Pete Belli
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There is fascinating movie scene in the courtroom drama Philadelphia. An attorney (Denzel Washington) is listening to his client (Tom Hanks) explain the complicated sequence of events which resulted in the destruction of his career. Growing slightly frustrated with the lengthy narrative, the attorney says, "Explain this to me like I'm two years old."

I read dozens of books about the American Civil War as a boy. One of my favorites was Mr. Lincoln's Army, part of a trilogy written by Bruce Catton. These books chronicled the Army of the Potomac and this first volume ended after the battle of Antietam. Absorbing this information at such a tender and impressionable age profoundly affected my understanding of the campaign. It wasn't until years later that I learned my respected guide to the ACW in Virginia got a lot of stuff wrong.

Antietam is a game about this American Civil War engagement which does explain the confusing and complex battle like we're 12 years old. That has positive and negative ramifications. It was part of the popular SPI Blue & Gray QuadriGame series published in the 1970s. These small quads were originally produced in groups of four games which shared a common basic system. Each individual game had its own rule booklet which contained special rules for that battle or campaign.





This ingenious linked rules format allowed a player to learn the basic framework and move smoothly between the other games in that package. SPI emphasized one important concept with all of the QuadriGames: the need for playability took precedence over the desire for realism when simulating the historical event. Most of these little tidbits were great for introducing new players to the wargame hobby and they might have offered an entertaining play experience for Grognards taking a break from more complex games. A few of these designs achieved the ultimate goal of being fun to play while also creating reasonably accurate military simulations.

Antietam depicts an attempt by a Union force led by McClellan to turn back the Confederate invasion of Maryland in 1862. The battle took place at the end of a long series of complicated maneuvers but Robert E. Lee refused to allow the Federals to exploit their momentum and drive the Rebels across the Potomac without a fight. The actual battlefield objectives of McClellan have been clouded by controversy and by the general's post-war attempt to restore his reputation. There is evidence to suggest that "Little Mac" expected Lee to fight a delaying action at Sharpsburg before the Confederates fell back into Virginia. That outcome would have suited the cautious McClellan perfectly.





Each of these SPI folio games contained a small 17” X 22” map and 100 counters. The crisp graphics are classic Redmond Simonsen. Unfortunately, the map for Antietam is one of the less attractive designs with an unispired treatment of the road network that looks like a spaghetti plate. The actual battlefield featured a variety of interesting terrain types but such specialized depictions were beyond the scope of the SPI quads. To be fair, the subtle texture of the landscape would be difficult to portray without adding extra complexity. However, the map would be much improved by shifting the area covered by the hexgrid slightly to the south and west. This would allow the board to include more terrain near the Potomac. I would like to have seen landmarks like The Cornfield, The West Woods, and Nicodemus Hill specifically shown on the map.





The counters for Antietam are primarily infantry brigades. The Confederates are supported by numerous artillery formations and a couple of cavalry units. The outnumbered Rebel player is given two big divisions which can smite the Yankee hordes. The selection of A.P. Hill's division was an obvious choice since that formation played such a decisive role in the battle. The other division under Walker is an acceptable option but I would have preferred to see Hood's small but ferocious division. The Union force includes some cavalry brigades but the Federal artillery is represented by three abstract units which are intended to recreate the power of the Yankee rifled cannon. These immobile formations have a longer range and do provide a faint shadow of the historical situation. In a battle the Rebels called "Artillery Hell" the Union guns should have a special significance.

The order of battle is quite acceptable for a game of this type but I wish the designer had omitted some of the optional reinforcements. He could have included more Rebel brigades which actually fought at Antietam (instead of the big divisions) and added a Union artillery unit or two. The Federal guns in the I Corps sector played a huge part in wrecking the Rebel counterattack. The game is delightfully free of any errata I could find on the internet. While we’re on that subject, I decided to play this game straight out of the box just as if I had purchased it new in the era of Farrah Fawcett and Loni Anderson. No variants or house rules were used.

