Friday, November 7, 2008

Solitaire play of King's Mountain in Hold the Line

The American Revolution Battle King's Mountain seems at first consideration to be an excellent topic for a wargame. You have two armies of almost identical size and quality facing off without any chance of outside interference.

Unfortunately there's the uncomfortable fact that the historical outcome was exceedingly one-sided as the losing army was completely annihilated for relatively small cost to the winner. It was, indeed, a stunning result.

By 1780 the fighting in the American Revolution had moved to the southern colonies in the face of the British defeats up north and the stalemate outside New York. As British Gen. Cornwallis campaigned through the Carolinas he dispatched a force of American Loyalists under the well-regarded Major Patrick Ferguson to cover his inland flank. Ferguson's force, while made up entirely of provincials, was well-trained and contained a core of troops trained to the standards of British regular troops. It numbered around 1,000.

Unfortunately Ferguson, while a god leader and trainer of troops, was evidently rather foolish when it came to psychology as he threatened to lay waste to rebel areas and unleash Indian raids. Rather than cowing the frontiersmen who inhabited the mountain interior his threats ended up mobilizing those folks and a force of about 900 of them moved to attack Ferguson's army. While completely irregular and not part of the formal Patriot forces (being neither Continentals nor militia) these frontiersmen was hardy campaigners with extensive experience with their weapons and no strangers to fighting.

Still, the Rebel force would normally be expected to have some problem executing a complex battle plan, having an ill-defined and informal chain of command. In the actual event, however, the Rebel leaders seem to have had no problem cooperating despite the informal nature of their army.

The Rebels caught up with Ferguson just south of the border between North and South Carolina at King's Mountain on Oct. 7, 1780. Ferguson decided to make a stand on the high ground of King's Mountain. This must have seemed like a self-evidently good idea, but as it turns out it was an enormous blunder. Ferguson died in the battle, so we don't know what he was thinking, but it may have been that he expected to tire out the attacking Rebels by having them attack up the steep hill. Further, he may have reasonably expected that his disciplined troops would be able to defeat the Rebel attackers piecemeal, as their unpracticed and irregular force would find it difficult to coordinate its attacks.

As it turns out, Ferguson fatally misjudged his opponents. The Rebel commanders were able to devise a plan to surround the entire British force and then execute a simultaneous encircling attack. The Loyalists launched bayonet charges that drove the Rebel line back, but could not close with it in the heavily wooded terrain of the mountainside. Meanwhile the Rebel marksman picked off the Loyalists, especially the leaders, including Ferguson himself. Unable to return effective fire against the woodsmen in the trees and eventually the entire army surrended.

King's Mountain hasn't been extensively simulated, although it's not fair to say it has been ignored, either. For example, it's a scenario in Rebels & Redcoats Vol. III.

Still, simulating a battle that involved a crushing defeat for one side is never easy for designers, particularly when there's so little excuse for the loss. Ferguson's army was at least as good quality as the Americans and actually a little bit larger. His defeat is completely due to picking very poor ground on which to fight, compounded by a fatal misjudgment about his opponents.

In Hold the Line this design reflects the key facts of the battle fairly well given its simple design and manages to recreate the circumstances of the battle while presenting a chance for a different outcome. The Loyalist force of eight units and a leader sets up in the middle of the map in open ground in a line alternating between militia (2 Morale Points) and British Regulars representing the trained Loyalists (3 MPs). The American force is made up entirely of 10 militia units (2MP) with two leaders, but they have the advantage of being able to setup anywhere in a ring of hill and woods hexes completely surrounding the Tory army.

Besides the advantage of surrounding the Loyalists and having terrain cover, the Americans also have a significant command action point advantage of 3 to 1. This means that the Rebels will have at least 4 CAP per turn while the Loyalists will never have more than 4. While this helps recreate the historical result, I'm not sure it doesn't amount to an "idiot rule" for the Loyalists and is hard to justify on purely historical grounds. Ferguson's force did not, in fact, suffer from any notable command control problems.

For my solitaire run through I decided to concentrate the American effort against the middle of the British line by massing two groups of three militia each directly north and south of the middle part of the Loyalist force. Each group had one American leader. The remaining four militia units completed the encirclement around the ends of the British line. My plan for the British was to try to rush one side or the other of the American line and break through.

As it turned out, however, the first few turns really went the Americans' way and the two militia units and Loyalist regular in the middle of the map were quickly gunned down. Because the Americans didn't need to move much they could maximize their Action points to fire, which meant 5 or 6 shots each turn. Meanwhile the Loyalists were forced to spend two APs per unit as they moved and fired and/or tried assaults, so most turns they had just a couple of attempts at causing casualties and lesser odds of succeeding due to the woods and hills terrain effects. Eventually the Loyalists were able to fight their way into the woods and eliminate a couple of Rebel militia units but they were never able to make up the initial deficit and the game ended with the British scoring 4 VPs for eliminated American units while losing 6 VPs and the game. Actually, the British lost 7 VPs because they also lost their leader in the last assault combat.

As a solitaire scenario it worked reasonably well and resembled the historical result, although perhaps not quite so one-sided. I'm not sure how it would work as a two-player scenario because the Loyalist player really has few options. It might make a good scenario for an experienced player to use to teach a new player, though, giving the new person the American force.

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