My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Drums and Shakos Large Battles Playtest

As always, let me start off by welcoming new reader TasminP. I hope you enjoy the read.

As I threatened in my blog entry about Drums and Shakos Large Battles (DSLB) being released, I am wary to completely grade a set of rules on just a reading; so many times I have found what looks good on paper does not always work on the tabletop. I have equally found that subtleties in a rule missed in reading suddenly dawn on you when you get whacked with their significance during a critical moment. I can start by saying that there were no negatives for me, but more than a few whacks on the fanny during the game.

The Scenario

I decided to play the Battle of Eckau (18 or 19 July, 1812 depending upon the source), which is about 6,500 men versus 5,500 men – just the right size to try out the rules. George Nafzinger has a write-up of the battle in his book Napoleon's Invasion of Russia and there is an excellent map on a Latvian re-enactment web site. I also used Digby Smith's The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book for the order of battle.

First off, this is an unusual Napoleonic scenario in that it is Prussians attacking the Russians in what is modern-day Latvia (southwest of Riga). The Prussians (and Austrians) were part of Napoleon's Grande Armee in 1812 and were on the northern attack route. What is interesting is that there were several engagements and they did inflict casualties on one another. So, why did I choose this? To be honest it was that my French are way too far from being re-based, but my Austrians, Russians, and Prussians were not, so I dug through Digby and up came a battle just the right size. Historically the Prussians won, but the number of casualties was roughly the same (depending on the source) and relatively low.

Let's start with the map (click to zoom). As you can see, the Prussians (in blue) are attacking from both the southwest and the northeast, with the Russians (in green) in the central position and eventually retreating northward. (By the way, if you want to look at this area in Google Earth – and see how little it has changed – search for Iecava, Latvia, which is its modern name.)

According to the map, the river (creek?) is sunken and the ground slopes upwards away from it.

In translating this map to the tabletop I counted the water as difficult to cross – Nafzinger's description does not mention any particular problems with the Prussians crossing nor with being forced to assault across the bridge. The "town" (built-up area in DSLB) is on the Russian's left flank and includes a prominently large building (a school, I believe). Other prominent features include a hill to the Russian rear and a small knoll by the bridge.

The Forces

Prussian

Unit
No.
Q
C
Sk
Special
Notes
Musketeers
4
4
4
2
Drilled
Jagers add 1 to Sk
Fusilier
2
4
4
2
Light
-
Jagers
1
-
-
-
-
Jagers added to Musketeers
Dragoons
2
3
4
-
-
-1 to C for small size
Hussars
2
4
3
-
Élan, Scout
-1 to C for small size
Horse Artillery
2
4
-
-
Light, Horse Artillery
-
Light Artillery
1
4
-
-
Light
-
Medium Artillery
1
4
-
-
Medium
-

The 1st Brigade was composed of the four Musketeer battalions and the Jagers (deployed as skirmishers). The Jager deployment was not historical – it was actually in the woods in the northeast corner – but the map shows a 1/2 Fusilier battalion that is not in Smith's OOB. That combined with the fact that I had not completed painting the Jagers convinced me to deploy them out!

The 2nd Brigade was composed of the two Fusilier battalions, the two Hussar regiments, and the two Horse Artillery batteries. Note that the Hussars are small regiments, two squadrons each, so they are penalized -1 C, as indicated in the rules (page 34).

The Reserve is composed of the two Dragoon regiments, the Light Foot Artillery, and the Medium Foot Artillery. As with the Hussars, the Dragoon regiments are penalized -1 C as they are two squadron regiments.

Given the size of the forces involved, the Prussian certainly seem to possess a lot of artillery, even if it is mostly light.

I intentionally chose to give the Prussians two small Dragoon and two small Hussar regiments, rather than combining both and making two standard sized regiments, as I wanted to see the effect of more but weaker units versus fewer but stronger ones.

