Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Fight for the Two Hills.Black Powder: A review and game in 1854

The Fight for the Two Hills- Black Powder Battle Report and Review

Over this weekend I had a chance to play my second black powder battle, and first one with my own miniatures. We played a fictious Anglo-Russian action as part of a bigger battle in the Crimean War. The Russian army was a-historically presented by my 1877 Russians, while the British were represented by Napoleonic Wars British. Scale was 10mm. The Scenario was created by me and can be found by clicking on this text (Scenario PDF). It is pretty much a ripoff of the action at the Round Tops during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, during the US civil war. Rules used were Black Powder, with the Crimean Army lists from the main rulebook.

I commanded the Russians and had at my disposal 3 Regiments of 3 Battalions of Regular Infantry each (Each regiment is a Black Powder Brigade), plus 6 units of artillery and a unit of cavalry. Thus 3 forces, plus the brigade commander (overall CnC). The command rate for Russians was 8.
The British forces commanded by Mehmet, were 4 battalions of infantry, 2 units of cavalry, 2 units of rifles, and a gun.  He created two forces plus the overall commander.

An introduction to the rules

Black Powder are a set of abstract war-gaming rules geared towards creating fun games using the military technology roughly from the late 17th century to the early 20th century. They are not built for simulation. Armies are made up of units, which can represent anything you want (from divisions of companies to brigades or divisions), making the rules scalable for battles at different levels of command. The “default” scale is the Battalion scale (in which a unit is a battalion). Units are grouped into brigades, which depending on what a unit represents can represent battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps.

The main characteristics of a unit are its weapons, size, hand to hand capability, shooting capability, morale, and how many hits can they take before they become shaken. Units are made up of a number of miniatures or bases of miniatures depending on what the players decide for the game as the “average” unit. In our game we decided that the average unit is 20 miniatures strong, which made my large battalions 24 miniatures strong. The number of miniatures per unit is really up to your aesthetic views, space availability, and collection size. All you need to make sure is that a) units can be differentiated into tiny, small, average, large, extra large (which affects their characteristics) and that you can represent the formations the units can take (skirmish, line, column, march column, square, mixed formation). Since there is no figure removal for casualties you do not have to worry about that issue. Units also can have special rules, which is the way the designers try to account for the special characteristics of historical troops (for example Zouaves vs. Gardes Moblies from 1871).

While the rulebook contains some army lists for historical wars (and there have been special “war-books”), it is up to the player to sit down and do their research and build lists that do justice to the historical combatants they wish to emulate. While for some players this may be a chore, I found it a great and interesting part of the game, one that forced me to study the eras I wanted to collect. Obviously malicious people can game these special rules to create super units. While a points system is available as an option, my own view is that you must not play with such scum. Better to play solo I say! Alternatively the player with the most interest in history can do the research and create the army lists. This is defiantly a game to play with people who enjoy the game and camaraderie of a hobby, not people who want to win at all costs.

Once you have collected your armies, and agreed on army lists, and once you have created an order of battle with units and forces you are ready to play. Continuing on the theme of hobby not tournament the rulebook is slanted towards gaming scenarios, rather than the usual meeting engagement. Thus having built or adapted a good scenario is key to having fun, though one could just line everything up and blaze away. I have played many such games in my Warhammer 40k years, and they can be fun, though a scenario wets both the passion and the intellect.

The way you get things done is by issuing verbal commands and then rolling against the command rating of your army commander or force commanders to move units or forces according to your commands. The better you roll the more things your units and forces can do (from 1 to 3 moves). Bad rolls can lead your units to not moving at all, and indeed even doing stupid things. Such is the friction of war, and part of the challenge is to adapt to the changing dynamics of war. Having reserves is a very very smart idea in this game. Thus for example let us say you wish the 1st brigade to move close to the enemy and reform to line. You give that order “First Brigade! Advance to the enemy and then redeploy to line!” You roll your command dice and get three successes. This means your Brigade moves twice and then redeploys to line. If you only rolled one success, your brigade would only advance once and would not deploy into line this turn.

