Gravelotte 1870 - A Modding Bridge Too Far?

By Bill Gray 23 Jan 2019 0

I am a big fan of the Matrix game Pike & Shot Campaigns. And no wonder. It’s a direct port of the Field of Glory Renaissance miniature rules by well-respected pewter pusher Richard Bodley Scott (or RBS) who also doubles as the honcho of Byzantine Games, the producers of Pike & Shot computer. It really is like playing miniatures on a PC, and the legions of player-modders who design additional scenarios for the system make it even better. It's because of them that battles that would otherwise never see the light of day get played.

Think Narva (30 November 1700) from the Great Northern War for example, so it should be no surprise I was recently excited to see a scenario from the Franco-Prussian War, one of my favorite wargaming subjects, pop up as a free download. The battle was Gravelotte St Privat (18 August 1870), the clash that spelled doom for the Second French Empire and given this particular modder is very well respected, I eagerly downloaded and played.

The result? To quote tough old French General de Division Pierre Bosquet at Balaklava, C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre. No, the master modder behind the scenario didn’t necessarily stumble, but perhaps asking the Pike & Shot game engine to replicate a battle 172 years beyond its timeline defines the proverbial "bridge too far."

Gravelotte 01

The Good

I will say one thing about the mod, however. The visuals are spot on, both as regards the battlefield and the military units trundling across it. In the case of the former, a lot of credit goes to the map editor included in the Pike & Shot software package. It does help that the setting is western Europe which seems to stay the same for quite a long time. When I was stationed in Germany with the US 1st Armored Division, a trip to the field meant lots of Deutschmarks for lots of Gasthaus time, and most had modern, nicely refurbished interiors. Outside, carved into the stone arch above a very heavy wooden door were the numbers "1612." Seriously, that’s when the thing was built and externally, not a lick had changed. Thus, about the only thing that had to be built from scratch on the map was the railroad, which was defined as a road in game terms.

Same thing for the units. The look of Pike & Shot vice Field of Glory II is kinda like the difference between playing with 28 mm vice 10 mm miniatures. The eye candy of the latter doesn’t come in the detail of each figure, but rather from the massed figures taken together as if they were a single soldier. It's likely if you really looked at the sprites with a microscope you wouldn’t really see red kepis or Pickelhauber, but at the scale portrayed they look absolutely historical. Here we include different flags for the different German states who had forces at the battle, plus differing attire for various type of cavalry or light infantry vs. line. Well done, really impressed.

Gravelotte 06

Also noteworthy was how historically the various types of weaponry performed with longer ranges and deadlier effects. Truth be known is you had to peel me of the ceiling the first time French Chassepots started putting lead down range. The speakers were turned up and I’m just not used to getting shot at from such distances in other Pike & Shot scenarios. It was a surprise, but nothing a good Schnapps couldn’t cure, so I digress. The casualty rates not included those routed (hold this thought, it will return), were unbelievably close to the 20,160 men lost by the Germans and the 12,275 by the French. Similarly, these losses were almost all victims of gun fire, not bayonets or sabres. The inability of anybody to close to melee with anybody in the game is a solid historical plus in my book.

The Bad

Then again... First, let me note that the RBS design philosophy from lead land can make it tough on a modder. While most games use a bottom-up design philosophy, RBS uses a very top-down perspective on both tabletop and PC monitor. In the former case this means that foundation items like troop scale, ground scale, and turn length time are defined and then rules are built on top of that to produce an accurate game. In the latter case, the desired game results are determined first and then foundation elements are created to support that outcome, whether real-world realistic or not. Thus on the Gravelotte map, one could theoretically determine the ground scale of the tiles by comparing it to the known ground distance between the villages of St Privat and Roncourt (2 km per a period German military map, 1.3 miles Google Earth, or about 6 tiles). However, then weapons ranges seemed way off by the math, and things didn’t get better.

AlphonseNeuvilleRailroadEmbankment

Whether through design intent or something else, other things that caught my eye were French cavalry that advanced to issue mounted fire at the Prussians. True, although some units did have carbines, they were nearly never used in such a manner. In fact, only one cavalry unit on either side really got into combat the entire day, the 4th Prussian Uhlan regiment. Likewise, the railroad was treated as simply a path although it actually provided significant cover and concealment. European railways back then and now are built atop large earth embankments, sometimes 10 feet high, so this was significant (painter Alphonse de Neuville has an excellent painting of one of these in the war). Finally, in the mod all divisional artillery was attached to the first brigade of each formation, very similar to the way it's done in Napoleon’s Battles miniature rules. In reality, the Germans often stripped guns from everywhere to form massed batteries but I admit allowing this in the game would overwhelm most players with extra units, so good call here.

And besides, really not too much of a problem because although I am by no means a modder or coder, I was a college IT director and I know that by finding the right files and changing the right numbers you can adjust such things. So I did, putting my personal stamp by modding the mod, to include delaying the French Imperial Guard to the actual turn (I think) that it did not become involved and redesignating Prussian infantry brigades with their historical numbers. I also eliminated mounted small arms fire and so on.

