11 May 2020
The great game, in miniature, in the biggest recreation.
How would you judge a game as the biggest single 28mm wargame ever played? Would it be the number of miniatures, perhaps? Think “22,435 Napoleonic figures”. Or perhaps the number of participants? How about 114 players: 80 of them experienced, the rest with little or no knowledge of wargaming? What about the size of the battlefield? How about a map across tables measuring 24 by 8 metres (that’s 192 square metres), printed from William Siborne’s original 1830 survey of the Waterloo battlefield?
This was the game played over the weekend of June 15th and 16th in Glasgow University’s Kelvin Gallery: a glorious pillared venue designed by Gilbert Scott in 1870, complete with balcony above the game for spectators. In this article I’ll tell you something of the background to this massive game and examine some of the wargaming implications of running a game on such a huge scale.
Image above: French Command: can they pull it offf!
Getting the Act Together
Though the whole mad idea was Professor Tony Pollard’s, to make it work needed substantial commitment from many groups and individuals. Organisationally, a long list of issues had to be addressed before the possibility of such a game could be made public. Then there was the key question: could enough players be found? It turned out that, yes, they could. In fact, more people wanted to play than there were slots for. Participants came from as far afield as the USA, Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, as well as all corners of the UK.
The whole event was in support of the charity Waterloo Uncovered. This is a charity which is excavating the Waterloo battlefield, under Prof Pollard’s direction, primarily around Hougoumont – an exercise which, surprisingly, had not been attempted prior to 2015. The most important characteristic of this project is that it gives opportunities for military veterans to take part. Their welfare, recovery and transition into civilian life can be supported by introducing them to a new skillset: the reflective and painstaking processes of battlefield archaeology. This proves to be particularly valuable for veterans suffering from PTSD, for example, but it also can open up new interests and perhaps educational opportunities for any veteran.
By creating the largest ever wargame, it was hoped both to raise funds for the charity, and to raise its profile through the publicity attracted. As it turns out, The Great Game was hugely successful in both these aims. Around £15,000 was raised – a significant amount for a small charity. In part this was through merchandising: unique dice and polo shirts were available for players to buy, and on the Saturday evening midway during the game, participants were invited to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, a social event which included reenactors, the occasional drink, and tours of the state-of-play on the battlefield. The game was also preceded by a Study Day of seminars, given by experts in the archaeology and history of Waterloo. All these activities created extensive publicity. Reports appeared on BBC and ITV news, on many radio stations, in every quality national newspaper and the local press, as well as finding wide international exposure through social media including, for example, in the Chinese media.
The Logic of Logistics
As in war, so in massive games: effective logistics determine the effectiveness of the whole enterprise. Can we find enough players? Enough suitable figures? Can they be painted in time? How can we organise the OOB? How do we create a playing surface that’s big enough, accurate, and perfectly playable? Where is there a room large enough to put it in? What about terrain features – researching them, building them, painting them? Any of these areas might prove so problematic with a very large game that everything else falters or fails.
As the whole rationale for such an implausible idea was to support Waterloo Uncovered, it’s not surprising that many of these issues were addressed by the generosity of individuals and organisations. Top of the list would be Glasgow University itself, providing the space, the infrastructure, the publicity, and a wide range of support facilities, including many staff and student volunteers who also erected and took down 200 tables and reported live on the event to create atmosphere. Companies stepping forward to help included Warlord, the Perry Brothers, Sarissa Precision, Bicorne Miniatures and Warbases. Both the Perrys and Warlord discounted figures for players so that the required numbers were easier to reach. And, as Warlord pointed out, such an event was a great piece of publicity for them, too. The university took something of a risk in supporting the event but the game was clearly a valuable example of what unis call “outreach” – connecting their academic activities with those more familiar to the person in the street.
A core example of the scale of issues to be grappled with is managing such a quantity of figures. Many came from the collections of the players. Others were painted by local communities or distant gamers who generously gave their time and skills. After the game many such “surplus” figures were donated, to be auctioned on Ebay, as will the buildings from the game. All proceeds will go to Waterloo Uncovered – so watch out for these, as there were some beautiful, and many generous, contributions.
In order to make any sort of claim for “world’s largest historical wargame”, the inventory of those figures had to be accurately audited. On the Friday before the game, around 5000 stands of figures, all pre-labelled and coded, had to be brought together, registered, counted and deployed at the correct position on the field of battle. After the game, the process had to be reversed, with every incidental casualty over the two days returned to its correctly labelled box for collection. Hence the need for a support team patrolling the lanes between tables collecting casualties, calling “Bring out your dead”. With 114 players, 22,435 figures, and around 200 boxes, efficient administrative processes were absolutely essential.
Image above: Even in a big game there's room for a vignette!
Designing the Game
As with any game, those elements of design which are most important for success are the Order of Battle (OOB), the rules and the terrain. These three interact, of course: the rules determine the nature of units to be fielded, terrain features such as buildings must take account of unit footprints, the boundaries of the field limit the forces taking part (do we include Grouchy, for example?) and so on.
