Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

American Civil War Megagame [offside]

The Battle of Antietam by Thure de Thulstrup [Public domain, via wikipedia]

This session was hosted by a contingent of our friends from Europe (while we have any left) at the 2018 CLWG Conference. They had already run a game based on the ‘Seven Days Battles’ on the Virginian Peninsular in 1862.

[Campaign note – The enormous Union Army of the Potomac had been rebuilt and (re?)trained by General George McClellan or ‘Little Mac’ as the army affectionately nicknamed him. Although he thought of himself as another Napoleon, he was thinking N 1st, whereas in practice he wasn’t even N 3rd material…. Anyway, a faction in Washington thought to go around the Confederate forces on the high ground opposite, so using the vast naval and transportation resources open to them, they rapidly and semi-secretly ‘plonked’ over 100,00 men at the end of the James River, barely three days hard march from Richmond! Game over, eh………..Ah, yes……

Well, although a brilliant organiser, Little Mac had another breakdown in confidence the closer he got to actual fighting. He then approached slowly, asked for reinforcements, was bamboozled by the utterly flamboyant CSA General Beauregard with a fraction of the numbers, asked for reinforcements, fought to a standstill by Gen Johnston, asked for reinforcements, then was driven back by an unknown, one R E Lee, in a series of brilliant battles known as ‘The Seven Days’. Hemmed-in by inferior numbers, the Grand Old Army eventually limped back to Washington leaving huge amounts of kit behind. The armies and commanders would mean again soon, in the bloody fields around Shiloh…]

The guys – and gal – from the NL discussed problems with the megagame (the main designers’ first, please note): open map system, quite a lot of calculation for umpires, slow feedback for lower-echelon players, limited number of options for players and what to do about slow sectors. Also, more than one player apparently mentioned that the umpires were criticized afterwards for having more fun than many player-teams, as they were privy to key results/moments and would shout/cheer/jeer accordingly. I’ve heard of the ‘Rebel Yell’, but it’s supposed to be the players having the most fun……?!

OK, several old hands made some points which were well taken. I will recap what I remember, but with special emphasis on the invitation on the conference programme, to wit greater player involvement:

  • Having anything except a dead hamster or small piece of cheese playing McClellan gives the Union army a massive advantage from the word go! It is actually easier to model ‘genius’ than ‘utter incompetence’ (even with key casting).

    • Use of some ‘what ifs’ might come in handy – possible major confederate reinforcement

    • Some sort of ‘musical chairs’ among the commanders as to who is in charge; increases the jealousy, suspicion, lack of co-operation

    • A separate ‘political game’ entirely of other things any officer might be doing (war bonds, berating Congress, writing a training manual, flogging a new weapon)

  • Players were allocated to units as per the ToE of the army – but this meant that on quiet sectors had nothing whatever to do for much of the day. The suggestion was made to make ‘Corps-level’ teams with a fixed commander and chief of staff, but then variable ‘sub-commanders who could be tasked to where they were needed, or even have a break!

  • One interesting feature was certain ‘tactical cards’ by use of which players could get combat bonuses (mainly, I think). Bernie used similar although less pretty ones for his Spanish Ulcers games, with better leaders having a bigger, wider pool of cards available.

  • The game map was beautiful BUT very ‘fussy’ and with no player-aids like a grid or hexes. I for one would strongly suggest a point-to-point system, but that’s a matter of taste.

  • I mentioned an old boardgame ‘Mohawk’, which had strategic movement but a series of semi-tactical quick combat resolution areas around the edge, the one denoted by the type of terrain at any given point of meeting. That mini-terrain then had all the factors pertinent to units (i.e. Indians good in woods, regulars not, artillery not at all etc)

  • We also stressed that more could be required by inter-unit communications – ‘up’ to army level as well as ‘sideways’ to other corps.

  • The ‘power of the press’ could also be handy, with carefully placed interviews designed to mislead or grab political attention. You don’t need to actually print the damned things (although that is nice later) but having a couple of journalists going around can be fun. Assuming you let them live, of course….

  • Cavalry recce was also another area well worthy of significant enhancement – the recce element could easily have a fixed set of pre-planned questions (to help player and umpires frome Q&A ). How many get answered depends on a quick compute of skill, numbers etc, but should be one of the first things a decent commander wants to know (i.e. “But is it good ground…?”). What front-line players get should also be passed up the line to help with ‘the bigger picture’ – and if not, why not?!!

