Pub Battles as the “Wargamer’s Wargame”

I think that Pub Battles is the “Wargamer’s wargame.” I say that because every wargamer wants to create an intuitive link to the history that you just can’t get from merely reading about it, and the deeper your familiarity with the subject, the more authentic Pub Battles becomes.

I like that each battle has a unique “signature.” It always amazes me how powerful the system is. Its intrinsic elegance means that the feel of the battle comes through, and the feel of playing a game recedes. You’re not taken out of the narrative to do game maintenance. This allows a very seamless re-creation that starts with the historic maps you play on. Pub Battles plays on maps, not boardgame boards. It feels like you’re in your command tent with a map in front of you.

Players demand a lot of historical authenticity? The system is a perfect sandbox to re-create history as you imagine it.

At the same time, it also runs itself. Army commanders do Army commander things, not battalion commander things. You give your orders to your subordinates, and trust (or wring your hands!) that they will get the job done (that you get the turn order you need). Sometimes, this means you have to leave the command tent, mount your horse, and direct things personally (Alter Turn Order).

I find myself thinking like a commander, and not as a player. Is that Corps too extended to manage? How long can they continue to be effective? Where should I send the caissons?

I also feel as removed as a commander should. Where is the enemy? How strong is he on that flank? What troops are those? I think that’s Jackson’s stonewall brigade! No, wait. Dang, that’s A.P. Hill! Where is Jackson?

History comes alive.

Double Blind Solo

Double Blind Solo is my description of how I play Pub Battles solo. At first glance this seems impossible, how can you keep a secret from yourself? Easy, just split yourself in two! No, this does not involve a saw and a magician, but magic is a part of it, in a sense. You see, in addition to wargaming, I spent many years playing D&D, and other roleplaying games. As such, it comes quite naturally to play the characters involved in a Pub Battles game. The Generals and Corps commanders each become distinct personalities.

I don’t get into costume and switch them with each chit draw, but I do consider what each commander at each HQ on the map would know, and how he would act considering his orders. This works exceptionally smoothly with Pub Battles, as it is a command focused, as opposed to a combat focused wargame. This comes from its primary source, Kriegspiel. In Kriegspiel, you order your troops about and the Referee worries about all the minutia of combat. Truth be told, the referee isn’t that concerned with combat details either, other than managing expectations. His true job is to provide the players with an authentic experience.

Pub Battles is essentially an AI bot, that simulates the way a ref feeds you limited amounts of information. Often the chit draw will confound your best plans, ask anyone who has played Kriegspiel, that’s exactly what the referee does (at least, it certainly seems that way)!

When I play Pub Battles solo, I begin with the intention of playing a what-if scenario. What if the French do this? What if Lee sent Longstreet North of Gettysburg? Then I play it out. The beauty of Pub Battles is its simplicity. More complex games are so involved in minor details and asides (rules, charts, and tables) that it is nearly impossible to play alone, too much to keep track of, and it moves soooooo slow. Pub Battles gives you a lot of freedom. I think you would need a ref in a tournament situation, because there are a lot of silly things you could do, because there are not a lot of rules taking you by the hand. I occasionally see things that are possible within the rules, but that would never have happened in real life. When you’re looking at the map with a God’s eye view, maybe you can see a narrow path between a few units that you could move through and get a flank attack. Your historical counterpart would only know that there is enemy all over in that general direction. I would probably pass on that opportunity. Whatever you are comfortable with. When I am playing with an opponent, I generally find that I am harder on myself, and they are more forgiving of my intentions. Of course, I’m not playing for money or prestige, so that helps!

In the past, I had read a lot about Gettysburg, as well as having played numerous games by different publishers. I had fought the battle in very complex tactical simulations (hex and counter, as well as miniatures), and at all levels up to grand tactical. There are a lot of great games out there on Gettysburg. Each gave a unique feel to the game. It wasn’t until I played it as a Pub Battles scenario that I finally felt like this is what Lee or Meade must have felt. Pub Battles focused me on the big issues, like who is where, which troops and commanders can I trust, who is more shaky? WHERE is the enemy? Should I commit my logistical resources here/now? All these issues were covered to some extent with other games, but Pub Battles did it so intuitively and elegantly that it became all a part of the flow of the battle. I was not mulling over charts, tables, and rules, trying to figure each move to three places past the decimal. Instead, I was developing a gut instinct for all of these things, based on my past experience.

This is what I always dreamed of!

One Sharp Blow!

The full name of the Latest Pub Battles scenario is Austerlitz: One Sharp Blow. It refers to Napoleon’s assertion (and hope!) That one sharp blow at the critical moment is all it would take to cause the Coalition army to collapse. He was right. He was right in his assertion, and he was right in judging when that moment was at hand.

