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.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Ganesha Games releases Drums and Shakos Large Battles

First off, I would like to welcome Chris to the reader list, here and over at Solo Battles. Thanks for commenting on one of the entries over there.

Well, I've been waiting for this one for a long time: Ganesha Games has finally released the English edition of Drums and Shakos Large Battles (DSLB)! And only for a mere $8 as a PDF. So what do you get for your money? A full-color version of the rules (meant for an eBook reader), an ink saver version of the rules, separate front and back cover pages in color, and a Quick Reference Sheet (QRS).
A note on the following review: there are many cases where I gloss over exceptions to the basic rules I am describing. It is not laziness that causes me to do this, but brevity. If you have specific questions, I will answer them (but recommend you go to the forum), but this is not intended to be so in-depth that it discourages you from buying the rules! :^)
In case you have not been following the progress of these rules on the Yahoo forum or the author's blog, DSLB is "designed for Divisional-level battles where each player controls two to three Brigades and a small reserve".

Units are represented by bases of multiple figures, rather than individually based figures. (I am sure you can use movement trays to solve that issue, however.) An infantry unit is a battalion of four bases, cavalry a regiment of two bases, and artillery a battery of 2 bases. The number of figures on a base is irrelevant and the preferred basing is:

  • Infantry bases with a frontage of 1.5:1 to 2:1 to depth.
  • Infantry and cavalry bases with the same frontage.
  • All players using the same basing scheme.
As my wooden Napoleonic soldiers are mounted singly, on 1" bases for infantry and 1.5" bases for cavalry, it looks like my base would be 3" by 1.5" with three infantry figures to a base or two cavalry figures to a base. (Artillery remains a problem as my guns are huge. I will have to figure out how to fix that.) That makes my infantry battalion 12 figures (with two spare figures as skirmishers, which this game uses) and the cavalry regiments four figures (tiny!).
The game requires several markers: disorder 1-4, battery fired, proximity violation, and successful reaction. For measuring sticks they now use: Very Short, Short, Medium, Long, 2 x Medium, and 3 x Long.

As with previous variants with the Song engine, a unit has a Quality and a Combat score (although it indicates that artillery only has Quality). In addition, a unit tracks its Disorder level, which is from 0 to 4. The more you are disordered, the more dice your enemy will roll against you in combat. Further, disorder affects your unit's ability to approach the enemy and to count for victory purposes. An important note: once a unit is disordered (DIS1 or more), it can never rally back to DIS0. Finally, infantry units will have a Skirmish (SK) value, represented as singly based figures.

As with most Napoleonic rules where units equal battalions, the infantry can form in Line, March Column, Attack Column, and Square, cavalry can forms in Line or Column, and artillery can be Limbered or Unlimbered (deployed). Unlike some other rules, you do not have to be behind a unit's front edge to count as being on the flank; if an enemy unit starts wholly outside of a unit's front arc (which is basically straight ahead), it is considered on its flank or rear.

Command span for Leaders has changed from 1L to 2M and is not affected by line of sight. There is now a Commander in Chief, which is a Leader of Leaders (much like the Captain in Sixty-One Sixty-Five) who has a Command span of only 1L, but it allows a Leader within range to re-roll 1 failed activation dice.

The heart of the Song engine is the activation roll and the resulting number of actions. In DSLB the player still chooses to roll one, two, or three dice and compares each die to the unit's (or Leader's) Quality to determine if it is a success or failure. As with other Song rules, two or more failures is significant; however rather than ending your turn, you simply end any more chances of activation for that specific Brigade. What differs from the other rules is that a failure now allows your opponent to try a Reaction.

For each failure in activation, your opponent can throw 1D6 to attempt a reaction by one of their units. There are a number of restrictions to reactions, but suffice it to say that the primary one is that a unit can only successfully react once per turn. Reactions, however, can be performed either before the acting unit's actions, in between its actions, or after all of its actions are completed. What is slick about this reaction system is that this is how cavalry counter-charges, defensive fire against charges, evasions from charges, first volleys, etc. all can occur without complex reaction rules. Granted, it takes a failure on the part of your opponent, and then a success on your part, to pull off, but on paper it seems elegant. (I reserve judgement on whether it works until I get a game in.)

Group orders are handled much differently now. Issuing the group order uses an action by the Leader, as before, but now the activation by the group is made against the Leader's Quality, not the lowest Quality value within the group. This means that a good Leader can lead poor quality troops around rather effectively. Group orders cannot be used, however, to get within Approach (1S) range.

DSLB treats the Reserve specially. First, let me state that it is good to see rules that call out a Reserve and have a definition and a function for them. In DSLB they are essentially a pool of units under the care of the Commander-in-Chief, who doles them out to other Brigades. Units in the Reserve do not move until they are assigned out. Again, I'll have to reserve judgment until I try it to see if this really works. (Remember though, this is a Divisional Reserve and the Commander-in-Chief is the Division Commander, not Napoleon or Wellington!)

