Friday, 7 May 2021

Bonnie Blue Flag ACW rules

Bonnie Blue Flag are ‘fast play wargame rules for fighting battles during the American Civil War’. They are designed by Kevin Calder and produced by Partizan Press (2017).

BBF comes as a full colour 48 page rule set in a 6½” x 9½” sized booklet. The actual size of the rules contribution to the booklet is much less than the page count suggests because it is so lavishly illustrated.

Fast play and simple does not mean simplistic, indeed there are some clever attributes to the rules that turn some established processes on their head.

This post looks at the rules and also discusses table size and unit footprint / unit count. Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.  

I hadn’t intended on doing a post about these rules, but they have just dropped through the letter box and for a number of reasons I am quite taken by them in a 'fascinated' sort of way and fancy their utility to my gaming situation, as they seem ideally suited to work with my ‘Pocket Armies’ project. The rules say they are suitable for any scale of figure.

If only more rule sets looked like this, a small easy to use set with a load of eye candy in it, what’s not to like!

Typically, I first looked at the scenarios. We get two here. An introductory scenario (fictitious) and Port Republic June 1862.

The thing is, the intro scenario runs off just 4 infantry regiments and an artillery battery per side, with the surprising twist that it is suggested that it will take two to two and a half hours to play!  

I was instantly drawn in - how could a fast play system that looks quite light, with an order of battle similar to the ones used in the Neil Thomas One Hour Wargames rules (that play in around 40 minutes) and exactly the same unit count as the contents of the Perry 28mm Battle in a Box starter set, with their fast play rules, take much longer to play than either of these two packages?

Port Republic is a bigger scenario, having two brigades per side, double the size of the intro. it doesn’t say how long it will take to play, but on the sums above, are we looking at a long session?

Further, the first scenario suggests a 6’ x 4’ table and the second a disappointing (to me) 6’ x 8’ table. Now I definitely had to read it all straight away and get to the bottom of all of that.

More intrigue, Scenario 1 uses units fixed in size to 6 bases each (suggested basing by the author for his own 28mm collection, uses 50mm bases with 3 - 5 figures per base = 300mm ((12”)) per unit frontage), but Scenario 2 has units of differing numbers of bases, between 4 and 12.

Artwork by
Bob Marrion
add a lovely touch 
to the presentation

My own starting position is that for the period, my 28’s are based with 6 figures (3 double ranked figures) on 50mm bases, but I use 3 bases per regiment, to get a sense of a linear look, but a foot print that comes in at just 150mm (6’), which significantly helps with gaming on a domestic table.

Looking at the rules and certainly the fixed frontages of Scenario 1, there seems to be no game breaking reason why I can’t use my units of three bases.

There are however two considerations. Firstly units can only fire directly ahead, there are no ‘arcs’ of fire, but if even just part of an enemy unit is dead ahead, you can target the whole unit.

Having a wider frontage might help you hit more targets to share the fire or more choice on which target you pour full fire into, but of course, equally it would mean that your own unit is a bigger target, possibly sitting in front of two enemy units, who could combine their fire against you.

Secondly and of more importance is that being superior / inferior in size compared to the enemy will bring some combat bonus / penalties. But frankly, if point 1 doesn’t matter, then point 2 would simply need a marker to show that it was bigger (or smaller), though I do think it would look better with an extra base added to visually represent the bigger numbers. 

Either way, it is no big deal and constraining the game playing area should not be a problem and in any case, using a smaller scale figure (my 12mm collection) would do just that. To test that out, I set up Scenario 1 on a 4’ x 3½’ table for 28mm forces (see later) rather than the 6' x 4' suggested. 

this is typical of the figure pictures provided.

The next thing to investigate was how a game with 5 units per side in such a small space could provide a couple of hours worth of play.

At this point, we just have to discuss this most intriguing system.

Units are rated Veteran, Experienced or Raw and this determines how many Attrition points a unit gets at the start of the game, or rather what its allowance is. I put a dice next to the unit to show this capacity.

This is clever because it turns traditional firing systems on their head. This system is not strictly about delivering fire or close combat, rather it is about the ability of a unit to be able to absorb that punishment and still be able to function.

When you fire (or close combat) against a unit, it is simply a given that the unit is attacked, what is tested is the units response to that attack. You take a test on percentage dice. If you pass there is no effect, if you fail you roll on a ‘failed’ table to get a result. This is invariably involves a loss of attrition points and a retreat that has a randomly determined distance.

If a unit reaches zero attrition points, it is removed from play. It is the opposite or inverse of putting hits on a unit and then having the unit test for morale.

Leaders carry a (very) small bank of Attrition points and through the game, they can ‘rescue’ a friendly unit that is on the ropes by transferring some of their precious Attrition points across to the unit needing inspired leadership!

