June 01, 2009

They Couldn't Hit An Elephant - first impression

Upplagd av Minondas

Three days weekend and quickly approaching date of introduction of the ruleset to my group gave me enough motivation for a quick test of “They Couldn’t Hit an Elephant”, Two Fat Lardies’ ruleset for American Civil War. Since my intention was to familiarize myself with the ruleset mechanics, I've decided to keep it simple, charge up a hill and see what happens.

For no particular reason I choose the Confederates to be on the defensive – two brigades, each consisting of four regiments and attached artillery battery were to receive an attack by three similar Union brigades. Terrain was created ad hoc from available terrain (made of GHQ TerrainMaker hexagonal tiles).

Thoughts after first reading
“They Couldn’t Hit an Elephant” is written in a style that is similar to that of other rulesets from Too Fat Lardies – clear and logical at first glance, but with some ambivalences and omissions that can confuse players rather quickly in their first games.

Like all TFL games, TCHAE is card-driven – basic cards activate either a brigade or division commander (depending on unit scale in the game). Upon activation, units that are part of leader’s command may move, fire, change formations or attempt to improve their current morale state. Amount of possible activities is limited by number of command pips, decided by a roll of an average dice.

Period flavor is defined by additional cards, which influence leaders of different character. For example a random cautious leader may be restricted to firing, but no movement, while inspirational leaders can get an opportunity to rapidly rally a unit or lead it into a sudden assault.

Last, but not least, there is the ‘Coffee’ card. When it is turned, it automatically triggers end of turn sequence of activities, after which the turn ends, deck is reshuffled and new turn begins. 'Coffee' card introduces fair amount of friction and uncertainty into the game, as players never know who will be able to act in current turn. It is also one of the usual TFL game mechanics that create most controversy among the players – it is either beloved or despised.

As is common for most rulesets, both units and commanders may be of varying quality and character. Unit morale state during the game is covered by four states – normal state allows the units to obey all orders, units that are ‘fightin’’ are locked in combat and won’t advance, while ‘defeated’ units are on the brink of breaking and will try to extract from combat. Finally, units that break, enter rout state and will run away until they find cover or are rallied.

Both ranged and close combat causes single figure casualties and may influence unit morale. Effectivness of firepower is low, most of the time there is either no effect or a single figure is lost by a regiment. Loss of two figures is a rare occasion.

All main game mechanics – movement, firing, close combat and command&control - are quite simple, but cover all the bases. At first glance I couldn't spot any bottlenecks in regard of game speed (very few dice modifiers) and there is just enough period flavor without the 'chrome' overloading the ruleset. So far so good… now on to my game.

Hold the high ground
In my imaginary engagement, Confederates were to stop Union troops from exiting along the roads that run to the edge of terrain behind the Confederate position. I didn’t give much thought to the most correct setup of the defensive position, my main goal was to create a situation where a clash between two forces would give me an idea about game mechanics. With this in mind I’ve placed Confederate forces in blocking positions near the roads. Initial rounds saw Union troops advancing under Blinds, one of typical TFL game mechanics, which allow both rapid movement and a degree of fog of war.

Confederate right flank...

...and the left

Union brigade on my left was quickly spotted by commander of the Confederate brigade on nearby high ground, forcing them to deploy while still in marching column. Confederate artillery opened fire on Union artillery battery while it was still limbered and drew first blood.

Union blinds enter the battlefield

Union brigade prematurely spotted

Union brigade on my right took its time and approached more cautiously, taking care of changing its Blind formation to ‘deployed’ before they were spotted by the Southerners. However, at the time they were spotted, woods on both sides of their advance route delayed their movement and made deployment of their artillery very difficult.

Last Union brigade swung through the open terrain in the middle and upon being spotted stacked its regiments in a single column. My intention was to throw those units against Confederate position on the hill and see what the result would be.

Overall situation in the middle of the game

Confederate view from the high ground

As the Union brigades moved into small arms range, both sides started to trade volleys and the ruleset started to show its strength. Units that suffer casualties need to take so called status check – first failure will cause the unit to assume ‘Fightin’’ status, which prohibits them from advancing any further. This very simple mechanics portray very well the character of ACW battles which often degenerated into two infantry lines pouring fire into each other until one side had enough. This is exactly what happened to the Confederate regiment in the woods on the right flank of Rebel line. Under pressure of a Union regiment and a battery of light artillery, they became first ‘Fightin’’ and then ‘Defeated’. Finally they were forced to move back into the woods.

The assault column in the middle came under intensive artillery fire from the hill in front of them. Advance of the regiment in front of the very Napoleonic formation stalled, as it became ‘Fightin’’. Second regiment bypassed them, as they recovered, but that was all their commander could do with his allotment of pips.

On Union right flank, things became very precarious for the blue-clad troopers. Difficult terrain hindered that brigade from deploying into effective formation. Furthermore, some rather silly decisions on the part of the player (yes, that would be me) caused one of the regiments to advance much too far without adequate support. The result was devastating – two Confederate regiments and an artillery battery opened fire and in a blink of the eye shattered their reckless opponent. The routed Union regiment…

Union right in peril

Dazed and confused
…at this point the ruleset stopped making any sense to me. You see, routed units perform mandatory flight movement as soon as the appropriate brigade card comes up. But for two rounds, the command card that would allow the broken regiment to run away didn’t come up. I refused to believe that this is how TCHAE was supposed to handle such situations, but the ruleset refused to give me an indication of how I was to proceed. Nevertheless, I came to the conclusion that I must have misunderstood some vital rule section. As it was 1.45AM, I've decided to call it a night, without achieving the goal of a close combat.

Even though this first test run was something of a failure, it confirmed my first impression of TCHAE as very quick ruleset with adequate feel of the period. After a couple of rounds I had pretty good understanding of the flow of the game, so the learning curve is low and even beginners should be able to grasp the basic concepts with relative ease.

At the same time, TCHAE also showed its weaknesses, which are quite typical for TFL rulesets. Some very fundamental concepts are either omitted or explained in convoluted manner that leaves them open for different interpretations. One of those omissions caused my confusion in test game above – as it turns out, status check for a unit that takes casualties is being done after ALL firing of ACTIVE enemy units is done. I on the other hand got the impression that status should be checked on every occasion a unit suffered casualties. My interpretation completely change the game - the unfortunate Union regiment that was shot to pieces made six test, but only two were required. Furthermore, some additional afterthought could have been given to placement of certain rules. For example, at the end of definition for 'Defeated' status there is a rather ingenious paragraph that effectively prohibits situation in which my Union regiment found itself in after being shattered. But as the situation was created as a result of firefight, I've primarily looked for the answers under sections dealing with combat and status checks.

Fortunately there is a very active Yahoo group that supports TFL games. After posting my questions there, I’ve had everything explained to me promptly and in very friendly manner. Next weekend I will run same scenario again and keep you updated about the outcome.

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