Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Review and Summary of General de Brigade

Over my 30-odd years of wargaming, I have tinkered with several historical periods that have interested me. I play games in the Ancient and Medieval periods, the American Civil War, and World War Two. I will play just about any historical period that presents itself; I don't consider myself a "gaming snob." Through all of these years and various meanderings, I have considered myself first and foremost a Napoleonic wargamer. Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated with this period of history. I don't know if it is the colorful uniforms, the masses of troops, the "rock paper and scissors" tactics, or the grand strategy of the times (or a combination of all of it), but most of my wargaming focus has been on the Napoleonic period. And like other Napoleonic gamers, I have been in search of the "holy grail" of rules. I really don't think they exist, but that doesn't halt the quest.

At 20:1 figure scale, a game of General de Brigade looks great on the table

For group games, I have (and continue) to be very satisfied with the Carnage and Glory 2 computer-moderated system. You can view the write-ups of several games with this system on my earlier blog reports. I play a lot of solo battles though. As an introvert with a ton of pressure at work, there is really something satisfying about the weekly retreat to the attic where I can bash miniature armies against each other. For me, solo wargaming doesn't feel right with computer-moderated systems; I spend most of my time running back and forth to the computer instead of enjoying the spectacle on the table. So over the many years, I have experimented with Empire, From Valmy to Waterloo, Battles for Empire, Black Powder, and countless other rules in my search for the "grail." For various reasons, I have always left the table feeling empty. Don't misunderstand me, none of these rules are bad rules. On the contrary, I learn something from every rules system that I have played. I truly appreciate the time, effort, and research that rules authors pour into their creations. I even attempted to write my own rules for the period, until I realized that my "perfect" rules were virtually unplayable. What a humbling and completely depressing experience!

Although I have played with grand-tactical rules like Age of Eagles and Grande Armee, I still get the most satisfaction out of a wargame with the battalion as the tactical unit. To each his own I guess. I just enjoy the look of a division made up of 8-10 units instead of just 2. Again, these systems are very good rules sets with passionate followers, but grand-tactical Napoleonic gaming just isn't my cup of tea.

The rule book !

I stumbled onto the deluxe edition of General de Brigade a few years ago. Very popular in the UK and Australia, I've always wondered why this rules system is not commonly played here in the States. Being a British-produced set and boasting a figure scale that is not typically played State-side, I assumed that this lack of popularity insinuated another mediocre rules set.  After my first game, I was pleasantly surprised. The rules flowed very smoothly and just made sense.  Many people have compared GdB to In the Grand Manner by the late Peter Gilder. The scale is the same but GdB is much more detailed and realistic than that classic rules system. Although not perfect and not the "holy grail" of all that is good in life, these rules really provided me an excellent wargaming experience. They have since become my "go-to" system for solo (or one-on-one) games.

So here are my observations and opinions of General de Brigade. First, I'll attempt to summarize the rules themselves and then end up with my positive and negative opinions on how the rules generally work.

Summary of the rules

The figure scale of General de Brigade is 20:1 with a ground scale of 1" equaling 25 yards. The time scale is not explicitly stated, but my estimate is that each game-turn equals approximately 10 minutes. The figure scale can be daunting. A typical Austrian line battalion in 1809 is made up of 36-48 figures while a comparable French battalion clocks in at 24-36 figures. Expensive......but beautiful on the table.

The scope of GdB is intended as a division-sized battle. Corps-sized battles can be played easily if you have the time or space. For multi-corps battles, it is possible (I've seen accounts of Wagram and Borodino on the GdB forum) but the rules are not directly intended for such and you would need real veterans of the system to pull these projects off......and a tremendous amount of space. I am always amused when critics of the rules comment that the rules are cumbersome when playing Leipzig..........well, duh......they were never marketed for or intended for such huge battles, although again it is possible in theory (and does happen, judging from the impressive photos on the forum).

The turn sequence

The turn sequence is relatively simple. First, initiative is rolled to determine which side moves first. Then compulsory movement from the previous turn occurs (retreats, routs, etc). The issuing of new orders is the next step. After that, charge declarations, normal movement, and melee combats take place. The turn ends with unit morale checks, followed by brigade morale checks. If one army has not broken, the game continues until the specified victory conditions are met.

Command and Control

At the heart of General de Brigade is a command and control system that is both detailed, yet smooth in execution. Grand-tactically, each division commander and brigade commander has specific orders which must be followed. Examples of brigade orders are Assault, Engage, Hold, etc. Charges may or not be conducted under certain orders. For example, infantry on a Hold order may not charge an enemy, yet infantry on an Assault must charge when able. A division commander may order charges when necessary, no matter what the brigade order is. Therefore, to conduct a limited attack may necessitate the division commander being close by. Tactically, a unit must be within command range in order to charge the enemy. This limits the "nippy little battalion" syndrome considerably; it really forces brigades to deploy in a tight formation.

Changing orders for brigades and divisions require a die roll; a player may conduct one order change per turn.

In summary, the command and control system, although not overly restrictive, forces a player to think ahead on what brigade orders are required and where his leader figures are on the table.

A nice battle on the Peninsula using General de Brigade

Movement and Charges

Movement is straight-forward and is formation-specific. All battalion formations are portrayed on the tabletop, including single company columns. Charge movement is interesting. A unit that conducts a charge moves halfway to its target, receives any defensive fire at that range, and then tests to determine if the charge closes or not. If the charge does close, the defending unit must then take a morale check to see if it stands. It all works quite well, even if it is a bit abstract.

