Last Sunday, L. and I had time to run another ACW scenario from Partizan Press's scenario book "Heartland". The scenario in question, fancifully titled "Assault on Fort Donelson", depicts the assault of Federal troops on defenses in front of the fort. This attack was the offensive response of General Grant to the breakout attempt of Confederate troops, which was the topic of previous ACW scenario covered in this blog.
I don’t like that (also known as house rules)
By now I have a pretty good understanding of game mechanics in TCHAE and what I like/dislike in the ruleset. With that in mind, I decided that it was a good opportunity to start tweaking the rules to my taste. Here are the changes that I decided to apply for this game:
- In original rules player can automatically stop troops that reached rout state by spending necessary amount of pips. I never cared for this ability to immediately restore control over broken troops, mainly because morale degradation process in TCHAE takes place gradually and there is plenty of time for the player to rectify the situation before a unit reaches the breaking point. Therefore I decided that a unit is allowed to reach rout status must perform rout movement at least once before the commander can make an attempt to rally it.
- I also wanted to introduce the element of uncertainty into rallying process. I was never a big fan of guaranteed restoration order among broken troops, simply because there is no such thing. Just ask general Rosecrans what he thinks about the issue. :-) In this case, the solution was simple - before a unit rallies, it must pass the morale check. If it fails, you have just spent a pip and it's still running away.
- Rule about units suffering 50 percent casualties becoming permanently defeated made me wrinkle my nose already during my first reading of the rules. It's a simple and clean enough, but I always have a negative reaction to rules that that provide guaranteed "soft kills". In this case, I decided to add a condition to the original rule - unit that suffered casualties above 50 percent and became disrupted as a result of those casualties would have to take a morale check before being able to improve its morale state. If the check failed, only then would such unit become permanently defeated.
- Major overhaul of movement and firing ranges was the final change of the ruleset. In my previous games I always halved all the ranges and came to the conclusion movement rates were too short, which in turn made the game much slower than it should be. So I've made a major overhaul of all ranges, reducing the original values by either 33 or 25 percent. Don't worry, the relation between unit zone of control and small arms ranges is still intact.
Command range of officers is the only range value that I decided to keep at 50 percent of the original value. Experience of previous games showed that it was appropriate, considering small size of my figure bases.
Preparations, and initial setup.
”Assault on Fort Donelson” is very manageable for two players - less than ten regiments organized in two brigades and some artillery are fielded by both sides.
The twist is provided by the fact that only the weaker of Confederate brigades is deployed on the table at the start of the game. Regiments of the other brigade enter the battlefield individually on a roll of a six on D6 at the start of every turn. This aspect of the scenario created a bit of a problem, since command and control of units in TCHAE is more or less hard-wired to brigades. In the end we decided that regiments that show up in same turn would operate under shared blind and receive same orders, but that every blind could operate individually. Once deployed on the table, regiments would have to follow brigade orders. I'm sure that we played it "fast and loose" once the game picked up the pace, but since neither of us has a habit of bickering about minute details, things worked out just fine in the end.
While the Northern side has initial advantage of numbers, the terrain in this scenario is certainly a great equalizer for the Southerners. Not only are the Confederate regiments enjoying the protection of earthworks, the earthworks themselves are protected by an abatis covering entire front with the exception of the roads. This terrain feature presented me with another issue related to the ruleset - abatis is simply not covered by TCHAE. Another house rule was tried out for size - upon reaching an abatis, all troop types and formations had to stop in front of it, passing through it took one pip. Finally, upon passing through an abatis all formations except skirmishers would become disordered.
The assault started badly of the blue-clad boys - for some reason the assault didn't start at predetermined time, but the activities in front of his positions alarmed Confederate CinC Buckner about the imminent assault. He took opportunity of the delay and placed all his available forces (1/30th Tennesse, 2/30th Tennesse, 49th Tennesse and 50th Tennesse) in the fieldworks, ready to meet the onslaught.
In game terms, the Confederate Blinds card followed by Tea Break card in two consecutive rounds, effectively denying any advance by the Union side. L. had plenty of time to place his troops in the fieldworks, while my troops were more interested in drinking their coffee than attacking Confederate positions.
By the time Union assault force reached the abatis, the rebels were all set and ready for them. As soon as Union regiments in first line (I advanced each brigade in two lines, two regiments abreast) forced their way through abatis, they were met with salvo after salvo of small arms fire, causing them to stop in their tracks.
Colonel Lauman's brigade on the left of Union line was hit hard, with both 2nd Iowa and 25th Indiana suffered severe losses as a result. On the right flank, Union line overlapped their opponent's flank, thus rebel fire wasn't as punishing. But regardless of lesser opposition, advance of federal troops under command of Colonel Cook also stalled as soon as his front regiments pushed past the abatis.
