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Steve Morgan, Rick Priestley, Pike & Shotte: Battles with Model Soldiers in the 16th and 17th Centuries, 208 pp (hard cover), Warlord Games, Nottingham, 2012


Rick Priestley, of Games Workshop fame, is a games designer and the author of Rogue Trader and many other titles. For Warlord Games he developed Black Powder and Hail Caesar. Rick has auctioned off his hair for charity.

Rick Priestley

Steve Morgan is sales manager at Warlord Games and the author and co-editor of Pike & Shotte. Steve bought Rick’s hair and was last seen boarding bus 24 (Hampstead Heath to Victoria Station) dressed as a woman.

Steve Morgan

Warlord’s long-awaited Black Powder sequel for Renaissance and Early Modern warfare is a mixed blessing. The Black Powder pedigree of the expensive format, the illustrations and diagrams as well as the textual fluff is obvious. But the only thing war-gamers really care for is the gaming mechanism, and just as I expected the Pike & Shotte mechanism is as old-school, practical and result-oriented as its predecessors. Battles played by these rules will be quick and bloody as well as great fun. I’ve played the Pavia scenario from the book and several skirmishes and they were great games. Given the large numbers of cavalry involved in most 17th century battles the pace of a TYW game is bound to be even faster.

However, the representation of some TYW historical formations within this mechanism is problematic, so is basing for 10mm, and so are some minor irritants inherent to the Black Powder system.

The book has the standard format of most rulebooks these days. It starts with a description of what you need in order to play a war-game and follows up with a sketch of period troops and tactics. The beef here is in the resume of basic terms, units and formations. Pikemen and fire-arms troops are treated as separate units, although they are supposed to march into battle together since the advent of the arquebuse. For the sake of clarity there are no pike and shot units, only pike units and shot units. This is great, for the shot formations often operated separately from the pike blocs. In some cases they fought completely on their own from behind walls, ditches and related hard cover.

In Pike & Shotte the standard formation for the 17th century is a regiment consisting of a pike unit (bloc) and two shot units for wings. Confusingly these larger regiments are also occasionally called “units” in the book. This regimental formation is clearly geared to the English Civil War which is fine and dandy for an English rulebook intended for a mainly English market. Players whose predilection is rather more continental and TYW-ish will obviously have to tweak their way around this.

The basics of moving, shooting and hand-to-hand combat, the various functions of terrain and the conditions for victory and defeat are virtually the same as in Black Powder. They take up about half the book, the rest is devoted to army lists and exemplary battles taken from the Italian Wars, Anglo-Irish Wars, Thirty Year War, English Civil War and Lace Wars, but with an emphasis on the English Civil War. There’s no index in the back, instead we find the usual concise and very helpful two-page (!) quick reference sheet. So far so good. Now for the weak spots of this rule-set.

Historic Formations

On page 29 the developers run into trouble when they suggest formations for the Spanish Esquadrón (not a “Tercio” as per the book), Mauritian Battalion (not “Brigade”) and Swedish Brigade.

The many-horned Spanish formation suggested in the book had gone out of fashion before 1600, yet players are wrongly led to believe that it subsisted beyond that year and that by consequence it made the Spanish armies ‘inflexible’. Sorry gentlemen, here’s what an escuadrón prolongado looked like around 1620. Nothing unwieldy about it.

Illustration borrowed from Pierre Picouet, whose book Les tercios espagnols is reviewed elsewhere on this blog

The Mauritian battalion was 500-strong with a 1:2 pike to musket ratio; it was a small, mobile unit drilled and organised to apply maximum firepower. Usually these battalions would operate in pairs, supporting each other, and being supported in turn by other pairs disposed in a checkerboard pattern. However, in the book we see a “Mauritian Brigade” consisting of three regular ECW regiments, two of which are half-hidden behind the third which is therefore blocking the line of fire of their shot wings. Obviously this will not do.

The Swedish Brigade as shown in the book suffers from the same shortcoming, i.e. musket units blocking eachother’s line of sight. The Swedish army was well-drilled and musket-heavy and if there was one rule its units would painstakingly observe, it was to stay the f*ck away from eachother’s firing lines.

But all this will pass after a few tweaks. If need be the Mauritian battalions can be represented by small units operating in pairs and assigned the odd special rule such as “Firelocks” or “Sharp Shooters”. The Swedish Brigade can be represented as a Large Unit standing in line instead of in a pyramid or wedge formation. Details will follow below when I come to the subject of basing for 10mm.

Minor irritants

A more serious issue is a staple weakness of Black Powder: the Initiative Order. Units get one free move if they are within 6″ distance of the enemy at the start of their movement. “This represents the leaders of these units taking matters into their own hands or acting according to some prearranged plan or signal”, says the book on page 35. However, every commander with a bit of nous will tell you that it is far easier to make your troops obey orders at a safe distance from the enemy than in the face of same, when sudden death is winking and fear, nerves and the fog of war descend on your mens’ minds – and on your own.

