Friday, November 13, 2009

Warlord Games's Black Powder Rules

The announcement by Warlord Games about a year ago, that they were going to release a set of rules called Black Powder written by Rick Priestley and Jervis Johnson, is what got me started in historical gaming. You can read about that in this post concerning My Introduction To Historical Wargaming. As you can imagine, I was pretty excited when I heard Black Powder was finally being released, so I made sure to pre-order myself a copy and it arrived about a week after the release date. I've since had a chance to read through the entire book and reflect on its contents, and will now write my review of Black Powder in order to help out others who are considering picking it up.

The Book
In terms of presentation, the book itself is top notch. It is hard cover, with 184 full color pages. It is well laid out in a logical manner, with a detailed table of contents, but no index. The pages are filled with pictures of beautifully painted miniatures covering many of the wars in the period covered by the rules (1700-1900). Oddly, some less common wars have tons of pictures, while others are very under-represented or not found at all among the pictures. I suppose the pictures just represent what the authors had handy. Still, they look great and are set up on nice looking terrain in various situations to form little dioramas. They are quite inspiring to look at, and might cause interest in a new period one had not thought much about before.

Just as inspiring as the pictures is the casual slightly tongue-in-cheek tone in which the rules are written. There is a lot of humor in the rules, and plenty of use of period jargon, that makes the book a really enjoyable read. I'm sure I laughed out loud several times while reading through the book, but in addition to being fun to read, the tone really makes you want to get together with other like-minded gentlemen and push some toy soldiers around.

There are some typos in the book, as might be expected, but relatively few, and none that caused any confusion. The rules are all written very clearly and are easy to understand. There are also many diagrams that clearly illustrate how the rules work, and really good examples. In my experience, the examples given to illustrate rules usually show the simplest case where the rule is obvious anyway, and no example is needed. Obviously, this is pointless. The Black Powder book does a good job of giving examples and showing diagrams of unusual situations or extreme cases that might need the additional clarification.

Scattered throughout the book are little boxes containing anecdotes or recollections of soldiers from various wars used to illustrate get you into a historical mindset for the period. These are usually accompanied by a photograph of some historical uniform, piece of equipment, or weapon in the collection of one of the authors. Some of these are quite entertaining, and the pictures are nice for setting the mood, but they're mostly used to fill space to maintain the really nice layout of the book. And overall, everything about the book itself is very nice.

Scale and Basing
As has been said, the rules pretty much work with any size figures, and any style of basing. They have recommendations based on what the authors are used to using, but if you already have figures based in some way, they will likely work. All you need to do is be able to represent the formations the unit is allowed to be in, and have both sides be based in a similar fashion so that they have similar unit frontages. It may be helpful to have some extra bases of figures skirmishing to put out in front of units when they deploy skirmishers. It would also be helpful to have some casualty figures to mark casualties on a unit. Most units only carry over a maximum of 3 or 4 casualties from turn to turn, but can take more than that in the course of a single turn before the extras are removed. No bases are removed, and the whole unit stays on the table until it completely routs, at which point it is completely removed. In addition to casualty markers, some way to mark disorder is needed.

The given move rates in the rules are very high, as it is meant to be played on fantastically large tables. Since many people do not have such large tables, most will need to alter the move rates and weapon ranges in some fashion. The really nice thing about all the measurements in Black Powder is that everything is in 6" increments. This may cause some ranges or movements rates to be a little out of proportion with each other, but it does make it extremely easy to change move rates. You can just create a quick references sheet that replaces 6" with 1x, 12" with 2x, etc. Then pick any distance for "x", and you can easily change the measurements to any ratio you choose without needing any math you can't do in your head. This will be very convenient.

