October 27, 2011

Breakout From Fort Donelson

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.

Initial setup
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.

IMG_0465 Union deployment before at the start of the game

The game
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.

Union line outmanovered

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.

IMG_0473 Union troops pinned down by diversionary rebel attack

IMG_0474 Rebel brigade preparing for assault uphill

IMG_0481 They’re running, boys… they’re running!

IMG_0492 Confederates reach the ridge, aka “wow, entire picture is in focus, did I finally learn how to use my camera?”

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.

October 13, 2011

GHQ Terrain PART 2 – Basic Hexes

Let me start by clarifying a couple of things. First of all, stuff I intend to cover here is pretty basic and familiar to anyone who's been wargaming for a while. Second, the way I handle GHQ hexes isn't the only way to do it, nor is it the right way to do it, it's just the way I do it. When I decided to use those hexes, my goal was to get functional and flexible terrain setup, quickly and with minimum fuss. Thus the techniques I use are really very simple. If you think that there are better ways or could give me some advice about how to improve my results, any comments are appreciated.

OK, with that out of the way, let's move on. Basic hexes are just that -basic plain, probably green terrain. 1/2 inch thick tiles are perfect for that type of hexes and you will need a whole bunch of those. I would say that two packs, total of 48 hexes, is pretty good amount for basic setup.
Besides the tiles, you'll need following materials:

  • Paint - don't bother with the expensive, artistic stuff. Find a DIY shop and grab a good sized jar of acrylic wall paint. It's much cheaper and it's thick, so it protects the hex pretty well.
  • Sand - in my opinion, texture of expanded polystyrene is pretty unattractive, so I prefer to cover my hexes with sand. I got mine from pet shop, 5 kg of sand intended for the bottom of an aquarium, which is enough to cover thousands of hexes.
  • Flock - since I wanted to have green, grassy hexes (standard for wargaming terrain), I needed flock and a lot of it. Stay clear from the stuff from Nine Force Gale and Warpainter, their small jars of flock are very nice, but they are insanely overpriced. GHQ provides its own brand of flock, but it's a bit hard to find in Europe, so the simplest solution is to find a model railroad shop and get as large bags of flock as possible from one of the major producers. Faller, Woodland Scenics or Noch will probably work equally well and big bags of flock from one of them is probably the cheapest alternative short of making flock from scratch (and who would want do that).
  • PVA glue - common white glue, commonly available in DIY shops. Grab a big bottle, you'll need it.
  • At least one medium sized flat brush - the kind with synthetic bristles, normally used for wall painting.

And here's how I do my basic tiles:

  1. Paint the tile with wall paint.
  2. Cover the hex with sand, wait for couple of seconds so that the sand sticks to the wet paint. Next, pour the excess sand back into its container. Leave for at least couple of hours for the paint to dry.
  3. Since the sand I use is orange-red, I have to paint the tile again to get more suitable base color. If you use more naturally colored sand, you may want to skip this step.
  4. Once the paint is dry (again), I next flock the top of the tile. Pour some PVA glue into a container, add some water (normally I go for 3 parts glue and 2 parts water) and mix it together. Cover the part of the hex that is to be flocked with the glue/water mix and cover it with flock. Wait for couple of seconds and pour excess flock back into its container. Let the glue dry completely.
  5. Paint over the flock with mixture of glue and water again. This will harden the flock and fix it to the surface of the tile. At that stage I also sprinkle the hex with another shade of flock in an irregular pattern to break up the monotony of same color, but it's a question of personal taste and can be skipped. Once again, leave the tiles to try.

Basic Hexes
Main stages of basic tile “production”

Some final thoughts... If I had to do it all over again, I would have painted sides of the hexes in color that is as close as possible to the color of the flock. Why? Well, for some unexplainable reason GHQ doesn't bother to cut their hexes precisely, with the end result being that the hexes don't align perfectly. This means that once the tiles are set up on the table, there are gaps between them. As can be seen in the pictures I've posted before, those gaps are quite visible when the paint on the sides is of different color than the flock. I believe that this rather unaesthetic visual effect can be reduced if the paint on the sides of the hexes is of same color as the flock.

Also, in case you haven't already figured it out on your own, working with one tile at a time isn't very efficient. I usually work with one pack of tiles at the time, one step at the time.