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Subject: A Deep Dive into a Shallow Game rss

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Justen Brown
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”The Last Raid of the Infernals: Their Plans Unveiled” read the headline of the Richmond Dispatch on March 5, 1864. Three days prior a set of orders were discovered on the body of Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren outside Richmond, Virginia. His orders established a raid alongside Brigadier General Kilpatrick. The papers were punctuated with a chilling statement: "The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.” The raid failed, yet the letter inflamed the Confederate war effort. Today it is a footnote in history but had it succeeded it would be remembered as both a daring assault and a terrible war crime.

As a casual wargamer, I’m interested in gaming not just as a question to “what did happen” but also “what could have happened?” Raid on Richmond, designed by Keith Poulter and published in 1991 by 3W, is one of those rare games I’ve played based on a scenario that never went down. It is both an interesting game conceptually and yet frustratingly impossible to play in execution. This session report is a breakdown on it in action, but also an effort on my part to explore this scenario in a future design.

The Map

On learning wargames, James Dunnigan says the first thing a new player should do is study the map, units, and terrain. Raid on Richmond eschews hexes and point-to-point design for a period accurate map of Richmond -- at least as accurate as I can tell from a cursory glance at an 1864 map digitized in the Library of Congress.


Game map of Richmond compared to this 1864 survey



Movement is calculated in points with it costing 1 point to move through a street, 1 point to enter an intersection, 2 points to enter urban blocks blocks, 1 point for every green dot on a bridge or railroad tie, and 1 point for every tuft of grass. There is no unit stacking except in certain conditions and almost exclusively with non aggressive units.

Already this system poses some problems. First, the map has areas that don’t neatly fit into its design especially when the jungle of buildings makes way for more open spaces with longer roads. Belle Island is over a kilometer long end to end, and at the time hosted some 10,000 or more prisoners in makeshift camps. Are we really to treat this as one homogenous area where people can flood out? The rules for the ferry seem to suggest it’s broken into areas but nothing about the map design indicates this.

This become more wonky when you consider time and scale. There are 20 turns, with the last 4 turns being “dusk.” Let’s establish that sunset in March is around 6pm. Knowing the timeline of events, Kilpatrick arrived within the inner city around 1pm and waited for Dahlgren’s assault before withdrawing around 3pm. Assuming a 5 hour window (1300 to 1800), each turn would neatly fit into 15 minute pieces.

With this time frame established the movement system’s flaws float to the surface. Cavalry can barely move a quarter mile in 15 minutes, even on open, flat fields. Cavalry and infantry share the same movement points meaning a foot soldier can keep up with charging horses. Historically the ground was muddy as a result of heavy rain throughout the week, and the James River was high enough to impede Dahlgren’s progress, but I still feel like movement for cavalry at least should be doubled.

Line of sight is simple. A unit can see any other unit unobstructed up to 5 movement points away. I feel like this is a little extreme as 5 movement points is around half a kilometer in scale. Rifles at the time had an effective range that matched this but having no penalty for extreme ranges feels like an oversight.

Finally there’s unit scale. The game uses a strength reduction system from 5 to 1. Historically, Kilpatrick had a force of 3500 give or take with Dahlgren backing up with 400-500. This marks the scale at about 150 cavalry for a full, 5 point strength unit. Things become weirder when considering prisoners. I’ve read figures of Belle Island holding around 13,000 prisoners and at least 10,000 on the day of the raid. With 21 total counters in Belle Island, including sick and injured prisoners, this puts the scale at about 500 per noncombatant. I think this is a believable number when you consider the chit limitations on civilians and freed slaves.

Setup and Overview

Setup is fairly straightforward. Each major location has an assigned guard, including the three bridges. Jefferson Davis and several other high value targets are scattered about face down. For some reason the service records are kept in the middle of the street. A few days prior to the planned raid, a group of Confederates on train were able to warn Richmond which resulted in patrols and the Home Guard placed on watch. Defenses were still few, resulting in only a few militia units initially placed on the board. More will arrive as reinforcements as the game goes on.



Before the game begins, the Union player rolls a die to determine if Dahlgren captured a boat. This is frustratingly random, especially in a game with tight quarters and stacking restrictions. For the sake of the “complete experience” we’re going to assume I rolled a damn 6 at the start.

