Friday 26 February 2010

Action at Vera

On 31 August 1813 the small Spanish village of Vera became the scene of a small action which would make a good Richard Sharpe novel.

Wellington has laid siege to the port of San Sebastian in July 1813, and Marshal Soult was determined to raise the siege before the garrison surrendered. The river Bidassoa formed the border between France and Spain. The main French attack was along the coastal road through Irun, with a second attack a few miles inland through the village of Vera.

The French offensive failed, and the 10,000 strong division of General Vandermaesen approached the river near Vera. Due to a heavy rainfall the river was unfordable, and it would be necessary to cross by the only bridge in the area.

As they approached the bridge they found it defended by 80 men of the 95th Rifles, under the command of Captain David Cadoux. The French attack was met with a determined defence by the riflemen who were positioned in houses overlooking the bridge. Repeated attacks on the bridge resulted in an ever increasing number of French dead, dying and wounded.

Cadoux held the bridge for two hours before being finally overrun by the vastly superior number of Frenchmen. It cost the French 231 casualties, including Vandermaesen himself who was killed leading his men.

Cadoux was also killed along with sixteen of his men. Another 46 officers and riflemen were wounded.

The bridge is still in a good state of repair, and a plaque was erected in 1921 in honour of Cadoux and his men. The main road is now some distance from the bridge, which is not easy to find but is well worth the effort of doing so.

You can read about our visit to Vera, and the bridge, during a tour of Wellington's battlefields in northern Spain and the Pyrenees at


Sunday 21 February 2010

Luck in Wargames

I know that many wargamers, perhaps even most wargamers, would prefer that luck plays only a small part in their games – if any part at all. I used to think the same, but more and more I have come to appreciate how the element of luck can add an extra dimension to a game.

The element of luck is particularly important if two people play together regularly. Jan and I wargame at least three times a week, though usually only two or three moves. So a full game can last a week or more. We both know the rules very well, and rarely make serious tactical mistakes. In those circumstances any sort of game, and particularly a wargame, can become very predictable and even boring.

All things being equal I would probably stand a better chance of winning. So I tend to command the army with the worse commanders, or the most casualties, or the one attacking rather than defending. This would move the odds slightly in Jan’s favour.

We found many years ago that when you wargame so often it is very difficult to create an interesting and challenging battle. We had always aimed at a set of rules which rewarded correct tactics rather than detailed knowledge of the rules. However we soon came to realise that this was an unrealistic goal. When you both know the rules very well you will always eventually learn the weakness of the rules and play to them. You may try not to, but it is human nature to want to win.

That is when I decided to increase the element of luck in the rules. They still reward good tactics, and I don’t think it would be possible to win if you did not use historical tactics. Dice for firing, melee and morale are 1D6. A very bad roll, say 1, at the wrong time can turn the tide against you. A very good roll, say 6, at the right time can present an opportunity to win the game. And a series of good or bad dice rolls can turn around a winning streak.

Let me give you an example. We are in the middle of a critical game which will decide the winner of our ill fated Halle PEBM campaign. The French started the game with a distinct advantage, so I commanded the Russians. In the first 6 moves the French had more luck than the Russians, particularly in regard to the Poor Card. You may remember I explained that when a Poor Card is drawn the next poor commander to have his move can not issue any orders? The French have one poor commander, the Russians two. In the first six moves my 4th Russian corps failed to move FOUR TIMES due to the Poor Card.

By move 9 things were looking very bleak for the Russians. The two brigades of the French reserve cavalry were poised to charge and break the Russian centre. They charged a cuirassier and a Cossack brigade. The result was inconclusive, with both sides winning and losing one melee each. The overall effect was worse for the Russians, as the resulting confusion caused two corps to halt their advance to bolster the centre.

