30 01 2011

How soldiers are presented on the war-gamming table is a central question of any miniature gaming rule set.  Some systems have units that are a constant size, manpower density being the only variable. 


In the image above, each of the regiments sit on individual stands.

Using this approach, planning is a breeze.  Each regiment is the same size so it’s a simple matter of painting as many as possible.  The downside is that you don’t have any variation in unit footprints.  All regiments take up the same space regardless of the number of soldiers they represent.

Another approach that is sort of novel is using a fixed number of troops (regardless of how they are organized) rather than using the “unit” as the basis of the game, .  The only rule here is that troops should be organized by type.  Using this system means a greatly simplified order of battle.  I need X stands of this and Y stands of that.  No generals.

Psioli vs Knights

In the image above, the knights on the left have the EXACT same width as the skirmishers on the right.

This allows for games where enemy units can come into contact and not overlap. It makes for an eloquent system and is REALLY popular in ancients war gaming.

One MAJOR issue ignored by both of the approaches above is that of formations.  Units of the Civil War typically fought in close order, two lines deep.  They also fought in a more spread out formation called skirmish lines.  Additionally they would have marched everywhere in columns.  And finally, troops exposed to too much battle would eventually break and run for their lives in no particular formation at all.

Another concern is that as units of the Civil War took casualties they tended to compress into smaller footprints, preferring to maintain a constant density rather than a constant frontage. 

What is needed is a method for laying out troops that can visually reflect different formations and can get smaller to accommodate battle casualties.  Using multiple stands to represent a singe unit allows for both of these.


In the image above 6 stands are used to represent a single unit.  Notice the third stand has the unit’s office and color bearers.


By turning all elements 90 degrees and placing the command stand in front, the unit now appears to be marching.

Basing for McPherson and Revenge

As I mentioned in a previous post, a 400 man regiment, while in line, would have occupied a frontage of 200 yards and 200 yards is 4 inches on my table.  This same regiment in columns would be much shorter.  Probably closer to 120 to 150 yards (2.4”-3”).

I could just say that I would use a one inch wide by 3/4 inch wide stand to represent 100 soldiers.  That would work really good.  However, I need the soldiers to look right on the stand too.  I know from experience that the 6mm minis I have ordered (and have AGRAVATINGLY not yet received) are only about 3/4 wide and 1/4 inch deep.  Even if I put two rows of these guys on a stand it would look a little goofy.  Instead, I will use 7/8” wide by 5/8” deep stands and say that each stand represents 90 men.  This too will work really well.

The number of stands used to represent a unit will be variable base on 90 man increments.  Rather than worry about odd numbers, I will just round the units either up or down as needed.  This effectively means that all infantry units in my game will represent units strengths of 90, 180, 270, 360, 450 and 540 men.


Using stands side by side, a regiment will form a line.


Using stands front to back, a regiment will form a column.


By placing stands side by side with a goodly bit of spacing, a regiment my form a skirmish line.


And by placing stands close but facing in all directions, a regiment may appear disordered.


A river runs through it

23 01 2011

Rivers are a key element of the Civil War battlefield.  Rivers where frequently used by armies as an integral part of a defensive position, either creating a flank from which an attack could not be contemplated or by creating an obstacle that an army could used to crush a foe against.

In a battle a river has the following effects:

Rivers, at a minimum, are a hindrance – Crossing a stream could be a painfully slow process.  Many stream, while fordable, would take several minutes to cross with equipment dry and intact.

Rivers can be impassable – many rivers create an uncrossable terrain element and may only be crossed by a bridge.  This can clearly be key to a battle such as the stone bridge at Antietam.

Most Miniature games that incorporate rivers do so by creating stand alone river pieces that that sit on top of the gaming surface.  This can look ok but gives the feel that the river is “higher” than the flat ground around it.  I don’t really like this.

Rivers, by definition, are lower than ground they pass through.  To model this, I must actually build my table from the ground up with the rivers built in!

My gaming surface is constructed from very cheep industrial floor tiles.  Each of these tiles is 1’ by 1’ and cost $0.59 a pop.  I create depth by making the surface of my table two tiles deep.  I add rivers by cutting shapes into the top layer and gluing the pieces to the bottom layer.


To get the shapes I want for my Champion hill scenario, I laid out my hills and then proceeded to draw the courses of the rivers onto the tiles with a sharpie


To make sure I didn’t later carve a river into the base of a hill I outlined the the foot print of my hills onto my tiles.  This was handy.

Once I had my basic shape I then drew, using pencil, the actual shape of the cutout onto the board.  I mad a very conscious decision that all rivers cutouts would be 1.5” wide and 3” from the edge of the tile.  This means the rivers are polymorphic.  Despite having a “right configuration” for my map, they would “fit” each other pretty much any way I put them together.  This meant the rivers would somewhat change their flow but not in too big a way. 


I also made sure that rivers, while having a constant width at the tile edge, tended to waver randomly and have varying widths.  Rivers tend to be wider in the curves.

Once I got happy with my pencil lines, I cut tile and glued the top layer to a whole bottom layer.  Once I let this dry, drew in a “river line” separating a point where mud and water met.  I then glued sand to the bottom tile layer.


From here all the tiles got a good priming.  Nothing holds sand in place like two coats of primer!

Having primed the tiles I then painted the river brown and mud a dark brown.  I added layers of brown and blue to the river until I felt the result was muddy river-like.  I dry brushed the sand with taupe.  Not sure why taupe but It looks good.


From here I glued two layers of blended green grass to the flat portion of the map and glued wee bits of foliage to the mud.


Here is an image of the table assembled with hills!


Here are the pictures I took throughout the process

Terrain Philosophy

23 01 2011

Ok… Before I go much further, I should point out what I value in war-gaming terrain . It’s not enough that terrain be pretty or realistic.  These are great goals but not the complete picture.  In no particular order, here is what I like in a terrain,

1.  Terrain that I can use in virtually any scenario. 

I don’t want a hill.  Ok… sure I do BUT I don’t want a particular hill.  I want all hills.  I want a box o’ every hill ever made.  Same thing is true of rivers and forests.  I need something that morphs into what I need at the time I need it.  I have already shown you the hill solution I keep in a box.  These hills are a bit of a pain to set up, and are showing their age but they can be formed to look like a lot of different terrains.  I like ‘em.  The alternative is to create a set piece or table for gaming.  Many gamers do just that to great effect.  I am not one of them. 

2. Terrain that is easily stored.

I spent some quality time in the consumer electronics industry and heard many products described as having a high or low “WAF”.  A “high” Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF) is key to enabling my hobby.  I would like everything on my table to have a permanent storage place and live neatly tucked away in a closet, or on a shelf, waiting for a full blown geek-mageddon to come out.

I have met more than one guy into model railroading, a pastime with a astoundingly low WAF, and asked them what impact their hobby had on their domestic life.  I have heard two answers to this question; 1) “I’m divorced” and 2) “My mom doesn’t mind”.  I keep my toys in the closet when I am not using them.

3. It’s easy to tell what stuff is and where it begins and ends.

Like sports, gaming can be intense, and like sports, a lot of games could benefit from having clearly marked boundaries.  Its not an accident that the boundaries on athletic fields are marked with chalk or paint and there are guys who do nothing but watch those lines . 

I have seen many miniature tables where one or two trees where meant to represent a forest.  Its easy for arguments to break out over whether or not a unit has cover.  It’s sometimes very hard to tell what terrain is meant to extend to where.  I like terrain that is really obvious where it extends too and what it is.

4. Pretty and realistic terrain

Ok… I likes me some pretty terrain.  Once it can fit in a box, has obvious boundaries and can polymorph into any shape, I care about how it looks a great deal.  I have seen many games where the terrain was a simply cut felt and thought “geez… would it kill you to dress that up?”


Ten out of ten for WAF but minus several million for looking icky.

How to steal an army

16 01 2011

In October of 1862, General John A. McClernand had grasped a simple truth.  Whichever Union General succeeded in capturing the fortress town of Vicksburg would become President of the United States of America after the war.   AND… it was going to be him. 

