Fleets 2025: East China Sea, a board game by Victory Point Games, is a two player game that simulates a future conflict between the United States and China in the vicinity of the East China Sea. It is strictly an Air & Naval game; ground forces are not represented at all. As would probably be the case in such a conflict, the Chinese have numerical superiority while the U.S. retains a technological edge. Each player’s proper usage of their respective advantages are required to score a victory in Fleets 2025.
The basic rules, or Captain Level rules are quite simple and easy to follow. For added realism, there is a small addition set of rules called the Admiral Level rules. These additional rules, however, do not add much complexity to the game.
The game ships in a 6″ x 10″ plastic zip lock bag (as do most of Victory Point Games titles) and contains the following components:
11″ x 17″ color game map (paper, unmounted)
5-page color rules booklet
2-page color examples of play sheet
Game Scenarios Sheet, containing setup instructions for 3 scenarios (plus bonus ‘Full Campaign’ scenario on back of the game’s “cover” sheet)
80 color 5/8″ square cardboard units
60 Activity cards
2 Player Aid sheets
One page of Designers Notes
The components, as I have discovered to be standard for Victory Point Games titles, are not super slick but are very functional and adequate for the game. The Activity Cards are a bit small (approx 1.5″ x 2.5″), making them difficult to handle and shuffle. The cardboard unit counters, however, are large 5/8″ pieces, easy to see and handle. Victory Point does not put a tremendous amount of stock in “pretty” games, preferring instead to focus on the quality and enjoyability of the game.
The rules are excellent. They’re clear, well organized, and succinct. Setting up and starting the game is quick and painless (great, because poor setup instructions are a BIG pet peeve of mine), leaving you free to jump right into the game. This is the second VPG game that I’m reviewing, and both had excellent rules booklets. In addition, Fleets 2025: East China Sea contains a two page color “Example of Play” that is just fantastic. If you have any confusion after reading through the short rules booklet, a quick run-through of the “Example of Play” will clear things right up. I give two big thumbs up to VPG for the quality of the written documentation.
Playing the Game
We started off with the “Training Exercise” scenario located on the main Scenario Sheet, because it contains a small number of units and is therefore more easily manageable for a first game, but we could easily have played any of the scenarios since the game system is easily and quickly digested. Simply place the specified units in the specified hex(es), or range of hexes, set the Max Hand Size and Starting Political Will (more about these in a moment), and begin the game! Notice that that Chinese player must set up first, thus giving a small starting advantage to the U.S. player.
There are two important levels in this game: the Political Will level and the Max Hand Size level.
Political Will – As your units are elminated in combat, you place them on your Political Will Track, starting at the bottom right of the grid and working towards the top left. Each eliminated unit fills one box on the Political Will track, except for Carriers which fill an entire row! This simple rule makes the carriers as important in the game as they are in the real world. When your casualties fill up the Political Will track such that they reach the Political Will marker, you lose the game.
Max Hand Size – This determines the maximum number of Activity Cards you may hold in your hand at any given moment, and can fluctuate during the game due to Events on the Activity Cards. Obviously, the player able to hold the most cards will be somewhat advantaged.
Notice that, although the U.S. Political Will marker starts the game in the “8” row, there are only two boxes per row whereas the Chinese chart contains three boxes per row. That means the U.S. can only absorb 16 casualties before reaching the Political Will marker and losing the game. The Chinese, on the other hand, can take 18 casualties (6 rows of 3 boxes) before losing their resolve to continue the fight. This simulates the historical Chinese ability to absorb casualties without flinching. I’m not so sure that will still hold true with the new consumer culture in China today (or even more so in 2025).
The Game Turn Phases
First the Chinese player, then the U.S. player may place Reinforcements, if any. Reinforcements are assigned by scenario instructions, in Reinforcement Groups, and can only be brought on the map by permanently reducing the Maximum Hand Size. So, there’s a trade-off. More combat units means less Activity Cards.
During this phase, first the Chinese player and then the U.S. player may move any or all of their combat units. There is no combat allowed during this phase; only movement.
The Action Phase is the heart of the game, and is performed first by the U.S. player and then by the Chinese player. Note that this gives the U.S. an advantage, by allowing them to move all units last in the prior “Movement Phase” and then allowing them to activate units first in this phase. This Phase is broken up into several sub-phases. The U.S. player performs all of these sub-phases followed by the Chinese player:
Searches – The Active player may spend an Activity Card to search a single hex. The number of his colored dice on the card (i.e. Red dice for the Chinese player, Blue dice for the U.S. player) is the number of dice he may roll. The lowest number of all the die rolls is compared to the movement allowance of the unit being searched. If the low die roll is lower than the movement allowance, then the unit is revealed.
Conduct Event/Issue Orders – The active player may play an Activity Card for either the Event or to issue Order (as many orders as the number on the Activity Card).
For each Order issued, the Ordered units may move and/or attack.
The following graphics show a very basic example of an Action Phase. For purposes of this example, we are assuming that all units have been detected, except for one Chinese surface ship and one Chinese submarine unit. The U.S. player plays first in the Action Phase.
Wanting to reveal the Chinese “Stealth” units, the U.S. player immediately plays an Activity Card to perform a search. The search card can be any Orders value (1, 2, or 3). What’s important for the search is the number of colored dice on the left side of the card (blue dice for the U.S. and red dice for China), which determines how many dice the player can roll for the search. The U.S. player decides to perform a search in hex 1503 which contains the two stealth units. The Activity card that the U.S. player selected has 3 blue dice on the left side which entitles him to roll 3 dice for the search attempt.
He rolls three 3s. The Search rules state that you must roll less than the movement value on the stealth unit in order to successfully detect it. But a special scenario rule says that the U.S. player (only) successfully searches if any die roll is less than or equal to the movement allowance of the stealh unit. So, in this case, the surface ship is revealed. The stealth submarine has a movement allowance of 2, and none of the die rolls were <= 2, so the submarine remains “stealthy”.
Unwilling to expend any more Activity cards for searches, the U.S. player decides to leave the Sub hidden and proceeds to issue Orders.
The Scramble Activity card is played for its Event. This card allows the player to issue an order to each of his Aircraft units, with the restriction that all Aircraft units stacked together must share the same order. All three Aircraft on the CVN-1 carrier are launched, and are moved to attack hex 1503 which contains the newly revealed Chinese DDG and the still stealthy Chinese submarine. (Although the graphic shows the 3 aircraft in separate locations for clarity, in reality they would all be in the same hex, adjacent to the target hex since they only have a 1 hex range)
Note that only the revealed Chinese DDG may be attacked. Units which are still in stealth mode may not be attacked. Stealthy units are only revealed when:
(1) They are the subjects of a successful enemy search or
(2) the player voluntarily reveals it so it can participate in an attack.
The U.S. aircraft have a total of 3 attack points and may therefore roll three dice, resulting in rolls of 4, 5, and 2. An attacker scores a hit on rolls of 4, 5 or 6, so this means the U.S. has scored two hits on the Chinese DDG.
