Playing Pub Battles

Pub Battles was created as a 2 player Kriegspiel game. The object was to create a system that “reffed” the game. 

Playing Kriegspiel requires no knowledge of the rules, you simply write your orders and are told what happens; the refs handle all the heavy lifting.

This makes it similar to playing a fantasy role playing game like D&D. It is essentially playing D&D, except your character is a military officer, and your “world” is the real world.

A good Kriegspiel referee will throw a wrench in the works, and ruin the best laid plans. Not every time, but often enough, that players learn to expect the unexpected.

Pub Battles does this with the chit draw mechanic, and simple and dramatic combat resolution.

As an army commander (player), your role is big picture. You send out your orders (move your units), and await news from the front (battle results). Formations, weapon ranges, tactical maneuvers, and the like, are all details that you rely on your subordinate officers to handle. Napoleon famously led brilliant campaigns, but let his officers and troops fight the battle.

For a wargame, Pub Battles is very simple. This is because it is command focused, not combat focused. In a combat focused game, details are everything, they are the simulation. In a command focused game, such details are inappropriate for the Army General. They hinder the player’s authentic experience. 

In Pub Battles,  what you see on the map, including the map itself, are approximations at best. Commanders are as desperate to know exactly what’s going on, as they are uncertain what’s actually going on! This is very authentic, and very like playing Kriegspiel. 

Wellington himself, said no one will ever know what actually happened at Waterloo. Everyone, even he himself, was only witness to a small slice of the whole battle.

Command is an exercise in managing chaos and uncertainty. In this respect, Pub Battles is one of the most authentic simulations available.

My Perfect Wargame

I was originally going to call this Post, “What Makes a Perfect Wargame.” It quickly became obvious that is silly. It is different for everyone. So instead, I look for what makes a perfect wargame for me, and if you apply the same metrics, I am curious what would a perfect wargame look like to you? Please let me know in the comments below.

My perfect wargame would start with a military atlas map. You know the kind, simple terrain features with all kinds of rectangles denoting the military units in their positions. For the game, the map would lay out on the table, the pieces would be wooden blocks, and the rules would be pretty straight forward.

I imagine sitting with a friend around a heavy wooden table, talking about the battle and moving our troops, trying out strategies that we think our historical counterparts would have tried. Combat would be resolved with a simple dice roll. The rules would fade almost imperceptibly into the background, as the narrative wills out. There would be no charts, tables, and endless hours spent perusing rulebooks. Just one person shelling the opponent’s line all morning, then unleashing his assault.

My perfect wargame would cover the romantic old world black powder battles. The glorious cavalry charges, the thunderous cannonades, and the thick smoke obscuring everything. Real war is none of those things, but I can imagine it thus, this is my fantasy, after all.

A note on complex rules and realistic simulations. I have played super complex games with layer upon layer of detail. The problem I have with those kinds of games is they leave me feeling removed from the battle, not immersed in it. Every time I have to stop and consult a table, or check a rule, it takes me out of the simulation. It becomes less enjoyable. The trick–the art, of wargame design, is to make it feel as authentic as possible, it is not as simple as making it super detailed.

The closest I have ever found to this is Pub Battles.

Leader Casualties

Blucher!

It has been an oft requested feature to simulate leader casualties. Ultimately, in the big picture of things, leader casualties rarely had an effect on the immediate battle. Sometimes a high level leader could effect the army, such as the loss of Stonewall Jackson, but that was the exception, not the rule.

In Pub Battles we have come up with an optional way to simulate this, that I think is pretty fun. I don’t know if I’d call it “realistic,” but if the point is to have fun, no harm is done.

To involve a leader(HQ) directly in combat, simply place it on top of a block that is adjacent to the enemy. That block now adds one to its combat rolls, but if the enemy rolls a six in combat, then there is a chance the HQ gets eliminated. For each hit suffered in a round, roll a die, if a 1 is rolled, the HQ is removed.

Note that removing the HQ still allows the chit to be drawn, and the Corps to move, but they now can only attack if the Army commander is within command range. Obviously, they cannot roll to alter turn order either.

This usually has a subtle effect on the army, just like a leader loss should. One Corps leader lost can be reasonably accommodated for, but if you lose two or more, it can be a problem. It also gives the occasional extra leader (like Blucher at Waterloo) a purpose beyond providing additional combat command. It makes me want to add a Ney block at Waterloo!

While there are plenty of good reasons to add this rule to the game, I’m not sure it is something I will use much. My guiding principle is “Does the game work without it?” If the answer is yes, then it is followed up with “Is it significantly improved by this addition? Baggage Trains passed both the hurdles with flying colors. I’m not yet convinced that this, or any, Leader Casualty rule, does.

