Sunday, July 18, 2010

La Bataille de Mont St. Mackler

We had another game of Black Powder this weekend at The Panzer Depot in Kirkland, WA. We played the "Battle of San Miguel" scenario from the rules book, substituting Napoleonic troops for the Isabelinos and Carlists.

Bob "Fox of the Steppe" Mackler commanded his Russians, Mike Lombardy and Bill "The meat Grinder" Stewart commanded Austrians, consisting of BIG battalions of regular infantry and un-big battalions of militia, supported by a battery of 4-pounders and a couple squadrons of light cavalry.

General Mackler, the Fox of the Steppe, blessed by 
his priest and genuflected to by his toady

Dick Larsen commanded the French forces, with Rich Knapton, Brett Hendrickson, and me as sub-commanders. My own command consisted of a battalion of line infantry, a battalion of légère, and a battalion of Frenchmen in Bearskins (Français dans les bonnets à poils) who were my corps d'elite. I also had a squadron of light cavalry (even if the figures -looked- like carabiniers à cheval) and a battery of guns.

The victory conditions for the game were to take and hold the hilltop town in the center of the board, which we dubbed Mont St. Mackler for our game. The Russo-Austrians had the advantage in gaining the town first because their set-up put them close to it and the French needed to ford a river—while annoyed by mad monks—to get to grips.

Brett's brigade crosses the ford while mad monks inveigh and plot

Once across the stream, we formed up and prepared to launch our gallant battalions against the sausage-eating Austrians and God-knows-what-eating Russians.

En avant! The French advance

I formed my command into a fine example of ordre mixte with the guns limbered in the center and my cavalry on my left. My plan—and I had one—was to advance across the stream, sweep the Austrian verlorene haufe, commanded by Bill, from the small hill by the town, unlimber my battery there, and then support my further advance against the Austrians.

First contact: The French 1er brigade meets the Austrian advance force on the hill

As I was fording the stream, Bill attempted to charge his cavalry at me, but he failed his command roll. Mike sent him another cavalry unit in support, which Bill deployed on his right. On my turn, I moved up to close range with Bill's cavalry and shot them up with my légère, leaving them shaken and disordered. My cavalry charged into the cavalry on Bill's right and beat them badly enough to allow me a post-mêlée sweeping advance, which I used to smack into Bill's shaken cavalry in front of my légère.  That combat also swept away the other cavalry leaving Bill with only a militia battalion to hold the hill.

And then there were none - French light cavalry (despite wearing
carabiniers' bearskins) after sweeping the Austrian cavalry from the field

Meanwhile, Dick and Brett advanced their battalions towards the town, while Rich held the French right wing with two cavalry units against Bob's advancing Cosaques.

Russian foot and French horse square off

On the next Austro-Russian turn, Mike advanced his Austrian line battalions alongside the town, which he occupied with another battalion, and sent his battery and another militia unit up to support Bill. One of Mike's BIG battalions used it's first fire to get a debilitating five hits on Brett's leading battalion. Unmasked by the rout of their cavalry, Bill's Austrian militia shot my légère and disordered it.

The Austrian horde carelessly tramples the peasants' fields

On my next turn, I charged my line and elite battalions in column of attack through the légère and into Bill's militia, which broke.

Force de frappe! My two columns go in

Brett advanced a battalion in line through his disordered lead battalion and smacked into Mike's Austrians beside the town. But the Austrians held and sent the battalion back in disarray.

French Ligne in mêlée with a column in support

In the aftermath defeating the militia in front of me, I pushed forward the Français dans les bonnets à poils in hopes of further discomfiting les Autrichiens, which I did by beating the next militia unit in turn.

A successful advance, only militia stands between me and Vienna!

In the center, Bill and Brett continued to battle with the foe. Brett's battalion in attack column, which had taken one hit from the mad monks of the monastery as it forded the stream, was been poised and ready to spring into the Austrian battalion to his front, but got forced back by a break test. Every turn thereafter he wound up being disordered by Austrian fire, which prevented him from giving the unit orders to charge in again. There it sat for the rest of the game, unable to retreat or advance due to persistent disorder. It did, however, manage a few lucky sixes when shooting its one die at Mike's BIG battalion.

On my part of the field, the attacking battalions were getting a bit high on stamina hits. By chasing off the militia, my two columns had unmasked the Austrian battery, which proceeded to pour shot and shell at me until I formed line in order to fire back.

French colonnes d'attaque getting whiffed with Austrian grapeshot

Rich withdrew his cavalry in the face of Bob's advance, although he remained enough of a threat to make Bob form one of his battalions in square as a hedge against an attack on his flank.

Russians squared

Bob threw his other battalions against Dick's brigade and they mixed it up for several turns. At one point, the Fox of the Steppe made a successful flank attack with his cavalry against one of Dick's battalions, which cause it to retire to lick its wounds.

