Playing Pickett’s Charge
Tuesday was an exciting day on Lard Island as Nick and I visited our old chum Dave Brown for a game of Pickett’s Charge, the forthcoming inaugural rules from Reisswitz Press. I had been lucky to enjoy a few games with Dave previously when we first discussed the venture, but Nick was a virgin to the system.
Dave had set up a section of the battlefield of Gettysburg focussing on the Confederate attack on Cemetery Ridge and the Peach Orchard as far South as Rose Woods. I commanded four Brigades, three infantry under Woffard, Barksdale and Kershaw and one of artillery under Cabel. I should stress here that Dave allowed us some freedom of deployment, the objective being to showcase the rules mechanisms rather than to achieve a precise refight of this part of the battlefield, so please bear this in mind.
I wasn’t certain what my fat chum had in terms of troops; I knew that I was up against four Brigades, but I also knew that he’d be receiving reinforcements during the day, whereas I wouldn’t, so I wanted to get stuck in relatively quickly but I also wanted to prepare the way with my artillery. As such I devised the following plan. Cabel’s artillery was to concentrate its fire on the Peach orchard while in my centre Barksdale was to stand and await my word before beginning their advance. On my left, Woffard was to form up for an assault and then push onto Cemetery Ridge whilst on the right Kersham was to push on as quickly as possible to seize the road junction near Rose Farm in order to anchor my right flank.
In the first part of the battle I focussed all of my energies on bombarding the Peach Orchard whilst Kershaw rushed forward. Barksdale stood and watched the bombardment ahead and Woffard formed up but restricted how far he advanced as I didn’t want his attach to be too far ahead of Barksdale and therefore defeated in detail.
The next phase of my plan saw Woffard begin his advance towards the Emmitsburg road and the ridge beyond while Barksdale moved to engage Union skirmishers who had occupied the fields around the Sherfy farm. Kershaw had reach the road but I rather foolishly pushed them forward to engage Hall’s Brigade who looked like easy pickings. Meanwhile Cabel’s artillery was still bombarding the Peach Orchard but they were starting to suffer from fatigue due to my insistence that they fire such a hot and ceaseless bombardment.
But now Barksdale’s men were into the Sherfy farm, pushing back the Union skirmishers and coming face to face with Webb’s Brigade on the slopes of the ridge. On my left Woffard’s Brigade were storming up Cemetery Ridge and clearing up a Brigade of Union Zouaves in short order, just one unsupported Rebel Regiment being forced back, the others, advancing in waves pushing home their attack and taking the crest of the ridge. Kershaw’s men forced their way into the southern part of the Peach orchard but were rebuffed around Rose Farm while Cabel’s guns were now pretty much exhausted by their efforts and ineffective. My concern now was that I had seen the high-watermark of the Confederacy as that my attack was running out of steam. Woffard was now over-extended, precisely where I hadn’t wanted him to be, and Kershaw was being held and attrition was taking its toll.
Indeed, the next stage of the battle saw Kershaw bounced out of Peach orchard, however two of their other Regiments did break Tilton’s Brigade around Rose Farm which relieved some pressure. I reckoned that I would now rally them up and revert to the original plan to simply keep them as a flank guard. Woffard’s position was dangerous, but then a cry from my centre saw Barksdale’s men cross the Emmitsburg Road and send the Yankees on Cemetery Ridge streaming back. With a rebel yell Woffard pushed on, crashing into the retreating Zouave Brigade and routing them, taking Trostle Farm as a result. It was at that point we called it a day and a Confederate victory. I have to say that I was very happy to accept a halt at that time as some of my units were looking decidedly dodgy and I was being obliged to make charges with disordered units in order to keep up the pressure on my opponent. Phew!
Okay, so what about the rules? Firstly, here’s a confession. I began writing rules because I do not enjoy learning rules. By writing my own I learn them as part of the development process. As a result the type of game I like can be defined by being simple to learn but nuanced enough not ensure that it is not simple to play. I want the rules to be asking me to make command decisions which challenge me and present me with some tough choices, but I also want the mechanisms to be so simple that I don’t notice them. So how did Pickett’s Charge perform when measured against that criteria?
What really impressed me with Pickett’s Charge was the command and control system. At the start of each turn both Nick and I rolled 1D6 for each Brigade (I got an additional D6 for my quality) and that roll determined how much command energy (my terminology) we had for that next turn. In practical terms, this gave us a number of Staff Officer markers to place on the table to show where our command energies were being focussed. What I really liked about this mechanism was that it reminded me of the Command Cards in Sharp Practice in that they can be used for different things. If I just want to try to make sure that the Brigade keeps up the momentum I place one staff officer with it, so that if it fails its activation roll I can re-roll that to reflect the added energy I am affording it. If I want to get that Brigade to perform at the top of its game, maybe with the artillery exerting itself to create a particularly impressive bombardment prior to an infantry assault, or maybe pushing on a Brigade to get them moving a bit faster, then I’ll need to allocate multiple staff officers. This is tempered by the fact that if I have Brigades thrown into poor order, I need to play my staff tokens on those Brigades first in order to keep them functioning. What results in a nuanced command game where the leaders need to make some important decisions with limited command resources. For me that alone had me sold on the game. How well, or badly you do at keeping your force effective then determines who holds the initiative.
Remember I mentioned above how my artillery bombarded the Hell out of the Peach Orchard? They did a great job and forced some defending units to fall back thanks to my using my staff tokens to get the guns firing as effectively as possible. However, there is a double edge to this sword and in urging them on to achieve great things, I saw them completely exhausted and pretty much ineffective for the second half of the game. Fortunately for me I was able to shoot in my main attack before the guns fell silent, but it made for an interesting command decision.
Another thing I find important in a rule set is the streamlining out of what can be somehow incorporated in other areas. Morale tests have always been a bug-bear of mine as I have long believed that rolling for tests interrupts the flow of a game. Dave has very cleverly wrapped up all elements which can affect the performance or a unit: casualties, morale, exhaustion, into one factor which determines the efficiency of each Regiment. These units can then find themselves in different states, such as unformed or routed, with the ability to rally being determined by the state of the Brigade as a whole. If the Brigade is in good order the units within it can rally; it the Brigade is in poor order then they cannot. Again a nice simple mechanism which makes the individual units important and distinct, but places the emphasis for the player on concentrating on keeping his Brigades in good order. This is a nice mechanism for keeping the overall commander focussed on commanding his Brigades and not attempting to micro-manage what is happening with each individual unit.
I have to hold my hands up and say that in the interest of getting my head around command and control I left the details to Dave when it came to working out casualties from firing, but that seemed very simple, with a single roll resulting in a number of hits read off a simple table. Movement was fixed for the most part but with one very nice exception. If I added a couple of staff officers to a Brigade in the hope of getting it to push on faster, the additional bonus movement was diced for, with that distance being added. For this game the distance was in centimetres as we were playing in 15mm, but there are inch movement distances provided for 28mm figures. Anyway, the fact that exhorting your Brigade forward can lead to mixed results was, to my mind, a great way of adding some friction to the rules.
Nick and I discussed the games on the journey back to Lard Island. Nick waxed lyrical:
“The rules gave the game a great focus, forcing the player to juggle his command assets to the key point in the battlefield whilst shaping the flow of action neatly from one key action point to the next, allowing fast play and keeping momentum. There was no down time in the rules, enabling us to fight to a clear conclusion within just a few hours of gaming.
The turn sequence itself is influenced by what appears to be a simple initiative roll, but players will soon realise the importance of winning this and how it influences the sequence of play during each turn. This is just one of the many choices the players have to make: they can influence their chances of winning the initiative by allocating their staff officers to that purpose, but again in doing so they are potentially missing out elsewhere. As a first time player I think I missed some opportunities to make the most of the staff mechanism, but and I would expect gamers to quickly realise the opportunities this provides and that will really shape the way they attempt to influence the balance of the game in their favour. Hugely enjoyable rules.”
I totally agree with Nick. Tis is one of those games that will improve wth replaying as the nuances and subtleties of the system become apparent and the players really test their skills of generalship against their opponents.
Okay, enough from Nick and I with our laymans view of the action. I have asked Dave to scribble a piece for Lard Island News in order to explain the way the rules work in more detail. We look forward to presenting that to you in the next few days.