Russian

Unit
No.
Q
C
Sk
Special
Notes
Musketeers
4
4
4
0
Drilled
-
Jagers
1
4
4
1
Light
-
Militia
3
5
3
0
Militia
-
Dragoons
1
3
5
-
-
-
Uhlans
1
4
4
-
Lance
-
Cossacks
1
?
5
-
Lance, Light, Opportunistic, Scout, Unpredictable, Wavering
+1 to C for large size
Heavy Artillery
2
4
-
-
Heavy
-

The Russian 1st Brigade consisted of one Heavy Artillery battery (on the knoll), three Militia battalions, and one Dragoon regiment. This mixture of militia infantry and cavalry is unusual and was only done because of the positions shown on the map. (I now realize that the unit positions may not reflect starting positions, but some unknown point within the battle, which may account for reserves being committed and Brigades intermingling.)

The Russian 2nd Brigade consisted of the Russian jager battalion and three Russian musketeer battalions. The Jagers and one Musketeer battalion are isolated from the rest of the Brigade as they are stationed in Eckau and the school.

The Reserve consisted of one Heavy Artillery battery, one musketeer battalion, the Uhlan regiment, and the Cossack pulk (regiment). Note that at 500 men, the Cossacks are a large unit, so they have an unusually high C. I made them Unpredictable, as the author suggests, rather than giving them a Q of 5. I added a few other special rules – Scout, Opportunistic, and Wavering – as I felt they fit. Opportunistic would offset a Q of 5, but seems deadly with Unpredictable, which I do not think fits. Wavering properly reflects their reluctance to Approach on the battlefield.

Deployment

Deployment was as indicated on the original map, save that the Prussian Jagers were dispersed amongst the Musketeer battalions, as previously noted, and the Prussian Reserve was allowed to choose whether to appear behind the 1st or 2nd Prussian Brigades. My opponent, Don, chose to put them behind the 1st Brigade, in the southwest corner of the board.

The Russian deployment is a bit muddled on the original map. The 1st Brigade was deployed forward and towards the southwest while the 2nd Brigade covered Eckau and the east. The Reserve was to the north and quite some way behind the lines.

Here is how the original map translated to the OOB I used from Smith.



The Battle

As the Prussians were the attackers historically, and they actually surprised the Russians to some extent,  so they moved first.

The Prussian Fusiliers attacked into the town of Eckau and drove out the Jagers from the first BUA sector with some hot die rolling (and a misinterpretation of the rules on my part). The horse artillery unlimbered are started bombarding Eckau from long range with little effect.
This was largely due to my having mis-/not completely read the rules on Built-Up Areas, so the Jagers yielded the town much too easily.
On the opposing flank the Prussian attack immediately stalled when the Russian heavy battery opened fire. One Prussian battalion took heavy fire as did the limbered reserve artillery behind it.
The Russians were able to bombard in reaction and then immediately reload and bombard in their turn. The dice for the Prussians did not help either. The battalion quickly accumulated DIS and with bounce-throughs and the retreating infantry, one battery to the rear accumulated DIS2.

The Russians, in turn, were able to move the Uhlans up from reserve while advancing their 2nd Brigade towards the bombarding horse artillery batteries.

One quickly finds out just how far cavalry can charge if the get a good roll. One Russian musketeer battalion had been sneaking up on a horse artillery battery (with a successful reaction roll) when the Prussian Hussars charged and rolled over the infantry, caught in attack column.
DSLB, like Command and Colors: Napoleonics, is pretty unforgiving of infantry caught in the open in line or column by cavalry. They stand a chance (less so in attack column), but the odds are against them, even if they have taken no DIS.
With a battalion of regulars quickly lost, the Russian left flank enters square in the face of two Hussar regiments. Unfortunately, this is also in the face of two horse artillery batteries (though at long range). In the 1st Brigade, the Dragoons move to try an flank the Fusiliers moving to secure Eckau, but it is too late, the Prussian Fusiliers chase down the Russian Jagers and drive them off at the point of a bayonet. The Jagers rout.


