Thursday, October 8, 2015

GAINES'S MILL, A JOURNEY (Guest post by Tom Russell)

Battle of Gaines Mill, Valley of the Chickahominy, Virginia, June 27, 1862

My first published game was 2012's Blood on the Alma, a brigade-level treatment of the first battle of the Crimean War. I'm not sure if it made as big of a splash as I had hoped, but people who played it tended to like it.

Among those who liked it was Mark Holt Walker, who asked me if I could do an ACW game using the same basic "stacks-of-steps" system. I think Mark was looking more for something along the lines of Gettysburg or Antietam, one of the big battles everyone knows. But I had a grand total of one game to my name at that time, and I was a wee bit intimidated about taking on one of the big ones. I ended up gravitating toward the Seven Days Battles, a topic that was decidedly (and undeservedly) under-gamed. There are running themes through these battles that I thought were compelling. Lee had ambitious plans that always fell apart when his generals failed to show up where and when he wanted. This included Stonewall Jackson, who demonstrated a bizarre and uncharacteristic lethargy. The attacks that were made came late in the day and consisted of piecemeal frontal assaults that usually crumbled against the Union's heavy guns. For his part, Union general George B. McClellan acted true-to-form, conjuring up enemy divisions out of thin air and treating every victory like a defeat. It was fascinating stuff and, I thought, eminently gameable.

And so I began working on Blood Before Richmond. It started, as these things often do, with research. I made weekly visits to my local library, searched the internet for period maps, and poured over casualty returns. I basically spent the end of that year and the first half of the next living in seven days from June of 1862, which truth be told was somewhat suffocating. I was glad I was working from an existing system; if I had to have done it all from scratch, it would have taken six more months.

The crux of the system is the use of Step Counters. The Step Counters serve two purposes: first, they allow for the gradual deterioration of a Unit's combat effectiveness, with each loss chipping away at the Unit's manpower, morale, and energy. When a Unit has three, four, or five steps they stay around longer than the two-step Units you find in most games.

Secondly, it better communicates the power of the artillery of the period. In a two-step game, an artillery attack and an infantry attack might have the same result: one step-loss. Functionally, they're the same. But in this system, an artillery attack can often inflict two or three horrendous losses at a time, especially at close-range. You can't get that same sense of horror and loss with a two-step game.

My goal was to make the system both simpler and deeper than Alma, which sounds more confusing than it is. One of the areas where I went simpler was with regards to terrain and movement. I've found that one of the biggest barriers to bringing new gamers into the wargaming hobby isn't the theme, the CRTs, the cardboard counters, or the math. It's the

Terrain Effects Chart slowing down the Movement Phase. "I forget, does this type of hex cost two MPs or three?" I wanted to speed it up as best I could. In Blood Before Richmond, each hex costs one MP, and you just add one MP each for modifying terrain: stream, forest, and going uphill. 

Alma had two flavors of combat; Richmond technically has five: close combat, with its sub-type of charge combat, and fire combat, with its sub-types of reactive fire and sharpshooter's fire. With everything but sharpshooting, combat consists of using modifiers to calculate the attack and subtracting a defense roll from the total. Alma had a table that players used to determine what constituted their defense roll, with a variable, x, that represented its number of steps and might even be multiplied before adding the die roll. Fiddly! And to that I say fie! As I mentioned before with regards to Terrain Effects on Movement, I wanted to render a TEC redundant. So in Richmond, you always add your steps to either 1d6 (clear hexes) or 2d6 (woods and high ground). No muss, no fuss. Artillery always rolls 2d6 (well, almost always; we'll get to that below) to represent their massive firepower.

Early in development I wanted there to be a "risk" to an Infantry's ranged attack while still keeping long-range attacks largely about morale. I didn't want to use a step-loss result, because it wouldn't make any sense if Infantry were shooting at Cavalry. I settled on the "RF" (Reactive Fire) result, which "triggered" fire in the Reactive Phase with the +2 bonus. This adds some depth to the ranged combat, as Units in EZOC can't perform Reactive Fire. So now there's an incentive to get some supporting Units in there, besides the +1 and the possibility of following up with a Close Combat later in the turn. But because the Unit whose defense roll causes the RF result doesn't necessarily have to be the one that performs the Reactive Fire attack, the enemy also has to take other Units with range/LOS to his attacker into consideration.

Charge attacks were added fairly late in development. A successful Charge attack gets a +2 or +3 modifier, which is nothing to sneeze at, and the defending unit only rolls 1d6 (including artillery). But these also trigger Reactive Fire. The idea is that the units being charged are firing at the Charging Units while those Units are on the move. It gives it a slight flavor of realism without getting into full-on Opportunity Fire and other trappings of tactical scale games, which I frankly despise.

