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

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Post-Mortem for Los Arapiles

It really is very important not to over-react to the outcome of a game, nor to set about wholesale rule changes in response to how it went. I've written this at the top of the page, so I can keep referring back to it, in case I forget.

Having had a day to consider yesterday's MEP-playtesting action at Los Arapiles, I've got some thoughts to put into some kind of order. Some of the thoughts are about the fact that it was a (sort of) re-enactment; a few are about the operation of the game.

Historical Precedent

A scenario is a scenario, so there is no particular disadvantage in using an event that actually took place, you would think.

Well, maybe. Certainly, playing out a real, historical battle with as-accurate-as-you-can-get forces and conditions shouldn't be able to be faulted for lack of realism, and yet real, historical battles appear to be beset by so many intangibles, flukes and things that don't make sense that you have to keep a very broad mind about what, if anything, it proves.

It's a truism that most real battles make very poor wargames, for the simple reason that no sane general would choose to commit to an attack if he stood a chance of losing - i.e. most real battles were very one-sided, and could only have had one reasonable outcome. There are a number - relatively few - which are favourites for re-enactment because they could have gone either way - a Close Run Thing. This will usually be because someone misjudged the strength of his enemy, or the timing of his or his enemy's expected reinforcements, or someone just had a plain, old-fashioned stroke of luck.

One thing that I found yesterday was that, even if it is played as a game, without a complete script, it's hard to feel involved in a historical action. Pack's brigade's attack on the Greater Arapile at Salamanca failed in 1812, and it failed again yesterday, which might be considered to vindicate the game a little, but I only made Pack attack at all because of the historical precedent. If that had been a proper game, with no real-history prototype to follow, and if I had been the (20mm) Duke of W, I'd never have considered sending Pack off on a mission like that. But, because that's what really happened, I sent him and his Portuguese lads in without any concern at all.

I think that is the missing element in the re-enactment - involvement. If you are invited to fight a wargame somewhere, with refreshments, the company of friends, all that, the battle will take place - you will contest lost causes, you will commit your reserves, you will be genuinely upset when your lancers are routed. You will, in short, care. The enjoyment of the game is usually in direct proportion to the amount of enthusiasm you put into it. Well, I have to say that at Salamanca, though I was interested to see how it went, I really could not have cared less.

The MEP Rules

I can say, honestly, that most of the game ran very nicely. My efforts in MEP to cut down the overheads of morale testing, the elimination of single musket volleys - all the simplification - worked well. The only disappointment was that artillery fire and skirmishing are still quite laborious, and need further change to make large battles practicable.

It's maybe worth making a preliminary observation about the difference between rule-proving and game experience. A number of fighting mechanisms in MEP were checked for reasonableness and workability by the time-worn process of putting a few units on a table, and testing, again and again, variants on a situation. When MEP went to print, there were no kites flying, this was all supposed to be practical stuff. The problems which emerged, such as they are, come from the sheer size of a grand tactical battle. In a more detailed, divisional sized game, at any given moment you might have a couple of artillery batteries deployed and firing, so you can take a bit of trouble to calculate the results. In a big, higher-level game - specifically Salamanca, yesterday, at 1:125 figure scale - there might be 15 or 20 batteries in action, every push of every bound, both sides firing simultaneously. That is an awful lot of work if you design it wrongly. Especially if most of that fire produces no result - in MEP, the smallest loss you can inflict is 1 point, which means that the target unit has been discouraged to an extent which is equivalent to a battalion of men packing their kit and going home. Thus, a lot of the artillery fire produces no effect. If you are spending a lot of time grinding through all those batteries - "have that lot fired? - no? - right, they'll fire at the unit on the hill again - that's 2 dice, and I need to throw 2s or less - damn! - missed - who's next?" etc etc etc - it becomes tempting to just stop the artillery fire altogether. Similarly the skirmishing. Anything in a wargame which requires a fair amount of work, yet only rarely produces a significant result, will eventually either be omitted or will be a source of annoyance.

I'll think further about skirmishing on a separate occasion, for the moment I have been concentrating on ways to reduce the workload required by artillery fire.

