Breitenfeld (1631): A Universal Block Wargame

Last night's club game saw the first trial of my new Thirty Years War rules, 'Tercio Viejo!'

I have been fascinated by this period for a long time: it combines a wealth of wargames possibilities with captivating personalities and contrasting tactical systems, but I lacked the figures to do it justice. The war always seemed a bit overwhelming from a wargames perspective, until I came up with the concept of the 'Universal Block System'.

Briefly, the Universal Block System sees painted Jenga-style wooden blocks, mounted with coloured cubes, washers, matchsticks and magnetic flags, replace conventional figures. I had been pondering how to devise a way of representing units on the table which allowed for maximum flexibility and replayability.

Using materials found on the internet, I based five infantry, or two cavalry, or 1 gun and crew to a block. Each figure has a black washer for headgear. Multiple blocks make up units, which can be moved on magnetized stands. Painted matchsticks attached to infantry cubes are used for pikemen. Flags can be attached or detached enabling the same blocks to be used for periods from the Italian Wars (1494-1559) to the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871). Blue-coated infantry, for instance, can now stand in for Great Northern War Swedes, Seven Years War Prussians, or Napoleonic French - all depending on how many blocks are used per unit and which flags are attached. The result is reasonably effective, and much faster to assemble. It also means I can wargame multiple periods, c. 16th-19th century using the same system, without creating specifically painted and based units.

The game itself was based loosely on the battle of Breitenfeld in 1631, which saw the Imperial (Catholic) side under Count von Tilly face off against Gustavus Adolphus's (Protestant) Swedes. Noel, Rob and Mal played the Imperials, with nine tercios, 16 cavalry units, and three artillery batteries. Richard, Doug, Phil and Jonathan were the Swedes, with 10 'Swedish brigades' of infantry, 10 cavalry units, and five artillery batteries. Players could set up as they wished.

While both main infantry lines stood off during the game, which unfortunately prevented a head-on clash to test the rules thoroughly, there was a lot of cavalry fighting. Mal, on the Imperial right, attacked Phil's and Jonathan's cavalry, managing to rout or destroy several Protestant units. Late in the game, Phil managed to check Mal's cavalry. Rob pounded the Swedes with his three guns during the game, and raided the Swedish right flank, but was prevented from turning it by a swift change of facing by one of Doug's infantry units. Rob's cavalry was ultimately eliminated by Phil's arquebusier cavalry skirmishing in a wood. Elsewhere on the table, Richard stood his ground against Mal by deploying into hedgehog, and marshalled his artillery to eliminate some Imperial cavalry. Noel attacked with two tercios late on. The Swedes edged the game, suffering 6 cavalry units lost, but inflicting 7 cavalry unit losses and one tercio loss on their opponents.

As a first test the game seemed to go well. I had deliberately made it easy to manoeuvre to make best use of time on the night, but this could be made more difficult to simulate the slowness of formation changes in this historical period. The Universal Block figures are perhaps not as pleasing as painted figurines, but seemed perfectly serviceable. The rules successfully depicted infantry unit formations (each player had a schematic depicting how blocks were arranged in each formation), and included a more compelling commander system based on commander characteristics and initiative points than some of my previous rules.

In future I would like to produce flags for more of the nations involved in the war, and then refight some of the classic battles such as Lutzen (1632) and Rocroi (1643). To this end the Universal Block System is a good investment for the future.