Wednesday 25 March 2020

The Battle of Soor played solo. Part 1

With Covid 19 in full swing, and the Roach household in lock down, my only gaming possibilities extend to painting, writing and solo gaming.

I set up the Battle of Soor three or four weeks ago. It was supposed to be gamed by Graham, Peter and myself but, after one night's play, the wheels fell off - actually it was Peter who fell off, hurting his leg - so we postponed for a week. Then government advice on Covid 19 changed and it was decided that gaming should be cancelled, like the football season, until further notice.

What to do with Soor? At first I thought I might just continue from where the first night's play had ended but, after some reflection, I reset the battle to the beginning so that I could do a full report on an action played solo from start to finish, with lots of pictures and some explanation of how the rules work, and why I think the Piquet style mechanism is the best mechanism around for fighting solo battles. In this latter respect, I hope the following series of battle reports will hold your attention; after all, with things as they are we might be on our own for some considerable time and solo rules might be the way forward for a while.

Piquet is ideally suited to solo play for three important reasons:
  1. It is basically a U-go-I-go rules set enabling the solo player to physically transfer from one side to the other, allowing the side he is on at the time to be played to its best advantage, following the move of his 'other self opponent'. Simultaneous order transmission, movement and the like are not, IMHO, very good for solo play. 
  2. Each army has a tailored made sequence deck, tailor made to reflect the individual army's abilities or lack of same, encompassing all the cards required to randomly determine when units can be ordered to move, shoot, change formation, melee, etc., and officers can act. These cards (usually 26 - 30) are shuffled, then turned using initiative points. This is where Piquet type rules outstrip other types of rules for solo play: You simply do not know when either side will be able to move infantry, or force a melee, or unlimber artillery, etc., as you can only act on cards as they are turned (each turned card effectively makes the previously turned card unusable until the next turn; you can't build a hand of cards). Thus, many of decisions the player has to make are made incrementally in an orderly fashion  and when playing both sides, especially in a big game, this is important as games should be fun rather than hard work.
  3. Each game turn, in which players might move units and carry out combats with them several times, is broken down into 'initiative phases'. Initiative phases comprise a randomly determined number of initiative points, unequally divided between the players, that are use to turn sequence cards and act on them (more anon). Again this is great for solo play. It breaks the game turn down into small chunks, and because the chunks vary in size, and because each player gets a different number of initiative points to play with, the solo player can never really know, from one initiative to the next, what will happen. The randomised initiative, mixed with a randomised turn sequence, makes for a tense, even exciting game, for the solo player.

Initiative points are a very valuable commodity, not to be squandered. They are the petrol in the engine and are used to turn sequence cards (one point each), and to act on them for either one point per unit or per command group depending on the action and circumstances under which it is undertaken.

I'm going to use classic Piquet rules, with the 1st edition Cartouche supplement, both amended (actually re-written) for fighting big 18C battles: A set of rules we call, after a quotation of Frederick the Great, "Men Are Like Lemons...." (the quote actually continues " be squeezed!" - what a nice guy). The reason I decided to heavily amend Bob Jones' Piquet rules is simple: Piquet is best (written?) for battles involving 10 - 16 units a side, and to be fair this is probably best for a single evening's play; when playing larger battles (this one has 47 units) classic Piquet, as written, begins to creak under the weight. Consequently, I rewrote classic Piquet with an eye to streamlining them specifically for larger battles: Initiative points can be used to better effect, and one or two concepts, such as opportunity chips, have been disposed of completely. I also took the opportunity to add one or two ideas of my own.

