Blenheim 1704 - A TWIGLET AAR06 Feb 2019 0
Remembering that while to a European 100 years is not a long time, but to an American 100 miles is not a long distance, last Saturday I drove down to Ellicott City, MD for an all day miniatures wargame with a group of friends I affectionately call the BOFF (Basic Original Fire & Fury) Irregulars. Indeed most “members” have long been associated with the development of Rich Hasenauer’s American Civil War rules, and seven such stalwarts joined me for a recreation of the 1704 battle of Blenheim using a modified version of the Twilight of the Sun King (or TWIGLET) rules published by the UK’s Pike & Shot Society.
Between hard gaming and excellent drink and food – seriously, the lemon cake may not have been to die for, but breaking kneecaps was – the day ended with a French victory and a rousing rules success. Details for future consideration follow.
Synopsis of the Game
Mike M provided the game site, as well as a terrain table perhaps a little sparse, but with superbly painted buildings. Geoff J provided the exquisitely appointed armies and, being our resident MR WSS (War of the Spanish Succession), ensured only regiments at the battle were on the table, down to the proper nationality and regimental colours. I was the gamemaster (GM) and provided the rules, a hybrid of the original 2001 set still available free, interspersed with appropriate modifications from the current, commercial edition. There were players enough to represent Prinz Eugen, Lord Churchill and his brother Charles on the Allied side, as well as Monsieur’s Tallard, Marsin and Bavaria’s Elector Max on the French, plus one at large player.
The table was set up with all units in their historical starting positions and both Allied and French commanders decided to use Napoleon’s maxim of simply giving battle and then seeing how things shook out. It worked, but the way the game is structured, perhaps not the best display of generalship.
Nevertheless, the game actually played pretty much like the real battle, with only the egregious casualties taken by Marlborough and company in front of Blenheim and Bavarian held Oberglau and Lutzingen throwing the battle in favor of the French. The Allies made a general advance, with the steep and marshy banks of Stream Nebel slowing progress against the French center. However eventually Marlborough’s infantry made it across the Nebel to establish a bridgehead of sorts, then dramatically repulsed French cavalry attacks intent on destroying it. Allied horse followed the musket toters across the Nebel and went after the very raw French infantry that was left.
Meanwhile, the player responsible for taking Blenheim (Navarre, the “Diabolical” Regiment of France, was sitting there, ready to rumble) away from the French saw how it shook out, didn’t like what he saw and instead veered his forces right to assist the Allied cavalry in the center. This cooperation of two wings and the massing of forces ruptured and blew a sizable hole in the French line, but . . .
By this time Marlborough was rolling the die for army level morale, without the option to add his Skill Level to said roll, and eventually failed and directed his army to withdraw. Had we used the Skill Level modifier, its likely the Allies would have continued with snowballing French casualties on the horizon. Ten turns were played in real/game time, 30 minutes per turn.
Combat Paradigm Shift
Everyone agreed the game was fun, exciting, challenging and most importantly, realistic, but also that the TWIGLET system required a substantial mental reboot and braincell replacement for victory. As GM I could actually see this happening as players tried old ways of doing tabletop business, then slowly moving away to proper use of TWIGLET mechanics that worked in opposite ways than they were used to. In short, the players moved away from tactics that emphasized firepower and melee, to tactics that emphasized morale and maneuver. Napoleon (yes, him again) always said that morale was three times more important than physical issues in battle, so obviously the game was on to something.
In particular there were two issues the players had to quickly adjust to in order for success. The first of these was a VERY simple sequence of play that did not have either the normal fire phase or the normal melee phase. Instead, fire and melee were integrated into the first of two phases in each player turn – Morale. Friendly units only check morale if they are in melee with the enemy, under fire from enemy units or both. There is no die roll to adjudicate fire. Instead, if a unit is in range and field of fire of an enemy unit, it is considered under fire for morale. If a unit is in physical contact with the enemy, there is no die roll to adjudicate melee. Instead the friendly formation is considered in melee for morale, and as with fire negative die roll modifiers (DRM) could apply.
