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.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Battle of Roliça 1808 - A Polemos General de Division Refight

The Battle of Roliça - the first battle of Britain's involvement in the Peninsular War - has always been an inspiration to scenario writers.  There were two variants in early issues of Miniature Wargames, in issues 27 and 59 (so within 3 years), plus there was one in Wargames Illustrated 144 and there is one in Battlegames' Tabletop Teasers by Charles Grant; there have been others in the various books about wargaming the Peninsular War. 

 (incidentally, both of these issues were rather good generally; the author of the scenario in MW59, Arthur Harman, has a very interesting article in MW27 about using multi-purpose Napoleonic troops...)

Why so interesting?  The interest of "firsts", the relatively small numbers of troops involved in the fighting, although there were a rather larger number of British soldiers involved in the operations.  Anyway, without further ado - of which there will be plenty more in the Game Notes below - here is the scenario:

The Scenario: This is a two-phase battle (potentially); Delaborde's Division is occupying a defensive position based around a hill next to the village of Roliça.  Wellington can engage to try and break the position, but after 90 minutes (18 turns) Wellington's outflanking movements will arrive and force the withdrawal of Delaborde to a second position; this will then be repeated.  However, in the interests of a good game and to reflect something tricky about the historical battle, the victory conditions for Wellington are to force a victory before the turning movements are completed (they are thus there for insurance purposes).

The Anglo-Portuguese Army:

C-in-C: Gen Wellesley (Decisive)

Fane's Brigade: 1 x Veteran/Elite SK2 infantry base, 2 x Trained SK2 infantry bases, 1 x Trained light cavalry base

Nightingale's Brigade: 4 x Trained SK1 infantry bases, 1 x 6lb Ft Arty Bty

Hill's Brigade: 5 x Trained SK1 infantry bases

Craufurd's Brigade: 4 x Trained SK1 infantry bases, 1 x Raw light cavalry base, 1 x 9lb Ft Arty Bty

n.b. The artillery is an army-asset; does not count towards brigade morale and can be regrouped duting the battle

The French Army:

C-in-C: Gen Delaborde (Decisive)

Brennier's Brigade: 4 x Trained SK1 infantry bases

Meslier's Brigade: 2 x Trained SK2 infantry bases, 2 x Trained SK1 infantry bases

Cavalry: 2 x Trained light cavalry bases

Artillery: 1 x 8lb Foot Battery

Scenario Rules: Wellington has 18 turns (equivalent to 90 minutes) to take each position; Delaborde must count as losses any bases which do not have viable routes of retreat at these points - this is when Wellington's flanking columns would arrive.

The Terrain:

All hills are steep.  All watercourses are streams.  The set-up is mainly based on the map in Arthur Harman's article in MW059, although I think the map in the recent Mick Sayce book is the best.

The view from the West; the conifers on the left mark the first position, the conifers to the right of the stream mark the second position.  Roliça is on the left of the stream in the centre; Columbeira is by the stream (bottom) and Zambuçeira is on the right table edge, showing the French line of communication

The view towards the second position from the rear of Roliça hill

The position looked at from the North

And again, but from slightly further back

And the view from the East
 The Deployment:
Delaborde's Division occupies Roliça and the hill; a formidable position!  Delaborde has his cavalry in reserve

A closer view of Brennier's brigade

And the view from above and behind the French

And enter the first British columns!  Fane's brigade of riflemen to the left, Nightingale's Bde in the centre, Hill's Bde to the right

And a view from the west of the ground to be covered before the initial position
The Battle (first part):
Wellington develops his advance; note that Delaborde has advanced his cavalry to stop or delay the British flanking moves (the cavalry near the village forced the riflemen to wait for close-order supports before crossing the river)

Wellington has advanced to the foot of the hill to pin the main enemy position, but understandbly appears reluctant to attack

A more soldier's eye view

The Allies continue to advance, despite some delays caused by accurate French roundshot fire from the hill

Wellington prepares for three separate set-piece assaults - one against the village, one against the hill, one on the French left flank

The first assault goes in against the village (viewed from the hill); formed infantry stop the cavalry interfering with the riflemen as they assault the village in loose order

Another view of the same; note the smoke covering the French artillery battery indicating it needs a break!

Success!  The French light infantrymen defending the village are thrown back by the riflemen

The rest of the armies are still in position

The French cavalry near the village are beginning to suffer from musket fire (note the single figure denoting 'shaken')

The British artillery manages to force a gap in the "hinge" of the French position on the hill; seizing the initiative Gen Wellesley orders an immediate attack!  Note the shaken levels taken by the British infantry advancing over the steep slope

Wellington successfully leads the troops from Hill's Brigade up to the crown of the hill!

After some vicious fighting, the riflemen are slowly clearing the village of Roliça

With his right flank turned, Delaborde begins his withdrawal from the position by alternating battalions. 

Credit to the British infantry for succeeding, but the French were able to disengage in good order relatively easily

The French break contact
The Battle (second part):
The French adopt a similar but possibly even stronger position on the other side of the stream

Wellesley advances to get attack the French with some reluctance; the position is strong ans the British artillery cannot get enough elevation to fire at the French on the hill!

Same position, but this time one can see the British reserves in position too

With some trepidation, the British infantry cross the stream, observed by Gen Wellesley; Delaborde's infantry observe

Same position but one can see better the French depth

After several turns of largely ineffective musketry, Wellington picks his moment for a general advance

A bird's eye view along the line

The French line broadly holds; Wellington and some riflemen convince the French guns to retire slightly (left); but in the centre the British have been held with heavy losses; and on the British right, one battalion was routed by devastating French fire and the remaining units then despaired of success and withdrew!  Gen Hill's brigade is combat ineffective...Wellesley curses and orders the reserves forward

A wider shot to include Hill's withdrawing troops (bottom-right)

Second-time lucky!  On the second attack, although mainly repulsed as bloodily as before, some of Nightingale's infantry has managed to rout its opponents and punch a hole in the centre of the French line

Note the smattering of single-figures denoting shaken levels on both sides; both armies are suffering (although the British distinctly more!)

Wellington spurs his horse into the centre to take personal charge!  He re-organizes the men and puts a successful attack in on the rest of Brennier's Bde (bottom); Delaborder tries to rush his reserves to the scene

Brennier's Brigade's morale collapses!  Delaborde decides he is too weak to successfully counterattack the foothold and declines to order an assault; Wellington hurries more infantry up the steep slope

There will be no stopping the British now the French left flank is turned

The outnumbered French cavalry and infantry are forced back towards their lines of communication; the French must withdraw before they are cut off
 Game Results: Both sides had an infantry brigade defeated but probably the British lost more overall in the fighting; like the real thing, the French would probably have lost some more men and guns in the pursuit, so probably quite close to history. 

Game Notes: Roliça is a very interesting battle to refight because of the pressure it puts on certain parts of the rules; if the rules make woods and hills too formidable, then the British cannot win and more importantly, would never try.  Perhaps I can make an analogy with cavalry attacking squares - if the rules make the penalties too severe, the cavalry will never try it.  So there is a sweet spot where the odds will allow such attacks to succeed sometimes, which will encourage risk taking players to give it a go, if there seems sufficient reason to take the risk.  Conversely, some rules make it very difficult for units to withdraw; if that is so, the first part of the battle will always result in either the French giving up before contact or them being defeated in the first position because they can't withdraw.
Anyway, as mentioned in previous posts, I have been experimenting with the factors in Polemos.  Polemos proposes a +2 modifier for the uphill troops; then proposes that troops moving up steep hills are automatically shaken.  This makes the total +4 to the troops defending uphill, but is even worse than this sounds (remember the basic combat mechanic is a DBx-esque opposed D6 die roll) because being shaken has specific penalties in terms of combat outcomes.  The two soundest defensive tactics in Polemos are point-blank fire and holding fire: point-blank because there is a fair chance that the volley will cause 2 shaken levels (the maximum) or automatically rout the target, the downside being that the firing unit will often take a shaken level itself; holding fire is brilliant against a 'shaken' attacker, because on a pretty much even split, the attacker will fall abck even more shaken without having to do anything.  The neat effect in the combat results in Polemos however is that a draw at no or moderate shaken levels, favours the attacker; but with that automatic shaken level, it makes it even harder for the attacker to win.  It was even worse in this battle, since the defenders were occupying woods and rocky ground too!
What I therefore proposed is to reduce the basic 'uphill' bonus to +1, with this giving an effective swing on steep hills of 3 (+1 for uphill, +2 for shaken).  Overall this seemed to work "okay" and give a reasonably historical result; although I can quite see why Wellington in reality declined to attack at all (the frontal assault was initiated by the commanding officer of the 29th who charged in spite of orders not to do so - he paid with his life, regrettably).  One tactic not open to a Polemos general is attrition; there is simply no mechanic to reflect that.  I know that some DBx players argue that lack of PIPs is "attrition"; I have serious doubts about that in a DBA context but do see the logic, but in Polemos, if you aren't causing damage of some sort, you probably aren't causing the opposing general too much worry about lack of tempo points.  Because all fire combat not carried out in the context of defending against an attack is considered  as long range fire (-2) and the firer needs at least a +2 result to cause a single point of damage (i.e. a 4-pint swing) it is pretty difficult to achieve even by randomness.  I think there may be a case for having another look at the modifiers for fire combat in the context of Polemos to make fire combat slightly more worthwhile.
Those of you familiar with the real battle will notice that there are considerably more infantry units in my order of battle than there were in reality.  The reason for this is that the battalions on both sides were particularly large (nearly 1000) so I stuck with a standard Polemos base = c.400 men, so these larger battalions were represented by two bases.  This actually chimed in quite nicely with the events of the real battle, which seemed to involve groups of companies as much as battalions.  With the exception of the 95th, I made pretty much everyone a bog-standard "Trained".  There is an argument that nearly half of the British battalions should be "Veteran" since they had had reasonably extensive campaigning experience with some combat in Northern Europe, the Americas, South Africa and so on.  This would obviously make the British task slightly easier.
I used a mixture of information for this scenario, but the basis of it was the Arthur Harman article.  The Carl Reavey scenario is okay.  The Mick Sayce mini-book is pretty good as a neat summary of the relevant information. There are quite a few eye-witness accounts too.
The game was played on a 6'x4' mat using Baccus 6mm Napoleonic figures and Total Battle Miniatures and Timecast buildings.


  1. Rolica is always a good scenario for play testing a new set of rules or the latest change. You made the correct call regarding tweaking the modifiers for attacking uphill, shaken. If historical precedence suggests that such an action has moderate chance of success, the rules ought to support that outcome.

  2. Thanks Jonathan. I have been thinking a lot recently that calibration is one of the most difficult areas of rules-writing because changing one factor makes new things possible/impossible and quite extensively changes the way games are played. Anyway, more of this kind of thing soon...