Movement in DSLB is handled a little differently than in 61-65. In the latter rules you move a specified distance, but had a limitation on the number of actions that could be used for moves, based on your formation. In DSLB you can move for as many actions as you rolled, but the formation dictates how far that move is. To be honest, I prefer the DSLB way, as it is easier to remember. Basically movement is 1S for infantry in Line and 1M for infantry in column while cavalry is 1L. Movement is within the arc of 45º to the front, anything outside of that causes a reduction of one length (e.g. 1S become 1VS, 1M becomes 1S, etc.). Maneuvers allowed are: move straight, move oblique (up to 45º), move laterally, move backwards, wheel (up to 90º), and about face. Interesting to note that a left/right face maneuver is not indicated, so the Seven Year's War tactic of marching in column then wheeling by company to the left or right by 90º, in order to form a line, is not allowed. Simple matter to add, however, although I suspect they just simply treat it as a change of formation (1 action) with a change of face thrown in. (Although it does not mention being able to change face as part of changing formation.)

There is an interesting rule in DSLB, one in which I would like to ask the author why it was included. The Proximity Rule states that a unit cannot end its movement within 1VS of another friendly unit, unless it is Approaching an enemy. I don't have a problem with the rule, I was just wondering why he chose to add gaps between the units and whether he found there was any effect on play.

Combat is represented in three ways: Bombardment, Approach, and Contact. Bombardment is only allowed to unlimbered artillery, while Approach is the range of volleys (although cavalry does get to fight in Approach). Finally, Contact is very short-ranged firefights, cavalry melees, and even the rare bayonet charge.

Unlike other Song rules, DSLB has you roll a number of Combat Dice (CD). Generally only three of them count, but if you have more, they are not completely wasted. Each side compared its dice, from highest to lowest, to determine how many (and which) wins you achieve. The number of dice you throw is affected type of combat, type of unit, formation of the unit, range (for bombardment), the enemy unit being disordered, and conditions. The nice part is that the modifiers add or subtract dice, not modify the die rolls themselves.

For Bombardment, the battery winning the first (highest) die results in the target being Disordered, but winning the second die results in the target retreating, while winning the third die allows the shot to bounce through and hit a target behind. So, as you can see, the opposed die rolls are more complex than in the general Song engine, which concerns itself with beating (even and odd), doubling, and tripling.

As Approach represents volleying and the morale threat of cavalry. As with Bombardment, Combat Dice are rolled and compared from highest to lowest. The first die can inflict disorder on the loser (to both in a draw), but the second and third die gives the winner of that comparison an action to use. Thus the attacker could have 0, 1, or 2 actions from approach while the defender could also have actions. Generally, these actions can be used to move into contact, change formation, back away from the opponent, and even cancel out one action of your opponent.

Again, it is these actions that help represent counter-charging, forming a hasty square in the face of a cavalry charge, etc. that relieves the author of writing a whole slew of special rules to cover special situations. Forming square is simply a formation change, but if you did not do it in anticipation of a cavalry charge and were caught in line when the charge was launched, you better win one of those actions in the Approach! I like it!

Contact is a consequence of Approach; you must use one of the actions from the Approach combat results to move forward into Contact. Combat in contact is much more decisive (as you might imagine). The first die determines who wins and there are a number of situations in which a loss in Contact means your unit is eliminated. Note: infantry not in square against cavalry is one of those situations. (I need to look closer at the math, because I think that cavalry might be able to break infantry in square a little too easily.)

If cavalry eliminates their enemy after Contact, and another enemy unit is within range, they can take a Breakthrough and move directly into Contact with the second enemy unit. Personally, I have always liked cavalry breakthrough moves, which is why I like Column, Line, and Square, BattleLore, and Command and Colors: Napoleonics so much. (It is the rule that needs to be added to Battle Cry!)

There are rules for Built-Up Areas (towns, etc.), table setup and deployment, grand batteries, worn units, a host of special abilities to represent different units types (Militia, Cuirass, Lance, Impetuous, etc.) and Leaders (Charismatic, Cautious, etc.), some scenarios – both historical and conjectural – rules on making your own force lists, and even an FAQ.

The last item I want to focus on are the rules for winning the battle. The two criteria are: losses and penetration into enemy territory (gaining ground).

Before the game each player calculates their Divisional Break Point (DBP), which is basically 1/2 the number of units. As units are eliminated points are accumulated and once the DBP is reached, the battle is lost. Note that in general each unit is worth one point, but some are worth more, such as Guards, Elites, Heavy Cavalry, Artillery, and Leaders. In addition, which a Brigade is Shaken (has more DIS than units in the Brigade), an additional point towards the DBP is gained.

In addition, penetrating into the enemy's territory (moving units into the enemy's Zone 1, 2, or 3) temporarily creates points towards the DBP. So, for example, a cavalry unit breaking into the rear can have an effect on a Division that might ordinarily hold a little while longer.

If both players reach their DBP in the same phase, penetration into enemy territory is treated as a tie breaker.


So, what do I think of the rules? I will be honest, I have been fooled before by rules that read well, but once you start gaming and the math comes into play, they seem to fall apart. So final judgment will come when I have a chance to play them.

