Thursday, 28 May 2015

Black Powder: First Polotsk

Last Saturday our 1812 campaign continued with the first battle of Polotsk. Following defeat at Klyastitsy, the French army commanded by general Oudinot had retreated south to regroup and receive reinforcements. 12.000 Bavarians were on their way to enable a renewed offensive on St. Petersburg.

The Russians struck first. Hampered by indecision and poor command and control, the Franco-Bavarian force found itself split on both banks of the Dvina river near the strategic crossroads at Polotsk. Seizing the initiative, general Wittgenstein's Russian I Corps launched an attack aimed at defeating the enemy in detail.


Although a subsidiary front, the stakes were high for both armies. Should Wittgenstein lose, St. Petersburg would be sure to fall to the French. Should Oudinot be defeated the supply line of the Grande Armée headed for Moscow would be threatened.

Both commanders' objective was to defeat their opponent by causing severe losses on their forces (33%). Neither commander desired a prolonged fight: Wittgenstein in case the French could bring up reinforcements and Oudinot in order to extricate his overwhelmed corps. In game terms, this meant that we would play a maximum of 10 turns. Finally, both sides sought to gain control of the Dvina crossing and the village of Spas that controlled the northern bank of the river.


As shown in the diagram below, the Franco-Bavarian deployment was somewhat skewed with 2/3 of the force deployed north of the river while the Bavarian division and all the French cavalry were held south of the river. The river could only be crossed in column at a solitary bridge. The Russians got to deploy after seeing the Franco-Bavarian deployment.

(We altered the historical deployment by switching Merle's and Wrede's divisions around as shown above. This was so that we could get my friend's meticulously painted Swiss right into the fray!)
Merle's Swiss division deployed its battalions in a deep formation in and near Spas; ideal to weather the prolonged assault headed their way. Legrand deployed half of his force in a two battalion deep firing line ready to advance to support Merle's left. The other half of Legrand's force was stacked in attack columns on his left, ready to either reinforce the centre or envelop the Russian line as it advanced past the forest to the north.

The Russians spread their line pretty evenly, but massing their artillery on their right. A sizeable portion of Wittgenstein's force was kept off-board in reserve, ready to enter the fight where needed.

Merle and Legrand north of the river faced by the Russian horde

Russian line infantry

French line infantry advance protected by voltigeurs

General Moreau

Wittgenstein confers with his subordinates

Swiss secure the village of Spas on Oudinot's right

Oudinot surveys the scene

Russian grenadiers

Merle's Swiss and Croat battalions deploy in a deep formation ready for prolonged action

Russian cuirassiers

Bavarian reserve ready to cross the bridge

Opening moves

The Russians began the battle by steadily advancing their line. On their right, they unlimbered several batteries and deployed several jaeger battalions in line ready for a firefight. The French responded on this flank by marching Legrand's division forward so that it was in line with Merle. Despite some brigades on both sides misinterpreting their orders, volleys were soon exchanged all along the line.

Legrand's division on the French left

The main Russian thrust was aimed at Spas. It was not long before the first Russian brigades were in a position to assault the Swiss in and around Spas, while a sizeable portion of the Russian centre began to redeploy towards Spas on their left.

Although furious, the first Russian assault by Roth's brigade was ill coordinated and premature. The lead battalions were thrown back in disarray only to be replaced by a second wave of assaulting greencoats. This second wave fared no better and, quite soon, the Russians had suffered staggering losses and Roth's brigade broke.

Russians advance upon Spas


A view of the battlefield around turn 4

As both sides were pouring more men into the line, the intensity of the battle grew. The French left was enveloped in billowing white smoke as Legrand's infantry traded volleys with the Russians. Both sides kept up a steady pressure in what was becoming an attritional contest. As battalions became spent either side would throw in troops from their second line and attempt to rally the battered battalions. Quite soon the steady advance of both sides had brought the belligerents to within 50 metres of each other, and then the casualties really begun to mount. French losses were particularly high on their extreme left flank, where the Russians had amassed no less than four batteries that were firing canister at point blank range.