The Rules
First, I feel I need to dispel some misconceptions about the rules, partly perpetuated by the authors I think, that they are not really rules but instead a set of suggestions and house rules, or an incomplete set of tools for making up your own rules, or a book about a style of playing. Certainly, there is a lot of mention in the book about the proper, honorable way for gentlemen to go about playing with their toy soldiers, and it really encourages a certain tone and style of gaming. They do mention in some places that if you don't like certain rules, you can change them, add to them, or ignore them completely. They encourage you to change the weapon ranges if they don't work for your size table or to represent a very specific type of weapon, and things like that.

However, the rules are not at all incomplete. It is a very detailed, well thought out, and elegant set of rules. The mechanisms will work very well together, and the rules do explain and cover many situations. If you are expecting a simple set of rules that you can memorize after the first game, these are not it. Nothing about it is extremely complicated, but as I said it is very detailed in covering many situations, such as moving through terrain, occupying buildings, setting fire to buildings, officer casualties, very specific rules for line of sight and how units behave under certain orders, etc. It does not cover effects of weather, or how a battalion gets from point A to point B (you are essentially allowed to wheel any way you please as long as no part of the unit moves too far, though there are limitations once you get close to the enemy), but aside from that I think most things are covered.

I think the authors simply want to set a tone that encourages the players to use the rules however they wish without fear of any Rules Police coming to get them. They must know most gamers will change rules to suit their tastes anyway, and probably just want to make it abundantly clear they support this. Probably comes from their experience with some Games Workshop players who have heated arguments about the meanings of certain rules and act like the game is a competitive sport, instead of just having fun and doing what they wish.

I think the "toolbox" comment comes from the way the rules handle covering such a large period of warfare. It does this by splitting out the common rules that apply to all periods which form the bulk of the rules, from a set of "special abilities" (or as the rules call them, "A Selection of Useful Rules"), to distinguish specific qualities of different units. For example, units may have special rules that compel them to charge if they are able, or give them some bonus on the charge, or allow them to attempt to form square as a reaction to being charged by cavalry, or let them shake of disordered status on a 4+, or many other things. Here is where I see players inventing their own special abilities to apply to certain units, to add to those samples in the rulebook. Since there are not army lists for every conflict in the black powder period, it is left up to players to come up with the correct combinations of unit statistics, allowed formations, and special abilities (some of which will likely be of their own creation) to represent the units who fought the war they wish to play.

The base rules give units ratings for their shooting ability, hand-to-hand combat ability, and morale. They are also allowed certain formations. For example, some native troops are only allowed to be in skirmish formation or mob formation. Basically, the rules have units on one side move in the Command phase, then fire, then work out hand-to-hand fighting. Break tests may have to be taken at various points as a result of casualties, which could cause the unit to fall back or rout completely. Then the other side takes their turn.

Shooting and combat both involve rolling a number of dice based on the unit's rating in that area, generally needing a 4+ to score a hit. But there are things that modify either the number of dice or the score needed to cause a hit. Units taking hits roll their morale value or higher to ignore the hit, representing their ability to maintain cohesion and morale despite the casualties. Failure means a casualty marker, and once they have casualty markers equal to their stamina rating they are shaken, which makes them fight less effectively. In addition to causing casualties, fire can cause disorder on a unit, which limits what they can do in their following turn.

There are, of course, specific rules for Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery units, since they behave quite differently in many situations. To me, the most interesting part is the Command phase, where officers issue orders to individual units or entire brigades. The fun tone of the rules can again be seen in how this is carried out, as the player is require to verbally state (in period dialect if possible) the orders they are issuing, and with which officer. They then roll to see how well the order is carried out, which can result in up to three move segments allowed. But the unit will only do as ordered, even if they end up with extra movement they could have used, and they will attempt to carry out the order as best they can even if they do not have enough movement. Orders can't, for example, say "if I get one move I'll do this, if I get two I'll so this", or state that they'll make one move and then change formation. You'd have to say they advance to a particular point on the battlefield then change formation, and they'll move toward that point regardless of how many moves it takes, only changing formation if they reach it with an extra move remaining.