Yet a simple tweak is at hand. I think the Initiative Order should be inverted: units get an initiative move as long as they are more than 6″ away from the enemy, but once they are within that range the player has to pass a command test to make them move. This is far more realistic, no less bloody, and it has the added advantage that none of your troops will ever again be consigned to oblivion on the sideline of a battle due to your constant bad command rolls. If there is a plan that commanders are expected to carry out, surely they are more likely to stick to it at the start of battle than in the full heat of it.

Another issue – this one specific to the 17th century – is the rule on page 46 stating that units engaged in hand-to-hand combat cannot be shot at.

Says who? If you are fighting a 17th century battle, you want to go 17th century on the enemy’s arse! Fire away at him whenever he’s a clear target, whether the enemy unit is in hand-to-hand combat or not. If you think that wasn’t considered cricket at the time, there’s a bridge at Dessau that I want to sell to you.

Basing for 10mm

Finally a word about basing. You want that mass effect, but you also want to be able to fight the larger battles of the era with lots of troops. In the latter case any sort of exuberant basing will tend to clog your table. So “scaleability” is the magic word. You want your troops based in such a way that you can combine them into fairly large formations for a skirmish game, but divide them into many units with smaller frontages for large battles.

Before we decide what works, let’s take this issue to extremes. Let’s assume that you want to fight the First Battle of Breitenfeld (1631), which was the biggest battle of the TYW involving 73.000 troops on both sides, and that you want to do this on your 150cm by 270cm ping pong table. First Breitenfeld was fought on a 6.5km by 5km battlefield. Reduced to a ping pong table this yields a horizontal scale of 1:3333. In other words 1cm on your ping pong table represents 33 meter, 30cm on the table represent 1 kilometer, &cetera. And since the key to basing is frontage – taking into account that each foot soldier occupied roughly 1 square meter and each horseman 6 square meters (2x3m) – a model unit’s desired frontage on the ping pong table is calculated by dividing its true historic frontage by 3.333 (depth in basing is always less important and may vary according to practicability).

This is where you run aground. This scale would reduce a Mauritian Battalion to only 1,5cm width. Of course it’s impossible to base an acceptable number of pike and shot on such a small base. The Swedish Brigade consisted of three squadrons of 500 men each, totaling 1.500 men standing 200 meter wide and 6-10 ranks deep, which would result in a 6cm wide formation on your ping pong table. That doesn’t look very grand either. All in all, this scale destroys the mass effect you expect from 10mm models.

This means you have to cheat and work your way up from the smallest feasible base size. It means you have to experiment until you hit on the minimum basing size that makes a unit still look “realistic” and take it from there. This is very subjective, I know – and since I myself am a full-flung subject I will now suggest my own solution to this problem for the TYW.

To my taste the minimum “realistic” 10mm regiment for the TYW consists of a pike bloc of 3cm wide and 3cm deep with 9 pikemen (plus 2 command figures) on it, and a shot wing on each side measuring 3cm wide and 2cm deep with 8 musketeers in two ranks on it. That would be a Small Unit formation (i.e. a formation all parts of which count as Small Units).

A Standard Unit formation would consist of a pike bloc of 16 men (including command) in four ranks on a base of 3cm wide and 4cm deep, plus wings of 16 musketeers each consisting of two bases of 3x2cm with 8 musketeers in two ranks.

A Large Unit formation would consist of two 3x4cm piked blocs side by side plus two wings of three 3x2cm bases with 8 musketeers each.

Early Spanish escuadrónes (1600-1620) and certain early German regiments could be represented by such Large Units. A Swedish Brigade should be linear, consisting of a mix of pike blocs and musket bases with emphasis on the muskets (for instance m-m-m-p-m-m-p-m-m-m). Make the musket units “Extra Large Units” (for instance for Breitenfeld or Lützen) or just Large Units with the “First Fire” special rule (for later engagements) and Bob’s your Swedish uncle.

Cavalry too can be based (3 horsemen wide) on a 3x2cm base, and so can a piece of light artillery. Heavy artillery can be based at will since it is stationary anyway.

This system allows you to expand and contract your units and they will still look good, they will not be out of whack in column (all bases are 3cm wide) and they will be able to form a convincing “Hedgehog” as on page 65 of the rulebook. Of course you will not be able to represent all units historically involved in First Breitenfeld and similar large scenarios, but you can simply combine several historic units into one model unit on your ping pong table.

In passing, I may have transformed Pike & Shotte into a totally different game. Therein lies the true beauty of the Black Powder system. Tweaking is encouraged so that we may all live in interesting times.