February 28, 2010

Battle of Belmont – take two

Last Sunday I had an opportunity to run Belmont again. I made small adjustments to the terrain - addition of one more row of hexagons in front of Confederate camp was the most significant – but otherwise it was exactly the same setup as in previous game.

Terrain setup for second attempt at Belmont

More significant changes were made to OOB:s – I decided to drop rating of all units one step, which meant that almost all regiments became Raw. This is the lowest quality class in TCHAE and as it turned out, this change had significant impact on the game.

Since the first game showed clearly that the Union side had a very tough objective in this scenario, I asked L. to make a repeat appearance as general Grant. Confederate army was this time run by H. and P. taking one brigade each. H. also assumed the role of confederate CinC, general Pillow.

Different players – different battle

Second run of Belmont scenario was quite different from the game between me and L. Initial dispositions of Confederate forces were however rather similar to mine. The only difference of importance was the fact that H. decided to place his larger brigade in the field in front of the camp and retaining P.’s smaller brigade in the camp. It did however signal to L. that this time around the Rebels would probably be more agressive in their defence.

Union brigades deploy for assault

L. remembered the difficulties he run into in his first attempt at Belmont and decided to concentrate his scant forces before assaulting the rebel line confronting him in the field. I have to say that his attack definitely had a proper ACW feel to it. He put two regiments in front, two regiments as supports, allowed time for short artillery shelling that disrupted one of raw Confederate regiments and then smashed his infantry into Confederate position in the field. Southerners did their best to stop that advance and did cause some casualties on the Union regiments, as they closed the distance. In the end however, the forward momentum of both Union brigades was unstoppable. In a matter of two turns, Confederates lost their artillery battery (more on that later), while all of their infantry was routed and running toward their fortified camp.

Crisis in Confederate line

Then something strange happened – despite the complete chaos in the rebel ranks, a single round was all it took for their officers to stop the seemingly unstoppable rout. Somewhat unfortunate draw of cards (if seen from Union perspective) and a very opportune arrival of additional Rebel regiment helped to stabilize the situation even more. Regardless of the intervention of 'Lady Luck', all of us were very surprised by TCHAE allowing such easy recovery from a situation that seemed irrecoverable just two turns before.

By that time our game was nearing its end and it was quite evident that despite L.’s initial success, he would not be able to break the Confederate lines before the appearance of the rest of their reinforcements. H., emboldened by that knowledge and the fact that P.’s brigade finally came up to protect his right flank, decided to make the final effort before we called it a day. He threw his recovered regiments into an all or nothing assault against battered Union regiments, with mixed results. His raw units in the center failed miserably to make an impression on L.’s single regiment of better quality and routed once more. Assault on left flank fared much better and managed to push the blue line back in disarray.

Final clash of the day

End of the game from another perspective…
Just because I like that picture. :-)

All of us knew however that this last action of the day was unnecessary and should be considered more as a rules test than part of the game. The game was decided when initial Confederate rout was stopped on a dime – an event that for a moment made me doubt if I wanted to continue to use TCHAE as the ACW rules set for our group.

Musings after the game – improved and this time far to long

Until our last game, I was rather enthusiastic about TCHAE. Now however, I do feel that TCHAE does deserve some serious criticism.

Remember that Confederate battery that was lost in the initial contact with Grant’s force? What happened there was that the rebel battery was in front, while supporting infantry regiments were behind it. In game terms, the battery took the full brunt of Union assault. Despite my best efforts, we couldn’t find any rules that clearly covered a situation where artillery received infantry charge all on its own. In the end, after looong deliberations, we managed to interpret relevant rules and came to the decision that the battery was overrun and its supports had to retire. However, if I am to be perfectly honest, it was more common sense than the rules that guided us to this conclusion. Later, I posted a query about this issue on TFL Yahoo Group, which usually is great at clearing up this sort of questions. This time around, my question seemed to leave most members stumped. From that fact alone, I draw the conclusion that the part of TCHAE that deals with assaults could use some editing and additional explanations.

My main criticism is however reserved for the way in which TCHAE handles routs and rallies. Sunday’s game was the first time we had the opportunity to “study” TCHAE’s interpretation of this significant part of the game and unfortunately we weren’t very satisfied with what we saw.

Now, let me be perfectly clear here – I am fully aware that opinions of this sort are highly subjective and will differ widely from player to player. For that reason, let me explain how I understand the concept of rout: it is a state where majority or all soldiers of a unit no longer have the will to fight and are mainly concerned with their personal safety. Unit cohesion is dissolved and authority of the officers is reduced or maybe even disappears completely. In simple terms, units in rout run for their lives.

In game mechanics terms, it translates in my opinion into two things – any contact between routed unit and organized enemy reinforces the rout and will in the end lead to complete dissolution of the unit. Furthermore, a rally of a unit in rout state should always be unsure and under some circumstances even improbable.

The way TCHAE handles this very complex situation is very simple, if not simplistic – it is enough to spend one commander’s PIP:s (or more, if commander is beyond default command range) and the routed unit will always stop running. That’s it. If considered from my perspective, such handling of routs/rallies is highly unsatisfactory. The fact that under right circumstances, routed units don’t even have to “run”, but can be stopped in their tracks almost immediately after entering rout state, makes my concerns about the rout/rally rules of TCHAE even more serious. As for any effects of effective enemy fire on a routed unit, there simply are no rules that deal with such situations.