Suddenly, with a roar the Prussian infantry pushes up the hill and attacks the unloaded Russian battery on the knoll. With little effort they overrun the Russian position, ending up with their right flank behind the Russian Dragoon regiment. The Russians quickly react and turn their unit around, ready to charge the Prussians in the flank ... but somehow the Russians cannot muster the courage.
This is one of those "oh boy" moments when you have a great move and the dice just will not co-operate. The Dragoons, with a Quality of 3, and within Command Span of their Leader, need only a 2 or better to activate. I grab three dice and roll ... three 1's! The Dragoons and the whole Brigade stands frozen.
On the left flank the Russians realize that if they do not remove the cavalry threat their squares will get torn apart by the horse artillery. The Uhlans charge the first Hussar regiment and ride it down. In their breakthrough they charge the closest horse artillery battery, but are told off by canister.
Technically, a cavalry breakthrough puts the cavalry unit directly into Contact, bypassing the Approach, but my dice failed me and not my opponent's so it sounds better that I was told off by canister than to admit that my troopers were beaten by ramrod-wielding men!

As the Uhlans were recalled in great disorder, the Cossacks were finally committed to that flank in order to stop the remaining Hussar regiment from wreaking any havoc on the infantry. At this point the Russian 2nd Brigade is shaken. I only have a single heavy artillery battery in reserve now.

The Prussian advance at the bridge continues, with the Dragoons leading. The Russian Dragoons finally receive their orders and charge the still-exposed flank of the line infantry on the knoll, destroying them. The Russian Dragoons are then recalled to a position behind the knoll just as the Prussian artillery starts to site the position for fire.


The Prussian Dragoons stall at the river (they cannot use the bridge as they are deployed in line) while their artillery limber up and move towards the bridge. The Russians know that if the Prussians get past the bridge the position will be lost. The Brigadier orders the Russian Dragoons to charge, and save the command.

The combat between the Dragoon regiments is hardly a contest as the Russians have the upslope and the Prussians are caught in the water and a smaller regiment. The Russians cut through the Prussian Dragoons, routing them, then breakthrough into the limbered artillery on the road directly behind them, also destroying them. However, the Russians are recalled in great disorder, which confuses the Russian militia into thinking that the Dragoons are routing and a general panic ensues. The entire Russian line retreats, ending the battle.
Note that a recall cannot caused a rout, this is just literary license. What happened was that I had pushed the Dragoons into one combat too many and they were recalled with DIS3 on them, which tipped the Brigade over the edge and caused it to be Shaken, which tipped the Division over the edge and caused it to reach its Breakpoint. I lost because I won. How ironic!

Summary of the Game

I really enjoyed the game even though it felt a bit slow at first. I attribute that to our not being used to the rules, the unusual setup (surrounded on two sides, split commands versus interior lines, etc.), and to getting used to the Reaction rule.

Let's start with that rule. Essentially, in Ganesha Games designs the player gambles by deciding whether to use 1, 2, or 3 dice to activate, then rolling them against a target number to count successes and failures. In other designs, the number of failures is significant only if you roll two or more; in DSLB every failure is significant in that the opponent gets to roll a number of dice equal to the failures to see if he can activate to react to the opportunity of your failure. (Two or more failures also represents a turnover by that Brigade.)

This "reaction to the opportunity of your failure" is abstract, however. The unit testing to react does not have to have any relation to the unit failing. For example, it does not need to be the unit or Brigade acted against, within a certain of the failing unit, or even within line of sight. It is not even restricted to reacting to the unit that failed. Simply put, the acting player gambled and lost, and the reacting player can take some action in consequence. It is a simple extension of the risk versus reward decision that the player has to make every turn for every unit acting.

The reason this rule is significant is because it makes game play very fluid. Most activations, unless lucky or using few dice, fail at least once, giving your opponent something to do (if only to pick a unit and roll). This made it feel much less like an IGO-UGO game. As I stated in my initial rules review, a reaction die might allow a player to form a hasty square in the face of a cavalry charge or allow the defender to launch a counter-charge to block a charge against a particularly vulnerable unit. In short, it relieves the author from writing a score of special case rules (like forming emergency squares, counter-charging, closing fire on a charge, charge evasion, etc.) by providing one simple elegant solution.

All that said, my opponent definitely did not like the rule, at least not the aspect of the reaction could be taken by any unit anywhere. In correspondence with the author, he indicated that some of his "old school" gamers initially objected to the rule too, but eventually saw the utility of the rule and accepted it.

