Ever since it was published, I’ve strongly fancied having a serious shot at Sam Mustafa’s Lasalle Napoleonic game. I was enthusiastic about his earlier Grande Armée (and the incomplete Fast Play version of the same), though my enthusiasm extended only to borrowing ideas from these rules – I was rather put off by some of the activation and command procedures, which added a lot of labour for marginal benefit. The fact that I didn’t just adopt Grande Armée as my main Napoleonic rules for ever afterwards is not necessarily a criticism of the game – it was merely another in a long series of rule sets for which my complete devotion did not survive a full reading.
Where Mustafa did impress me especially, though, was in the commonsense department – the Grande Armée booklet contains a wealth of footnotes which explain the logic of how he produced a playable game from the chaos which was the reality of horse and musket warfare, and much of what he said turned on a few lightbulbs for me in rationalising game mechanisms. There is a discussion of routing troops, for example, which makes sense to me – I have, like everyone else, spent many hours of my life moving defeated units towards the rear in accurate 2D6-inch steps, or whatever. Mustafa says that routing troops are not actually anywhere – shepherding them to the rear like this is not realistic – routers are nowhere – they do not hold a formation, they are not identifiably in a particular position on the battlefield. Good – I like that. That seems to me like commonsense.
Lasalle got a fair amount of advance publicity, and looked very promising. I was a little put off by the hefty cost of buying the official book from the USA, but managed to get a cheaper secondhand copy from eBay in the UK. It looked very good. At the time I got it I did not have the time to get properly involved in it – I was in the process of applying Commands and Colors to my Napoleonic games. It did seem to me that Lasalle would give a useful complementary set of rules, to cover smaller, more tactical actions. When I originally read it through, of course, I considered whether it would be a simple tweak to change it to fit a hex grid (no, of course not - idiot), and I had a few concerns about basing and unit sizes, but it still looked very promising, and I still do have the intention to give it a good try-out when the time is right. I also gave myself a slap and told myself firmly that when the time came I should set out with the objective of adopting the game as tested and published, not some mutant version which I cobbled together myself, based on prejudices and things I once used to do as a boy.
Recently I got the book down off the shelf, considering whether now was the time, and for the last few evenings it has been my bedtime reading. I also got myself a little notebook and a fresh pencil, to record “thoughts and issues” - areas of the rules which gave me concerns, or where I thought I might have problems getting my existing armies to work without re-basing them.
I wrote, very carefully, right at the top of the page, “DO NOT ALTER THE GAME UNLESS YOU HAVE TO”. I know myself only too well, I think.
The “issues” come in two broad groups. Group 1 consists of things related to base sizes, unit dimensions, the balance of the game – I am very keen that any fixes I have to put in here do not distort the way the game plays. Thus, for example, the game works comfortably with my infantry battalions of 4 bases, each of 6 men in two rows, and works pretty well with my cavalry basing – no problems there. Artillery is not such a good fit – I use 2-gun-model batteries, and Mustafa has one model equals two cannons, which would give 4-model batteries for the French. I worked out that I can tweak some of the numbers in Lasalle so that my 2-gun batteries behave the same as the 4-model Lasalle ones (and I have to admit to a certain dislike of the look-of-the-thing idea of 4 guns in a battery in a game where a battalion is only two dozen men, so – as long as it doesn’t spoil the game – a tweak to handle 2-gun batteries seems acceptable).
One of the notes in this first group is, in fact, based on a personal niggle, but it doesn’t alter the game, so I kept it in Group 1. Lasalle uses measurements in “base-widths”, or BWs. This is good for making the rules read sensibly for a variety of scale implementations, but the advantage is entirely to the benefit of the authors – to the user who has fixed on a single scale, the permanent use of the generic BW terminology is something of a pain. In fact my BW is 50mm, or 2 inches, so it makes more sense to me to simply double all measurements, and refer to the distances in inches. I refuse, point blank, to go on talking about BWs simply because they suited the author and simplified the publishing task. It also means I can use a ruler I bought in a shop rather than some home-brewed device.
There are a few more things like this, and they are going down in the jotter in Group 1. Things which are not stoppers – things where I simply have to tweak the game a little to get it to work as intended with my own armies. Dr Mustafa would be all in favour of Group 1, I’m sure.
Group 2 gets a bit more edgy – this is getting into bits of the game which I don’t like very much, to be blunt about it. Yes – I know, I know – I should just accept the whole game as is because it works like that, and it is what the originators developed, with all their wisdom and experience. Despite myself, I find that I am questioning things – cheeky beggar. I am all in favour of the mechanisms for handling skirmishers – there is an element of abstraction in there which comes pretty much from Grande Armée – anyone who likes placing individual skirmishers behind bushes etc will not like this section of Lasalle at all, but I do – as Mustafa points out, the abstraction avoids the game getting bogged down in what was a minority activity, beneath the attention of the generals, and in any case what real skirmishers did is not at all like what you are doing with your riflemen in the bushes, so it’s a fair cop. Good. Then I find with amazement that moving units – changing formation and front, for example – is complicated and, well, fiddly, and not very abstracted at all. When I see a diagram showing how I am to measure the outside circumference of a wheeling manoeuvre, and how to calculate the movement allowance in rough terrain, for example, I find that I have written two notes under Group 2 in the jotter – “manoeuvre – fiddly” and “George Jeffrey lives!”, and at this point Dr Mustafa would not be so happy.
And so it goes on – my notes say:
Discipline Tests – fiddly
Army Morale – fiddly
Rules for whether or not in cover – fiddly
Rules for crossing obstacles - fiddly
Rules for flank/rear – fiddly
At that point I stopped and put the book down. This isn’t going well. This is what happens each time I read rules with a view to using them – Group 2 becomes a big obstacle. I really don’t want to teach myself a game of which 50% is the famous and well-received Lasalle, created by the highly respected Sam Mustafa, and 50% is a hotch-potch of gluings and transplants inserted by the madman Foy. The chances of such a game working well are negligible, and it would potentially be unfair to the original and a waste of my time.
It isn’t a problem – I can slap myself again and go about this in a more businesslike manner, or I can promise I will come back to it when I’m more positively disposed. What really grates is that I find myself in the same position I have been in so often before. I got to about this point with Lasalle a year ago and shelved it, and I wouldn’t like to guess how many such episodes I’ve had with Shako, Napoleon’s Battles, Empire and so many others over the years. No matter – I’ll come back to it.
I still intend to have a proper go at Blücher, too, and though my track record shouldn’t really give me a lot of optimism, you would think, I suspect that (as was the case for Commands & Colors: Napoleonics) the game scale and the concept are sufficiently different from what I’ve done before to give a better chance of my keeping an open mind. I hope so, anyway.