Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Rules Testing - Battle of Albuera (16th May 1811)

Godinot's brigade have a think about their diversionary attack on the village - Von Alten with the KGL light infantry are in residence...
One of my projects at present is to develop a tweaked version of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics for in-house use. This game is intended to work (quickly, and simply, and without ambiguity) for very large battles, for battles which require large, grand-tactical movement of troops (such as off-table reserves), and for games which for other reasons do not lay out logically in the conventional C&CN, across the table, left/centre/right configuration - end-to-end-of-the-table battles, or oddities like the tactical bits of sieges are examples.

The tweaked rules are currently still in a state of flux - the main features are that they do not use the C&CN cards (they use a dice-based activation/initiative system), and they do not enforce strict alternation of moves, but they do use (most of) the main C&CN movement and combat systems. Until they are more stable, I don't really want to say too much about the rules themselves, though I will make some observations of a general nature at the end of this post. The important thing I wish to make clear at the moment is that the tweaked version is not intended as an improvement on original C&CN, nor a correction; it is merely a modified cousin of the game to suit specific kinds of wargames that I seem to be very interested in, so there is no need for anyone to rush to defend the original game, nor to pitch in from the other side, to write it off. Oh yes - my working title for the modified game is "Ramekin". This has no special significance or merit apart from the fact that it amuses me, and it stops me calling it "Vive l'Empereur" or "The Vivandiere's Moustache" or similar.

These rules, in their evolving form, were recently used for the Eggmuhl game here, and for the demo game I set up for my aunt (yes, all right, all right).

This midweek I had planned to set up a solitaire playtest game to do some more refinement (or, as is often the case, to abandon some of the most recent brilliant innovations, since they might simply be a waste of time!). Playtesting is a necessary investment of effort, of course, but playtesting on a solo basis has hazards of its own, since the writer knows what he intended the rules to mean, and how they were supposed to work, and will tend to fail to spot the big holes in them during solo play. Thus I was doubly delighted to have a collaborator yesterday - Count Goya came to help out.

I set up a biggish game based on Albuera, which is a battle of which I had limited understanding previously, and one which is noted for the intensity of the fighting, and the fact that it could have worked out in a number of ways - in fact you might say that it was several different battles, fought successively, in different directions.

I did a lot of reading (so did Goya), and set up a game on my bigger (10'4" x 5', 17 hexes x 9) tabletop. I did some work to sort out which bits of the complex OOBs actually appeared in the field, and - though the numbers of units I fielded didn't match the original battle, the implied numbers of troops were pretty close. [Thus, for example, Girard's Division in my game was 5 battalions, which is about 4000 men, which is correct, though in the original battle these men were spread over 9 battalions.]

I read over, but did not use, the published C&CN Albuera scenario. My game was somewhat larger, and my map was rather more closely based on fact (again, this is not a criticism of anything). We started the game at the point where Beresford (or someone on Beresford's staff) notices that the French are not really serious about attacking the town of Albuera itself - this is a diversion, and the main part of Soult's army has performed a smart left hook, so the principal attack is on the Spanish troops on the Allied right. Thus Stewart's 2nd Division, with Colborne's brigade in front, are sent marching to the right, to cover the Spaniards' exposed flank.

Albuera is renowned for having some key incidents which may not fit with normal wargame rules. Most famously, the French light cavalry - notably the Vistula Lancers - wrecked Colborne's troops, who failed to form square (because Stewart and/or Beresford ordered them to stay in line to maximise firepower, or because there may or may not have been a violent rainstorm which obscured their view and damped their powder, or because they didn't expect the cavalry to be out there on the flank, or for some other reason). It is possible to incorporate some chance card type decision point - I confess I don't care for rigging a game in that way. As a gesture towards history, we adopted a simple dice-test for any infantry wishing to form square - just for the day.

I'm not going to step through the AAR in more detail than comes from the photos - we were not attempting to re-enact anything - Albuera served primarily as an entertaining context for some playtesting. There were some interesting historical parallels in the game - some worked the opposite way to the real battle, of course, and some worked the "correct" way, if in a slightly different manner. We ran out of time, though the French appeared to be winning when it was time for dinner. Whether or not the Allies realised they were beaten, of course, is the critical issue...

