Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Wagenburg Syndrome (an useless rant)

I’ve always been a rules junkie. Some 35 years ago, I used to buy those giant Games Workshop boxed sets like Space Marine, Blood Bowl or Space Hulk together with two buddies. Usually the box contained two basic teams/squads/armies/whatever, maybe some scenery, and the rulebook. My friends invariably wanted to get the minis, and I always obliged – because to their astonishment, I wanted to keep the rule booklet. I still have several of those. Decades later, I still enjoy studying a new set of rules nearly as much as bringing an old favourite to the table. I seem to go in phases: I obsess over a specific era/scale for a few months, then shift my attention to something else. Free or commercial, professional or indie, digital or paper – it makes no difference. I just like absorbing the mechanisms and fantasizing about which specific historical engagement would be best served by which ruleset.

Right now, I’m reading (and re-reading) lots of ancient battles rules. Dozens of them. And I’m being painfully reminded of one fact: ancient rulesets are the absolute worst of them all to read. There’s always something painfully convolute in either the prose, the presentation, or both. My hypothesis is that decades of exposition to the famously dense DBX jargon subliminally created in ancient players’/designers’ minds an expectation that brevity and clarity are pollice verso.

But there’s a specific trend in ancient rulesets that is so pervasive and blatant, it makes me cringe every time. I call it the Wagenburg Syndrome. Look, ancient battles were not that complex if compared to, say, WW2 engagements at any scale. On the other hand, if one considers the entirety of pre-gunpowder warfare (and 99% of the rulesets aim to simulate all of it, of course – how many times did you read ‘3000BC-1500AD’ somewhere in the subtitle?) you can quickly come up with a lot of pretty weird ways in which our ancestors tried to kill each other.

This is what happens when you ask an A.I. to come up with a pencil drawing of elephants, war wagons and ancient artillery

Ballistae. Elephants from different continents. Chariots (many, many types of chariots). Flaming pigs. Rolling logs. Plaustrellae and Carrocci. Rockets. Experimental phalanxes, pavisiers, sparabara. Manipular legions. Camels. Cantabrian circles. Skirmishers. Feigned charges. And of course, the worst of them all – the titular War Wagons. All of these share a common characteristic – they are probably quite different from almost any other unit in the game (unless you’re a weirdo and play an Hussite army). They need rules to move differently, to fight differently, to shoot differently, perhaps they even have different bases/unit sizes with respect to every other unit in the game. Rules, rules, rules. As I said, I like rules – but when, like, 50% of the word count is devoted to something I’ll use perhaps 5% of the times something starts to feel strange. But it’s worse than that – almost all ancient rulesets just put the rules for those exceptional units right into the basic stuff, the first time they expose it.

Just imagine a WW2 game trying to do the same. “OK, an infantry squad moves so and so, but tanks move in this other way, and towed guns like this, unless in a minefield, oh and then there’s air support, and wheeled vehicles off-road unless if there’s mud and…” Now, most WW2 game designers are sensible and just split the rules into individual sections. Why on earth cannot ancient rulesets do the same? The same approach usually extends to play aids/reference tables. Modifiers you’ll need once in a blue moon like cavalry against camels, Indian vs African elephants, light cavalry against war wagons, hoplites at first contact with hoplites unless during a month sacred to Athena, etc etc are often maliciously mixed with modifiers you’ll apply in each and every game like, I dunno, ‘contacted in the flank’. Why? Why? [Phil Sabin’s otherwise spectacular ‘Lost Battles’ is a particularly nasty offender in this respect].

...and another A.I.'s take on the same.

Now, there are praiseworthy exceptions to this trend. I must cite Fame and Glory's Games "A Game of Knights and Knaves" as a spectacular example – a game that explains DBX-like basics covering 90% of the situations in two digest sized pages, then introduces extra rules as self-contained ‘plugins’. Washington Grand Company’s “Triumph!” takes a similar route with its ‘battle cards’. Even though not entirely free of the Wagenburg Syndrome, Battle Array deserves a special mention in that it introduces rules in discrete chunks interspersed with no less than 14 learning scenarios. Bravo!

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Bloody Big Battles: Langensalza hex map

I have a confession to make – when I started this blog, I envisioned it basically as an after action report log, with the occasional intermission being represented by reviews and home rules. However, I quickly realized that producing readable battle reports is something I basically loathe. First, it’s just a ton of work – I understand it must be fun for the fine people whose blogs I enjoy reading, but to me it just feels like work, and I prefer using my precious gaming time for something else. Second, you have no guarantee that when you actually sit down to take notes and photos of a game, it will produce a remotely interesting course/outcome, and there is a very real chance of starting from scrap again and again. Third, and perhaps most important, the whole level of extra attention needed to remember taking photos, being able to trace back the history of units moving and taking hits (or whatever the rules call for) at each point in the game, etc etc just ruins my enjoyment of the game ‘in the moment’.

