Last Sunday I had opportunity to run another ACW game with slightly tweaked "They Couldn't Hit an Elephant" ruleset from Too Fat Lardies. This time around I picked another scenario from Caliver Books' excellent scenario set "Heartland". Called "Break-out at Fort Donelson", the scenario deals with general Pillow's breakout attempt from... well, Fort Donelson.
At first glance, the scenario I selected is that it is pretty straightforward affair - a rather superior Objective of Confederates is to smash through a Union line deployed on high ground and open an escape route for the troops in the fort. In other words, a typical slugger match with numerical advantage of rebels counter-balanced by strong defensive position of the lads on the Union side. I also believe that this scenario is quite good for learning a new ruleset – limited number of troops, with one side pretty much stationary and few regiments in brigades that are on the attacking side.
The twist in this one is provided by terrain and weather - both of them were pretty rotten, which translated into drastically reduced visibility. As things turned out, this fact was the deciding factor in our game.
As Union commander, I decided to take maximum advantage of the terrain and deployed my two brigades on the heights that separated rebels from their goal. Feeling generous toward myself, I also allowed myself to place one dummy blind on my exposed right flank in an attempt to disguise my numerical weakness.
H.'s deployment was hampered by scenario deployment instructions - three of his six brigades had to start from behind the field works. Remaining brigades could enter the battlefield from pretty much anywhere on his side of the gaming area.
To be perfectly honest, I may just as well admit that our game was pretty much over by the time we deployed our blinds. Right at the start, H. made correct observation that the reduced visibility and a fatal flaw in dispositions of my blinds gave him a perfect opportunity to turn left flank. He decided to focus his effort on this one spot and aided by fortunate draw of cards managed to reach his main objective - the road - in four rounds. Once that position was reached, the rest of the game was a formality. His brigades were now in perfect position for a devastating assault on my flank, while I didn’t even had a proper chance to deploy from my blinds.
Actually a bit mentally paralyzed by this sudden turn of events, I scrambled to save something out of the looming disaster. I managed to deploy the brigade on my left flank before H’s. hammer fell, sending at the same time desperate instructions for my other brigade to march double-quick toward my exposed flank. However, even before it had a chance to start moving, the Confederate assault did strike the vulnerable end of my line, with predictable results. One of my regiments was pushed back after a hard fight. Their retreat exposed in turn the flank of the regiment to their right. It was struck almost immediately by another rebel unit, promptly routed before the onslaught and causing further confusion among the Union soldiers of the regiment that was forced out of line in previous round. With two of my eight regiments routed and my line on the verge of being swept away, I decided to accept the fact that I was in hopeless position and called it a day.
Musings after the game
This time around, I have a mixed bag of things that I feel needs to be adressed. Let's start with the good stuff - when the "They Couldn't Hit an Elephant" works, it works very, very well. I was especially impressed by the nasty little engagement that developed between the two regiments that H. sent to pin the Union brigade to the left of my line and my artillery battery that covered that part of my front. The brief firefight that developed did feel like something taken from Shelby's narrative. The assault that decided the day also had the right feel to it - I especially appreciated the fact that one of highly probable outcomes of direct assaults (in TCHAE they are called 'decisive combat) is possibility of defender breaking and running away before contact is achieved (apparently, bayonet assaults were pretty common in ACW, but melees were quite rare). In other words, the combat model of the ruleset is very nice and has a period-specific "flavor".
As for the bad, well... is anybody surprised when I say 'Coffee Break' card? Outcome of our game was dictated by two factors. First of them was the reduced visibility (caused by the weather and difficult terrain) - H. took full opportunity of it to outflank my position. There is no argument against this from me, in fact I find it a rather realistic effect of the environmental conditions dictated by the scenario. The second factor was however far less entertaining - by pure chance, H. managed to draw his blinds card thrice in the four opening rounds of the game, while I failed to draw mine every single time. This unlucky sequence of events put me at a disadvantage I had no hope to recover from, because of the simple fact that, as far as I understand, voluntary deployment of troops in "They Couldn't Hit an Elephant" is allowed only when ones Blind card is drawn. In other words, during those four opening rounds I was pretty much a sitting duck. If my interpretation of the rules is correct, then an unlucky card draw sequence of the kind that I experienced can upset balance of even most carefully planned game. All sorts of argument can be made in defence of such events, but the fact remains that ‘Coffee Break’ card is a game mechanism that can defeat a player all on its own. When that happens, it can cause a bit of frustration.
To be fair, I have to admit that in regard of my bad luck with ‘Coffee Break’ card, I may have made things worse with my tweaks to the ruleset. In an attempt to alleviate the sometimes dramatic effect of 'Coffee Break' card, I play with two of them in my deck. The irony here is that having two of those cards in a deck consisting otherwise of only the Blinds cards for both sides actually reduces the chance of both Blinds cards being drawn in same turn from 66 percent to 50 percent. So the lesson for the future is to have only one 'Coffee Break' card as long as all troops are under blinds.