Weapon ranges feel generous and look right for play. Small arms (there is no distinction between smoothbore musket and rifled musket - simply because you are just responding to a unit that is firing at you) fire has short range of 8” and long range of 20”, but long range fire reduces your vulnerability to the response test by 20%, a significant help.

Another clever mechanic gives us skirmisher effects. Each unit can deploy them and call them back into the regiment and it is they, rather than the unit that take fire and test. The difference here is that if they fail their test, they are simply removed from play and the unit loses its future skirmish ability.

It did feel strange when I fired artillery at the skirmish screen and it could only hit the skirmishers - but the reality of that is the screen may become effectively removed by the artillery fire ….. permanently and that is actually a good result.

The tactics of when to deploy a screen and when to pull it back into the ranks does become part of the game play and so the consequence of losing that capability, which is increasingly likely as the game moves along, is all part of the narrative and slow fatigue of a unit.

What the system does with these failed response tests is a combination of reducing a unit’s Attrition points allowance and having it fall back, so the line is in a constant state of flux as units pull back and then attempt to re-engage, though getting progressively weaker each time, or rather less capable as they suffer the rigours of combat.

Anyway, the combination of movement allowance that has a random element, the tactics around skirmishers, the deterioration in Attritional strength and the limited rallying ability of leaders, does all combine to give quite an intriguing game and it doesn’t feel like you are just playing with 5 units as each unit feels it has a bit of character and that what it does is important.

Of course this is just the intro game, so the likelihood is you would have bigger forces in play anyway.

Of some importance is the thing called the 10% rule. Basically if you fail your response test by rolling less than 10% of the score you need to pass, then regardless of the units strength etc, it is considered to have suffered a catastrophic response and is simply removed from the table.

By way of example, if to pass the test you need to roll 40% or higher, but instead roll 4% or less (10% or lower of the score needed), then the unit is removed from play. On results of 5% to 39% it would be a normal fail and requires a further roll on the failed table.

Anyway, I have already written more than I wanted to, so let’s dive into the game that I set up this afternoon and grab some highlights that demonstrate the system

AAR Scenario 1, played on a smaller than recommended table.

This is a meeting engagement and the objective is to capture the crossroads. The table and the forces are symmetrical. The Union get a 3 base battery, the Confederates 2, so to balance the forces, one of the Confederate ‘experienced’ regiments is elevated to Veteran status.

Note - I don’t have any skirmisher figures (yet), so I have used a single unpainted base of infantry with each unit to act as a skirmish marker - so excuse their ghostly effect!

Turn 1. Each side can introduce 1 regiment each to the table in this meeting engagement. At the start of each turn players roll for initiative. This matters, because a player plays their part of the turn fully before the other side goes (IGO-UGO), so initiative raises the prospect that a side may get the advantage of a back-to-back turn, so in effect you get to fire twice and move twice. This will likely happen several times over the game, to the benefit of both sides, but it will be more crucial as the game is reaching a tipping point.

Turn 2. More reinforcements arrive. They throw out their skirmishers and use long range fire (>8” - 20”), which is not so effective because of a -20% modifier for long range fire, plus there is a matrix of troop type Vs troop type and obviously skirmisher fire will be less effective than line fire.

Turn 3. The Confederates have chosen to bring most troops in on their right flank, but to their left, they bring on their guns, which unlimber and face the larger, better quality Union guns, which have already deployed at the road, behind the fence.

Catastrophe! The Confederate guns fire on the Union guns, who take their response test. All they need to do is roll 30% or more to pass ……. they roll 3%, that disastrous 10% rule kicks in. I check twice, surely not, I can’t lose the Union guns at this stage before they have fired a shot, but there we are, the Union gunners for reasons only they know, lose their bottle and flee the battlefield, complete with their Attrition allowance of 6!

I ponder that unusual outcome and think ‘what’s the chances of that’, well 3% obviously, so there!

Turn 4. The Confederates get the Initiative, so they get to do a back-to-back sequence of play as they went second in the 3rd turn.

Unbelievable …… a Confederate skirmish screen fire at a Union infantry regiment on the Union right, who take their response test and roll …… 2% and the Union regiment are removed from play, now I really am wondering what the chance of 3% (or less) is of being followed by a 2% (or less) …... answers on a postcard please. That is two Union losses on the their right flank, which is now swinging in the wind.

EDIT - Uh-Oh, Cock-Up. On reading the rules as I type this, I now see that they state that the 10% rule does not apply to skirmish fire! Doh, my game would probably have played out differently if I had got that right!

Oh well, on with the game as it was played; The Union brigade commander moves over to an infantry unit that has suffered the effects of fire and transfers one of his Attrition points over to the infantry to pick them up a bit, increasing them from 2 Attrition points to 3.