Close-range firefight in the centre

Not a good place to be for the French

Legrand's division was holding it's own, but they were definitely outgunned. An alternate solution was at hand since the Russians had advanced a bit too far past the woods. Seizing the opportunity, Legrand sent Moreau's brigade to outflank the Russian position while Albert's and Maison's brigades maintained the frontal firefight. Pamplona's brigade was held in reserve to counter a possible Russian assault.

The Russians failed to react to the threat in time and soon received the full brunt of Moreau's attack in their flank. The assault proved devastating, routing two Russian batteries and leaving a third one disordered and in a bad position.

Moreau outflanks the Russian right

The first line of Russian artillery is taken in the flank

Meanwhile, a brutal melee was taking place on the French right. Before breaking, Roth's brigade had inflicted some losses on Merle's Swiss. The Swiss had no time to recover before a third, better coordinated assault hit them. This time the assault was headed by Baumgarten's brigade of grenadiers, which was well supported by Balk's brigade.

Despite a devastating volley by the Swiss defenders, the Russian grenadiers struck hard. Casualties were heavy on both sides and the first Swiss battalions broke from the fight in a rout. This assault was almost immediately followed by a second assault by Sazonov's brigade aimed at Spas. The defenders of the village put up a spirited resistance and inflicted heavy losses on the Russians.

Furious combat on the French right

Spas is assaulted


A view of the battlefield around turn 6

With both sides heavily engaged and casualties beginning to mount on both sides, the climax of the battle was at hand. Wrede's Bavarians and Corbineau's cavalry reserve were rushing to the rescue, but the bridge was proving to be a serious bottleneck and it would still be some time before this force, comprising a third of the Franco-Bavarian army, could be brought to bear.

Bavarians scurry across the river

French cavalry secures the rear

On the French left, the Russians frantically sought to recover the situation and counter the outflanking French. Kozakovski's brigade was thrown forward to halt the French advance, which was soon supported by a counter-attack by Sibirsky's brigade. In turn, the French threw in Pamplona's brigade which had been kept in reserve just for this moment. Soon a furious melee had engulfed this entire flank, with several Russian battalions and another battery routing, while a single French brigade was also routed. French losses were relatively light on this flank due to their advantageous positioning and the fact that their exhausted battalions could be withdrawn from the fighting to regroup behind the freshly engaged brigades. 

Confused fighting on the French left (Legrand)

On the French right, the brutal melee continued unabated. Both sides were stretched near breaking point, yet were unwilling to yield. However, the stalemate could not last forever and after several turns of brutal combat, the battalions started routing. Several of Baumgarten's battalions broke, which prompted the remainder of the Russian grenadier brigade to rout. The Swiss had also lost several battalions and the remainder were in poor state.

Large melee taking place on the French right

It was at this point that disaster stuck the Swiss. After heroically fending off one assault after another, the defenders of Spas were finally forced to retire due to mounting casualties and depleting ammunition. The burning village was immediately occupied by the elated Russians, who were now in an excellent position to enfilade the Swiss on either side of the village or even to cut off the line of retreat of the Swiss positioned on the riverbank.

Spas is finally captured

The Swiss had no time to recover from this blow before hit by another. The remaining battalions on the riverbank were assaulted by Russian infantry and cuirassiers. The infantry failed to form square and were promptly cut to pieces, routing several battalions in quick succession.

Russian cuirassiers mop up the Swiss on the French right

With that, the game came to a close. Both sides had suffered appalling losses (33%) and essentially "broke" at the same time. The fighting had been most severe on the French right, where the Russians had had roughly 8 battalions broken and the Franco-Bavarians some 5 battalions. In the centre, the Russians suffered no losses whereas the Franco-Bavarians lost some 3 battalions. On the left, the Russians lost 2-3 battalions and 3 batteries while the French only lost a single battalion.

With both sides depleted and eager to disengage, the battle came to an end. The Russians emerged as the victors since they had gained control of the village of Spas. However, the margin of victory was very slight and the hard fought victory could easily have been Franco-Bavarian, if only the village could have held on for another turn. In fact, the Bavarians were in a position to make a counter-attack on the village and in the centre on the last turn, yet failed to react as promptly as the situation warranted (three successful commands would have seen them assaulting the Russians).

Final position of the forces. The Bavarians are poised to strike.

A hard fought and great game. This battle did not see any grand manoeuvres or brilliant generalship and was much more an attritional slogging match between the two sides. Perhaps both sides would have benefited more from a "rotation" of units in order to withdraw brigades near breaking point and rally them before they could break. However, this is often easier said than done in the heat of battle.

Another exceptional hallmark of this game was that we failed to roll any blunders. We have a system that a player is entitled to a glass of fine cognac (vodka for the Russians!) to recover their nerve after each blunder. It is most unfortunate that we didn't get a chance to honour this great tradition!

The blunder bottle remained untapped throughout the game

Friday, 22 May 2015

Won by the Sword

Lately I've been playing a lot of Ben Hull's "Won by the Sword", which is an operational level board game of the Thirty Years War. As I've written previously, this is the historical period which most excites me and from a military history point of view I am more interested on the operational level of war (campaign manoeuvres, logistics, etc.) than on the tactical or strategic levels. Thus, this was a game right up my alley.

The game itself uses a node-based map where armies are activated alternately by the players by varying campaign cards. The map represents South-West Germany, and the game comes with a number of scenarios enabling you to game the major campaigns that took place in this theatre during the war. Other theatres and campaigns are expected to be released in the future. You can either play a shorter 2-3 month scenario or a full year of campaigning (8-9 months).

The map / game board

We decided to play the 1632 campaign, where Gustav Adolph's Swedish army attempts to conquer southern Germany and knock Bavaria out of the war. I played the Imperial-Bavarian side. The campaign took some 18-20 hours to complete, which isn't so bad for beginners.

I started the campaign strongly by holding the Swedes at bay. I had two main armies operating with the intention of securing the Main and Neckar rivers, whilst laying the mighty Swedish controlled city of Nuremberg under siege. Using a combination of cunning and speed, the Swedes thwarted my attempts to gain control of these rivers, but I managed to capture Nuremberg just before Gustav Adolph's relief column reached it. After defeating Tilly in a battle near Nuremberg, Gustav Adolph proceeded to besiege the might Nuremberg in turn. However, an imperial army under Wallenstein attacked the Swedish king in the nick of time and defeated the Swedes in battle. This was a major blow for the Swedes, who had lost over a month in the siege and were defeated in battle to boot.

Nuremberg is about to fall whilst Gustav Adolph is racing to the rescue

I used my triumph secure the Main river, but then proceeded to balance the scales by blundering with Tilly's army into Johan Baner's veteran army. This mistake was due to my misevaluation of our respective army strengths. With the exact contents of armies hidden from the opposing player and having failed to reconnoitre the enemy, I estimated Baner's army to be smaller and to include less veterans. I was further prompted to my rash move since I had several tactical advantages which I was about to lose unless I attacked promptly. The result of this blunder was that Tilly's army was practically wiped out and I had to send off half of Wallenstein's force to plug the gap in the western sector of the map.

Contest over the Neckar river moments before things go horribly wrong for myself

My blunder put me on the defensive for a long time. Using artillery captured from Tilly, Baner proceeded to capture city after city on the Neckar and Rhine rivers. Wallenstein, now outnumbered by Gustav, resorted to scorched earth tactics. These tactics worked remarkably well as it Gustav was severely constrained on where he could move his army if it wished to have supplies and had to spend a great deal of time husbanding supplies from where they could be got. I used this time to rebuild my strength but, after two months of relative inactivity Gustav was able to push through the devastated cordon I had created and lead his army south to the Danube.

The gaming board while the armies are still duelling in the north

Units are kept on a separate force card, which is hidden from the opposition

Campaign cards are played alternately, with the players controlling which cards to allocate to the first two armies but subsequent (3rd and 4th) armies drawing cards at random

The remainder of the campaign, from July to October saw a great drama unfolding in the south. Gustav seemed unstoppable as he captured the fortresses of Ulm and Augsburg and plunged into Swabia and Bavaria. A wary Wallenstein was hesitant to engage Gustav's army, but burned up the countryside around the Swedes. 

