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.

Chit Draw and Dynamic Leadership in Pub Battles

The chit draw simulates adept leadership very well. Whether or not you’re able to ATO isn’t even a central concern. What matters is how you handle the chit draws you get. This is nothing as ham fisted as the charge rule, this requires a subtle understanding. Not unlike fly fishing compared to dropping dynamite into the lake.

The most powerful attack is the one that you choose. This is similar to the charge rule, you get to move and fight, it is just a matter of moving last, or at least after, the opposite command. It is kind of a sign of a novice, to roll to go first, except in the specific situation where you need to rally. It is almost always best to go last.

This means you have to formulate your plans, wait for the right opportunity, or be able to adjust to the situation. In the Gettysburg12 video, this was at 1:50 when AP Hill’s artillery opened up, followed by Heth and Pender driving into the Federal line. Then at 2:48 AP Hill once again got the chit draw he needed to break the Union line. This was classic Blitzkrieg tactics!

In the Antietam video before that Hooker makes good use of the chit draw, while Fitz John Porter’s V corps attacks aggressively, but with considerable less effect, and to his mid battle demise. Note that Jackson uses chit order, not with ATO, but with reading the situation correctly, to skillfully make the Federal’s pay for each bit of ground they acquire. In the southern sector at 5:15, the chit draw is used by Sumner to attack at a very propitious time. He was waiting, like a prize boxer, for his opponent to be off balance and unable to respond when he hits them with a critical blow. The thing that finally cost the Union the Battle was the arrival of AP Hill’s division and Longstreet unpacking his bags in what turned out to be a critical point. This allowed the South to recover and the North to attack with spent troops, which ultimately pushed the Federal losses too high. Both, the chit draw, and the Baggage Train rules, are the most subtle and powerful parts of the Pub Battles system.

All of which is to say that the Blitz is already built into the Krieg of Pub Battles. Taking advantage of the chit draw, just like handling your baggage trains, is a skill that requires a deft touch. The kind of touch like the best commanders of the period demonstrated.

Field of Fire Revision

I have never been a fan of the Field of Fire rules (FoF). I get why people want them, but they seemed arbitrary. “You can’t end your movement in a FoF without moving to contact, if you do not have enough movement, you have to back up 1/3 move away. I get it, sort of, but I always have these humorous pictures of these charging troops who get 50 yards away when a bell rings (signifying end of turn), and they shrug their shoulders and turn around marching back to a dotted line. Again, I get what’s really going on, it just feels funny, and worse, seems arbitrary.

Pub Battles always prides itself on letting players do whatever they want, and letting the natural results of their actions be the limiting factors. However, like with pre 3.0 Baggage Trains, there just never seemed to be a way to make FoF work cleanly (without seeming artificial and arbitrary).

This came to a head when working with the Fredericksburg scenario. The enemy troops were engaging each other across the river. This can’t be done with regular Pub Battles rules. The idea had been to allow infantry to bombard like artillery, but with only two dice, except in the combat phase. While this sounds great, in actual play it got messy, and seriously dragged the game out.

But what if we let infantry bombard just like artillery, if they don’t move they can fire instead, out to 1/3 foot move. Now a unit can move within range of an enemy without making contact… If they don’t mind the risk of getting shot at, and becoming spent and/or retreating. Now you need to consider whether or not your enemy has been activated yet this turn!

It also makes it risky to approach, but not contact, an enemy in cover. It also makes it interesting if an enemy isn’t in cover, but you move into some. You have to take a volley under cover, but if you survive, now your enemy must continue the firefight at a disadvantage, or retreat. NOT because some arbitrary rule makes you do it; you get to weigh the risk/reward and make the decision yourself!

At this point, this is not an official rule, it is only a thought experiment. I intend to start using it in my next video. Usually, if something isn’t going to work for some reason, it becomes pretty obvious immediately.

Pub Battles by Text (PBbT)

Marshall and I played Germantown by text the other day. He was the nominal ref, and we played a gentleman’s game. It was double blind, we only knew what we could see. We would text each other a pic of our moves when we attacked somewhere. If we discovered our troops would have run into other troops elsewhere, we backed up. It can work playing this way, if you want it to.

I didn’t know it, but he had decided to bring on a smaller force, allowing him to threaten colonial positions elsewhere in the theater. Rather than defeat me, all he had to do was hold the road while his other forces wreaked havoc elsewhere. He just wanted to try an “Austerlitz” kind of victory condition.

I ended up playing overly cautious because I couldn’t figure out where the rest of his army was, I could have mopped up the floor with his troops and dined in Philadelphia that night had I known the size of actual force!

Playing by text can work. I find it slow and exhausting, but fun. My suggestion is to try a small battle. I do not enjoy virtual meetings and thankfully am rarely required to participate. If you have no problems with virtual meetings, then PBT will probably be a satisfactory option.

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!