To add insult to injury, both the cards and the dice continued to refuse to cooperate with the me. Over next couple of rounds, coffee cards made almost immediate appearance, thus giving the rebels a chance to pour even more musket fire into disorganized Union line. At the same time, L. developed an uncanny ability to roll sixes (that's a man who claims that he always has bad luck with dice), with the result of three additional Rebel regiments making appearance on the battlefield and marching quickly to the sound of guns. The only consolation for me at that moment was in the fact that my regiments somehow gave as well as they took - casualties mounted rapidly on both sides and I could absorb them better than L.
The stalemate was finally broken by Union CinC, General C.E. Smith. Having read about the performance of this officer before his passing shortly after this battle, I decided to give him Inspirational attribute. This decision did pay dividend when Union Inspirational card turned up at an opportune moment - acting on rather desperate impulse, I let Smith take direct control of 7th Illinois and lead it forward in a bold advance that carried it past the rebel fieldworks. This action seemed to have had desired effect and mobilized other Union regiments into action. Cook's three remaining regiments, apparently awed by the brave act of their CinC, finally managed to scramble over the earthworks. At the same time, Lauman finally remembered that he was a brigade commander and ordered by now severely depleted 2dn Iowa to outflank confederate position to its front. 14th Indiana and Minnesota sharpshooters were ordered to follow in its wake and support it to the best of their ability.
Rebel troops manning the earthworks were now threatened with very real possibility of being outflanked on both sides, a threat that L. was very well aware of. There wasn't much he could do about the Union troops pouring through unmanned fieldworks on his right, but on the left he had three regiments not yet engaged in the fight and by God, he would use them now. An order for an all out assault toward the works was issued at the very moment Cooks blue-clad troops scrambled over them and started to form up on the other side. The result was a massive melee in which most of the Union regiments grudgingly gave up ground and were pushed back to the other side of the fieldworks. Only 7th Illinois stood their ground. Now however, they were in a very precarious position, effectively isolated from the rest of their brigade.
As it turned out, their resilience proved to be deciding factor as the events developed to Union advantage on the other flank and in the center. At the same time as the massive melee between Cook's and Brown's brigade took place, the battered 25th Indiana which got stuck in front of rebel fortifications as soon as it got through the abatis, finally gave up and stepped back in confusion. In a way, it was good news, because their retreat finally gave room for maneuver for 7th Iowa, the best regiment in Union OOB. They swiftly moved forward, did not waste time on reforming after passing the abatis and threw themselves against 2/30th Tennessee, which was already significantly weakened while trading blows with 25th Indiana. A sudden blow by fresh opponent threw the rebels back, right against the flank 7th Illinois. Seeing Union troops both in front and behind them, the rebels promptly threw down their weapons and surrendered.
Simultaneously, rest of Lauman's brigade found its way past 1/30th Tennessee on extreme confederate right flank and broke it.
With federal troops poised to roll up his right flank, a gap in the center of his line and no reserves to commit to either of those points, L. decided that the situation was irrecoverable and gave orders for general retreat. Happy with taking the works and somewhat dismayed by the problems I run into while taking them, I did not contest Confederate withdrawal.
Musings after the battle
I must say that this game was one of most enjoyable events in my wargaming "career". Not only did the scenario play out in what I would like to call historical manner, but on at least two occasions we had the fortune to experience what a friend of mine calls "cinematic effects". Smith's bold rush with single regiment, followed by huge melee and decisive advance of 7th Iowa breaking the back of confederate resistance will be remembered by both L. and me for some time to come.
I was however somewhat disappointed by the fact that I didn't get the opportunity to see the effects of my rule tweaks. Overall, the game had all the characteristics of ACW - slow, brutal grinding down of firing lines, punctured by rushes and counter-rushes in small sections of the line. However, neither line suffered overly from routs (1/30th Tennessee on confederate right did rout, but that event had no real impact on the game), nor did any of the regiments suffer more than 50 percent casualties. So I'm still ignorant about true impact of the house rules I'm experimenting with.
In our discussion after the game, L. claimed that if 2nd Kentucky, his best regiment, had managed to get to the battlefield in time, events would develop very differently. I on the other side, made a counter-claim that if the Union advance started on time... events would look rather differently. In other words, there is a pretty good chance that I will run this scenario again.
Finally, a couple of words about TCHAE. I am more convinced with every game that it's a ruleset that works best with two to four players per side. This assessment is based on the fact that the game is card-driven, which makes it rather difficult for more two players to be "active" at the same time. Regardless of that minor critique, I think it's an excellent set of rules - once all the players are familiar with the game mechanics, the gameplay flows smoothly and quickly and the game itself is really a lot of fun. In the end, that's all we can ask. :-)