WAR of 1812 Wargaming

Developing new rules for the War of 1812

Napoleonic Wars
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Friday, April 21, 2006

Why the WAR OF 1812?

I just received two of the more recent Osprey Men-at Arms books on the War of 1812 in the mail the other day (not really that recent - 1998 and 2000...but to my eyes they are new as on publication day.)

British Forces in North America 1793–1815 and The United States Army 1812–15 join The American War 1812–14 as being the most accessible and available of uniform plate books for this conflict. Get them while they’re available and in print. After thumbing through, these titles can only help seduce new recruits for the cause, fueling dreams of collecting and painting some very unique companies and regiments.

And that prodded me to try and set down why this is should be an overwhelmingly attractive period for wargaming.

1) It’s the History, stupid!
O.K., for you Europeans, you have the real goods - Napoleon actually stomped over your continent and adjoining ones. But this is our little Napoleonic conflict.

Familiar in some respects - British contemporaneous to the Peninsular campaigns, but plucked out of the arid wastes of Iberia and plunked into the primeaval forests of the New World (although one polished a bit since the truly untamed landscape of the Seven Years War and American Revolution). But unfamiliar as as well: Natives and Upper Canadians and Lower Canadians (Newfies and Maritimers too); virtually no cavalry, other than vedettes and scouting/patrolling/communications tasks; rarely more than a battery of guns; more amphibious operations than you can shake a stick (or oar and boarding pike) at.

The Americans - raw, untried, vainglorious, and suffering from that perennial North American split personality of Anglophobia/Anglophilia & Francophilia/Francophobia. (We Canadians even founded a country on this, well, bi-polar disorder.) French artillery, French uniform trim, colours and stylings; with the translated drill manuals of Smyth, Duane and then Scott, French inspired tactical constructions. The progress is as rapid as possible, from near buffoonery to inspiring moments of polished, professional soldering.

The conflict as a whole has been classified various ways: as a draw, a British win, a Canadian win, a joint accomplishment, and a British butt-whooping...although the last is based entirely on the extra-curricular Battle of New Orleans.

The conflict changes precious little in the world, except to urge on two separate nations well along their own paths as separate nations. So from a table-top gaming exercise, I think the benefit of knowing things ultimately emerge as they were at the beginning is a healthier basepoint than being hyper-aware that Wellington is victorious over the French, the allies over Bonaparte, and that Waterloo was, ah, Napoleon’s Waterloo.

2) Small Units Perfect for the Table.
It’s about the history, so get some books. There are about a dozen great ones out there in print at the moment, or not long out of print. In any of the works by Donalde E. Graves, or Robert Malcolmson (Robin Brass Studios titles) there are nice appendices with orders of battle and unit strengths. In René Chartrand’s British Foreces in North America 1793-1815 he provides a great three page short list of various engagments and the British/Canadian units involved; the number of “flank co.”, “Merritt’s troop” and other designations show how small some of the compositional units were. They can easily fleshed out from other sources, such as George F. G. Stanley’s The War of 1812 Land Operations.

Forget recreating those unending micro-principalities and Bonapartist states of the Grand Armée. Here’s an army or two within the grasp of a human being.

3) Unusual Mix of Participants & Uniforms.
From thirty Mohawk from Tyendinaga (a few miles away to the north from where I write this, on the shore of Lake Ontario in a village named after that fellow Arthur Wellesley took a peerage), to Fencibles and Embodied Militias and the farm-chore laden kids of old Loyalist soldiers chased out of the valleys of New York, there’s new Napoleonic wargaming units very few have ever seen, if reconstructed. To that summary you must add Rangers, Voyageurs, Voltigeurs, Habitants, volunteers, Provincial Marine troops, and Captain Runchey’s Company of Coloured Men.

The professional rank and file - the 49th Regiment of Foot, the 100th Foot, the 19th Light Dragoons and Royal Artillery, and a short list of others - all take up most of the line... but in new ways, and in many cases in small detatched units of a single company, a few...rarely more than six or seven.