Dahlgren enters in the “bottom left” portion of the map near Belle Island and Kilpatrick along the “Brock turnpike.”There is no Brock turnpike so I can only assume the game means Brook Avenue, which is in actuality Brook turnpike. Dahlgren also sends a unit immediately north of the James along the western map edge. Again, is the map edge the literal edge of the map or does the information box also count as the edge? It shouldn’t have taken much effort to add another note or letter where exactly the Union players begins from. The Union player will enter where it’s most convenient for them following the intent of the rules as closely as possible.

Lastly before we begin, the game objective is for the Union player to destroy Confederate industry, rescue prisoners, and kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. The Union player is rewarded for his destruction while the Confederates seek to minimize it. The game doesn’t specify if it ends after turn 20 but I’ll be stopping there regardless. If the Union player accumulates 50+ points, they win.

There is one amusing rule, perhaps the best piece of “chrome” I’ve ever read:



1st Turn

Every turn the Union player rolls a die to determine the direction of the wind and other events. A 5 is rolled, pointing the wind in a southwestern direction.

Raid on Richmond uses a simple chit pull mechanism to determine initiative. The Confederates have five chits representing forces that enter from the four cardinal directions and “map” units which are miscellaneous militia. Dahlgren and Kilpatrick act separately with Dahlgren’s forces represented by a green highlight (erroneously in the rules as a “D” on the counter). Considering no other units are on the map, I’ll just be pulling the Confederate “map” chit, Dahlgren, and Kilpatrick.

March 1, 1864. 1300 hours. The ground is still damp from yesterday’s rain. The city’s defenses have been rallied. Richmond’s industry grinds to a halt as hundreds of factory workers and men too young to fight on the front lines take position at key infrastructures. The sounds of scattered artillery echo through the air.

Dahlgren surveys Belle Island on the southern end of the James River. The Union spy’s information was correct: the Confederate capital’s defenses were easy pickings. He gives the order and his men charge. The scant few guards scatter as a rallying cry from some ten thousand liberated Union prisoners erupts from the prison camp.

On the north side of the city the initial wave of Kilpatrick’s cavalry rolls down Brook road. The Raid on Richmond has begun!


Combat occurs after all units of a specific order has moved. Any opposing unit first conducts defensive fire followed by the attackers. The system favors the defense and the strict CRT makes strength reduction painful before attackers can fire back. A suggestion I would make is to reduce strength after all fire is conducted.

The Confederate “map” chit was pulled first but I moved few units. I feel that it is appropriate the guards remain stationary. It would be easy to move all of them but historically the city’s defenses were made up of unskilled laborers and minors. They would be setting up barricades, not conducting assaults.

2nd Turn

With Belle Island clear Dahlgren takes a quick muster distribute arms and carry the sick. He sends a band on the ferry across the river to Tredegar Iron Works, an important resource to the Confederate war machine. His men swiftly dispatch the guards posted there.

The second half of Kilpatrick’s army charges into the city. Artillery is set up down the long, narrow road ready to fire on the pursuing Confederates. A smoke signal from the heart of the city alerts Kilpatrick that the Union loyalists have assembled to hunt down Jefferson Davis.




A six was rolled on the wind chart meaning the Union loyalists are placed on the map at St. John’s Episcopal Church where Patrick Henry gave his famous speech. The loyalists are more of a liability than an asset. They can search the “?” markers on a roll of 4+ but with one strength and a 3 point penalty if eliminated they’re forced to hide from Confederate militia. Nothing in the rules say how Union raiders search the “?” but I’m going to assume it’s on a 6 if the loyalist’s special ability is better searching.

3rd Turn

Two Confederate militia detachments arrive via train. The loyalists curse their luck as a band of militia depart directly in their path. They hole up in a nearby saloon.

Dahlgren’s men perform a pincer attack on the ironworks. Madness ensues on Belle Island as thousands of unarmed prisoners rush across the bridge following Dahlgren’s raiders.




Couple more problems here. The rules conflict with the distance a union raider may move with unarmed ad sick POWs. One passage says 6mp and allows for the raiders to drop off the POW mid-move to finish their full 8mp allotment. However the example suggests this movement is only 4mp which coincides with the movement penalty for a Confederate unit stacking with a POW.

Confederate militia don’t enter the map unless a 6 is rolled. It’s an arbitrary rule, but it will bite me in the ass later. Militia themselves can only enter at specific points labeled railroad depot and only one at each depot. Militia seem useless, all having 1 strength and seemingly used only to delay raiders and erect barricades. I’m still playing by an assumption that guards don’t move, otherwise I would have placed barricades on every major road by now.