Final Analysis

Naturally, with any new rules you need to get used to them. The second game will generally always be better than the first as you will in all likelihood play the rules more consistently as you correct your mistakes. This was the Heads Up rating given in the initial review.

So, to review my review let's go down the points I raised and the final ratings.

I've discussed the reaction rules above and I think my initial assessment was correct in that this solves more problems than it creates. It saves the author from writing, and the player from remembering, a rash of special rules to deal with the problems of a traditional IGO-UGO turn sequence. The Lasalle rules addressed this by turning the traditional Move-Fire-Melee turn sequence on its ear; DSLB shows that there is another, more elegant method. (Now all I have to do is convince my opponent of the superiority of it without diluting its effectiveness too much by adding house rules limiting its use.)

Movement is an area where the players must be scrupulous in execution, otherwise the game is thrown off. Oblique moves maintain facing, wheels only turn the front and have no straight movement, and pivots simply change the direction faced. If you move 'sloppy' like the free movement with a DBA element, you essentially blur the distinction between a line and a column, thus giving the line a tremendous advantage. This is especially true of the Approach and Contact moves; these must be straight ahead only, so if a unit is not pointed 'dead on' you must burn an action pivoting or wheeling to line up correctly. This can make the difference between a successful charge or not, but can also often negate the cavalry's ability to overrun skirmishers (which must be done in the first action).

So there you have it. In actual game play, it rarely came up, except when a unit is forced to retreat through another unit (it usually cannot clear the unit and 2VS in one retreat move).

Combat - Bombardment, Approach, and Contact - went very smoothly. Once you understand the basics, and the number of Combat Dice to throw, you really don't need the reference charts. The number of modifiers are few and are easy to remember. That said, I still had not gotten the hang of what winning the first, second, or third die meant by the end of the game. Probably in another game I will. What makes for some issues are the special cases: Cavalry automatically takes a DIS after contact if it did not acquire one during combat, who retreats how much, infantry takes the position on winning but cavalry does not, etc. Eventually it will become second-nature, so let's just call this a learning curve. Not at all steep, but one nonetheless.

Design Choices

I noted in the initial review that I wanted to discuss the Proximity Rule with the author, and here is what he wrote:
I made some design choices, to reflect what I consider to be a "wrong" way to play, and is allowed by all rules out there. The Proximity rule is about this. All players I know - when they attack or defend - cram every single square inch of the table with units, so that sometimes you cannot tell one unit from another. I've seen people overlapping one base with another in order to fit both in the same space. That is not what happened on the battlefields. If you want (as I wanted) to avoid this you have no other way than to write an easy rule that plainly says that players can't do that. That's what I did. By the way, many Italian players who have played the game told me that the table looks "more realistic" and "orderly" with this rule. In all, they say it's more "Napoleonic".
In other correspondence with the author he shared some of his design choices with me, which might help you determine if DSLB has the right historical flavor for you.

Attack Columns – it is the author's opinion that the proper method of attack should be using the attack column for speed, switch to line and then approach to weaken the opponent, before going in with the bayonet. If the opponent is sufficiently disordered, the attack column formation can be maintained, allowing them to keep their momentum for a minimum number of actions used.

The French predilection for close combat is modeled with the Determined special rule, which allows a re-roll of a die during Approach. This is not restricted to a particular formation.

Cavalry versus Infantry (Not in Square) – Put simply, the author believes that cavalry, especially battle cavalry (dragoons and heavy cavalry), should be greatly feared and that infantry – even those units that are fresh, in line, and facing the charge – should get into square or face destruction. The math is such that only an exceptionally lucky infantry unit can stand in line in face of a battle cavalry charge; all others will be destroyed.

As I reflect upon other rules, most recently Command and Colors: Napoleonics (CCN), this is also generally the result, so it is not an unusual perception. Perhaps what struck me is that: 1) the odds are greatly in favor of the cavalry in DSLB while it is less so in CCN; and 2) the potential distance that a cavalry unit can charge from 3L plus 1S or 62 cm, where an "average" move might be 12 cm. That is a charge five times the distance of an infantry move in column. (Please note that 62 cm is an exceptional roll, but I was caught by the equivalent of a 44 cm charge, as was my opponent.)

