Exploring Chancellorsville through Battle Cry

The Battle Cry box.

The two most crucial days of the Battle of Chancellorsville took place on May 2 and 3, 1863, so this weekend marked an excellent opportunity to recreate it. This battle’s long fascinated me, especially with the divide-and-conquer flanking march through The Wilderness Jackson pulled off on May 2. And given that I don’t have a battle-specific game for this one at the moment, the Chancellorsville scenario in Battle Cry (the 1999 Richard Borg design that kicked off the Commands and Colors system, since seen in the likes of Memoir ’44, Commands and Colors: AncientsBattlelore and more) seemed like a good way to recreate it. Here’s a look at how the battle played out this time, with me playing both sides. For background info on Chancellorsville, the American Battlefields Trust page and the Wikipedia page are quite good; there was also a very funny thread from Matt Palmquist (@CivilWarHumor) this weekend, starting with a good map overview.

And for those unfamiliar with Battle Cry, it’s a low-complexity wargame where each side takes a turn playing one command card. Those cards usually activate one or more units in one of the three regions of the map. All moves are done before battles, and battles can be resolved in any order the activating player chooses. Infantry and cavalry can move and battle, artillery can move or battle, and generals can only move (but they can attach to other formations to give them an extra die). Battle involves just the attacking player rolling a number of dice; that number starts at five for artillery attacking an adjacent hex, four for infantry attacking an adjacent hex, and drops by one for each further hex away. Some terrain also reduces the number of dice the attacker gets; notably for this map, forests and hills drop the attacker’s dice by one, fieldworks drop it by two. All units always attack at their full strength even if they’ve suffered losses.

The Battle Cry box.

The six-sided dice have two infantry results, with the other sides being cavalry, artillery, sword and flag results. To record a hit, you need to roll the type of unit you’re attacking. Swords are wild (hits on anything), and flags force retreats. A hit removes one figure; infantry have three basic figures and a flagbearer, cavalry have two and one, artillery have one and one, and generals only have a flagbearer (but can only be killed if they’re attacked when they’re not attached to a unit and if a swords result is rolled). The goal is to eliminate six enemy units’ flags, and the flagbearer is always removed last.

And now, on to the game report in photos (a technique I particularly like thanks to Hiew’s excellent blog).

Chancellorsville scenario setup
The Chancellorsville scenario setup. Jackson’s forces are to the left (west), Lee’s to the right (east). Hooker’s troops are in the middle around the town.
First attack
The Confederates go first here, as you’d expect. The hand I randomly drew for their side started with an assault (activate all troops) card for Jackson’s wing, which was a nice note to history. The first assault wiped out the infantry closest to Jackson’s lines (probably part of Howard’s corps) and pushed the other forces near the south of the map back towards town.
Further success
The Union was unable to do much with their first couple of turns (seems historically accurate!), with one turn even being a discard and draw thanks to only holding cards that couldn’t activate anything. Some further Confederate assaults led to this situation. The CSA has already knocked out two Union flags and weakened some other units without losing much themselves.
Fieldworks
The Union army has had some rough card draws so far (and they’re hurt by only having three cards to the CSA’s five in this scenario), so they haven’t been able to do much attacking. But they did draw a fieldworks card, allowing the construction of two fieldworks around Chancellorsville. That gives those two units more defense (reducing the dice rolled against them by two). Unlike Hooker’s historical order for Sickles to abandon the earthworks in Hazel Grove, these units won’t be leaving these fieldworks any time soon.
All-Out Offensive
The All-Out Offensive card is the most powerful in the game, letting you activate all your units. The CSA drew it and used it to solid advantage, attacking with both Lee and Jackson’s forces in a move that feels like what historically happened in the morning of May 3. (Granted, at that point, Stuart was in command of Jackson’s troops after Jackson was hit by friendly fire the previous night.) You can see the mounting Union casualties at the top of the image, including four of the six flags necessary for victory; meanwhile, the CSA has only lost three figures and no flags. But this offensive did leave their troops more exposed outside of the woods.
Counterattack
Finally, some luck for the Union. They drew a Counterattack card, which copies the opponent’s last order. And All-Out Offensive is the best possible thing to copy, especially with several CSA troops now out of the woods and into the open. This turn sees the Union eliminate seven CSA figures, including one flag.
Probe
A couple of turns later, the Confederates have kept up their attacks, and they’re now one flag away from victory. They’ve also pushed the Union off both of the key hills in the middle, and forced the artillery to retreat to the buildings in Chancellorsville (and you can’t fire from a building, so that’s a useful result; it actually happened twice during this battle, with the artillery being pushed back there, moving back to the hill, and then being pushed back again). But the CSA has taken some heavy losses along the way, and the Union has done well to bring its northernmost artillery and infantry (likely Reynolds’ troops) into the fight. The flag score is now CSA 5, Union 3.
Sharpshooters
The Union has run out of useful attack cards, so they try to recreate the historical result of picking off Jackson (although that was by friendly fire rather than sharpshooters and happened earlier in the battle). But they fail their die roll, and he survives.
Final
The Confederates press for the victory with some much-reduced troops from Jackson’s command, and they get it, recording their sixth flag. But they did take heavy losses. Final score, CSA 6, Union 3.

