The first of the American Civil War regimental games in the Blind Swords series by Revolution Games, it covers Cedar Mountain with each turn representing 20 minutes and the map scale using 140 yards to the hex.
The series now has four titles in print, with a fifth, First Bull Run on the horizon.
The rest of this post discusses the game and system. Please use the 'read more' tab.
I have of late been reorganising my boardgame collection, so that ‘series games’ get a greater emphasis, just so that I have fewer rules to learn / relearn and to help increase the number of games getting to the table. Still having a gap for an ACW series, I thought I would look at the Blind Swords system. I do own all four titles, but that was as much to secure all of the titles in case any went out of print as anything else, a sort of holding situation, while I determined if Blind Swords would work for me.
Disclosure - I have two non-related game titles currently in print with Revolution Games, but I don’t believe that influences what follows. As always, I point out that this blog is not a review blog, I just write about games that I have paid for and have enjoyed playing, while hoping to remain objective.
Sorry if the pictures here are not high quality, but I have tried to keep each photo file to a size that will help the readers with limited data allowances, while keeping the counters readable. They are set to mostly being under 150kb. You can click on the images.
|In the pre-game artillery bombardment, the Confederate right suffered several step losses, as indeed did their left flank! Early will now have to take a precious turn out to regroup.|
Surprisingly, I actually found this article a little difficult to write. Things didn’t really jive with my usual way of blog presentation of wrapping up observations into an AAR. Two things were influencing this. Firstly the amount of variety and chaos that can fall out the game, left me thinking it was hard to explain everything without ending up with a very lengthy and windy article that just started to summarise chunks of the rulebook if I wanted to go to my usual depth. Secondly, there have been some mindset obstructions to me actually getting to both buy and play the game.
This second point is really important and will be the first thing I shall deal with. I should say up front that I have come to really like the game, so the next few paragraphs that highlight those obstructions are here for those people who sit in that same seat of indecision as I did. I am not criticising the game, but rather I am hoping to encourage those that see the same hurdles, to jump and have a go.
|Crawford’s Brigade, activated again by the Senior Commander (Banks) charges into Garnett. Ronald (Confederate) is below this photo and has been too tardy (failed activation) to support Garnett in time. Objective hex 1514 is captured.|
Stonewall’s Sword was published in 2015, so it has taken me four years to pick up the series. My initial resistance was that I just didn’t like the look of that busy map, plus I had too often read that the system was overly complex and as a bit of an aside, I wasn’t too hot on the counter art.
My main sticking point was the map, It just looked too overpowering and too busy to my eyes (note Revolution Games have updated this map to show the various contour numbered, which really helps with process).
However with the game now purchased and used, I have come to better appreciate the artists care and attention to the detail at the level of the individual hex. It has a hand drawn feel to it and whether its because of that, I don’t know, but terrain accuracy and a sense of the artists own intimacy with the landscape, comes through almost as though the artist is an eye witness. It seems to deliver a more authentic and period look that feeds into the drama of the game and makes you feel that ‘that hex matters’ when you are drawn in and engaged down at the hex level. So rather than looking at the map in total, as a piece of art, its value comes when it is full of counters and you start scratching around amongst a smaller area of hexes as you manage each brigade of 3 - 5 counters.
I imagine it is a complicated map from an artists point of view to do, with so many contours, some being steep and a widespread area of woodland. It would be interesting to see how another artist might approach this challenging topography at this scale.
|Elements of Prince’s Brigade charge into the Rebel artillery batteries of Pegram and Hardy. Hardy retreats and is disrupted. Early moves up to support Pegram's gun position.|
Next, I was reading in too many places that this game is complicated. The designer addresses this and sees the complication more to do with the fact that there are quite a few new mechanisms in place that many gamers may feel unfamiliar with and I think that this is broadly true, but I also think that unwittingly it combines with the fact that the game is so dynamic and that so many combinations of effect can fall out of play, that complexity feels higher because the first attempt at playing needs so much rule referencing while all of this goodness is going on and the player gets to grips with the important inter relationships of the mechanisms.
