A few years ago, actually 2018, saw the announcement of Death Valley: Battles for the Shenandoah and I was able to connect with the game’s developer Bill Byrne to post a very detailed interview on that game and his experience in working on Volume VII in the Great Battles of the American Civil War Series. Bill did an excellent job on that interview and has continued to remain involved in the GBACW Series as it grows and evolves and is now again acting as developer on the newest addition to the series in Volume VIII Into the Woods: The Battle of Shiloh designed by Richard Whitaker. We reached out to Bill and once again he accepted the challenge of providing details about this one and as usual did a fantastic job.
Grant: You are once again acting as game developer for the most recent volume of the Great Battles of the American Civil War called Into the Woods: The Battle of Shiloh. Why do you continue to work on this long standing series?
Bill: GBACW may be long-standing, but it does not stand still. Over a period of more than 40 years, the series has evolved in leaps, bounds, and more subtle ways. It has been a source of deep satisfaction to me to have contributed to that evolution. I also wish to see how that contribution plays out. Although we have plenty of data indicating we’ve taken GBACW in a positive direction, there are still bugs to work out, player questions to answer, and (if you’ll pardon the phrase) player’s aids to design and post for what is, admittedly, a relatively complex system.
Grant: What excites you about each new volume in the series?
Bill: Enjoying American Civil War history as I do, part of the thrill of each new volume is the battle or battles it covers, especially when no other game has done those battles on the regimental level. This is especially true for Greg Laubach’s work-in-progress, Shenandoah, which will feature four battles I believe lacking previous coverage. But there’s more to it. Death Valley stretched GBACW’s boundaries in its treatment of terrain and special units. I believe future volumes will continue to go beyond what’s been done before, which will keep the system fresh and bring in innovation. Helping to make these innovations playable is great fun.
Here’s the high point of a playtest of one of our April 6th morning scenarios. This is just the playtest map!
Grant: What lessons have you learned since the last volume Death Valley that you hope to put into practice on this volume?
Bill: During Death Valley’s development we were wary of the increased rules text needed to overhaul the series rules, and tried to be as lean as possible. We took that same approach to Death Valley’s two “battle books”. Judging from the number of player questions we’ve fielded over the last eighteen months, we may have been a little too lean. While veteran players might know exactly what a given rule means, many newcomers do not. We did not realize that Death Valley would bring so many new players into the GBACW fold (although we might have guessed, given GMT’s smart pricing for such a large package). We’ve concluded it’s better to add a little more clarifying text than we did in 2019.
Grant: What events from history does Into the Woods focus on?
Bill: Into the Woods covers the Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862. As one of the Civil War’s most famous battles, Shiloh has been well covered in the past, starting with Richard Berg’s Bloody April in 1979. Several times during the years before his untimely passing Richard expressed his desire to take another run at the topic.
Grant: This time the designer is Richard Whitaker. What has been your relationship with Richard?
Bill: Richard & I would both post to CSW’s GBACW folder over the years, but we didn’t discover the depth of each other’s involvement in the series until 2015. GBACW isn’t the only wargaming system that evolves, and both of us were concerned that it risked being left behind while other systems embraced fresh concepts enhancing their simulation value, playability, or both. Upon discovering that we were working parallel to each other, our collaboration grew at an enormous rate throughout the development of Death Valley and afterward, especially when I was able to join the Into the Woods team in April, 2019.
Grant: What other games has Richard designed or worked on in the past?
Bill: Richard playtested for Death Valley and perhaps for other games as well. I believe Into the Woods is his first design.
Grant: What do you feel his design strengths are and how have you complemented each other throughout this process?
Bill: Richard amazed me with how rapidly he created the map for Into the Woods. But even more, he spent quite a bit of time walking the Shiloh battlefield and consulting with experts on the battle before making that map. Having spent a fair amount of time at Shiloh myself, I believe his feel for the battlefield’s terrain is spot on. Secondly, Richard’s research on the battle familiarized him with the unusual aspects of individual units. Insofar as GBACW allows us to do so, he’s captured these unit peculiarities via cohesion (morale) ratings and special rules on their use.
Like most developers, my strengths have more to do with details – concise writing, spotting and correcting flaws in various game mechanics, and suggesting adjustments based on my own battle research and the results of playtesting. Our complementarity is thus very much that of his conceptual strengths (although he’s also done marvelous detail work) and my editing.
Grant: How has his approach to the design differed from other designers you have worked with?
