Friday, November 18, 2016

Search For The Holy Grail - The Best Napoleonic Rules, Part 6

Search For The Holy Grail - The Best Napoleonic Rules, Part 6

Shako 2



I am probably jumping into the lion's den with this one. Shako 2 (as well as the original version) is one of the most popular Napoleonic rules sets in the world. I have dabbled in the past with these rules, but never grew interested enough in them to pursue them on a deeper level. I have had several requests for a review of Shako 2, so I decided to finally spend a couple of weeks learning the rules and playtesting them thoroughly. Although I am not an expert with these rules, I did dive pretty deep and feel confident that I now have at least a basic understanding.

I found that there are many admirable, if not brilliant, concepts contained in the rulebook. I also found that there were also some characteristics of the rules that were a bit too abstract for me and detracted from my own gameplay experience. Now I know that Shako 2 has hundreds, if not thousands, of devoted players who claim that it truly provides the finest Napoleonic gaming experience available.  It is definitely a solid set of rules and it works for many, many gamers.  I also found that it works best as a grand-tactical Napoleonic game rather than a smaller, tactical game. 

I'd like to first describe the rules and its mechanisms. At the end of the review, I will summarize the specific things I liked and did not like about Shako 2.

Shako 2 can be used for large or small games on the tabletop


Scales

According to the rulebook, there is no specific figure scale. Each battalion of infantry, regiment of cavalry, or battery consists of an approximate "average-sized" Napoleonic unit. For example, a battalion of infantry on the tabletop is considered to have a numerical strength of between 400-800 troops. Larger units, such as Austrian line infantry units containing 1,000 or more soldiers, are covered (they can absorb an extra "hit"). Interestingly, smaller units are not included; the inference is to combine smaller units into an average-sized battalion. The time scale is considered to be 20-30 minutes per turn. As for ground scale, although I scoured the rules, I could not find any reference to number of yards per inch.

Base sizes are not critically important, although several methods of basing units are portrayed.

One of the first things that I look for in a set of rules is the section on game scales. I found it a bit frustrating (and interesting at the same time) to see such abstraction in this area. Of course, this could be my own obsessive-compulsive fondness for details and shouldn't be taken too awful seriously.

Units are then organized into "divisions," which can be 4-12 units strong. It's interesting that these "divisions" can range from brigades, actual divisions, or even small corps. Again, for a detail-minded fanatic like myself, I prefer a logical regiment-brigade-division-corps command structure. The "divisions" in Shako 2 allow gamers to generically create commands for convenience of play. The "army commander" can be either a division commander, corps commander, or true army commander, depending on the scope of the game.

Unit Ratings

Unit ratings are grouped into morale classes with each class containing an MR/DisMR rating. The MR (morale rating) is used when conducting melee, rallies from "stagger" or "fall-back" situations, and when conducting special maneuvers such as hasty formation changes. The DisMR (disordered morale rating) is used when conducting melee at a disadvantage (such as being attacked on the flank). The infantry morale classes range from "guard" to "unreliable." Cavalry morale classes are based on heavy, line, or light cavalry types, but also include "second rate" and "unreliable." Artillery is classified as heavy, foot, or horse guns.

The MR ratings also reflect the number of casualties that a unit may absorb before being dispersed and picked up from the table. For example, a regular line infantry battalion with a 4 MR can take 4 hits either due to fire or melee before disappearing off of the table. Large units may take an extra "hit," although its morale rating remains the same for other calculations. All artillery batteries can only absorb 3 hits total and are then removed from the table.

When rallying or conducting special maneuvers (ex. hasty square), a six-sided die is rolled. If the die roll is equal to or less than the unit's MR, than the rally maneuver attempt is deemed successful. Charge distance modifiers are added to this roll.

It is important to note that a unit's initial MR does not change even when taking "hits."  For example, a light cavalry unit with an initial MR of 4/1 that has taken 2 "hits" still has a morale rating of 4 for purposes of rallying, melee, or special maneuvers.