In my last game of Waterloo, it did play a significant role. The British Bags were exposed and the Guard was fixed to assault. Picton drove off the first attempt, and fell in the effort, and Uxbridge with the Household Cavalry held off versus two blocks of Guards Cavalry charging, and two blocks of II Corps infantry in the combat phase. Very exciting, very dramatic final turn.

Here is the video:

Pub Battles Victory Conditions

Victory Conditions are one of the toughest things to develop in wargaming. Do you base it on what historical commanders’ objectives? Should players be tied to what their historical counterparts objectives, which may have changed during the battle? Gettysburg was fought because that’s where Gettysburg was, but after day 1, it was nothing more than geographical point of reference. It certainly didn’t figure into the combatant’s strategy.

I like Pub Battles use of Baggage Trains. It lets the players themselves decide where the key victory locations are going to be. What about losing valuable units? We on the design team have been asked to consider how this might be addressed. At its simplest, we all agree that it should be something that players can discuss over a few pints after the game. History is still trying to decide, and redefine, who won any given battle. It is a lot more complicated a thing than is first apparent.

My personal opinion is that it should be somewhat blended between points and conditions. It should be obvious so folks know what they’re fighting for, yet allow for shades of differences. When does a victory become too pyrrhic?

I have proposed this:

Decisive. 50% Infantry losses or, contacting an enemy Baggage Train at the beginning of a combat phase. Rout.

Moderate. If the enemy packs up an unpacked Baggage Train. Forced Back.

Most Victory Points. If none of the above conditions are met by the end of the game, then add up points for enemy units destroyed.

Without the victory point option, there is no reason not to sacrifice cavalry and artillery units to save infantry units. With the victory point option, sacrificing those valuable units only becomes worth it if the win is secured by forcing the enemy to forfeit the field of battle. If it were only points, then defense becomes supreme. It takes experience to gain a feel for what is worth it.

The other great reason for this solution is it allows a metric for determining a victor in tournaments, where a definite winner is necessary. In “friendly” games, if no clear winner is decided by the first two means, then the points remain for bragging rights, but like many of history’s battles, the winner may be forever a matter of opinion.

What do you think?


Combat in Pub Battles

I’m sure you’ve heard, and probably thought, that combat in Pub Battles is really simplified. I have been guilty of that, too. However, under analysis, it doesn’t hold up.

I think part of the problem, a big part of the problem, is that Pub Battles blocks look like they should be regiments, or the unit names on them make you think that the specific divisional unit named is the actual unit represented. Both are false. Divisions did tend to cover an area with the same general geometric outline as a regiment. The names on the labels are purely for color.

First off, what does a Pub Battles block actually represent? It actually represents from 4,000-6,000 men, more or less. A Corps that numbers ~20,000 men will have around 5 blocks, maybe more for nimble, well organized units, less for awkward, poorly organized units. Numbers are half that for cavalry. It will also possess artillery, including battalion guns (equivalent to modern day heavy weapons battalions). Many formations within the block will be light troops, and maybe even grenadiers to stiffen the line.

Typically, when two regiments closed, fighting began with a ranged duel between the light troops at a few hundred yards, one side drove back the light troops of the other, and then began picking off the main line troops. At this point, those troops not liking getting picked off, charged, or retreated.

That detail is not simulated by Pub Battles. In Pub Battles, when two blocks close, it begins at an area around a half mile square, within that half mile, Brigades and Regiments are maneuvering and jockeying for local advantage. Artillery is being brought up, harassing their opponents. All of this is resolved with a dice roll and a couple of modifiers. When playing, you can happily dream up what may have happened.

If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of small formation combat, there are numerous excellent titles. I myself, have enjoyed them, but to play an actual large battle at that level is exhaustive, and really not accurate to the feel of the whole battle. No one experienced every small combat, and every grand tactical decision, in any battle of size. So, we must choose.

I happen to enjoy Pub Battles, and feeling like I’m commanding a whole army, and enjoying the full sweep of a battle, in a pleasant couple of hours.

How do you feel about Pub Battles level of simulation?

New Rules on the discussion board (in playtesting)

Marshall Barrington, the system’s designer, has been reviewing the original Kriegspiel rules for his new book on Kriegspiel for modern audiences.

Although Pub Battles emulates Kriegspiel, it does not mirror it. Pub Battles creates a way to play Kriegspiel without an umpire, and focuses even more on command. Most of the Kriegspiel rules are a GM’s guide to running a Kriegspiel battle. Playing Kriegspiel is fun and easy. Running Kriegspiel is daunting.

