamey’ factor enters the picture in my opinion. Real commanders didn’t think in such way, simply because there is no nicely predetermined “breakage point” on a real battlefield.

Same gamey approach can also be found in rules for melee, where number of casualties is predetermined by number and unit type of participants. A player can therefore calculate in advance exactly how big his casualties will be in any melee. Considering the chaotic nature of melee, that is a very generous approach to this aspect of the game.

My problem with both of those mechanisms is, as already indicated, caused by the blanket of certainty they provide to the players. I will therefore try to ‘muddle the water’ a bit in coming games with couple of house rules. In regard of melee casualty rates, I’m toying with the idea of opposing die rolls that will modify those neatly predetermined numbers. For example, the ruleset says that in a basic infantry melee the winning side inflicts 1 casualty per 6 figures, while losers inflict 1 casualty per 12 figures. An opposed die roll with D4 could then be applied to casualty rates of both sides, thus providing a spread of -3 to 3 random modifier to the butcher’s bill. Elite troops could roll with D6 dice, giving them additional punch in shock combat.

Dealing with ‘dispersion point’ is a bit more difficult and I still haven’t come up with a house rule that I like. To be fair, it has to be said that individual battalions are quite resilient in GdeB and automatic removal of units with 50%+ casualties certainly does speed up the game. But as I mentioned before, the deterministic character of this rule really bothers me and I will have to do something about it.

and the ‘meeh’

If there is a single section of the ruleset that I really don’t like, then it’s the rules that govern the risk to general officers. Basically, they are toothless. Possibility of something bad happening to a commanding officer is triggered by a result of double sixes in any dice roll used for resolution of fire or melee. Thus, statistically, a chance for a bad thing happening is 1 in 36, a very low probability indeed. Another roll with two D6 is then required to determine nature of the event. What I don’t understand is why, considering the already low probability of ‘bad things’ happening to officers, about 30% of results on effect table has no effect whatsoever!

Another issue that I have with this mechanism is in its inability to deal with high risk decision of placing commanding officers in front of the troops. Leading from the front has always been regarded as noble and brave… and for a very good and rather obvious reason! Not so in ‘General de Brigade’ though. Letting brigade commanders to lead troops charging into a melee is in my opinion a no-brainer, simply because additional bonus in charge morale checks heavily outweighs possibility of them ‘buying the farm’ due to a random double six. Just to illustrate the inadequacy of this method, I’d like to remind the reader of a situation in my game where a French battalion suffered 10 out of 26 figures in casualties during a single melee. That’s  more than one soldier in three. Needless to say, the brigade commander who led them from the front didn’t even get a scratch during that engagement.

Final thoughts

Let me be clear on one point - don’t let my critique give you the impression that General de Brigade is a bad ruleset. My opinion is in fact quite opposite – it is apparent that a lot of thought was dedicated to it being able to realistically recreate a Napoleonic battle at battalion/brigade level. However, there are in my opinion certain aspects in this ruleset that are  ‘compromised’ for the sake of the gameplay. Some may live with it, others will feel the need to ‘correct’ this or that aspect of the game. After all, that’s the beauty and the curse of our hobby – no ruleset survives the first contact with a gamer.

March 16, 2013

And yet again, moving on to something completely different…

My return to modelling hobby is bearing fruits again, so it’s time for a bit of bragging yet again. Ok, this time the bragging part is a bit subdued – I had a bit of a mishap with weathering powders while making this little Me-109, so it looks like it has suffered a major engine fire just prior to landing. Still, another simple, but very attractive offering from Airfix and a great fun to build.


Grab that Cow

Undiscouraged by the rather bland aftertaste of his initial raid on the British lands, last Sunday H. decided to have another go at Dux Britanniarum. This time around it would be a simple wealth redistribution barbarian style – grab some cows, get them on the boats, have a feast once safely home. Any locals having objections were more than welcome to discuss the issue with the tip of a Saxon spear.

Scenario setup

The scenario begins with Saxons already having acquired meat for their planned barbecue. They are now trying to get to their boat at the opposite end of a table stuffed with more or less randomly placed terrain features. Natives, obviously rather miffed at the Saxons, make their  entry through a section of one of the long sides of the table decided by a roll of a six-sided dice.