The OOB was built so that experienced players would act as Brigadiers in control of the units on the table, but commanders at Divisional level and above were largely inexperienced in wargaming, responsible for framing the orders their more experienced brigadiers were to carry out. These inexperienced gamers were mainly military veterans and serving personnel, plus a few archaeologists. A major aim of the event was to mix these different communities, enabling a sharing of experience and expertise. Divisional commanders might perhaps know little of wargaming, but may well have extensive military knowledge. Knowledge of the historical battle might be sketchy in a team, or very detailed.
Rules & Tweaks
The rules chosen had to suit both experienced and novice players, handle this hugest of games, yet give a reasonable chance of a result in 12 hours (four sessions each of four 45 minute IGO/UGO turns). They had to be comparatively simple, with principles that could be quickly learned, offer a decent version of Napoleonic warfare yet be fun to play.
Warlord’s Black Powder 2 (or “BP2”) pretty well satisfies all these criteria. True, they don’t offer the meticulous detail that a “simulation” gamer might demand, but they have the huge virtue of being easy for non-gamers to get into, whilst many players already knew them. They give a convincing flavour of some aspects of Napoleonic warfare in a very playable game that doesn’t get bogged down in too many detailed exceptions.
A little tweaking was necessary, however, mainly to make sure as many players as possible were as involved as possible for as long as possible. For example, to maximise the number of figures on the table, most of the experienced gamers commanded a historical brigade comprising three or four battalions each of three 24 figure units, or cavalry regiments of three 12 figure units. Some were also assigned divisional batteries. The three-unit battalion gave each player more units to play with, so a greater chance of a longer game.
Image above: Playing the long game
This step created a small problem with BP2, however. In a slightly confusing way, a battalion in BP2 becomes a TGG ‘unit’, so a BP2 Brigade was, in TGG, actually a battalion or regiment. Players did not seem to have any real problem with this shift in naming, despite the lack of historical rationale. It also meant, however, that rules for Break Tests also had to be adapted so that Battalions and Regiments, rather than Brigades, took tests. Moreover, the rules for Breaking were also relaxed, again to give units a better chance of survival. For any battalions or regiments of only two units, both units would have to be Destroyed or Off-Table for the battalion to be regarded as broken, whilst larger battalions would only break when reduced to 1 intact unit.
Brigadiers were treated as BP2 Generals, able to give a Battalion commander a reroll and attempt a Rally order per turn. Obviously, this made units much more resilient than in normal BP2 and, if Rally orders were used judiciously, a battalion could last much longer than the 2-3 hours typical of smaller BP2 games. In fact, over the weekend, commanders learned to make very judicious use of the Rally rules, so that many units apparently in trouble, came bouncing back, and something like three quarters of the battalions and regiments were on the field, bloodied but unbowed, at the end of the game.
A few other tweaks were made to the rules. Here’s three worth considering, if you play a big Black Powder game:
- Interpenetration is probably one of the most contentious aspects of BP2. In TGG, units were not allowed to interpenetrate if charging, preventing that somewhat unhistorical practice. However, this still provoked some discussion. Is it possible, for example, for a unit given an order such as “Advance through the friendly unit ahead, and charge any unit you see?” In BP2 a good command dice throw allows a unit to make two, or even three, moves. If interpenetrating, by our rule tweak it can’t charge on the first of its moves, but with such an order, if clear of the unit it penetrates after the first move, can it charge or not, on its second or third move?
- Formed infantry were allowed to move through woods at half move, making them more mobile, though they were not given the bonus save ‘unclear target’ that skirmishers have.
- Attack Columns normally have +1 Morale save. In TGG this was modified. If the opponent did not Retire or Break in the first round of melee then in subsequent rounds the column lost this bonus. This encouraged French attack columns to break through quickly, especially when combining this initial advantage with maximum support.
Every regiment and battalion from the battle was represented on the table, initially disposed according to Siborne’s survey although some adjustments were made in the interests of playability, such as shifting the location of Plancenoit. Some units were more evident than might be expected - the squadron of Brunswick uhlans was the same strength as the hussars, for example, whilst the French Guard fielded a splendid squadron of unlikely mamelukes. However, given the scale of the enterprise, there was an amazingly high-level of authenticity and some very beautiful figures, including many striking command groups and superb vignettes.
Image above: The gallery afforded a splendid view of the proceedings
For terrain, Siborne’s map was blown up and printed out to cover the 192 square metres of tables. This entailed some stretching of the historical battlefield, but not excessively so. Issues did arise, however, with how to interpret some features on those maps, notably hedges and ridges. These were easy to identify from the balcony’s bird’s eye view, but less obvious when close up. Should every hatch-mark on the printed map have an impact on the movement or concealment of figures?