The biggest house rule amendment I have made to classic Piquet concerns how initiative points are determined for each initiative phase. Basically, in true classic Piquet the number of initiative points won is decided by the roll of D20s - each side rolls a D20 and the lower result is deducted from the higher; the side rolling higher gets the difference in initiative points and the side rolling lower gets none; if the dice rolls are equal, or the sequence deck of either side is completely depleted, the turn ends. This mechanism gives a very randomised fall of initiative points but, it can lead to some very unbalanced games because rolling off D20s doesn't guarantee a response to enemy action by the other side; one side can get nothing, followed by nothing, followed by nothing, ad infinitum, simply because he keeps rolling a lower D20 result than his opponent. Normally of course, things balance out over time but, just occasionally, one side gets to do very little for long periods and these games are frustrating and, frankly, no fun for the side that doesn't win the initiative (even when you are playing both). Consequently, we now use what I call 'Domino Theory', and it works like this:
  • Instead of rolling dice, both sides draw a domino from a bag (one set of dominoes per player) and the dominoes are compared: The side drawing the higher domino is the winner and gets the spots on both sides of his domino as initiative points and chooses who goes first (e.g. 6:4 equals 10 initiative points), the side drawing the lower scoring domino gets only the spots on the high side of his domino (e.g. 5:1 equals 5); if the dominoes have the same value (e.g. 6:1 and 5:2 both add up to 7) the player with the highest side on the dominoes is the winner (in this case 6:1 beats 5:2, so the winner gets 7 and the loser 5); if either side draws a double domino the winner is as above except, he gets the total sum of both dominoes and the loser gets the high side of his domino (e.g. 5:5 versus 4:3 is 17 to the winner and 4 to the loser) except, where the loser's domino is the double domino he gets both sides of his domino (e.g. 6:3 versus 4:4 gives the winner 17 and the loser 8) - note here that turning a double domino doesn't automatically make you the winner of the initiative round; where both sides draw the same domino (e.g. 3:2 versus 3:2), or the sequence deck of either side is completely depleted, the turn ends. It's a real mouthful but, it's a remarkably simple system in practice and generally gives the loser of the initiative round a chance to make some response to enemy action (unless he draws the dreaded 0:0 of course). 
Note: We didn't always use two sets of dominoes. At first we drew two dominoes from the same set, deciding before the draw who got the first and who got the second domino. 'Domino Theory' worked in exactly way except that end of turn draws resulted from double blank and a domino with an odd number of spots. The chance of end of turn with one set are 1 in 23, whereas the chance when using two sets of are 1 in 28; obviously, with D20s, the chance for end of turn are 1 in 20 (if my maths were right and my memory is correct.)

So here goes, The Battle of Soor, solo:

Turn 1. 
As the Prussians are attacking I decided, on a whim, that to get the battle going, whatever dominoes came out of the bag the Prussians would win the initiative. Thereafter, the Prussians would draw black dominoes and the Austrians white dominoes.

When describing the passage of play I will not describe the exact sequence of cards turned and only describe which cards are acted on or that affect play. This is because I'm playing an initiative phase out without notes, taking photos as I go, then writing it up before moving onto the next phase. This makes playing the game easier and quicker for me, and hopefully makes for a better battle report.

The Prussians draw 10 initiative Vs Austrians 5.
During the Prussians initiative phase they manage to turn two Cavalry Move in the Open cards and advanced their cavalry command twice then, with three points of initiative left, they turned Shock Cavalry Melee Resolution which allowed them to charge home with two of their forward units and resolve the consequent melees: They win both, routing the unit of elite squadrons which disorders the infantry to its rear as it retreats;the Prussian horse do not pursue.

The Austrians fearing that their infantry might be hit before they can rally (on an Officer Check card) shoot and cause the Prussian cavalry some loss. Then, with their last initiative point, they turn Officer Check and the infantry automatically rally (House rule note: We have two forms of disorder - disorder and shaken - disorder is automatically rallied on officer check for no cost, rallying from Shaken requires a check and costs a morale chip).

Note: The Shock Cavalry Melee Resolution card is a house amendment, it was especially added for SYW games and allows shock cavalry to melee more frequently; everything else can only melee on Melee Resolution cards and, to a lesser degree Heroic Moment.

Prussians draw 8 initiative Vs Austrians 4
The Prussians still have Shock Cavalry Melee Resolution showing so they fight the third melee. but lose.

The infantry advance on Infantry Move in the Open, wheeling some of their regiments to advance through Burkersdorf.

They finish by firing their artillery on Artillery Reload and reload.

Three notes: You do not need a reload card to shoot, you can shoot at any time, you just need to be 'loaded'. We load for free under our amended rules, whilst firing a unit still costs a point of initiative - initiative cost to shoot cuts down on the number of low odds shots being undertaken. Although not relevant at this point, we have done away with opportunity chips as they don't really work in large games.