On the other hand, I feel that some of the content I keep producing for my ultra-compact, highly utilitarian games might prove useful to fellow wargames “with limited time and space”, as Mr. Thomas puts it. I have tons of maps, unit labels, etc etc in my hard drive that I’ve never shared with anyone, because they were originally intended to be premièred as part of hypothetical after action reports that will probably never be. So I decided that from now on I’ll just share the tools I put together to play a game (or series of games), glossing over the outcome of my actual replays only briefly, if at all.

I’ll start with Bloody Big Battles [link], a game you really should try sooner or later if you’re remotely interested in 19th century warfare. One of the most recommended novice scenarios is Langenzalza 1866 [link], the third or fourth battle in history being fought on the same approximate spot, and the first documented involvement of Red Cross medical personnel in a combat mission (useless trivia mode off). It’s a smallish engagement in BBB, involving a total of less than 30k combatants. It can be fought on a 4’x4’ table with the 1” square bases recommended in the official rules; a map roughly half that size would probably suffice to play it with Kriegsspiel blocks [link]. But if you’re into ‘awfully limited time and space’ gaming like me, you can try using wooden microblocks [link] on this map:

This hexed version is totally superimposable with the original scenario map, which is in turn 100% superimposable with period maps.

Your blocks/counters should be large enough to fit in either one or two hexes, depending on your preferences. If your main goal is to have units with realistic historical frontages, then they should only occupy one hex on this map. However, if your goal is to transpose the official rules onto the grid as closely as possible, you should use units with a two hex frontage when deployed in line (except artillery). I did the latter, using the same movement/shooting conventions I jotted down for One Hour Wargames here [link]… Fire and move distances are basically measured in the same way in OHW and BBB.

I’ve also prepared a playsheet with the map and the OOBs: just print it on A3-sized paper (I gather it’s called ‘Ledger’ in the US?), then cross out losses instead of removing individual bases, as suggested by the author himself in the rulebook. You can also conveniently keep track of turns/hours with the checkboxes at the bottom.

The playsheet in all its glory.

You have no excuses now: try BBB and be a convert.

[Edited to add: here is the pdf of the playsheet]

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Bloody Big Battles! - First Impressions

 Quick summary: you should be buying it right now.

A few weeks ago I fortuitously stumbled upon several references to Mr. Chris Pringle’s titular book. All of them reported excellent things about the game, which of course piqued my interest. The main aspects which enticed me were:

-           Replay of historical engagements in their entirety

-           No bathtubbing – historical OOBs are what they are

-           No scale distortions – scenario maps are 100% based on historical maps

-           Quick, abstract rules

So in the next few days I started perusing the author’s excellent blog and was pleased to discover that his wargaming preferences resonate a lot with mine. I was sold: I ordered the book via North Star military figures (impeccable service!) and a few days later I started studying it obsessively as I always do 😊

The rulebook in all its glory. A coffee table book is it not - which I confess is a plus for this grognard.

My first impressions are nothing short of enthusiastic. A few highlights:

-           BBB uses the most elegant/realistic/functional incarnation of the dreaded ‘roll to move’ mechanic found e.g. in many of Mr. Rick Priestley’s games. I’ve always found this type of mechanism somewhat irritating in its typical Warmaster, Blitzkrieg Commander, Black Powder, etc etc implementations. In said games, even elite units do sometimes sit totally idle for whole turns in a row, hypothetically modelling friction. While the premises and goals are similar, in my opinion BBB does this a lot better by making movement roll results both more nuanced AND more reasonable. Excellent!

-           The basic mechanisms seem to be broad and abstract (in a good sense: read this) enough to cover the 19th century in its entirety even if they are mostly targeted at its second half. Me - I’d happily play any Napoleonic battle with just them, but perhaps I’m just an unrefined simpleton. Further characterization of units is optionally provided by a few special ‘add-on’ rules which totally make sense on paper. These give BBB some more ‘chrome’ with respect to, say, Pub Battles – a game with very similar premises but an even broader-brush approach (for the record, I like both).

-           Scenarios are outstanding. Maps are totally accurate and (to the best of my knowledge) OOBs are too. Objectives provide an easy win/lose metric but (most importantly) seem to allow for a multitude of viable battle plans. Reading these scenarios makes me want to play them *now*!

Are there any weak points? Well, given how much I like this game so far I wouldn’t call them ‘weak’, but possibly ‘less strong’. The following are

-           As with 99 rulesets out of 100, I think one extra round of proofreading/streamlining/chart rewrite could have served the game better. I had to write down an extended turn sequence summary in order to wrap my head around how silenced/low ammo/evade moves interacted – only to discover that it was done before in exactly the same way (link). The rules also state that generals are ‘reactivated’ after becoming casualties in previous turns, but I couldn’t find any further explanation beyond this. [Note – the author answered this question here].