General McClernand

404px-John_Alexander_McClernandGeneral McClernand had been a prominent Springfield, Illinois lawyer and politician before the war.  (Yes… that Springfield, Illinois.)  Once the war had begun he felt his considerable skill as both a litigant and a legislator would make him an excellent general.  (How hard can it be?)  Lincoln, realizing that if he couldn’t have at least an experienced officer corps, an officer corps of political allies was the next best thing, had his good friend made a Brigadier. 

General McClernand served in several campaigns under General Grant including Belmont, Donaldson and Shiloh.  While Grant had little use for the political general, McClernand received promotions after each engagement until finally he was made a Major General after the battle of Shiloh.

At the same time Grant suffered a severe, but temporary career setback.  Shiloh had pretty much sucked.

Shiloh and the War

At Shiloh, something remarkable happened.  A major battle occurred.  Not the puny toy major battles of the previous century but a real mother of a blowout.  Prior to Shiloh, all previous battles had been by comparison a pillow fight.  Shiloh claimed more lives than the War of Independence, more lives than the Mexican- American War, and more lives than the  War of 1812.  Each side lost over 10,000 men.  The word “Major” had to be recalibrated.  Oh… and Shiloh was a strategic draw.  Nothing had been decided.  Nothing had changed.

Needless to say the commanders had a lot to answer for.  Commanders in the field had clearly blundered badly as it was simply not possible that battles should be so costly.  Shiloh HAD to be an aberration.  The alternative, that battles would routinely cost thousands of men their lives without yielding meaningful results, couldn’t be the norm.

The Union commander, U. S. Grant was blamed and demoted to second in command under General Halleck.  It was not possible to punish the Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, as he had been killed leading his men in a desperate charge.  Instead, P. G. T. Beauregard, the confederate second in command, was exiled to Charleston where he spent the next two years defending the South Carolina port from invasion by land or sea.

Over the next four months two things happened to return General Grant to favor:

  1. Campaigns along the Mississippi proved successful.  Iuka, Corinth and Island number 10 fell to Halleck’s Army.  Halleck, in acknowledgement of this success received a promotion to general-in-chief of all union armies and returned to D.C.
  2. The Seven Days, Stones River, Second Manassas and Antietam proved that Shiloh had not been a fluke.  Battles in the American Civil War all pretty much sucked and Shiloh had just been the first example.

General Halleck, for a brief time, had commanded the entire western theatre and his departure had left a vacuum.  Grant filled much of that vacuum as had others.  Was there enough vacuum left for McClernand too?  McClernand thought yes and saw to it that he had a chat with an old friend.

The Army of the Mississippi

For much of the first 18 months of the war, the western rivers had been the focus of Union aggression.  One after another, the mighty river forts of the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers had fallen until at last Memphis had slid into Union hands.  With this, focus had shifted to conquering Kentucky and Tennessee overland and the Union Army of Mississippi had been disbanded to provide veteran troops to the mighty armies of the Tennessee and Ohio.

With the continued growth of Union arms and control of yet more Mississippi Forts by the Confederates, many believed another Army of the Mississippi was needed.  Certainly John A. McClernand did and the he told just that to President Lincoln. 

In October of 1862, while on a leave of absence from the US army for the purpose of getting married, General McClarnend saw to it that a portion of his honeymoon was spent within an easy carriage ride of the White House.  Meeting with the President, McClernand laid out his plan:

  • Collect an Army in Cairo Illinois
  • Borrow the Navy for a bit
  • Go down river
  • Give em’ hell
  • We win the War and chicks dig us

How tough could it be?

Lincoln liked this plan.  After a year of firing generals for not being aggressive and not wanting to close to with the enemy, Lincoln was pretty desperate for Generals that wanted in the game.  He shared this plan with Secretary of War Seward and Seward made sure that an army of 30,000 men would be in Cairo waiting for General McClernand when he returned  …from his honeymoon… in a month.