4th Turn

Hundreds of civilians pour into the street as Kilpatrick’s raiders pierce the inner city. Despite the damp conditions, the raiders manage to burn several suburban blocks. Groups of slaves rush through the chaos, chasing after the raiders to the hope of freedom.

Confederate reinforcements hot on Kilpatrick’s tail hold knowing they would be gunned down before the bulk of their units arrive.

A regiment of Confederate soldiers arrive from the south and make a beeline towards Belle Island and the rush of soldiers. The fighting directly across the James is fierce but Dahlgren manages to clear the iron works. His forces begin ripping up rails and pouring molten metal into the river.




On turn 4 the Confederates get a meager two units on the north map edge where Kilpatrick has 20+ units. Nothing in the rules say I must field them so I hold them off map until they receive additional reinforcements later.

Another sore point in the rules here. When a Union raider is adjacent to an urban building then slaves and civilians spawn on a roll of 6. Is this a roll for every raider? Because we’re talking about dozens of rules a turn. Civilians do nothing except get in the way while slaves provide points at the end of the game although a strict limit of 6 is imposed. Furthermore Confederate soldiers will automatically fire on slaves if they can making them a huge liability for the smallest reward.

5th Turn

Kilpatrick is now bearing the spearhead of the 1st North Carolina regiment. He leaves some men behind to cover his tracks while the bulk of his forces breach the inner city. A regiment of Confederates on the western edge rides hard to Richmond threatening to pincer attack Dahlgren.

Dahlgren’s line of prisoners make it to the bridge, easily dispatching the guards. The chaos and congestion make it slow going across the bridge and with Confederate forces hot on their tail. An armed band of brave POWs volunteer to slow the Confederate advance.




One quarter through this game and I’ve grown quite bored with it. Between the poor rules and lack of interesting choices my interest just can’t hold. I would continue to play casually until turn 10, kill Jefferson Davis, and decide that’s a good point to end things with a score of 14, a major Confederate victory.

In the turns leading up to the end a lucky streak of 6s summoned the entirety of the Southern map edge units who captured some of the long string of POWs and returned them to Belle Island. With four full strength units in Belle Island there was simply no way I could muster a force to free them in 5 turns which would’ve ended in a forced defeat.

Errata

After finishing up I found officially published errata posted on BGG although it asked more questions than it answered. In short, it addressed the misspelling of Brook Turnpike, stated that raiders could search on 5+, and that Confederate ? units could move 6 mps. It then proceeded to tell the player to house rule everything else. What an absolute load! What constraints was this game’s design under? Could it not have been developed longer?

But it also raises a concern that Jefferson Davis and cabinet can move. So what’s to prevent them from moving into a corner? It takes about four turns just to reach the inner city and two more to actually reach the counters. If they could move this entire time it would’ve have been a question, I would have stuck them in the furthest corner and called it a day.

Final Thoughts

I realize postgame where I failed as the Union player. The game rewards the defense immensely and promotes turtling, a tactic that flies in the face of mounted raiders who want to be constantly pushing the offense. Dahlgren doesn’t have the manpower to escort the prisoners himself, he’s better off joining Kilpatrick to eliminate the massive force coming north and west. The fastest route to the east or north map edge, the only way to score POWs, is 10 turns and if you don’t get there by turn 14 you’ll end up facing several more Confederate soldiers in that area.

The proper tactic would likely be to move as a singular group. Every unit needs to contribute their defensive fire as much as possible. Save Belle Island until last or at least until the armory is cleared allowing you to turn unarmed POWs into armed POWs. It’s still a tight race to the map edge to actually rescue these guys but a defensive game feels more capable than a charge through the streets.

This is probably the most anyone will ever write about this game. It’s conceptually strong but in execution one of the worst games I’ve played. Garbage rules aside, there’s no sense of pacing or tactics. Reinforcements come down to a die roll, combat is based around a bland CRT, and the jumble of counters on the map remove any sense of readability.

Where do I go from here?

I love this what-if event so much that I’m inspired to remake it. I’ve designed a quick prototype testing unit movement as a block wargame to mask unmounted units. It’s a long way off from a playable design but key elements this early involve fewer moving pieces on the map, more concise movement, combat that rewards momentum, and a blind reinforcement system inspired by the excellent Guns of Gettysburg.

