Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Pocket Armies - the fight below Seminary Ridge 1863

Last week we played a face-to-face boardgame covering the first day of the Gettysburg battle. It uses a chit pull system to activate the various divisional sized commands and so there is the potential for this battle, that started as a meeting engagement, to open up new opportunities and situations each time it is played.

The boardgame is from Volume 1 of Battle Hymn by Compass Games and includes the battles of Gettysburg and Pea Ridge.

A few turns into the game, I took a photograph of a local situation occurring on the reverse slope of Seminary Ridge, with a view to playing it out as a figures game later, which is what this post will now concentrate on.

The first part of the action has now been played out as a Pocket Armies battle, using a 4’ x 3’ space, six or seven units per side with Black Powder rules and a dip into the Glory Hallelujah ACW supplement from Warlord Games.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.

Alternative history - Due to the sequence of activation created by the chit pull system, Heth’s Division (Confederate) made good progress up the Chambersburg Pike, quickly dispersed Gamble’s and Devin’s cavalry from McPherson’s Ridge and then continued onward, taking the narrow feature that was Seminary Ridge.

On reaching the rear slopes of Seminary Ridge, Heth’s Division caught the Union’s Iron Brigade (Meredith) and Cutler’s Brigade below them, out in the open while organising themselves to cover the western approaches to the town of Gettysburg that lay immediately behind them.

Confederate confidence was high. Their speedy advance had allowed them to outmanoeuvre the surprised lead elements of the Union army, but as the fight wore on, Heth’s attacking brigades reeled under the defiant and determined fire from the two Union brigades and by Mid Day, the attack had to be called off, with most of Heth’s regiments being spent and shattered by the intensity of the fighting.

The below photograph shows the boardgame’s opening positions to this action. Since we are using our pocket armies (12 units or less in an army) this situation gives us three distinct playable actions on the tabletop. The smaller one will be chosen for today’s AAR. 

As for scale, the boardgame uses one unit (counter) as a brigade and each hex on the map is representing around 300 yards, so in our tabletop battle, we will break down the brigades into their regimental orders-of-battle, which will give us the following possible actions.

Battle 1 - Archer attacks Cutler. This is a fairly straight forward fight. Archer has 4 regiments and a battalion, with a battery of artillery in support. Cutler has 6 regiments and a battery of artillery support. This is an ideal sized engagement for anyone wanting to use Neil Thomas sized forces and rules. Neither side has any special morale considerations. Note the black mark on the map between the two woods is the Lutherian Theological Seminary building. 

The terrain will be generally open. The Confederates hold higher ground, but this is of no advantage (except their artillery can fire over friendlies) in this action as they are attacking and so the action will take place on lower open ground (wheat fields). We will force the Confederates into having to push at least one unit across Chambersburg Pike to prevent them fighting a defensive battle. This is an uneven action and will be a risky venture for the Confederates right from the start ...... but that was the case in the boardgame, where it turned out to be a ‘fingers-crossed and hope for the best’ type of attack.

Battle 2 - Brockenbrough and Davis attack the Iron Brigade. This is bigger and a more nuanced action. The Iron Brigade has 5 Regiments and a battery of artillery and is counted as being elite in nature, making them a powerful adversary (they have a special stats line in the Black Powder Glory Hallelujah supplement). Brockenbrough was the first Confederate brigade to move into position, so we will have them starting the attack. They have 4 regiments and an artillery battery in support. The -1 on their counter shows their morale to be slightly below the norm, so they will be at a disadvantage. 

What will matter is the timing of Davis’ arrival as his force will fall on the Union flank and engage with another 4 infantry regiments. Davis has standard morale. Brockenbrough holds the higher ground, but this is of no advantage (except their artillery can fire over friendlies) in this action as they are attacking and so the action will take place on lower open ground. The whole essence of this fight is whether the Confederates can bring enough force to bear and unhinge the Union before the elite Iron Brigade chews up Brockenbrough. The forces involved here sit within the normal scope of the Pocket Armies size.

Battle 3 - Combines the above 2 actions into a single game. This will be the most interesting of the three actions as it brings more dynamics to the table. With each hex representing 300 yards, our total battlefield is a do-able 1200 yards wide affair on a 4’ x 3’ table. However, it does (just) stretch the concept of the 12 unit Pocket Armies, so fighting this battle as a Pocket Armies game means that a bit of bath tubbing of force and scale will be preferable, with each brigade being represented by say half the number of actual infantry regiments present (rounded up). The artillery will be additional.

Today we are playing Battle 1. I was initially inclined to use One Hour Wargame rules (Neil Thomas) modified by a house rule for morale, but as a simple head on clash, with the attacker being weaker, I felt that Black Powder’s (Warlord Games) special rules could inject some more interest into the individual unit capabilities for a more nuanced game. It also seems important, due to the Confederate disadvantage in numbers that the attacker should be able to move and fire in the same turn, something that the Neil Thomas rules do not allow.

In reality, Archer’s brigade strength was 1200, while Cutler was 2015. This is already looking a bit one sided, however, we have given the Confederates some abilities in their Order-of-battle notes that should bring some interest to the game. In the boardgame, this was all about Archer pinning or pushing back Cutler while Brockenbrough and Davis launched the bigger and arguably the more important attack at the Iron Brigade.

Here is a simplified graphic of the table. Don’t worry about representing the ridge.

Victory - The first brigade that suffers the removal of three units from play loses the game, we will ignore the usual Black Powder rules about brigades breaking through enough units being shaken. In addition, the Confederates can only win if they also have physically crossed the Chambersburg Pike with at least 1 unit at any point in the game. This is simply to force the Confederates to attack. If both sides fail to win, a draw will be declared. 

Special Rules.
Ignore normal ‘brigade broken’ rules.

All distances are converted from inches to half inches.

If a unit moves more than one move, it cannot then also fire in its subsequent Fire Phase.

The Lutherian building cannot be occupied / fought over.

Ignore any defensive value the ridge might have in your rules - we don’t want the Confederates to take a defensive stance by sitting on the ridge! The woods are treated as light woods. Confederate artillery on the ridge is treated as being on a ridge and can fire over friendly troops below as per page 56 in Black Powder II.

The Confederates set up second and can be no nearer to the Union lines than just under 3 moves distance - that is, it will be possible for the Confederates to charge the Union line on turn 1 if it gets the maximum order allowance of 3 moves.
The Confederates are the attackers and go first.
The fight will last for no more than 7 turns. 

The game is played with Kallistra 12mm figures with 120mm unit frontages, the trees are from S&A scenics and the building is from Battlescale’s 10mm range. The roads are from Fat Frank (e-bay). The fields are from Timescale and the fencing from 4Ground.

The Action.
Confederate plan - to form up two regiments deep and aim for the Union right flank while having 5th Alabama guarding the right. This is honouring the intention behind the boardgame manoeuvre, so that Archer would be using his force to prevent Cutler falling back and assisting the Iron Brigade (off board to the Union right). At start, the Union forces were placed in a long line with the placement of units done randomly and Cutler placed in the centre and by chance, the artillery also went to the centre.

Opening - This matters! Archer, by acting decisively, has a chance to concentrate his force against the Union right flank to deliver a massive blow before Cutler can get organised to meet the threat. Archer’s Command Rating is 8, so to cover the three move distance needed to reach the Union line in one turn, 5 or less will need to be rolled on 2D6 when rolling for orders.

I announce the intention to charge and roll 2D6 ........... scoring 6! This gives the Confederate regiments two moves, short of the full charge distance and they are unable to deliver fire after moving because they have made more than 1 move - not great as they will receive fire before they get to move again.

On the Confederate right, 5th Alabama fail to go into skirmish order while the 12 pdr artillery perform badly!

The Union have been given a chance to respond and they do so with some fancy footwork! Two regiments manoeuvre out of the line into flanking oblique positions, so that the Union can bring the fire of 4 regiments to bear on the front Confederate line. The Confederate left (7th Tennessee) are hit hard, going shaken and disordered.  
Union fire also coming in from the sides!

On the far Union left, 2 regiments start a slow advance towards the ridge to face the guns! they do not seem to be enthusiastic.

With 7th Tennessee stalled, 1st Tennessee to their rear passed its ‘Passage of Lines’ test and ran through the 7th to charge into the Union line beyond. They pushed 95th New York over the the Chambersburg Pike and followed them up and in crossing the Pike, achieved part of their victory conditions.

Archer got drawn in to the battle to give 7th Tennessee some encouragement, leaving those units on the ridge somewhat hapless, but the Confederate artillery did find something to do as 84th New York presented its flank to be raked by enfilade fire!