A quick digression. Entirely because it's an example of a ruleset which looks at the problem in another way, Ian Marsh's Huzzah! (Oozlum Games) is of interest. Instead of rattling through a long list of tests for individual firings by batteries and infantry units, Huzzah! considers instead the situation of the target units. Huzzah! is worth a read anyway, though the details of the game make it quite complex, and not really suited to a big game, but the point here is that it got me thinking about testing the targets, not all the firers. How about this? - the artillery units nominate targets, and red counters (say) are placed against target units; so canister fire might require 2 red counters. When all targets have been declared (for both sides, in the case of MEP), you carry out a single test for each unit that has red counters showing, i.e. organise the tests by target rather than firer. If the unit with 3 red counters showing is in cover, or is otherwise a bad target, you might throw 3D6, requiring scores which reflect its situation and type - design your own test, I'm just playing with ideas here!

It may seem that testing the targets rather than the firers just gives you the same problem, organised a different way, but I believe it should make things a bit simpler. Yesterday, there was a situation where 4 batteries were all firing on a single brigade on a hilltop. For every battery, I had to go through the "is the target in cover? are they in open order?" check and then roll the dice for that shot (well, the computer rolled the dice in its head, but the questions were still there). It would have been a big advantage to organise it the other way round - nominate the targets, then ask, once and for all, if the target was in cover etc, and proceed to roll the dice to see how they fared.

I think that does warrant a change - I would certainly have been glad to do it the other way yesterday!

This blog has been busy again this last week or so, which is mostly the fault of the weather preventing my doing much else. I'm going to be relatively busy for a week or two, so things will get quiet here for a while. To anyone who reads this stuff, my thanks and very best wishes - a Good New Year to you!


  1. Nothing like turning something upside down to make it look different. (ie Looking at it from target pov, worth thinking about.)

    I largely agree about historical battles as games but only if trying to recreate all phases of them. I don't agree that most were foregone conclusions as while the attacker wouldn't have done so if he didn't think he could win, the same is true of the defender who wouldn't have stood to fight if he hadn't thought he could repulse an attack. There are exceptions as you point out where someone misjudges things or is out maneuvered.

    I think the end result of battle comes, not just from the forces from what the generals do with what they have though, not just how individual attacks fare but the overall plan and management. Translated into game terms, I think it only works if the players have control over their plan and limited intelligence. If you are a player and told you are Pack and you are ordered to attack that may be an interesting experience but I agree that its not engaging and rarely "fun". However, if you start as Marmont with the information that he originally had and its up to you to try and figure out where the Brits actually are and what Wellington is up to, that is a different story.

    The battle, however, will (almost) never follow the course of the original. So what's the point really? Just a good source of a scenario. My favorite way to borrow from real battles is to disguise them changing armies or even periods so as to have a "real" starting point, and often scaling down. But that's me.

    I've enjoyed the blog this year and look forward to the next. Best wishes for 2011.


  2. Ross - you're a gentleman and a scholar - thanks very much for your input over recent months, and for reading the blog.

    I agree completely with what you say about what the games might represent, in a historical sense. My excitement about re-fighting Salamanca has been simply because I have never done such a thing before, and felt it was a gap in my CV! - and my observations on the way it went were probably more naive than they should have been. The "Peninsular War in 15mm" blog has recently had a bash at Salamanca in what is probably a more practical way, using a Nap Wars adaptation of Fire & Fury (which seems a popular way to go) - his battlefield looks rather better than mine, too!

    The one thing about "real" Salamanca which stands out for me is that it was an accident. The deployment of the armies has more to do with the fact that they were on their way to somewhere else than that they intended to have a serious fight. Foy, for example, is on the French right flank simply because his guys were bringing up the rearguard and watching the river crossings. The big surprise, to me, is that old defensive Conky Atty was able to take such an uncharacteristically aggressive initiative when the opportunity appeared.

    The main point of all this was the development of a Grand Tactical game - and I think that MEP is promising but has some wrinkles to iron out. Acting out a historical fight was a side issue - like the dog in the old joke, it was "because I could", and the novelty was intriguing.

    My next landmark should be the arrival of the C&C Napoleonics game. This will not be Grand Tactical, I guess, but it may make some changes in how I fight my usual battles. The received wisdom is that it is a fast, fun game, and, as someone who has found that his enjoyment of wargames has not always increased in proportion to his wisdom, I have to say that sounds pretty good to me.