Sunday, July 31, 2016

Search For The Holy Grail-The Best Napoleonic Rules, Part 4

Continuing with Part 4 of this series, the rules Black Powder by Rick Priestley are today's subject. Admittably a big fan of Hail Caesar, the Ancients/Medieval rules with the same philosophy as Black Powder, I was looking forward to testing Black Powder out on a Napoleonic tabletop.

Black Powder

Disclaimer: After reading many opinions of these rules, it seems like gamers either love Black Powder or they hate it. I tried to approach the rules with an open mind.....and was pleasantly surprised.

Black Powder is, what I consider, a modern set of Napoleonic rules. Many aspects of horse and musket warfare are streamlined and abstracted in favor of playability. I think that it is safe to say, after reading the authors' comments throughout the book, that these rules are primarily intended to be a gentlemen's game rather than a strict simulation. The rules are also not intended primarily for tournament play (although there are point lists for those inclined) but for historical scenarios. Black Powder also covers a wide range of time, from the early 18th century to the dawn of the 20th century. Therefore there are many generic aspects to the rules.  The "special rules" are intended to add the necessary flavor for a particular period. For many gamers, the rules are too generic.....but I think that can be a strength of  Black Powder. Both the Seven Years War and the Franco-Prussian War can be played with Black Powder, and both periods do have some similarities, but there are many other differences that these "special rules" address. The rules give a gamer a foundational set of rules, but the authors allow the gamer to research period tactics and apply many "special rules" in order to flesh out a particular battle. For me particularly, I love this approach; the research and building of a scenario is a large part of the gaming experience.  I approached Black Powder with the question of whether the rules did contain enough period flavor to give a truly Napoleonic feel to a game.

The system itself is very smooth and straight-forward (and not a lot of charts to constantly look up), especially when compared to "old school" rules like Empire or From Valmy to Waterloo. The turn sequence is simple enough:  Blue team issues commands and moves, Blue team fires, Blue team
conducts melee. Then it's up to the other side (Red team) to repeat the process. Easy.

As for commands and movement, I admire the ease of the system yet appreciate the gaming challenges when things do not go as planned.  In Black Powder, the gamer first announces what he wants to do with a unit, group of units, or entire brigade. At this point, the brigade commander rolls a 2d6 and compares it to his individual command rating. A roll equal to or one lower than the rating allows one move, a roll 2 less than the rating allows two moves, and a roll 3 or more less than the rating allows up to 3 moves. Sometimes, the unit(s) does what the commander intends and sometimes it doesn't. There are modifiers to this roll as well, such as command distance, etc. The closer a unit comes to an enemy unit, there is the option to allow for battalion commander "initiative" and make one move for which a brigade commander roll is not required. I like that. Rolled boxcars force a "blunder" roll in which the unit (s) behave in a wildly unintended manner. I'm not convinced of the historical accuracy of the procedure, but it really gives a rollicking good game. By the way, if a player forgets to announce the intended action for the unit, a "blunder" roll is required..........did I mention that it's a "gentleman's game?" 

In Black Powder, units are classified as Tiny, Small, Standard, or Large. Specific numbers of figures per unit are not critical, although rough numbers for each size classification are given. Unit frontages are more important and these recommendations are also covered. As for unit statistics, each one has musketry, melee, morale ratings, stamina, and special rules. For musketry and melee, these ratings equal the number of dice thrown. (Yes, these rules do have a "bucket load of dice" mentality.) The morale rating is not the number of dice thrown, but the rolls required on the dice used for saving throws. The stamina rating details the number of "hits" that dictate a Shaken status (which contains negative modifiers).

For example, a typical French line battalion would be described in the following way:

1/42nd Ligne    Melee (6)    Fire (3)   Morale (4)    Stamina (3)     Reliable (in column or mixed order)

Reliable is a special rule which means that this particular unit has a bonus applied to its command roll for movement when it is in an Attack Column with or without skirmishers deployed. Makes sense from a historical concept (French Napoleonic infantry).

So how does combat work for this unit?

