Pewter Origins: From the Army to the Table

By Bill Gray 28 Sep 2016 0

It was ’78 (yes, 1978) when I saw my first miniatures game, at a hobby store known as the Bunker, Killen, TX run by a friendly churl and retired Warrant Officer named Forrest. The subject was Napoleonics and I was stunned by the cavalcade of colors I beheld, so much so that I walked out of the store with four packs of Heritage 15 mm Russian Grenadiers with Command. The game was EMPIRE by Scott Bowden, a battalion level affair of high complexity and even higher detail. Bowden’s tome started a revolution of sorts, to the extent that many figure manufacturers actually packaged their products specifically for the game. Thus a package of French Legere (light infantry) had the exact number of command, center and flank company figures for two EMPIRE battalions.

Today, I have my own product line; all based off Rich Hasenauer’s (disclaimer, personal friend and business partner) uber popular Fire & Fury American Civil War rules, affectionately known as BOFF, or Basic Original Fire & Fury. BOFF is the exact opposite of EMPIRE in almost every respect. BOFF uses brigades of around six battalions +/- as the basic maneuver element. BOFF is also very simple with far less detail than Bowden’s work. Most of all, BOFF is far, FAR less predictable, with huge die roll swings that make even desperate situations winnable. And BOFF is not the only current rules set to embrace such design philosophy. Others include Sam Mustafe’s Grande Armee, and the late Coggins/Taylor masterpiece, Napoleon’s Battles from Avalon Hill. The latter was so detail deficient that it even dropped the almost sacred concept of the flank attack.

BOFF Regimental

Obviously my taste in gaming changed 180 degrees, so what happened?

The United States Army happened, that’s what.

Army Wargaming

I had always been interested in military history and soldiering since I was knee high to a Tribble. The Army assisted my passion by indirectly introducing me to wargaming in 1972 when visiting possible colleges to attend. One of those was the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, where my host cadet was dabbling in a little World War II simulation known as Panzerblitz. I was hooked - with wargaming, not the Citadel. Something about unlockable dorm room doors, bars on the windows and an alumnus showing up next morning with contract and pen, just made me a skosh uncomfortable. So with an Army scholarship in hand, off I went to Clemson University, which happened to have a quaint little shop known as The Open Book next door. They regularly carried SPI (Simulations Publications Incorporated) wargames of the cardboard counter variety, so I was set for the next four years. After graduation, and with new wife, Paula, a green 2d Lieutenant headed out to the US Army Military Intelligence (MI) School in FT Huachuca, AZ, and from there to my first posting at FT Hood, TX, near the sleepy little town of Killen. That’s where the Bunker Hobby Shop resided. See how this comes together now?

As an MI officer I did a lot of wargaming for the Army, sometimes playing our side, sometimes playing the enemy and sometimes acting as a controller. The levels of play included board games, computer simulations, command post exercises and even field maneuvers such as the US Army’s ubiquitous REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) series. Heck, at FT Hood I even did a tour with Red Thrust, the US Army Forces Command Opposing Forces Training Detachment. We went around the country training our lads on Soviet military doctrine and tactics, to include the 32d Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment. The 32d, if you were not aware, was the Army’s own Soviet style formation that terrorized US military units rotating thru FT Irwin’s National Training Center. Red Thrust also ran the Dunn-Kempf simulation center for III Corps and FT Hood.

During my career I saw two major changes in Army wargaming that impacted my participation in hobby wargaming. The first was epitomized by the 32d as it heralded a move away from wargaming that pit American forces against other American forces wearing a different – and very badly designed – uniform. The wargaming enemy now became a foe that did not organize like us, did not think like us, did not fight like us and had a decision making paradigm completely askew to what went thru a US commander’s brain. To beat these guys, intelligence officers in particularly had to recognize this perspective, understand it and then exploit it. Really good intelligence officers could actually lay their American mind set aside and actually think like Soviet commanders. This meant that odd decisions to us now made perfect sense. Yes the Soviets expected to take mass casualties, but the World War II experience taught that by doing so the Red Army would hit the pursuit phase of war very quickly when casualty counts would drop dramatically. It was logical to them, and Army wargaming evolved to model that.


The second change was an enormous upswing in the amount of Clausewitz’s “friction” injected into military wargaming. As Chief of the German General Staff Helmut von Moltke noted, “no plan ever survives initial contact with the enemy,” and the US Army’s revived interest thereof was spurred by the 1984 writings of Marshal of the Soviet Union Nikolai Ogarkov and his Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA. Among his many pronouncements, Ogarkov argued that artillery and tanks would not be the primary targets in the next war. Instead, they would be logistics, command and control as well as communications infrastructures. The idea was to create a battlefield where there were no formal battlelines and commanders could talk to NOBODY. Commanders would be forced to face the unexpected and make decisions with little information and even less support from higher headquarters. For a centralized military such as the Red Army, Ogarkov’s predictions could be disastrous if true. So the Kremlin solved the issue using the time honored tradition of sticking is proverbial head in the sand and dismissing the heretical marshal . . . until Operation Desert Storm.

For the US Army and its wargaming community, the solution was to strip commander–players of much of the control over their units they had in the past. Friction was increased with random events, lack of battlefield intelligence and other activities not given a second thought previously. All of this was done to force the officers playing the game to react to the unexpected, do so quickly and competently, without any information or command help whatsoever. Battlefield or REFORGER, to include my own personal experience from the back of an M-577 Command Track (NB, the Army says this thing can float and swim - they lied), real battle is not nearly as predictable or manageable as many wargames suggest. Communications are garbled, misunderstood or simply non-existent. Terrain pops up that show nowhere on even the most current military maps, and units don’t move nearly as fast as you expect because of fatigue, lack of food and so on. To quote one anonymous Tommy fighting in World War II Italy, “Is there a reason why we always seem to fight up hill, in the rain and at the juncture of four map sheets?” That pretty much says it all, and I saw military wargaming embrace the chaos during my own career.

