06 September 2013

BF&S Skirmish level tactics: Close combat

The most effective way of killing the enemy during the middle 17th century is still by stabbing, bashing or slashing someone to death in close combat. Handguns and artillery may drive the enemy away due to broken morale, but it is rarely that they can match the lethality and brutal force of close combat. Close combat is also every bit as tactical as the use of ranged weapons in this game.

The charge

Charging like shooting is always done towards the closest enemy target, unless you redirect your troops by spending one command point to change the target. All units in BF&S have two movement values in their stat line. The first value to the left is your basicmovement rate, while the second value to the right is the additional movement; the combined total of these two numbers is how far you will be able to charge during a turn.

To make things more interesting BF&S has a broken up turn structure and simultaneous fire and close combat phases which often impact on an attempted charge. When a charge is issued, the unit moves as far as your basic rate allows - which is 10cm for infantry and 20cm for cavalry. If you make contact with the enemy during this movement phase it's generally good. If you didn't make contact during the movement phase, you continue your movement during the combat phase, using the additional movement rate (right number) which is usually +10 or +20cm depending on cavalry type and 0 for almost all infantry. While your charge continues  the game simulates the raging battle by allowing both armies to fire "Defensive fire"just before close combat begins.

This makes charging units exposed and vulnerable no matter if they make contact during the first or second movement phase. But the danger varies depending on the situation.

1) Making contact with basic movement.
In this case you move swiftly into contact with the enemy, before the "Defensive fire" can be triggered. If you are charging a straight gunline, this can be decisive and eliminate the risk of taking fire from any flanking unit as all shooting in the game has a 90degree LoS limit to the sides. You will still get fired upon, but onbly from a single source if you're lucky. Another reason to hit the enemy fast is that shooting inside and into close combat is done with a -1 to hit penalty. This can make a big impact if the target unit has a relatively low skill to begin with as most units in the game have skill 4, with 3 and 5 being the exception. Being in close combat as such often reduces the risk of being hit by 25%.

2) Making contact with additional movement.
In this case there is a chance more units will get the opportunity to fire at you since you don't move your unit into contact with the enemy using the additional movement until all units on the table have fired "Defensive fire". This comes with the risk that you ended your first movement within short range of enemy infantry or artillery units and will take more accurate fire. However, if you attack with very fast/light cavalry, that have a long additional movement (+20cm), you can always attempt to charge from a greater distance which will end your first movement outside of short range from enemy guns and thus the incoming enemy fire will be shooting at with a -1 to hit penalty due to long range. There are many cavalry types however that don't allow you this flexibility due to short additional movement range, Reiter's for instance have only +10cm which is never enough to be outside of short range from enemy muskets.

In any case, taking fire during the charge is a bad thing, and it is always good to have an officer at hand ready to boost your morale for any morale test inflicted by either losing a full base, or taking case shot/salvo fire which can panic your unit by inflicting a single wound.Getting hit at close range is also extremely deadly since all weapons have a better armor piercing ability at short range. A common enough result is to slam into a unit of enemy musketeers who open fire into close combat and make your charging unit break away and  flee before they get to swing their swords!

Some troop types such as elite cavalry, light cavalry and skirmishers can approach the enemy in open order, which inflicts a -1 to hit penalty on the enemy fire. Elite cavalry an also go from open order to close order during a charge by spending maneuver points, something that can be used to move in open order during the approach, have the enemy fire at long range (reroll hits) and at a unit in open order -1 to hit before you close ranks and hit home with the additional movement in the second phase and effectively eliminating the -1 penalty to your combat resolution  for fighting in open order.

Close combat:

Once troops survive their way into close combat there are several things to keep in mind which directly affect their combat ability. The most important thing being the "impetus" bonuses from the charge, potential defensive bonuses of the target unit, flanking bonuses and unit special rules.

All units with additional movement in their stat line have a close combat bonus that affect their skill by +1/+2 depending whether their additional movement is +10cm or +20cm. In order to get this bonus your cavalry must have moved at least 10cm, or moved downhill. You also get +1 to your skill if your unit is equipped with pistols in their equipment notes - and still has ammunition left (make sure to keep track of ammunition being spent after each close combat skill test).

Under the best circumstances, fast moving cavalry will be able to accumulate +3 to their skill during the first round of close combat, but even slower units like Reiter's benefit from a total of +2 for the impetus and pistol bonus combined. Such cavalry suddenly boosts their ability to hit the enemy from 1-4 on a D10 to 1-7 on a D10 if their basic skill is 4! Not bad.

