Last month, I was invited over to my friend Matt’s house to play wargames, as both of our wives were busy at the same activity. Matt plays in our regular group but doesn’t often get into wargames. He was excited about this night though as he had recently received a new Kickstarter from Command Post Games called Pub Battles: Antietam, Limited “Sharpsburg” Edition 100. I didn’t know anything about the game though, other than it is a game about the American Civil War and it covers the Battle of Antietam fought on September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland and Antietam Creek as part of the Maryland Campaign. When we opened the game up, which came in this really cool oversized map tube, what we found inside was rather delightful. The components are top notch, including long and thin wooden blocks representing the units from both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, great quality stickers to place on those blocks that identify commanders written in really old timey cursive and the command that those units will activate under, a fantastic canvas map that is one of the best maps that I have ever seen, and these rather interesting and eclectic measuring sticks that are used to measure the movement of your units! A really well produced game that was really very easy to learn, as there are only 8 pages of rules and a few charts.
I hate to dwell on the map so much in this post but it honestly was so cool and took our breath away when we removed it from the tube and unrolled it on the table. In the picture just above, you can see that it is made of canvas and when we held it in our hands, I could immediately imagine what it was like for Robert E. Lee to be standing there in Sharpsburg, holding a map of the area, and trying desperately to figure out how he was going to overcome the odds that were definitely not in his favor. Great thematic element that not only looks great but also aids players in their immersion into the experience of Antietam.
How Does the Game Play?
The game is actually really interactive and brings the elements of tension and uncertainty to bear on the players. It uses wooden blocks to represent formations and small wooden cubes to represent HQs. As you can see in the picture below, which shows the CSA forces as they were historically set up at the beginning of the battle, players have to place these HQs near forces that they wish to command to attack. The Union commands are limited to controlling only the units they are associated with but the CSA HQs can control any block within range.
As you can see in the picture below, the number of Union Command Chits are 3 times the number of the CSA Command Chits. Now some of the chits don’t enter the cup until later in the game but the Union has the initiative in this game and has double the forces to command so it is very difficult for the CSA. The Chit-Pull System is fairly standard and all Command Chits are placed in an opaque container and one player will be assigned to draw forth one chit each activation. When the Command Chit is drawn, and it usually will be a Union chit, you will simply match the Corps shown on the chit by the number with the corresponding units on the board and you are then able to move them. The C represents the Cavalry and the AR represents the Artillery Reserve.
This Chit-Pull System simulates the difficulty of command and really makes players have to work in order to get done what it is that they wish. I found that in the early going it was very important that you are able to move certain Corps first as you can then position them to defend a river or ford crossing (which makes the attacking side in that situation act as if they were flanked adding bonuses to the defenders rolls) or take up defensive positions in a woods or on top of a hill gaining advantages. Herein lies the key to the CSA doing well in this game as they are outnumbered but have the advantage of terrain and can make it so the Union has to attack them at a disadvantage. I will talk a little about this later but the Sunken Road, which is infamous in the Battle of Antietam, is a key feature that the CSA starts with in their control. If the CSA can gain the advantage and quickly maneuver their Artillery Reserve to back up their defending Infantry (DH Hill starts in control of the Sunken Road) hunkered down in the Sunken Road, it will be very difficult to dislodge them from there, especially if they can support the defenders to their flanks to protect from envelopment and flanking attacks. A little more on this later.
When the chits are pulled, the player controlling that Corps simply moves the units assigned, which can result in contact with the enemy and a later combat. This is an important point. Combat only occurs when units come in contact with each other. If they don’t have enough movement allowance to get all the way to contact, but are only millimeters away, they don’t get to attack. All combat takes place at the end of the round once all units have been activated. Units are moved using the below pictured sticks according to the type of units, either Mounted or Foot. As you can see, once affixed to the sticks, the foil stickers divide the stick into thirds. The entire length of the sticks represents the full movement that each unit can perform each turn. But, various actions, including pivoting or moving through various terrains, take up 1/3 of that movement. At first, we were a little frustrated by the lack of precision in these movements but soon came to realize that it was best to use the sticks more as a guideline and eyeball movements. Once we became comfortable with the movement, it was simple and was no longer a source of worry or consternation. Great little system that captures the essence of the time!
Movement as a Strategy
One thing that I really liked about the design was the strategic element of movement. What I mean by this is the protection of flanks and the use of various terrain modifiers to funnel your enemy’s troops into a more manageable situation. As mentioned earlier, the CSA are outnumbered 2:1 and have 1/3 of the activation opportunities of the Union so they have to be smart about how they use the battlefield and its terrain to their advantage.
