Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hell Before Night, a review

Hell Before Night is a detailed wargame of the Battle of Shiloh on the regimental level. It was one of two issue games in Command Magazine No. 42 in 1997. The other game was Blitzkrieg '40.

Using a variation on the game system first seen in Fateful Lightning, Hell Before Night is heavily weighted towards morale effects, rather than factor counting or numbers.

Units are rated for “Intensity” which measures its willingness to enter into close combat, and “Morale” which measures staying power. Compared to the other games using the same system, unit morales tend to be lower, which befits the green armies involved on both sides.

There are few surprises in the general game situation, and anyone familiar with the historical battle or any of the other games on the battle know what to expect. The entire Confederate Army starts either on the map or will enter shortly, while the Federal forces are lined up near their camps, attempting to slow down the rebel onslaught. The Rebels will spend the first half of the game driving towards Pittsburgh Landing. Its capture will end the game in an immediate and decisive victory. If night falls before they get there, a whole new army of Union troops arrives overnight to launch a counter attack the next morning. The battlefield is wooded and constricted, so there is little scope for maneuver. It’s an all-out, straight-up slugging match.

The game system is unusual, and is a departure from the usual XTR/Command style. While a “mini-monster” the game does not use standard wargame mechanics and instead uses an uncommon and rather intricate game system, by Command standards.

Every hex represents about 176 yards, units are regiments of infantry and artillery batteries. The game uses the universal color scheme of Civil War games, blue for the federals and gray for the confederates. The Union Army of the Ohio, which arrives on the second day is in green, instead of blue. Units show iconic representations of the soldiers on each side, in a variety of poses and uniforms. Unlike Fateful Lightning, however, which depicted each unit in its correct uniform, Hell Before Night does not purport to show actual attire but merely generic blue and gray.

Turns represent two hours during daylight, plus an overnight turn. Each turn is comprised of player “couplets,” which might be considered turns in most other games. How many couplets make up a turn varies. After each couplet a die is rolled. Depending on the result play proceeds to another couplet with the same side going first, or to another couplet with the player order reversed or the end of the turn.

Combat is handled in an unusual way. Ranged fire combat is possible, but tends to be indecisive and long-ranged shots are hard to set up because of the amount of woods. Surprisingly, firing units can suffer adverse results when they shoot. The number of firing factors is added up and a 10-sided die rolled. Results tend to be disruptions and morale checks.

Much of the combat will consist of assaults, however, because the Rebels really need to press ahead at all costs. Assault combat is resolved by selecting a column on the CRT based on the attacking units’ intensity and then rolling a 10-sided die. Both intensity and the die roll can be affected by a number of modifiers. I found this system rather burdensome and even arduous, because it meant a large number of repetitive calculations. There are likely to be dozens of combats in each player couplet, each one involving adding up modifiers, which will generally tend to be very similar.

The games includes a number of other unusual subsystems, such as "extra strength" which is used to recreate units from the dead pile. Units can also be recreated without using extra strength, but risk being permanently eliminated at a victory point cost.

If Pittsburgh Landing holds, then victory is decided by comparing victory points, which are accumulated by killing enemy leaders, capturing units or units that are permanently eliminated when rolling to return to the map without using extra strength.The game does appear to be a reasonable simulation, but its level of detail and the work required of each player will restrict its appeal to hard-core gamers with a particular interest in the topic.


(Conditional Yes) For Wargamers: A large and detailed replication of the Battle of Shiloh for Civil War and tactical game buffs. It’s of limited interest to others.

(No) For Collectors: Nothing special.

(No) For Euro gamers: A very hard-core hex-and-counter wargame

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