Overall view from behind the French left flank at the start of the game. In the foreground is the left hook - La Tour-Maubourg with the cavalry, the divisions of Girard (in front) and Gazan (behind), then Werle's brigade in the centre and, at the far end, Godinot's diversionary assault on the village
View from behind the French right flank - on the Allied side, Karl Von Alten has a KGL brigade in the village, and behind him are Portuguese troops (Otway's cavalry and Harvey's large infantry brigade from 6th Divn); I'll describe the other end of the Allied set-up in a moment...
...and here you are - Zayas' Spaniards in line in the centre of the table, with Stewart's 2nd Division marching to their right behind the Spaniards, to cover the flank. On my game system of replicating the numbers of troops rather than the number of units, Stewart's command comprises Colborne's Brigade (in front, 3 battalions), then Hoghton's (2 bns), then Abercrombie's (2 bns). In rear of them is the 1st brigade (Myers) of Cole's 6th Divn, and beyond them we are back to Harvey's Portuguese (who received no orders throughout the day!)
Pin-up unit - the dreaded Vistula Lancers. In fact they had a remarkably bad day, and were eliminated very quickly. So much for history.
The French cavalry - Vistula boys at the front, then 2 units of chasseurs, then 2 of dragoons - at this point, they were opposed only by a weak brigade of Spanish light cavalry, so they chanced their arm...
... one of the chasseur units and the lancers moved forward to deal with the Spanish horse, and as a result of some of the most outrageous dice-rolling seen for a while the French were repulsed heavily, and the headlining lancers were eliminated, and thus would not get to meet the Buffs later.
Over on the Allied left, and in the centre, the Portuguese still haven't moved, neither have Myers' brigade from Cole's force, and Stewart's boys are making very slow progress towards the right.
Apparently not convinced about the benefits of hanging round demonstrating, Godinot's force gained a foothold in the village  - these are more Poles, the 4eme Vistule - but took a bit of a hammering for their trouble, and gave up on the idea thereafter. In theory there was a Victory Point available for occupation of the village, but after this early effort the KGL were left in peace.
Meanwhile, on the right, Colborne's brigade gets moving. On the tabletop, Colborne's boys were 3 battalions of old (proper 20mm) Lammings, and pretty shiny, too. Since my collection doesn't include the correct units for Albuera, there was some role-playing - notably our "Buffs" were actually a battalion of the 61st Foot (South Gloucestershire), but at least their flag was the right colour.
The firefight - Colborne's chaps appear on the right flank - not quite in the historic manner, and free from cavalry interruptions for the moment. In fact they didn't do very well when they got there - it was a nasty exchange though.
Early stages - Allies slightly ahead - 1 VP for holding the village, and one of the others must be for whacking the lancers. 11 VPs for the win was the order of the day.
Allied right flank isn't looking very clever, and Cole and the Portuguese are still mostly rooted to the spot on the far side. After a slow start, Girard is pressing the Spanish infantry.
Gazan's Division, behind Girard's, watches the attack develop in front. Both Girard and Gazan are prominent hat-wavers. Famous for it.
Back at the village, Godinot's demonstration is over; the combined battalion of grenadiers is sulking after suffering 3 bases-worth of casualties, the light infantry is in the wood, and the battered Poles are in another wood to the left, out of picture. The artillery can't see much point in carrying on wasting orders by firing, so they all hope their job is done and that Soult will win the day elsewhere.
Eventually, of course, the Spanish cavalry on the Allied right got their come-uppance, and were sent packing, and here General Loy, the brigadier, has a Ponsonby moment, as the French dragoons pursue him. Amazingly, they failed to kill or capture him (i.e. they couldn't roll a single crossed-sabres symbol on a total of 8 dice) and thus he escaped, choosing to leave the table just to deny the French the VP they would get if they did for him.
Better fortune for the Allies in the centre - combined-arms attack by one of Hoghton's battalions and Miranda's Spanish battery does some fearsome damage to one of Girard's regiments. All a bit late, really.
Late view from the Allied right shows that their right wing has mostly disappeared, and the left wing has hardly moved. This was just about dinner-time - the scoreboard showed the French leading by 10 points to 6, so they had more or less won.
Final view across towards what was, in fact, Beresford's position from the day before the battle. Beresford is going to get a dreadful roasting from Wellington, who even loaned him The Tree to  stand next to, as you see. On the far left you can see one of the ramekins (to hold initiative dice and order chips) from which the game gets its working title.
 Many thanks to Goya for his company and enthusiasm, and for helping out with the analysis. The game is shaping up nicely, and is a lot of fun, but we need some more work on getting the effect of musketry in balance with history, and to refine the use of the Order Chips (thanks to Tesco for the chips, by the way).

