Friday 8 July 2011

Black Powder - The Minimalist Approach

Black Powder - Big Games for Elite Wargamers?

Our game has been developed and played almost exclusively on tabletops at least 6 feet wide and between 10 and 14 feet long. The game works best on large tables and using relatively large forces.
Black Powder rulebook, p.4.

It was an interesting decision for the authors of Black Powder to publish a set of rules designed to work best for big armies and very big wargames rooms. The former would make creating forces daunting for the newcomer, whilst the latter would seemingly exclude the overwhelming majority of wargamers, regardless of their experience or the size of their collections. Fourteen foot tables - you must be joking! But Rick Priestley and Jervis Johnson didn't get where they are today without having a keen commercial sense. My guess is that they recognised the appeal of a big, bold product with high production values, and knew that wargamers would adapt it to the limitations of their own circumstances.

And this of course is exactly what happened. Gamers with more normal wargame set-ups than messrs. Priestley, Johnson and the Perry twins quickly adopted reductions in move and firing distances, reductions in unit sizes, and reductions in the size of models used. The good old 6' x 4' table was quickly found to be perfectly adequate for Black Powder.

But there is more than one way to reduce the size of your Black Powder game. 6mm miniatures and halved distances will give you a physically smaller game, but there is still the matter of the army structure as presented in the rules. That is, armies of at least 3 brigades (and preferably 5) with each brigade containing 3 to 6 units. Can you play Black Powder with armies only having 2 brigades, or even just one? And what about brigades of 2 units, or just one? 

The one unit brigade is really already catered for, by the 'marauder' rule. For the rest, it has become apparent to many wargamers that the key to scaling down the size of Black Powder armies is adapting the Brigade Morale rules. And whatever size of game you are playing, these same rules are the key to adjusting game length to your preference.

Small Games for Normal Wargamers.

Players need not feel too bound by these particular rules - we are happy to ignore or change them where we feel it appropriate to do so - we suggest you do the same.
Black Powder, p.96 ('Victory and Defeat')

The authors of Black Powder are sensible enough to indicate from the word go that amending or adapting the rules is fine by them. However, as the above quote shows, when it comes to the Brigade Morale rules they are practically begging the wargamer to make his own changes. The rules contained in the book are central to the stated aim of having big games that can be played in an evening, and they work very well for that purpose. But you might want your big game to last all day, or you might want a small game that will not be all over in half an hour. The answer is to change the Brigade Morale rules to slow down the rate at which brigades are lost. This can be done very simply, and I have adopted 2 main options, one of my own and the other borrowed from wargamer The Last Hussar, whose blog can be found on my list of favourites (see his post for 5th March 2011). The 2 options are completely separate: one does not build on the other.

Option 1.
'Units count as lost for Brigade Morale only if they have been destroyed or have left the battlefield and cannot return'.
Thus shaken units and units that have left the table but are eligible to return are not counted as lost for brigade morale. I have found this works well for extending the duration of big battles into a full day (for example, at a wargames convention), and also for games where you have smaller brigades and/or not too many of them (say 3 brigades with 3 units each, or just 2 brigades). I used this option in my recent 'Battle of Burndt', which can be found a couple of posts down.
Note that with this option, all the other published rules for brigade morale are retained and used normally. There is no extra work or additional thinking to be done when using this option: it could hardly be more simple.

Option 2. (The Last Hussar Option).
'Brigades are only broken when more than half of their units are lost. In addition, shaken units in a broken brigade can be rallied, which may result in the brigade returning to unbroken status. Disorder can also be removed as normal from units in a broken brigade, unless the unit makes a compulsory or voluntary retire move'.
This is an amendment which can cause a modest amount of additional work, and which I use to cope with small games and small brigades. It means you can have a Black Powder game with just 1 or 2 brigades, and brigades with just 2 units that are still reasonably resilient. 
Note that you have to be allowed to recover from disorder even if the brigade is broken, in order to then issue 'rally' orders to remove casualties and restore a unit to unshaken status. This might then mean that your brigade is no longer broken and can resume the fight. Of course, if your 3 unit brigade has lost 2 units destroyed, there is no way back for it. But if it has one unit destroyed and one shaken, you can try and rally the shaken unit in order to get your brigade unbroken again. If you have a 2 unit brigade, it needs to have both its units destroyed to render it completely useless. 
Note also that keeping the pressure up on a broken brigade and forcing constant retire moves makes it harder for your opponent to recover from broken status.

