20 September 2022
No, not that eastern front
Words by Dave Tuck
Photos by Malc Johnston
If you have started reading this expecting to read about Stalingrad and Operation Barbarossa, then I am afraid, dear reader, you have fallen into my trap! The Eastern Front I wish to introduce you to, is that of the Seventeenth century “Deluge” and “Time of Troubles.”
This series of wars fought between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Muscovy, Sweden, the Cossacks, the Tartars and the Ottoman Empire continued, on and off, for the period. Starting with the Time of Trouble between 1605 and 1613, Muscovy was thrown into chaos, when rivals vied to be the Tsar. Polish, Swedish – along with the Boyars from Muscovy itself – all supported and fought against Vasily Shuysky, the Romanovs and various false Dmitri claimants.
This was followed by Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648, and the Swedish invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, known as “The Deluge,” where Both Muscovy and Sweden entered Poland, and destroyed 188 cities and towns, 81 castles and 136 churches. This level of destruction probably comes as a surprise to those of you who have never considered this period for gaming.
I first became interested in this period in the 1980’s, and still remember painting part of my Muscovite force on the day of the Royal Wedding of Charles and Dianna, which was a public holiday! (I suspect you were having a better time than Ms Spencer... Ed.) Back then WRG had produced a set of wargame rules for the period, and George Gush, the author, had also published the excellent Renaissance Armies reference book. Since then, I have built up an Ottoman Turkish force and more recently a Swedish one. Sadly, the period appears to have gone into decline. A few years ago, the excellent By Fire and Sword rule set and reference volume was published, along with the release of a large range of 15mm figures and buildings. More recently in 28mm, Warlord have produced a range of Swedish, Polish and Ottoman forces in both plastic and metal.
However, despite this I am still not seeing much interest in the period, and this article is an attempt to re-kindle interest in it.
FULL OF EASTERN PROMISE
One of the appeals of the period is the sweeping nature of the terrain and forces involved. Fought largely on the steppes and open plains of Russia and Poland, and in all weather conditions, these wars have a large cavalry involvement. That is not to say that there are no infantry, but the infantry that were there took special precaution against cavalry. The Swedes used ‘Swedish feathers’, placed in the ground at an angle as an obstacle. The Cossacks used war wagons, in the same manner as the earlier Hussites. The Muscovites used Gulyay-Gorod (or “guliai-gorod” literally Russian for “wandering town”) which was a kind of pre-fabricated wall, which – when combined with wagons – produced a moving fortress. The Cossack and Muscovite wagons often mounted small cannon.
Artillery varied in weight, effectiveness and reliability. The Turks often chained captive European gunners to their pieces, and whether by sabotage or design, they were more prone to mishap and explosions than the more modern Western artillery pieces.
Another appeal is the large number of exotic and colourful troop types. Who has never looked at a unit of Polish Winged Hussars and wanted to own one? The Poles were also going through a transition, combining irregulars, Westernised mercenary Pike and Shot, as well as Cossack cavalry and foot, and Pancerni, armoured horsemen.
Ottoman Turkish forces have colourful Janissary infantry, hordes of Irregulars and Delli’s. These are a type of fanatic cavalry wearing all manner of furs or feathers. Turkish infantry – often high on hashish – also adds interest to any game.
A Swedish force of Western Pike and Shot, and horse trained to charge, has the advantage of being easily switched into a Thirty Years War army, or even an ECW force with a bit of flag duplication. The Muscovites have disciplined Streltsy infantry, armed with muskets and wicked Berdishe axes, which doubled as musket rests. They can also recruit Cossacks and Tartars and have even got a few units of Imitation Polish Hussars, winged or otherwise.
This leads to another advantage of the period. For extra table top flexibility, many units such as Cossacks, Tartars and Western Pike and Shot and Cavalry can be switched between armies, due to the nature of their mercenary or allied status.
There are a huge number of battles and sieges, which can be easily found on the internet. Of late the number of publications on the period has expanded greatly.
I would recommend the following Helion Publications:
Muscovy’s Soldiers: the Emergence of the Russian Army 1462-1689. By Michael Fredholm Von-Essen.
Despite Destruction, Misery and Privations… the Polish Army in Prussia during the war against Sweden 1626-29 by Michael Paradowski.
The two volumes on the Swedish Army during the Thirty Years war: The Lion from the North volumes 1 and 2 by Michael Fredholm Von-Essen.
