I have done quite a few interviews with John Poniske over the past year or so as he seems to have his hands in designing a lot of great looking wargames on subjects that I am interested in. (Plains Indian Wars from GMT Games, Blood on the Ohio from Compass Games, Revolution Roadfrom Compass Games, TheBerlin Airlift from Legion Wargames to name a few). Recently, in a monthly update email that I receive from Compass Games, I noticed that he had a design releasing as a pack-in game for an upcoming issue of Paper Wars. The design is an American Civil War game that focuses on the first real engagement of the Civil War led by Ulysses S. Grant. So, I put together an email and John responded with a smile on his face and great enthusiasm to answer my questions. Thanks John!
Grant: This is not your first design on the Civil War. What about this great struggle draws you back to explore new designs in differing battles?
John: No it’s not. Other work I have done on the topic include: Lincoln’s War (MMP), Ball’s Bluff (Legion Wargames), Company Clash (to be published by Compass Games), Bleeding Kansas (to be published by Victory Games), two games on Nathan Bedford Forrest’s campaigns and the Confederate campaign in the American Southwest. The latter have yet to find a home. I have had a long and enduring love affair with the Civil War. I suppose my attraction comes from my having grown up steeped in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln Lore. I read incessantly on the period and have visited most Civil War sites across the country. Because of my affinity with the American Civil War I sometimes feel as if I am a displaced traveler from the 1800s.
Grant: What historical event does Belmont cover?
John:Belmont covers Ulysses S. Grant’s first battle early in the Civil War, November 7, 1861 in Mississippi County, Missouri, along the Mississippi River and across the Mississippi from the great Confederate bastion outside of Columbus, Kentucky.
Grant: What about the battle presented neat design opportunities or challenges to you?
John: The battle presented me with a variety of historical layers, including Land vs. Naval, the green aspect of the troops, a dynamic leader vs. a vacillating leader, and the inclusion of all military arms.
Grant: I understand this design is based on your Ball’s Bluff design. What is similar and why did you feel the system used in Ball’s Bluff would represent this conflict well?
John: That is exactly why I chose this battle. It was another see-saw confrontation that involved a river crossing and a desperate Union retreat. However, it involves many more units than did Ball’s Bluff and viewing the battle through the lens of a company based game using the chit-pull mechanic, I felt I bit off more than I could chew. In the end, with the help of my good friend and developer, Bill Morgal, we pared down the chits and made the system work but it was A LOT of work, and a lot of compromise. Yes Belmont is in many ways similar to Ball’s Bluff but it is also a completely different animal.
Grant: Why is this design better suited for a pack-in game rather than a boxed game?
John: Honestly – it deserved to be a boxed game because of the number of components and the beauty of the Rick Barber map. However, the designer only suggests – the publisher decides.
Grant: What design parameters were you given by Compass Games?
John: Pretty simple – keep the number of counters down and limit the number of pages in the rulebook.
Grant: What elements about the fighting in the Civil War are vitally important to model in a wargame?
John: Leadership – there is a rally aspect that improves with the proximity of a leader. Personality – Grant’s instinct to press on in battle despite his losses, as opposed to Polk’s inability to act decisively. Artillery – a variety of guns were used with a variety of range and effect, included is the high probability of exploding guns. Lack of Discipline – the chance that a successful attack would get out of hand (and often did) Land and Naval unit Coordination – both sides have vessels to support their troops and this was Grant’s initial foray into coordinating operations with gunboats, something he would use to greater effect later in the war.
Grant: What is the scale of the game and the force structures of each side?
John: This is a lopsided Company level game that begins with the entire 3,000 man Union force on the board against a lone Confederate regiment which is gradually reinforced to total 5,000 men. The Union troops hail largely from Illinois, with some from Iowa. The Confederate troops are largely Tennesseeans supported by Arkansans, and units from Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky. Each hex covers about 800 yards and the entire map is roughly 2.5 by 3.5 miles. Time scale is approximately one hour per turn. A game is nine turns long.
Grant: You mentioned this but this battle includes some action from gun boats on the Mississippi River. How did you include this in the design?
John: Grant was escorted by the gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington both are allowed, as they did historically, to approach the Confederate Iron Banks batteries to try to disable them, as well as support troop movement on the Missouri side of the river. Players quickly learn how dangerous the Iron Banks are. Movement is by river sector instead of hex by hex.
Grant: Who is the artist? Can we get a look at the map?
John: Rick Barber is the map artist. He is the renowned Civil War cartographer I worked with on Ball’s Bluff. Together we are currently mulling over using the Ball’s Bluff approach on the two flanks at Gettysburg, Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill. I would also like to see this approach used on the Battle of Monocacy and plan to work on these this coming summer. I also want to recognize Bill Morgal for his excellent work on the counter mix. He did a great job as always.