The rules are very well explained and clean (a Revolution Games trait) and during play, only once did I have to dig out the latest rulebook (Kernstown) to see if the rule was better explained and as it happened it was! Overall the rules are very good.
Importantly, the rules are written in an order that broadly follows the sequence of play, so for that critical first turn of play, you can just go back through the rulebook and essentially do a second reading while playing that first turn. By the end of the first turn, you feel that you have taken a massive step forward in the general understanding of the system and turn 2 onwards is much easier as that process continues through the first game.
I will say though that even through the next few turns, there were moments that I thought ‘do I really want to be doing all of this checking’, but all I can say is that by turn 5 things were running smoothly and by the time I got to end of the game, I wanted to play again, which perhaps says everything.
|Pender’s Brigade arrives at 6.20 PM and is ordered to advance up, outside the right flank to assist Early in making his push - Chaos will conspire to keep Pender away from the action today!|
What I found really interesting in those first four turns, was that although I knew that the system was delivering a huge amount of narrative, I really couldn’t see that story and I think that was because I was still being overwhelmed by the application of process that ironically is the very thing delivering that story.
However, I noticed in the last couple of turns of the intro scenario, that I was lifting my head, understanding the lay of the land and seeing that a brigade was now smashed and needed pulling out of the line and having a fresh reserve going in to replace it and that I should push here and that the cornfield line over there is important to hold and that the guns would get a better view from this position and that the small weakened regiment over there was ripe for an enemy Rebel Yell attack against it and checking to see if I held the Command Confusion chit in my hand, because I now knew the best time to use it - well you know what I mean, the process was becoming second nature and the game became more enjoyable.
So this is a game that I think benefits from the gamer understanding from the outset that absorption of rules is best acquired by a combination of a single read, followed by the practical application of playing turn one with the rules in hand. I feel it is important to stick with playing your first game through to its conclusion to break into the game and then enjoy everything that follows. The learning curve is steep, but it is brief.
With that learning curve cracked, a true appreciation of why the rules do what they do, in the way that they do it, can be better understood.
I detect a figures approach to the tactical nature of the design and it may be this that initially causes a ‘boardgamers’ mindset to see things as a much different approach. There are lovely touches such as how skirmishing works and the way that the combat tables and the cohesion test tables are set up to bring so much nuance to the game.
Really, with those things sorted, the thing I have about the silhouettes of the various States of origin that the units come from being shown on the counters (i.e. Virginian infantry have the state of Virginia as a large white silhouette on the counter), doesn’t really matter too much. During play you quickly ‘zone out’ of that artwork. I just generally dislike watermark style artwork. It would be like me doing a War of the Roses game and using the equivalent of shire / county based silhouettes instead of some lovely figure icons and people outside (or even inside!) the UK thinking ‘what’s that shape and how does it help me’!
Anyway, all of those hurdles can be put to bed. Game one left me understanding all the different relationships between the systems parts and game two was a much more ‘at ease’ affair.
|The Confederate prepare for their push into the Cornfields. Prince (Union) is pretty smashed up as their 3 yellow markers suggest. Where is Pender! curses the Confederate commander.|
So, what is this system delivering?
It works well for battles or parts of battles with a few divisions per side, that the game can organise into brigades, with each brigade being represented at the regimental level on the map.
Broadly, you have each brigade colour coded and made up of the constituent regiments. These are detailed for combat strength and also their cohesion value. You have divisional commanders represented by a chit in a cup, when the divisional commander is drawn, he will endeavour to activate one of his brigades, then he is returned to the cup and next time his chit is drawn, he will endeavour to activate another of his brigades. Once he has activated his last brigade, he is kept out of the cup.
The capability of the Commander determines how likely they are to activate their brigades. In this game, Hill is the best leader with a value of 5, so rolling five or less will activate the brigade, but by contrast, Winder is valued at just a 3 and even though his three brigades look solid on the map, you cannot rely on their participation over the course of the battle, other than holding positions, unless your name is Mr. Lucky Dice ..... not something to set your plans by :-)
If a leader fails to activated a brigade, it only gets a ‘Limited Activation’, in which case it will only be able to fire at adjacent units. A normally activated brigade is given one of four orders, Attack, Defend, Manoeuvre or Regroup.
