by Harvey Mossman
Although seven score and ten years have passed since the Civil War, this titanic struggle still profoundly affects American culture and the national psyche. Deep wounds have still not fully healed and remembrances of those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” are honored annually by multiple reenactments around the country. Over this five-year anniversary of the war, I thought it might be “altogether fitting and proper” to look back at some older Civil War games that still stand the test of time. One of my favorites, Bobby Lee, is an elegant design by Tom Dalgliesh of Columbia Games. First published in 1993, it remains one of the most challenging and approachable simulations of the war in Virginia.
Robert E. Lee, called Bobby Lee by his men, faced almost insurmountable problems during this campaign but was able to stave off final defeat for five long years. His Army was outmanned by 2: 1, he had to defend a capital that was only 100 miles away from the enemy capital thereby leaving him no strategic depth and he faced an enemy that had complete control of the sea allowing them to threaten the extensive Virginia coastline at will. He had to keep his Army fed and supplied despite ever dwindling resources and, as overall commander of the South, he had to find a way to beat a foe with tremendous resource advantages. When playing Bobby Lee, you will be faced with all of these dilemmas.
Before we get started, I will urge players to get the latest version of the rules from Columbia Games website. This combines the rules for Bobby Lee with its fraternal game, Sam Grant which simulates the Western theater of war.
Overall the new rules are well organized and amply illustrated. The 20 pages of the core rules are easily digested in 30 minutes or less. Most of the crucial charts and tables are embedded in the appropriate sections and then reprinted on a player aid game chart in the back of the rulebook and also on the map. Therefore, players have no trouble accessing the required information making this game very user friendly. There are scenarios for each year of the war and the campaign game allows players to experience the entire conflict.
The map is a beautiful depiction of the Eastern Theater stretching from Harrisburg in the north to Norfolk in the south out to Lynchburg in the West. Hexagons overlay the terrain to regulate movement, engagement limits for battles, etc. and for the most part, the terrain is unambiguous. The important rail lines are depicted as well as all the major ports along the East Coast and James and York Rivers. Victory points cities and towns are clearly represented and those with fortifications are aptly depicted. All the charts and tables are neatly arranged on the map so the players have everything they need without extraneous excursions to thumb through the rulebook. This is one of the nicest maps you will ever see in war gaming.
A quick look at the map shows why the rivers, railroads and the Shenandoah Valley were key to this campaign. The Potomac, Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers serve as natural defensive positions for the Confederates and tremendous obstacles for the Union player. However, the Yankees can utilize naval movement and supply along the major rivers providing them with flexibility Bobby Lee just does not have. The Shenandoah Valley serves as a natural conduit for Confederate invasions into Western Pennsylvania where they can threaten the railroads between Eastern Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Washington DC, the union capital. Nothing hurts the Northern cause more than having its capital isolated.
Columbia Games has made its reputation designing games that use blocks to represent individual combat units. Each block has a label affixed to one side which represents unit type (in this case representing infantry divisions, brigades, garrisons, cavalry brigades, artillery, heavy artillery and headquarters) and combat strength. The blocks stand upright with the label side facing away from your opponent so he is unaware of the unit’s type or combat value until engaged in battle.
How It Plays
The war is divided into Campaign Years and the scenarios cover single years or any combination of consecutive years up to the entire war. Each year is divided into 12 months turns. The first part of the Turn is the Replacement Phase. In this phase players must make a difficult decision to conduct a Draft. The Union player will get between 2-4 infantry brigades and/or Garrison cadres while the Confederate player will get 1-3. While Drafting is a good way to quickly add units, it costs dearly in terms of Victory Points. For the first draft in any year the player surrenders one Victory Point to the opponent, a second draft costs two and a third draft surrenders three and so on. There is a great deal of tension trying to decide when and how often to draft as there are times when you will desperately need new units on the board yet cannot afford to surrender Victory Points to your opponent. It is a simple rule that nicely illustrates the limits that the northern and southern populations would endure to prosecute the war; a very nice and subtle game mechanic that I like very much.
Once you have finished agonizing over your decision about the Draft, each player gains Replacement Points on a fixed schedule depending on the year of the war. These points are used to add steps to combat units on the board and to rebuild previous eliminated units into new cadres. You may also build new units at a substantial cost. Only units that are in supply can receive replacement points so attention to logistics is of paramount importance if you don’t want your Army to wither away.
