Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Alternate Rules Review: BLB (I)

Currently, Beneath the Lily Banners (BLB) 2 is gaining significant traction amongst gamers of this period following hard on from the original Beneath the Lily Banners (I) pictured above. Released commercially in 2008 from a long standing freely available product, these rules are the creation of Barry Hilton of the League of Augsburg wargaming group - a collection of gentlemen with a significant international reputation in 17th and 18th century wargaming.

Since starting this blog I have had a few recommendations concerning these rules which has an enthusiastic following. Those that are using it just love it and it has certainly done much to engender and interest in the Williamite period. I have not yet read through the second edition so I am as yet unable to comment on why the changes were necessary, but from the first edition I can hazard a guess as there appears to be an inconsistency and even deficiency or two between the pages.

I do not intend to critique BLB in terms of worthiness; however, and I am certainly not intending to be critical. To have generated a set of rules is no mean feat and to have them published as professionally as Mr Hilton has done lends this edition sufficient gravitas for them not to be dismissed by anyone. I certainly won't be. What I do want to discuss is the major differences between this rule set and Williamite Warfare, largely stemming from a divergent approach. In essence, those differences are four-fold.

Firstly, BLB is a fast-play set. Naturally, it relies on simplified mechanisms to achieve outcomes in order for a reasonable sized game to be played in a reasonable time-frame. This in itself has a lot to recommend it in my view but very much depends upon what sort of wargamer you are. For me, wargaming is the catalyst for building and painting, whilst for others, the game itself is all important. Like Williamite Warfare, ground scale is not a consideration in BLB; however, it does dictate unit sizes and basing conventions. Any rule set must make compromises somewhere and for me some national characteristics and detail for the Williamite period is lost and therefore for my purposes BLB is lacking in what I very much wanted to concentrate on. Having said that, I reckon it would be fun to play - perhaps the most important consideration!

Secondly, and connected to the fast play theory, BLB is element centric rather than figure reliant. In contrast, WAB and Williamite Warfare calculates upon the figure - dicing for each. BLB calculates against the element or base which through the rules convention dictates the number of figures on each. Again, the compromise here is for fast-play and I think players need to appreciate that the more dice you roll, the better average result you can obtain. For example, I'm a famous roller of '1s' but I will get some results if rolling for each figure in an eighteen figure battalion rather than just one dice for the lot - the BLB convention.

Getting back to the issue of national characteristics; BLB takes away from army differences in its core rules and creates a standardized army concept for all nations. Battalions are essentially 3-4 stands of musketeers and up to one of pike depending upon period. All stands are arrayed in only two ranks and this is consistently applied. Personally, I think calculation based on elements or bases has a lot to recommend it, I have thought about this myself and I believe it an essential cornerstone for fast play rules - especially around larger scale engagements. Having said that, I have never found WAB wanting and in fact it is still yet the best system for applying to small and larger games. For truly large engagements; however, in re fighting entire battles I think elements would have to be the system of choice.

The generic battalion representation represents all armies throughout a 60 year period in essentially the same linear formations as Napoleonic wargames - infantry battalions in a two rank firing line. Some of this stems from the 1:35 troop scale BLB is designed for. My own, perhaps perverse adherence to 1:20 provides for larger battalions and my Dutch battalions for WSS are arrayed three deep - entirely reminiscent of the period. Depth of formations was far greater still for the Williamite periods, beginning to thin by the end but never as far as the thin-red-line of the Seven Years War and beyond. Depths also varied greatly between nationalities.

The third major difference between BLB and Williamite Warfare is that Williamite Warfare delineates between emerging and experimental fire delivery systems for infantry between nations. The transition between Carolocole, Fire by Ranks, Platoon Firing and so on does introduce a level of depth but also complexity which may prove counter-productive in fast-play wargaming. BLB also does not differentiate between technologies; particularly noticeable if searching for matchlock verses flintlock firearms and drill. In BLB, a battalion pretty well fights in 1660 as it does in 1720 whereas a battalion within one army in Williamite Warfare will have changed significantly between campaigns over just thirty years in how it is constituted, the formations it uses, how it is armed and how it gives fire.

The fourth obvious difference is that BLB makes a lot of decisions behind its mechanisms and conventions based on an understanding and feel for the period. Barry Hilton and the League of Augsburg have that in spades. A significant amount of historical perspective has nevertheless been sacrificed to provide a blanket system over such a large period of time. Having said that, it's no more or less than previous systems have done - Wargames Research Group having been masters of the art. By contrast, Williamite Warfare continues the WAB style of explaining why rules mechanisms exist. For example, only one in two matchlocks may fire in a given turn due to recorded reliability issues surrounding misfires and the complexity of matchlock drill - this is stated in the core rules. Players may not agree with this interpretation on matchlock effectiveness or may think that a one in two ratio is too severe. The readers of Williamite Warfare have an advantage in that they may dismiss a mechanism or convention with knowledge and an awareness of how it affects the balance of what they are trying to represent - at least I hope so.

In a nutshell, I think BLB and Williamite Warfare are two distinct types of wargames rules - not competing sets. Vive la difference!

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