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Subject: Critical Issues in Bull Run rss

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David G. Cox Esq.
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Port Macquarie
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Bull Run



Two-player Military Simulation of the First Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861
Designed by Richard Hamblen
Published by The Avalon Hill Game Company (1984)



The First Battle of Bull Run (Manassass) was the first major battle of the American Civil War and the first major battle fought in the Eastern Theatre of that war. It has many features that were absent from later battles. The armies were relatively small for a ‘major’ battle. The armies and their leaders were relatively inexperienced. Losses were quite small – due to the ‘greenness’ of the troops they tended to rout rather than stand and die.

When looking at a wargame there are two questions we should be asking ourselves apart from what we feel about the actual physical quality of the game and these are; do we learn anything about the history of the event, and, is the game fun to play?



Critical Issue 1 – Shouldn’t this have come in a flat box?

Let’s get the quality of the components out of the way first. Many of Avalon Hill’s early games are considered classics – Afrika Korps, D-Day, Stalingrad, Waterloo, etc. They share common features – they were made in the 1960’s, they have similar quality components, they share the same CRT and they come in a flat box.

Even though Bull Run was published in 1984 it looks like a game from the 60’s, done cheaply. The map graphics are very reminiscent of the classic Avalon Hill range of games. The map and counters are non-glossy – TAHGC went through a phase in the 1980’s where they went to non-glossy maps and counters – Conquistador, Frederick the Great, Thunder at Cassino, etc. At this time some of the counters were made from a spongy cardboard and the counters were cut inconsistently - Bull Run suffers from these production values. Again, regarding the counters, I find that the spongy, non-gloss counters do show wear-and-tear rather badly. If you play Bull Run a lot the counters will begin to look shabby more rapidly than would be the case with many other wargames – I suggest using tweezers to manipulate them on the map (but then I do that with most wargames).



Critical Issue 2 – To The Winner Goes The Spoils


The victory conditions in Bull Run are simple, historical and lend themselves to an excellent gaming situation. The CSA win by occupying Centreville – if this happens victory is immediate. The USA win by occupying Manassass Junction. This is historically valid as both these towns represent the line of communications for each army. If they are lost the army cannot maintain its position. It lends itself to a gaming situation where both armies attack to win. The USA have a second way to win and that is by occupying one of three ‘starred’ hexes at the end of the 23rd turn (8:00 pm). One of these is Bethlehem Church, way to the west and threatening Manassass Junction from that direction. The other two hexes are on the eastern side of the map between Bull Run and Manassass Junction, representing that the Federal army has made an effective bridgehead on the Richmond side of Bull Run. Casualties are irrelevant to victory.



Critical Issue 3 – My Army is Bigger Than Yours

The Confederate forces are arranged in brigades – each brigade is made up of several regiments and a leader. The Federal forces have brigades arranged into divisions with both brigade leaders and division leaders.

In Bull Run both armies are about the same size. The Federal forces have four main lines of advance. The Federal army has a significant advantage in artillery. The CSA army has the advantage of interior lines but is disadvantaged by having most of its forces ‘frozen’ at the start of the game. These confederate forces will become active at 10:30am or when the Union forces move within four hexes of a CSA leader.



Critical Issue 4 – You call yourself a leader? You’d be out of your depth in a car-park puddle!


One of the key design elements of Bull Run is that of leadership and command control. As was the case in many major battles in the first two years of the war in the Eastern theatre, large parts of the Union forces were unemployed during the battle while the Confederates were able to gain opportunities and advantages by rapid marching. In Bull Run the Union has a single army leader and the Confederates have two – these army leaders are always active. The army leaders can activate any leaders within their command range (four hexes). In the Federal army, activated Divisional leaders can active any leaders and units within their command range – activated Brigade leaders can activate units of their Brigade. In the Confederate army, the army leaders activate Brigade leaders within their range who then activate their brigade units.

All in all, the CSA have 14 brigades to the USA’s 12. The USA have four divisions which gives them an extra four leaders. One crucial difference is that the CSA, as well as having two army commanders, have five brigade commanders who are self-activating – Jackson, Evans, Bee, Cooke and Smith can operate independently. There are two other CSA units that are not part of any brigade and so can operate without being close to a leader. The USA, on the other hand, have only two divisional leaders and one brigade commander who can act independently. This gives the CSA much more flexibility regarding how they react to Federal moves.



Critical Issue 5 – The men will follow him, but only out of idle curiosity.