The enemy can negate the impetus bonus (but never the pistol bonus) of the charge in several ways. The easiest way is to issue a counter charge, in which case both units meet halfway - this often but not always - mean that both units move less than 10cm towards each other. This greatly favors heavily armored units that fight light or unarmored troops, especially if the heavily armored unit was the target of the charge. You can also negate the bonus of the enemy by winning the initiative at the start of the turn and proceed to move your troops first - moving them closer to the enemy can also mean that you eliminate the enemy impetus bonus when they charge you and still make contact.

Troops with pikes and spears that are given the order "Defend" also eliminate the impetus bonus of cavalry charging them from the front as they inflict a penalty to skill. So do infantry behind cavalry obstacles, fences, on a hill or other interrupting terrain features. The key here is to always be prepared with the Defend order when you receive a charge.

It is however not only skill and armor that decide the outcome of the battle. The combat resolution in BF&S take into the account of killed enemies, numbers, flanks and special rules.

When summing up your combat result you get +1 point for every casualty you have inflicted, +1 if your unit has attacked the flank of an enemy, +2 if your unit has attacked the enemy in the rear, +1 if you are outnumbering the enemy, +2 if you outnumber be at least 2:1 and +3 if you outnumber the enemy by 3:1 or more. On top of this we have poor tactical discipline -1, fighting in open order -1, disorganized -1 and good tactical discipline +1.

Both sides sum up their total outcome and compare it with each other, the player with the highest outcome wins the fight. The opponent must take a morale test, suffering a penalty equal to the number by which he has lost the fight. This means that a unit that lost close combat by 3 points, gets -3 negative modifier to their morale. Resolving your morale test after close combat is another good time to use available command points.

Troops that lose must withdraw - in good order if they pass their morale test, or be disorganized if they fail the morale test by 1-4 points on their roll. Failing a morale test by 5+ points on the roll has the unit break and flee.  As soon as the first combat phase is resolved, pursuit and a second round of close combat will commence, but only if there was a clear loser/winner. If two units have a stalemate they both pull back 10cm, still facing each other, to catch their breath.

Troops that were disorganized at the moment of being charged and who lose the fight will automatically break and flee. And should you at any time catch an enemy from two flanks (such as front + side), the enemy unit will also always break and  flee after losing close combat. It is always a great idea to attempt to pull this off, either with two separate friendly units charging an enemy from two sides, or by using a well placed unit in open order to "wrap" it around an enemy by hitting the target unit from such an angle that your bases are divided on two flanks.

Forcing an enemy to flee often leads to a pursuit. There are times when pursuing is a bad idea, for instance you may move too far out of command range, or to deep into enemy lines and risk to be cut off and destroyed the next turn. Infantry never have to pursue cavalry, troops in favorable terrain can also refrain from pursuit. But most of the time you will have to attempt to stop your blood crazed troops by spending a single command point to roll a skill check, if the skill check is passed the troops hold their ground. If the skill test is a failure they pursue the enemy. You can of course spend additional command points to increase the skill of your unit, but that will make it an expensive affair, and it is not often that you have enough command points left at this point in the battle to do so.

Pursuit of an enemy has other advantages. First of all, catching up with an enemy with their back turned in disarray has them fight with a single D10 per base instead of their normal combat allowance. Units that have the status, fleeing, cannot fight back at all. Additionally by catching up and resolving a second round of close combat will have a beaten enemy flee even further and you can sometimes force an enemy unit off table this way.

Your pursuit range is the same as your additional movement, +10/+20cm and will always dictate whether or not you catch up with the fleeing/withdrawing enemy depending on the enemy troop type (cavalry withdraw and flee 20cm while infantry withdraw 10cm and flee 15cm). In case of slower cavalry like Reiters it is rare that you catch a fully broken opponent, but you can still choose to pursue them in order to drive them in front of you next turn. Have in mind that units may not rally and reform within 20cm of an enemy. They may attempt to rally within 20cm but they must always be able to use their basic movement rate to move out of 20cm from the enemy before reforming.  If t his is not possible, the unit will keep fleeing. Troops that have just rallied from the status "Fleeing" are also very vulnerable since they cannot take any orders during that turn, leaving them at a great disadvantage if you charge them again.

There is one last thing to keep in mind when fighting in close combat, if you or the opponent have multiple units taking part in a shared close combat, the units on each side always use the special rules of the worst unit. So if you one unit has good tactical discipline and one who doesn't, then they don't get the +1 to combat resolution for that rule. Likewise, if one unit has poor tactical discipline it affects all units on the same side. Keep that in mind if you intend to fight with multiple units, especially if one of them has poor tactical discipline!

Who to charge and with what?

There are basically 3 types of units in BF&S: Light, medium and heavy units.

Light being unarmored infantry, artillery and light cavalry that have an armor rating of 1-3, medium units such as unarmored Reiters and Pancerni with armor 4-5 and heavy units with armor 6+.

