Sunday 18 April 2021

ACW rule comparisons

This post takes a very small action of a Confederate regiment attacking a Union regiment that is defending some higher ground and looks how four different sets of rules treats the situation.

It is not so much a serious analytical post, rather, it is just a bit of fun that highlights some differences and allowed a bit of wargame action on a self indulgent Saturday afternoon - and why not!

For the rest of the post that looks at four rule sets, please use the ‘read more’ tab. 

The scene is one of using the fire and charge rules from each system to have a Confederate regiment try and capture the higher ground.

Rather than thinking of this strictly as a ‘charge’, for this period it is probably more helpful to think of this as that close action in the last 100 yards of potential contact, in which each side tries to impose their sheer presence and firepower as a threat to the other, in the hope that the other will break before ‘real’ hand-to-hand contact is actually made.

I quite like the way that Pickett's Charge reflect this by the 'charge' being what is described above, while a 'True Grit' close to melee situation only arises when the charge process results in a draw.

To equalise the situation across the games, we need some situation ground rules;

Both regiments will be regular, have average command, have rifled muskets and essentially be equal in all regards.

The Union player (on the high ground) will always be player 1, or at least the player than can get off the first shooting.

The hill is gentle high ground and does not count as difficult terrain, obstacle or otherwise offer a defensive advantage ... it just looks nice!

The Confederates must always deliver 1 round of fire before they can attempt to close contact.

To equalise the dice across the game, before play I rolled a sequence of dice for 2D6 results and a sequence for 1D6. Each play test will draw from these dice results in the order that they are presented as dice rolls are needed. While the different systems will be doing different things with those rolls, it does at least offer the prospect that the ‘spread’ of dice over the course of each test is the same - well at least I assume that is the case!

This is the sequence of dice for 2D6 combo, 8,5,5,8,8,6,7,7,11,9,3,7,10,8,8 (the 11 and 3 look interesting and are bound to ruin someone’s day!)

These are the 1D6 rolls, 3,3,4,3,3,3,5,6,3,2,5,1,4,3,6,5,1,2,6,4,3,6,2,4

Terrain - the figures are 15mm by Peter Pig, the game cloth from Geek Villain, the trees and hill from S&A Scenics.

In no particular order, we find ourselves starting with Black Powder (by Rick Priestly and Jervis Johnson, published by Warlord Games).

The sequence of play here are orders, movement and then firing. The sequence can be interrupted to take a Break Test for those units that suffer excess casualties during the turn.

Turn 1. The Union Fire, inflict 1 casualty and the Confederates fail their save. They return fire, inflict 1 casualty, but the Union do manage to make a successful saving roll against that hit.

Turn 2. The Union being Player 1, get to shoot first. They inflict another hit and the Confederates again fail to save against it, so they now have 2 casualties. If they reach 3, they will become shaken.

For their part of the turn, having already met the special rule of firing once (in turn 1), they announce that they will charge to contact. They pass their command roll and make the charge.

The Union can react with pre-charge closing fire and they get a +1 on each fire dice for being in close range. They do well and inflict 3 hits, one of which (a rolled 6) is also a 'Disorder' result. The Confederate make their 3 saving throws, but only block one hit, so 2 new hits are added to their existing two hits, plus they are disordered!

Since they have exceeded 3 hits, they must take a Break Test on 2D6 and suffer -1 for the excess casualty and -1 for being disordered.

If it gets a result of seven or more it will be fine, less and it will fall back, four or less and it is classed as broken and simply removed from play. The Confederates roll low (bad) and break, they are removed from play!

Well that was short and sweet. Black Powder is designed for big games with lots of units, but to still be playable to conclusion in an evening, so this sort of unit churn is not unusual. The question is, do we think it is a good result for the player in terms of the situation?

Accepting that it should be difficult in this period to close with an enemy due to high firepower rates being a disincentive! It is probably difficult to argue with the ‘failed attack’, whether or not it justified the loss of the unit so quickly is a question, it certainly brought things to a halt quickly and reduced the sense of player engagement because of that.

It could of course easily have gone the other way with some lucky rolls or even left hung in the balance for a turn or so as a stand-off via a draw, but it didn’t and in this instance, it lacked feeling because of that. Perhaps in a bigger setting it wouldn’t seem so obviously bland or luck centric. I say this as a fan of Black Powder, not an overt criticism.

Pickett’s Charge by David Brown, published by Reisswitz Press is next. The first time I did a cover to cover read of these rules, I felt a bit overwhelmed and set them to one side. Since then, I have been watching some YouTube from the JP channel who plays a lot of the napoleonic sister game and the next time I looked at them, they seemed very straight forward in fact, but with some nice detail.

