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

Friday, 17 July 2015

Lasalle - I'm Doing It Again...

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.


  1. Sounds like you've talked yourself round in a circle there back to C&C! Of all rule sets I find that Napoleonic was are always the most disappointing. I've lost count of the number I have bought and discarded (usually without reading to the end) - if you have one you like it's probably best to stick with it...

    1. It's not because i don't want to find something - the very few occasions when life-altering rules have turned up have been really appreciated. I guess I have become an elderly wargaming spinster - I am saving myself for the One Great Set of Tactical Rules...

  2. We each are in search of published rules that reinforce OUR PERSONAL perception of Napoleonic (or any other period's) warfare. We tend to like what we like. Each author, in turn, writes a set of rules to which he can validate HIS PERSONAL perceptions of warfare. Sometimes, never the twain shall meet. It can often be a dangerous exercise to combine one's own bias with that of the author's. As you state, by combining these two possibly dichotomous views, we end up with a mish-mash of rules resulting in no unified theory.

    For me, Mustafa tends to produce a new set of rules every time he gets a whiff of a new gaming gimmick to which he thinks can be put to use. Often these tend to be passing fads. Whether I agree or not with him, he does seem to be a successful publisher.

    I do support and encourage your scientific approach to rules' evaluation. I hope to see more of these evaluations.

    Good hunting in your rules quest.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan - I find that somehow the big, glossy books (the ones with all the irrelevant photos of painted figures - you know the ones) are more of a problem. The rules are presented more as a professional, shiny product, which makes it seem more of a crime to change them, and my natural Scottish reaction to spending a lot of money is to get the most value out of something - i.e. don't spoil it (dinnae muck it up). I frequently pick up a quick and easy set of rules online, and tweak them a bit to suit my prejudices - if it works then good, if it doesn't work then tweak them again or just throw them away and have another search. Not long ago I played two big ECW games at a friend's house. The first day we used a cobbled 1-page sheet based on Charlie Wesencraft, with the ranges and moves halved to fit the space available with the huge armies; second day we used Victory without Quarter, which we had spent some time studying - new rules, though with a vaguely Old School feel. Maybe it was the familiarity, but the tweaked Wesencraft game was a lot more enjoyable. Another argument in favour of rules-on-a-postcard - Peter Gouldesbrough reckoned that anyone who used rules you couldn't write on a postcard was a scoundrel...

  3. This sounds quite a bit like I why I don't use many commercial rulesets.

    (I was going to say any but I do play Charge! straight up and I will play pretty much anything if someone else is running it.)

    1. There is a familiar feeling of weariness - I get hold of a rare photocopy of some classic, legendary rules from the 1960s (say), after a long hunt for them, and on page 2 it becomes obvious that the game requires detailed roster sheets to be maintained, and written orders each turn. In such a circumstance, i probably don't make it to page 3.

      Someone else running it is right on the money - what I should really do with Lasalle (or anything else) is find someone who plays the game regularly, and go along and watch - maybe join in later, or on a subsequent visit. That is (for me) the best way to get a feel for how the bits interact, how much of a yawn the clever bits are in practice.

      There is probably an element of creeping senility in my increasing discomfort learning a new game from scratch from a big book - it's not because I can't concentrate, it's because I get bored more quickly than I did! What were we talking about, again?

  4. Napoleonic wargaming ... why is it the one nobody can agree on? There are more rule sets (and many more rule sets per player) than any other period/genre, and nobody can yet agree on what the game is even supposed to be like! I suspect there are three problems: a) it was the period so many of us started with ("us" being chaps of a certain age to boot), b) there is a constant tension between the allure of minor and major tactics (we seem to want to fight Waterloo one rifleman at a time) and c) it is a haven for button counters (see a. above I suspect). As a result none of us are ever satisfied, and the inevitable compromises one writer makes to achieve a workable system aren't the ones others would make, so we tinker, turning every player into a rules writer. This means there are literally more approaches than players! My view is that we would do a great deal to revive the period and be happy if we first found and stuck to an arbitrary basing scheme (as is now by default found in ancients) so that at the very least we could use our toys to play all the rules without the kind of challenges M. Foy has described here.

