Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hackbutt & Pike - review

This is another review in the Once and Future Rules series, of wargame rules that are out of print, but that got a lot of play at one time (at least, in the clubs and groups I played in since the early 1980s).

This review is of Hackbutt & Pike, the Tac-50 series rules for Renaissance wargaming.  These were printed in 1977, but copies are still available through Cotton Jim Flags (write and ask - I think they are $5, which is a great price for a rulebook these days, and they still read well).

The period of the renaissance has remained (through most of my adult life) one of my favorite periods of history for both study, and for wargaming.  As you can tell, if you have been following this series of reviews from the beginning, I have dabbled with or played a number of different rulesets for the period.

And I am at least planning to do the Protz ECW rules, and the Gush Renaissance rules in the series.

Chesapeake Military Society - a Reminiscence
Along side all those other Renaissance rules, why am I reviewing Hackbutt & Pike?  Simply for two reasons.  First, they are rules that I played in the 80s and 90s (which fits the criteria of this series of articles).  Second, they are part of a series of rule sets that helped to define my earliest exposure to a wargaming club.

In the early 1980s, while in High School, and shortly after I began driving, I discovered (through an advertisement at a local bookstore in a mall - remember mall book stores?) that there was a local wargaming club that met in Hampton, Virginia at the local National Guard Armory.  That club was the Chesapeake Military Society (CMS).  Prior to my exposure to the club they previously met at one of the old batteries at Fort Monroe.  By the time I encountered them, they were meeting once a month at the Armory.  Now, the National Guard Armory, in Hampton, consisted of a large muster area for the Guard meetings, plus a large building that included a basketball sized gymnasium. This is where the gaming club met.  As a testament to the gross popularity of tabletop gaming at the time, they would fill up the place.  There would be all sorts of miniatures games going on, and when I first went, there were also some role playing games.  There was a terrific WW2 naval battle (using Seapower III I think), with 1:1200 ships, on the floor of the gymnasium (the old school - with long surveyor's tapes run out to lengths of 20+ feet between ships for salvos, etc).  And there was a large Napoleonic game, in lovely 25mm, being played on a large table.

This Napoleonics game being played (and refereed) by the core members of the club, although there were many other games going on.  The rules for the game were Valeur et Discipline, written by the luminary behind the club - Mr. Ben King.  Ben had several other rules that the club used, and in this particular series (which is called Tac-50 - as they are all based on a 1:50 scale) there are four sets proper - Mitre, Mustache & Musket for Seven Years War (and mid 18th century), Valeur et Discipline for Napoleonics, Kepi & Pickelhaub for mid 19th century, and Hackbutt & Pike for Renaissance.  Another set, for Vauban era siege warfare and early 18th century field battles exists called Fusil & Fortress, but it is on another scale of detail from the rest of the series, and covers so much more than the rest.  I plan to review several (or perhaps all) of these in this series.

Shortly after this time, the peninsula location of Campaign Headquarters (the original was in Norfolk, Virginia) would open, and CMS would change to have their monthly meetings at the store.  It was at these meetings that I became familiar with the Tac-50 rules.  Usually, but not always, refereed by Ben, the rules are very clear, and are also quite "bloody" - leading to a high casualty rate, for quick play games.
Hackbutt & Pike is not the set of Tac-50 rules that I played the most often (that is probably Valeur et Discipline), but it is the set that I refereed several times, and the set I played most often outside of the CMS club meeting settings.  And it is one of my favorite periods, as mentioned earlier.  The ruleset does not lay down a specific time period (probably for the best), but could easily stretch back to the 14th century (as the introduction to the history section begins there), which includes the later Medieval period, and could run up to the middle of the 17th century - the Monmouth Rebellion or War of the Grand Alliance might be possible, but would be a stretch.

