Sunday, March 3, 2019

Playing Pickett's Charge: The Sunken Lane, Antietam, 1862

One of my priorities for the new year was to play more American Civil War games and I had always wanted to try Dave Brown's new-ish "Pickett's Charge" rules so when Ken suggested we play I was all-in.  I spent the week reading up on them and Ken was kind enough to host at his house on his table with his excellent 15mm miniatures.

We played the introductory scenario from the book covering the action at the Sunken Road at Antietam, 1862.  The Union goal is to breakthrough at the sunken lane and also careen into the Rebel rear area.  To do so, the Union is given 5 Brigades of mostly regulars, and 2 batteries of guns.  I kept 1 Brigade off table in reserve as the Union commander.  Ken commanded the Rebs.

Union setup.  The Irish Brigade is on the far right.

A Union Brigade moves into position.  The orange die represented an Aide De Camp or staff officer posting.

Rebel positions in cover at the sunken lane.
We fought through the first few turns as all of the mechanisms were new and untried.  I think Ken had played this once before.  I had not played at all so understanding how the mechanics work took a little time but we got there.  I think we started on or about 130pm and played up to turn 7 of 16 turns in 3 hours.  The game mechanics are pretty straightforward, except for a few things I'll go into later.

You task your staff officers to carry out certain tasks that benefit your force.  To be perfectly honest, I only used my staff officers to re-roll failed activation rolls.  Ken used his for mostly the same purpose although he used "Artillery Assault Fire" or whatever a bunch of times to good effect on my advancing forces.

Brigades must pass an activation roll to move or they become "hesitant" for the turn.  there are a bunch of tables, but you get the hang of it rather quickly.  That's not to say the game plays quickly, but you get the hang of the game pretty quickly.

Irish Brigade with unformed Regiments - they failed their formation check after crossing the fence (another table)  

My center.  Unfortunately my "green" rated brigade is having the most success of the game getting into position.  The guns are constantly getting a "hesitant" result...

 I'm not sure we played the artillery correctly - I treated the batteries like brigades independently but I think they should have been attached to an infantry brigade.  Oh well.  It played just fine.

Union Brigade in the upper left has its lead regiment atop the hill.  They'd advance further than any other Brigade for this game.
 My luck starts running out with ADC postings and I'm not getting the numbers to move every brigade into position like I need to.  You get the impression early on that you're not in complete control of how the battle unfolds.  I do like, however, that you can almost always do something in this game.

Ken's artillery fires upon my sharpshooters!
 Speaking of doing something, units take a penalty for moving and firing.  If you roll too low, you'll find you've lost fire discipline, or if you're an artillery battery, you take fatigue casualties.  This was a huge problem for me as I kept rolling low to begin with for shooting.  In fact, rolling low is an understatement for the performance of my dice today!  On one turn in particular, I ended with almost every Regiment in every Brigade having a "fire discipline" penalty.  So I think Dave Brown is trying to teach us something about moving and firing.

Yankees advancing - the attack shapes up

Battery posted on the Union left.  They rolled "hesitant" more times than any other unit in the battle today.  No firing at long range!  

Rebs along the sunken lane

The Irish Brigade moving up to the fence to engage the Rebels.  A sharp firefight would break out on the right flank while I'm hoping to make a breakthrough on the left flank.

 I get a lucky break and am in position to assault with my "green" brigade.  I start leap-frogging my Regiments forward, with one shooting stationary, and then another moving through them.  It also shields previous Regiments from taking too many casualties.  It's not bad.  Also, supports must start from within 5cms.  Ken was gracious enough to allow me to re-do my charge against the fence.

Brigade in upper-left makes it the furthest.  They would be repulsed badly after this charge.
My lead Regiment makes contact with the fence and per the rules, takes a volley in the face.  Ken rolls high and I end up having to take significant casualties and an "elephant test".  My lead Regiment is now "whipped" and they run for the hills, forcing their supports to also beat a hasty retreat, unformed.

Closer view of the action, and a problem.
One issue we ran into here that is not explained in the rules is when a large regiment makes contact with multiple smaller regiments.  The rules say you must attempt to center the regiment to the greatest extent possible which we did, but Ken has 2 small Regiments and the Union Regiment is 7 stands!  As best we could tell, the Regiment that was "contacted" but was not the target of the charge takes whatever result the target takes in the combat.  And gets to fire defensively prior to contact.  Seemed fair enough.

Another super confusing thing also?  The timing of everything when adjudicating a "whipped" result.  I assumed the in-contact Regiment retreats first but in some places that wording is confusing and you would be forgiven for thinking the lead Regiment in contact could retreat behind a support.  Anyways we suffered through this part with the lead Regiment retiring first, unforming their supports, who then withdrew next.

One more confusing thing - the "retire" move is 30 centimeters but in some places it seems as if that is optional (the full move distance) if there are supports to retreat behind.  I just moved them 30 because that seemed way more advantageous to my Brigade at this point.

