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The Roundwoods Report Talks Pickett’s Charge with Dave Brown

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Hello, and welcome once again to the studios of Roundwood’s World, where I, Sidney Roundwood, am interviewing one of the best known game designers in the hobby, Dave Brown.  Dave needs little or, indeed, no introduction.  Best known for such ever-green rule sets as General de Brigade and Battlegroup Panzergrenadier, Dave joins us now to discuss his fist venture with Reisswitz Press, his new American Civil War rule set, Pickett’s Charge.

Sidney:  Dave, welcome to the Roundwood’s World studio.  I suppose that the big questions needs to be, simply, why a new American Civil war rules set?

Dave:  Thank you Sidney for your welcome.  Well we have played a lot of ACW games over the years and we wanted to develop wargames where command decisions became the main focus of player decision-making, where the Brigade was the chief unit of command but which also permitted players to command  regiments and batteries, covered by firing and melee rules that were although influential, did not take up valuable time to arrive at the various decision points and didn’t detract for overall game play.

Sidney:  That sounds a laudable goal.  If I’m reading this right, you want a game were the players are concentrating on the decisions at the levels which their historical commanders would have done so, meaning that I as a General am issuing my orders to the Brigades I command, but there is also enough room for a bit of colour and personality to shine through from the subordinate Regiments and batteries.  Is that right?

Dave:  Precisely so.

Sidney:  So how was this done?

Dave:  Okay, well Pickett’s Charge adopts a system that gives players significant command choices within a fluctuating turn by turn command situation; so a ‘good’ turn sees command decisions easy made and actioned, whereas a ‘bad’ turns sees a real conflict between the various demands of the battlefield.  The player, acting as C-in-C, must make choices as to where to concentrate his limited influence.  Sometimes, especially early on in a game he finds himself able to craft his plan and implement that as effectively as he can. In desperate times, once action is joined and the battle at its pitch, the battlefield situation can simply make the players mind up for him!

Sidney:  Interesting.  How does that work?

Dave:  Once things start going wrong, the C-in-C’s command ability is likely to reduce, and the worse your situation the more reduced your command will be. Unlike some rules where wargamers can just ignore defeats and carry on with command regardless, here tactical defeats absorb the commanders thought processes and interferes with his command decisions. Therefore, once on the back foot a player will need to struggle to apply his influence at the really key points or accept that he will lose both time and command effort before his army is stabilised, (if at all!). That is why the command phase is actually the most important phase of the game; it really can have a significant impact upon defeat or victory on the table top.

Sidney:  Can you talk us through that in more detail please?

 

Dave:  Good idea; let’s take ann example. Pickett’s Charge uses what are called Staff Officers to implement orders.  “Staff Officer” is a fancy name given to a command point, but it feels more historical and, let’s be honest, more fun to give the players a number of Staff Officer models.  Placing these on the table in the Command Phase is an excellent way to allow them to think about and then tangibly indicate where they are using their influence.

A commander will receive a varying number of these each turn and he then chooses what orders to issue, such as ordering his artillery to increase their fire rate at a chosen point in the enemy line, to release a unit from reserve or ensure that brigade in the battle-line obeys orders and keeps advancing.

All that presents the player with lots of opportunities to stamp his authority on the game, but as one or more brigades suffer significant reverses, (normally a routed unit) they then falter – this can be seen as the brigade in command confusion or at least presenting them with a bad situation which they have to deal with. The impact a faltering brigade has is that the C-in-C loses one staff officer; he must also then consider using another staff officer to hold that faltering brigade in the line and bring it back under command. This of course means his allocation of Staff Officers is now reduced for doing positive things.  Indeed, he will sometimes fine he has very few or no staff officers for other vital command tasks he wished to initiate this turn! Does he take a risk and leave the brigade to its own devices? Well that’s a decision he has to take.

Sidney:  That sounds like a game which is full of command challenges and I can see that early in the game there is likely to be more control on both sides, but as the action heats up the pressure will really be put on to the commander to keep things together.  Sounds excellent.  Can you tell us more, maybe about how the other rules work?

Dave:  Sure.  That’s command covered, so what other mechanisms are there? Pickett’s Charge rules have adopted a unit status approach to the tactical units in the game with regard to firepower and their morale as opposed to a figure counting mechanism, so there is no requirement to continuously count the number of figures in a unit throughout the game. The rules simply rely on a unit’s status (or attritional state, as units take casualties that are permanent) as the indicator of its firepower or morale, i.e. is it fresh, has the “casualty” level crept up to worn or are casualties now at such a point the unit is unfit for further action. Gone are the situations where a large unit fires as if unaffected by casualties simply because it has more figures to lose – in Pickett’s Charge any unit sustaining a significant number of casualties will be worse off in both firing and morale. There is also emphasis on low level tactics such as ordering the regiment to form line of battle or skirmish order, to charge or to go prone, but less emphasis on charts and modifiers.

Sidney:  Ah, the dreaded modifiers.

Dave:  Dreaded modifiers indeed!  We all know that consulting endless modifiers can really kill a game dead.  Following on from dropping figure counting was to design a game that accepted the need for modifiers in order to create a historical period feel for the game, but did away with those huge, infamous charts that required players to stop, read off factors, then add/subtract as they go through the table, i.e. remove them from the game action!

Now factors and modifiers cannot be done away with entirely, but in Pickett’s Charge factors are kept to a minimum, they are consistent (i.e. the same across various tests) and success scores are also consistent. For example to keep formation in rough terrain a Regular unit requires a score of 7 or more on two six sided dice to pass, this pass mark is also exactly the same as its morale pass mark. This consistency reduces the time players spend away from the actual game, with results becoming almost second nature, players generally know by the dice roll alone if it’s going to be a pass or fail. By retaining just enough modifiers the game remains a “wargames accurate” reflection of the period, without becoming too generic.

Sidney:  That does sound interesting.  In fact, it sounds like you’ve put a lot of effort into streamlining the rules to make them easy to learn.

Dave:  Precisely.  By keeping those mechanisms simple we allow the players to focus on the command decision side of the game.  We want them thinking like a General, making command decisions, rather than like an accountant and crunching endless numbers!

Sidney:  They say that move, shoot and morale are the three legs that hold up any game, but the concept of representing morale seems to be one of the most fluid areas in game design these days.  How do you handle morale in Picketts Charge?

Dave:  Good question Sidney, and you’re right. I wanted to develop a system where the classic morale test was removed and encompassed into other existing rules or game turns and avoid the famous, or infamous, morale and rally check phase that so often turned into an unpleasant 20 minute tea break as player spent valuable time reading, checking and then rechecking morale factors!

Sidney:  I know exactly what you mean.  Not a great way to maintain the flow of the game.  Nevertheless, that is a fairly brave shift for a game designer to make.

Dave:  True.  Of course, I accept that completely removing morale checks and the potential for units to break and run within a Civil War rule set was not going to happen.  Regiments did break and run, often more than once! Thus morale checks are still included but they are executed immediately with a simple yet effective test, therefore removing the prospect of morale checks hanging over the players until the end of each turn. Also I wanted to remove the need for rally checks for broken units at the end of every turn as this also detracted from the action.  Therefore, it was decided that the brigade command roll would dictate whether units rallied, so if your brigade obeyed orders then units rally. However, if your brigade is hesitant or faltering (Hesitant = that’s the rules method of defining a poor or ineffective command situation) then units would not rally and could potentially disperse. This had the additional benefit of creating situations where badly damaged brigades became a command and control issue for the C-in-C and not simply an isolated morale check issue for the unit concerned.

Sidney:  Which, to take the conversation full circle, means that the Generals are focussing their command on keeping Brigades in action rather than trying to micro-manage every small unit on the table.  That is nice.  It again shows how the use of Staff Officers is central to the way the game works.

