Great Battles of the Horse & Musket Era

As an amateur historian of the horse and musket era I often read various histories of the great commanders and their defining battles. In doing so I find myself pondering the issues of command and the variable “moments” that define the various key items that mark a significant battle. 

Currently I am reading Gordon Rhea’s excellent book “The Battle of the Wilderness”. As I read I often pause and ponder the critical moments that defined the battle. For example, what if Meade had pressed earlier his attack at Saunders Field? What could have occurred if Getty was delayed on the Brock Road?

As a wargamer I am challenged to refight these battles out on the table. I find it fascinating the degree that such games assist me in understanding the terrain, the period and the challenges of warfare in the period. Sometimes the decisions on the table result in the historical course of the action being followed, yet others see alternate outcomes develop.

This time last week I was fortunate to refight the Battle of Shiloh, a photo of which is shown below. This refight provided, as I expected, a fascinating evenings game as well as an ability to explore some interesting historical alternatives.

While some wargamers are interested in the modeling aspects or small unit tactics I have a preference to refighting the larger battles of the period. I have been fortunate to refight a large number of battles from the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War. The rule set that for the last 20 years that has enabled me to do this is of course Volley & Bayonet. Frank Chadwick, author of Volley & Bayonet explained some of his thinking in his design notes:

“…what interested me most about the Napoleonic Wars was the army-level view of the battlefield. When we think about the Napoleonic Wars, I believe that most of us think Waterloo, Austerlitz, Marengo, Borodino, Leipzig, Jena-Auerstaedt, etc., as opposed to the charge of the Zastrow Cuirasiers at the Great Redoubt, or the breaking of the 4th Ligne’s square by the Russian Garde Du Corps on the slopes of the Stare Vinohrady. So my viewpoint of the import aspects of the Napoleonic Wars shaped the scope of the game decisively.”

Since the refighting Shiloh I have been considering the aspects of Volley and Bayonet that hold particular appeal. Firstly, as mentioned previously I’m interested in refighting large battles, rather than regimental actions. Given that each stand in Volley & Bayonet represents 1500 to 3000 men large battles are clearly possible. Then of course the level of the rules ensure that the games focus on the big picture, after all each turn represents an hour. The fact that with the same general rules, modified by period specific changes, I can refight battles from the Seven Years War to American Civil War as a significant advantage. Yet each period has a totally different feel.

Unlike many I’m not focussed on a particular figure scale. So while my Horse & Musket miniatures are all 6mm I’m just as happy to use Volley & Bayonet with miniatures ranging in height from 2mm to 25mm. Each scale has its advantages and while I enjoy the visuals of 6mm other scales can be equally excellent. Take for example this refight of Hastenbeck refought with Volley & Bayonet and 30mm flats which can be found here.

I have of course rambled somewhat in this evening’s post. However, I would ask a couple of questions. Firstly, do you enjoy refighting historical actions, or do you prefer fictional encounters? If you enjoy refights which aspects do you find of particular interest?


6 thoughts on “Great Battles of the Horse & Musket Era

  1. Yes to historical but would prefer a historical-based campaign that allows the battles to be in context. It would obviously diverge from history. But the battles would be operating in similar constraints without needing arbitrary victory conditions.

    Not interested in V&B’s one-off RtG scenario generator approach but it’s a great thing for those who do like that. So it helps expand the general acceptance of V&B.

    As you say, V&B allows for the biggest battles and with the period-specific rules means you can spend more time playing games and getting the big picture, than finding and learning new rulesets, then painting and basing in a specific manner for a given set of rules. Risking the discouragement that after all that effort, you don’t like the rules and must start, rebasing etc.

    Best to try out a new ruleset with blank “sabots” to see if you like the system before painting.

  2. Thanks for posting your thoughts Bill. The responses were fewer than I expected.

    Campaigns can be interesting, but the commitment in player time can be significant. I’ve tried running several over the years, some manually and some electronic. I often think about running another but the work as an organiser is off putting.