The Americans have the same rich mix of miltia and volunteer units as the Canadians (though few of them crossed over the border into the Canadian campaigns). The US regular infantry change uniforms more often than the chorus in Carmen, and many units are identifiable by colour - the Greys of Scott’s brigade (and others of the US in 1813 and 1814) , the blacks of 16th, and the pikes wielded by the third(!) rank of the 15th in 1813. The Rifle Regiment, in bottle green tailored uniforms, or sporting the lighter green and yellow fringed hunting smocks. The Second and Third Regiments of Artillery marching and serving as infantry throughout Upper Canadian campaigns - tagged as elite troops (along with the Rifles). The unworldly Kentuckians - mounted and on foot - as terrible as any Citadel miniature fantasy world as I’ve seen. And of course the strange beauty of the US Light Dragoons, with a uniform demonstrating that Francophilia/Anglophilia on...er...it’s sleeve.

Units you can actually collect, paint and field. In this lifetime too!

4) Brilliantly Enticing Small Engagments.
In Graves’s Field of Glory the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, 1813 he recounts what I think is the most amusing one-person engagment of the War (see pages 195-96). Sam Adams (no...not that one), of the Dundas militia volunteered just before the battle to hang out with Fraser’s troop of Provincial Light Dragoons. He went of on his own into American lines, hid by the road, and captured two American officers with an unloaded musket. Now that is something to game in skirmish format!

Even something as legendary as Beaver Dams (in Canada, tied as it is to Laura Secord), the commanding British lieutenant only had a handful of Six Nations Indians, 350 Iroquois from Lower Canada, and a company of British...with the possible arrival of the light company of the 8th, the flank companies of the 104th, and a few other assorted small units.

With these about 700 US troops were captured, including two field pieces and the colours of the 14th US Infantry.

Made for the table-top.

In fact so much of this true Little War unfolds in skirmish, probe, patrol, counter-piquet and patrol that it can be a natural Napoleonic wargaming entry point into diverting and accurate skirmish, sentry and patrol tactics and engagements...something I hope I can accomplish with this project.

5) Brilliantly Enticing Large(r) Engagments.
Still jumped up skirmishes, at least by Austerlitz standards. But again, for the table, having a brigade or two...at most three brigades available for the Americans is more than enough, especially if the company is so very often such an important unit size. (Basically a 24 man battalion in other rules is transformed into a company in this set).

Crysler’s Farm is probably the most European of the battles - with a cavalry charge too. There are only 3,000 Americans and 1,000 British and Canadians. (Lundy’s Lane and Chippewa are not far outside the European norm either.)

Without the choking numbers, some complex amphibious battles such as Plattsburgh, or the others such as Queenston, Fort George and York are within reach of a wargamer.

The divisions and the corps engagments are the late 19th Century Gilded Age equivalent of haute cuisine: vast calorie infused, delicious indulgances that sparked a great literature and tradition (strangely enough...predominently composed by the French). But something almost impossible to replicate but in prose, or as a historic reality...a ‘you had to be there’ situation. Witness the great gaming debates about 6mm (or 2mm) vs. 15mm and 28mm... where a few dozen figures are paraded about as a brigade or more. As a treat, when done well, this kind of thing is magnifient...but we also need honest wargaming bistro sustenance: something authentic, challenging, as dramatic and rich in its way as it is uncluttered and plain.

Something between dropping five bucks on a burger and fries, and $350 on dinner for two.

There’s room at the table.

British Forces in North America 1793–1815
(Men-at-Arms 319)
Author: René Chartrand
Illustrator: Gerry Embleton

The United States Army 1812–15
(Men-at-Arms 345)
Author: James Kochan
Illustrator: David Rickman

The American War 1812–14
(Men-at-Arms 226)
Author: Philip Katcher
Illustrator: Bryan Fosten

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Footsteps & Fire I

Musketry inflicted many casualties - probably over half those inflicted in most battles - but it was a poor way of resolving a combat. If neither side had the resolution to force a decision by attempting to charge, a protracted firefight was the most likely result. The effectiveness of each round would fall, but casualties would still accumulate. If both sides were good troops the result could be a bloody battle of attrition which destroyed the effectiveness of both units.
•Rory Muir, Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon, p84

When I read that I couldn't help but think of Lundy's Lane. All encounters and battles are unique in so many respects, but it is always interesting when an academic observation seems to accurately indentify a pattern that applies nicely.

I guess that is one of the major constraints on designing rules: not only must they be enjoyable to play, they must reflect what actually happened...or at least a realistic (and unpredictable) range of what could happen.