General Grant disliked General McClernand.  So did General Sherman.  So did Admiral Porter (who’s fleet would be put at McClernand’s disposal.)   Pretty much everyone with a military background disliked McClernand including, to McClernand’s great misfortune, General Halleck.

When Grant discovered an army was being gathered in his backyard which was NOT intended for his use, he decided McClernand’s plan sucked and that he could do better.  Not having received orders to not take these troops and incorporate them into his forces, he felt that it was his DUTY to do just that.  Grant cabled Halleck and confirmed that Cairo was within his military control and that troops that might be stationed there where his to distribute and use. Halleck, knowing a ripe plan when he saw one, responded “yes”. Cairo was in Grant’s military control and Halleck had not seen any orders changing that.

In December of 1862 Grant had 30,000 extra men but only a week or so to use them.  Knowing that simply landing these troops above Vicksburg on the Yazoo would be tough given that the Vicksburg defenders would be able to rapidly deploy to the cliffs and hills from their location from Vicksburg, Grant came up with a different plan.  What if the troops from Vicksburg were busy?  An invasion through Mississippi would draw these troops out into the open and even if Grant could not punch his way through then at least an assault from the Yazoo could not be stopped.  Grant sent General Sherman to Cairo along with Porter’s river fleet and they agreed to meet in Mississippi on the 27th of December.

The plan gets screwed

So… what happened.  Earl Van Dorn’s Cavalry raided Holly Springs on December 20th and made off with everything but General Grant’s wife.  Holly Springs had been the Army of the Tennessee’s main campaign depot and it’s loss meant that the army was living on 100% forage from this point on.  Grant, realizing that he had too much supply line and not enough stuff, decided that he needed to back out of Mississippi now and try to cancel the invasion. 

Even worse, Sherman did not get the word.  For a 5 days Sherman was ignorant of the fact that Grant had been forced backwards and on December 26th he launched an attack on the Chickasaw Bayou and the rested and tanned Army of Vicksburg.


It gets worse

Once Sherman returned to Porter’s fleet with about 2,000 less men than he set out with, he had the great displeasure of running into the man he least wanted to see, General McClernand, sitting on Porter’s Flagship, ready for his explanation…  and McClernand was not amused.

Perhaps he should have been pleased though.  His plan had been executed with competence and enthusiasm by one of the greatest military minds of the 20th century.  If Sherman could not succeed with the plan then the plan had sucked all along.  Far better to take command of an army just after a defeat then before it.  Now the situation was entirely Grant’s fault.

Worse still, McClernand had a good idea.  Or rather Admiral Porter did and McClernad was a good listener.  Up from Vicksburg, at Arkansas Post was Fort Hindmand, a smaller confederate fort guarding the Arkansas river.  A very doable fight and a decent place to bag Confederates with a ginormous ironclad fleet and an amphibious Union army at hand.  On January 9th, the fort, realizing that it was outmatched, surrendered its garrison of over 5,000 men.  At that point the largest capitulation of southern troops during the war.  McClernand was now something of a Hero.


Grant arrived on the scene just after the battle with permission from his superiors to relieve McClernand of his command.  Apparently, though a good idea, the battle of Arkansas Post had been fought without permission or discussion with superiors and Halleck was not impressed.  Grant was though.  Realizing that the worst time to fire a general was immediately after a victory, he did not feel he could get rid of McClernand.  Instead he acted like he had been in command the whole time.  Grant assumed command by rank and reorganized his army with McClernand as one of his Corp Commanders.

McClernand, again not amused, sought the aid of the President and this time was disappointed.  It had been one thing to give McClernand new, undeployed troops that where apart of no army at all.  Now, Mclernand wanted troops taken from Grant in the field and the army just wasn’t managed that way.  The President told McClarnand to be patient and to do his best.  Halleck, on the other hand, told Grant to hang on to that permission to relieve McClernand of command… it might come in handy later.

The Bag O’ Destiny

9 01 2011

If I were asked to describe what a turn of Monopoly was like I would say that each turn consisted primarily of a player rolling dice and moving their token.  Sure, you can buy houses and hotels, you might buy property, you may draw a card, and you may even owe someone money, but you always roll a dice an move.  This basic formula is repeated as many times as needed to complete a game.  The rest is details.