If you enjoyed my deep dive into a fundamentally broken game and are interested in the history behind it I recommend the book Kill Jeff Davis. Little has been written on the event but it had far ripples into the last quarter of the war and justified Confederate orders for civilian raids deep into Union territory. Some historians have even argued it was the final straw in the outrage that lead to the assassination of President Lincoln.
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Steve Herron
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It is probably the worst game I have in my collection. The rules say cavalry units can go into and fight in buildings. I always wondered what happens to and where the horses go? Where I got the game I was expecting a game like Raid on St. Nazaire but was highly disappointed.
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Barry Kendall
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Brother, my hat's off to you for slogging through this nightmare. I can think of no equal for illustrating the flaws in the concept of publishing magazine games under a deadline.

I flattered myself by thinking I could suss out a workable game from RoR, knowing before I bought that it had problems. Silly me.

I finally decided I would not be the first playtester to tackle it. I believe that honor must go to you.

Sincerely impressed that you gave it your best shot! Hope a nice single-malt soothed the aftermath.
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Justen Brown
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The presentation is fun it's just a shame there's basically no game behind it. I do like that the map is already set up for me to playtest a prototype and I'm happily working on trying to convert this into a working game.



One more frustrating thing: the map is offset! It's two separate sheets that don't align properly. You're a magazine publisher, you couldn't get this right?
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Pete Belli
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Nice work.
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David G. Cox Esq.
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The reviewer says killing Davis would have been a terrible war crime.

Is taking out the leadership a crime?

I have read that Hitler, Churchill, Rommel and FDR were all targets. Would killing any of them have been a war crime?

Yamamoto was targeted and taken out. Was that a war crime?

The Duke of Wellington told a gunner at Waterloo not to shoot at Napoleon. Nelson, however, was taken out by a French sniper at Trafalgar.

Thoughts?

 
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David Corbett
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"Eight Hours Before Richmond," by Virgil Carrington Jones is a fine read on this subject.
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Tony
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Terrific review/session report. I too have this game sitting on a shelf. I gave it a go many years back, but packed it up after quickly realizing I was getting nowhere fast.

There may be a game in here somewhere, but like many other 3W titles in the early-90s, it suffered from what I perceived to be a frantic rush to market in the ultimately failed attempt by Keith Poulter to save the company.
 
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Mark
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The folks in charge generally look unfavorably at assassinating any folks in charge. And, it's the folks in charge who make the laws.

But, for the sake of discussion, when Boothe killed Lincoln, the Civil War was not over. In fact, the assassination was part of a larger plot to eliminate Union command and revive the Confederate cause. Conspirators Lewis Powell and David Herold were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson.-Wiki

You probably wont find many historians who would call killing Lincoln "taking out leadership." It's not a one-size-fits-all tactic.
 
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Justen Brown
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da pyrate wrote:
The reviewer says killing Davis would have been a terrible war crime.

Is taking out the leadership a crime?

I have read that Hitler, Churchill, Rommel and FDR were all targets. Would killing any of them have been a war crime?

Yamamoto was targeted and taken out. Was that a war crime?

The Duke of Wellington told a gunner at Waterloo not to shoot at Napoleon. Nelson, however, was taken out by a French sniper at Trafalgar.

Thoughts?



It was considered dishonorable. Dying in battle was honorable, but sneaking into their homes to be shot was detestable. You captured officers to exchange for prisoners although the Union was frustrated because the Confederacy refused to exchange captured black soldiers.

ZombieMark wrote:
The folks in charge generally look unfavorably at assassinating any folks in charge. And, it's the folks in charge who make the laws.

But, for the sake of discussion, when Boothe killed Lincoln, the Civil War was not over. In fact, the assassination was part of a larger plot to eliminate Union command and revive the Confederate cause. Conspirators Lewis Powell and David Herold were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson.-Wiki

You probably wont find many historians who would call killing Lincoln "taking out leadership." It's not a one-size-fits-all tactic.


I haven't read it but The Dahlgren Affair by Duane P. Schultz argues this failed incident inspired a series of events that could be called the first acts of domestic terrorism, not counting Lincoln's assassination.
 
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David G. Cox Esq.
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ZombieMark wrote:
The folks in charge generally look unfavorably at assassinating any folks in charge. And, it's the folks in charge who make the laws.

But, for the sake of discussion, when Boothe killed Lincoln, the Civil War was not over. In fact, the assassination was part of a larger plot to eliminate Union command and revive the Confederate cause. Conspirators Lewis Powell and David Herold were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson.-Wiki

You probably wont find many historians who would call killing Lincoln "taking out leadership." It's not a one-size-fits-all tactic.


I always considered taking out Lincoln to just the act of a bad loser.

 
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