November’s Game: Black Powder

This month Mark and I tried out the new Black Powder rules. Mark set up the ‘Fighting Retreat at El Perez’ scenario from the rulebook. We used 15mm figures from Mark’s collection. We have been playing games together now for over five years and this was the first time Mark had ever used his 15mm Napoleonic figures. Some of which he painted, but I gathered that the majority had been purchased prepainted from Lancashire games. We were slow getting started but we were able to complete four full turns and got a good feel for the rules.

I’ll admit that I played the rules because Mark wanted to, I could have lived my entire life without playing another set of toy soldier set of rules (rules that are not about historical battles, but instead my little army vs. your little army). Having said that, I was really surprised at how good a set of rules Black Powder are. Everything played smoothly and we were able to get a very solid grasp of them in just four turns of play. I have not read the rules personally so I’ll not try to give a full review of them, but every system worked well. I thought the command rules really succeeded in providing a simple command system, but also a command system that introduced a good amount of unsurety in terms of how far you would move every turn. The combat systems worked well and again were fairly simple to remember. It all reminded me of my friend Les Reese’s comment about Volley and Bayonet, “simple but not simplistic”. If you are seeking a game where each player commands 12-15 units, can be played in a reasonable amount of time, works well, and is fun, then Black Powder is worth a try.

Playing the game really brought out two important concepts for me. The first was that in wargame rules, all of the systems need to work for the game to work. Just one part of the rules failing, makes the entire game fail. This is a lesson that Mark and I have seen over and over with other sets of rules we have tried. We often try rules to find that 30% of the system works great, 50% works fine, but 20% of the system is flawed beyond hope and that makes those rules a failure. Much like a computer program, the entire system has to work or the entire program is flawed. I found that with Black Powder, 100% of the system worked and many parts were very innovative and enjoyable to play.

The other concept was what do we want to achieve from playing the game. I like the painting and social part of gaming and as a professional historian, the History part is a given for me. What I am thinking about here is what are we trying to achieve in the game. I see games as falling in a spectrum that has on one pole “toy soldier” games and on the other military simulations. Toy soldier games are simply games with units representing military forces from the period but not aimed at fighting historical battles, instead the games are more my Napoleonic French “army” vs. your Napoleonic British “army”. Toy soldier games were the very first sort of games played by H.G. Wells and that sort of game continued to dominate wargaming until the 1980s. The more simulation games, which were more popular in the 1980s and 1990s try to provide a venue to refight historical battles and at their core have the idea that the game is about exploring historical battles. While many toy soldier gamers pooh-pooh simulative games, I think they can be very successful as demonstrated by many historical board wargames and the professional military simulations I encountered as an infantry officer in the American Army in the last century (was it really that long ago!).

In 28 years of serious historical miniature wargaming, I’ve played a lot of both sort of games. In fact, the majority of the games I have played have been entirely fictional mini-battles that were clearly toy soldier games. They are easy to set up and don’t require tons of historical research. They are also effective as the players don’t have historical hindsight to help them in the game. Having said that, after 28 years, I think I’ve burnt out on toy soldier games. I find myself wondering what the point of them is. When I brought this up at the end of our game (and in later email conversations), Mark made a valid defense of them in that they can be fun games to play. I agree, but I think I’ve been there and done that too many times. The only explicitly ahistorical games I think I enjoy are skirmish games, but then it is hard to research games to the level of a squad or platoon in combat, so most skirmish games are sort of toy soldierish in nature.

Instead, I find myself more interested in games that reflect historical battles and engagements. All of my most memorable games have been about real battles. I can clearly remember refighting Bir Hacheim with Command Decision way back in the early 1990s. We played for hours and late into the night, but everyone involved loved the game and still talks about it. Likewise I’ve played other great historical games such as the Orne River Bridge (1944) with Command Decision, part of Antietam with Johnny Reb, and many great games with Volley and Bayonet: Fontenoy, Borodino, Monmouth, Saratoga, Guilford Courthouse, First Bull Run, Shiloh, Hastenbeck, Corbach, and others. I can’t remember that many toy soldier games that had your army vs. my army. Maybe it’s because I am so interested in History (why I am a professional historian) that I prefer historical battles with more of a simulative focus. Also the map style wargames I played as a Army officer proved to me that games could have a simulative value, they were not just toy soldiers for “big boys”.

That seems to put me out of step with most wargamers today and most of the wargame rules being published recently. For example, I thought Sam Mustafa’s Grande Armee was a very good game (outside of lacking a campaign system), but in a preview of Sam’s new 18th Century rules as well as his Lasalle rules, it looks like his great design efforts have become less focused on fighting historical battles. Even the guru of historical games, Frank Chadwick, seems to have gone more to point values and pick up games as evident in the second edition of Volley and Bayonet and the fourth edition of Command Decision. Many popular rules such as Flames of War have shown the real market for more toy solder games. While popular with many, I am just not that interested in primarily playing games that don’t represent a real battle or skirmish in some way. I guess I’ll just march to the beat of a different drum and stick with my historical games and desire to play campaigns (which fortunately also interests Mark).

And now some pictures from our Black Powder game (again a very good game system); all figures and terrain and game provided by Mark. No game summary as we only played four turns and the game did not reach a full conclusion.


3 Responses to November’s Game: Black Powder

  1. Brax says:

    From time to time, I rediscover your blog and find all kind of very useful comments and views on gaming, rules. Very enjoyable reading. Thanks!


  2. El Granadero Loco says:

    As long as I can bring my cigars I’ll be there.

    El Granadero Loco


  3. Mark says:

    Thanks first to Jeff for being willing to try yet another Toy Soldier set of rules.

    I agree with nearly all he says. I too, am primarily interested in historical scenarios, and have struggled mightily to bring historical scenarios to that one part of miniatures gaming that has remained resolutely in the Toy camp: Ancients.

    So what prompted me to pick up Black Powder at all?

    My first impressions upon reading about the rules were that they were likely to be an expensive, glossy, “historical” adaptation of those Warhammer bucket ‘o dice games, and I dismissed any chance of looking into them.

    Over time I kept bumping into glowing little reviews, and a few details slipped out. The first of these were about their ‘tone’, with excerpts of flippant little statements about gentlemen and cigars. I was even more put off.

    But then a few complimentary comments slipped into discussion groups generally reserved for more serious gaming, which piqued my ongoing interest in rules design.

    I also play regularly with a group of six to eight gamers, and finding miniatures rules which work with a group that size is problematic. Many excellent sets of rules fall down when you try and coordinate a large group. Perhaps BP would fit the bill. My personal jury is still out on that… the experiment has not been initiated.

    I also kept seeing grumps about the delay in a promised English Civil War expansion. I recently purchased Field of Glory Renaissance, which requires me to re-base my 30 Years War army units from single vignettes to multiple base units. Having tried a number of single-base unit rules–modified Volley and Bayonet, Principles of War, and Piquet Field of Battle–I was ready to try something else in my decades-long search for a comfortable set of rules for the period.

    My (now, not) secret hope was that Black Powder might fit the bill. With appropriate basing underway, I emailed the BP authors to see if, indeed, there will be an ECW expansion. I received a prompt and warm reply that yes, they are scheduled for March, 2012.

    I bit the bullet.

    There are a number of 30YW battles with a limited number of infantry units and reasonable yet entertaining amounts of shock cavalry, so I hold out hope that these well-designed rules may yet intersect with history. If so, I also hope that I may again be able to drag Jeff to the table without too much kicking and screaming.



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