Before we begin to get some mechanisms up here for some basic infantry fire, and see if they might work, I'll pose a simple question I've been rolling around.

The US basic infantry pace was 24 inches.
The British basic infantry pace was 30 inches.

Having spent countless hours marching to perfect a 30 inch pace, enduring the pace stick measurements of senior NCOs at Fort Henry, and in turn learning the mysteries of pivoting that same device and gently tormenting others to get it right when my turn at it arrived, I have a pretty healthy respect for a 30 inch step. Adjusting longer and shorter paces for wheels and countermarches is something different, and is more the product of practice and peripheral vision to the appropriate rank marker. If you drill a certain pace, then it becomes the cornerstone of the rest of the drill.

So I have to admit I'm ruminating a bit over the 25% difference in paces between the Americans and British. I think it is statistically significant on the field, though at least one highly respected historian of the period told me it didn't matter.

The Americans and British both had a 75 pace a minute common step. Quick time for the US was listed in Smyth at 100 paces a minute; the British used 108. (Scott, in his 1815 manual mentioned yesterday, raised both the pace length to 28 inches and the common step to 90 paces a minute, with the quick step at 120 paces a minute.)

Double quick was about 120 or 140 paces a minute for both...though that is more an estimate than a firm range.

So, on our scale of 1 inch = 4 yards, the following figures for infantry over the course of a minute would be:

US common step 50 yards or 12 inches
British commom step 62 yards or 15 inches

US quick step 66 yards or 16 inches
British quick step 90 yards or 22 inches.

Let's give the US the same pace rate for a quick step (108) as their adversary, and that would make:

US quick step 72 yards or 18 inches.

Good distances on a small table. But let's take that as parade ground flat land, without the problems of a real rural field - uneven, gullied, muddy if not a clayey plowed abyss...which would require frequent redressing and other movements. (We'll factor in those on another day.) So for now at least we have a ballpark figure of how a reasonably drilled unit in both armies might progress in the best of all possible worlds.

Now feet were important only as a propulsion device for the musket. Or rather the vast array of muskets crammed together in tight formation.

The basic unit for these rules is the company, based on a 1 figure = 2 men ration. Companies of the period, on campaign, were fairly constant in the 50 man range, which gives us our 24 figure company, based in two 'platoons' of 12 figures. (Flank companies, and some US companies were closer to 75 men, and so these stronger units could have three 12 figure platoons.)

The primary firing unit for these rules will be the company, if operating as a detatched unit, or if of different rating than others it has been combined with (an example: a Militia flank company in line with almost raw Sedentary militia.)

If a regiment is in line with multiple companies, then one company still is the basic rolling unit, and the result is multiplied by the number of companies in the unit.

So, for firing, a company will roll six 6-sided dice (6d6), and 6s, or 5s and 6s in some ranges, will result in casualties.

In Table A we see how this is done, in close order line vs. close order line.

I've worked at this with some care, to try and allow a small chance of casualties (all mortal, serious, and incapacatating injuries together here) at the longest ranges. I've discounted most of the test data hits at these longest ranges, putting them down for rather ineffective (and so uncounted) minor wounds...though, if very lucky, a stray round might inflict damage...even at nearly 300 yards. Fat chance...but go for it; and if you have American troops in 1812 and 1813, or militia, then they probably will be trying for such a hit...maybe even out of your immediate control. (Another installment.)

It is a bit troubling, when you go through a book like Brent Nosworthy's Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies, and read estimates like 2/100 to 1/10,000 rates of musket balls fired to casualties. It seems he and Muir settle in at the 200 to 500 shots per casualty.

That's a lot of bookkeeping and dice-tumbling to approximate. So shaving down and down from different estimates and experiments, and playing with probability a bit, I think this could be an interesting attempt to get the 'nothing much usually happens, but rather quickly it can all get really horrible' result that seems to reflect both the modern research and contemporary accounts.

(I had said I do not want to inflict a lot of bookkeeping in these rules, and so apologize for the instances of .5 a casualty. It appeared the only way to make it seem to put a bit of realism into repeated long-range firing...without making it too rewarding and tempting a thing to do.)

From close-order line troops, let's see if we can adapt the basics for open order skirmishers.

