Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Black Powder - the mini game

We have all no doubt been in awe of the ‘largest wargame ever!’ held in Glasgow a few weeks ago, with over 20,000 figures on huge tables and a regiment or two of keen participants to take charge of the armies. It was a fantastic and very community spirited spectacle.

So, fellow gamers, I am ready to present to you the antithesis of such splendour .... The Smallest Black Powder wargame ever - probably! Yes I know, it doesn’t have the same ring to it, being fought out on a pinboard, one evening after dinner with some Rich Tea biscuits to dunk in my cuppa and the very obvious absence of BBC correspondents, but here we go anyway. :-)

This really is a post about a very small BP game, so if that sort of thing interests you, please use the ‘read more’ tab.

My fictional battle for Cobbs Farm, fought last week, fell out of two things. Firstly I have just acquired the Black Powder 2nd Edition Rules and have enjoyed a cover to cover read. Secondly, my back has been playing up and for a few days my movement was closed down to crab like choreography. So, what to do? A light hearted and small game at the dining table, with no stretching and quick set up, that’s what!

Resources for such an extravaganza!

A 2’ x 3’ pinboard battlefield (smaller will work),
A walled field, a farmhouse, some trees,
3 regiments of Union Infantry, plus a brigadier
2 regiments of Confederate Infantry and a battery of smoothbore foot artillery, plus a brigadier,
Black Powder rules, six D6, some casualty dice, ruler and disorder markers - oh and one of those laser pens as it turns out!
Our pinboard - loads of room!

Compressing the game.
Black Powder has long associated itself with the magnificence of 12’ x 6’ tables and typically 3 - 5 brigades per side and of course more recently, with the mega game at Glasgow. However, to make this work for us today with minimum fuss, I compressed the game as follows;

We will pretend that we are just playing a small portion of a bigger game. We are out on the Union right flank, one brigade against one brigade and the fighting in this sector is over the control of Cobbs Farm. So we have already quartered the size of our game. If the bigger game were being played, then this slice of action would still need to be played out, so it sort of remains real to the big game.

The figure scale will be 12mm and the regimental frontage just 80 - 90mm, rather than the suggested 240mm used by the system, so we have reduced frontage by two thirds.

We will convert inches into centimetres, so 1” (25mm) equivalent will become 1cm (10mm), a reduction of the distance measurements down to three fifths.

We will slow down the effect of brigade destruction, by allowing a brigade to function until 50% of it’s units are destroyed (i.e. a brigade will break the moment it loses two out of its three units).

Taking these things together, I think we can say that our 3’ x 2’ pinboard is representing something like a normal 7’ x 5’ Black Powder equivalent, which is easily a comfortable space for what we are just calling a flank action.

We will use standard Black Powder, 1863, average ACW troops for statistics and not assign any particular special attributes to any of the units. But we will use the special rule from the Glory Hallelujah supplement that states if a unit makes more than one move in its turn, it cannot also fire in that turn.

Each side has a brigade commander with a command rating of 8 and all muskets are rifled. The Union is ‘commanded’ by Player 1. I suppose we should time limit the game, so let’s say Victory will be assessed at the conclusion of 5 turns, with the winner being the player who occupies or last occupied the walled field at Cobbs Farm. 

Brigadier Shields of 1st Brigade
8th Ohio
67th Ohio
14th Indiana

Brigadier Elzey of 4th Brigade
25th Virginia
13th Virginia
Raine’s battery (12 pdr smoothbore)

Let’s Go!

Turn 1. Shields (Union) orders his brigade to advance a short distance, so that they can deliver fire before getting involved in an assault. The men move forward in good order, but their fire is abysmally ineffective. They are fortunate that the return fire does little more than disorder the Union front line. Frustratingly for Shields, the two brigades just seem happy to skirmish, each side seemingly just testing the resolve of the other.

[notes - it is the Fire Dice of both sides that score too poorly to register hits].

Turn 2. 8th Ohio maintain and with ‘due encouragement’ improve their fire against the walled field, but 25th Virginia are pretty much hunkered down behind that wall, taking full advantage of its cover. On the right, 67th Ohio manage to disorder Raine’s artillery, but overall, the musketry continues to be unenthusiastic. Emboldened by the Union hesitation in moving to contact, 13th Virginia on the Confederate left start a limited advance against the Union right.

