For the first pure-bred Napoleonic rules review on Tabletop Stories I would like to start with a light, fun set of skirmish rules: Song of Drums and Shakos by Ganesha Games.
As the title indicates, these rules are from Ganesha Games’ multi-award winning Song of Blades and Heroes family of games. In fact Song of Drums and Shakos won an Origins Award on release in 2009.
The rules, written by Sergio Laliscia, cover a pretty niche topic among the Napoleonic period wargames – smallest-scale skirmish actions between 6 to 20 figures a side. It seems like the author plays with 15mm figures, but there is no reason not to make use of all those 28mm figures or even larger ones. Finally an excuse to get those pretty 40mm Napolenics, eh?
I got the rules years ago, but never had the required figures to play. So the e-book version has been lying on my hard drive for a long time now. It’s a nice, printer-friendly black and white PDF. In the zip file you get to download you’ll also find a colour front- and back cover if you would like to have your e-book printed. Which I strongly advise. These rules are as quick and user-friendly as they come, but still I found handling a digital copy rather than a printed one to be a bit fiddly.
The core rules are just 20 pages, plus three scenarios, a quick reference sheet, a page of then-upcoming titles by Ganesha Games and national ‘army lists’ including point values for all major powers during the war (France, Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia). In the back of the book there’s also a basic 5-page introduction to warfare during the period. This is a great thing for newcomers. Napoleonics is a daunting period to get into to say the least, and usually dramatically short in easily-digestible overview reading just so people get a rough idea of what’s what. In this regard the quick period introduction in the back of this book is just golden.
I think I would go so far as to claim that I would make this mandatory reading for everybody just getting into the period. It’s a concise introduction to the terms, troop types and formations. As a follow-up read I suggest the back of the Sharp Practice 1 rulebook. Good stuff.
Overall the book is laid out well and well-written. Throughout you will find pen-and-ink-style drawings and stylized bits of period paintings. All nice and easy to read. At times sub-headers are a bit hard to read due to use of the very fancy font, but in actuality it’s not a big problem.
What do I need to play?
The rules give table and distance measurements to use for all those different figure sizes. I painted up a small collection of 28mm figures now, so the suggested table size is a very manageable 90x90cm (3′ by 3′). As with Song of Blades and Heroes, the game uses three range bands to measure distances: Short, Medium and Long (plus multiples thereof). This keeps the game very scaleable. A clever move. It’s the same distances as in other rules sets from the same family too, so I just use the measure stick I made for Song of Blades and Heroes:
Still, I suggest keeping a measure tape at hand, since firing ranges are measured in multiples of the various range bands.
Of course you’ll need figures as required by the scenario (usually between eight and sixteen figures), single-based. Don’t bother with indicating fields of view on the bases; there is no facing in Song of Drums and Shakos. On top of that you’ll need six-sided dice.
Three per side will suffice, having more at hand won’t hurt.
You won’t need much in the way of markers or tokens. The only indicators you will need is for unloaded firearms. These take several actions to reload and thus might require different tokens. I use differently-sized puffs of smoke (cotton wool).
…and that’s it! Simple.
If you’re familiar with the Song of Blades and Heroes rules you’ll feel right at home with these. It’s basically an I-go-you-go mechanic, but with a clever little twist.
Each figure has a simple stat line:
This is the profile of a French Line Infantryman. The core rulebook includes more than 160 such profiles for all sorts of troops. Each of them comes with a points value (26 in this case).
The more important things are the following numbers, like this one:
The first number indicates the models’s Quality score. This is the target number for activation rolls and morale rolls. If a player elects to activate their French Line Infantryman they declare how many actions the figure attempts to do (one to three) and rolls that number of dice. 4 is the target number for each of these dice. Each result of 4 or more will allow the figure to carry out one action, such as move, shoot, reload (this usually takes several actions, because muskets are slow to load), fight in close combat, and so on. There are some more complex or situation-dependent actions such as Aimed Shots or setting up a ladder, which either require multiple actions or special equipment to carry out.
Now here’s the tricky bit which lies at the very core of this family of rules: Any time a player rolls two or more failures on these activation rolls the player’s turn ends and the opposing player’s turn starts. This of course means that many times not all figures on the table will get to activate on a turn.
Due to the low number of figures in a typical game of Song of Drums and Shakos and the fact that potentially turns are very quick to pass on to the next player there barely are any down times in this game and it feels very dynamic.
If a figure uses an action to shoot a firearm at an enemy or attacks in mêlée combat is carried out immediately.
The basic mechanic is simple: roll a dice, add the figure’s Combat value (see above in the profile), add modifiers. Each of the figures involved in the combat will roll, the figure with the higher result wins. This will result in the losing figure either being pushed back, knocked to the ground, getting wounded (and taken out of the game) or killed outright.
Shooting works the same way, except the firing figure can’t get wounded in the process; in this case it’s essentially the shooter’s skill versus the target’s ability to use terrain and experience in the field to avoid getting hit.
Equipment gives models various bonuses to shooting or close combat. On top of that, a model may have a special Characteristic. In the case of our brave French Line Infantryman there’s a big old “None” in that column. A Line Voltigeur will have the “Light” Characteristic, making movement through difficult terrain easier, a Line Grenadier is a bit more hard-hitting in close combat. So just by using these two stats, armament and zero to two special characteristics the game manages to model a ton of different troop types and represents their battlefield role well in my opinion.
