Monday, 28 December 2020

Rules Review - General d'Armee

Next in my series of Rules Reviews is General d'Armee by David Brown.
For more detail on my approach to reviewing rules please see my Rules Review Index Page.

Command Level: Divisional Commander and above
Basic Tactical Unit: Infantry battalion, two or more squadrons of cavalry, or artillery battery.
Figures per unit: Works with any, units are just "small, regular, large", though note ground scale and consider that a battalion in line should take up roughly 150-200 yards (so maybe 10-20 cm in 15mm, 20-30cm in 28mm).
Ground Scale: 1mm to 1 yard/metre in 15mm, proportionally more in 28mm.
Time Scale: 10 to 20 minutes a turn

Organisation: 4/5
General d'Armee is a well laid out set of rules, in logical sections. That said, there's a bit much white space for my taste, and font could definitely do with being bigger in the charts. Pictures of individually based figures with no clear connection to the rules are scattered throughout, though mainly in the margins as a bit of Napoleonic colour. There are a few minor errors or clarity issues in places but a FAQ is available to help with these. The Quick Reference Sheets are also well designed, though at four pages in length one might debate the term "quick".

Positively there is also a forum on which the author himself regularly responds, as do other players with a couple in particular being very helpful. In addition there is a very good set of tutorial gameplay videos which puts these rules ahead of most competitors in that regard (though the Too Fat Lardies really need to sort their videos into playlists!)

Mechanics: 3/5 
I've seen the mechanics of General d'Armee have been described as quite "crunchy", meaning there are  a good number of procedures and rules to work through. At the same time if one compares it to General d'Brigade (a predecessor aimed more at the Brigade Level of Command as the name suggests), it is clear that much thought has gone into minimising the list of modifiers and streamlining systems so larger games can be completed more quickly.

The Brigade skirmish screen idea is one nicely done addition supporting this goal. In General d'Armee, you do have individual battalions, but the Brigade is the basic tactical unit for purposes of command and general effectiveness. Each Brigade has a skirmish screen consisting of a number of bases (generally one per battalion), representing the light companies from its battalions fulfilling this role. Thus there is no micro-management of the actions of individual light companies, but skirmishing is still an important part of the game. 

Some of the mechanics feel quite "old fashioned" (meaning 80's/90's rule complexity rather than the even earlier formative period in wargaming history). For example, typical firing involves a modified 2D6 roll on a chart, plus a bonus casualty dice or two in some situations, then sometimes another dice roll to see if a "half casualty" result is actually a casualty - so a bit clunky.  Skirmishers, garrisons and melee just use casualty dice, and I would have prefered volley and artillery fire to use a similar mechanism rather than a chart.

Looking at the forums, the charges section and all the potential rules around this appears to be the biggest source of confusion, as it can be somewhat convoluted. The FAQ contains further examples of charge procedures to help clarify the intention of the rules, and the videos mentioned above should also help with this.

When it comes to reaction tests there are a range of outcomes to get your head around that can also be confusing. For example, the three "R" words with similar names and meaning - "retire, retreat, rout", with fairly extensive rules applying to each, and I can't help but think I'd prefer something simpler here. Aspects of this also seem counter-inutitive, for example a retreating unit retreats once then halts, but is still classed as "retreating" until it rallies, even though it is not supposed to be withdrawing (moving) any further.

These various complexities of the rules produce more graduated outcomes compared to some other rulesets. Whether this extra detail is worth the time and process of working through the mechanics will be up to player preference of course.

Simulation: 5/5
Overall General d'Armee fits well with at least my own reading of Napoleonic history. The odds ratios and actions of forces feel about right and I feel confident to refight historical battles with them.  It's been argued that there are not enough "national differences", but I'm inclined to agree with the author that these have often been overstated, especially as armies became more homogenous later in the era. I'm also persuaded by his argument that some factors in Napoleonic wargames rules have persisted more for reason of Napoleonic wargaming tradition and assumptions (e.g. bonuses for higher ground or enfilading), rather than for reasons of substantive Napoleonic history, while other issues have been neglected. Skirmishers have due importance paid to them in General d'Armee, and the Brigade Skirmish line is nice idea to reflect their utility without complicated rules.  Similarly "massed column" rules discourage the solid wall of columns units you see in some rulesets - they work better if they are chequerboarded historically to have some deployment space.