-           In contrast to several other rulesets, BBB handles defensive fire in a way that I might describe as ‘retroactive’ – that is, you don’t stop moving units when they come under fire, but rather complete their moves only to later check if they could have come under fire at some point. I really can’t understand the merit of doing this as opposed to the more traditional method of just shouting ‘gotcha!’ while the opponent is moving units, and it seems I’m not alone in thinking this (link).

All scenarios are real battles based on historical maps, dates and OOBs. No bathtubbing whatsoever. If you like games that give you like 12 riflemen shooting at a barn and call it 'Waterloo', this is not for you.

-           If you are reading this blog you might know I’m obsessed with ground scales, and BBB is definitely better than your average miniature ruleset in this regard. In fact, I think it’s in the 99th percentile of ‘ground-scale accuracy’. For example, at Froeschwiller (where 12” = 2000m), 1000 infantrymen occupy a frontage of 1” = 167m, which is a very reasonable estimate of the frontage they would have covered If they were all deployed in triple line. Of course the rules do not assume all bases to be formed in triple line all the time, the rigid frontage of a base representing more a ‘maximum width’ rather than an accurate depiction. But I think that’s the best you can do given the physical limitations of playing with rigid miniatures/bases/blocks and the like. Also, the estimate ‘maximum width = fully linear formation’ is both convincing and fully… in line (ahem) with period manuals. However, whereas this seems very convincing for infantry, I’m more sceptical about cavalry. BBB assumes the same number of men for infantry and cavalry bases on the same frontage, which means that cavalry frontages are most probably significantly underestimated, and concentration of mounted forces made artificially easier. Moreover, while ground/troop scales vary across scenarios, bases always occupy 1” on the table, and this unavoidably creates distortions. At Langensalza for instance, the Hanoverian side has 7-bases units representing 3500 infantrymen on a 7” frontage. Given the scenario map, 7” represent a frontage of 1050m for 3500 men, which seems excessive. All in all, I think these scale discrepancies are due to the practical limitation involved with using figures, and they can be easily amended when playing with blocks on maps! Hooray for the blocks! 😊 In fact, the excellent blog you can find here describes how to play BBB with blocks on a kriegsspiel map, almost exactly as I would do.

...did I mention that scenario maps are really based on historical maps?

My plan is to play a solo test run of BBB using my microblocks on an A3-sized map. Is that a sensible plan? We’ll see!

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

One-Hour Wargames Marengo - Part 3: Combat

With scale issues and movement rules dealt with, it’s now time to discuss my amendments to those OHW’s rules bits and pieces dealing with actual fighting, i.e. how to best model thousands of muskets, rifles, cannons, howitzers, bayonets and sabres inflicting casualties, spreading terror and generally doing nasty stuff to the enemy.

I find this the weakest part of OHW’s rules-as-written (RAW) from the viewpoint of historical realism, since there’s a distinct lack of modelling wrt many of the peculiar troop interactions which gave Napoleonic battles their specific flavour. My goal with these amendments is to put in the ruleset as many ‘true-to-period’ tactical choices as possible, without using anything else than OHW’s basic framework; that is, a given unit will inflict ‘X’ hits on the opponent in a given situation, and that’s it. Is it a delusional goal? I think it’s not, but I’m biased. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

(1)       Slight change to Turn Order: Shoot first, ask later

In OHW’s RAW, shooting occurs after movement – but units cannot both shoot and move. This means that on any single given turn, you cannot ‘soften up’ an enemy position before committing to an assault, since your charging unit/s will most probably obscure LOS to the intended target. This is very frustrating. Since OHW makes things quite difficult for the attacker already, I’ve simply switched the order to allow a modicum of coordination between supporting and assaulting units.

(2)       Don’t mess with the Cuirassiers: no amendments to Heavy Cavalry

In the RAW, cavalry units clearly represent squadrons of shock cavalry. They possess the strongest attack in the RAW, and a flank charge by them is as decisive as it should be. All in all I think they’re mostly fine, if perhaps a tad too strong in frontal/unsupported charges for my tastes… but I’ve decided this might be more due to a lack of close range firepower from musketry and artillery rather than anything wrong in the cavalry rules per se. So I still play shock cavalry exactly as in the RAW.

Now - one might be of course eager to model all other kinds of cavalry in Napoleonic engagements (and I confess I already have rules for Hussars and Dragoons in my games), but OHW’s ethos is to just outline the quintessence, so let’s leave all this to future posts.

In OHW terms, this means (I’ve included a quick recap of each unit’s special movement rules, which were discussed in the previous post, for convenience):

Unit name: ‘Cavalry’

Troops represented: around 750 men in several squadrons covering a 250m (6”) frontage; I use an exaggerated base depth of 50m to model the space occupied by straying/second wave squadrons.

Most probable formation: double line at the front; not all effectives are in the front ranks when at full strength.

Movement allowance: 12” (500m) per turn.

Special Movement rules: Can interpenetrate light infantry at any angle, and stationary artillery with the same facing. Cannot enter woods. Damaged (1d6-2) upon moving through mud/marsh.


