Sunday, 6 April 2014

Fiddling with Black Powder

First off, I don't. I have great respect for the explosive nature of the stuff. I've fired it and I've tasted it. (You're not a true War of 1812/Napoleonic reenactor until you've bitten too far into a cartridge.) Don't taste it and don't mess with it. Trust me; it tastes terrible and it goes "BOOM!"

What I meant was Warlord Games's "Horse & Musket" period rules Black Powder. Andy had the rules and suggested we do a play test at the Games Group's Saturday gathering. Since it was Board Games Day and some of our regulars -like my son- went on the "board games crawl" around London, there were only four of us at the group - Andy, Kevin, my wife, Beth, and myself. It ended up being the perfect size for the playtest. Andy laid out four battalions and one cannon for the British forces in the War of 1812 and the same for the US. Since we'd never played the game before, we decided to keep the experiment small. Cavalry played only a tiny part in the conflict (I only know of three cavalry charges in the entire war!), so they were left out.

We had all heard somewhere that Black Powder used the same mechanics as GW's Warmaster, a favourite game system of mine. (It's sometimes referred to as Warhamster.) I was not interested in doing another Napoleonic/SYW/Horse & Musket set of rules, but I was game to try these. It ends up that the mechanics of BP are quite similar to the mechanics of Warmaster with some extra detail or chrome added in. The game flows nicely and anyone familiar with Warmaster would find it familiar. There are differences in the command and control rules, in the shooting and the hand-to-hand fighting rules, but the differences make a lot of sense. The morale rules differ slightly, but again, the differences make sense.

Black Powder is quite flexible, allowing for any scale of figures so long as both opponents are based similarly. The rules cover 1700 to 1890, or the period of history from the universal use of the flintlock musket to the advent of the magazine-fed bolt-action rifle.

A few photos are in order (photos by Beth, Andy, and myself):
The "Brain Trust" looking over the field. From the left - John, Andy and Kevin.
The troops moved up fast due to the command & control rules effecting movement.

American troops advance. Andy has a huge collection of War of 1812 infantry and artillery.

The Soldiers of the King advance in turn.

We kept terrain to a minimum and kept the troop numbers down.
Next time, I hope we add some light infantry - maybe rifles and Native warriors.
The opposing sides are impressive. Andy was a long time collecting these.

Melee combat! We turned a stand sideways to indicate the unit was disordered.
Being disordered has consequences for movement, firing, receiving orders, and morale.

The business end of the artillery.

Special delivery for Cousin Jonathan! Here Kevin has moved his cannon into position to enfilade one of my battalions.
It wasn't pretty. At close range, cannon roll 3d6, but DOUBLE that when enfilading an enemy.

The other side of the mess. When a unit has taken more than 3 casualties, further casualties are considered "excess" and this has consequences for morale/break tests.
In the game, my Yankee troops of Scott's brigade had two battalions evaporate due to casualties, one fall back, and one hold it's ground. My artillery also was wiped out. One of Andy's units was destroyed. Normally I would have conceded the game much earlier, but we all wanted to "see how the monster worked" and we played on until my situation was totally untenable.

My verdict? A simple, enjoyable game that has lots of flexibility and possibilities. It is not simplistic and in all honesty, it won't appeal to those who like to remove casualties. The counting of casualties has more to do with loss of unit cohesion and morale than body count, and I have to agree with that. We made all the units equal in all their values, but there is provision in the rules for better, elite troops and for disaffected or green troops. There is an element of chance, but isn't there in every game? (If all the outcomes came predetermined, who would play?) The command & control rules allowing double or triple movement if the commander rolls well or blunders if he rolls badly take some getting used to, but as I said before, if you've played the full rules of Warmaster, you have some familiarity with that. In fact, I think the BP rules are an improvement on Warmaster. The authors (Rick Priestly and Jervis Johnson, well-known names in wargaming circles) say this is more a reflection of an efficient or imcompitent staff than the sense of the general. The same comment - that BP might be better than Warmaster in some ways - could also be said for the break test rules; Black Powder provides the players with more possibilities.