Bill: I’ve now worked closely with four designers in all, and incidentally with a few others. Most have been 100% receptive to input, and Richard is no exception. In terms of design itself, Richard’s gift is in seeing the whole clearly enough that, when the parts need adjusting, he is able rein in the more wayward suggestions he might receive, ensuring a seamless result.
Grant: What makes your working relationship so productive?
Bill: Both of us love GBACW. Beyond that, Richard has a great talent for working with his team. He is extremely approachable, and conferring with him has consistently been a completely satisfying dialogue. A big part of that is the lucky fact that we share a sense of what Civil War combat was like. Thus, when wrestling with a given problem, we tend to be in immediate agreement.
Grant: How many different scenarios are included? What was the reason for so many scenarios?
Bill: One of our most enthusiastic playtesters, John Severa, just handed us a new scenario which promises to be an effective introduction for new players due to its small size. Assuming we include it, we will have ten scenarios in all, plus three variants. I’m not sure that’s an unusual number of scenarios. Dave Powell’s contribution to GBACW, Dead of Winter, 2nd Edition, features an equal number. So does Dave’s own treatment of Shiloh, A Fearful Slaughter.
Major battles like Shiloh can be broken down into their constituent engagements. Those engagements are of course closely related, but can be identified and simulated on their own. Look at any major Civil War battle and you’ll see that multiple scenarios immediately suggest themselves. Finally, we are well aware that players vary in the amount of time they can dedicate to the hobby. In my view, we vastly enrich the game by turning the identifiable engagements of a given battle into scenarios that take only a fraction of the time it takes to play the full battle.
Four or five of our ten scenarios are what I would call relatively small, either in terms of forces engaged or turn length, or both. Here’s the way a test of our two-turn scenario featuring the final Rebel drive on Pittsburg Landing turned out. I thank Alex Barney for his great development work on it.
Grant: What elements from the Battle of Shiloh were necessary to model in this volume?
Bill: “Necessary” is a subjective term to some extent, but only to an extent. At GBACW’s scale the following elements seemed indispensable.
- A.S.Johnston managed to pull off quite a measure of surprise at Shiloh. It was essential to model that.
- Johnston himself led from the front during the battle, until he was laid low in mid-afternoon. That, too, had to be modeled.
- Union gunboats played a small but spectacular part at Shiloh, and they, too, have been modeled.
- The wooded terrain at Shiloh is of two types: light woods, almost grove-like, and denser vegetation along the streams. GBACW has simulated nothing like that since Pea Ridge back in 1980, but it does once again in Into the Woods.
- The armies that fought at Shiloh were largely green. While GBACW has mechanics for green units and indeed treated 1st Bull Run’s overwhelmingly green armies in Red Badge of Courage, Richard has convincingly tweaked the existing mechanics to produce a new mix and create the “feel” of Shiloh.
- Ammunition resupply was problematic at Shiloh. Richard has devised an excellent set of rules to model this, avoiding both the generic mechanic in the series rules and the labor-intensive mechanics used by GBACW in its SPI and TSR days.
- With the exception of Timothy Smith’s book, Conquer or Perish, Day 2 at Shiloh (April 7th) does not get the coverage that Day 1 receives in the Civil War literature. Smith’s account, along with Stacey Allen’s article in Blue & Gray Magazine, provided the material we needed to model the second day’s fighting. It’s a slug fest every bit as tense as the first day. Here’s an illustration of what could become a decisive rupture of the Rebel line in a playtest still ongoing. Yes, that’s a Union regiment under Colonel Williams behind the Confederate line. Will he be cut off before the rest of his brigade can come up or troops from Buell’s Army of the Ohio strike in force? I’ll find out when our test resumes.
Grant: Did this require any new special rules be added to the system?
Bill: While no new series rules are needed, there’s plenty in Into the Woods which gives me food for thought regarding the system. That has been one of GBACW’s’ great strengths down through the years. Its various designers have each brought something new with them. Many of the innovations in the old SPI series were incorporated as rules in Richard Berg’s Terrible Swift Sword, 2nd Edition, which I happen to regard as the zenith of the old system. Shouldn’t we enrich the modern series rules with such innovations, where appropriate? As a matter of fact, we already have, incorporating several of Greg Laubach’s rules from Cedar Mountain.
Grant: As you have mentioned several times, the system used in Into the Woods is based on Richard Berg’s original GBACW. Why do you feel this tried and true system models Civil War battles so well?
