Over the Easter weekend I was able to play two socially distanced wargames with my son Nick, using the To the Strongest rules (TtS) by Simon Miller.
We play TtS with 25mm figures on a 6” grid. The figures are a mix of ages and manufacturers, some of them dating back to 1981 when, aged 21, I started collecting Classical Greeks by Minifigs and by the long-defunct Rospaks. I have added to the collection over the years, with both modern sculpts by First Corps and Newline Designs and older models picked up through eBay or gifted by a friend who has downsized to 15s. I now have Greeks, Macedonians, Gauls, Iberians, Carthaginians and Republican Romans. The Romans are an entire army of very early Minifigs from the collection of a gamer who had passed away. I felt honoured to re-home them. Their spears are like telegraph poles and sculpting definition can be fuzzy but they have great character. And unlike so many ‘heroic’ scale figures, their proportions are realistic. To my eye, too many 28s today look like Space Marines in togas. But I digress!
The death of Leonidas
Our first game was a battle between my Athenians and Nick’s Spartans. His hoplites had the qualitative edge while I had more lights. While the two flanks bickered, our centres got stuck in, with Nick’s lads doing marginally better. We both had success with our left flank forces, so as the fight developed, each of our right flanks had to deal with the danger of being rolled up. I was losing victory medals faster than Nick but then had the good fortune to kill his heroic general, which brought our losses into balance. The cards went my way next turn, destroying one more Spartan hoplite unit and the battle was mine. The whole thing was very close however and at game’s end I had only one victory medal surviving. Still, a win is a win!
The game felt very satisfying as a clash between two hoplite armies, with no fancy manoeuvres and no detached generals. Our lights kept busy fighting each other but the game’s outcome was decided by the hoplites.
Hannibal ad portas
Game two was between Nick’s Carthaginians and my Romans. I was seriously outnumbered and Nick set out to envelop my army. On the other hand my infantry were rock hard and their pila gave them an edge on the first turn of combat. I set out to demolish Nick’s centre while I refused both of my flanks and kept my triarii back to act as a fire brigade. Nick placed all his cavalry on his right flank and two units of elephants on his left, along with some high quality Iberian Scutarii.
My centre started well, doing serious damage to some Gauls and wiping out a unit of citizen spearmen. However, the general in command of my centre then missed a turn at a key moment when he drew two aces in succession on his first activation. This allowed Nick time to patch up his centre while his left wing trundled down as far as my baseline and turned to face inwards. I squandered my next turn in a bout of tunnel vision, trying multiple activations on one unit so it could destroy a double-disordered unit of Gauls. Of course I failed the third activation on my unit and so ended the turn without activating a single other unit in the Command. I know, I know! Basic mistake and I should never be so dumb, except I was so fixated on the opportunity to destroy the single enemy unit I was attacking that I completely forgot my own advice.
Meanwhile Nick’s left wing started grinding down the troops defending my right rear, as well as threatening my front line from the side. At this point our lines were in an ‘L’ shape, with particular pressure on my units in the angle. Then in one turn, a flurry of high card hits by Nick, met with low card failed saves by me, took him comfortably over the victory line. To his only slight disappointment, he had won without his elephants actually fighting anybody. But we agreed that they had done great work forcing me to conform to their advance.
How (not) to play Republican Romans
That didn’t go well for me, but as we played we agreed some resolutions for the next time the Romans fight. Ideally, we would seek to use terrain to negate the enemy’s numerical advantage. In this game, it was Nick who exploited rough ground to shelter his advance down his left flank. Next, the Roman shouldn’t wait around to be outflanked by a bigger force: the heavy infantry should get stuck in quickly and try to eat up the enemy centre before the flanks and rear are threatened. Once engaged, the first priority each turn must be to use the Romans’ special line exchange rule for every unit that is disordered (representing the fresh principes replacing the tired hastati in the front line). This is a really powerful advantage but I lacked the discipline to sort out the line before other activations. At least twice, my command’s turn ended before I had attempted a line exchange. Finally, we decided that if possible, every command should have just one main function. My centre command Included both front line units and my reserve. Besides making it a very big command, I was trying to deploy the triarii to face Nick’s flank attack and to fight his centre to the front. Too often, the command’s turn ended before one group or the other had completed its tasks.