Battle of Rocroi, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau
The rules come in a nice 8.5x11 booklet, running to 44 pages in length.  They are divided up into eight sections:
  1. Game Structure
  2. Terrain & Weather
  3. History, Tactics & Organization
  4. Movement
  5. Melee
  6. Firepower
  7. Casualties
  8. Control, Reaction & Morale
They follow up with a nice bibliography.  This ruleset's bibliography first introduced me to Charles Oman's Art of War in the Sixteenth Century, so for that alone I am forever indebted.

The Game Structure is basically an overview of scale (1 model soldier represents 50 men), and how to base figures for the game.  Time scale is given, also - turns are 25-30 minutes, and ground is 1" to 25 yards.  This is followed by some basic game concepts - you should write general orders for your army, and also fire priority for all your missile troops.  There should be a command figure representing your general on the tabletop, and each turn, both armies should write tactical orders detailing things like charges, changes in move, etc.  If a player wishes to change the overall battle orders for a unit, they must be carried from the general to the unit by a courier figure (the general has two such figures at the start of the game), which may be captured or killed in the process.

Swiss Mercenaries crossing the Alps, by Luzerner Schilling

One word right up front.  I have remarked in this series of reviews over and over again how I don't care for simultaneous move rules (which Tac-50 sets all are), and how I dislike writing orders.  However . . . every rule has it's exception.  Some of the Tac-50 games I played were extremely enjoyable, and with a knowledgeable and active referee it can work.  Arguments can still arise, but if the referee is respected by all the players, it works out well.  Forward.

The next section covers terrain and weather this has several sections in it.
  • Roads - how to depict them, and what they mean for movement
  • Ground condition - roll 3d6; 3-7 bad ground; 8-18 good ground.  Optional of course.
  • Weather - what it is, and how it changes.
  • Forests - dense and light
  • Hills - 10 yard contours, and how they affect movement and visibility
  • Obstacles, Barriers, and Field Works - how to pass them, how to lay them, and war wagons (Hussites?)
  • Rivers and Streams - how to depict them, how to ford them
  • Bridges and Boats
  • Houses
This is followed up by a nice, but sadly too concise, section (running about 6 pages) on the history, tactics, and composition of some major armies of the Renaissance period. Following this, which includes some nice diagrams showing some of the major battalia formations of the period (such as the Spanish Tercio, or the Swiss Keil), we then move on to section 4, which begins the meat of the rules.

Turn Order and Movement
Section 4 is called Movement, and begins with a short overview of the turn structure.  The turn is intended to be simultaneously executed, with both sides moving, and then fighting and shooting all taking place simultaneously.  This works well if you have an organized and knowledgeable referee guiding things.

The turn sequence, as presented here, is this:
  1. (Implied) - Write Orders
  2. Skirmishers may fire weapons
  3. Movement of Troops
  4. Fire of weapons by Formed Troops (and artillery)
  5. Hand to Hand Combat 
As mentioned, skirmishers may fire before all moves.  Or, they may do a split move and fire.  If, while doing this, they come into range of enemy troops, they may still be fired on by those troops in the proper turn sequence.

Other actions other than regular moves are covered, as a function of how many they can perform in a turn (or how many turns they will take).  This includes such things as infantry moving backwards, crossing obstacles, entering a building, passage of lines, or forming a wagon lager.

The movement chart gives moves for formed units and skirmishers.  For cavalry it also lists Caracole movement (moving up, discharging pistols, and return).

Artillery and Wagons are given movement rates for draught animals (being pulled along), or being manhandled.

Hand-to-Hand Fighting

The next section of the rules covers hand-to-hand fighting, or melee combat.  Although this period, in history, and as described in the history section of the rulebook, is a period when disciplined soldiery began to replace the heavy knight on the battlefield.  However, the heavy knight is still a superior weapon, even if it cannot win battles on its own any longer.  And, much of the replacement of the knight is in the form of pikemen and other polearm supplied troops (although this would give way, and evolve into, the bayonet).