So, I need to add a new factor in rating rules: Fiddly Geometry. This is a rating where small measurements or angles play a role in whether some action succeeds or not. A game like Pirates of the Spanish Main rates Very High; DSLB rates Above Average. Why? Whether a charge is lined up perfectly to 'clip' a unit or an artillery unit is lined up to bombard can be by a few degrees simply because there is no 'arc'; it is straight ahead or nothing.

This is why I say that playing with 'sloppy' movement actually hurts the game. As it is relatively easy to roll two successes with heavy cavalry, burning one action to pivot and 'line up the charge' means a difference of 18 cm that the unit has to use for charging.

By the way, one other comment my opponent made was: "this might be a good game to convert to hexes." That would certainly solve all of the the Fiddly Geometry issues.

Final Grade

So, how do I rate DSLB overall? Easily four out of five stars for me, as I like the level of tactical decision making that the player is presented with, which have definite risks and rewards; no decision is without tangible consequences. The sole detraction was the Fiddly Geometry rating, which has always been the bane of my gaming. I think the fiddly nature of bombardments can easily be solved: allow a battery to pivot up to 45º when performing a Bombardment action.

As for stopping the long range cavalry charges, well, I think you just have to be a stickler with those angles. Having to burn one extra action to line up makes a world of difference. The best solution – one that will lead to the fewest arguments – is what is always recommended for Flames of War games: declare your intentions. If you intend to be lined up with a unit at the end of your move, declare it as such and ask your opponent to verify. If the enemy unit does not move during its turn, gently remind your opponent that you were lined up as you roll three successes with your Cuirassiers!

Will I game with DSLB again? Absolutely. (In fact, I know I am going to be playing this very scenario over again, as it seems like an interesting one, and one that would play differently now that I am used to some of the rules and their impact on tactics.) Given the options available, it is not a game easily taught to new players. You will probably have to figure a way to ease players into it. The rules complexity is on the lower side of Intermediate. The real draw is the uncertainty and excitement generated from activations and reactions. It takes the standard Song engine to a whole new level of decision making.

And that is a Good Thing.

5 comments:

Alex K said...

Great review and along with your read-through a few days ago a real service to gamers intrigued by this ruleset. I know I'll be buying a copy on the strength of it.

John said...

Hi Dale,

There is a subtlety of the reaction system that you did not mention. Consider a 2 brigade fight per side. I take my brigade 1 and start attacking, invariably getting a few missed rolls. Now, you could react with any unit but it behooves you, in this situation, to react with a unit where I am attacking. The reason is that if you react on the other side of the field, when I do attack with my 2nd brigade, you will have less to react with in opposition to that attack. With that in mind, with brigade 2, you will probably have reacted with most of your units in your brigade one so naturally you will be mostly reacting with your brigade 2 units. It is important to remember that a unit may attempt to react multiple times per turn but can only successfully react once! Great report!

Dale said...

Great comment John, and you are correct in that you tend to react where the action is, not off on some other area.

My opponent, once our Brigades were heavily engaged, ended up with reaction dice that he could not use because his units and Leaders had already successfully reacted earlier. Only happened once though.

Archduke Piccolo said...

I'm very interested in that reaction rule. Like you, I set a fair bit of store by player interaction (having seen how they could work in the abortive 'Operation overlord' rule set.

I do wonder though, whether a unit's reaction ought to be in respect of the enemy that triggered that reaction. Too restictive or prescriptive do you think? Or worth a look?

Cheers,
Ion A Dowman (Archduke Piccolo)

Dale said...

I think you have to give it a try. In the early stages of the game, you might react in other sectors, but at some point you can no longer ignore what is going on right in front of you; you will have to react to the acting unit.

That said, my opponent thought that acting anywhere was too permissive. I was thinking about restricting it to the local Brigade, to make him happy. I still want to test with the Rules As Written before making any changes to the core mechanics.

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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 50 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ (although I have a townhouse in Houston, TX and a small home in Tucson, AZ) working on a contract for "the next two years" that is going on five years now. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").