The carnage!  A green Union Brigade approaching the fenceline.  

Go get em, boys!  We can take them!  COL Weber urges his men forward.

The grim reality of the failed charge.  Lots of new casualties and 2 Regiments in big trouble.  Looks like I have a new ADC posting for next turn....
I know I said I only used my Staff Officers / ADCs for re rolling command rolls (Brigade Attachment) but if we would have played further I would have tried to remove some hits from Weber's Brigade, who desperately need to reform if we are going to take this position.  Additionally, I have Kimball's Brigade off-table and I'll need 2 ADCs to get them onto the table!  Luckily there are still 9 turns left to make this happen.

Meanwhile the Rebs are doing just fine behind the fence.

Ken's excellent objective and command markers

Ken has fresh reserves and they're not even needed right now.
Wow what a game.  It definitely has an epic feel to it and brings the tactical fight alive in a meaningful way where you feel like a Division Commander.  You really need to have a plan in this game and you must try to execute that plan despite misfortune and the fickleness of the dice.  There are times when your brigade will be "hesitant" and while you needed to advance them this turn, you won't be able to.  At first I thought the Staff Officer / ADC concept wasn't going to matter much, but as I found when the turns got going, I needed them and there were never enough around.  It's a neat mechanism and as the battle progresses, i can see where you feel like the situation is getting away from you, just like a real commander. 

 I personally enjoyed the game very much and would like to play more.  I definitely want to play General de Armee next and see how that plays.  Now readers of my blog know I'm a big Black Powder fan and I also feel that you could get a result, likely a similar result, with Black Powder in a quicker amount of time.  I'm not sure you'd want to use these rules for really big battles where you would want to command a Corps.  While it's entirely possible, it would take a really long time to play.  None of the guys I game with, myself included, have 8 hours to devote to a single sitting.

 Those of you out there who enjoy General de Brigade (and its variants) will probably really like this game as I feel it is a way more streamlined version of GdB.  You pick up the game concepts in a few turns and while we were looking things up each turn, I found that it occurred less and less once we looked it up.  We were able to play half of our turns with just the QRS.  That's a win.

I highly recommend folks try this game out.  It's a solid, tactical game that puts you in the boots of the Division Commander and forces you to have a plan by putting just enough resource management stress on you.  Another win.

Also - Norm - if you're reading this - the introductory scenario from Antietam (sunken lane) would make a good TFON scenario I think.


  1. Do you know what! I was thinking exactly the same as I got to the point in which you had the problem of the 7 stand large unit facing smaller units as TF-ON has one reg per hex and then made me think of having a go.

    Wow .... what a great day for being a blog browser (Sunday afternoon), several posts are in my feed that are of great interest. I like the look of your game and thought you did rather well to get as far as you did in three hours with a new rule set. I have both the ACW and Napoleonics sets, but after a first read of Pickett’s Charge, I was left feeling that it is a set that you need to spend some time with and then use them as regular rules, rather than dipping a toe in while jumping between various sets.

    I suppose the fault-line here is where does one sit in terms of simulation v playability v available game time, as to whether one chooses these rules or Black Powder. I’m glad that you are a BP user as over some future posts, your thoughts on that very matter will greatly interest me.

    I liked the line in which Ken allowed you to re-take your charge .... that is exactly how we play and it makes for such a good gaming experience when exploring new stuff. Enjoyed yje post very much, thanks.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Norm. Yes sir, "great minds think alike" and I was wanting to try TF-ON with this scenario as soon as I read through it. One thing that stirred additional interest in this was the fact that Mr Brown is working on a similar WW2 set so that sparked conversation between Ken and I.

      It's amazing you came to the same conclusions we came to. Ken's take was even with more familiarity with the rules, this would still take quite awhile to play. And you'll need to play it quite a few times to gain the necessary familiarity with it.

      A few years ago, I set out to find "my" Horse and Musket rules set and I put a few rules through their paces and each time I came up with BP as my desired set, given what's out there commercially. I am going to post a link for you - here is your homework - read through the post I'm going to link to below. I think you'll find that discussion interesting.

      Ken is a very gentlemanly gamer and I would like to think I am, too. It's more about learning the rules and concepts than winning.

      If gaming was about winning for me, I'd probably not even be gaming anymore.

    2. Norm this is for you - read this post and my thoughts about Black Powder:

  2. Thanks Steve, very interesting and a good way to perhaps sift out some rule books that are somewhat redundant, though I am guessing that if I were to write a mission statement of needs, out of three elements, at least one would likey change within a week and every week thereafter! As an aside, since you mention them, I was going to run a Rank and File game a couple of weeks ago, just to see that system working. I should still do that, but of course that just adds to the thing of being all over the place on rules.

