Sunday, 12 February 2012

As I went home on Sunday night, as drunk as drunk could be...

Kicking off what's strictly speaking Five Wargamey Afternoons rather than Seven Drunken Nights, I give you The First Battle of Little Grantling-on-the-Test.

Positions by the end of turn 1
As I mentioned in the earlier post, the first rules up for testing "With Macduff to the Frontier."  Although not strictly compulsory, Macduff (for brevity) encourages players to brigade units together, under a brigade commander figure.  I decided to treat each 20 man unit as a brigade of 2 10 man units, giving each brigade a command figure (on foot, as I don't currently have any mounted officers.)  Frankly I think this was a mistake on my part, as it was too easy for each Brigadier to accompany his unit, granting the "Follow me" orders bonus automatically.  A better option would have been to brigade all three 20 man units together under a single brigadier, as that way there's more of a challenge in deciding where to apply the Brigadier.

I also added a 10 man light infantry unit to each side, and rated one unit per side as elite (the Guardsmen and the Zepptruppen)

The first thing I noticed, unconnected with the rules on test, was that the multi-figure movement trays didn't seem to save that much time, and were in fact a bloody nuisance on occasion with the cluttered terrain.  The trays were too wide to fit on my road sections, kept snagging on terrain items and sticking up and out in a most un-aesthetic manner.  Units changing formation from line to column or vice-versa took just as long to pivot each figure in the tray as it would to move all the figures individually, and as the game  progressed I gradually phased them out for most units.  These trays would be excellent for playing big open field battles, but for busy terrain layouts like this one I'm going to go back to individual figures.

The next thing I noticed is that Macduff is clearly written for the larger wargaming table.  Infantry in column along a road can get up to 18" a turn, cavalry easily 24".  That can really tear up a 4' table, and meant that manoeuvring was going to be severely limited.  However the number of figures I was trying to cram onto a small, tight terrain meant that I was almost forced to keep some troops in reserve

It's not easy, being green
Rather than blow-by-blow, I'll summarise what happened by wing.  On the German right flank, the Jaegers tried to hold the wooded area while the Uhlans waited for the British infantry on the other side of the cornfield to be weakened before charging.  Unfortunately both fell foul of Macduff's Reaction rules.  A non-initiative unit which hasn't already activated and is either fired on, charged or otherwise has something happen right in front of its noses, can choose to shoot or take a half-move (either retreating or counter-charging) simultaneously with the triggering action.  So when the ten men of the Jaegers fired at the British unit, the British unit reacted by firing back with all twenty men, killing half the Jaegers in a single turn.  Similarly when the Uhlans later tried to charge the same unit, which by now had been whittled down to about thirteen men, they were repulsed by the Brits' Reaction fire before they could make contact.

The Border Light Infantry discovering that the
Guardsmen's bearskins make excellent cover.
Meanwhile on the British right flank (German left) a unit of troops had gotten itself into a nice defensive position behind a wall and was facing off against the Grenadier Guards.  The way firing works in Macduff is that for each fire dice rolled, a 4,5 causes one casualty and a 6 causes two.  But that -1 cover modifier meant that the grenadiers could never score that two casualty result, which made a big difference in the effectiveness of the two units' fire.  By the end, the Grenadiers were down to just the two officers and the Brigadier before they retired back to the other side of a hill to rally.  The Guards did however manage to whittle down the Germans' numbers so that later in the game when the Border Light Infantry wheeled round and poured fire into them from the flank, it didn't take much to reduce them to Shaken and force them to retreat.

In the centre, the Germans ran into something of a traffic jam in their deployment through the village.  But once they'd gotten into good positions they were able to put out a very effective curtain of fire against the attacking British.  They were also forced to split their artillery apart, one gun engaging the massed British artillery on the hill and quickly coming off the worst, the other facing up the main road and pouring fire into the flank of the British left-flank unit.

