Wednesday, 28 September 2016

First Saratoga 1777

First Saratoga 1777

First Saratoga is a boardgame from the mini folio series by Decision Games. In late summer of 1777, Burgoyne's Northern Army had become isolated. The game covers Burgoyne's attempt to break through American defences at Bemis Heights to reach Albany.


The system uses a quick play version of the Musket & Saber rules that are found in the larger folio games. The following is a short AAR with observational notes.

Please hit the 'read more' tab for the rest of this post.
I have previously found the full rules hard to hold in my head, so the quick play version is most welcome. It is a bit of a shame, but this game published in 2015 did not come with the latest series rules (4 pages) that have existed in amended e-rule form since 2013. Likewise the 2 page specific scenario sheet has not been printed to reflect some changes to the combat results - again known since 2013. The changes to the series rules are available on the DG website (Also see resource section at the foot of this article). One assumes that perhaps the series is gang printed with future release dates included. I can understand that for expensive parts such as counters and maps, but the simple rules should be available in an up to date format with the game.

The game has a small footprint with a map of 11" x 17" and just 40 game counters. The map looks nice and has large hexes (small counters) but the difference between heavy and light woods terrain types is not immediately apparent, though these areas do not really get played on. You can see them once you have scanned the map for them in good light and some Q&A identifies an additional heavy wooded two hex ravine.

The system has mostly been used for Napoleonic and ACW battles, so to come to AWI the specific rules include a 'Battalions' rule to reflect the smaller formations deployed here, together with the nuances of skirmishing and rifles. The resource section (below) has a link to a blog AAR that highlights the full system.

Setting up - 
The American forces are largely behind earthworks on Bemis Heights, with some capacity to put units further forward, which I used to block the British advance.

The British start off map in three columns, arriving on three different trails. 

Opening turns -
The game starts with fog, which significantly slows the British movement. As the game progresses, there are differing chances (including 100%) for the fog to lift. It can return on turns 6 and 7. The British will be aware that they are up against the clock as there are 7 turns.

In our game, they get lucky and the fog lifts on turn 2. The left and right British columns are almost certainly always going to use the roads to get them onto the enemy flanks. The early decision for the British player is where to send the centre column. It can advance through the centre, which is lightly wooded and looks like an obstacle, but in practice is not. Or it can move over to either flank to support one of the two other columns.

I chose to push through in the centre.

By turn 3, the British had reached the first American positions. On the left Riedesel attacked successfully, having outflanked the earthworks, but a counter-attack, supported by artillery on Bemis Heights pushed them back over the stream.

As well as supporting attacks, artillery can also bombard alone and are quite powerful in this regard as they simply uses their firepower value on the differential table without deducting the enemy defence from that value and likewise skirmishes and rifles are capable as they use their movement factors on the combat differential table

While the Colonial forces include a couple of battalion formations, all the British forces are battalion strength and they are single step units, so are fragile.  Also, if  battalions retreat, they are flipped to their ineffective side (like artillery and leaders), which basically gives them much reduced operating values and they will take at least a turn to recover. By contrast, the Colonials have several regimental sized units (strength 7) and a couple of militia regiments, which are double steppers and so more resilient.

On the right, the British were just getting into position to assault. Combat is not mandatory, but if a player doesn't attack a valid unit (ZOC related), then that unit can counter-attack at the end of that Combat Phase at double strength against any unit, even moving 1 hex to reach an attack position and that can be quite punishing. Note in the photo (right), the unit with a yellow counter is a Colonial battalion that has just routed from this situation, leaving the New York Regiment exposed to envelopment if it does not retreat.

Mid game - 
The attack on the left wing had ground to a halt, but over on the right the British were pressing on the high ground (a victory location) east of Bemis Heights. Within a couple of turns, they had routed the defenders and taken the hill. 

Colonial units started to move across to this flank, but it took time, especially as the militia units (pale blue) have to pass a morale test to go adjacent to an enemy. The one in the photograph failed its morale test twice before taking its place in the line.

At this point, British casualties were higher than the colonials, but holding this high ground would give them the game if they hang onto it.

