Saturday, June 12, 2010

Less vs More

I know, I'm supposed to be marshaling Persians and Lydians, making trees, finishing the re-rebasing of the 1839 toys but having had a few hours, what I wanted to do and did was continue the exploration of MacDuff and of what it is I am really looking for. So out came an old chestnut, Scenario 1 from Scenarios for Wargamers, the "Fontenoy" scenario.

It didn't take long for some old conundrums raised their head. Oddly, they can pretty much all be summed up by the question: "less or more?".

  • Units:  Given that there are only so many figure that can fit comfortably on any given table without over crowding, is it better to have a few large units or a large number of smaller ones?
  • Turns: Is it better to have a few action packed turns or many turns in which things build up.
  • Complexity: Is it better to have more granularity and flavour even it it slows the game or to have less in order to speed things.

The original MacDuff tended towards "more". Lots of turns to get a resolution,  companies that were to some degree "units" grouped into biggish battalions with 4 levels of officer figures, each with their own role. In a small skirmish with a few companies per side, it was easy enough (and this was the sort of game it was designed for) but increasingly I wanted to play with as many battalions as I had originally used companies and now despite simple combat and movement rules, the complexity of tracking multiple levels became onerous and games took a long time, particularly since while individual companies could be broken fairly easily, a battalion was usually able to rally and come back again , often more than once if good quality and not vigorously pursued.   (which was intended ). Good for solo games or a couple of friends with a whole day and evening to kill but not so good for club or convention games.

So back to the game. Being for once in a leisurely mode with some assurance that for several days I could claim several hours a day as my own, and being a point of life change where I am determined to sort a few things out before I forge ahead, I heeded these questions as they arose.  The first was that of unit size. My 1812 units are largely organized in 8 man companies, 2 companies for lights, 3 for US and 4 for Brits. My 1839 units are variously organized for Charge!, for MacDuff or for Morschauser depending on exactly when they were raised.

Stepping back and looking at the scenarios I plan to make most use of, the guidelines are that infantry units are twice the size of cavalry and light infantry and batteries are 2 guns, which suggests that they were originally conceived for the Grant rules from The Wargame. Now, I now I don't have to conform but it amuses me to do so and it happens to fit my 1812 organization well (no accident). But, since the typical larger scenario calls for as many as 8 infantry, 2 light cavalry and 4 cavalry units plus 4 guns, that is some 288 infantry and 64 cavalry plus staff and on my 8 foot  table, that will line the table edge to edge with 2 lines of units in line. Cutting it in 1/2 is feasible, basically making a scenario unit 1 company (squadron) or cavalry or light infantry or 2 companies of infantry and then grouping them into battalions where appropriate. The larger armies will fill its side of the table but only once and  not all armies are that size and it does allow for a reserve.

Now how about the interplay of Army General, Brigadier, Colonel, Regiment, Captain and Company. Frankly, its a nice idea and reflects the reality of a hierarchical organization but its too much for a simple game.
What are some options?

  • Charge! allows the companies an existence but no role for Captains, Colonels, Brigadiers and Generals even though they exist,
  • The Wargame ignores companies but allows officers including the Colonel a Morale role and involves Brigadiers and the General in a system of written game orders changed by messengers, 
  • Many if not most newer rules ignore the companies and Colonels but give a role to the army commander and brigadiers.
What bits of this are important to me?

  • I want my units to have a consistent establishment, in other words I don't want a group of figures to be called  a "company" today and a "battalion" tomorrow, and I want to be able to field companies as units if playing a skirmish. For example, I want the grenadier company of the 41st foot to appear in an ambush today but all 4 (sic) companies of the 41st foot to appear as a unit in battle tomorrow. 
  • I want my Colonels to have a role to play and an identity (keeping campaigns in mind). It would be nice to have Captain's play a role in skirmishes but not get in the way during battles.
  • I don't want the General trying to personally over see 12 separate units without any sort of intermediate help.  (3 or 4 battalions seems to be average for a brigade though one can find them as small as 2 or as large as 6 or more.) But the difference between the role of General, Brigadier and Colonel must be both simple and distinct if I am to field both and I need to find a way to make the figures distinct for players who aren't familiar with the troops.  

What I tried is eliminating the Brigadiers and making the battalions larger. So in the scenario where it called for the attacker to have 8 infantry, 1 lt inf, 3 cavalry and 4 guns, I fielded  2 battalions each of 6 companies, 1 with 4 line and 1 light company, a 2 squadron cavalry regiment, an independent cavalry squadron, and 2 batteries each of 2 guns. Their less numerous opponant fielded 2 4 company regiments, a 2 squadron cavalry regiment, 4 1 gun batteries (only because 3 were assigned to 1 gun redoubts) and an independent rifle company. In effect, the Colonels were now acting as pseudo-Brigadiers and the organization of the battlions was rapidly approaching Charge! standard. Overall it worked and I enjoyed the game but the oversize regiments took an incredible amount of punishment but were fairly inflexible, the general effectively only having 3 infantry units. The fighting around the redoubts and buildings resulted in detached companies all over the place with confusion over who should or shouldn't be considered independent, especially when it came to being broken and rallying casualties.