Then the completely unexpected happened. The French right consisted of 3 French corps and 14 Westphalian corps. They were advancing against the badly shaken 4 Russian corps, the same one that had all the bad luck with the Poor Card. One Westphalian infantry brigade was Shaken. It would have to test its morale, if it passed it would become Formed at the end of the move. If it failed it would Rout, and open a gap between 3rd and 14th corps. The Westphalian commander joined the brigade, which would add one pip to its dice throw to make morale. But if it failed he would join the rout and not be available for the rest of its corps for a full move. He rolled a 2, and the brigade would have routed if he were not present. Because he was it still failed to make its morale, and remained Shaken, but it did not rout.

Next card drawn was 4 Russian. Their artillery fired and hit the Shaken brigade, who then had to test their morale again. This time they failed, despite the corps commander being with them, and routed – taking the commander with them. In these circumstances any unit within 4” must test their morale. There were two such units, one Westphalian infantry brigade and the 3rd corps artillery. Both were Formed and had no casualties. First the artillery tested, failed and routed. Then the supporting infantry tested, again failed and joined the rout. The Westphalian artillery was outside supporting distance of the original rout and did not have to test their morale. However second infantry rout was within 4” so the gunners now had to test morale. You guessed it, they failed and routed. Within the space of one move the whole game had done an about turn and the advantage gone from the French to the Russians.

To be honest this was a too much influence from luck. It is not unusual with our rules for a slight change in odds to result from a good or bad dice, but never anything on this scale. I have no idea what the odds against so many units routing, but certainly it is very unusual – and so it should be. And if you are going to allow the element of luck, then you must be prepared to accept the chance of such a thing happening.

The game is far from over, and the French could still very easily win. It has at the very least opened up the game again. The Russians are still in great disorder and it will take some time to sort them out. The loss of the French right flank does not have to mean that they lose, as they still have three corps well placed to take advantage of the Russian confusion. It will be interesting to see how it all ends.

If you want to read the full battle report you can find it here:

Saturday 20 February 2010

Our Wargame Rules

I have had a couple of queries about the rules we use, or rather what sort of rules we use. The only way to really understand a set of rules is to play a couple of games with them. However I will try to give a short overview.

The rules are our own, designed to give a fast and fun game and to rely more on the luck of the dice than detailed knowledge of the rules. They owe a lot to LFS, which were the last set of commercial rules we used. However they have been amended and altered so much that they now have only a passing resemblance to them.

There are four elements to our rules. Command and control, firing, melee and morale. By far the most important is the first.

In a large game there is one commander in chief and four corps commanders. There is a card for each commander, plus a Poor Card. Each move they are shuffled and drawn one at a time. When his card is drawn the commander has his move. He rolls an average dice and adds his command bonus, Gifted is 3, Average is 2 and Poor is 1. He can then issue one order for each command pip.. When the poor card is drawn the next Poor commander to be drawn misses his turn. His corps can fight if attacked, but he can not issue any orders. Commander in Chief can give his move to a poor commander providing he is in base contact and it costs 3 command pips.

Firing consists of artillery, skirmish or volley fire. It is difficult to score a hit with my rules. For example a roll of 8 or more is required when rolling 2D6 for artillery on infantry or cavalry. However once a brigade receives a hit it then affects its ability to fight or make morale by deducting one for each casualty on a firing or morale test.

A brigade which fails its morale for the first time goes from Formed to Shaken. It must then test its morale at the end of each turn. If it fails again it routs. Any supporting brigade within 4” must also test morale for the first round of rout.

There is, of course, much more to the rules than I have outlined above. But it does cover the main points. The overall effect is that most Gifted and Average commanders can carry out their battle plan providing they do not have particularly bad average dice rolls. Poor commanders are very much at the whim of the Poor Card.

Each game is designed to last 12 moves. By move 8 or 9 one side usually suffers more casualties than the other. Once casualties are taken it becomes progressively more difficult to regain the initiative. In particular the loss of cavalry on one side can be decisive, or indeed artillery casualties.

We have used the rules for about two years, and have played about 50 wargames during that time. So far they have managed to provide the sort of games which we enjoy playing. It has been necessary to make a few minor adjustments, but only a few.

If you would like to see the complete rules they can be found at:


Thursday 18 February 2010

The Battle of Sorauren

This is one of the easiest and most enjoyable of Wellington’s battlefields to explore. Just a few miles from Pamplona on the road to Roncesvalles you find the picturesque village of Sorauren.