Actions of the Thirty Years War Eastern Europe, the Baltic, Italy and France by William P Guthrie from Partizan Press.
Not forgetting the aforementioned book by George Gush, which has excellent uniform plates, some chapters of which are available free on the internet, and various Osprey publications.
The period is tactically very fluid, with bands of cavalry riding against each other, with the option for sweeping charges and flank attacks. Often the flank charging troops are themselves hit in their flank, so it is often quite frenetic, and not enjoyable if you are a pedestrian infantry type. The infantry does have a role in this type of action, however: that is to form a barrier behind which the cavalry can regroup, re-arm or rally as required. Anyone who has watched the latest iteration of Taras Bulba, will see how this fits into the tactics of the period. Whilst on the subject of films, I would recommend 1612 which is about the Time of Troubles, and a boxed trilogy: With Fire and Sword, The Deluge and Colonel Wolodyjowski, which has good representations of Polish, Tartar, Turkish and Swedish forces and a truly memorable Cossack band. It is sold as the Jerzy Hoffman Sienkiewicz trilogy and – whilst taking some locating – is worth watching.
Trying to find a ruleset to cover this period is very difficult, though Hussaria is one set. The more generic ones do not really reflect the sheer pandemonium of Eastern Cavalry battles. Needless to say we wrote our own set, which have the advantage of being usable for big battles (which is certainly our choice) or – with a few tweaks – as a skirmish set.
The most important aspect of this period is command and control, or rather the lack of it. We adopt a twofold approach to this. Firstly, we have a small deck of cards. This has an equal number (three each in our case) of Movement, Firing and Melee cards with one End Of Turn card and one Heroic Moment card. The second element of our gaming strategy is to allocate command points to each force. We find around a dozen is okay, but in games with different troop numbers, it can often even things up if the smaller force has a larger number of command points, making them more flexible in their response. We track these command points using glass beads or counters. In play both sides operate simultaneously: a card is turned and the players declare how many actions they intend to spend on that card, resolve any actions and then move on to the next card, etc.
EXAMPLE OF PLAY
To give an example:
- The first card is Movement. The Muscovites allocate 3 points and move a cavalry unit to contact enemy cavalry, and two Streltzy units in to range. To signify this, a bead is placed behind the moved units. The Polish Player allocates one bead and moves his Winged Hussars against the Russian Cavalry.
- The next card is Melee, so both sides fight and resolve the melee placing a bead behind their respective units.
- The next card is Melee again, so another round is fought, and a bead expended by each force.
- The next card is End Of Turn, so the deck is re-shuffled, and the beads gathered up and reallocated to the players.
Note that – in that example – the Streltzy failed to shoot that turn. Of course, it was equally likely that two Firing cards were turned up and the poor cavalry would have been weakened, given reasonable shooting dice! The permutations for the system are endless, and both sides remain engaged throughout unlike in classic IGO-UGO games.
BEING THE HERO
The only other points to mention in this section are the Heroic Moment card which can be used by one unit only as any of the Movement, Melee or Firing card options or as a regroup, where a unit has the chance to remove a casualty it is carrying. It achieves this by spending a bead and rolling 4-6 for Regulars and fanatics and 5-6 for Irregulars on a D6
If troops either do not have a bead or do not wish to expend one in melee, it fights as usual and – if losing – suffers all the usual losses. If it wins however it does not inflict casualties on its enemy. This is to prevent a gamey situation, where one side choses melees that it knows the enemy cannot win, simply to force it to deplete its bead pile.
Movement is as follows:
- Infantry, Wagons and Artillery: 6”
- Skirmishers: 9”
- Column of March: 12”
- Cavalry: 15”
All wheels are at half speed: anything more involved is deemed a ‘complex manoeuvre’ which takes a full move and disorders the unit on a 1-3 if regulars and 1-4 if Irregulars on a D6.
Firing is very straight forward. Ranges are as follows:
- Javelins 9”
- Arquebus and all bows 18”
- Muskets 24”
- Artillery: Light 24” Medium 36” Heavy 48”
The firer rolls a D6 and amends the result for the following:
-2 if the target is Winged Hussars, Household Spahis, skirmishers or war wagons. This is due to better protection or dispersed formations.
-1 all other armoured or shielded troop types.
-1 if target is behind cover.
-1 over half range.
-1 if firers disordered.