McPherson and Revenge has a similar rinse-lather-repeat mechanic for regulating play.  A bag, lovingly referred to as the bag o’ destiny, is filled with tokens each representing a brigade and division commander in the game.  A full turn of the game (representing 15 minutes of scenario time) will consist of pulling all token’s from the bag, one token at a time.  When a token is drawn that general may try to begin issuing orders to his brigade or division.


In addition to a General’s name, the tokens will have a number indicating the units command rating.  A command rating is a reflection of that general and his staff’s competency and organization.  A number of dice equal to the command rating is used by that commander whenever he attempts to do something within the game.  The higher the command rating, the better and more prepared the general.

A token being drawn does NOT necessarily mean that that the unit will be activated.  As we have previously pointed out, good things tend to happen to good generals and choosing when to go during a turn is something that good generals are better at.  When a token is drawn, the player who controls that general must make a skill “skill check” using a number of dice equal to the command rating of the officer.  If ANY “4”s, “5”s, or “6”s are rolled then the controlling player decides whether he wants to go now or be put back in the bag.  If he fails, then his opponent get’s to choose!

Note: Skill checks are a central mechanic to McPherson and Revenge and will be discussed in more detail later…

Officers will have their command ratings lowered by taking casualties over the course of the game.  Casualties will be caused while giving orders to troops under fire and using leadership to influence units.  (These mechanics will also be discussed later. )  When a leader’s command rating is lowered then the token for that leader is replaced by another token with a lower command rating!


In addition to officer tokens, events such as “reinforcements”, “rout” and “scenario end” may be placed into the bag o’ destiny based on the scenario being played.  When these tokens are drawn then those events are conducted.  Presumably, I will explain what these events mean later too.

Making the tokens

I used Visio to draw the tokens.  Stars are used to indicate if a general is a brigadier (one star) in charge of a brigade or a lieutenant general in command of a division (two stars).  I created 6 tokens for each general numbered from 0 to 5 with 5 equaling a absurdly organized general and 0 equaling an incompetent, or more likely dead, general.


I used Litko Aerosystems 3mm thick 15 mm by 30mm plywood bases.  Litko is a really cool company whose founder must have a son that was a war gamer.  They have a really impressive side line selling war-game accessories including bases, markers, and tokens.  They sell custom cut metal, wood, magnets and plastics.  Very cool stuff.

I printed out my labels on photo paper, cut them out and then glued them using white glue.  I will have about 140 of these tokens for my entire order of battle but I will not need more than about 20-25 at a time while playing.

The “Chit Pull” Mechanic

The “Chit pull” mechanic is pretty common in hex and counter war-games.  I believe that Mr. Richard Berg first introduced this mechanic for activating generals back in the 1970’s for his Gettysburg game “A terrible swift sword”.  He has used the mechanic in several series of games since including his Ancient World titles; Carthage and Rise of the Roman Republic (were I encountered it first.)

I modified his mechanic with an activation role and multiple command rating mechanics which are my own.

Core Values, Part 2 – Making a Good Game

3 01 2011

Being a good simulation makes a game worth playing but making the simulation a good game makes it worth playing again.  I have seen many games that may have been excellent historical recreations but that made for dreadful or confusing experiences.  By recognizing where games go wrong I can hopefully head off some of these shortcomings in McPherson and Revenge in advance.  Here are a few elements that have spoiled games for me (or for others I know) in the past

The Combat Result Table (CRT) of Doomtm 

Count units…adjust for terrain… experience… wind speed… time of day… ammo type… etc.  State out-loud final offensive combat factor… recalculate because of disagreement….Consult table… find glasses… Consult table again… Roll die…. Consult table…. “Miss”.  Repeat… 400 times.

Some games boil down to doing a single thing, a bunch of times.  This process, though it may represent a complicated action such as firing weapons, had better be mechanically streamlined or players can become fatigued.  In many games this main process is JUST too complicated to memorize or really learn and requires constantly referring back rules or tabled. 