Look to your right and you see the ridge held by the British and Portuguese and attacked by the French. Turn left and you arrive at the bridge where Wellington wrote his famous, and hasty, orders to bring up his reinforcements. The whole area is little changed since 1813.

The ridge is easy to climb, and a short walk brings you to the “bridge” leading to the French hill. An ideal spot to sit and read the history of the battle, and locate the locations mentioned.

Walk down to the river and you will find the bridge, and nearby a convenient ill beside the river. You can sit in the sun, with a cold beer, and see the very spot where Wellington wrote his dispatch.

And if that is not enough it is only 65 miles from Vitoria and about 30 miles from Roncesvalles and Maya. So you can explore four battles within an easy days drive of each other.

Best of all you can use Pamplona as your base for the whole tour.

You can read about our visit here

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Working on a new campaign

The weather here has been quite miserable lately with two days of low clouds and heavy rain. It’s also been very cold, for southern Spain anyway. So we have had not been able to get out much, and had to cancel our weekly walk. As a result I have had plenty of time to sit down and sort out the new campaign.

It will be a return to our solo 1813 campaign, after a break of almost seven months whilst I dabbled with PBEM campaigns. The 1813 campaign began in April 2009, and is only loosely based on the historical campaign. The first phase consists of five mini campaigns, three in Germany and two in Spain. Three have already been completed leaving southern Germany or western Spain to choose from.

It took me most of the day to read back into the campaign and to decide which of the two remaining areas to tackle next. I eventually decided on southern Germany. A Bavarian and Baden army is based on Munich to observe the Austrian army and prevent them from marching north to join the Russians and Prussians. The Austrians make a surprise march down the southern bank of the river Danube in an attempt to take Passau. Not unlike the 1809 campaign in fact.

I want to include some of the interesting elements of the PBEM campaign, in particular to avoid too much instant reaction. This is difficult to achieve with a solo campaign, and I am not sure whether it will work or not yet. I will keep the CinC strategic objective and daily orders, and the corps commander three moves within each day. I will also introduce terrain penalties on the tactical (battlefield) map. Plus I have three tactical maps, one for each side and one for the campaign diary. All of the paperwork has been done, and I am ready to start the campaign.

But first I must finish off the Halle PBEM campaign. We are enjoying the final wargame of the campaign, it is proving more interesting than any of the previous games. Deployment is taking longer than expected, as reinforcements are arriving throughout the first day. So it might be necessary to fight a second day if there is no obvious winner by move 12.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Final battle of Halle PBEM campaign

I was not looking forward to returning to the PBEM campaign and trying to sort it out after it fell apart over the Christmas period. You may remember that when I restarted the campaign in January two of the ten players confirmed, for very good reasons, that they would not be able to continue their role. I then updated the campaign and sent out reports and asked for the next set of corps orders. Most replied, but there were two missing. I then wrote once more, and of course had to wait another week for a reply. None came.

The campaign had reached a critical stage, and the loss of four commanders caused a great problem. I realised that it would not be possible to continue, but I did not want to just stop at this decisive point. So I decided to end the PBEM element, and complete the final phase as a solo campaign.

As I had anticipated that it would take at least two or three campaign moves to reach the battle, and each would take at least one week, I decided just after Christmas to start one of the Wellington’s Battles games to keep Jan and I occupied. When it became obvious that I would have to assume control of the PHEM campaign I was already half way through the Talavera wargame.

The last pre Christmas move of the campaign was in early December, it would be early February by the time I finished Talavera. After such a long break I was not looking forward to trying to get back into the Halle campaign. In the event it proved easier than I had expected. I had kept comprehensive records and maps of each stage of the campaign, so it was not too difficult to read up to the stage when the campaign came to its untimely end. I already had movement orders for most of the corps, and I only had to decide what to do with the four corps whose players had withdrawn from the campaign.