Morale works just as in Song of Blades and Heroes as well. In certain circumstances one or several figures will have to check for morale, which again is a simple dice roll vs. their Quality. The number of successes will determine the figure’s reaction to the (usually grim) circumstances.
Differences and Period Flavour
There are a few, but impactful differences in Song of Drums and Shakos compared to Song of Blades and Heroes to introduce ‘period flavour’:
.) Mounted Charges – Cavalry attacking infantry in open ground will trigger a special little morale check on the infantry’s side, which might result in the infantryman getting a shot in versus the cavalryman charging him (assuming their firearm is loaded at the time), the infantryman standing, or the poor fella fleeing outright. Very nice little additional rule.
.) Group Orders – I was somewhat familiar with this one from Flying Lead (another Song of Blades and Heroes variant) already, but it’s even more important in Song of Drums and Shakos, since firing single muskets isn’t too impressive, but getting six blokes to fire a salvo at a target will get you results. A Leader may spend an action to activate a group of soldiers nearby. The group immediately gets to roll up to three activation dice and the number of successes will determine the number of actions each of these figures are allowed to carry out. On top of that special group orders will allow for Volley Fire (models fire at one target with a hefty bonus), Fire and Reload (allows for a group set up in two ranks to have the first rank fire a volley and immediately pass the unloaded muskets on to the rear rank for reloading, while the first rank gets the loaded muskets from the second rank for firing in subsequent turns) or Rally (models moving towards the leader).
.) Squad Organization – In general players are pretty much free to choose figures for their squad as they please. Within reason of course. I’m sure a squad consisting of a light cavalry officer, two Line Grenadiers, an Empress Dragoon of the Imperial Guard and three light infantry conscripts will raise a few eyebrows. Anyway, there are a few rules as to how a squad has to be laid out: A squad has to have one Leader (usually an officer) and a maximum of three models costing 80 points or more. The Leader is pretty pivotal to the whole squad (as he should be). Not only is he the only one to issue group orders, he also makes activating figures nearby easier. A squad may contain an NCO as a back-up leader in case the officer is taken out at some point.
.) National Characteristics – On top of all of that there are national characteristics for each of the Major Powers involved: Austria got light cavalry to help scouting, British are a bit brave, French have strong low-level leadership, Prussians will be less impressed if their leader is slain, Russians will sustain more casualties before having to roll for morale. Stuff like that. It’s not huge, just little flavourful bits.
Game objectives are usually determined by the scenario you play. And with such small-scale skirmish games I strongly suggest playing fancy scenarios, because at this scale we really can do the little stories of derring-do and all of that. What will always end the game though is if all guys of one player’s squad have run away or if a player declares his squad to withdraw.
Summary and Verdict
I’m of the opinion that when it comes to squad-level wargaming it’s hard to beat the “Song of …” series of games. The core mechanics are just so strong, simple and fun. It’s that slight poker aspect of “it would be really good to get three activations out of that guy now” versus “I’d like to play it safe and activate more guys this turn”. The games flow well and allow for surprising nuance for the apparent simplicity.
Group Actions can slow down the game a wee bit compared to Song of Blades and Heroes, but are very important to this black powder period specifically. And no matter the tactical level, we want our Napoleonics wargames to feature dudes firing in unison, right? Be it six or six hundred.
When ever I do anything with a Ganesha Games rules set I wonder if it would benefit from introducing the reaction system from Advanced Song of Blades and Heroes. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think it would work just fine if you want to decrease player down times even further at the cost of game speed. Keep in mind that group orders already somewhat break the usual game turn sequence, but the complications stemming from this, along with the reaction system, may lead to a few situations of “wait, who’s turn is it now?”. I think it’s worth a try though. Maybe in the next game I’ll give it a go.
All in all, I really like the rules. Highly recommended. I also have to mention the period introduction in the back of the book again; I’m really taken with that bit.
They are available to download from Ganesha Games’ website for the usual mind-blowing USD 8.00 for the PDF version. The rules are available in English; French and Italian. A paperback printed version is available via Lulu.com at USD 15.00. If you live outside of the US it might be worth keeping an eye out for Lulu.com’s free shipping offers they do every now and then.
Also consider the More Drums and Shakos supplement, containing a host of more character profiles for soldiers of Minor Powers involved in the war, four more scenarios and number of special rules to add flavour to your game. Prices for printed/PDF are the same as for the core rules.
As with all games from the series, there’s several nice bits and pieces to find online. Like this great campaign write-up over on Miniature Addiction. Or these very cool Lone Shako rules for solo play. I only found those after my test game, but I plan to give them a go in the future.
So yeah, whether you look for a lighter shade of Napoleonic wargaming, or would like to get into the period without getting thrown into the deep end of the pool I think you’ll draw great joy out of these rules.
Thanks for reading this review. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. If you have any questions, comments or painting commission inquiries, feel free to get in contact with me via the Battle Brush Studios facebook page, the Battle Brush Studios website, the Tabletop Stories facebook page or e-mail.