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!

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