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DESIGNING THE SHOT & SHELL BATTLE SERIES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

In 2010, I began designing my first-ever wargame. It was something I did as a lark; as a sailor might say in salty language, "for ships and giggles". I was a Very Serious Eurogame Designer who was going to have a Very Serious, Prestigious, and Profitable Career designing mid-weight Euros. Just to be eclectic though I thought it'd be fun to do a wargame now and then on the side, and perhaps a nerdy train game. Of course, the way things panned out, I couldn't sell the Euros. The wargames sold, as did the nerdy train games, and so here I am seven years later, quite happily dedicating my time and energy to wargames and nerdy train games.

But back in 2010, I didn't know that, and I had started working on my first wargame, Blood on the Alma, about the Battle of the Alma River in the Crimean War. I chose that one in particular because it was an under-gamed conflict. No one had really done a "definitive" game on the Battle of the Alma, so there'd be room to show off. Also, I think I was worried about a potential wargame design running afoul of "well, actually, this regiment wouldn't have been in that hex, they should have been one hex over, this is completely inaccurate, did you not do any research?" and then nobody would buy the game and everyone would know I'm a giant fraud forever, boo-hoo, boo-hoo. If I were to do a game on a well-known topic, those guys would be coming out of the woodwork, I thought. I figured there'd be far fewer hardcore Crimea nuts out there than ACW nuts.

The British 56 Royal Artillery on the move during the Battle of the Alma. Above is an Orlando Norie print for Rudolph Ackermann,1854.

(This ridiculous anxiety was something that haunted my early efforts, and it was simultaneously completely unfounded and completely justified. Completely unfounded, because it's not like researching wargames is some kind of unforgiving arcane art where you're doomed forever if you missed the implication of this one sentence in this one obscure, hidden source material. And completely justified in that I spent a good deal of time arguing with people on the internet about Alma's artillery ranges.)

Anyway, Alma was accepted for publication by Lock N Load Publishing in early 2012, finally coming out just before the end of that year. By that time, I had finished work on a sequel, Blood in the Fog (which finally saw publication this year from Hollandspiele), and had begun working on an ACW game, Blood Before Richmond, which would eventually be split up into several folio games.

All three of these designs used a similar but distinct set of rules. They shared many of the same concepts and mechanisms. In all three, units were represented by a stack of counters, with each step loss resulting in the removal of a counter. Combat was resolved by summing attack modifiers and comparing the result to a defense roll (either D6 or 2D6, depending on the circumstances). Each game, however, had its own scale, its own set of attack modifiers, its own set of terrain rules, and its own approach to artillery. The Sequence of Play for each game was unique as well. Alma had the phases of the two players interpolated, Fog used alternating chit-pull activations, and Richmond was dominated by the 2D6 Lee Coordination Roll.

British soldiers during the Crimean war. Photo by Roger Fenton.

When Mary and I started looking seriously at starting up Hollandspiele, we knew we wanted some form of the "Alma system" to feature in our product line. The two Crimea games were some of Mary's favorites out of my wargame designs - she still tells the story of her lone British picket, who held back the entire Russian army. And for me it's like an old friend. But an old friend that I have a complicated and knotty relationship with, an old friend who is a mass of irresolvable contradictions and I just wish he would get his act together. Inventing a new Sequence of Play every time I wanted to do a stack-of-steps game just seemed like a lot more trouble than it was worth. Having to rewrite a complicated ruleset every time, also too much trouble. Asking gamers to re-learn the whole thing, and yes, this thing is the same but this tiny little thing isn't, and no, you weren't playing it right, you were remembering the rule from this other game - trouble, trouble right here in River City. No thanks.

So the intention was for me to create a single set of series rules. This would need a consistent scale; I settled on brigades moving across hexes that were 250-300 yards across. This would need one set of attack modifiers and terrain rules that could apply across the entire period (from say 1850-1870). And it would need a Sequence of Play that was simple enough to work but robust enough to model different circumstances.