You should in general not throw light cavalry against heavy cavalry if you can avoid it. And never when the numbers are even. If attacking a more powerful enemy you must attempt to soften him up with fire. A unit with a base that has taken casualties will have one less attack in close combat - a squadron that has less than 5 bases will also not get the +1 morale bonus. Attacking heavily armored units with lightly armored/unarmored units must be done with greater numbers. The reason for this is that you want as many attacks to hit the enemy as possible to even out the amount of dead you will suffer due to having a poorer armor save. 
Try to get flanking attacks, and outnumber the heavy troops to even out the odds.

Cavalry with spears and lances should be dedicated to handle troublesome enemy units as their weapon provide invaluable armor reduction to enemy armor saves. Support these troops with other cavalry if possible for maximal effect.

Light cavalry are great for taking out musketeers and artillery, both those units are pretty abysmal in terms of hand to hand combat and often suffer great casualties against charging cavalry – especially if caught without having the “Defend” order where they are unable to fire at you before you hit them. Light cavalry can also harass enemy units, preventing them from marching, threaten their flanks and provide a steady stream of small arms fire to annoy enemy units without actually engaging them in battle. If committed to combat, make sure you have the numerical advantage and swarm and hit the flanks of better trained and armored units.

Heavy cavalry will due to their potential threat level often become a bullet magnet, this is especially true to high profile units such as Polish Winged Hussars that also look so vastly different that the enemy is constantly aware of where they are and where they are headed . When using units you must be careful not to be baited into a situation where you will be broken by fire before you can charge enemy troops, avoid artillery like the plague whenever possible. Also try to make sensible use of your heavy hitters and don't waste them on small units, the enemy may well attempt to slow you down by sacrificing cheap units or remnants to block or divert your attack from hitting more valuable targets.

Infantry rarely if ever has the reason to charge, as they have a defensive role on the battlefield and often cooperate with light artillery. They also have a very short charge range, which is only 10cm without any additional movement. You must really have a rare and very good reason to charge with infantry as the enemy is often further than 10cm away and enemy cavalry loves picking apart infantry without “Defend” orders.

Taking all this into account makes close combat as detailed and important as ranged combat, but tactical errors and bad matchups will have you pay a greater price for failure. The outcome of the clash between two units is often defining the rest of the battle with the results lingering and keeping themselves reminded.


  1. "Charging like shooting is always done towards the closest enemy target, unless you redirect your troops by spending one command point to change the target."
    - only if there is a target in basic charge range. You choose otherwise.

    "something that can be used to move in open order during the approach, have the enemy fire at long range -1 and at a unit in open order -1 (total -2 to hit)"
    - I am not sure. Long range = re-roll hits not (-1). Still good tip if You are more afraid of fire than CC (loose formation has Poor Tactical Discipline).

    CC is very tricky. It is not like in many games when You measure the distance and move units. Initiative counts. Position, distance. i.e. Swedish infantry (veterans are best at it) move back several cm and rain them with bullets before 2nd move allows cavalry to reach them. They can even get out of a charge range. Charges have to be planned 1 turn ahead!

    Here is a very common example. Cavalry is 20cm away from an infantry. If they win Initiative they will charge infantry in basic move (20cm). If they loose there is a risk that infantry will move back few cm and fire a volley at horsemen from 2-3 cm!

    1. Corrected the mistake about -1 to hit at long range, it is indeed reroll hits. Wrote most of this last night, perhaps a bit too late :-)

  2. Hi Anatoli,

    I've really enjoyed your BF&S posts.....truly excellent stuff.

    Can I ask, how do you think the tactics of pike block vs pike block would play out.

    Very interested in your thoughts.

    Kind regards


    1. Interesting question Rolf, BF&S does not have "Tercio" pike formation, but it does have pike&shot formations. The formation is not strictly locked down - meaning that the pikemen and musketeers act as separate units during battle even though they support each other in case of enemy charges.

      But most of the combat is performed by the musketeers who are advancing and shooting, and the pikemen walking nearby ready to intercept any charge and handle any potential close combat situation. If two such blocks would face off it would pretty much end up being a shootout between the musketeer formations as infantry have very slow movement rate and equally short charge range with no additional movement bonus unlike the cavalry.

      We've played a couple of Division sized games where my Polish Pike&Shot regiment faced off against a Swedish regiment of Pike&Shot and the two formations fired at each other until one broke. The shootout becomes more aggressive if the Pike&Shot formation is supported by light regimental guns.

      It would be very unlikely that the pikemen from both sides would clash, or that the musketeers would end up in close combat with each other. To really get the upper hand you would need to maneuver your blocks of musketeers to get flanking fire on the enemy (it is more devastating).


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