Given the strength point system is said to reflect attrition in terms of morale, fatigue, and general disruption, in addition to casualties, it is perhaps odd that good quality units are no more resistant to this attrition loss from enemy fire than poorer ones. The only exception is rare elite units which have three more attrition points. Otherwise good units lose attrition points to fire as quickly as poor ones, in contrast to a systems where this loss is influenced by morale of the unit under attack. Moderating this slightly is the fact that certain results on a firing table will also result in a "discipline test" which is affected slightly more by quality (+1 or -1 on a 2D6 roll for veteran vs raw troops for example), which can result in units retreating or being removed. The General d'Armee attrition system seems like a holdover from earlier rules where you track casualties which were actually "casualties", and then had morale separate to this. I also feel that the certainty with which units are auto-eliminated as attrition is reduced might be perhaps a little too predictable in General d'Armee, though I personally prefer it to say the Blackpowder system which feels too random.

Another issue to be aware of in General d'Armee is it is rather easy for infantry to be overrun by cavalry unless you are hypervigilant for this possibility. The discipline test to form square as a reaction is quite harsh compared to many other rulesets, even when cavalry is quite some distance away. My understanding is that infantry were rather relentlessly drilled to form square quickly as a priority if threatened by cavalry. Instances of non-disordered infantry being caught out of square by cavalry is not a common occurrence in battle accounts I have read. French infantry in attack column could form square in under a minute according to Nafziger, yet in the rules you have approximately 40% chance of failing to do so against cavalry that would likely take two to three times as long to reach them on optimum ground. You have an approximately 60% chance of failing if you are in line or have reached your first demoralisation level (4 attrition points lost), and it gets worse from there. If you fail to form square you are also unformed and in a world of trouble against cavalry, and then breakthrough moves can easily tear through multiple units that will not get to react. I can understand that forming square is harder in the fog of battle, but one could say the same about organising a cavalry charge. All this is deliberate though, the author has commented that he really wanted cavalry to be more dangerous and unpredictable than they are in some Napoleonic rules, and they are certainly that!

Given it is so challenging to form square as a reaction test, during their turn players would be wise to check cavalry charge ranges, and form their units into square if in range rather than relying on reaction tests. Or just stay in attack column against lighter cavalry types, as this also offers protection and is less risky than trying to form square as a reaction to these. Forming square should likely not be as easy and non-influenced by circumstance as it is in rules like Blackpowder. However in General Armee you really need to be micromanaging this detail, which I'd prefer to be left more regularly to an automated reaction test in a game purportedly focused upon Divisional or Corp level command. As with everything in wargaming this is personal preference. 

Another criticism I've seen directed at General d'Armee is that the randomness to skill ratio can skew towards the randomness. For example firing a volley can hurt your own unit (as they lose "fire discipline", inflict no casualties and have to spend a turn reordering), or it might strip half the attrition points from a enemy unit (5-6 casualties) and inflict a rout test in a single turn. The chance of these extremes occuring is 1/4 for a veteran unit, with more graduated casualty outcomes being inflicted between those extremes.  The charge roll is also a nerve racking situation where even being significantly better quality than your opponent only gives you a +2 on a 2D6 rolloff to see who might hold to the charge or panic and become unformed (difference of 3 or more),  or even rout (difference of 6 or more).  Friendly units nearby let you reroll one of the D6 dice to reduce this variance, but it's still a high risk venture. The fate of an entire Brigade rests on a single dice roll after rout of a battalion, though an ADC allocation at least provides a reroll of this. My thought is that these outcomes are not unhistorical, though from a game perspective one might dislike the frequency of such butterfly effects of disaster.  However,  I can also see a case for the argument that Napoleonic warfare was more regularly slowburning and attritional in nature as Clausewitz described it, relative to the unpredictable firecracker effects many rulesets produce.

Anyway, despite some caveats or questions here, you'll note I still gave this category a 5/5, meaning I rate it highly and the results seem a very plausible interpretation of the Napoleonic period, that also takes a refreshing look at some aspects.

Friction: 4/5 
General d'Armee uses a simple but effective mechanic to generate command friction. Each Brigade must roll a 3+ on a D6 to activate otherwise it is "hesitant" and cannot advance. You can reroll these command roles by allocating from a limited number of ADC's available each turn, representing the influence of the commander and his chain of command. There is also the option to use special Brigade orders - like bombarding with artillery, ordering a quick advance, rallying the Brigade, and so on. These special orders add some nice character to the game.