This is the heart of the game, well one of its hearts anyway! Depending which order you pick, the formation will be able to do one or more actions that follow a strict sequence. The range of actions are; move, move to contact, fire, close combat, recover from shaken / disruption and rebuild losses.
So if you gave the Manoeuvre Order, the only thing that your formation could do out of that list is move (but not move to contact), but it would get access to March Column Movement along the major roads and it gets the highest movement rate of 6 MP’s.
By contrast, an Attack Order would give you some limited movement (4 MP’s), you can move to contact, you can fire and enter close combat, but not recover or rebuild.
So the order system is bringing some structure to activity and delivers a really nice balance of what a unit can or cannot do within the time slot of one turn.
There are other chits in the draw cup as well. Some give one side or the other moments of tactical advantage, such as calling a Rebel Yell attack, making a Quick March or inflicting Command Confusion on the other player. These really add in to the mix of chaos.
For example Early’s Brigade is out on the flank, has just been activated and has been given an Attack Order. This might be a critical moment for the defending Union, so they play the previously drawn and saved chit ‘Command Confusion’, this will force Early to roll on a table to see if the Attack Order is cancelled and changed (it probably will be) - though of course all of this is reliant on the Union having pulled and held their Command Confusion chit in the first place.
The Commander in Chief is represented by a chit and that allows him to activate any brigade, whether it has already activated or not and if not, it will not be marked activated, so this in effect gives a free activation and so one formation may get the chance to act twice, so maybe Early’s brigade gets the attention of his Commander in Chief and manages to attack anyway - providing the player still felt that Early’s wing was still the critical part of the battle, deserving his focus!
Finally, we have two wild counters, Fortunes of War and Fog of War. The former simply negates the next chit drawn, so maybe Early doesn’t even get activated or his C in C doesn’t turn up or the Union never receive that Command Confusion chit. The Fog of War chit causes a die roll on a table that will result in one side suffering either an uncontrolled advance by one regiment, an uncontrolled withdrawal by one regiment or a leader loss and you just know that this will deliciously happen at the wrong moment - ouch!
The Combat results deal out another dose of uncertainty, but in a very nuanced way that is not just a random pot luck thing, everything is based upon weight of fire, followed by the cohesion ability of the target to withstand the rigours of combat. Depending how heavy the fire / attack is and what the targets cohesion value is, the target will roll on one of three result charts, Routine, Tough or Severe. In addition, in close combat, what we might usually consider as a ‘no effect’ attack result, actually does cause a test on another chart called ‘Close Fight’. It is just like the three previous charts, but has a higher incident of the attacker coming to harm - I really like this subtle touch.
Each combat result is split into two halves. Two dice are rolled, the first indicates whether there are losses and the second (the Skedaddle Chart) indicates whether the unit retreats and / or suffers Shaken or Disrupted status. Either or both those dice may roll low enough to be ‘no effect’. You can also get a mix of effect, so perhaps a step loss, but the regiment stands, or no step loss and the regiment retreats or goes shaken etc - the uncertainty is good.
There is more, a loss to the final step of a unit does not just mean a removal like in most games. There follows a cohesion test and the unit may survive and just stay in play or become disordered / shaken and stay in play or may fail and leave the game, going onto the Broken Track, to possibly re-appear later in the game if it eventually recovers.
All of this is delivering a massive amount of diversity within the game, probably more than I have seen anywhere else. Not everyone likes so much chaos, but I do. Anything that places the hand of restraint on the shoulder of the gamer is a plus in my book. You cannot micro manage this game, you are partly in loose control of what is happening and at times an observer (very good), which also helps solitaire play.