[notes - 8th Ohio this time get good Fire Dice results, but 25th Virginia get equally good Save results].
Confederate left flank advances

Turn 3. Shields sends his aide, Colonel Tomkins, across to 67th Ohio to tell them to move and turn to counter the Confederate advance, but 67th, who have been smarting from Raine’s guns, have become drawn in to an intense firefight with the enemy artillery and the order from Tomkins could not be readily implemented, but Shields notes and appreciates the unfolding situation and is satisfied to see Raine’s Battery limber up and flee due to heavy casualties inflicted by the continuous fire of 67th. For now at least, the looming crisis on the Union right has been dampened down.

At Cobbs Field, 8th Ohio take up the chant to charge and supported to their rear by 14th Indiana, they run at a very determined 25th Virginia, taking effective fire on the way in, becoming disordered and struggling to breach the wall. As the hopelessness of the situation and the mounting number of casualties take effect, 8th Ohio break and flee, leaving their support, 14th Indiana in a front line position.

Whether or not this success on their right had any effect on the Confederate left cannot be known, but for whatever reason, 13th Virginia, who hadn’t quite managed to get into a flanking position against 67th Ohio, broke into a charge. Hitting the front of the 67th Ohio, 13th Virginia suffer serious casualties and are repulsed, falling back in some disorder.

[notes - it took the fine judgement of a laser pen to confirm that 13th Virginia could not claim a flank assault]. 

Turn 4. The whole Union front line, contents itself with firing at the two exhausted Confederate regiments. The exchange sees 13th Virginia on the Confederate left continue to fall back, out of small arms range and in no apparent mood to return to the fray, while 25th Virginia at the field keep up continuous fire in a desperate effort to keep the Union at arms length.

[notes - 13th Virginia fail another Break Test, due to excessive casualties from the musket fire, causing them to fall back further].

Turn 5. Shields takes advantage of the Confederate left flank falling back and orders 67th Ohio on his right to swing across and hit the Cobbs Field position in the flank, but they fail to get themselves into position. It hardly matters though as 14th Indiana put a tremendously effective volley into the field, causing the disordered and depleted 25th Virginia, who can’t take any more, to turn and break. The Confederate position has collapsed. 

[notes - 67th failed their test to get two orders, which were (1) to change position and face the field, then (2) charge to contact. When fired upon, 25th Virginia were both disordered and had taken 2 excess casualties, making their Break Test much harder to pass. In any case the fact that they only rolled a four on 2D6, ensured their demise].

The collapse of Elzey’s position leaves the Union free to reorganise and advance to take the farm. Of course, this will need a sixth turn and so within the strict setting of the victory conditions, this should really be classed as a Confederate victory, as they were the last to occupy the field at the end of the scenario ...... but by any measure, it would be much fairer instead to call this a day in favour of the Union player, so we shall do that!

This was obviously a very basic game, but it was all about throwing down a small, accessible game into a small convenient space, that could be played out in a short session, while giving enough narrative to scratch the gaming itch and in that regard, it was very successful.

When I first played this a couple of days ago, the Confederate regiment in the field collapsed early and fell back further into the field, where they were cleared out by another charge and then the attacking infantry swept onward into the flank of Raine’s guns, so even this narrow game set up can throw up some different situations. 

Anyway, hoorah for the smaller game, great for small spaces, ideal for that mid-week game, handy to keep your hand in with the rules or simply to just to admire some nice armies and roll dice.

When I first put the 12mm ACW forces together, I used the 40mm x 20mm bases that come supplied with the Kallistra figures. This made sense and the 80mm unit frontage was a nice fit inside the Kallistra 100mm (4”) hex. However, two of the Union regiments here on todays battlefield are trying out a re-basing of 30mm x 20mm, with three bases to the regiment. This 90mm frontage probably looks better in the 100mm hexes and makes a better visual representation of road movement in column. That is set against an increase of 50% in the number of bases that need to be handled each turn / game.

This is just a trial, but so far, I like the 90mm frontage. However, when I put my napoleonic forces together, doing the same thing will require 4 bases per unit when in assault column for a 2 x 2 block (but only 3 bases when in line), increasing the number of figures needed for armies by an additional third. More on this as the thinking develops.