That said, I clearly like the Song engine – although these taken them in new and exciting directions, rather than the tried and true – and these build on that foundation. Ross MacFarlane came up with a method of reviewing rules, so I will give that a try here.

Drama – The mechanism for activating – choosing the number of dice to roll and determining the number of successes – always adds tension for the player. It is lessened a bit by having two failures stop activation within a Brigade and not by the entire side, which is a good thing, but it is still lessened nonetheless. Conversely, tension is increased because additional actions can be converted to Combat Dice. That and not limiting the number of movement actions gives the player more of a reason to push the envelope and roll more dice. I definitely like tying one player's gambling to the opponent (i.e. activation failures give your opponent a chance to react and exploit that failure).

Uncertainty – The Song engine is all about uncertainty, as it adds a number of random factors through the rules (activation, combat, etc.). Uncertainty is increased even more, due to your opponent being able to react during your move and to the way combat is resolved.

Engaging – DSLB engages the players with meaningful decisions. One of the features that I really like about DSLB is that a number of special rules are not required for special situations. A good example is forming square. Many rules simply let the player form square if charged by cavalry (some may require a roll to succeed). In many cases that takes away the incentive for the player to form square during his own turn, in anticipation. In DSLB you could form square, for example:

  • During your own activation.
  • In reaction to an enemy cavalry unit's activation failure.
  • By winning an Approach action.
Forming square at each of those points has its own set of risks. Forming during your turn may cause the enemy to forego the charge and have them send in the infantry, to take advantage of your vulnerable formation. Forming during a reaction requires an enemy failure and a successful Quality check of your own, but at least you now know the cavalry is committing. But doing it then means your firing during Approach will be penalized. Waiting until winning an Approach action is clearly the riskiest proposition and would likely only occur when the infantry is clearly better quality than the cavalry (or if the player is an unrepentant gambler). Knowing when to take the risks, and knowing that the consequences change is what makes these rules so engaging.

Heads Up – This is the ability to easily memorize the rules, even to the point of playing without a QRS. This is the area that will require confirmation by playing it a bit, but my gut feel is that the increased complexity of the combat interactions, especially what modifiers come into play in the three types of combat, will lower these rules' score in this area.

Appropriately Flavored – This too I think I will have to take a pass on, until I get a few games under my belt. Largely it will be determined by the tables in the back of the rules that are used to build and purchase an army. Flavor is provided by adding combinations of Quality, Combat, and Special Rules and applying them to the units, but there is probably going to be a lot of objections from the historical purists about how easy it is to produce an "unrealistic" force.

The use of skirmishers looks simple, but effective, however I noticed there is no provision for skirmisher units, such as the British Rifles in their company-sized penny packets, battalions of Jagers or Legere in their open order, or even Revolutionary-era French units in skirmisher swarms.

Another factor that the Napoleonic purists will not like, as they complain about it with other rules, is the generic size of all units. Specifically people like to see large units (Austrians, British Guards, etc.) modeled, which DSLB does not seem to have an answer to.

Scalable – Ultimately these rules are targeted at a player controlling a Division of about 16 maneuver units. It is probably not difficult for an experienced player to handle more, but I think 24 would be about the limit. Multiple players per side would allow you to play out Corps-sized battles, but then you start running into problems with timing at the Divisional boundaries (i.e. which Division activates first). The typical method is to gloss over this problem and deal with it when the situation comes up, just so the turns keep moving. But it definitely could be a problem with a turn taking a long time, due to a lot of combat, with one Division, leaving all of the other Division commanders sitting around. Of course, that is nothing different than I dealt with when I played Column, Line, and Square.

For me the question becomes one not of scaling these rules from skirmish to Corp-level, but that of scaling the figures used through those levels. Given the flexible basing requirements, if you base your figures singly you can use them for Song of Drums and Shakos, a Napoleonic version of Sixty-One Sixty-Five, and, by using movement trays, with Song of Drums and Shakos Large Battles.

I look forward very much to giving these rules a try. I may have to give them a go using AWI figures for Napoleonics (blasphemous, I know), as I don't have anywhere near enough for a Division per side (yet, but I am working on it), so look for that soon. All in all, two thumbs up, five stars, etc.


  1. Since this review is better than anything I could write, may I reprint it on the next issue of Free Hack? With full copyright credits and links of course,

  2. Yes, of course, but I would like to finish the review first by playing out a game. Maybe I can submit a comprehensive review?

  3. Thanks for the review, I've been waiting for the English version of this set to come out for a while now and I must admit from what I've read from your review I'll definitely be getting a copy. Sounds like the kind of Nap gaming I have in mind and I think for the price they'll offer good value.
    Thanks again for the review.

  4. Super review, I look forwards to seeing battle reports. Thanks for the link to Ross MacFarlane's criteria, very interesting.

  5. Nice review Dale. In our club, we play the Songs skirmish game (in fact it has really taken off at the club). We've been waiting for these to come out to give them a go - I'll share your review around the club - thanks for writing!


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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 58 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ working for a software company for the last three years. 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").