Charges are very risky, especially against Artillery. It was important that I create that risk, and equally important that the possible reward of a successful charge sometimes merited that risk. Otherwise, no sane player would utilize them. The +2 or +3 is nice, but the defender rolling a single die is what clinches the deal (especially against single-counter Units such as artillery).

So, that's the core of it, which will likely get transplanted more-or-less intact to any other ACW topics I might tackle after the five games in the Blood Before Richmond series runs its course. But to really tell the story of the Seven Days, I needed a unique approach to activation that represented Lee's command-control troubles in a way that was appealing and fun. Briefly: each division is assigned an activation number ranging from 12 to 3 on the Lee Coordination Track. The Confederate Player rolls 2d6, and any divisions with a number that meets or exceeds the die roll. So, a "12" always activates, and a "3" seldom activates.

Lee Coordination Track represents Lee's personal coordination of forces.

Why a die roll, instead of a chit-pull mechanism? A chit-pull would create sufficient randomness and unpredictability, but would accurately reflect neither the greater difficulty some forces (such as Jackson's Army of the Valley) had in getting to the battlefield nor the way in which some forces (such as A.P. Hill's Light Division) did a disproportionate amount of the fighting and took a disproportionate number of casualties. The die roll mechanism, using simple 2d6 probabilities, accounts for these factors.

When the Confederate Player rolls well, he can bring up to six Divisions to bear upon the Army of the Potomac, and it looks like Lee's plan is going to work-- at least until the next turn. The Union Player is limited to two Divisions a turn. Of course, when he rolls badly, the Confederate Player will only have one Division, and since that Division is going to be activated each turn, it's likely to have taken more losses.

The vagaries of the die roll can be frustrating for some players (as the situation was no doubt frustrating to Lee). The Confederate Player can't count on certain Divisions, but he can certainly try to create flexible opportunities for them should they appear. 

Gaines's Mill map with art by Ilya Kudriashov

Blood Before Richmond was intended to be a boxed game comprising five battles, each with its own 14x14 inch map. There are a number of reasons why it didn't work out that way which I won't really get into here. The long and short of it is that it's been converted into a series of cheaper single-battle folio games. The move to an 11x17 inch map necessitated the removal of two rows of hexes from each map, but in each case I was able to demarcate some edge-rows for removal without damaging the spatial relationships between the forces. The first two games, Gaines's Mill and Glendale & White Oak Swamp are the most straightforward and the best for competitive play.

Julian Vannerson's photograph of Robert E. Lee in March 1864

Gaines's Mill has some of my favorite special rules in it. The Lee Bonus represents Lee's personal coordination of forces for the final (and successful) assault. I wanted to get across the sense of a renewed effort, of a big final push, and the second Confederate Close Combat Phase in Turn 6 seemed to do the trick. For a while, I gave the Union their final turn, but with the reinforcements coming in on the late turns it became too easy for them to reverse Confederate gains. Historically these late arrivals did little more than act as a rearguard for the Union's retreat. For these historical and game balance reasons, it made more sense to end Turn 6 with the Confederate Turn.

Depending on which Divisions activate and when, the Confederate Player might find it profitable to try and get behind the Union-- and the Union will find it profitable to prevent them from doing so! One mistake I see novice Confederate Players make is to array Longstreet and Hill's Divisions in a long, thin line. It's better to attack with some Units, hold others in reserve, and switch them out when the time is ripe. Make sure to pull back weakened Units to avoid eliminations that will cost you Victory Points. Above all, make sure you have some strong Units with which to make the final assault in Turn 6; one- or two-step Units are unlikely to make any gains or inflict many step-losses. 

The Union Player should be prepared to give a little ground, and then push back. Don't let three or four Units close in on your Artillery. As with pretty much all of the scenarios, they and the terrain they occupy are your biggest advantages; don't squander them. Make good use of independent Units, particularly the Sharpshooters, to give yourself more flexibility with the activations and to limit enemy approaches.

November should see the release of Glendale & White Oak Swamp. This one has likely the most interesting (read: difficult) map. The dense woods slow down the approach considerably, and well-placed Union Artillery can bog down and bottleneck Confederates who opt to avoid the woods. For the most part, the Union Units are fresh while the lead Confederate Divisions are showing some wear and tear. 

If Gaines's Mill and Glendale show off what the system can be, the three that follow are more idiosyncratic, presenting challenging situations with unusual special rules-- Savage's Station is just a really weird battle; Beaver Dam Creek makes it harder than usual for the Confederates to activate; Malvern Hill is the very definition of lopsided as the rebels make a desperate and doomed assault on strong Union positions.  

I hope you'll find all of them interesting enough, and all of Ilya Kudriashov's maps gorgeous enough, to get all five, and that they will be enough interest to sustain other games using the same core system. I hear that there's three days in July of 1863 that might be fun to spend the better part of a year in...

March over to Tiny Battle Publishing.

No comments:

Post a Comment