Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hougoumont, a comprehensive review

Hougoumont is an innovative hex-and-counter wargame depicting the famous fight for the Chateau of Hougoumont at the Battle of Waterloo. The game was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 11 in 1991.
A very tactical game, each turn represents just 10 minutes of real time and each hex is 25 yards across. Each stacking point represents 25 soldiers. Unit counters represent companies and half-companies from the French and Anglo-Allied armies. The 12 turns cover the fighting from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., which ended up taking an entire French Division out of the main battle. Wellington’s retention of the chateau, a natural fortress, had an impact on how the rest of the battle turned out and the duke, himself, called it the key to the battle.
The 15-page rule book describes a game of moderate complexity by wargame standards. The Mark Simonitch map is attractive and functional, and solves the problem of translating a “square” battlefield into wargame hexagons with careful placement of terrain and a “map translation” box that helps players visualize the battlefield correctly.
The map shows the Chateau compound itself and the surrounding gardens, orchard and woods.
The 200 counters are illustrated with color icons of the soldiers in their national uniforms, with an identifying formation ID number, morale rating and a stacking value. All the French units and some Allied units have a stacking value of “4,” while the British units and some German troops on their side have a stacking value of “2.“
The reverse side of each unit has half the stacking value, so in effect each “step” of French troops represents twice as many men as each step of British.
Morale values run from “3” (for some Nassauers on the British side) to “6” (British Guards).
Both sides have a number of leaders, who have no values listed on the counter, but who provide movement and morale benefits.
No movement factor is listed because all units have a movement allowance of 16.
The two sides are differentiated by the background colors, light blue for the French and light red for the British and their allies.
Each player turn starts with a reinforcement phase followed by a howitzer targeting phase by the enemy. The player then moves and fires his units (firing is a function of movement and costs 8 movement points). During the movement/fire phase the enemy player can interrupt to conduct a reaction move/fire with his own units within range. (In typical XTR fashion this tactic is given the colorful moniker “Boom and Zoom.) Mastering the “Boom and Zoom” move is a key part of playing the game well.
After all movement the phasing player conducts melee. Finally, the howitzers that targeted hexes resolve their impacts, which generally involves some scattering of the fire. (Fusing was a very inexact science for nineteenth century gunners).
Leaders, howitzers and setting fires are all listed as "optional" rules, but anyone interested enough in the topic to play this game will certainly want to use all of them.
Firing is conducted unit by unit, with larger units such as full-strength French companies getting a +1 bonus to the die roll and small units, such as a half-strength British half-company, getting a -1. The die roll is compared to the number of steps in the target hex. Often this will mean an automatic hit for many British units firing on French stacks, which may have as many as 12 stacking points in a hex. The net effect is that British fire tends to be four times as effective, because every hit on a French stack eliminates two stacking points (50 men) while return fire generally eliminates just one stacking point of British (25 men.) Combined with the fact that the French will necessarily have to crowd their troops together (often in the open) while the British are spread out (often behind walls) and the casualty count will run heavily against the French. Fortunately for the French, they do have a lot of troops available (18 battalions) and numbers do count in melees. The eight battalions of British will need all the help the stout walls and buildings of Hougoumont can provide.
Both sides start with just part of their forces available and, as casualties mount, more troops are released to take part in the fight. A clue to the relative bloodiness for the two sides is provided by those tripping points -- every 30 steps for the French (1,500 men) compared to every 8 steps for the British (200 men).
The game itself is a tense back-and-forth affair swirling over the walls, through the orchards and into the buildings. The game is won on victory points, with the Chateau building worth 2 and the garden and orchard worth one each. Each reinforcement formation taken subtracts one VP.
Well-received by Command subscribers, variations on the system were used for two more black-powder era assaults on fortified locations in “Bunker Hill: A Dear Bought Victory” and “Dark Victory” (The Alamo) in later issues of Command.
The game is playable in one long evening and only takes about 10 minutes to set up. There is just one scenario, but later issues of Command included variants adding a battalion of the French Guard and a battalion of French sappers that were available but never used.
(Yes) For Wargamers: The only game on this topic, it’s a challenging play and instructive as well.
(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibles, aside from being the only game on this particular part of the battle of Waterloo.
(No) For Euro gamers: Game play is intricate and detailed, even by war game standards, with a lot of movement factor counting and other math.

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