25 October 2014

After Action Report: Horse and Musket Vol I

The Desktop General takes command of some Prussians and crosses swords in Horse and Musket Volume 1. How will he fare?

Published on 17 JUN 2009 5:16pm by Scott Parrino

Author:  Bill Trotter

The Seven Years War is sometimes called the "First World War" due to its global scope.  Tomorrow we'll publish an article looking at the war in greater depth.  But today, allow me to introduce the battle of Chotusitz.  This is one of several scenarios in the freshly released Horse and Musket Vol I.  I have chosen to play it as it is a classic case of a delaying action against the Austrians.  The single road running through Chotusitz is the only real all-weather road through the map, and it will prove to be important ground as I cross swords with the AI.

 

BATTLE GROUP ONE – “Chotusitz is Burning”

“Expediency is often the mother of tactics” 

No, Frederick the Great didn’t – so far as I’m aware – say that; but he would surely have understood my motive for saying it. Given a few days from a standing start, to come up with a valid AAR about a new, unfamiliar and fairly complex game focused on a period of warfare that is hardly second-nature to me, I chose the opening, almost-a-tutorial, scenario. After playing – and very much enjoying – several variant games with that scenario, I’ve come to regard it as a pretty good introduction to the whole Horse & Musket system, one that presents more challenges and tougher odds than it might, at first glance, seem to offer, yet is of reasonably manageable size and without the rococo complexities of the later, much larger scenarios. Bottom line: it WILL test your generalship and it WILL teach you how to play the game.

It does, after all, contain every major type of unit found in the game; reasonably problematical terrain, and a nicely balanced trade-off vis-à-vis the advantage each side brings to the battlefield. The Austrians have more and seemingly better commanders, along with the potent asset of two multi-tube batteries of 12-pounders, excellently situated on commanding ground, and their gunners are first-class – so rarely do they miss, that the incidence of wasted shots is all-but-insignificant.

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Always note the “short”, “effective” and “longest” range stats for enemy guns – it’s easy to surge forward, during the heat of battle, without remembering such details, but the AI never gets distracted and if your men come within effective range, they will be punished for their recklessness.

 

Prussia, too, has a force multiplier, and an equally (potentially) decisive one: a force of 1500 cavalry, all squadrons rated “regular” or “veteran”. The Austrians do have a slight advantage in infantry strength, but as their mission is primarily offensive, and requires considerable uphill movement, the quantitative edge is not enough to worry about.

THE OBJECTIVE:

Chotusitz is a modest village, unfortified, whose primary importance lies in the fact that the best all-weather road on the map passes directly through it. On either side of that road, the land is patchy with marshes and lakes, streams and hillocks – a fair percentage of it impassable, and much of it troublesome for an army on the march. In short, a classic bottleneck. The Prussians’ goal is to retain control of the village; even partial, precarious control, at scenario’s end, will earn them a “marginal victory”. The slightly superior Austrian force, of course, has for its goal the total occupation of the town and the (preferably) bloody ejection of its Prussian defenders. I presumed, from context, that if the Prussians DO hang on to Chotusitz at the end of the first battle, they can expect significant reinforcements in the second, and subsequent scenarios of this Battle Group.

Accompanying the Austria strike force are several experienced and highly competent officers: Field Marshal Gaisruck; Field Marshal Daun; Field Marshal Konigsegg, and Prince Charles, of the Hapsburg nobility, but rather more tenacious than most of his in-bred cousins; in short, a formidable quartet of leaders, with crack troops at their disposal.

Prussia enjoys the services of only two expert commanders: Prince Leopold and General Jeetze. The formidable cavalry force, alas, is under the command of an unnamed AI-appointed generic general who displays reasonable competence and valor, yet who also manifests an infuriating tendency to fail his “activation checks”, roughly fifty per cent of the time. Given that his cavalry force is Prussia’s ace-in-the-hole, this is a worrisome irritant, but since chance, as always, plays a role in whether or not a given commander WILL go “active”, you could get lucky…or not. In the four games I played, said cavalry commander proved unbearably pokey and unlucky in one game, about average in two, and dashingly aggressive in one. Four tries does not, I grant you, make for much of a statistical bell-curve, but I never felt as though the game engine was ganging up on me. It reproduced the vagaries of real people in a plausible manner, and that’s about as much as you can ask of a simulated character (by the way, you CAN give names to these anonymous spear-chuckers by using the excellent editing program, should you be inclined).

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Prince Leopold is the senior Prussian commander on the field; unfortunately, his Command Rating is hardly stellar.

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At least Leopold usually “activates”. Which is more than I can say about my generic cavalry leader!

STUDYING THE MAP

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Chotusitz is a classic choke-point and the Prussians are fighting a classic delaying action. 

The village itself, and its strategic importance, are self evident. One side must retain it; the other side must overrun it. A sweat-simple, classic, tactical equation. Pay more careful attention to these features:

  • Position of the Austrian artillery: Those two batteries occupy commanding high ground – they can bring almost every Prussian unit under observed fire and a square hit from just one battery CAN cause 30-50 casualties; their “whittle-down” effect after 2-3 salvoes can seriously weaken whatever part of the Prussian line they’re concentrating on.
  • High, defensible ground north and east of the village: this is where the Prussians will form their line, with the intent of making the Austrians march uphill into their volleys.
  • Forget about wide flanking maneuvers; the scenario is too short, in relation to the difficulties of the terrain on both edges of the map, for “go deep” end-runs to be feasible.
  • Note the position of the Prussian cavalry. True, the shortest distance is still a straight line, and in my first game, I sought to refuse the Prussian right – firing and falling back – while pushing the cavalry forward to envelop the Austrian right and, hopefully, overrun those dangerous gun batteries. As a map-solution, it looks fine; on the ground, I never could pull it off – to reach the position needed to launch a concerted cavalry charge, each squadron is required to thread its way through the village and regroup on the other side. I did accomplish this, but it took so much time and bother (their “independent commander”, unnamed, consistently failed fifty percent of his Activation checks and every time he did so, the cavalry just stayed uselessly in place. By the time the horsemen debouched on the western side of the town and formed up for what I hoped would be a decisive sweep across the Austrian right, the Austrian left, augmented by their cannon, had driven a wedge through my line and was more or less mopping the floor with my demoralized remnants. Frantic piece-meal attacks by isolated cavalry squadrons did eject some Austrians from the village, and did send a few of their units fleeing pell-mell, but by that time it was too late; my right wing was ashambles.

The computer awarded me a “marginal” victory, simply because I’d chased the enemy from the village, but it was a damned Pyrrhic victory and I took no pleasure in it. The finally casualty tally was:

AUSTRIANS: 1293 INFANTRY CASUALTIES

PRUSSIANS: 2937 INFANTRY LOSSES, 255 CAVALRY CASUALTIES

To paraphrase Lord Cornwallis after the ferocious fight at Guilford Court House (which ended, technically, in a British victory, but only after 24 % of His Lordship’s troops were slain or wounded), “A few more such ‘victories’ and my army will be ruined!”

HOW I FINALLY EKED OUT A REAL VICTORY IN MY SECOND ATTEMPT

In order to minimize, if not negate, the galling fire from the Austrian guns, I carefully counted hexes and at the earliest opportunity pulled my infantry line back, first, to a line corresponding to the limit of the guns’ effective range – 12 hexes – and suffered significantly reduced casualties and demoralization. On my next “movement” turn, I withdrew my line one hex beyond the cannons’ maximum range, thus negating the Austrians’ primary advantage. Be careful when you do this, however; infantry units do not make retrograde movements by marching backwards – you need to about-face them, move them one hex to the east (all directions cited here refer to the monitor screen!), and then turn them around so their bayonets FACE the enemy. It’s easy to overlook this detail in the heat of the moment, and the Austrians are not timid – they will be right on your heels, and if they smite one of your units from behind, a rout is inevitable, at least for that unit.

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I first withdrew my infantry to the extreme range of the Austrian artillery; although I suffered losses while doing so, they were acceptable – the casualties I would have sustained by remaining in range would not have been.

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After each retrograde movement, always remember to issue an “about face” command!

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My bad! This defensive square may be hard to over-run, but its firepower in any given direction is much reduced – put these men back in a “line” formation and rally them, at the earliest opportunity.

 

After I had reformed and reoriented my infantry on, shall we say, the “military crest”, as opposed to the highest elevations on the map, my men traded volleys with the Austrians, who – moving uphill into frontal fire – needed all the rallying points their officers could provide just to keep the pressure on. Should one or two of those officers fail their Activation Checks, the Austrian advance may falter, but don’t count on it – there’s a reason why those guys are Field Marshals, and they all seem to have boucoup Rallying Points which they will spend lavishly to sustain the momentum of their advance.

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When the “crossed musket” icon appears, you know the troops beneath it have been targeted by the enemy. Multiple targeting icons are always bad news; prepare to sustain heavy casualties.

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Expect the Austrians for strike hard at your center – do NOT launch premature pursuits after a successful counterattack, as this will bring you once again under the galling fire of their artillery.

MEANWHILE: as the two infantry lines were trading blows on the arc of ridges north of the village, I experienced a minor stroke of luck when the anonymous cavalry commander passed two consecutive Activation checks. Although my mounted squadrons DID pass, briefly, into range of the Austrian guns, they were effectively screened by the village itself. Having learned from my past mistakes, this time I did not try to force the horsemen through the eye-of-the-needle represented by the built-up area. Instead, I reoriented their axis of advance north-west (again, relative to the monitor screen) and found they were able to advance much more smoothly, and retain much of their cohesion, by following that bearing across predominately open or lightly wooded terrain. Even though General Anonymous failed his next Activation Check, three-quarters of my cavalry were now poised, on slightly elevated and unencumbered ground, at a roughly 45-degree angle to the Austrian infantry’s right flank, as it struggled uphill.

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When your cavalry commander does go active, move his squadrons NW to back up the Prussian center.