At worst, a unit may not get to move at all (though they can still fire that turn), or they may even blunder! This represents a misunderstood order, or just willful disobedience. This requires rolling on a chart to see what action the unit or units carry out instead. The authors advise, however, that your own judgment should be used to determine an appropriate blunder. This brings up another misconception, which is that these rules are a form of Warmaster. They definitely evolved from Rick Priestley's Warmaster rules, as can be seen in the similar elements (such as multiple moves in one turn, rolling under a command value on 2D6, rolling hits then opponent rolling saves, the blunder on command roll of 12, etc.). On the other hand, the end result is quite different,though for those familiar with the Warmaster mechanics, it should be easy to learn. There are some clear improvements. For example, when giving orders instead of rolling multiple consecutive command rolls to move more than once, you just roll one time, and the amount you pass the test by deterines how many moves the unit gets.

This does bring me to one strange thing I've noticed in the rules. When rolling to carry out order, if you roll equal to or one less than your command value (typically 8), the unit gets one move. If you roll two less, the unit gets two moves. If you roll three or more less, the unit gets three moves. But in most cases, this means that a unit is MORE likely to get three moves than to get two. That doesn't make much sense at all. I will likely play it that two or three under means two moves, and four or more under means three moves.

There are many other things, like officers rallying a unit or taking personal command of it, units in certain situations (like march columns) always being allowed at least one move, limitations on how you move when you get close to the enemy, and plenty of other little details. One of the really disappointing ones is the Officer Personalities. I really like games that take officer ability or personality into consideration, since I think that was a huge factor in the results of many battles, at least in the American Civil War. Black Powder does have rules for officer personalities, but they are pretty limited. They rate officers in three categories, and each can be high, low, or standard. Standard has no effect, and high and low give some slight bonus or penalty, such as a highly aggressive commander getting +1 to his command value when ordering a charge.

However, the effects of the personality ratings are pretty minor, and seem tacked on rather than designed into the system. Also, I think they missed a really obvious chance to have the personality affect rolls on the blunder chart. So when an aggressive officer blunders, he would be more likely to do something aggressive rather than hold his ground or retreat, while a timid officer if confused about his orders would be more likely to fall back. I can't imagine how they didn't think of this when playing the game. Similarly, there are rules for officers falling as casualties if they take personal command of a unit, and this also seems rather tacked on, and requires additional dice rolling when it could easily have been worked into existing dice rolls. Most of the mechanics seem pretty elegant, but there are those few things that seem a little poorly thought out.

If I were to change anything about the base rules, aside from the command roll results, I think I'd have more possibilities on the Blunder chart and make it a 2D6 roll. That way, the chance of doing something aggressive could be increased by adding to the roll and decreased by subtracting from it, and I'd have the aggressiveness rating of the officer give a modifier on the roll. I also find it strange that it takes 6" of movement to move into a town section and occupy it, but doesn't take up any extra movement to leave the town section. You'd think that would take some time. But that's a pretty minor issue.

Overall, the rules seem good and well thought out, and I think they will give a faced paced and very fun game. And with the suggestion special rules along with some custom ones, I'm sure it can represent the many differences between the varied conflicts of the period covered by Black Powder. For those that have similar attitudes to the authors in how they like to play their miniature games, these rules will provide what you're looking for. For those that need specific army lists or are looking for something that can be played competitively or as "pick up" games where you bring a certain number of points to play an even game, these rules will probably not work for that purpose.

Hobby Information
There really isn't much in the way of hobby information in the Black Powder book. There are lots of inspiring pictures of miniatures. There is a list in the back of some figure manufacturers. And that's about it. Nothing about how to collect, base, and paint the miniatures. Nothing about making terrain, or setting up a gaming table. For this reason, the Black Powder rules really aren't for people who are completely new to the miniature gaming hobby, like the Napoleon rules from Wargames Foundry would be. The book seems catered to those who are already miniature gamers, but are looking for a new set of rules, or just a set that covers several wars they are interested in, or are looking to get into historical gaming for the first time. It might be a good way to get people who already play something like Warhammer to get into historicals, but it won't entice any complete beginners.