Grant: What is the anatomy of a counter? Can we see a few examples?
John: Each Company sized unit has a colored regimental identification band across the top of the counter. Company letter identification is in the upper left-hand corner. State identification and combat strength is listed below a soldier silhouette. When a unit receives damage it is flipped to its disrupted side, recognizable for its lighter background color. Disrupted units may defend but may not attack. Regimental and Army Commanders are included and their names appear in the colored bands of the units they control.
Grant: I see the game uses a chit-draw system with a unique see-saw Confused Orders mechanic which simulates the confusion of ACW battle. What is this mechanic and how does it simulate the confusion?
John: The Chit draw system is a simple mechanic where players draw Regimental chits from a draw-cup to randomize when Regiments move and engage in combat. In Ball’s Bluff, due to Union confusion during the battle, I employed a “Confused Order’s Chit” preventing the next Union Regiment being drawn from moving. Units of the Regiment in question may defend but not move. This, at times, prevents critically needed retreats and reinforcement. In Belmont, I begin with a Confederate “Confused Orders” chit in the cup to simulate the surprise Union attack. Halfway through the game, when Confederates begin flooding across the Mississippi to join the fray, the “Confused Orders” no longer apply to the Confederates but instead stalls the Union reaction and slows their retreat.
Grant: What are the three types of battle and how do they differ?
John: The three types of battle are Volley Fire, Melee and Passing Fire. Units adjacent to enemy units may use Volley Fire prior to movement. Each “6” die roll reduces the morale of a Company. Each “5” retreats one Company. Passing Fire takes place during movement when a unit moves adjacent to an enemy unit or attempts to bypass an enemy unit by moving adjacent to it. Melee takes place after movement when units move into an enemy unit’s hex. Melees take place one at a time unless an officer is present to coordinate a multiple unit attack.
Grant: I saw where advancing into melee may cause loss of control and further advance than a player wishes. Why did you include this? How does it work?
John: This is possibly the coolest mechanic in the game and simulates the loss of command control in the midst of a battle which was common in the American Civil War. When an advancing unit won a melee the adrenaline of the men was pumping and they often continued to advance, even against terrible odds. That is what can happen in Belmont. Without a leader the men roll to see if they check their advance and stay put or advance and continue to attack regardless of the odds. When a leader is present the unit does not make a control roll.
Grant: How have you simulated Grant’s aggressive nature in the design?
John: First, I have to credit this to Bill Morgal as he suggested it. It was a play balance mechanic that fit perfectly with Grant’s offensive-mindedness and our need to move the game along. I had two major roadblocks to the design. First we had many more Confederate troops to represent than could fit into a magazine game and for that matter even get into the fight. We struggled with this and simply decided that not all of the available Confederate troops needed to be represented. The other and more pressing problem was the fact that the Union troops, despite their overwhelming superiority were unable to take the Confederate camp by mid-game. This was essential to maintain some kind of historical simulation of the battle. Bill came up with what we call “Grant’s Influence.” This is a 10 point track that gives Grant the ability to reroll a melee die roll if he is within five hexes of the melee, on 10 separate occasions. Spent influence is indicated on the track and if the Union player uses them sparingly he will have some left when he most needs them…beating feet back to his boats.
Grant: What are you most pleased with in the design?
John: So many things: the see-saw tactical situation, the incredible Rick Barber map, the random chit draw, the naval aspect, the grand Confederate artillery battery, Grant’s advantage, the new twist on Civil War combat. So many things, Grant. I couldn’t be happier with the way this design turned out.
Grant: When does this game come out?
John: Today, November 30th. So by the time this interview is published, Belmont will already be in the mail.
Thanks for the great look at a very interesting design John. I love Civil War games, and have recently done several interviews and reviews covering various games, including Seven Pines; or, Fair Oaks from Hollandspiele and Pub Battles: Antietam from Command Post Games. If you are interested in ordering a copy of Paper Wars Issue 87, which includes a copy of Belmont inside, here is a link to the page on the Compass Games site where you can get it for $41.95: https://www.compassgames.com/paperwars/issue-87-magazine-game-belmont.html
Here is an image of the table of contents from the upcoming Paper Wars Issue 87 so that you can get a good idea of what is contained in its pages. Notice that Compass Games chose to run one of our interviews in the magazine. It was an interview we did in June this year with Wargame Graphic Design Artist Antonio Pinar Peña, who had done some great design work for Compass Games in their recent mega releases Saipan The Bloody Rock and Guam Return to Glory. Thanks Adam Starkweather and Bill Thomas for including this interesting interview in the magazine.