End game -  
In the last two turns of the game, the colonials were successful in pushing the British off the high ground. The British took heavy casualties and the retreats forced their battalions to flip over to their ineffective side. 

In the final turn, the fog returned, curtailing Riedesel's attempts to push through the Colonial centre onto Bemis Heights, not that there was enough time for them to reach the two hexes up there that would give the British a sudden death victory (one being Gates HQ).

As time was called, it went to casualties. The British had lost 7 units, the Colonials just 3, making them clear winners.

Conclusions - 
I really like the idea of the small format game combined with enough system to make the play interesting and the nuances that crop up are very engaging. However, the rules still feel awkward at times. It was not helped that I had to download the latest rules, which are formatted into an 11 page text, this is against the convenience of the 4 page official rule folder, which actually holds the same volume of text, so those 11 pages are really the same as 4. It would be easier if the game had included an updated CRT results, as this more than anything else is what I had to keep diving into my downloaded rules for.

Despite the this, I like the small footprint and of what the rules set out to achieve, so I have ordered the sister game 'Germantown'. The inclusion of battalions, skirmishes and rifles does help bring Saratoga a period feel.

Solitaire value - This is a two player game that plays fine solitaire.

Time - The rules read quickly, but the first game will be spent with quite a lot of rule referencing. A second game will go more more smoothly and my games have been taking around an hour to complete.

Size - It doesn't come much smaller than this, making it suitable for many domestic situations and ideal to take away as a vacation game. My downloaded sheets, home made cheat sheet and the official rules became a bit messy to manage. If they could only get their included rules updated to avoid the downloads, then this would be perfect.

Complexity - The quick play version is rated as low (1 out of 5), which I feel is an underestimation of what the player faces. Despite being the quick play set, that is a relative term compared to the clunky full rules and this shortened version still has quite a lot of system (the rules plus scenario information comprise 6 pages in a 3 column format and are without illustrations). You get an engaging game, but there is quite a bit trucked away in one liners and there is ambiguity that still needs to be written out. This creates a learning curve that can be conquered after an initial play or two, but if you put the game away for any length of time, there is a re-learning curve on some of of the points (writing out some game notes for future use helps here). There are quite a few games in the series now, so it may be the case that a typical player will become increasingly familiar with the rules due to repeated play potential. I would rate the game as complexity as closer to 2 (out of 5).

I find myself pleased with the system and wanting some more and I am glad that Decision Games put out a Quick Play set, but this is tainted by some frustration that there is still more rule referencing than I care for. It should also be mentioned that these games can be had for around £10 or less and at that price, gamers may well feel it worth getting just to see whether the system suits them.

1/ A write up of the full system using the Shiloh folio game

2/ The following are the main rule amendments that will interest players of this game;

7.5 Combat Results. Change the definition of Ax or Dx to read: 

Ax or Dx = Attacker Loss or Defender Loss. The affected unit loses a step (7.7); no advance or retreat is made. 

Also, bombardments satisfy the need to attack an enemy unit. 

7.6 Retreats & the SLR. Under the Unsafe Line of Retreat, a unit takes a loss before it routs again. Change the Unsafe Line of Retreat to read: 

Unsafe Line of Retreat: This is identical to the SLR but passes through an unnegated EZOC and/or ends in an EZOC. In this case, the unit takes a loss (7.7), then routs from the unsafe hex. A unit may take a loss and rout any number of times until it no longer has a line of retreat or retreats off the map.

3/ I run a wargames website called COMMANDERS


  1. I've not considered a DG offering for many years. My experience has been that game design is often underdeveloped and components are not state of the art. Still, I pick up the occasional S&T. Perhaps I should reconsider? Appreciate your review!

  2. I used to buy a lot of DG out and now I don't for the reasons you highlight.

  3. Thanks for this write up and getting back into blogging! Always enjoy it when I see a new Norm post in my newsreader :)

    I got a couple Decision Games in the past but the sloppy implementation put me off. I really like what they're trying to do in this space and think there is ample market of cost- and/or space-conscious consumers who would really benefit from these folio-style games. Unfortunately DG's slipshod implementations really ruin the experience and make it too frustrating. A little more attention to detail would go a long way but that seems to be beyond their capabilities, sadly.

