Pike & Shot Mod Squad – An Overview21 Dec 2016 1
Curse you Matrix and Slitherine. And a pox on all your 18th Century houses. I’ve been engaged with a lot of player mods for the PC game Pike & Shot Campaigns over the weekend. Here we are talking Great Northern War battles such as Narva and Poltava, Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim in 1704, Fontenoy from 1745, Balaklava from the Crimea, even Omdurman 1898. The mission was to write an article on how up to snuff these player created modifications really are. Do they look accurate, do they play realistically, have basic rules principals changed or been altered and so on. So yesterday I sit down to write my weekly tome and crank up the game once more, and see that little icon bobbing at the top. Oh man, another new mod, and I have an article to write. I will not check it out, seriously. Two minutes later I downloaded Malplaquet 1709 – I swear it wasn’t there before - my absolute favorite battle starring my favorite commander, whether it be with pewter, cardboard or electrons.
Using modern criteria, Malplaquet is arguably the only battle Lord Marlborough ever lost, here to French badass Claude Hector duc de Villars, one of only six Marshal Generals of France. Yes, Marlborough retained the field of battle, yes he took the fortress of Mons and yes he inflicted around 9000 casualties on the French. But whereas his own army stood physically and psychologically flattened at the end of the day, French army morale was through the roof, retiring with parade ground precision, flags flying, officers doffing their caps at the enemy and the rank and file thinking, “These guys really aren’t that tough.” According to Count Schulenburg referencing a later, official camp count, the French inflicted over 25,000 casualties on the Anglo-Dutch, and stopped the Allied offensive to capture Paris dead in its tracks by doing so. This was a battle where older than dirt French Regiment Navarre regained its lost honor from Blenheim and replaced its lost standards – with six more captured from His Britannic Majesty’s Foot Guards. It was a battle where Marborough pleaded to the Almighty the reason He had forsaken him, while a wounded but pleased Villars would comfort his King by noting, "Si Dieu nous fait la grâce de perdre encore une pareille bataille, Votre Majesté peut compter que tous ses ennemis seront détruits."
So let’s be honest, I’ve been preoccupied. The fact is I’ve not been eating, sleeping, painting and a whole bunch of stuff since yesterday, and even now I am desperately needed on the field of battle. So to make this quick I will use the player mod on the 1704 battle of Blenheim (by some chap called Odenathus) as my case study. More than any other game I’ve played for this composition, this one really shows what a gamer can do with modding if the right tools are available.
Player mods, for the uninitiated, are customer modifications to the data tables of the baseline game in order to create new scenarios or terrain, new units and leaders or modify (if not change) their behavior. Advanced modders can actually change software elements known as “scripts” to create brand new visuals if they are really good at it. Consider in Pike & Shot Campaigns there is an Excel spreadsheet file called squads.csv (comma separated value) which lists all the units in the game and a treasure trove of data for each. Looking at unit 18/line 21 one can see that the Early Ottoman Sipahis of the Porte has been allocated 16 Action Points and a movement of 900. Think that’s not good enough? Well just change the two entries to read 18 Action Points and a speed of 1100. Now it’s a bit more complicated than that, especially when you are trying to replace large graphics or sprites, but you get the picture. The game itself has a top notch terrain editor and a quick look at the city of Vienna and the shattered, cannonball wrecked town of Blenheim exudes the power of the tool and what just about anyone can do (to include me) if they simply have the patience (not to include me).
In most cases, player mods come in the form of downloadable historical scenarios, ready to play without any additional tweaking. But not all mods are that way, and there are some excellent side dishes to go along with the main course if you’re willing to toddle over to the correct Matrix/Slitherine forum and look. A couple that caught my eye includes one that introduces a set of entirely new countries and troop types while modifying the texture and visuals of some of the armies the game includes already. Another introduces a new set of terrain tiles based on the weather and season in which a particular battle was fought. If you’re fighting Narva (and given it’s already a mod, someone has), there needs to be ice, wind and snow and there is. I was particularly impressed by this latter non-scenario modification and plan to use it from now on. The terrain sprites simply look more realistic in my opinion.
Moving back to Blenheim, I played the game a couple of times and conclude the author not only knew his stuff historically, but also possesses the digital smarts to produce accurate combat results and a solid 18th Century, War of Spanish Succession feel to the engagement. This is one of my very favorite periods of military history, and the primary reason I serve as the Webmaster for Britain’s Pike & Shot Society today. Yes I’ve got my own rules, thousands of figures and just about every uniform and flag book on the period authored by Robert Hall et al, and sold by the Society. So I think I know my way around platoon fire and a firelock or two. For me Blenheim produces that almost undefinable, subjective confirmation when something just feels right, and based on my study of the subject, mod author Odenathus and game design have fused themselves into making a custom scenario that simply seems to work like it’s supposed to.