It has conformed in my mind that the well tried 2 or 4 x8 organization that I adopted for 1812 works for me. I can now set that aside.  Not for the first time though, it occurs to me that what I really need is two variants of the same game, using the existing units and sahring the same movement, combat and morale rules. A "Skirmish" game where "units" are companies commanded by Captains and there are no Brigadiers but rather Colonels control their units as an extension of the "General"  and a "Battle" game where "units" are battalions (though capable of detaching companies in certain circumstances such as to form a skirmish line or occupy buildings) and where the Colonel becomes merely a unit commander and Brigadiers have a command role, extending the control of the General.

So what happened? Briefly on the left,  the out of command 4th infantry, 50 strong  advanced against the town under heavy artillery fire and were then charged by the British cavalry and driven back across the table, finally rallying on the edge when the 2nd NY dragoons  intervened to drive off their pursuers. The Dragoons, also out of command, unfortunately got carried away (6 on the control chart), charged the redoubts and were broken by doubled shotted guns.

In the center, concentrated artillery fire drove the British out of one house but an assault on the other by the 1st US met a flurry of bad dice and they were repulsed. The 3rd US occupied the other house, broke the Buffs with fire and began a fire fight with the closest redoubt, eventually driving the defenders back with the aid of the field guns. The 2nd Dragoons bypassed the rallying 1st Infantry and swept around the rear of the town, forcing the Buffs and RHA to scurry for cover but suffering heavily from enfilade fire from the 3rd redoubt and riflemen. They were finally broken by the rallied British cavalry even those these were also forced to retreat off table due to casualties despite winning the melee.

The final act was an assault by the rallied 1st Infantry on the 3rd redoubt and by the rallied 4th Infantry on the town. Both regiments were broken by fire just as they prepared to close the last few inches with the bayonet and the American army having 1/2 its units broken at the end of the turn was forced to concede even though several of these would most likely have rallied in a turn or 2. The British were a few figures away from the same state so a narrow, Pyhrric victory at best and a close game. The game was played in 4 or 5 separate sessions around chores over an evening and a day, probably no more than 4 or at most 5 hours in total though. I didn't count turns, it had to be close to 20. It occurred to me near the end  that while time might be a problem for a club or convention game, it was no problem for a solo one!    

Tonight I am going to reset using my "standard: units, tweak the rules as mentioned above into a battle and skirmish variant and over Sunday and possibly Monday, run through it again.
(note tweaked rules are here:


  1. Ross,

    I have a few thoughts regarding your "Units, Turns, Complexity" issues.

    First I agree with you that there is a difference depending upon the "type" of game. As you note, what is fine for solo play may not work for a "club" game.

    Also I think that the particular conflict the game models should have a serious impact on the rules . . . particularly where the "fluidity" of the action differs significantly.

    As for UNITS, I recall reading many years ago someone's dictum that a player should never command more than a dozen "units" . . . and I've found that number to be a good top limit . . . and in most games we run less than ten units.

    To run more seems to "dilute" the importance of them (be they companies or brigades). I generally shoot for around 6-10 units per player . . . but sometimes it is fewer than that.

    TURNS and COMPLEXITY sort of go hand-in-hand. As you know, I've written my own rules for the 18th century . . . and I've been facing this same issue.

    I wanted to model the evolving maneuver and gradual erosion of units.

    BUT I've already followed your suggestion to increase the movement rates . . . and I had previously streamlined the "slow erosion" of units (and perhaps need to do more in that area) because, while it echoed the warfare of the period (as I saw it), it made for a slow game.

    Players want action. They want to make decisions and see the results. I think that we need to consider that in our rules if we want anyone other than ourselves to play them.

    My thoughts regarding COMPLEXITY in terms of command level is that each player should control only one commander. There should be some sort of mechanism (such as my "personality" gimmick) to control subcommanders so that they won't always do what you want . . . but the player should only "be" the one figure.

    Of course there are others who will (perhaps justifiably) disagree with thoughts above . . . and they are free to do so, my opinions are just that, mine . . . and that doesn't make them necessarily right.

    I don't know if the above helps you at all, Ross, but I hope that it gives you some food for thought.

    -- Jeff

  2. Thanks Jeff, it does help even if I basically agree with you! I did use to worry about making them something others would use but am finding that I am better off pleasing myself and some others will like it and others not. Getting into solo games helps with that attitude! Interestingly, after indulging in theory on 2 versions far too late into the night, I finished resetting the table this morning and thought "this isn't right" so I rethought it again as well as having read your comments and a few things just suddenly gelled and I am back to 1 system, better worded and with some game design choices to be made. So far the 2nd run through feels just right. Hard to say what would happen if other people took a hand and I need to run an ambush of a supply train by Indians and light infantry but I am very pleased. maybe now I can get back to designing units and casting/painting troops.

  3. Good reading (better than most articles you get in the so called wargaming press in my opinion) and a lovely looking game...