A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Grand Tactical Game - Preamble

The MEP Effect: a French brigade, with skirmishers, before and after Defence cuts.

I'm becoming conscious of the fact that this blog mostly consists of elderly reminiscences about how things were, or how I think they were, which is not necessarily the same thing. Since the subject matter is a hobby which I have been involved in for around 40 years, that is maybe understandable. However, I read many fine blogs which tell me what guys are thinking about this week, or doing at this actual moment (or, very commonly, not doing at this actual moment, and why). Intuitively, this seems more exciting - you know, reportage - I'm cutting the blue wire now - boom. Immediacy seems a natural state for a blog - sharing views, doing stuff. Right this minute.


Apart from oddities such as my fleeting views on bananas, there is not much of that in here. I feel that's a bit of a shortfall. I mean, it's not as if I'm not doing anything. So, if you can bear the excitement, I'd like to pull the wraps off something I'm working on at this very moment. Naturally I will be pleased to get advice and/or guidance - even abuse, if you must. I need to develop a decent grand-tactical variant of my in-house Napoleonic rules, to handle battles which are too big to work well with the current version. Then, once they are working and reliable, I need to get them (like the main game), programmed on to my computer, but the first step is to get them drafted out in a dice-&-paper version for play-testing.

That's it. If, at this point, you feel a little disappointed in my choice of exciting development, I can only say that it's the best I can do at the moment, and in any case I really do need these new rules, so there is an element of immediacy, if only by implication.

Foy's Fifth Law states:

If something bogs your battles down, then automate it or simplify it or get rid of it.

My rules are called Élan. They occasionally get a radical revision, but otherwise have been evolving for many years. The problem with Élan, the thing which gets me bogged down at present, is if the games get too big. This is a bit of a sore point, because the rules were specifically designed to work well with large battles. The use of the computer greatly eases the record keeping and keeps the turn sequence ticking along, and the game mechanisms have been tuned and rationalised to run quickly. There are two chief areas where the size problem shows up:

Firstly, and the less important one - the time taken to deploy and fight a unit may not be very much, but if there are a lot of units then it all adds up. You can have multiple players, which does help, but often my games are solo.

Far more seriously, on the current ground scale, unit frontages are correct, but the depths of the units are well out of scale. A battalion in column looks very nice, but it takes up far too much space, front-to-back. When the reserves come on, everything can grind to a halt because there is no room to manoeuvre.

As it is, Élan works fine up to maybe 20 battalions a side plus cavalry plus etc etc. At that point major traffic jams can set in, especially if the terrain is hilly. OK - easy - keep the battle smaller. Well, that's a bit of a heavy constraint. Particularly so since quite a lot of my games come from campaigns, and it seems unreasonable to outlaw battles over a certain size just because the rules and the available table can't cope. The Emperor wouldn’t care for that.

It would be possible to use a bigger table - I have a fantasy about putting a 30 foot x 8 foot table in a marquee in the garden, but at that point we are probably getting silly. I also have a rather worrying thought that the neighbours might catch glimpses of me fighting a solo action in such a setting. Hmmm. Another solution is needed.

No, I believe the answer is just to have an alternate set of rules which allows bigger actions. I have a preliminary sketch for a big-battle variant which is provisionally titled Élan MEP. Reluctantly, I have to admit that MEP comes from "moins est plus", which started life as a joke. As sketched out, MEP uses double the bound length (one hour of real time), double the ground scale (one hex becomes 500 paces, or a quarter of a mile) and FOUR times the figures scale (which means that a 750-man battalion will be a single 6-figure base rather than a formation of 4 such bases). The effect of this is that a brigade, instead of being a collection of battalions each of which occupies a hex on the battlefield, will occupy a single hex in total.

Much of the tactical deployment will be simplified, and thus some rules will have no place in the new game. For example, Élan’s fixation with unit formations will largely disappear. I have a feeling that it will still be necessary to be able to place an infantry brigade in square(s) for special occasions, but otherwise we should assume that the brigade commanders (who will no longer appear on the table) will look after battalion formations and all that. Once again, the game is getting more and more like a boardgame, but that is what happens as your helicopter-view gets higher and higher - the individual soldiers become less significant.

When I started thinking about this, I was quite excited to realise that I could, at last, do a re-fight of Salamanca if the big game works properly. Why on earth I would choose to do this, and what it would prove if I did, I haven't thought through yet. But the idea that I could if I wanted to was strangely appealing.

That's really all I want to say about this at present. I am hoping that the rules from Élan which deal with command, weather, concealment, army morale and a few other things will just drop into the new game with some minor tweaks in the arithmetic. Other bits will be trickier - my guess is that some of the nippier elements will be decisions about stuff to leave out. I have a strong fancy for borrowing some of the combat and morale mechanisms from Howard Whitehouse's Old Trousers game, which is elegant and, most importantly, simple. Anyway, you get the idea. More of this another time.