-           Strong (1d6+2) close combat attack. Needs LOS to charge in.

-           Inflict double hits on targets charged on flank/rear.

Special Defences:

-           Repulsed 6” maintaining facing if target not dispersed.

(3)       Making Smoothbore Artillery less Smoothboring

In the RAW, artillery is quite boring. They always inflict the same number of hits regardless of range and/or positioning. Due to this, some of the typical historical behaviors of troops facing artillery batteries just don’t occur. I’ve chosen three key aspects of Napoleonic era batteries I wanted to model in my games:

(1) close range canister fire should be scary,

(2) bombardment should cause more damage to squares and en enfilade than defilade fire, and

(3) cannonball range should be somewhat dependent on the ground’s condition.

Quantitative hard-and-fast assumptions include:

- Effective cannonball range is assumed to be 1000m, increased to 1500m on good terrain due to bounce

- Long range artillery bombardments are unsustainable in the long term but not quickly decisive

- Effective canister range is assumed to be 250m

Unit name: ‘Artillery’

Troops represented: One or two field batteries plus accompanying infantry escort, distributed on a 250m (6”) frontage; the overall depth of a battery including caissons is around 150-200m! My blocks are 150m deep (I mean at scale, just in case anyone is wondering).

Most probable formation: Individual pieces spaced by around 15m laterally; accompanying infantry interspersed in both width and depth.

Movement allowance: 6” (250m) per turn. Can’t fire if moved, implicitly modelling limbering/unlimbering.

Special Movement rules: Cannot use fords, cannot enter muddy ground or marshes, cannot enter woods, cannot shoot out of a BUA. Can interpenetrate light infantry at any angle.


-           Bombardment: weak (1d6-2) ranged attack up to 24” (1000m), range increased to 36” (1500m) if the entirety of the firing path above 12" doesn't include rivers, lakes, muddy or marsh areas (inhibiting cannonball bounce).

-           Canister: medium (1d6) ranged attack up to 6” (250m).

-           Enfilade fire: inflict double hits if firing into the flanks of line infantry and cavalry (only).

Special Defences: none.

Design Notes: the enfilade fire bonus makes obtaining/avoiding flanking important, and brings new life to a few of OHW’s scenarios in which being flanked should be an issue – but it isn’t much. Improved canister effectiveness makes frontal engagement somewhat more risky (especially by cavalry, which will be still in range after a repulsed charge).

(4)    Poor Bloody Infantry

Line infantry is very appropriately the most common unit in OHW’s random H&M‑era army list generator, but it feels a bit ‘flat’ when played by the book. Their 12” shooting range represent my biggest gripe with the RAW: if 12” represents musketry range, then 6”-wide infantry units can only be individual battalions at most. This makes standard six-units games très petite, and the abstraction of tactical formations highly questionable. Instead, I think OHW’s very abstract mechanics are best suited to higher scales, so I decided that standard infantry units should represent regiments, demi-brigades or understrength (that is, most) brigades, with other units scaled accordingly. But this meant that all attack ranges had to completely be re-thought. By doing this, I took the opportunity to introduce a few more tactical choices for infantry, in particular about battle tempo/intensity of effort… More choices mean more possible errors and more interesting games, at least I hope.

Hard-and-fast assumptions include:

-           Effective massed musketry range is 125m

-           Massed musketry is scary at close range

-           Sharpshooting/sniping has a slightly longer effective range due to better equipment/training

-           All line infantry units have an ‘implicit’ screen of skirmishers around 250m forward of their front

-           Due to their forward positioning and their longer range, skirmishers can start low-intensity engagements 500m forward of the parent infantry unit.

-           All line infantry units have a few integral battalion guns whose effective range is 500m

-           Initiating a determined bayonet charge can dislodge shaky enemy infantry regardless of whether actual hth fighting occurs

-           Given enough space and time, infantry could form square to protect themselves quite effectively from isolated cavalry charges

-           Massed infantry was very susceptible to artillery when in squares or when receiving enfilade fire

All of which can be translated surprisingly easily into OHW’s jargon:

Unit name: ‘Infantry’

Troops represented: Around 2000 close order muskets on a 250m (6”) frontage. Again, I use a depth of 50m to represent the space occupied by supporting battalions and/or column depth.

Most probable formation: Continuous front line of 2-3 ranks, often with supporting battalions at the back; or ordre mixte; or attack columns, in all cases with interspersed space to maneuver effectively.

Movement allowance: 6” (250m) per turn. Can’t fire if moved, implicitly representing the adoption of formations optimized for movement or combat. The only type of formation explicitly represented under my amendments is the column of route (see previous post).

Special Movement rules: Can interpenetrate light infantry at any angle, and stationary artillery with the same facing. Cannot enter woods.


-           Massed Musketry: strong (1d6+2) attack with a range of 3” (125m)

-           Long-range, low-intensity engagement via skirmishers and battalion guns: weak (1d6-2) attack at a range of 12” (500m).

