Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Battle of Sample Hollow: The Game

The battle played out in just under an hour, which is great considering it went over ten turns.  Part of the reason for the quick play was that it quickly became a shooting match, with both sides blazing away at each other, waiting for the other guys to break.  it turns out that a 2' wide board was too small for any real maneuver to take place.  Black Powder was written with movement in mind.  At one point, the Confederates could have sealed a victory with a bold flanking march, but they would have had to leave the table to do so.  Oh, well, live and learn.  That's why we playtest.

Through that whole game, I did not make a single initiative move.  Part of that comes from my unfamiliarity with the rules.  I was uncertain when a unit was sufficiently softened to make a charge.  More experience should change that.  

I used the command rules as written, despite my misgivings about apparently illogical results.  As it turns out, they were ill-founded, as troops moved (or didn't) based on dice rolls.  I had thought that a Command Value of 8 would result in a lot of stubborn units.  As it turned out, units were just pokey enough to make the game fun.  Score one for the rules as written.

Anyhow, on the first turn, the Confederate left surged ahead to point blank range, while the right advanced at a more leisurely pace.  The Confederate artillery and reserve refused to advance, and they would hold their position for over four turns before joining the battle!  The Union line was disordered by the onslaught.  Despite their casualties, they managed to hold, and a firefight ensued. 

Despite having the support of the artillery, the unit on the Union left (the 24th MA) went shaken and had to retire.  Fortunately, the Union reserve, the 2nd RI, was able to take its place in the line with a minimum of disruption.  The battered boys from the Bay State became the new reserve, but they were in such bad shape that they played no further role in the battle.  Meanwhile, the 57th PA on the Union right stood their ground, trading shots with the equally resilient Virginians they faced at close range.  Meanwhile, the Confederate artillery deployed to counter the closer of the two Union artillery sections.  From this point on, the artillery effective neutralized each other.

The Pennsylvanians finally won their shootout and took advantage of their situation to flank the Confederate artillery.  They then rolled the worst shot of the game, inflicting not a single hit on the vulnerable guns.  (Should have charged, I guess).  They left their flank open to the Confederate reserve, figuring that a unit that advanced no more than 12 cm in the first seven turns was unlikely to be much of a problem.  Meanwhile, rifle and artillery fire caused a rout among the Georgians on the Confederate right.  Was the day won for the Union?

Apparently not!  The 5th NC erupted from the woods, formed line, and let the 57th PA have it in the flank.  They proved that they, too, were lacking in marksmanship, and the Pennsylvanians were able to pull back to protect their flank.  However, they were the one Union unit armed with smoothbore muskets, and now they faced off against the one Confederate unit armed with rifles.  Meanwhile, the guns blazed away at each other ineffectually, and the other Virginia regiment closed to point blank in a gamble to create a sudden reversal in Union fortunes.

The 57th PA withered under long-range rifle fire and retired from the field.  The Confederacy was unable to exploit this event, however, as the Virginians' advance was met with a storm of Union lead.  With most of the Confederate brigade in tatters, the commander orders the remainder of his force to withdraw from the field.  With one regiment shaken and another hanging on by a thread, the Union commander is in no position to exploit his victory.  The Union claims a marginal victory.

I'm happy with this game, and I think I will be happier still with a larger field and a better instinct for how the mechanics work.  The game played quickly and had a "Civil War" feel to it, despite the generic nature of the rule set.  Black Powder command rules are a lot of fun.  They made this solo game interesting for me, as I could never predict the outcome of any action, even knowing what the enemy general was thinking.  I found the Black Powder rules very simple in action.  Even as a newb, I only had to look things up twice.  I think that these rules would play well with the students in the club I advise.

The Battle of Sample Hollow: A Black Powder Playtest

I have read through the Black Powder rules thoroughly, and I can definitely affirm that they are the most readable set of wargame rules I have encountered in a long time.  There is a wide range of wargamers, from the hardcore simulators to the chess players to the doofus hobbyists.  I happily place myself in the latter category.  I'm a professional historian.  I wargame to have fun with my passion.  Black Powder hits my sweet spot.  Priestly and Johnson actually have the nerve to have a sense of humor about their gaming.  How refreshing!

Anyhow, before I delved too deeply into my Union and Confederate armies (each side has 11 infantry regiments, 2 cavalry regiments, and four artillery batteries painted), I thought I would give the rules a test drive on a small (2' x 4') board with a small solo game.  I got my new roads from Foxhole Terrain down, my scratchbuilt fields, trees, hills, and fences.  One thing is clear: if I'm gonna game the ACW, I'm gonna need a heckofa lot more trees.  My forest looks thin, and I'm using a board that is just 1/3 the size of my usual one.

At the south end of the board, a small Union brigade of three brigades and two guns protect a crossroads.  For this game, fences will provide cover, but hedges will not.  That means that the unit holding the Union right is hanging out there.  

Opposing them is a four-regiment Confederate brigade, three units emerging from the treeline and a fourth in reserve.  A single gun section lumbers up the road.

Here is a view from the south end of the battlefield.

And a better look at the Union position.

