Clash of Dice

Clash of Giants: Civil War is Ted Raicer‘s new game about the battles of Second Bull Run and Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Published by GMT games, the system is an ACW adaptation of his Clash of Giants system which covered several World War One battles in a couple of much earlier GMT releases.

Inside the box you get one standard backprinted map with the two battlefields done by the excellent Charles Kibler. Second Bull Run is done at 500 yards per hex, and Gettysburg at 270 yards per hex. There are separate countersheets of larger, well printed counters, for each battle with different variations of Blue and Gray, making it less likely you will get the wrong units appearing in the wrong battle. I like that.

There is a rulebook – 12 pages, colored, and quite clear, with one page of designer’s notes – and a Battle Book, also in color, with the scenarios, examples, historical and player notes. Once more I find myself struggling with the rules organization more than the rules (which are not that complex) but I eventually got there. There is one significant piece of errata affecting the Gettysburg game which looks like a total cock up, but as yet I have to tackle that battle. Also in the box are a couple of identical player aids (color, backprinted) which help you run the game without the need to refer to the rulebook most of the time.

I decided to go with Second Bull Run (SBR) to try out the system. I have, and enjoy, Ted’s other Clash of Giants (CoG) games, and as soon as this was announced – especially with Gettysburg, my favorite battle – I was always going to get it. SBR runs for three days (17 turns at 3-6 hours per turn) and tries to recreate the thumping that Lee gave Pope back in August 1862.

The core of the CoG system remains:

  • Formations are activated by chit draw.
  • Movement allowances are determined by a single die roll for each formation.
  • Combat consists of involved units testing their Tactical Efficiency Rating (TER).

It is worth a quick run through these.

Chit draw: adds chaos and prevents too much player control. It is spiced up here by extra command chits that add some flavor. For example, Longstreet has a one time command chit that can activate all his formations at one time with a bonus on the movement die. Worth waiting for. In addition, there’s a fiddly artillery chit process that I am less fond of. Each artillery support chit goes in a cup at the start of the turn. Half are drawn and are available. So, more chaos. Woe betide the player who suffers a bad artillery chit draw!

Movement allowance: this is fixed for the battle in the sense that each formation has its own chart, again dependent on a 1d6 roll generating typically 4-10 Movement Points. More chaos. There are some tweaks. For example, some Union formations must move along roads in a certain proscribed manner to replicate the strict limitations of Pope’s orders, and to prevent the Union player benefiting from his all seeing eye.

Combat: the higher the odds, the harder it is for the defender to pass his test – failure causing a step loss and a retreat – and the easier for the attacker to pass his test. You roll for each unit involved, though the number of attackers that have to roll goes down as the odds go up. It’s good in that both sides risk casualties. It’s good in that there are no guarantees of success: a roll of 1 is always success and 6 always a fail. The major issue for me is that although combat (generally) happens once a turn, chosen by the player after a formation activation, it is too easy to outflank and surround enemy units. Sure, you can try and prevent this by sensible deployment, but especially in the early stages of the battle when most of the formations have not arrived, a bad combination of movement rolls and combat results can be deadly.

Clash of Giants at Manassas Junction

Bits and pieces: you can try and bring in reinforcements early, but they might end up delayed. Even if you do not try and rush your forces onto the battlefield, they might enter from a different point than was intended. More chaos. It certainly adds to the replayability. There are other bits of chrome tacked on to the simple frame – like cavalry and night recovery – and the system seems to cope well with these additions.

The game plays quite fast, though next time out I am ditching the artillery chit draw and instituting my own house rule. I have played the Second Bull Run through to completion four times now. Two of these finished in a Union automatic victory at the end of the first day, one a Confederate victory at the end of the first day, and one a Confederate win after the whole three days. Automatic victory is achieved by holding three key victory point (VP) locations. Otherwise there are VP wins with VPs for enemy casualties and your own delayed formations.

I have not played the game enough to have an authoritative opinion on balance, nor on how the system copes with the huge chaotic driven variations. It is fun, but my present concern is whether there is too much chaos to the point that player input is all about reaction, and less about planning. To an extent that is historically accurate, but in this game, the Confederate player can anticipate his opponent’s first moves because of the rules about Pope’s orders. This gives the CSA player a big advantage that he needs to exploit to the maximum extent possible.

So, too early to offer much beyond initial thoughts. I like the idea of the CoG system being adapted to the ACW, but I am not sure it works as well as it could. What’s harder is to pin down why that might be. Is it because the battles are too like their WW1 versions? Or is their too much chaos? Or perhaps my gaming tastes are overloaded and jaded. Regardless, I have had fun with CoG Civil War so far, and certainly do not regret my purchase. Of course it has once more set me off thinking about how I would go about designing a game like this, if only I could ever get off my butt and actually do something about it…

Finally, it’s worth noting that at the core, CoG shares its combat methodology (albeit CoG is much simplified) with 1914 Serbien muß sterbien. In both cases, much of the combat is about how the units react to tests against their quality. That does make me wonder if a more complicated version like the Michael Resch design might be a good fit for the ACW. Interesting.