While there is currently a debate about the use of the pike (see my earlier article Push of Pike), in wargaming the possibility exists that they may be exercised effectively - so rules have to exist.  And with these two arms of the renaissance battlefield (the horse, and the pike) being focused on hand-to-hand fighting, it is fitting that this is a major focus of the rules.

A side note - although above I make that case that hand-to-hand fighting is a major feature of renaissance warfare, and thus the Hackbutt & Pike rules, it is true that close combat is a major feature (a battle winning feature) of all the Tac-50 rules.  This is appropriate, because it is what wargamers seek to engage in.  And whether the encounter reflects the actual casualties that occur from bayonets and pikes piercing the enemy soldiery, or if those casualties reflect a fleeing soldiery that lost their nerve in the face of such weapons, it matters little - it is a part of combat in these periods, and something wargamers regularly rely on to win battles.

In these rules, the key to Hand-to-Hand fighting is the point value of the soldiers involved.  Light Infantry figures are worth 1 point each, up to Heavy Cavalry (Knights) are worth 4 points each.  The basic procedure is to total up the number of points you have fighting, more on how that is calculated is described below, then find that row on the casualty table, roll some dice, and you get a number of points inflicted (by consulting the proper column on the table).  Divide this number of points by the point value of the target unit, and you get the number of figures killed.
The Casualty Table

How many figures will fight?  This is found by consulting a table called the Melee Matrix.  There, you will cross reference two different letters - each reflecting the weapon system of one of the two units involved (attacker on the left, defender across the top), and the result will give which column to roll on, on the casualty table, and will also tell you how many ranks of figures get to fight.  From there, take a look at the point of contact - all figures on the front rank in contact, and all those to their flanks within 2" (about 1 multi figure stand) on either side of the contact, will get to fight.  Plus a similar number of additional ranks, if additional ranks get to fight.
Melee Matrix, and Point Values of Figures

Difference of Dice is printed boldly across the top of the Casualty Table.  This is how the exact number of points is determined.  The players will roll 2d6, and determine the difference between them.  So if a play rolls a 6 and a 3, the difference is 3.  Doesn't matter which dice is first or second, it is only the difference that matters.  Doubles must be re-rolled.  In this way, a weighted series of results is determined (take a look at a simple 6x6 matrix, with the odds of each difference counted up to see what I am talking about), and a curve is introduced into the casualty table, while still preserving only 5 columns of numbers.

Which column on the Casualty Table to use?

The basic system is similar to a few other rule sets (point values goes back to Charles Grant, I believe), but of those reviewed in this blog, it is very similar to Forlorn Hope, the biggest difference being that the results in Hackbutt & Pike are in points, rather than in whole figures.