The Chinese roll defensively, hoping to neutralize the U.S. hits. Total defensive strength is 3: 2 for the strength on the DDG unit plus an extra 1 for the white aircraft symbol on the DDG, which indicates an extra die roll when fighting with aircraft. The Chinese rolls are pretty lousy: 2, 2, and 5. Thus, since a 5 or 6 is required to neutralize a hit, only 1 hit is neutralized, forcing the DDG to take on a damage marker. (Ships and subs can take two hits before elimination whereas aircraft are eliminated on one hit, so the DDG is damaged, but survives to fight another day)
It’s now the Chinese player’s turn to issue move and attack orders, and he plays the Flank Speed Activity card for its Event. He could have played it for its Orders value of 3, allowing him to move up to 3 units or stacks of the same type (i.e. surface ship, sub, or aircraft) in the same hex, but he chooses to play it as the Event so he can extend the range of his Submarine and get a shot at the U.S. Carrier (CVN-1). The Event allows for Orders to be issued to two units, ships or submarines, and extends their movement range by +2. The U.S. player thought his Carrier was safe…
He decides to first have his SSN, in hex 1506, move to attack the U.S. Carrier (CVN-1)! The SSN has a 2-hex attack range so it must move closer to the U.S. Carrier. Thanks to the extra movement points provided by the Flank Speed card, it can get within range. At the start of each combat, first the attacker then the defender may play a Battle Card to enhance their combat strength. Playing an Activity card in battle allows the player to add the number of his colored dice on the card to the number of dice he can roll. The Chinese player plays a card with 1 red die on it, allowing to to roll a total of 4 dice (3 for the sub itself and 1 extra for the Battle card). He rolls 5, 5, 1 and 1, scoring two potential hits on the Carrier. The Carrier can roll 3 defensive dice and does so, rolling a 2, 1, and 5. The 5 is sufficient to neutralize one of the sub’s hits, thus sparing CVN-1 from being sent to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean! The Carrier is marked with a Damage marker.
The second, and final, ship activation allowed by the Flank Speed card is used to activate one of the DDGs in hex 1203. The card is very specific in saying that only two units may be activated, not two groups or stacks. So, only a single DDG is moved to hex 1504 to attack the U.S. DDG in hex 1803. The Chinese player has no more cards to use as Battle Cards and so must attack with a poor strength of only 1. The U.S. player also opts to not play a Battle Card.
The Chinese player rolls a 1 on his solitary die, missing the target entirely. This time, since the attacking Chinese DDG unit is also within range of the U.S. units being attacked, they roll defensive fire as usual, but there is the possibility of a CounterAttack. If the defender rolls more “saves” than the attacker rolled “hits”, the attacker may suffer hits. For every two “saves” above and beyond the attackers “hits”, the defender inflicts a hit on the attacker, which is exactly what happens here when the U.S. player rolls 5 and 6 on his two defensive die rolls. The Chinese DDG is marked with a Damage marker and the attack ends.
This concludes our brief example of an Action phase. Keep in mind that the Action phase can become deeper and more involved than the sample shown here, depending on the tactics used and cards played.
Air Unit Movement Phase
All air units may move again, usually for the purpose of returning to an aircraft carrier or an airbase.
During the housekeeping phase:
Air units are checked to insure that all requiring basing are located on such an air base.
All stacking limits are checked.
Victory conditions are checked. If the active player’s Political Will marker is stacked with a destroyed unit, the opponent immediately wins.
If the game has not ended, both players refresh their card hands back up to Maximum Hand Size.
What I Liked About the Game
I love the fact that it’s fast moving, and that several games can (possibly) be played in a single sitting. This is the type of game where you want to try a bunch of different strategies, and the short play time allows you to do this. (I question how many different strategies can realistically be employed, but that’s a matter for the “What I Didn’t Like…” section).
The Victory conditions are unique and integrate well with the game. I like the idea that you can make trade-offs that will increase your combat strength for a cost in Political Will. It’s up to you to decide the best course of action at any given moment. For example, the New Birds Activity Card can be played to allow a player to resurrect four eliminated aircraft units at a cost of -1 Political Will. If the extra combat power will give you the extra punch you need to eliminate enough enemy units to push them past their Political Will threshold, you’ll have the option to take that approach.
The unpredictability of the Activity Cards contribute to the replay value of the game. At least that’s been the case so far, in the few games I’ve played. There are 24 different varieties of Activity Card, which sounds like enough variety to keep card play fresh for a while.
What I Didn’t Like About the Game
I guess the main objection is that it’s a bit too simplistic. When I’m simulating an air/naval conflict between future super-powers, I don’t want to resolve combat like I’m playing Risk. All the dice rolling just made it feel like I could have been playing any game from any historical period. I appreciate VPG’s reluctance to clutter up the game with a lot of complexity, but I require a bit of complexity in my futuristic simulations. I may just be a glutton for punishment, but this ain’t Davy Crockett shooting up Santa Ana’s infantry at the Alamo, after all. This is high-tech, futuristic air/naval mayhem! Give me a bit more realism in the combat sequence, even if it means I have to read another page or two of rules.
The pint-sized Activity cards are a pain to handle and shuffle. A small complaint, yes, but one that had to be mentioned because it crosses my mind like 10 times every game of Fleets 2025: East China Sea that I play.
I guess this may fall under the category of “too simplistic”, but it deserves special mention because it could have been fixed without adding any significant complexity to the game. I have a problem with the zones of control rules. Each hex represents an area 200km wide, which translates into something in the neighborhood of 35,000 square km. This is an awful lot of open water to cover. We can postulate the electronic detection abilities in 2025 will be considerably more advanced than stealth countermeasures, but then why bother will “Stealth” movement at all (and the accompanying “Search” process)? I think this can be resolved by only performing Searches when units are in adjacent hexes, during either player’s movement. If the moving Stealth unit is “found” at this time, then it is revealed and must cease movement. If not, then it may continue moving, in Stealth mode, until such time as it is “found”. This design idea may have been tried and discarded for some reason; I won’t second guess the designer. But it’s a thought…
Once the US player fully grasps the idea that he has a combat range advantage and a double-move ability (which is essentially what happens in the transition from the Movement Phase to the Action Phase), I don’t know how many basic strategies can be employed. From that point on, it seems like the variability of the Activity Cards is the only thing that may keep the game fresh.
Personally, I like games that cover hypothetical or alternative history situations. No matter how well a historical game is designed, there’s always some built in bias that nudges you towards historical behavior. Hypothetical conflict simulations don’t have that problem. But they’re not always guaranteed to be exciting situations either.
Although “it didn’t suck” (to quote Arthur Bach), Fleets 2025: East China Sea never really lives up to its potential. It just doesn’t capture the “feel” of a future conflict between 2025 titans America and China. Some say that you really can’t capture the “feel” of a hypothetical conflict. But anyone who was alive and gaming in the 1970s and 1980s, grinding out the hypothetical horror of a Nato/Warsaw Pact conflict in Europe, will tell you differently. Those games sure captured the “feel”.
Fleets is a very basic war game with some interesting game mechanics and a unique (at least to my knowlege) way of achieving victory. But you never get the feeling that you’re in the midst of the pandemonium that a 2025 air/naval conflict would surely be. It’s a fast playing, enjoyable game, and I appreciate it for being just that. But it will never be in my Top 10… or even my Top 50.
Mark,Thanks for the gorgeous looking review of our FLEETS 2025 game. I’m sorry you’re disappointed that it was designed to be a “player’s game” not a “hardware / hard war” game, but we both seem to agree that it achieves success as the player’s game it was designed to be (which is good).
-Alan Emrich, Victory Point Games
Alan,Agreed. I’m a “half inch hex monster gamer” at heart, so “player’s games” are always a tough sell with me. But there were enough good things about this game that I’ll be looking at other Chris Taylor designs in the future, I’m sure.
