Monday, May 14, 2012

Shako 2: Review Findings

Since I was asked to write a review of Shako 2, here it is. With this review, I don't intend to copy and paste sections of rules or recite statistics in order to support my opinion and observations. Please remember these are my opinions and observations and everyone is entitled to them, right or wrong.

Now with that warning out of the way, let me just say this set of rules is a bit peculiar in some ways. The first phase is the artillery phase. Although perhaps not unprecedented, it is an odd way to begin a turn. With artillery, there are ranges and in this set of rules, bounce through casualties to consider for multiple battalions. The author seems either unaware or unconcerned with ground conditions (like muddy, hard, soft etc) and terrain features. Wellington's hiding behind a ridge in this game is only really possible if it were a mountain. It is difficult to overlook such a fault as blatant as this in a Napoleonic rule set. Hard to ignore perhaps, but this is minor on my list.

The next phase is movement. Now you start off the game with a prewritten order such as defend or attack and try to indicate it on the map. Your troops continue this until you attempt to change the order by using one of your ADC's to reach the commanding general for that brigade. Each general rolls a 6-sided die to determine in what order the sequence of movement will occur. Nothing too unusual here and does seem to allow ebb and flow to occur. It does break the predictability up and is a nice feature.

The first half of my problem with these rules is the author's fascination with DBA. Battalions are not able to oblique? Can only wheel 45 degrees once per 20-30 minutes (which is what each turn is supposed to represent)? Really? Is this the Napoleonic wars or the Seven Years War? If you're French, you do get to move and then change formation or change formation and then move, as opposed to everyone else only being able to change formation and then move. You may not change formation and charge - why? Who knows; perhaps 30 minutes isn't enough time. Again, the author loses track of the time consideration for each turn and so the rules miss a major conflict in period doctrine and flat out reality. As much as I am not particularly in love with Black Powder, at least if you have the movement, you can do anything. Given the time for a turn, that does not quite match up with reality. Arty Confliffe missed the boat here and it is very frustrating to deal with, as you have little way to respond to close up, aggressive movement by the enemy.

The third phase is for skirmisher attacks. Represented by even fewer figures than the already emaciated unit size used in the game, their attacks can be brutal. Considering you typically need a 5 or 6 to knock these guys out, they tend to stick around and be annoying. Finally, something historical! They do have glass jaws and so one kill gets rid of them. They can inflict staggers (disorder) on units, which does impact their shooting and melee benefits. They also have a longer engagement range for musketry of 6" instead of the 4" for formed battalions. Cavalry can overrun them if you're neglectful or wreckless in your handling of them. All in all, a good thing.

The second part of this phase is regular musketry fire. Since all firing is simultaneous, it matters not who goes first. The second 50% of my problem with the rules stem from this phase. Firing is limited to straight ahead, no deviation. If one of your own battalions happens to be within the straight ahead, your battalion commanders are deemed too stupid to tell the men to aim their fire at the enemy and so you may not shoot. The lack of arc in fire is reminiscent of DBA type of rules. Since when is the DBA model of thinking considered either revolutionary or an advancement in gaming?

There are casualties in this game depending on unit size. This game tends to have generic battalion sizes, however they can be tweaked by adding an extra kill or stand if you wish. Kills are recorded on the unit with markers but all stands remain until the unit is removed from play.

I would not do this review justice if I didn't insert some personal experiences I've had with this shooting dilemma. I need to add that although you shoot straight, you are also never able to or required to split your fire amongst multiple targets. Let us say some Dutch battalion at Quatre Bras is formed into a line and is being charged by three French columns. The defender may roll one dice and if a roll happens to be equal to or higher than the morale of the attacking units, typically a 4 for line infantry, possibly a 5 for better formations, then the enemy is thrown back and staggered. The French would not close in and the defender could then counter charge the staggered units if so desired. If the defender rolled an unmodified 6, then he would have staggered all the battalions and caused two kills to be distributed as equally as possible. This was my first experience with Shako 2.

In a later game while playing Austrians in some historical scenario around 1800, I used two Austrian battalions to destroy and or maul about a half a dozen French battalions with great ease. I was defending two town sections and with a 50% chance to simply repulse the attack, I did just that over and over again. I tended to roll 5's and 6's causing kills; but my point is that such an easy ability to repulse attackers offsets the meager -1 the defender gets in the melee if they roll a failed volley (basically, they don't even cause a stagger and miss). Such was the frustration by one of my opponents (this was his first game playing with these rules) that he hasn't played since. I was nearly as livid after Quatre Bras when almost none of my attacks could close because either Dutch or British could roll well enough to likely repulse the attack. I suppose they expect you to stagger the defender first before attacking, but since attacking battalions may not shoot, then you're stuck with musketry duels or praying your opponent rolls poorly.

Why don't defenders have to divide their shots or receive negative modifiers for having to shoot multiple targets? Why are all targets hit with the same result? Am I alone in thinking this is really too powerful?