Specific game concepts

Tactically, action with the enemy revolves around a unit's frontal zone, which is a 6" zone that extends from the unit's flank lines outward. If two opposing units are in one of the other's frontal zone, than the units are considered to be "in contact." This is important not only for "divisional" orders, but also formation changes as well.  This concept is similar to the pinning zone in DBA and other similar games.

The concept of "stagger" is also important. This is intended to demonstrate a temporary state of disruption and can be caused by skirmish fire, or musketry/artillery fire.  Typically, a unit that is "staggered" gains a negative modifier to almost anything that it does. During the rally phase, if a unit is outside of an enemy's frontal zone, than a "stagger" can be rallied off.

Turn Sequence

This is pretty straight-forward.

1. Artillery Fire or Evade
2. Initiative / Movement phase
    a. Conduct support charges for allowed units
3. Musketry phase
    a. Skirmish fire first
    b. Volley fire
4. Melee
    a. After melee resolution, conduct breakthroughs, recalls, and countercharges
5. Command phase
     a. Change orders and send ADC's
     b. Rally and reform units
     c. Rally divisions
     d. Check division morale
     e. Check scenario victory conditions

Walking through the turn sequence, I didn't have any issues with it. It was a simple and logical process to conduct a game turn.

Artillery Fire or Evade

Artillery fire is conducted via 3 range bands: Cannister, Effective, and Long. It does allow a gamer, by using the pullback method, to fire ball shot even at close ranges in order to maximize bouncethrough fire onto tightly packed divisions. Counter batter is also represented on the artillery fire table.

I found it interesting that artillery batteries could also "evade" from the front line instead of firing. When I began conducting melees I quickly found out why: artillery batteries are pretty fragile when charged by formed infantry or cavalry (a last ditch canister volley is included though, to be fair).  Therefore, knowing when to evade with artillery batteries is definitely an important part of tactical decision-making in Shako 2.

Initiative / Movement

Instead of a card-driven method of moving "divisions" or a strict "UGO-IGO" process, Shako 2 uses a six-sided die roll for each division to identify what formations move first. All divisions that rolled a "6" move simultaneously, after that divisions that rolled a "5" move,  and so on.  So, opposing players may be moving divisions on opposite sides of the table at the same time. If directly opposing divisions roll the same initiative number, the division on attack orders moves first.

Movement is very straight-forward, with each type of unit moving a maximum distance per turn. No surprises here. There is no charge movement bonus. Charging units are simply moved into contact with an enemy unit. There are terrain effects upon movment and wheeling a unit costs double (skirmishers excepted--they move much more freely).

At the end of regular movement, units that moved 1/2 or less of its movement allowance are able to conduct "support charges," which basically allow a player to exploit situations or to counter enemy maneuvers during the regular movement phase.

Musketry

Skirmishers are fired first. I found that skirmish stands in Shako 2 seem to perform in a historically accurate way. They are not overly powerful, but they are irritating to the enemy and have to be dealt with. Besides the ingrained skirmishers that form a chain for each "division," entire infantry battalions may break down into 2 skirmish stands instead of remaining formed.

Musketry occurs next and affects all enemy units in its frontal zone (only if there are gaps; a formed unit does block pass-through fire if a unit is directly behind it). There is no oblique fire.....just straight ahead. Musketry tends to be very bloody and decisive in Shako 2. A typical infantry battalion that can only absorb 4 "hits" will only last for so long when trading volleys with an enemy unit.

Melee

Melee is also very straight forward.  Basically, one compares the MR's (or disordered MR if it applies) of opposing units, add or subtract any tactical modifiers, and then throw one six-sided die. The difference in points determines the number of "hits" and the winner/loser. The loser then falls back "staggered" a particular distance. Typically, if an infantry unit out of square loses to cavalry, it is considered dispersed. Ditto for an artillery unit that loses any melee.

Cavalry breakthrough charges, recalls for cavalry, and countercharges are all covered within the rules. It's nice that, although cavalry has the potential for powerful results, its endurance is covered within the mechanisms of Shako 2.

Command Phase

The command phase is the section of the turn that brings it all together. Order changes, unit rallies, and divisional morale checks are conducted.

