A BATTLE, ON THE ICE (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Every year we do a Horse & Musket Annual, a collection of twenty new scenarios drawn from the periods covered by the box games published up until that time. Last month, we just released the second, and earlier this month we put out the call for entries for next year's.

The first time, series designer Sean Chick and developer Doug Miller asked me if I wanted in on the action, and I said I would try to come up with something, but I ultimately failed to do so. It was the same story for year two, and I was determined to break the streak with next year's annual. I asked Sean and Doug to keep a spot open for me while I cast about for a subject. 

I didn't want to do a sort of vanilla battle where all I would have to do is come up with some terrain tiles and an order of battle and call it a day. I wanted something that had more meat on its bones, something that could tell a good story. In addition to that, of course, it had to be a battle that hadn't been covered yet - and with 122 scenarios over the course of four boxed games and two previous annuals, that was easier said than done. The really famous battles are already spoken for, as are many of the interesting oddities.

I limited the scope of my search to the period covered in Horse & Matchlock, and I essentially just started going through a list of battles from the seventeenth century in chronological order, waiting for one of them to get my attention. (I got really excited about one battle, only to realize that it already appeared in the Matchlock boxed game! Look, 122 is a lot of names to keep track of!) Then I came across a description of a battle fought in 1644 on a frozen lake - the Battle of Bysjön. 

Having done a game about two medieval battles fought on frozen lakes - Battles on the Ice, natch - this seemed like it might be up my alley. So I started digging deeper. Frozen lake in December, okay. Swedes versus Norwegians, that's fine. Swedes felled a bunch of trees to block the roads, forcing the enemy to cross the lake, makes sense.

The Swedes sawed a hole in the lake from one shore to the next, and used the ice to build breastworks. Wait, what? The Norwegians tried to cross the gap in the ice using wooden planks while being exposed to murderous fire. Are you kidding me? The Swedes ran out of ammo, so some of them cut off their tin buttons and used them as bullets. Wow. 

With mounting giddiness, I shot off a message to Sean and Doug telling them I was definitely calling dibs on this nutty, weird battle. Both of them agreed that it seemed very on-brand for me, and so I set to work designing my first-ever Horse & Musket scenario.

I started by figuring out the general scale of the thing - would it use the Small, Grand, or regular Battles Chart? - and how I wanted to approach the terrain. There were only about four thousand guys on each side, and using an old map I found online, I determined that the lake itself wasn't particularly wide. In fact, at the point where the Swedes built their defenses, it was quite narrow. This had Small Battle written all over it.

While the Swedish center (largely composed of peasant farmers) was deployed on the ice behind their makeshift barricade, the left and right wings were on opposite sides of the shore. So I would need to incorporate those terrain features. Since the showy part of the thing would be the gap and the breastworks, I started by placing that, using swamp tiles as proxies for "big scary hole in the ice". Once I had made that first stroke, it became easier to sketch out the shores in proportion to that. 

I knew going in that I would need a special rule for crossing the gap. Rolling a die to attempt to cross was in keeping with similar rules throughout the series, so I went with that: succeed on the roll, and you not only move into the "hole" hex, but get to close combat the unit on the other side. I gave the initial roll a 50% chance of success, but it requires the expenditure of 3 CAP (which is nothing to sneeze at!), and that the unit begins their turn adjacent to the hole. That would mean they would be in range of enemy fire, which would recreate the historical danger of being out in the open. 

This raises the question, why not just go around, and ultimately that's what the Norwegians managed to do. To represent that difficulty, I used a similar "roll to attempt to cross" rule for the woods hexes, with a 66% chance of success (50% for cavalry). This is slightly easier and much less dangerous than the ice crossing, but it's also much slower, as success is only going to allow you to move a single hex, while a successful ice roll coupled with a successful close combat will see you moving two hexes. 

Of course, all these movement rules don't matter if there's no one to move. I then sketched out my defending Swedes. The center as I said before was largely held by local farmers, which would naturally be classified as Militia. Well, naturally if this was a scenario for the base game, but this was a Matchlock era scenario. Matchlock has its own unit types but doesn't include Militia among those! 

Militia is classified as Light Footmen, and the only unit type Matchlock has in that category is Commanded Shot - a sort of skirmisher, essentially. The only difference it has with base game skirmishers is that it is incapable of Close Combat. Well, that seemed about right for our peasant farmers, who ended up running back to their homes when the battle turned in the Norwegian favor. I figured I could represent this collapse in morale by calling for a special morale check when one of them was Eliminated; if a unit failed their check, they too would be Eliminated.

Some more conventional infantry units (Pike & Shot) and some cuirassiers filled out the flanks. Then of course I needed to think about leaders. The defense was organized by a regimental captain about whom there wasn't much information. I assumed competence - the guy definitely earned points for style - but not brilliance, and so rated him a "1" on H&M's scale of "0" to "4".