Dick's infantry getting warmacklered by the Fox of the Steppe

While I was trying to get my attack back on track, the mad monks came out of their monastery and started nipping at my rear echelon, namely, the guns. Still limbered and waiting their chance to form on the hill I had captured, they started taking lucky shots from the monks, who, though apparently armed only with scripture, were having an effect. I spent several turns unable to move the guns because they had been disordered.

As Brother Maynard quotes from The Book of Armaments, his brother monks 
lob holy hand grenades at my feckless limbered artillery (mon artillerie sans feck)

Also on my part of the field, Mike kept feeding Bill units to get killed, but the task was taking its toll on my battalions. The elite Français dans les bonnets à poils and the légère were shaken. I put all my battalions into line and started trading shots with the enemy. A telling fusilade from the Austrian line finally resulted in my severely failing a break test and the elites went away, but not without having covered themselves avec la gloire. Au revoir, bonnets à poils, au revoir mes enfants.

Still harassed by the mad monks, at one point, I attempted to move my cavalry around and chase them off. However, after being able to retreat the guns from the monks on an initiative move, I turned the cavalry back around to bring it into support of my remaining battalions.

I continued to trade fire with the enemy and eventually shot the Austrian 4-pounders into a shaken state and managed to keep them disordered as well. This consistent success in shooting, finally induced Bill to attempt to "cool" me by touching defiling my dice. It worked for one roll (against his guns), but my next shot at Mike's troops resulted in three sixes. Maybe the dice work better after defilement. Brett and I were both shooting at Mike's foremost battalion and even if BIG, we managed to keep it shaken and/or disordered by numerous hits—which kept Mike's commander busy rallying it back from shaken status.

Mes enfants at game's end

On the French right, Rich brought his squadrons into the fray, but was eventually forced back by Russian infantry, now commanded by John Kennedy while the Fox of the Steppe took a break.

Exhausted - Dick's infantry and Rich's cavalry on the French right
after having fought the Austrians and Cosaques to a standstill

Finally, we called the game for the Austro-Russian side. They had taken and kept Mont St. Mackler and with many of our units shaken, we decided that the French had little hope of taking it themselves. I'd managed to take out five Austrian units, while losing only les bonnets à poils. My worst damage seemed to come from those unruly monks. We didn't take the town, but we had the monastery and would soon set ourselves to punishing those contumacious monks.

The Archduke Mike surveys the field of battle after successfully holding his position 
and wonders whatever became of all those units he sent to General Stewart

Further deep thoughts on Black Powder

My second game with Black Powder went very smoothly. I mostly knew the rules by then and the turns played quickly, despite the large number of units on the board.

One thing I noticed is that elite units are just OK, if that. Their one advantage is being able to roll off disorder at the start of their turn, which enables them to take initiative or receive orders instead of sitting around—if they pass the test. On the other hand, the BIG battalions of the Austrians got +1 dice on shooting and +2 dice in hand to hand combat, much more tangible benefits just from being bigger, not necessarily better. My Français dans les bonnets à poils succeeded because I rolled good dice (until Bill defiled them), not because the unit had significant intrinsic advantages as an elite. (I never got disordered, so the unit's one advantage was moot.) The militia units I fought were just as good as I was at shooting, hand to hand, stamina, and break tests.

However, as one reviewer wrote of Black Powder, you have to see the rules more as a toolkit of game mechanics that you can use to build different unit characteristics. It's this ability to customize that enables the kind of chrome that makes games more interesting. So, we might have made militia units a minus at one or more of the characteristics that define a unit's abilities. For example, they might have been stamina 2 instead of 3 or fought hand to hand with -1 or -2 dice. Or, the elites could have had stamina 4 and/or fought hand to hand with +2 dice.

After two games, I am very happy with the rules and look forward to more. I've got the 1914 project under way and am pondering moving closer into the gravitational pull of the Black Hole of Wargaming (i.e., Napoleonics).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Back in the saddle again

This is a bit delayed, but I thought I'd mention that I am working again. I returned to eating my bread by the sweat of my brow about two weeks ago. Ironically, I'm back at my old company in a different group and loving it. I'm in the same building I used to be in, so I'm getting a lot of "where'd you go?" and "glad you're back" from a lot of old coworkers. I'm actually a contractor and not full time, but I'm looking for an opportunity...

To celebrate my return to the ranks of the gainfully employed, here's a little wrap-up of summer vacation as seen through the eyes of my great, chubby cowcat Grendel:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Things will get out of hand. That is why we have orders.

I played my first game of Black Powder on Saturday. I'd seen it played a few times and so had a little familiarity with it, but otherwise I learned (or not) as I played. On the experience of one play, I must say that I like them and bought the rules. I'm up to my neck in partially-finished/nearly-punted projects, mostly ancients, so I can't think of what I'll do with them yet, but the year 1914 is stuck in my mind...

On the painting table (for some time now)

Saturday's game preceded that watershed year by about half a century. We played a version of the "Fighting retreat at El Perez" scenario from the rules that we modified for the American Civil War. The town of El Perez was instead a piney forest, the French forces were Union infantry, and the retreating British were Confederate infantry.