One Brigade Games

Two nice little scenarios came up recently which were just right for trying out one-brigade battles. The first is the Cavalry Clash teaser from Battlegames issue 23. Map is shown with written permission of Battlegames magazine. Contact the copyright holder at the email address given if you wish to publish it yourself.

I won't detail the whole scenario, but this is an encounter battle with a few tweaks to make it more interesting. It involves a single cavalry brigade on each side, with 4 units in each brigade (one of the red units is off-table at game start). Original table size was 9' x 6', with large Charles Grant-style units. Using option 2 above I have played it out solo, and with an opponent at the Portbury Knights club. In each case the battle went on for around an hour and a half, with units falling back shaken then re-entering the fight, as well as the competing brigades becoming broken then recovering. This can result in what looks like a hopeless situation being turned around, if you persevere and use the right tactics to husband your meagre forces. The games were really good fun. For a short game you can stop on the first occasion a brigade is broken, but for the full game you should carry on until a brigade is broken and has no chance of recovery. This will be when the brigade has had over half its units destroyed.
Turns are very quick and the number of moves achieved is high. If there is a down side it can seem as if luck plays a stronger role than normal; and of course the feel of a big battle is lost. My set-up for the game, on a 6' x 4' table and with my own smaller units, is shown below:

The second game is The Combat of St. Ulrich from the Lead Gardens blog (22nd December 2010). I was attracted to this small game by the charming and beautifully drawn map which introduced it:

As you can see this game involves a mixed force of cavalry, infantry and guns, but for Black Powder  this will still only constitute a brigade on each side. As well as using option 2, I decided to make the guns count as units for brigade morale, contrary to the published rules (p.96). Littlejohn summarises the scenario as follows:

A Bleiherzen brigade is surprised by the advance guard of a slightly larger Grolstein force, and rather than withdrawing promptly across the river bridge at St. Ulrich, the Bleiherzen commander recklessly decides to give the Grolsteiners a bloody nose before retreating across the river to safety.

The map of course has different names for the countries, as a result of the development of Littlejohn's imagi-nations. The defending Bleiherzen/Christenheim brigade has 2 infantry units, a cavalry unit and a gun battery. The attacking Grolsteiners/Schwartzbergers have the same with the addition of a grenadier unit (not shown on the map). It was easy to set this up on a 6' x 4' table using my own Prussian and Austrian units, which are slightly smaller than Littlejohn's.
Playing solo, this game was shorter than the all-cavalry encounter. The Austrians were easily beaten in 4 moves, which took me about 45 minutes. However, the game was extended usefully by the Brigade Morale changes. The Austrians would have lost in move 2 under the normal rules as they had their cavalry destroyed and one infantry unit shaken. On move 3 two of the Prussian infantry units were shaken, which would have broken the Prussian brigade under the usual rules. The game might then have been a draw, even though at this stage the Prussians were clearly on top, with the Austrian cavalry destroyed and the Austrian infantry outnumbered in a close range firefight. The dynamics of the scenario obviously affect how long your one-brigade games will last. In this case it would have been fun to change sides and run through the game again, if I had been gaming with an opponent.
Below are a few photos of the game in progress:

The Austrians in front of St Ulrich

The lines come together

 End game. The Austrians have 2 units destroyed and one shaken and disordered.
No need to take this to the wire: they have conclusively lost.

Post Script
Having got the table and figures out and having an hour or two spare, I couldn't resist refighting the scenario with Charles Wesencraft's rules from Practical Wargaming. Straight away, the game had a completely different feel. Wesencraft's 'control table' idea was ahead of its time (a precursor of the Warmaster system if ever I saw one), but combine this with rather too numerous morale tests which are very dice dependent, and units are soon all over the place. This detracts from the feel of an 18th century  action. One also misses rules to create a force structure (no brigades here) and to produce an end to the game. Presumably one fights until a result is obvious or agreed. 
On the other hand firing and melees are delightfully simple, and basically the rules work. Nevertheless, I don't think I'll be giving up on Black Powder just yet. Nostalgia is all very well, but rules have come a long way since 1974!  


Anonymous said...

A direct link to my Rule Amendment

To clarify Keith's post. You can only rally units in a 'Broken Brigade' if the 'break' can be recovered eventually by rally - ie more than half are not destroyed.

