Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Black Powder: A Review

The postman has finally delivered my copy of the Black Powder rules, and so I thought I should post a review from my first reading:

First, the basics: Black Powder is a new set of rules by the Games Workshop old-hands Rick Priestley & Jervis Johnson, and is published by Warlord Games. It covers a period of a full 200 years, broadly from 1700 to 1900. (Readers of this blog will probably be minded towards the SYW themselves, and there is certainly lots of suitability.)

First thing is first: the actual look of the book is incredible. No stapled A4 booklet here! Hardback, nice illustrations, a colour picture on virtually every page, and usually of a ridiculously vast diorama. This is a genuine work of love by a set of enthusiasts, and easily the best-looking book I’ve ever seen in the hobby. Maybe standards are higher nowadays and this merely shows my ignorance, but this is surely excellent stuff in anyone’s eyes.

Language & Style
The actual writing is marvellously judged to suit the period, typically being rather over-polite and gentlemanly, shot through with a dry humour. For example, the Foreword advises it is “a game for militarily inclined gentlemen with straight backs, bristling beards, and rheumy eyes that have seen a thing or two … The library or billiard room will serve as our battlefield, or else some similarly spacious and secluded refuge. Ensure that children are safely put to bed and … secure the doors against the intrusion of womenfolk as yet unfamiliar with the conventions of war.” What’s not to like in that? Each topic in the rules is typically given a 2-page spread, so it’s all visible when laid open on the table for reference mid-game. There are no excessive bullet-points or quick summaries, but a discussive tone, with the same humorous style throughout. For example, when the rules mention marking casualties on units they advise using models of fallen soldiers, adding: “Some gamers will doubtless feel that this service can be provided equally well with pen and paper. This notion has a whiff of accountancy about it and can only be recommended to those irretreivably so inclined.”

The game itself is simple and has a no-nonsense straightforwardness. There is a standard and unvarying ‘to hit’ roll and a ‘save’ roll on all combat, and all modifiers merely increase or decrease the number of dice rolled – making it very easy to remember. Each generic type of unit has a profile stating the number of dice rolled for shooting or hand-to-hand combat, a morale value (the number of save dice it rolls) plus a stamina level. Successful hits leave casualty markers, and when they exceed the stamina level it becomes possible the unit can break and flee.
Orders are given from a dice roll, to individual units or a group, depending on a general’s ability and luck – if he fails to issue an order he must stop all other intended orders, forcing careful consideration and prioritising. Also, if he rolls very badly there is the possibility of a nasty blunder taking place!
That, in a nutshell, is it! The mechanics are remarkably close in style to Warmaster, in case any of this is sounding familiar.
For particular flavour there are pages of Special Rules listed, all of minor but telling tweaks which have quite an impact through the simple games system. Each one is not usually specified for where and when it should be used, but is accompanied by a small commentary discussing the impact it has, and the sort of rough style of troops it should be applied to. This makes the reader take up slack, judging for themselves whether they think Prussian Infantry should be given the ‘First Fire’ or ‘Sharp Shooters’ bonus, and so on.
As a final note, I should add that the book has advanced rules, covers unusual items like howitzers or rockets, personalities for generals, half a dozen played-through battle reports as extended examples, plus some appendices of advice for different scales and sizing of units.

The level of detail and specific instructions in Black Powder has been deliberately left low, with the writers taking long stride back from telling you how to do everything. They expect enthusiastic players to work things out themselves, and don’t spoon-feed you requirements. I would say this is as much a toolkit for wargaming as a ruleset - especially with the special rules mentioned above. It aims to point a way, accepts most wargamers rewrite things and use ‘house-rules’ anyway, and so puts much more emphasis on players to think right from the start. It’s actually remarkable to think of the ‘classic’ elements of rulebooks left out: There are no minimum force sizes, no setup zones, no army lists, and not even a points system! (Well, all right – they grudgingly and disdainfully include a “suggested” points system for tournament play, hidden away in one of the appendices. They encourage players to simply do it the historical way – fight a battle with a force you reckon is adequate to win the day against the enemy. In other words, the very thing that a points system just puts an arbitrary figure on!) This results in an Exhilirating sense of freedom and the aim is just as much – if not more – to encourage enthusiasm for wargaming. About a third of the book is example battles written up and played through, and combined with the whole book’s discussive style it is remarkably reminiscent of the 1970s books by Charles Grant or Donald Featherstone. In fact, I would suggest it is at least their spiritual descendant, owing them a huge debt.

Should you try it? If you want a detailed, scientific set of rules, I would advise “No.” If you want a playable and simple set with the emphasis on game rather than simulation, I would advise “Yes.” And if you liked ‘The War Game’ by Charles Grant, I would advise “Definitely!”



The Direktors in Herrschaden wish to import this written work. Where do they get it? Could you post a link here KundK?


Bluebear Jeff said...

A nice style of review, sir. Might one inquire as to the number of pages?

Also how are units depicted? Is it the "three stands" per unit of Warmaster? Individual figures? What?

In other words, looking at their photos, how have they based their units?

Also what are typical movement rates? Does an infantry unit in the open move 4"? 6", 8", 12", or what?

-- Jeff

Capt Bill said...

I've been thinking about these rules, but was put off by the large price tag. Thanks for your exceptional review...

A J said...

Hmm... Thanks for the review. They certainly sound good, although I'm not looking for other rules sets.

Fitz-Badger said...

Thanks for the review! I hadn't really thought about this book, but now I want to take a look at it.
Sounds like its stand-based, but I'm interested in the answers to Jeff's question if you wouldn't mind obliging us. :)

CWT said...

Hi Everyone! Sorry for the oversights, but I knew I could pick up things in comments. Here goes:

The book weighs in at a respectable 180-odd pages.

the publishers are www.warlordgames.co.uk (sorry, I'm not techno-savvy enough to post a link!) You could order from them, but I obtained a copy through Amazon or Waterstones' website.

The whole rulebook is done for Perry Miniatures' 28mm figures, but there is no basing system, stands per unit, or figure removal. They encourage modifying things to suit yourself, and advise with changing scale, etc. As long as you are able to denote changes of formation between column, line, etc. you'll be fine. They use an arbitrary 24-man unit, but you can easily go smaller or larger. Personally my units are each 15mm figs on 2 large bases, and I don't see why this shouldn't be fine. I would not expect anybody to have to rebase figures.

Movement is 12" per move for infantry, and if well-ordered a unit can make up to 3 moves a turn! It does not mean vast moves are a good idea just because they are possible, though. Units in a brigade need to be 6" from each other, and the chance of issuing orders dips with every extra 12" distance to the commander. Forces committed to the tabletop will be in action fast enough so there is no wait for two or three turns to 'get at' the enemy, but if you get carried away your army will likely fall apart. The scales are for 28mm Perrys, so as I am using 15mm figures I will be replacing inches with centimetres, or halving all distances.

I will shortly be trying the rules out in a battle, and so will say how well it works with 'x' units on a 'y'-sized table, etc.

If you have any more queries, let me know!

Chris said...

A great review -- I'm looking forward to your post-trial thoughts on how they work with 'x' units on a 'y'-sized table, etc.