Whilst this game of cat and mouse was going on, an Imperial army under Heinrich von Holk and Baner's Swedish army were wresting for control of the Rhine. I made a spirited attempt at making reconquests on the Rhine and even taking the offensive north to Swedish controlled areas. However, Holk's army had no artillery and insufficient subordinates to establish a detachment to collect supplies. This combination was crippling, since his army made little headway against the Swedish-controlled cities whilst he could not sustain his force.

With the situation becoming untenable and Baner tied down besieging the fortress of Breisach, Holk made a feint followed by a hard march east, where he joined forces with Wallenstein. This left the Rhine undefended but gave Wallenstein the overwhelming force he needed to face Gustav. I further calculated that the siege of Breisach would take sufficiently long to give me time to defeat Gustav and retake some important cities.

It was the Swedish turn to make a blunder. Wallenstein managed to retake the few crossings seized by the Swedes on the Danube through a combination of wily stratagems and brutal assaults. Meanwhile a small Imperial detachment was laying waste to Swabia so that the Swedes could not sustain themselves in the area. 

Gustav's army cut off in Swabia surrounded by a hostile populace and Wallenstein's imposing army

Gustav's army was in quite a pickle. He could not retreat out from the area, nor sustain himself for long. Wallenstein's army was strong and only growing stronger. In the end, Gustav made a dash for seizing the otherwise insignificant crossing of Memmingen and escaping west towards the Rhine. Wallenstein pounced before this could happen and severely defeated the Swedish king. A relief force detached from Baner managed to take Memmingen from the opposite (western) bank, thus enabling the remnants of Gustav's army to escape.

Wallenstein faces off with Gustav in Swabia - battles are conducted by wings, with the cavalry wings on either side being more decisive as they can support the centre if they win their own fight

The position of the same battle after pre-battle manoeuvring. Wallenstein has strengthened his wings with infantry from the centre whereas the Swedes have concentrated as much force as possible on their right - hoping to win at least one of the three wings.

I used my success to retake much of the Necker line whilst harrying Gustav's army with another force. The campaign was drawing to a close and time was against me. Breisach fell much faster than I had anticipated, yielding control of the Rhine and a great number of victory points to the Swedes, who then began advancing east once again.

Before the campaign came to an end, I managed to corner Gustav a second time and effect a second crushing defeat on the humiliated "Lion of the North". However, this triumph was somewhat offset by Baner's army recapturing the Necker line and, with winter closing in, I did not have sufficient time to further capitalize on my success. Both armies had been mauled very badly and were only too happy to retire to winter quarters.

The end result was a narrow Swedish victory with 181 victory points to my 167. The Swedes had gained control of the Rhine whilst I had pushed them out of Franconia (most of the eastern sector of the map). I had won 3 out of 5 of the battles fought during the campaign.

All in all a very fun game, which modelled 17th century operational level war quite nicely. The game mechanics were quite simple, the game flowed nicely and the players had plenty of alternatives and abilities to interact with one another. I particularly liked the system of using smaller detachments to harass the enemy and collect provisions for the larger forces, whose actions largely revolved around the control of places via sieges.

The game did suffer from horrendous editing, including unclear and misspelled rules as well as misprinted cards and charts. However, the rules were not hard to figure out using the published errata coupled with a light sprinkling of common sense and the misprints were easy to amend.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Normandy village

Today's club night was dedicated to terrain making. I had recently purchased a load of 4Ground's fantastic pre-painted Normandy buildings, which we set to gluing together. At the end of the evening we had put together seven small buildings and half of a larger set. This still left us with several smaller buildings and another larger set to complete.

I've got to say that the buildings are fantastic. The little details can be a bit laborious, but in the end I think they are definitely worth it. I particularly like the ruined buildings. The buildings might see a bit more love in the form of some furniture, posters, etc., but on the whole, I think that as they are this new terrain collection will definitely add to the level of our games.

Assembly process

Construction magic taking place

The evening's results

Ruined house with an MDF bead added

Another house that has been hit by artillery