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

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Grand Tactical Game - Skirmishing

Here is the first of the explanatory posts on various bits of the rules of my new (and incomplete) Grand Tactical Napoleonic ("MEP") game. You can download the current draft here and, if you can't understand why I would want to produce such a simplistic set of rules, there's some background and a few objectives in earlier posts.

Old School treatment of infantry skirmishers is normally explicit, and very much the same as formed troops firing volleys - the most common difference is that the figures get a dice each rather than 1 dice per 4 (or 6, or however many), they can hop about all over the place and still fire, and they do not get on very well if they meet with cavalry in the open. This is all fine - if you have the time and space, this is a very good way to address the matter of skirmishers. If the battles get large and complex, the skirmishers become a nuisance. They get lost on the table, and separated from the people they are supposed to be with and, since they are never very effective anyway, tend to be ignored or forgotten as the action heats up. If you really try to keep them involved and busy, you get back into the problem situation where a lot of fiddly effort is required to produce very little effect. A regular feature of tidying up after one of my battles is trying to work out who all these lost skirmishers were supposed to be with, and how they got to be where they are.

A number of the rule sets for big battles, and Grande Armee is a good example, solve the problem by abstracting it - brigades will be allocated some adjusting combat factor which reflects the number and quality of their light troops, but the skirmishers do not actually appear on the tabletop. Or you also see rules where the skirmishing rules are optional, and you can just ignore them altogether for large battles.

That is practical and sensible, but it jars a little. For one thing, the use of skirmishers is pretty much one of the distinguishing characteristics of Napoleonic warfare, and it seems a bit disappointing not to have it represented on the table in some visible form - the special and valued role of the British Light Division, for example, becomes a difficult thing to demonstrate if they are just bog-standard line infantry in the game. For another thing, what about all those lovely painted skirmishers in The Cupboard? On balance, I would prefer to have skirmishers visible on the field, but I do not want them to bog the game down (or be such a nuisance that they end up being ignored, which is a close relative of the same problem), and I do not want them to be more effective than they should be.

Tricky. Getting some kind of a satisfactory answer to this has been a background task for many years. I have an approach for the MEP rules, which is in the draft. It makes some assumptions, some of which are maybe speculative, and I would welcome any guidance here.

My starting principles, and some of this is entirely in the interests of convenience, are

(1) Skirmishers are organised at brigade level, and hang around the edges of their parent brigade

(2) They are not enormously effective – annoying rather than destructive, though the odd good shot can have a disproportionate effect – the probability of causing significant loss of Points Value (PV) to the enemy is not high on any particular turn

(3) However, since they can get a shot both on their own and the enemy’s turn in each Push, and since there may be up to 3 pushes in a 1-hour Bound, they are bound to hit something occasionally

(4) Their primary role is to keep enemy skirmishers at bay, so my rules allow skirmishers to cancel each other out to some extent

(5) This is the area where I am guessing a bit – I assume that if a brigade is making a serious attack, its skirmishers will get out of the way, though they may stand off to the side to mask it from a neighbouring enemy unit. This is relevant in the MEP game because the rules state that all enemy units with whom you are in contact must be attacked in some way or other, and the ways available are by skirmishing or by an actual assault (which itself may have varying degrees of wholeheartedness). Now I’m confident that an assault might well involve some skirmisher activity, but for the purposes of the game I define these as mutually exclusive – in other words, a unit may attack an enemy unit by skirmish or assault, but not both at the same time.

(6) Again, this is in the research area – if a unit moves into contact with 2 enemy units, and is forced to engage them both, it may skirmish against one (not both), and may assault the other (not both).

(7) Let us also stipulate that a skirmish attack – which involves fire by both sides, remember – can only be initiated by the player whose turn it is. The other player cannot choose to take skirmish action against an attacker which has not itself used skirmishers against him.

That is quite enough words. Let’s try a couple of examples. Here’s a French brigade (at the bottom of the picture), with a PV of 4 (number of elements) and a skirmish factor (SK) of 2. Their opponents are a brigade of the Allied 7th Divn, with a PV of 4 (3 elements plus a Veteran bonus of +1, hence the black counter), and they also have an SK of 2.

In a sensible illustration, I would have all my skirmishers mounted individually, on pennies or similar, equal in number to the SK. However, all my skirmishers are currently mounted in threes, so I’ll mark the skirmisher base with the SK number.

