Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More BROG #3 . . .English Civil War this time


ROYALISTS & ROUNDHEADS, The Battles of Justice Mills, Kilsyth, Naseby and Marston Moor; by ROB MARKHAM

from 3W GAMES

One 22" x 34" backprinted map; 400 counters; Rules Book, Chart, 1 6-sided die. Published by  3W Inc., POB 155, Cambria CA 93428; $25.


from S&T Magazine, #148, published by DECISION GAMES

One 22" x 33" map; 200 counters; Rules Insert. Published by  Decision Games, POB 4049, Lancaster CA 93539; $10 for a single issue..

Reviewed by Richard H. Berg

It's been a long time since we had any sort of attention, other than haphazard lip-service, paid to pre-Napoleonic warfare. But in the space of 18 months we've seen a pre-18th century explosion, mostly in the ancient/classical area. Serendipitously, it has now spread to the 17th century, and we have no less than two, new systems covering the English Civil War. Grab your pikes, boys, the tercio will rise again.

The English Civil War was a tangential field of battle for The Thirty Years War, the one in which Protestants and Catholics decided to settle their minor differences by totally destroying Germany.  This travelling horror show, surely a low point in mankind's inhumanity to itself, was also the Dawn of Modern Warfare. At Breitenfeld, in 1632, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, one of history's great military geniuses, unveiled an army  and a tactical system so fast and deadly that, after they'd figured out what had hit them, his opponents took virtually no time at all in adapting and adopting. Gustavus' army had contained a large number of Scots, who, upon returning to England, lost similarly little time in letting everyone know what was happening.  The results of all these changes were quickly put on display a decade later when the English decided to emulate their continental brethren and bash each other into oblivion. As is their wont, the Brits did produce some rip-roaring battles, led by some remarkably dense commanders (a situation the English seem to have trademarked, pace  Marlborough). And now we lucky gamers can start reliving those glorious days of gore.

Royalists & Roundheads is a Rob Markham-designed quad game on four battles in the English Civil War, all from 1644-45. It comes in a rather attractive, one-inch box that uses a cover illustration from the Osprey series of military books.  The components are good, with well-done Rick Pavek counters (featuring ye-olde silhouettes along with pictures of the leaders) and an acceptable, if not entirely satisfactory, set of maps from Ted Koller, whose diminishing talents may have much to do with his proximity to Disneyworld. The mapsheet comes with two game-maps on each side, so it helps to get your exacto knife and cut them down the middle, an easy enough task but one which brings to mind Keith's ever-burgeoning desire to save a penny here and there. There is also a short, readable rules-booklet and a separate scenario folder. 

One would think that four games on English Civil War battles would be about three too many, but this is not the case. Quite simply, this is one of the more delightful surprises of the year; a neat little game that is eminently playable and a lot of fun.  Markham, who appears to be working on more projects than the Pentagon, has adapted some of the mechanics from his 1862/1863 games, to which he has added a layer of Commands - a variety of orders under which a leader and his troops must operate - and CRT's that reflect the difficulties that era had in effectively combining musket and pike.

R&R uses an Igo-Hugo sequence of play fairly similar to Cropredy's, except that the latter Rallies first, while R&R places separate rally phases at the end of teach player sequence. Other than that, it's Move, Fire and Fight, and the general game flow is fairly similar to, albeit simpler than, the aforementioned 1863. At 175 yards per hex, the R&R games are somewhat less tactically-oriented than Cropredy; then again, it is an easier game to play - even though the Orders of Battle are pretty much at the same level. In R&R, we have two types of infantry (pikemen, usually with musket-provided fire capability) and "clansmen", the fierce Scots, many of whom do not have firearms. There are also detachments of musketeers and bowmen (!!). Interestingly - and realistically - the latter are more effective than the former. (The Welsh longbow had far greater range and penetrating power than a 17th century musket. However, it took years to train a bowman; it took weeks to teach someone to shoot a gun.) And of course, we get some artillery and the famous English cavalry, including lancers. At Cropredy, dragoons appear to have replaced lancers as the "mounted units of chrome".

Both games depend heavily on leaders and command. Markham's command system, however, is much less restrictive than Grace's and, even if not exactly historical, far more interesting. As a matter of fact, the R&R Command and Orders system is the game's "hook". All leaders have to be operating under one of six possible "Commands": Attack, Advance, Stand, Retreat, Reserve and Muster. Each allows that leader's troops to do certain things, and they restrict them from doing others. Changing these commands is often a rather haphazard undertaking, providing much flavor and fun for the system. How realistic and historic all of this is is somewhat dubious. In my, admittedly minimal, readings in this area, I never got the impression that the English Command system was that sophisticated, or that most of its practitioners were capable of doing anything other than acting rashly, dumbly or not at all. Moreover, while the differences between some of the commands are quite subtle, certain obvious maneuvers - one's that units could easily perform at the behest of, say, a sergeant-major - are not available when operating under certain "Orders". On the other hand, one should never underestimate how little units will actually do while in battle. A certain amount of "house-ruling" is recommended here, and, while I feel that the system is a lot of fun, it is more suited to the era of, say, Marlborough, than Rupert and Waller.