    1. You are absolutely correct. It probably suggests that tinkering with rules is fun as well, though. It is now de rigeur (French expression, I understand, meaning "de rigeur") to assure the new reader that whatever basing system he already uses will be just fine with the expensive new rules he has just bought, which is a contrast to the Dark Days when each rules author was terribly sorry, but if you wanted the "true flavour" of the period (on which subject he was the only world authority) then you would have to change all your bases to his exciting new system. Maybe the next step is that the new authors will apologise for the gratuitous eye-candy, which greatly increased the cost of the book, and for which they were handed a lot of ready dosh by the makers of the figures portrayed, and suggest that whatever rules of your own you already use will be just fine - inserted singly or in large chunks.

      Best Napoleonic games I have played (and this is just my warped opinion) have been C&CN for big battles and a home-brewed, computer driven game I derived from a mixture of Paddy Griffith, Big Battalions and Charlie Wesencraft, which worked very nicely for smaller stuff, though I got bored with having a computer on the table.

      I have hopes for "Bluecher", which, again is Grand-Tactical.

    2. Oh tinkering with rules is definitely fun, the whole hobby is about tinkering and that's why I enjoy it, but is just one more way to be incompatible with other players, along with choices of scale, basing system, tactical level and rules set. I am coming to the view that the best way out is the hosting solution discussed above. Have at least two armies in one's own preferred scale and basing scheme, and loan these to visitors to play your house rules (or personal variation of commercial rules). When one goes to Rome, the Romans give you their toys.
      I am preparing for my first game of C&CN in the Warplex of the Bear (a chap nearby who games in the One True Scale and uses hex boards, a true believer), I am looking forward to it (having enjoyed C&C ancients). I'll let you know how I get on.

    3. I got an email from Relentless Martin, which also made this important point that adopting a commercial ruleset and then changing it does away with the the ability to play with other users, which he rates as an important advantage of adopting it in the first place. This is correct of course, but I have played solo for so many years that this rarely occurs to me as a criterion. That is also why I have always built armies for all the nations in any war I've been interested in.

      I think you'll find C&CN enjoyable - like the Ancients version, it suppresses some of the fiddly tactical bits (boo!) but the game moves so fast that you are not short of stuff to keep you interested (hurray!).

      For no reason, other than having mentioned playing solo, I am reminded that as the years pass my armies become more fancy and more (potentially) fragile, and playing solo with rules which minimise handling (and dropping) of the figures is a big influence there, too. I once invited a chap named Malcolm around to try my Romans vs Celts game - first game after I moved to my present house - and I found after he had gone that in moments of stress Malcolm tended to pull the sword blades off the Airfix soldiers while he was thinking. He was kind enough to leave the blades in a tidy little heap before he left. He was never invited back.... no bloody fear.

    4. Isn't it fun when people break your toys? I am looking forward to my game of C&CN. I remain slightly skeptical, but I'm keeping an open mind. A good fast game on a big table with a couple of beers in good company should more than compensate for any points of collision with my biases regarding the "proper way" to play with Napoleonic war dollies. It will be a chance to finally get my large collection of 1/72 plastic Austrians onto the table. A colourful lot they will be, too, including various Hungarian Insurrection and Landwehr units alongside the regulars. One advantage of including so many militia will be the opportunity for me to blame my tools when my tactics go awry (as they so often do).

    5. I would always have loved to have an Austrian army - it would have required me to also have Russian and Prussian armies, of course, which made it a non-starter, and it will never happen now, but I always thought the uniforms and the multicultural set-up were very attractive.

      There are those, of course, who would suggest that - since the Austrian army existed primarily to provide victories for other nations - anyone who fields an Austrian Napoleonic force is almost as much of a leper as I am with my dumb Spaniards. Do not let these people get to you - hold to the faith, lead your men with courage and clarity of vision, and prepare your list of excuses in advance. The militia presence is a good start.