The game

In our case, Saxons had a nice ahead start of three rounds before my Brits appeared on the table. Luckily for me, the cows did their patriotic bit, not only insisting on moving at “oh look, a patch of grass, let’s graze for a while”-speed, but also veering off in any direction but straight forward almost every time they had a chance to do that. Perhaps Saxon way of herding the cattle with sharp side of the axe had something to do with it…

01 Initial setupSituation at the start of the game

In any case, when the time for my vanguard to make their appearance finally arrived, the dice decided that it would be at the flank of the Saxon convoy. It looked like it would be a rerun of previous scenario, but this time around H., having deployed a proper flank protection, was ready for any eventuality. Initial clash of shields ensued almost immediately. With the advantage of superior numbers and shieldwall formation, I managed to push Saxons back without much effort, but this was just a foreplay before the main event.

In reaction of the initial setback, H. quickly turned his hearthguard around to support his rather hard-pressed warriors. Over next couple of rounds, we both gathered and formed up our forces. The end result was something of a standoff, with two massive lines of warriors facing each other, while the cows sloooowly made their way to the Saxon feast tables.

02 Before the clash of shieldsGathering forces

Not willing to take on H.’s massed force in front of me, I decided to send my peasants of a furious run around the the Saxon flank, hoping to catch the cows before they reached the edge of the table. My advantage was in the fact that my movement rate was 3 D6 dices per turn, while the cows moved only with 2 D6 dices. There was also a chance of those cows veering of if they rolled same result on both dices. All said and done, there was a good chance my peasants would be able to swamp the Saxons and reclaim those cows before they were spirited away to the Danish shores. In the meantime, my “proper” warriors would keep the attention of Saxon host without actually attacking them.

H. would have none of that, of course. Once he had his troops in order (a relative term when used regarding Saxons), he swiftly jumped on my host with obvious intention of gutting every single one of my followers. A gruesome and protracted clash of shields between two rather evenly matched forces ensued. Casualties were quite even on both sides, but Lady Luck smiled at me also on this occasion and the Saxons finally run away, cracking under the weight of shock.

03 Bashing awayClash of shields

In the meantime, the race between the cattle herd and my peasants was slowly decided in the favour of two-legged creatures. My mob caught up with their target just as they were about to exit the board and I actually did have a chance to try to stop the Saxons. However, I faced two problems. My bunch of peasants were unformed and would certainly suffer serious losses even against the few Saxon warriors who were controlling the cattle. Furthermore, the remains of the main Saxon host were by that time just a stone throw away and H.’s hearthguard would make mincemeat out of my levies. So in the end, I just didn’t dare to attack and let the Saxons get away with their loot.

04 Almost thereThe getaway

Musings after the battle

Aside from the fact that we had a much nicer time than in our first game, there are two things that are worth discussing. The first is the combat mechanism used in Dux Brittaniarum. At first glance it is rather simplistic ‘buckets of dice’ system, but this impression is rather deceiving. Maybe we were just lucky, but in our huge clash of shields, the system provided a truly gruelling and nail-biting experience with proper historical feel to it. Add the faith deck cards to the mix and the result is a close combat system that is fun, “realistic” and somewhat unpredictable.

The second issue that requires further attention is the campaign setting in which scenarios are played. I’m not sure if I’m alone here, but the fact that there are consequences beyond the last dice roll of the game do significantly change the way I play. In this particular game, I consciously held back on two occasions - first, when two evenly matched forces faced each other and then in the final phase of the game, when I decided that the casualties I’d probably suffer weren’t worth the potential gain. If this were a stand-alone game, I wouldn’t even think twice before attacking in either of those situations.

Finally, a quick apology for varying quality of the few pictures I was able to salvage from this game. My regular camera has decided to quit on me and the compact that I used for this game is simply not up to the task.

March 03, 2013

Bits and pieces for my Romano-British army

It’s a bit ironic – just as I’m starting to be convinced that  our Warhamer campaign has reached its premature grave after a single game (probably together with our interest in Warhammer Historical), I’ve also completed painting final figures for my Romano-British army. Since there wasn’t much activity on this blogg during last month, I decided to have a bit of fun with my camera and grab some pictures of those late-comers.

Mounted figures are from the RB01-blister from West Wind Productions, while the priest is from Gripping Beast. The cross that the priest is equipped were made by yours truly. I’ve cut it out of thick cardboard, added the endings made of green stuff and stiffened everything up with couple of layers of undiluted white glue. Once dry (took it about a week or so), the entire contraption was hard enough to be painted and glued into place. In retrospect, it may be over dimensioned, but I’m quite pleased with the end result nonetheless.

The walking stick is just a roll of green stuff.