Saturday, December 06, 2008

Under the Lily Banners

I think it's been a full month since my last entry in my game collection. Not wanting to let things get too stale, I bit the bullet and broke out the next random selection, Under the Lily Banners. Let's get one thing straight, people; this game is awesome. Fun to play, even more fun to mock the loser. Because he probably lost due to incompetent leaders that he had no control over.

This game is a wargame (third in the Mustket & Pike series) about the Thirty Years War, focusing on the battles France was involved in. This varies from small engagements like Mergentheim, all the way to the big enchilada, Rocroi. Before I started playing games in this series, I knew pretty much nothing about the Thirty Years War, other than the fact that everybody hated Cardinal Richelieu. After playing games in this series, I can tell you that warfare in this time period makes very little sense to my modern mind. Such ridiculous chaos. At a high level, battle consists of marching large masses of soldiers, armed with muskets (flint or matchlock, generally) and long pikes. They then shoot at each other at relatively close range and try to stick each other with pikes. You stand in a mass, so you can't maneuver much. If they attack near you, you die. Otherwise you try to shoot them. All of the skill is in the maneuver prior to the combat.

The game itself seems to do an excellent job of capturing this aspect of war in this period. Each army is broken into "wings," (usually left, center, and right) which have orders. These orders range from "Charge" (which operates like you would think) to "Make Ready" (not ready to charge, but kind of ready to fight) to "Rally" (which involves trying to keep your peeps from fleeing off the board). The main trick is to use orders correctly. When entering combat, it helps to be under Charge orders. However, you can't rally your own troops, or re-orient formations, while under Charge. So, after you fight off the other side, you have to change orders in order to reform and rally your troops. This is harder than you would think. In modern days, we have radios and phones and satellite connections and whatnot. Back then, they had flags and runners. Who could get killed before ever getting you your new orders, leaving you clueless. This is represented by making the player roll for each wing when he wants to change orders. Fail the roll, and you are stuck under your old orders. Which usually means your troops do something stupid and die. I remember one game I played against my brother a year ago; one of my wings needed to reform, so I was trying to change to "Rally" orders, and I kept blowing it and I stayed in "Charge." For three whole turns. Yeah, I lost that battle.

Combat itself is in two parts: fire combat (with guns) and melee combat (with pikes). Fire combat works by moving next to the other player's units. When units are next to each other, they can fire. The problem with this is that moving next to the other player's units means that those units get to shoot at you first. Guns back then needed steady positions for firing and loading, so shooting while moving was hard (you can do it, but it's not as effective, and you can't move at full speed). So, you move up, get set, and then they shoot you. Which usually sucks. If you still live, you can fire back. So you need to get multiple units on one enemy unit to really get yourself in a good position. Which is harder than it sounds.

Once the firing is all done, you have the chance to initiate melee combat. Melee combat is really quite the dicey affair. While many wargames have units take hits of damage in melee, this game doesn't do that. There are only a few possible results from melee combat:
1. You wipe them out, and the unit is eliminated (representing more of everyone scattering and the unit breaking, rather than killing every last man).
2. You freak them out, and they retreat a hex or two, losing morale.
3. They freak you out, and you retreat a hex or two, losing morale.
4. They wipe you out.
That's pretty much it. So, games tend to have a lot of maneuver, and then short and nasty combats. Which, from what I can tell, was how things actually went back in the 17th Century.

This would all be kind of boring except for cavalry, the great wild card. Most engagements have a significant amount of cavalry. Cavalry can run all over the field, shooting the place up and causing all sorts of problems, sometimes for their own side. See, Cavalry are pretty impetuous. Whenever you fight close combat with cavalry and win, there is a chance they will merrily chase the loser all over the board, and sometimes even off the board. This does a wonderful job of ruining your formations. In the most recent game, a group of French cavalry merrily chased a group of light infantry to oblivion. In doing so, however, they ran all the way through the Belgian lines and got surrounded. Did I mention the French wing commander was with that unit? Yeah, problems. Proper use of cavalry (and a bit of luck with their, shall we say, enthusiasm for chasing beaten units) can really win or lose a game for you.

So, I really like the game. It isn't without its problems, though. The only significant problem for me is the size of the units and all of the status counters. Whenever a unit takes damage from fire combat, it takes an injury counter. Whenever a unit has its formation broken, it takes a counter. Whenever a unit loses morale, it takes a counter. Leaders also stack on units, and they can get their own counters. Thus, you can end up with a number of units side by side, all with a number of counters on them. This makes it difficult (for me, at least) to keep track of what is actually going on. Not an uncommon problem with wargames, but the status counters are the same size as the units, so it can get cumbersome. In the end, though, this is still one of my favorite games, even if my stupid commanders do frustrate me to no end.

One final note: the scenario book for the game contains good detail on the historic situation leading up to the battles, as well as the aftermath. It does a good job of providing a context for why all these people are trying to kill each other, and is a good starting point for learning more about the history of the period.

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