Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Rules Review - Blackpowder 2

Next in my series of Rules Reviews is Blackpowder 2.
For more detail on my approach to reviewing rules please see my Rules Review Index Page.

Command Level: Divisional Commander or Corp Commander.
Basic Tactical Unit: Infantry battalion, two or more squadrons of cavalry, or artillery battery.
Figures per unit: Works with any, units are just "tiny, small, regular, large"
Ground Scale: Not stated, though perhaps 6" or 15cm = 100 yards in 28mm seems about right.
Time Scale: Not stated, though 15-30 minutes a turn perhaps.

Organisation: 2/5
The Blackpowder rules have been criticised as "conversational" or meandering rather than just delivering specifications succinctly, though this seems to be a stylistic choice that will appeal to some. They also contain many distracting pictures and background material which often fills space rather than being linked to the text in any planned way. This might be a bug or a feature depending on your preference. For myself it is more of the latter, as I prefer rules to get to the point with a minimum of text rather than flicking through background with which I'm already familiar, and I also prefer that rule and justification are not mixed up.

The rules cover a large period which makes it harder to parse out just the Napoleonic specific material if that is all you are after. Consequently a local gaming group wrote out the Blackpowder 1 rules from scratch, with additional notes to resolve ambiguity and increase clarity, and making sure it was more tightly focused on Napoleonic as opposed to a broader period of warfare. That is quite some effort of course. 

A common description is that Blackpowder provides a toolkit that you can tailor to any "Blackpowder" era wargame. For example I've played variants of it for Napoleonics, American Civil War, American War of Independence, and the Sudan, and it is quite easy to switch between these once you are familiar with the core system. If you play several Blackpowder eras this is a definite advantage then. Unfortunately the new cover of Blackpowder 2 makes it look like just another set of Napoleonic rules, whereas the first edition cover (below) clearly advertised that it covered a broader period.

A caveat to this toolkit approach, is that much Napoleonic material is in three Blackpowder expansion books: Clash of Eagles, Albion Triumphant Volumes 1 and 2. So you could be looking at the annoyance/cost of needing four books rather than just one for Napoleonics.

The fact that it can be challenging to play "straight out of the box", rather than setting up different  special rules for what you want to do, could be something of a drawback. On the other hand the encouragement to adapt as you see best matches history and your gaming preferences frees one from overly stilted rule adherence. 

Unfortunately it seems poor proofreading in the new version of Blackpowder 2 may contribute to confusion for new players as this review indicates. On the other hand, there are also a number of improvements in both rules and organisation in the change from Blackpowder 1, listed here in this summary of changes.

BP Mechanics: 3/5
Mechanics are generally quite clean and intuitive and not difficult to comprehend, though there is more detail than is initially apparent.

One common criticism of the mechanics is that probabilities don't seem to have been considered sufficiently at times. For example, a shaken or disordered unit has reduced fire effect, but weirdly is still just as likely to disorder enemy.  A common house rule is that disorder occurs on a 1 rolled on the defender's morale save, rather than on a 6 rolled by the attacker, and one wonders why the rule was not designed this way in the first place.  Another example of this might be that command roll odds also don't scale linearly (e.g you are usually more likely to move one or three times rather than just two times), though there is also a simple fix to this.

Support factors can be confusing to remember the allocation of when you have large engagements happening, and may detract from an otherwise relatively simple system. I've seen groups start using extra counters to keep track of these in large refights where you have dozens of units tangling with each other.

Blackpowder can also end up with a large number of "special ability" type rules to remember in an attempt to further distinguish troop types. I don't see this being any more complicated than what is done in other rules though.  Supplements such as "Clash of Eagles" provide a large number of additional optional rules, though it seems most people don't bother with these or only use a small portion of them. I believe the Perry twins of Perry Miniatures fame use no additional rules at all for example, and this approach would seem very wise for beginners also.

BP Simulation: 3/5
I believe Blackpowder is not at poor as some Napoleonic grognards would suggest, once you include the appropriate modifiers. While there are quirks, the overall package still seems to give historical outcomes in large battles, though I guess it could be argued this would often occur simply due to "weight of numbers" in a circumstance rather than guaranteeing particularly Napoleonic interactions are happening.

Many of the issues in the 1st edition have been improved in the 2nd edition, as already noted in this  comprehensive list of changes mentioned above. Still there are some common criticisms. For example musket range seems too far in several respects (18" for muskets when unit in line is going to be about 8 or 10 inches wide for 24-36 strong units in 28mm), and the distance doesn't seem to match up with the shorter artillery ranges either, e.g. canister vs musketry. On the other hand actual artillery effect is still quite powerful relative to musketry despite the unusual ranges specified, so this is less of a problem than it might seem. Artillery battery frontages are small though (one gun), and thus firepower per width of frontage arguably too effective relative to infantry. A common houserule sees wider gun frontages than appears in pictures in the rules. For example using two guns instead of one gun (or three for Russians), though you could also just stick one gun on a larger base.