In contrast, General Lee was not so successful at Gettysburg. He was certain by the third day that the Union army was on the point of breaking, and that all it would take is one sharp blow at the critical moment. We will never know, because Longstreet’s reluctance to make that fatal attack caused the whole thing to be carried off much later in the day than Lee intended. Maybe Lee was right, and had the attack been launched in the morning, the Federal army would have cracked. Maybe Longstreet knew that such an assault would have always failed, it certainly seems so.

Key in any treatment of any battle is whether or not the system can recreate that feeling when refighting the battle. Even more important, is not handcuffing the players into recreating exactly that strategy, but instead, relying on that moment to occur naturally.

Anticipating this, I was very excited to try it out myself, and I eagerly awaited for the game to arrive in the mail. I was not disappointed!

Although I have only played it a handful of times, determining that moment, considering both, the turn and the chit draw, is often most critical. Now that I have played it a few times, and am well acquainted with what makes solo play exciting, I believe that I have come up with a solo scheme that simultaneously keeps the tension high for both sides.

What I do is make the appearance of the optional reinforcements unknown the French elect to deploy them, or the coalition spots them.

Just as always, the French begin with all three HQs showing up on turn 1. When Napoleon decides to place one of the Corps on the map, or when the coalition forces spot one of the HQs, a die is rolled.
1-3= No optional forces
4 = One Corps*
5 or 6 = All three Corps
*If spotted, the spotted Corps is placed, otherwise place one HQ’s forces.

While not historically accurate, since Napoleon knew what forces he actually had to work with, it makes for a far more interesting and varied solo experience. It starts with a 50/50 proposition, was he bluffing? If he wasn’t bluffing, he probably would have brought everything. I think this creates an interesting variation because it makes what is probably the most logical choice (one optional Corps, allowing maximum forces for easiest victory conditions), the least probable. It also rewards the Coalition for making an effort to reconnoiter the enemy, and try to take some control from the French. Actually, that might be an interesting two player variant…

I have just started playing the game and haven’t yet used this system. I will start using it with my Austerlitz5 replay. I will note any changes if experience warrants it. If you try it out, be sure and let me know how it works for you.

Deep Simulation

I am really focusing on “putting on my command beret” when narrating my videos. I’m trying to avoid game terms, except when necessary for clarity. My intent is to create the feel of the battle.
What I have realized is just how good a job the game does in simulating command concerns. This is really apparent in my last Antietam video.

In the middle of the game, the Federal drive stalls for lack of supplies. This is a common enough issue for real commanders, but is usually only a concern in games with super detailed logistics rules, or overly burdensome unit health tracking.

In Pub Battles, if you have a bunch of spent units you need to unpack a Baggage Train or they won’t be able to sustain an attack without becoming combat ineffective (eliminated). The game mechanic is very simple, logical, and intuitive. If you hadn’t played the game before, you would assume they are too simple to work, but alas, they work splendidly.

They are more realistic at the command level, too. A general will not have access to an exact listing of a unit’s casualties and supplies in the heat of battle. The best intel will only inform him of the general battle readiness of his various units. It helps to think of Pub Battles as a very detailed Corps level simulation. The unit blocks are given names for color, but they are not intended to simulate their historical counterparts in any way.

At the corps level, Hooker’s I corps at Antietam has 3 blocks. Each block requires 3 hits to be eliminated. I Corps can be thought of as having nine “hits” of strength. It would seem a simple task to assign it nine hit points on a card, done. Except, in Pub Battles those nine hits travel in 3 discrete groups of three. Furthermore, if in range of an unpacked Baggage Train they can recover a hit. One of the hits is actually used to retreat, so it is “recovered” as soon as taken. At any point prior to elimination, if the discrete group attacks, it attacks at full strength. Some Corps can have Elite or Militia troops, further complicating and reflecting differences at the Corps level.

Let’s talk about Corps leadership. The obvious quality rating is the Leadership number that is used to alter turn order, but that is just one aspect of leadership quality. The best officers are paired with the best troops, and vice versa. In Pub Battles, Corps with better leaders tend to have better quality troops, allowing them to accomplish more on the battlefield. Better units translate into a commander who’s will is more keenly felt during the battle. At Antietam, Jackson’s Corps has two elite units! His corps is very powerful, and he is regarded as one of Lee’s best Generals. Napoleon always has the guard Corps with him, and they are all elite.

These differences are not as explicit as giving certain leaders higher ratings, but once you are familiar with the Pub Battles system, you will learn to appreciate them.

It seems with each game that I play, I appreciate the simulation power of this system.