Despite the drama, the Union infantry on the left put down enough fire for the troops opposite to lose a bit of Attrition and fall back a random distance.

Turn 5. Confederate artillery fire at a Union regiment that have skirmishers out front. The skirmishers fail their response test, so are removed from play, leaving the Union regiment without skirmisher protection for the rest of the game.

Turn 6. The Confederate artillery has moved into an enfilade position and is putting some hurt on the right hand Union regiment.

Turn 7. The overall situation for the Union is grim and they are in danger of being overwhelmed as they have intact enemy veterans to their front and they are starting to get enveloped to their right after the losses on that flank. They start to disengage.

Importantly, the Confederates take the crossroads, with the Union having no prospect of re-taking it.

Turn 8. The Union suffer a few more losses as they take a final bit of fire before leaving the table.

Well, the Scenario notes say that the engagement typically plays to conclusion in 15 - 20 turns, but that initial Union loss of two units significantly accelerated their demise. Though obviously my mistake of removing the second unit made a big difference.

Now that I see the 10% rule is mitigated a bit, as quite a bit of fire comes from skirmishers initially, then the rule serves well to bring some limited chaos that is totally beyond player control and that a good narrative could be spun from its occurrence and it would feed nicely into a campaign game, which was also one of the reasons why I explored playing through and getting the Union off the table, just to see what sort of losses might be suffered on disengaging.

There were plenty of other things going on across the field that were interesting and both commanders had started to help their regiments by supporting them with Attrition points. In this scenario, the commanders only start with 4 Attrition Points, so this is a limited resource and as the engagement develops, moments of crisis will become increasingly likely. 

Commanders also add their current Attrition point allowance to the Initiative die roll, so handing out this bank of reserve Attrition Points too freely, comes with a price.

I was reading the rules, taking notes and learning the system as I played along, so lost track of actual gaming time, but putting that to one side, I think the game play was hitting the two hour point when I stopped, so a few of my initial mysteries are solved.

Yes, you can go to smaller footprint units and stay with a small table (obvious really because that is what would happen anyway if choosing a smaller figure scale) and a low unit count really does allow for an interesting game that has a bit of life to it and is not over too quickly and does not feel generic.

I find myself comparing the rules to One Hour Wargames (Neil Thomas) and Firepower (part of the Perry’s starter box), which both aim for simplicity and fast play on a small table with 4 - 6 units and I feel that BBF gives the better game and is more engaging. It is certainly more encompassing, having rules for dismounted cavalry, skirmishers, large units and differentiating between the battery sizes etc.

The combat twist that changes process focus from typically the attacker inflicting hits to one where the perspective is shifted to being target centric by having the target unit test for responses to attack is a refreshing take.

It will be really interesting to do the Port Republic scenario with two brigades per side, which I think I will be able to get that onto my 6’ x 43” table. I can see a game like that giving a lot of entertainment with the too and fro of battle and the slow deterioration of units being quite engaging.

I am looking for a set of rules that will allow me to use 1 - 3 brigades per side on a table, for say a total of 8 or so regiments in play, something that will fit in with my 'Pocket Armies' approach and my initial contact with rules have me wanting to explore this further.

Complexity - Low complexity in terms of processes, even the fire and melee process share a lot, so the learning curve is brief. The interplay of unit quality, (part) random movement, skirmisher deployment, command support and response testing from enemy fire / contact, raises the depth of the game so that it is punching above its weight compared to the rule density. 

Size - The designer says 6mm - 40mm figure scale can be used, though we don’t get any text that supports how to change measurements etc, or even if one should, but we are all used to working those things out for ourselves anyway. The author says that the game can be sized up and that it has been used on a 24’ table as a multi player game without any problems. If you play with more than one brigade, the suggestion is to include a divisional commander, who can then pass Attrition points to a brigade commander.

Solitaire - I payed the above action solitaire and did not come across anything that was not solo friendly. The element of some randomness to movement and the rolling for initiative also helps solo play.

Time - Using the rules with one or two brigades per side on the table looks like it will deliver a game that can be concluded in a typical single session, such as an evening either solo or between two players.

Resource Section.

My sister webspace COMMANDERS has a page just opened for Bonnie Blue Flag and over time I will put material there. Link.

Caliver Books (where I bought the rules). Link


  1. Norm, this is a useful review and play-through. From your detailed descriptions and sample game, a reader can likely make a judgment whether or not these rules might offer possibilities for use in his own play.

    Only rarely do I prefer a percentile-based solution. Perhaps in a longer-playing game it is OK. In percentiles, each roll follows a uniform distribution with an individual result having an equal likelihood of occurrence. Perhaps, a quick playing, short game does not offer a long enough trial for the law of large numbers to kick in to show its desired long-run effect?

