My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Third Time's the Charm

Twice I started to write a post and twice I threw them away because they did not feel right. If you are reading this then the third time's the charm.

Guilford Courthouse

I have played the Guilford Courthouse scenario from the Rebellion supplement of Black Powder twice now and it continues to stymie game play. The victory conditions in that scenario require the British to break more American 'key' brigades than they have by the end of the game. The only key brigades for the Americans are the two Continental brigades (Williams and Huger) – which is appropriate – while the British have three key brigades (i.e. all of the British brigades). What this means in game terms is that the American militia brigades (Eaton, Butler, Lawson, and Stevens) are 'speed bumps'. Any losses on these brigades have no effect on American victory conditions.

Guilford Courthouse map from Rebellion
So the goal of the British is to carve through the first two American lines while taking a minimum of losses.

For the Americans, there are three basic strategies:
  1. Let each American line take on the British one at a time, inflicting as much damage as possible, but delaying the collapse of each line as long as possible. (This is what Greene did historically.)
  2. Rush the American second line (Lawson and Stevens) to the forward woods line before the first line collapses, denying the British a toehold into the woods before it engages the American second line.
  3. Rush the American second and third lines to the woods, ensuring that the American always maintain numerical and firepower superiority at the point of contact.
The first time I played the scenario (as the Americans), I used strategy #1. The result was that Leslie's brigade stalled at the fence line on the right, O'Hara's brigade broke through in the center but stalled at the woodline after destroying Eaton's and Lawson's brigades, and Webster's brigade pushed back the left flank skirmishers (while helping to destroy Eaton's brigade) and made it to the far edge of the woodline when the Continental brigades pounced and destroyed a British regiment, sending them reeling back into the woods. We called the game on time, but the Americans clearly had the upper hand.

There were a number of rules that we got wrong – I still have not completely re-read the Black Powder rules despite playing three games in the last two months – the most prominent being that it is much harder to inflict hits on units in the woods.

The second time we played the scenario the group decided to punish me for the last game so everyone was British, except me. I was the sole American player. This time I wanted to try and bring the game to a conclusion, even if it meant losing. Given that only breaking Huger's or Williams' brigades will risk an American defeat, if you hold them back the entire game, you cannot lose, you can only draw (at worst). This time I went for strategy #3, which would put my precious Continentals at risk, but would bring a large amount of American firepower to bear early in the game.

Leslie's brigade again stalled the entire game, not least because the first order rolled was a 'Blunder', resulting in the Hessian regiment retreating off of the board when Lee's Legion looked at them cross-eyed. (Such are the wildly random results that make up a Black Powder game.) Despite the British Legion cavalry being committed to the right flank to counter Lee's cavalry, Leslie's brigade barely made it to the fenceline by the time we called the game.

O'Hara's brigade deployed to both sides of the road early in the game, unlike the first time, and it looked like sending the Grenadier Guards against Butler's brigade would help rout them early. However, there is a quirk with one scenario rule that I do not think the scenario author anticipated nor intended. The NC militia (Eaton's and Butler's brigades) get to claim the fenceline as a "position" which they defend. There is an obscure rule with regards to brigades breaking and 'defensible positions'. If a brigade breaks from too many units being in Shaken status or being lost, it must automatically retire one move if at the beginning of its turn it finds itself within 12" of an enemy unit. One of the exceptions, however, is if the unit is in a defensible position it is not forced to retire and may stay in place. This means that the NC militia, as long as they stay on the fenceline, they will not retire unless they explicitly fail a Break Test.

So, what is the math behind a Break Test? For infantry, you can pass a Break Test caused from shooting if you roll a '6' or better on 2D6, or a '7' or better on 2D6 if the test was caused from hand-to-hand combat results. There are modifiers, mostly from taking hits or being Disordered, which make the roll much harder. The problem is, that if you make those rolls you can get some pretty spectacular results, like your NC militia brigade routing the British Guard Grenadiers after fighting them to a standstill for three turns in hand-to-hand combat! (The British players at that point were threatening to beat me up and melt my dice because of all my hot rolling.)

By rushing forward both the second and third lines the Americans were able to bring their massive firepower into play, such that Huger's brigade was almost to the fenceline by game's end and Williams' brigade was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a weakened Guard regiment from O'Hara's brigade in the center.

Again, technically a draw, but clearly had we kept playing the Americans would likely have won a victory.