Dice Tyranny

I once saw a slogan on T-shirt at a convention that amused me greatly:

“I play Warbands so I can ignore tactics and focus on my dice rolling”

I don’t think that I can explain why this is funny in the confines of a single blog entry.  Rest assured, if you laughed at that quote, you are a stone cold geek.  Well done.

For the rest of you, here is the gist of it; some players (in particular a college room mate of mine) choose strategies wherein the game is overwhelmingly won or catastrophically lost on a single die roll.  Warbands (think “the what’s in your wallet?” guys) historically run straight at the enemy with axes fully extruded and either win or lose within a minute or two of walking onto the field.  In-game this is invariably resolved via a single die roll.  For gamers with better places to be or a hot date this is a good gig.   For gamers that care… it sucks.

Meaningless Decisions/Efforts

Sometimes things aren’t as important as they seem.  If you can work out which factors or decisions really matter you can save a great deal of time and energy.  For instance, If I were to decide to simulate an NFL football game, I would first work out the number of turnovers before I worried about running yardage or pass completions..  Not sure how I would do that but if I knew that one team had a 3 turnover margin I would say they won the game.  Running all those plays don’t matter at all. 

Also… I would never simulate an overtime.  The winner of the coin toss wins almost 80% of the time.  Good enough.  Win the flip, win the game.

Many games require you to gather or track data that, at the end of the day, you never needed to know or care about. 

Note Taking

Some games have very innocently stated rules that imply that history is being kept at the table.  These rules might begin “If the unit moved last turn then…” or “If this is the first time a unit does X then….”, both which imply that you and everyone else at the table are tracking what everyone has done throughout the game.  I have seen many a game ruined when a player tries to do something that is prohibited by one of these conditional rules.  There is always a “well if I had known that then I wouldn’t have done this… can we go back an hour?”

Too much to do…

Some games come to a complete halt because a player must do about an hour of thinking before he ends his turn.  Not bad if you brought comic books to the game with you but a drag if you want to get to your turn so you can spend an hour thinking.  This usually occurs when a player is presented with too many options all at once.  They must understand how every little thing effects every other little thing so that they “don’t make a mistake.”  I have seem many people fall asleep mid-term because someone else became completely paralyzed by too many options.

The Plan

  Here are few traits I think are important to making a good game:

  • Discrete choices – Nothing is as overwhelming as having infinite options.  By giving players a series of more limited choices you force them to prioritize.  Think Poker here.  On your turn, you can fold, call or raise.  That’s it.  Usually a very fast game that holds everyone’s interest.  Games where, on your turn, you have to move everyone of your possibly hundreds of pieces in no particular order can be overwhelming and unfun.  (BTW… it appears “unfun” is not a word.  This bugs me… who’s with me here?)
  • Determinism – This is my $5 word.  In short it means you can see everything’s status and you know what your options are at all times.  It’s not necessarily bad that data not be known but if you have a right to know data that is not obvious from looking at the table then you spend a TON of time asking your opponent questions about what your options are.  Or… worse, a disagreement occurs.
  • Learnable mechanics – If you do something 400 times… it has to be simple and pleasant.  It should be possible for a  mechanism to be performed from memory by everyone at the table without consulting rules or a table. 
  • Built in “luck” mitigation – Players tend to get chaffed by freak results.  A couple of ways to handle this included restricting results to the highly realistic (i.e. little or no variation in results) or provide a mechanism for dealing with the bizarre or unfortunate directly.  Mulligans in Golf are an example of this.  Nothing is irritating as hitting a tee shot on a par 5 ten feet.  If you are really capable of doing better then hitting it again should get you better results.  My hope is that nobody feels they got crushed in a game because they couldn’t roll dice.
  • Reuse base mechanics – Imagine if Monopoly had rules for determining who won a beauty contest and who owed inheritance tax.  By using spaces on the board and decks of cards, a large number of elements are added to the game using a simple elegant mechanism.  By reusing mechanics, resolving different problems becomes intuitive and games are more easily learned and understood.