The Austrians start to bring their Cuirassier command up to fight the Prussian cavalry. They turn a second Musket Reload (drawing both at this early in the first turn is very bad as they only have two in their deck) but manage to make the Prussian Cuirassier unit facing them to go Shaken.

Note the counters and markers: Stones show the number of  'casualties' (two in this case), and the broken wheel shows that the unit shaken; we use a 'tuft of tall grass' to mark disorder. On the base of the unit, the number on the brown disc is the unit's historical Regimental Number (in this case 1 for CR 1); the blue bead shows the unit is 'Eager' (up 1 for combat and morale rolls) and the black bead beneath it shows a number 2 (command group 2). No rosters are required in my games.

Austrians draw 13 intitiative Vs Prussians 3 
(Note a double domino was drawn: 5:5 Vs 3:0). 

Before the Austrians can turn a new card of consequence they turn a Command Indecision card which immediately reduces their available initiative points to zero. This is a special card added to their deck because Prince Charles (their C-in-C) is a donkey - in fact he's an ass, so he has two of these cards.

The Prussians turn Cavalry Move in the Open and pull back their wounded cavalry.

They finish their initiative with Infantry Move in the Open showing but have no initiative left to use it.

Note: I print off home made cards and put them in card sleeves to make them 'uniform' and easy to shuffle. I think the picture on this particular card is very apt (I found it on the web - source unknown). If you choose to do something similar my top tip is to buy the sleeves in one colour, rather than in different colours for each army, because in my experience, when making up decks it's better if all of the cards can be easily swapped about.

Prussians draw 13 initiative Vs Austrians 6
(Note another double domino was drawn: 5:2 Vs 3:3).

The Prussian infantry begin to climb the hill with thunderous artillery support and the crackle of rolling musketry.

The Austrian artillery replies with canister to great effect (causing 3 unit integrity loss to CG VI) but their nerve gives way first and they are forced to retreat (they fail a morale challenge with 3 UI loss of their own).

Then, on a Brilliant Leader wild card, converted to a Move in Difficult Terrain card, they deploy into Burkersdorf and on Officer Check, Buddenbrock rallies his shaken cavalry.

Heroic Moment combined with Infantry Move in the Open allows the Prussians to resume their well organised assault on the Graner-Koppe, relieving CG VI by moving IR 24 twice (the heroic move) with their last initiative point.

The Austrian infantry, looking on in awe, make some minor changes in deployment on Manoeuvre. Their elite squadrons retreat into the Konigsreichswald (woods) behind the Austrian position on Major Morale (departing the table).

Note: Another rule amendment has been made to rout and pursuit. IMHO, the rules as written are all over the place, so we have made them much simpler. Firstly, we added another Major Morale card to each deck and changed its definition. As well as dealing with major morale checks, this card also dictates when the routers and pursuers of both sides move, and BTW replacement officers might be found (on a difficulty check). This means routers and pursuers both move at the same time (making pursuit look right) and routers, of whatever army and number of applicable normal move cards, now all rout at the same speed - i.e. four times a turn, once on each major morale card, at normal rate for type. Movement of all routers and pursuers is free of initiative cost.

Prussians draw 6 initiative Vs Austrians 4
The Prussians draw Melee Resolution and must fight the ongoing cavalry melees. They win both, routing another unit and shaking the other.

Then they draw Heroic Moment and use it as a localised melee resolution card to resolve a single melee. This finishes off the first line of Austrian cavalry. The Prussians pass their pursuit checks (we simply roll base morale dice Vs D8 for this) and being disordered following their melees they choose to withdraw half a move, out of musket range, to rally.

As it happens, the cards work against them because their final card is Officer Check - they would automatically have rallied from disorder on this card and been able to continue their attack in good order without withdrawing, now they will have to start their accent of the hill again.

The Austrians bring up more cavalry on Cavalry Move in the Open. Just in the nick of time, as they say.

Note: The Heroic Moment card is a great card. It allows a unit or officer to act with an UP 1 modifier, or action on the next card turned to be doubled for a unit, or as a localised melee resolution, or to bend the rules for a unit or officer in any manner that seems reasonable because something 'heroic' has occurred. Truly, an inspired Piquet card. 

Austrians draw 11 initiative Vs Prussians 0.
 (Note: The Prussians draw the dreaded double blank!)

Is The Austrian's luck about to change?