-           Bayonet charge: when an enemy unit is destroyed via massed musketry, optionally move the firing unit up to 3” to the previous position of their (now defunct) target, simulating the last decisive assault.

Special Defences:

-           Form Square: when charged by one or more cavalry units, optionally change facing immediately before contact.

Design Notes: Shooting ranges are now more realistic. Having two types of attack makes it possible to differentiate between low- and high-intensity engagements, enabling the commander to choose local battle tempo. Moreover, in infantry vs infantry engagements there is now an option to shoot at long range then retreating before an opponent who wants to close in to musketry range, thus making fighting withdrawals a possibility. Bayonet charges are only implied but allow to capture terrain more quickly than in the RAW. The free turn toward a charging cavalry unit abstractly represents the adoption square formations: it will considerably protect the musketeers but also make them more vulnerable to artillery previously shooting on its front due to the new enfilade bonus.

(5)    The unbearable lightness of light infantry

I find ‘skirmishers’ are the most problematic unit type playing them by the book. First of all, what do they represent exactly in the RAW? It’s not clear, but – given that infantry units are probably battalions - probably sub-battalion-sized, ad-hoc formations of voltigeurs, chasseurs and the like. In the RAW, they move faster than line infantry and can enter dense terrain (i.e. woods). The rules say they represent half the manpower of a line infantry, but can soak the same number of hits- thus modeling the protection afforded by their dispersed formation in a very Kriegsspiel-like fashion. However, I’ve found that unit-for-unit, RAW-skirmishers are the weakest troops, and often a liability rather than an asset. Their niche seems to be to enter woods and just stay there without accomplishing much… More often than not, the best plan when facing skirmishers is just ignoring them; they won’t be much of a factor in the end.

However! Historically, light infantry was much more than this: it was the prime choice for urban/BUA fighting, it was decidedly annoying to formed infantry at range (forcing them to either withdraw or close the range), it was a good counter for artillery, etc etc. Moreover, skirmishers should be much more vulnerable to cavalry than to massed musketry and artillery (while in the RAW, they can absorb a cavalry charge just as well as a massed infantry unit). It’s time to change all this!

To begin with, I’ll rename ‘skirmishers’ to ‘light infantry’, which is a bit more generic. These units might (rarely) represent ad-hoc light brigades, but a lot more often these will be infantry formations which, for a variety of reasons, have an unusually high proportion of skirmishers and/or a higher propensity than usual to approach the enemy in open order. Accordingly, this includes Voltigeurs, Legeres, Jagers, Chasseurs, Grenzers, Rifles, etc… but also standard line infantry formations ordered to massively reinforce a skirmishing line locally. Open order is not assumed for ALL troopers in the unit, but rather just by those actually engaging the enemy.

Here are the hard-and-fast assumptions I wanted to model in the rules:

-           As discussed for line infantry above, skirmishers can engage enemy formations at around 500m (12”) forward of the unit’s “centre of mass”.

-           Open order limits casualties from massed musketry and artillery bombardments, but is very vulnerable to cavalry charges, and does not particularly protect against sharpshooting.

-           Open order troops should naturally avoid proximity with massed enemies.

-           Sharphooters are very annoying to enemy artillery.

-           Sharpshooters are individually more effective than massed musketry to enemy in cover.

-           Except for a glorious cavalry charge in good terrain, the best counter to enemy skirmishers is having more skirmishers.

-           The battle tempo of skirmishing is a lot slower than that of massed infantry/cavalry engagements (Clausewitz would say it “burns slowly as wet powder”).

-           When faced with skirmishers, massed infantry can either accept slow attrition at long range, or close in to decisively disperse them.

An here is the same in OHW terms:

Unit name: ‘Light Infantry’

Troops represented: Around 1000 open order sharphooters on a 250m (6”) frontage. I use a depth of 50m (mostly representing empty space).

Most probable formation: Dispersed swarms of sharphooters, with individuals or teams of 2 men spaced by approximately 5-8m, each making most use of cover and shooting after careful aiming. If present, parent line infantry battalions are assumed to be at the back.

Movement allowance: 9” (250m) per turn.

Special Movement rules: Can enter woods. Can interpenetrate any unit at any angle.


-           Sharpshooting: weak (1d6-2) attack with a 12” range.

-           Accurate: sharpshooting hits are never halved due to cover (woods/BUAs/river banks).

Special Defences:

-           Open formation: light infantry only take half hits from attacks by line infantry and artillery; however, they take double hits when attacked by cavalry.

-           Disordered: light infantry units have no flanks; as such, cavalry cannot claim flank/rear charge bonuses (but hey, they still have the intrinsic x2 hits mentioned in the previous point).