As mentioned, one of the lacking elements of the (otherwise excellent) quick reference sheet provided with the game (the book comes with two copies), is the table of letters defining a unit's fighting style.  Here is the table (note that there are two entries for 'E'):
A - Dry Pikes
B - Supported Pikes (with swordsmen, dopplesoldners, polearms, etc)
C - Short Hafted Pole Arms (halberd, glaives, etc)
D - Targeteers - Sword and Targe (or Buckler) armed
E - Disciplined Soldiers with Misc Weapons (sword, axe, spear, etc)
E - All troops that are in Open Order (this is usually missile armed troops)
F - Infantry in Skirmish Formation
G - Dismounted Warriors - trained, but undisciplined, such as foot knights or most Turkish infantry
H - Cavalry in Close Order
I - Cavalry in Skirmish Order (horse archers, etc)
Example: A unit of 18 'dry' Medium Infantry Pikemen (3 stands across, in two ranks, 1.5 points each) are facing a unit of 24 Sword & Buckler Light Infantry men (4 stands across, in two ranks, 1 point each).  Consulting the weapon system table in the book (frustatingly, this is the one table that is not on the quick reference sheet, but the letter of each unit could be recorded on an order of battle sheet), we find that 'dry' Pikemen (so called because they are not supported by zweihanders, polearms, or other supporting infantry) are the letter 'A'.  Also consulting, we find out that the Sword & Buckler men are the letter 'D'.   Comparing this, we find that an A unit vs a D unit (on the Melee Matrix) rolls on Column I, and uses 1 rank of troops.  Similarly, the D unit vs the A unit rolls on Column III, and uses 1 rank of troops.  Both units will use their whole front rank (9 figures for the Pikemen, and 12 figures for the Swordsmen).  Checking for the pikes first, we find 9 figures times 1.5 points is 13.5, or rounded up, 14 points on the casualty table.  The dice are rolled, a 4 and a 2, or difference of 2 in column I.  This means '2' points have been inflicted, which means 2 whole Swordsmen have been killed.  Returning the favor, 12 swordsmen, at 1 point each, is the 12 roll on the table.  Consulting column III, with a dice difference of 3 (a 4 and 1 were rolled), we see that 9 points were inflicted, which means (at 1.5 points each) 6 pikemen were killed.
Not mentioned in the above example, which serves to illustrate the use of the melee matrix and the casualty table, but there is a list of possible dice modifiers.  Compared to many rulesets this list is blessedly short, as can be seen here.

 Now for the exciting part.  Combat is fought in (potentially) up to 6 rounds.  First, assuming that both units pass morale tests, they enter combat, and fight three rounds.  Then some mid-combat tests are further performed, and if both pass, they fight another three rounds.  The second three rounds assume that there is now a general melee and discipline is flown out the window, so all the niceties of the melee matrix is ignored, and all combat is only in column I.  What can stop this slaughter?  Well, if a unit has taken results that meet their Maximum Allowed Loss (M.A.L.), then it can trigger an end to the hostilities, or if the morale tests dictate so (see morale below).  Usually, three rounds are fought, and that is decisive.  Those three rounds are fought in rapid succession, not over three turns, by the way.  So when a unit hits another, there are (possibly) three or six casualty rolls for each side.  It is bloody, but is is also dramatic, as you see how one unit starts to fail and eventually is swamped.  Stubborn units get to go all in for six rounds of fighting - massive carnage!

The close combat section ends with rules on how to fight encounters between leaders (say, with a personal duel).  Also, once a combat is over and one side or the other retires, it is important to determine if either side captured a standard.  This can have an impact on morale tests, and provides for great bragging rights. It is based on a reaction test (see below).

Ranged Combat

The whole series of Tac-50 rules, if taken chronologically (and including the 18th century set Fusil & Fortress), is a series of wargaming rules charting the evolution of firepower from the late medieval period (the eponymous hackbutt of the set being reviewed here), up through the height of the age of rifles (the end of the 19th century, as portrayed in Kepi & Pickelhaub).

This period we see not only the muscle powered weapons of antiquity and the medieval period (spears, slings, bows, etc.) but also the introduction of gunpowder weapons.  This includes the hackbutt (or arquebus), the musket, the pistol and of course gunpowder based artillery.

A weapons table details the range of the firepower based weapons, and also which column to use on the casualty table.  It also includes such useful information as to what the effect is if the target is wearing no armor (the default case is that the target figures are wearing some armor), and also what happens if they are fully (plate) armored.  There is also a detail about which factor row to consult when firing artillery.

Not every weapon can fire every turn, and the loading table details how much of a turn's worth of movement must be sacrificed to reload the weapon.  In practice, we found that marking a unit with gunpowder blasts (i.e. - cotton balls) is effective to show they are unloaded.

As was clear from the die modifier table, most of the modifiers in the game for combat have an affect on missile fire.

Unlike close combat, there is only one round of missile fire per turn.

This section of the rules details (as described above) how to use the casualty table, and how to get a dice difference. It also points out that the vagaries of the point system mean that sometimes a unit can never inflict enough points to kill a single enemy figure.  In those cases, it suggests that the total number of attacking factors/figures be multiplied by 2 or even 3 to get a reasonable result - but this must be done equally for both sides in a melee or firefight.

