Using Pike and Shot in Anger

By COL Bill Gray 22 Oct 2014 0

Discourses Pithee and Profound

OK, folks ? BLUF. That?s Bottom Line Up Front for all you non-military types and the bottom line is get this game. It doesn?t matter if you are a computer gamer, a cardboard counter aficionado or a miniature lead pusher like myself. If you have even the remotest interest in this period of history, you are in for a treat. How good is it? I?ve played four tutorial games, not less than six (plus, as I played yet a few more while finishing this review) historical battles and was damn near late for work this morning because I was having so much fun kicking Spanish posterior at Rocroi. Yes, that good.

For those who know me that?s saying a lot. I?m not only a miniature player at heart, but one who can pick the tiniest nit when it comes to historical accuracy and minute detail, particularly when it comes to formations, flags and uniforms. I?m the guy who goes nuts when I see a game that has the wrong number of gaiter buttons on French Young Guard uniforms. But what a whole bunch of folks don?t know is that I am also an officer ? Webmaster General in fact ? for the British based Pike and Shot Society, a non-profit dedicated to military historical research into the exact period of conflict this game portrays. I froth at the mouth waiting for the next Arquebusier magazine to hit my mail box and immediately devour it once it arrives. If a game like Pike & Shot doesn?t measure up, I?ll likely know it.

The game measures up, and then some. Here?s why.

 

Ye Fluttering of Flagges and Cavalcade of Colour

When I first launched the software the thing that struck me initially was the background music. The game uses a single tune throughout, but it is both very dramatic and certainly not monotonous. It strikes just the right balance to convey the impending clash of arms, while also being lively enough to imagine the rapid pace of attacking soldiers as they hurl themselves against a stalwart defense. The music actually sounds wonderfully similar to the compositions coming out of production music house Two Steps from Hell, and given these lads are at the top of my audio charts right now, I was pretty much hooked.

Moving into the game itself, the battle boards are outstanding, being colored in slightly soft tones all designed to give the feel of an antique setting. Slitherine has stated that accuracy was paramount here, with the map graphics being lifted from period engravings. While not referenced, the game maps also correspond to maps I?ve seen from official military histories of the period, extensively researched by such heady offices as the Cartography Department of the Imperial Austrian General Staff. I?ve also been to several of these places personally and have also seen aerial photography of some of the battlefields to boot. Put all of this stuff together and you realize that for the most part a lot of Europe remains similar to the way it was several hundred years before. Roads bordered intermittently with trees, farmland sectioned off into squares and rectangles, all lined with low lying hedges, yes they are all here. It makes for a truly grand display, one that can rival even the best miniature table I?ve played on; those in turn making their mark because they literally look like the real thing.

On the maps are military units, of course, and though drawn with a little more sharpness, they do not disappoint. Instead, they truly astound. These are not cardboard counters, nor are they small clumps of historical figures as often found in many of John Tiller?s otherwise exceptional games. No, these are pike and musket blocks that actually look like the 500 or so men they are supposed to represent. These are cavalry squadrons that really appear as though they have between 150 and 200 horse. In the miniature work it is not uncommon for a 500 man battalion to be represented by 12 to 16 figures, but when I took the time to count the individual figure sprites in a Swedish or similar infantry formation, I counted what seemed to be 90 + models. And when these formations move, one hears the tromping of feet and the clanking of boots and saddles. One actually sees small clouds of dust and grime lingering behind as the units move forward. When shot and shell discharge, one hears reenactment quality musketry and the dull thump of artillery as white clouds of gunpowder billow and slowly dissipate. Heck, you?re not playing a battle, you?re in one.

I was also very impressed the way the game designers handed the issue of uniforms and flags, particularly since this was an era where clothing and colors were anything but uniform. The reality was that military uniforms were adopted primarily to save money, as the regimental proprietors could do if they pooled their funds to buy cloth in bulk. The Dutch started the trend by ordering the same color and cut of cloth on a per regiment basis. Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus followed suite with his famous Red, Yellow and Green Regiments, later clothing contracts indicating he likely settled on dark blue for all. Flags likewise, were often colored in the same hue as the regiment, or displayed the livery of the colonel proprietor commanding.

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French and Spanish forces at Rocroi, note the national flags and the different colored unit banners denoting troop quality.