Optional rule:

-           Reinforcing skirmishers/Closing ranks: “Skirmishing” was more often than not a task assigned to units rather than a designation for ad-hoc units. According to this, you can always transform a line infantry unit into a light infantry unit, and vice versa. This can be done at deployment, or during a normal turn (counting as the unit’s movement). In either case, the freshly transformed unit immediately takes 1d6-2 hits due to confusion and reorganization, so use this sparingly. Elite light units like ‘l’incomparable’ 9th light or 95th rifles can switch between light and massed behaviour without taking hits.

Design Notes: I felt skirmishers were the most useless unit as per the RAW. Sure, they could occupy woods, but once there they couldn’t achieve much. I’ve boosted their performance considerably to bring them in line with other units. I feel they better represent ‘elite’ formations now, especially if you use the optional light/line morphing rule (I do, it’s fun).

Light infantry units can engage massed infantry at long range at an advantage (although not decisively so), but are disadvantaged if they get too close. In both cases, they slow the battle tempo with respect to massed infantry engagements, buying you time to decide when and where to commit your heavies. Massed infantry can force skirmishers to relocate by closing the gap to them. A clever trick by the skirmishers would be to retire through (interpenetrating) a formed line in the rear when threatened, leaving the advancing enemy infantry exposed to friendly musketry. The fact that their attack is never halved by cover makes light infantry units prime choices for urban assaults, as they were historically. They also are a good response to enemy skirmishers!


Vive l'Empereur!
De Bellis Napoleonicis
Horse and Musket: The Dawn of an Era
Warfare in the Age of Reason
Two flags, one nation


G. Nafziger is THE man.


Random web sources. I’ll take them down if it’s some form of infringement.





Napoleon : napoleonic wars : battles : armies : tactics : maps : uniforms (napolun.com)

Thursday, December 23, 2021

One-Hour Wargames Marengo - Part 2: Terrain and Movement

Side note: despite having finalized these rules months ago - and routinely playing them – my progress on such things as diagrams and ‘proper’ draft writing occurs at a glacier’s pace. I always find more satisfying to actually play a wargame rather than writing about it; I’m afraid I’m not much of a blogger. Anyway, I’ll keep putting my finalized designs here for future reference.

In the previous post, I have broadly outlined the size of both the playing map and the playing pieces of my OHW Marengo scenario. It’s time to find how to make those blocks move around the battlefield in a way which makes (at least some) historical sense!

Starting from the map (again)

The first thing I did was to survey the square section of the historical map I decided to use for my OHW scenario and take notes about which types of terrain I needed to model the overall course of the battle:

Map 1: OHW-style square battlefield.

As I mentioned in the previous post, some of the features are a bit puzzling, so I’ve referred to a later map (approximately from the 1870s) to understand e.g. what exactly happens to the southern portion of the Fontanone. Unfortunately, this wasn’t very successful as the landscape seemed to change quite a lot during those 70-ish years, with the Fontanone being replaced by two different streams called Rio Boggio and Rio Ressia… In fact, I suspect that “Fontanone” (big fountain/canal) might just be a funny name for any small water course in the local dialect, just as “montagnone” (big mountain) might ironically denote any ditch higher than 10m. At least, the later map was useful in making me understand that all those straight lines in the SW corner of the map aren’t most probably roads, but irrigation ditches.

Map 2: Istituto Geografico Militare Survey Map (apparently from the 1870’s?)

It became immediately apparent that I needed a lot more terrain types w.r.t. OHW’s RAW. Based on the previous two maps, I’ve outlined these terrain types on the map itself:

Map 3 – Terrain types:

Blue – Watercourses (thick: major, thin: minor)
Dark Green – Woods
Light Green – Marsh/Muddy
Yellow – Ploughed Fields
Yellow with Green outline – “Alberata e Seminativo” fields (more on that below)
Red – Conurbations & smaller Built-Up-Areas, e.g. walled farms
Contour lines (uncolored) – Hills
Dots (uncolored) – Orchards
Most remaining lines – Road network (paved, dirt, or tree-lined avenues)

Just looking at the annotated map makes some aspects of the battle much clearer. For example, Marengo was just one of the many BUAs in the area, but it had the only solid bridge in the whole area across an almost uninterrupted series of creeks and marshes. Austrian artillery and cavalry just needed to clear that chokepoint – no wonder it became the crux of the battle. If you just treat anything east of the Bormida as clear terrain (as some rulesets do) then the historical Austrian course of action make no sense at all. In fact, Austrian troops emerging from the bridgehead just had four broad choiches:

(1) press forward along the road through Pietrabuona and Marengo: obvious choice but one with several drawbacks (COA historically followed by e.g. Kaim’s and Morzin’s troops)
(2) take the road to Castelceriolo: potentially decisive but very slow (COA historically followed by Ott, Schellenberg, Vogelsang etc)
(3) try to cross the Fontanone near La Barbotta (attempted e.g. by Elsnitz and Frimont)
(4) try to follow the eastern bank of the Bormida then cross the Fontanone at the ford (no ‘solid’ bridge there!) near La Stortigliona (disastrously attempted by O’Reilly)

…anything else seems highly unlikely. This means that all the advantage in cavalry and artillery by the Austrians is severely hampered by the terrain and that the French can concentrate their defense on a few well-chosen chokepoints. Moreover, the mere size of the Austrian army implies that they cannot choose the same COA for all troops: there’s just no space to do that. They need to split their force across the four possible approaches.