Gravelotte 12

The big thing, however, was how the game’s unit Cohesion Status worked with the Victory Conditions to provide a winner. Generally as units get beat up, they move from a Steady to Disordered to Fragmented to Routed status, or worse, get Dispersed which means they disappear forever. The Victory Conditions play off this by awarding the match to the player who routs 60% of his opponents army, or 40% so long as he has 25% more friendly units left than his foe. And sure enough, in the three games I played, the French won by routing between 40 and 45 % of the Kaiser's Soldaten while losing less.

The problem? In the real battle hardly anybody routed at all.

Gravelotte 04

The Ugly

Here is where I think history may well have outstripped the Slitherine Turn Based (STUB) engine which runs the game and others such as Battle Academy. It's ultimately based on routing the enemy by fire or melee for success, but starting with the American Civil War, such events began to happen less. I checked several sources, to include the ultimate guide for detail overkill (not to mention the best cure for insomnia going), the official history of the war by the 2d Historical Detachment, Imperial German Great General Staff. While the work mentions units on both sides withdrawing or retreating disorganised, there seems to be only two instances where units routed in the sauve qui peut manner as suggested by the game, both Prussian. The 25th and 28th Brigades seem to have bolted when forward skirmishers retreated through their ranks, while the reinforcing 3d Division mistook the mass of soldiers around the village of St Hubert as French and blasted away, routing their own troops as darkness fell. Even at the end of the battle when St Privat fell, French General Pechot’s brigade with a single regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique cavalry retired in good order to establish a solid line in the Bois de Jaumont. The French retreat was disorderly, but due to the exhaustion of the German army, it never became a rout. Proof includes French army commander Marshal Achille Bazaine’s enjoying a leisurely dinner at 7:00 pm without a care in the world.

Of course the attack of the Prussian Guard on St Privat late in the day became legend. Given a French division could launch 40,000 Chassepot rifle round a minute at targets 1200 yards away, its no wonder the Prussians lost 8000 men out of 18,000 in the assault. It was stopped dead 700 yards away from the objective with the Guard Scheutzen Battalion was so shot up that command fell to a junior officer cadet. Yet even here no formation broke. Why? Because of a new battlefield phenomena called "going to ground."

Gravelotte 7

It is a supreme irony that the introduction of weapons geometrically more deadly than anything the first Napoleon faced was the primary cause why routing on the battlefield, which still occasionally happened, became rare. True, and unlike the doughty soldiers Father Tilly, the forces at Gravelotte St Privat were full-time professionals, well disciplined, well trained, and well drilled with the latest tools designed to kill more efficiently than ever. But like trying to drop a lobster in a pot of boiling water, gunfire in 1870 was so accurate, rapid and lethal that retreat often offered no advantage over advancing. Instead, soldiers ignored their officers and hit the ground, going lower and lower until their buttons got in the way. The fact that both the French Chassepot and the Prussian Dreyse needle gun could be easily fired and reloaded from a prone position only made this option more attractive. Hardly anything could get even the best soldiers to move, and as a result casualty rates dropped when compared to previous wars. The casualty count for this battle has already been given, but when you consider the similarly sized 1812 battle of Borodino saw a combined loss of 72,000 for both sides, the numbers are stark.

Try as I might, I could not get this mod to replicate that experience. I stuck in geographic victory points and adjusted several data columns on the squad.CSV spreadsheet (Franco-Prussian War units are just Pike & Shot units with new designations and numerical stats) to lessen the ability of the Cohesion Test system to push a unit towards a Rout. This included giving the units additional movement, then adjusting upward both Elan and Experience levels to increase Troop Quality (an average of the two) ratings. I hoped they would be more likely to pass Cohesion tests on reroll or recover more quickly if they failed. It really didn’t seem to help much, somewhat of a disappointment given I was playing the German side exactly as did von Moltke and the lads did originally. And try as I might I could not identify anything in any of the files or scripts that looked like it might enable me to do what needed to be done.

Admittedly, given I am not a coder of experienced script writer, I may well have missed something that allows an easy fix. However, as of right now the truth as I know it indicates there is a limit as to what STUB can do and just because it can be modded doesn’t mandate it should.

Gravelotte 08

Boot Hill

Nevertheless I enjoyed the games, and my experience did have a couple of real big positives. First, it gave me a stark reality check as to just what it takes to create a game mod. And what it takes is way above my paygrade, so don’t expect Colonel Bill to be building these things from scratch, and big kudos to those who do. However, it also showed me that there is a way to take existing community mods and tweak them effectively to fit a player’s own historical or playability tastes. Trust me, grab a photo editor that can handle DDS files, take a look at the text1.txt and text9.txt files (not to mention the squad.CSV file), be careful and you’ll be on your way to a fascinating new experience.

And if you do figure out how to "go to ground," lemme know. I’m retired and would love to playtest.

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