  4. I like this format as well. A real commander should not have to control more than about 8-12 formations. This game pretty much hits the right command level. The rules are simple but like most board wargames these days, there does seem to be at least some fiddliness which can be hard to remember.

    I'm not really put off by the counter/map art or anything like that. I think it is a solid offering. I had no idea there was a rules errata. You are right. They should have updated the physical game!

  5. Really happy to see you back! I was thinking of what could be done to the trolls among us. My current scheme would be to send a message on their behalf to certain websites, expressing great interest in meeting their selections of young, beautiful Russian/Hungarian/Filipino/etc. brides who are seeking generous American gentlemen. The resulting spam in the trolls' mailboxes should keep them too busy to slam anybody.

    Helpfully yours,


  6. Thanks all, I enjoyed getting back into the saddle and dabbled with a slightly differerent format (start - mid - end game points and mixing observations into the game notes).

    Chris, my approach to my browsing time now is to just visit those places that are of a positive and creative nature. On blogs alone, there is so much blog stuff around now that you can easily select the ones that match your interests and create yourself a virtual bespoke magazine experience - how good is that!

  7. Hi Norm, welcome back! Your blog was sadly missed. Thanks for the review of Saratoga, very helpful.I have Saalfeld which is also a very nice little game.


  8. Hi Jay - liked the look of your recent 'aquisitions'. I did a Saalfeld blog post and enjoyed the scenario as it has more cavalry than usual in these games, it just adds a different perspective. The series has a lot of potential and of course are small enough to have at least part of the action transferred across to figure and hex games, something that I intend to explore as these 1/2 inch counters can simply be put behind the units and would be no more obtrusive than the commonly sed dice markers are.

  9. Question: The battalions are nominally one-step units, but they have a reduced strength flip side. Doesn't a step loss eliminate them? Also, when units are stacked (e.g. 2 battalions and an artillery), must they be attacked as a group? Including by riflemen? Bombarding artillery attacks each unit separately, but do riflemen?

  10. Gosh Wayne, it is three years since I looked at this game, so here is my best shot. Units with a red stripe are single step units and are removed from play on a loss result. Their reverse side is simply to show them when they are ineffective and likewise that side also has a red stripe.

    The stacking rule (5) describes how units are attacked, so it is a single defender attacked but for results of retreat etc the hex is treated like a group and all must retreat.

    Looking in my notes, I have highlighted a sentence that 'Stacked units must attack as one and may only attack one hex', I am assuming this simply means that if he attacker is an infantry unit and artillery unit this is how they must behave.

    I recall having to dip into the full rules of bigger games (i.e. not the quick play rules in the mini-games) at times for some clarification on design intent.

    Sorry I can't be more helpful, but I would need to re-immerse myself in the game again pick up on all of the nuance and this system is nuanced ... just dashing off to work :-)

  11. Thanks so much! In some ways your answer raises more questions! (when does a unit become ineffective? I only see rules for Disorder).

    With so many battalions in this game, the stacking issue is absolutely critical. The British will VERY often have 2 battalions and an artillery piece in a hex. An American regiment could attack that hex and focus on the artillery alone? or one battalion alone?

    Your post originally indicated (I think) a link to the full rules, but I don't see it. Do you sill have one?

    I appreciate your indulgence on This. I love the DG concept for short portable games, but I also find their playtesting underdeveloped. Their Belisarius game was a disaster.

  12. Hi Wayne,
    Rule sections 8 and 9 have artillery and cavalry go ineffective when forced to retreat.

    here is a link to the DG e-rules, you need to click on the full rules tab and I think they auto download.

  13. This seems the key phrase from standard rules (note how it applies to battalions!; this is not clear in quick play rules): "Ar or Dr = Attacker retreat or Defender retreat. The owning player has a choice: either the primary unit on the affected side is disrupted (see 11.1) or all units of the affected side retreat (7.9). If the primary unit already is disrupted the retreat must be made. Retreating leaders, battalions, squadrons, and artillery become ineffective (2.8).

  14. Of note is that a two step battalion counter does not have an ineffective side!

    There must be a right answer, but I am too far removed from the memory of the rules and system right now to work that out properly. I know there was a blogger who was having similar problems,so he thought about re-writing them to make a better and non-conflicting sense. I can't remember who that was.

    I like the subject and format of the games, but the rules are unfriendly, I have a few things in the queue, but then I may return to these and try and nail these things down in a document that will make them easier to get back into for repeat play.

  15. I sat down with the rules today and used both ACW set (Salems Church) and the AWI set (Saratoga) to try and get these back into my head. I deliberately did not look at the Standard rules from the 'full' system, to keep my check of the Quick rules 'pure'.

    Artillery, Cavalry, Leaders and Battalions are all single step and have an ineffective side, triggered by retreat.

    A bar on the counter whether red or yellow, signifies a single step unit.

    The Combat results are not adequately explained, but one can assume from the text that the option to retreat / disorder on a AR / DR result is open to choice, while the AX / DX was subject to a morale test ... however, we now know due to errata that the AX / DX is auto loss and no retreat.

    Stacked units are attacked as a group, but only one infantry and one artillery within that group can use their combat value to calculate the differential (if a battalion is present, it is not limited to working with artillery, but could work with another infantry unit). If they suffer a retreat, the whole group retreats.

    Light units can be used like ordinary infantry ... or they can skirmish. A rifleman is rather like a skirmisher with better range! with the bonus that a DR will also disrupt the enemy. Basically a skirmish or rifle attack is just like a normal infantry attack except the firers cannot suffer an adverse result.

    If the British have 2 battalions and 1 artillery, then they are still only defending / attacking with 2 units (1 bat and 1 art), if the british had just two infantry regiments, then only 1 could be used, but if they had a battalion it could work with any other infantry unit including another battalion, because a battalion can be used with any ONE other unit.

    One assumes that if a third unit exists in the defenders hex and is not attacked by another source, then the 2nd para of 7.2 is active and that unit can counter-attack at double strength. It seems that artillery or one assumes rifle / skirmish fire from another hex could be that other source.

  16. I think I disagree with 2 interpretations, Norm. The first is that it seems to me that a battalion can add its factor to an infantry + artillery in its hex. When it says it can add its combat factor to any one unit, it's just saying it can't add its factor to multiple units, not that the normal rules about 1 inf + 1 art in the hex can combine. At least, that's how I see it.

    I also think that units in excess of what can defend in a hex do NOT get to make a double attack - I reason that those units are still subject to the attack (since they have to retreat if the defenders are forced to retreat). I admit this is a gray area but it seems unfair to be able to "hide" units in a stack to keep them from being attacked and then get a double attack with them!

    1. Sorry to be more specific on the battalion: if a regiment and an artillery are in a hex, I think the battalion could add its factor to the regiment, and then the hex total is the regiment (augmented by battalion) plus artillery.

  17. Hi Caleb, thanks for thoughts, yes I see what you are saying on the Battalion, it can always augment another unit, it is a sort of sub-calculation before considering the art plus Inf combination.

    Interesting point about the additional unit having counter-attack capability, as you say, a grey area. If allowed, it would mean that a stack of any 3 or of 2 infantry would need to be attacked from two hexes to prevent the counter attack ability and for that to be done in a way that it would be two individual attacks, but on re-reading the rules, I note that a single hex can only be attacked once in a combat phase and that multiple attacks against a hex must be combined into a single attack, so yes, in effect, treating a unit as capable of 'hiding' doesn't seem right and the tactic would encourage stacking with a hint of the killer stacks about it, which again doesn't feel right.

    I played Salem Church last night without issue, though of course it doesn't use battalions. It gave a very interesting game, but that sense that an apparently 'simple' system not being that simple came through, though of course not as much as the full 'parent' set of Musket and Saber rules :-)



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