Monday, April 26, 2010

First thoughts on Black Powder

Now, the observant amongst you will have spotted that I’ve already played the Blackpowder rules a few weeks ago, and aside from that they have been on release for a few months now. Nonetheless, thanks to all that lovely money rolling in to my Paypal account of late I was able to painlessly pick up a copy of the rules; and so it seemed appropriate to expand upon them.

It has to be said firstly that the production values of the rulebook are as high, if not higher than any other set within their market; the book is 184 hardbound pages and full colour throughout, lavishly illustrated and with both clear rules and a rich supporting text.

Before getting to the particulars of the rules themselves it is worth saying that the style of writing of the book as a whole, is very personable and truly focused on the pleasure of the game rather than a lawyerish obsession with rule definitions or the button counters fanaticism for minutiae of historical detail. People who enjoy that sort of thing should look elsewhere; but those who want to enjoy reading their rule books and wish to return to the book for game inspiration more than for reference sheets and army lists will relish this book.

If a wargamer would ever dare advertise themselves so blatantly, this is a coffee table book of glossy images of figures and games, entertaining side notes, informative text, oh and a pretty straightforward set of rules.

So what of the rules; well it is in many cases fairly simple stuff, based as many people will be aware on Games Workshops old Warmaster system. That said it has developed in its own way and is not simply Warmaster with guns. The main principle of the rules is the command and control system, which can allow troops to conduct daring and ambitious moves within a turn, but only if the commander has both the rolls and the vision to back it up.

For example, a regiment of cavalry could make a sweeping manoeuvre round an enemies flank, if it rolls low enough below its command rating it could carry out three successive moves; but if the commander lacks the will to do this and gives a conservative order to approach slowly to a point in line with his other units, that’s the most they’ll do.

In short it is order driven, but rather than writing orders in advance, the commanders must announce their orders to the opponent before attempting to carry them out. Limited experience shows this to work well amongst gentlemen players, but I have reservations about how a died in the wool WAAC gamer may treat such a system.

For moving and shooting ranges are specified to not be down to the millimetre, which I approve of; but this can again be abused. Combat as well as shooting is conducted with the venerable D6, and is very simple; if a unit takes typically three casualties or more it starts to be in trouble. Larger units and special rules vary the effect and point at which this matters.

So far it is all generic enough, but as mentioned, special rules give the historical flavour that is a must, and they fall broadly into the fixed and the optional.

Some rules always apply, such as those for formations such as skirmishers or warband; or always apply in certain periods to all troop – e.g. Napoleonic troops all have the ‘Must Form Square’ special rule. Others are optional; such as ‘Steady’ (pass first break test automatically) or Bloodthirsty (re-roll misses in first combat round). It’s a very GW convention the rule by exception, as I like to call it; and in some cases it can ruin a game. But here they are not prescribed to any one army, it is for the players to decide which apply to whom. For example in one of the example battles in the book the authors rate Zulu’s as fairly mundane troops, whereas I would be tempted to give many of them Bloodthirsty, Superbly Drilled and Valiant special rules.

Doing something like that of course could affect the balance of a game, and the authors are at great pains to stress game balance, use of scenarios rather than straight fights and a non dependence on points based army lists. Players of the game are expected to be able to assemble balanced or historical armies themselves rather than have the rules attempt to dictate one to them. Given the historical scope of the book, the idea of army lists would be untenable anyway – ‘Napoleon’ by comparison uses well over a third of it’s page count on Napoleonic lists only, and then provides a very incomplete collection.

Contrary to what many people have suggested, a points system is included, but players are not expected to rely upon it and it is not really for the purpose of competition games.

Overall, Blackpowder represents a more classically orientated style of gaming than some of it’s contemporaries, it has no pretence of pandering to the competition gamer, rather it eminently suits the tactical puzzle, scenario player or historical re-fight enthusiast. Having read it I know I will be digging out the Charles Grant books for scenario’s that’ll work straight out the box – so to speak – for a natural supplement to the rules. They seem to achieve their goal of covering the period of the 18th and 19th centuries reasonably well; though to ensure they do so, knowledge and restraint have to also be applied by the players.

All in all this seems to be a promising set of rules for the grown-up wargamer. I look forward to giving them a try with my own Brits and Zulu’s, and maybe the ACW and Napoleonics at some point soon.


  1. Personally I'll wait for the FOG Napoleonics in September.

    I have seen a number of comments about Black Powder relating to some unrealistic situations that can quickly unbalance a game (such as units moving 3x to their opponents 1 move). The advantage to Black Powder is that games can be played in an hour or two though.

    I've played rules where written orders are used etc. but I much prefer the FOG system - with limited number of commanders, but freedom to move troops around as required and in reaction to your opponents move.

    Its a fair system and means that a victory is usually down to better tactics rather than just the dice themselves.

  2. Having played three games over the last few weeks I feel that the rules do have that old style feel to them.

    You have to be careful what you specify when giving an order as yes the triple move when you roll it is very powerful, but you are more likely to only get two, one or even none so you need to be careful how you use it.

    If I have one complaint it is about the "follow me" command that can be over powerful, especially when used with the right troop type such as the 17th lancers in the Ntombe river scenario.


  3. While I've not played them, I have read the BP rules and they seem quite playable to me.

    The big "problem" as I see it is that a lot of gamers will look to see how they can "exploit" the rules . . . but of course those are just the sort of chaps that I want to avoid playing . . . so perhaps this will help to weed them out after a while.

    -- Jeff, a proponent of gentlemanly gaming conduct

  4. I suppose the 'follow me' order can also have its downside.

    Ney at Waterloo comes to mind....

  5. Good review... I had a browse at Salute but as with all of these things either a few games, or an in depth review, are what's actually required before parting with the cash...

  6. We've played several games from the first Charles Grant scenario book and so far they've worked really well. Initially, we played Napoleonic Peninsular games but tried a French v Russian game last night - agh, those pesky Russians can stand & take it!

    I had thought you'd need to up the forces each side by 50%, but so fair they've worked fine as printed : )


  7. Apologies to Legatus (IIRC) whose comment got deleted by accident along with a spammer; the jist was 24 figure units are just too large. Well for my Zullu war test games the British will be in units of 12 (representing companies) and the Zulus in 24's in warbands. Not too onerous I think. My first game will only need 60 Britsh and (ahem) 220 zulus (already painted, thankfully).

  8. I've got them and have to be convinced by them. My experience has been that you can make some very powerful units by adding the character traits described. I'm also unconvincd by this ability to conduct multiple moves in a single turn.
    On a positive note they do seem to work well for the more "fluid" wars of the Black Powder era - AWI being one of them.

  9. Very nice review of Black Powder. I agree with all your comments about it, and especially the type of gamer it will appeal to.