Bull Run

This nice-looking package, recently arrived from the States, is one of the Blind Swords series of games, this time around featuring the first major ACW battle: Bull Run.

The map, one of the last done by Rick Barber, is gorgeous. Previous incarnations in earlier games in the series were (rightly) criticized for the difficulty they often presented in getting a first glance understanding of respective terrain heights. This is largely solved, at least for me, by including numerical reminders dotted about the contours.

The scale is 150 yards per hex, turns of 30 minutes, and regimental units. The system uses chit draw for activation of formations plus various fog (and friction) of war chits of which more shortly.

In each turn there is an up-front artillery part where, in alternating hex activations, your artillery can fire or move. Thereafter, chits are drawn to activate formations. There are no command rules like command control radius, and the like. Although, for the sake of completeness, a leader needs to pass a die roll test to give a brigade an order. Here the leaders are a 3 and a 4 (Union) against a 4 and a 4 (Confederate) so not much difference. Without any chaos, the bigger force is typically going to win. That’s where the fog and friction of war stuff comes in, delivering a bundle of random events which add flavor, tension, and can be a real challenge to overcome.

The orders are basic and easy to use. However, it’s too easy to change orders, so units can go from attack to move far too swiftly. That’s where the chaos comes in.

The issue I have with this in practice is not so much that there is too much chaos, but that the players have too much control. What I mean by that is that as the Union for example, I can draw a chit that impacts the Confederates. Within certain limitations, I can decide when to apply it. (The same goes in reverse.) That doesn’t work for me. That’s too much like a wargame version of a ‘Get out of jail card’ and it stinks. Instead, I play with my own house rules that mean whenever such a chit is drawn, it takes effect immediately or as soon as possible. In other words, I remove the player control. And then things are more like chaotic history. Yes, it can be frustrating when the marching troops stop in their tracks, for no apparent reason. But such things did happen in the real battle, and at crucial times.

Also in the interests of full disclosure, I suspect there may still be too much chaos, but it would take more testing than I have time for. As an example, my inclination would be to reduce the number of fog and friction of war chits by two. As it is, with the house rules, I feel like I get a good game with a reasonable amount of historical atmosphere.

Having played through the first scenario, I then cleared the table and loaded up the First Bull Run battle from Three Battles of Manassas by The Gamers/MMP.

This, one of their Civil War Battles series, is almost the polar opposite of the other game, being brigade level, with 200 yard hexes and the same 30 minute turns. It has extensive command control rules including written orders and that’s the main reason to play the games from the series. This system allows you to see what happens when orders cannot be changed immediately, and the eye in the sky view of the gamer is not as all powerful as it usually is.

In addition to the written orders, these games feature massive step reduction (done by a separate roster) and a comprehensive morale system for units and formations so that your cardboard soldiers may indeed refuse to obey and flee the scene!

I have a big soft spot for the CWB games, but they take a long time to play. The Day Was Ours is fast, so much faster by comparison. However, if I had the time, I would prefer a CWB encounter.

Anyway, I have First bull Run on the table, I’ll do some background reading, and we’ll see where I get to.