Since younger Geeks might not be familiar with the SPI quads I’ll provide a quick summary of the movement and combat rules. Units must stop when they enter an enemy zone of control (the six hexes adjacent to a unit) and units may not voluntarily leave an enemy ZOC. All adjacent formations must be attacked during a player’s turn but a skillful general will position his artillery units (which can fire from two or three hexes away) to bombard adjacent units he doesn’t want to assault with his infantry.

The proper sequencing of attacks and retreats presents a real challenge for both commanders and this delicate web of options is what makes the quads fun to play. When using the optional “Attack Effectiveness” rule a general must exercise great discretion when committing his troops to battle because a unit repulsed during an assault loses the ability to attack until it is rallied during a night game turn. Since the Combat Results Table includes numerous brutal “Exchange” results which destroy units on both sides of the firing line the decision to launch a large attack at high odds (calculated using strength ratios like 2-1, 3-1, etc.) can be painful.





The real objective of any SPI QuadriGame review must be a focus on the special rules for the individual game. Antietam earns a B- in this category. There are three primary elements which need to be discussed. The first section deals with the Union command restrictions and the second section covers the victory conditions. The third element will be the optional rules.

The rules that restrict the number of Federal units which can be moved during a turn are a necessary evil. Without bogging the player down with a blather of complicated mumbo-jumbo the designer has created a simple rule which attempts to recreate the historical situation. Under most conditions the Union player may only move 10 units during a turn… there are no restrictions on the number of unit which may attack. (I suggest gathering some poker chips and using them to record the number of Union formations that have been moved.) If the Rebel player is foolish enough to push a brigade across Antietam Creek and energize McClellan the Union player may move all of the Yankee units during a turn.

Is this an accurate simulation of the psychological struggle between "Little Mac" and Bobby Lee?

Not really, but the incredibly complex mental structure that formed the foundation for McClellan's decision process can't be portrayed by simple QuadriGame rules. McClellan was a naturally cautious general. He believed Lee's army outnumbered his own... although the actual ratio was approximately 75000 Yankees to 35000 Rebels. McClellan did not intend to have a knock-down, drag-out fight with Lee at Antietam. There were other considerations in McClellan's mind, many of them quite legitimate.

For more information and a discussion of the subject, please take a few minutes to read this BGG article:

What is victory? McClellan at Antietam

The game also includes rules for a Confederate command restrictions. Although the reason is not mentioned in the Designer's Notes, the Confederate brigades which can't move on the first turn had just completed a blistering night march from Harper's Ferry.

Victory conditions are another thorny subject. The outcome of the battle was affected by several psychological factors. McClellan had suffered a sort of command abdication during the battle, primarily remaining at his headquarters and taking almost no direct action during the fighting. Most of his corps and division commanders did not serve him well when it came to displaying energy and initiative. The aggressive Confderate response disrupted McClellan's preconceptions and the heavy Union losses deeply disturbed this general who thought of these soldiers as his own children.

The confident Rebel troops had been encouraged by the capture of Harper's Ferry but the Rebel commanders were initially disconcerted by the sudden activity of McClellan after he discovered the famous Lost Orders. However, the defensive positions Lee selected along Antietam Creek were skillfully aligned. Although the Confederates were short of supplies and thousands of men had been left behind during the rapid march from Virginia the soldiers on the firing line were the best of the best.

Lee essentially spent the entire battle reacting to Federal thrusts until the arrival of A.P. Hill led to the collapse of McClellan's attack. This is not a problem in game terms because the Confederate player in Antietam is free to conduct major counterattacks in a manner which is absolutely consistent with the historical situation. However, creating a victory point system to duplicate the historical event seems to be an almost insurmountable challenge for a design requiring uncluttered rules.

The victory conditions are adequate but have been tinkered with using sneaky and slightly malodorous methods. Both players are awarded victory points for the destuction of enemy units based on the brigade's strength point value. Fair enough, but possibly questionable from the perspective of history. If Lee had inflicted another 5000 casualties on the Union army and still retreated Lincoln would certainly have claimed a victory at Antietam. McClellan would have been heartbroken by the casualties but in terms of the larger Federal war effort in 1862 the arithmetic of death was not a primary consideration. It would have been interesting to see a "demoralization" rule that was triggered when McClellan's losses reached a certain level.

There are 15 victory points available for the player controlling the four hexes of Sharpsburg. This might seem odd at first glance (the town had no military value) but this is entirely appropriate in the larger context of the rules. Lee needed to maintain a cohesive line. The roads to the Potomac River ford -- the Rebel army's only escape route -- all ran through Sharpsburg. Instead of a complicated "continuous front" rule the designer used a clever gimmick to achieve similar results. (While were on the subject of Sharpsburg, brigades should never be doubled on defense in town hexes. That isn't the way Civil War soldiers fought.)

The strategic key to the entire battlefield is the road leading to the ford near the edge of the map and the rules reflect this by requiring Lee to maintain a line of communications to the river crossing. Of course, the Confedrate player can change the course of history by exploiting McClellan's weak points and smashing into the Union flank beyond Nicodemus Hill. Jackson was certainly eager to launch such an attack.

While the game often follows a pattern close to historical events I enjoy trying different tactics. As the Union player I want to stretch the Rebel line by fooling around along the creek beyond Burnside's Bridge. I avoid a direct frontal assault on Jackson near The Cornfield but always try to destroy Pelham's horse artillery on the first turn even if I risk an "Exchange" on the CRT. As the Confederate player I don't launch bloody counterattacks like Stonewall Jackson and Hood but attempt to conserve my brigades. The aggressive Rebel commander should be willing to risk 1-1 attacks that push Yankee units out of a Confderate ZOC because this might force McClellan to expend extra command points.

The optional rules dealing with the recovery of Attack Effectiveness can add something to the game... use them. Some of the optional reinforcements were a waste of counters that could have been deployed in the original order of battle. The rules for Union initiative are historically implausible but can be used to balance the game when introducing Antietam to a new wargame Geek.

Antietam could be an enjoyable little game if you simply accept it for what it is. Not sure I could particularly recommend it as a learning tool for a new player unless the more experienced wargamer took the Confederate side and pumped up Little Mac's confidence level. The game offers a sort of "CliffsNotes" version of the battle which does indeed explain it like we're 12 years old.
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Gordon Stewart
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Very thoughtful review full of great insights!
For a simple explanation; Antietam's South is
like Bruce Lee, fighting off Little Mac's out-numbering
but uncoordinated attacks one at a time.
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Chris Hansen
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An excellent write up and some good insight on the inner workings of the mind of one of the Civil War's most controversial generals, McClellan. An organizational genius with no small amount of charisma with the troops, he lacked the internal steel required to make proper use of the weapon he had forged. I have always like the referenced quote by U.S. Grant in the photo section on him "McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war."

As for the game itself, I have always found it odd that the Union player is placed in a rather different command perspective than the Confederate player. To be more specific, whereas on one side, the Confederate, the player is clearly in the role of the overall commander, Robert E. Lee, the Union player is forced into being some kind of odd intermediary subordinate with the actual supreme commander being 'played' by the game mechanics. Yet without the restrictions, this battle isn't much of a game as the Confederate player gets hammered by the full weight of the Union force. Thus one needs such artificial constraints, despite the fact that they remove the Union player from his own control of the battle, and forces him to become McClellan. At least you get the chance to try and do better than his subordinates, admittedly something that's not too difficult to do in a lot of cases.

When played solitaire, or as a historical guide, this sort of thing is great fun and insightful. But as a two player game, there always seemed to be some amount of dissatisfaction in playing the Union side for this particular version of the game. It's probably why in my experience at least, that when two people wanted to play one of the games from this Quad it was almost always one of the other three battles that got more play time on the table over the years.
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Kim Meints
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Wonderful as ever Pete
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Ron Smith
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Pete:
I have the TSR version of the game, which has a rule that in the initial setup a die is rolled to decide which of 6 optional rules regarding Union Command Control and Confederate exhaustion are used.
This seems a very un-SPI (in the 70s) type of rule. Is this something that TSR came up with, or was it in the original SPI version?
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Pete Belli
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Good question.

My copy (SPI) is packed away in a plastic tote, so I can't provide an answer.
 
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