A Preview of a New Game from Lock ‘n Load Publishing
By Brian Train (Designer)
Guest columnist Brian Train, designer of Summer Lightning for Lock ‘n Load Games, gives a preview of his new game exclusively for Boardgaming Life site visitors.
Originally published in Line of Fire #6.
Exclusive 2nd digital rights granted to The Boardgaming Life.
Summer Lightning is an operational-level game of the invasion of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in September/October 1939. The game scales are 20 miles per hex, two days per turn, and mostly division-size units.
Why the Polish campaign?
It is not an extensively gamed topic, but probably because the conventional wisdom is that it was a very unbalanced contest. This is informed mostly by hindsight. The German Army knew it had superior numbers and organization, but much of its equipment was no better than that fielded by the Poles, the concept of Blitzkrieg had not been proven in actual combat, and they were not at all sure that the campaign would not become bogged down by static fighting. As it was, the Germans lost over 16,000 dead during the five-week campaign.
The Game System
The game system has two basic hooks:
Its HQ-activation system makes game play quite interactive. Each game turn, chits for headquarters (HQ) units are picked randomly from a pool containing all chits from all sides. The corresponding HQ unit on the map can then put a certain number of units near it under command, enabling them to move and conduct combat. When the player who controls the forces commanded by the chosen HQ unit has finished his operations, the activation chit is placed to one side and another chit is drawn. This continues until all chits have been drawn or both players pass.
Its combat system is what I call near-diceless and revolves around selection of missions. Combat is voluntary and units can attack only once, but units may be attacked several times in separate battles over the course of a game turn, allowing for follow-on waves of attacks to create or exploit breaches in the enemy line. In combat, the attacking player secretly chooses one of four Attack Missions (Blitzkrieg, Balanced Attack, Frontal Attack, or Infiltrate) and the defending player secretly chooses one of six Defend Missions (Standfast, Balanced Defence, Defence In Depth, Counter-Attack, Delay, or Withdraw). The mission chit they choose depends on what they want to do, and what they think the enemy will do. For example, the defender would choose Withdraw if he wanted to retreat a longer distance, and the attacker would choose Frontal Attack if he wanted to inflict greater casualties. The two chits are matched on the Mission Matrix Table, which indicates any advances or retreats for the units involved and whether one or both sides has to check for casualties; and if so with what modifiers. Both players then simultaneously roll dice to conduct casualty checks, and then conduct advances or retreats with any units that are left.
The three armies represented in the game are differentiated in various ways within this system:
The German forces have a larger number of HQ units (17 corps level and five army level) in the pool to activate, and the ability, when any army HQ unit is drawn, to activate it and then choose to activate a nearby corps HQ unit. They also have a number of combat advantages: a larger overall number of divisions; infantry that is equal to or slightly better than the Polish; groupings of heavy artillery and airpower; and, of course, a greater amount of motorized units that can be designated for exploitation movement and combat.
The Polish forces have some good defensive terrain and fortifications, a number of decent-quality infantry divisions, and a full complement of the famous cavalry brigades. However, the Army is still mobilizing at the beginning of the game and there are fewer HQ units (eight army level and one Supreme Headquarters), so they have fewer chances to move and fight during a turn.
Finally, the Soviet forces, shown at corps scale, have the most combat power per unit, but the smallest number of HQ units: only two front-level ones.
Special rules peculiar to the campaign include: Polish evacuation and internment; the not-very-good Slovakian corps; Soviet intervention; first-turn surprise; and a variable game-ending mechanism.
Winning the Game
How do you win? When Poland finally surrenders, a variable number of turns after Warszawa falls, the game ends and Victory Points are counted. The Axis player is generally going for a swift victory by seizing cities, while the Polish player wants to both draw as much blood from the Axis forces as he can and deny his enemy further Victory Points by evacuating his troops through neutral countries.
I think the system successfully portrays the historical German superiorities in C3 (Command, Control, Communications) and in combat power, but I also think it is flexible enough to allow players to explore many variations, so that the game can be as equal (or unequal) a contest as desired, and lend itself to greater replayability. Before the game, players can select from 15 options, awarding more or fewer Victory Points to their opponent depending on the option’s likely effect on play. Options include:
different Polish deployments and postures: historical, defend everything, free deployment, faster or slower mobilization, or complete surprise;
changes in force structures: more Polish mechanization, more effective Polish air force, more German infantry;
changed attitudes of the Soviet Union or neighbouring countries: no Soviet invasion, unfriendly neutrals that prohibit Polish evacuation, no dismemberment of Czechoslovakia under the Munich Agreement;
French intervention: more than the token historical effort, that is;
Plan Zachod: the Polish plan that envisioned withdrawal into southeastern Poland and drawing supplies through Romanian territory, while France and Britain carried the war to Germany; and
the possibility that the Blitzkrieg, so appealing in theory, fizzles on the battlefield: the Axis player must, in the midst of combat, discover how effective his airpower and motorized/armor units really are.
Finally, because so many war games are designed for two but played by one, an optional solitaire-play method is included.
The game system is the third iteration of one I developed some years ago for corps-level operations. The other games are Autumn Mist (2004), on the Battle of the Bulge, and Balkan Gambit (2009), a game of the Allied counter-invasions of Greece and Yugoslavia that weren’t (but did exist as several strategic-deception plans to exploit German fears). I’ve been designing games for many years, and found this an interesting project. I hope you will too.
A now well established and long enduring war game series called the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War (published first by Avalon Hill and subsequently continued by Multi-Man Publishing) provides players with one of the most realistic experiences maneuvering and fighting an army during the American Civil War.
For those not familiar with the system, each Army in Grant Takes Command is organized into several corps each in turn made up of several divisions. Each army corps has an associated corps leader. Play alternates between players based on an initiative die roll with the Confederates winning ties. When a player wins initiative, he may take one of the following Actions:
1) March a single Division
2) Activate a Corps Leader to march multiple Divisions in his Corps
3) Perform an Assault Action
Individual units move by roll of the dice. An infantry unit’s movement allowance equals the roll of one D6. If it is activated by its corps leader, it adds one to the die roll. Confederates, less burdened by large baggage trains and equipment, add an additional +1. Calvary rolls 2 dice with a +1 bonus for a Leader Activation and +2 if the consummate cavalry leader, Jeb Stuart is leading them.
These variable movement rates effectively simulate the vagaries of divisional level leaders acting timely to carry out orders, troop quality and various other factors that tend to add friction to a units march. In essence, units don’t always get to their objective when you expect. Movement along roads and paths is essential since clear terrain cost three movement points and more difficult terrain becomes cost prohibitive. Therefore, roads are absolutely critical to the efficient maneuvering of your army. Severe stacking penalties necessitate proper assignment of routes of advance for each of your army’s elements lest they become bogged down in traffic jams. This particularly applies in Grant Takes Command where much of the maneuvering is done through the dense forestation of the Wilderness.
Every time a unit activates it gains one Fatigue Level. Units may accumulate 4 Fatigue Levels in a single turn but are then prohibited from further activations. At Fatigue Levels 3 and 4, units must roll for the effects of Extended Marching which results in Disorganization (i.e., stragglers) or outright manpower losses due to desertion, disease and general army wastage. At the end of the turn there is a Recovery phase where each unit’s Fatigue is reduced by 3 levels, however units that have of Fatigue level greater than 2 become Exhausted, which results in harsher Extended March penalties. Therefore, the system of variable movement and escalating Fatigue forces the Army commander to properly develop his army maneuvers with an eye towards realistic objectives, proper routes of advance and the need to preserve Army coherence by avoiding unnecessary marches.