So far so good! But I needed to actually translate all of the above into OHW rules. This is what I’ve done:

Amendments to movement rules

First of all, I didn’t change OHW’s RAW movement rates, because they don’t seem too different to what everyone else is doing in other rulesets. Movement rates are quite tricky because they’re unavoidably intertwined with the modeled timescale: how far a formed infantry battalion can march in a turn depends on how much time a turn represents, of course. Moreover, even if I rigidly defined the length of a turn, I could only compute movement distances for formations moving in straight lines for the whole time – thus not taking into account formation changes, pauses, bursts of hyperactivity in response to enemy actions, etc etc.

OHW movement rates just imply that cavalry can on average move twice as fast as formed infantry, and I’m content with that for two reasons. First, it’s one of the parameters that Mr. Thomas took into account when fine-tuning OHW’s scenarios, so messing with that would impair the compatibility of my amendments with the scenarios as written – something I’d like to avoid. Second, I’ll be able to retroactively make movement rates as ‘realistic’ as possible by varying turn length and finding which one produces the most historical results. For this reason, I’ll leave the exact duration of one turn undefined for the moment. All in all, the movement allowances I’m using are the following:


Movement allowance per turn

Line Infantry

6” (250 m)

Skirmishing infantry

9” (375 m)

Heavy Cavalry

12” (500 m)

Artillery Battery (limbered)

6” (250 m)

Artillery Battery (unlimbered)

0” (0 m)

 …and here are some of the revised shooting ranges for comparison, but I’ll talk about those in a future installment (spoiler alert!):

Shooting Unit

Effective range


3” (125 m)

Artillery (direct)

24” (1000 m)

Artillery (bounce)

36” (1500 m)

 While movement rates are more or less the same as in the Rules-As-Written (RAW), I use the following amendments to how movement is actually performed:


Line infantry and cavalry can pass through artillery if they face the same direction as artillery AND artillery doesn't move this turn. Skirmishers can pass and be passed through anyone, at any angle (as per the RAW).

Columns of route (road movement bonus)

Road movement bonus is 6” (instead of 3” as in the RAW) for all units. However, to qualify for the bonus units must spend their entire move (including the extra 6”) on the road network, and they must pivot in a specific way at the end of the move, simulating the adoption of a non-combat formation: they must end their move with both of their flanks touching the road (see Figure 1), i.e. as if moving ‘sideways’ so to speak. Of course, only one unit can occupy a given length of road at the same time. Following this rule, units in column of route can get a substantial movement bonus but will arrive at their destination in a suboptimal combat formation (since they’ll need one further turn to attack anything in the general direction of their movement, or to avoid flank charges/enfilade extra hits).

Figure 1 – Columns of route and road movement. Left: The cavalry unit (below) has a normal movement allowance of 12”, so it can just move this far without restrictions (orchards and ‘normal’ fields are clear terrain, see below). The three infantry regiments only move 6”, but they decide to use the extra +6” road movement bonus to keep up with cavalry. To qualify for road movement bonus they must end their move with both flanks on the road; if they do so, their centre point can move 12”. Right: position after moving. The cavalry squadrons could move 12” without pivoting and are ready to charge any enemy appearing on their West; the three infantry regiments are instead in column of route, stretched out to around 750m along the road and not in a position to immediately project maximum offensive or defensive potential to the west.

Cavalry charges

Cavalry must have LOS to their target at the start of their move. Due to this, charges cannot be performed e.g. when interpenetrating an intervening friendly unit, or towards unseen enemies beyond a ridge. Cavalry can still charge when negotiating a bottleneck and/or when receiving a road movement bonus; in this case however they end their charge ‘sideways’, with their short flanks contacting the opponent (again, simulating suboptimal combat formations). Such hasty/constrained attacks only inflict 50% hits on the target.

Figure 2 – Cavalry charges. Left: both Futak 1° and Futak 4° dragoons are 18” away (I always measure distances via front centre points) from enemy formed infantry. Right: Futak 4° decides to use their standard 12” movement allowance to get closer to Chambarlhac’s men with all squadrons in line. Instead, Futak 1° are on a road and decide to stretch out into a hasty charge adding a +6” bonus to their 12” move. They can charge Chambarlhac 24°, but squadrons reach the enemy lines in a more piecemeal fashion: under my amendments, this is abstractly represented by putting the block ‘sideways’. This hasted charge will inflict half the usual amount of hits.