As I mentioned above, those “faults” gave a momentary pause to my until now unchecked enthusiasm regarding TCHAE. Does it mean that I will stop using the rules set? Absolutely not. Last Sunday’s game was in most respects a very pleasant experience. L’s deployment of his forces and his initial assault did remind me of descriptions from books about that conflict. In general terms I’m becoming more and more convinced that TCHAE is a sound rules set with great period feel and complexity suitable for our group. At the same time, I can't deny that the way TCHAE handles routs/rallies did receive substantial flak after the game and will require some serious tinkering to suit our taste.

Of course this is the opinion of just one wargamer, backed up to a degree by comments from a small group of wargamer friends. So please, feel free to agree or disagree. Also, I would greatly appreciate any help or comments in regard of rules questions in this post.

I guess that in the end, this far too long musing is yet another proof of the fact that it is impossible for a ruleset to suit all players and that we can't help ourselves to "improve" on even the best efforts of game designers. After all, what rules set survives its first contact with the players?

February 12, 2010

2009 Podcast roundup

Let me start by saying that I am huge fan of podcasts. After 'discovering' them a couple of years ago while searching for new ways to fill my four hours of daily commuting to and from work, I quickly realised that there is a multitude of people who on regular basis produce very high quality productions about almost every possible topic that is of interest to me, including history and gaming.

Meeples and Incoming

Now, please notice that I write 'history and gaming' and not 'historical wargaming'. That's because to my best knowledge, in year 2009 there were really only two podcasts about tabletop wargaming that achieved my rather high demands on quality of content and production, regular release schedule and high focus on historical wargaming. 'Meeples&Miniatures' is one of those podcasts - long-lived production of Neil Shuck that deals with all possible aspects of gaming, but largely dedicated specifically to historical wargaming.  In my opinion, if you have time to listen only to a single podcast dedicated to this hobby, then 'Meeples&Miniatures' should be your choice.

'Incoming' is the other podcast focused specifically on wargaming. It is yet another production of Neil Shuck, but with completely different concept than ‘Meeples&Miniatures’. The idea of 'Incoming' is simply brilliant - a short video presentation of all miniatures that were released during a week. Short, sweet and to the point. ‘Incoming’ became quickly one of the podcasts that I eagerly await every week. Or I should say 'two' podcasts, since Mr. Shuck now makes two versions of 'Incoming' - one for historical miniatures and one for fantasy/sci-fi.

Gaming section

Unfortunately, Neil Shuck’s productions are the start and the end of my wargaming podcast shortlist for 2009. The rest of the podcasts that in my opinion are relevant to the hobby and which I follow are distinctly split into either gaming or history categories.

‘The Dice Tower’ is my prime choice for news and reviews about all things called board games. Tabletop gaming and historical wargames are hardly ever touched by the host of this excellent show, but hey… if you’re a gamer, then you’ll play anything at least once.

‘The 2 Half-Squads’ is a recent find of mine and definitely an acquired taste – after all, for most people a podcast exclusive focus on good, old Advanced Squad Leader may sound like a strange idea of entertainment. But love it or hate it, ASL is still the ultimate squad level board game and hosts of this podcast sure know a lot about it and like to talk about it. Not that it’s a bad thing, if you’re into this game, they go through a lot of interesting material.

Historical section

I may be wrong, but in my experience, people in historical wargaming hobby are almost always history buffs. This section is for you guys.

‘In Our Time’ is actually a radio program produced by BBC, but thankfully some smart person decided that it would be a good idea to share all the good stuff with the ‘colonies’ and turned it into a podcast. The program covers a lot of historical topics and participants are always scholars of highest caliber.

‘The History of Rome Podcast’ is a baby of one man, Mike Duncan and may initially sound like a silly idea. After all, who has the time or energy to listen some guy babbling about stuff that we all know about anyway? Don’t be fooled though, this podcast is done with heart and soul and you will be quickly engrossed in the story told by Mr. Duncan.

Another one man show podcast that I was initially rather skeptical about but quickly won me over, is ‘Hardcore History’ by Dan Carlin. As title indicates, content of this podcast is not to be taken lightly, although not because of advanced topics or difficult material. Taking in content of Mr. Carlin’s production is easy enough, but the thing is that he makes you really think about stuff he’s talking about. His series about World War II in the east, called ‘Ghosts of Eastern Front’, is truly haunting, while shows about struggle between Carthage and Rome really try to make you understand what warfare during that time was about.

My last selection for this round is ‘Ancient Warfare Podcast’, companion to rather recently started magazine ‘Ancient Warfare’. Each podcast is closely related to, and usually deals with main theme of latest issue of the magazine. There’s a lot of good discussions about different aspects of warfare during that period and let’s be honest, if you’re into ancient warfare, can you ever get enough of the stuff?

That’s it for this time – if you think that podcasts are something you could be interested in, click on the links and check them out.

One final word - I would like to take opportunity here and really thank all of the people I mention above, especially you who publish all this wonderful material all on your own. You guys spend your time, money and a lot of effort for the benefit of complete strangers and I’m very grateful for your work. Keep up the good work!