Example with a 6 unit brigade

3 units destroyed - Not Broken

2 units destroyed, 3 shaken - Broken (5 being more than half). Even though rallying one unit would still not "unbreak" the unit, you still can, because rallying further units would, at some point in the future, bring the brigade back. Thus a 6 unit bridage is not permanently lost until it has 3 units destroyed.

Steve J. said...

As always Keith, you have made some very valid points with regards to BP. I found our game at Portbury Knights that you mentioned, to be fun and challenging at the same time; exactly what a game should be in my opinion.

When last at mine for a game of Force-on-Force, we all agreed that that the dreams of youth of having Perry sized gaming rooms, have been reduced in middle age to snatching a game or two on the dining table as and when the family allow.

Shelldrake said...

I took a totally different approach to the size of the game.

rather than have units made up of many figures I went for single base units.
I have to use a record sheet to make notes of troop loss and place counters to indicate which formation they are in, but I can live with that.

The main thing is I can play BP without needing a huge area to play in, and it don't have to spend a fortune to make my army.

I use 15mm and by doing this I can get a corp level game in smaller than a 4 x 6 level playing area.

Prince Lupus said...

We've made a few simplifying amendments to BP to use with our 6mm based on 2" squares and find them admirable. Fighting big battles on a 6' by 4'.

Dalauppror said...

Very well writen Keith !

I played BP on both large and Small tables and it works out realy nice every time as long as you costumise the rules a little bit to the size of the game:)

Works fine for Hail Caesar to;)

Best regards Dalauppror

Unknown said...

Great article, I really enjoyed reading it.

We are faceing the same issues while we are working on our "Battle of Mollwitz" - project (on a 4x4 Board)and will definitely try out some of your thoughts.



Anonymous said...

As I play 10mm I have been able to gt away with a reduction on measurement* - we merely read cm instead of inches. Hence a 5x3 foot table = 150 x 90cm equivalent to a 12 x 7ft table at the inch scale.

*Of course, despite what people say, wargames are almost always figure size dependent. So the question "What scale figures" or "How should I adjust the measuremets for XX mm figures". The only thing to remember is that ranges for shooting can look odd. My ideal 'win the lottery' scenario is using 10mm figures on the original BP inch measures - but that is units of 144 men!

As an adjuct to that, we refer to moves as 'paces' - 10 to the cm. "The brigade will advance 150 paces" is more in keeping with the game. This goes with my reserch into frontage and ranges - canister range is equal on the table to 50-60 yards. If I ever get to play 10mm on the Inch measure then ground and figure scale will be closer to equal

Keith Flint said...

Last Husar - thanks for the interesting comments.

Regarding ranges looking odd, the best advice I ever read for 18th century games was to relate musket range to unit frontage. So, taking a typical infantry unit frontage to be around 200 paces, you should relate musket range to that, i.e. effective musket range shouldn't be much greater than your unit frontages, and possibly a bit less.

Do you really mean canister range 50-60 yards? The figures I read in most secondary sources give anything from 200 to 500 yards, or even more. I always understood the ability to open up with canister at beyond effective musket range was an important tactical factor from the 18th century through to Napoleonic times.

Cheers, Keith.

Capt Bill said...

excellent report, thanks for sharing...

SteveHolmes11 said...

I've made very similar changes to the Brigade morale rules.
The main driver was a quest for longer games, through accommodating smaller formations is also welcome.

Like many, my opponent and I were dubious about elements of Black Powder.
"Free and easy formation changes!! March THEN shoot!! This is heresy - harumph.
The first game showed a flexible and workable system with one problem.
The little toy soldiers were prone to marching off when the battle was about to get started.

We had brigades of four battalions, so either four or six hits (Easily accomplished with the artillery dice gods on your side) would shake a brigade.
A bit more staying power certainly seems in tune with the carnage of battles like Eylau, Borodino, and Waterloo.

Finally, brigade morale can be tweaked on a per-army basis to create asymmetric scenarios.
Those peninsula French marching hard to break out of a Spanish ambush might fight to the last battalion.
Some of the brigades from the wars of the French revolution seemed content to pack up and go home at the drop of a bicorne.

It's a toolkit - used wisely you can build a lot of fun.

Captain Nolan said...

Thank you for posting this. I enjoy games with 7 - 12 units (battalions - inf/regiments - cav/batteries art), so this makes BP much more usable for me solo.