Shock and Awe, Victorian style!
Meanwhile the British had kept their Lancers in reserve in the centre.  The British infantry unit in the centre got shot to pieces by the well positioned Germans, however their fire, combined with fire from the Light Infantry and the artillery on the hill, managed to whittle their numbers down to the 50% shaken threshold.  It was then that the British reserve cavalry thundered up the road, passing through the shattered remnants of the infantry and smashing into the Germans along their flank.  It was a massacre, and thanks to the Pursuit rules the lancers were then able to continue their charge on to the adjacent artillery crew, who met a similar fate.  Flushed with success, the following turn the victorious Lancers came under fire from the Zeptruppen who had taken up position in the adjacent field.  The Lancers charged, but despite gaining double dice for being charging cavalry (roll twice, pick the best), the Zeptruppen's modifiers for being Elites(+1) defending an obstacle (+1) tipped the balance.  Two riders fled the scene of the massacre, while the Zeptruppen  didn't lose a man.
Bravely ran away, away...
By the end of the battle, both the German flanks had collapsed, with only the Zeptruppen holding strong in the centre and all their other units either wiped out or in tatters.  The British however had an intact artillery battery, an untouched light infantry unit and one unit of regulars in good order at 70% strength.
 The Grenadiers and the other unit of infantry were slowly rallying, and it was at this point that I called the game in favour of the British.
The penultimate turn - the Uhlans in the far distance were eventually
whittled down to one man and the German infantry in the foreground
 down to three before they both retired.
Overall my impression of the rules in play are very favourable.  It's inevitable that with any homegrown rules set you run into things where the rules author obviously knows what he means, as do his regular opponents who make up 99% of the rules userbase.  For example, it wasn't immediately clear to me whether a formation made up of multiple units (i.e. a brigade) rolls orders for each constituent unit separately, or just once for the whole formation - I interpreted it as the latter based on a later section about the "Follow Me" rule, but I could see it being read either way.  Also the Rally rule indicates a roll of one results in the loss of a straggler.  I wasn't sure whether that meant that one of the unit's casualty figures is lost permanently and can't be Rallied (based on some comments Ross had made recently in his blog) or if it meant the loss of another surviving figure.  I interpreted it as the latter, which made Rallying something of a dicey proposition, and more than one shattered unit found themselves nickel-and-dimed away by a series of unlucky Rally rolls.

But on the whole I found the rules clear and concise and with enough tactical options to make it interesting.  For example, there may be times when it might be best not to React to enemy fire - instead of the Grenadiers standing on the hilltop trading fire at a disadvantage with the better entrenched German infantry, they should have gritted their teeth and waited until their own activation, then either attempted a charge (where their Elite status would have evened the odds) or pulled back out of sight to Rally before attempting to advance again.  If on the other hand the Germans had been supported by a second unit, the Guards would then have to endure their fire as well, suffering even more casualties and making the immediate Reaction option more favourable.

The Reaction system also cancelled out the big weakness of Igo-Ugo initiative systems, whereby the side who gets to fire first in a turn gains a great advantage.  The Germans won every initiative roll in the game except the last one, but every British unit they targeted was able to fire back at full strength before taking casualties.

I believe these rules are aimed at a fairly open terrain layout, with most clutter and obstacles not portrayed on the tabletop but abstracted into the movement distances.  It didn't take long to adjust things to my more cluttered countryside terrain.

As the German Uhlans showed, with 10 man cavalry and 20 man infantry units, a frontal cavalry charge against an unshaken infantry unit is a recipe for disaster, especially if they're ready to give Reaction fire before you contact them.  But as the British Lancers showed,  at the right place and time a cavalry charge can be devastating.  And instead of barrelling straight into the Zeptruppen's position, they should have either withdrawn to cover, or continued up the road and around the Zeptruppen's flank, making their position unsustainable.

All God's chillun gots guns.
Artillery isn't a major decision arm in Macduff - a field gun with two fire dice is only equivalent in firepower to four infantrymen.  But it does have double the rifle's range.  Larger numbers of guns on the battlefield (mounted, let's say, on steam powered vehicles) aren't going to totally overwhelm the importance of infantry and cavalry.  One thing missing that I would have liked was some kind of boost to artillery firepower at very close range, representing canister or grapeshot, but I suspect that this is a finer detail than Ross is aiming for.

The pace of the game was pretty good - the first couple of turns took about 45 minutes to an hour each including a lot of reading and rereading the rules, but by the end of the game I was managing a turn in about a half hour (less as more units became ineffective or were destroyed).  I'm confident that these rules could still play well with many more troops on the table, especially if you're able to play for a longer time.

