Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Strategy in First Bull Run

The First Battle of Bull Run is a fascinating little affair. It was the first major battle of the Civil War, yet it was almost like a prologue to the Real Thing, with little direct continuity. Oh, sure, there were some familiar names like Jackson, Sherman, Ewell and Burnside there. And there were some troops in Blue and in Gray on the field, although not necessarily on the expected side.

But in many ways it was an anomaly and not a representative Civil War fight. It was small, both armies not much larger than a later-war corps. While it's toll surprised contemporary observers, it was a particularly bloody fight -- Shiloh the following spring was a much better harbinger of what was in store for the country.

It's small scale and colorfully garbed troops have made it a favorite topic for wargamers and there are a large number of games on the topic. Indeed, I think it's fair to say that every systemic approach to depicting Civil War combat includes a Bull Run game sooner or later.

So it's a little surprising that the famous SPI Blue & Gray series never got around to showing the battle and it didn't appear in the system until Decision Games re-issued the quad. That B&G quad game is a fairly popular title among players since it appeared.

According to statistics on Hexwar, out of every 10 games played, the Union wins 5, the Confederates win 3 and 2 games are draws. While Hexwar's stats don't differentiate between games played with their special Fog of War rules (only practical for online play) and games played with all units visible as a face-to-face game would be, the circumstances of the battle probably mean the differences between the two styles of play are negligible. The general lines of play are obvious and visibility is good enough that there's little scope for tricky play. The Confederate forces are frozen in place until Turn 3, making FOW inapplicable to them and most of the Union army will be visible on Turn 3 as they launch their assault. Neither army is big enough to withhold substantial forces from the fight.

The Federal army has just 11 brigades of usable troops, totaling 74 combat factors. Ten of those brigades are strength 6, 7 or 8, with one (Franklin) of just 4 strength points. There's a 10-factor division as well, but it's stuck in Centerville unless the Rebels cross Bull Run. As they have little reason to do so, this division should never enter play.

The opposing Rebel force is almost exactly the same size at 77 fcombat actors but it has a few more units so the average strength is a little lower. It's somewhat more diverse than the Union's purely infantry order of battle, including a couple of weak cavalry squadrons and small artillery battalions. There are also a couple of small infantry detachments. All of these small units have strengths of 1 or 2. The core of the Rebel army are their 10 infantry brigades of 6, 7 or 8 strength points.

The dominating terrain features of the battlefield are Bull Run, an uncrossable (in the game) creek lying between the armies with some fords and bridges scattered along its length. On the western side of the battlefield are some extensive woods, which form a significant terrain obstacle in this battle. Because both armies are very inexperienced, the game assigns most of the infantry units on both sides movement allowances of 5, instead of the usual B&G value of 6. While it appears to be just a 1/6 reduction in speed, it's really a 50% cut as soon as woods get involved, because each woods hex costs 3 movement points. In effect, most infantry units can only enter one woods hex per turn. This comes close to making woods "no-go" instead of "slow-go" terrain.

This game only appears in the Decision Games package which use the revised B&G rules, with "Attacker Effectiveness," and not the original "classic"rules. The victory conditions take advantage of this to make attacker effectiveness an integral part of winning or losing, which fits the historical situation rather well. Both armies had fragile morale and it was mostly a matter of the fortunes of war that the Federal Army broke before the Rebels did. It could have easily gone the other way. At the end of every turn each side adds up points for ineffective units (1 each) and eliminated units (2 each) and adds the result of a D6 roll. If the total is 17 or more than that army routs and the other side wins. If neither army routs then victory is determined by who holds two of the small towns on the map, Groveton and New Market. The rub comes from the fact that Groveton is practically indefensible for the Confederates and New Market hard to seize for the Federals, so the usual state of affairs is for each side to hold one town and therefore it's a draw.

The fact that more games don't end up as draws is a testimony to the aggressiveness of the players.

The burden of attack in on the Federals. the Union commander, Brig. Gen. McDowell, actually developed a pretty good plan, albeit one that would be challenging for a green army to execute. Unwilling to try fighting his way across Bull Run in the teeth of the Rebel army, he conceived the idea of executing a flank march around the Rebel left flank. It might have worked. too, except that the Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley failed to pin down the Rebel army in that area and that force of four brigades had just arrived to reinforce the army facing McDowell. Even with those reinforcements it was a near-run thing, because the Rebel command was caught by surprise.

This surprise is reflected in the game by allowing the Union forces to move three times before the Confederates can move. Naturally the Union layer needs to make the most of this advantage and hit the Rebel flank hard on Turn 3.

It can be worthwhile to leave Franklin along the river to deprive several Confederate brigades of strategic movement, which will basically mean they will enter the fight a turn later than they would otherwise, a significant factor in an 8-turn game. It's probably NOT worthwhile to send a second unit (usually Richardson's 7-factor brigade) to the river front to deprive the rest of the Rebels their strategic movement. The Union will miss those 7 factors and the affected Rebels are close enough to the action that it hurts them less to be slowed down.

I like to use Richardson to cover Ball's Ford (1216) instead, ready to cross over once the rest of the Federal army comes up.

Two brigades (Sherman and Porter as good choices) should drive Radford's cavalry away from Lewis Ford. Radford will probably (and should) use the cavalry retreat ability to avoid the risk of a DE result.

Two more brigades (Burnside and Davies) should attack across the Stone Bridge at 3-1. It's possible to use Franklin here so that an exchange (1/6 chance) only costs 4 combat factors instead of 6 but this means you've either given the Rebels an unmolested run to the flank or wasted a stronger unit on that economy of force mission. Unlike most Blue & Gray games, there are no strength-based victory points, so losing Davies 1/6 of the time isn't much worse than losing Franklin would be. In any case Burnside will advance, setting up Evans and the Potomac artillery for a poor-odds counterattack. The rest of the Union host can either cross farther upriver around Sudley Ford or stack up behind Burnside. So long as somebody swings through Groveton it doesn't matter much what the exact paths are.

The objective is to wipe out Evans and the artillery quickly for 4 morale points and set up for an attack on New Market as soon as possible. The Rebels can probably stack enough units in that town so that all the Federals will get is a 2-1 attack or even just a 1-1 attempt. If that try fails, the Federals may get a second try, although almost certainly THAT one will have to be a 1-1. About half the time the Union will take New market and not lose it to the immediate Confederate counterattack. The other half the time the Union will end up with about half their army rendered ineffective. The trick then for the Federal player is knowing when to quit. The Union player can almost guarantee a draw by pulling back if he fails to grab New Market after having half his brigades knocked out of action. If the Confederates press too hard in an effort to take Groveton they may very well lose on morale.

The Rebel player has a harder path to victory. It's just a 6-turn game for that side, and they have to spend a big portion of that time rushing to redeploy from the right flank. Evans and the Potomac artillery can be written off. If they survive it will be through a combination of great luck and a gift from the Union player. The two cavalry units should always retreat if attacked and be careful to never take positions where they can be surrounded. Don't forget that a dead 1-8 costs just as much morale as a full-strength infantry brigade.

The first priority is to defend New Market and force the Union army to batter itself senseless trying to gain entry. An incautious Union player can easily lose on morale, perhaps helped along at the end by a judicious CSA counterattack. The difficult part for the Confederates is if the Union backs off upon failure to accept a draw. The Rebels at that point usually have too little time and insufficient forces left to have a good chance of taking Groveton for the win. Often an energetic drive for Groveton ends up handing a victory to the Federal side after all as the CSA losses put them in range of a morale loss. The Rebel player should pay particular attention to careful placement of the 1-factor artillery battery and Stonewall Jackson's 8-6 brigade. The artilelry can be useful for jacking up the attack factor of a CSA brigade to match a Union 7 or 8 in a pinch (much better to do a 1-1 than a 1-2) and Jackson's brigade is the only infantry unit able to traverse two woods hexes in a turn, making him useful in the trees. Unfortunately all the speedy CSA units put together (Jackson, guns and horse) can't muster any better than a 1-1 on even a weak Union brigade, so their offensive punch is best saved for desperate times.

Given that the Union wins half the time, taking a draw as the Confederates is at least a morale victory and sets up a good chance to win a match set.

I think that draws should actually be more common than they seem to be. Both sides have it in their power to drive things in that direction and I think close to half of all games played properly should be draws, with nearly all the remaining ones being Union wins. I'd expect the breakdown to be 5 draws, 4 USA wins and 1 CSA win out of every 10 plays. Out of 15 recent Hexwar plays I was involved in there were 5 Union victories (3 mine) 2 CSA wins (one mine) and 8 draws (4 each US and CS).

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