Rivers, Creeks and Streams

Major rivers such as the Bormida are impassable and can only be traversed at a ford or fixed/pontoon bridge (see below). Lesser but relevant water courses  such as the Fontanone creek can be crossed by infantry (both line and light) at any position, but crossing is hindered (i.e. must happen ‘sideways’, see below). Lesser water courses are impassable to artillery and cavalry; but while cavalry can still cross these at fords, artillery needs ‘real’ solid bridges such the one at the Marengo fortified farm. Infantry units (both line and light flavours) can cross lesser water courses at any point. Infantry units in contact with rivers of all types receive cover from attacks coming from the opposite bank (both shooting and charges – provided the latter are possible of course).

Bridges, fords, pontoons, bottlenecks and traffic jams

All units can only move across major bridges as part of a road move (see Figure 3a). Units crossing at fords and pontoon/minor bridges must in addition end their moves with their central point *on* the bridge/ford (Figure 3b - in practice, only one unit will be able to cross per turn). If the crossing point is not connected to a road then the crossing unit must also end with both its flanks on a line perpendicular to the edge of the just-negotiated obstacle (Figure 3c).

Figure 3 – Crossing at fords, bridges, etc. (a) Major bridge crossing. The Bormida is impassable along its whole course to all troops; the tête-de-pont at Alessandria is across a major bridge. All units must cross the bridge by normal road movement (see Fig. 1 above). (b) Road movement with no bridge. Elsnitz 3° Dragoons start their move on a road, so they could gallop up to 12+6=18” if they remained in column of route. However, they reach a ford much sooner. They must thus stop with their centre point on the ford, still in column. (c) Creek crossing with no road or bridge. Minor streams/creeks can be traversed at any point along their course by infantry, but units must stop with their centre point on the obstacle and forming column of route ‘as if’ on a perpendicular road.

Major conurbations (“Towns”) and smaller Built-Up-Areas (BUAs)

All unit types can occupy (i.e. end their move inside) towns; but only infantry can occupy BUAs. Units in towns and BUAs count all their sides as “front”; they can thus shoot 360° and cannot be charged/shot “in the flank/rear”. In addition to this, line and light infantry only receive 50% hits when attacked. Artillery cannot fire while in a town. Cavalry can only charge units inside towns and BUAs as if it was using road movement (regardless of whether they’re actually on a road or not at the start of their move); that is, they must charge “sideways” (inflicting 50% hits, see above).

Marshes / muddy ground

Artillery cannot enter these at all, and their cannonballs won’t “bounce” (details in the next instalment). Cavalry can move through it by suffering a weak (1d6-2) attack each turn due to the resulting chaos.

Alberata e Seminativo

Old‑fashioned vineyards as very, very probably in use near Marengo at that time (see also this excellent post). My late father used to work for the Italian ministry of agriculture, and I remember him telling me how modern/mechanized techniques really changed the way people used to grow vines. I remember how he explicitly talked about ‘alberata e seminativo’ (which is a modern agronomy name for an ancient practice) as an example. In old times (but in some remote places or in small family farms, probably up to the first half of XX century), vines were not usually assigned their own piece of turf, but were grown on fruit trees planted in straight rows around ploughed fields. Irrigation ditches were dug between adjoining fields. In a way, you can think of ‘alberata e seminativo’ vineyards as a (less extreme) version of bocage.

So my proposal for representing them at Marengo is to make them impassable to both artillery and cavalry. I know this sounds harsh, but I think it really makes sense when considering the historical course of the battle, and specifically the very limited impact all those Austrian cavalrymen made even after negotiating the main chokepoints.

Woods and hills

As per the RAW.

Ploughed fields and orchards

I’m inclined to treat these as clear terrain for no particular reason other than the battlefield seems already quite constrained as it is now. I’ll change this later if needed…

Design Notes

The only ‘exotic’ mechanism introduced in these amendment is the funky ‘sideways’ movement used to represent non-combat formations. I didn’t want to introduce any new marker/status/etc in addition to the hit track already used by OHW, and I think this works in a very abstract way. Basically, both columns of route and disordered/constrained formations are represented by turning the unit sideways with respect to the direction traveled. It’s a bit difficult to get tournament-tight wording on this, but I hope the schemes above convey the basic idea. I think it’s also a very simple way to model road traffic jams and units stretching out when in road column. Combined with the new artillery rules (see next post!) and cavalry charges, this also models the vulnerability of these formations to shot, as well their less-than-ideal combat efficacy, for almost no extra rules overhead.

Some of the various terrain-related amendments will probably have marginal impact at Marengo, but I feel they make sense. For example, defending/attacking towns and chateaux with dragoons and the like becomes possible, although far from ideal; this might perhaps come into play around Castelceriolo.

On the other hand, I feel some of the terrain amendments are crucial to really bring the Marengo map to life for OHW play. The most prominent example of this is probably that now ‘real’ bridges become more important than temporary/non-obvious crossing points (making that Marengo bridge all-important) and that creeks can be important defensive features (thus making defending the Fontanone a viable strategy).

In the next post, I’ll detail the combat-related amendments. In the meanwhile, take all of the above strictly just as my 2 pennies – pardon, Marengos…