However, Marshall has garnered some nuggets of wisdom from the original designers of Kriegspiel, things about how combat really went down on a 19 century battlefield. They fought in the Napoleonic era, they didn’t have to rely on other’s accounts.

There are many things that Pub Battles glosses over because the blocks represent divisions. In a sense, it is most accurate to compare Pub Battles to a divisional hex and counter wargame. The blocks tend to make one think of regimental level units, but that is inaccurate! The labels on the blocks tend to make one assume that is the exact unit represented, that is also inaccurate. The labels add color and drama, but that is all. Each block represents between 1000+ to 7000+ men (half that for cavalry). That’s a lot of wiggle room! When designing a Pub Battles scenario, the critical issue is what feels right, not what exactly is there.

Cavalry has never felt quite right to me. Cavalry was to 19th century armies what armor was to WWII armies, but it didn’t feel that way in Pub Battles. With all that in mind, these rules are under consideration:

  1. Any block may retreat before the first round of combat from an infantry block without becoming spent.

2. Foot (infantry or artillery) that is required to retreat from Mounted is eliminated instead.

3. Artillery rule that was here has been discarded.

Note that dragoons can/will be handled differently. As with any cavalry rules, you always want to read scenario special rules.

As always, the focus is on keeping Pub Battles a fast playing, smooth, command focused, simulation.

1 Hit Wonders: Experimental Pub Battles

Marshall Barrington, the Pub Battle system’s designer, was studying the Kriegspiel rules, and came up with a variation for resolving Pub Battles Combat. Rather than becoming spent on the first hit, a block retreats. With a second hit it is reduced to spent. All this means is that the hit process is reversed; Retreat then spent, instead of spent then retreat. If a fresh unit retreats, it maintains its facing.

This is a relatively subtle change, and yet it can have profound effects. The Baggage Train rules make becoming spent more of an issue, because the unit doesn’t automatically rally, it now needs an unpacked Baggage Train.

After giving it some thought, I decided it would be more interesting to let players decide whether or not the unit would hold or retreat. So, when you receive a hit you decide whether to hold your ground and become spent, or to voluntarily retreat in good order.

A key concept at this point is the voluntary retreat, which I will call “Fall Back.” The difference is that if you retreat, you turn 180 degrees and face the other way. If you Fall Back, you retreat, but maintain your same facing.

One additional rule I want to add, is that if you have been contacted by the enemy prior to your chit being drawn, you must either remain in combat (you can turn to face), or Fall Back. You can no longer move any way you want. The reason being, if you are there to block the enemy’s movement, then you are affecting them, which means you must have been there when they moved. You are still preventing them from moving, and you are successfully Falling Back (fighting retreat) without them forcing a decisive combat.

In this case, moving after your opponent can be thought of as having the command initiative. You have anticipated your opponent’s intentions. The combat is occurring on your terms.

Experimental Rule: First Hit

Definitions:
Retreat: Involuntary movement from combat, if fresh, become spent, and turn around moving 1/3 away from enemy.
Fall Back: Voluntary movement from combat, maintain facing and move 1/3 from enemy.

If you are in contact with an enemy block when your chit is drawn, you must either remain in contact, or Fall Back.

A fresh block that receives only one hit in combat must flip to spent and remain in place, or Fall Back. If fresh, don’t become spent. If spent, You must Fall Back, but maintain facing.

A fresh block that receives receive two hits must Retreat and becomes spent. A spent block that receives two hits is eliminated.

Movement before combat:
Any fresh unit may Retreat before combat, except fresh Dragoons in contact with infantry, may Fall Back.

I am going to try these rules in my next game. One of my purposes in writing this blog is to put all my thoughts in writing. I intend to find out if it is too fiddley to be worth the effort, or if it makes for a better experience.

What do you think of this new rule?

Grasping Pub Battles Combat

Pub Battles combat is quite simple. At its most basic, if two units are in contact, they both roll 3 dice hitting on fours or better.

One hit flips a unit to spent, two hits force it to retreat, and three hits eliminate it. If it is already spent, one hit forces it to retreat, and two hits eliminate it.

That’s it. If the units remain in contact, another round of combat is fought.

Let us understand the odds behind 3 dice hitting on fours. Each die has a 50% chance of hitting, that creates 8 combinations of outcomes:

There is a one in eight chance of no hits.

There is a two in eight (25%) chance of one hit.

There is a four in eight (50%) chance of two hits.

And there is a one in eight chance of three hits.

This means that the odds are against a block still holding the ground after the first round of combat and speaks to the value of having a second unit backing it up, ready to fill in the void.

Look at how powerful this makes an elite unite. An elite unit ignores the first hit in any combat. That means it can’t be eliminated in one round, and there is only a one in eight chance of it being forced back. It is almost as good as having a second unit backing a regular unit up.