  • I mentioned the use of ‘NPC Profiles’ for some of my games, in which the performance of sub-units were affected by command efficiency as well as simple aggression on the field. So, in our corps-level team mentioned above for example, a division told to march to so-and-so may have a number of issues to juggle:

    • 1st brigade is both eager and well-lead, so can get there in 2hrs – say by 9AM

    • 2nd brigade is average, but should all be in situ in 3hrs (allowing time for 1st brigade to move-off up the road…); 10AM

    • The Divisional HQ (plus artillery, wagons, resupply etc), Should be an hour or so behind; 11:30AM

    • And then there’s 3rd brigade….. Recently brought back up to strength, the current commander is a political appointee who sees no reason for anything to interrupt a decent lunch! If they go last, they may not get there until 2PM? 3? Tomorrow?! Just remember, while one unit is on the road, others cannot (easily) pass.

    • Of course, that is just one of the three (four?) divisions in the corps. So what if the whole Corps wanted to go that way? Are there more routes? How much is speed worth compared to concentration?

  • Such hold-ups can be easily modelled, and by the use of a pool of ‘action points’ the players have a real job of management to do even to get the buggers to a given point in time, let alone fight a battle – that’s almost a relief! Try playing about with this yourselves with just some bits of paper and a simple point-to-point map.

Anyway, a very interesting session. I have found my old ‘On To Richmond!’ game material (sadly not in time for the conference event), but if anyone want to read same, drop me a line.

  1. andygrainaolcom

    Hi Pete,

    If it wasn’t for Coronavirus I would actually be visiting the Seven Days battlefields at this moment (11 May). A couple of years ago I visited Antietam so I have read quite a bit about Little Mac and, like you, wondered how his incompetence can be reflected in a game. I found him a fascinating character – utterly incompetent as a fighting general and yet maintained immense confidence both in himself (as long as the enemy was some way away) and amongst others. Grant wanted him as Chief of Staff in ’64 and of course he was selected as the candidate to oppose Lincoln in that year. But how do you represent his grotesque command incompetence in a game?

    Well, we have managed it with Gamelin in Springtime although I think there was a lot of luck there.

    As ever, I feel one has to start with the history – McClellan genuinely thought that the rebs had at least twice as many men as they actually did. If you go with this mindset it is possible to understand some of his decisions. I admit however that if the rebs are indeed that strong then some of his actions – like the whole Peninsular Campaign – might be deemed reckless. Nevertheless, I think that one has to start from that premise. The problem, as we all know, is that if the umpires feed the players completely dodgy info throughout a game then it can bring real problems.

    That said, the Confederates are by no means error free. Jackson is a disaster, turning up late, if at all and both Mechanicsville and Malvern Hill are disasters because the rebs cannot co-ordinate the different attacks. So there is scope here to feed a lot of random factors into the mix for each side. If this was open eg drawing a card for late arrivals or intelligence reports it might reflect in some way the very random nature of events that can afflct such amateur armies and leave the players to pick up the pieces feeling (hopefully) that they haven’t been stitched up.

    There is also the point that McClellan is not in favour of Lincoln’s warfighting style. He would much prefer to negotiate rather than fight lots of bloody battles and certainly doesn’t believe in destroying private property.

    It is also essential for him that he passes the buck for anything that goes wrong but then that is standard operating procedure for all the commanders in 1862 due to the importance of politics.

    Anyway, it is an interesting design problem to ponder. Sounds as though the designers of this megagame are going through the same sorts of process that we did all those years ago!

    All best


  2. Peter Merritt

    Hi Andy. Yes, modelling incompetence is now my #1 fascination (easier, given that it is much closer to my experience…). At lower levels, have you read my more recent piece:

    Whilst ‘casting’ does save a helluva lot of briefing material, it is something of a cheat – and may not work! Much better to fiddle with the player’s ‘world view’. In my early WW1 game which featured Austro-Hungarian mega-genius Gen. Conrad, I told the player – in absolute secrecy – that a top-level spy in the Russian Court had given him an outline of the Russian plans. This meant that he was as convinced of his early plans and actions as the original, only slowly adapting to the truth as reports/demands/threats from the Germans built-up…… 🙂

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