The first card they turn is Infantry in the Open and they use it to straighten their line and begin an attack on the south west corner of Burkersdorf.

Back to back, they draw two Artillery Reload cards and blast the Prussian IR1 with canister, adding musketry to their effort to shift them from the buildings.

The Prussians have good morale and cover, they have taken some losses but probably not enough to challenge their morale, and they have two hits hanging over from the previous shot (you need three to cause another casualty). So Austrians go all in, discharging their artillery for the last time this turn and leaving it and two units of infantry unloaded for the remainder of the turn (they have no more reload cards in their deck). The gamble pays off, and the Austrians roll high - IR 1 has taken four losses and dissolves into retreat.

Note: In our amended rules all units have four unit integrity points. Infantry can take three hits before losing one; cavalry and artillery two hits. Units automatically rout on losing their fourth unit integrity point and are removed on losing a fifth.

Then, with their second to last initiative point, they turn another Infantry move in the Open card and develop their counterattack on Burkersdorf further.

In the words of Hannibal "I love it when a plan comes together."

5:3 Vs 5:3 - Same dominoes, end of turn!
Turn one is over. Each side gathers up its sequence cards and shuffles them in readiness for the start of turn 2.

This seems like a good place to end the first part of this battle report.

Part 2 of "The Battle of Soor played solo", coming soon.......

Monday 16 March 2020

Limbering up. Doing SYW limbers on the cheap + model conversion notes.

Limbers and wagons are very much a non-essential nice to have. If anything, I have found wagons more useful over the years as they allow a wide variety of scenarios to be played; I have happily done without limbers for most of my gaming life, coming up with various ways of showing guns 'in train' without models of limbers and teams.

One thing that has put me off buying limbers is the price of the models, which has only increased with the size of my collections. However, when I started my Napoleonic collection I made a conscious decision to include them, if not one per battery at least enough to get by, and I discovered just how 'nice' it is to have them.

Consequently, I decided to retrospectively buy limbers for my SYW collection (Prussians, Russians and Austrians). I have six two gun batteries of artillery for each army so, initially, I thought this would cost me more than I really wanted to spend: In metal, with a four horse team, I priced each limber at £14.80. For one limber per gun (total 36) this would cost £543.60 - passion killer.

I thought about how to cut costs. I looked to War Bases (MDF) for a solution. They make various carts, perhaps they make limbers. They do, they make a Napoleonic French limber. They are not ideal but, they had potential for conversion and at only £1.50 each they had to be worth a punt. At this point I also decided to cut cut down the teams to just two horses each. Limber and teams would now only cost £5.90 each.

Warbases Gribeauval limber. A neat little MDF model.

I took out the bits then cut bits off (as shown) before assembling it as a simple 18 C limber.
Note: I cut the MDF tow spike off (piece on 
far left ) so that it could be replaced with a more durable wire one 

Assembled before being drilled for the wire towing spike.
To cut costs further, I decided on one limber per two gun battery and to paint the limbers natural, neutral wood so that they could be used for any army. Furthermore, it was hard to imagine a scenario where I would have six batteries on the move at the same time, so three or four limbers per army would be enough. I bought six limbers from War Bases and twelve draught horses from Front Rank. Total cost: £35.40.

However, I had made a serious mistake. As soon as I had painted them, and added a gun, I realised just how ridiculous they looked. I should have painted the limbers in national colours. I would need to buy more. I decided on four limbers per army, potentially doubling the cost to £70.80. With my ardour receding I decided to do the limber bases in two parts - one with the limber and one with the team. This would mean I only needed four more horses, rather than twelve, reducing the total price to £50.20.

Limber and team based as two pieces.
The limbers painted in national colours - Austrian yellow; Prussian blue; Russian red.
This weekend, with all the bits in place, and having a couple of afternoons to spare, I repainted the limbers, painted the horses, and based them up. I also painted up another Warbases wagon and team that I've had hanging around for a while (its load is teddy bear fur painted up as hay): Note that I have changed it two a single shafted model to allow a two horse team to be harnessed side by side rather than in tandem.

I will only need horses for two armies, so I split limbers and teams, thus reducing the cost of horses by one third.
Another benefit of basing the teams separately is the possibility of having four horse teams when not many limbers
 are in play at the same time.
I now have SYW limbers. Huzzah!