A company of flank or light infantry or rifles (or Mohawk, Canadien etc.) would, rather than occupy two 1 inch by 2 inch stands, spread out over 4 of the same. Yet firing rolls would still be done per company. A company of Voltigeurs and one of Mohawk would roll separately, rather than multiply out one of the results.

So for skirmishers against another line of skirmishers, we have Table B:

In woods (or other heavy cover) the chart stays pretty much the same, with only the probability rising much higher. At this point, it is only a guess, instinctively trying to deduct the protection of open order, the trained use of cover, and laying that against the effectiveness of aimed fire.

It can give a pretty noisy but bloodless skirmish (as most seem to have logged in at), but again allows for the unexpected advantage to present itself.

Skirmisher companies firing against close-order line utilize the same chart as in Table A, but why not give them their own table - here labelled D.

Of course, these are all unmodified basic firing rates. The modifications will be kept to a minimum - hopefully only training level, length of firefight, and weather considerations will be needed to tweak these four basic musket charts...and that most of the key differences will have been factored in already in knowing the troop type and formation, and a rough distance.

But to those later.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Winfield Scott's Crib Sheets

I have been reading Winfield Scott’s autobiography, published in 1864. It is as full of ‘fuss’n’feathers’ in its stiff prose as you might expect; very little warmth, charm, or, truthfully, an eye for detail. It is a curious piece, but I’ve enjoyed a few things within it...thought nothing with direct bearing on this project.

I was curious to see what the fellow had to say about his great transformation of the US army in the spring of 1814, and, naturally, he does touch upon it with, well, for him, some detail.

First of all, it appears that this eager, if not pushy, young warrior (always in a hurry, and with sharp elbows for getting to where there promised the most action and chance of glory) had tried earlier to get the infantry on some professional feed and routine. Early in 1812 he writes (in third person) that:

“With his battalion he had joined the army under the command of Major-General Dearborn, on the Niagara frontier, early in May, and, as the chief of his staff, first organized the service among all staff departments, several of which were new and others unknow in the United States since the Revolutionary War. In this labor he was greatly aided by an early edition of Théibault;s Manuel Général du Service des États-Majors Généraux, etc.”

Which is a little different than the usual notations of Scott using an old 1791 Règlement. Most note, like Kevin Kiley, in Theorists, Instructors, and Practitioners: The Evolution of French Doctrine in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815 that “... American General Winfield Scott, who adapted the 1791 Reglement for American use on the Niagara Frontier in 1814, and was one of the few outstanding American general officers of the War of 1812...”.

Steven H. Smith, who with the help of others, compiled an interesting bibliography on various French contemporary drill manuals and monographs, notes two copies of the Thiebault book - one in French, and one in English. As the English translation dates to 1801, there must be an much earlier French edition of Thiebault that the 1813 listed below:

Thiebault, Paul Charles Francoise Adrien Henri Dieudonne, baron, (1769-1846). Manuel General Du Service Des Etats-Majors Genereaux Et Divisionnaires Dans Les Armees: Renfermant Quelques Developpemens Particuliers Sur Les Principals Operations De La Guerre .... Paris, Vchez Magimel, 1813. xvi, 592

Thiebault, Paul Charles Francoise Adrien Henri Dieudonne, baron, (1769-1846). An Explanation Of The Duties Of The Several Etats-Majors In The French Army: translated from the manual des adjudans generaux et des adjoints employes dans les etat-majors divisionnaires des armees. London, C Rowarth, 1801.

Scott later writes in his autobiography that “As Government had provided no text book Brigadier-General Scott adopted, for the army of the Niagara, the French system, of which he had a copy in the original, and there was in camp another, in English - a bad translation.”...but whether he’s speaking of Duane or Smyth’s ‘official’ US translation of the 1791 Règlement, or the London edition of 1801, well, it isn’t clear. I’d be interested to learn that. (If anyone had a photocopy of either the French or 1801 British Thiebault editions I could have, I’d appreciate that greatly.)

