Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, July 19, 2013

HistoriCon 2013 Thursday - New Orleans and Warrenton Junction

Although my primary interest is boardgames, I've been known to push lead around the table from time to time.  With last year's move to Fredericksburg, Virginia, of HistoriCon, the biggest Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS) event of the year, I've had a golden opportunity to revisit miniatures gaming and see the latest in the hobby.  Today was the first day of HistoriCon 2013, and for me it was "Leo Walsh" day, as I participated in back-to-back games run by the co-designer of High Noon and Age of Iron.

The Union fleet advances up the Mississippi River
Battle for New Orleans 1863
The first event that Leo Walsh ran was a hypothetical naval engagement at the mouth of the Mississippi River between Union and Confederate naval forces.  We played using Age of Iron (designer Leo Walsh, publisher MindGames Inc), a fairly detailed set of naval miniatures rules for ironclads and early steam-powered ships.  In our scenario, I commanded one of four Union ironclads that were backed by two paddlewheelers and the screw sloop USS Lackawanna.  We were opposed by an eclectic group of Confederate ironclads and steamships that included the formidable CSS Mississippi, which was in actuality never completed but which made an appearance in this hypothetical scenario based on the premise that the Union had failed to take New Orleans in 1862.

Leo threw a number of surprises at us northerners as we made our way toward the Confederate defenders of New Orleans.  Fire ships, hidden shore batteries, and a variety of small craft ran interference and distracted us as we made our approach, but we dispatched them for the most part as we closed with the enemy fleet.  The Mississippi had anchored herself with her starboard broadside trained downriver, and she bombarded us as we worked our way upriver.  She became our primary target, however, and after several rounds of concentrated gunfire, she settled to the bottom of her namesake river.  In the end, the Union lost one ironclad and one paddlewheeler but sank several Confederate ships and silenced several shore batteries to claim control of the lower Mississippi River.

The combat system in Age of Iron has some interesting gunfire dynamics at the range breakpoint of 18 
Union paddlewheeler and screw sloop-of-war -
ironclads and another paddlewheeler in background
inches (corresponding to 600 yards in real distance).  The chance of hitting a target between 18 and 30 inches (600 and 1000 yards) is only 10% less than the chance of hitting one between five and 18 inches (170 and 600 yards).  For a stationary target (such as the anchored Mississippi), that probability difference is 30%.  So I was originally motivated to close with the Confederate ironclad as quickly as possible to get more hits.

But we discovered that there is another effect outside that transition range.  Beyond this distance, gunfire was treated as "descending fire" (meaning that the shots arc downward onto the target).  If a shot finds its mark, it has a 70% chance of striking the target's deck rather than the side of its hull.  That result can drastically improve the chance of a shot penetrating the target's armor and doing significantly more damage.  Moreover, I realized later that as a smaller target, my ironclads were 30% more difficult to hit at the longer range.  So whereas closing with the Mississippi made it easier for me to get a hit, I also made it just as easy to be hit, plus I would be making my hits potentially less damaging.  In the case of moving Confederate targets, I became more vulnerable at lower range but gained little improvement in my hit probability.  So my early aggressiveness may have been a tactical error.

All in all, I was happy to get in a naval game, and this one really exercised my instincts in a new period (for me) with different tactical considerations from my usual age-of-sail exploits.

Warrenton Junction
That afternoon, Leo Walsh was joined by Maurice Holmes to run a Civil War cavalry skirmish.  Leo provided some personal background to motivate his afternoon scenario.  His great grandfather served with the First Rhode Island Cavalry in the Civil War and saw action in northern Virginia.  Leo has a copy of his great-grandfather's journal as well as a history of the unit.  So he assembled several scenarios based on actual engagements in which the 1st RI Cav saw action.  Their first battle occurred not far from the Rappahannock River near Warrenton Junction.  Elements of the 1st RI Cav were on a reconnaissance patrol when they stumbled upon about 30 Confederate troops in the vicinity of the home of a Dr. J.G. Beale.  The engagement was quick and, owing to the heavy terrain, conducted at close range.

We played using Leo's and Maurice's self-published High Noon.  I was first introduced to these rules by Leo at HistoriCon last year, when he gave a simple demo in which players were paired off with one figure each to engage in a shoot-out.  I wrote about this demo, and it inspired me and my sons to look into Western role-playing (which, inexplicably, we still have not seriously pursued).  I am still impressed by the way gunfire wounds are handled.  When a figure is hit by a gunshot, if the result is not a kill, the player draws a "wound card" for that figure.  He reports to his opponent what part of the body was hit, whether he dropped his weapon, and whether he fell to the ground.  Otherwise, any other effects of the wound (in terms of degraded performance) are kept secret.

Confederate infantry squad takes position
In our scenario, I commanded a squad of Confederate infantry armed with .58-caliber Mississippi rifled muskets.  The corporal squad leader was also armed with a .44-caliber Colt army revolver.  The five Confederate squads were distributed around the grounds fronting the Dr. Beale house when we heard Union cavalry coming up the road.  My squad took up a line position in a field of high grass to one side of the road to protect our left flank.  I was backed up by a second squad.  Two other squads set up a hasty ambush immediately on either side of the road, and a fifth squad was further out, on our right flank.

We saw ten mounted Union cavalry coming up the road and five more on the far side of the road that appeared through a gap in the woods.  I had my squad adjust its line as the cavalry approached but held our fire, knowing that the muskets would probably only get one good shot.  When the cavalry on the road were at about medium musket range, they came to a stop.  I anticipated that they intended to dismount, so I had the squad open fire on the lead three horsemen while they still had a relatively clear shot.  Out of seven shots, two found their marks; one Union cavalryman was wounded in the arm and the other knocked off his horse.

At that I had my squad kneel down in the cover of the high grass and start reloading their muskets while the corporal stood among them with his revolvers to provide some degree of protection in case the dismounted cavalry decided to attack.  I then realized that five of the Union cavalry did not dismount but left the road and started to circle around my left flank.  I was very worried about them, but with bayonets fixed to the muskets, I figured I could withstand any kind of cavalry charge; otherwise, the grass cover would, I hoped, keep them from being shot at.

The five dismounted cavalry moved slowly along the brush cover at the side of the road but in the end made
Union cavalry bypass the Confederate left flank
no threatening advance on my position while my infantry went through the painstaking process of reloading muskets.  The mounted cavalry, however, moved at a brisk pace past my position.  My corporal took two shots at the lead horseman with his revolver and knocked him off his horse.  The remaining four continued on and ran down alongside the squad that was backing me up behind a woodpile.  At point blank range, they unloaded on the squad behind me.  One brave rebel soul tried to charge one of the mounted men and knock him off his horse with his bayonet, but after a brief struggle, he was seriously wounded while the cavalry raced off into the woods.  They left behind two dead and two wounded Confederate soldiers.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the road, the five Union cavalry that had appeared in a gap in the woods at first dismounted and exchanged gunfire with rebels, then turned back to remount.  But two Confederates had made their way around through the woods on the far side of the horses and opened up at point blank range with their muskets.  Then they charge with their bayonets.  In combination with more musket fire from an adjacent field, all five Union cavalry ended up on the ground and were soon dead.

The five dismounted cavalry still in the road then turned, grabbed the leads of their horses, and headed back up the road away from the Beale house.  The Confederates had stood their ground, such as it was, and suffered only two dead and about three or four wounded.  The engagement was over before my squad had even finished reloading their muskets.

The remarkable thing about High Noon is the timescale.  Each turn represents three to five seconds.  So that's why I spent most of the game with my squad reloading and my corporal standing and taking pot shots at passing cavalry.  It wasn't the most engaging decision space I've ever experienced in a game, but it was still fun to play.

General observations
I've mentioned before that I find miniatures gaming to be more about the physical instantiation of the game components that represent the game state than about the gameplay itself.  The length of time required to set up, play, and clean up a game represents a significant investment relative to the number and complexity of decisions that a player makes in that time - not to mention the cost of those components and the time spent painting and assembling them.  Leo and Maurice did a great job in building scenarios that were fun and visually engaging.  I think the reason I prefer boardgames, however, is that I am generally at least as interested in the gameplay and the tactics and their execution as I am in the models that get pushed around.  So, as much fun as I'm having during HistoriCon, I think I'll remain a boardgamer first.


  1. "Each turn represents three to five seconds".
    Holy moly! I've never heard of a time scale that low. Does it work well?

    <<"more about the physical instantiation of the game components that represent the game state than about the gameplay itself".>>

    I think you may be overemphasizing the component aspect and visual aspect (the figures) of a miniatures game.

    As I see it, the primary strength of miniatures is the same rules and figures can be used to create hundreds of scenarios. Granted, building the miniatures is a significant up front investment of time.

    Another advantage is to escape the limitations imposed by hexes (or squares). By way of example, consider my miniature sailing ships game, where indeed, we used *cardboard counters* and there's *no terrain*. The objective had nothing to do with figures or terrain -- but to escape the constraints of hexes, by which we increased the granularity from 6 facings to 16, a 166% increase, and thus increase the tactics and gameplay (with cardboard counters).

  2. The short time scale works for the kinds of things it attempts to model - rapid gunfights at reaction speed that are over in less than a minute or two.

    I see your point about the flexibility of miniatures games. I'd say that there are boardgames that provide similar scenario variability - PanzerBlitz, Tobruk, Squad Leader - but some people have described those games as miniatures games in cardboard. The same is said of Jutland, which is a cardboard game that involves measuring the movement of ship counters on a tabletop in a similar way to your sailing ships game.

    But my ultimate point wasn't about the physical appearance and components of the miniatures games. It was about the time spent in preparation and assembly relative to the number and complexity of decisions made in gameplay. Even as compared to boardgames that act like miniatures games, that point still stands.

    And of course, it's not a grand thesis; it's just my opinion with regard to miniatures games vis-a-vis boardgames.