First in the Field
By Bill Johnson and David Ratcliffe
Two of the biggest obstacles drawing new players into Napoleonic wargaming are the complexity of the rules and the perception that one needs a vast number of figures to play. The novice player is often confused trying to tell the difference between fusiliers, voltigerurs, grenadiers, landwehr, and grenzers, no less dragoons, light dragoons, chasseurs, hussars, carabiniers, and cuirassiers! Then there are columns, closed columns, squares, two deep lines, three deep lines, and skirmish order! And all of this takes six to eight hours of his time! By the end of the first game the chances are he leaves, thinking, "why bother with all of that. There is got to be something better." And once again the hobby loses another potential recruit.
Another major problem with most Napoleonic rules are that they take too much time and too many people to play. Rare is a game that can be played in a few hours. Games take several hours to prepare and then 8 to 10 hours to play! Most rules require hundreds of figures to recreate a small battle and several people on each side to play the various levels of command. It is not a spur of the moment hobby. Yet why can't it be? What the hobby needs is a set of rules that will introduce some of the basic concepts of Napoleonic warfare, is quick to play, and does not require a whole lot of troops.
Bill Johnson and David Ratcliffe have come up with an answer to all of the above. They have written a set of rules that are easy to learn, quick to play, and do NOT require a whole lot of figures! These rules are called "First in the Field" and bills itself as "A Skirmish Game for the 95th Rifles in the Peninsular War." The rules are a cross between the popular western gunfight rules that have swept the hobby and Napoleonics. Like the western gunfight games, each player controls one or more characters, each represented by an individual figure. Although they are mounted separately they are part of a small Napoleonic unit with a mission. Units and missions can be tailored to the number of players involved. (I hosted a game at a recent convention with 16 players controlling 32 characters. None of the 16 players had played the rules before and only a handful had played Napoleonics. The game was finished in 3 hours.)
Since this is a skirmish game, characters are rated for initiative, dexterity, strength, close combat and shooting skills. Characters that belong to certain "elite" units will be rated higher than others will. For example a 95th Rifles soldier will have a better shooting skill rating. Officers and NCOs will have higher initiative ratings, while some soldiers will have better close combat ratings, etc. How individuals are rated is left up to the scenario designer.
Turns are based on initiative and health. At the beginning of the game every character is given a number, which will be his order of movement. Movement order is key, because actions are not simultaneous. If a character is shot or attacked before it is his turned, it affects what he can do when it is his turn. The character with the highest initiative generally goes first, while the player with the lowest goes last. As a character is wounded, he drops down in order of movement. Conversely when a character is wounded or killed, those who move after him move up in movement order. By the end of the third round, most characters will have moved up or down in movement order.
Types of weapons also play a key role. Baker rifles have a significant range advantage, but take more turns to load than do muskets. There are also factors for pistols and Sergeant Harper's seven-barrel gun. Other weapons can also be easily factored in. In one game we had a Spanish guerrilla with a blunderbuss, while the French had a 6 pound cannon.
The authors closed the rules with five scenarios to get the readers started.
Although the rules are fairly easy to learn they have a few flaws that need to be corrected to provide a balanced game. Ranges for the weapons are too long versus the movement rates for the characters. In the rules, if a soldier with a musket fires at an enemy at 50 paces, he can reload the musket three times before the enemy could close with him. Realistically he would have one shot and if he missed, his enemy would be on him before he could reload. This is a minor flaw can easily be fixed by increasing the movement rates and the number of turns it takes to reload a weapon. Another problem is the combat factors chart is not very clear. It lists several modifiers on the chart that are applied elsewhere and not part of the combat. Yet if the player does not read the rules carefully, he will apply the modifier twice. This may seem like a trivial point, however it can make a significant impact on the character's performance.
The real question though is whether these rules capture the flavor of the Napoleonic Wars or are they basically a cowboys and Indians game using Napoleonic figures? It depends on your view of Napoleonic history. For every set piece battle with tens of thousands of troops, there were probably 100 minor skirmishes between patrols, piquets, foragers, convoys, and guerrillas. These rules capture these actions unlike any other that I have seen. The rules drive home to the reader the impact of using proper skirmishing tactics. It doesn't take long for a player to realize that once his character fires his weapon he is extremely vulnerable. The smart player starts pairing his characters. As one character shoots and reloads, the other stands guards. Which of course was standard procedure for skirmishers during the Napoleonic period.
One of the great things about the rules is that you can play with a wide variety of figures. In addition to using the various skirmishing figures, such as the 95th Riflemen, voltigeurs, and cacadores, here is a chance to paint and use dismounted dragoons, Spanish guerrillas, wagons, the many different poses that are available for light infantry and fusiliers, plus wounded and dead figures. Something that most rules don't allow! The rules are great for introducing younger players to the Napoleonic period, especially if they have watched any of the "Sharpe" movies! It is quite easy to paint up a rifle officer figure and call it Captain Richard Sharpe, or even use the commercially available figures of Sharpe, Harper (with his 7 barrel gun of course!), Hagman, and the others of the South Essex. The rules will hook the younger players' imagination and then they can be eased into larger battles as they grow older. First in the Field can be bought from Caliver Books.
Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS.