Friday, December 3, 2010

BROG Review, #2: Quatre Bras/Ligny

                   UNE BAG MIXEE




QUATRE BRAS:   One 22" 34" map, 600 counters, Standard Rules book, Exclusive Rules Book, 2 Charts & 3 Displays, two dice; $38
LIGNY:   Four 22" x 34" maps, 960 counters, Standard Rules book, Exclusive Rules Book, 2 Charts , 1 small and 2 large Displays, two dice; $48
Published by: Clash of Arms Games, Box 668, King of Prussia, PA 19406

Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of this hoary old game system to the hobby of wargaming. It first surfaced, along with its two, rather free-spirited progenitors, at the first Origins convention, back in 1975. In a back room, just off the main sales floor (which was about the size of a two-car garage), you found, oh, maybe 6-10 guys standing around a huge table, playing the largest  battle game yet seen by mankind. (Well, at least the consumer type of mankind.) This was the original La Bataille de la Moskowa, a four-map beast with hundreds of beautifully drawn counters. Although the people playing the game, and the crowd watching, changed every few minutes, there was always a crowd. While SPI had been ruminating and mulling endlessly about producing a "monster" battle game, here it was. Not only could it be done, but it could be done with flair. And it drew crowds. The direct result of this "demonstration" was SPI's idea to do Terrible Swift Sword. And the rest. as they say, is history . . . .

            Now, you have to understand that LBdM was, like its designers, somewhat unusual. It was a triumph of spirit and color over reality. The spirit was embodied in the basic philosophies of Mssrs Mattson and Spors, both of whom simply wanted to have fun. The color was, of course, in the by-now, legendary counters. The reality was the game, a melange of screwball rules and fractured franglais that almost defied description or interpretation wherein Modigliani-like English mingled with mangled French to produce a set of instructions only Inspector Clouseau could understand.No matter, M&S clearly knew their audience, and therein lies the key to what has become one of the most unlikely success stories in wargaming, Clash of Arms' "Les Batailles dans L'age (sic) L'Empereur (sic) Napoleon 1er".  (Editor's Note:  At this point we will now dispense with the editorial interjections, "sic"; they are too numerous too continue and we think you get the idea .)

            For anyone who has never seen one of these games, the "Bataille" series - an attempt to simulate the major battles of the Napoleonic era on a tactical level  -  is a feast - if not a treat - for the eyes. This is especially so in its later phases, as published by Clash of Arms under the watchful guise of Ed Wimble. Each game in the series (there are now VI)  is contained in a large, flat box sporting an evocative painting of some Napoleonic-era piece of history (e.g., QB has Woolen's "The Black Watch at Bay"), many of which are lovingly, and personally,  searched out by M.Wimble.  Rick Barber's maps, major improvements over some of the rather flat, dreary and colorless earlier series efforts, are also good. Barber, and his calligraphic side-kick, Wayne Robinson, provide the player with a clear, readable, period setting for those famous counters. 

            The rules booklets are better than most, although they could use a few section numbers here or there. The historical commentary, at least in the two latest games, is valuable and intersting . . . although an editor with some experience in style and construction wouldn't hurt.

            No discussion of these games ever goes more than 30 seconds without someone mentioning the counters.  No game, system or company has ever produced so beautifully crafted a set of counters as in these two games. The attention to detail, and the historically accurate use of color, is remarkable. The Duke of Cumberland's Hussars, with their diagonal red/yellow stripe, the Dutch-Belgian commanders, the almost Manet-like use of blacks for the Brunswickers (with their death's head insignias), and the humorous - but accurate - General Picton counter. (" . . . Do you have a reservation, sir?") The examples could go on endlessly. These are counters that rival, in their own way, the visual impact of miniatures - which is exactly what they are meant to do. Are they readable? No.  Are they user friendly? Oh sure . . . in much the same way as an Albanian computer system. 

