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.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

More Reflections on Neil Thomas and a Black Powder Game

For complex rules tend to suffer from conceptual flaws. The chief of these is what can be referred to as 'double jeopardy', or to be specific, accounting twice for a contingency that should only be considered once. For example, units which are behind cover frequently enjoy a morale bonus in complex rulesets: however, this fails to account for the fact that the role of cover has already been accounted for, given that the unit within would suffer fewer casualties than its more exposed comrades. If the unit behind cover is still suffering sufficient casualties to endure a morale test, then it is clear that the cover is no longer doing its job – and should not therefore confer any morale bonus. Similarly, there is no reason to give special fighting abilities to elite units and penalties for unenthusiastic levies; these should have already been accounted for in the morale rules, which allow quality troops to carry on fighting for longer than a barely trained rabble (and inevitably inflicting more damage in the process).
– Neil Thomas, "Wargaming Nineteenth Century Europe: 1815-1878"

The above was probably the most profound design concept I had read from Neil Thomas and upon reflecting upon it, could find numerous examples in rules that I had been playing for years. In that paragraph he highlights two, but I have seen plenty of others:

  • Cover: providing a negative modifier to being hit (a smaller area of the target is exposed), while also providing a bonus to saving from the hit. If the positive to the save represents the chance of the shot striking cover, why would you reduce the chance to hit when you have already accounted for the chance a shot will hit cover?
  • Concealment: again, providing a negative modifier to being hit, while also providing a bonus to saving from the hit. Some rules blur the lines between cover and concealment. In this case the shot should be harder as you are aiming at a target with less exposure (granting a negative modifier), but because the shot may still strike an unexposed location, no save should be granted.
  • Elites and Movement: using a command and control system that confers a greater chance for an elite unit to move than less trained ones while also granting elite units longer moves or faster formation changes than less trained units. The first rules grants more opportunities to maneuver in the first place, so granting bonuses when they do maneuver is applying the bonus twice.
Now some of you may be thinking about a special case, such as trying to fire through the slit of a castle and strike an enemy archer, or some such. Why shouldn't you get a huge negative to hit because you are trying to place an arrow through such a small space? In the end, it doesn't really matter whether you apply a negative to the hit or a positive to the save, the point is not to apply it twice.

How many 'double jeopardy' rules can you find in your current favorite set.

All this came to mind because I had already been thinking about Neil Thomas' game design principles when I got a chance to participate in an American Civil War game using the Black Powder rules. Black Powder can be fun, but boy is it the King of Double Jeopardy Rules!

Gettysburg, Day 1 – The Destruction of 1st Division, I Corps

This happened to be Scenario 5 from the Black Powder ACW supplement, Hallelujah! It represents the start of the Battle of Gettysburg where the Union is trying to stop the advance of Heth's Division, but after the initial skirmish with Buford's cavalry.

Here are the initial dispositions, and a high-level view of the terrain.

We were deployed along the short edge of an 8' long by 5' wide board. The smaller square represent 1/2 a Brigade, while the larger squares are full Brigades. The Confederates have two infantry Brigades on the board at the start, along with an artillery Battalion (four batteries of four guns) while the Union had two, one of which was the Iron Brigade (and its crap-ton of special rules). The Confederates would get two additional infantry Brigades, but they would not move on until turn 2.

The victory conditions were that the Union had to break three Brigades (50%) while the Confederates only had to break two (100%) ... in seven turns. Six feet of board to cross, check. Half of the Union is Elite, check. Half of the Confederate forces don't come on at the start and when they do come on, they are on the baseline, check. There is really only enough room to deploy three Brigades across the board, so that 2-1 numeric superiority is really more like 3-2. And the Confederates are not Elite. Check! (Oh, by the way, if you have not figured it out already, I was playing Confederates!)

From a terrain perspective there was a lot more than is shown here. Key points are that the road (brown rectangle) is lined on both sides with sawtooth fences. So there is a double obstacle to movement for traversing laterally across the board and shooting across is penalized. Both the wheat field (left yellow rectangle) and the corn field (right yellow rectangle) were surrounded by stone walls, so again a double obstacle to movement and penalty to shooting, plus a cover save! The ridge line and the infamous "cuts" along the railroad tracks (gray rectangle) played no part in the game so don't warrant mention of all of their special rules. Overall, the field had an very "American" feel. It was cluttered with obstacles to armies and we felt pain for every inch traversed.

There were two special rules that came into significant play: "The Charge" and "Fire Fights".

The Charge is a rule that essentially says that units are at a -2 to Command if they are ordered to charge an enemy unit and your unit is in their frontal arc. Basically it is a rule to discourage charges and hand-to-hand combat. One person attempted to charge during the game and it resulted in a failure. Perhaps if the rule applied the -2 for determining success, but a failure did not occur if you still rolled your unmodified  Command value. In essence the failure to charge meant your Brigade was not getting any more orders from that Commander, so you weren't just gambling with that unit moving; you were gambling with your Brigade's remaining orders.

The Fire Fights rule I liked, but it favors the defender, especially one performing a fighting withdrawal as we were doing here. The rule states that if your unit performs two or three orders you cannot fire that turn. Only units performing no or one order can fire. This rule especially hurt the Brigades coming on the board from the baseline (one of which was mine), as you had to make up for lost ground, so you needed as many movement orders as possible, so you were unlikely to be able to fire. In fact, I did not get to fire until turn six and was unable to fire on turn seven.