To adapt Macduff for VSF would need a little bit of work.  Tweaks to ranges and fire dice could give a bit more variety in weaponry, with vehicle movement distances set by vehicle type and size, comparable to infantry and cavalry.  A weapon vs vehicle damage system would have to be constructed from whole cloth, or transplanted from another game.

If I were to play this scenario again with MacDuff, I'd switch to three 10-man units per brigade, with fewer Brigadiers. Cavalry charges are more likely to make it home against 10 man units, plus you're more likely to see shaken units being rallied back up to 75% (actually 80%) strength, which means you're more likely to see units attacking, bouncing, pulling back to Rally then being thrown back into the fight.

To some up, "With MacDuff to the Frontier" gives a really enjoyable game of toy soldiers, with enough options and tactical choices to make it mentally challenging, and with an overall result that feels "realistic".  I definitely want to play it again, both solitaire and with a human opponent, even if I don't choose to adapt it for VSF gaming.


  1. Thanks for the rule summary I have a copy of these rules but not used them yet - will have to give them a try.

  2. Excellent report and examination of the rules! Looks like another set I should try out.

  3. I've greatly enjoyed this report and am happy you enjoyed the game. A couple of random comments:

    -I've had the same experience with movement trays.
    -The other day I was re-reading and wondering if people would know what I meant by straggler. You got it right but I should clarify.

    -I also need to clarify the cavalry charge bonus. The best of 2 dice is how a 2 on 1 works and it makes sense to use the same for the cavalry but I actually double the score. (ie a 2 becomes 4) Makes cavalry very tough vs infantry not in cover or square.

    - I was surprised to hear 20 Brits hitting 5 jaegers but then realized you were probably using breechloading rifles? and not deploying them as skirmishers? Once I get into the 1860's skirmish order and march columns are about the only thing I use, unless the other side is armed with spears and a few obsolete guns.

    - I sometime use quite congested terrain, some games have been nothing but woods, but lately I have been opening things up a bit.

    Looking forward to the other games.

    1. @Ross - Thanks for taking the time to comment. Did I get the orders bit right i.e. roll once for a multi-unit formation?

      Re: Cavalry Charge bonus - doubling the die score does make cavalry seriously nasty. However I'd missed that they don't get the bonus vs Infantry in cover. So the Lancers shouldn't have got it vs the Zeptruppen, making charging them an even more foolish proposition. Thinking about it, I think I like doubling the score - infantry's best chance of defeating cavalry is to stop them by fire before impact.

      Incidentally this led me to spot another point where I got the rules wrong. I played it that only units that hadn't yet been activated in the turn could React. Re-reading it, I see the rules actually say "A unit which has not yet shot or fought in melee." Which means that a unit threatened by cavalry could have moved or changed formation earlier in the turn and still be able to React. And one of those reactions could be to change formation, so a unit caught in the open could form square to rob the cavalry of their charge bonus... another interesting tactical choice there; do I try to fend off charging cavalry by fire or by forming square? This is exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for.

      Between them those two corrections make cavalry even harder to use correctly, but bloody deadly when they are. Seems right for late 19th century.

      Re: Brits vs Jaegers - Yes I was using breechloaders (1d per 2 men) and though the Brits were formed in line, the Jaegers were in open order. I actually missed the penalty for firing on skirmishers, however the Jaegers were also in cover so already got that benefit. At the end of the day, with -1 for over half range and -1 for the target in cover, the Brits were just uncannily lucky in that instance, scoring five 6s on ten dice. But that's why we roll dice, after all.

  4. 5 6's! Ouch! It happens but maybe the Jaegers shouldn't have stood up when the Brits "Fritz where are you?"

    Yes, 1 order for a group which is formed up. There are benefits to being organized.

    Yes, I've tried to make choices important. Seeing cavalry over on the left, do you really want to fire off at long range at those guys in cover straight ahead and be unable to react if charged? But what if they never charge? hmmm

  5. Nice report, the rules sound interesting. Sorry to here about the movement tray problem, I suspected that might be the case. My thoughts on basing right now are to put everyone on washers individually and then cut up magnetic sheets to make bases / stands ala DBA, Impetus etc. I'll let you know how it goes.