The reader should know that at the start of a turn a player rolls for ADC’s and then allocates those ADC’s to various units to assist with various tasks. It is the way that the system adds colour to the command and control mechanics. In our test, just to use the mechanic, we will roll for a single ADC and if successful, allocate it to the unit which will allow re-rolls when the ‘brigade’ tests for orders.

The turn is split into phases, with the player holding the initiative going first in each phase for that turn.

Both players roll for ADC availability and get one.

Both players make brigade command rolls to see whether their formations obey their orders or go ‘Hesitant’. Both sides pass and therefore their status is that they obey orders. So they don’t need their allocated ADC’s this turn.

Both players roll for initiative on 2D6, minus 1 for each hesitant brigade in the army and the Union gain it, in effect they become player 1 each sub-phase.

Declare Charges - neither side do (remember the Confederates have to fire first).

Move - neither side do. The Confederates don't need to move and if they did, they would suffer a fire penalty.

Fire - The Union will fire first. The Confederates are within ‘effective range’. There are no modifiers and they roll on the Standard Volley line of the Fire Table with 2D6, inflicting 1 casualty. A unit will remain fresh until it gets it’s 4th casualty, at which point it will worsen, then worsen again at the 8th casualty and Disperse at between 10 and 14 casualties, depending on how big the unit is, so units here are fairly robust, but visibly degrade over time, which feeds into future action.

The Confederates fire back and roll well, they inflict 2 casualties plus the Union must take a ‘See the Elephant Test’ (read morale test). They pass and continue to obey orders.

Turn 2. Both sides test and obey orders, but this time on the Initiative test, the Confederates win, so initiative flips over to them.

Charges - the Confederates declare a charge, the Union do not. The Confederates move to charge and add a D6 centimetres / inches (depending which figure scale is used) bonus to their move. The Union declare reaction fire and inflict 2 casualties.

The charge is resolved by both sides rolling 2D6 and comparing results. The Union get 11 without modifiers. The Confederate get 9, but there is a -1 mod for their 2 casualties, so the final result is 11 Vs 8 in the Union favour. The result for a charger losing by 3 is ‘attacker retires / defender holds’.

The Confederates have to fall back, take an extra casualty doing so and become ‘unformed’. Having now taken 4 casualties, the Confederate regiment is no longer fresh and drop to level 1 (increasing casualties mean you can be fresh, then level 1, then level 2 and then dispersed).

The move phase - neither side does movement.

The Fire Phase - the Union can’t fire, because they used their one fire allowance for the turn when they defensively fired against the charge. The Confederates can’t fire as they have charged this turn.

At the end of all of this, the Union are fine and holding their position with just 2 casualties. The Confederates are starting to suffer from casualties and are unformed. They will need to use their full movement to reform.

In their current state, if they charged now, they would suffer -2 for being unformed and -1 for their current casualty level, plus the potential of another -1 before contact if they lose 2 more casualties due to reaction fire during another charge. 

So while they still have fight in them, they are not as viable as they were at the start and certainly taking some time to become ‘formed’ again, would help, but it keeps them away from the hill that bit longer.

Firepower by Alessio Cavatore and published by the Perry Brothers, is a small A5 rules booklet that comes with their 28mm ACW Battle in a Box set.

It is the amalgamation of the part rules that were given away in the various 28mm ACW unit boxes around 2008, though the cavalry rules never saw the light of day and so the Firepower rules presented here are more like a second edition, streamlined and combined.

These are a very fast play and decisive set of rules. The scenarios in the rulebook last for 7 turns, plus a possible 50% chance of an 8th turn. Once regiments make contact, they can only expect to survive for 2 - 3 turns. Infantry attack with 9D6 and the ‘to hit’ score depends on range, but once a unit reaches 9 hits, it is removed from play. 

A morale test is taken each time a unit suffers harm and so once the fight starts, this together with the 9 hits rule means things don’t hang around for long.

Units Generally can only do one thing per turn, move, fire, charge or rally, though each unit can choose the order that suits their situation best.

On turn 1 the  Union fire and roll 9D6. At this rate, we will quickly run out of the pre-game dice sequence that I set up and we will actually need to be rolling new dice. They inflict 2 hits. The Confederates check their morale, which is casualty based and pass.

The Confederates fire back, as they are obliged to do by our special rule and inflict 3 hits. The Union check morale and pass. As units accrue hits, passing morale becomes harder.

