Monday, 29 November 2010

Fuentes de Oñoro

The Sheffield & Rotherham club has been running a series of games to explore different historical rules sets and I have been asked to showcase Grande Armée and so have decided to refight Fuentes de Oñoro. It is the first scenario in Sam Mustafa's excellent set of rules and I have refought it three times previously to demonstrate the rule system.

Fuentes de Oñoro was the final battle in the third French invasion of Portugal. I highly recommend David Buttery's Wellington Against Massena for a full history of the invasion.

The British under Wellington, then Wellesley, had successfully driven out two previous French invasions of Portugal, Junot's in 1808 and Soult's in 1809, before Massena undertook the third in May 1810. The invasion route drove straight towards Lisbon with the French successfully taking the forts of Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida as they began their advance. The British retreated before them until they came to Bussaco ridge where, in what became a classic example of a Wellington battle, the French columns having made the difficult climb were repulsed by the British and Portuguese lines before there could fully reform.

The battle, whilst a defeat, did not prevent the invasion continuing as the British again fell back. While it may have seemed that the campaign would end with the British being driven into the Atlantic, on the 11 October 1810 the advanced French cavalry came across Wellington's masterstroke. Began a year previously based on Wellington's initial assessment of the strategic situation the Lines of Torres Vedras were the undoing of Massena's army. Unable to penetrate the works and with his army struggling on low supplies Massena was forced to retreat in early 1811.

As the British pursued Napoleon decided that Massena, previously one of his greatest Marshals, was no longer up to the task and Marmont was dispatched to assume command. Having being pursued past the fort of Almeida which the British now besieged, Massena decided on one last throw of the dice to try and defeat Wellington in open battle.

In early May 1811 the British had advanced as far as the town of Fuentes de Oñoro on the Portuguese-Spanish border just past Almeida, and it was here that Massena decided to attack. Wellington had around 34,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry compared to Massena's 44,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry. The British did however outnumber the French in artillery with 48 guns to the 38 guns of the French. Massena was also being undermined by Marshal Bessières. Massena had already fallen out with Marshal Ney who had returned to France. Bessières was in command of the Army of the North and although he had brought some supplies and 1,600 cavalry to support Massena, he was reluctant to follow Massena's orders.

The battlefield centred on the town of Fuentes de Oñoro with the river Dos Casas running north-south presenting the first obstacle the French would have to cross. The fort of Almeida, which Massena hope to relieve lay to the north west of Fuentes de Oñoro behind the battlefield. The British held the slopes running down from Almeida to the Dos Casas north of Fuentes. While this might have been a more natural route to avoid Fuentes, the terrain either side of the Dos Casas was difficult leaving an attacker exposed to the enemy on the far side.

The 3 May 1811 saw the first French attacks on Fuentes with their initial success stopped by the arrival of British reinforcements. Realising that Fuentes was well defended Massena spent the 4th probing the British position looking for weak points before deciding on an attack plan for the 5th. The plan was straight forward, Reynier's Corps would provide a diversionary attack north of Fuentes while d'Erlon's Corps would attack Fuentes itself. With the British pinned the remaining French forces, including most of the cavalry, will advance south of Fuentes turning the British right.

Wellington had played into this plan. His forces were spread over a wide area and on his right the 7th Division, newly arrived in the Peninsular, was positioned at Poco Velho detached from any supporting Divisions.

So we have the scenario. Will the French be able to turn the British right and roll-up the line? Will Wellington send reinforcements to support and extract the 7th Division and redress his line?

The scenario is played using the forces given in the Grande Armée rule book, I have however added to the map provided which I find to be a little bare. The main changes being to add additional hills to give a better feel of the landscape and to add rough terrain to represent the ravine north of Fuentes, otherwise it is too easy for the French to attack the Britsh here.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Sacking Syracuse

This week I managed to give my Carthaginians their first run out and they didn't disappoint. The battle was against Early Imperial Romans as part of the club's current ancient campaign. The battle was one of two simultaneous encounters for control of Sicily.

The armies deployed across the Sicilian plain with rough terrain and woods down the Carthaginian left. The Carthaginian's were on the attack and deployed their infantry opposite the Roman Legions who were intermingled with German mercenaries. Both armies had their cavalry far out on the Carthaginian right.

The Carthaginians opened the battle with a general advance headed by their elephants. The Romans countered by advancing their Auxiliaries to bring the elephants down. However the Numidian skirmishers got the better of their Romans counterparts and the Roman line began to fracture as the elephants charged home. The Germans allies were refusing to cooperate making it difficult for the Roman's to support the Auxiliaries.