Bull Run requires planning, especially by the Federal player. The Confederates set up first. They have some flexibility regarding where they place their troops. Some must be behind Bull Run while others can be in front of or behind Bull Run at the players discretion. Some of the pieces are ‘frozen’ (placed face-down) while others will be free to move from the very start of the game (placed face-up). These units are deployed on the map before there are any Federal troops on the map. Next the Federal player places his troops – the only requirement is that they must be on the northern side of Bull Run, they must be at least 5 hexes away from a Confederate unit and they must be able to trace a march route (along roads) to Centreville or hex R1 (Sudley Ford, to the north west of the map). Heintzleman’s 3rd Division is allowed to trace their ‘march route’ to hex CCC35 (near Union Mills Ford in the south-east corner of the map). Because of the limited Federal command structure, the Union cannot effectively advance upon all four of the possible approaches to Manassass Junction. The Union play will probably have some sort of screening force on two or three lines of advance and concentrate on just one or two. It is possible for the Union player to spend several turns moving troops across Sudley Ford, which is what happened historically, before the 10:30am turn when the CSA units come to life.



Critical Issue 6 – Chrome Plating

The Bull Run rule-book is only 12 pages long. It is well set out with a good summary on page two and a glossary on page 11. the rules are clearly written and well laid out. The game is fairly standard in most ways. The command control rules are clearly written and easy to understand after the first three or four turns of play.

As well as the really neat command control rules there are several other rules that give Bull Run historical flavour and game options. Historically there was a burn bridge near Union Mills Ford – the Confederates have the option, during set-up, to not burn the bridge. This gives them an extra bridge for a direct advance upon Centreville but it also gives the Federals an extra bridge for a direct advance upon Manassass Junction. The CSA player has four abatis markers which can be placed near the Stone Bridge and Farm Ford (just down from Sudley Ford) – these are just road blocks which limit advance and block retreat. Artillery units have two counters – one limbered and one unlimbered. Brigades can be made up of several smaller regiments or have the regiments combined into a single brigade counter (this gives the CSA an edge as they get a substantial increase in their attack ability when the regiments combine). The movement rules nicely reflect the difficulty of moving into and out of fords. Leaders are able to rally eliminated units that are destroyed within four hexes of the leader’s location – this nicely reflects exactly what happened during the battle when formations would rout early but leaders could sometimes get them under control and return them to battle.


Overall

The game is quite good. If it really was one of the Avalon Hill classics it would be the best. As it is, it came out at a time when it appeared to be a relic from a previous period.

The box cover is uninspiring at best – and typical of the physical quality of the components in general. . I assume that it is Jackson, on the cover, standing like a stonewall – although from my reading of the battle the comment was made sarcastically as, at the time, Jackson’s men were simply standing on a reverse crest (like a stone wall) and not getting involved in the action on the other side of the crest.

The game has interesting elements. Both players can go for a quick win. The CSA have the advantage in the game as it is up to the Union to come and take the territory they need for a win. The Federal player is much more limited regarding getting all of their forces involved in the battle due to command limitation.

Due to the nature of the set-up procedure the game is quite interesting to play and capable of quite a few replays to explore several of the strategic options available.


On to Richmond!!!




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alex w
Singapore
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Was going to review this game but felt that I have not played enough to gather some opinion. Such large game with hexes gives a perspective of 'multiple options', in terms of attack or defense options, I mean.

I did not get the actual need to attack in certain places just because the historical story went that way.

Will have to play again to express my view....

Thanks for the heads up.
 
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Gerald Todd
United States
Severna Park
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A note on the box art: It's awful. Jackson was still in his Federal uniform at Bull Run - and the image looks like bad reenacters doing 80's cop show stunts.

The game itself was touted as a return to that earlier, simpler style - so, if it feels like a "classic", I think it was deliberate.

It is a fun game to play, and I enjoyed your review of it.
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Tom Stearns
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Houston
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I have a used copy of this game, which I am the original owner, along with a copy of the General magazine with the game box art on the cover. I have this game for sell or trade if anyone is interested.
 
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Mark Humphries
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I read somewhere that the map was drawn many years before the game was designed, that would explain it's 'classic' look.

Personally I prefer matte counters over glossy counters.
 
