Sunday, 16 November 2014

Hills in Wargames

This subject has been raised a few times over the past few months.  

If troops “behind the crest” of a hill cannot be fired upon by artillery, but are themselves allowed to fire at close range on attackers climbing the hill, then they create a big problem in a wargame.

This has proved particularly difficult in our PBEM campaign battles.   The two armies are pretty even at the start of each campaign phase.   There are a lot of hills on all of the campaign maps.   Most battles have similar types and number of troops on each side.

Since we reintroduced hidden movement the attackers have a good advantage.   We use a card to indicate the location of each corps.   When they come within 16” of each other they are “spotted” and must replace the card with figures.   The defender has to deploy with one corps per scenery square, but the attacker can concentrate.   Then the attacker can spot using his cavalry, and react to the defenders deployment.  In this way he can concentrate and hope to smash one of the defending corps before the others can react to the attacker.

But hills make this impossible.    The defenders cannot be spotted, but can easily spot the attackers.   The concentrated attackers cannot inflict casualties on the target corps.   In fact the opposite happens.   The defenders are hidden, except for their skirmish line and artillery.  So they can pound the attackers before they reach the crest of the hill.

In a recent game this brought the whole problem into sharp focus.   There were three hills across the width of the table, each with a defending corps.   There were no open flanks.   So we finally had to grasp the nettle and sort out the rules.

Our first solution was to allow artillery to fire on defenders behind the crest, but within musket range of the crest.   So the defenders would not have the advantage of firing on the attackers as they reached the crest.

Our second solution was even better.   Any troops behind the crest of a hill, but within musket range, would have to roll 1D6 when enemy come within sight.   Plus 1 for British or class A.   Minus 1 for class C.   Total of 4,5,6 would be OK.   But 3 would be disordered, 2 would be shaken and 1 would rout.

The second solution, the dice throw, had a greater effect.   Although none actually routed, and only one was shaken, the threat was enough to convince the defender it was better to move to the crest just before the attacker reached musket range.

We fought the game twice.  Once under the old rules, which raised the whole subject.   Then under the amended rules.   The difference was dramatic.   The defender was no longer confident to wait for the attack.   One shaken brigade was sufficient to make him bring forward the remaining infantry and a normal firefight decided the matter.

Not only a good solution from a wargame point of view, but also a model which was quite historical from a tactical point of view.


Archduke Piccolo said...

In reading this article, Paul, I'm not sure there was a problem with the game mechanics in the first place. What you were describing seemed to me a pretty fair representation of the defensive tactics ascribed to Wellington and his army in the Peninsula and at Waterloo.

The French found this problematic themselves. Marshal Marmont, I think it was, even refused a battle the French might well have won, owing to his inability to see what lay beyond the ridges before him.

If the artillery are deployed to bombard the approaching enemy, then they must obviously be spotted the moment they open fire, and themselves be targets for counter-battery. Not that counter-battery should be particularly effective, but perhaps the cavalry might have something to say to the matter.

Personally, I don't like the idea of morale checks and possible routs just because the enemy is getting close. I once saw a game that featured such a rule. It wasn't much of a game. The French approached in column; the British line squawked, and ran off. Not a shot was fired. That for mine is a nothing game.

Rather than continue here, I'll bring this up in the forum (I'll copy this message so far there).

thistlebarrow said...

Hi Ion

The full answer is also pretty complicated, so I will answer it on the forum.

What I wanted to do was to discourage everyone to hide behind the crest of every hill.

Although this was a favourite tactic of Wellington, not many other Napoleonic commanders used it. I have read that this was because the morale of their troops was not sufficient to adopt this tactic. Not sure how true that was, but it certainly was true that most commanders did not use this apparently obvious defensive tactic.

Archduke Piccolo said...

I know that Marshal Suchet used this tactic in 1815 against the Austrians in the south of France, and the first use of this tactic in the Peninsular War was by the French at Rolica 1808.

Writers at the time were apt to fulminate upon the stupidity of the 'shop window' non-tactic. One I recall mentioned an occasion in Italy in which an Austrian infantry unit stood upon a river stop-bank in full view of French skirmishers on the opposite bank. They endured this for several hours when the simple expedient of moving back half a dozen paces would have brought the men into complete cover. A few heads looking over the levee would have sufficed to warn of an attempted crossing...

thistlebarrow said...

Hi Ion

It's always difficult to second guess why commanders at the time did not use tactics which to us, with hindsight, seem so obvious