We haven’t played a game in the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War (GCACW) series in quite some time, so a few weeks ago we broke out Multiman Publishing’s Grant Takes Command board game at our club. “Robert E.” Mossman took the Confederates and “Ulysses Simpson” Manzo took the Union. We played the Grant Crosses the Rapidan scenario, which is the opening battle in Ulysses Simpson Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign.
George Meade, leading the Army of the Potomac for Ulysses Grant as the campaign opened, proceeded very gingerly into the Wilderness. His tentativeness was caused by the need to protect the largest military wagon train in history that was breaking camp at Brandy Station and following the army south…– From the Playbook
Confederate – First Thoughts from Harvey
Grant Takes Command simulates Grant’s summer offensive in the Eastern Theater in 1864. Fred is playing Grant and will control the Union army while I fill the shoes of Robert E. Lee. The strategic situation is daunting for the Confederates. Grant’s Army is poised to cross over the Rapidan River with an army that substantially outnumbers the Confederates. He also will have automatic Initiative for the first six Activations allowing each of his army corps one march before there can be any Confederate reaction. Grant’s immediate objectives are to get his ponderous baggage train to Wilderness Tavern and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Further to the west is Orange Courthouse. He must decide in which direction to maneuver. The western thrust will expose his supply lines to continuous Confederate raiding. The eastern will take him through the dense forestation of the Wilderness but, once traversed, he will have a secure left flank and supply lines firmly anchored on the river and guaranteed by naval superiority along the eastern seaboard. As Robert E. Lee I am immediately faced with a crisis. I have only three army corps to defend a river line that is extensive. Longstreet’s corps is absent one of his division which was historically assigned further south. My army is somewhat over deployed to the west of the likely main line of advance. Furthermore, Lee had to disperse his army so they could forage effectively since this area of the Eastern Theater had been devastated by the many campaigns of previous years. Dispersed, outnumbered, initially out of position, trying to defend an elongated line and not having initiative for the first six turns severely handicaps the Confederates.
Robert E. Lee was a genius for outguessing and outmaneuvering his opponents. I hope to be able to live up to even a fraction of his reputation. I’ve played Fred many times as the Confederates and have a good idea of his likely strategy. The nearest ford across the Rapidan River is Germanna Ford. This is the most likely approach and most direct route to Wilderness Tavern. There are several fords east of Germanna Ford but they will require additional marching which allows my cavalry to defend them before the Union army successfully crosses. Therefore, I expect Fred to head straight for Germanna Ford. His army will be constrained by having only one good path up the Germanna Plank Road. One handicap for the Union player is the need to protect a ponderous supply train which, if damaged or captured by the Confederates, results in a significant number of Confederate victory points.
My strategy is to bring up cavalry stationed at Hamilton’s Crossing and one isolated militia regiment to come in from the east aiming for Chancellorsville in an effort to bog down the Union army in the Wilderness. I cannot afford to allow Grant to march around my right flank where the open terrain will allow him to maneuver his army more effectively and bring his superior artillery in to play. In this game series, cavalry can perform a Cavalry Retreat the moment it becomes adjacent to enemy infantry. The cavalry becomes Disorganized and retreats 2 to 4 hexes but deducts movement points from the moving enemy infantry equal to one half of a modified d6 die roll. This nicely simulates the ability to use cavalry to screen enemy movements.
Next, I will march Ewell’s corps up the Turnpike heading for Wilderness Tavern in the hopes of cutting off Germanna Ford. A.P. Hill’s Corps will follow the Orange Plank Road east intending to reach Wilderness Church. Finally I will have Longstreet’s Corps do some hard marching along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad via Orange Courthouse and then turn East on the Orange Plank Road to support Ewell and A.P. Hill.
It will all depend on rapid Confederate marching and winning Activations. If the Confederates can plow into the Union right flank and drive it back on the fords over the Rapidan, the ensuing confusion from demoralized and disorganized forces clogging the few roads through the Wilderness will make movement south almost impossible. The longer I can keep Grant’s Army in the Wilderness, the less I have to worry about the Union army’s superior numbers.
Union – First Thoughts from Fred
“One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished. I have frequently started to go places where I had never been and to which I did not know the way, depending upon making inquiries on the road, and if I got past the place without knowing it, instead of turning back, I would go on until a road was found turning in the right direction, take that, and come in by the other side.”– U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs
Sam Grant’s main choices in the spring of 1864 were either to move to his left, in a southeasterly direction, over the Germanna Ford and through the Wilderness (a much fought over secondary growth forest immediately south of the Rapidan, that more than earned its name) or to move to his right in a southwesterly direction over open ground easily supplied by the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. If he moved left, it would take him at least a day to get through the Wilderness. But if he moved quickly and Bobby Lee moved no faster than he had in similar situations, Grant just might make it to the green fields beyond Chancellorsville before the main Confederate force could reach him. Once in the open, his superior artillery and numbers would come into their own.
On the other hand, if Grant decided to move right, his long and land bound supply lines would be open to repeated raids by southern cavalry, a tactic he had experienced to his chagrin during his 1862 overland attack on Vicksburg when his main logistic base at Holly Springs was burned to the ground by Van Dorn.
Grant, not surprisingly, decided to move left. That way his supply lines would be short, mostly over water and practically unbreakable. Plus his opponents in the Army of Northern Virginia would have the smallest margin for error, having to march the furthest, in the shortest period of time.
In prior games I advanced cautiously over the Rapidan River to prevent my front line corps becoming Disorganized which reduces their combat strength by a third. Unfortunately, the only way to guarantee my units stay organized is to move them slowly. This, in turn, ensures that if the Confederates are willing to take some chances, which I know Harvey will, they can gain control of large portions of the Wilderness and its all-important crossroads well before I can seriously contest the situation. This in turn causes all sorts of problems for the Federal forces. First, the best defensive terrain is lost to the South. Second, it becomes ever more difficult to get troops over the Rapidan due to overcrowding on the limited road network. Third, it shortens the main line of resistance and so gives the rebels an all-around stronger position. Finally, the longer the Federals stay in the Wilderness, the longer the Army of the Potomac’s powerful artillery arm cannot effectively deploy and influence combat.
Players can think of the Wilderness road net as a rickety ladder, with the Germanna Ford Road, sometimes called the Germanna Plank Road, constituting its strong right hand rail. This route runs in generally a southeasterly direction, through the Wilderness from Grant’s base camp at Culpeper on the northern edge of the map, over the Rapidan, past Wilderness Tavern and Wilderness Church, to Chancellorsville and then on to Fredericksburg’s back door. The first rung of this imaginary ladder is created when the eastward flowing Rapidan meets the Germanna Ford Road at the Germanna Ford, itself. The second rung is formed further south when the Orange Court House Turnpike, which runs parallel to the Rapidan, meets the Germanna Road at Wilderness Tavern. The third rung is created when the still more southerly, but also parallel, Orange Plank Road meets the Germanna Ford Road at Wilderness Church, near the south-eastern exit to the Wilderness at Chancellorsville. The left hand rail of this ladder can be thought of as any of the secondary roads that cross the Rapidan east of the Germanna Ford. These alternate routes, which include crossings at the Culpeper Mine Ford and Ely’s Ford, among others, may constitute a long and winding path of minor roads but they are much less likely to be blocked by the Confederates than the Germanna Ford route.