Another issue many complain of is that it lacks situational character or "flavour" present in other rules.  For example, square forming is pretty automatic for infantry and not dependent on troop quality, existing formation and attrition, how close the cavalry are and so on. Guards are no better than regular or even green troops at forming an emergency square. Few people like massive lists of modifiers to tests, but given what modifiers exist elsewhere (e.g. for command tests), there are equally simple alternatives to the existing rule that could be used to reduce this blandness.  A common "form emergency square" test variant is that you must roll your morale rating or higher, modified by +1 for each move away the cavalry is, and -1 if shaken/disordered.

The issue of disorder being inflicted on a "6" being largely unaffected by troop quality, formation, disorder etc, has already been referenced above, though at least some better troops do have a chance to ignore disorder with the special "Elite" ability. Disordered cavalry can now also fall back in Blackpowder 2 rather than sitting around being shot as occurred in Blackpowder 1 - this being an example of a community house rule that was played by virtually everyone and adopted into the new rules.

Woods rules are simplistic and unfortunately Blackpowder 2 didn't take the opportunity to amend this, despite there being better rules in some of the Blackpowder 1 supplements. Many groups also seem to houserule and abstract or even abandon skirmishers for large games, due to issues with rules for them. This is a shame given the importance of skirmishers in Napoleonic warfare.

The attritional system means there can be an emphasis in ganging up on a unit as much as possible in one turn with micro-management of enfilading and so on, in order to maximise chance of success at the break test. If the morale test is passed though, there is no carryover effect on the target from attrition which can result in what seems like some excessively long engagements. Enfilading can be viewed as a "gamey" and unhistorically common tactic, especially given the multiple moves in Blackpowder, though criticism has at least seen it toned down in 2nd edition (rerolls rather than double dice).

The support mechanic seems like an unusual choice for such a simple set of rules, and is coarsely applied so that it has a major impact relative to other factors like troop quality. Like enfilading, it seems like a rule mechanic introduced from a fantasy rule set (Games Workshop's Warmaster on which the system is based) perhaps without giving sufficient consideration to its importance relative to other factors.

Infantry is also prone to experiencing prolonged hand to hand combat in the open, which by my reading never happened in this period. One side or the other would quickly break and run, usually before bayonet blows were exchanged, with fighting in towns being the exception to this.

Of course there exist potential fixes for most of these issues and others I haven't listed, if you see them as issues. There is a useful set of houserules for Blackpowder 2 here for example, and see a previous set of houserules for Blackpowder 1 that we used for several large refights. However, using extensive houserules also makes it more challenging to a new or casual player, which seems to be one of the main target audiences.

Friction: 4/5
The command system adds some nice uncertainty, and even chance of catastrophic blunders with troops going in the wrong direction. This is something that many other rules do not do but arguably should, though it does add some additional complexity compared to other rulesets. There are also some oddities. For example, units close to the enemy get automatic 'initiative moves' - when likely this is an occasion when manouever should become more difficult not less so. Note also the point above about command rolls odds not scaling linearly.

Speed of Play: 4/5
Large moves and potential for multiple of them help speed up play, though extra rules needed to account for these multiple moves can add complication and time. As accumulated attrition disappears after a certain limit units can often last a long time rather than eventually dispersing or having steadily increased chances of doing so. Nonetheless, compared to many rulesets Blackpowder moves quite quickly making it suitable if you want to complete a large game in a reasonable timeframe.

Clutter Avoidance: 4/5
Standard units can take up to three hit counters and become 'shaken' at this point, and then you pile on more beyond this once they reach this level. You take a morale test at the end of a phase for any unit taking these extra hits with a minus for each one taken, and they might break or just discard all those hits beyond three. Thus you need a pile of these hit tokens handy and apart from these no other counters or record keeping is necessary. Disordered status can be simply shown by tilting a base or two at an angle to others in their unit so does not require extra counters.

Pickup Play Support: 1/5
This seems more of an afterthought with points that were quite unbalanced in Blackpowder 1, scenarios barely developed, and no good system for deciding on terrain for a battle. Unfortunately it seems the the new edition of Blackpowder 2 leaves out points altogether. The ballpark points in Blackpowder 1 were still better than nothing and at least a starting point and it's unfortunate these were removed. The authors also acknowledge they are not aiming to provide this sort of support with their product so be aware of this if choosing these rules.