Once you have moved all your units you shoot at the foe. Shooting is straightforward roll x number of dice to meet y number, which can be adjusted for things like unit size, terrain etc.  Ranges are different for types of weapons, and this is how weapon techs are differentiated in the rules (though you can also use special rules for that). Every hit you score leads to a saving throw by the target, which again is roll x dice=hit to meet y number (adjustable again). Any unsaved hit brings a unit closer to becoming shaken. Also any 6s on the shooting roll Disrupt the unit (costing it a turn of commands). Any unit that is Shaken (number of hits suffered= Hits it can take , adjusted for unit size) is in danger of becoming Broken and being removed from the game. If a force loses too many of its units it too will break, and that is how armies are defeated.

Hand to hand is similar with the difference that both the attacker and defender roll dice and the side that inflicts the most hits wins the combat. Generally speaking Hand to Hand Combat is much more dangerous to the firefight for units. You enter hand to hand during the movement space by just moving a unit into contact with the enemy unit. There are rules for flanking etc, though Flanking is not as deadly a thing in this game as opposed to DBA for example. Units can also be enfiladed by shooting which is pretty bad for the target. Morale is rolled at the end of the Shooting or Hand to Hand phase as commanded.

Special rules make some units better or worse in some of these three main aspects of the game (Command, Shooting, Hand to Hand).

My view of the rules

Black Powder is a great abstract game. The rules are simple but can give interesting games. The command rules are an elegant way to create friction with little hassle, and while the firing and hth rules could be a bit simpler, they are adequate. Special rules as long as they are used with moderation can make the armies more distinct from each other, and even individualize units. The hard, but also rewarding part is building the army lists, but frankly if you are just playing some of the more popular wars the rulebook scenarios have a good collection of unit profiles (Napoleonic Wars, American War of Ind., Crimean War etc). 

People have attacked Black Powder as a game targeted to players with huge 28mm collections and massive 9x5 foot tables. They are justified in saying this because the designers themselves give a picture that this is the case. This is not the substantive case. I cannot think of a more foolish presentation of a game than the one done by the creators. This is a great multi-scale game. You can play it with 2mm,3mm,6mm,10mm,15mm,20mm,25mm,28mm,32mm,40mm,54mm miniatures or what have you. All you need to do is decide how many miniatures an “average” unit will have, and decide if you are playing in inches or cms. My own 10mm games use all distances as is but with cms instead of inches. This makes the game interesting on a 4x4 foot table.  But to understand that you will have to ignore the chrome.

Speaking of prose the creators dropped the ball badly on this one, at least to my reading. The rules are fine, but everything around them is not. If you do not subscribe to their view of gender rolls in gaming, glorifying attitude towards British Imperialism, and outright dismissal of a huge part of military history because Warlord Games and Perry Miniatures do not produce miniatures for them, you will be cringing a bit. 

Without question a bit of this is irony, but it is hard to know where the irony and the “we really believe this” starts. The book is unquestionably a thing of beauty, and the small inserts with historical anecdotes good fun, but a lot of the text leaves a lot to be desired. Definitely not a rulebook you want to give to a girl, woman, or person who does not think British Imperialism was a fun adventure to get them interested in war-games.But again, the rules themselves are very good fun, and for me at least it washes the bitter taste from some of the non-rule passages.

Well how do they play?

The scenario was one in which a inferior British force must hold two hills so as to anchor the flank of an allied army. The Russians are trying to outflank it and must take the hills.

You can see the British deployment here. 

He deployed one battalion, the artillery and a unit of skirmishers on the small rocky hill, and two battalions in the large forested hill. In the area between the two hills he placed the second skirmisher unit, and a unit of cavalry. The other unit of cavalry was deployed behind the small hill.

As per scenario rules I divided my army into two wings. The left wing which would make an attempt to the small hill was made up of 2 regiments of three battalions each. The left wing began with 2 battalions on the table. Half my artillery would arrive at the end of turn 2, while the other half of the artillery, cavalry and final battalion of the right wing on turn 3.  The Russian payer only had 6 sure rounds for accomplishing the objective.

