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 ALBUERA 1811 BERESFORD vs SOULT FROM STRATEGEMATA The latest game that Strategemata kindly sent me a review copy of covers the battle of Al...








The latest game that Strategemata kindly sent me a review copy of covers the battle of Albuera in the Peninsular War.  The historical battle was large in numbers and especially large in casualties, but led to no significant outcome for either side.

My first introduction to this battle in game terms was back in 1979, with the enjoyable, but fairly basic Albuera & Vittoria from 3W [World Wide Wargamers].    The most recent was White Dog Games Albuera 1811 with is original approach combining ideas from both the world of miniatures wargaming and Rachel [Bowen] Simmons innovative board game system for Napoleonic and ACW battles.
This game, Albuera 1811 Beresford v Soult, is a substantial traditional hex and counter production.  Like most of their games, it may lack the publishing polish of many larger companies.  The map is rather larger than standard size being slightly over 27 x 38 inches and has a rather retro look in its limited colour range.  However, once the units were set up, I was pleased with the impression created.

When I first unboxed the contents I was surprised by the large number of counters and a little bit daunted by the number that had fallen out of the six counter sheets.  It took some time to re-assemble them in order to take the picture seen below.  There was also a small zip-lock bag of 25 rectangular infantry counters that represent the largest formations in line order.

Though moderately large in unit numbers the reason for the many counters is that most infantry units are represented by three separate counters to cover skirmish, line and column formation.  I've got to say that sorting these was a chore because of the many that had fallen out of the sheets.  On top of that, the counters are small and the important unit designation on each is very small.  As I soon found out, when I realised that most units had at least three counters to represent different states, the need for a display chart became obvious.  It also became obvious that I would have to create them for myself.  Below is just the one for the British units,

Without some organisation of this sort, the game becomes a nightmare of "hunt the unit".  With it, it becomes manageable, but there are quite a number of other problems, as I've found.  After considerable improvements in the quality of the counters (along with mounted boards) for the last three Strategemata games I've reviewed, it was a disappointment to return to the thinner average quality ones here, though I suspect the much larger number of counters is the reason, as was the return to a paper map.
Despite this, as I began the game, I was enthusiastic about the overall look of the battle and the individual groupings, such as the one below.

Unfortunately, I soon realised that difficulties lay ahead.  All I can say is that manipulating the counters is a strain for the following reasons.  The stacking of small counters, the need to change counters in and out of play, the addition of numbered markers to show losses and others for morale states and finally any new unit entering a stack has to be placed on the bottom.  It's time consuming and leads to stacks that are very awkward to manage without tweezers and frequent confusion as stacks topple and affect what is often already a crowded group of units. 
Turning from these practical physical constraints, I hoped that the rulebook would prove an easier undertaking, but here too I encountered a number of difficulties.  A total of 12 pages seemed a modest number and I was expecting the sort of simple clarity that I'd found with many of the smaller scale Strategemata games.  Parts lived up to this expectation. In particular the command structure and the chit-pull activation system works well and give a realistic feel. With brigade, division and army commanders, there is a good deal of variety as to how you may choose to activate units.  Especially successful is the prospect that the greater the number of brigades you try to coordinate for action, the greater the risk grows of failure.  This nicely mirrors the problems of the period.  Also, as many of the command formations often contain only about six units, a highly interactive game ensues.  The distinction between line and column and the detaching of skirmishes too all worked to create the appropriate historical feel.
However, as I moved on to fire combat [musket fire for infantry and artillery fire] and clash [think melee] a range of problems became clear.  One was understanding some rules starting with the the initial heading Alternative Sequence of Fire Combat - I assume the word should be Alternating.  Much to my surprise the rule stated that the units opposed to the activated commander fired first and that any unit on the board could fire.  I assumed this meant only against those units currently moving or firing.
The next uncertainty came with the rule that every infantry unit could fire 4 times within a single turn.  There was nothing to indicate whether there are any restrictions on how many times a unit can fire during its own activation and how many during your opponent's activation.  With no rule preventing you, I've simply followed the practical view that you can fire whenever you have the opportunity until you've done so four times.  Much more of a problem is that it's another essential marker to add to your stack and one that's likely to frequently need replacing and this too inevitably adds to the length of a turn. 
The musket fire system itself is a deceptive process.  The Musket Fire Table  has only four possible results, ranging from "no effect" to some form of morale check and these results are not dependent on a die roll. 