So what went wrong? Were the stats for the American troops too high in quality? Is the scenario poorly written? Actually, the American troop quality is pretty poor, more than I would have inflicted upon them. Further, the British are practically Supermen, in terms of Black Powder. They are Elite, so they can shake off disorder without losing a turn. They are Steady so they automatically pass the first Break Test. They have a higher than average Stamina, so they last longer before they even need to take a Break Test. They are Ferocious, so they get to reroll their hand-to-hand combat rolls that miss. They are practically 'Gods of War'. The only thing the two Continental Veteran regiments are better at are shooting, and that is only marginally so. The main issue is that the British infantry save from a hit on a 3+ on 1D6, 2+ if they are in woods. So it is very hard to inflict hits on the British. Combine that with an increased number of hits required before it must take a Break Test and it automatically passing the first such Break Test and you have a game where the British do not actually have to roll until you are deep into a game. Conversely, most American units count as Wavering, which means they must roll for a Break Test every time they take a hit.

As for the scenario victory conditions, are think they are actually well thought out. The Americans did not care about militia losses, so allowing the Americans to ignore those brigades breaking is something that many rules fail to recognize (hint: this is an issue with the Guilford Courthouse scenario in Clash for a Continent and Hold the Line). If there is an issue it is that there is one British brigade, Leslie's, that is particularly vulnerable. But that was historical.

The only other issue is the scenario special rule for the NC militia, indicated above. We have decided that if we ever play this scenario again – and I think most people are frustrated by this scenario – we will probably not allow the fences to be considered a 'defensible position' for purposes of the Brigade Break rule. It makes the NC militia way too hard. Without that rule, unless a NC militia regiment, unless locked into hand-to-hand combat, it will automatically retire one move each turn if it is within 12" of an enemy unit. Given that visibility in the woods (most of the board) is 12", this essentially means the NC militia will no longer be in the firefight once their brigade breaks, unless the British charge them.

But these issues were not what made the scenario break. Quite simply, the core command and control mechanics of the Black Powder rules favor a static defense. It is way too easy to flub a command roll and have it throw off your well-laid plans. Now before you go saying "but isn't that historical?" we are not talking about whether chaos exists in a battle, but whether these rules have the appropriate probabilities assigned to account for that chaos. I say "no".

The one issue that I also don't like about the Black Powder rules is that I believe their hit and save probabilities are wrong. The basic chance to inflict a hit with shooting is 50%. You generally roll 3D6 with a standard unit and hit on a 4+. It is very common for that chance to be reduced to a 5+ (33%) and the best you can do is a 3+ (67%). The chance to save from that hit for a standard unit, however, is 50%. That chance rarely goes down, except when hit by artillery fire, but often goes up, such as when the unit is in cover. Further, elite units often have a better save. In the Guilford Courthouse scenario it was very common to require a 4+ or 5+ to hit, but to save the hit the rolls would often be 2+. There is just something fundamentally wrong with your game system when the chance to save from a hit is frequently twice the chance to inflict the hit in the first place. This makes for grueling, frustrating games in which you are essentially looking for a '6' on a hit to stand some chance of actually causing some sort of effect on the enemy that you might exploit. It is this math, which is part of the core mechanics, which make this scenario especially problematic. This scenario is rated for 24 turns, which is unusually long for Black Powder games. For example, in the two scenarios we played, which lasted four hours each, we got maybe 7-10 turns in. This scenario is meant to be played slowly and really requires that you keep the game setup, which is highly ironic given that the historical battle lasted 90 minutes.

So, why do I play Black Powder when I think it is flawed mathematically? Because other people are playing it...

By the way, if you want to see the pictures of the game, both times put on by Leo Barron, you can see them on the Facebook group "Awi Historicals". Sorry, but you have to be a member of Facebook to see them and you have to join the group as it is private. It is a good group though. 
One of the Kickstarters that I got into, that I really did not talk about much, was the Arcadia Quest (AQ)campaign by Cool Minis or Not (CMON). You can find AQ all over the place now, with items for sale on eBay, in hobby shops, and on Amazon.

I bought this game, some extra characters, the extra campaign (Beyond the Grave) and yet never played it. Cool minis in the Chibi style though.

I read the rules and although they looked interesting, they did not really stick in my head. For one reason or another, every time I sat down to give them a try I had to re-read the rules and something happened that stopped me from being able to give them a try.

Well, then out came the Kickstarter campaign for Arcadia Quest – Inferno. I had a feeling I would like AQ once I tried it, so I could not let that campaign slip away, so I bought that too.

That came in and hell, I did not even crack the plastic until a few days ago. More cool minis.

