I haven't been completely happy with how Black Powder plays out especially in larger battles with the frontlines defaulting to a static grind for turns on end and little national differences in units. With that in mind I've been eyeing new rulesets whenever they have come out. Over the Hills is a new set from Adrian McWalter and Quinton Dalton that seems to have created quite a stir around the blogosphere with plenty of praise from all sides. The fact that it had a larger emphasis on morale and quicker playing style with a mixed activation order instead of the traditional I go, you go style seemed like it could be exactly the thing I was looking for.
With the ruleset arriving in my mail box a few weeks back we scheduled a test game for last weekend. To keep things simple we went for a bit smaller engagement with few different unit types. Teugen-Hausen from the 1809 campaign between Austria and France seemed a suitable setting with roughly a Corps on both sides facing each other and only about an enlarged Division taking part in the fight on both sides. I created an OOB adding a bit of variety on the commanders especially on the Austrian side where they seemed to exhibit surprising amounts of courage leading their troops from the front in successive counter-attacks trying to drive the French back. So bonuses to inspiration values were definitely in place for a few select commanders.
I won't cover the game itself in too much detail, but rather focus on the rules. Suffice to say the battle went rather like the historical battle with units arriving piecemeal on the battlefield and committing themselves when ready. The battle slowly escalated with a division on both sides in combat and the small Austrian hussar regiment proving to be a nuisance to the French threatening their flanks as in the real deal. The battle ground down to a halt with no clear winner and both sides suffering similar casualties. The French hadn't pushed through, but neither had the Austrians been able to push them back. Indecisive, but a small Austrian victory.
The rules themselves proved fast playing and easy to learn. I was the only one who had read the rules beforehand and acted as the Umpire with two clubmates assuming command of the opposing forces. With the mixed activation order things came a little at a time at first and also everyone was constantly occupied with things to do. The turn system also eliminated one of the things that annoys me about Black Powder, which is units moving at breakneck speed getting three turns and then unloading on the enemy at close distance which just seemed silly.
Morale and casualties are put into a single value of Fatigue that varies by unit depending on the morale and training levels. I was at first slightly hesitant with the system which seemed overly simplified, but during the game I grew to like it as it kept the game flowing fast and gave real choices to commanders about whether to burn Fatigue to move faster towards the battle or conserve it to have better staying power. The system does require a bit of book keeping with every single point of fatigue taken will be removed from the units total even if it's later rallied on the gaming table. Track needs to be kept of the overall amount of fatigue hits taken as well as the current fatigue of the unit on the table, which can be different if officers rally the unit. So effectively a regular unit will be destroyed after taking 7 fatigue hits even if it's rallied to remove some of them on the table. It gives a nice effect of officers sorting lines out and inspiring their men forward, but at some point the unit has taken too many casualties and will just retreat from the area despite the efforts of their commanders.
We played with both Brigade and Divisional morale in use requiring the whole formation to start retreating after suffering more than 50% Fatigue hits from it's total. The system really requires efficient uses of reserves as units can rarely stay in the fight for multiple consecutive turns. We did find that having divisions with brigades of different sizes could lead to basically the whole division breaking quite fast after a large brigades morale broke down. We had one occasion where a smaller brigade with nearly no damage taken was only a few fatigue hits from breaking off as well when a large brigade in the same division broke down after leading the attack. This is easily remedied though with a slightly different distribution of units. Another way would be to just track Brigade morale and not Divisional morale on top of that as well.
Another thing that I liked was that fighting was quick and fairly decisive. When one side moves into close combat a maximum of three rounds are immediately fought and if one unit is not victorious then both sides retreat. This really kept things rolling with the frontlines not bogging down and more often than not units quickly retreating from an assault. In Black powder you can easily have fights going on for turn after turn with no clear result in sight. What Over the Hills offers is much closer to first hand accounts I've read in wartime diaries etc. that usually saw a short exchange of fire with one side assaulting with bayonets and the other retreating without any combat having necessarily been fought. Units also tend to take quite a few Fatigue hits in every combat so you rarely see a unit fighting more than two combats before it is fully spent.
National variety comes from national characteristics, use of 'French' or 'Linear' combat systems and differences in unit's Fatigue and Skirmish values. I felt they gave a nice and simple way to differentiate the varying forces fighting around the period. In the end of the book there's a selection of unit characteristics for all the different periods of fighting during the Napoleonic wars, which proved very handy when putting together the scenario.
One thing that I did find a bit lacking was the movement speed of units. With the muskets maximum firing range of 12" being roughly 200 meters in real life terms, infantry normally moves 6" in line formation without gaining fatigue and 12" when taking a fatigue point. Likewise at maximum movement rate in marching column they would move 18" or 24" while taking a Fatigue hits. That yields to infantry moving between 100 and 400 meters in a turn which at times seems a little slow at times. As we are playing with 15mm miniatures we changed inches to centimeters which saw units moving at a snails pace over the battlefield. Of course the scope of the turn in Over the Hills is a much shorter period than in other systems so more turns would be needed overall, but movement still felt a bit sluggish. This is probably more of a matter of taste as we tend to play large battles on bigger tables and being used to the longer movements in Black Powder I think our table was maybe a bit too spread out for these rules.
The biggest issue with the rules is editing. With all rules being set inside explanatory text you really have to read carefully to pick things out. Something to bring out the main points like using bolded text or italics would really have helped. The book does have bit of a garage project vibe as well and does look a bit like it was done on Microsoft Word. However when you get the hang of the rules they are really straight forward and can be taught to others easily just by playing. Professional editing would really have benefited the rules. Still can't complain too much, they weren't too expensive and you can't expect too much from wargames rules with smallish print quantities.
Overall I really liked the rules. They fix everything that I didn't like about Black Powder while still keeping the game simple and actually making it flow even faster the BP. With my interest in warfare being quite heavily on the psychological side of fighting the fact that the rules put more emphasis on the morale side of fighting with the Fatigue score I really liked how things played out. My clubmates were also pretty thrilled with the rules and it would seem we will switch to these for our next Napoleonic campaign starting sometime early next year.
That's quite a wall of text, but I definitely recommend giving these rules a try. They are very fast paced, but still provide a good period feel and are easy to learn. Some book keeping is required but nothing too much for roughly a Corps sized game. It would be interesting to see how it works when you play some larger battle like Waterloo. Keeping track of things could prove harder then.