ARTY (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

It's January of 2012, and I've just found a publisher for what would be my first published game, Blood on the Alma. The publisher is very impressed with the design. He's excited; I'm excited; Mary's excited; everyone's excited, except perhaps our cats, who react with typical indifference.

There's one hitch, though: the game has too many counters. Including all the variant scenario counters and status markers, there's 210 of them, and to fit in the magazine, I need to get it down to 120. Many of these are step counters - the way the game works is that each unit had an ID counter on top, and step counters stacked beneath it. I can shave off a good number of these by making the ID counter double-sided and representative of the unit's last two steps, a workaround that would feature in the other "Blood" games but would be abandoned when I introduced the Shot & Shell Battle Series. I also greatly reduced the number of status markers while trying to maintain a decent mix.

One idea I had during this mad rush to reduce the number of counters by over forty-two percent was to omit the artillery units on the attacking Anglo-French side. The battle involved the British and French crossing a large river and then fighting their way up steep cliffs; their artillery didn't play a major part. In the game, the artillery units only got in range during the last couple of turns. On the other hand, the guns of their Russian adversaries played a major role, particularly the heavier guns on the two redoubts. So while it made perfect sense to include the Russian arty units, the only reason why I included them for the British and French was because this was a very serious historical wargame, and so of course I had to account for each and every cannon. Even when I suggested the idea of nixing the Allied arty to the publisher (he insisted on keeping them, "for giggles"), it felt like some kind of stomach-churning compromise. This again was despite the fact that in many sessions, the Allied Player didn't bother to even move their artillery in the first place. For that particular military situation, the arty counters were dead weight cluttering up the map. 

A few years later, Mary and I are gearing up to get Hollandspiele off the ground. While that's going on, I'm still doing work for another publisher, and I'm working with Sean Chick on the first entry in his Rally 'Round the Flag series of ACW battle games. Quick side note: things got botched pretty royally when I turned over the wrong CRT files to the printer, rendering the game unplayable. I can give you a dozen reasons why this happened, but in the end, it doesn't matter: I dropped the ball. I'm kinda amazed that Sean wanted to work with me again after that, but thankfully he did, and Horse & Musket (among various other projects coming down the road) is the result. 

Anyway, the reason why I bring up Sean and Rally 'Round the Flag isn't to kick myself for my past misdeeds, but to mention the way that game handles artillery. While each arty unit has a counter, they don't function like infantry and cavalry units that move from hex-to-hex. Instead, they're placed with (or removed from) those stacks at the start of each turn. And one thing that occurred to me when I was testing the game was, this is a really clever way to represent artillery without having to do a lot of monotonous counter-pushing. 

Around the same time, I'm putting the finishing touches on the Shot & Shell Battle Series ruleset, and thinking about how to deal with artillery units in that game. And while I didn't use Sean's approach, the idea of a non-traditional approach to artillery appealed to me, and it reminded me of Alma, and how I very nearly did away with one side's artillery altogether. And more and more, that seemed like the ideal solution for gaming battles where the attacker's artillery didn't do much to merit inclusion. I decided to try it with the first Shot & Shell game, Seven Pines; or, Fair Oaks, and the whole thing felt much cleaner. 

Other rules in the Shot & Shell system put the emphasis squarely on the threat posed by artillery in a strong defensive position by giving them multiple chances to fire. For example, when the Defensive Artillery rule is in effect for a scenario, the arty units can fire during every friendly Impulse. Couple this with the fact that arty units fire during both the Fire Phase and the Close Combat Phase - so if an enemy unit is unlucky enough to be adjacent to the artillery, they get pelted twice. Getting that close to the enemy artillery is difficult in and of itself. Either the unit must Charge (exposing themselves to Defensive Fire), or they can only move one hex on the turn that they move adjacent to the artillery (and so the unit must end their previous Impulse within range). 

So I used "defender-only arty" in Seven Pines; or, Fair Oaks. And I'm using it for The Heights of Alma, my Shot & Shell Battle Series do-over of my very first game. Now, is it appropriate for gaming every battle? Nope, not by a longshot; it's not even appropriate for every battle in the Shot & Shell series. But if it lets me shave a few counters off the sheet that are just going to clutter up the map? Sure. 

Of course, that begs the question of where you draw the line. If you omit artillery, could you, for example, omit some infantry or cavalry units that were present on the field but didn't participate? At White Mountain, for example, the Bohemians had several thousand light Transylvanian cavalry who refused to fight, eventually abandoning the battlefield. I didn't include them in the White Mountain scenario for Table Battles, but if I was doing a more traditional hex-and-counter game of the battle, would it be okay to omit them altogether? Or would it be better to provide the off-chance that they might do actually something, as the designers of GMT's Saints in Armor did with their White Mountain scenario? 

There are a dozen different ways to approach wargame design, but one of the most commonly accepted is that the designer will present the players with the historical problems, and provide them with the tools that were available to the historical commanders. In that sense, omitting part of the orbat can feel like a bit of a cheat: how dare you take my Transylvanian cavalry; hey, I was going to use that artillery. But looking at it another way, providing a complete orbat is somewhat unrealistic, in that very few commanders would commit to an all-out attack with everything at their disposal - it's too risky - while players will do this all the time. In Seven Pines, the Confederate Player has four Divisions at his disposal, with three to five brigades in each, but historically, only a handful of those saw action. That game's VP structure, which awards the enemy VP for each unit you bring on, is meant to counteract the sometimes irresistible impulse in most games to risk everything, while still providing the player with a "complete" orbat. 

Minus the arty, of course.


  • At least for modern long-range Artillery in a tactical or maybe operational scale, where artillery support could be flexibly provided to a number of units, I like it’s abstraction as in BCS. I think the abstracted Support Tokens found in the FAB series and Guns of Gettysburg are very nice approached – .and demonstrate innovative thinking.

    Norm Stewart

  • One of the first wargames I ever got was SPI’s “Antietam”. In the notes for the game, as I recall, artillery was described as being more valuable for offense than defense. I was very young then and I just accepted that. After reading more about the ACW and Napoleonic Wars, I found that the exact reverse was true. Artillery was more valuable for the defender due to cannister/grape shot. SPI’s way of handling artillery in the Blue and Gray series is a case of, to paraphrase Kevin Zucker, sometimes wargames teach us the wrong things.
    I don’t want to bash “Antietam” too much though. The command control rules are brilliantly simple and more accurate/realistic than other games with more convoluted and complicated command control rules.

    John Theissen

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