Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Review of Grande Armee rules

Grande Armée by Sam A Mustafa (2002):


Napoleonic was the period I wargamed a lot in the 1970’s, and I possess large 25mm armies for all the main protagonists. Over the intervening years I have struggled to find a set of rules that captured the nuances of the period, and I have as a result accumulated a shelf full of rules! Roughly 10 years ago I bought Grande Armée and although they focussed on a higher command level than I was looking for, I thought they contained some ‘interesting’ mechanisms. The rules remained untested on my shelf gathering dust but continued to intrigue me. In the meantime a friend suggested a mini-campaign based on Napoleon’s late 1790’s campaigns in North Italy using Principle of War rules. We both bought armies using 6mm Adler miniatures. We were impressed by the casting quality and the level of painting detail that could be achieved on these small masterpieces. Unfortunately my friend moved away due to work commitments, so I was left with a pair of unused 6mm armies which were put into storage. Last year I sorted through armies I possess that were not seeing much table action, with the view to either re-vamping or selling on. I decided that these 6mm armies could be rebased for Grande Armée and used to test the rules. I checked out various Yahoo groups and blogs, and it appeared that many gamers preferred using 2” square bases and reducing all scales to 2/3rd. This was the approach I used and I must admit that the results looked good!

I re-read the rules and saw a problem; the rules are primarily designed to refight historical battles rather than pick up battles. I therefore set to working out a simple mechanism to generate balanced opposing armies; dicing for commanders, number and composition of forces, unit strengths and qualities. The mechanism I devised and tested seems to work well producing varied but balanced forces comprising 15-20 units that fit with the forces at my disposal. Whilst I was developing this army generation mechanism, I took part in a WW2 game at the local club using the newly published Chain of Command rules. I was impressed by the pre-game scouting mechanism and immediately adapted this mechanism for use with Grande Armée.

I have now played two solo Grande Armée games to test the rules. I have yet to play an actual opponent, but feel that I now have a good feel for the rules. The first game involved Napoleon (Great) with 2 large forces versus Serbottendorf (Average) with 5 smaller forces. Napoleon had to create a third command to counter an Austrian thrust in the centre, this created a command problem for the French army. Overall, this was an interesting game which resulted in both armies taking serious casualties so that at the end of the 4th turn they both failed their ‘break’ tests. The result was a draw. The second game matched Augereau (Average) with 4 forces versus Mack (Poor) with 3 forces. This game resulted in decisive French victory after 3 turns following a swinging French attack overwhelming the Austrian right flank.

The rules are A4, spiral bound, with black and white illustrations and diagrams. They are well written, nicely structured and organised. The diagrams clearly illustrate key rules, and there is a quick reference sheet (QRS), plus a more extensive QRS (called Éclaireur). Finally there are 4 historic scenarios and a section on how to convert historic OOB’s into the Grande Armée format.