Combat - both fire and melee - produces few, instant results. No fire capability has more than a 1/3 chance of rendering even the least harmful of results, and, for melee, you have to get about 16 SP's involved (usually 3+ units) before you can even hope for some sort of definitive result. All of this reflects Markham's theory that combat was a rather unending affair in which superiority was achieved only after a lot of heavy eyeballing. Add to this that only certain Commands allow units to leave an enemy ZOC, and you have some pretty extended fighting.

The usual combat result - when you can get one - is a Morale Check. Morale is an area in which R&R is clearly superior, in terms of system, to Cropredy. Aside from the fact that Markham's 2-12 dice possibilities are far more "definitive" than Grace's old-fashioned six-sided system, Markham uses Morale as a combat result - not as a modifier, as Grace does in Cropredy. While unit morale may have some effect on how a unit does in combat, it is more effectively represented in gaming terms by how a unit reacts to combat. To use morale as a CRT column shift is to put the cart before the horse, and in rather inelegant harness, to boot. Then again, R&R does not purport to be as definitive a simulation as Cropredy - and it isn't. It surely doesn't attempt to answer, or even portray, many of the tactical questions that Cropredy addresses. It's just a good, fun game with a nice, battle-level feel for the era. The two, lesser-known battles - Justice Mills and, especially, Kilsyth, with its bleak, rolling Scottish moors - present more opportunity for maneuver than the two, set-piece big-namers, Marston Moor and Naseby. But all of them have an exceptionally high level of playability.

That's not to say R&R is without flaws. The game has the usual Poulter trademark: pas de development. Some of the misprints and typos are easily spottable (arrows with a range of 1700+ yards??!!), and none of the usual errata is insurmountable. However, the hexgrain for Marston Moor and Naseby is wrong. As I said last issue (in my review of Quatre Bras), if your battle flows north to south, your grain MUST run east to west if facing is an issue. This is simply a basic tool of professional game design; I'm somewhat amazed that a designer as knowledgeable as Rob M committed this basic no-no. (He, in turn, tossed that hot potato into KP's lap, where it, most likely, deserves to reside.)  And virtually all the R&R battles waste HUGE amounts of map space, space that could have been used to enlarge the battlefield (at Marston Moor, for example, where the flank is the map edge), use bigger hexes for play ease, or even reduce the scale for more incisive effect.

Cropredy Bridge has somewhat of the same problem: lots of unused map space. However, at least in CB there is a possibility of going elsewhere. Not that it will matter much, and therein lies CB's drawback.

Whereas R&R has the feel of 1863 redux, CB appears to be - or at least to have originally been - an attempt to use a system along the lines of the pre-TCT "Great Battles of the American Civil War". The scale is 100 yards a hex and 50 men per SP (or about half that of R&R). Even within these differences, comparisons between the two games reveal some interesting numerical anomalies. Whereas, in Cropredy, heavy artillery can fire at a range of 900 yards maximum, R&R enables their guns to reach almost a mile. Perhaps we are dealing with "effective" range (a more realistic approach) vs. possible range, as artillery has little (16%) chance of doing even minimal damage at 1700+ yards in R&R. Both are more apropos than Dave Ritchie's old Cromwell's Victory, which gave artillery unlimited range! Cropredy, curiously, allows cavalry to fire (their pistols, I assume) at a range of 100-200 yards (two hexes), even though the "effective" range of these weapons was rarely over 30-50 yards!!

All of this is actually numbers "piffle", because Cropredy Bridge is the most impressive game the Cumminsian S&T group has produced. The map is attractive, effective and helpfully chart-laden, even if one of those charts - the Target Density Chart - appears to serve no useful purpose (and has no rule, other than a passing mention, explaining it's use or application). Given the fact that the present unit strengths render the chart pretty much non-applicable, I assume that this is a leftover from the original Grace design. I say that with some foreknowledge, as I happen to have a draft copy of the early game system (which Dr. Grace so kindly sent me, and which applies, interestingly enough, to Marston Moor). There we had the separate musket and pike counters the designer discusses in his notes, and, when you stacked them, you achieved the density to which the rule applied. All that seems to have been swept beneath the developer's rug.

The counters are most curious. They are not unattractive; the leader portraits are a nice touch, and some of the silhouettes are rather inventive. However, the Royalist counters are a bit rough on the eyes (the use of a white border for the black type, all set against the basic red of the counter, creates an interesting "wobble") and some of those same silhouettes are truly difficult to comprehend. It took me fully half the game to realize that the picture on the cavalry counters was a "head-on charge" shot, and the dismounted dragoons look nothing less than a mini-poster for New Kids on the Block. On the other side of the ledger, the markers are clear and very informative/helpful (even with the typos). Even more important, the magazine, itself, actually looks good! Let's hope the infusion of Keith Schlesinger (tester and stacking maven non pareil), John Kisner and Beth Queman (welcome back, Beth!) keep this going.