    As it happens, I added to a post on a figures forum this morning, on a subject that was skirting with the growing interest in skirmish gaming (as opposed to sitting down and painting 500+ figures!) I commented something along the lines that I had been reading the Neil Thomas Napoleonic wargame book and he has armies of just 8 units, so the French would be something like a few line infantry battalions, some cavalry and some artillery and of course .... The Old Guard! All rubbing shoulders on a 4’ x 4’ table and that the resulting scenarios would have a feel of the old ‘teaser’ about them and definitely a whiff of his recent excellent scenario style in his One Hour wargames.

    Anyway, the point I was making was that this reminded me of the kind of gaming that I started out with, all those years ago, unpretentious, simple, fun, easy rules with a dab of innocence thrown into that mix, so that if I was doing anything wrong, I probably wasn’t aware of it .... and of course there wasn’t anyone on the internet, or at a club to tell me it was wrong. It is a state of play that at the moment, I am feeling that I would like to get back to, especially as my boardgaming activities tend to be at the more complex / sim level, so perhaps I am feeling like I would like the figures side of things to be a bit pretty and a bit fun, a sort of equilibrium of activity, between boardgame and tabletop

    Pickett’s Charge looks like it should be the next best thing - but on my first cover-to-cover reading, I just became over-faced by all those important little bits of system tucked away in paragraphs and sentences . I could have eaten that sort of thing for breakfast some years ago, but these days have less of an inclination to do so and I end up yearning for what is probably viewed as less sophisticated, but more intuitively playable. Your recent low complex rules stuff seems to have delivered good gaming for your group.

    1. I could not agree more with you. I am tending towards the simple end of the spectrum these days and i am enjoying games that give a good game with challenges, decision making and period flavor as opposed to lengthy games that take forever to play in the name of realism.
      Games like the Neil Thomas family of rules, black powder and bolt action are fantastic. Tigers at Minsk or Crossfire also come to mind. Commands and Colors are great for my purposes and even Flames of War has a place on my table. Probably the most complex for me would be Battlegroup and theyre not even that complex!

  3. Having played Pickett’s Charge only a couple of times, the jury is still out on this one for me. There were things in the rules I liked and things I did not. Since one of my buddies really enjoys the rules and the whole stable of related rules, I will have ample chances for my perspective to evolve.

    While I do not care much for skirmish gaming, I do enjoy games having a small BMU count. Thomas’ 19th Century rules fill that niche nicely. I ought to roll those out more often.

    Your game looks super, by the way.

    1. I'd be interested to hear what you didn't like.

      I came away from the game feeling "meh." They seemed long to play and as Steve noted there were a lot of charts.

      But as I've thought about it more, I've realized that there are some subtle points that are clever.

      One is, as Steve observed, the possibility of getting a negative effect when shooting. In most wargames there is no reason not to take every shot possible. So what if you need a "12" on 2D6 to hit? It might happen. But in the real world I'm sure it's not that simple- there's ammunition, fatigue, gun fouling, etc. that might make a unit think twice before firing.

      Also, as a game mechanic, it gives players a decision to make. No decision to make if there's no downside to shooting.

      Finally, a side effect is that it make the game quicker to play. Fewer shots means fewer shots to adjudicate.

      I'm still not sure if I love it, but it has features like the one described that make it more than the average bear.

    2. Thank you Jonathan! The minis and table are Ken's and the game was visually attractive which i think adds so much to the experience.

    3. Hi Ken. Since I have only played a couple of games of PC, it is unfair (and premature) to assess the rules. I found my BatRep from the first game played about two years ago. See,

      What I recall as the Federal commander was that initiative switched abruptly to the Rebs and a few, small Confederate units shot the shit out of my large and numerous blue-coated regiments. An entire battle was lost due to a few well-timed and placed volleys from a numerically inferior foe deployed in the open. One low probability result wrecked an entire wing. C'la guerre. I recall the mechanism of deploying and using ADCs seemed gamey to me.

      Of course, I am ready to try again!

  4. Up to your usual high standards. I specially liked the vignettes, they add so much to the feel of the game.

    1. Thank you sir! We are playing General de Armee soon. Which i understand you are playing a little of yourself?

  5. A great looking game and a nice narrative and preliminary rules analysis. GdA is on my list to try, but I suspect I will find the mechanisms more complex than I like. I am pretty well set with Filed of Battle as my primary rules set for Napoleonics, but I want to try your Neil; Thomas derived rules and some others.

    1. Thank you sir! Gaming at Ken's house is always fun (his terrain, and minis collection are outstanding). We're looking forward to trying GdA but need to get a few more games of Pickett's Charge under our belts, I think.

  6. Nice report!

    It sounds like the mechanics dominate the game, but that may just be what impacted you the most and ended up in the narrative.

    A few of the mechanics sound redundant - if I fire artillery and they roll low and "miss" doesn't that cover ammo-technical-skill-sighting-etc problems? Do I need yet another mechanic and chart?

    I get the impression that the designers are into clever mechanics for their own sake. Seems like it'd be easier to just say "to do anything with a unit, start by rolling a d6 for a 2+; on a '1' your unit is unavailable for whatever historical reason you'd like to make up.

    Just a few quick thoughts.