I am a fan of the rules written by Sam Mustafa and have enjoyed playing Longstreet, Maurice, Lasalle and Grande Armée. His latest offering is Blücher (Honour, 2014), is a set of rules covering the grand tactical aspect of Napoleonic warfare. The basic unit size is roughly the brigade, rather than the battalion, so the line/column/square formations normally associated with the period are not represented. Therefore these rules can be considered as a ‘replacement’ for his previous Grande Armée rules, which I reviewed in a previous blog post. In contrast, Lasalle is his tactical Napoleonic offering which does employ the standard formation types.
The rules themselves are an A5 hardcover book and are beautifully presented. In my opinion Sam Mustafa is the top author of rules in terms of publication style. The structure of the rules is logical and easy to navigate. The writing is clear, concise and unambiguous. Diagrams are used extensively and provide clarification when required. The author’s comments are placed in clearly defined boxed areas, and provide information concerning decisions made in the rules mechanisms (there is also a FAQ section at the end of the book which adds further detail). There are army lists for the major powers covered (including the Ottoman Turks), and a basic campaign system (Scharnhorst) which facilitates the generation of a battlefield set up.
All units/formations have a footprint equivalent to a standard poker playing card. Therefore games can be played using printed playing cards (which I will discuss later) or miniatures grouped on a base of roughly the same size. Measurements are defined in terms of base widths enabling players using differently based armies to easily adapt to the Blucher rules. All units have a strength or elan rating, plus a few special characteristics (e.g. skirmish, volley, shock etc.). The rules use an IGOUGO mechanism and a standard ‘battle day’ lasts 30 alternate turns.
The key, defining mechanism in the rules is ‘momentum’ (MO). The opposing player rolls 3 D6 in a cup and keeps the score secret from the active player. The active player activates his forces in any order he desires, firstly by corps formation, then individually and finally using his C-in-C ‘follow me’ order. Each activation undertaken costs points which he tallies up and when this tally equals or exceeds the secret dice roll, his activation ends. Therefore the active player does not know how much of his force he will be able to activate before his movement phase ends. This forces the players to prioritise their actions. This is a very neat mechanism; it introduces an element of uncertainty and reflects the command and control limitations within an army of the period. In Sam’s previous grand tactical Napoleonic rules, Grande Armée, command control is reflected by chits which are expended at a rate significantly dependent on the distance of the formation from the C-in-C’s position. In Blücher the system is much simpler, but I do find it strange that a widely dispersed army can operate as efficiently as a more concentrated army.
The lack of specific formations make movement easy; there are simple moves, difficult moves, reserve moves and charges. All these moves are clearly explained and easy to understand. The use of diagrams in this section of the rules is particularly helpful. Fire combat, generally only carried out by units that did not move, is again very simple. Essentially a unit rolls the number of dice equal to their current elan, with a few modifiers, requiring 6’s for a hit. Artillery has an ammunition allowance, which diminishes as the unit fires. Melee is equally simple; rolling dice equal to current elan (plus modifiers), scoring on rolls of 4,5,6 and then comparing attacker/defender scores to determine the outcome. Finally, victory goes to the player who eliminates enemy units to a number greater than the enemy army break point (basically 1/3rd the total infantry and cavalry units in the army).
Essentially, those are the rules of the game. There are some more advanced rules which add special characteristics to units and armies, and these allow differentiation to be ascribed to combatants e.g. French have the ‘skirmish’ ability, Russians are ‘steadfast’, the British ‘volley’ etc. Named sub-commanders can be added to provide further characterisation.
Sam suggests that players try the basic rules using the “Along the Danube” scenario published on the Honour website (http://www.sammustafa.com/honour/downloads/), using the cards provided there. So this is what I did, and played the game solo to get a feel for the rules. The hidden momentum (MO) dice scores do present a problem for solo play but I took a suggestion made on the Honour forum (http://www.sammustafa.com/honour-forums/) which suggested rolling the dice following each activation; if your current tally exceeds the rolled score then activation ends. Discussions on the forum did indicate that this does change the probability of activation ending and suggested various alternatives, but it did seem to me to be simplest mechanism available, so this is what I used. I also did not use the reserve movement rules because these can only apply to concealed units, which are not easy to transfer to the solo format.