Overall, Battle Cry is far from the most comprehensive simulation, especially when it comes to what units you can activate being limited by your cards and to wounded units still attacking at full strength. And as an overall war title rather than one specifically focused on this battle, it obviously doesn’t have as much particular chrome or orders of battle as you might find in a more narrowly-focused title. But I love this game for what it’s able to do with a rules-light, easy-to-teach-and-play approach, and the scenarios are very well-designed, making strong use of terrain and of differing hand sizes to give you some similarities to what actually happened in a wide variety of different battles. Playing out the Chancellorsville scenario this way was a lot of fun, and a great way to re-explore that part of history.

The Play’s The Thing: Orange rush, Cinderella crush, code hush

Welcome to a new Board and Game segment, The Play’s The Thing. (Yes, inspired by Hamlet; hopefully it ends with less death and destruction!) These will be reports of different gaming sessions I’ve participated in. Here’s the first one, from a gaming session with friends Tuesday:

California Gold

Published: 2015

Designer: Patrick Stevens

Publisher: Numbskull Games

3-5 players

120 minutes

California Gold is a pretty intense economic game, focusing on farming oranges in California. Each player is running their own co-op and trying to add orange groves to it; groves pop up in the different counties of California, and you can only collect them by building packing houses there and spending an action to take the card. The more orange groves you have, the more money you’ll collect; Valencia oranges are worth one dollar per card, while Washington Navel oranges are worth two dollars per card, but are more vulnerable to weather that can keep you from collecting from them.

The grove cards also come in sets that help you gain influence with different railroads, bringing in even more money. You’ll get money for each train token you’ve placed (which requires three grove cards with that railroad’s symbol), and more money if you have more trains with that railroad than anyone else. You’ll need more packing houses to get these cards, though; you start with one in one county, and to get a card, you need to have a packing house with capacity (each can hold three cards) in the county the card is from. Each packing house you build both costs money itself and makes it more expensive to keep your workers happy (something you have to pay for every round, or risk being affected by strikes), so you have to carefully consider your timing in expansion, and also which rivals you’ll be competing with in a particular county.

Money and actions are tight in this game, especially early on. You have to build a significant engine to make your collect dues actions efficient, but to get there, you’re going to have to carefully grab cards early on and also monitor what your opponents are doing. Later in the game, money becomes less of a problem, but there are more things you have to invest in, such as advertising to boost your revenues, additional buildings such as nurseries and agencies to give you free actions, and political lobbying and infrastructure improvements to protect yourself from attacks.

California Gold, early in the game.
California Gold, early in the game.

