Monday, 26 August 2019

Salem Church 1863

This is one of the mini series titles from Decision Games that uses the Quick Play version of the Musket & Saber rules. So far the series has encompassed some AWI and Napoleonic titles, but the ACW has the most coverage.  

The series delivers games that use an 11” x 17” map, 40 counters and 4 pages of series rules, with another 2 pages of dedicated scenario rules, notes and game chart, so are notable for their small footprint. They also come in for around £11 (UK) so will meet a wider range of gamer budgets.

This post is going to look at a replay of the game, together with some observations of this scenario and the system in general.

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

I have previously blogged about the two AWI games (Saratoga and Germantown) and the Napoleonic game (Saalfeld 1806), which give a fair bit of discussion about the system (see the links in the Resource Section below). So this post will just highlight the system bits that mattered to this scenario.

For those that don’t know, Decision Games do some bigger folio games that have the full set of Musket and Saber rules. The mini games have a cut down version, called Quick Play. Everything from the small footprint game, to the idea of a quick play set of rules, gives an impression of ‘easy’, but I think the rules are quite nuanced and not always as illuminating as they could be in places. The result is a game that needs you to work a little harder with the rules, but that is pretty meaty for its size and punches above its weight.

Scenario Background.
East of Chancellorsville, 3rd - 4th May 1863. At the height of the Chancellorsville battle, the Union attempted to flank the Confederate line. A lone Confederate brigade blocked this advance, giving Lee time and a chance to re-orientate part of the army to deal with this threat.

There are three factors influencing this scenario.

Firstly - Victory for the Union is driven by the need to get their ‘Train’ off the far side of the map, while protecting their own edge of map supply point(s). The Train is limited to road movement.

Secondly - Initially the Union have the advantage in numbers and so they need to prosecute hard on the opening turns, in the knowledge that the game gets harder for them as the game progresses.

Thirdly - On day two of the battle, at the start of each turn, the Union must roll to see whether they get high or low initiative. High initiative (on a 1 - 2) means they behave normally, low initiative (on a 3 - 6) means that for that turn the Union need a leader to get them into a Zone of Control (ZoC). Also, to attack, the lead unit must pass a morale check, if they fail, the attack is called off and this in turn invites the counter-attack mechanic, which allows the defender to immediately counter-attack at double strength. The 66% chance per turn of getting low initiative substantially reduces the effectiveness of the Union Army on day two.

Turn 1 (1200 hours). Wilcox (Confederate) is the only unit on the map. I place him forward on the high ground, that blocks the road that the Union will be using. Brooks Division (Union) enters the map and advances up the road. The positioning of Wilcox prevents Brooks from using the faster March Movement.

Turn 2. I had assumed the hill would have been a useful defensive position, but realise now that it does not provide advantage in combat, it will not be wise for Wilcox to stand here, falling back is the better option. Brooks opens fire on Wilcox with his artillery. The system uses split combat results. You get a primary result and if this is not effective, then you go to the secondary result. This gives some good tactical nuance. So here, the artillery get a DC (EX) result. The DC is primary and means the defender must take a morale test, retreating if they fail. If they pass, then they stand and must apply the secondary result, which is EXchange, which normally means that both sides take a step loss (though it obviously would not apply to artillery bombarding), showing that a defender has stood their ground, but as a consequence high losses result. The system of results works well.

Wilcox fails the morale test and retreats (1 - 3 hexes, defenders choice). The good news for the Confederates is that the rest of McLaws’ Division arrives and moves up to support Wilcox.

Turn 3.  Newton’s Division (Union) arrive behind Brooks and relieve his position while Brooks moves further west towards River Road. The Union will now probe straight ahead down the Orange Plank Road and also to the right down the River Road to establish which route would be the best to have the Army Train travel down to exit the map.
Note, the middle number is morale, the
higher the better.

The Union forces have two gun batteries, the Confederate none. The Union attack down the Orange Plank Road, pushing Semmes and Wofford back. In response, the Confederates pull the Division back to the protection of the woods.