In the village itself, my left-flank units were still within cannon range and were fighting desperately to retain their hold on the westernmost buildings, which gave only marginal protection from the artillery, but which did present a galling obstacle to the Austrian foot-solders. Losses on that end of the line were heavy on both sides, but had the ancillary effect of forcing the Austrian commanders to expend most of their rally-points to sustain the momentum in that corner of the field, while I prepared (what I hoped would be) the coup de grace against the right flank of their units embroiled in my center.

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The village is not “fortified”, but its stout buildings and stone walls DO provide considerable protection, so you’d do well to anchor the Prussian left athwart the road, by taking advantage of these two built-up hexes.

 

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Any Prussian units that advance west of the village, WILL come under damaging cannon fire – although vigorous pursuit is a tempting action, it could prove most costly than its worth.

This time for fortunes of war favored me. Both General Jeetze and the Cavalry Guy passed their Activation Checks and I was able to order a downhill “Charge” with three squadrons of cavalry, augmented by a “Cold Steel” counterattack, against the same part of the enemy line, by my stalwart infantry.

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Resist the temptation to commit your cavalry too soon! Let your infantry thin out the Austrians’ ranks first.

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Avoid sending your horsemen through the village – they will only be delayed and become disrupted by trying to pass through its narrow lanes.

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And avoid committing your cavalry squadrons piecemeal – an organized, concerted charge is far more effective, although it may be tricky to arrange the timing just right.

Even better: the AI, having belatedly realized that I had withdrawn my line beyond maximum effective cannon range, chose on this same turn to limber the Austrian batteries and move them forward. For two turns, then, I didn’t have to worry about their cannon fire at all.

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When all your cavalry squadrons “go active”, that’s the time to plot a coordinated assault.

 

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Be careful, however, that your ferocious charge doesn’t land on an empty hex! The Prussians can only play their cavalry card once or twice in this scenario, before those troops begin to lose their edge.

My counterstroke smote the Austrian right like an avalanche. I admired the enemy’s discipline, however, because when presented with the prospect of eminent cavalry attack, the infantry in that sector automatically formed squares for all-around defense. Unfortunately for the enemy, though, the formations were not as puissant as they could have been due to the cumulative casualties the affected units had suffered trading volleys with my infantry line, which did have the higher ground and was so far unbroken.

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When infantry assume a “square” formation, their defensive strength increases, but their firepower, in any given direction, diminishes. Since the Austrians have no cavalry, there’s not much need to adopt this formation.

 

I derived great satisfaction from launching that cavalry charge, and following it up with a “Cold Steel” attack by my infantry. Two Austrian units disintegrated and routed (while their cannon were still limbered!), leaving a proverbial “barn door” opening on their right flank. The charging cavalry DID take significant casualties overrunning the defensive squares, but fortunately I still had two uncommitted squadrons nearby and undisrupted. On my next movement turn, I brought them forward and would easily have rolled up the main Austrian line, from the south-east, if that poltroon of the cavalry leader hadn’t failed Activation at precisely the wrong moment.

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Heavy contact! Note that the cavalry unit to the SE is facing AWAY from the enemy and is therefore especially vulnerable. Rule of thumb: never show your horses' rumps to the enemy!

C’est la guerre…

To avoid catastrophe, the AI adjusted the Austrian units to refuse that stricken flank, but in doing so weakened the rest of their line. The enemy made no further progress uphill; on the western edge of Chutusitz, both sides had traded volleys and assaults until a stalemate resulted, borne of mutual exhaustion. For me, that was the equivalent of a minor victory in itself.

By the time the last two turns rolled around, the Austrians had unlimbered their cannon once more, and I foolishly chose to press my luck with a cavalry assault against the nearest battery. Although my valiant horsemen destroyed one of the Austrian 12-pounders, they were effectively knocked out of the battle when they suffered 63 casualties, apparently from a blast of double-canister delivered at point blank range.

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As you can see, the Prussians are losing more men than the Austrians, but they’re still performing their mission: denying the enemy possession of the village. If they can do that until the scenario times-out, they will still be victorious, despite their disproportionate losses.

Nevertheless, the scenario timed-out at this point, and the computer awarded the Prussians a “Decisive Victory”. The village was not “burning”, all but one weakly held village-hex remained firmly under Prussian control, the Austrian right-center was shattered and half-a-dozen of its units were hauling ass in the general direction of Vienna; three-fifths of my cavalry remained relatively unbloodied, and the infantry line across the center, though hardly fit for a vigorous pursuit (had the scenario allowed time for one), remained unbroken.

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The fabled “iron discipline” of Frederick’s foot-soldiers is not a myth! Prussian infantry are much more likely to drive the enemy back with a “cold steel” assault than are their Austrian counterparts.

 

When the Emperor arrived – somewhat belatedly, I thought – he expressed admiration for my troops’ performance and awarded me one quart of assorted glittery medallions and shiny ribbon-thingies. Most gratifying!

Well, that’s what would have happened, if the game permitted such frippery.

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