If I remember correctly the last time we played, I chose to move Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps along the north side of the Rapidan until it was far enough east to cross over and turn Lee’s right. Although I managed to pin Lee’s flank division against the river with this maneuver, being surrounded by Zones of Control in a GCACW game and being forced to retreat through them doesn’t result in an automatic elimination as it does in most other war games. The Rebs got out, much the worse for wear, but they got out.
Regrettably, you can’t depend on something like that happening. So I’ll Extend March and Force March my first few units as far as possible directly into the Wilderness and then use their 4th Fatigue Level to build abatis (that’s pronounced ab′•at•tēz, which is the 19th century version of wooden barbed wire). Abatis increases defensive combat strength by 50% which hopefully will make up for any combat strength reduction I suffer by Disorganization generated along the way. If many of my units are going to be marching hard and then go on the defensive it makes sense to be the “first’st with the most’st” in this position.
Please don’t consider this replay an example of best play, especially on the Union side. It’s more accurate to say it’s a review of play, period. I just stepped on all the land mines so you don’t have to.
Day 1 – May 5th, 1864
“Battle be damned. It ain’t no battle, it’s a worse riot than Chickamauga! At Chickamauga there was at least a rear, but here there ain’t neither front nor rear. It’s all a damned mess! And our two armies ain’t nothing but howling mobs.”– A captured Confederate private describing the Battle of the Wilderness
Day 1 – Confederate Moves by Harvey
May 5th dawns with the Union army marching hard for Germanna Ford as expected but much to Fred’s chagrin, Hancock’s II Corps gets bogged down just over the ford due to poor movement die rolls. The cavalry fares much better and comes streaming over the Rapidan River occupying important crossroads at Wilderness Church, Chancellorsville and Tabernacle Church. My cavalry marches east along the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road towards Tabernacle Church where it gets the worst of an encounter with the Union cavalry and falls back. Nevertheless it delays the Union cavalry from securing routes out of the Wilderness. Ewell rapidly marches up the Turnpike through Locust Grove and takes a position immediately to the west of Flat Run Church and Wilderness Tavern. He effectively straddles the Germanna Plank Road making it difficult for Union troops to pass through. A.P. Hill’s Corps follows on hard. Grant’s Army gets hopelessly entangled trying to march through the meager road network of the Wilderness north of the Rapidan. Fred makes numerous Extended Marches resulting in a fully fatigued Union army that has taken significant losses in manpower from Extended and Forced marching. One of the key elements of this game is in knowing how hard to push your army. Excessive marching can rapidly exhaust your units making it difficult for them to effectively maneuver the following day. As exhaustion builds, the army becomes more brittle with units more likely to become Disorganized and lose manpower as they march.
At the end of May 5th, both armies are fairly exhausted although the Union army is certainly the worse for wear.
Day 1 – Union Moves by Fred
Well, guess what? Things didn’t work out as I planned! Which they seldom do in any GCACW game anyway. One of the great things about this series is that you get a glimpse of some of the problems Civil War generals faced when moving large bodies of troops with limited technology. First, there are few roads through the Wilderness and when your lead unit, which in my case was Hancock’s II Corps, moves slowly things can spiral out of control. I had expected better of him. Then when I Extended Marched his corps to clear the road for Uncle John Sedgwick’s VI Corps, his divisions became disorganized and started leaking stragglers like crazy. Hancock the Superb, indeed! To make matters worse, the Rebels reacted with more than their usual effectiveness and were closing in on all the vital crossroads and the critically important fords behind them. I guess that happens when the Rebs win something like 6 of the first 8 initiative rolls and are led by someone as good as Harvey!
As the first rule of campaigning in the Wilderness is to control as many crossroads as possible, I decided to send Sheridan’s cavalry Corps in a wide left hook over secondary roads east of Germanna Ford to contest as many choke points as possible. After splashing across the Rapidan at the Culpeper Mine Ford they did manage to smash the smaller Rebel cavalry screen before being, in turn, driven in by Lee’s hard marching veterans. Next, Warren’s Corps came up and extended my left through Wilderness Church along the Germanna Road line. While these tactics seemed to have worked, the two Union corps that constituted my main line of resistance along the Germanna Plank Road, south of Wilderness Tavern, that is Uncle John Sedgwick’s and Hancock’s, became seriously intermingled in the ensuing fight. This didn’t affect their defensive ability, but it does tend to make it more difficult to launch serious offensive punches from these positions.
Day 2 – May 6th
“At the height of the excitement, an officer rushed to Grant and urgently volunteered advice. ‘General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously,’ he warned. ‘I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant stood, pulled a cigar from his mouth, and spoke his mind. ‘Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do,’ he roared back with unaccustomed heat at the startled officer, “Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”– Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, pp. 421-22.
Day 2 – Confederate Moves by Harvey
The Confederate player has to be aggressive in this scenario otherwise Grant’s army will wind its way through the Wilderness and out to the clear terrain beyond. Even though the Union Army’s units tend to be stronger than the Confederates, the combat system in this game rewards tactical expertise, quality leadership and maneuvers around the flank.
To perform combat, both players roll a single die and add modifiers to their totals. The modifiers are the key to combat moreso than the actual strength of the units involved. Each unit is rated for its tactical prowess and the difference between the tactical ratings of the combatants serves as a modifier. Leaders present in the hex usually augment the tactical modifier. The presence of Robert E. Lee adds another positive modifier. Units can attack from the March which will involve one marching division attacking an enemy stack while moving. An attack from March can be Hasty, Normal or Prepared costing 1, 2, or 4 movement points respectively. A Hasty attack will give you a detrimental -1 modifier but a Prepared attack gives a +1 modifier. Normal attacks do not give any modifier. Flanking bonuses can be achieved based on the number of hexes surrounding the defending enemy unit your forces cover with zones of control and can range from +1 to +4. If the enemy unit has Refused Flanks, these flanking bonuses are somewhat mitigated. Artillery can also modify the combat die rolls but in the dense terrain of the Wilderness, this rarely comes into play. Finally, superior combat strength gives a +1 modifier for each odds ratio greater than 1 : 1 and a -1 modifier for each odds ratio less than 1:1 if the attacking force is inferior to the defender. The defender gains bonuses when defending behind water obstacles. Once all of the bonuses are totaled for each side a competitive die roll is made and the difference of the die rolls is applied to the combat results table based on the strength of the attacking and defending units resulting in Fatigue, Retreats, Routs, combat strength losses and 2 possible levels of Demoralization.
Players do not have to attack from the March. They can attempt to launch an Assault which brings in several units in a single stack from a single corps. Given the difficulties of communication and coordination in the 19th century, Assaults are not guaranteed to occur and players must roll less than or equal to their leader’s command rating with the die roll result also determining how many units actually perform the attack. If a corps leader successfully initiates an Assault and one of the Army leaders are within three hexes, he may attempt to launch a Grand Assault which can bring in several attacking units in hexes adjacent to the original assaulting units. This requires a die roll less than the Army commander’s command rating. An Assault automatically gives the attacker a +1 die roll modifier.
I boldly decided to launch several divisional attacks from the March just to the south of Wilderness Tavern. Two Union divisions are routed by these attacks from Ewell’s corps but the last push by Ewell results in a nasty repulse and ends most of the fighting for the day. In the meantime, Longstreet advances up the Orange Plank Road to be ready for action on May 7th.