Even if it is spent, there is only a one in eight chance of eliminating it in a subsequent Combat. Elite units are tough!

Likewise, militia units are very fragile and likely to be eliminated in the first round of combat. However, whether fresh or spent, elite, or just militia, the attack dice remain the same. This makes militia best used in front during an attack, backed up by higher quality units that will usually be left facing a spent unit, if any.

This mirrors historical practice.

One fourth of the time, two regular units will both be spent and retreat.

Does this mean they both ran away from each other?

Not likely. What can usually be imagined happening is that both units fought to exhaustion and neither controls the contested area. It will go to the first side able to rally or reinforce the position, whoever wins the chit draw next turn. In other words, it comes down to command initiative.

The most common die roll modifier is the minus one for a defender being in cover, each die goes from hitting half the time, to hitting one third of the time.

That means the attacker can inflict three hits just once in twenty-seven times!

You can expect three misses nearly half of the time.

The minus one really stacks up the more dice you roll!

If artillery is attacked in melee, it fires before the attacker. This means over half the time the attacker won’t get a chance to fire at artillery.

Artillery bombardment cannot eliminate a unit, but melee is not bombardment. Artillery can and frequently does, win the first round of combat. Grape shot is devastating!

If cavalry is charging fresh infantry, most of the infantry regiments are assumed to have formed into squares and the cavalry suffers a minus one on its dice.

Conversely, if the infantry are spent, fewer of the regiments are assumed to have managed to form square, and the cavalry adds one to its dice.

If two cavalry units are fighting, the heavier unit gets plus one. Check the scenario rules for cavalry weight.

Finally, there is the charge rule. By scenario definition, certain units (like Guards and some heavy cavalry) are eligible for the charge rule.

Rather than having to wait until the combat phase, these units can resolve combat the moment they move to contact during their movement.

This is very powerful and reflects that epic moment when the guard charges and the whole battle seemingly freezes; waiting for the issue to be decided.

Although not technically combat, I will discuss Supply Trains, as they are most important. On page four of the rules, it says “Bags in contact with the enemy at the beginning of combat are destroyed.” HQs and artillery (as well as Baggage trains) cannot move into contact with the enemy, so they cannot destroy bags. Detachments can, however.

This means that the enemy can move into contact with a baggage train and if the Baggage is unpacked, or has already moved, the only way to rescue it is if it is charged by an enemy unit with the charge capability.

Simply moving into contact with the unit, even if able to destroy it easily, doesn’t matter. If the enemy in contact with the Baggage Train “at the beginning of combat” the bags are lost.

Appreciating what Pub Battles is doing

I often hear Pub Battles criticized as too simple by folks who are used to battalion and regimental combat simulations. Pub Battles is an excellent Army and Corps level command simulation.

Some will look at a single block, with it’s fresh and spent sides, and imagine there is a whole lot more to a division in combat than just those two levels (three, if you count eliminated). I will argue that is a case of looking to closely at the trees to see the forest.

Let us look at how detailed Pub Battles treats a Corps in combat. Rather than simply a single Corps chit with twelve hit points, it has four blocks with three hit points each. Three of those hit points might be mounted dragoons, and three of those hit points might be elite grenadiers.

Additionally, each of those “packets” of three hit points have the possibility of recovering a hit point by rallying.

Further, rather than being constrained to a single square counter with a zone of control, these Corps can expand and contract as the situation demands (or combat requires).

Success in Pub Battles requires the player to think in terms of the Army and its component Corps. If you focus on the individual divisions, you’ll be like the army commander who micromanages too much.

A decision was made early on in the development of Pub Battles to use unit (divisional) level names. It adds to the experience and the immersion into the scenario, but it can be mistaken as exactly correlating with the unit’s so named. For instance, at Waterloo some of the Prussian Corps were as much as 50% landwehr. No entire division was, but many were composed of regiments and battalions of these lower grade troops. In Pub Battles this means that in some Corps, half the blocks are militia, which makes the Corps feel and act appropriately, even if the named divisions weren’t strictly landwehr.

Also, Leadership quality in Pub Battles is reflected in troop quality as well as the leadership rating. Troop quality can reflect how much confidence the troops had in their leaders. Elite units in Pub Battles can be counted on to get the job done, they hit harder and last longer. Conversely, militia tend to fall apart faster, you find yourself hoping they can hold. At least some of this rests squarely on the quality of leadership. This is why the best leaders were rewarded with the best troops. No one wasted their best troops on mediocre, leaders!

Pub Battles deserves to be regarded as the Corps level command simulation it is. Seeing it this way will improve your play.