Emergency squares, evade moves, and opportunity charges are all covered. One interesting tidbit is the subject of massed columns charging a single target. If 2 or more columns are within an 8 cm distance between each other in a charge, the defensive fire gains a bonus and resulting morale checks could have the columns literally "bumping" into each other and causing disorder. This forces the player to attack in multiple "waves" or to take his chances and try and get multiple units on target.

French Cuirassiers advance at Alt Eglofsheim


Skirmishers are handled in an interesting manner. If the player desires, the light infantry companies of each battalion (if so equipped--dependent on nationality) combine together in a single skirmish screen for each brigade. This skirmish screen literally becomes a separate unit in the brigade. Proper use of this skirmish screen can be incredibly annoying against a player with a weaker (or non-existent screen). Skirmishers can even charge and drive off opposing skirmish screens. Casualties inflicted are relatively light in nature, but irritating nonetheless. I consider the skirmishing rules one of the hallmarks of the system.

Firing and Melee

Firing is conducted per number of figures (or guns). A large unit in line, although unwieldy in maneuver, can be devastating when the maximum number of muskets are firing. Cannister fire can be deadly as well, just what you'd expect from artillery. Skirmish fire, as described above, is relatively light in nature, but adds up over time and forces an opposing player to deal with it.

When charging, the defensive fire of a unit is critical. Among several modifiers to the Closing test is the number of casualties inflicted in the defensive fire. Artillery, which is weak if closed upon in melee, can punish a charging unit with canister and keep the unit from closing, if not disordering it or causing it to falter in the charge. To me, these tests to close a charge or stand versus a charge are well done and add to the flavor of the system.

If a charging unit closes, and the defender stands, then melee happens. Rolling 2d6 per side and adding/subtracting modifiers to determine the winner is very straight-forward. The difference in the modified die rolls determine the extent of the victory and the casualties.  The melee rules are very logical and easy to understand. Although the modifiers all make sense (flanked, mass, training, etc) the melee rolls are the one area in which the "luck of the die" does dominate.


After the action is over, morale checks are conducted for units which meet the specific conditions. These unit morale checks and earlier melee results can also force a brigade morale check roll. Brigade morale checks can also affect adjacent brigades as well, thus beginning a possible "domino effect."

I feel that the morale rules are solid and I fully appreciate the inclusion of brigade morale checks. One can see an army withering away under the right conditions. It feels right.

Lots of cavalry !


Either as a solo game, or with a small group of friends, General de Brigade excels as a ruleset. The overall feel and flow of the game is logical and smooth. I think the overused descriptive term is that the rules are "elegant." The specific details I most like about the system include:

- The 20:1 scale looks beautiful on the table. The units are large and contribute to the grand feel of the game.
- The skirmish rules make sense from a gamer's standpoint. They are not abstract and fill the purpose of skirmishers perfectly....those little guys are incredibly rude and annoying.
- The command system is very simple, yet effective. As a player, one really has to think ahead with command and control in mind.
- Firing is done by numbers of figures or guns, not bases or an abstract number of fire dice. As a unit wears down, it's fire effectiveness decreases.
- Smoke is factored in for musketry, so a veteran player learns to hold his fire until absolutely necessary.
- I love the morale rules. The modifiers seem very accurate for morale tests. I also appreciate that a charging unit must test to close a charge, while a defender also has to test in order to stand in front of a successful charge. I always like a Napoleonic rules system that incorporates brigade morale in addition to individual unit morale.
- The Napoleonic flavor of "rock, paper, and scissors" tactics are fully present.
- The National Characteristics are few and far between, but make total sense in the context of the rules. For example, British infantry in line receive a plus modifier in firing due to inherent fire discipline, historical performance, and the two-rank line. I'm a Francophile and I have no problem with it at all.

There are several details that I have an issue with, but have incorporated several "house rules" to deal with these:

- There are no fatigue rules in the system, especially for artillery. Disorder and Faltering could be considered examples of incorporating fatigue, but in an abstract way.
- Although the 20:1 figure scale looks pretty on the table, it sure is expensive. Ok, I'll stop whining.
-  The melee calculation is a bit too "luck-based." I'm sure that this was in order to inject some randomness and "fun" into the game, but I think the melee modifiers are a bit underweight in the calculation.
- Amunition, especially for artillery, is barely touched upon. A house rule that limits the number of canister/ball rounds until resupply fixed that.
- Due to the time scale, firefights (in contrast to melees) take an incredible amount of time to sort themselves out. A couple of infantry lines volleying it out may take a full hour or longer before one side retires or retreats.
- There is no "point-blank" range for infantry fire. There are only normal and long ranges; the bands for each seem a bit wide.
- For very large multi-corps games (even if I could arrange the space), the system can slow down due to the amount of detail included in the rules. But to be fair, as I've mentioned, the game was never intended for this type of game.

So, as you can tell, I'm a fan of the General de Brigade rules (and trust me, I've played just about everything).  The system rides that very fine line between a simulation and an entertaining game. The rules are very, very popular throughout the civilized world of wargaming (just haven't caught on here in the USA for some reason), so there is a large fanbase. The GdB forum is also well populated. David Brown frequently screens questions and all of the veterans of the system fully support the game.

For group games, I'll stick with Carnage and Glory 2 (primarily because I love that system and no one else knows the GdB rules except for me), but for my solo wars or games with my son, I wholeheartedly recommend General de Brigade.