Background image is Les Dernières Cartouches (The Last Cartridges) by Alphonse de Neuville

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Montmirail: Two Battles

The Battle of Montmirail by Vernet (National Gallery, London)

So, last weekend I staged my partial pseudo-Montmirail scenario using Black Powder rules. Because of the varying schedules of available players, we ran through the scenario twice, with somewhat differing results.

I was especially glad of the opportunity to game because it brought together three of my friends who I don't see as often as I would like. Though one gets the moniker "Mr Invisible" because of his frequent absence due to travel on the service of his country, all three are deserving of the title, as the others' late work hours (on the one hand) and high school teaching duties (on the other) keep them almost as busy. So we got a shot of The Invisibles which was, appropriately enough, shadowy and hard to see due to the (lack of) light in the room.

The (Shadowy) Invisibles
With catching-up conversations well in hand, we started into learning and experimenting with the rules. Some of us had played a game or two, but we found as we went along that we kept finding, remembering, or forgetting various bits, so the end of the game was as much a hot wash of what rules we had forgotten as how the battle had been fought.

Game 1: Both sides deploy.
In our first game we used the game's basic measurements in inches with my 15mm figure collection, most infantry units being between 12 figures (small) and 24 figures (large) in size. This lead to a very swift engagement, even though both armies entered from off board. The French deployed quickly, with one of their two divisions all in line on their right in mostly open ground and the second division advancing on their left through a vineyard and leafless orchard. The Prussians stacked their forces, with the landwehr in front, preceded by skirmishing jaegers, and the grenadiers behind. The cavalry (landwehr lancers and mounted jaegers) stalled repeatedly in attempting an encircling move from their right flank.

Game 1: French outflanking the landwehr.
The Prussians had difficulty getting the landwehr into a coordinated assault, and when they tried to push their grenadiers around to the left of the line through some woods, they also lagged. The French left turned landwehr's flank while holding up the grenadiers as they slowly emerged from the trees. Even though the Prussian cavalry finally got behind the French lines, the French infantry had more or less secured the win by that point, knocking out several landwehr battalions and all of the Prussian artillery.

Game 2: Prussian grenadiers advance.
For the second game, I reset the terrain, increased the amount of artillery on each side, and tried to make the landwehr contingent more effective by giving them more troops and a brigadier of their own. The new Prussian commander advanced those troops on his right (where they proceeded to stall), while bringing in the grenadiers in his center with the cavalry to their left. The cavalry was much more responsive than in the first game, but not much more effective. The grenadiers deployed more quickly, at the same time the French formed into attack columns with skirmisher cover and advanced. The two sides fenced there for a while, while on the French left their infantry deployed into line, looking to hold while their right attacked.

The Prussian right obligingly stalled, but with the Prussian cavalry making it hard to bring the full force of their
right wing against the enemy, the French threw their left into the attack. Meeting the landwehr, they began a see-saw battle across a series of frozen fields.The landwehr, more numerous in both numbers of units and size of battalions, ground the French Middle Guard down while the grenadiers held on on the left. Eventually the French conceded, though if we had had more time they would have gotten the historical "Michel calls on the Emperor for help" reinforcements that I had standing by.

Game 2: Prussian landwehr outnumber the Middle Guard.
Overall, I think everyone enjoyed the games. After two full battles, I was beginning to get a bit tired of rolling dice, perhaps a symptom of my long exposure to the diceless Carnage and Glory. Black Powder is accessible and fairly easy to learn and play; its only complexity is in the number of special rules that are used to add colour and character to different units and which require one to keep track of them and remember to apply them. I think that well designed order of battle sheets with all the special rules applicable to a force listed on them will help with that, as will playing with a  fairly consistent set of units often enough to remember that "oh,yes, these fellows always have X ability." Also, a few standard modifiers were getting overlooked often (the morale bonus for attack column being one, I think), but doubtless that too can be overcome with familiarity and a methodical look at the charts for a few games until they are more familiar. Using cm instead of inches in the second game slowed down the speed with which the battle came on, which allowed both sides to deploy from march in a more measured, somewhat more historical manner.

One is spoilt for choice these days, with all sorts of wargame rules available for every period and region imaginable. One advantage of Black Powder is that the basic rules are the same for every period; one can find or devise specific cases for particular conflicts, but in most cases even the special rules that give colour and character to units are fairly consistent across periods. So BP is a great set to keep in one's back pocket; learn it once, use it repeatedly. I'm a big proponent of Carnage & Glory, which uses a similar engine for several different periods, but the underlying rules that players need to know (how fast units move and change formation, how they interact on charges, etc.) are different enough that one needs to learn each period's special rules separately. Added to that is the time one needs to invest in building orders of battle; in C&G, this is somewhat of a major time investment, as computer files have to be carefully built through a form-based graphic-user-interface. With BP, one can do a bit of pencil-and-paper work and have a rough OB set up in an hour or two. So BP is an easy choice for a quick pick-up game, while C&G is likely to be my preference when I have time to design a scenario in detail, as it cleaves more closely to the historical tactics (and limitations) that battlefield commanders encountered.

Even if one fields slightly smaller units than the authors use, Black Powder (like C&G) requires a fairly large number of figures. As a result, I'm more likely when playing it to use my existing 15mm armies than I am to build new 28mm ones for BP. I do have a fair number of 28mm Napoleonics, but I think I'll save them for games with a somewhat lower figure density. I recently acquired the Chosen Men Napoleonic skirmish rules just published by Osprey and written by Mark Latham (another member of the Games Workshop fraternity), and although I've only dipped into them so far, they definitely look worth trying out.

I'm collecting votes from my fellow gamers as to the subject of our next tabletop foray. In the meantime, I have work awaiting me on the painting table and the blog drawing board, as the commencement of Project 1777 edges ever closer.

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