Monday, September 30, 2013

O'er the 28mm Hills and Far Away

Phase I of my Napoleonic British army is complete.  Altogether we have four healthy infantry brigades, a small brigade of light cavalry, and some artillery support.  It took almost exactly three months to assemble this force.  The first two batallions were painted in the weeks before Historicon, and I bought bases for them there.  I like to think I have a nice balance between speed and quality, though I'm probably kidding myself, since any additional time I took would probably be spent in a sloppy attempt to add layers of highlighting if I chose to work more deliberately.  On the whole, I'm pretty proud of the way these guys look.  I wish I had a better camera available than the one in my phone, but my classroom is far better than my house as far as light goes, so here is where I have to take my pictures. 


Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hi, Highlanders!


I put off painting my batallion of Highlanders as long as I was able.  Tartans are a bear.  My one offort at painting them (in 15mm) was a pretty miserable failure.  These guys, inspired by the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders, are a little better.  They stand up to the "three feet rule," if you're myopic and a little drunk.  The kilts were a learning experience, but I have a long way to go before they are in the same league as some of the showcase models I see on TMP.  The socks and headbands were tedious, but I'm happy with how they came out.

Along with the KGL unit to their rear, these Highlanders mark the end of my first phase of painting my British army.  All together, I have seven line units, one Highlander, two light infantry, one rifle unit, three Portuguese line, one cacadore, two units of light cavalry, and four batteries of guns.  I'll try to get a group shot tomorrow.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Vol de l'Aigle III, A Review

I recently did very well in some eBay sales, so I decided to splurge on the Napoleonic campaign system known as “Vol d’Aigle” (Flight of the Eagle).  There are three versions of the game, all complete but focusing on different campaigns of the period.  Volume Three is the most expensive of the lot, but since it covers my faves: the 1809 Danube campaign and the entire Peninsular War (plus the interesting 1814 campaign), it was clearly the volume for me.  It is worth noting that the 1815 campaigns are available as free downloads from the Pratzen Editions website, so I have that covered too, should I ever get the urge to go all Waterloo-ish.

The box is heavy, being full of components.  There are dozens of sheets of cards representing divisions and leaders who fought in the specified campaigns.  These are attractive and colorful, but they need to be cut apart carefully.   There is a set of tactical rules geared towards 6mm miniatures that I have glanced at, but since my optometrist and I have agreed that I will no longer game at that scale, I think I will stick with Black Powder.  Another booklet offers conversion rules between the strategic and tactical systems.  I am intrigued by a third booklet which offers beta rules for a supply and reinforcement system, which calls for players to raise and allocate resources in their home countries in order to build the armies with which they will fight in the campaign game.  I’ve always lived “micromanaged sim world” games, and this kind of thing is right up my alley, but I suspect most people who agree to play a Napoleonic campaign game would much rather command armies than fret about a source of steel for their cavalry swords.  It might make a good solo diversion and I will have to give it a go.

There is a booklet of army lists for the three campaigns listed (though the Peninsular War is really eight mini-campaigns using the same maps).  Purists may pound their Nafzinger lists and scream about inaccuracies, but for a game of this level, I think the authors have done an admirable job of balancing the need for simplicity while reconstructing the basic strategic challenges the generals in each campaign faced. 

There are several 11” x 17” maps showing the parts of Europe where the campaigns took place. These have been adapted from 18th century maps and they definitely add more period flavor than any other components.  Given that the game runs according to an umpired double-blind mechanic, I think the experience of maneuvering armies to seek objectives and favorable terrain is about as authentic as it gets.  Some of the type on the maps is a little hard to read, and I would have appreciated higher-res versions available on the website.  As it is, I may use the maps available for the Murat rules ( which seem a little more modern but are much easier to read.  Players will need to reproduce multiple copies of these maps, and the game recommends the additional purchase of clear overlays to show all moves simultaneously.  

Finally, there are the rules themselves.  For those to whom such things matter, the graphical presentation seems fairly old-school, with big blocks of text in a two-column format.  Despite this and despite the occasional translation hiccup, I found the rules clearly written and easy to understand.  There are numerous examples that attack the main areas where ambiguities are likely to come up.  Given how impossibly complex the task of equipping, supplying, moving, and fighting with armies was in the period, I felt that most of the important bases were covered in sufficient detail to give players a sense that they are facing the same decisions their historical counterparts did.  Umpires are given enough leeway to handle cases where players go off the grid with their decisions. (“So you want your cavalry division to kill their horses and use their stomachs as swim bladders to cross the flooded river?  All right, you can do it, but at a cost of half your effective strength, and you’re going to move as infantry from now on…”)

The double-blind movement system is the heart of the system and the strength of the rules.  Army commanders send orders to their subordinates, which can take a while to reach them.  The corps commanders then write orders for their units, mindful of the fact that an army marching along a road may occupy a dozen kilometers of that road’s length.  Do you split your army and try to have them converge at a critical point? Or do you lumber along a single road, hoping that you have the time to deploy when you make contact with the enemy?  I love choices like these, and since you don’t know what the enemy is up to until your scouts make contact, the game is full of them.  Orders are
drawn onto transparent overlays, and the referee judges when armies make contact with each other based on the combined orders, giving out information about the enemy based on scouting and intelligence reports.