Mid game - The battlefield started to become a little fragmented as the union far right flank unit (76th NY) charged into the flank of the recovering 7th Tennessee, who were lucky to get a way with a fighting withdrawal, but 14th Tennessee, who had been one of the lead units in the charge had taken so much punishment, that they just meted away (1st game loss).

The 9th New York, who had been pushed back across the road continued to reel from follow up attacks and they too left the field (Losses U1 - C1). The Union left was doing its own thing against the Confederate artillery.

End game - On the lower ground, the situation changed slowly to favour the Union and another Confederate regiment was lost.

On the Union left flank, the cautious advance of the two infantry regiments towards the artillery had allowed the infantry to put so much fire down that the artillery lost their nerve and fled the field. This counted as the third unit lost and the game came to an end.

Conclusion - That played out rather interestingly, with quite a few little 'moments' cropping up that added some flavour to what is essentially a head on clash.

The Confederates went in against fully fresh forces and received fire twice. Once because they fell short of the charge, giving the Union a turn of fire and then again as they finally did close, they are subject to Closing Fire. This can be pretty cruel.

They do get some advantages in the actual hand-to-hand fighting, a +1 for the initial charge and they increase the enemy losses by one for having a supporting line behind them ..... well at least the right hand regiment did, on the confederate left, the poor old 7th Tennessee took a lot of fire on the way in, which pretty much took them out of it.

The scenario is a tough one for the Confederates to win, as to get across that road, they inevitably get snarled up against greater numbers.

I think there are two more plays left in this. One is to get the full charge move on turn 1. That would potentially be a powerful hit, but the Confederates then still have to contend with enemy regiments on their flanks and possibly rear.

The other play is to take a slower approach and lay down more fire. The downside is the Union will always be able to lay down a bit more fire, so we are gambling on lucky dice!

Time to try Battle 2 next. I have one blister pack of Black Hats in the lead pile, so this just might make me paint them!

Historically, Archer had already had a tough fight earlier in the morning, back at McPherson Ridge! ‘General Archer had brought some 1200 men to Gettysburg that morning, and perhaps in an hour of fighting could count almost one third of them dead, wounded or captured and the rest in full retreat’. Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears page 172.

Resource Section.

My sister webspace COMMANDERS is a bit more snippet based than here. Link.


  1. Outstanding "little" fight, Norm! I love the narrative that Black Powder produces. This seemed like a nice test of the "pocket armies" concept.

    1. Thanks Steve, agree about the Black Powder rules. Due to the nature of hits and saves a lot of variety and uncertainty can enter the game. When the assault first went in, the left regiment got badly mauled, but the right regiment had much better luck, which in turn became a moment of crisis for the opposite Union regiment.

  2. Boy! The photo showing the Federal lines wrapping around the Rebels looks a bit like a 19th Century Cannae! A frontal assault against against an equivalently sized force is a recipe for being repulsed.

    Why do the Alabama boys fire RM at '2' while others fire RM at '3'? Is it because the Alabamans are small units?

    Nice little scrap.

    1. Thanks Jonathan, the maths are interesting, the charging unit can get a +1 for the initial charge, which is powerful and then the second line of supports will increase the enemy casualty numbers by +1, making it a bit more likely for the charger to win the melee and for the defender to have to be the one taking the Break Test. However, you need a bit of luck when attacking frontally because the defender gets off a volley of Closing Fire, which may cause disorder or shaken results and if that happens there is a -1 on the attack, which wipes out the charging bonus.

      It is the 'equivalently sized force' that caused me the biggest problem as the charging confederates did not have flank supports .... allowing the Union to 'box' the attack.

      The choosing of the fire strengths came about because 5th AL was a smaller unit, which is a BP thing. The second unit was reduced because I needed to show that a) the Confederates had already been in action that morning clearing the cavalry out and that there was a real difference in battlefield numbers in this action in, Archer had 1200 men and Cutler had 2015 and that difference had to be captured by the scenario and the number of regiments alone could not do that if they were treated as standard.

      To help the Confederates a bit, to make a game, I gave them some unit attributes,but did not give similar help to the Union. The smoothbore unit was there because the army list (Glory Hallelujah) requires a minimum of 1.

      It works as a nice little distraction with a storyboard, but there's not even a puzzle to solve, it is just an uphill (or downhill!) struggle for the Confederate side. I would like to try out a firefight instead of a 'Pickett's Charge' and see how that balances out, probably a more dice dependent affair, but that may give the Confederates their best chance and of not getting ensnared, so that if they fail, they can still retreat to keep their force .... for the campaign!

