Magister Ludi
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Fremantle
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The Road to Vicksburg: battle of Champions Hill
Strategy & Tactics magazine #103
1985




While the casual observer of my game collection ( along with my better half) may have cause to query the number I own, I always hasten to point out that I have a long term plan to one day punch out and play them all. Although this may require me to hang around till well after my 100th birthday, it's a challenge I'm willing to stick around for.

The other point that is generally not understood by any but a fellow Grognard is that 'magazine games' which make up approximately a third of my collection are useful not only for the game they contain, but for the historical and other articles they covered.

Therefore, in the interests of meeting my goal and due to a recent lack of large table space, I recently grabbed this 25 year old copy of the venerable
S & T magazine. This issue focussed on Grant and in particular his operational masterpiece, The Vicksburg campaign in 1863. The game contained therein however, is really a grand tactical level examination of one of the numerous battles prior to the Siege of Vicksburg proper.

The simulation game in this issue is based on SPI's venerable 'Blue & Gray' system, which first manifested itself in the' Napoleon at Waterloo' game, so interested readers should immediately be aware that we are not talking state of the art in terms of systems here. Having said that, what some recent plays both solitaire and face to face revealed is that sometimes 'less is more' and the accusation of 'simple' does not necessarily mean 'dumb'.

Components


In reviewing the game I like to start with components and I'll include the magazine as an integral part of the whole as this game was never issued separately. Let's start with the magazine cover. This issue was done under the ownership of TSR, who had control of S & T from issues #91-111. I guess D & D wasn't a full time job for many of their art staff, so it was also the era of the painted cover, as opposed to S & T under the auspices of Redmond Simonsen. As covers go for this period, this was one of the less lurid.

The map was fairly muted, but both it and the required 100 counters definitely suffered from some of the teeniest typeface known to man. Whilst this wouldn't have been considered too much of an issue to me personally 25 yrs ago, I was struggling to read counter designations this time around and these are quite important in terms of the numerous exceptions for movement and activation that need to be followed. The battlefield is portrayed as heavily wooded in parts, with a few key roads and bridges. A helpful bonus is having Victory point locations marked on the map.



The actual combat units deployed by each side is incredibly low in the historical scenario and our playings revealed that there never seemed to be enough units to deal with every crisis point on the battlefield. An optional scenario gives the Confederate player a whole bunch of additional units, but unless you choose to play this version then they are straight back in the counter baggie.



The rules followed the standard SPI case format, which many consider too legalistic, but I actually find easy to follow. Given that the basic game system ( odds based combat, strict Zone of Control rules etc) was tried and true for the level of battle it was portraying, any player familiar with the basic system can quickly scan the rules and focus on any 'special' rules and hence have the game set up and commenced in a short space of time.

Game Play

Viewed objectively the Blue & Gray system just isn't up to scratch compared with the advances in simulation gaming over the last few years. It has some incredibly annoying anomalies, like the 'exchange' combat result, wherein a large combat unit may be destroyed in 3-1 or larger odds attack for the loss of a small defending unit...this in fact happened to me as the Union player on GT 1, with a 8 point unit in the dead pile with the resulting confederate casualty a 2 point unit.

The combat result table, based on a simple odds calculation of attacker to defender, leads to players piling on the odd factor in defiance of normal logic to achieve a 2-1 attack rather than a 1-1 attack and losses generally coming as a result of retreats being blocked by enemy ZOC's, rather than straight up elimination. OK, this may be well known, but you know, it's fun..the kind of fun that has seen many modern CDG games have a combat system based on throwing dice and counting '6's' as hits. Whilst my opponent alternated between grins at my unlucky rolls and griping at his, we both found we were taunting each other just before rolling the dice and groaning or cheering at the outcome, without even needing to refer to the Combat Results chart, so embedded had it become. I dunno, but if that sounds a little bit Axis & Allies, a little bit beer & pretzels well then so be it, because we also found that the situation itself was pretty interesting.

Whilst Champions Hill was a fairly small scale battle and apparently not too widely known ( the map would appear to be based on some best guesses), the simulation is interesting as both sides have opportunity for attacks and defence. Whilst the US player would appear to have the numerical edge, he is severely hampered for the first few game turns with some units quartered in strength and unable to enter enemy ZOC's unless attacked first. The initial Confederate position atop wooded slopes is also tough and frontal assaults are generally not going to be effective, so time must be taken to manoeuvre them out of position and in fact suckering them into making low odds attacks themselves.

Around GT 5, the Confederates can try for release of some divisions that cover their right flank and if successful their strength is tripled for their first attack. While this caught me out in our game I can see that repeated plays would lead to some gaminess by the US player on this flank to pull back to better defensible terrain, rather than pressing the attack as the strategic situation would have demanded.