There are some other nice touches such as receiving disengaging fire when you move away from an enemy, but this also extends to units getting fired upon that flee past an enemy. In close Combat, there is defensive fire by the target unit and also an ‘unengaged’ enemy unit that is adjacent to you as you attack another regiment, can throw supportive defensive fire at you (half strength fire).
|This is the Confederate left flank at the end of play. They have pretty much smashed up any opposition and Archer potentially still has enough cohesion to continue to attack, but really would benefit from having a fresh brigade behind them.|
I like that the player is encouraged to have two or three (if possible) brigades lined up behind each other, so that they can attack in waves and as the lead brigade gets worn, a fresh brigade can take over. This seems to fall naturally out of the game and pushes the player towards historical tactics.
There really is a lot going on this game, each bit is quite simple and straight forward, it is the combination of all this inter-action taken together that takes a bit of getting used to, but once it is under your belt, play is very straight forward and everything makes a lot of sense.
I came to this game and this post with the thought of looking for my ‘go to’ ACW boardgame and this looks very promising indeed. It reminds me of the Eagles of France system by Hexasim for the Napoleonic period, which also has that thing that I can only describe as a miniatures feel and that even though you are directing a battle and thinking in terms of formations and reserves, you are drawn right in to the importance of what is going on down at the individual hex or sector of the battlefield.
That does not feel like a contradiction of the gamers command function. Essentially the player is directing the battle, but the system of orders, chits and variable combat results are exercising the regiments in a way that the commander (player) can only hope works out for the best.
The system is notable for this inherent chaos and I like that. I am just reading Military Blunders by Saul David, which is essentially based around the things in war that shouldn’t of happened ... happening! How do we get that sort of thing into wargames and how do we force the player resistant to that, to allow the flow of play to take a more realistic and less micro managed path - well, this system is doing it with a marriage of evolved chit pull and the tinge of uncertainty that falls from the combat tables. It draws you in, it keeps you hopeful, it delivers opportunity, it delivers disappointment and thereby it gives you an emotional connection to the game.
If any of my initial comments about why I didn’t initially get this game have likewise stopped you buying or getting this game onto the table, then I can only say that my experience of actual play has been that it is worthwhile owning and playing this and I should have done this sooner!
With four games done and another in the wings (First Bull Run - superb), the system has legs to make a good series and hopefully will be a good platform for Revolution Games to enjoy success and more titles with it.
Complexity - Well what can I say, if you hadn’t heard anyone comment about this game and just bought it to play, you would initially think from browsing it that it was straight forward enough and then in play immediately be surprised my something more complex emerging than you had expected. But that complexity is not so much about a difficult game or rule book, rather, it is the wide range of possibilities and inter-actions of play that you face that fall out from such an inter-active and dynamic system.
Then suddenly, as first play continues, everything becomes much more familiar. Being a series game, this learning curve will lead to a richness of play can be enjoyed across several titles. I think this is one of those games that just needs to be played, so that the relationship between the various mechanics all come together as a seamless whole. So perhaps if we were to score it, we might rate it 7 or even 8 for the first few turns of a first game and then drop it right back to 5 for the next game. At that point, it is delivering a lot of richness for an average complexity score.
Size - This is a fairly small footprint game that uses just one sheet of counters. The map is a half mapper (4 panels folded) and it is also nice to have the turn track play aid down, because his contains the Broken Track and the Victory Point scoring board. I put all of this onto a 2’ x 3’ board (so same size as a full mapper). The rulebook is 24 pages, of which 21 are rules. Each player also has two double sided play aids that can sit on the chair next to you. This happily falls in to a ‘kitchen table’ sized game.
Solitaire - This is a two player game that is absolutely fine for the solo player who is happy to play both sides. The chit draw is very solo friendly. The only thing you lose is the ability to draw a chit that you might want to save until later, keeping it’s nature secret from the other player. You can still keep it until later, but obviously not secretly. Most solo gamers are used to these sort things and are content to play anyway.
Time - There are two scenarios in the game, the shorter intro, which is 5 turns long (turns 7 - 11) and the full battle scenario, which is 14 turns long. For obvious reasons, as stated above, your first game with the system will take quite a bit longer than a typical game and is best done with the introductory scenario. In my second playing of the first scenario, I was playing through the five turns at around 45 minutes per turn. The full scenario has more brigades in it, so a turn would take longer.
My sister webspace COMMANDERS is a bit more snippet based than here. Link.