Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Black Powder

I decided to review Black Powder from having actually played it for a period of time, not just a home skirmish or just from reading as most do. This approach is necessary to find other glitches not found from flipping through some pages and setting up a few units.

First let me say, it is not a Games Workshop creation, but its creators clearly are Games Workshop fans. The contributing authors and owners of the eye candy are names known in the Games Workshop world (the Perrys and Rick Priestly to name a few) but have decided to undertake the historical world. Was it their irritation at new rules, supplements and constantly changing figures? Well that's what turned me off and why I stuck to historicals exclusively.

Whatever their motivation exactly, they took a more unusual approach by melding Warmaster with horse and musket rules. I won't bore you with the generic facts about how many pages or that it has more pictures than a convention often has ever posted. What I'll do is give you what it does and doesn't do from a wargamer's perspective.

This is very much a command and control game. The book puts all rules into a casual gentlemanly approach where brigade commanders have a command rating that must be rolled equal to or under in most cases in order to be able move. For example, a decent command has a rating of an 8. The player will roll two 6-sided dice and roll equal to or less to carry out the orders. A roll of an 8 is one move granted, a 7 is two and a 6 would be three. No more than three is possible and you've had to roll three under to receive so many moves. The tricky part is you will not know if you will receive all the actions you wanted.

You must also announce what your unit or units will do before rolling. So let us say you wish to "Advance within 3" of your opponent and fire a volley into his line". If you need two moves to make it there, you might roll well enoguh to have gotten a third move and would be able to make contact... if you had only known! The maneuvering of a unit is quite liberal and if you want to advance 12", turn 90 degrees, you can do so. If you want to literally move around a unit and fire into their rear, well yeah, you can do that too.

Want to move into a forest with your guard grenadiers to squash those pesky guerrillas running away? Sorry, you cannot fire within the woods. Why? No rule giving you permission or a range restriction within woods due to no line of sight listed here. Can you elect to agree on a range? Sure, it is encouraged within the book on rule disagreements or amendments. My opinion here is that the authors were too inebriated to settle on a range limitation and just chose to leave it to players.

How about melee in the woods? Sure, you may march them into the woods and give your opponent a hard whack! Is all of this so far historically accurate? Maybe not, but it is a game. That is stressed heavily in the rules that you are pushing lead soldiers around the table and not to take yourself or the game too seriously. This is the expressed reason for why certain specifics are not covered. I'm not convinced that approach works outside of a dedicated group of consistent gamers. Having played at multiple Rogue Trader Tournaments for Warhammer, even published rules with plenty of published clarifications have problems being adhered to by players who wish to bend rules.

Speaking of seriousness, you do not want to roll above your command level or else you will do nothing except stand still and fire. If you have limbered artillery or troops in march column, they may make one free move. If you're within 6" of the enemy, the units may move into contact or move towards the enemy if you will, for free. If you roll a 12, then the side blunders and no commands at all are given for your side and the turn ends. They call this a Blunder and it is a little on the side of being a Games Workshop trait. The abrupt incompetence of your general ends your turn and so the mechanic's intent is for you to focus on important matters.

Here I see a problem where a game mechanic compensating for limited time and resources actually then takes away from reality. I vehemently disapprove of rule sets that create areas of inactivity. How do you explain periods of time where bodies of men suddenly stop moving or carrying out some other action in face of the enemy? This sort of mechanic is not realistic and better suited for children's games of pure chance. Orders for advancing and retreating, reloading etc are not given every 20 minutes from a general. Orders and objectives are given and lower level commanders carry them out. Unfortunately, it is common in many rule sets that attempt to create friction by limiting commands given in a turn. The commanding general must also play the role of lower level officers.

In this way, Shako covers one of the most realistic and historical approaches by orders given to a formation and are carried out turn after turn. Firing and the formation of the units are left to lower level commanders and do not need endless orders. Lower level officers are delegated authority and carry out the order the best way possible. They are not considered toddlers who need constant reminding and supervision.

Commands that are similar such as All infantry will advance to engage the enemy in melee can be given as one order and one dice roll. Individual units can be given separate orders with the higher risk of failure. There is no real order in which you can fire and move, so if you wanted to advance to a flank, fire and then give a separate order to another unit to engage from the front, you may try and do so. A general can also be used to help recover hits taken on a unit. Each unit has so much stamina that we would think of as hit points. When they are maxed out or above, their morale begins to waiver. A commander can end his turn by attaching himself to a unit and trying to recover a point by rolling under the command number. This is helpful.

Cavalry do have counter charges and the chargers do receive a slight bonus in the game. Much like Games Workshop games, 6-sided dice determine the outcome. Units have stats eerily similar to Warhammer, Warhammer 40k etc. with various traits and the corresponding number that translates into effectiveness. This mechanic is simple to understand and permits units to easily fight one another.

One of the greatest features is that you can customize units by making them elite, regular, militia, raw and unpredictable etc. You have specializations for sharpshooters getting the ability to reroll one failed shooting die per fire phase. You also have Stubborn rules for applying to units from too easily breaking. A Reliable unit is not much by itself, but if all units within the brigade are reliable the command value of the officer is increased by +1 and so giving commands for movement are easier.

Brigades can be any number of units in reality, but picking commands of five battalions is a good choice because if one must take a brigade morale test at 50% losses then losing three units instead of two in a four battalion brigade is preferable.

The rules are written to cover troop types from anything in the horse and musket era. This is a great selling point because someone playing ACW and Napoleonics might be attracted to only having to purchase and commit to memory one set of rules instead of two. You will need a rule book for the first several games as it has quirks, but is meant for playability and flexibility. Historical accuracy is noticeable if incidental. It is a rule book in desperate need of revision by a mature and experienced editor. Preferably, a non-alcoholic would be good for a change.

After my first few games, I genuinely hated it. Why would so many people keep showing up to play this? The rules frustrated all of us with their indecisiveness and illogical layout; yet it somehow worked and we always had fun. When we announced we're going to play it, people showed even if to watch. Guys who made excuses in the past not to come suddenly felt motivated to show up and even blow dust off of men who may not have seen battle in 10 years time. Since basing isn't an issue because the number of figures determines whether it is a tiny, small, regular or large sized unit, then any unit size can be brought out. It is a game that appears to unite people and I don't understand why. Is it because it claims to gentlemanly or that it covers so much important gaming periods?

Have you ever wanted to play battle of the Coa and field an actual picket in Ney's path? Well, now you can. You think French troops in 1805 were superior than in 1812? You can design that into the stats. Want rockets? How about Afghan tribesmen armed with old rusty muskets? It is all possible if you're willing to relax a little and accept, it's only a game.

Not convinced? Well you can download it from many file sharing sites for free and test it. Think that is unethical? Well you buy clothes and try them on at home then realize they don't fit and return them. Was it unethical to return it? Think of it along those lines. If you like it, then buy the book like I did. If you don't like it, then nothing was lost.

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