The system doesn't scale well to lower numbers of Brigades, and it is best played with 5-6 minimum in order to have sufficient ADC's to use special orders. It's also not clear what the role of Divisional Commanders is in larger games, except I imagine they are abstracted into the command effects in Corp level games. It has been argued that the rules should perhaps be called General d'Division given the scale it is aimed at, though you could play a corp with more time, or players. Additional optional rules for higher level Corp or Army Commanders above the Divisional Commander are provided. 

Speed of Play: 3/5
The number of attrition steps (12 for a standard unit), movement rates (6" for line, 9" for column in 28mm), turns representing only 10-20 minutes, mechanics (e.g. reaction fire, reaction, melee, and reinforcement steps in a charge), and fussing about with counter clutter, means General D'Armee will take longer to play than some other rules.  On the forums the author has suggested taking a few attrition points off units if you want to speed things up. With the intuitively laid out tables and modifiers I would not characterise it as "slow", but there are definitely faster options at this same level of representation.

Clutter Avoidance: 2/5
General d'Armee requires a fair number of counters. 12 hits need to be recorded for most units (damage dials are good for this), and then there's a host of order and status counters. At least there is no need for order writing or record keeping beyond this. A four page quick reference chart is used, and it is in quite fine print. This quick reference sheet is well laid out though and the game can tick over just by referring to this most of the time.

Pickup Play Support: 2/5
There are points values in the rules, and I have made this Army List Creator to assist with use of these. Unfortunately there are no rules for setting up a game, terrain, nor victory or scenario conditions.  Lack of any system for generating pick-up battles is something that lets this ruleset down in comparison to popular wargames in other periods, though this is a not infrequent limitation of other Napoleonic rules at the time of this review.

Historical Scenario Support: 2/5
There is a single book of six scenarios for the 1815 period at the time of this review, and one Peninsula book, though these limited scenarios tend to be portions of battles rather than more comprehensive listings. These are also theatres already oversupplied with information by Anglophile enthusiasts. Earlier scenario booklets for General D'Brigade rules are also available and these are quite usable and have a similar format, and so this rating would be a 3/5 with those included. 

Overall: 4/5
General d'Armee gives a good game of Napoleonics and feel for the Napoleonic period. The tabletop counter clutter, slower mechanics and consequent time needed for a larger game prevent me playing it more regularly. However, I am happy to play it with experienced rather than casual players in smaller games, and I prefer it to many other sets of Napoleonic rules.


  1. Good review. We use a single marker to track casualties so then there is not too much clutter - just one marker per battalion. FYI there are actually 2 scenario books available - the 2nd is for the Peninsular. And I also agree the GdB books work well with GdA. If you are in London come by for a game.

    Simon - Loughton Strike Force

    1. Thank you Simon, and I've corrected the scenario book omission. I'm not sure I'll be in London anytime soon given I'm in New Zealand, but I'll keep it the offer in mind thanks! :)

  2. Yes indeed, a very good review. I took the time to view the several excellent videos on G. d'Armee by David Brown several times and the gaminess of the ADC allocation was one of the factors that put me off buying these rules. I don't find it realistic. However, you seem to, so I wondered why. I have remained with General de brigade as I don't mind charts and prefer its tactical granularity, which does take more time but that is OK for me.
    Thanks for a great report.

    1. Cheers Rod, ADC allocation and activation is an abstraction of command fog of war issues I think, so I'm ok with that. I.e. activation is uncertain but you can devote command asset attention to improve odds. The scale issues with ADC's I mention I find more problematic.

  3. I actually prefer the greater granularity of Black Powder with the Clash of Eagles supplement. I'd play GdA but there are things that turn me off:

    1) Brigade activation is far too simplistic IMO with a simple 3+ on/off. In Black Powder brigades with different quality leaders will have a different chance of failing the activation roll and the more complex you try to get by trying to move more battalions individually, the more chance you have to mess up and fail. A far better representation IMO.

    2) The ADC system is OK but it's primary purpose seems to be to give a command re-roll. The other actions seem to be very much a bolt on to make the ADC system more usable rather than being representative of anything. You need an ADC to re-supply artillery. Seriously? In a Corps level game? Another for Deploy Skirmishers? All things Napoleon or Ney were really going to be concerning themselves with.