 

It can be a bit confusing to the novice, but here the designers have created a very clever compromise system. Each country?s army does sport a generally unique hue, blue for the Swedes as an example. But within this color are several tints and variations. Imperial Hapsburg armies sport an earth tone look, in that the individual sprites are clothed in combinations of soft yellow, brown, tan and cream. It is a perfect balance between authentic period feel and player familiarity.

Flags follow a slightly different process, but once again there is much logical method to the game?s supposed madness. At the beginning of each turn a small generic ?national? flag floats above each unit to allow player to sort things out. Here two examples are the Hapsburg yellow standard with black double headed eagle, as well as the Spanish white flag with ragged burgundy cross saltire. Additionally, each individual unit also sports several flags, normally three, but larger units more. These flags are not mimics of the national standard noted above, but miniature reproductions of standards actually carried by such units in war. For example, one of the standards I noticed on a Swedish unit seemed to carry the symbology of the historical Narke-Varmlands Regiment. In a neat twist one finds that each type of unit within a country?s army does carry the same flag set across the board, but differentiated by troop quality. Thus all French pike and shot units carry the same three or four flag set, each flag within the set different from the other three. However, if the units are VETERAN pike and shot formations, then the set of flags is different from the regular pike and shot folks, though uniform across all veteran formations. Get used to the system and you can easily tell the quality of your units with a simple glance.

I guess I shouldn?t be surprised, given that one of the designers is Richard Bodley Scott of WRG DBM fame (that?s Wargame Research Group rules De Bellis Multitudinis 3000 BC to 1500 AD, for all you non-pewter pushers). Nevertheless, color me impressed.

 

Shoulder ye Firelock and Trail thy Pike, for the Heathen Foe is Upon Us

The meat of this game is its historical scenarios, not including several small battles used in the tutorial. Three campaigns are presented, each with 10 historical battles to play. The campaigns, or wars, are the 30 Years War (think Breitenfeld and Rocroi), the English Civil War (as in Edgehill and Marston Moor) and the later Italian Wars between France and the Holy Roman Empire (such as Pavia). Although the player does not get a choice of which side he plays in each of these engagements, he is often allowed to vary the composition of his army by purchasing various units from a small pool of one time, notional funds. A briefing map is presented with commentary prior to the beginning of each engagement.

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The game?s intro screen, as well as the initial deployment maps for Rocroi.

 

Game play is pretty straight forward, turn based and principally mouse driven. The sequence of play begins with a Movement phase, followed by a Residual Fire phase, and then finally a Close Combat phase, though enemy reactions are fully integrated throughout a friendly turn. To begin simply click on any unit and a semi-transparent, square grid will appear on the map, indicating how far the formation can move that turn if it expends all its Activity Points. This initial click will also bring up a small window indicating unit type and all particulars, such as strength, morale and so on. Click on a destination square and the unit will move out smartly, perhaps receiving enemy reactive fire along the way. At the end of movement, the player can click on any adjacent or distant square and several icons will pop up indicating whether the unit has the points necessary to fire its weapons, charge into close action, or turn in that direction. If so the activity happens right then and there, and is totally resolved before another unit can be selected for play. This includes any retreat or pursuit movement that might be mandated, and in this regard another small window opens up to explain to the player exactly what happened and why. Players must click on this window in acknowledgement before the game can proceed.

After moving comes something called the Residual Fire phase. As noted above, friendly fire can be executed as part of the unit?s movement process, and enemy fire often occurs in reaction to a formation charging it, firing at it, or simply moving within range and across its line of fire. This particular segment, however, sees the computer AI (Artificial Intelligence) take control of the game from the player and tag any enemy or friendly unit to execute fire against a priority target within range if it has not already done so. The target will briefly display a small number above the formation to indicate the number of casualties received. If the fire, like melee, has caused something like a morale loss, then a small letter might appear above the formation while the national flag begins to look shot pocketed and ragged. Units can break under fire, and if so the AI once again takes charge, and things happen immediately before another friendly or enemy unit auto-fires.

The next and final phase is a melee resolution phase. I found this one particular aspect of the game quite fascinating, so deliberately studied it closely in all the test games I played. What seems to happen is that the AI once again takes control of the game and resolves ongoing melees, both enemy and friendly initiated, applying all results immediately as each close combat is decided. Again casualty numbers appear and again a small window opens up to convey results. AI mandated melee between units can continue turn after turn until one side finally gives. Some of the results can be devastating, for the winner as well as the loser. If a unit breaks and routs, it runs for the edge of the board and will automatically continue to do so each turn unless the AI rallies it. But surprise! The AI then moves the winner ? even if the winner belongs to the human player ? in hot pursuit right after it, and the victor will continue to follow until it runs off the board as well, or attacks another enemy unit in its immediate path. When victor and vanquished run off the board, they may return, or they may never be seen for the rest of the game, and the player has absolutely no input as to how that may or may not happen. When I played, typically for me, I found my own units never returned while those of the enemy did so about half the time, at the worst possible moment and location for my army, but of course.

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All Hell breaks loose once contact is made. Commanded Shot in the woods also gets noticed very quickly. Red arrows indicate close combat.

 

WOW, I really like this. To me it?s fun and also very historical, not only for this period of history, but for combat in general. The adage that no plan, no matter how well conceived, ever survives initial contact with the enemy is all too true. But for the sake of competition and playability many games disregard this notion and allow the player way too much control over his formations IMHO. Not this game. This was a time where low level command and control was still being figured out by everybody, such that units on the battlefield (such as tercios with its all-around facing) often acted independently, completely out of sync with what was happening in the real estate around them. Only the advent of the flintlock and bayonet, which negated the need for pikes and allowed formations to widen for increased firepower, was the line in which a battalion was in, and not the battalion itself, defined as a single, unbreakable and independent unit. Thus in this period there were many instances where out of control cavalry pursued an enemy off the battlefield and never returned; and even in the age of Napoleon, His Grace Lord Wellington, would label his own horse as inferior to the French for the same reason. Very little had changed.

Bottom line is that as a battle continues, the AI starts to exert control over more and more of both friendly and enemy activities, removing control from the human player. This is the way it happened, and to a great extent still happens today. And for this game, it provides a unique period atmosphere I?ve not seen elsewhere. First, as the AI begins to exert more control, it means a human player has less units to attend to and this allows him to stop being a leftenant colonel of horse, and forces him to focus on being a captain general disposed to managing an entire army. The concept also mandates a player try to think like a 17th Century officer rather than a 21st Century computer geek. This means that to win the game one must put a premium on, NOT detailed planning, but on cultivating the ability to immediately react to unforeseen circumstances both good and bad. This was what Napoleon evidently meant when he answered a question as to what made a good general. He said, ?Given me a general who is lucky.? Amen.

Another unique feature of the game, according to the designers anyway, is the way difficulty levels are handled. There are five, each with a spiffy period sounding name like Sergeant Major General. Unlike other games, the computer AI doesn?t become stupid at easier levels of play. Instead the quality of units and the army overall controlled by both the AI and the human player are adjusted both up and down. For the easiest level of difficulty I would assume this means the human army is a bit meaner, and the AIs forces are not. This indeed does seem to be the way it works. I played the battle of Breitenfeld at the super easy level (for review purposes only, ahem) and found that my Saxon contingent, whom I had absolutely no control over, put up a Hell of a lot better fight than they did in the real contest. They even sent both an Imperial tercio and column of horse routing down the road.

The game is won based on the number of units one side has routed plus actual casualties as opposed to those stats for the enemy. The default break point for victory seems to be 40% from what I could tell. In terms of real play time, I managed to win the battle of Marston Moor after completing 15 turns and it took me about two hours, 10 minutes on the clock to do so.

In that regard, I think yet another reason why the game moves so quickly is that while a very well-produced players? manual is included as a pdf file, it really isn?t necessary for playing the game. The chaos that was this type of war makes the game unpredictable enough that looking at charts and numbers really won?t help a whole lot. Simply use the same, simple military common sense the original commanders had to learn. Don?t charge steady pikes with horse from the front. Always attack a flank or rear if you can find it. And if you spend six or seven turns marching across an open field in the face of cannon fire, expect your units not to fire as effectively or be as steady as you would like when you finally contact the enemy. Casualties taken means less muskets to fire, and lower morale for those left to do so.

Play the battle, not the game, and most folks will do fine.

 

Continued on Page 2 ?

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