Phase five is about changing orders, rallying, brigade break point tests and such. Although in one way I do admire the orders idea, you must wait till there is an enemy formation within 12" if you say, wanted to change your defend order and move into a better position or go on the offensive. Again, this demonstrates linear thinking that doesn't correspond well with the period it is supposed to be representing. Brigades have so many losses to take break tests. At 33%, they take a test to see if they become demoralized, which will impact future tests for the 50% and greater break tests. At least this allows formations to crumble and the army to slowly go away instead of dying to the man like Age of Eagles.

Over the last year or so, I've played this set of rules enough to say that I'd give them about a 5 out of 10. The shooting needs to be corrected in multiple ways and fluidity must be added to movement in order to bring it out of the 18th century and into the 19th century of Napoleonic warfare. I will say the rules are quick to pick up but are equally quick to annoy with their overly restrictive functions, as mentioned above. If DBN is to your liking, then you'll enjoy similar linear, two dimensional thinking and scarcity in figures being required to play. I would still suggest to anyone to go ahead and play it, but recall this review and see if my observations and experiences are not true. If you're going to play, play as the aggressor and see the rules from their worst. It is playable, but it is not one of those sets of rules you find stocked on shelves in stores - for good reason.

If you love the rules, then I say great. I only can tolerate them as a means to play with my large collection from time to time. A real pity I was unable to find many great things to say about it. What's your experiences with Shako 2?


  1. What a thorough review - with your caveats up front. I suppose the writer is heavily influened by the King of Battle. I've never played DBA so not sure of the correlation to these, but I can safely assume far too complex for me. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool simpleton when it comes to rules (as well as other things). Black Powder for me :)! Best, Dean

    1. I don't know if I would say complex, as it was easy to learn. I just find the firing and movement issues very frusterating. When playing smaller games, it doesn't come up as much. When trying to recreate a larger battle where you do need to move in tight quarters, you notice these "issues". Hope my review wasn't too long.

  2. Thanks for posting your review, especially such a critical one. Julian was only musing on the weekend as to whether we are in a “Shako bubble” and that it would be good to hear from other wargamers who have used them, especially if they did not like them. It is great to read your comments.

    I have a few comments from my/our opinion and experiences, of course! I tried to put them here (and thought that I had last night), but got caught by the character limit. I have put them as a post on our blog.

    Thanks again for posting this review of Shako II.

    1. I returned the favor I commented on your blog too. :-)

      Shako isn't the worst set I've ever played, Piquet comes to mind (both 1 & 2). Never played Empire as I could never find anyone even remotely interested. I guess that says much about the rules.

      You are right, I did miss the modifier for reverse slopes, you got me there, I did forget about it. I'll have to look at the ground effects for bombardments in the rules, for some reason I have completely missed it, but hope it is something significant.

  3. Always good to have a review by somebody who has actually played a set of rules.

  4. Well, having played the game many times with one of the designers, Chris Leach, either in attendance or officiating, I can say that the reverse slope is very easily done, when one uses the 'battalion' scale of the rules and includes such terrain features on the battlefield. I find it easy to use, and include such things as 'dead ground' in front of guns sited on the brow or tops of hills.

    I have recently played through a large game with Russians and Italians using SHAKO (I have version one with all the modifications from postings done by Chris Leach over the years), and my opponent was somewhat dissatisfied with the 'game' elements of straight ahead only shooting and the 18" (we were using 25/28mm minis) radius limits to the 'command stand'. While I understood his disputes and could accept his argument, I pointed out that in any simulation a compromise needs to be made in order to make it a 'game'.

    Having played in some kreigspiel games run by referee and not, I can definitively state that it is better to have a written set of rules and previously agreed upon examples of 'game' situations unless you have a good referee or game-master that truly understands the period, then the freedom of action in the field is amazing (I have played in a 'shako-like' game that Chris kreigspiel'd for us and it was really good).

    Having said all this, I feel compelled to ask;

    What are your favorite rules for Brigade level action?
    What are your favorite rules for Division level action?
    What are your favorite rules for Army Corps (or more) level action?

    Have you ever 'modified' a rules set for your taste?

    Have you ever written and played with your own rules set?

    1. For your questions:

      Brigade level and division level games, I don't have a favorite. They either micromanage too many things Age of Eagles), are too vague (Piquet 1&2) or just a bit bland (Rank & File). A friend has a very simplistic, modified version of Fire & Fury that works well and doesn't need a big book to play.

      Army level, Grande Armee. Hands down, it was the most realistic feeling for an army commander's point of view.

      Another friend of mine created a modified version of Fire & Fury that I ended up assisting him with and eventually took over. So many things were added to it that it really took too long to play because skirmishers were given quite a bit of attention. Some of my early blog entries here use that set of rules. It is playable and I enjoy it. After rebasing my figures, I can't quite use it anymore.