Utilizing Replacement Points provides players with many challenging decisions. Do you augment onboard units so they are less brittle in combat or do you need to build new units to cover gaps in your defense? Or, maybe need to augment headquarters lest your units become immobile from lack of command? Once again players face difficult decisions knowing that improper resource allocation can cause you to lose the war. You are sure to be wiping sweat from your brow hoping you have apportioned Replacement Points in the most efficient manner. This is another tremendous aspect of the game.
After all replacements are done the Operations Phase begins. This is the heart of the turn. First, players secretly and simultaneously bid to gain Initiative. The bid is the number of headquarters they must activate on the first campaign turn should they win initiative. The losing player is under no obligation to activate his bid. Next players alternate playing through their Campaign turn, only ending when neither player wishes to activate any more headquarters.
A Campaign turn consists of a Weather Phase check which occurs only in April and November to determine if the weather is dry or mud. Mud severely hampers movement, river crossings and attacks. Next the players begin their Movement Phase. The phasing player will activate headquarters or pass. Both players have four headquarters, three Field Headquarters and one Supreme Headquarters.
Supreme Headquarters can move a number of units equal to their combat value anywhere on the map. They also allow rail moves and naval moves. Field Headquarters may only activate units within their command range which is 2 for the Confederates and 1 for the Union. All units within range of an activated headquarters can move. If friendly units enter enemy occupied hexes, a battle ensues. Once all movement is performed the headquarters deactivates by losing one step. Headquarters that are reduced to 0 are eliminated and are very costly to rebuild. Don’t let this happen!
When enemy and friendly units occupy the same hex there will be a battle. Similar to their other fine game, Napoleon, battles are moved off map to a tactical display. Both players deploy their participating units in Left, Right, Center or Reserve positions.
A Day of battle involves four pairs of alternating turns (Dawn, Morning, Afternoon and Dusk followed by a Night turn whereby a player can retreat without pursuit or, if both players elect to continue, they can fight into the next day. Each battle turn the player first decides whether he will retreat from the combat or whether he wants to pursue a retreating enemy. Morale, an optional rule, is checked next. Then both players fire at enemy units in opposing battle columns. Each unit type has a specific Firepower and it must roll less than or equal to the firepower number to hit. Each unit rolls a number of dice equal to its Combat Value.
Players can conduct Enfilade Fire on enemy units in adjacent horizontal positions under certain conditions. When artillery units fire they can opt to do counter battery fire. Infantry and cavalry can go into Melee combat instead of firing. Melee combat is particularly bloody but useful when you want to clear out an enemy position.
After all units fire, blocks may move between the Reserve and other battle positions. Reinforcements from adjacent hexes can then arrive into your Reserve. You can also send units from your Reserve position to Outflank an enemy Left or Right position but these units must make a successful Forced March roll or else they are considered lost with no effect on combat that battle turn. They can try entering during subsequent battle turns and have enhanced firepower when they arrive.
All in all, the tactical battles simulate Civil War combat fairly well without intricate and complex rules. They add tension and excitement to the game without unduly prolonging playing time. I found the tactical battles to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game.
Supplying the Men in the Field
After battles are resolved the players check for supply. Units must be on or adjacent to a friendly railroad or Shenandoah Valley Turnpike (for the Confederates only) that can trace uninterrupted back to friendly supply hexes clearly marked on the map. The Union player can trace naval supply between friendly ports as long as they do not bypass enemy controlled ports. The Confederate player can do the same only along the James River. Should players not be able to trace supply, they cannot use replacement points to augment units. Out of supply units can support themselves by Foraging but the number of units that can exist this way depends on terrain and weather. If any units remain unsupplied and unable to forage, they must lose one step. Supply attrition can be negated by friendly headquarters if the units are in their command range. However, the headquarters must be reduced by one step.
The importance of supply cannot be overstated. A quick look at the map will show the importance of the Virginia Central rail lines and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad lines. Should any of these rail lines be cut, friendly forces will find themselves in desperate situations. For the Confederates, positions such as Hanover Junction are crucial since two rail lines converge there. Likewise, Petersburg becomes extremely important for any Army trying to sustain itself in Richmond. Moreover, Confederate rail lines are extremely vulnerable to Union units who naval move to Acquia Landing, Port Royal, Tappahannock or West Point. Therefore, the Confederate player must defend the land approaches into Northern Virginia as well as the extensive exposed coastal approaches. This is not an easy job and Bobby Lee will be pushed to the limits once the Union has initiated significant naval movement.
Winning the Game
Victory points are accumulated for capturing enemy cities and towns and enemy drafts. The Confederate player gets one victory point during the replacement turn of every month simply for the holding out against the North. Therefore the burden of attack is on the Union player. This is not to say that the Confederates should not be offensive. Bobby Lee was often criticized for his two disastrous invasions of the North because it accomplished very little and wasted precious resources. However, given time, the Union manpower and Sea mobility will overwhelm the Confederacy. The Confederate player needs to know when to go on the offensive and when to hunker down defensively. Sometimes, a strategic offensive into Pennsylvania up the Shenandoah Valley can threaten Baltimore and Washington or the vital rail lines linking the union supply net. Cavalry raids also threaten Union rear areas. Many times offense is the best defense and well-timed invasions can distract the Union from his own plans for invading the South.
The Last Full Measure
Overall, I greatly enjoy Bobby Lee and feel it stands the test of time. It is one of the finest simulations of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War that has ever been published. The game uses elegant and simple (yet not simplistic) rules) to force players into their historical counterpart’s real dilemmas. Strategically, players are forced to make compelling and challenging decisions on how to apportion replacements, when to draft, when to seek battle and when to avoid it, how best to defend the river lines, how to attack and defend along the coast, and how to protect vital victory point cities and supply lines. Tactically, the combats on the tactical display make you think like a Civil War Army general as to where to commit your forces, when to throw in reserves, whether to outflank your opponent, charge forward into melee, retreat or pursue. Tactical battles can get quite tense which adds to the enjoyment and flavor of the game.
I am not aware of any other Civil War game that simulates both the strategic and tactical problems in such a fun, dynamic and challenging fashion. Bobby Lee is a joy to play and definitely a most intriguing puzzle to be solved. There are many paths to victory for both sides so replay value is quite high. And best of all, you can truly empathize with Bobby Lee and his Union counterparts. There are very few war games that rightly evoke the visceral experience of the historical period as well as Bobby Lee. As far as I am concerned, this is one game that should be on every gamer’s shelf.
I enjoyed the review, and do intend to try the game. Unfortunately block games are tough for those of us without a FTF opponent. I did not see the PBM possiblity addressed, or PBInternet?
I was disappointed that Mr. Mossman doesn’t know that “The War” lasted 4 years, from April ’61 to April ’65, not 5. Also, just based my view of the map, it is hard to see what attracted both armies to Gettyburg; the road network seems to ignored, unlike “Napoleon”.
It does seem that the game has excellent components and some fresh ideas re victory terms. I look forward to getting better acquainted with it.
Joel, Thanks for your input. You are right that block games make it difficult if you don’t have a face to face opponent however you can still play with all the blocks revealed. You only lose the Fog of War element but most war games don’t have that anyhow and this game still presents many challenges without FoW. You could also play via the internet as Vassal has a Bobby Lee module that is excellent.
Please don’t be disappointed in me. I know the war lasted 4 years duration but it spanned 5 years, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and the reenactments and anniversary remembrances will also span 5 years. I am sorry if this was confusing.
Your concern about having no road net depicted on the map is duly noted but it would not be appropriate at this scale. Bobby Lee is much more strategic in scope compared to Napoleon which is more of a Grand Tactical or Operational level game. Each hex in Bobby Lee would incorporate many roads that armies could utilize for movement. What was most important at this scale were the railroads and rivers as these were the main conduits for army supplies and strategic deployment. What attracted the Confederates to Gettysburg were shoes and the Federals were attracted to the town because the Rebs were there! Perhaps more important than the road net was geography. Gettysburg was located near two important mountain passes, the Cashtown and Fairfield Gaps, which were egresses out of the Cumberland Valley just north of the most convenient Confederate invasion route along the Shenandoah Valley. George Meade had to locate the rebels and he knew they had to exit the valley through one of the passes. Gettysburg just happened to be nearby.
Great review Harvey. I just picked up a copy of this game and I look forward to playing it (I am just a little behind in game playing schedule, LOL:-) . Keep up the great work.