My plan was simple. Send each wing to a hill and see which one would fall. As per scenario rules the two wings started with some units already hit due to forced marches and clearing the approaches of the hills of enemy units. The second regiment of the left wing was especially hit this way.

Turn 1

I began the game with rolling  commands to have my first units enter the table. All of them did so and the Left Wing advanced towards the hill with both regiments deployed abreast in supported lines of 2 battalions forwards and one behind.

The British player moved one of the regiments on the big hill to the area between the hills and adjusted his line a bit forward.

Turn 2

I give a very ambitious command to first regiment of the Left Wing, ordering units to advance, and reform into mixed formations from the columns they were in. This failed miserably (I got a blunder) as the exhausted troops actually fell back in disarray. The second regiments of the Left Wing focused on rallying some of the badly mauled units. The Right wing advanced to the big hill. At the end of the turn my 3 artillery units arrived limbered.

The British Player opened fire with his skirmishers and artillery, but this was ineffectual.

Turn 3

With time ticking I decided to give simple order: Just get close to them and charge them for gods sake! Hurrraaahhh!!” Both the regiments of the Left Wing advanced towards the hills with bands playing. In the Right Wing my units failed there command roll and got bogged down as the regimental commander deiced to refuse orders and focus on bringing up the artillery t action. At the end of the turn my Calvary, other half of the guns and final battalion of the Right Wing arrived.

The British opened fire and scored some disruptions and hits.

Turn 4

I make a first assault on the small hill with one battalion that is repulsed. I also begin advancing the Right Wing on the big hill. My artillery opens fire with little effect.

The British units on the small hill pour fire into my advancing columns again getting some disruptions and hits in, and a British cavalry unit charges one of my disrupted units in the flank. It loses the fight and must retire. The British pull back their line to the top of the hill.

Turn 5

Another assault is tried on the small hill, but this too is beat back. 3 units concentrate fire on the British cavalry unit stranded between the two wings and destroy it with massed musketry. A battalion on the Right Wing reached the base of the big hill.

The British Battalion now holding the center area between the two hills fires a devastating volley and breaks a shaken Russian unit. On other fronts the British fire is not enough to push back the Russians.

Turn 6

Three Battalions with a ringing HURRRRAAAHHH charge up the small hill crashing into the thin red line. The lone battalion to reach the big hill on the Right Wing also charges forward. My shooting is ineffectual, but my hand to hand glorious. Of the three battalions in the small hill, one is beat back by canister fire, but the other two storm the hill and force the British regiment to vacate it. Alas the attack on the Rocky hill fails.

The British player has a bad turn command wise and is unable to move units to take back the small hill. His fire is also unable to break another Russian unit. He roll a 5 on the d6 for the end of the game, which means the game ends on turn 6.

Final Tally: 1 British Cavalry unit broken, 1 Russian Broken. 1 hill in British hands, 1 hill in Russian hands.
British victory points 5, Russian 7. Minor Russian Victory.

Thoughts: the game was fun and lasted about 2 hours, which was not tiring at all. Friction played havoc with both of us and it was close. Some better shooting by the British or an extra turn, and they may had gotten a draw or victory. There was some need to go back into the rulebook and on some points we made house rule decisions (for example is the retire move of units affected by terrain? Finding the Blunder table).  A better QRS would do away with this need. My take away point is that artillery units should be brigaded in batteries with their own commanders. I do think that the Neil Thomas rules are a bit easier to grasp, but the game was fun and that is what counts.


Alejandro Tabilo said...

My name is Alejandro Tabilo.
I liked very much your review of the rule book Black Powder, and the battle itself.
It would be nice to have the whole scenario in a PDF and also the Army list and formation.

Kind Regards

Konstantinos Travlos said...

Hello Alejandro.

You can find a link to a pdf of the scenario and army lists uploaded on google docs in the text.

Phil said...

Nice report, seems to be a great game!