Confederates were me, John Kennedy, and Rich Knapton. Union were Steve Puffenberger, Bob Mackler, Brett Hendrickson, and Bill Stewart. All the beautifully painted figures and terrain were provided by Bill. He and Bob were going to set up early, except that Bob had a perfect odyssey getting from Tukwila to Kirkland that involved highway closures, crowded alternate routes choked by road incidents, the trial of securing a Dick's Deluxe in the midst of the Wallingford street fair, etc. Not that set up was a huge undertaking. I watched and kibitzed as Bill set up and can say that for me the experience was fairly effortless.

My brigade deployed with Rich's l'enfants perdue beyond

John's brigade had the task of chasing the small Union garrison out of a wee hamlet on the other side of a bridge. To accomplish this, he had three infantry regiments and a battery of guns. Bill, commanding the garrison, had a single small unit.

Rich's and my orders were to withdraw towards the town and get our troops across the bridge. Getting our force across the bridge and off the board were our victory conditions for the game. John was overall commander and gave Rich and I explicit orders, apparently. Of course, being impetuous by nature, our troops saw the bluebellies come on, sang a few verses of The Bonnie Blue Flag, and pitched into the fight. From there, things went pear-shaped fast.

Bob, playing the role of a Buckeye pol looking for enough glory to propel him to a senate seat in the next elections, came on the board in column of attack heading straight for Rich's position in the center of the board. Rich, not wanting to wait for it, lead his troops out against Bob only to find his troops exposed. His lead regiment suffered a flank attack and got beat up.

Rich's infantry getting flank-smacked by would-be Senator Bob's troops

It held on a bit longer, but eventually became shaken by losses and failed a break test that had it routing from the field. Rich's remaining units continued to fight on against Bob's attack, but were outnumbered and fighting for life.

The blue tide begins to overwhelm the gray center

In support of Rich's attack, I moved up my line against Steve's advancing Yankee aggressors. The result was several turns of exchanging shots at short range. Eventually I lost my guns due to a failed break test and took the opportunity to fall back and reform my line and continue to engage Steve's—and Bob's—troops with long-range fire.

My brigade muzzle-to-muzzle with the hated Yankees

This brilliant tactical maneuver had the down side of leaving Rich entirely unsupported in an advanced position, but some things can't be helped. Beset 2:1 in hand-to-hand combat and pummeled by flanking artillery fire, Rich's lone remaining unit succumbed, which was all to the good as far as Rich was concerned since it was past lunch time and he was peckish.

Rich's last stand

John, bemoaning our insubordiantion, carried on with his task of brushing away the token garrison that blocked our retreat. This proved a more difficult undertaking than at first apparent. Beset by shot, shell, grape, and minie-balls, Bill's skeleton force hung on grimly and beat the odds for multiple break tests, meanwhile giving out better than it took.

Bill stands firm like Horatius at the bridge

As John beat his head against Bill's dogged defense, Brett advanced his brigade up the road to force John to turn and make a rear-guard stand. This forced John to form a shaken line of two regiments against Brett, who eventually wore him down. Meanwhile, John lost the infantry unit attacking Bill to a failed break test. The Confederate escape route was still closed.

Brett's brigade advances down the road

With only his shaken guns facing Bill's garrison, John rolled lucky boxcars on shooting and Bill's garrison, after many turms of holding firm, finally dispersed due to a failed break test. The escape rout was now open, but there were many fewer Confederates left to take it.

I tried moving my brigade back and towards the bridge on successive turns, but Steve was close on my retreat. I lost my unit of sharpshooters and was left with only my three infantry regiments. John's two shaken regiments facing Brett finally broke and dispersed. All that was left on the field were my three regiments, who were looking like they were about to be cut off. That was that for the game.

End game: my brigade standing against a field of Blue

Post mortem

I liked Black Powder. The mechanisms are simple and certainly don't provide a simulation of 18th-19th century warfare, but they play very well. I have always thought that success in a game depends on its ability to abstract enough of the detail so as to not bog down play, but without sacrificing a feel for the period. Black Powder might be accused of being generic, but the rules are very open to being modified ad hoc to represent a particular area.

I like the command rules and the means of indicating unit status that obviates removing figures or stands. The rules themselves are well produced, entertaining, and well written (but being a technical writer by trade, I always have a jaundiced eye when reading rules and I have learned to stifle my quibbles over correct pronouns, the uses of "that" and "which," and the occasional typo).

Another perspective is that while the rules, which cover warfare from matchlock smoothbore muskets to the era of bolt-action rifles, represent changes in firepower by changes in the range, but not in changes in firepower. They remind me a lot of a set of locally-produced rules called Brigadier! that I played in my youth. Like Black Powder, Brigadier! was suitable for games from 1700 to 1914. However, firepower was modeled much differently and the punch from a unit of rifled muskets was much different than what a unit of flintlock muskets could produce. The changes in firepower had the effect of modifying the tactics you used in the game. I suspect that Black Powder will play for 1914 much like it will play for 1758, except for longer ranges. But that remains to be seen. I think the machine-gun rules will be a significant difference.