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.