The French advance up to the Allied brigade and engage with skirmishers. Both sides will throw a number of dice equal to SK – so 2D6 for each side, and each dice has to score 1 to hit, so this is an even match. Since the action takes place in the open, there is no need for checkrolls.

In this case, the French have thrown 1 and 6, which is a hit for the 1, and the Allies have thrown 1 and 2, which is also 1 hit, so the hits cancel out, and there is no effect. If the Allies had missed entirely, they would have suffered a net loss of 1 from their own PV, and their SK would reduce to 1. If the Allies had hit with both dice, they would have inflicted 1 PV net loss on the French, who would also suffer a corresponding reduction of SK by 1. Sorry if I’m labouring a simple system, but it is the very simplicity which I wish to demonstrate. So – in this case, no losses, no morale test. When all skirmishes and combats are complete for the French turn within this Push, the French will have the option to pull their unit back 1 hex to break the contact, since it was their turn.

Next example – same units, but this time the Allied brigade is in a wood.

The French thow 1 & 4, the Allies 3 & 3. So the Allies have missed, while the French have, potentially, scored a hit. Because the Allies are in a wood, they count as a Difficult target, so a check roll of 3 or less on 1D6 is needed to confirm the hit. In fact the checkroll comes up as a 2, so it is indeed a (rather lucky) hit. The Allies suffer 1 net loss from PV (take away the black counter – PV is now 3) and their SK also reduces to 1. [Remember that the loss of 1 PV does not mean the skirmishers have somehow eliminated a complete battalion, it means that the impact of the hits (mostly psychological, I guess – maybe they hit the brandy barrel) has reduced the overall effectiveness of the Allied brigade.]

Now we need a morale check for the Allied unit – their PV is now 3, but they get a bonus of 1 for being in cover – they throw 2D6, and need to get less than or equal to 4 on each dice to hold their ground. In fact, the dice come up 6 & 6, as bad as possible and, since both failed, the Allied unit breaks and routs out of the wood, which may be now occupied by the French brigade – rather a lucky result?

This is a very simple mechanism, and deliberately so. I’m interested in any views on how this works, and also on my starting assumptions. Subject to whatever debate comes from comments and emails, the next examples will be of combat (i.e. assaults).

Please remember, if you find yourself horrified by the over-simplification or the lack of elegance, that this game is designed for very big battles, and is (hushed whisper) really a board game!


  1. I think you are on the right track. 2 comments come to mind.

    On the matter of actual practice, my understanding is that an attack in line would be prepped and covered by skirmishers but that eventually the line would pass through. However if attacking in column, the skirmishers seem to have been expected to advance in the intervals between battalions and to keep up their fire. In either case this is the sort of thing would would expect to see "factored in" and so a skirmish attack represents a solely skirmish affair taking place over an extended time but a brigade attack assumes a certain degree of participation by skirmishers but not at the same level of intensity or lasting as long as the main body goes in. Choosing 1 of 2 separate attack methods feels right to me.

    As far as results, skirmishers could definitely cause a slow drain of casualties. I would question that an attack by skirmishers would ever cause a brigade to recoil, (even with lucky dice) esp if their own screen was still in place even if losing the fight.

    In that light, I would prefer a rule that skirmish attacks can cause hits but not morale tests, however, I have found that keeping the rules simple sometimes means accepting a chance of an unusual or unexplained result (and there are always historical examples of both to be found).

  2. Ross - thanks very much for that. I am encouraged that you agree that I can identify "skirmish" and "assault" as separate types of attack. It would be straightforward enough to waive the morale test for skirmish casualties, and the idea has a lot of merit. Or - following your mention about the losing unit's own screen still being operational - could waive the morale test for skirmish casualties if the losing unit still has SK > 0.

    Hmmm - good stuff - thanks


  3. Ross - sorry, I'm doing it again - further thoughts...

    What about if skirmish hits are taken only from the skirmish screen if there (still) is one - i.e. if unit has a non-zero SK number. This means that skirmish hits on a unit which doesn't have skirmishers (including artillery batteries) *are* deducted from main unit PV, and would require a morale test. Would have to think further about what happens with units in towns, who (as things stand) are not able to use their own skirmishers.

    Ponder time...