Turn 4 (1630 hours). The Union Train reaches the high ground that Wilcox initially held. Newton attacks into the woods, while on the right at River Road, Brooks attempts to rush Mahone’s lone brigade, but Mahone is too well positioned in the heavier woods for an attack straight off the march to work, Brooks will need to deploy over a wider front to get more men into action.

Likewise on the left, Newton’s attack against Kershaw, his brigade embedded in woods and with Major General McClaws to inspire them, got nowhere. Newton’s artillery retreats and goes  ‘ineffective’ (a game status).

Turn 5 (1800 hours). It looks like there is a lot of blue on the map, but the Union know they must make best efforts now before the Confederate reinforcements arrive. Mahone breaks at the River Road, but that position is salvaged just in time by the arrival of Anderson’s Division (Confederate).

On the left, McClaws’ position holds out in continued determined fashion, with both sides taking loss (EXchange), but Wilcox is pushed back onto the Salem Church position (which counts as being fortified for a defender). 

This is one of the moments in the game that felt odd under the system. Wilcox is happy in the fortified position and does not want to run the risk of attack, but if they don’t attack, the Union can launch an immediate counter-attack (in the Confederate part of the turn) at double strength. So Wilcox of course attacks to avoid that and gets an Attacker Retreat result. I would have thought a scenario special rule that disallows counter-attack against a fortification on a hill might have been useful for this situation, unless of course I am over estimating the defence value of that position Vs successful manoeuvre.

Turn 6 (night) At night, units can move but not enter an enemy Zone of Control and the combat phases are ignored. The Union occupy the School House (on the hill next to Salem Church) and McLaws is now at risk of envelopment. “Where is Jubal Early” he complains.
Night positions

Turn 7 (0730 hours) 4th May. The Union has McLaws on the ropes when suddenly Early’s Division appeared in their rear, from the south ..... the Union Train is dangerously exposed. In the urgency of the moment, perhaps a tipping point in the battle, the Confederates strike hard.
McLaws while attacking Salem Church is
counter-attacked in the flank. Note the
position of the Train (circle marked 4).

Early manages to destroy the detachment that was escorting the train, but doesn’t quite manage getting to the train itself (but does get adjacent to it). At the Salem Church position, Hoke (one of Early’s Brigades) attacks from the South, while McLaws leads Kershaw to attack the position from the North. The Church position holds out, with heavy losses to both sides, but McLaws has exposed his own flank, ignoring two other Union Brigades, who are able to now use the counter-attack mechanic and bonus. Kershaw is routed off the field and McClaws is captured, an excellent prize for the Union, but everything will unravel if they lose the Train. The Union will have to give full attention to the threat of Early’s Division, to the south on their left flank and rear.

Turn 8. The Union effort is totally focused on Early. The attacks are inconclusive, but the Train is kept secure in the ongoing action.

Turn 9. As it is day 2, the Union is testing at the start of each turn for initiative. This matters! This is a crucial part of the battle. They roll ...... Low Initiative! So they need a leader present to get into an enemy Zone of Control and if they attack, they must check against morale and if they fail, the attack is cancelled which of course invites an immediate counter-attack at double strength. This is real set back at this important point.

Brigadier General Howe (Union) successfully gets forces next to Early and attacks, pushing him back, but Howe is killed, the loss of a leader to the Union could not have come at a more critical time.

The Confederates, taking advantage of this lull in Union capability, to concentrate above and below the area that holds the Train.

Turn 10. In their enthusiasm to crush the Union Centre, where the Train is, the Confederates have unwittingly abandoned their initial position, which was the blocking position across the Orange Plank Road ......... the road is now open for the Union Train to proceed down the road and to exit the map and this is exactly what they do and so they escape the clutches of the Confederates. For a Union Major Victory, they simply have to exit the Train and then protect their own map edge supply bases, they start that eastern march back to protect the supply line and to fall back slowly onto the bases.

Turn 11 (of 14 turns). This has become a somewhat bizarre situation. The Train represents the Corps centre of gravity, yet here we are with the Train having exited along at the West edge, while the Corps itself scrambles back East to protect its supply line. I suppose the story telling would have been better if I had retreated the Train to retire off its own base line supply (back from where it came), which it can do to save it from Confederate capture. If neither captured or exited, the winner is decided upon victory points, which are just casualty based.