  1. Another point of view might be to leave units and rules as they are, but to scale down the battle. The terrain could consist of the main tactical features (from terrain study, not from the outcome of an actual battle). And units would be scaled differently. Battalions becoming regiments or brigades (1:3 for example, not counting unit strenghts. Or even divisions.
    One could also integrate large unit strenghts: a 5000 man division becoming a 2x 24figure brigade.
    In fact this is somewhat how Command and Colours / Memoir44 treat different size engagements. One scenario 4 figures represent a platoon of WW2 troops or some 250 ancient soldiers. Another time the 4 man hex becomes a batalion or brigade or a 1000 man unit: the units and rules don't change, what they represent does change.

    Anyway, my point is that in my eyes I'd rather keep a good ruleset than start to design or search for a new one, just because I want to replay a large battle.

    As for the rear columns getting tangled up and clogging the access to the battlefield: I actually think that is a good simulation of what happened on real battlefields according to Horse and Musket battlefield studies (I've just been reading about the Prussian advance to Waterloo...).
    Napoleonic units used more space than their actual footprint as they needed room to change formations. Commanders in those days where very conscious of distances between units. Just think of the space needed for "Trooping the Colours" (and there are no farms, trees, hedges, small streams on Horse Guard Parade).

    Well, thank you for the food for thought. I guess I wrote this comment more for my own sake, trying to solve my own space management problems.


  2. Hi Pjotr

    Certainly, scaling down the number of units in the way you suggest is a possible approach. In my case, especially in view of the campaigns, it suits me better to represent the complete OOB at a smaller unit size. The small units seem a little odd, but I just have to regard a brigade as a unit, which pretty much brings us back to what you suggest in the first place!

    It does seem kind of wrong to downscale - I've spent so many years enjoying the sight of the table groaning under every figure I can possibly squeeze on there that it takes a bit of lateral thought to come up with a different approach. The fact is, my armies have now grown to the point where each army has about 55 battalions plus about 12 cavalry units plus artillery etc - they cannot possibly all fit on the table, even edge to edge and without scenery, so cutting down the numbers is not only useful, it is essential. The overloaded table doesn't seem so great when the battles never finish!

    There is no question of my forsaking my existing rules - the new game is an add-on - if a battle is small enough I'll still use the main game - if it's bigger than about 15 battalions a side then I'll use the new "MEP" version!

    Your point about trooping the colour is a good one, but the fact remains that the footprint of a unit is way too big in my current rules - it doesn't matter until the numbers get too high. Short of space they should be, but not THAT short! One of my battalions (750-800 men) in column of grand divisions has a frontage of 100 paces, which is not bad, but the depth is 90 paces, which is too much - I think a column was a shallower formation than it looks on my table!

    Regards - thanks for reading the blog and for your input - always appreciated


  3. The 5th Law is Right On!. If you haven't already seen them Frank Chadwick's Design notes provide 1 man's view of why design a wargame that allows you to fight an entire Napoleonic battle.

    There are advantages to the OS scaling down method of doing battles, I've done it before and will again but I also see advantages to what you propose.

    One being that if the armies already exist, and if one happens to be a tad sentimental about such things as I am, then the Black Watch or the 1st Bttn 131st or whoever, remain themselves esp in a campaign environment. In other words, one week you can put the whole battalion out as 2 divisions clash, next week you can use the cut down version for a bigger battle etc. In between you can track the individual battalion status.

    Another being that you still have the ability to detach battalions and to show some form of brigade formations if you want (such as line of battalion columns vs a column of battalion lines).

    Worth investigating I think.


  4. Ross

    Your reasoning is pretty much what I was thinking, but I think you expressed it rather better than I did!



  5. Actually I think you expressed it well. Here is the link to that Frank Chadwick article that I meant to include


  6. Ross

    Good article - thanks for that - almost a checklist of the stuff you have to think about.

    The "what scale of battle does this work for?" question is a tricky one. Many years ago I attended some of George Jeffrey's monstrous games in Scotland - they sometimes had a thousand castings a side, yet they still argued about how long it would take the Imperial Guard to wheel backwards, in line, in the rain - the games were not lacking in spectacle, but never came close to coming to a conclusion.

    I am slightly surprised to see that the demo scenario for the new "Commands & Colors: Napoleonics" game is a sort of chunk out of Salamanca - about 2 divisions a side. OK - it's a scenario, and I'm sure it's a great game, but it seems an odd choice as a shop window. I'm not sure I would have chosen a starter which makes it quite so clear that the game has limitations!

    Oh well - there's still Sam Mustafa's "Bluecher" to look forward to, but it looks as though that will be a year or more. In the meantime, I guess I have to crack on with my own effort!



  7. Maybe the Polemos Napoleonic rules are worth looking into (https://www.baccus6mm.com/includes/products/publications/Polemos/polemos_text.php)? Maybe they are convertable to hex gaming for someone who knows what he's doing and expecting?