Historical Information
There also isn't much historical information in Black Powder. Just as they assume you already know about miniature gaming in general, the mostly assume you already know a great deal about the period you are interested in gaming. There is a short chronological summary of the major wars that took place from 1700-1900. This section unfortunately shows a great deal of bias by the authors in what they choose to mention and in how much detail, and what they dismiss as unsuitable for gaming.

And even in this brief section, about half of it is devoted to discussing the availability of miniatures for each particular war and how popular it is for wargamers and why, rather than the history of it. But it may entice some people to do some digging into a new war that they didn't know much about before or didn't think to try gaming in. So, for example, even though I bought the book because I am mostly interested in playing American Civil War battles and to a lesser extent Napoleonics, I may see something in those short description that sparks an interest in some other war.

There is a long section at the back of the book that has scenarios and forces for 7 different battles, some real and some fictional, in the following wars: American Revolution, Napoleonic period, Carlist Wars, American Civil War, Sudan War, Zulu Wars, and the Crimean War. These give a very good idea of the kind of scenarios work well, and what kind of special abilities and rules to give to the units and scenarios to differentiate different periods with very different kinds of battles. They also have descriptions of how the battles actually played out when they played them, which is also useful in seeing how to construct a good scenario of your own to try to have a close, fun game.

The Verdict
Overall, I like the Black Powder book, and would highly recommend it. It's a beautiful book full of great inspirational photos, clearly explained rules, and useful diagrams. I think the rules will give a fast paced and fun game, that can also be customized easily to different periods and scenarios. Not only because of the separation of the core rules from the special abilities, but also because the mechanics are well designed to allow customization without breaking any of the core mechanics. I think this set of rules will work well and be a lot of fun for most people, for pretty much any war in the "horse and musket" era of 1700-1900.

The book is light on hobby and historical information, so I would recommend it for those who are already started in the miniature gaming hobby (and if you weren't, you probably wouldn't be reading my blog), and for those who already have knowledge of the period you wish to game, or are willing to do the research. I would also not recommend it for those who want a very strict competitive style of game, or those wishing to be able to meet up with a random stranger a play a one-off game to a certain points value. The game I think will really shine only when playing good scenarios with well chosen forces and special rules.

Also, those looking for very complex mechanisms for wheeling battalions or counter-charging or that sort of thing might be disappointed with the way in which Black Powder handles these things, but I think it will do a good enough job of encouraging logical historical behavior without the needless complexity of some rules. The Guns at Gettysburg rules come to mind. There are several pages and many steps spent describing how a counter charge is worked out, and reading through that needlessly complicated process involving lots of math just made me not want to play those rules. But if that is the sort of thing you like, Black Powder may not be what you want.

If you're interested in a copy of Black Powder, you can order it from the Warlord Games website. Or if you'd like to save some money, it can be ordered at a significant discount and free shipping from here: BLACK POWDER: Battles with Model Soldiers in the Age of the Musket. Incidentally, it has already been announced that a supplement is in the works to cover the English Civil War. I really have no interest in it, but perhaps the will be open to other supplements in the future. I think a Great War supplement could be really good for extending the period covered by the rules past 1900, and I would be very interested in it.

If you have any questions about the rules, or have your own opinions, please leave a comment. I'd like to know what others think of Black Powder.


  1. A good review....only thing is that you shouldnt expect a "hobby" section in historical rules....thats a game workshop thing and generally historical gamers like to research such things for themselves.....

  2. Good review. I also think it is way too easy for Infantry in line to change to square when attacked by cavalry. Also the chance of failure to form square is fixed and not dependent on the Infantry training or morale grade. I can't believe it should be as easy for Landwehr militia to form square as British Guards...

    I think I will be trying the Morale rating as the basis, and troops with the 'Form Square' rule having a re-reroll. Other special rules can also give a re-roll, like Crack and Stubborn.