Since the rules (especially the close combat rules) are so very bloody, there is also a section here that allows you to detail, after a combat, exactly how many of those "casualty" figures are actually casualties, and how many return to your ranks, ready to march again immediately.  In this way, even though tabletop battles are quite bloody, forces remain relatively intact for the purpose of playing campaigns.

Reactions and Morale
Units are rated, according to their training and dedication, as one of five different classes.
Class I - Untrained, Undisciplined -  peasants, feudal levy, untrained burghers
Class II - Semi-Trained - town militia
Class III - Trained - fighting for a cause, such as Royal body guards, noble's retinue
Class IV - Trained - mercenaries or national troops
Class V - Arrogant - Swiss, Knights, Fanatics

Using this class, a unit will have to occasionally make a reaction test (reasons are listed below), and will result in one of four reaction results - 0, A, B, or C.
0 - Leadership has lost control, Unit takes matter into their own hands, Advance at nearest enemy
A - Unit will continue to follow orders
B - Unit will retire from the battle, but in good order, and will defend itself
C - Unit has given up hope and will throw down weapons and flee

The reasons for making tests are as follows:
  • When enemy first comes into view.
  • Prior to melee (on contact)
  • After each three rounds of melee
  • After leader of army is killed or captured
  • After M.A.L. (Maximum Allowed Loss) is reached
  • After all unit leaders are killed (rules detail if one of three leader figures are killed in combat)
A unit rolls 2d6, and applies modifiers (such as based on MAL, or situational modifiers) and then consults a chart based on their class. This gives one of the four results (0,A,B,C).

The reaction section also details such events as asking for quarter, units that are NOT granted quarter can roll for desperation (determine bonuses to morale for fighting on); looting; the chance of capturing a standard based on morale results from melee combat; and others.

I like the Tac-50 sets of rules, but they are somewhat dated these days.  One of the things I will still decry, in spite of having numerous successful (and memorable) games with these rules, is the simultaneous nature of the turn sequence.

They are fast - the method for rolling multiple close combat rounds in a single turn will see to that.  But these are (approximately) 30 minute turns, so each combat round represents 5 minutes (more or less) of hard fighting.  That isn't exactly so, because the turn can also include movement, but it does represent a possibly large amount of fighting.  Still, the casualties generated are extreme and obscene - but they work very well.  The game is very playable, and very fast.  I have played in games with hundreds of stands of figures on each side, to a complete result within 3 hours or so of playtime.

These work great, in my opinion, for the Italian Wars, and other wars of religion.  As well as the later medieval battles (These would be great for Hundred Years War as well as Wars of the Roses games).  They are intended to cover English Civil War and Thirty Years War, and do so pretty well, but the rules for mixed battalions of pike and shot are not included.  Each body is its own "unit" for the purpose of the game.  Equally, there is not a chance (that I recall) to evade, so a shot unit cannot, for instance, run for cover under the pikes.  Most of the other Renaissance rules I have reviewed in this series of articles do such representation with either maneuver, combat, or morale rules (or a combination of all three).

Cavalry is dealt with exceptionally well here, and the simple rules for pistols, caracoling, and so forth give the different tactical systems of the time good coverage.

These may be something of a challenge for me, in a future article and perhaps some solo gaming, to come up with a You-Go-I-Go variant of the game.  Perhaps allowing for reaction moves?  Not sure, but it could work.  The rules are too good to keep that bugaboo of simultaneous turns in the way of playing them.


Jonathan Freitag said...

Another enjoyable and fascinating review, Charles!

Charles Turnitsa said...

Thanks Jonathan! I need to amend the article to put in a notice that these are still available from Cotton Jim's Flags. I think they are about $5 a copy. Still a good set of rules.