Because, here's the thing about the Blood games. Each of them had a unique Sequence of Play because each of them needed it. Each Sequence of Play modeled something particular to that battle. Alma's chaotic Sequence of Play emphasized the discombobulation of the Russian army, the discipline of the French, and the Keystone Kopsian behavior of the British. Fog's chit-pull activation was an integral part of modeling not only the lack of a command structure on both sides, but also the lifting of the fog itself. Richmond's activation roll forced the Confederate Player to grapple with the inability of his commanders to coordinate their actions, while still ensuring that the divisions that historically saw the most action took the brunt of it in the game.

I wanted an activation mechanism that would be capable of modeling differences in command structure, discipline, exhaustion, and a host of other things without having to reinvent the wheel every time. I didn't want to rely on a chit-pull mechanism. It has its uses, and does certain things very well, but it also has some limitations. I hate it when one group of units gets hammered over and again because they're still waiting for their chit to come up. I'd rather be able to react with that group of units in immediate response to what's happening at my flank. Further, being able to act and react gives the players a chance to fight over the all-important "tempo". It's an element that features prominently in many of my designs, and something I wanted to emphasize here. In a chit-pull game, on the other hand, the cup itself decides the tempo of the game, taking that very useful tool out of my hands.

The mechanism I arrived at was a color-banded Activation Track. Each Division has a marker on the track, and when it activates, it is regressed one space and flipped over to its "Done" side. These markers can regress further in certain circumstances. A "Double Time" (movement only) activation, for example, regresses it twice. A player who has Initiative for the scenario gets a "Bonus Activation" that lets him activate a Division a second time. When a Unit is Eliminated, the resultant loss of Morale is modeled by the marker being regressed.

When a player Passes (choosing not to Activate any more Divisions), the markers for any passed Divisions move up one space along the track, but only within their current color band. That is, a Division can rest to move its marker from one yellow space to another, but it can't move from a yellow space to a green one. These color bands also dictate the ability of units from different Divisions to support one another, with this ability degrading the closer the marker gets to the red zone. This models the gradual wearing-down of units from a hard day's fighting. Passing is a key part of keeping troops fresh enough to be useful, but when the Initiative Player chooses to Pass, you forgo your right to a Bonus Activation, a key advantage and tempo element.

When a Division's marker hits the "1" space, it can still Activate by rolling a die. On anything but a "1", it Activates normally. Once a "1" is rolled, however, the Division is Retired. On a subsequent Turn, it can Rally - its only action for that Turn - by rolling 2D6 on the Rally Table embedded within the Activation Track.

I really dig this system - it can do some very clever things without getting in the way. And the best part is, of course, once you've learned it for one game, you don't need to re-learn for the next.

The combat system most closely resembles the Richmond iteration of the ruleset. Alma and Fog had two flavors of combat; Richmond technically had five: close combat, with its sub-type of charge combat, and fire combat, with its sub-types of reactive fire and sharpshooter's combat. For this new series of games, I added defensive fire and counter-charge to the mix as contextual reactions to charge combat, and changed how reactive fire (now called "return fire") was resolved to make it more immediate and less fiddly. Richmond also had two "status afflictions", Disruption and Disorder. Here, that's been simplified to just one effect, Disruption. In Richmond these statuses were indicated by markers stacked on top of the unit. In this new ruleset, Disruption is registered by flipping the top counter in the stack (the ID Counter) to its Disrupted side.

This highlights another difference between the new Shot & Shell Battle Series (S&SBS) and its predecessors. In the previous three designs, each Unit's ID counter represented two steps, with each step counter stacked beneath it representing an additional step. When all the step counters had been removed, the remaining ID counter would first be flipped over to its reduced/striped side, with another loss causing the unit's Elimination. So in those games, you would determine how many steps a unit had by counting the number of counters, then adding one: three counters is four steps, one counter is one or two depending on which side is up. But here, because the reverse side of the top counter is used to indicate Disruption, each counter represents one step, and so the process is much simpler: three counters is three steps, and one counter is one step.

On top of this, I also added an element that was arguably missing from the previous designs: entrenchments. Or, to use the period spelling, "Intrenchments". This system supports three varieties of Intrenchments. Heavy Intrenchments are formal, semi-permanent, fortified positions. Light intrenchments represent on-the-fly constructions such as rifle pits. Finally there is Abatis. Each of these work slightly differently, with their own advantages and disadvantages.