In the picture below, you can see that the Union troops on the right flank of the CSA have to cross Antietam Creek in order to get into range to attack them. While the Union has more troops, the CSA has the advantage of being able to get to these river crossings quickly and set up in a defensive formation to really create a killing zone. Walker and Jones, both a part of I Corps, have taken up very defensible positions at the bridges across the creek, one using the woods and the other the hill. This gives them the advantage in battle as they will have the Union troops Flanked during the first round of fighting, which gives the CSA troops a +1 DRM to their attacks against the Flanked units and the Flanked Union troops have a -1 DRM to their attacks. Also, not shown in the picture are CSA troops in reserve that just haven’t been able yet to move into their positions guarding the flanks of Jones and Walker. In order to initiate a combat, units must end their movement touching and this can be made difficult to do due to the use of terrain and positioning.
In the picture below, the CSA are dug in and ready to defend from all directions. At this point, I actually was thinking about advancing with McLaws and Walker on Redman but didn’t want both of my units to be Flanked (due to crossing over a bridge) and potentially vulnerable to counterattack by the other IX Corps units waiting at the other river crossing. The key to a CSA victory is patience and Jones and Anderson would break many charges across that river to hold the right flank over the course of the game. Once again, the key to the game is maneuver, strategic movement and use of terrain.
The Sunken Road
As in the real Battle of Antietam, the Sunken Road, or “Bloody Lane” as it came to be called, was a key to the battle. If this sector of the Confederate line were exploited, Lee’s army would have been divided in half and possibly defeated. There were ample forces available to do so. There was a reserve of 3,500 cavalry and the 10,300 infantrymen of Gen. Porter’s V Corps, waiting near the middle bridge, a mile away. The VI Corps had just arrived with 12,000 men. Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin of the VI Corps was ready to exploit this breakthrough, but Sumner, the senior corps commander, ordered him not to advance. Franklin appealed to McClellan, who left his headquarters in the rear to hear both arguments but backed Sumner’s decision, ordering Franklin and Hancock to hold their positions
Later in the day, the commander of the other reserve unit near the center, the V Corps, Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, heard recommendations from Maj. Gen. George Sykes, commanding his 2nd Division, that another attack be made in the center, an idea that intrigued McClellan. However, Porter is said to have told McClellan, “Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.” McClellan demurred and another opportunity was lost
So, as you can see, the Sunken Road was a key part of the battle and it is made so in the game as well. As the CSA, I was able to keep D.H. Hill and his forces healthy in the area because of the benefit the Sunken Road offered, a -1 DRM to the attackers rolls, as well as having the infantry backed up by the Artillery Reserve. When the Union troops would assault my position, the rules allow for the Artillery to bolster a unit in defense. This backing allows the artillery to fire first in combat, with the attackers taking the losses instantly before being able to return fire. With the Artillery Reserve behind the Sunken Road, they were able to roll 3 dice and hit on a roll of 3, 4, 5 or 6, or 66% of the time. With this amazing advantage, I was able to inflict at least 2 hits each time the Union attacked, and several times, rolled very well and inflicted three hits which totally eliminated the attacking force. Typically, when D.H. Hill’s unit took a hit, I was able to use the Rally rule on his next activation to rotate back to Fresh status and it was almost as if I hadn’t been attacked. This worked very well for me and allowed me to wrack up Victory Points due to all of the eliminated Union units.
Had Matt been able to flank the Sunken Road with his Cavalry on the left or his infantry on the right, I would have had no choice but to retreat but due to my setup and the guarding action of the flanks, I was in a really good position upon which I won the game with a final victory of 5-1.
Summary and Conclusion
We really enjoyed our experience with Pub Battles: Antietam and would highly recommend this game for any fan of the American Civil War or of block wargames. But the version we played with is rare as there were only 100 of the “Sharpsburg” variant copies made so you may not be able to enjoy all of the high quality components we played with (still a great game even without the extras). The rules are pretty simple (only 8 pages), easy to remember and most importantly make sense, yet there is a real level of strategy in how to do things. The only issue that we had at first was getting comfortable with the use of the sticks to measure unit movement. The game is also fairly fast playing, as we finished our first game in about 90 minutes. Combat is really simple and adds in various modifiers for terrain, positioning, etc. and comes down to having to roll higher than a certain number to inflict hits (Infantry roll 3 dice and hit on a 4-6 while Cavalry only roll 2 dice also hitting on 4-6).
The price for the game is a little high ($87.00) but the reason for this is the high quality components. The map alone is a work of art and would be worthy of being framed and hung in a place of honor in any history buff’s den. The stickers are also very well done and have great script and layout as well as are very durable. You won’t have to worry about them coming off the blocks. They also included these really cool stenciled cloth bags to hold the pieces for each army, including the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. You can’t complain about quality and price if the game is a work of art.