Finally, there was a Kickstarter campaign for Arcadia Quest – Masmorra, which has the same sort of cool minis.

I have cracked the plastic, but when I realized the rules were not the same as the other two – it turns out that it is a dice-driven, dungeon explorer game – I set the game aside. I still had AQ to learn!

Well, in one of those rare moments, my wife offered to play me in a game again. I thought, why not try this (finally)? It might be more up her alley than a military wargame (although she has never complained about them, nor really even cared about the subject matter).

I decided to learn the rules for a third time and actually play out a game solo before playing it with her. That way only one of us would be wondering what the hell was going on.

The backstory for AQ is that humans came along and disrupted the world for the elves and the orcs. After building a great city, Arcadia, the people created and joined adventuring guilds in search of glory and gold. The orcs, led by a vampire, decided to lure the guilds away from Arcadia by filling dungeons full of goodies (sounds like a future expansion...), and once they succeeded they sprung their trap, and attacked and conquered Arcadia. The game is all about the guild members returning to the monster-infested city in an attempt to retake the city while gaining glory and gold for their guilds. The only problem is that the guilds are not completely cooperative.

Each boxed set is an entire campaign with a full narrative. You need AQ as it contains the core rules, but the expansions have new characters, monsters, rules, boards, and scenarios. The idea is to select your characters (three heroes), equip them, and play the scenarios in sequence, collecting gold and treasure, upgrading your heroes and their equipment while rising in level, penetrating deeping into the core of the city.

The board setup is pretty involved, but pretty straightforward. There are plenty of tokens in play, so organizing your table is necessary. You are not going to play this on a 3' square space.

Like most board games distances are regulated by a grid, a square grid in this case. Players reference cards for each of their heroes, each of which list all of the critical stats and special rules. There are also reference cards for each of the monsters.

Basically each hero and monster has a movement speed, hit points, and defense. Monsters have an attack rating also while heroes' attack ratings are defined by equipment, spells, and weapons, which can also modify their defense rating.

Attacks are conducted by rolling the black dice. Each black die has two faces with a Sword, one face with a Bow, one face with a Critical, and two faces that are blank. Your attack rating determines the number of black dice you roll and whether you are looking for Swords or Bows as hits. (Swords are for melee, which means you are in the same or adjacent square to the target, while Bows have unlimited range, but are restricted by line of sight.) Criticals not only provide a hit for either melee or ranged combat, but they further allow you to roll an additional die. If that die gets a Critical it allows an additional die, and so on, i.e. it is an 'exploding die' mechanism.

The defender, in turn, rolls one white die equal to their defense rating. There is one Shield face, one Critical face, and four blank faces. The Shields each cancel one hit. The Criticals also cancel a hit, but like the Critical on the black die, it is an exploding die, so you get to roll an additional die for each Critical.

Very basic and easy to play. All of the combat results are in the dice (love it!) and all of the special rules are on the reference cards in front of you.

Victory conditions are defined in the scenario and generally indicate a number of quests that need to be completed by a player before they can claim victory. Typical quests are to obtain a token on the map (usually guard by a monster), kill X number of monsters, and kill a hero from another guild (another player's hero). So the game is both Player versus Environment (PvE) and Player versus Player (PvP).

After the first player achieves victory, the scenario is over. At that point you turn in the treasure tokens you collected and spend the gold coins you received for killing monsters and completing quests. There is a system of dealing out reward cards that allow you to purchase new upgrades and equipment so that the next scenario you play, you will have more options available to you.

The rules require a little bit of rules reference, at least until you get a little more familiar with the tokens and what they mean, but combat is quickly picked up and completely heads up, i.e. your nose is not stuck in the rules. You will definitely be reading through the between-scenario rules unless you play a lot and frequently. But if you are like me, playing maybe once every one or two weeks, you will likely need a refresher on that section of the rules after each game.

Because this is basically played as a campaign, and not as single, unconnected games, you start to build a narrative with the game, which is the whole point. My goal is to work through all of the scenarios from all of the expansions with the wife. I anticipate that it will be great fun.

Replayability is pretty high because not only do you have a lot of heroes to try (each player only uses three heroes throughout the campaign), but there are multiple scenario paths during the campaign. Add to that there is the randomness of reward card draws, curses from dying, and so on, resulting in a lot of game play before this looks tiring.

I look forward to playing the campaigns and hopefully I can convince the wife to paint the miniatures with me.

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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 58 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ working for a software company for the last three years. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").