    3) I find it odd that a brigade HAS to be given the 2 ADC Attack (I might have the name wrong, can't be bothered to look it up) before more than 1 battalion can charge. So a brigade commander wouldn't have the brains to instruct battalions to act on his own Initiative?

    4) The lack of differentiation between basic and higher quality units.

    5) Dated rules mechanisms and clutter.

    6) Convoluted and complex cavalry combat resolution.

    Too much for me to overlook in all honesty. I prefer BP but these days am swinging more towards Bataille Empire.

    1. Cheers, thanks for your thoughts! Yes I wondered why every general was given has 3+ activation, and in my own fastplay rules I varied this according to quality of the general. I thought I had included that thought in this review already but apparently not!

      I also think the Black Powder command system has strong merit, as I said in my review of that system, though the rest of the rules have more issues I think. Bataille Empire is also on my to do list but not played enough of it yet, and it seems aimed at a smaller game than I generally prefer so not sure when I will get around to this.

  4. Good review. Very good review system/ categories. Well thought out.

  5. Great review and I would agree with your points. Would it be possible to see your fast play amendments please?

    1. HI Jenster, thanks don't have amendments for GDA sorry, there are some fastplay rules available top right (321 rules), which we use quite a bit for big games but those are a different set of rules entirely.
      We did have a shortened version of General d Brigade, but GDA has replaced that now!

  6. Interesting review. Like you I find the rules give a good representation of what I understand of Napoleonic warfare.

    Like Simon I don’t find there is much tabletop clutter, most order markers and counters can be removed after the command phase in each turn though some can usefully be retained as an aide memoire.

    In your comments on the extremes of the firing system, I think your calculation may be missing the binomial distribution of a 2D6 roll. A Fire Discipline result needs a roll of 4 or less on 2D6 so a 1 in 6 not a 1 in 4 chance. A 5 hits plus Discipline Test needs a 12 so only a 1 in 36 chance, 4 hits and a DT is more likely on a 10 or 11. Taken together it’s 1 in 6. Most of the time you can expect to inflict 1 or 2 hits per volley.

    1. Thanks for your comments, yes there are ways to mitigate counters somewhat, e.g. offsetting bases to represent unformed.

      Re odds of firing you are referring to a standard unit, I was talking about a veteran one in the review (i.e. 3 or less fire discipline, 10-12 = 5-6DT, so 9/36 or 1/4).

  7. yep, I do the same thing with casualty markers, only one per battalion. Blue marker tracks 0-3 casualties, yellow marker tracks 4-7 casualties, and red marker tracks 8-11 casualties.

    the charge procedure is "detailed" but for experienced gamers is also logical so the learning curve is ascended quickly for experienced gamers. For gamers new to gunpowder era rules, I would suggest writing out a flow chart and following that. Writing it out makes you learn the process and following cuts the pain for the players.

    1. Cheers Kelly, I thnk dials are the best solution of those I've seen, though "change" ones as you suggest can work. I also dislike the look of brightly coloured counters, though they are not as awful as those "life preserver" rings you see used sometimes.

      A flow chart might help, though the sequence on the quick ref isn't bad I think.

  8. Thanks for the review, Mark. I've had my copy for about 8 months, but found it hard to slog through more than the first few pages. It seemed top me there were way too many steps to do everything (a flow chart, indeed, that may appeal to those who want to see the "why" of the final outcome in detail, but could better be consolidated into a much simpler and elegant system that yields the end result without all the intermediate steps. Different strokes, and all that. It reminds me more than a bit of the Frappe rules that I started with back in HS; fun, and we had lots of time to play back then, so gems that lasted a day or two were perfectly fine. Still it remains on my list to do a solo test game.

    1. Cheers Peter, yes I know people who have had a similar reaction. I think it does play better than it may look at first glance, but can understand why people go with more "consolidated" rules as you suggest.

    2. It is actually quite fast play and the turn sequence becomes easy after a couple of turns. A 3 / 4 brigade game can be played in on a regular club night (less than 3 hours)

  9. Interesting review, I'm leaning towards blackpowder, mainly because we've been using pike and shot, I've got to get some more figures more than primed, every time I get set up I end up painting renaissance or dark ages! Nevertheless I'm determined that 2021 will be my Napoleonics year!
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain, yes if you are already using BP system for Renaissance, then easy to transfer over which is an advantage of it. Best wishes! :)