Historical Scenario Support: 2/5
As described above there are three Napoleonic source books for Blackpowder, two for British versus French (Waterloo and Peninsula), and one for everyone else! So a definite Anglophile bias thus far, and very sparse coverage of non-British Napoleonic engagements - which formed the vast majority of the Napoleonic period. These source books are rather heavy on basic background information, but lighter on historical battle scenarios and orders of battle. The background material is helpful enough to introduce new players to the different armies, and if considered from this perspective alone I'd give this category at least a 3.

Overall: 3/5
A good introductory Napoleonic wargame due to the historical background material and relative simplicity of the rules. At the same time it can also require quite some work on the part of players to get it historically optimised and workable for Napoleonics. Most experienced groups seem to use fairly extensive lists of houserules or clarifications, though this detracts from a main selling point of the rules which is simplicity.

On the positive side, action happens quite quickly and it does enable you to fight big games in a reasonable timeframe, to a degree I've not seen with most other rulesets. That Blackpowder is often chosen for this, may speak to the lack of better quality products in this particular Napoleonic niche rather than Blackpowder itself being particularly good.

As others have commented, if you have the Blackpowder 1 rules, another option is to perhaps just keep using that together with a list your preferred house rules and changes, at least until Warlord makes a better effort at proof-reading their book!

Lastly, while this review contains many criticisms, or at least caveats, please do read this article by the author about the sort of ruleset Blackpowder is intended to be. As I discuss on my rules review page, all rules are aimed at a particular preference. While Blackpowder has some issues as all rules do, I think it succeeds well enough in meeting the purpose it is designed for. And with its emphasis on encouraging house rules, it can be tailored further to meet your personal preference, or that of your group if you have enough consensus.


  1. I never liked blackpowder
    The activation rules often result in part of an army engaging while the rest just mill around, the movement rules are too free making redundant formations besides line and making it into something more like 40k than a historical game. Disruption severely hampers CqC units such as cavalry who stay rooted to the spot and get blown to pieces. Finally the move and shoot sequence is something you would expect from a sci fi wargame rather than a big battalion era.

    1. Cheers for feedback Francesc! Making part of the army mill around while others engage, I think happened a fair bit in real battles so doesn't bother me too much from that perspective, even if as a player it can definitely be annoying. :) I think attack column was pretty effective in our games with the extra morale save, and command test bonus (for French). As mentioned above the disorder immobilising cav thing has changed but yeah was a definite issue. Some people change move and shoot to shoot and move, at least for artillery, so that's another issue to consider like you say.

  2. Unfortunately, the game requires too many fixes to be worth it when there are other good Napoleonic rules out there.

    1. That might be a fair comment, though I would suggest "other good napoleonic rules" in the particular niche Blackpowder is aimed at (i.e. large games on large tables in 28mm within quick timeframe), has more limited options available.

    2. Fair enough, although 4 hours of a great time is well better than 2 hours of frustration. Hiding poorly thought out mechanics behind loads of dice is not enticing to me. That said, your review was spot on. It's a good game if you want to relax, throw a load of dice and toss back a few pints.

  3. I thoroughly read through the rules page by page and concluded that they are just too simplified for my taste. My comparison would be a chess game versus checkers. BP is your checkers of the Historical war game hobby.

    1. Cheers Chuck, yes definitely not going to be for everyone!

  4. Coming from a WRG and Grand Manner pathway into Black Powder I have been a fan from first contact. I play many periods and have many armies so for me, the fewer rule sets I have to familiarise myself with the better. There have never been a lack of opinions amongst wargamers and no single set can ever please everyone and I like my own house-rules and am a fan of house-rules for just about anything. I didn't get an impression that the new version is a 'must-have'. What are your thoughts - is it worth the change up or would you be just as happy with the first edition?

    1. Cheers, yes that modularity is an advantage with BP. Re your question of 1 vs 2, most of what's new in Blackpowder 2 is what people were already doing it seems to me, and even with BP 2 there will be lists of modifications to use for most Napoleonic playsers, so why not just include whatever BP2 changes you want to in a list of mods to BP 1? If the new version didn't have the editorial mistakes I would l be more inclined to encourage purchase of it, but rewarding this sloppiness doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

  5. Your review is really well done. While I don't play BP, I appreciate some of the abstractions you highlight. Great effort to distill the rules for our pleasure.

  6. I like BP, though I thought the second edition missed a trick when it didn't includes as basic, the rule that appears in the Glory Hallelujah supplement, that units making more than 1 move can't then fire. This may be more relevant to the smaller table, as it encourages more considered movement (i.e.less of it).