Double Blind Solo

I don’t play to win, even when playing against a live opponent. I enjoy the simulation. I enjoy the “what if” scenario.
What makes Pub Battles so ideal for solo is its simple mechanics and fast play, coupled with its authenticity. By not attempting to replicate the details, it more faithfully mirrors the big picture.

I play Double Blind Solo. This means I play each side as if they knew only what their historical counterparts would have know re: nothing about the enemy’s intentions and positions beyond what they might guess.

This makes it ideal for trying out different strategies. I get a kick out of my fellow grognards who talk grand strategy, but walk in tactical boots. They argue about what Napoleon should have done, while playing the roles of colonels trying to break an enemy regiment. Watching them play, I realize it would be quicker to actually fight the whole damn battle over again!

I find Pub Battles attractive to the intelligent historian because it feels like you really are in command of an army. It locks you out of details your historical counterpart didn’t have access to, and couldn’t have used if he did.
I also like its seemingly endless replayability. Not only with the chit draw, but with the combat as well. You end up thinking like your historical counterpart, not like one of his subordinates, nor like a gamer trying to “win” the game.

The combat system, because of its simplicity, simulates a vast array of possibilities that a more detailed system misses. A more detailed system will only calculate the probable outcomes of X rifles firing Y meters, at Z enemy. There are very precise figures available for that action. What it doesn’t account for is what cover actually exists in that patch of terrain,  not all woods have equally spaced trees. What about the hazy smoke that obscures and confuses the soldiers and their officers? What about the wind? It can blind and deafen just as well as smoke and gunfire.

What all that says, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface (morale, leadership, etc.), is that the same two units in combat can have vastly different outcomes, even if all the conditions are accounted for. The same side shouldn’t win the firefight every time. The historical commanders didn’t know the outcome ahead of time, why should a player?

You try to reduce the gamble as much as possible, but great results are the provence of risk.

All of which is to say that the Pub Battles system, solo-able because of its simplicity, ends up being a great tool to try out different strategies. It even is great for replaying the same strategy again and again, to find out how many different ways it could have played out.

One of the great strengths of a quick playing solo game is that when you do reach a point where that final move, or that final die roll, ends the game, you can easily acknowledge the win, and then redo it with a different roll or move, just to see where it leads.

Finally, I have never had a wargaming experience as immersive as Pub Battles. Complicated games are continually pulling you out of the narrative to check this rule,  or consult that table. When I play Pub Battles,  I have this running narrative describing the action just like an exciting eyewitness account. This narrative is what makes the game fun and “real” to me.

Baggage Trains in Action

What do they simulate?

The Baggage Train rule says that if the enemy come in contact with an enemy Baggage Train, the scenario ends (after finishing that turn). It might seem that’s a bit harsh, since most of the army is probably not even within command range of the Baggage Train. Why would they suddenly all panic?

This is where you have to step from the literal, to the figurative. Literally, the Baggage Train represents supplies, ammunition, first-aid depots, signal corps apparati, and any other miscellanea, that supports an army. Obviously, all such things are not necessarily located in that exact spot, but it is the locus of such operations.

Figuratively, when an enemy contacts a Baggage Train, this represents the breakdown of the cohesive elements which bind the army together into an effective force. As students of military history, we know that there comes a time when the Army’s will is broken. Here is Wikipedia’s description of that moment at Austerlitz(italics mine):

“In an effective double-pronged assault, St. Hilaire’s division and part of Davout’s III Corps smashed through the enemy at Sokolnitz, which persuaded the commanders of the first two columns, Generals Kienmayer and Langeron, to flee as fast as they could. Buxhowden, the commander of the Allied left and the man responsible for leading the attack, was completely drunk and fled as well. Kienmayer covered his withdrawal with the O’Reilly light cavalry, who managed to defeat five of six French cavalry regiments before they too had to retreat.[76]

General panic now seized the Allied army and it abandoned the field in all possible directions.”

In a game of Austerlitz, St. Hilaire’s division just contacted the Baggage Train! This is authenticity!

I really like this mechanic because it shows a tangible result. It does not require the careful tallying of losses that take players out of the narrative, the feel of the battle, and reduce them to “game issues.”

I also like this mechanic because it fixes an easily captured moment when an army breaks. That mysterious psychological point where the army, as an organization, disintegrates.

This also creates hot points to fight over. When the bags are unpacked, the enemy now has a target. Suddenly, s#$t gets real! Before Baggage Trains, it was hard to generate any casualties because careful players just backed up. Plus, if you attacked vigorously, you usually generated more casualties than your opponent. Why attack? With Baggage Trains you have a reason, instant victory.

Historically, battles weren’t only won when the enemy suffered excessive casualties, the best victories were the ones where the enemy panicked and ran, before even more casualties were inflicted. Like at Austerlitz.

Pub Battles lets you recreate Napoleon’s greatest victory, or rewrite history, with his “Waterloo of 1805.”

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.