Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Basic Units, Battlecry and Black Powder

When I was mulling over Monday's game yesterday, it occurred to me again that the effect of the grid, for better or worse,  was a separate issue from the "a unit is a unit" aspect. I was going to say a stand is a unit but that is only one emanation of the concept.

Most of what most of us think of as Old School rules organized figures into units but used the figure as the basis for determining how many dice to roll and removed them as hits were suffered, thus reducing a unit's effectiveness. Joe Morschauser used a different system where figures were glued to a base, had 1 die and lived or died as one entity which he called a Basic Unit. However, when he introduced a roster system, this became closer to the more common mold since the Basic Unit now stood for  a varying number of Basic Units, rolled a die for each and thus were reduced in fighting power as basic units were crossed off the roster..

 By the early '80's 'elements' where a number of figures were glued to a base, like Morschauser's Basic Units, had become very common but they came in two main flavours; rules where whether the unit  "steps down" to borrow a board wargaming term, in other words it's capability erodes as it takes hits like Morschauser's Roster System and those like his original Basic Unit that don't step down whether they are  a single stand or multiple stands, they either are or they aren't.  Fire & Fury is an example of a step down game, it doesn't deal with individual figures but the number of stands affects its strength  in combat and it will slowly (usually) degrade as it takes losses. DBA is an extreme example which harkens back to Morschauser's Basic Unit as each element is an indivisible unit with a fixed combat ability until it is destroyed. Battle Cry is less extreme as units are not destroyed by the first hit but their combat strength does not erode until they are destroyed. Volley & Bayonet and Black Powder use a interesting mix of the two aspects as individual hits do not weaken the unit's abilities until accumulate until a threshold is crossed at which point the unit's capabilities are reduced without it being removed.

To bring all this back to my game, each stand on the card table board represented a 3 stand unit in the full game but had the dice and hit absorption of a single stand. I was afraid that this would make the game too quick but it actually worked well and got me thinking about whether or not I needed to use a step down in the full game or could just use the extra figures for looks. I was too tired last night to play a game but thinking got to me pushing a handful of stands around and rolling dice. It didn't take long until it finally dawned on me that my single stand game has a modified step down system because of the morale rules, vaguely similar in concept to V&B and Black Powder. This got the juices flowing but it is evident that I don't have the balance just right as Poor or Militia units will break on the first hit  and my first reaction, to raise the break point, resulted in regular units being assured of never breaking in a first assault if they are fresh which was not intended. Rather than start chasing this around a tree I decided to wait and play another game straight up and think a bit more about options for both the card table and full versions of the rules. Then it occurred to me that I was overdue to try the CM version of Hearts of Tin.  Its a cold, rainy day today and I'm tired and sore after a physical day yesterday so I called today off and set up another game.

 Scenario 1 from Scenarios for Wargames or the Fontenoy scenario as I think of it. Shot from behind the Red Army attackers.
The scenario forces translated into a defending White force of 5 stands of infantry, 2 of cavalry, 2 guns and 2 MG with the infantry and MG's being under the command of a Battalion commander. The Red army fielded 9 infantry in 3 battalions of 3, 2 of which had an MG attacked, a cavalry regiment of 4 stands plus commander  and 2 guns. Red must capture 2 out of 3 objectives, the town on the flank, the town in the center and the redoubt behind the wood.

The 1st Red battalion attacked up the left  and was decimated it but the second one pushed through and captured the outskirts of the town. Extremely effective artillery fire destroyed or routed the artillery and MG's defending the center and after a tough fight, a battalion on the right managed to push the White defenders of the wood out. Things hung in a narrow balance and there was a brief pause as both sides rallied but White suffered several routs while Red's men seemed enthused (or were more afraid of the pistol waving officer behind them than they were of the enemy). The final assault went in, was met by a flurry of 1's and 2's and suddenly Red held both objectives and had broken the White army.  

Once again this is a scenario I have played many times in different scales and periods, with different rules on various  sized tables and it was interesting how much this felt like a "normal" play through of the scenario although somewhat quicker, taking about an hour to play. (Incidentally, I tried ignoring geometry and counting diagonals as usual, it was easier and had negligible effect on this board. Might be different on a large table with a lot of squares and a lot of long range weapons )  

I decided to reset and try the CM version of HofT to see how that compared. It was very tempting to just try using 1 stand units without the  grid but I decided to try things as written. This led to another issue, I didn't have enough RCW units to field 3 stand units and wouldn't have had room if I did. I decided to keep the number of stands and just group them into units with 1 Infantry Brigadier.  I ended up with 3 x 3 stand battalions of Reds and 2 x 2 stand units and a 1 stand detachment of Whites. The white units were small but to have made them larger would have left huge holes in the line.

Game 4. CM HofT , The Reds attack.

Once again the Reds attacked up the left and the lead battalion got shot apart. This time however the artillery took longer to pound the redoubts to rubble. An immediate rules issue arose as the 2 stand units  benefited from the "less than 1/2"  rule and fought until they died. Once again the 2nd battalion took the outskirts of the town but this time they came up against dismounted cavalry and were routed in turn while an assault of the redoubt behind the wood was blown away. A white victory but not as satisfying a game. Measuring the distance rather than counting squares was neither better nor worse than using the squares but there were too few units and it did not reproduce the feel of a full game.

Trying the  one stand = a unit rules with the ruler is the next logical step but I need to step back from trying to mirror the full HofT as it is and look more carefully at dice and number of hits per unit and decide if I really do want to use that both for normal games with lots of troops on the full table and for my card table games. The current rules work quite well for regular troops but elites and militia are an issue. One option is to change their bonus/penalty, another is to increase the number of dice and hits. Playing Battle Cry has me leaning this way as with the larger number of dice extreme results are achievable but can't be depended on.

The Red's are Repulsed! The war will continue. 

Having rules that will translate down from 3 stand units to 1 stand ones without any change in mechanism etc is an attractive thought especially since campaign battles could be fought in either mode with no translation if a unit is a unit.   Shades of Black Powder!    Oh dear.


  1. I'm following your evolutions on the various rules/games, and I am intrigued to see where it goes.

  2. Interesting. I'm not really a fan of the 'base unit' system - for mine that's chess, and as an on-line chessplayer, that's where I prefer it to stay. Still and all, I can see its attractions, and the 'portable wargame' concepts and Morschauser's ideas does have a certain appeal.

    It might be worth testing one very small change: try amending the 'less than half' rule, to a 'half or less' rule, and see what happens.


    1. I didn't use to be and it doesn't feel appropriate to me for everything but having had some ejoyable games with various variations, I am gaining an appreciation of both approaches. It does seem to shift the emphasis.

      I have used the 1/2 rather than more than 1/2. Either way there are issues with certain unit sizes and since I play various games such as Charge! and MacDuff which use more than 1/2, I find it less confusing to be consistent. I have been looking for an alternative for element vs figure games for several years and think I have it now.