I might not run out and buy the rules, but I have an itch to paint up some of my 28mm figs and base them for this set of rules. I do think this is an perfect set of rules to introduce new gamers to table-top gaming and fantasy player to historicals as well as playing in at a convention.

A few years ago, Andy made up some "personal" figures for the two of us, so we're seen here discussing the deployment, care, and feeding of model soldiers.
28mm figures in large groups make an impressive array.

The US 22nd had failed morale and was in the process of being removed when the photo was taken.
Casualties are not removed in Black Powder, although entire units can go poofters after some hard pounding.


  1. Ever tried Ned Zuparko's "Vive L'Empereur"? They are a very different set of Nappy rules (translatable to any similar conflict), designed to allow corps to fight. The "home" scale is 15mm, the maneuver units are regiments of foot and horse, and batteries of guns. They are different than most rules sets. Command/control and morale are critical, movement is simultaneous, musketry is fairly useless (close range musketry is assumed in close combat resolution), combat does not cause figures to be removed from the table, nor do they get giant hats or multicolored tires hung around their necks. Dice do not determine the casualties from fire, each regiment, no matter the size, has the possibility of taking losses, each = to 1/25th of the unit's strength. Dice determine the morale effect of combat. In theory a rgt could take 25 hits before disappearing, but in practice, due to a decline in "status points" (essentially morale), a unit gets more and more fragile in combat, until its chance of passing a morale check become vanishingly small. Fire results depends on the amount of fire, targets, terrain, and various other factors. Formations are limited to line, column, and square (guns are in or out of battery). A set goes off at $6.00, Last Grenadier still has some. My faves (I'm not a skirmish guy). The rules get a bit snaggy under two circumstances - you want to fight in a built up area, or you want to get fancy with your skirmishers. I usually get around these problems by keeping villages off board or out of harm's way, and by discouraging people from shaking out their skirmishers. The game teaches the following lessons:
    1) Things won't go as you would like (units don't always move when told to, which means when you just HAVE to have a regiment or battery do something this turn, you have to run one of your scarce command stands over there to kick them in the butt, and while doing that, the commander isn't paying any attention to his other units, whose chances of doing anything useful drops precipitously.
    2) Don't stand in front of enemy guns. Cannon kill. Get in front of a Russian position battery and kiss your ass goodbye.Your unit's survivors will run away in 1-2 turns. But they are slooooow into action.
    3) Cavalry shape the battle field - they can get there first (they move very well indeed), and if you can drive off the opposing horse, and stay out from in front of the enemy guns, you are master of the situation.
    4) Infantry are slow, and can't accomplish much standing off and shooting. The bullet is a dull boy, the bayonet is a smart fellow.
    5) God is on the side of the numerous battalions. Two opposing regiments will always be able to adjust their posture so as to meet their opponents face to face. If you're up against TWO enemy regiments, however, you are likely to get hit in the flank, which is not good.
    6) The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, a D 100 is used, and except in the most hopeless situations a weaker regiment can turn the tables on a stronger one, or even several of them.
    7) Counter battery fire is a waste of time, powder, and the referee's patience (it is not well explained in the rules, but can be figured out). It very seldom accomplishes anything.
    8) The French are tough to beat. Their chain of command is more effective, and their troops are assumed to throw out a cloud of skirmishers.


    1. I might be interested in hearing more, but you are listed as "Unknown" and I don't know who you are. Really... I have no idea who you are.

  2. A very pretty table and lovely figures - War of 1812 is the one Napoleonics period I would be tempted to do in 28mm, for the reasons seen above.
    I have only played Black Powder once and didn't really understand it at the time. I should come down to London to try it again.
    Who is the Unknown Nappy Fan? Inquiring minds want to know.

    1. Thanks, Padre. Let us know when you'd like to come down and we can arrange a game... easy as pie.
      As to the Unknown Nappy Fan... I still don't know. I have a suspect, but the evidence doesn't point to him. I really don't know who wrote that and it bothers me.