Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Somewhere in France

Mike and I played a Franco-Prussian war game using Neil Thomas's 19th Century rules. For full retro effect, the rules were in a hardback book, and the figures were 25mm. I had never played these before and I don’t think Mike had either, but he had prepared a cheatsheet so we got by reasonably well.
The scenario was what Neil calls a ‘pitched battle’, which was actually a meeting engagement with both sides advancing from their base edges onto the battlefield, the objectives being in no-man’s land at deployment. As the defender, a random dice roll resulted in three of my units being delayed in reaching the battlefield, whilst another random dice roll resulted in two of Mike’s going missing completely. As a result, he had a slight numbers advantage in the first 6 bounds, and I would have a larger advantage after that if I hadn’t lost too many units first. We each had a single cavalry unit, half a dozen infantry units and one or two guns and skirmishers. I did not have a good sense of the scale of the game, but if infantry units represented battalions, cavalry units would be regiments and skirmishers companies.
I advanced my infantry in the centre with skirmishers on the flanks and the cavalry one of the units held off board until turn 6. Infantry in line are not permitted to advance at all, so you have to advance in column and deploy when you reach effective range. As it is an IUGOUGO game, it therefore proved quite easy for me to cross the zone where the French Chassepots were effective and my own needle guns were not before the French could deploy. I held back one gun whilst advancing the other, leaving a clear lane for the rear gun to fire on the advancing French.
On my right a French infantry unit in column bore down on a sole unit of skirmishers, on my left some skirmishers and the advanced artillery held off a further French infantry unit and the French cavalry. It soon became clear that the infantry were not going to be stopped by fire on either flank, but the cavalry were very vulnerable indeed. The one time they ventured into range of my skirmishers they got a nasty volley and beat a very hasty retreat. On the flanks, therefore, the French infantry went straight in with the bayonet and rolled over a skirmisher unit and a gun with little trouble. In the centre I had more success: here I had my own infantry units which typically rolled 8 dice (rather than 4 dice for skirmishers or guns shooting), and often had easier to hit numbers as well. I was therefore able to do real damage to the advancing French columns.
Fortunately for me, my flanks had collapsed on turn 5 and my reinforcements arrived on turn 6. The scenario seemed to allow me to place these wherever on my base edge I wished, so I had two units of fresh infantry to oppose the two French columns which had broken through, and a single unit of Uhlans out wide where no-one would shoot at it. My two fresh units proved well able to grind down their opposition in a couple of turns of shooting, and I went over to the counter-attack all along the line against the faltering French. My skirmishers advanced again and shot up the French cavalry, who vanished in a puff of smoke and poor morale dice and it was clear that nothing was now going to escape, so Mike conceded the game. As he had fewer units than me and was supposed to be attacking in a pitched battle, I honestly think he did well to keep the game in the balance as late as turn 6.
The rules were very simple in concept, although with a lot of dice rolling and chart checking (you roll both to hit and saves, needing different success numbers depending on the shooter, the target, and the formations used). Fire combat is attritional, but every four hits removes a base, and whenever a base is removed a morale check must be taken to avoid losing another base. This means that units can maintain full effectiveness for a couple of turns and then suddenly lose almost all their effectiveness as they lose two bases to a single hit and a poor morale check. As a result combat didn’t feel too predictable.
Hand-to-hand combat, by contrast, was much too predictable. A unit must have more bases remaining to charge, but any infantry unit which charges is essentially guaranteed to win because it will always roll more dice, with easier success numbers, than the target unit whatever it may be. Charging infantry rolled over guns, skirmishers and other infantry with ease. This was the main problem with the rules as we experienced them.
I liked the simple random elements to create more of a scenario rather than a straight-up battle. The rules also strike me as ideal (or nearly ideal given the charge combat issue) for large club games with a lot of toys on the table. They are simple enough and have a degree of period flavour. I certainly wouldn’t hold them up as suitable for players who like either Crossfire-like levels of tactical challenge or highly realistic historical recreation. I won’t rush out and buy a set, but if Mike organises another game I shall be interested.

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