But I said almost, and I would be fibbing just a bit if I did not point out there is some hard, computer code evidence to back their work and my confidence up. If you take a look at the specs for French (and most Grand Alliance allied) cavalry vice that of England, you will notice that while the former have 50 % of their strength as pistols for shooting and combat, the British have no firepower at all but are 100 % sabre swingers and thus classified as Impact (as in shock) cavalry. Perfect, so let do a little bit of history here. During this war most cavalry is known in miniature circles as “Pistolier Horse.” This means that the standard tactic was to trot up to the enemy and just before impact discharge ye firelocks, drop them and then start swinging swords. The British, however, moved at a faster canter, used swords only and thus were generally more effective, at least until Malplaquet. In fact, Marlborough took all the firearms away from his heavy horse to force them to use cold steel, and provided carbines and a couple of rounds only when in bivouac for sentry duty. This detail is absolutely spot-on and is but one of several parts of the modification package that work so well in this battle to provide realistic tactics and period ambience.
So overall one has movement that seems right, firepower and casualties that seem on point and you have a Marlburian battle that works the way it’s supposed to wargame wise. Who could ask for anything more?
Well actually me, for one. Remember that visuals are also important to me and one of the reasons I really, really like this game series is that it looks like a tabletop game which in turns visually mimics the real thing. Yes, I’m the guy who knows how many tacks hold a 1709 Austrian Kurassier standard on the stave, an attribute for which I am particularly proud but most people define as just weird. Nevertheless, I have included both a picture of one of my own miniature games on Blenheim (photographed by my peep Duncan McFarland from Wargames Illustrated) and that of the mod I played over the weekend. They are both shot looking at the same piece of real estate on the battlefield. This is French horse to the left of the town of Blenheim, eyeballing them from behind the town. If the two images look kinda similar, you’re not wrong. It’s supposed to be that way.
This is where I am way out of my league as regards my own computer expertise and modding smarts. I’m not sure how he did it, but the author somehow modified the color textures and shape of the individual unit sprites and their flags to give an accurate display of the cavalcade of color that marked the armies of this era. Further, the individual units are differentiated by physical size as well. Some have greater depth in that there are more lines of troops or troopers. Others are wider in that there are more files inserted into the formation, which in most cases for this mod are brigades or demi-brigades. So while most French line infantry wear the white grey coats of their service, many are distinguished by red facings, blue facings, red trousers or white. The Gendarmerie is resplendent in its red attire as is the Irish Brigade. And as for flags, yes these are pretty accurate, not 100% mind you, but close. The modder did not make a unique regimental for each unit on the board, but there is a good, very accurate selection and variety to what he did provide to convey the appearance of what it was like to be in the army of the Sun King. And special units did get special flags. The Bavarians have cornflower blue lozenge and Virgin Mary standards and the Irish actually have some of the Irish Brigade flags known to have been used.
I thought maybe the author pulled and relabeled some of the graphics from the main game, specifically the Louis XIV Skirmish Campaign set, but I looked and did not find them. This means a lot of solid sartorial homework backed by some nimble figures on the keyboard to produce a very accurate, visually spectacular wargame mod. Bravo and color me impressed.
Not that there wasn't a quibble or two. Not that it impacted me, mind you, but it seems every scenario mod I ran across defaulted to the Captain General level of difficulty. Not funny. Otherwise my concerns come from the player designers, and not the mod friendliness or unfriendliness of the actual game. It’s a knowledge base issue and thus some uniforms and flags are out of whack, most likely due to a lack of information or where to find it. Tactics likewise and as an example, one thing I did notice in the Malplaquet mod for was that French cavalry was still classified as Pistolier. In reality Villars issued written orders prior to Malplaquet absenting firearms from his cavalry, to include the dragoons who lost their beloved musketoons. He wanted cold steel only and that’s what he got, with amazing results. When the Allied horse finally ruptured the French center at Malplaquet, they were met head on by the Maison du Roi, the Gendarmerie, all the French cavalry in the world actually, who came at them with sabres leveled. Six times these two huge bodies of horse clashed and six times the Anglo-Allies had their heads handed to them on the proverbial silver platter. Only the firepower of the British infantry supporting them prevented retreat from devolving to rout. OK, it would also be nice to be able to play either side in each individual mod, but otherwise, that’s about it for the negatives.
Bottom Line Not Up Front (BLUF Not) is that if you haven’t downloaded any of these mods, you should. It’s obvious the pride and knowledge that goes into these mini-software packages, and they seem to work, not to mention look gorgeous. It’s also a testament to a game system so adaptable to era and location as to not only beg modification, but future official releases as well. I personally would like to see all Fields of Glory modules flipped to a corresponding Pike & Shot software variant or modification. I believe that the recent Sengoku Jidai release was originally a player produced mod, and if that’s the case maybe Odenathus and some other folks need to crank out a few more War of Spanish Succession selections. Or how about developing some sort of digital bridge between Pike & Shot with Ageod’s Thirty Years War? If a battle happens in campaign, data is exported to Pike & Shot for play, with results exported back to the Ageod platform.
Heck I might even try building a mod myself, so if Gadebusch 1712 appears in your game, you’ll know who. But until then, its Espresso time and back to Malplaquet’s Bois de Sar where Schulenburg and the lads are making yet another push for glory.
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