Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Portable Wilson's Creek

I realised the other week that, after playing a game of HOTT on the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, I hadn't commemorated any further American Civil War anniversaries since then. This is odd, and a source of some annoyance, as I have a bit of a soft spot for the ACW and have allowed the anniversaries of virtually all of the battles that interest me pass by unremarked.

I have decided, therefore, to try and make up for it by playing some of them, even if it's only in the most basic way. To this end I have ordered a copy of the 2010 release of 'Battle Cry'. However this is my Christmas present from Catherine, so even when it arrives (and I hope it arrives soon) I won't be allowed to touch it until December 25th (giving me six days to get ready for the 150th anniversary of the battle of Stone's River).

One battle I wanted to refight was the 1861 battle of Wilson's Creek, one of the earliest 'big' battles of the war. It's an unusual battle, and a difficult one to wargame, involving a numerically inferior Union army attacking an encamped Confederate one.

I have been following Bob Cordery's Wargames Miscellany, and the development of his Portable Wargame, and thought that it would be an ideal way of fighting Wilson's Creek as a quick solo game. The Portable Wargame is played on a square or hex grid, and with Battle Cry at the forefront of my mind I realised that I could use the map and terrain tiles from Memoir '44. My ACW figures are 6mm, on roughly 2cm bases, so a number of them would fit into the hexes as units.

I decided all this last night, just before I went to bed, and set myself the task of  playing the battle this evening - mostly because it would be the last chance I'd have of doing so until the weekend, and I was keen for the off. Once I get these things in my system I have to get on with them. With hindsight this was a mistake.

Research? Very little specifically for the game. I went with what was in my head, supplemented by a quick read of the relevant chapter in Donald Featherstone's 'Battle Notes For Wargamers'. The latter gave me a map to work with. I drew up the orders of battle at lunchtime, quickly checking them against those for a Johnny Reb scenario when I got home. I came up with the following (all units regular unless otherwise stated):

Union - One Commander (Lyon), six units of Infantry (one of which is Elite), one unit of Cavalry and two units of Artillery.  9 units total, for an Exhaustion Level of 3.

Confederate - One Commander (Price), eight units of Infantry (four of which are Poor), three units of Cavalry and two units of Artillery. 13 units total for an Exhaustion level of 5.

I also jotted down some rule changes and addition. I didn't want to use lots of markers or do book-keeping, so wanted to avoid stepped loses. But I wasn't keen on the Portable Wargame's idea of units being instantly destroyed by a single bad roll. So I compromised. I can live with one marker, so I came up with the idea of a hit disordering a unit. A second roll may see it destroyed, and a second disorder automatically destroys a unit. A disordered unit is marked as such, but can give up either its move or fire action for the turn in order to make a rally attempt. This is a single D6 roll, with a couple of adjustments - success means that the marker is removed. Infantry rally better than Artillery or Cavalry. In addition I added in rules for dismounting (the Portable Wargame mentions Dismounted Cavalry as a troop type, but doesn't cover how Cavalry switches from one mode to the other). A few other minor tweaks and I was ready with a set of rules.

Oh, I came up with some ideas for how the camps would work - the Confederates would start in camps, marked by tents, and the nature of each unit would only be revealed when the camp was attacked or if it could be activated, a die roll being done for this each turn. Camps would be vulnerable to combat, giving the Union a chance to inflict some Confederate casualties before they could bring their numbers to bear.

Home from work. I dragged out the figures I'd need, and sorted them into units. I found the tents (made, oddly enough, for a Fire and Fury refight of Wilson's Creek which was filmed by the BBC back in about 2000). And I set up the board:

The stream is Wilson's Creek (fordable), and the rest of the terrain is hills. There's one group of buildings for the Sharp House and surrounding fields. I only used two sectors of the Memoir '44 board as The Portable Wargame is designed for a confined playing area - two sectors gave me a 9 hex by 9 hex space, and made better use of my supply of terrain pieces. To the right you can see the armies sorted out into units.

Here's a close-up of the tents:

They're folded squares of paper, glued to a flocked base and painted to look like off-white canvas. Cheap, simple and surprisingly effective.

The Union army:

And the Confederates:

And so I was set to play the battle. The union Cavalry and one Infantry unit were placed at one end of the board, representing Sigel's flanking force. The rest of the Union troops were at the other end, representing the main Union body. The Elite units (Plummer's US regulars) was placed on the opposite side of the creek to the other troops. Price was placed with a tent; his army would be revealed as the camps woke up.

I started the battle.

And  I gave up after two turns.

The problem was that I was tired after a long day, and was attempting to play a set of rules I'd not used before in addition to scenario specific rules that I hadn't really thought out. My brain was too tired to make stuff up on the fly. I have to say that I found the close combat (where units roll not to be hit) unintuitive.

What I had played was looking 'right'. Sigel had surprised the Confederates, but was coming under pressure, the main Union force was about to make its presence felt, Plummer's troops had routed a camp, and Confederate troops were slowly forming up to meet the attack.

There's a good, playable game here. But I think I will have to spend what spare time I have before the weekend sorting out the main, and scenario-specific, rules before I do a proper game. I may even switch to a different set if something comes to mind.

Moral? Midweek's a bad time to start a new gaming project.


  1. Kaptain Kobold,

    I am glad to see that you gave the rules a tryout even if you were too tired to play through more than a couple of moves.

    You are not the first person to express the opinion that the Close Combat mechanism is counterintuitive. In its defence, all I can say is that it works.

    I will look at the possibility of making it more 'intuitive' (i.e. where players throw to see if they have 'hit' the enemy rather than to see if they have been 'hit') and make this available as an option for players to download from the website. This may take a day or two, but I will try to have it available by the weekend.

    All the best,


    1. I think it's possible to underestimate the importance of rules being intuitive. Even simple things like combat modifiers being a plus or minus can be made easier to remember if there's a logic to them.

      I did find the close combat mechanism a little static. It didn't help that the first combat I had was between two cavalry units, who saved against each other on a 2+. This meant that they just sat facing each other with nothing happening, and it somehow seemed wrong.

  2. Looks fantastic though. I like the scenery and the flexibility it offers.

    Someone did some ECW rules for the Portable Wargame and I must (when time permits) have a go at transforming these into a Japanese 16C set of rules. Ashigaru for the win!


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