Now, tell me, what side games should we be looking at playing with Pickett’s Charge?

Dave: On reading our history books we are continually bombarded with the individual feats of Regiments and battalions.  We read of the 1st Texans advancing into the cornfield at Antietam, of the 20th Maine defending the Little Round Top or Bigalow’s battery holding off charge after charge from Barksdale Mississippian regiments at Gettysburg.  So although brigades, divisions and corps are thrown into battle the combat description centres of the exploits of regiments and batteries not brigades or divisions. This descriptive writing creates an impression of warfare as a series of vivid, cinematic encounters between tactical units, of bitter struggles and desperate melees between infantry, often centred on whose battle flag was captured or valiantly rescued. Having read of these accounts we naturally wish to recreate them on the table top – so that is why we use infantry regiments, cavalry regiments and artillery batteries as the tactical units in Pickett’s Charge. By using the tactical units at this level, the player is also presented with tactical combat choices each turn. Does he lead the Texas Brigade forward in a brigade column charge against Union positions or adopt line of battle supported by a heavy skirmish line?  These are the reasons why both Pickett’s Charge and General d’Armee (the Napoleonic sister rules which are in the final development stage) are ?battalion? based games.

Sidney:   General d’Armee? That is interesting.  Nobody told me! We shall have to discuss that another time, but I am very interested in that!  Okay, back to Pickett’s Charge, tell me, what sort of size battle would we play on a club night?

Dave:  For a club night players are looking at fielding a division with possibly four or five brigades a side, with each brigade having between two to six tactical units. Slightly longer games will involve perhaps two or more divisions, with possibly six to eight brigades a side, while those with a day or weekend can field a complete corps or even two.

Sidney:  Sounds like I need to get painting!

Dave:  You can never paint too many figures Sidney.

Sidney:  Wise words indeed.  Talking of which, will I need to rebase my existing collection of ACW figures?

Dave:  Not at all.  A base of figures represents around 75 to 80 men.  As long as you and your mates have forces based in similar ways you’ll be fine.

Sidney:  Thank goodness.  Having to rebase is the kiss of death for any rule set.  It is such a colossal chore.

Dave:  No need with Pickett’s Charge.

Sidney:  That’s a real relief.  So, what about table size for a typical game?

Dave:  For 15mm you can start at 6’ by 4’.  If you can add an additional foot you’ll have a bit more elbow room which is always handy.  Fr 28mm I think 5’ by 8’ is a good starting point.  That said, for big weekend extravaganzas we have had twenty people on tables many yards long.

Sidney:  Finally Dave, tell us about your involvement with Reisswitz Press?  It’s a big move for the Lardies and with Pickett’s Charge their first publication it is clearly something people are talking about.

 

Dave:  The Reisswitz name, as many will know, was the name of the Prussian officer who created the first modern wargame in 1824, so an appropriate wargames name to adopt for a company who want to focus on historical wargaming.  I don’t want to steal Rich’s thunder here, but I know that he feels that fantasy and sci-fi rules are well represented by a range of publishing houses, he is keen to create a natural home for those of us who want to produce rules based on history, whatever the period.  For me, it was an opportunity to work with some of the foremost rules designers and publishers in the wargames hobby; a unique opportunity to develop new rules, systems and rule mechanics.

Sidney:  So there we have it.  Thanks to Dave for his time.  Pickett’s Charge are a set of ACW rules that focuses very specifically on command and control, giving players multiple and varying command decisions as opposed to simply being concerned with binary decisions such as command radius. Does the player order Barksdale to attack now or hold off for another turn while the artillery continues with the bombardment? A rule set that hopes to capture the feel for the period by using regiments and batteries as the tactical units, allowing players to volley fire or go prone and order batteries to fire canister or limber up and redeploy. All exciting command decisions waiting to be made with Pickett’s Charge.

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