A key feature of the rules is the use of a flexible time scale: Each ‘Turn’ comprises a variable number of ‘Pulses’, and the players cannot be certain about how many ‘Pulses’ will be played in a ‘Turn’. A ‘Pulse’ effectively is an IGOUGO mini-turn. Each ‘Pulse’ starts with simultaneous skirmishing and artillery firing, which can inflict fairly minor damage to target units. Skirmishing ability is a differentiating factor between armies, with the French out-skirmishing the Austrians in the games I played. The firing mechanism is very quick and simple using opposing dice rolls. At the heart of the rules are ‘Command Points’ (CP’s). The quality of the C-in-C and type/composition of the army determine how many CP’s are initially available for the Turn. CP’s are used to activate your sub-commanders, who vary in the number of CP’s required (modified by increasing distance from the C-in-C). This can affect the deployment decisions at the start of the battle; you don’t want expensive sub-commanders too distant from your C-in-C, or in key areas of the battlefield. Un-activated sub-commanders will act on their own initiative: Aggressive sub-commanders attacking, whilst Cautious sub-commanders sit inactive.  How to best use CP’s is the key decision to be made by a player because you never have as many as you need. Do you use them quickly and control your sub-commanders in the initial Pulse(s)? Do you save CP’s for later Pulses and trust some of your sub-commanders to act correctly on their initiative? You can gain additional CP’s if you roll a double when dicing for initiative in each Pulse. Winning the Initiative dice roll allows a player to choose whether to go first or second in the Pulse, which can be a significant decision (although going first tends to be the default option). Unit movement is another variable parameter and is done unit by unit; French infantry move slightly faster than the slower Austrians. Cavalry move (generally) faster than infantry. Rough terrain slows movement by a variable amount. All together these rules make moving an uncertain procedure: you can move slowly, less than maximal and keep good order; or you can push each unit at full speed and lose your formation order. Close combat (there is no charge mechanism) is simple opposed dicing (based on unit strength modified by circumstances). The results trend to be decisive and bloody! You find your once strong units rapidly deteriorate in strength and will soon require rallying. An important factor to consider is flank support for your units, together with combined arms attacks. Direct flank attacks are effective but difficult to achieve because a unit cannot ignore potential opponents to their front. Units in towns can be difficult and expensive to assault. An unusual rule prohibits cavalry from attacking downhill, possibly a justifiable rule but may catch players out who are not used to such a restriction in other rules they may have played. Artillery is very vulnerable to close combat but have a chance to pull back (less likely against mounted opponents). There is no morale phase; the morale of a unit is part of the strength point rating. After a variable number of Pulses, the Turn finally ends. At this point units can recover strength points (if they are sufficiently distant from the enemy), and ‘routed’ units can be rallied (a single chance, otherwise they are lost permanently). If an army has lost more units than their ‘Break Point’, the commander must dice to see if the army concedes defeat. This dice roll is modified by the number of excessive units broken and the number of turns left to play.

Overall the rules are fast, fun and easy to play. I found that by my second game the QRS was all I required and I rarely needed to refer to the main rulebook. The variable time and movement rules are very innovative and work well. The decisions required by the use of CP’s are key and again make the players think ahead, balancing probabilities. Close combat is very bloody and the deterioration of your army is possibly too fast for my tastes. The need to employ reserves to plug holes that emerge in your army is important and an aspect of the rules that is vital in a grand tactical set of rules. Cycling of commands out of the firing line may help but I think would prove difficult. The army break point system allows the game to come to a definitive conclusion. The main fault I found with these rules are that they don’t feel especially Napoleonic. There are no unit formations; no column, line or square. There are some differential national characteristics in the makeup of the army, but this is not a strong feature once the game is in progress. The game feels more like a boardgame but without the hexes. Apart from the visual appeal, miniature figures are not essential. As with all rules written by Sam Mustafa, they are well presented and contain interesting game design elements. I am not sure this is a game I will take to my local wargame club, instead I will use them for the occasional game at home. The main role I can see for Grande Armée is in a campaign setting, where large battles can be quickly played to a conclusion allowing the campaign to progress. This is the primary role of Grande Armée and I cannot really criticize the rules too harshly for not fulfilling my more tactical requirements. I do intend to refight some historic battles to see if the rules work in that context; first up will be the battle of Rivoli.

So my search for a set of Napoleonic rules continues!

Introduction to my gaming background

I have been wargaming for about 45 years now. I started gaming around the age of 10 using rules devised by myself. I was never happy about the haphazard way I and my childhood friends played with toy soldiers: surely a man on horse would move faster than one on foot; it must be easier to shoot an enemy if he was closer to you etc. The rules I ‘developed’ were very basic but did use dice: e.g. foot move 6”, cavalry move 12”; shooting hits on 4,5,6 if within 6”, 5 or 6 if within 12”, or a 6 if further away; hand-to-hand combat involved both rolling a D6 to score higher. Pretty soon modifications started to be added, such as obstacles for movement, benefits for cover, and additions for ‘better’ weapons or armour. Shortly after these small personal steps into wargaming, I discovered Donald Featherstone’s landmark book Wargames in the local library. I suddenly realised that I, and a few school friends, were not alone. There already existed an established hobby in the wider world that actually used rules similar to those I had developed for myself. Two other significant factors impacted my interest at this time: Firstly, within 15 minutes of where I lived there was a shop that sold wargame figures (Michaels Models in North Finchley). Secondly I made friends with a boy, Graham, two doors from my house who shared a similar interest in military history and wargaming.