    1. Thanks Norm, yes can't move and fire if three moves is another variant on that one.

  7. Viewers need to see the "Intro" by the writers on pages 4 + 5 -paragraphs 3 then 4 . Includes this " No pretence is made to simulate every nuance or detail of weaponry , drill or psychology of warfare " . I know , in metaphor , if you buy a new car you do not drive off as it is ,without modifying the setup . We adjust so many things in it to suit ourselves . Mind you there is many cars to choose to your taste . see paragraph 5 . Gamers do have House Rules and they are numerous .
    Maybe you could offer a Chapter on info sharing : how many use Forums , Facebook sites to gauge its popularity ? Would that be too hard for your time ?
    Not sure a rules system has ever covered a 200 year era before either .
    But I wonder and someone can tell me , have the Manufacturers of so many eras of all of our Hobby , the Perry Twins played any other rulesset as they were also behind the mechanics being created ?

    1. Cheers Rusty, I think the criticism I make above is not that every nuance should simulated - indeed I don't think that is a good idea at all if you read my rules review page. But simplification and abstraction can be done well or not so well and that is another question worth examining.

      And yes many gamers have house rules, but I note many rulesets seem to be widely played without any houserules at all. Blackpowder gets many houserules and often the same ones from different groups, because the same issues present themselves as problems (e.g. woods), and it encourages the toolkit approach.

      As to popularity I can only really speak to what I see, it is pretty popular here in New Zealand, and yes there is a lot of online content, but so are many rules, so hard to gauge I think. I have noticed that there is very little You Tube Napoleonic Wargaming content that isn't Blackpowder. I think it is an interesting question, and would be good to get a better idea of it somehow if possible. And like I say above, if you play multiple Blackpowder settings (like the Perry's), then a single system with modifiers is an advantage.

  8. A good and fair review. I'm not a fan of BP 1 and am unlikely to get BP 2.

  9. I have both Black Powder 1 and 2 on the shelves and have only glanced through. They are obviously a very popular set but. from the many AARs I have read, have always formed the impression that they tend more toward the "gamey" end of the spectrum, as opposed to "simulation". If indeed that is a spectrum, and I suppose the ultimate would be to find a set of rules that perfectly combines both.

    1. Thanks Lawrence! Indeed it's a difficult path achieving the right sort of compromise :)

  10. Popular?? I'd like to know where. In the US Warlord Games are rarely played at our conventions. Serious gamers avoid the rules. Again think of chess vrs checkers, that describes the relationship between mainline Napoleonic's and Warlord Games.

    1. Cheers I don't see them at conventions either, except perhaps as a display game. But in other gaming events such as very large historic refights, with plenty of houserules, more common.

  11. Fair review I think, I have blackpowder1 and have played it and will probably use it for Napoleonics, mainly because I already play pike and shot and its the crossover, to be fair it doesn't pretend to be just a Napoleonic ruleset and the expectation is that the players would adapt it,how different from WRG rules? I want to push around a load of 28mm figures, enjoy the game and finish it in an evening, I'm willing to compromise some historical details to an extent if that can be achieved, until the holy grail ruleset comes along and we are all happy with it, unlikely!
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks and yes fair enough too Iain! Good points and enjoy :)

  12. I play with BP2 for the War of 1812. I take scenario games to a couple of conventions each year designed for eight players. Each player will get a Brigade of three units to lead. The ruleset works well enough for me when I'm teaching it to others while playing. My main era of gaming is WWII and as such I have not explored other rules for 1812

    1. Thanks for the comment, yes I can imagine it being suitable for that sort of setup. Larger multiplayer games is what we've used it for successfully.

  13. I have BP1 and 2.
    BP1 provided the best Napoleonic rules I have played.
    Not because they are excellent rules, but because the "free and easy" movement lets the game proceed, you can finish in 3 hours without a migraine, and the game has a definite plot.

    BP2 really disappointed me, paying above average for a set of rules with so few adjustments - a 2 page errata sheet could do the job.

    The disappointment made me re-assess my view of the rules. The chatty delivery in "cod Edwardian" dialect, the lack of reliable indexing and the lack of consistent layout really started to annoy me.
    All lazy authoring that could be fixed with a decent editor.

    Sadly the publisher seems to be following the GW "evil empire" business model.
    Highly hyped new rules and fluff designed to sell figures and codexes.
    But less regard for providing a well produced game.

    It ain't personal, it's just business.

    1. Thanks for your comment Steve. I think that's a good summary of some common criticisms of BP2, that comes even from people who generally favour the rules.