  5. Having come late to this discussion myself (I've only just discovered this site), I found this review most interesting. About 15 years ago, 'Shako' was enjoying a considerable popularity in Christchurch, which ended, as with many rule sets in this part of the world, rather suddenly. As this was a while ago, I daresay it was 'Shako I' that we were playing.

    On the whole we found it a very playable Army/Army Corps level set overall. The ideas were straightforward, the combat systems generally easy to understand, and although I don't usually go for 'national characteristics' I did find the little tweaks unique to the various armies (the French 'deep' flank march, the British battalion local counterattack option, and the Austrian battalion masse and extra battalion stands) actually seemed to add something to the game.

    However, it did seem to us that the French was the army to have. The deep flank march conferred an advantage rather greater (in our experience) than even the British local counterattack option.

    I also liked the limitation on artillery. Contrast with the likes of 'Fire & Fury' (and I suspect Age of Eagles) in which there are in my view far too many guns (with the consequent knock to the family finances). Finally, the choice of stand sizes and shapes was a bonus. We went for the 2x2 option as visually the most pleasing except for the British, who were arranged in a single 3-figure rank on the '2x2' stand, to give their more linear appearance. This local adaptation had no effect on playing the game.

    A number of the problems Vive L encountered we found for ourselves: especially the multiplication of a defending battalion's strength when attacked by multiple assailants. In my last ever Shako battle, the enemy had anchored his left flank upon a defended village. I attacked that end of the line, with the view to driving out of the place, unhooking his line from that anchorage, and rolling it up from his left to right. Good plan, I thought. The enemy threw 6s all day, I made precisely zero progress, and no matter what I did, I was just never shift the enemy out of that dam' town. Luck? Yep. Quite a bit of it. But there didn't seem to be any prospect that even successful defence might lead to some attrition among the defenders.

    My own caveats notwithstanding, I much prefer Shako to Volley & Bayonet, a rule set I never ever got the hang of. Nor did I have any luck with it. 'General de brigade' I didn't really like much, but it finally dawned on me that our group was trying to play army level games with a brigade/Division level game. It just didn't work. But mainly I didn't appreciate the loss of 5 figures being the cause of a 144-figure Brigade being taken entirely out of my control. Calculating after the event that there had been a 40% chance of that happening (taken over 2 moves simply because I had the forethought to keep a reserve line of infantry), I came to the conclusion that the thing was - as a game of skill - unplayable.

    Here I must allow that a game set I consider unsatisfactory as a competitive, 2-player, game I might well regard highly as a solo-play rule set. At that Shako 2 strikes me as a strong candidate for local modification, bearing in mind such emendments ought to be thoroughly tested.


  6. I was interested in particular in your comment in re the limitations on arcs of fire and the consequences of having friendly units partially to the front of a unit you want to shoot.

    I can see the frustrations here, and in play I might want to tweak this one, too. But I'm going to suggest that this might be a case better persevered with. I think I can see where the designer might be coming from.

    In the course of a battle smoke and dust and murk tends to obscure the field of vision. Distinguishing between friends across your left front and enemies across your right could be problematical. Further, I infer that an enemy battalion at least partially across the front of a battlion - even a fraction of a stand - would still be fair game. That would give a sort of extended arc of fire.

    I suspect that wargamers are apt to be over-generous in the allowed angle of shooting. At an angle of 45degrees, say, a rear rank guy would be just about blowing the head off the guy to his left or right front.

    I reckon I'd be inclined to persevere with that particular rule, and adapt my playing methods to them if I could. Cut it some slack, at any rate.

    But if a unit has multiple targets within its arc of fire, I can see no reason not to split the fire. The only reason not to do so would be if the net effect would be nil on either target, whatever the firer rolled.

    Having said that, that whole area seems to me susceptible to local amendment.
    Ion A. Dowman

    1. Ion,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comments from your own experience with the rules. Since my review, I've had several more games and although my review stands in my eyes as is, I must say I would raise my "5 out of 10" to a 7 or maybe an 8. For it's oddities, it does play smoothly even if awkward at times.

      Modifying rules is always a tendency for players, isn't it? Although firm arguments could be made for changes of sorts, it is sometimes difficult to see the unintended consequences of small tweaks. The defensive fire from towns screams to be corrected but yet any change would simply not fit in with the layout of the firing mechanisms I believe.

      The arc of fire point is well taken. The problem isn't necessarily the arc, as you could have a friendly unit just in the firing range and it still is going to prohibit you from firing. Not sure why it was designed this way, but the firing mechanics seem to be my biggest gripe in the end. Was it not play tested with strangers who would give an unbiased review to the author? Were they players not very interested in Napoleonic gaming? We'll probably never know.

      I enjoy it far better than Black Powder, yet I don't love it. It is a set of rules that has been around for years and has numerous scenarios and capabilities. With that said, I'm probably going to be playing it with the group for the foreseeable future.