After two days of hard marching and some hard fighting, both armies are extremely fatigued. My Army refits overnight during the Recovery Phase whereby units regain three levels of Fatigue, flip to their Exhausted sides if they already have a 3 or 4 Fatigue level, remove Demoralization and become Reorganized if they start the phase with a Fatigue level of 2 or less. They can also start to build breast works and entrench during the Recovery phase. My men are looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
Day 2 – Union Moves by Fred
The Secess opened the second day of battle by launching a strong offensive against my weakened center around Wilderness Tavern. These attacks managed to rout Ricketts’ division of Uncle John’s VI Corps and Barlow’s division of Hancock’s II Corps. It wasn’t a Grand Assault but rather a series of attacks on the March with Bobby Lee in personal command. Happily, their third attack fell short as Robinson’s division of Warren’s V Corps held and I had a chance to counter-attack. But then Grant failed to trigger a Grand Assault. Fortunately, the Assault itself was enough to restore the situation and stabilize my center around Wilderness Tavern.
One of the secrets to playing a Great Campaigns of the American Civil War scenario as the Union is in using Leader Activations and Grand Assaults efficiently, while keeping Force Marches to an absolute minimum. And considering that I only managed one out of these three, my position isn’t as bad as it could have been. I have to admit, however, that my plan to use Extended March and Force March into strong defensive positions was not terribly well executed. To begin with, my units moved much too slowly and lost men to straggling much too quickly. Then the traffic jam that ensued slowed down their movement even further. However, Sheridan’s men are still holding my left flank and the road to Fredericksburg is still blocked only by some demoralized Confederate cavalry. But my main line is little more than strong points strung out along the Germanna Plank Road. I do have a well-organized and rested corps marching up in support (Ambrose Burnside’s IX) so things aren’t hopeless for the National forces. But the losses are heavily in the Confederate’s favor, mostly due to marching my two forward corps into the ground, which only goes to show that running a large army in GCACW is an art one doesn’t learn simply by reading the rules. It is a balance between moving quickly and getting to where you have to be versus losing men and fatiguing your army. And it’s only learned from experience.
From my point of view, the question has become “Are the stronger but slower moving Union forces being fed into the cauldron at a fast enough pace to overcome the quicker reacting, but weaker Confederates?” And the only way to find this out is to run the scenario to its end.
Day 3 – May 7th
“During the 7th Sheridan had a fight with rebel cavalry at Todd’s Tavern, but routed them, thus opening the way for the troops that were to go by that route at night…With my staff and a small escort of cavalry I preceded the troops. Meade with his staff accompanied me. The greatest enthusiasm was manifested by Hancock’s men as we passed by. No doubt it was inspired by the fact that the movement was south. It indicated to them that they had passed through the “beginning of the end” in the battle just fought. The cheering was so lusty that the enemy must have taken it for a night attack. At all events it drew from him a furious fusillade of artillery and musketry, plainly heard but not felt by us.”– U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs
Day 3 – Confederate Moves by Harvey
“Like a fine lady at a party, Longstreet was often late in his arrival at the ball. But he always made a sensation and that of delight, when he got in, with the grand old First Corps sweeping behind him as his train.”– Private William Dame, Rhea, Wilderness, p. 295
Longstreet’s Corps has finally come up to join the fray. He is greeted by a big Rebel Yell! I exhort my men to the attack once more and General Heth responds vigorously. He routs Robinson’s division of the Union V Corps west of Wilderness Church and drives deep into the center of the Federal’s line. A.P. Hill’s Corps joins the battle and pushes back Wadsworth’s division dramatically increasing the Yankee’s manpower losses and gaining Victory Points for the Rebels. Longstreet completes my oblique attack coming up on the Brock Road and drives in the Union left flank all the way to the Rapidan River.
Bobby Lee can be very proud of the performance of his men so far. I spend what activations I have left beginning to build abatis and breast works to prepare for the eventual Union attempts to break out of their bridgehead.
Meanwhile, Jeb Stuart starts to carefully maneuver his cavalry east towards the river crossings around Fredericksburg. He attacks some Union cavalry who were probing east of the Wilderness and eliminates them. Then he starts to formulate a plan. With the demoralized and fatigued Union Army hemmed into a small bridgehead just south of the Rapidan River, it may just be time for a cavalry raid into their rear threatening the baggage train.
By days end, I have a fortified line running from Tom’s Ford in the East to Wilderness Tavern, then northwest to Flat Run Church. Ewell’s Corps holds my left flank and A.P. Hill has fortified the center. Longstreet firmly anchors my right flank. Cavalry guards all the fords along the Rappahannock River from Blind Ford to Fredericksburg.
Day 3 – Union Moves by Fred
The Army of Northern Virginia’s Third Corps renewed their divisional attacks on my left-center around Wilderness Church and Wilderness Tavern. Heth attacked Robinson’s division of the Union’s V Corps west of Wilderness Church and, with the help of a rebel yell, routed him. Nearby, A.P. Hill attacked Wadsworth’s division with a prepared attack from the march and also forced him back. Longstreet then came up on my left flank via the Brock road (a minor path that passes through Todd’s Tavern on the southern edge of the Wilderness). Although the long march had disorganized the Confederate First Corps, its additional strength was the final blow to my weakened left flank. My survivors routed all the way back to the Rapidan. Wilderness Tavern and Wilderness Church crossroads have now fallen to rebel infantry and the Germanna Ford Road is cut.
As one can guess, as army commander, a routed unit can ruin your whole day. It not only demoralizes the troops involved making them useless for offensive operations, it also increases their Fatigue level thereby limiting their ability to activate the rest of the turn. To make matters worse, they will be judged Exhausted during the next Recovery Phase, which increases straggling if you order them to move. Finally, you have to find another unit to plug the hole in your line created when they are retreated. Of course, their retreat path is usually so long that it separates them from the other divisions in their corps, which also wrecks the efficiency of your Leader Activations. That is, once they are more than 3 hexes from their commander, at least one separate order will be needed to get them back into Command range even when they do recover.
In any event, in a running fight, Jeb Stuart next chased down a couple of my Union cavalry units that had momentarily broken through the eastern exit of the Wilderness. The brawl almost took them to Fredericksburg. By the time he got back, other Union cavalry had managed to advance across the river, east of the ANV’s main line of resistance, at Bank’s ford. But, all in all, the Union forces have found themselves in a bad way. On the south side of the Rapidan the Union holds a small bridgehead beyond the Germanna Ford, built around Hancock’s Corps and part of Sedgwick’s. The Army of Northern Virginia holds a number of the fords to its east and we have a cavalry bridgehead along the Rappahannock, east of where it meets the Rapidan. Burnside’s men, which I was depending on to hold my left flank against Longstreet, and possibly even to counter-attack, did not so much as march to the sound of the guns as crawl (I rolled 1’s on their first TWO activations). But they’ve finally gotten to the river in good order. Late, but in good order.
So, basically, my best option now is to re-organize my scattered Union corps and to rest those of my units exhausted and demoralized from fighting. Hopefully my army will perform more admirably on May 8th.
In return, however, this allowed the Confederates to construct a series of entrenched strong points all across my front, south of the river. My only hope is that a Grand Assault tomorrow will break through. If one does, even if it is only in one position, Harvey’s troops will have to maneuver to restore their line and so lose the benefit of any new entrenchments.
On the bright side, I’m having fun wrestling with all these new problems and I’m learning the ins and outs of the system. So, all is not lost.