On the right, the outnumbered Roman cavalry held their ground drawing on the advancing Carthaginian cavalry while some Roman Legions move against their flank. Spotting the manoeuvre some Numidian cavalry peel off to hold up the advancing Legions. This opens a gap and the Roman cavalry charges in an attempt to break through. The Carthaginian cavalry resist the charge while the remaining Numidian cavalry swarmed around the Roman cavalry putting them to flight.

On seeing the Roman cavalry in flight the Germans, unreliable throughout the battle, take flight leaving the Roman infantry outnumbered in the centre. The Legions launch a final charge into the Carthaginian line. However the Gods were not with them and bad luck turned worse with the capture of the Roman General routing the remainder of the army.

With the Romans in flight the Carthaginian army were free to move on and capture Syracuse. The news just gets better for Carthage as they have won the other encounter giving them full control of Sicily.

While the battle went to plan, I grouping the cavalry together on one flank in order to overrun it and surround the enemy, JP had such bad luck with the dice so the army wasn't really tested.

Grouping all the cavalry together on one flank should mean that on most occasion I will be able to take that flank, but it also means the other flank needs to be secured. If necessary that could probably be done with the elephants. They were effective in the centre but not devastating. Historically, it seems that while the Carthaginians preferred to place their elephants in front of their line a number of the Successors started placing elephants on their flanks to ward off enemy cavalry.

This would however weaken the centre where the multiple troops types were able to hit in succession, skirmishers followed by elephants followed by spanish and gallic light infantry followed by libyan heavy infantry. In the Carthaginian army list, only the Libyan troops troops count significantly towards towards the armies break points, so unlike most armies the Carthaginians can deploy in depth effectively. This maybe useful for refighting Zama where Hannibal deployed his army in three lines.

The 50 per cent command break limit again proved a potential weakness. The Roman cavalry consisted of two bases of light cavalry and two bases of heavy cavalry so by taking out one of each the whole command went.

All in all though I fully enjoyable game and a successful start to the campaign, i'm itching to get them back on the table.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Reflections on Impetus

Impetus is my favourite set of ancient and medieval wargames rules. I have been playing it now for over two years but it is only since I joined the Sheffield & Rotherham club nearly six months ago that I have been playing it on a regular basis. Prior to becoming hooked on Impetus I have played Warhammer Ancients, DBA, DBM, and Field of Glory. This blog will be about why I like Impetus, including highlighting some limitations.

I wish to start by saying what it is that makes Impetus the best set of ancient and medieval rules I've played. They are fun and produce a reasonable simulation of how I imagine an ancient battlefield. Like my favourite set of Napoleonic rules, Grande Armee, Impetus combines a units morale and fighting capability into a single value, it's VBU.

Impetus, as it's name suggests, is all about grabbing the initiative and maintaining momentum. The impact bonus units receive from charging encourages armies to press forward and the follow up combat mechanism can mean that a unit which begins to get pushed back and quickly be rolled over if it's opponent can follow up.

I like the look of the game, a unit looks like a body of men even when on it's own. The game mechanisms are simple and yet subtle. While it is possible to quickly march a large portion of your army across the battlefield, this is done at increasing risk of disordering the troops and the army being scattered piecemeal across the field. I like variability in the game and the initiative system in Impetus means that the order commands move in can vary each turn.

There are however a few issues with the rules that I think should be looked at and are potentially easily fixed. While I will spend more time discussing these in this blog I want to stress that the positives of Impetus monumentally outweigh these elements and it is my far the best set of rules for the period I have played.

Break point

In Impetus each unit has a VDU factor from 1 to 3 that represents the morale contribution that unit makes to the army as a whole. For example, a Legionary unit has a value of 3 whereas some skirmishers have a value of 1. A Command breaks at the end of the turn it loses 50 per cent of VDU, and an Army breaks at the end of the turn when it loses 50 per cent VDU.

The fixed break point of 50 per cent has two distorting impact so the game which I believe distort historical reality.

First, as each player is able to determine how close they and their opponent are to breaking, the result can be perverse behaviour as players chase individual units to knock the enemy over the break point rather than focus on the battle as a whole.

Secondly, it is beneficial to form an army into a single command as it has more staying power. An army in a single command must lose units up to 50 per cent of it's VBU in order to break. Dividing an army equally into two commands reduces it to a 25 per cent break point, as either half going would result in the whole command going. Though it does extend the command range making it easier to maintain order and manoeuver. Most armies were divided into multiple commands especially in the medieval period and the rules should encourage this.

