Monday, 1 March 2010

Black Powder

Dear, oh dear, oh dear. Which rules to choose? Not really a problem for my WW2 games. I have been playing WW2 for more than 30 years so I know a good set when it comes up - hence I have settled on Blitzkrieg Commander. But the Seven Years War is a project of only two and a half years duration, and I still seem to be finding my feet. I started with Standing Like A Wall, the downloadable rules by Ioannis Mavromichalis (of Leuthen Journal fame), but they barely got a look in before I discovered Minden Rose, an excellent set which I was fortunate enough to be introduced to by the author (Barry Lee). At the same time, I was dabbling with Donald Featherstone's horse and musket rules, which then got me started developing a set of my own derived from these, as a bit of a side project. Then along came Die Kriegskunst, which I bought but never played as I could see straight away they were a little too complex for my taste. And then before I knew it, Rank and File were being released. Minden Rose is hardly a complicated set (and I would recommend them to anyone), but R & F was even quicker and simpler to play whilst retaining all the period feel I felt I needed.

This was all good, then. I was happy to carry on with Rank and File as my standard set. The Featherstonian project was abandoned. But then I started to hear about a new rule book called Black Powder. Really quick and fun games, and based on the Warmaster system which I liked so much when adapted for WW2 in Blitzkrieg Commander. And the guy who wrote Black Powder was the guy who had originally developed Warmaster. Crikey! However, reading various pieces and discussions on the net, I quickly got the impression that the rules were designed for gaming on enormous tables with at least 3 players each side, and that the authors had some weird fantasy that they were Edwardian gentlemen. Plus the rules were apparently a sort of coffee table book that cost 30 quid. Well, I wasn't having any of that sort of nonsense. So I went off Black Powder and vowed to ignore these foolish people. But they wouldn't go away. BP was authored and backed by some prominent names in miniatures wargaming, people who knew a bit about production values and PR. In the modest world of horse and musket wargaming, Black Powder was quickly established as something of an event. And almost every comment I read from those who had played them was positive. So, with a resigned sigh, I went on Amazon. There, I was lucky enough to find that I could pick up the rules for a shade under £18, including p & p. Oh alright then. I sent off for a copy. That was a couple of weeks and two solo trial games ago.

So here are my personal impressions of Black Powder. Every other bugger on the net with an 18th or 19th century army is writing reviews of BP - so why not me?

The Package.
As everyone knows, the production values of this rule book are very high. It is indeed a very slick commercial product. I acknowledge this aspect of BP is very attractive to most purchasers, but just to be contrary I will make a few personal comments.

The photos are of a high quality, featuring beautifully painted figures, but mostly these figures feature in carefully posed dioramas rather than real games. I am not fundamentally a modeller or a creator of dioramas, I am a wargamer, so I find I am not particularly inspired by these photos. I would have preferred photos that gave me examples of different layouts and types of terrain, or that illustrated the rules.

The writing style I found actually quite appealing. Take this quote, for example, regarding judging visibility,
'A sense of generosity under heavy fire is an admirable quality and the mark of a gentleman.'
Or, when discussing hand to hand combat,
'It is merely demeaning to gain petty advantage from fractions of an inch and to imagine otherwise diminishes all concerned.'
Nice. However, my overall impression was that this publication takes the creation of an attractive product a bit too far. One hundred pages (in round figures) to describe what are fundamentally a simple set of rules is rather excessive, a page count fluffed up with large photos mostly not of actual games, side bars of period quotes and (notwithstanding the above) a rather long winded writing style. The main problem is not that this all increases cost (although it does), but that it makes the rules harder to get to grips with when first getting to know them, and makes the rules harder to look up when you are learning in your first few games. I am in favour of nicely produced rule sets, but one has to maintain a sense of what is appropriate. Perhaps a good alternative might have been a concise exposition of the rules in a discrete section with all the chat, explanation and rationalisations forming the rest of the book.

