Heretical Gaming is my blog about my gaming life; currently concentrating on a re-fight of the entire Peninsular War, but with the odd foray into ancient, medieval and WW2 battles.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Polemos Napoleonics review

The following is a review of the Polemos Napoleonics rules sets which I have been playing for the last few years. I hope that it is fair and that it may be of use to some of you.
The Polemos Napoleonic set contains two distinct rulesets: General de Division (GdD) and Marechal d'Empire (MdE), both by Chris Grice.
GdD is aimed at battles of a corps or two per side, MdE at bigger battles.
General de Division:
GdD is an element-based game. Each base represents an average-sized battalion of infantry, cavalry regiment or artillery battery. Differing unit strengths are not considered, the idea being to divide the total strength by 500 or 600 to get the number of bases, so the army may end up containing a different number of battalions than its historical prototype. The same applies to the cavalry and artillery. There is no surprise in the troop types used, being infantry, light cavalry, dragoons, heavy cavalry, irregular horsemen, horse artillery and field artillery. Troops are rated for quality as raw, trained or veteran, with some units also counting as elite; and infantry units are rated for their skirmishing ability from 0-2. This last is reminiscent of Sam Mustafa's Grande Armee, but the mechanic is very different in usage. Troops are organised into brigades, divisions, corps and armies, and this affects both their command and control and their morale. Generals commanding formations larger than divisions are rated as either Decisive, Capable or Plodding. This rating affects how much each general can do each turn.
The rules, being element-based, will work with any size of figures with any basing system as long as the resulting unit can have a frontage roughly twice as long as its depth. All distances are given as base widths or base depths. A base width is supposed to represent 100-125m of distance.
Like the other rulesets in the Polemos series, the heart of the command control system is 'tempo'. This is similar to the use of PIPs in the Dbx series of rules, but with this twist: the players generate a number of tempo points, then bid some of those points to 'win the tempo'. The remaining points are then used in the same manner as PIPs – i.e used to carry out movement, rallies, charges etc. Whoever bids the highest moves first and also pays a reduce cost to carry out actions. This process begins each turn.
Field artillery units then carry out bombardment attacks on distant enemies. This is a modified 2d6 roll, with high numbers indicating trouble for the target, low numbers representing trouble for the bombarding artillery (from fatigue, ammuntion conservation etc.)
Next those remaining tempo points are dished out from the commander/player to the subordinate generals and converted to order points. Boardgamers would probably call them action points, and are used to move, rally, reform and attack with the player's own units. Better generals convert tempo points to order points at a higher rate, and can thus do more stuff quicker with their troops.
These attacks are then carried out and other troops moved.
Attacks are basically opposed morale tests, with a firing or melee sub-routine in if that is appropriate. Each type of attack has a table with a number of modifiers depending on the situation and the results then applied. The infantry skirmish levels referred to above are one of these modifiers. There are no casualties as such – units are degraded in terms of shaken levels and are then broken/routed. Shaken levels can be rallied, but broken units cannot be.
After the tempo player completes the attacks and moves, then the non-tempo player (i.e. The lower bidder) does the same.
At the end of the turn, routing and pursuing units are moved and formations whose units have suffered shaken levels or been broken test morale. A dice is thrown and this generates a positive or negative number, which is then added to a number of points for the number of shaken and/or broken bases within the formation. If this number equals or exceeds the number of bases in the formation at the start of the game, then the formation breaks. If any formations have been broken, then Army morale is tested to see if it falls, or if indeed the whole army breaks.
After this comes a worked example of a game in progress, featuring the tempo bidding, bombardment, movement and combat systems of the rules. This example is of great help.
This is followed by a series of army generators for pick-up games, rather than the more usual familiar points systems. The system works quite well, although there is a chance that one side will end up with an army distinctly more powerful than the other. There is a reasonable, but not comprehensive, selection of army lists – there are more in the Polemos Napoleonic Companion, plus a couple posted on the Polemos forum or Baccus website.
Last of all comes a scenario: Quatre Bras. The scenario is good, but rather big for a beginner (there are 50+ bases on each side, at the top end of what you can easily use and still get a good game.
Marechal d'Empire:
Very similar in many ways, I think MdE is actually a slightly easier and faster set of rules to play. Here a base represents a brigade-sized unit. The rules suggest using a 6cm x 6cm square-base for this, similar to those used in Grande Armee, or two 6cm x 3cm GdD bases one behind the other, but it doesn't really matter too much. I and others have used single GdD without difficulty.
The tempo system is much the same, except that tempo points are used both for the bidding and the activating process (i.e. No order points) and that tempo points have to be saved. The rules basically prevent large formations from receiving enough tempo points in a single turn to begin moving (but once they are moving, they are a lot easier to keep going).
The combat system is rather different from its equivalent in GdD. There is no ranged combat for infantry, all combat except artillery bombardment is done in base-to-base contact. There is an opposed modified die-roll with a list of modifiers (only a few will apply to any given combat), but there are various 'rounds' so in theory a uit might be involved in four fights in any one combat turn. The mechanism allows for units to follow up retiring enemies or throw more units into combat. At the end, there is an outcome check to decide which side won the combat overall.
Formation morale and army morale work in much the same way as GdD.
MdE too is completed by a comprehensive worked example, another selection of army generators and another scenario – Ligny. Again, I thought this was rather a big scenario for a beginner.
Both rule sets are complemented by the separately available Napoleonic Companion. This contains extra scenarios for both GdD and MdE, some extra army generators for GdD, some campaign rules and a short sample campaign, some extra rules for using boats and rockets as well as a guide to the armies and terminology of the period.
The tempo bidding and point system is an interesting and generally easy mechanic, which is picked up quite quickly in play. It doesn't have the speed of the PIP system though, because of the need to bid, distribute tempo points between generals, convert those tempo points into order points and then divide those out between individual units or groups of units. The system is very easy to convert for solo play – there are various methods, but can involve randomising the bidding for one or both sides.
The combat systems work well and in general give believable outcomes, and are quick to work through. After playing a few games, I found that I was rarely even looking at the QR sheet to work out infantry vs infantry combat, or for musketry or artillery bombardment. There are a moderate number of modifiers to go through. Some people seem to find this off-putting, but as long as there are less than twenty, I prefer this approach – it makes it easier to modify rules you think are unbalanced by simply changing the modifier.
Infantry fire-fights are generally ineffective, you have to attack to make things happen – it can however be brutal at very short ranges. Cavalry really struggles to defeat steady infantry, you have to shake them up a bit first. Artillery bombardment is more a nuisance than anything else (though quite effective against deep formations), but is very useful giving direct support. Some people have problems with horse arillery not being able to carry out sustained bombardment in the rules. I found artillery is easier to attack directly than in some other rules.
Movement is easy to work out, but the rates can be quite slow. Infantry on a frontage of more than a single unit moves only 1BW a turn – i.e. 6cm if using the recommended basing. That means it takes a line of battalions at least 20 moves to travel a distance of 2-2.25km.
The morale rules are simple but quite brutal – armies will not fight to the last man, or anywhere near it.
There are no individual formations for units in this game. Infantry and cavalry are not depicted in the familiar lines, columns and squares. This can take a bit of getting used to, but in general helps the game by removing the ability of a player to fiddle around with the details of ten seperate battalion and regimental fights every turn. Making morale and steadiness the key drivers to success works well. This is quite familiar in games pitched at the MdE level, rarer in those at GdD level (Paddy Griffith's army-level game being a noteable exception).
As I mentioned above, I find MdE a slighty quicker and easier game: quicker, because there are less processes to go through, and easier, as the bases interact with each other in less complex ways.
The army generators are a nice idea – I don't think I'd encountered them since Rogue Trader! They are more realistic, as a general just had to use what he was given. For a generator to work however, you need to have more troops in your army than you have figures. For this reason, I applaud the approach in the sister SPQR set covering the Roman period, where there is a set twenty-base army for each faction to use as a starting point.
More seriously, I found that the rules are a bit under-written: if you like, they are a good advertisement for denser Barker-ese rules-writing, as there are some situations where it just isn't that clear what you are supposed to do. In my experience, these revolve around support, combat outcomes, and rallying. The definitions of theseconcepts are clear, but their implementation is a bit tricky because the bases interact with each other in complex ways. Thankfully it is easy enough to play as long as you are consistent with your interpretations, and Chris Grice is always very helpful if one has any queries, but it does mean that playing against a new opponent might not be as easy as with other rules and it does mean the first couple of games can be a bit hard to get through.
The rules are, in general laid out in a clear way and are easy to read. The first edition was notoriously afflicted by typos and needed lots of errata – the second edition is much better in this respect.
If there is a third edition, I hope the rules stay mainly as they are, but with more clarity about how some of the more complex interactions in GdD work, perhaps by use of more worked examples. I would also prefer all of the army generators and scenarios to be in the Companion, and the extra rules in the Companion to be moved into the rulebook.

This review was also posted by me on to TMP.

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