+1 if firers are using gunpowder weapons.
+1 if target disordered.
The target unit player then rolls a D6 and must equal or beat the above adjusted score to avoid receiving a casualty.
When gunpowder weapons are fired, this is marked by a piece of cotton wool to show they will need to reload. They do this by expending a bead when a Movement card is turned and only moving at up to half speed. Bows and man powered weapons do not need to do this and can fire each time a Firing card is turned for the cost of a bead.
HAND TO HAND
Melees are conducted as follows:
The units must be in base to base contact when the Melee card is turned up. The troops wishing to melee, must expend a bead, and then carry out the following actions. First, look up the appropriate factor for fighting to front or flank. Then roll a D6 and add that to the factor and then reduce the total by 1 if the unit is disordered. The opponent then does the same actions and the results are compared.
- If one side’s total is double the other, then the loser suffers 3 casualties.
- If one side beats the other sides score, then the loser suffers 1 casualty.
- If the result is a tie, then both sides suffer 1 casualty unless that results in both units breaking and being removed.
If one unit is fighting an enemy unit to its front and to its flank, the frontal combats are resolved first.
Units can absorb between 2 and 5 casualties before breaking. (See the army listings, downloadable as excel spreadsheets: tabletopgaming.co.uk/downloads)
Aside from breaking – see above – there is no other unit morale, but there is a force morale for the Army as a whole that determines when a force quits the battlefield. Both sides agree a level of casualties that it will accept. This could be drawn from a scenario; be weighted to one side or the other; or simply be the result of a dice roll. When we fight unbalanced scenarios, we often allow the smaller force to accept a greater level of casualties to even the battle up.
Army morale is calculated by adding up all the key units on the battlefield for each side. Note that some units are not key and some only count as a ½ of a key unit, and any unit with a casualty rating of 5 counts as 1½ key units. Apply the casualty level to this, to calculate how many units each force can lose before retiring.
To give an example of this: a small, somewhat fanatical Turkish force of 10 Key Units has a casualty level of 50%, so it can lose 5 units before the battle is over, while its Muscovite opponents of 15 Key Units can only accept 33% losses so – again – will withdraw when 5 units are lost. This gives the Turkish commander the option of either standing off and picking the Muscovites off by firepower, or – if it has a lot of good cavalry or fanatics – of really ‘going for it’!
HAVE I INTRIGUED YOU ENOUGH?
The combination of the command and control system, the army morale rating and key units scoring, makes this period very different from any other that we play. It is also very colourful and mixes new and old technology. To add extra variation, we brought in a rule for Turkish and Muscovite artillery exploding. Two D6 were rolled every time the gun fired and – on a roll of double 1 on the two D6’s – this meant the gun had blown up!
TAKE IT DOWN A NOTCH
The rules are also easily adopted for skirmish games. All the rules still apply with the following exception. If a figure is attacked in melee by two opponents, then the combat is not resolved as a frontal versus frontal attack, followed by a frontal versus flank one. Instead the force with the advantage uses its frontal factor for each attack, whilst the outnumbered defender adds its frontal attack and flank value together and allocates the total between the two attacks allocating at least one point to each. The combat is then resolved as normal.
For example a Streltsy with a front of 5 and flank of 1, is attacked by two Cossack cavalry with a front of 3. He can either fight as is with an advantage of 2 and a deficit of 2; or choose to allocate the total of 6 as two 3s for two even melees. This reduces the chance of doubling – or being doubled – but it should make the melee last longer and allow reinforcements to be deployed.
I hope this article has whet the appetites of some players who were perhaps unaware of this period, and gives an Eastern option to a skirmish game, which is completely different to, say, a Pikeman’s Lament game, even though it is set in the same time period.
There are a large number of unfamiliar figures, in the photographs used in this article, so with the editors indulgence I will name a few:
The Turks are mainly Ral Partha, Irregular Miniatures and Hinchliffe. The Poles (from Adrian How’s collection) are 1st Corps for the wagons and Warlord and Foundry for the figures. The Muscovites are Hinchliffe, Minifigs and The Assault Group. The Swedes are Warlord, Minifigs and 1st Corps. The flags are supplied by Adrian’s Walls and the buildings are from the same source or scratch built by Malc Johnson. The trees are from the Lost Valley.
As you may have deduced, a lot of my figures are at least three or four decades old! But then, I am even older!
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