My wargaming activity now expanded. I brought my first metal figures (25mm Minifig French Old Guard officer and standard bearer, which I still have and occasionally use). I started painting my figures using Humbrol enamels, although the standard was basic (no undercoat, and a few glaring mistakes e.g. my Brunswick troops had green coats because Humbrol produced a paint called Brunswick green, so it must be right!). Graham and I played large battles lasting days using rudimentary terrain, with massive losses to both sides (frequently to the last figure standing).

The next step in my journey was joining a local wargame club (North London Wargames Group). Suddenly I saw beautifully painted, historically ‘accurate’ armies of different historical periods. A plethora of wargame rules were revealed, and a range of helpful fellow gamers were happy to provide advice and information. Now all my pocket money was spent at Michaels Models and my armies grew and were painted to a better grade. This expansion of my armies increased dramatically once I got my first job after leaving school. My friend Graham also discovered hex-based board wargames which we played frequently. I particularly remember a huge game he got for his birthday which depicted WW2 on an epic scale. The maps were so large that they covered one wall of his bedroom and hundreds of unit counters were pinned to the map and wall behind (we had to use thimbles to push them in!). A single game turn took a whole day to play, and the game went on for months. In fact we never completed the ‘war’ because game fatigue set in. I was the Allied player and successfully defended Britain, kicked Rommel out of North Africa and launched a counter-invasion of France ahead of historical schedule. But I was losing badly on the Eastern front and Russia was going to be knocked out of the war.

In the 1980’s wargaming took a backseat and my armies were mothballed. I went to university, I left home, met my wife and then I undertook a PhD. There were better things to do instead of painting miniatures and playing games; beer, women, clubbing etc. were the order of the day. But I never totally abandoned the hobby of my youth; I still read historical non-fiction, I still flicked through new wargame rules, and I still played the occasionally game with my mate, Graham.

In the 1990’s, my studies complete, I had the time and inclination to resume wargaming. I again joined a local group (Scimitar in Coventry) and met a great bunch of gamers; Pete Duckworth, Ian Wilson, Nick Meredith et al. It was clear wargaming had moved on considerably. The standard of gaming was now remarkable; enamels were out and acrylics were in; single colours were out and shading and highlights were in; complex, sluggish, table heavy rules were out and fast, innovative rules were in; sparse, basic terrain was out and beautiful table set ups were in. My best wargaming years now occurred. Ancient period games emerged as a major interest, largely through the DBA and DBM rules, but I also expanded the range of my armies to cover new periods of interest to the point where I had matched forces for pretty much any conflict you could name.

At the end of the 1990’s I moved away from Coventry to Hungerford due to work. I struggled to find a new gaming club for many years and my gaming largely became a solo affair. Still interesting but frustrating (in fact, I still like to play solo today, mainly to explore ‘new’ rule systems). In the 2000’s I met a fellow gamer at work and he introduced me to the Devizes Wargames Club which is about 45 minutes drive from home. Although he moved away fairly shortly after, I have continued to play at Devizes regularly since, and now enjoy a better balanced gaming hobby.

I have reached the stage where I have a large collection of armies covering all periods of history from the late bronze age through to the modern era using various scales of miniatures. I have dabbled with fantasy and SciFi gaming to a limited extent, but I have never played either Warhammer or 40K. I currently don’t feel the need to start any new armies and I am now looking to titivate my existing collection by adding vignettes for my commanders and baggage elements. Of course this may change if I see some eye-candy at a show, or a new, exciting rule set emerges. New rules remain an addiction for me. I have a large collection of rules going back years and cannot resist buying newly released sets, particularly if well presented, even if I am unlikely to ever use them.

A parallel hobby interest has emerged in the last few years: boardgaming. I discovered a subset of my non-wargaming friends who share a love of more general gaming, and to my surprise I found that my wife also enjoys these games. In contrast, she has never had any interest in wargaming, but has never-the-less supported me in my slightly ‘strange’ hobby. Therefore I spend more social time playing Dominion, Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan etc. etc. than I do wargaming.
Finally is my decision to start a wargaming blog. The internet provides a feast of wargaming related sites and many excellent blogs, so I thought “why not add to it”. My intention is to post a monthly series of updates covering my activities together with personal reviews of wargame rules that currently hold my attention. I plan not to give detailed AAR’s with step-by-step accounts of the action but instead convey my thoughts about how the rules work; where they are strong and where weak, and my ideas about potential house rules that may add to the systems.