The difficulty of ensuring consistency in over such a very large tabletop led to very simple decisions here. We decided that only the British ridge between Hougoumont and La Haie Sainte and the French ridge immediately opposite it counted as such. Their crests were taken as the parallel table edges, with the slope stretching twelve inches “into” the table, meaning that there was a valley four feet wide between the two ridges and that any units on the tables to the rear were “behind” the crests. We also decided that only those hedges for which a physical marker had been provided would count, as many of the map’s details were open to interpretation.
The lesson here is perhaps that, even with the most carefully researched map, as Siborne’s was, pragmatic decisions need to be made well beforehand concerning what on the map counts as what in the rules. With a large number of inexperienced players, simplicity of approach has to be the key criterion.
Issues in the Game
Physically, such a massive game means the space has to be managed well, and players need elbow room. The map was divided into four rows of tables, each row 24 metres long, each table 2 metres deep, with lanes between, meaning that figures would quite frequently be ported from one table to another and firing could take place across tables. At times this made for some interesting social encounters in those lanes, but all was managed decorously and without hazard. Movement trays were essential, however, as sometimes was the assistance of umpires, to get the right figures to exactly the right place on an adjacent table.
The gaps between tables could create problems of perception for players, however. Because we’re used to seeing a table edge as also the edge of the battlefield, i.e. the edge of the game, there can be a reluctance in games like this to look across to adjacent tables to see what might be going on. This may mean that you don’t notice the fast-moving cavalry about to outflank you, or the friendly unit in dire need of your support. Where commanders on adjacent tables remembered to communicate with each other, this problem was largely removed, so the pragmatic lanes actually proved an interesting device to affect command communication and, incidentally, to encourage interaction between players who had begun the game as strangers (when I played in a very large game in a big hall – a Pirate game at Camberley Officers Staff college some twenty five years ago with around a hundred players and 30 galleons – I took a telescope with me. Invaluable...! Ed.).
The French right flank, with its impending Prussians, proved the area of greatest compromise. There’s no point in having a game which is to maximise the pleasure of the players if the Prussian arrival is so uncertain that Prussian players spend all morning in the café, or so predictable that, when they do arrive, all they discover is a massively reinforced French defence.
Prussian forces were limited to two historical Corps: 1st Corps under Ziethen and 4th Corps under Von Bulow. The French were forbidden from reactive deployment until sufficient Prussians had appeared. Prussian arrival was randomised, so that the Prussian players would have to make a judgement as to when they’d gathered sufficient forces to deliver a worthwhile attack. Once any Prussian forces crossed an arbitrarily determined line, the French would be free to deploy. Both sides, therefore, were kept uncertain, not knowing exactly when they would be able to act, with what forces. Whilst this meant no actual conflict might occur on this flank in the first session of play, both sides would still be engaged in some dice throwing and second guessing.
Image above: The guards await the onslaught
Time & a Word
Timing was perhaps the most difficult factor to get right. Enough time is needed per turn for each player to work through the familiar BP2 sequence of Command – Move – Fire – Fight – Outcome, yet not so much time that other players aren’t left twiddling their moustaches. Turns have to be coordinated across the entire game because events in one area may impact an adjacent one. Turns of 45 minutes, with 22 minutes per side per turn proved a very workable approach. Where this occasionally proved tight for ‘busy’ parts of the field Divisional Commanders and umpires could step in to assist.
With so many figures, so many variables, novice players, and game-specific rules, the role of the umpires, as facilitators as much as arbitrators, was probably critical to success. At the same time, the universally collegial spirit in which the game was played, with opponents advising each other on tactics, and players helping each other out with rules, not only did a great deal to make the game work, it meant that the abiding impression of every participant was a well-managed game conducted with 100 friends.
“It’s a disaster for both sides!”
This was the reporters’ judgement shortly before the game came to an end, but Head Umpire, Bill Gilchrist, judged the game, on balance, an Allied victory. Although the French managed to take both Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, and push the Allies back to their rearmost position in the French right centre, the inexorable advance of the Prussians on all four tables had stretched French reserves to breaking point. La Haye Sainte was recaptured, and on the French left, where initially it seemed they might have the greatest chance of outflanking the Allied forces, the massive French cavalry attack stalled, then was pushed back by – of all troops – Dutch militia.
But it was absolutely the opposite of a disaster: all participants were truly winners, along with Glasgow University and Waterloo Uncovered. One could hardly imagine a wargame which yielded more pleasure – so much so that the Facebook page dedicated to the game is still receiving dozens of posts daily, well after the event, with excited discussion taking place of possible future games on the same scale. Leipzig, anybody?
Info on the work of Waterloo Uncovered: waterloouncovered.com
Much discussion, many photos and after action reports on the game can be found on the Facebook page: Friends of The Great Game Waterloo Replayed facebook.com/groups/794931190712445/permalink/1048338218705073
There also a website, although this is now a little out of date: waterlooreplayed.com
Words by Noel Williams
Photography by Noel and Carrol Williams
This review originally appeared in Issue 437 of Miniature Wargames . Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue