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Stephen Best
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Setting the Scene

     The Ozark Plateau which straddles the Arkansas/Missouri border is one of the bleaker hiemal habitations of the USA. It forms the backdrop and, in a Hardyesque way, the main character of the film Winter’s Bone (not a great choice for a date movie). In early March 1862 it hosted the Battle of Pea Ridge in which a Confederate army with the advantage of numbers and position, but led by General Confusion, confronted the Federals in an unusual dual engagement that became a singular defeat, yielding not only the field but a large part of the Trans-Mississippi Theatre.
     Too many trees and too few horses make North American battles generally less interesting than their European counterparts, especially to those without a flag to advance or an ancestor to worship. However, where spectacle is lacking, quality can make good the deficit, and in this union of a fascinating subject, rich in human drama, and a great system (spoiler alert: I come to praise Caesar not to bury him) we have as good a combination as you’re likely to find in the hobby.

The Road to Corbenic

     Regiments are the building blocks of armies and, where scale permits, ought to be of battle games. I’ve never warmed, however, to either of the predominant ACW regimental series, Line of Battle and GBACW. They offer too many dissuasive arguments both generic (multi-map impracticalities, small counter/small hex fiddliness and the kind of line of sight rules that are liable to start a war) and particular (LoB’s user-unfriendly cartography; GBACW’s Bergian baggage trains of errata). It’s always been easier just to mobilize the brigades in Across 5 Aprils and the Glory series and write a few house rules.
     Nevertheless, and bearing in mind that ACW authors (Peter Cozzens is a personal favourite) fill their books with regimental level maps, and that the animation of such maps is the raison d’être of these games, I despatched quest knights to seek out regiments that weren’t bivouacked inside monster games. They eventually found their prize in a most unlikely location: a ziplock game from a small company on an unremarkable battle. There is nothing modest, however, about the game’s system and my golden opinion of it, which may have seemed eccentric if it had been voiced about Stonewall’s Sword, has been fully confirmed with the publication of its sequel.

Component Parts

     Yes, that’s an upside-down portion of the playtest map on the back of the boxed version, and they did put the wrong date in the introductory section of the rulebook, but happily these are not indicative of production standards at Revolution Games. On the contrary, this company makes a big effort to minimize errata in its products and to ensure that they’re thoroughly playtested prior to publication (a nice inversion of industry norms). I prefer maps printed on cardstock or that sturdy textured paper used by Clash of Arms but overall the components are of a high quality.
     The rules are of medium complexity and very well written, although they could benefit from a few illustrated examples and contain enough innovation to require close reading. There are two basic scenarios which can be combined and expanded into two more, all with excellent solitaire playability. Except for one cartographical discrepancy (the path in Morgan’s Woods), the game feels like the ludic adaptation of the Shea & Hess campaign study, one of the finest of its kind. Certainly, the study of one will benefit from that of the other (so you can reassure the civilians in your life that what you’re doing is all very educative).
     The map, in two parts aligned in a broad L-shape, warrants a special mention as battlefield topography was particularly important in shaping events at Pea Ridge. Rick Barber’s distinctive hand-drawn, period-style maps certainly divide opinion. Mine is that the heavy woods are a little too cluttered and that a fair amount of work is needed from the player on the contours and firing lines, especially on the Elkhorn Tavern half, but that detail, beauty and a wonderful evocation of time and place make it worth the effort.

Under the Bonnet

     The starting point and sine qua non of the design is an understanding of how difficult battlefield command and control was before radio communications. It follows, therefore, that the clarity of a player’s bird’s-eye view must be obscured with the famous fog of war. There are three main ways to generate this in boardgames: create a solitaire system, hide important information or insert lots of variables. The first method denies a duel and the second thwarts a loner. The third doesn’t care how many players there are as it’s going to mess up all their best-laid plans anyway. C’est la guerre and say hello to the ‘Blind Swords’ chit-pull system (Officer Commanding: Major Snafu).
     It’s long been recognized that chits can do more than merely randomizing the activation of formations. Some games, such as the Jours de Gloire series, use a small number of special purpose chits. ‘Blind Swords’ turns that dial up to eleven, essentially mimicking what the deck does in CDGs. Brigades can be activated once, twice or not at all. Units can be emboldened, weakened or sent in the wrong direction. Officers can be shot from their saddles or have their orders countermanded. In short, it covers all the things that can happen in real battles and many that can’t in other games without the assistance of ‘idiot’ rules (or players).
     Some will decry the amount of chaos inherent in the system. This view may be valid with regard to open plain battles from the classical mould, but for those like Pea Ridge, with its low-visibility terrain, made worse by lingering smoke, and very ropey generalship, it couldn’t be more wrong. Too many games, and books, turn battlefields into chessboards where thousands of men are nothing and two men are everything. Here the armchair commanders have no such degree of control. They do have lots of decisions to make, and will likely be rewarded for making good ones, but the stars in their courses will determine the rest. And that’s how it ought to be.
     Play note: The only problem with an activation chit system is that the chits themselves can get pretty bashed up. To maintain them in pristine loveliness I suggest laying them out at the side of the map and assigning an alpha-numeric pony bead to each with a duplicate bead going into the draw bag. (I use a similar method for marker-intensive games like M&PBS and Flying Colours where the beads go on or next to the counters and the markers into the corresponding box of an off-map play aid.)

The Fight in the Dog

     Activation chits may provide both the motor and the bling, but this is still a fighting game, albeit one punctuated with frequent lulls in the action, voluntary or otherwise. These are its salient features:

i) Seeing the Elephant
     Combat is resolved in a two-stage process. In the first, a common table determines both the initial effectiveness of fire combat and the severity of close combat. There are many possible modifiers but essentially attacker quantity is being pitted against defender quality. The next stage separates the two types of combat and then subdivides their results into those that reduce manpower and those that force retreats. Morale hits and break tests that can drive units from the field may also be applied.
     The overall effect is to generate a wider set of possible combat outcomes than you’re likely to see in other games. Making the hazard of battle this unpredictable both enhances the narrative and militates against familiar gamey tactics.

ii) The Damage Done
     A key decision for designers is how to simulate the deterioration of units once battle is joined. Here we have a mix of step losses and reduced morale. This may have been prompted by a desire to avoid the accumulated hit markers and roster sheets that regimental games often use, but it proves to be an excellent combination.
     Most units have two steps whilst there are two levels of on-map demoralization for all units and three of off-map brokenness for those capable of returning to the fray. Under the right orders and circumstances, or playing certain chits, both step losses and morale hits can be reversed and its very important to regularly pause operations to do this, which in turn lends a convincing pace to the game without the need for fatigue rules.

iii) Fighting Spirit
     During the Age of Musketry, of which the ACW was the last hurrah, certain factors repeatedly proved vital for battlefield success. Some of these, like the virtue of a Combined Arms approach or the decisiveness of employing tactical reserves are better illustrated in earlier conflicts. Another, the importance of morale over numbers, is at the heart of the game’s tactical presentation.
     Units have strength points and a weapons type but their most important attribute is their cohesion rating which serves as an indicator of quality and resolve and needs to be constantly monitored lest Billy and Johnny choose the better part of valour. A CR can be lowered by a step loss, morale hits or isolation. The last of these refers to a very clever, if understated, rule that punishes historically dubious behaviour that other games often encourage, such as wandering off on a cute little outflanking manoeuvre or setting up camp in the woods (there’s no defensive combat bonus for doing so in this system). Although the game doesn’t keep track of army morale, loss of nerve can become infectious and merely the company of flaky comrades can weaken a unit.

iv) Leaders of Men
     Designers of pre-20th Century games like to sprinkle their maps with leader counters, frequently equipped with megaphones, thaumaturgic powers and weird patterns on their satnavs. This kind of thing caused me to hang up my gladius and scutum from the Great Battles of History series.
     Here leaders are either abstracted into brigade orders or, at a higher level, appear in the form of activation chits. Not being on the map, however, does not make them invulnerable - they can still get droned by special events, particularly Ben McCulloch. In fact, the loss or insubordination of leaders can cause major problems of command paralysis, especially for the Confederates. This won’t make you a happy bunny but it will give a good insight into the limitations and frustrations of command in the period.

v) Guns and Horses
     I do admire a design in which artillery is accorded its proper place in proceedings, rather than being reduced to a support service or a gamey way of transforming frontline infantry into tanks or gun emplacements. Divorcing their actions from brigade activations elevates the status of gunners whilst restricting their movement keeps them honest. Locating the best perches, selecting the right targets and, from the other side of the muzzle, avoiding suicide by canister are the required skills.
     Those elusive cavalrymen show up in fair numbers at Pea Ridge. They’re not too hot but they are flexible. They can mount and charge or dismount and shoot, grab the odd VP hex or scalp a few White Eye. The choice is yours.

vi) Absentees
     Various troublemakers weren’t invited to the party. There are no ZOCs, and hence no ‘blockhouse’ defensive lines, nor any facing rules (big thumbs up for that one), nor any formations except for some limited skirmishing capability. If you think you’ll miss these scoundrels, trust me, you won’t. Other things you won’t be doing are limbering and unlimbering guns, ticking ammunition boxes, puzzling over line of sight diagrams, making marker sandwiches or cursing to eternal Hades whoever first thought that half-inch counters were a good idea. Don’t be dismayed, grognards, there’s enough meat on the bone to attract people who read the kind of books that Brent Nosworthy writes, just not enough to drown them in a tar pit of micromanagement.

The Seat of Judgment

i) The Criteria
     In assessing games, especially at Grand Tactical level, I use the following four criteria:

• Historicity - The accuracy of the basics (map, OOBs, unit values) and whether the narrative can both reproduce history and deviate from it in credible ways.
• Playability - Rounding up the usual suspects in the hope they’ve become reformed characters.
• Authenticity - Period fidelity with regard to tactical detail, command limitations and general look and feel.
• Crossover Appeal - The ability to appeal to both the games room and the study.

     There are many fine battle games that pass two of the first three criteria. Leaving aside father-son bonding exercises like Commands & Colours, they mostly fall into two categories separated often by scale and certainly by complexity - those designed for the general or casual gamer, which give you the ebb and flow of battle but abstract out tactical detail, and those for period specialists, which give you lots of detail and probably acute chrome poisoning. Saratoga (GMT), which bears a strong superficial resemblance to our present subject, is a good example of the former; Battles from the Age of Reason (CoA), with its dazzling scholarship and panache, is the best of the latter.
     I’m particularly interested in designs that aim to bridge that complexity chasm. The underrated Risorgimento 1859 (GMT) was such a game. Recently the Frogs of war have hopped up to the plate: Avec Infini Regret (VV) is an excellent gateway drug to M&PBS, whilst Fallen Eagles (Hexasim) and Quatre Batailles en Espagne (Legion) attempt, in very different but impressive ways, to offer an alternative to La Bataille (having just one set of rules is a good beginning).

ii) The System
     By identifying the essential, removing the superfluous and reducing the predictable this system effortlessly passes my first three criteria, which is rare indeed. It also has the potential, with wider exposure, to pass the fourth. Its quality proven, what remains is the question of scalability. Thus far, ambition has been constrained for Cedar Mountain and Pea Ridge are both small battles and their relative paucity of units means that individual regiments and batteries have a prominence, and their actions an importance, that would normally be lost in larger games. The stress test for the system, therefore, is whether or not that degree of intimacy can be retained in Longstreet Attacks (né Hammerin’ Sickles) with its far bigger cast list. If it can, as I suspect it can, we shall have something very special.

iii) The Game
     Strange to say, but what Thunder in the Ozarks reminds me of is not so much the usual battle game fare as a sui generis, golden oldie from Avalon Hill - Raid on St. Nazaire. They may appear to have almost nothing in common, but look deeper and you’ll see that in both cases the designers have devised innovative mechanics, perfectly matched to the topic, which simplify complexity without diminishing history, which lend personality and significance to cardboard, honouring those depicted, which challenge us with threats and opportunities in an ever-changing environment, and which do all these things within a compelling narrative, full of tense, exciting gameplay. If any game designer could deliver more it would bring an ecstasy no melon could match.

Final Thoughts

     This has been a very long review (the next one gets outsourced to a Bangladeshi sweatshop) but not without good reason. I can think of many more colourful periods of military history, but I can’t think of another battle system which gets so many things right, and in such clever, subtle ways, whilst remaining eminently playable. It’s a masterpiece of wargame design, deserving wide support and close study.
     Even better, a sister series covering, at brigade scale, the huge battles from the Age of Bismarck is already underway. Two titles are currently showing a bit of leg on the pre-order boards: At Any Cost (GMT) and All Are Brothers (Legion). (The latter, incidentally, features the notoriously sanguinary battle of Solferino, not some rainbow-flagged big group hug as the title implies.) Presumably this could be easily adapted to cover the largest ACW battles (hint: The Wilderness & Spotsylvania).
     The potential here is enormous but whether it is fulfilled depends on a couple of factors. Firstly there is the choice of future topics, which I’ll discuss in the addendum, and the willingness of other designers to accept the invitation to contribute scenarios to the series. The other is the need for all of us to evangelize the (rule)Book of Hermann, bringing enlightenment unto the heathen. Hence these lines.
     Although I’m sure that Revolution will do an excellent job, from a promotional point of view it’s a real shame that GMT won’t be hammering Sickles, for having those three letters on its box greatly increases interest in a game (having ‘Avalanche’ on it has the opposite effect, I notice). The Hanford crew had in their possession a precious gem which needed to be lovingly polished and displayed around a slender neck. Instead, and most perplexingly, they put it in the back of a drawer and flogged the punters a fugazi (guess).
     All that remains is to thank readers for their endurance and Mr Luttmann for his labours. I hope that some future designs of his will feature my favourite ACW sword-bearer, Pat Cleburne, and that one day he will get to witness the full flowering of his magnificent vision, even if he has to be strapped to his designer’s chair like El Cid on his charger.

Stephen Best
British Military Observer
Maj. Gen. Van Dorn’s Mobile Harem
Arkansas

Addendum: (Un)helpful Suggestions

     Both this series and its big sister reveal an admirable desire to limit the action to a single map and one or two countersheets. At regimental scale this represents an area of about 2 x 3 miles and corps-sized forces. Whilst excellent for playability, this may cause problems of topic selection. The largest battles would have to be moved to brigade scale. Some that have the right numbers, like Champion Hill and Perryville, would require too large a play area. There are, of course, numerous small battles from both the ACW and its Mexican precursor, but most of these may be too small to be of much interest. Anorak donned, I measured up scores of battlefields and found that the two which seem to best fit the above parameters are Mansfield and Peach Tree Creek. These would be intriguingly different although, admittedly, in terms of box office appeal they’re in the realm of Czech art house cinema.
     The alternative is to slice off the best bits from larger battles, something very doable with Gettysburg owing to its episodic nature. Other obvious possibilities would be the first day of Bentonville and the southern part of Fredericksburg (or the northern part if you hate Fenians). The ACW’s most interesting day of battle, the first at Stones River, would require two maps but would be a sight to be seen and probably the highlight of the series.
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Steve Carey
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Great game, great system - I'm really looking forward to the next game in the series Longstreet Attacks: The Second Day at Gettysburg.
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HERMANN LUTTMANN
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All I can say is .... Wow! That is a wonderful piece, Stephen. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your comments and insights into the system. I will try my best to keep the series going strong and true. Longstreet Attacks is indeed the first "big" attempt with the system, but the battlefield is pretty compact. I hope you enjoy it when it's ready. Thanks again for the terrific post!

Hermann
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Fred W. Manzo
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Thanks for your wonderful review. It's greatly appreciated.

We'll be starting back up with "Longstreet Attacks" (I.E., Hammerin' Sickles) in the next few weeks and hope to see it published later this year.

Thanks Again,

- Fred
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Rick Barber
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Excellent and very wittily written review! In my cartographic defense, my maps were done off of the original Park Drawings done back in the late 50's by some unknoen gent named Ed Bearss, who was rather obsessed with getting the little things right... So he can hash things out with Shea and Hess...

I'd point out that the map has already been designed to add in the northern half of Gettysburg and the balance of the two armies at a later date, so we'll have a combined two mapper able to cover ALL of July 2nd and 3rd. (July 1st would require mo mapping to the west, as well as 'fresh' versions of all those who were so damn battered that first day, but still fought on later.) I also just laid out a full sheet covering the ground for both 1st and 2nd Kernstown, so lots more small unit goodies in the future.

sauron
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Jim Ransom
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This is the only look at me you will get. The first hint the bad guy gets that I am nearby will be the sound of the torpedo coming out of his baffles with high up-doppler.
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Thanks for an entertaining review.

Quote:
...Frogs of war have hopped up to the plate...


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Steve Carey
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elcarto wrote:
(July 1st would require mo mapping to the west, as well as 'fresh' versions of all those who were so damn battered that first day, but still fought on later.)


YES please...
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Steve Carey
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Besty wrote:
Rick Barber’s distinctive hand-drawn, period-style maps certainly divide opinion. Mine is that the heavy woods are a little too cluttered and that a fair amount of work is needed from the player on the contours and firing lines, especially on the Elkhorn Tavern half, but that detail, beauty and a wonderful evocation of time and place make it worth the effort.


Upon first playing Stonewall's Sword: The Battle of Cedar Mountain, there was some confusion on our part regarding terrain and LOS.

With this game however, terrain problems are few and far between - experience and the fact that Revolution wisely located level numbers on the map make things relatively painless.

Rick's maps are aesthetically pleasing and quite playable - I'm very happy to have them as a part of this excellent series.
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Ken Nied
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Fine review, Stephen, but I must strongly disagree with your characterization of the area as "bleak." It's an area of gently rolling hills and fertile farms, several of which played a prominent role in the battle. Strictly speaking, the battlefield itself is on the outskirts of what is generally considered to be "Ozark country," namely, the steep hills and dense woods found in the Boston Mountain and Buffalo River areas nearby or the Mark Twain Forest in Missouri (where Winter's Bone was filmed). True, the battle took place in winter, but the bleakness applies to the season, not the landscape.
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Stephen Best
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Ken, I was aware of the things you reproach me for and I had originally considered using the word 'hibernations' rather than 'habitations' to make explicit what was merely implied. However, its association with dormancy and small furry animals would have rendered the paragraph somewhat nonsensical. So I'll now insert the adjective 'hiemal' in the hope of redeeming myself in your eyes.
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Claude Whalen
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As a solo gamer, I have found the "Blind Swords" system to be the answer to my gaming needs. The old Avalon Hill and SPI games are rather simplistic with absolutely no chance of any surprise (you know the battle's history and you can clearly see where the enemy is going). Even though those games were enjoyable and are still on my shelf, they are getting dusty.

Larger games of the early gaming era, such as "Bloody April", give you so much detail that you get into the "accountant's nightmare" syndrome. As a solo gamer, the paperwork takes up too much time and starts to drag the enjoyment of the game/battle down.

Hidden movement games just cannot work when you are playing alone. Trying to solve that "hidden movement" problem by adding "stupidity rules" lets you play the game historically but then you have lost the "what if" portion of the game. I find this problem to be insurmountable and pass on purchasing such games.

I have the two "Line of Battle" offerings and they provide great detail and so many options that I really cannot skip them. Yet I see post after post stating that people will play the scenarios but doubt that they will ever be able to play the entire battle. As a solo player with other demands on my time, I probably would have to put the game on a table in an unused room and play it over many months. The serious solo gamer will try it but how many of those people are really out there?

With the "Blind Swords" system, I can set up either "Stonewall's Sword" or "Thunder In The Ozarks", play it at a reasonable pace and finish the game rather quickly. The system also solves the problem of battle knowledge and being able to see everything. I know what the Union and Confederate forces want to do, I can clearly see their forces moving and yet I cannot be sure that either of their plans will actually be completed.