That's enough about that, I think - you'll hear more of the Ramekin soon, I'm sure.


  1. I may looking forward to further updates on this. With a further rationalisation of my collections due to a forthcoming house move then C &C has moved to the fore for use with my 20mm the variant certainly sounds intriguing.
    Albuerra is a tough battle for the Allies they have to react quick if the French are to be stopped/defeated. I have refought this battle three times now and it's always been a close fought game.

    1. The experimental dice-initiative system is based on the abilities of each commander. In our game we rated Soult as "Good" but Beresford - partly because of his lack of field experience but mostly because of the complicated command structure of his army - was "Poor", which meant that old Sir William was constantly struggling to get the first turn, and usually had rather less order chips to play with. We are trying to scale down the overall effectiveness of musketry at 2-hex range - not quite right yet, but getting better! Hard to get this just right - official C&CN makes it difficult to attack - a regular feature of the games is that a superior attacking force gets shot to bits at 2 hexes. Pegging that back a bit without completely destroying the balance of the various arms is an interesting challenge!

  2. Respect to General Loy - looks like my dice throwing skills were missed!

    1. General Loy will need a few weeks holiday to recover, I would think. The dragoons are keen to get back in action, since they feel they can never do as badly again.

      Your dice-mojo would have been more than useful - dreadful rolls at times. The game had a couple of additional bits since Eggmuhl, but some of the additional uses for order chips need more work! The labs will be onto it straight away...

  3. Hi Tony, intrigued to hear more. Incidentally I love the scoreboard and the working title.

    1. Young sir - I'll send some details once the rules settle down a bit!

  4. I imagine moving from cards to dice for activation is strangely liberating.

    1. Especially at Albuera, where, if you do the whole action, the fighting fronts swing through almost 180 degrees - find me a left flank out of that lot! For a really big game (bigger than this one?), the draw of the cards can be a problem - you can find yourself constantly trying to make something (anything!) of the cards you have, rather than trying to develop an actual plan. A while ago here we did a biggish version of Talavera, and the card play was tweaked so that eacj side could play two Command Cards - that does make the game easier, but it also makes it less reliant on luck. It seems odd that moving from two cards to no cards at all makes it easier still, but it does. I am a fan of the C&CN activation systems, absolutely, but they work best for actions of a certain style and a certain size. I guess that's why the real devotees are so obsessed with set scenarios, which is something I've always been so-so about.

  5. Replies
    1. It looked better than I expected - it is rather an open field - unusually so for Spain. I'm pleased with the scenario layout - I'd like to try it again.

  6. Nice report!

    Now that I have a suitable Spanish collection, Albuera is on my list to do eventually, although with FoB2.

  7. Interesting developments and I will certainly look forward to reading more in due course. I fully understand where you are coming from here as I had been thinking along similar lines, no cards but a simple (in my case) dice activation roll replacing them. I have no issue playing the scenarios 'as is' but my aim is to play through the 'One hour wargame' scenarios on the C&C board, thus the need to need to break from the 'left/centre/right' play, and replace it with activation to allow entry in accordance with the OHW scenarios. When Bob Cordery published his Portable Wargames book I suggested an alternative activation system that I think he quite liked. Red dice and Blue dice in a bag (Bolt Action stylee!) a blind draw followed by a dice roll, 1,2 = activate any 2 units, 3.4 = activate any 3 units, and 5,6 = activate any 4 units, simple as that. After that it's basic C&C N play. It negates the need for sector cards and allows the action to swing unpredictably dependent on the colour of dice drawn, so one side could in theory get a run of 2,3 activations before it swings back. I'll be interested to read more on your quality of commander rule, I'm thinking that requires a command distance rule, with the possibility of more or less activations available or something along those lines? I could of course be totally wrong here and meantime will try the OHW scenarios with my basic 'tweak'. Excellent pics as usual.

    1. Hi Lee - thanks for this - I'll try to email you over the weekend, with some ideas and thoughts on other rule sets. Regards - Tony

  8. Replies
    1. Hi Ray. I think our version was not quite such a bloodbath as the original, but it wasn't far off. I was trying to remember why I've never had a bash at Albuera before, and I remembered that for many years I had no Spaniards. Well, who would want Spaniards...?

  9. A lovely looking game Tony
    And as always an informative and enjoyable read.

    All the best. Aly

    1. Thank you Aly - I always find these games quite educational. As I regularly say here, I feel privileged to be present at a bit of fake history - to see what happens! This probably is a consequemce of many years of solo gaming, and the fact that my involvement in wargaming was an extension of my interest in military history rather than the legacy of a boyhood spent gluing together Airfix Spitfires (a phase which I seem to have missed out on). The games here at Chateau Foy are usually engaging but quite relaxed. I am something of a voyeur rather than a fierce competitor - a facilitator as much as anything!

  10. Albuera, one of my favorite Peninsular War battles to refight.

    Your game looks superb; clean and elegant. Your Banners Won scoring device is genius. Everyone will want one!

    1. Thanks Jon - I had a rather awkward week or two eliminating woodworm from the scoreboard - I think I've succeeded. Unwelcome guests!

  11. At least I now know what a ramekin is (or once againmost likely ).

    We had real problems with the C&C/Memoir style card activation when mixed with scenarios designed for other systems but had a successful experiment in which we allowed players to use any card for any sector. That way the limits and bonuses of the cards remained but players could form their battle plans based on terrain and scenario.

    I like old fashioned playing cards but usually just use them to track turns, act as 'chance cards' and determine which side goes first each turn but I have played some interesting games using a system from Bob Cordery's Portable Wargame in which a deck is formed in which the colour and number indicate how many units of that side can act. The value of the cards selected to form the deck are based around the number of units in an army and can be adjusted up or down to reflect command capability.

    1. When the Ramekin game is a bit firmer (or is a more stable prototype), which means when Foy stops having wacky ideas for add-ons which bog us down in extra effort without any extra advantage to the game, I'll write a quick summary of what we've got.

      I have become a little impatient with C&CN gamers' relentless fixation with published scenarios, but I understand it a little better now. The Ancient version (and also my own ECW variation) lends itself well to its period, since armies tended to set themselves up close together, very formal lay-out, ready to start fighting. The published C&C Napoleonic scenarios are all of already developed situations - i.e. the armies are almost within musket range, the positioning and the grand tactical bit has already been done before the game starts. To me, that's the hole - if, as part of a campaign (say), you wish to have one or both armies marching onto the table, or have reserves coming along later, C&CN doesn't handle that very well. That's the bit I'm trying to address here - a more mobile system which lends itself to a wider range of situations.

      Having said which, I guess that the ACW "Battle Cry" game must have been pretty similar to the Napoleonic one - whatever, I have no experience of that.

      As a rule of thumb (and this is of general application, not just Napoleonics, and certainly not just C&C), I think it's a useful thing to listen during the game. If you find that most of the chat is about what the rules mean (or where in the manual that rare situation which just cropped up is covered), rather than the military situation and what's going on in the world of the little men on the table, then something may be wrong - usually a mismatch between the game scale and the type of rules, but all sorts of possibilities.

  12. "As a rule of thumb (and this is of general application, not just Napoleonics, and certainly not just C&C), I think it's a useful thing to listen during the game. If you find that most of the chat is about what the rules mean (or where in the manual that rare situation which just cropped up is covered), rather than the military situation and what's going on in the world of the little men on the table, then something may be wrong - usually a mismatch between the game scale and the type of rules, but all sorts of possibilities."

    The above is a brilliant observation, Tony! Something for a game designer to note very well.