The battle essentially breaks down for the US player as a watching brief on their left flank, a ponderous push in the centre through heavily wooded terrain and the main action occurring on their right flank, with bold manoeuvre and reckless advances after combat required to crack the Confederate position and capture the key VP locations.

My friend and I didn't in fact finish our last game of this as the writing was on the wall for the US player about half way through due to some crippling 'exchange' results, but in the after battle pack up we both agreed that it had been an interesting scenario and that we could possibly be up for a rematch with changed sides to avenge honour and assuage humiliation and for a simple little game in a subscription magazine from yesteryear you can't really ask for any more than that.
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Robert
United States
Johns Creek
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Great review thumbsup I played this game, oh some 20 years ago, at least. I remember buying it and thinking I was getting a GBACW title. Disappointed at first, I think I enjoyed the game, though. Back then, all games were awesome in our eyes. The wargamer sophistication came later, with the internet (and eventually the Geek)
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Scott Clinton
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"The combat result table, based on a simple odds calculation of attacker to defender, leads to players piling on the odd factor in defiance of normal logic to achieve a 2-1 attack rather than a 1-1 attack and losses generally coming as a result of retreats being blocked by enemy ZOC's, rather than straight up elimination. "

It has been standard accepted knowlege that (in general) an attacker should not even attempt an attack unless they have at *least* a 2-1 advantage. 3-1 odds actually being the generally quoted acceptable ratio.

So, with that in mind I am not sure what to make of your review. :-/

GG
 
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Steven Bucey
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Lancaster
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I think the point about the odds is that players usually spend a lot of time optimizing their unit placements to achieve desired odds in several attacks - if I have six units against your three, which way can I stack my units and move them adjacent to yours to ensure I get three 2-1 odds attacks.

Also, the 3-1 "rule" generally meant more at the operational level - total forces committed to the entire battle - rather than individual engagements within a battle. During the ACW individual engagements were still very much linear affairs -- you can only have so many men in a certain space shooting; the rest are "standing by". So, certainly, the Big Battalions may have an endurance advantage providing their morale holds out and the "standby's take the place of the fallen, but then that's why we roll the die. Where the 3-1 advantage would come in would be the ability of the larger force to flank the defending force, not for the 6th Division to flank the 5th brigade.

On the other hand, as the war dragged on and the defenders learned to dig in and fortify as quickly as possible, even the best leaders found that no matter the odds they often couldn't defeat the defender without crippling losses (Cold Harbor, for instance, being the best such example).
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Lee Trowbridge
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Enjoyed the review!

I, too have had this game since publication, unpunched, unplayed. Then last summer was I planning a trip to Vicksburg and thought I'd do some "research", dragged it out, made an ADC module for it played it quite a few times before and on the trip. The game is not state of the art, but I thought it gave a pretty good idea of the problems faced by the two sides if you don't look too closely at the details of individual combats.

My impression was that the terrain in the map is awful for a battle (all rough, woods, or both). Then I drove out to the site of the battle. It was a lot like the map! Terrible place for a battle. (I'm speaking general impression, not details, here).

Re. Unreasonable exchange losses: A simple (variant) fix I have used in many games to overcome this "insult to the intelligence" is to award the loser of "excess" factors an equivalent number of replacement points.
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Mattias Fall
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Nice review. My biggest problem with this system was the fact that the same odds-based chart is used for bombardment. Artillery has a better chance of inflicting casualties on a small unit than a big one. I really dislike this, and it would have been so easy to include a bombardment table without making the game more complex.
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Dougie LB
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Mattias Persson wrote:
Nice review. My biggest problem with this system was the fact that the same odds-based chart is used for bombardment. Artillery has a better chance of inflicting casualties on a small unit than a big one. I really dislike this, and it would have been so easy to include a bombardment table without making the game more complex.


I doubt anyone will read this but as I was driving back from the airport yesterday I considered Matthias's problem and came up with the following hypothesis for Artillery using the normal CRT:

1. Artillery units when firing on infantry should be well enough aimed to hit the target area regardless of size of the target unit.
2. The same number of guns firing should inflict roughly the same number of casualties regardless of size of the target unit.
3. A small unit taking the same number of casualties as a large unit is likely to break/retreat earlier: 50 casualties on a 300 strength unit is 16.66% whereas 50 casualties on a 700 strength unit is 7.14% - given equal morale the larger unit will probably hold for longer.
4. Given the scope of the Blue & Gray system, unit morale, formation, facing etc is factored into the unit strength and so larger units are affected less than smaller ones - without step losses it is difficult to see how a bombardment table would change anything as big units should be able to absorb more punishment than small ones on the whole.

Just my thoughts.

I like the Blue & Gray system as it is quick and easy to play. If I want more rules/tables/chrome/detail etc I pick out a GBACW like Wilson's Creek or even Terrible Swift Sword!
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