The solution I propose is to have a system that starts to test whether an army breaks once it has past a certain threshold, for example 40 per cent. The test is based on the proportion of the army beyond that threshold and the length of the game. By not having a guaranteed break point players must focus on inflicting the most damage possible on the enemy at all times.

Strength of firing

There have been a number of situations where firing from skirmishers has almost overwhelmed heavy infantry but the new rules in Extra Impetus 3 may have resolved this.

Roman lines

As mentioned in my last post the exchange of Roman lines is to difficult, with only a 1 in 4 chance, and is limited to the Polybian period only between Hastati and Principes. I could go on for quite a while on this one and plan to do a future post drawing upon some current reading so for now I'll simply state that I believe that the exchange of lines needs to be easier and should be extended to late republican armies.


I want to finish this post with a quick comment on scale. I normally play the game in 15mm but recently participated in a 28mm tournament at Derby. The different scales do impact on how the game plays. The larger movement distances mean that there is often less opportunity to shoot though this is impart compensated for by larger shooting distances. 28mm certainly feels more hectic with less opportunity for initial manoeuvre.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Assyrian Aspirations

On Saturday I went to the British Museum to see their new Book of the Dead exhibition which is well worth a trip. It was my first visit to the museum and while wondering the halls I came across their Assyrian collections, including Lion Hunt and Siege of Lachish. While gazing at the immense detail and impressive scale of the works that fearful thought that all wargamers have entered my mind. Wouldn't it be nice to do an Assyrian Army?

This resulted in a lot of day dreaming on the journey home about four horse chariots when I had intended to make progress in cataloguing battles to refight with my soon to be completed Carthaginians.

I regularly face this problem, most commonly when listening to Mike Duncan's excellent The History of Rome podcast when he moves onto a new period that I know little about. I have been looking for an army to do in 28mm for Impetus tournaments so perhaps the Assyrians could fill this hole.

Anyway, must regain focus as the Carthaginians are due their debut on Thursday, delayed last week due to work commitments.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Plodding towards the Punic Wars

I am currently reading Carthage Must be Destroyed: The rise and fall of an ancient civilization by Richard Miles and it has inspired me to get my Punic ambitions back on track. One of the main projects I hope to start, and possibly complete, by the end of next year is a campaign of the 2nd Punic Wars. I first read Polybius history of the Punic Wars when I was twenty but have struggled to get this period going. To date I have the majority of the Carthaginian army painted but have never fought a battle with it. I do have the campaign map and system I hope to use to run the campaign.

The campaign map will be the map from Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage by Valley Games game. This is an excellent game that I have played a dozen times and find each time incredibly interesting and enjoyable. In every year of the war, each player gets a number of strategy cards which allow them to undertake campaigns or play certain events. Who is winning at a given time, and who wins the game ultimately is determined by a players political points that allows them to control provinces.

The board for the game is a map of the western mediterranean at the time of the 2nd Punic Wars. It is a point-to-point map, each point representing a major town or city with four to six points within each province.

Armies in the game are represented by a number of points. When battles are fought each player receives a number of battle cards equal to the number of points in their army, their commanders rating, and the number of allies they are entitled to based on the provinces they control in the area of the map the battle takes place.

In order to convert a battle on the map onto the table top, the ratio of the number of cards each player has will be converted into the ratio of the points between each players army. Players will be allowed to pick their army from a list up to the points they have available. I am working on how the lists will be restricted to reflect the reliance on allies and other game events, for example the Carthaginian player can only select elephants if in Africa, or their army has an elephant counter present.

Battles will be fought using Impetus rules. I know that Lorenzo, the rules author, is looking at writing new army lists for this period as part of the next supplement. I hope that he will be looking at the rules for changing Roman lines as this is one of the few areas in the game that needs revisiting. The current process of having to pass a discipline test with both the Hastati and Principes unit means that there is only a 1 in 4 chance of success for a standard legion. This seems too low as they must have conducted the manoeuvre on a regular basis.

Having recently fought a Carthaginian army at the Impetus tournament at Derby I am keen to complete my own and get it fighting. The Sheffield & Rotherham club is just starting a new ancient campaign which should provide plenty of battles in which to explore the army's capabilities.

Anyway, back to finishing those Numidian cavalry so more on the army in a future post. As well a 2nd Punic Wars campaign, I also hope to refight the major battles from the Wars and will use Richard Miles book to start cataloguing these before developing them using a range of texts.