Day 4: May 8th
Day 4 – Confederate Moves by Harvey
“Sure enough, Robert E. hasn’t many men, but what he’s got are right good ones, and I reckon you’ll find it out before you leave here.”– Confederate Prisoner
Robert E. Lee gathers his commanders and discusses the strategy for today’s battle. The Confederate Army will continue to entrench and wait for the expected assault. Jeb Stuart will maneuver his cavalry waiting for an opportune time to launch a lightning raid across the Rappahannock aiming for the Union baggage train which has been slowly winding its way south. In this scenario, manpower losses and losses to the baggage train yield victory points. The Union losses have been enormous. Grant has lost 28 strength points marching and fighting while the Confederates have only lost 6 strength points. Since each Union loss gives the Confederates 2 victory points, my plan of action is to allow the Union to assault my fortified line in the hopes of causing even more horrendous casualties while breaking their spirit with a surprise assault around their left flank to attack their baggage train.
However, as Robert E. Lee opened the flap to his command tent, he failed to account for the determination and ferocity of the Union soldier fighting “desperately in earnest”.
Grant is able to win six straight initiative die rolls launching a series of Assaults and Grand Assaults on the center of my line. Burnside moves across Ely’s Ford and launches an Assault on Anderson’s division. He does not roll well for the Assault roll and only Wilcox division joins the assault. Nevertheless, he successfully routs Anderson despite the battle having even die roll modifiers. Better to have a lucky general than a good one I always say. There is now a hole in the Confederates center and Robert E. Lee faces a crisis. Unfortunately, Fred wins the initiative yet again and the Confederates are unable to react to this turn of events. Burnside has to make a crucial decision regarding how this attack will develop. He can exploit South with his divisions cracking the Confederate line. Instead, Burnside chooses to maneuver in conjunction with units from the VI corps wasting precious activations and further fatiguing his victorious units. He now organizes a Grand Assault utilizing Wilcox, Stevenson and Robinson to hit the flank of General Heth’s boys retreating them from their entrenchments. This is definitely not the General Burnside that I have come to know and love! Burnside is now just 2 miles north of Wilderness Church and its important crossroads. However, he is unable to exploit this yawning gap in the Confederate line because all of his units are now at Fatigue level 4. The battle leaves Warren’s VI corps disorganized, fatigued and scattered across the Union line. Finally, Robert E. Lee wins an Activation and shifts Field’s division into the hole stabilizing the Confederate line. The crisis is averted!
It is now time to launch Jeb Stuart across the Rappahannock. Marching across some unguarded fords he marches north along the Telegraph Road to Stafford Courthouse and then heads west. At Skinner’s Store he slips by Torbert and, with brilliant marching, maneuvers along the Hardwood Road sidestepping Sheridan, finally coming to grips with the Union baggage trains. A normal attack from March results in losses and retreat of the baggage train scoring many victory points. Perhaps this will bring redemption for Stuart’s performance at Gettysburg!
The day ends with the Confederate line stabilized, Confederate cavalry raiding in the Union rear and staggering Union manpower losses from their assaults against the Confederates breastworks in the center of the line. Despite the Union successes in the center, it came at high-cost and was not exploited. As night falls over the battlefield, Robert E. Lee can be proud of his boys. He did not expect that in his counterpart’s command tent, Grant was contemplating retreat back across the Rapidan!
Day 4 – Union Moves by Fred
“The most immovable commander might have been shaken. But it was in just such sudden emergencies that General Grant was always at his best. Without a change of a muscle on his face, or the slightest alteration in the tone of his voice, he quietly interrogated the officers who bought the reports then sifting out the truth from the mass of exaggerations, he gave directions for relieving the situation.”– General Horace Porter, Campaigning With Grant, The Century, Volume 53
The 4th day of fighting saw Jeb Stuart attack the cavalry bridgehead around Bank’s ford south of the Rappahannock and drive the defenders back north once again. Burnside’s IX Corps finally crossed the Rapidan at Ely’s ford heading south. He got two of his divisions across, but had to leave Wilcox and Ferraro on the north bank. As usual, it was difficult to move large numbers of troops along a single road and still get them anywhere near the enemy. But as I didn’t push them this time, they at least got where they were going in good order.
It was at this point that we began to notice an unusual occurrence: the Union was winning initiative rolls one after the other. The 3rd activation win in a row saw all of Burnside’s troops across the Rapidan AND bunched for the attack! Burnside now decides to launch an Assault and Grant attempted to upgrade it to a Grand Assault. Luckily, IX Corps all went in together, but then the vital Grand Assault failed. Regrettably, that only brought the all-important DRM difference to zero, so things didn’t look particularly good for the North. Burnside really did need the extra punch the Grand Assault would have provided. We then rolled and miraculously, the Union obtained a “6” while the Rebels rolled a “1.” So the battle results were decided on the + 5 combat line! The entrenched Confederate center routed!
(As a side note, most players I’ve seen don’t actually add their DRMs to their die roll and then compare their totals, as mentioned in the rules. Instead they calculate the DRM differential between themselves and then add in the die roll differential produced by both rolls. It really ends up in the same place, but it seems more convenient and it does provide players with an added bit of data: the DRM differential.)
The Union won the initiative once again and I had to decide if I would try to launch a second Grand Assault immediately to the west of the first. However, I would either need this activation to surround Heth with Sedgwick’s VI Corps and another to launch a Grand Assault against him, or I could try a Grand Assault immediately with some of Burnside’s men (but not have Heth surrounded). As there is only a 42 percent chance of the Union winning an initiative roll, I decided to go in now with what I had now. This time the Grand Assault allowed 4 additional hexes to join in, although only two had troops in them. But those two held Wilcox and Robinson’s divisions. It was still a chancy thing with only a + 1 DRM differential. Fortunately, the die rolls added another 2 to the differential and the attack was resolved on the +3 combat line! This resulted in the rebel’s center lurching back, but Burnside’s men had all reached their fatigue level 4 as a result.
Unbelievably, the 6th initiative die roll in a row also went to Grant. So I decided to attack a third Southern strong point near the Rapidan and widen the breach as much as possible. It was the only practicable way I could see to keep the pressure on the Army of Northern Virginia, as all my other men in the Wilderness were either fatigued out or were facing well entrenched forces without the benefit of Flank bonus DRMs.
My last target, sadly, was an entrenched position south of Blind ford, where the Rapidan and the Rappahannock meet and directly east of my main thrust that could only be surrounded by Restricted Zones of Control. These ZoC do not stop movement. So although I won the assault and thus widened the penetration as I had wanted, Field’s division of Longstreet’s First Corps escaped the level of destruction that I had initially hoped for.
Note: This is an error, being surrounded by restricted Zones of Control and retreating through them is not the same as moving through Restricted Zones of Control. As per page 24 of the rules “ Restricted ZOC affect retreats and routs just like normal ZoC,” so Field’s division should have taken more damage than it did. However, this wouldn’t have changed the situation as his division would still have survived and the Union forces would still have been exhausted.
This did result, however, in the entire Rebel line being pushed all the way back to the vicinity of the Wilderness Church and Wilderness Tavern area. And more importantly, the Rebels were now dependent on demoralized troops to hold their center. Regrettably for the Army of the Potomac, the troops facing them were no longer capable of going on, at least for today.
Now, I must admit my grand counter-attack was greatly helped by winning 6 initiative rolls in a row (and the seventh was only lost on a 1 to 1 tie!) This allowed me to bring up well over a corps adjacent to the southern strong point defenses and to launch repeated Assaults and Grand Assaults after maximizing my Flank bonus DRMs and all this was without any southern interference. But as the South had enjoyed a similar string of initiative wins on the first day of fighting, I guess you could say that turnabout is fair play.