These changes make the core system more robust, more compelling, and more elegant. Well, all this is great in theory, of course, but it doesn't mean squat until you get it on the table, and I was eager to do so. I even had a great battle in mind as the first one to show off the new system: Hatcher's Run.

Armstrong's Mills and Rebel Works on Hatcher's Run, captured by the Second Corps, October 27, 1864. Print sketched by C.H. Chapin appeared in Harper's Weekly November 19, 1864 issue.

So, now you're probably wondering, why is the first game on Seven Pines? And that's a very good question. What it came down to is the time and energy that I had available to me at that time. While Mary and I are now publishing board games full-time, last year that wasn't the case, and I had to use my time very judiciously. Hatcher's Run is a reasonably obscure battle that hasn't received a lot of scholarly attention (Ed Bearss's chapter on the battle in The Petersburg Campaign is invaluable) and so would require quite a bit of research in order to do it justice. I could easily see the research process dragging on for several months, and then I could start actually putting the game together. As I took on more projects as both designer and developer, all of which required research of their own, the possibility of coming to grips with Hatcher's Run in a timely fashion grew increasingly remote.

That was no good. From a publisher's perspective, Mary and I wanted to get the first game in the series out in a fairly timely fashion, so that, hopefully, we could get other designers working on games utilizing the same system. Mary suggested that I expedite the process by doing a game on a topic on which I was already well-acquainted. I had poured over all manner of reference materials about the Young Napoleon's disastrous Peninsular Campaign when I was researching Richmond. I knew all about the dramatis personae and had spent time translating the capabilities of each Division and Brigade into the mechanics of the game system. Doing a game on the battle of Seven Pines (also called Fair Oaks; you guys, all the good battles have at least two names, trust me on this) would fast-track the entire process since I could re-use a lot of existing materials.

After doing some preliminary work, I set the design aside while I worked on Charlemagne, Master of Europe, and when that was done, I got to work on playtesting and refining the design. I could have finished Seven Pines; or, Fair Oaks much earlier - in fact, I could have had it out at the beginning of this year if I had.

However, I wanted to release Blood in the Fog before releasing any games in the Shot & Shell Battle Series, so as to avoid any confusion. That is, I didn't want to launch this new series with Seven Pines, then a few months later come out with Blood in the Fog, and have someone say, "Oh, cool, is this the new Shot & Shell game?" And then I'd have to say, "No, it's very similar but completely different and not part of the series and not compatible with it, we'll have a new game in the series later." Whereas having released them in the order that we did, we have folks asking, "Is this Shot & Shell Battle Series similar to Blood in the Fog?" And we can say, "Yes, this is the ultimate evolution of the system, and we'll have more games coming on down the road."

It might seem like a subtle distinction, even a silly one. But I had encountered something similar with the first Shields & Swords series, where the Agincourt game had a ruleset that was completely different than the games that came out before and after it, which kind of disrupted the whole "series" thing. By releasing Fog first, we've hopefully avoided it being "lumped in" with the series proper, maintaining a certain degree of continuity within the series.

For the same reason, when Hollandspiele releases the second edition of the Alma game, my intention is to redesign it to conform to the series ruleset. This also provides me with the opportunity to apply the lessons I've learned over the last thirty or so designs to my very first one. I'm very proud of Alma and the things it does, but I definitely would do them differently now, and parts of it are mildly embarrassing in the way that only a debut work can be.

That will be at some point down the line, along with another one or two Crimea-based titles. We'll also be looking at some battles from the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars. It's important to me that we don't pigeon-hole Shot & Shell as only an ACW series, even though we fully expect the ACW games to be the better sellers, and to make up a lion's share of the titles. Our hope is that if the ACW games in the series are popular and successful, they'll raise the profile of the other games in the series by association.

Now, I've got to get back to reading this memoir of a soldier who served at Hatcher's Run...

 


2 comments

  • Thanks, Andrew. That’s very kind.

    Tom Russell

  • Can’t wait for that Hatcher’s Run game!

    Andrew N.

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