Order changes are conducted through the movement of ADC's from the Army commander. To replicate command and staff efficiency, army commanders of each nationality may differ on the number of ADC's available each turn. A die roll to see if the ADC was killed or only moved halfway is conducted during this turn. Certain nationalities with only one ADC (1805 Russians and Austrians are but 2 examples) can find the activation of reserves or changing of other orders frustrating. Conversely, the French typically have up to 4 ADC's per turn available and can afford to send multiple ADC's to a division to ensure delivery of orders. This system is one of the most effective, yet incredibly simple, command and control gaming mechanisms that I have seen. Ingenious.

As far as unit rallies go, this process can prove devastatingly decisive. If a unit previously lost a melee and fell back, it must be rallied. If it fails just one rally attempt, it is considered dispersed and picked up from the table. This phase is incredibly important and can make or break the game. I'm used to units in more tactical games continue falling back until actually off the table before dispersing. In Shako 2, the author does not play around; a unit either reforms or it is gone.

Divisional morale checks based on dispersed units also occur, which is a strong point of the rules. Too many rules do not contain higher formation morale checks. I was very happy to see that it is contained in Shako 2.

Personal Likes and Dislikes

As with any rules system, I found many areas of Shako 2 that I felt were very solid. And with most rules systems, there are a few things that I had a hard time wrapping my head around. Here are my personal observations:

I particularly admired the following:

1. The divisional orders/changing orders system is simple, yet highly effective. Divisions on Defend basically hold in a designated area tied to a geographic feature. Divisions on Attack must advance until at least one formed unit comes into "contact" with the enemy (within a unit's frontal zone). Divisions on Reserve are held motionless until activated. As for changing a division's orders, the use of ADC's as a measure of staff efficiency or national tactical philosophy (Linear vs Napoleonic in some systems) is excellent.

2. The modifiers for melee and firing make sense. I never found myself shaking my head trying to figure out what the author was thinking.

3. I feel that the support modifiers replicate the tactical differences between Linear and Napoleonic philosophies nicely. In order to receive positive modifiers for flank or rear support during melee, it literally forces a player to fight with his army as it historically fought.

4. I liked the fact that an attack path has to be planned in advance and drawn onto a map of the table. This allows for an oblique approach or a feint in a specific direction, yet has to be pre-planned by the division commander.

5. Using the artillery "pull-back" method accurately creates a historically accurate "beaten zone."

6. The rules for "hasty squares" and "hasty lines" within an enemy unit's frontal zone seem absolutely "right" to me.

7. The critical concept of Divisional morale is included.

I struggled with the following concepts:

1. There does not seem to be any emphasis on a particular ground scale. Musketry and artillery ranges seemed accurate at first sight, but did not seem to match up with unit movement. I felt that units moved too little during what was supposed to be a 20-30 minute turn. Add in the factor of "no particular figure scale," and it all felt a bit too vague and abstract for my taste.

2. Initiative seemed gamey. Although I liked the fact of rolling a six sided die for random movement for divisions, there was no concept of "momentum" on the gaming table that systems like Carnage and Glory 2 excel in. Also, divisions that rolled "6's" were not always at an advantage by moving first.

3. Artillery seemed too fragile when charged, especially when compared to musketry. Units charging a battery did not receive defensive fire; the battery used their MR in melee to replicate a last-ditch canister fire. When a unit charged infantry, they not only had to endure a defensive volley, but were halted before contact if this defensive volley caused a "stagger." 

4. There were no "passage-of-line" rules for interpenetration.

5. Melee seemed too luck-based for my personal taste. Although the melee modifiers made sense, the addition of just one six-sided die could cause extreme results. But, in fairness, this "luck factor" is what pulls many gamers into the fold.

In summary, I found Shako 2 to be a well-researched rules system that works well on the tabletop, especially for grand-tactical scenarios. Although there is an admirable  amount of detail within certain aspects of the game, the ambiguity of figure scale, ground scale, and unit size seemed much too generic and fuzzy to me.

I rated Shako 2 in the area of playability a 6.5 out of 10. For historical accuracy, I also rated Shako 2 a 6.5 out of 10. My total rating is therefore 6.5 out of 10, a very solid set of rules that continues to be very popular worldwide.