Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Big Battles, Big Challenges

So last Saturday I could reap the fruits of my hard work on a Landwehr battallion! A very well organised day, with a lavish lunch, good company and a feast for the eyes. It was clear that more talented painters than I had spent more time on building their armies. Mine were swamped a bit, but at least gave a good account of themselves, especially the J├Ąger.

My Landwehr joining the fray, but outpaced by cavalry

I am very grateful to the guys who made it possible: Patrick for organising, Erwin for writing the scenarios (with a little help), Jelle for selling his troops to me and Peter for lending part of his troops to me for the day.

Black Powder didn't disappoint. After 8 turns, which took us close to 6 hours to play, the Prussian troops had hardly entered Plancenoit. So instead of sweeping changes in the tide of battle, as in 1815, is was now a overloaded table with troops queuing whilst those at the front waited for the dice to roll their way. It made me wonder whether the BP guys that wrote the scenario actually playtested it.

Turn 2: You are almost in Plancenoit!

It's good to have some disorganisation, but you can just expect a 2D6 command roll to fail 4 out of 10 rolls if you rating is 8 and you need to roll that or lower. Which hamstrings most of your commands needlessly and raises frustration similarly. If that happens a couple of times of your 8 turns you play, well...

"This is why I don't play toy soldier games any more" a wise man once said...

Beautiful La Haye Sainte Model

On the other three tables they were able to (just about) finish their scenarios in time, but I have no idea whether those games felt historical. Then again, that was not the issue of the day. It was an excuse to paint miniatures and have a nice chat. Both those aims were achieved. I might be tempted to join the project next year if it helps me engage my American War of Independence miniatures. I might even pretend to play Black Powder.

Hougoumont holds out

Some day I will write the ultimate book on how Big Battles should be fought in miniature, but I'll just start with a few rules I've picked up over the years:

  • Rules. Most commercial rules are too complex for big battles. Too many exceptions, too much waiting for other players. But you don't need complex rules with lots of chance (i.e. dice rolls): the decisions of generals should play the main role. So use only the barest minimum of rules
  • Amount of troops. Limit this to about 7 units per player. More than that will mean they have to resolve combat with more than one player which slows resolution down. It also puts a lot of pressure on one player while others sit idly waiting for their troops to enter the table.
  • Time pressure. The big battles I have participated in which gave the most excitement and sense of fulfilment were those with a pretty sharp turn sequence mercilessly enforced by the umpires.
  • Hierarchy. Have commanders and sub commanders. In a tightly run battle, the challenge of command and control is at least as interesting as that of shoving units and rolling dice. It also gives the players the sense of being part of a bigger event.
  • Umpires. Last Saturday was a very pleasant occasion, and rules arguments were few and readily solved. But be prepared for rules lawyers and have umpires to decide calls quickly. The game needs to move on. Also, make sure the umpires have the same interpretation or else the space between them will be exploited by competitive players. Umpires are also very useful in keeping the game moving


  1. As a matter of fact we have played a number of massive ACW battles with Fire & Fury, a rather simple set which nevertheless gives a good period effect (attacks are bloody messes, defence is strong, fear the cannon!) using just the guidelines you set out here. Most important are indeed time pressure (limited turns and limited time to play one), the fact that generals order but don't move troops, the table should offer (a lot) more room thanis needed to just put the figures down, there should be an umpire and his word is law.

    Unfortunately a lot of people love tons of figures on too small tables which may look good, but does not usually -in my opinion- make for an interesting game.

    But since they appear to mightily enjoy such a spectacle it is perhaps just a matter of taste after all.

    1. Could be that Fire & Fury works, I remember Newbury Fast Play doing the job as well. So maybe I was a bit too harsh on commercial rules. But I think most are designed to recreate a maximum of diversity in a 2 player game and try to cover too many historical exception, making them clunky and slow.

  2. As I have experienced it, most scenarios are written primarily to accomodate historical accuratesse (are all the right regiments there where they should be?) and/or everyone's desire to have one's own figures on the table.

    Few writers actually spend work on the scenario mechanics. Thus they avoid answering questions like is my army at all able to cross the table in the course of one game, let alone come to grips with the enemy? Or what is the width of the entire battle front and do we even have enough room for wings and flanks? Or is there even more than one way to play this game?

    You cannot actually write an interesting scenario without some calculation on speed and chance. Saying that, I think Black Powder (which I have played a lot) is eminently capable of delivering (I also think you mistyped there :) ) such a game. But you have to spend work on the mechanical side of the scenario and be prepared to tell people that no, they cannot field all of their six 48-men regiments even if they have painted them all especially for the occasion.

    Specifically for BP Command ratings of 8 are fine for a 2-player game, but slow down big games too much. Initiative moves and free moves (like the one for columns or limbered artillery) are crucial to move your army fast enough. And of course there must be room to move at all (hence my preference for smaller scales than 28mm).

    1. I think initiative moves and free moves are a bit too complex for a big/multiplayer game because of the dependencies. And any ruleset will work with veterans with fire in their bellies. Those are, however, in short supply most of the time.

  3. The Fire and Fury for Napoleonics is Age of Eagles. An excellent set of rules. Easy to learn and quick to play.

  4. The Fire and Fury for Napoleonics is Age of Eagles. An excellent set of rules. Easy to learn and quick to play.

  5. I'm still a fan of Fast Play Grande Armee.

    1. Anything with fast play in the title sounds hopeful. But I wouldn't touch Grande Armee (Slow Play?) with a wooden pole.

  6. Hi Guys,

    Sorry I have only just found your blog. I play larger games about once a month and will set aside a whole saturday to do so. I really enjoy them as I feel you get a better game when you are not restricted to a short time frame and a small table. However I have often found the problem encountered above with rule sets failing to deliver when it comes to big scenarios. Especially those often written in the back of books/supplements to the sets.

    I think one of the major problems is that often the battles that were fought in history were terribly one sided. Almost no general, unless forced by circumstance or poorly advised, attacks an enemy he doesn't have an advantage over. And the way rules are written along with players knowing exactly what the other side should have a where, pretty much takes almost all the fun out of the historical scenario.

    That said I do still play them, although our group has taken a heavy shift to the what if camp, with only the game organizer in possession of all the facts!

    Ed :)


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