Another game played on the pinboard, this time with 3 brigades Vs 2 brigades. Link

COMMANDERS is my other bit of webspace, which is a bit more snippet based than here. LINK


  1. Norm, those Union infantry really "pop". Lovely looking and interesting game which reaffirms our clearly shared belief that a lot can be achieved in a small space. We don't all have or indeed need an aircraft hanger to play our games. Shame the Union were the only side to benefit from the use of a battlefield laser though! LOL.

  2. I quite like these posts on mini games, besides being a lot of fun, there is the serious aspect in that there are many gamers who are indeed limited either in terms of space or mobility that would find these sort of posts a useful or interesting or hopefully both! If I did have an aircraft hanger, I would play in 1:1 scale and immediately find the problem of there not being enough room for big games :-)

  3. That was a sharp, quick fight. I enjoy small scenarios where every action and response can be critical. Even better when the scenario provides a tactical puzzle to solve. Your small battle looks terrific.

  4. Thanks Jonathan, made all the more enjoyable by 2 playings having 2 different outcomes.

    1. With so few BMUs in play, the vagaries of war could lead to a variety of outcomes. One misstep or poor die roll and the entire action could be decided.

  5. Excellent post, Norm. There is something really appealing about playing "small" games with handfuls of units on a side. I've been wanting to play Iron Cross with some of your convenient Tigers at Minsk scenarios. I feel like those kinds of scenarios are perfect for gaining or sustaining one's knowledge of rules.

    Also - your ACW troopers look excellent.

    1. Thanks Steve, I was wondering about Iron Cross as to how small you can make a scenario before the command system fails to generate enough capacity to repeat activate some of the units at critical locations.

  6. "Anyway, hoorah for the smaller game, great for small spaces, ideal for that mid-week game, handy to keep your hand in with the rules or simply to just to admire some nice armies and roll dice."

    I couldn't agree more Norm. We all more often than not fail to remember that games such as these are quick to set up and play to a conclusion, this giving you the satisfaction of having actually played a game. Bob Cordery's 'The Portable Wargame' is an example of some simple rules that help to achieve this sort of game with minimal effort.

  7. Hi Steve, I was thinking about this and wondering if this same uncomplicated scenario was played under other systems, some complicated, whether there would be much change in outcome and whether the complexity of rules simply influences the journey rather than the destination.

    So does an avid ACW player for example feel they are 'playing' a better game when they are playing with fuller systems and they accept and feel the outcome has come from that process, when in fact the same outcome could fall out from a much simpler set of rules? Perhaps we should see play and outcome as two separate things.

  8. I am sometimes tempted by BP but I really need another rule set for the ACW like I need a face tattoo.

    Nice little scenario but I imagine that it played very quickly; more time spent setting up and writing this post than game play. Sometimes I think that’s the only negative of small spaces. The games are often quick bc of the lower amount of units. That’s not necessarily a negative I guess; depends on the goals of the gamers. Quick doesn’t mean less fun. But you are limited in complexity by the size, would you be able to add 2 more brigades to each side? Maybe, but I bet you’d want to expand the table so you don’t get wall to wall troops. Or use smaller miniatures. I feel like I am rambling.

    I love your ACW collection though and enjoyed the post. 90mm in several bases while more work I think has the benefits of being able to represent different troop formations which is something I like. Hope your back feels better.

  9. Thanks Stew, the game did play very quickly, but it did meet a requirement because I couldn't sit for long or manage much on the day and of course there are a ton of people in a similar situation, so in that respect these sized games do have a place.

    There would certainly be more depth to a bigger game, though I think that there are many gamers for whom the decision of what to play is likely to be based upon what you 'can' put up, rather than what you 'want' to put up. In that regard the Neil Thomas rules have a value to gamers who are typically putting between 4 and 8 units per side in the table and there is certainly a generation that can remember starting out that way, with the sort of teaser scenario size, that are probably more comfortable with that style of game.

    One of the things I like to do with boardgames is to get a midweek short game in, say a 1 - 2 hour session. For many, modern life prevents this little island of midweek quality time, but it strikes me as being even harder to do for figures, so the small knock-about, probably has a value there.

    I do have an idea knocking around in my head that I am just putting together in the form of a skeleton post, before fleshing it out with some real play, so something of interest may grow out of that.

    I wish I had done the 30mm basing from the outset, I think it would just give more flexibility across more sets, but in some respects, when I do my hex stuff I am only really playing to my own rules, so the standard is less important.

    1. Rereading my comment, and wanted to be clear that I am not trying to be disparaging in anyway. One of the best things about this blogging community is seeing what others do on a variety of scales, rules, and genres. Sharing is fun. 😀

      Also, I know what you mean about basing regrets. I wish I would of based my ACW on much thinner bases but now it feels too late to go and redo 300+ bases. So I just keep doing the same scheme bc I have the supplies and for consistency.

    2. Stew, that's fine, I never took the comment in any way other than just friendly chat. The sub title of this blog is 'wargaming in small spaces' so a goodly number of the posts here are always going to end up feeding that ethos. :-)

  10. Great looking game Norm and an interesting concept too - I think most wargamers fall into the "bigger is better" trap and often it isn't. A 6' by 18' table makes is no advantage if its crammed with wall to wall 28mm figures; there is no chance to use maneuver or tactics, and all you get is traffic jams of units as they hit bottlenecks caused by scenery. By the way, I did not realise until I clicked on the images to expand them that these were such tiny figures - I had assumed from glancing g at them that these were 28mm - they are fantastic for the smaller scale!

  11. Thanks Keith, wargame media, whether magazines, shows, cons or the internet, have tended to push the very photogenic big 28mm game to the point that other scales no longer ‘appear’ mainstream and indeed are marginalised.

    At one time I would have said that 6’ x 4’ gaming was more honest with what most people do at home, but these days, that increasingly is probably moving more towards 4’ x 4’ or 3’ x 4’ gaming and that probably goes hand-in-hand with a reduction of time that working folk have available to spend with a table ........ though internet watching is partly to blame for that :-)

  12. Nice game and interesting to see a small scale Black Powder in action, and your 12mm figures look really good.

  13. Thanks Peter, now I just need to get started on napoleonics :-)

  14. Excellent battle report

    Take care


  15. Lovely looking game, great looking figures! As I only use 28mm and only occasionally get a game I like to have a big game,6'x4', possibly going to be 6'x8' but I have to say I really enjoyed both one hour Wargames and lion rampant both of which use much smaller areas and also conclude relatively rapidly!
    Best Iain

  16. Thanks Iain, I have some 28mm ACW on the painting sticks at the moment :-)
    So may run this battle again when they are done. I have just bought some ships with sail and hope to do something similar for the ‘ 1 hour’ type mid-week game.

  17. Great looking game, and inspiring too! I was thinking of doing BP in smaller than 28mm scale - even 6mm! Dean

  18. Thanks Dean, the BP rules are very useful, your post made me smile because I have some 28mm on painting sticks as I type this 😀

  19. I continue to be drawn to these smaller games Norm, that was a great report and the figures really do look the part. My 1/72nd project was very much inspired by what you do, I know that I will be most comfortable playing games on a 4 x 3 board that can be easily set up and does not cause major domestic disruption. Another aspect of this is the opportunity to create detailed terrain over the smaller area. I'll simply play Bolt Action with smaller figures and inches converted to centimetres, that should work fine I think?

  20. Thanks Lee, I am just setting up a 4 x 3 game now and if it all works out, it will be the subject of the next post. The 1/72 is a lovely scale and I sometimes wonder whether the hard plastic revolution might have served the wargamer better had it been in 1/72 rather than the 28mm direction that the hobby took.

  21. It was a shock to me a few years ago when health issues made gaming on a big table more than I could comfortable handle ither than for a verrry short time.

    It was then a surprise how much pleasure could be had from a small game on a small surface, played sitting down.

    If you can't "go over", "go around".

  22. Indeed, thanks Ross, that hits the nail firmly on the head :-)

  23. Very Nicely done. Per. choice, I don't generally care for smaller than 15mm.
    Granted, the smaller the "more toys on table", but now at 50+, the "eyes" DONT have it, to paint anywhere near this well. I'll be reading more of your blog.

    Again Very Nicely done Sir!

  24. Thanks Jack, I hope there continues to be a mix of things here that catch your eye. Cheers.


Thanks for taking the time to comment