You can read the result on the campaign blog. I have set up the table, and the campaign background and orders of battle can be found on the latest entry. I hope to start the game this weekend, and will publish one wargame move each day until the battle is complete and the winner of the campaign decided.
If you would like to follow the final battle you can find it at:

Thursday 11 February 2010

Wellesley defeated at Talavera

The battle of Talavera has been won - by the French. The third wargame in our series based on Wellington's battles in the Peninsula has gone against the historical outcome. All three of these games have been very enjoyable, and I would recommend this idea to anyone wanting a good game without too much preparation.

The idea is to base the game on a historical battle, but not to attempt in any way to recreate the battle. For example in this game the table has the two hills of medellin and cascajal, a strong point in the centre to represent the pajar and a large town to represent Talavera. The allied army is half Spanish, on the right, and half British, on the left. The French have three groups of infantry and one of cavalry. The cavalry are opposite Talavera, two lots of infantry opposite the British and one in the centre to reinforce either wing. Historical strengths are ignored, the aim is to have a reasonably balanced game which would be fun for both sides to fight.

My rules are designed to be simple and fast and to reward historical Napoleonic tactics, but they rely for a large degree on the luck of the dice. So knowledge of the rules, or even a better tactical knowledge of the period, will not always lead to victory, though either will give you an advantage. This approach will not suit everyone, but it does lend itself to fun games.

The games last for a maximum of 12 moves, which is sufficient to allow an infantry figure to march from one side of the table to the other. The layout is designed for the fighting to take part in the centre of the table. So there is sufficient time to allow for a little manoeuvre, but if one side spends too much time in preparation they will run out of time.

If interested you can read the battle report here:
Or read the rules here:


Tuesday 9 February 2010

Visit to Maya

In July 1813 Wellington had won the decisive battle of Vitoria and driven the French out of Spain. He halted his army on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees and laid siege to the Spanish fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona, both of which were still held by French garrisons. To cover these sieges he placed covering forces on the passes through the mountains and held his main army in reserve to counter any attempt to raise either siege.

On 25 July 1813 Marshal Soult marched into Spain to raise the siege of Pamplona. He divided his army into two columns, 25 miles apart. The western one struck at Roncesvalles and eastern one at Maya.

Last week I recounted our visit to Roncesvalles. This week it is the turn of Maya. Both are beautiful and impressive locations. Maya slightly less so, and also more difficult to map read due to a new road system.

You can read about our interesting, if frustrating, visit at:


Sunday 7 February 2010

Wargame Rules for Talavera

The wargame based on the battle of Talavera has reached move nine, and is proving a real joy to play. The allies are holding firm, the Spanish doing particularly well with their artillery, and the French still attacking.

I read the Napoleonic Discussion Forum on TMP most days, and often wonder just how much the views expressed represent the majority of experienced wargamers. The same names come up again and again. They seem to be very forceful and convinced that their point of view is the only one which should be allowed. They write with great conviction. But often they write such rubbish!

If there is anything I have learned from 40 odd years of wargaming, is that my idea of what are "good rules" change time after time. I remember reading in Wargamers Newsletter an editorial by Don Feathestone in which he made the obvious point that our games with toy soldiers bear no resemblance to actual war. And of course that simple statement is so obvious that I have never heard anyone disagree with it. Yet on the forum people will write lengthy articles to convince the world at large that only their favourite rules represent "the real thing".

A good example is one recent exchange about the role of skirmishers in Napoleonic wargaming. Most completely dismissed the idea that you could have a wargame without skirmishers, providing you included the skirmish ability in the rules. I first encountered this idea when I started using Le Feu Sacre rules. At that time I agreed that the table looked very strange without a skirmish screen. But as I used the rules I came to realise that the use of figures on the table simply makes the game longer, involves more dice throwing, and adds little to the outcome of the game. Or at least if the rules are any good, skirmishers should not greatly affect the outcome - certainly not if both sides can field them.

Did I raise this point and argue my corner? Most certainly No! I have tried that approach, and lived to regret it. It takes a very brave, or foolish, man to go against the current favourite rule system on a forum. Its strange that folk who work so hard to recreate Napoleonic tactics should be so forceful and aggressive in their response to anything new.