How easy that looks, but what a time-consuming exercise it turned out to be. First of all the unit with the highest firepower is your lead unit, but a unit's firepower is affected by whether it has lost strength and by what formation it's in.  The latter will determine whether it fires at 100% or 66%  or even 20% and if it's firing at range two it has to be halved Then each hex from which additional units are firing moves you one row down the table minus one and finally, the number of times the lead unit has previously fired gives positive or negative modifiers to the morale check die roll that the unit fired on has to make.   Suddenly what seemed such a good idea has turned into a much less appealing and much more time-consuming task.

After that we get to resolve the Clash Phase [i.e. Melee].   According to the rules, this occurs when a unit has entered an enemy occupied hex.  The first thing to realise is that physically doing this soon becomes impractical, except very early in the game.
In the picture below is the simplest occurrence of Clash.  A single French unit has engaged a single British unit and they are both in line formation.   Neither unit has any markers on them yet and most unusual there are no other units nearby to worry about jostling.

In other words this is an immaculate example rather than a realistic occurrence.  Much more likely is the scene in the next picture with the same two units.  It still looks workable, though I wouldn't really like to place the attacking unit in the defending hex.

Finally we see what might actually lie in each of those piles.  A defending British unit that has fired once and taken 2 losses is being attacked by a French unit that has fired twice and has taken one loss

Remember that a hex can stack up to four units, there might be a morale marker in the stack as well and there will usually be several other units adjacent.  I think you can see the problems.  I really like what the game is trying to convey, but I have found both the frequent need to compute numbers and lift up counters and markers to do so, while operating on a fairly crowded battle field has slowed the game significantly and felt more like I was fighting the system rather than the battle. The game also allows you to make Counterattacks and Charges during your opponent's Movement Phase which essentially means that Clashes will occur quite often and not just in the Clash Phase. 
Scenario Cards

So, what makes the game workable.  First and foremost it is the command system and activation restrictions.  The Allied player has twenty formations many numbering between a mere 4 to 6 units, whereas the French have only nine formations of about 10 units and there are 16 turns.  The battle begins with three turns when a very limited number of leaders may be activated.  Most of these turns will involve mainly movement, some changing from column to line and a little musket and artillery fire and just possibly a few clashes.  As a result, you build up experience of the various systems in small steps.  

From turn 4 onwards, the Allies place Marshal Beresford their Senior Commander's chit and six Leader Activation chits into the cup and the French put Marshal Soult their Senior Commander's chit and four Leader chits into the cup.  Which chits you choose and the random order in which they are drawn will not only drive your battle plan, but at times serve to frustrate it.  It will mean that not all of each army will be active each turn, though some Leader's allow you to activate more than one formation.  This will also cause you satisfyingly realistic problems of whether to guarantee activation in small and less efficient increments or attempt larger coordinated formation actions at the risk of their failing to occur at all.  Finally there are automatic victory conditions to be checked in the last Phase [the Administrative Phase] of each turn.  If the VP marker has reached 8 VPs for the Allies they have won, whereas if it has reached 6 VPs for the French they have won.

To sum up, the game has a number of interesting systems that produce a realistic and tactical feel to the battle, but can suffer from cumbersome execution and a lack of clarity in some rules .  It will need a degree of initial organisation of the formations and the several counters to represent most units and, above all, it has an excellent command structure and activation system that brings a lot of realism and uncertainty to the outcome of the battle.