The Union commander actually made a blunder (no, not the Black Powder kind) by advancing 1/2 of his lesser Brigade (i.e. not the Iron Brigade) into the center where a fire trap formed. Four units from the on-board Brigades, plus the artillery were able to focus fire on the skirmishers, driving them off of the board on turn one. Further, fire from turn two badly hurt the next unit behind, as the Union commander was scrambling to pull his units back out of the trap. A blunder (the Black Powder kind) by a head strong Confederate commander saved him from early destruction, as the infantry on the left pulled back two moves. (Green arrows are moves, red arrows are musketry fire, and yellow arrows are retreats.)

The Union Brigade had incredibly bad luck as only one unit was able to force its way through the woods, while the remainder were bottled up behind the woods.

Eventually the Confederates were able to force the Union back, but without destroying a Brigade. They were never able to fully deploy and use their superior numbers to effect. The turn limit had come up just as the Confederates were starting to drive a wedge between the two halves of the crippled Brigade on their right. The Union Brigade was essentially unscratched. The game was declared a draw despite the Confederate performance being better than what happened historically.

So, where did the Confederates fail? I hang my head in shame as I have to admit: it was my fault. I had Pettigrew's Brigade and it was the largest and potentially the strongest of the Confederate Brigades. It had the highest Command rating (9) and it had a special rule that gave it a greater chance to charge the enemy (-1 instead of -2, so charging on a modified 8 or less). I started moving on the board in line formation, rather than columns, thus denying me the +1 to Command for orders. On two occasions I rolled an '8', which if I had been in column would have granted me two moves rather than one. That extra 24" of movement over the space of turn two and four would have put me into play on turn five with the full brigade, rather than just getting into play on the last turn. Without being able to achieve local firepower superiority in the center, we never cracked open the nut so we could flank the Union Brigade. Without being able to dig them out of their corner, we stood no chance of winning the scenario as we needed to break 100% of the Union command.

My only other regret is that all of my pictures turned out horrible. They were good enough to refresh my memory on unit positions at various turns, but not good enough to post. Also, I forgot to take close-ups of the figures. They were 28mm Perry plastics and very well based. The terrain was professionally made. [sigh]

Final Thoughts

Don't get me wrong, the griping I am about to unleash is in no way indicative of me not having a good time. My friend brought Jonny Cakes and ham and bean soup for period refreshments, there were no arguments, and the conversation was interesting and fun. That said, Black Powder takes a special kind of person to like the rules.

There are special, sometimes unit-specific rules out the kazoo! Each unit has its own profile, which can be quite different from every other unit you have. Line infantry is not line infantry. Some of those stats are pretty basic too, like whether you roll 3 or 4 dice for shooting, whether you save on a 3+ or a 4+, whether you take three hits or four before a break test, etc. These are modifiers of core rule mechanics.

Then there are the 'double jeopardy' rules, the most egregious of which is that cover provide a penalty to be hit and a benefit to morale, and that Elite units hit harder in addition to lasting longer in combat, allowing them to hit harder still over the course of the battle. The very quote from Neil Thomas that I started this post with is the cornerstone of the Black Powder rules.

Is it bad enough to drive me away? Not at all. I have vowed to never again let the desire to win get in the way of spending a pleasant afternoon with other people pushing pretty lead (or plastic) around on a nicely dressed table having interesting conversations about how the rules suck and the scenario is stacked against us! If Black Powder is what people are playing, count me in. Doesn't mean I am going to get caught up in the next Flavor of the Month – I have had enough of the Warhammer 40K, Warmachine, Flames of War, etc. treadmill – but it does mean that I will play and enjoy these types of games when I cannot convince others to try something I might find a bit more reasonable. And when they aren't gaming, I can always game solo with my strange, off-brand, low commercial titles.


  1. Great posting Dale. First, I really enjoyed your post by NT on having redundant rules that reward (or penalize) twice, for essentially the same thing.

    Having said that, I do understand that the rules of a game, as a model of combat, are trying to represent a crazily complex and unbounded problem space - and maybe while bonuses to saving throws for cover help a unit take less hits, the bonus to morale makes sense because it also applies in situations that don't have anything to do with taking hits (like seeing friends rout, or similar).

    But, now I am going to play devil's advocate, although I can see a situation where both rules make sense together, I am always on the look out for reducing such redundancies in the rules I write. Years ago, I was play-testing a set of renaissance rules I had written called Kriegsherren. In combat, there was a modifier to the combat factor of the attacker for the difference in morale between him and the defender. There was also a modifier to the combat factor of the defender for the difference in morale between him and the attacker. So, the morale difference was applied TWICE to factors that would be used in the same calculation - number of casualties scored. During a playtest situation, one of my players pointed that out. Wow. It effectively doubled the effect I had intended for Morale to play on melee, since it happened twice in the same calculation. I removed the modifier to the Defender's factor, and only counted it for the Attacker, and it returned to a more normal sized effect on the calculus.

    Having said all that - I agree with your closing comments on Black Powder. Even when the rules are meh! the game session can still be a lot of fun.

  2. If there is a Pantheon of rule writers then NT is there amongst his peers. It seems though that he always wears a cloak of invisibility!


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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").