I find that every year or so I am ready for a new approach to wargaming. Perhaps this is because I wargame so much, and consequently put my current rules to the test so often. But now I am less inclined to replace the rules entirely. I prefer to see if I can incorporate the new concept into my existing rules.

Of course every now and again a new concept comes along, such as Le Feu Sacre a few years ago, which just carries you along with the whole new scope of the rules. Alas, after a few months the flaws begin to show, and "house rules" make their appearance again.

But now I have come to realise that a good set of rules is not one which caters for every possible eventually which might have happened on a Napoleonic battlefield. They only have to provide a good and enjoyable GAME, which rewards the use of correct tactics. I feel myself fortunate that my current rules fill this role very well.

If you wish you can follow the Battle of Talavera here:


Friday 5 February 2010

Computer Wargaming


Napoleon 1813 was the first Napoleonic computer game I ever bought. In fact it was largely responsible for my buying my first computer in 1999. I had read about the game and it promised to be the ultimate wargame experience. Those of you who also owned this game will recall that it failed to live up to that promise.

It was a good game, and I spent many enjoyable hours playing it. But it was prone to “crashing”, usually in the middle of a battle. Eventually it became so frustrating that I just gave up.

My next attempt was Napoleon in Russia, one of the Battleground series. I never did master how this game worked. I read the instructions and spent hours trying to make sense of the game, but it was all in vain. I have never been a board wargamer, so I perhaps did not have the practical experience to help me understand the mechanics of the game.

Then came Waterloo Napoleons Last Battle by Breakaway Games. This was more like it. Good tutorial and easy to understand. The small games were easy to manage, but soon became boring. I never could manage the larger ones. No matter how many times I played the game, I could never seem to win. Using historical tactics never worked out well, and I always seemed to lose whatever I did. I found that the only way to counter the AI was to be in personal control all of the time. I was constantly moving units, changing formation, firing guns and trying to attack. OK with the smaller battles, but with the larger ones I always seemed to lose one area when I was trying to control another.

Next was Austerlitz Napoleons Greatest Victory, again by Breakaway Games. I had more success with this one, and I could win some of the medium sized games. But again the larger ones completely lost me. No matter how hard I tried I never could seem to keep control of the whole battlefield.

Both of these games seemed to rely on what I believe is called a “click fest”. You could not just deploy a formation and leave it to get on with it, you had to be constantly using the mouse to carry out movement and firing which should have been left to lower formation commanders. As Napoleon you were not directing corps attacks at Austerlitz or Waterloo, you had to be each battery, battalion of squadron commander.

Cossacks II Napoleonic Wars had great reviews. I bought it as soon as it was released, and was very disappointed. The tutorial was very good, and I thought I had mastered it. But I never seemed to be able to get beyond the first battle. And it took so long to get started I soon got bored and abandoned it.

My last attempt was Empires in Arms. The reviews boasted that this was the best Napoleonic board game ever, but now a computerized version. As soon as I bought it I realised that I had made a mistake. No tutorial at all, and a most complicated manual. I went on the forum to ask for advice, and it was obvious that I was not alone in having problems getting started.

So my experience of computer games has been disappointing at best. I have found them to be too either too complicated to understand, or rely too much on clicking the mouse. In either case they eventually proved too frustrating or too boring. None came close to recreating my idea of Napoleonic warfare.

For all of these games there are devoted followers, who will completely disagree with my comments. For example if you read the forum for Empire in Arms you will find that some posters will accept no criticism at all. Yet many others obviously find it impossible to understand. The critics are dismissed as not being prepared to put in enough work to understand the game. With a wargame using model soldiers you can “muddle your way through”. You may make mistakes, but it will not stop you playing the game. However with a computer game if you do not know which keys to hit next you grind to a complete halt. No amount of historical or tactical knowledge will help you if you don’t under stand the basic mechanics of the game.