The Rules.
I would take comments that this is a book about wargaming which includes a set of rules with a pinch of salt. This is fundamentally a rule book: it lays out a set of rules by which to play wargames. Hence my comments above regarding excessive length. Having said this, it follows that the rules are the essential grounds on which the book must be judged - and I found them very attractive. In simplicity and ease of play, they don't have much advantage over Rank and File, but the command system provides a game which can be dramatic, surprising and a lot of fun, and the rules for morale up to brigade and army level create a game that will come to a proper conclusion in a reasonable time (i.e. an evening's play).

Setting aside my preference for a more concise style, the rules are well explained and generally easily understood. I have played 2 solo run-throughs with around a dozen units per side. The first was a bit of a trial to begin with, due to the sheer number of pages to be rifled through when you want to look up a procedure, but by the middle of the second game I was away. If you played these rules for the first time with someone who already knew them, you would be in the groove very quickly.

If I were to find fault I would say advice about period adaptions is lacking. In a book running to 180 pages, a set of brief sections outlining how the unit stats and special rules might be adapted to the various wars and campaigns forming the 200 years covered would have been appropriate: but it is absent. There is a section called 'The Age of the Musket', but this is a set of potted histories and of little use for actual games. Further to this point, wargamers of such conflicts as the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, or the Seven Years War, are rather poorly served. The scenarios start with a game set in 1777, so the first three-quarters of the 18th century are largely ignored as far as scenarios are concerned: and the scenarios are the main source of period information. Napoleonic gamers are much better served, as are colonial era players. One quote from a side bar I found particularly telling,
'Players who are keen to reflect known range advantages within a specific historical context (Dreyse rifle versus Chassepot for example) are invited to make adjustments as they see fit.'
Dreyse vs. Chassepot is a basic tactical factor for anyone gaming the Franco-Prussian war. With 180 pages to play with, such issues deserve a bit of attention. One is left with the impression that the authors simply couldn't be bothered.

Another reservation concerns unit stats and the special rules that can be applied to give units a particular character. There are 24 of the latter. With a unit already having 4 basic stats to define its abilities (shooting, hand-to-hand, morale and stamina), I feel that that should have been enough. Adding the special rules creates a kind of Lord of the Rings feel, where each unit becomes the equivalent of a character in a skirmish game. Then you spend half your time trying to remember which special rules apply to which unit and then remembering what those special rules actually entail - with the high probability that you will forget all about some of the special rules until after the game. Suffice to say I reckon a lot of these special rules (or 'useful' rules as they are also described) are rather superfluous, and they are best used with considerable circumspection. Here again, I have read online comments describing how much some players enjoy tailoring their units to a particular battle or campaign by using the special rules. Fair enough. But in a simple game, for me they are just over-egging the pudding.

The rules did give me the impression that luck with the dice was even more important in BP than it is in other sets. I think in particular it's the all-important Break Tests, which use 2D6 and hence have a very wide set of possible outcomes. However, I'm no game designer and my experience of the rules is limited, so this is something I will keep an eye on rather a criticism. However, my final point is linked to this latter feeling about BP. I am intending to game the Battle of Lobositz (1756) in the near future, as I have found my relatively meagre forces can be stretched to give a reasonable representation of this battle. But something is telling me I would be better off using Rank and File than Black Powder for this refight. Maybe BP would provide too volatile and unpredictable a game for a re-run of a real battle, and a more traditional, predictable set would be better. I don't know. With luck I'll be able to try it both ways.

The Conclusion.
My personal take, then, is straightforward: an excellent set of rules in a rather over-produced rule book. I'm glad I bought them. If your preference is for the simple and fun game, these are the rules for you. But get on Amazon and check out the latest deals - paying Warlord Games or any of their agents the full £30 is just daft. With the fluff reduced, these rules should have sold for £20, and that is what you should try and pay.

P.S. - QR and Roster sheets.
You can download these for free from Warlord games. However, a wargamer going by the name 'The Last Hussar' has developed QR and Roster sheets in black and white so you can save on coloured ink over printing out full colour pages. More significantly, you can type your units into the Last Hussar's rosters, rather than having to print out a roster then hand write the details. Much easier and looks better. Despite being black and white these alternatives are still stylish. Recommended. See the link to the Last Hussar's Barracks, then look out for the post on Black Powder QR sheets and Rosters.