  3. Nicely worked out and delivered scenario Norm, I like the board game figure transition something I am sure many of us have contemplated but never achieved, I might just play it out sometime in 28 mm 🤔 always looking for scenarios to play

    1. Thanks Matt, I probably picked the weaker of the three battle options, but as an excuse to thrown down some stuff for a quick game it worked - it probably is a useful situation for testing and comparing rules.

  4. Thanks Michal, my new roads arrived on the day of the game, so that was helpful and the 12mm did look rather 'brigade' like.

  5. A nice looking test with impressive pictures, looks great!

    1. Thanks Phil, enough going on to enjoy the play.

  6. A lovely little game than transitioned well from the board onto the table. Interesting to read this as we had just played a trial game of BP for our forthcoming campaign.

    Looking at the terrain, did you class the wheatfields as rough terrain, thereby slowing the Confederate advance? From what I could see it would have been hard to close with the Union troops, even with 3 moves, considering you had to cross the fences as well, aside from possible rought terrain penalties to boot. Always hard to tell from a 'photo though.

    We also simply halved the distances and ranges, as the inches felt better than converting to centimetres when we looked at things with the figures on the table. Looking forward to more similar games as they are perfect for a mid-week game.

  7. Thanks Steve, with a unit frontage of 120mm instead of 240mm, halving distances works well, even though the mental conversion to centimetres is easier :-) When I do the pinbord stuff, I go to 80mm frontages and convert to centimetres.

    The fields were just there as an aesthetic without any value, simply because the boardgame classed the terrain as open. When researching a period map, I found that this part of the battlefield had wheat and the only fence boundary of any significance actually ran along the bottom of the ridge line, so I thought is best to ignore it.

    I think if I played the full version (Battle 3), Archer could have got away with just pinning the Union, so that they didn't cross the battlefield to help the Iron Brigade and they would no doubt have been more successful in that role.

  8. Nice game Norm. So if I understand correctly, had the rebs closed in with the initial move, they would have been spared the Union volleys? If this is the case, surely it isn’t too realistic I think as in real life the rebs would have had continuous volleys coming their way whilst advancing. Or have I missed something?

  9. Hi Mike, thanks. Had they managed to fully close on turn 1, then before the hand-to-hand combat is resolved, the Union would get closing fire, a sort of defensive fire. That can Have quite a sting, because there is a fire bonus for the close range fire.

    Because they didn’t close (and the chances of them doing that are against them), the Union will fire in their own part of the turn and then still get closing fire when the confederates charge to contact in the next turn, so in the game, the Confederates endured two lots of fire.

    The thing with black Powder, Unless you have a highly rated commander, there is more chance of a unit just moving once or not at all, than there is of getting two or three moves.

  10. Sounds like black powder gave you a good game! You're 12mm figures look excellent, surely the way to go!
    Best Iain

  11. Thanks Iain, the table frames them nicely. I do have a lot of fun with Black Powder.

  12. Great presentation of ACW. I really like your 12mm collection. That was a hard scenario for the CSA, but as you explain, the objectives would likely change if the battle was expanded. And you’re always tempting me to give BP more of a try. Overall, a successful outing of your pocket armies project. 😀
    But you didn’t mention that it was ACWary... lol.

  13. Thanks Stew, just planning out the Iron Brigade scenario now, that one looks a bit tighter.

  14. Worth noting for your next scenario: Davis was the President's nephew and was widely considered to have been promoted on that basis. This was his first time leading a brigade in action. He didn't do so well in the actual battle.

  15. Thank you, I am drafting the scenario now, so that is a great help.

  16. I always enjoy reading your battle accounts. You are good with making them sound like an excerpt from an exceptionally good history book. I did want to point out that BP excludes cannon firing overhead from receiving the enfilade bonus. This would not have impacted things per your account. While BP's chatty style makes it more interesting to read, it can lead to overlooking various rule nuggets.

  17. Hi Tom, thanks for dropping by and supporting the blog. I missed the overhead condition re enfilade fire, good catch. Funnily enough, in my first play, because I didn’t actually represent the ridge on the table, I stopped firing the confederate artillery once their own troops were in the way of the target ..... totally forgetting they were on higher ground!

    I do like the BP rules, I got the Bataille Empire rules today and at some point will have a go at comparing them.



Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.