It is of course one thing to draw conclusions after a game but entirely another to remember them next time I play. And in case I haven’t made it clear: I didn’t ‘throw’ the game. Nick conclusively won it, making great use of his army’s strengths and obliging me to respond to his movements. A classy win for Carthage.
Out of lockdown with To the Strongest
The second game was much more fluid than the hoplite encounter had been and it felt a bigger challenge for both of us. The card activation system in To the Strongest is inspired. A sensible player can minimise the risk of their turn ending prematurely but very occasionally, as when I drew two aces in succession at the start of one turn, bad luck just happens. Fair enough. On the other hand, it is all too easy for an idiot like me to get drawn into the drama of a single combat and completely forget that I should be taking care of other activations before trying again with the critical combat. I reckon a game that draws me in so completely is doing something right.
I remember that when I first read the TtS rules, I wondered if units had enough hits/lives to sustain a good game. I also worried that a squared grid might be too restrictive on movement. Neither concern survived contact with actual play. I very soon concluded that these rules are perfectly gauged to give an exciting and rewarding game, with the strong sense of what I would expect from an ancient battle. They are also so easy to learn and (crucial at my age!) to remember during play.
After months and months without a face to face game, it was wonderful to be playing again. Fingers crossed, if the road map out of lockdown stays on track, we can soon play a great many more.
This post completes the story of our refight of Waterloo, played in 2015.
Special house rule: garrisons for strongpoints
I have a lot of skirmisher bases from Volley & Bayonet days, mounted on 1.5" squares. The Allies were allowed to use these to garrison La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont if they wished. A small base began with up to 3 élan points, subtracted from a parent unit. It would benefit from the attributes of its parent brigade as well as the usual urban area benefits (+2 for it, -1 for the attacker). In the Allied turn, a friendly brigade within 3" and unengaged may reinforce the garrison by transferring élan points to it, reducing its own élan accordingly. However the most élan points that may garrison either strongpoint at any one time is 3. I prepared similar markers for the French in case they took either strongpoint and wished to garrison it.
Each side had three players. They selected cards to determine side and whether CinC or subordinate. The briefing notes for Napoleon and Wellington are below.
Your army is all present on table. You will set up second, on the ridge of La Belle Alliance including, if you wish, the spur east of La Haye Sainte. Your objective is to open the road to Brussels and knock Wellington out of the war. You have two subordinate players, to each of whom you should allocate an infantry corps. You may also allocate other formations to these players although you may retain as many of these formations under direct control as you wish. Each of you should deploy your forces in accordance with your instructions as CinC. During the battle you may devolve control of any formation to a subordinate, but with a one turn delay: they may only move the added formation the turn after you allocate it to them. On the other hand, you may take direct control of any units of any formation yourself, immediately and without consulting your colleagues.
In the early hours you heard from Grouchy that he is before Wavre. This means he is unlikely to reinforce you today, as to do so he would have to pass through the Prussians. However if he presses his advance this morning as you have ordered him to, he should at least prevent the Prussians from reinforcing Wellington."
You will set up first. Your objective is to stop the French from advancing on Brussels and to hold on until help arrives from Blucher. Your army may deploy anywhere on table, no further South than the two strongpoints. You have two subordinates, to whom you should allocate at least two infantry divisions apiece and as many as you wish. You may also retain direct control of a reserve.
During the battle you may devolve control of any formation to a subordinate, but with a one turn delay: they may only move the added formation the turn after you allocate it to them. On the other hand, you may take direct control of any units of any formation yourself, immediately and without consulting your colleagues."
I admit the instructions on allocating troops to subordinates don't match the historical command structure but this is a game after all and I wanted everyone to have a satisfying command.
