Saturday, 14 April 2012

Not Board (2)

Most wargamers of my generation "do" the American Civil War. The reason is simple, - those four packets* of Airfix figures that made it possible. If they'd made musketeers and pikemen we'd all have been doing the English Civil War instead.

I've had several goes at the ACW, - I have Terry Wise's Airfix guide, I bought Heroics & Ros 6mm (or was it 2mm?) blocks, but frankly I never really did get it. After reading Paddy Griffith's excellent monograph "Rally Once Again" (aka "Battle Tactics of the Civil War") I finally understood why I wasn't keen, - it was just plain dull tactically. Not really any nice uniforms either.

A year or so ago, however, my brother bought me for my birthday  Warfrog/Treefrog's "Gettysburg", a two player board wargame of the said battle, designed by Martin Wallace. The main reason for this, I think, is because it was in stock at Spirit Games in Burton on Trent, and the owner said it was good.

I'm afraid to say it sat on the shelf ever since I was given it, still in its shrink wrap. Two reasons for this: firstly, as mentioned above, the ACW bores me rigid, secondly, I had no opponent who would want to play a three hour long, two player, board wargame. (Mrs T plays board games, but she doesn't do wargames particularly and also nothing over 90 minutes mostly).

Anyhow, as those of you who follow this blog will know my brother was recently in a car accident and is convalescing at home. And I'm currently between employments. So, it only seemed fair to boost my sibling's morale by going up and playing a game or two with him. We considered playing a proper table top wargame, but he doesn't have the space and also in his condition he needs to be sitting down, not reaching across a table. So we decided on "Gettysburg."

I took the Rebs, and my brother (aka "RJ") the Yankees (his choice), and away we went. I suppose I should 'fess up at this point and admit that I  had actually played a couple of turns or so of a pre-production version of the game at CoW in 2009, under the watchful eye of Mr Wallace (I can't deny it, - there's photographic proof). I remember being impressed with how it worked then, but hadn't thought much more about it until now.

For those of you brought up on SPI and Ava;on Hill the rule book is small for a board wargame, but there are a number of intricacies in it that need careful reading and re-reading and in places it isn't as well laid out as it could be. However we played through with only minimal reference to it. If we'd thought beforehand RJ could have downloaded the pdf and swotted up as well.

This isn't a battle report. I'm not a fan of some figure battle rpeorts, so a descrition of a board game really doesn't do it for me. However, for those of you interested in summary I finally gave up the assault after 3+ hours of fairly gripping and intense play part way through the final day. It had become clear I had little chance of achieving the last stage of the victory conditions and in addition it was time to go home.

So, what did we think about the game? Well, taking into account neither of us has any real interest in the ACW and both of us would prefer to play a table top game than a board game if we're wargaming, we both really enjoyed it.

The key part of the game is the command mechanism. This requires you to decide in advance where you want to potentially give orders from a finite, but recycled, pool of command blocks with varying levels of potential commands. You then allocate command tokens to these blocks that enables you to gove orders to units around the block. These orders include Move/Assault, Fire Guns, Entrench, Reorganise etc. The number of orders you give in each of the phases is likewise restricted and you can only place orders if you have command blocks on the table. The order tokens are also recycled from game period to period and if you're  not careful these get trapped on the board and you can't reuse them, so your army grinds to a halt. It's simple but also intricate and very thought provoking. Furthermore the way the actual spaces on the board are laid out also provide some real challenges and require you to think several turns ahead.

So we were only into the first move or two and we're already thinking really hard and saying things like "This is really clever" and "What a super piece of design". Whether this is a good recreation of Gettysburg I can't say for sure as it's not a battle I've ever studied a lot but it has the flavour you'd expect. The armies flounder around as inadequate staff work means units arrive too late for where they're needed. Co-ordinating actions across the battlefield is possible but really hard. Full frontal assaults uphill against Yankees supported by their artillery become the only option at some points. These can succeed but are also very bloody and are usually desperately futile.

Physically the game is really nicely put together The map is beautifully done, and after initial resistance I quite came to like the little wooden figures you have as playing pieces. The casualty management system  which uses wooden cubes is a bit fiddly, but even RJ who is having a few issues with co-ordination after his accident coped with them okay.

For two players who know one another and are evenly matched in terms of knowledge of the period and the rule system this proved to be a well balanced, challenging and thoroughly enjoyable game, which is more than I can say for some of the SPI ACW monstrosities I tried to play in my youth.

So, a game I wouldn't have bought myself, but one I really enjoyed. I think we will play it again when I go up for another recuperatory visit. If you enjoy two player games and aren't too bothered about subject matter then this is a winner. I can't say what ACW buffs will think of it. I hope they'd be open minded enough to see it as a really good attempt at capturing the flavour and problems of the period.

So, another but recommendation for a Martin Wallace game.

* Or five if you used Foreign Legion to make Zouaves. Or eight if you include the Wagon Train, Cowboys and Indians. My, those Airfix lads loved the Old West, didn't they?


  1. Have you tried Martin's Waterloo game?

  2. No, I haven't. Board wargames aren't my thing these days, which is why it was such a aurprise to me how much I enjoyed Gettysburg.

    A Waterloo board game to me will always be that SPI "Napoleon at Waterloo" introductory game, of which we had the original and the enhanced version. We played it to death, me and my friend Derek. He had the original version. I'll bet he's still got it, although where my Enhanced version is I've no idea. Probably in a cupboard at my borther's house.

  3. I still have my SPI Napoleon at Waterloo, after these 30 years, I think I've played it once. The basic version. I have a few others of their games that have had even less 'air' time.

    Like you I began with ACW: 2 packs '7th Cavalry', 4 packs CSA Infantry, 2 packs artillery, 1-2 packs wagon train, 1 pack (later) French Foreign Legion - $NZ10-11 all up. Fought a fictious campaign around Winston-Salem, North Carolina involving 4 players all of whom had bought their own contingents.

    I think the problem with the ACW is that too close an adherence to history makes it unwargameable. At least, I have felt that I know 'too much' about the war, so that if I go for realism, the battles tend towards bloody deadlock; and anything less lacks the right 'feel'.

    I still have my large ACW plastic armies (mostly Airfix), and there are one or two nice uniforms, but they haven't seen much action in recent times...

  4. The Waterloo game got played a lot, as did "Chinese Farm" a game on the Yom Kippur war. The others (we subscribed) barely got played at all.

    There are a lot of problems with the ACW, one of the big ones being that it's a Napoleonic war with rifles, not a modern war with muskets.

    People tell me "Fire and Fury" make it fun. I think life's too short to find out.

  5. "My, those Airfix lads loved the Old West, didn't they? "

    That was the fifties/early sixties for you. Cowboys very popular with boys! :)

  6. 'Spose it was, - TV gave us Bonanza, The Virginian, Davy Crockett and, of course the High Chapparal.

    And Robin Hood was obviously because of the TV programme too.

  7. Airfix "High Chapparal" set, makes nine. Just saying like.


    1. Ah, but that was the cowboy set with extra figures wasn't it? Still, a good point none the less.