Turn 2, as player 1, the Union fire before the Confederates can charge. They inflict 3 hits and the Confederates now have a total of 5 casualties. They take their morale check and ....... fail!

The attackers break and run
They roll 3D6 inches (I am using centimetres with the 15mm figures), turn and flee. For their part of the turn, the only action they can take is a Rally Test, which they do and pass. This is lucky as a fail would mean they keep running! They turn to face the enemy.

Turn 3. The Union don’t do anything, the Confederates are out of musket range. The Confederates advance back towards the hill - again with a random movement allowance generated by dice.

Turn 4. The Union fire at long range, still with their 9D6, but needing sixes to hit this time. They inflict 1 hit, the Confederates take their morale test and pass. They fire back as they are too fragile to waste time advancing closer to the enemy while not getting a chance to fire. They secure 1 hit against the Union who now have 4 casualties.

Turn 5. The again Union fire at long range, getting 1 hit. The Confederates check morale, fail and once again flee, putting them beyond weapon range. Even if they could get back into the fight, they are now too damaged to be able to do anything meaningful with the Union position. They draw some satisfaction that they at least have not been removed from play ..... yet!

Two Flags - One Nation is a set of my own rules, which most recently were hex based and are currently going through a revision to a non-hex tabletop. Rather like the Firepower rules, in the main, units here can only do one action in a turn. Each unit can participate in the phase that best meets their situation.

The turn starts with a dice roll (2D6) against the Events Table - but no event this time.

Union part of turn 1.

Command & Control - Okay

Artillery Phase - none

General Fire Phase - the infantry fire at long range with 2D6, needing 5’s or 6’s, no effect.

Charge Phase - none

General Movement Phase - none

Rally Phase - not applicable (this recovers units from Disorder)

Retreat Phase - not applicable (this is tested for once units reach 5 casualties)

Confederate part of the turn. They fire, but do not inflict hits.

Turn 2. Random Events give the Union ‘Up and at them boys!’ If the Union charge this turn, they get a -2 modifier to their Charge Test.

The Union fire and fail. The Confederates are close enough to assault. They move to contact and take a Charge Capability Test on 2D6. They fail this, but the charge still goes in, it just means that the charge is Half-Hearted and so they will suffer an attack penalty of -3D6.

The Union now take their Capability Test as defenders. They pass, so they can choose to reaction fire. They get 4 dice because this is now close range fire and they score 2 hits. Those new hits mean that the Confederates must test again for resolve (Capability Test), but their 2 casualties give a negative modifier - even so, they pass and the charge goes in.

For Close Combat, infantry V infantry roll 5 dice, minus 3 dice for the half hearted charge. Like with general musket fire, 5’s and 6’s hit the enemy, but now the attacker can also suffer with 1’s resulting in casualties to the attacker. 

The dice are rolled (rather taken from the dice sequence outline at the start of this post) and the Union suffer 1 hit.

After a Close Combat, the side that has accumulated the most losses to date must fall back a full move. In this instance, it is the Confederates who must disengage as they have 2 hits compared to the Union 1. Both sides are now marked Disordered.

The Confederates attempt to Rally their disorder off, but fail.

Turn 3. No events. The Union are now close enough to fire with 4 dice, but lose 1 dice for being disordered. They miss. However they do manage to rally off their disorder status in their Rally Phase.

Units cannot charge in consecutive turns (things with lungs get tired!) in any case, the Confederates are disordered and have suffered a few casualties, both would work against a successful charge.

They fire and get 1 hit. Units that suffer hits must take a Capability Test. The Union pass ..... just! If they had still been disordered, they would have failed, which would have seen them retreat from the crest.

Both sides have equal casualties and the Confederates remain disordered.

Turn 4 - No event.

The Union fire and inflict a casualty, the Confederates fail their Capability Test and retire. They are now at 3 casualties, which still gives them a presence, but they are getting close to the tipping point of not being viable for offensive action. Perhaps it is better to withdraw them to a defensive position now and call a fresh regiment up.


I suppose the first thing that I should say is that I enjoyed all four situations, with each bringing a different thing to the party. If we were to judge our hobby on the fun factor alone and the ability to simply get a game to the table, then each of them will do that, with the simpler rules perhaps having the greater strength.

So we have four rule sets and four attempts at taking the high ground, all of which failed on the first attempt against a fresh force. That is certainly a fair outcome for two identical forces meeting where one gets extra opportunity to fire as the defender, or at least to fire first.

the Union hold their position
There was a close moment to successfully clearing the hill, with the Two Flags - One Nation rules when after receiving fire, the Union only just passed their Capability Test .... avoiding a withdrawal, though if they had withdrawn, they would essentially still have been in good condition and able to counter-attack.