Adding in other appropriate DRMs, a roll is made using two average dice, with the unit failing morale if the final modified die roll is less than eight. And nothing happens. Yet. An infantry unit has to fail morale three times across three turns to rout and leave the board, cavalry and artillery two, with an addition morale failure awarded if the unit is large.
Now stop reading, grab some Schnapps, and ruminate on this, particularly if you are a Grognard of more “normal” sequenced games. What this says is that the target of your artillery or musket fire adjudicates these results in his (the next) turn, not the unit that fired and not in that unit’s turn. This also means that the defender in close combat adjudicates the melee in his (the next) turn, not the unit that charged in his turn. Likewise, if the target does fail the resulting the morale role, there is no automatic stand or figure removal to indicate casualties. There is also no automatic retreat or similar result for failing morale, just a marker saying you failed, let’s see what happens next.
Movement Paradigm Shift
Now if you’ve managed to get your head wrapped around this concept, let’s move (pun intended absolutely) to the second of the two phases in each player turn – Movement. In some games unit movement is automatic in that if an infantry formation has an unmodified movement allowance of nine inches, that’s what it starts with. In other games like Fire & Fury, all movement is subject to a modified die roll to see if movement occurs at all, and if so at full allowance or something else. TWIGLET presents a hybrid that everyone seemed to really like. Some movement, like moving straight ahead with/without a 45 degree oblique or attacking a flank was automatic. Other movement, such as changing formation, wheeling, limbering or unlimbering artillery and so on, had to be diced for.
Well, one of those “other” movements is the ability to withdraw directly backwards, both when in physical contact with the enemy (melee) and when not. In other words, the “retreat” combat result has been removed from a melee adjudication table and handed directly to the player himself. If you are uncomfortable with the close combat situation at hand, where your infantry brigade has already failed morale twice out of three allowed, you can dice to retreat. Otherwise, you can stay and slug it out, remain under fire and hope for the best. Few players at the game used the option although it was plainly written on the cheat sheets and specifically explained prior to the first turn. My take is that doing it this way was so different from the norm, it was very easy to forget the option was there. And when artillery and normal size cavalry units only have two morale failures before routing, this can make a big difference, and did.
There, were of course, other movement trinkets included to make the feel of the game tricorne comfortable. Cavalry could only cross rough terrain if in column, while no unit could charge the enemy unless in line with a direction straight ahead. All in all, it made fighting on the fly a lot less predictable than many thought it would be at the beginning of the game.
Lessons Learned for a Rematch
Because, oh yeah, there’s gonna be one. Mike M, Geoff J and yours truly are already looking to set something up down in Maryland for after the Cold War’s convention in March. It could be a replay of Blenheim, or Ramilles or something else. I’d like to do Prinz Eugen’s relief of Peterwardein where 65,000 Imperials took the Grand Vizier and 100,000 Ottoman’s to task. I know Geoff has the Austrians, and I’ve got more than enough Turks to paint.
Obviously, we like this game, not only because its easy to learn and fast to play, but also because of the out of the box game flow that makes it work. This is the Age of Reason, and military-wise the war of position. Often thought of as more campaign level, the game indicates a place for the concept at battle level as well. Realistically TWIGLET does substantially restrict the way individual units move so that a brigade of dragoons does not trot around Oberglau like a Ferrari on high octane steroids. However, at the grand tactical level, the game places a very big premium on pre-planning, initial set up and overall maneuver vice shooting or skewering British swine with bayonets. Morale is likewise more important than either, giving credence to Marshal Maurice de Saxe’s dictum that big armies don’t win battles, but good one’s do. And while only briefly mentioned, commanders are a big deal in this game given how their Skill Level can positively impact both morale tests and Action Test based movement. When one recalls how many times Marlborough himself nearly took a ball to the head when forced to lead his troops up close and personal, this makes the game solid history.
Bottom line – you don’t have to think like an early 18th Century general to play and win this game, but it sure does help. And as we found out at Blenheim, that makes TWIGLET special.