The Norwegian army was a little easier to put together - they were Pike & Shot with some cuirassiers on the flanks. The overall commander was Hannibal Sehested, Governor-General of Norway and Christian IV's son-in-law. He wasn't a particularly talented commander, and probably warrants only a "1". That's if we're assigning him a rating in absolute terms -  if Charles Lorraine is always a "0", Cromwell always a "4", and Bo Derek always a "10", then Sehested would always be a "1". But I prefer to look at it in relative terms - Sehested should be rated relative to his competition, and relative to his situation. With that in mind, and feeling more than a little generous, I rounded him up to a "2".

It was thinking in relative terms that led me to give the Norwegians a subordinate leader. This would give the Norwegians more flexibility than the Swedes, and reflect better discipline and organization. To be clear, I'm not saying that I think Norwegians in general were all that better organized than Swedes. But the Swedes in this case depended on hastily-levied peasants who were largely interested in defending the surrounding area - inherently, they're not going to be as well-organized as an invading army made up of soldiers. This is a pattern that I ran into again and again when designing battles for my medieval Shields & Swords II series, and there I tend to lean more heavily on levies for defending forces compared to invaders. Giving the Norwegians more leaders than the Swedes is the same sort of idea, just expressed in the particular language of the Horse & Musket series. 

If I borrowed from Shields & Swords, I also borrowed from my Shot & Shell Battle Series when it came time to deal with the artillery. Historically the Swedes had about six guns, and the Norwegians eighteen. I gave the Swedes one unit of cannon, and so naturally you would assume I would give the Norwegians three. But the artillery of this period wasn't known for its mobility; generally, once it was positioned and the battle had begun, the guns didn't move at all. In fact, in the Matchlock ruleset, all cannon are "Rigid Artillery" - incapable of moving. If I placed the cannon in range of the enemy line, they'd be far ahead of the Norwegian army; if I placed them with the Norwegian army, they'd never get in range of the enemy. What to do, what to do. Well, over in the Shot & Shell games, I generally only give artillery units to the side that's defending, which emphasizes that arm's defensive role. That seemed like it would work a charm here, and so that's what I did: one cannon for Sweden, zero for Norway.

Now that I had my units arrayed in their hexes, I needed to figure out the Special Scenario Rules that applied to each army. This in a way is the heart of the system, because it's here that the game reflects the evolving tactics and technologies of the period. Here, a lot of the groundwork was already done for me, as I really just had to look at what those armies were up to in other scenarios set around the same time. 

The Swedes, for example, had Salvo Fire (+1 drm for Pike & Shot at R1 when using Skirmishing Fire), More Guns Than Pikes (Pike & Shot re-roll if they score no hits), Superior Cannon (cannon roll 4 dice instead of 3), Light Guns (Commanded Shot re-roll one die if they score no hits), and Combined Arms (Commanded Shot and Horsemen may fire and move together).

Of course, it wasn't as simple as a mere copy-and-paste. The first two seemed fine, but Superior Cannon required some deliberation: sure, this was a Swedish army, but it wasn't the Swedish army marching around Germany at the time, and I wasn't really sure how well-trained the artillerists were. But I thought the extra die would help get across how very exposed the Norwegians were on the ice, trying to get their planks in place, so that stayed in. 

The two rules for Commanded Shot - Light Guns and Combined Arms - were right out, because again I was using Commanded Shot as proxies for peasants, not highly-trained skirmishers or musketeers. The only rule that would really apply for the Norwegians was Inferior Infantry (roll one less die in combat). Here again, I approached the thing in relative terms - are they really "inferior" relative to what they're up against? - and so I opted not to use that rule. 

I have my terrain, got my order of battle, got my special rules - but I still needed to figure out how each side would win the darn thing. Often when this series has strong and clearly-defined attacker-defender roles, the attacker will need to score X number of points in Y number of turns, and the defender wins if they stop them from doing that. I'm actually not a huge fan of that type of victory condition in general, as it encourages the defender to be passive. But since the Swedes were very much trying to hold their position and prevent the Norwegian advance, "avoid Norwegian victory" seemed like it would fit the bill. 

I wanted to spice it up a bit though - find a way to incentivize an active defense. Everything started to go wrong for the Swedes around sundown, and I thought I might be able to use that. Instead of having to hold out until a specific turn, the Swedes would need to hold out until nightfall - and they couldn't know for sure exactly when that would be. Starting on turn 13, a modified d10 roll would be made: if the result was 9 or greater, the game ends. The modifier to that die roll would be the Swedish VP total - so the more aggressively the Swedish Player fights, the more likely it is that the game will end in their victory. If instead they just sit on their hands and cross their fingers, then they will be giving the Norwegians more time to clinch the deal. 

During all this, I was chatting with Mary about the battle and the scenario. When I told her the part about some of the guys using buttons in place of bullets, she let me know in no uncertain terms that I had to include that in the scenario. And so around the time the Swedes start rolling to see if the game is going to end, they also have to worry about running out of conventional ammunition. The resulting "button men" would only roll one die in combat, see? 

"Button men" is mob lingo for a mob guy, and I wrote that sentence in an Edward G. Robinson voice, see?, but apparently "that joke doesn't work in print, Tom". Mother of mercy, is this the end of this blog-thing?

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