Attacks? Yes, there are attacks. What separates this from a lot of economic simulators like, say, Power Grid, is that there’s a ton of direct interaction as well. Competing for cards is one thing, and one of the possible actions you can do is to wipe and refresh the deck of available cards (which can be very mean if the next person’s targeting some; however, you only get two actions per turn, so you can’t do this regularly), but what’s even stronger are the event cards. Each player has a hand of six of these, and the start player in each round gets to play one (and then draw back up to six). Most of them are nasty effects that go off under certain conditions; for example, a drought prevents those who haven’t taken the irrigation action from collecting dues this round. This is done in a cool way; the one-per-round mechanic keeps them from getting overpowered, the necessity of playing one (and not requiring an action to do so) means that players both can’t opt out of it and can’t go for an attack-focused strategy, and the choose-one-from-six gives players far more agency than a random event deck would have. Also, it’s nice that while most of these effects are damaging, the majority are about preventing players from doing something for a round than taking something away from them. Thus, they’re more delaying than destructive, providing interactivity without stealing a player’s hard-won cards (important, considering that the win condition is collecting a certain number of groves).

I had a lot of fun with California Gold, and not just because I wound up winning with 21 groves. There are plenty of interesting decisions in this one, and it’s a great underutilized theme with what looks like an impressive attention to historic detail (while still keeping it game-focused). Our play with three players (and the Northern Counties expansion) did take a little over the listed 120 minutes, and the others said it felt a bit draggy at the end and is better with more people (which doesn’t necessarily make it take longer, as the numbers of groves to collect for victory decrease), but I enjoyed it fine with three. If you like economic games, and also like more interaction than they often provide, this may be one to check out.

Too Many Cinderellas

Published: 2014

Designer: Nobutake Dogen, Nao Shimamura

Publisher: Grail Games

2-4 players

10 minutes

Too Many Cinderellas.
Too Many Cinderellas.

We played this fun little filler Tuesday after wrapping up California Gold. A fourth player had joined by this point, so we had a few quick rounds of this. In summary, Too Many Cinderellas features 18 possible Cinderellas, each with traits and rules. The traits, along with the Cinderella’s number, help determine if they are the real Cinderella if left in your hand; the rules come into effect if you play them to the table instead, and help restrict who the real Cinderella is. Perhaps she isn’t young, or doesn’t like ice cream, or doesn’t have glasses. Players get four cards and take turns playing one until everyone has two left in hand. After playing a card, there’s a vote to see if its rule will take effect; everyone else has the opportunity to reveal a “No,” which nullifies the rule, but which each player can only do once per game. This leaves everyone with two candidate cards, plus one revealed off the deck. The real Cinderella is the one numbered closest to 1 (unless the cat has been played, which reverses the numbers). A good quick game; there’s only some strategy, and a lot of chaos, but it has fun moments.

Codenames

Published: 2015

Designer: Vlaada Chvátil

Publisher: Czech Games Edition

2-8 players

15 minutes

Codenames.
Codenames.

Codenames is a blast, and is quickly becoming one of my favourite party games. There are two- and three-player variants that I haven’t played yet, but the base game with 4+ is fantastic. You divide into red and blue teams, each with a spymaster, deal 25 clue cards out of a deck, have the spymasters look at a location card that shows which word card corresponds to which agent, and then have them proceed by giving their team one-word clues with a number of words the clue links to. (For example, “Imperial 2” might mean “tie” and “fighter”.) The team must then discuss among themselves (if there’s more than one team member guessing; with four players, each team has just one spymaster and one guesser) and point to the card they think is indicated. If they’re correct, an agent of their colour’s revealed, and they can take another guess. If they’re incorrect, it can be a bystander (neutral, but ends the turn), an enemy agent (helps the other team advance towards winning, ends the turn) or the one lone assassin (instantly ends the game in a loss for the team that picked it). The winning team is the team that reveals all of their agents first, nine if they received the first turn or eight if they didn’t.

Codenames is very simple and easy to learn, but has tons of replayability, and forces your brain to think hard and make clever connections. It may be somewhat better with groups that know each other at least somewhat and know what references they can make, but there are enough connections between these words you can get there without too much trouble most of the time. I’ve played this three or four times so far and had a blast each time. This is currently the top-ranked party game on BoardGameGeek, and it might be the best one I’ve played too.