Three combat systems of increasing complexity are provided.  The first, and simplest, should be sufficient to handle small engagements.  Players assign units and leaders to zones on the battlefield. Factors are calculated and results are applied in terms of losses to combat strength and morale.  Leaders play a small but significant role depending on where their attention is directed.  Managing the disposition of units from round to round is of critical importance, and the foolish player will not keep a reserve.  The combat system of moderate complexity plays much like the first, but it gives the leaders more options in terms of how and with what vigor they commit their units.  Finally, the advanced system takes into account many more factors, including the integral artillery in each division (abstracted in the earlier systems).  If players did not want to integrate the system with miniatures battles, the advanced system would definitely be worth the time and effort.  For my needs, any large or critical battle will go to the tabletop, and I’ll use the simplest combat system to handle losses in trivial or one-sided engagements.

My chief complaint with the game comes from the fact that there is a heck of a lot of information to keep track of on a turn-to-turn basis.  While the mechanics of the rules are no more complex than those of other games of this scale I have seen, and are probably simpler than other strategic level simulations of the period, the authors could have gone a long way toward making the jobs of the players and referee easier with some well-considered aids.  First off all, the game screams for a clear turn sequence.  In a given turn, the umpire needs to determine the morale, combat strength, supply status, and ammunition status of each unit.  He needs to establish where each unit is and how quickly it will reach its goal.  He must determine when individual commanders receive their orders. And finally, he must oversee multiple phases of combat (which takes place in hourly turns, giving units in the proximity a chance to respond to the sound of the guns) and apply the results of said combat.  If any one of those jobs is overlooked in a given turn, the simulation strains, so please, Pratzen, provide a flowchart or a checklist!  Putting some of the organizational responsibility to the players is a good idea, too.  Sample order sheets are provided. I will probably make the players responsible for recording the location of each unit’s supply, their current morale and supply status, plus the amount of fatigue they have accumulated. 

The games were originally published in French, and some components are still in that language.  For instance, the leader cards show the term “dés” to indicate the bonus dice the leader might add in combat.  Overall, the English translation of the rules is good, but there are a few areas where the original French idiom shows through to the detriment of clarity.  This doesn’t bother me, and I feel it actually adds flavor to the cards.  However, I can see this as being a deal-breaker for someone shelling out the fairly high purchase price for the game.

Converting to Black Powder may be a trick, but since that is a choice I made outside the scope fo teh rules, it is a bed I must lie in.  I was thinking of starting units with an existing bad state of morale with a hit already on them--such units are more likely to run off.  I will also mark a threshold where I reduce brigade strength depending on how far their percentage of combat effectives has dropped.

On the whole, while $100 is a lot to shell out for a game, I feel  I got a lot for my money.  When you consider that a game involving six to a dozen players could last for weeks (if ever there was a game that cried out for play-by-email, this is it!), it’s actually a pretty good value for one’s entertainment dollars.  It does a good job of providing a simulation of the challenges that leaders of armies and corps would have faced in the Napoleonic era, without getting too bogged down in detail.  The emphasis is on maneuver and fighting, which is really what we all want to be doing, right?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Games in the classroom

The school where I teach has a wonderful summer reading program where 40 teachers pick a book on a subject that interests them.  Students then sign up for a book that captures their imagination.  Since we instituted this approach last year, complaints about summer reading assignments have dropped to nil, since all students got one of their top five picks.  Then, we take a day in September and dedicate it to the reading. Teachers are responsible for planning a fun and educational activity that springs from the book.

This year, I read Pegasus Bridge, by Stephen Ambrose. It had the virtues of being short, well written, and a ripping good yarn filled with hard-to-believe-but-darnit-they're true heroics.  We warmed up by breaking the group into teams.  Each team planned an attack on a bridge that crosses the creek that runs through our campus.  Then we discussed the book and  the overall problems faced by the Allies on D-Day.  Finally, we played a table-top simulation of a fight for the hedgerows in Normandy with a simple home-brew set of rules.

Definitely a fun day.  the kids learned some valuable life lessons that they can use in their everyday life like:

  *The biggest gun in the game ain't much use if you can't bring it into action.
  *Plan.  Plan a lot. Then make plans for when those plans go awry.  Then ACT!
  *Don't cross open ground in close formation if you know the enemy has an artillery spotter nearby.

Overall, it was not a good day for the Allies. When I ran a solo playtest, the Americans overran the German lines in two turns, owing to some unbelievable luck on my part.  When I played with the students, the luck was all with the Wehrmacht, as the Allied center just got raked in a crossfire without being able to mount an effective response.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Best Grampa ever!

We've all been through the ordeal of having to explain our gaming hobby to our loved ones.  I remember sitting down with my parents when I was twelve (many, MANY years ago). Once they were satisfied that Dungeons and Dragons was a formalized game of make-believe, and not some satanic ritual taht would have me sacrificing the dog to Hastur, they were cool to let me do my own thing.

My friend and colleague Mike had parents with a similar attitude, though his father is a historical re-enactor, so it was probably less of a journey for him.  But once he explained role-playing to his grandfather, his Grampa went out and and made Mike some miniatures out of a small toolbox and some roofing nails.  He twisted wire around the nails to make a body, then painted them up to create player characters.  They stand about the same height as 15mm figures, and they're just too cool to see!  Better than some of the Grenadier figures I remember from my youth...