  3. Thanks for the thorough review. Regarding those order probabilities, one way to resolve it might be to use a D12 instead of 2D6. Probabilities are altered somewhat but I think it would cure the problem you are concerned about.

  4. Jason: I'm aiming to have my rule reviews have a similar structure, and some previous books I reviewed had some hobby information. Also, I think the hobby information content might be an important factor for anyone new to the hobby and wanting to start with the given set of rules.

    AB: Perhaps it is strange that it is just as easy to form square regardless of the abilities of the unit or how close the cavalry is. Maybe what would work is to give a special rule to units that are particularly likely to scatter in the face of a cavalry charge rather than retain discipline. It would either require them to take a break test just for being charged by cavalry, or make them more likely to fail the form square roll. Also, a penalty on the Form Square roll when the cavalry begins particularly close might make sense.

    Keith: I've got a post in the works that will probably go up tomorrow that will elaborate more on what I find odd about the Command Rolls.

  5. I am curious how the rules for different periods work — they are covering 200 years here, with different formations, arms, and doctrines. And no army lists is a negative. Full disclosure — I like Guns At Gettysburg.


  6. I'm still not sure that I'll buy these . . . but your review has been helpful. Thanks.

    -- Jeff

  7. Very good and very helpful!


  8. Great review, bought these not so long ago and was surprised by the unit and table sizes used. If I am going to use them on a regular basis I have a bit of buying and painting to do.I dont think the time span is a major issue nor the lack of army list. They are flexible enough to cover a wide time period and most historical gamers prefer to work out their own army lists ( well I do). Again thanks for the review

  9. Thanks a lot for the review, this, plus BoLS coverage, has been the deciding factor for me to buy this ruleset.

  10. I was on the fence, but your thorough article here has cemented it for me. It was well written and informative, kudos.

  11. My comment on TMP was purely in the spirit of TMP. OK I admit it, I'm taking the piss out of KevanG.

    The only things really to add to your review is the authors are aware of their own historical bias and play to it (p107 - "whether we shoud encourage them [players if Schelswig Wars] is another matter"), and it strikes me as a stretched set of Napoleonics.

    You can play "out of the box" (consumer caveat, please be aware there is no box) for Napoleon vs Austria/Russia/Prussia, where as later and earlier you need to think "Is this rule suitable?".

  12. 8 years on and a 2nd edition has been released.

    I was a little dubious about these when they first came out.
    All a bit too glossy with a hint of "Nottingham" about them.
    Thankfully the Nottingham influence owes a lot more to the excellent heritage of Warmaster than "Ork boyz with da boltaz" nonsense.

    They have become my favourite Napoleonic rules by a long shot.
    The rules play reasonably quickly and most battles have posed tactical questions on each turn of the game.
    Many things that appear imperfect when reading seem to come out right in the wash.

    A great example is manoeuvre in depth.
    Take a set of "Very correct" rules from the 1970s or 80s and you'll find yourself marshalling a godawful traffic jam that only a slide-rule and protractor can unpick.
    Black powder lets you do what period troops would have done with a divisional order and a bit of "Free and easy" interpenetration.
    I find black powder's approach preferable.

    Since release, a number of issues have been discussed with the rules as written.
    Skirmishers seem to be super-troops with an option for every situation, while artillery deploys the firepower of a battery from the frontage of a pair of guns.
    Cavalry combat is also a bit "All or nothing" through this isn't peculiar to this set of rules.

    Various house-rules, formalised in campaign specific supplements have fixed these problems in sensible ways.

    I can see that Black Powder won't suit the tastes of the most specific type of gamer, for whom everything must be precise and calculable in advance.
    For me, they hit a sweet spot: Realistic enough (Particularly if you use the approriate supplement), play quickly enough, and provide a fun game where the challenge comes from your opponent's army, and not from the sub-clauses of paragraph 17 rule 35.8.