. . . and its Impact on Hobby Wargaming

On the miniature and cardboard wargaming front, this experience pushed me away from games like EMPIRE to games like BOFF. Fire & Fury, and its many children, take the position that players have way too much control over the forces they command. Here the player is a corps commander and, identical to NATO doctrine, is expected to directly influence (or play) two levels of command below his own. That means pushing brigades, not battalions. Within those brigades are notional brigadiers acting on the player’s behalf, but unlike the boss, they can’t see the entire table to locate that heavy cavalry brigade deployed just over the next hill. Thus die roll swings are very large to take into account that sometimes these notional brigadiers make mistakes even under the most certain of circumstances. Thus a French Cuirassier may take a Prussian Landwehr regiment squarely in the flank without warning – and lose. Why? Well, perhaps out of six battalions within the brigade’s real estate, the one on the end got clobbered, but the rest made square and survived. Overall, losing one from six battalions means the brigade holds. Why this happened is not part of the player-commander’s job description. What is important is that the event did happen and must be dealt with.

Brawners Farm BOFF Regimental

In BOFF (and now BOFF 2d Edition), perhaps the most elegant mechanism showing this is the movement process. Time honored tradition in wargaming says that if a fresh, unscathed unit can move six inches a turn or has six movement points, it can automatically use the entire bag and march smartly to the sound of the guns. In BOFF, Grande Armee and other similar games, not so much. Even a fresh unit with no fatigue or casualties has to roll a die and consult a table to see if it can move its full amount, half, not at all or even retreat. Die roll modifiers (DRMs) may provide some pluses such as when commanders are in proximity or minuses when the unit is Disordered or lost enough stands to drop its Effectiveness Level to Worn or Spent. Attaching a commander might help with an even higher positive DRM, but all other units lose the plus for having the general nearby as a result. As one might therefore suspect, the ability to march also gets more problematic as the battle goes on. Bottom line here is that movement is NOT automatic and often disastrous (though hysterical depending on the current beer level). It all makes BOFF and its ilk one of the most focused wargames played today.

Thinking outside a 21st century American box is also critical as well, because just like the Soviets, 18th and 19th century commanders did not think like we do today, because the environment in which they fought, and the military culture that nurtured their thinking, was much different than in 2016. Marching a brigade up close and personal to the waiting, massed muskets of His Britannic Majesty’s Foot Guards may seem stupid, but not after you learn of Brigadier Hughes’ calculation that due a variety of reasons, only 5% of musket balls fired every hit anything. Likewise, during the 18th century French heavy cavalry was titled Cavalerie Legere, or Light Cavalry. Huh? Well consider the French elite cavalry reserve was the Gendarmerie, or Gentlemen at Arms, direct descendants of the massive, plate armored knights of times past. Supporting these veritable tanks on the hoof were sergeants and retainers, all big men on big horses with big weapons and lots of armor. Nevertheless, although heavy cavalry in every sense of the words, they were still not as big as their plate armored masters. They were lighter cavalry than the Gendarmes, and so retained that name. May not make sense to us today, but it did to their trampled victims in 1709, and game designers take special pride at encouraging such period specific thinking with their rules.

Lundys Lane War of 1812 BOFF Regimental

In Conclusion

So am I saying that a simpler, less detailed game heavily dependent on luck is actually more realistic? Yes, that’s pretty much it, all for the reasons noted above, and if you had a day or two to discuss a bit of history illustrating this . . . well, let’s just take a few examples. At the 1709 battle of Malplaquet, the Dutch army was hemorrhaging so badly that someone ordered their drummers to beat the French signal to retreat. The pursuing French heard it, stopped, and returned to their positions. Similarly, Dr Jay Luvaas often recounts during his Army War College staff rides at Gettysburg why Joshua Chamberlain’s suicidal bayonet charge at Little Round Top actually succeeded. The 20th Maine was joined by a few sharpshooters skirmishing from Berdan’s Rifle Regiment, all decked out in hunter green. The Confederates saw blue uniforms plus green uniforms and figured they had been outflanked by at least a brigade. Finally, at the 1708 battle of Oudenarde, tough as nails French Marshal Louis duc de Vendome saw a fleeting opportunity to smash the Duke of Marlborough’s army as it paraded across the Scheldt River. As such he requested his co-commander Louis Duke of Burgundy (military prowess being Louis XIV’s grandson) to take his 30,000 man left wing and advance. Vendome then went to the front with a half pike to cleave a few heads, figuring that no one could misunderstand such a directive. However, Burgundy’s advisor, the Marquis de Puysegur, informed the King’s little cherub that the ground was too marshy for movement – seriously folks, you cannot make this up - though they had just moved their entire wing of the army across it with no problem. Burgundy sent a messenger to the good Marshal explaining his refusal, but the messenger was shot dead en route, leaving Vendome mystified and Marlborough victorious.

Military wargaming with the Army convinced me that incidents such as these were the norm, not the exception, and because of this I gravitated to BOFF and similar systems. Wargame planning was still important, but the ability to react and exploit the unexpected while trusting your subordinate commanders to execute was even more-so. And at the end of the day I found some comfort that both military and hobby had relearned what was known for centuries. After all, when Napoleon was asked what qualities made the best general, the Emperor replied, “Give me a general who is lucky.”



Log in to join the discussion.

Related Posts from Wargamer