Bill: I don’t study the Civil War in an academic way. I study it because the drama that played out during those four years staggers my imagination. It is a tale well worth telling. That is equally true of the individual battles fought between north and south. I don’t think I need to provide examples; many wargamers and a portion of the general public are pretty familiar with them. GBACW’s rich tapestry of tactical options and its confounding “fog of war” mechanics turn every game into alt-history encompassing almost as much detail as you’ll find in any battle account written. As for drama, let’s not forget the way Avalon Hill used to emblazon its game boxes: “Now you are in command!” We wouldn’t be wargamers if we didn’t feel an electric charge even when first setting up our units on the map. For those who play GBACW, the dramatic narrative it produces lacks for little when compared to the books.
Grant: How does the game deal with the role that Albert Sidney Johnston played in the Confederate attack?
Bill: I alluded to this above, but will expand on it here. Richard has a well-developed set of ways in which Johnston can influence the battle, the use of which increases the risk to his health. As the battle unfolds, and the Confederate player starts to wonder if he’ll ever break that Union line, the lure of using Johnston in these ways becomes irresistible, despite his historic fate lurking behind every use.
Grant: Why did you feel this needed to be included?
Bill: Anyone who reads an account of the Battle of Shiloh or visits the field and stops by the site where Johnston was wounded is likely to be impressed by Johnston’s story. Before the battle he declared to his staff, “I would fight them if they were a million”. Deploying for battle he told one of his soldiers, “We must this day conquer or perish”. Both statements reveal his awareness of the Confederacy’s desperate state of affairs in the Mississippi Valley. As it was Johnston who had presided over the defeat at Fort Donelson and the ensuing abandonment of Kentucky and Tennessee, we can imagine the personal burden he carried on April 6th. With Beauregard filling the more traditional role of army commander, I don’t think it implausible to conclude that this burden led him to do what he could to ensure victory by leading from the front despite risking his life. How could we ignore a story line like that?
Grant: How does the design deal with the “greenness” of many units on both sides?
Bill: I alluded to this above, but will flesh it out here. Green units in Into the Woods are not penalized when firing, as they are in the series rules. However, whenever they “retreat before shock” during 1st Day scenarios, they must check for possible disorder, whether previously disordered or not. On Day 2, good order green units do not have to make the check. In addition, all cavalry is treated as green when initiating shock – they must roll a “Green Commitment Check”.
Grant: What do you like best about the GBACW system?
Bill: Well, now, that’s tough to answer. Is it the tension the game generates through its Fog of War mechanics? Is it the wealth of tactical options a player may call upon? Is it the scale and the map detail, which allows me to “feel” the battle the way no other system has? How about the swings of fortune the system can produce? When I put it all together, it results in a compelling drama every time I play.
Grant: How does combat work? I understand there are various range DRM’s. Why is this important to include? Doesn’t it just bog down battle?
Bill: Combat is of two types, Fire and Assault (“Shock”). Fire between eligible units is simultaneous in that results are not applied until both sides have fired. Of course, if you manage to sneak up on a unit’s flank or rear, the target unit may or may not be able to respond, and in any case will not be able to respond without first applying the result of the enemy’s fire.
A 2019 innovation expanded “non-phasing” units’ eligibility for counter-fire (“Return Fire”). It did not increase the volume of their Return Fire, but under certain conditions allowed them to use it when not themselves targeted by the enemy fire. With this innovation I believe we went a long way toward eliminating “gamey” fire by “phasing” units.
There is indeed an entire table of Range DRM’s. Those accustomed to detailed tactical wargames will have no more trouble with that table than with any other included in the system. On the other hand, for newcomers to tactical simulations it will probably take time to master the nuances. But “bog down battle”? Please, sir. You’re talking to a GBACW’er.
Tactics during the latter half of the 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th century were all about achieving fire superiority and then advancing with the bayonet. The glory of GBACW’s combat mechanics lies in its simulation of these tactics. Through fire we seek to soften up (“disorder”) the enemy; through assault or charge we seek to dislodge and hopefully rout him. The risks of both fire and shock are significant, even when the attacker has marked superiority over the defender. Such are the fortunes of war. Add to that the disorder which affects even victorious units after an assault, as well as player uncertainty over his opponent’s capabilities, and the result is that a local victory is often not the end of the story. A case in point is the 2019 innovation, Abandoned Artillery. As in the SPI/TSR version of the series, GBACW now provides a window of opportunity for recapturing lost guns. I haven’t done a study but have no problem believing that captured guns are recovered in the game about as often as they were during the Civil War.