    1. You’re welcome. Speaking for myself, I have tended to think of campaigns as requiring a full-time judge and lots of logistics. I was exposed to the Two Hour Wargames’ skirmish “Nuts!” concept of solitaire or team play against the game system. So I recognized how set in a rut I was and that a campaign can be done lots of ways. That the battles need not be even related where just the player’s participation is the thread instead–no logistics and even little context. That’s the extreme other end. Keep it extremely simple so that the there is no need for a referee, however the boardgame that provides context and limits could have some small tweaks to provide some Fog of War surprises.

      If you have a very active oversupply of players, that’s great but design to maximize participation but especially to keep the campaign running with the absolute minimum to avoid your fatigue. Lets face it, not everyone has the same level of interest that some of us gung ho types have. But we tend to bite off more than we can chew.

      For example, here are some ideas that might streamline to keep the game going and provide character advancement:

      1. Have a regular, perhaps monthly (like 2nd Saturday), playing of one of the miniature battles from the boardgame. If no one shows, you roll the dice for the boardgame and go back to what you were going to do anyway like watching Kojack.

      2. To avoid the problem of having just 2 Union commanders show up, each player develop leader characters for both sides of the conflict. Maintain some minimal advancement of stats or modest perks from *attending* games not personal victories which are too ambiguous, these stats could be used to purchase bonuses in a roll-off between 2 players wanting the same side, things like dummy counters to add to stacks, combination of multiple counters to hide concentrations, modest combat benefits etc. To encourage attendance to the game, characters would only get these benefits from showing up and I’d eliminate penalties to avoid discouraging a player from giving up on attending. The *units* could be promoted from winning as before.

      3. Put up a webpage and/or a PDF fake newspaper battle reports that gamers could subscribe to and receive to keep it top of mind. Increase likelihood of attending. This could be kept simplistic so that it doesn’t become a time sink.

      4. Encourage rank newbies to participate, some may not continue but goals could be: command diversity (providing what Chadwick describes as the simplest way to avoid needing excessive command friction rules!) rather than a super-grognard contest that alienate new players ,,,and recruiting new players in general for the future.

      5. Maybe the battles chosen need to have some tweaks to avoid lopsided situations. Or maybe not, just let the chips fall.

      6. I’m sure you can think of ways to build in perks. Player character advancement is the key to getting them to commit to continue showing up and finishing.

      For ACW I have looked at the campaign context being the boardgame, A House Divided, of course because it’s all set up already to translate to V&B and simple enough to play as the campaign. For The People is full of interesting chrome but I think may be just a bit too much. There is a Victory Point solitaire game that I looked at. While it also had some chrome for overall “historical” events, it may be too generic and single path oriented, was called The Lost Cause and being re-released as To Fight and Die for Dixie! Perhaps one could use some cards from FTP in AHD.

      Enough brainstorming for today!

  3. For years I tried to get my local gaming club, in NSW central coast, interested in VnB, simply because the philosophy that Frank espouses is exactly how I think, big battles are what i dream of. We tried a few times, Napoleonics, and AcW predominantly, but my reliable opponent, just thought the game had too,little ‘flavour’. I see now from his gaming choices, Napoleon at War, Flames of War that he prefers the lower level of gaming, although with his latest craze ( and mine) in Sword and Spear, he may be seeing the higher level abstraction ‘light’.
    That said, the newish set of rules from Sam Mustafa ‘Blucher’ are set at the same level as VnB and I have definitely got a few takers on that front ( and we are all collecting in 6mm! Finally), so maybe army level games are getting some much needed attention.

    1. Interested to hear you have made some progress Steve. I’ve been following the popularity of smaller games, such as Bolt Action, FOW and Sharp Practice etc. They are not really for me but for many people they have the detail they require. We are fortunate to have so many rules options these days.

      1. And a little update, “Nuts!” is not only a skirmish (with 1 figure = 1 man) but soon to have a squad-per-stand version too. I know you’re a Spearhead guy but I really like Command Decision & Great Battles of WWII for the platoon & company per stand level respectively. I tried battalion-per-stand rules but it started to feel like an inelegant boardgame.

        Steve’s post reminds me to mention if one does not have anyone interested in the game you want to play then the solution is plant new gamers …and that means keeping the games small and simple enough initially. Which goes against my tendency towards the grandiose.

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