Likewise Black Powder offered a prospect to take the high ground, they just needed better dice, perhaps reflecting the chance element of those rules than can produce controlled swing results. What we didn't get a chance to show here was some of the nuance of those varied results, such as failed orders etc, which in bigger sweeping games, gives a sense of 'indication' of what is going on 'over there on that hill' rather than the close up scrutiny we have here.

The Firepower rules saw the Confederates seen off before they could even consider a charge and while these rules are simple, they do reflect the dominance of firepower over the 'desire' to charge to contact more than the other rules, though fairly devastatingly so.

Pickett's Charge allowed for opening engaging fire and then a charge, which felt like is was quite properly repulsed, though the Union were significantly helped by that roll of 11 and on another day, the Confederates may have taken the ground, but would need a fairly good differential in their favour to do that.

Had the high ground been given a truer defensible value by making it say 'difficult or rough terrain', then some difficulties due to movement penalties may have been created for units moving to contact so easily and failing to quite reach the Union line in a charge move would have been an interesting dynamic for game purposes, though here, it may have reduced the 'equalisation effect' between rules that I was seeking.

The rules that I felt seemed to give the best ‘feel’ and outcome to the situation were Pickett’s Charge, both during the assault and after the repulse, as it felt like the Confederates had had a bloodied nose, but could still have another go.

A couple of things do stick out. The systems that only allow one action (Firepower and Two Flags-One Nation) in a turn make it harder for the attacker as they always have to choose between movement and fire, so in an assault situation, they surrender their fire to get closer to the enemy, giving the defender a break from harm and providing them with extra fire opportunities.

The Neil Thomas ‘One Hour Wargames’, another fast play set not looked at here, has the same thing going on. For these type of rules, more time needs to be spent trying to wear down a defence by fire, perhaps with artillery support, before launching an assault - or attacking at say 2:1 odds, but taking your knocks on the way in and accepting those casualties.

The systems that inflict the lower casualties or at least controlled casualties and allow units to absorb quite a bit of damage before they fall to bits, seem to offer a more interesting game, there is just simply more nuance going on and the assault itself does not feel such a blunt instrument.

In that regard Pickett’s Charge gave the more interesting twist to the situation and while the repulse of the attacker was clear, the Confederates were still in a usable state post assault - not as good, but this sort of slow deterioration due to the rigours of battle will be going on at various points around the table, bringing interest over a longer part of the game, while units, initially at least, are not knocked about so badly that they will leave the game early.

I also like that in Pickett's Charge, the combat is table driven and therefore somewhat controlled, rather than dice driven systems, which use multi dice rolled (buckets of dice), hitting on 5's etc and with two of the systems (Black Powder and Firepower) using opposed dice by allowing 'save' rolls and to a degree Two Flags-One Nation does similar by requiring a Capability Test every time casualties are received. In Pickett's Charge, it is possible just to get one or two casualties and that is it - done!

Black Powder and Firepower, both fast play rules, seemed to burn out units rather quickly and the whole thing felt a bit more impersonal for that, though in some regards, understanding how these systems unfold will have the players adopting better survival strategies, plus big games or fast play games need these qualities.

The Firepower rules in particular can be deadly, particularly at the closer ranges, with 9D6 being rolled. Of the four games, this one felt more like just rolling and hoping for the best and that one side simply out-survives the other, a sort of indiscriminate fire value. In the past, I have found these rules work better when there is cover on the battlefield and units can then try to save against hits, it can keep them in the game for an extra turn or so, which is quite useful with the starter set that the rules come with, due to low unit count and allowing a better story to unfold.

Charge systems and post casualty fire typically require morale checks or tests, regardless what name is given to them. Two Flags - One Nation relies a lot on Capability Tests and that means extra dice rolls. I tried to take some of them out,  but where that happened, the story telling and nuance reduced to something more generic.

By the end of play, I think I enjoyed the Pickett’s Charge situation the best. It gave that sense of hitting an obstacle, falling back and then being able to try again or at least have the ability to look at what options you should take next.

The situation itself is a good micro way to learn or get re-familiarised with rules, as the action is small enough to be very focused and manageable, while generally hitting all of the major rule mechanics of a system from Command and Control, through movement, fire and assault to morale. It also allows for a bit of midweek tinkering, just throwing a bit of quality time into the hobby time-frame.

Resource Section.

The YouTube channel for JP, who plays the napoleonic version of Pickett’s Charge. LINK

My sister webspace COMMANDERS has a collection of shorter AAR’s. Link.