            Virtually everywhere, Color substitutes for Clarity. This stuff looks great on the map, but, unless you really want to play this game, the similarity of colors, the fancy, gothic calligraphy, the miniature epaulettes, the family crests . . . they all conspire to create severe eyestrain as well as an opthamalogical fog of war. Perhaps even more frustrating is that most of the useful - and necessary - information is on the reverse (and uncolored) side. This means lots of flipping of counters back and forth, squinting to read the small numbers. In terms of playability and accessability, the counters are almost unacceptable. But they look great, and, to give that calligraphic devil his due, the QB and Ligny counters are somewhat more clearer and crisper (and more colorful!) than their predecessors.

            The Organizational Charts, supposedly provided to clarify the command structure, are masterpieces of minimalism. C0A has opted to simply photograph the front of the counters - which have virtually no easily discernable identification information -  grouped together in one batch. No leader names, no unit names, no separation of battalions from regiment . . . it's as if they assumed you'd already mastered the Napoleonic Command structure from the company level up. Normally, this would only be a minor irritant. However, punching out the counters and setting up the game - even a game with as few initial units as Quatre Bras - can be a tedious, time-consuming exercise. The units are not only somewhat haphazardly grouped, but half are upside-down at any given time. The riot of color and fancy scripts on the front makes identification from that side virtually impossible; the print on the back is so small, you'll resemble Rigoletto by the time you finish peering at the counter sheets.  Why none of the command structures contain printed names or any passing resemblance to a hierarchal structure, is almost beyond comprehension, given the amount of loving work and research heaped upon almost every other area.

            Given all this annoyingly byzantine, eye-scrambling artwork, it comes as somewhat of a mild suprise that the damn thing works. Yes, it's not exactly state of the art in terms of system design, and it simply ignores an entire area of tactical importance. But where it does do things well, it does them so well, and in such detail, that the game almost overcomes the heavy baggage it carries with it. I said "almost".

            To understand why these games work - and sell - so well, you have to realize that  Clash of Arms knows their audience, and everything in the games is aimed at satisfying THAT audience. There is no effort - other than doing first rate work to produce a first rate product - to pull in the peripheral gamer, the WWII gamer, the Slave of the 3 N's, or even the "anything-goes" wargamers.  The "Batailles" audience is, essentially, closet (and out-of-the-closet) miniaturists - and Napoleonic miniaturists at that - who want to play boardgames because they have better rules. (Why is that? Who knows ? My guess is that, as with this series, the rules are of secondary importance to the visual impact and, as such, they sort of get in the way.) This group wants the more clearly defined, better constructed, and certainly more accurate rules board games (usually) provide. Most of all, they want the color, the period feel, the panache, the "aura of glory" that only miniatures usually conveys. And these gamers are bound and gagged, like a bunch of old French marshals, by tradition. Change is synonymous with Original Sin;  "improvements", if any, should be to form rather than substance.

            Which is why, unlike most series games, the "Batailles" games haven't really changed since 1975, although the rules have certainly been improved.  The basic system is still a masterpiece of anachronism. The Fire CRT - known locally as Combat a la Feu   (and if this were a game on 19th century China, we could call it the "Feu Manchu" Table) - uses an 11-66 dice read-out, where a 2-12, or even a 10-sided die, would do (statistically) just as well. Actually, Fire Combat is handled rather interestingly - if inelegantly. It's not just "how many points can I throw into that hex."  You must take into account the "cover" a hex provides, the type of unit being fired at, as well as its formation and nationality (the reason for which I would be most curious to hear), as well as the range.  Add to this a very nice "ricochet" rule for artillery and you have a very accurate, if somewhat cumbersome, fire system. 

            "Accurate but Cumbersome" should actually grace the family escutcheon for these games. Losses to units are in "increments" - to us non-crapauds, "steps". However, to determine what effect an increment loss has on a unit's Fire/Melee strength you have to do some fancy percentage-oriented calculating. For example, if a unit with 9 steps and a firepower of '8' takes an increment loss, it has to reduce the '8' by 11% . One hopes that purchasers of the game passed 6th grade math. However, even if they aced it, this is not a method that lends itself to easy playability.  The game is also top-heavy with charts and modifiers, the inate logic of some of which is obvious, while others, like the Cavalry Modifier Table, must be kept close at hand.  I found myself constantly referring back to the rules and the charts to see what was supposed to be happening. For playing with a large group this is not a tremendous problem; it's a major pain solitaire.

            The most amazing drawback of the game, however, is its complete avoidance of any semblance of an accurate rendering of the problems of leadership and command control. All leaders - and there are lots of them - do is add to dierolls for combat when stacked with units, an effect of dubious accuracy at best. (Some, like the ignominious Prince or Orange, young William, actually hurt a unit's ability to melee, which is even more psychologically unfathomable than the reverse effect.) We're provided with a bunch of Aides, some with really neat uniforms. What are they supposed to do? Even more strangely, leaders have a fairly wide variety of movement capabilities. Is CoA rating their horses? What is that supposed to mean? And their names are printed on the back of the counters. The rules hint that this is part of the fog of war. Why? They don't do much in the first place, so who cares who they are?

            Essentially, combat units are free to wander off on their own, individually, or in groups, without any intereference or help from their commanders. It's like Camp Anarchy for Boys. Granted, eliminating leadership restraints reduces complexity and speeds up play; but neither is an advantage of which this system could boast in the first place! I mean, we have all these neat-looking leader counters . . . what do we do with them?

            Nowhere is this Black Hole of Game Design more apparent than in the opening turns for Quatre Bras. The Anglo-Allies have two, thinly stretched Dutch-Belgian infantry brigades of dubious ability (not counting the regiment of Nassauers that has to stay behind to protect the crossroads from the French cavalry - and the Netherlanders from William, Doofus of Orange), against which les froggies have a corps of good infantry and a division of light cavalry. And while the French have two more divisions plodding up the road, the Allies will get no help for almost two hours.  This gives the French plenty of time to pin and isolate one allied wing while almost totally destroying the other. By the time a horde of British and German mercenaries arrives to "save the day", the French are dug in north and east of the crossroads. And, with their immense superiority in cavalry, they're impossible to dig out.  Part of this is a result of starting the battle at 11:20 in the morning. It gives the French too much time by almost totally ignoring Ney's hesitancy (and his stupidity which, granted, is tough to recreate).  The player has almost complete control over events, complete knowledge of the field, and complete ability to take advantage of virtually anything that happens.  While this is a good exercise in "what-if's", it does little to simulate the realities of the situation.

            Quatre Bras, to be sure, is not the only oft-played game that suffers from this, and, furthermore, the fact that the system is far from "realistic" does little to detract from the enjoyment that the game system provides. It can be kind of fun to see what plan you can devise to plug all the leaks from the many holes that your Dutch-Belgian line will spring. And the heart of the game is its recreation of, and reliance upon, formation and its effects.  In no other tactical game does formation play such a role, and in no other game does it do it so well. Brigades marching up roads don't just follow each other like a conga line at a party. They strrreeetttccchhhhh to the rear so far that a French corps using road column can often use up over a mile of ground.  There are similar mechanisms to simulate the realities and effects of Line and skirmishers, plus a plethora of charts and modifiers to implement their impact.  The major decision a player has to make is usually his units' formations, and it is not too difficult to become a "pocket Ney" in terms of intelligence when playing these games for the first few times.

            Cavalry charges are also quite intricate, almost baroque one could say. Again, elegance is discarded in favor of effect. Resolving a charge often means several referrals to various rules sections, even after you've repeated the process many times. Still, the result, while requiring endless calculations and umpteen dicerolls, is rather rewarding - if it's the intricacies of tactical maneuvering that bring your blood to a boil.

            I should note that all this tactical maneuvering revealed a curious design decision.  The grain of the hex grid is wrong - for both games. This may sound like a quibble more than a quarrel (and a rather arcane one at that). However, if facing is an important factor in your game system, then the grain of the hex grid must be chosen quite carefully.  If the main thrust of the battle, say, is north-to-south, then, in order for the combat units to deploy most effectively (and visually), the grain should run east-to-west. In both Quatre Bras and Ligny, battles which definitely progress from south to north, the grain also runs south to north, requiring some unusual positioning of units. Granted, this is not exactly a fatal flaw . . . more of a curious decision.

            Of the two games, Quatre Bras is probably the best to get into the system. There are relatively few units involved (the game provides far more counters than are needed, most in anticipation of the upcoming "Mt. St. Jean" game), objectives are quite clear, and there are few "special" rules. Unfortunately, because of the lack of adequate command rules, the French player, almost invariably, can do far better than Ney did. I don't say he will win, because the vuctory conditions are skewed so that the sheer weight of the Allied units arriving mid-afternoon from Nivelles virtually assures that the French cannot gain total control of the road from QB to Nivelles. Unfortunately, I was operating under the belief that Ney was to secure the road from Qutre Bras, north - not east - a somewhat easier, and more historical, task.

            As for Ligny, I must confess I only set it up to look at it. It's a big, sprawling battle covering four maps and six corps. I would assume that this is not a task lightly undertaken, and it is probably best handled by a club or group. Guiven the size and sheer scope, balance is almost secondary; after playing for seventeen weekends, do you really care who wins?

            Both games are decided improvements, both visually and in terms of rules clarity, over their four predecessors (Auerstadt, Eylau, Talavera and Albuerra). Many of the opaque rules have been rewritten, reorganized and clarified, the amount of dumb French has been pared, the counters are no longer thinner than a $2 bottle of wine, and the maps are likewise visually improved.
            And, now that we've mentioned it, a brief word to Clash of Arms about the use of French in the rules. (A): if you're going to do this sort of thing, please, PLEASE buy a French Ia textbook. You would be more accurate calling up Bart Simpson than relying on whatever you have been in the past. (Ed, mon ami, the plural for chateau is not chateauxs; that's what the "x" is for.) And (B), while "period charm" is one thing, pancreas-destroying cutesyisms are a whole different ball game. I think it's time to start spelling the word "disordre" correctly - in English . . . . We get the "joke". It trivializes everything else you've done. And it's dumb. 

            Ultimately, to criticize these games is, like King Lear, to rail at the wind. They have a respectfully large and devote, if not huge, following. If you don't mind constantly looking at charts and rules, or tempting the gods of eye-strain peering at the ornate calligraphy on the counters, or the ludicrous lack of command control, then playing the games can be lots of fun. Quatre Bras provides some interesting problems in terms of how and where to defend, while Ligny is a classic, straight-on slugfest. The system is excellent at recreating the tactical problems of maneuvering troops, and the games have a good feel for the flow of Napoleonic warfare. They are lovingly and exhaustingly researched and, as such, contain a wealth of valuable and useful information. And if you enjoy the visual aspect of the hobby, these games are sure to please.  To that extent, the "Batailles" series is truly successful at what it intends to be: "miniatures" in cardboard.


Physical Quality:  Excellent and colorful, but marred by overly ornate counters that look great but defy perception.  Charts could be better organized and more helpful.

Playability:  Considering we're dealing with large battles at a tactical level, a constant need to refer to charts and rules, plus a fairly heavy amount of dicerolling . . . not too bad.   However, this isn't one of its key selling points. It's complex, but certainly workable.

Historicity:  Top-notch, especially in the OoB area, although lack of any meaningful command rules diminishes this somewhat.

Playing Time:  These are long games - even Quatre Bras would probably take more than one evening. Ligny has scenarios, but the big battle will take many weekends.

Comparisons:  Similar in scale, style and intent (if not subject matter) to the GBACW series. It's probably more accurate in representing tactical warfare; however it is not as playable. The design thesis of the "Batailles" series is on the difficulties of maneuver and bringing troops to bear; GBACW concentrates more on command problems and their effects.

Overall:  Depends on what you want from a wargame. You want visual impact? You want good tactical insight? You want a pretty good round of fun? . . . you got it. You want leaders who mean nothing, a failing grade in French, a massive case of the cutes, and severe eyestrain . . . you got that, too. 

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