The Confederates get snarled up in the deep woods, which gives the Union a head start on their movement eastwards. Additionally, falling back is not compromised by ‘Low Initiative’ penalties. Essentially the Union can fall back, safely protecting their supply line, while the Confederates do not have enough time left to fight for and then capture those places. 

This in game terms is considered a major Union victory, but to my eye, it is anything but that.

Well despite the odd ending, which I could have avoided by retreating the Train, the game itself played well and was full of nuance right down at the brigade level. Everything seemed to matter and I frequently found myself holding my breath as I rolled combat die, so all-in-all, this ‘little’ game does punch above its weight.

There are some nice rules in there. Even the frustrating (for them) Union Initiative rule, is executed in a very interesting way, that again makes local situations matter. The counter-attack rule can be devastating and if nothing else, it prevents a player making ‘silly attacks, just because they can’. Here, attacking the enemy is a serious business and you have to know that you have enough troops on hand if you are to avoid that counter-attack. 

To emphasise that, In our game, McLaws throwing his hand in to supporting the attack against Salem Church, while abandoning enemy units on his flank, ensured that whatever the outcome at Salem Church, it was going to be followed by the retribution of those two Union flank brigades, which had a total attack value of 11, doubled to 22, that guaranteed an attack on the top column of the attack chart .... ouch!

Anyway, I really enjoyed the play for its own sake, the Union victory was very gamey and best ignored by anyone caring about their simulation, though I imagine in most games, the Confederate player would not me stupid enough (me!) to allow the train an unblocked move past Salem Church and off the map.

Complexity - The blurb on the back of the game says 1 out of 5 and describes complexity as very low. This is not my experience, the rules can leave questions and I would have expected a slightly higher rating. The game does punch above its weight. The game is small enough to re-set it and have another go once the rules are under your belt.

Size - Superbly small if that is important with a small map and just 40 counters. This could certainly be a vacation game and also ideal for anyone who wants to play on a board across the arms of a chair or on one of those hospital tray / tables that sit over a patients bed, just like a small jigsaw really.

Solitaire - This is a two player game that plays fine as a solo game. The above AAR was solo played. The dynamic nature of the dual results on the Combat Table and rolling against morale values brings uncertainty and helps  the solo experience.

Time - I did quite a lot of writing up on this and checking rules and my game still came in at under two hours.

Resource Section.

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

Germantown replay LINK

Saratoga replay LINK

Saalfeld replay LINK


  1. Not a bad looking game at all and one at a very reasonable price. As always thanks for the write up Norm:)

  2. Thanks Steve, I wish its rules were a little more straight-forward as due to the size and price, it is the sort of game that a lot of gamers, especially those that don't generally boardgame, could roll out when they need a small format fix.

  3. Very informative review Norm, as usual. I note in turn 2 that the hill did not confer a defensive advantage...was it because it lacked cover and left units exposed to fire?

  4. I have no idea. I have checked my other two games in the series, both AWI titles and their high ground is treated the same, that is, high ground does not impact on movement or combat. It is a line of sight block.

    The map scale is 350 yards to the hex. I have tried to find some other maps on the battle, but have not been able to find the high ground that Wilcox started on, so perhaps it is not a significant feature. To the eye though, it drew me in as a great blocking point, so it just goes to show!

  5. With a subtitle of “Minutes to learn, quick to play, historically accurate,” would you claim all three are correct or perhaps two out of three?

    As always, you produced another comprehensive review that piques my interest in this game. Unfortunately, I hold a low opinion of DG games. Graphics are not state of the art (the counters are functional at best). Rules and game development I find mostly undercooked. Still, if you find this a compelling product and given the cost, I may give this one a try.

    What other ACW Brigade-level games do you favor? The Gamers’ CWB would be my pick.

    1. Hi Jonathan, I would have a problem with the 'minutes to learn' claim, though I guess any such claim would be rare in the boardgame game world.

      My DG purchases have been very light over recent years, though I have just acquired Moscow 1941 (discussed on this blog) and the new boxed re-print of Cobra, though there are strong nostalgic reasons for that (my first boardgame in 1977).

      I am generally trying to streamline my boardgames into 'series' based collections and for the ACW I am yet to jump. In the stocks I have The Blind Swords games from Revolution Games and the Battle Hymn game from Compass Games, both promise a line of future titles. The former is at regimental though and the latter at Brigade, though there is an overlap already in subject.

      I suppose I tend towards the regimental level, but we shall see

  6. Thanks for an entertaining and informative write up, Norm. I bought Chickamauga in the folio series on ebay, didn't check it and found a year later it was missing the counter sheet.

  7. Hi Kevin, I'm sure DG would sort that for you. The only Chickamauga I have played was the old (and good) West End Games title, many moons ago.

    I have had the bigger folio games and thought all the rule ideas were good when they were read in isolation, but as a cohesive whole, I did struggle with the rules. Perhaps going back to them after playing the quick version might make things a little easier.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks, Norm, I'll try DG again - they didn't respond to my last email. Like you, ideally I'd like to streamline my collection into series games. I regret not grabbing a copy of Vol.1 Battle Hymn as it now seems hard to find in the UK.

    2. Vol 1. Has just bee recirculated and Andy Ashton at second Chance Games (UK) has them in stock. Compass did not call it a reprint, but no doubt they want it to be available for when Vol II is released.

  9. I'm much obliged, Norm and will check SCG out today. By the way I love examining battlefield maps and this one is as you say a slight mystery. The official maps of the battle clearly show the main ridge running north-south just west of the church and another shorter ridge running parallel just east and slightly north of the toll gate. But I can't find any feature at all near the location shown on the DG map where you placed Wilcox. Intriguing.

    1. It does have a building symbol, with the name 'Guest', which has not helped me at all.

  10. Norm, I would second Jonathan's support for the Gamers Brigade series. I have the first two volumes of the Huzzah! series and though I haven't yet played either I believe they are at battalion level. Most of my other series are at brigade - Glory 1-3 (a planned fourth on The Seven days never appeared),the Blood before Richmond series or division/brigade as The Great Campaigns of the ACW (now vastly pricey for the latest titles). The obvious series for regimental is Great Battles of the ACW - I think I have seven or eight and they appear on ebay quite often - and the latest volume is the recently released Death Valley. The two series I am missing and would like are Battle Hymn and Blind Swords but there is so much to get both in board games and miniatures.

  11. The shopping list needs deep pockets, especially for series games that have already gained a heritage. I looked at Great Campaigns, but couldn't get past the high complexity score.

  12. Great walk through and analysis of the game and this series. I recently recommended someone I know to your blog bc he was looking for some in depth reviews and I immediately thought of you. 😀

    The counter attack rule seems a little too powerful in my first knee jerk reaction. But I think I get what it is trying to achieve.

  13. Thanks Stew, in this game the counter-attack rule hurt the Confederates twice in positions that in another game might be thought of as safe, but the turns are representing 90 minutes and I am resigned to the abstraction that is trying to achieve something at a higher level. It is like what other rules might term 'mandatory attack' but with more subtlety and with the doubling of strength being something to focus the gamer's mind!

    Thanks for directing another gamer this way.

  14. I see that the counter attack rule makes every attack important,it did seem a little gamey for the end result but it did seem a good representation of the attritional type of warfare in the period.
    Best Iain

  15. Hi Iain, the counter-attack rule also keeps armies together, so that pieces have a mutual support to try and dissipate the effect or rather I should say 'threat' of counter-attack that could result from 'ganging up' type play and in that respect, I suppose it is a simple mechanic that overall is representing quite a lot.

  16. Norm, there is an active thread on BGG called GBACW v GCACW. Some interesting points made not only on these two series but on Glory, MMP's LOB and Blind Swords.

  17. Thanks, will have a look. My Kernstown game (Blind swords system) from Revolution Games arrived today.

  18. It looks fantastic. BGG ratings so far one 9 and three 10s. Only a metter of time before I dive in.


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