The latest offering is Histwar Les Grognards. I first heard about this game about six or seven years ago, so it has been in development a very, very long time. It has always promised to be the nearest thing available to actually commanding a Napoleonic army yet available.
A couple of weeks ago the demo was made available. I have never used a demo before, but I downloaded it to see how I managed. I could not even get it to start! No doubt this is largely my fault, as others on the forum have done it and played the game. However many were not too impressed with the first demo.

A few days ago the final game was available for downloading by those who have pre ordered and pre paid. Apparently as many as 600! The reports so far have been mostly very favorable. But this is from devoted fans of the game, who were convinced that this was the best game ever even before the first demo was released.

So should I buy it and see? It’s very tempting, but so were all of the previous ones. And my last two experiences, Cossacks II and Empires in Arms, were a complete waste of money. Worst they were a complete waste of time. Worse still, they made me feel rather stupid because I could not master them. So perhaps computer wargames are just not for me.

I will continue to follow the progress of Histwar Les Grognards. Already it is becoming obvious that there are some problems with the game. Everyone is convinced that these will be solved by the developer – but they said that about the earlier games too.

I do wish Histwar all the very best. It would be wonderful to have a game which allowed you to use your knowledge of the period to command vast armies. Where the use of sound tactics led to victory – rather than a knowledge of how to “play the game”.

After more years than I care to admit to, my wargaming with model soldiers is approaching this ideal – or at least my understanding of the ideal. I doubt that any two wargamers would agree just how that should be achieved with traditional wargaming, so how much more difficult to achieve it with a computer game.

If the reports on Histwar continue to be favorable no doubt I will eventually give in and buy it. Meanwhile I will stick with my model soldiers and constantly upgrade and amend my wargame rules to try to achieve perfection.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Battle of Talavera

Our first wargame of the year is proving to be a very close run one, and very enjoyable. Its strange how hard it can be to get back into gaming after even a short break, and then when you do you realise how much you have been missing it.

The break was caused by two weeks in UK, followed by two weeks trying to sort out the PBEM campaign. I had to make a real effort to set up this game, which is the latest in our Wellingtons Battles series of games. But once we started it was if we had never stopped.

The rules are working really well, and the game is really enjoyable. The French had planned to "soften" the British infantry between the medellin and the city with artillery fire, and then storm them with two corps. The remaining corps, and the cavalry, would pin the Spanish.

So the game started with the French moving into position, but as soon as they came within range of the Spanish guns they started to suffer casualties. In my rules even one casualty has an effect of morale, and three casualties usually sufficient to cause a rout. The Spanish guns needed at least 9 with two D6, and scored at least one hit each round.

When a unit routs any other unit within 4" must also test morale. So it is possible, if not likely, for one rout to spread. So the French (me) started to panic, and ordered an advance before the "softening" had taken effect.

There are two types of attack. "Engage" means that the infantry skirmish or firefight, depending on what the player decides. French are better at skirmish, British better at firefight. But both depend on the dice. In either case it will usually take two or three rounds to decide. "Attack" means attempting to break and rout the enemy. This is decided in one round, but again dependent on the dice. Even if better quality troops, and outnumbering the enemy, the attacker can still lose if he rolls poor dice. So in either case it is something of a risk.

Each game lasts a maximum of 12 moves, and the above photograph is taken at the end of move 6. You can see that the French infantry are approaching within skirmish range, whilst the cavalry are holding back out of artillery range.

The game is about to become very interesting.

We have a free afternoon today and I will find out whether my risky attack is about to pay off or not.

You can read the battle report so far at:


Monday 1 February 2010

Walking Roncesvalles

The Pass of Roncesvalles
On the morning of 25 July 1813 Sir Lowry Cole, with 13,000 men, was attacked by 40,000 Frenchmen and held the pass for four hours. This was the opening French move in Wellington's Battle of the Pyrenees.

-->This was also the scene of the famous last stand by Roland who died here in 778 commanding the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army against the Basque army. The monument is to Roland, not to the deeds of 1813.

I have always found this campaign to be one of the most difficult of all of Wellington's campaigns to understand. It would take two visits and many hours walking the various battlefields to begin to understand.

This week's Walking Napoleonic Battlefields recalls our first visit in 1995. You can read about it here: