The Ballbusch Review: Honours of War
Let us look back to a more civilized age. When men wore wigs and kings consulted philosophers. An age of reason, when warfare and conquest were the sport of kings.
Author: Keith Flint
Pages: 64 (paperback)
Publisher: Osprey (2015)
Price (2016): $17.95 (Amazon)
Mr. Flint comes to us with a seemingly lunatic proposition: rules covering the whole European Theater of the Seven Years War in 64 pages, pictures and charts included. Now, the Seven Years War (hereafter: SYW) is one of the ‘big three’ of historical wargaming and many good men have come to grief trying to provide rules for the war in many hundreds of pages. Can it do done? Should it be done? Am I at all qualified to judge? Well, let’s pull up our collective pants and find out.
I enjoy the SYW as a wargaming period. Tactically, this was the apogee of linear warfare. Improvements in infantry drill and musketry crippled cavalry as the arm of decision. At the same time, maneuver was slow and the grand batteries of the Napoleonic Wars were half a century away. Although an infantryman’s war, this was very much a period that required combined arms tactics on the battlefield.
Politically, Europe’s absolutist regimes had no interest overthrowing their rivals; and this was very much a limited war for limited aims. While the first hints of what war to come in the next century would appear as the conflict dragged on; the SYW lacked the brutal fanaticism that would come to characterize Occidental warfare as it shifted from a largely elite pursuit to national struggle.
The Tsarina’s men had a particularly smart turn-out during the period.
I don’t think a potted history of the Seven Years War is necessary, but for those who’s memory is slipping: it was primary a contest between Prussia and Austria-Russia over Prussian expansion in Germany. Meanwhile, the UK (nominally allied with Prussia) and France (nominally allied with Austria) fought a series of largely unrelated colonial wars while the Russians overran large amounts of Turkish territory. It ended in victory for Prussia, the United Kingdom, and Russia (who switched sides at the last minute).
My very first historical wargames army was a proud set of 25mm Old Glory SYW Prussians. They served gallantly for many years. Sadly, my first wife–cold-eyed and beautiful–lunched them on their final charge out second story window during a particularly tense ‘debate’. It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.
Physically Honours of War (hereafter HoW) is a standard Osprey softback book. Handsome, richly illustrated, and typical of the publisher’s high professional standard. The images are mostly evocative battle scenes. While they stir the heart of any wargamer, they are not sufficiently numerous or detailed enough to serve as a printing guide.
HoW uses a flexible basing system. Although the rules are written with 25mm figures in mind, any scale or basing system should work (I used figures based for Age of Reason without noticing issues). The rules operate on the metric that battalion frontage equals effective musket range. Changing that might create problems, but I have not fiddled with it enough to comment for sure.
The basic unit in HoW is a battalion, which are in turn organized into brigades for C&C purposes. Individual battalions are classified only by their quality, a combination of training, experience, and elan. No other characteristics are used.
The rules follow a modern ‘phasing’ IGO-UGO format with each player taking turns activating a brigade in each phase of the turn. When activating a brigade the player rolls for it’s performance based on the leadership abilities of it’s commanding officer. The results can range from a double move to no move at all (Reichsarmee players, get used to that one).
A unit cannot be routed by shooting until the end of the phase. So, it is not possible to rush up and destroy an opposing battalion without receiving fire in response. This somewhat compensates for the lack of distinct defensive and offensive fire phases, though there is still advantage to aggressive action.
Rather than tracking casualties, units take ‘hits’ from fire and melee combat. Hits are an abstract amalgamation of disorder, losses, exhaustion, and other inertial of war. Hits can be ‘rallied off’ as long as unit is out of range of the enemy. In theory, a unit could heavily damaged, pulled out of action, and returned completely fresh. In practice, actually gaining enough space and time to pull off such a maneuver without the other player pressing his advantage is highly unlikely.
NCO’s of the era carried spontoons to ‘nudge’ men back into line. All sergeants love hitting things with sticks.
Melee is a simple affair. Only one unit is allowed to attack another on a single frontage. The author claims this is for the stake of simplicity. However, from a command perspective trying to coordinate the simultaneous charge of multiple battalions in the heat of action would be almost impossible.
As eluded to earlier, these are ‘fast-play’ rules. the game is reasonably simple and many of the complexities of battle are hand-waved away in favor of streamlined play. Therefore, it is not fair to criticize that rules for what they lack. A good many simulation elements are not present: ammunition stocks, fatigue, insubordination, weather, and smoke to name a few. However, this means that the rules can handle big, indeed very big, games without straining the mechanics.
As quick play rules they are obviously a success. Anyone should be able to pick up the basics in minutes and there is not much to slow up play. Bookkeeping is non-existent, the only things players are required to track is battalion quality, hits, and each leader’s skill. There are some charts, and a quick reference sheet would have been a nice addition, but Osprey is militantly opposed to additional items in their books (I suppose this has to do with not wanting to shrink wrap books, etc.)
As a simulation of mid-18th Century warfare I’m somewhat less convinced. There isn’t much to encourage period tactics, and certain basics like requiring a player to maintain secured flanks are missing. Musketry and artillery very effective, probably a touch too much. The ability to rally off hits does something to mitigate this. However, assaulting a battery is more reminiscent of the horrors suffered by MacDonald’s men in the cornfields of Wagram rather than the shift glory of the Novoserbskiy Hussars at Zorndorf. Of course, the fact that it is relatively easy to inflict damage means that the game can reach a decisive result in an evening.
Whether or not the above is a problem is another question. For someone the market for simple and scalable 18th Century rules HoW is a good choice. The SYW took place during a period of rigid, formalized warfare where geometry was considered a fundamental skill for company grade officers and up. Many players will find not having to deal with minutiae of linear warfare a positive, particularly for those new to the period.
The Seven Years War is a period without any ‘default’ rules set. HoW does a good job of supplying an entry point for beginners and a ‘beer and pretzels’ game for enthusiasts who want a streamlined game for an evening’s play. Recommended for anyone who wants a Mid-18th Century game sweating the small stuff.