The "Blind Swords" system solves almost every problem that I have experienced with war games in the past as a solo gamer. So far, the system has worked so well that I could see it even being able to handle something as difficult as Napoleon's plan at Austerlitz.

The system works for me as a solo player: I can complete a battle in a reasonable amount of time; I can make all the plans that I want but the surprises are still packed into the game; and, I want to play the game again when I am finished! I am still going to pick up "Line of Battle" games but as a solo player, my "go to" games and game system is going to be "Blind Swords". I somehow suspect that there are plenty of solo gamers like me out there just looking for a system like this. Kudos to Hermann, Rick and the Revolution team for realizing a gem when others could not see it glittering in front of them!
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HERMANN LUTTMANN
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Wow - thanks so much Claude!

Herm
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Steve Carey
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I'll echo your same thoughts, Claude - having played Blind Swords both ftf and solo, I can say that both are terrific experiences!

If I recall correctly, Roger Miller at Revolution said that Stonewall's Sword: The Battle of Cedar Mountain was a best-seller for them. So I guess it just depends on how soon that new volumes in the series can be designed, developed, and playtested (quality of product is one thing I very much appreciate about Revolution). I know that I'll eagerly purchase every single one!
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Greg Colgan
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A most well considered review, sir.....salute!
And please DON'T outsource your next review to a sweatshop! :-)
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Fred W. Manzo
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Yes, Roger is very particular about the quality of the games he publishes. He's said that he personally playtests each game in his catalog at least 30 times before he considers it ready to be published.
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I recently enjoyed a play of this over the weekend.

The system, the production quality and the obvious professionalism of it all places this game and series on The Eden War Room Great Wargames List


Remember GMT's Glory? - that was a bit popular, similar scale.

Scrap those and go with these games - Revolution Games has knocked it out of the park with this series.

At this scale and presentation it is what I have been looking for over the years.
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HERMANN LUTTMANN
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Wow - thanks so much! You just made my day.

Good gaming!

Hermann
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Fred W. Manzo
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Thanks for the kind words.

The third game in the series, "Longstreet Attacks: the Second Day at Gettysburg," is in final playtesting right now. It should be ready for the public around October. This is the exact same game as the one called "Hammerin' Sickle" when it was on GMT's P500 list. Obviously it covers the Union left flank battle between Longstreet and Dan Sickles. Another month of local playtesting, then some beta/blind playtesters and then it's off to Roger for his playtesting. But it's as good or better than most published games right now. (We playtested the "Whirlpool" scenario involving The Wheatfield at Origins and it ran as smooth as silk.)
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Rick Barber
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Playtesting on LA is indeed fully thundering along, although my own part is pretty minor - my time is fully occupied on mapping down in the Fortress of Ineptitude, and the testing is being done by far better gamers than myself. I'd have to say that Roger and Company have provided better testing and development than literally ANY other game company I've ever dealt with, and I only wish I had known such folks when I did my Summer Storm 19 years back!

I can't guarantee that when we eventually do the Northern Expansion for LA that will add in the rest of the field for July 2/3 you'll be able to play it in a single session, but certainly far less time than any other regimental system. And yes, Herm and I are already talking about adapting his system in Brigade scale to Gettysburg (and other larger battles), as we've long had a 'Holy Grail' of doing a single map, Brigade level Gettysburg that has plenty of 'meat' and is yet playable in a single session. Dave Powell is already onboard to help with Chickamauga, no matter which scale we use.

Perryville and Champion Hill would each take two maps at the regimental scale, but the countermix would be no large than Longstreet Attacks.
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Andrew Burgoyne

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Here's a vote for a Chickamauga game. That sounds grand.
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Fred W. Manzo
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I'd say it all depends on how "Longstreet Attacks" goes. Right now we think it will be published in 1Q18. The playtesters are finishing up and reporting good things and then Roger has to take a look at the final product. As Rick said, Roger tests games much, much more than any other company. There simply is no errata in a Revolution game.
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