One of the least noticed, yet most profound, eras of European military history occurred between Waterloo (1815) and the Guns of August 1914. Often called the “age of the hyphen wars” (Austro-Prussian War, Russo-Japanese War, etc), the conflicts that occurred saw the rise of technology as an overwhelming battlefield factor, while still retaining some of the most colorful and spiffy looking uniforms this side of a Napoleonic dress ball.
It might seem like a match made in tabletop miniature wargaming heaven, but it wasn’t. Many of the wars were short, the battles huge, and technology was so dominant that victory and defeat was often preordained. Fortunately, author Bruce Weigle’s passion for the period and the three sets of rules it spawned (1859 on the 2d Risorgimento, 1866 on the Seven Weeks War and 1870 on the Franco-Prussian War) kept the period alive. Nevertheless, battle size in both numbers and real estate saw gamers clamoring for a simpler, quick play version of the series, and the result was the July 2017 publication of 1871, Fast Play Grand Tactical Rules for the Franco-Prussian War.
Not changing superlative…
1871 is 118 pages long, and comes in a hard back cover which elevates the price to $ 38.00 US at places like Clash of Arms Games, somewhat pricy perhaps, but you can find it on sale elsewhere and well worth it regardless. By contrast the 1859 rules are 140 total pages, though spiral bound and soft cover. Like its predecessors, the book is full color glossy and inundated with useful charts, tables, diagrams and some period specific, public domain artwork of the slugfest itself.
The format of the book is also similar to previous efforts. The first section is called General Information and informs the player about such mundane things such as scale, dice and other equipment needed, combat formations and so on. The second portion of the book, Mechanics of Play, is where the formal instructions on how to play the game reside, and is subdivided into chapters keyed to the sequence of play. Thus there are lessons on Command and Control where order chits (generally one per brigade if German, one per division if Imperial French and one per gaggle if Republican) for charging, moving and reforming are declared, followed by an Order Activation Phase where the players dice to see if their wishes will be carried out. Next comes the Movement Phase which includes both charges and deferred movement for those units shot up while marching to the nearest Gasthaus. The Fire Phase for both artillery and small arms is next out of the proverbial box, followed by the Melee Phase where troops attempt to move their opponents off a piece of turf, while the latter tries to stop them. Morale is checked throughout the game while recovery and reconstitution is actually an integral portion of the Command and Control Phase.
The rest of the book should also seem familiar with chapters covering half, quarter and 2/3 scale variants for the game, orders of battle, a short bibliography, a chapter on how to make all those snazzy game boards Bruce (seriously, before Google Earth he was taking photos from helicopters) brings to conventions and an index. There is also a page and a half that summarizes all of the changes in the game (FOG3 take note) so that veterans of the system can start hurling airbursts as quickly as possible. Finally there are 12 new scenarios for the game, none duplicative of those in the previous rules, and covering both the end of the Imperial campaign and all the Republican war effort. They are Noisseville, Sedan (the BIG battle, as in kinda what this game was made for), Villers-Bretonneux, Villepion,
Champigny-Villers (one of my favorites), Poupry (small), Vendome, Baupaume, Villesexel, Le Mans (the race was cancelled that year), the Lisaine (another favorite) and St Quenton.
Scale remains 30 minutes per turn, 100 yards per inch, but in a change from previous, infantry units are generally brigades vice regiments. This means that a single stand is now a battalion as opposed to a half battalion as in the past; while cavalry stands now represent a half regiment of two squadrons. Given the author’s love for playing in Braille with 6 mm figures (yes, I know some paint regimental numbers on the buttons, but I’m talking humans here) and the ability to host larger and larger battles, the visuals are still impressive.
…but improving it
Despite its obvious roots, the book flatly states it plays in half the time as the series of original games. Having seen several playtests at several conventions, I’d have to say this is pretty much accurate. So how did this come about? Well for starters, if you are moving around half the number of stands as in the past, this will take a lot of time off each turn. Also, if your baseline unit is a brigade as opposed to a regiment, then that’s one set of calculations instead of two every time fire combat ensues. I’ve actually measured stuff like this before in a review for the old Historical Gamer Magazine, and this can be quite significant.
Yet there are other patterns of change I found in the book that are far guiltier in this regard. The first is that 1871 has simply dropped in total some modifiers and game functions that were either never used, never had a significant impact regardless or simply were inappropriate for players duking it out on the tabletop at this level of command. For example, Unit Break Points are gone. Also gone is the Morale Table as now units simply need to be within one inch of a leader stand to rally or reform. The Attack Column found in 1870 now doesn’t exist unless you are playing quarter scale. And the French artillery airburst benefit at certain ranges; nope, nyet, non, nein. It’s gone.
The game also seems to have a lot of consolidation as well. “Friendlies passed through” modifiers along with some other functions have now been subsumed in a revised rule called Partial Fire. Likewise, melee (or Point Blank Fire for all purists) results to include casualties, leader casualties, morale and retreat, all of this, is accomplished by a single die roll.
Finally, the game has moved towards simplicity by dropping a lot of extraneous detail and going generic. By this I mean things like ALL infantry stands are now rated at one Fire or Combat Point per stand, with die roll modifiers discriminating further. Likewise, Command Radius is now four inches for all commanders and does not vary.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate what is being done here is to look at the artillery. In the previous series of rules artillery stands (batteries) were awarded Fire Points based on type, nationality and weight of shot. Taking the 1859 rules for example, Austrian artillery had four points per, but French had only three, and there were 12 Fire Point columns on the table. There were nine range bands from 0 to 32 inches, and some weapons could not fire past certain ranges. There were a total of 12 die roll modifiers, 14 if you count the modifiers for setting fire to a building, and 16 if you count the Double Hits add-on. Under the 1871 system, all batteries are rated the same number of Fire Points regardless, so they aren’t really used. Instead hits are calculated by the number of stands firing, not Fire Points. For that reason the number of columns on the chart now stands at four, simulating the fire of four batteries. There are now five range bands out to 32 inches, and the number of die roll modifiers has been reduced to seven.
Grogs will likely cringe, but it’s simple, fast, and accurate and it works.
Highly recommended. 1871 follows a continuing evolution in miniature wargaming towards systems that are more realistic and accurate precisely because of their elegant simplicity. Players no longer have to worry whether that one 9 lb battery is firing case, shell, shot or shrapnel, but instead can concentrate on their higher level of command, such as managing a division or corps. This latest rules set from Bruce Weigle accomplishes this not by a revolutionary, new way to do tabletop business, but rather tweaking a tried and true system to infuse simplicity while retaining its inherent strengths. By any measure, this attempt has not only been successful, but significantly so.
If there is one negative about 1871, it’s the little blurb where the author indicates his retirement after the publication of these rules. How sad. Yes, there are two more sets that deserve a similar makeover, but otherwise it’s more a calendar thing. By this I mean 1848, 1854, 1877, 1904, aka the Hungarian Revolution, the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish War and the Russo-Japanese War. Heck, let’s toss in the 1912 Balkan Wars and August 1914 for a complete set. Hopefully FML Weigle will reconsider.
Meanwhile I’ll be scouring 1871 to see what I can requisition (because its research, not theft, ahem) for my own competing rules. And everyone knows what they say about imitation.