Really Old School Wargaming – a Rules Review of a Classic08 Feb 2017 0
Research is an integral part of tabletop wargaming, not only for rules authors like myself, but for players as well. There are scenarios to design, figures to paint, house rules to contemplate and flags to fly. To that end sources include books, digital files, maps, and yes, even other wargames. I’m hip deep into the age of the hyphenated wars right now (Franco-Prussian, Austro-Prussian, Russo-Japanese and so on), and you can bet to that end I have the GMT tactical boardgame 1859 – Risorgimento on the shelf. And just recently I picked up another little beauty on this historical period where the most unique and fascinating aspect to me was the dice used, all for a mere 8 GBP. The game itself is on the complex side – actually very complex – and I could spend 50 pages dissecting it, but I don’t want to put my editor on more meds than he already has. This means my weekly tome will be a little different in format, being more direct with a bit of a surprise at the end.
Guess the Game
Format: The rules book is full color glossy and comes as a 37 page PDF download from the vendor’s Website which accepts all credit cards and PayPal. Once purchased, the site takes you to a page for an immediate download. There is no waiting for emails and the like, and though a foreign design firm, the site had already prepopulated the checkout with both my city and Zip Code here in the United States. Maybe it’s just me, but I still find that creepy.
Equipment: Most of the equipment such as rulers and charts are included within the rules for reproduction and play, and though miniatures are not included, the game also allows for the creation of blocks or pieces much like the old System 7 Napoleonics that caused a lot controversy when its cardboard counters won Best Miniature Figure of the Year (seriously, not making this up). Maps are obviously tabletop terrain, but the rules allow for hex maps from boardgames or actual topographic maps to be used if the correct scale. A ruler is helpful as are six six-side dice, either the normal type or the five specifically designed for the game. Trust me, these little jewels are unique.
Scale: This is a VERY tactical game. Each centimetre equals 100 yards (actually paces) which would mean that each inch is about 250 yards. Each turn represents two minutes of real time while each unit is a generic 19th Century European infantry battalion, cavalry regiment or artillery battery. Somewhat unique to the game, however, is the ability to break down the battalions and regiments into its constituent companies or squadrons in order to properly form different battlefield formations. This could mean, for example, a cavalry regiment expanding its frontage to duplicate outpost duty. Thus each figure stand, counter, block or whatever, should be considered a foot company or mounted squadron.
Players: The game is designed such that each player controls six battalions, two cavalry regiments (or eight squadrons) and a single artillery battery. This is really about a half a division’s worth of troops, so for a division on division force, double the number of players and for a corps on corps, double the number again. Given the level of detail and two minute game turns, it is unlikely you will be able to effectively play larger engagements, so don’t think you’re going to do all of Koniggratz with these rules. Just not gonna happen. While the game can theoretically work without the assistance of an umpire, it is strongly recommended that one be on hand as his presence is another unique selling and playing point of the design.
Sequence of Play: There is none. Sorta. Hopefully many of you remember back in 1980 or so, the late George Jeffrey came up with the Variable Length Bound, or VLB. The idea was to have the players issue orders to their units and within the limits of game allowances, move those units simultaneously with the enemy until some event, somewhere on the table mandated a halt. At that point all incidents, even if only one would be resolved, after which simultaneous movement would continue until the next incident. The concept used actual battlefield events to control movement, and not the age old device of the turn. Events or incidents could be a unit coming under fire from distant artillery, or receiving a new set of orders by messenger. Although not exactly VLB, this game works very much the same way. Players prepare plans, issue orders and the umpire oversees movement until an event occurs. Talking between players is a no-no unless their command figures are within 4 inches or 1000 paces of each other, otherwise messages are passed thru the umpire.
Combat Operations: When a battlefield event occurs, there are various options available to the player and the units he controls. In general, these operations mirror the four primary chapters in the rules book. These are Movement and Movement related actions (such as deploying skirmishers), Ranged Firepower (both artillery and infantry), Close Assault (to include specific procedures and unique situations such as fighting in towns) and Opposed Operations (such as artillery trying to unlimber under fire). Again the umpire oversees the operations thereof in the same vein as what most folks call a gamemaster. Units are eliminated when casualties measured in Index Points exceed a certain threshold, all of which lead to the umpire’s or players’ mutual decision that the game is over.
This piece of the pie is where the complexity surfaces and I cannot stress enough that we are dealing with uber-Grognard complexity. For example, most players are used to unlimbering a battery of guns by simply expending half the unit’s movement rate or similar, whether under fire or not. Not here. In this game the ability of guns to drop under fire is by chance and dependent on two primary factors. First, is the battery within firing range of infantry rifles, smoothbore artillery or rifled artillery? Second and for example, if the answer is rifled artillery, is the deploying unit under 1200 paces from the firing unit, under 1000, under 800, under 600 or under 400? It makes a difference as to modifier and under 400 no deployment is allowed, period.
Combat and Activity Resolution: The game comes with a nice variety of charts a bit modernized to use standard six sided dice. The charts are imbedded in the document, and not separated into a distinct section. Why? Because players have the opportunity to use the special, unique dice created for this game originally. Put as simply as I can, the dice serve as chart, modifier and resolution all wrapped up into a single package. Each of the five original dice is different, so depending upon the combat occurring, you need only pick the single correct die and roll. The face up is then read and will tell you the results with certain modifiers applied. Take Die 1 of the original game. That one unique die covered melee at even odds, howitzers burning a town and formed or skirmisher rifle fire if not under cover at different ranges. Whatever side of the die turned up indicated results with luck applied. Gorgeous!
Now the shocker – this game is 155 years old. The game is the 1862 version of the Prussian Army’s vaunted Kriegsspiel, a training tool for officers designed by one Leutnant von Tschischwitz of the 23d or 2d Upper Silesian Infantry Regiment. The 1862 document was an updated and revised version of the famous 1824 rules designed by Prussian Royal Guard Leutnant Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reiswitz based on a set created by his father. The newer game was shorter because it left out chapters thought extraneous, but included such new-fangled contraptions not found in the original such as breech loading Krupp rifled artillery, or the Zundnadelgewehr (needle gun) breechloading infantry rifle.
Today both the 1824 and 1862 versions have been dutifully translated by Bill Leeson for the wargame design shop Too Fat Lardies (and I will not even hazard a guess). Likewise the original dice of the 1824/62 versions can be self-made or purchased direct from Command Post Games. As noted above, and given the PDF format, both games are very affordable.
I strongly recommend all wargamers, but especially cardboard or pewter tabletoppers, pick up a copy of one or both. Its history in your hands, a solid game and packs a wealth of information from designers who actually fought what they simulated. As such it offers a unique insight into what the military professionals who used these games thought was significant enough to model and how, as well as could be excluded as unnecessary. Game designers and players – who with house rules and scenarios are designers themselves – thus have a powerful perspective in pocket to contemplate prior to putting pen to paper. It is said that Generalleutnant Baron von Muffling attended a Kriegsspiel demonstration by the young von Reisswitz and halfway through exclaimed, “This is not a game at all. This is training for war!”.