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Wade Hyett
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I thought your review was a fairly good one but a bit of emphasis was placed on the looks and game components, especially some of the comments that followed your review. I know that these factors are very important to many people, myself included (sort of), but I've played some games that looked great and sucked to play, and others that didn't look that great and were a heck of a lot of fun to play. Bull Run (to me) falls in the latter category. In fact, I don't think the map looks bad at all and you can always get a spray laminate for the counters. I must admit that my counters got very worn from many plays, but the reason it got many plays was because it was a fun and exciting game. One other thing I have to mention about graphics and good looks in a game...there are games I have played that are both great looking and great fun to play, however after several plays, I don't even really pay any attention to what the game looks like anymore because I'm engrossed in the game play. It's fun to play and that's the bottom line. I don't give a crap that the box art isn't the best, or even if it may not be "realistic". It has nothing to do with the actual game itself. (How about the box art for MMP's Monty's Gamble? (It looks like Attack of the Puppet People).
I had rated this game a "10" several years ago because of all the great memories I had playing this game with my best friend. I recently dropped it to a "9"....."just because".
We lived not far from the battlefield and the game inspired many trips there to explore the ground that the gameboard covered. Although a lot of that ground has been built upon there's still a lot of obscure places to explore. I can remember walking around saying things like "I think we are standing on hex X-21 right now" (or whatever... you get my drift).
Richard Hamblen put a lot of research into trying to reproduce an accurate map and OOBs in the game and yet still keep it fairly simple to play. Since this was the first major battle of the war, and fairly uncertain, there wasn't as much official information available at the time as there was for later battles in the war. Hamblen did a good job with this as compared to any previous games on the battle.
One thing that is a huge pet peeve of mine is poorly written rules. There are a lot of great games out there with rules that are very ambiguous, poorly laid out, or just not complete. After many hours of browsing Q&As online and designer comments I can usually get a decent understanding of the rules at last. I always wonder how some rules don't even cover certain situations that come up when the game was supposedly play tested for many hundreds of hours and plays and I seem to be the only guy that finds all these holes the first time I play it. That has always baffled me. If I could make a living writing game rules I would do it. Bull Run has a great set of well put together, easy to comprehend and complete rules.
This game has always held a high excitement and fun factor for me, especially during the first several turns of the game when the Union must decide where its objectives will be and the subsequent movement prior to initial contact. Then there's the arrival of the Confederate reinforcements from the Shenandoah by train and their subsequent "in the nick of time" arrival on the battlefield. There are so many other factors that made this game so fun for me. It has provided me and many of my friends hundreds of hours of pure gaming enjoyment. Although I haven't played it for many years now, the memories I have from playing Bull Run have all been great.
If you can get past the trivial nit-pickiness of the critics and just play the damned game I think you'll be pleasantly surprised...unless you have been spoiled by all the great newer designs with the fancy graphics and components and, as a result, you have allowed your mind to become closed to playing some of the best games from the past that actually blazed the paths which allowed our hobby to become what it is today. There were many, many, many great games from the early days of the hobby which are still a hell of a lot fun to play today and, unfortunately, will never see the light of day on many a wargamer's table.
David, thank you for pulling this one out of the hat to do a review on. I wish there were more recent reviews done on some of the other older games as well. They always bring back very fond memories of the past. Kudos and a thumbs up to you!
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David G. Cox Esq.
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Osprey wrote:
David, thank you for pulling this one out of the hat to do a review on. I wish there were more recent reviews done on some of the other older games as well. They always bring back very fond memories of the past. Kudos and a thumbs up to you!


Wade, thanks for your comments - they are interesting!!!

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Kim Meints
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Mark,Yes you are right.

Bull Run was originally to be made back during Avalon Hill's early years and in the style of their Gettysburg & Chancellorsville games(The Classic's) but the project got dropped for some reason(I think maybe Charles Roberts could have been the one who was going to design it).

The map had already been made but sat there for years buried until it was rediscovered again and the present version getting designed using the old map as a basis but updated(this was discussed on Consimworld in the Bull Run folder).

When the game was first published I always wondered why the map had that older retro sort of look to it.Now I know.
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Kim Meints
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I went back over to Consimworld and looked at the post concerning the original game & map.

An old AH General Issue indicated that the entire game was already designed including Both 1st & 2nd Bull Run.
Reason it was never published was this was during the Civil War 100th Anniversay(1961-1965) and civil war merchandise had overstaturated the market then just died.AH had just dropped their abstract game "Civl War" so AH decided to drop the Bull Run project.All prototype parts were disposed off(Oh what a crime that was!!!!) but somehow the map survived the purge to be rediscovered many years later.
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Patrick Lucas
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Well said Wade. Of all the comments I have ever read in BGG, I agree with these the most. I played the heck out of this game back in the 1980's and enjoyed every minute of it. I lived in Maryland then and my play of this game motivated me to visit the Bull Run battlefield, a sobering experience.
Why this fine game has a rating of just 5.88 is a mystery to me.
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Gerald Todd
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Have you read the comments for this one? "Way too wargamey" "Hard to make a bad game on Bull Run, but this is one" "too simple"

How is a war game "too wargamey?"

It may not be the prettiest game, but it is functional, and it's not ugly - it's just basic. The map, in fact, looks a lot like a Civil War period map.

The game is easy to learn, plays well, is fun, can have some tense moments, and won't take all day just to set up or play. "Too simple?" This is probably from someone that sits up nights watching poker. snore
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Mark Humphries
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Way too wargamey? WTF ninja
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Kim Meints
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Most likely a more Euro style gamer who prefer's Warfrog's Gettysburg with the little Meeples

Bull Run is indeed a nice basic wargame to have a fun afternoon/evening of enjoyment.Enough chrome to make it interesting but not too much to overwhelm .

Mark,That was a good one
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