In a nutshell, the above unit would roll 6d6 in melee and hit on rolls of 4-6. If firing, the unit would roll 3d6 and hit on rolls of 4-6. When hit itself, if this unit was hit 2 times either in melee or by fire, the unit would then roll 2 saving dice and require a 4-6 score (morale rating) to eliminate the hits. If the unit suffers 3 or more hits (that were not saved) than the unit becomes Shaken as per the Stamina rating. Attached leaders may attempt to rally if attached (requires a successful command roll and, essentially, removes a "hit").

Dice rolls for hits can also be modified against the standard roll of 4-6 needed for a hit. For example, a charging unit receives a +1 bonus for charging and would hit on a 3-6. Morale rolls can be modified as well.

The rules lay all of this out very clearly with many examples of melee, musketry, artillery, and skirmish fire. Whether you agree or disagree with the mechanisms contained in the rules, everything is discussed in detail. The book itself is very well written and beautifully illustrated / photographed.

After playing out the Maida scenario with Black Powder, I had mixed feelings toward the rules. Overall, it was a very enjoyable game. Playing the French, I was frustrated with the inability to conduct a flanking maneuver around the British right flank. I just couldn't seem to roll well once the units were outside nominal command range. This in itself, limits the "nipply little battalion" syndrome that many rules allow. To succeed with Black Powder, you truly have to be very organized with command rolls and maneuvers.  I ended up focusing my main assault on the center of the British line but, due to special rules, the British infantry included bonuses for first volleys and ripped my attacking columns up. Uh.....this sounds like the historical result for Maida....I thought that this was merely a game with added chrome. The bottom line is that, despite the ease of play and simple mechanics, Black Powder can give a reasonably historical game that is loads of fun. After looking back on our game, it was truly enjoyable and very quick (total time for this small battle was a little over an hour).

Now, I will say that the basic rules do not contain many of the period details that I normally enjoy. For example, the procedure for units forming square versus cavalry are a bit too streamlined and do take away from the normal "rock, paper, and scissors" aspect of Napoleonic gaming. Another aspect of the game concerns casualties; I really needed to view "hits" as reduction in morale steps for a unit rather than actual figures hit.....I'm sure that was the author intended, but I needed to change my way of thinking. Skirmishers seem a bit too powerful (although detached skirmish companies actually do what they were intended for). Combat results also seemed to depend a bit too much on the "luck" factor; let's face it, Black Powder does base many results on the multitude of die rolls that a gamer will be faced with. I do think that the "luck" factor is a bit too powerful in these rules, but I can see why many gamers love this approach......although this philosophy takes away some certainty in combat results, it does add fun.

Here is the dirty little secret that Black Powder is considered a "toolkit" for gamers. I have seen many gamers publishing their own "house rules" to layer more detail onto the basic rules. Taking this account, anyone can add a myriad of details to Black Powder to create whatever type of game he wants. Are the vanilla rules fine for an enjoyable evening of gaming? Absolutely. Can more "special rules" and "house rules" be added for a more detailed Napoleonic experience.....Absolutely.

So, in summary, I rated Black Powder in terms of playability a 9 out of 10. I found the rules refreshingly simple to play and very entertaining.  I am typically a "simulation" guy who likes a lot of detail in my games........after adding the "special rules" that I felt were appropriate, I simply had a great time gaming Maida.

I rated the rules in terms of historical accuracy/realism a 6 out of 10. This was a little tougher for me than the Playability rating. A gamer can literally add as much or as little chrome as preferred. A deep knowledge of the period is not critical, but does allow one to create a scenario that comes close to mirroring history.  For me, the emphasis on the die rolls (the "luck factor") is a bit too heavy to qualify as a historical simulation.......but, if you have the patience, unit statistics and the use of "special rules" will bring a scenario closer. Black Powder, in the eyes of many, really is more of a game with flavor rather than a simulation. And that's ok with me.

The Total rating for Black Powder is 7.5 out of 10. Rick Priestley's Black Powder offer a helluva good time.....