With both side’s troops in the Wilderness spent, cavalry on the flanks now came into their own. Jeb Stuart swung far to the east, crossed the river to its northern bank and tried to duplicate one of his famous “rides around the Union Army.” What a publicity hound! Sheridan activated Torbert and gave chase personally. Finally, Torbert’s troops surrounded Stuart, near Pineview P.O., about 8 miles from the all-important wagon trains. Because normal Zones of Control stop movement and Stuart was surrounded by them, I assumed that he could now be crushed at my leisure. However, I’ve learned it’s never wise to underestimate Harvey. Unbelievably, he got out of this box by winning two initiative die rolls in a row. The first let him move from one ZoC to another and the second sent him galloping off after the wagon trains themselves. He then managed to attack and damage a wagon train unit and collect 4 Victory Points before Torbert’s troopers could come to their rescue.
It was at this point, with the center stabilized in the Wilderness and the point total so heavily in the Confederate favor that it seemed impossible for the troops that were left to secure even a marginal Union victory, that we decided to call the game. It was time. We had played for 4 complete evenings (12 hours or so) and while we had great fun, the situation had developed into a clear Southern victory. Perhaps it could be said that we had reached our 4th fatigue level.
After Action Reports
Confederate – Final Thoughts by Harvey
This game was great fun and Fred was certainly a terrific opponent. Just when I thought I had him hemmed into a small bridgehead across the Rapidan he was able to break through my entrenched lines and make Robert E. Lee’s hair a little whiter with worry.
I absolutely love this game series as it wonderfully simulates the difficulties in maneuvering a 19th-century Army during the Civil War. This scenario accurately demonstrates the problems Grant (and Hooker before him) had in getting through the Wilderness. The Confederates have a couple of advantages including generally better leadership and winning tied initiative die rolls. The Union player has generally stronger divisions and much better artillery. Winning strategies involve maintaining the cohesion of your forces with judicious use of marches. As your units’ fatigue levels increase, their potential for threatening the enemy decreases. Managing your units’ potential to threaten your opponent is of utmost importance. Fred was probably overly aggressive with his marches in the beginning fearing that he would not cross in force over the Rapidan before the Confederates arrived. However his Union Army arrived fatigued, disorganized and reduced by manpower losses from extended marches. This lessened the potential for him to threaten my army allowing me to counterattack and eventually develop a line of breastworks across his planned route of advance.
The variable movement allowances wonderfully simulate the frustration of Civil War Army and Corps commanders trying vainly to get their units in proper positions. Hancock’s slow advance to the fords over the Rapidan resulted in a slowed approach of the whole Union Army. It could not be anticipated but Grant would have been better served by delineating multiple routes of advance so that their entire Army does not get bogged down. Burnside’s lethargic march to the river prevented his corps from having any impact on the first few days.
I highly recommend this game series to anyone and hope that Multi-Man Publishing eventually decides to reprint the entire series (all of the previous games are long out of print). The Battle Above the Clouds is the latest game in the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series and moves the action from the Eastern theater to the Western theater where the armies and leadership were completely different. Anyone interested in the American Civil War should make the time to experience one of these masterpieces.
Union – Final Thoughts by Fred
As one would expect of a sophisticated simulation, GCACW requires numerous plays in order to learn its finer points. Obviously, I haven’t spent nearly enough time with it to master the system, but I plan to because I think this is superior war game.
My main problem was that I was even rustier with the effects of some rules than I thought. I really shouldn’t have marched two corps over the same road to Exhaustion. Traffic control in the Wilderness is paramount and the GCACW system harshly handles people who don’t realize this. So remember, there are multiple fords over the Rapidan and although they are not all equal, they are acceptable alternatives in the opening phases of the battle.
Second, while it’s best for units to spread out on the defense, in order to prevent small enemy forces from “oozing” past you, it’s also important to concentrate on the offense to produce the greatest punch during Assaults and Grand Assaults. Finding the proper balance between these opposing imperatives is what leads to victory. Of course, since the Confederates are more likely to win initiative rolls (they prevail a healthy 58% of the time) they are not that dependent on Assaults. You’d be surprised how effective consecutive Prepared attacks from the march (giving them a +1 Die Roll Modifier), led by generals with higher tactical ratings (usually +1 DRM advantage), against targets where they enjoy a 2 to 1 Odds advantage whenever possible (another + 1 DRM advantage) and helped by a little oozing (a +2 or so Flank Bonus DRM) can be in battle. From my calculations, any attack that starts with a +3 DRM differential will result in the attacker having a massive 72.2 percent chance of using the + 2 Combat Results line or better. In other words, using the lines on the Combat Results Table that ensures the attacker can capture the hex under attack.
It’s important to remember that DRMs are the heart of this combat system and the side that generates the most will, in all likelihood, emerge the winner. While GCACW allows players to produce DRMs in all sorts of ways, the easiest methods of producing them in numbers are either by concentrating a large force in order to maximize your “Odds DRMs” or by surrounding your opponent with multiple units and Zones of Control (ZoC) in order to maximize your “Flank Bonus DRMs.” This in turn may be accomplished by remembering that every unit can move a minimum of one hex no matter what ZoC situation it finds itself in. So when your opponent concentrates his forces in order to minimize your “Odds DRMs” you can counter by oozing past his centralized position and maximizing your “Flank DRMs.” If he counters this maneuver by “Refusing his Flank,” (which decreases the attacker’s Flank DRM bonus but increases his frontal assault DRMs), you, as the attacker, could respond by directly hitting his weakened center. Just remember that your oozing unit’s strength must be greater than one quarter of the defending units or they’ll fail to produce a Flank bonus. Whatever the situation, these units could eventually be drawn into the battle if you succeed in upgrading your attack to a Grand Assault. Of course, these smaller forces will become Disorganized when you move from one normal ZoC to another (if the hexes are not connected by a road, pike, railroad or trail) and these units are susceptible to counter-attack as soon as you lose the initiative. But the added DRMs created by Flank bonuses will usually be worth the extra risks you took to generate them.
So, in summary, I had a lot of fun, learned a thing or two about the effects of various rules and lost. Well, two out of three ain’t bad!
Historical Orders of Battle
At the beginning of the campaign, Grant’s Union forces totaled 118,700 men and 316 guns. They consisted of the Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and the IX Corps (until May 24 formally part of the Army of the Ohio, reporting directly to Grant, not Meade), and was organized into five Corps:
Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock
Including the divisions of Maj. Gen. David B. Birney and Brig. Gens. Francis C. Barlow, John Gibbon, and Gershom Mott
Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren
Including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Charles Griffin, John C. Robinson, Samuel W. Crawford, and James S. Wadsworth
Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick
Including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Horatio G. Wright, George W. Getty, and James B. Ricketts
Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside
Including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Thomas G. Stevenson, Robert B. Potter, Orlando B. Willcox, and Edward Ferrero
Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan
Including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Alfred T.A. Torbert, David McM. Gregg, and James H. Wilson
Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia comprised about 64,000 men and 274 guns and was organized into four Corps:
Lt. Gen. James Longstreet
Including the divisions of Maj. Gen. Charles W. Field and Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw
Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell
Including the divisions of Maj. Gens. Jubal A. Early, Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, and Robert E. Rodes
Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill
Including the divisions of Maj. Gens. Richard H. Anderson, Henry Heth, and Cadmus M. Wilcox
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart
Including the divisions of Maj. Gens. Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, and W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee