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Subject: "ACW: Solitaire" Session Report x2, with Pics & Opinions rss

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Pete Gelman
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Miss N. was out. The liquor cabinet was empty. So all too sober, I took a chance, purchased David Kershaw's ACW: Solitaire, downloaded it (via wargamedownloads.com, $5) and printed it out.

Note that Adobe pdf gives an option for "posterizing", so I set it for four 8.5x11 inch pages and printed it that way as an easy way to attain a much bigger board.

Because of the interest of my two new Humane Society kittens in what I doing, I put the game in this round table from India that has a raised wooden border around the edge. (This actually did keep the kittens away for most of the game.) I cut the corners of the game to fit in the table. I scanned the rules and set up my dice table. I took cubes from my El Grande and counters from my old Civil War Game 1863 game for the forts. Finally I gathered a load of kitten toys to help distract my feline children who wanted to help me with my solitaire game... which wasn't fully solitaire as my kittens joined the cause of the North near the end...

Also because of the kittens and their adorable ways, I quickly scanned the rules. I wanted to get started despite errors. And errors I made.

I played two games. Here's what happened.

First Play


Setup. (Click to expand) (Note: setup error explained later)

Turn 1. McClellan's army faced Lee's in Virginia. McClellan decided not to attack, because I his reinforcements elsewhere to the docks of Fort Monroe. For this invasion force I sought a general - by luck, the able general Grant appeared.

This invasion plan was questionable, but I decided that it was more important to use our navy to invade the South with an effective army (because far away from Lee), than blockade.

Rebel forces assembled in Chattanooga, Kentucky, Knoxville. But Lee and Brady did not move. In the west, a daring Confederate raid (perhaps a river submarine?) destroyed the Union river gunboats protecting Cairo. And to the west, there were reports of the Creek tribe becoming restive.

Turn 2. Grant and 3 armies landed in Florida, seizing control of one of the ports. There was no opposition.

Reinforced, Lee attacked McClellan in the Shenandoah Valley. It was a tough fight, both armies suffering, but it was McClellan who retreated into Pennsylvania.

At the far edge of the map, the Creeks invaded Kansas.

Turn 3. The Union now started the blockade, and reinforced McClellan. I sent the last of the troops guarding Ft Monroe to join Grant's army (now strength 4) in Florida. Grant moved up the peninsula into Savannah, leaving a garrison at the port. (Port occupation, like blockading ships, can help strangle Rebel supply.) Facing him now was just a small army in Charlottesville.

McClellan attacked Lee in Maryland. Lee defeated him badly. The surviving troops fled back to Pennsylvania.

Reinforced, Lee attacked Pennsylvania. McClellan's defense fell back to New York!

Lee stood in Pennsylvania with 3 armies... In the west, the Rebs reinforced the rebel army sitting in Fortress Vicksburg.

General Bragg finally moved his large army into Nashville, threatening Ohio, but leaving Corinth unguarded behind him.

In the west, the Comanches formed an army.


Turn 4. After all the defeats in the north, the Union massively reinforced McClellan in New York. McClellan than attacked Lee. The huge Union army drove the Rebels back into Maryland.

It was clear that Lee's days were numbered.

Burnside appeared in Fort Monroe with troops I intended to land in Florida and support Grant. (You need a general to move an army, a rule I think is great. So it was the only way to reinforce Grant, whose army would decrease size, even with victories, as it left garrisons behind.)

Grant decisively defeated the Rebels in Charlottesville, taking a second Confederate port. He was now poised to move north (to take further ports) or west to assault Atlanta.

Grant was carving up the South and it looked like nothing could stop him.

Bragg's powerful army didn't budge from Kentucky, so Ohio was safe. On the Texas frontier, the Apaches formed an army.

Things didn't look great for the South. And then the unexpected happened.

A lot of reinforcements reached Lee's weary army just in time. With them he suddenly whirled east. He assaulted the fort and army in D.C. And the defense crumbled. The Union capital fell!

With that, the Rebels won. Utter disaster!

Here's what it looked like (click to enlarge):


Southern Victory!

My rules errors: My most significant rules error was that I forgot (or a kitten removed) General Kirby-Smith from the west. He probably would have moved into Kansas. It would not have made a difference to my Union decisions. (The Rebels can win by taking four Union areas, or D.C.)

Strategic mistake: probably obvious, moving too quickly with the Union invasion in Florida without building up massive armies to defend against Lee.

The Kitten Factor: I had set my dice tower on the floor. Several times the kittens grabbed the die, and one even curled up inside the felt bed of the dice tower, achieving cute factor 10.

Second Play

On a second play of the game, the North sent small landing armies to take ports in Florida and Galveston, and massively reinforced McClellan in Maryland.

Grant appeared (again early random draw), taking control of that army. I sent McClellan sent to Ohio and built up second army there. Grant and Lee fought several battles in Shenandoah, trading victories and defeats. Eventually, Grant's superior numbers made effect, pushing Lee back to Richmond.

McClellan and Brady fought back and forth over Kentucky. Eventually McClellan gained control. A medium-sized invasion force under Burnside slowly moved north from Florida, making a beeline for Atlanta.

Then, sometime in 1863 (the turn track has no years on it, but guessing 4 turns = 1 year), with the blockade air-tight, the three Union armies attacked in a three-pronged attack, all victories...


The Union Juggernaut

Grant took Richmond, Burnside took Atlanta, and McClellan moved into Arkansas. With Richmond and Atlanta taken, I believed that was Union victory. It was just as well, for then one of the kittens jumped on the board and further destroyed the South.


Good kitty!

But I again had made a rules error: Taking Richmond and Atlanta is one of four Union victory conditions. A second requirement is the blockade (done), but third is taking all the ports (not done) and forth is controlling the Mississippi River (not done). So let's be clear: I didn't give the game its fair shake. It would have been interesting to see how the struggle would have continued.

In both games, I ignored the Mississippi River, because Lee's army forced me to fight east-central. Also, the undefended ports of Florida and Galveston, and underdefended Rebel interior, invited Union landings.

Likes

1) The race against the clock. Excellent.

2) Union building decisions. Excellent.

3) Flexible, sweep and flow of the game. Excellent.

4) The way strategic decisions and accomplishments impact the Confederate economy. Excellent.

5) The 4-goals of difficulty of winning (which I bungled in game 2).

6) Some of the rules, such as the role of generals:

-that armies require them for movement
-that the Confederate generals require an activation roll

(Those two factors help constrain the fluidity.)

-that the generals have names and different abilities, like maybe all ACW games.

7) The role and decisions around use of the navy (although I didn't use gunboats, see below).

8) Some of the optional rules. For example, the optional rule for Col. Mosby's appearance, disrupting Union supply, if the die decides that Confederate supply lands on territory occupied by Union forces.

9) While I have mixed feeling about the use of dice (a matter of taste), the combat table, modifiers, and results seem well thought out.

Dislikes

1) Although I seriously erred and missed inclusion of General Kirby-Smith, and it was my decision twice not to begin the Mississippi River campaign, I think the western regions beyond the Mississippi do not add to the game. Therefore they detract.

Most or all of the forces set up there cannot cross the Mississippi River. The American Indians seem like an original and thematically interesting element in the game, but don't do enough to justify their inclusion. At most, they take Kansas (1/4 victory conditions for the south), or fight General Kirby-Smith--the only reason I see to include them, but not good enough.

In fact, in the notes at the end of the rules, the designer makes similar comments about limiting the western end of the map to Galveston.

I agree with that idea. I think for a solitaire game the map should be more contained, and that's the area to remove. As the designer offers as an option in his notes, I think the Indian phase should be skipped, reducing their role in the game to some macro die rolls for reducing Union supply as he suggests. That sounds good. But along with that suggestion, I wish the map were simplified as a result.

2) The 20 turn score track doesn't have dates on it. I think that dates are evocative and easy to put into the game. It could be that each turn is one season, four to a year. (Digression: Furthermore, maybe if the Union doesn't achieve 2 of the 4 victory conditions by turn 12, the Union supply reduces by one. And 3 out of 4 by turn 16, to further ratchet the pressure and make victory difficult. This would be a easy way of showing the military impact of Union politics and vis versa, and it could be typed right on the turn track for easy use.)

3) The map. A lot of battles occur around D.C./Virginia, wherever Lee is. Back and forth. As it should. So I wish that end of the map were enlarged, even distorted, to make it easier to manipulate the armies. I'm talking about practicality, more playing space here. I used wooden cubes, which have more volume than chits, but I think this would be true with hard-to-handle chits too.

4) I'm unsure about this... It's not a complaint. But...it seems too easy for the North to take Richmond by early midgame. Maybe that's a reasonable what-if historical possibility in late 1862? Before trench warfare? I don't know. In this game, McClellan is weak but does not have the slows. In addition, the what-ifs may be part of the appeal of the game. Also, the fall of Richmond doesn't end the game, so maybe it's okay.

If Lee has not moved North to draw attention that way, it's unlikely Lee can stop a Union concentrated effort (say turn 3). I don't know if a fix is necessary, but a possible method would be that the Union cannot attack Richmond unless the Union controls the Mississippi River or Atlanta.

5) The game has in effect 5 tables for die rolling.

Table 1=Combat results with modifiers
Table 2=Confederate Supply Type
Table 3=Confederate Supply Location
Table 4=Indian Supply or Action.
Table 5=Confederate General activation

Well, the Confederate general activation roll is not really a table, and it's easy to remember. So skip that. Tables 1 and 3 are printed on the map. That leaves two, Table 2 and 4, and they are only mixed in the rules. You have to find them in the rules, flip pages to find them. I think the pdf rules should include one page with all the tables on it.

6) The designer's notes at the end of the rules state that naval landings may make the game too easy, and suggests as a fix, making them illegal, or using just one per game. I see that point but would miss the fun choices they pose. Thus I suggest a eurogame type fix of keeping them legal and just as easy to do, but at the very costly penalty of moving the turn track an extra space forward.

7) The game differentiates between the game's "AI" behavior of two different groupings of Indian tribes, basically reservation and independent. It makes sense, but it's too much time-consuming detail for little impact on the game. He also suggests not using them in his designer notes. So I think the game would be better if the Indians and their regions were not included, and other regions thereby enlarged.

8) Some of the rules are awkward. First of all, let's repeat that some of the rules achieve clean, simple design which is satisfying, like the role of generals, and choice between Union naval use in blockade, transport, or river. I enjoyed playing those rules quite a bit.

I wish the whole game were as clean. For example, the rules about naval v. gunboat landing is confusing... but not fatally so. The effort it takes to read and sort out things like that is a little discouraging. A second example, how generals retreat from battle if their army is destroyed... they aren't limited to the point-to-point movement? In one of my sessions, I found I had to figure out what to do with Lee trapped in defeated Richmond. Can he skip to the next adjacent territory despite no free point-to-point line? It's either unclear or clunky (or I'm wrong somehow).

In general, there are an endurable amount of fiddly rules, special cases and situations. To be clear, it's not bad, but it's not great either. As I mentioned, some of the rules work so well without straining... if only it could all be like that.

Conclusion

Is it possible for any solitaire game to achieve greatness? I don't know. So at the risk of crazy and inappropriate idealism, I would prefer a more consistently cleaner system and map which gives the basic strategic choices of the war. I guess I'm saying I'd be willing to give up some of the relative detail for a consistently cleaner system that gives quick, strategic choices. I think it's important not just for "elegance" but because it faces by nature an especially difficult challenge faced by any solitaire boardgame. And the rules, map elements, and situations that the designer himself questions for reasons I agree with, and wish the game addressed directly.

This is a matter of taste, and it's to the inexpensive game's credit that it achieves part of what I want.
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Barry Kendall
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I was one of the playtesters for this game back in the spring. I'll let Dave reply to the "General retreats" question.

I'm glad you found a lot of positives in the game. I was impressed at how much ACW flavor Dave was able to distill into this tiny package; in my own opinion, it is a better game than "A House Divided" in this respect.

From the numerous plays required in testing, I will say that the few aspects you found unduly complex become important for replay value. A simpler game would play more cleanly, but after a few plays, you want some of those "extras."

I also felt this way about the Western theater. My impression was that the designer wanted to represent the major aspects of the whole war, and in particular the "Anaconda" strategy of cutting the Mississippi, blockading the coast, and containing, then collapsing, the Confederate land armies through reduction of the Southern agricultural/industrial base.

The Western theater, though peripheral to these concerns, was a part of the war--a wild and woolly part--and I enjoyed seeing it represented even on the small scale of the game. The Western Confederates occasionally pose enough of a threat for a Union player pursuing a Mississippi/Western strategy to take heed to his rear--a desirable consideration, I think.

My strongest tip for players: Build seagoing naval units at the maximum allowable rate. The sooner their impact is felt, the better for Northern flexibility. Second, contain Lee. You don't have to beat him early; just contain him. Third, conquer the Mississippi (your seagoing fleets will help here at just about the time you need them to aid the downriver advance, if you've been keeping William Webb and Cramp's shipyards busy.

Give this one a few more plays. I found myself overlooking some rules in each of the early games--the multiple victory conditions in particular at first--but every time I played, I enjoyed it.

Unlike some of the games I've playtested--the term should be "worktested" if you've done your job as a tester--this is one I'll continue to enjoy actually PLAYING in the future. Sometimes, the extensive and intensive focus on the game simply wears out its fascination by the time the testing process is done.

But this one is really a lot of fun, particularly for those who have a strong interest in Union strategies.
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Pete Gelman
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Thanks Barry for your comments. I think you make good points, and you've played the game more than I have.
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Jeremy Fridy
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Just a little quib, you don't need to take ALL of the ports to break the South. You must make them gain no builds on their turn. 2 of the 4 builds are based on taking areas, you stop them or you don't.

But the others are based on die rolls. They must roll over your blockade and over the number of ports you control. If they fail to get any troops, you win.

Good reports.
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Kirk Allton
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What about those of us who would much rather don the Gray? Is there an option at all to play the South?
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Fredrik Appelberg
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Nice session report and/or review

I was in pretty much the same situation as you last night, and as I had a hankering for some wargaming action I decided to download this game and have a go. I'm glad I did.

I like that there's a lot of decisions to be made, especially in the early game. I agonized over every single army and ship, wondering if perhaps there was a better way of concentrating the forces. And general Lee, with his +3 bonus, is a genuinely scary guy.

Overall a very fun and balanced games, with mechanics that integrate with each other beautifully. There are some edge cases that the rules do not cover, for example what happens when you attack an army in a fort, win a decisive victory but only the defending army is removed while the fort remains (I decided that the attacker would have to retreat). But I can live with that.
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James O'Grady
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You only need a general to attack on land, or by river. Naval movement (even to attack!) doesn't need one, neither does moving through friendly or occupied territory. In my game this evening, I kept moving one army by sea to reinforce McClellan, but then Lee kept pounding away and I fell to European intervention. Good game!
 
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