Anyway, Scott writes that starting in March of 1814 (after, at 27 and nine months, being promoted to ‘the long coveted rank of brigadier-general’) he got down to the business he tried the previous year:

“No time, however, was lost; the camp was formed on very eligible ground; the infantry thrown into first and second brigades - the latter under Ripley; and the service of outposts, night patrols, guards, and sentinels organized: a system of sanitary police, including kitchens, etc., laid down; rules of civility, etiquette, courtesy - the indispensable outworks of subordination - prescribed and enforced, and the tactical instruction of each arm commenced. Nothing but night or a heavy fall of snow or rain was allowed to interrupt these exercises on the ground - to the extent, in tolerable weather, of ten hours a day, for three months. As relaxation, both officers and men were thus brought to sigh for orders to beat up the enemy’s quarters; but the commander knew that such work could not be effectually done without the most laborious preparation. His own labors were heavy and incessant. Take for illustration infantry tactics; the basis of instruction for cavalary and artillery as well. As Government had provided no text book Brigadier-General Scott adopted, for the army of the Niagara, the French system, of which he had a copy in the original, and there was in camp another, in English - a bad translation. He began by forming the officers of all grades indiscriminately into squads, and personally instructed them in the schools of the solder and company. They then were allowed to instruct squads and companies of their own men - a whole field of them under the eye of the general at once, who, in passing, took successively many companies in hand, each for a time. So, too, on the formations of battalions; he instructed each an hour or two a day for many days, and afterward carefully superintended their instruction by the respective field officers. There was not an old officer in the two brigades of infantry. Still, if the new appointments had been furnished with a text book, the saving of time and labor would have been immense.

The brigadier-general’s labors were about the same in respect to lessons on subjects alluded to above, other than tactics (measures of safety to a camp, near the enemy, police, etiquette, etc.). No book of general regulations or Military Institutions, had been provided. This great want he had to supply orally and by written orders. (It will be seen that text books on all the foregoing subjects were subsequently prepared and published by the autobiographer.)

The evolutions of the line, or the harmonious movements of many battalions in one or more lines, with a reserve - on the same principle that many companies are manoeuvered together in the same battalion, and with the same ease and exactness - were next daily exhibited for the first time by an American army, adn to the great delight of the troops themselves, who now begand to perceive why they had been made to fag so long at drill of the solder, the company, and the battalion. Confidence, the dawn of victory, inspired the whole line.”

One of the things I would like to check is the pace laid out in Thiebault. The standard military pace distance for the US army during the War of 1812 is given as 24 inches. (The British was 25% greater at 30 inches...though whether it really matters is open for debate, as we’ll see.)

Yet in an interesting table collected by Raoul F. Camus of CUNY of different US pace distances has the usual 24 inch pace noted for von Steuben and Smyth, yet right at the end of the War our Scott, in his work for the US Adjutant General’s Office - Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Manoeuvres of Infantry , Concord: Isaac Hill, 1817 - dictates a 28 inch pace...which then seems to be the standard through past the Civil War.

When the change? Why? At 28 inches the difference between the American and British standard pace is virtually indistinguishable; at 24 inches versus 30 inches...well, I’m not so sure.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Telling Shades of Grey

What I’ve found in research is that you are forever lighting upon interesting sidebars that immediately widen the standard date/biography/recounting of events look at history into glimpses of a deeper picture of the time. This of course means certain false starts, dropped investigations, forgotten enthusiasms and discoveries that, for whatever reason, are ignored. Just like those of our present lives.

I think two of the most iconic units among amateurs of The War of 1812 would have to be The Canadian Voltigeurs, and the 25th US (and maybe even all of Scott’s Brigade - the 25th, 22nd, 11th and the 9th.

Both the Canadien and the American units were clothed in grey, something very much against the expected colour and romance of Napoleonic military haberdashery. This unexpected shade rather than a bright or ominous colour stands out, and immediately catches attention. The performance of both the Voltigeurs and the Scott’s drill-soaked regulars only makes the attraction of these grey-clad men greater.

I also wonder, because we are not isolated from our knowlege of events since 1814, whether the grey uniforms - on the backs of fine soldiers - also appeals because it forshadows the death-knell (a very slow-pealing one, I’ll admit) of the line-’em-up-and-march ‘em-and-blast-’em warfare. (I think the same sort of anachronistic foreshadowing accounts for the great popuarity of the various Sharpe series, of which someone (I can’t find the reference now) dismissed as sort of a jumped up SAS type, and doing harm to understanding true Napoleonic tactics. However, it all is certainly good fun.)

I thought all of this was worth musing on when I chanced across an article by Keith Raynor titled C. Hamilton Smith's Experiment with the Colour of Uniforms on the War of 1812 Website.

In 1800, Hamilton Smith used the rifle company of the 6th/60th to have an empirical poke at how colour might influence shooting accuracy, or, alternatively, provide great security to a skirmish chain. Some paragraphs from a later report he wrote of the experiment:

Observation teaches military uniforms to fade from the eye, in proportion as they are neutralized; from red, the most conspicuous, to earthen brown and neutral greys. To the marksmen, white enlarges the object, and is so far deceptive; blue reduces the real magnitude; black and dark green assimilate with blue, and light green has a tendency to appear neutral.


After some preliminary observations on plain white and on black targets without ring or bull's-eye, and where the first mentioned was evidently more maltreated by rifle shot than the second, it was resolved to confine the trials to plain red, green, and grey, -- a light iron-grey made with distemper being then the uniform of a Highland regiment, of a Dutch rifle battalion, both in the same garrison, and the normal company in question, which then still had the same Austrian Tyrolean costume which it had worn in the last Helder expedition. From this Company were selected the best six marksmen, all educated Jager, and each was supplied with six bullets. The red target, placed on the open heath, was distant 125 yards from the stand; the time selected was seven in the morning, with weather sufficiently moderate not to have perceptable influence on the direction of the shot; the men were to load as to them seemed best, and to fire at leisure. After each had fired six shots, the party returned home. On the next day, when the weather was equally favourable, and the sun at the same angle of elevation, the same number of shots, were delivered by the same men, and under the same conditions, at the green target; and on the third, at the grey.

On the third day of the second series of trials, the men immediately observed that they were now so familar with the distance, that their fire would be more effective than in the first. But it was this time the grey target that was to be aimed at, and the result turned out by no means commensurate with the expectation of the marksmen. In this manner the second series of experiments was conducted, even with more care, if possible, to maintain the conditions perfectly similar: each day the targets had the shot-holes stopped, and the surface repainted; but now the red target was already so much damaged, that fearing it would not hold together for the day's trial, the distance for the third and last series of rounds was increased to 150 yards, and notwithstanding the changes resulting therefrom, it fell to pieces before the last shot was delivered, and, being bound together by withies, was brought home in a bundle. The green also was so much battered in the fiery ordeal as to be unfit for repairing; but the grey remained sound, and was afterwards used again.

There had been fired 108 shots at each, 72 of which at 125, and the last 36 at 150 yards. It is to be regretted that the exact number of shot-holes which had been each day carefully noted down is not now in the possession of the writer...But so far as recollection can be depended on, there were, it is believed, more than double the number in the red than in the grey target, and the state of the green was intermediate.

It was observed also that the grey was comparatively unhurt when the distance was increased, and to ascertain the fact more fully, that target was afterwards painted vertically one half red and the other left grey, and the same result was obtained. It was then suggested to set up the triangle stand, upon which the rifle can be laid, in order to level it at the centre, and screw it fast. The most experienced Tyrolean in the company took pains to effect the object, and still the red bore the great majority of hits, upon which last occasion only it is proper to observe that both ring and bull's eye were painted black, none having been used during the three first series of experiments.

The general result is, however, of so important a nature, that it appears exceedingly desirable they should be repeated, and if possible, with still greater precautions, because, in case of further confirmation, the question arises whether all riflemen and light infantry should not take the field in some grey unostentations uniform, leaving the parade dress for peace and garrison duty.

• Charles Hamilton-Smith, Colonel.

It is hard to slot something like this in a useful manner. But it does give a bit of pause.

Maybe Scott’s battalion(s) and the Canadian Voltigeurs had a little something that helped create that aura of success they enjoyed.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Plate One British & Canadian Line

Two basic plates. They are in jpg format, so they may not print the very best possible, but I have pdf files of each plate, and once I find a way to link them, they might be better to print out.

The first baseing plate was done to size, so with a colour photocopier and a pair of scissors (maybe some glue and foam-core board) you can try the units (and rules), as they get plopped out in dribs and drabs.

It is impossible not to be greatly influenced by JC's The Waterloo Campaign in Miniature.

After all, it's a visual hobby in great part.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Some Basics

“A wargame should involve the figures and little more. The position and identity of the wargame figures I have painted should convey most of the information I need to know. In reality a commander would have little knowledge of the exact state all his units were in, and so it spoils the atmosphere of a game if we the players know too much.”

“While wargaming players should think as little as possible like wargamers and as much as possible like battle commanders. Otherwise, they become accountants. Wargames, like battles, should be unpredictable.”

“It should always be possible for things to go wrong or right. The die rolls in the game should always make it possible for the weak unit to triumph over the strong. The feeling of risk, of danger, should always be present to keep things interesting, and every game should include some surprises.”

• Nikolas Lloyd
Thoughts on Wargame Rules Design

Following through the vast, interconnected rabbit warren of websites, I found some very thoughtful and sharp essays and musings by Nikolas Lloyd. A few of his maxim-like entries start off this entry.

Lloyd’s Thoughts on Wargame Rules Design has the brevity and clarity a writer enjoys when re-reading Strunk and White, or George Orwell on Propaganda and English; it is an invigorating exercise, and has helped me focus on a few things I am trying to accomplish with this blog and my War of 1812 rules project.

Remember too that this is not yet anywhere meant to be a finished system. What we have here is the messy ‘thinking out loud’ of the process involved in getting to something like that. Keep that in mind while writing posts and critiques.


These rules will primarily be for the war along the Canadas and US border States. Sail and Southern US operations are beyond my interest and desire at this point...sorry...no offence is meant, that’s just the where my attention and research abilities fall.

I hope to emerge with two related rules systems. One will be for 15mm company/battalion/brigade engagments. The other will be for skirmish/sentry/patrol/vedette operations, which I have become excited about doing for the 40mm scale, lured by the animation and detail of Chris Hughes’s figures Sash and Sabre figures.

Both would mesh, either in campaign, or pre or post engagement operations...or happily spin in an unrelated realm of their own, depending on requirement and choice.

I’ll put aside the skirmish half of the project for a while. And, in the interregnum, hope Chris does get around to some American and Canadian figures to make his line the place to get War of 1812 skirmish figures.

Of course, as the main point is fashioning wargame rules here, it goes without saying that I am standing on the shoulders of others here. From the memories of H.G. Wells, Donald Featherstone, Charles Grant, G. W Jeffrey, and David Nash borrowed as a kid from the North York Public Library, to a very nice pair of War of 1812 rules by the minds at The Perfect Captain, another called With MacDuff To The Frontier, and almost a dozen others I’ve been going through (and I haven’t even got hold of older ones such as Rocket's Red Glare from fellow Canadians out west.)...all have influence and some persuasion. And of course, any mention of looking at intiative-based wargames owes all to Crossfire and Arty Conliffe; other systems like Piquet and Les Grognards are on the list to look at too. As I said - on the shoulders of others.


The bones of the War of 1812 rules I hope to work out, mull over, pull apart, and fret over in these pages are fairly simple.

1) I want to set a more realistic look and scale and operation to the units on the table.
2) I desire to flee the turn-based wargame structure, and try to set this on a workable, engaging, challenging, fun...and swift-moving... initiative-based system.
3) Flexibility of units, scenarios, force compositions, geography and commanders has to be high to prevent boredom and rote playing.
4) Surprise, frustration and luck should always keep things on edge...but in a realistic manner.
5) The Canadian weather should be a factor, especially when operations and engagements creep into our unpredictable and fluid shoulder seasons of spring and fall.


A) Line Infantry

Two biggies right off.

• I have set a scale of 1” = 4 yards.
• Each figure on the table represents two in life.

I am beginning with line infantry organization, and presently am working with 1 inch X 2 inch bases of 12 figures (1 officer and 11 men), in two ranks, representing a platoon. The platoon was the functional tactical unit in companies, and was usually 50 men. Most of the British and American companies through the war were about 50 men, or two platoons. So each 50 man company on the table would be represented by two 12 man platoons. Stronger companies of 75, as found in some of the elite US regiments, would have three platoons, or 36 figures.

A 1” square base additionally to the platoons and companies would be for command figures apart from the integrated company officers - ensigns/colours, colour party...whatever fits. I think I would mount a colonel separately on horse, on a round base. For larger regiments/battalions I might even think of adding another mounted officer for Liet. Col. or a major.

A six company regiment (not uncommon, due to illness, lack of re-inforcements, and detatched companies) takes up 24” in line on the proposed scale...or about 100 yards. There’s some animated discussion about whether the British would maintain their 22 inches per man in line, or loosen up for field conditions. I can see the merit in both arguments. But having spent hundreds of hours on a hot square drilling, I would question whether a unit would drill and train intensively one way, only to disregard it and adopt another format...one that would make all the reference points and cues of the drilling, well, rather pointless...and at the important moment, when all that training was meant to be automatic.

A 24” regiment or battalion is both an impressive and yet a weak, emaciated thing to behold. One joy of gaming the War of 1812 is that it is one of the few Napoleonic wars that can allow a really good table-top representation of a unit’s true look on the table.

[A footnote: the 1” deep stand represents about 4 yards...which is far more than two ranks would normally occupy (about 3.5 feet first and second rank). But it is an accurate accounting, if one factors in the subalterns, sergeants and other file closers behind the two ranks. On a 1” base, there is no room to actually glue them on in a realistic manner...but safely assume, they exist...even if in some spirit realm.]

So, basing for units on both sides that would be in close order (Regulars, Fencibles, Incorporated and Embodied Militia, veteran militias, 2nd & 3rd Regiments of Artillery).

Flank companies, certain Fencible regiments, and rifle regiments could be based in regular platoons, and in skirmish order of 3 pairs of figures (6 figures) per 2 inch X 1 inch platoon base. A company in skirmish order would have 4 such bases, and on one I would have an officer and bugler. Building troops so that such units based both ways would be most useful, depending on roles and formations.

The same could go for some militia units or companies with the ability for line and skirmish roles.

Irregulars and natives I would mount 5 to a 1 inch by 2 inch base, in a less structured layout.



In six years and a bit, we’ll reach the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812. I imagine that should give me ample time to come up with the manner of wargame rules I’d like to have on hand to help mark what should be a interesting three years of history, ceremony, and maybe even some needed civic reflection.

My four year old son will be ten, and he and one or two of my daughters still shy of the hardened years of teendom will be at a good age to absorb, understand, and even enjoy what often seems at first a very odd pursuit. With wargaming - yes, playing with toy soldiers - delving past the shock and dismissive giggles is certainly awkward for a few moments, yet I still believe it manages to combine creativity, art, skill, amusement, intellectual challenge... and most importantly sparks a life-long historical thirst, curiosity and questioning.

Living the vast part of my life in Southern Ontario, the War of 1812 has always been around...discreetly. Growing up in the early 1960s, the differences between Canadians and Americans were still very much in evidence. History was not hidden away, and in Toronto it was not hard to have glancing reminders of this old North American conflict. I recall old uniform plates of the conflict’s units framed and on the walls of the long-gone central Toronto Public Library. In public school we always took trips to Fort York - squirreled away amid the rail lines and pillars and platforms of the Gardiner Expressway - or Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, or to Brock’s Monument at Queenston. This was very much a standard part of the older Ontario education. And still very Canadian in their role almost as backdrops, rather than solemn pilgrimages or hectoring shrines of bellicosity.

Additional family trips to the Niagara area deepened the connection to all of this; it continued one of the first family trips I remember when about kindergarten age - we lived in Montreal at that point, and struck out for Fort Ticonderoga.

As a tiny boy, noticing that ones parents obviously cared rather a lot about our history only reinforced the idea that somehow all this mattered. And when harnessed to universal childish imaginations amid dark cold stone walls (‘Where’s the dungeon?’), amid flags, drums, guns, costumed men and women...well, it leaves a a strong impression.

During the 1960s and 1970s, before the savage funding cuts of the last two decades, public libraries in Toronto were extremely well-supplied with new books of all types. In different branches I had countless books on history, forts, uniforms that only help feed youthful enthusiasm and curiosity. One of the heavier books published in the flush of histories around the years of Canada’s Centennial was all about the forts of Canada. I hadn’t looked at it in decades, but when I did recently, I smiled when noticing a photo of square drill at Fort Henry in Kingston. The caption mentioned that the famed Fort Henry Guard was a summer employment for students from Queen’s University. Naturally I ended up at both places...and had forgotten about this little seed planted about when...well, yes...I was the age my son will be in six years and a bit.