Jim Owczarski, 5 January 2022
For the uninitiated — and I realized that I ought never assume folks know what is going on around here — a doughty crew of Armchair Dragoons are making their way through no fewer than 10 rule sets that have scenarios for the Battle of Quatre Bras. This is being done partially from sheer cussedness, partially from a sense of curiosity about which rule sets might depict the battle best, and partially to remember a battle which is slowly being removed from the landscape of Belgium if not our memories. Games are typically played during our regular “Saturday Night Fights” sessions and these After Action Reports will appear thereafter.
When I set out to do Project: Quatre Bras, Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles was not on the list of rule sets to try. After all, it is not a purpose-built Napoleonic set, having been designed for later 19th Century battles like the Franco-Prussian War. I knew, however, that they had been received well by some in the Napoleonic community, particularly adherents of the cult of 6mm miniatures. “Units” are no longer battalions or even brigades but divisions, each composed of bases that represent strength rather than particular formations. This allows the battles to be very big indeed and the scenario for Quatre Bras is actually the twinned battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny.
The Ruleset: Bloody Big Battles
Can I Still Buy a Copy?: Yes. Its on-line community is very strong as is scenario support for the Napoleonic period. I gather a Napoleonic scenario book of one kind or another is in the offing which is exciting.
How Many Players?: Four
How Long Did It Take?: Eight hours split evenly over two sessions. In fairness, a lot of rule teaching was necessary.
How’d It Play?:
Bloody Big Battles (hereafter BBB) has inspired a number of Napoleonic modifications. One boosts musket firepower as, compared to the rifled weapons that are its usual subject, the muzzle-loading, smoothbore muskets are a good deal weaker. In fact, if you study the combat charts, musket fire is found lurking at the far left end of the curve which can, to some, make them feel too weak. The other is an increase to the melee value of cavalry at the charge to account for their far greater importance in the first and second decade of the 19th Century. We chose to use neither — I believe the author finds them unnecessary — and did not feel the rules suffered for it.
The scale of BBB requires operational thinking. Given the scope of both Blucher and Volley and Bayonet, I confess to being surprised that this is the first of the rule sets considered to do so. In fairness, Napoleon’s Last Battles has an operational campaign and a glorious one at that, but the scope of its Quatre Bras scenario is far more limited. Here, now, for the first time in Project: Quatre Bras, Napoleon and Wellington face some trickier choices. There is little doubt that the former has enough strength to smash Blucher at Ligny, but can he really afford to leave Ney alone to manage the crossroads? Looked at from the other side, should Napoleon ask for even a bit more help in the east to ensure the Prussians are crushed and Waterloo, likely, never takes place? I strongly suspect these sorts of questions come up in the “Campaign in a Day” setting for Snappy Nappy, but here they were front and center on a single tabletop.
As the maneuver elements are divisions, it took players some time to think more grand tactically than operationally. Also, the combat system, an interesting see-saw of modifiers leading to a single die roll, is different and took some adjusting to. I do think that players enjoyed the rule under which all fire against a single target must be combined which I think far better reflects both the time and ground scale.
In the end, the strongest criticism of the rules, which comes through clearly in the videos, is the random activation system. In BBB, as in Black Powder and some others, not every division automatically activates every turn. A division can move its full distance, move a half distance, or stand stock still. This seemed to be accepted well enough, but an astonishingly disastrous run of luck for the French commander left his troops at Ligny immobile at the very time they were likely to have done Blucher real damage and this inertia lasted for several consecutive turns. There was a palpable sense from some of the players — even on the Allied side — that matters had moved from reasonable levels of command friction to an unenjoyable, and perhaps ahistorical, result.
That said, players enjoyed the game a great deal and several expressed a desire to try this and other scenarios. I want to offer a particular doff of the cap to the unofficial scenario support BBB has received. All wargaming communities are necessarily small, but this one punches well above its weight in high-quality scenarios — even for a period that is not its stated focus. Mr. Pringle established a clean, understandable design standard int he rule book and it has been happily adopted ever since. It is one that should be used by other rule sets and the Napoleonic communities that I more regularly associate with would be fortunate to be so well served.
What happened on the table? Well, as I say above, Napoleon to the east gave Blucher one heck of a bad time at Ligny, as might be expected, but the latter held on just long enough to take advantage of those ghastly activation rolls. Over at Quatre Bras itself the scale of BBB might have worked against the French a bit — at least in the minds of their commanders — as they discovered just how small the forces at Quatre Bras really were when taken as divisions. They had to be very careful with their scarce resources and, as has been the case in a number of other battles in this series, just could not come to the final fight with a large enough force to make a difference.
Score Now: Allies 4.5, French 1.5, and one draw.
Some photos of how the game played out:
click images to enlarge
And the videos:
More of Project: Quatre Bras to come, as the guys wrap up their games.
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