The deployment of the armies, in card form, is shown below with the French at the bottom of the photo, and the Austrians at the top:
The objectives are shown as red counters. I choose to deploy both armies widely, rather than in depth, to facilitate as much combat as possible. The reserve cavalry of both armies were deployed on the left of the photo. I originally planned to play the game using only the cards (in card protector sleeves), but I reasoned that as I had the necessary figures available, that I would deploy them on top of the cards:
The battlefield suddenly seemed very crowded! Due to the shiney nature of the card protector sleeves I did encounter problems when units moved onto the hills, they kept sliding off, so in future games I will use contour style hills. I also found that figures had to be moved off the cards prior to movement and then replaced once completed, which was a bit of a pain!
The game flowed smoothly. I did not have to refer to the rules often and the QRS sufficed. In fact after half a dozen turns I did not even have to refer the QRS that often! The French and Austrian cavalry slugged it out on the left flank for many turns with the French eventually prevailing, but at a cost which prevented them exploiting the now open Austrian flank. The French attack on the right across the shallow river stalled due to lack of activations and a slow grind of a firefight ensued. The Austrians did eventually launch a counter-attack here using their superior numbers, but this was too little, too late. The main action was in the centre. The French counter-battery fire quickly forced the Austrian artillery to quit the table, and the French infantry surged forward. The issue was in the balance for a number of turns before the Austrians finally cracked. Austrian units were lost in rapid succession, and their reserve Grenadier units failed to stem the tide. The French achieved an 8:5 victory after 15 turns.
Points I took from the game: At no point did I use the C-in-C ability to activate using a ‘follow me’ order. I found that artillery ran out of ammo fairly quickly. Their firepower became reduced after only 3 turns and was exhausted after 5 turns of fire, which represents only 1/3rd of the potential game length. Maybe this is good representation of massed artillery batteries, but it did leave me feeling rather deflated to see them retire from the field of battle so early. In this game I made little use of prepared status (representing squares etc to defend against cavalry) because the French cavalry were so mauled (remaining elan of 1 or 2) that they could not hope to take on almost fresh Austrian foot. I did use the voluntary retire move to extricate battered units to prevent them being destroyed. The French success seemed to be due to utilising their front line units to soften up the enemy (by using skirmish fire) prior to moving the 2nd line through to carry out assaults.
Final Thoughts: Even though I used appropriate figures, the game still felt more like a ‘block based’ game rather than a miniatures game. The hidden dice motivation system worked smoothly, forced prioritisation and was simple, but I’m not fully convinced it simulates command and control that well. The chit mechanism used in Grande Armée rules does a better job but it is more cumbersome. The actual game rules were nice and simple, easy to pick up and required little referral to the rulebook (or even the QRS). The game did not feel especially ‘Napoleonic’, it could have been any horse and musket period game. Maybe this simply reflects my personal take on Napoleonic wargaming; I think I’m more interested in gaming lower level tactical actions utilising columns, lines, squares etc. Playing further games might modify my initial impressions when using non-corps based armies, and using armies with differing special characteristics. I am also keen to try out the Scharnhorst campaign system which will generate delayed re-enforcements, and encourage use of reserve formations. So, would I recommend Blücher to others interested in Napoleonic warfare? Most definitely! I cannot see myself using Blücher for miniature based games but I will certainly use the card based supplements when they are released.
In addition to the main rules, I bought the first card supplement, “The Hundred Days”, which covers the famous 1815 campaign. All participating formations are included and the cards are beautifully produced, with their backs showing the respective national flags to allow for concealed movement. The campaign specific rules and maps are published on the Honour website. I greatly look forward to playing the campaign and I anticipate using the cards in many games. However much I play Blücher, I envision buying each supplement as it is released, even if only for aesthetic reasons.