Cropredy is more successful as a simulation than a game. The system has few surprises for those who have played tactical games, other than a rather elaborate set of cavalry charge rules - sort of a horsey-set, but interesting, version of Opportunity Fire. Although the fact that the Melee CRT is asymmetrical - which means that, although the chances of getting a better result with greater odds are still there, it does not necessarily mean that the greater odds for the same dieroll will be better - is somewhat annoying (because it is an unnecessary affectation), the game does have a nice tactical flavor. Most of this comes from Grace's wrestling with the combined arms problem of muskets and pikes and how the units work. His solutions, in terms of combat results, are quite effective.  Fire, for the most part, causes "hits" (which, in turn, become Melee CRT modifiers!) and/or actual Losses, which reduce either Fire or Melee strength on the spot - target's choice. (I find this method - target's choice - of deciding who gets hit a rather unsatisfactory and somewhat design-lazy way of apportioning casualties; it's been with us so long, though, that it's almost unavoidable.)  Melee causes disorganization, with a few  "L's" thrown in (again, asymmetrically) for luck. The effect is a nice "soften 'em up with muskets and then charge em with pikes/cavalry" effect. This is further complicated by the fact that most of the units are cavalry, which tend to range far ahead of their infantry support. This creates some realistically tricky problems for the opposing commanders/players.

Unfortunately, over all of this is a layer of Command control the mechanics and application of which I found to be unsatisfactory. The basic problem is that no unit outside Command Range can move - at all - and even units with a subordinate leader cannot do anything unless those lesser lights are within range of their General Officer. This creates some remarkably unrealistic situations in which commanded units far away from the actual combat simply stop moving. Granted, the short leader ranges effectively represent a set of commanders almost legend for their inability. But, in Cropredy, the command system portrays this in such a simplistic format that the resultant effect on play is unsatisfactory. The very real frustrations of control and lack thereof are welcome additions to any system, but there ought to be some rule which allows units a certain distance from the enemy to simply keep moving forward; the laws of inertia certainly take a beating here.

Cropredy's worst problem, though, is the fact that it is just not a very interesting situation to game. The short scenario is pretty much impossible for the Parliamentarians to win, and the victory conditions for the "whole battle" game virtually beg players to play for a draw. The basic problem, here, is that the Hays Bridge objective, to the north and rear of the Royalist lines, is an unattainable Parliamentarian objective, unless the Royalist player simply doesn't move for about 4-6 turns at a time.  And if the Roundheads decide to commit enough troops to even try to take the bridge they leave Cropredy Bridge - the Royalist objective - open for an easy thrust. The end result is that, other than you paid good money and you might as well throw a few dice, there is no reason to do anything!  Just because some third-rater. English commander (here, Waller) thought a headlong charge against a defended position might be the thing to do is no reason for a game player to emulate such silly conduct.

Both games would also benefit from using a 10-sided die, which is proving to be the "weapon of choice" for tactical designs. It's not that the ten-sider is any more "reliable" in reproducing statistical accuracy than the old six-sider. It's just that using a ten-sider enables you to expand the types of ratings you need in tactical games to a much subtler, more evocative level.

The English Civil War has produced far too few tactical games, if we (gratefully) exclude those generic abominations that pop up in such disguises as Musket and Pike.  And while Royalists & Roundheads and Cropredy Bridge are not the ultimate answer in this area both have a lot to recommend them. Already, Markham and Poulter have an R&RII in the offing. It should be interesting to see how (and if) both systems develop.


Physical Quality:  Both games are visually attractive, with Cropredy having the better map but R&R the better counters.

Playability:  Both games are quite playable (especially solitaire), although R&R, being much less tactically involved, is easier to get into and play. CB does have some "rules-searching", what-are-we-supposed-to-be-doing-here problems. 

Historicity:  Cropredy is a pretty fair simulation of some of the tactical problems of the era, although not quite as definitive or satisfactory as one might wish. R&R, although more of a "game", still has a nice flavor. Both games take off-the-wall stabs at the problems of command.

Playing Time:  Any of the R&R games can be completed in one sitting. Cropredy plays a little longer, especially with the complete battle game. However, it won't take long for players to realize, after a while, that there's little to do at Cropredy.

Comparisons:  R&R is virtually the same scale as Dave Ritchie's Cromwell's Victory (Marston Moor, S&T #101).While Ritchie does little to address the tactical problems, gives us artillery with unlimited range (?!?), and a general system that smacks of "Blue & Gray Goes to London", he does have a fairly nice smoke/visibility rule. Aside from that, there's nothing to recommend CV over R&R. As for Royalists vs. Cropredy, the latter has a much more analytical, rewarding system. Despite it's oddities, it does tackle tactical problems interestingly. R&R, however, is a lot more fun, and any of its four battles is far more interesting - and fun - than the Mexican Standoff that passes for an engagement at Cropredy Bridge. On the other hand, Grace's system has the potential for producing a far better simulation/game.

Overall:  Two interesting, enjoyable, albeit flawed games. Both are well worth the effort, although you'll get far more "replay" value from Royalists

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