Keith, our eighth participant and seventh player agreed to help as umpire from the start and to take on the role of any reinforcing commander (of either nationality) if and when they arrived on the field. He was reconciled to the possibility that he might not arrive at all but he is a natural umpire who genuinely enjoys the job. He was also the only other person who had played Blucher before.
How it played out
The Allied deployment broadly followed history, except with more troops on the West flank. The strongpoints of La Haie Sainte and Hougoumont were garrisoned, as were Papelotte and Frischermont on the Eastern flank. We used the 100 Days cards to place units, replacing them with figures when they were revealed to the enemy.
The French set up with only the Guard facing the Allied centre; I Corps was to the South and West of Hougoumont and II Corps set up opposite Papelotte. VI Corps was in reserve behind II Corps.
The fight began with a determined left hook by D'Erlon, supported by IV Cavalry Corps. In the East, Reille became engaged with the enemy in Papelotte and Frischermont. The centre stayed mostly inactive at the start, apart from some bombarding by Napoleon's heavy guns.
The Allied defence on both flanks was spirited but Napoleon pressed his generals to keep up the early momentum. The Allied Right started to crumble under the pressure but a series of hard-hitting counterattacks by British and Brunswick cavalry brigades bought some breathing space. On the opposite flank, the French stalled outside Papelotte. News then reached both sides of a force approaching from the East. It soon became clear that Blucher, not Grouchy was on his way to the battlefield.
Aware that time was running out, Napoleon launched the Guard in the centre, in the first serious action of the day in this sector. At the same time, the French Left resumed its assaults and a series of Allied brigades were eliminated in quick succession.
At this point, Blucher arrived with 15 and 16 brigades from Bulow's Corps, increasing the Allied morale total and staving off collapse. Napoleon sent VI Corps to face the new threat but also reinforced his centre with the Guard Cavalry. By this point, his only reserve on the table was the Red Lancers of the Guard. One more turn of hammering pushed the Allies over even their adjusted morale level. The Anglo-Allies began their retreat; the Prussians, realising that the field was already lost, halted their advance and moved onto the defensive. They had come too late to save Wellington from defeat. The day was Napoleon's.
Post Match Analysis
The game had lasted from 11am to 5pm, with a break for lunch. In game turns, working to the broad rule of 45 minutes per pair of player turns, the battle ended around 7pm. The early turns had dragged a little as the players learned the rules, but it soon picked up speed. It was a great feeling to reach a firm conclusion inside one day's gaming.
The players seemed to enjoy the day and certainly picked up the principles of the game quickly. Most of the rules made sense to them, although there were inevitably a few concerns about bits and pieces. The main wish was that infantry could fire in more situations, for example after changing facing. There was also a suggestion that if prepared units took a difficult move, they might retain their prepared status. On the other hand, some thought that prepared units should not be permitted to skirmish, presuming that part of being prepared would involve drawing in the brigade's skirmishers.
The feel of play was smoother than Napoleon's Battles or Volley & Bayonet. I think we would have been hard put to reach a conclusion with either set in the same time span. It is also interesting to follow Sam Mustafa's journey from Grande Armee, through Fast Play Grande Armee, to this. Blucher is stripped of all but the key game mechanics, yet retains a convincing period feel. The use of momentum dice puts real pressure on the players to move the important formations first. The reserve rule, which allows a one-off burst of speed to units that are still concealed, is an entertaining mechanic that both encourages the players to keep reserves and creates tension when these are finally committed.
The game was a joy to umpire and I found answers to all the rules questions that arose. From where I stood, the French deserved their victory, having chosen a good plan and stuck tenaciously to it. The Allies tried hard to hold them, especially Chris on the beleaguered Right who handled his cavalry particularly well. But it wasn't to be and when the line started to unzip, it gave way decisively.
This and the next blog post contain the first battle report I wrote when I created this web page. New to the whole blogging business, I put it on a standard web page where it didn't really belong. I am now tidying up the site but didn't want to lose the report so here it is again.
The 20 year Waterloo project
In 2015 we played a refight of the Battle of Waterloo, using Honour Games’ Blücher and a figure collection that started in 1995.
Back in 1995, I had just picked up Frank Chadwick's Napoleon Returns, his 100 Days Campaign book for Volley & Bayonet. At the time all our Napoleonic armies were in 15mm and I didn't have any Anglo-Allied figures at all. I thought it would be quicker and cheaper to create the Order of Battle for 1815 using plastic 20mm figures. My older son was showing interest in toy soldiers and the slightly larger figures appealed to him more than the 15s.
To spread the budget, I based only 8 foot or 4 horse on each 3" square base, with a bare strip at the back for an information sticker. I set out to paint in a toy soldier style and was helped in the early stages by my sons.
The project got off to a good start but was mothballed as my sons and I fell heavily for Warhammer and WH40K. We spent many happy years building and fighting with Games Workshop armies while the 20mm project gathered dust in the attic. Then in 2009 I chanced upon Sam Mustafa's Fast Play Grande Armee and dug the plastics out of the roof space. There were now many more plastic figures on the market than in the mid 90s and some were very fine sculpts. By summer 2010 I had painted the Order of Battle for Quatre Bras, which my friend Mark and I played to test the rules. A few months later four of us played a refight of D'Erlon's attack at Waterloo. There followed breaks for the 17th Century, then the War of Spanish Succession, tactical Napoleonics and the ACW, but in between other periods, I kept adding to the Napoleonic collection.
With the bicentennial looming I decided it was time I finally put all the figures on the table and so I invited my regular opponents to a Waterloo multiplayer refight on 12 July 2015.
The first options for a whole battle refight were Napoleon's Battles, Volley & Bayonet and Grande Armee. We still play Napoleon's Battles occasionally but they don't please everyone and can play a bit slowly unless the players know the rules really well. Both Volley& Bayonet and Grande Armee give a faster game. But a new rules book had just been published that settled the decision for me.
In early 2015 I acquired Sam Mustafa's new Big Battle rules set, Blücher. We have already played a lot of Sam's rules, especially Longstreet and Lasalle as well of course as Grande Armée. Blücher has not disappointed. For our first game We played a Franco-Austrian 1809 fight for a group of friends who game regularly but didn't know historical Wargames. It worked a treat: four complete beginners fought a large battle very happily inside one day. Keith (my longest-serving opponent) and I then played Plancenoit twice, using Sam Mustafa's 100 Days unit cards. Both games were tense and rewarding. So Blücher it was.
A unit in Blucher mostly represents a brigade although some French Cavalry units represented whole understrength divisions. Each unit starts with a number of élan points (typically 6) that reflect its fighting quality. These determine how many dice to roll in fire and hand to hand combat. The dice can also be affected by attributes such as a good skirmish ability; attached artillery; shock power in the attack and so on. Élan is lost through combat and when reduced to 1 élan point, a unit dissolves. Blucher rewards the side that keeps fresh troops to throw in when the enemy is wearing down. The mechanics of the whole game are simple but subtle.
Blücher is relaxed about figure and ground scales, encouraging players to adapt to the battle in question and the size of their collection and games table. In this case, I went for one inch to represent 100 yards and one unit to be a brigade. This scale, is already used in Napoleons Battles, Volley & Bayonet and Grande Armee.
Fortunately, the 3" square units I have been collecting over two decades fit well with Blucher's scale so I didn't face a rebasing challenge. The Frank Chadwick Order of Battle for 1815 also reads across well, although his rules required many more commander figures and skirmisher bases. I'll have to find a use for all my surplus generals!
The main task was to repaint the rear strip of the unit bases from green to earth brown. This was the third colour change since the project began but Earth brown bases seem to be the least intrusive so far. I also bought a lot of mdf dice cells from Warbases and glued one to the back left corner of every unit. The dice would show the number of elan points remaining, while their colour would show what special attributes each unit had. For example, white would be skirmish only; black skirmish and attached artillery; green for conscripts etc. I also wrote these attributes on the unit labels.
Preparing the table
My usual gaming table is 8' by 4'. For this game I added an extension, which took the table breadth to 10'.
I thought the map would be easy to translate to the table, but was surprised to find several variations between the maps I looked at. You might expect this battlefield to be so well known that all maps would be identical. I went with the maps in Mark Adkin's Waterloo Companion where there was confusion.
With such a large ground scale and 20mm figures, it is a challenge to represent villages. I made a lot of square bases of cobbles, cut from moulded plastic card for model railways. I stuck some low walls around the edges of each base and placed buildings from my 15mm collection on them. Not that impressive to look at but at least the troops are now defending something. I also considered making La Haie Sainte and Hougoumont bigger to accomodate larger bases but decided the space in the Centre of the battlefield was cramped enough as it was, so the chateau and farm's footprints are to scale. This made it impossible to garrison either the farm or chateau with a standard Blucher unit. I created a scenario-specific house rule to handle this, discussed below.
As for contours, I wanted to create reverse slopes but not overdo the sharpness of the crest line. I used flat contour shapes, mostly cut from plywood and MDF, to make sure the battlefield has the right rolling feel. My polystyrene hill models are too steep and high for the job. The only penalty the contours conferred would be on line of sight and incoming artillery fire. I wanted to create space to East and West of the field, to allow for possible developments on either flank. For the sunken road, I relied on the distances provided by Adkin. To represent it, I lined the road with a hedge made of cut up pan scourers. This is confined to a few inches eastward from the Mont St Jean crossroads. I kept the oval sandpit from a refight of I Corps' attack a couple of years ago.
The day was set to run from turn 9 to 36, using the high summer game length in the advanced rules. The French were first side and each side had 3 Momentum (MO) dice per turn. I decided to use the multiplayer rules from the book, where every player on a side keeps a tally of MO use and the turn ends when the first player reaches the MO limit.
I decided that the Anglo Allies would mobilise by division and not by Corps. The Corps in Wellington's army of 1815 was more an administrative designation than operational, and it felt wrong to treat it in a way comparable to a French Corps. However, I did allow the Allies to pay only 1MO per unit in an activated division. (If you don't know the rules I've probably lost you. Basically, this meant that an Allied player could not activate more than one division in a round, so mostly in smaller packets than the French).
Morale levels were set at one third of army totals, so 17 for the French and 11 for the Allies. Reinforcements to either side would increase this limit, which meant the Prussians would not have their own morale level. I did not give the French a higher level for The Napoleon effect: while hard-hitting, the French army of 1815 was brittle.
The Orders of battle we used are on the Napoleonic scenarios page here.
For the order of battle, I decided not to tamper with the troops on table on the morning of the 18th. After all, this wouldn't be a Waterloo refight without D'Erlon, Reille and the rest. I did however leave the players to choose their deployment. Also, I wanted to create some uncertainty for both sides over who might appear in the distance and when. I wrote a decision tree which required a dice roll every few turns. The decisions were, broadly in sequence:
Will Blucher commit to reinforce Wellington?
Will Grouchy begin to move earlier in the day than he did historically?
Will Grouchy try to drive through Wavre; seek to reinforce Napoleon directly via a side route or a mix of both?
If Grouchy assaults Wavre will his pressure on Thielmann be heavy and if so, will this affect the pace or quantity of Prussian reinforcements arriving at Waterloo?
How fast will reinforcements (of either nationality) march towards the sound of the guns?
I won't go further into the mechanics but the probabilities varied according to my preconceptions. For example, I wanted there to be a possibility that Blucher would not commit to move to Waterloo, but the chances of rolling this result were very small. The outcomes therefore ranged from the Prussians arriving pretty much as they did, all the way to no Prussians arriving or even a small French reinforcement. But to be frank, the chances were stacked in favour of history repeating itself.
The player briefings and battle report are in the next post.
I have played wargames for five decades. Recently retired, I have even more time to devote to it. More about me here.