Grant: What optional rules are being considered in the design and why?
Bill: The optional rules are pretty well fixed. They include:
- The Lew Wallace early arrival table. One of the huge “what-ifs” at Shiloh concerns the orders Grant sent to Wallace, orders which did not specify his route to the field. But for those imprecise orders Wallace might have intervened far earlier.
- Random Events. These cannot possibly win the game for one side or another, but may just be the straw that breaks a particular camel’s back.
- Rules for increased Leader casualties. Shiloh was notable not only for Johnston’s death in action. William Wallace, a Union division leader, was mortally wounded. Benjamin Prentiss, another Union division leader, was captured. On the Confederate side division leaders Charles Clark and Thomas Hindman both suffered wounds. Many brigade leaders fell. While these losses are fully depicted in our 2nd Day scenario, they are unlikely when playing only the 1st Day unless using the optional rule.
Grant: What Special Units are included in the design? How can they affect the outcome of battles?
Bill: Special units include:
- “Detachments”, which simulate the battalion-sized detachments Colonel Everett Peabody sent out early on the morning of April 6th in response to continued reports of large Confederate forces lurking in the woods south of the Union encampments.
- The Union gunboats, Lexington and Tyler.
- Heavy Union artillery, including a battery of 30-lb Parrotts and a battery of siege guns.
- A Union regiment, 14th Missouri Sharpshooters, armed with Dimick rifles.
None of these units have any sort of outsized effect on the course of play, but are included because they are part of the Shiloh story and within scope for GBACW’s scale.
Grant: What about Into the Woods makes it unique from all the other volumes of the GBACW? What are you the most proud of?
Bill: I believe that Into the Woods features a map and terrain nuances that cannot fail to fully engage players as they maneuver their units. The map and the terrain rules are entirely Richard’s work. Among my own contributions I am most proud of the development work I did on the ten scenarios created by Albert Smith and John Severa, who of course deserve the primary credit for them.
Grant: What has changed through the playtest process? What elements still need work?
Bill: For a long time we could not seem to balance the big April 6th game. Through incremental changes of various sorts, all of them historically plausible, we finally achieved the desired balance. At this point a couple of the scenarios still need some work, but all else is in good shape. While we will probably go on tweaking minor aspects of the battle book until the day we turn it in to GMT, I consider Into the Woods well on the way to completion.
Grant: What has been the reaction of playtesters?
Bill: Reactions vary from enthusiasm to satisfaction, but I’d rather talk about how selflessly dedicated our team has been, and how blessed we’ve been to have such talent helping us out. We all know playtesters’ rewards are not primarily financial. A free copy of the game is in no way commensurate with the effort testing takes, especially when testing a game in the GBACW Series. I cannot thank these guys enough.
But to return to the subject of reactions, I myself have done quite a bit of playtesting (in fact, Richard and I have been collaborating on that lately), and I am thrilled with the way the scenarios are working.
Grant: What would you say will surprise players about this volume?
Bill: I think players will be most surprised by the map detail and the challenging terrain. As stated earlier, I believe the depiction of the terrain’s effects is exactly as it should be. Those who know the story of Shiloh also know all about the part played by the thickets, the deep ravines cutting up the plateau, and the extensive areas flooded by heavy rains during the weeks prior to the battle. The casual visitor to the battlefield may not realize this, as the driving tour tends to stick to the plateau. Those who’ve walked the field more thoroughly know just what it’s like to cross Dill Branch and Tilghman Branch.
Oh, and before you decide to head down into those ravines, just be sure you make a bunch of noise to scare away the snakes…
If you want a bit more detail on the game and its progress, I have found that there are some great posts on the Board Game Geek page for the game posted by Thomas Fernbacker (see image below from Test IV) as he plays through various scenarios.
As always Bill, thank you for your effort in answering our questions about the game, but also in doing all the little things and hard work that it takes to make one of these monster games playable for us wargamers. I look forward to the day that you finally decide to throw your hat in the ring and design one of the volumes in this great GBACW Series.
If you are interested in Great Battles of the American Civil War Volume VIII Into the Woods: The Battle of Shiloh, you can pre-order a copy for $40.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-855-into-the-woods-the-battle-of-shiloh.aspx