The Confederates begin their attack!  More to come after I play this scenario out.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Weekend Warriors

I did this small brigade of 10mm Union soldiers in one weekend. To celebrate my second victory this year in the TMP poll drawing, I purchased some ACW 10mm figures from Minifigs. The figures look good, scaling well with my Pendraken boys and very easy to prepare and paint. I primed them Friday night, did the base colors Saturday morning and the details Saturday evening. Then, on Sunday, I based them and, after waiting for the glue to dry, textured the bases. Then, Monday morning before work, I painted and flocked the bases. Before I left for work, I hit them with the matte finish. Ta da! Over 80 figures ready for the tabletop in just under three days. Total work time, about six hours.

For poops and giggles, I termed this the Hollywood brigade. Included are the 54th MA, the 20th ME, and the 2nd RI (the regiment of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, the spokeman Union soldier in Ken Burns' series). And for good measure, I added a few companies of Berdan's sharpshooters.

I love 10mm. They look good, and they paint up so darn fast.

ps That's a section of road from Foxhole Terrain that I test painted. I think it looks pretty good and the 1" wide road bed matches the width of my bases perfectly.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cool Book in the GA Archives

When I took over as the Archivist at Germantown Academy, I inherited a large collection of rare books, most from the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had been donated to the school. One of the oldest books in the collection is a leatherbound first edition of Kettell's History of the Great Rebellion. Most sources I consulted say the text was published in 1866. The title page of our book says 1865 (see below). Either way, we're looking at one of the first efforts to tell the story of the Civil War, from an admittedly biased Union perspective. At 757 pages long, it is very thorough, offering detailed accounts of minor engagements (I found three pages on the fairly minor Battle of Olustee). Many sources are reproduced, including the declaration of secession of each state in the Confederacy.
A map of North Carolina, helping to illustrate the scope of Operation Anaconda. Operational level maps are provided for important campaigns, but battlefield maps are absent.

Kettell's description of the assault of Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts. This was the first page I read after opening the volume at random. Made me want to go watch Glory again. Kettell clearly approves of the anti-slavery cause, but if one reads this book to find evidence to prove or disprove the abolition/states rights argument, one is sure to be disappointed. Kettell seems dismissive of slaveholders in general, pointing out the logical contradictions in the Confederacy's constitution regarding the repatriation of Blacks who were seized on slave ships. However, his Union-based perspective gives him little room to consider southern motives or goals.

Kettell concludes with a sweeping statement of the significance of the American Civil War that might have been lifted from the narration of Ken Burns' documentary:

"The United States at once took its place among the great powers of the world, more than ever the bulwark of freedom, the hope of struggling democracies in the Old World, and the exemplar of progress. That all this was accomplished without years of sorrow and misery such as, it is to be hoped, we may never endure again, it is useless to deny; but in the nobler manhood, the self-sacrificing spirit, and the pure patriotism which the struggle called forth, and above all, perhaps, in the overthrow of the institution of slavery, the war furnished some compensating advantages. The chastening hand of God was heavy upon us, as many a desolated hearth-stone will attest, but in His providence, He permitted us to
'Gain in moral height,
Nor lose the wrestling thews that throw the world.'"

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Black Powder Command Imbalance

I have decided to gve the Black Powder rules a try for my American Civil War minis. If I don't like them, I can use the basing system have for Regimental Fire and Fury. But there are many things I like about Black Powder, so right now it is the system to beat.

1) The number of bases required (4 per BP unit, lots more for F&F) means I can fight on a larger scale.

2) I like the idea of keeping the entire unit on the board until it breaks. It has been fun painting up casualty and shaken markers. I've never had to paint blood before!

3) BP is a very simple system that is easy to learn and teach. Given my gaming conditions these days, that's a big plus. No playtest yet, but I suspect a big battle can be played to completion in an evening.

Both sets of rules make a unit's ability to follow orders a factor of the unit's quality and of its leadership. To me, that is the key element to ACW command, and I could do worse than either BP or F&F in terms of "feel." The F&F system is elegant, while the BP system allows for command blunders and potential heroics among even the worst units. Given my fondness for wild and random events on the battlefield, I gave the edge to BP. However, as one reviewer on Boardgamegeek.com pointed out, the command and control system in BP can lead to some skewed results, with the chances for a unit following three commands being greater than their chances for a less successful move. The reviewer suggested increasing the odds for a "two order" move. I broke the mumbers for each system down as follows:

As you can see, the reviewer had a point. A Stonewall Jackson would urge his troops to 3 order moves most of the time. But even a decent commander (Quality 8) would receive significantly more 3 order moves than 2 order ones. Extending the range of 2 order moves changes the distribution for the average generals so that 1 order moves are most common and 3 order moves are relatively rare. The value of the truly excellent generals, routinely able to coax something extra out of their troops, goes up substantially.

I guess it boils down to a question that some simulation gamers face all the time: how much randomness are you willing to tolerate in your games? I'll try the BP rules as written, but if I find myself in awe at how the McClellan-led militias zip around the battlefield apace with Jackson's Foot Cavalry, I'll make the alternate system a house rule.