  2. Hi Jonathan, interesting to get your perspective on the statistical analysis side of things. I agree that in a game this size, with just 5 units per side, in any one particular game, that total range is never going to reveal itself in a way than one can see a trend of play or validation of ‘realism’ results for that game, but since percentages are percentages, I suppose one has to put their trust in the fact that any one roll has the same chance of a dispersal of results against a previous roll as there is of there not being a meaningful dispersal.

    The base line scores and modifiers are in multiples of 5, so in that respect we are in essence rolling a D20 to get our range of points of decision.

    There are not a huge range of modifiers, when one considers that only 2 or 3 of them are likely to be in effect at anyone time, however the weighting on each modifier is different enough that the bell curve of 2D6 (my preferred chance machine) could be skewed. For example, long range fire causes a -20% modifier, while a local commander gives a -10% modifier and fire from the flank giving a +5% modifier (a final low score is best as you roll equal or higher as the victim to succeed).

    What I thought would be the interesting take for you was that 5 units were actually giving an interesting game, due to the enhanced interplay between the units compared to some more generic fast play systems. Moving this up higher and even closer to your preferred 12 units or so might help make more helpful comparisons with some of the more popular and widely played systems in terms of historical feel and reasonable spread of results and ability to achieve the same goals and objectives within a benchmarking scenario.

  3. Sounds like another useful set of ACW ,you're building a collection of them!
    Best Iain

  4. Hi Iain, I think this is a clever set …….. but too much choice is never a good thing for me. I’m best going into a shop and they say, “we only sell this one tin of beans in this one size” at least that way, I come out of the shop with a tin of beans :-)

  5. Nice to read your review and see how the scenario played through Nprm - the rules do look like they have some interesting ways of doing things

  6. Thanks Keith, certainly enough good vibes to spend longer with these rules while I make a fuller evaluation.

    I also like the idea of having a set of ACW rules that are different enough from other horse and musket rules (AWI and Napoleonic), that helps give the set a more individualistic identity rather than a general or generic horse and musket one.

  7. A fair and measured assessment there Norm, Kevin is a pal of ours so Dave naturally has a copy. We have not used them yet though a little thing called Covid has sort of got in the way somewhat 😡

    1. Thanks Phil, next time you speak with Kevin please pass my thanks on to him for getting this clever system into circulation. It is a very nice booklet. I know Dave has a preference for BP, but if you do get around to playing Bonnie Blue Flag, i would be very interested in your take on it.

  8. Thanks for the review Norm and the rules have some interesting mechanics within them. To call them fast play and then say the game takes 2 - 2 1/2 hours I found somewhat contradictory. Using BPII or HoW with around 12 units per side, so say 3 Brigades, we would normally comfortably finish this sized game within that time frame. So again for money, BPII with the GH! supplement works perfectly well as a ruleset for your pocket battle armies, with the added bonus that the mechanics stay the same, with slight tweaks for say a Napoleonic or FPW game. This is something I much prefer these days, so I can concentrate on the game rather than the rules.

  9. Thanks Steve, i have been doing the rounds on several rule sets recently, but doing that has in the main reinforced the advantages and worth of BP as an easy ‘go to’ set with few barriers.

  10. Thanks Norm for your detailed reviews it will help those deciding on rules which to use👍 And the game looks great too. All I need now is for you to run an in depth Review of all the SYW rules please 😀

  11. Hi Matt, there is just so much rule goodness out there …… or is that too much goodness! :-)

    SYW - now there is a rabbit hole to dive into! Your 10mm’s are coming along nicely.

  12. Whhaaat is this? An ACW rule set that I haven’t really heard of??!! And it sounds interesting too. This post might cost me money.
    Nice write up and overview. The pics are good too. 😀

  13. Thanks Stew, Quite a lot of ACW goodness this month.

  14. Norm,
    Nice review, I like these rules and have played them quite a bit. The only thing I’m not certain about is the evaporation of a unit under the 10% rule. It’s amazing how often it seems to happen even with change of dice and tend to rule it out.

  15. Thanks Graham, did your group use the raw 10% or 10% of the final roll needed? I have played two more games since the above AAR and it didn't crop up.

    I think the skirmisher rule works quite well and outside the close range, they are fairly ineffective, so the rules seem to place the right emphasis on 'screening'. I would like to play a bit more with them.

    1. Norm
      The raw 10% but perhaps the 10% of the final roll may be the way to go. They’re certainly worth playing more

  16. Great review Norm, I have read the rules many times but have still learnt a lot by your review. I read the 10% rule as the raw 10% as noted above. 10% of the role needed is definitely the way to go, many thanks you have helped a lot.

  17. Hi, thanks for dropping by. That 10% rule is an easy miss, it took me a while for the penny to drop.



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