Black Powder at Wilson's Creek
By Paul D. Stevenson
The View Across Wilson's Battlefield
The Black Powder rules cover 1700-1900 – a broad period spectrum it is true but the authors have managed to avoid many of the usual minefields and pitfalls by making the rules so very open-ended and adaptable on a strong, yet essentially simple gaming framework. Anyway, this is not meant to be a review of the rules. Suffice it to say they are a “get stuck-in with yer toy soldiers” sort of game and I like them for what they are; so much so I was willing to inflict them on my mates at the Durham club!
The ethos behind the BP rules seems to be to make each game or scenario work to its own satisfaction without comparative reference to other times and locations outside of the immediate game. Thus the performance of a unit is measured against other units within the scenario. There ends the comparison. And this appears to work. To enhance the game, units can be given various characteristics from a list of twenty-four which can be added to the unit profile or not as seen fit. The authors encourage players to add their own where appropriate. This, and with some slight tinkering with the basic unit profiles allows for all kinds of unit attributes. This promotes player ownership of course which is a big plus in terms of inspiration. Attributes are listed in the unit profile under “Special”.
In Black Powder one has to decide upon what size constitutes a “Standard” unit and the size of all other units are measured against this benchmark. A standard unit is the majority size unit strength of those featured in the scenario. Looking down the orders of battle for the units at Wilson’s Creek, shows that most units (and the large majority of them are Confederate) are listed to have from between 24 to 30 figures which, coincidentally happens to fit the given standard used as an example in the rules. “Large” units have greater combat potential all other things being equal and of course “Small” units and “Tiny” units have comparatively less combat potential. It really does not matter how many figures are in the unit within reason, so it should not be too difficult to employ existing units from your collection that fit the size band. If your units are smaller than those suggested, (say they are based to a 1:30 or 1:50 ratio) simply re-set the “Standard” size. There is plenty of guidance on this in the rules book.
Where things are not equal, for example in hand-to-hand or shooting capabilities, more or less dice can be listed in the appropriate category. For example, the Union cavalry armed with breech-loading carbines have three shooting dice, whereas if they were armed with muzzle loaders, they would get only two. This adds no extra complication to the game system which is surely a good thing.
The Union army has many large units and this should stand them well in the combat. The player may field these large units as two small units (16 -20 figures) with -4 Hand-to-Hand and -2 Shooting and Stamina. The 3rd Louisiana despatched two companies to ward off Sigel’s attack. The 3rd was a good regiment and was very active on the battlefield and falling between two stools in terms of strength, I have gone for Large unit status to reflect their potential.
The Regulars are comparative supermen to the militia and raw volunteers, and to understand the reasons for their glittering profiles I can best quote Piston & Hatcher:
“While forming but a small part of the Army of the West, they stood as perhaps the foremost example of the high degree of professionalism that lent disproportionate strength to Lyon’s force.”
I set the Confederate command rating for the Confederates at 7, one less than that of the Federals to reflect the composition of their army in being mostly poorly trained militia. A couple of volunteer units being well trained, were classed as “Reliable”. Equally, the militia could have been classed as “Unreliable” and the army command rating set at 8.
Arkansas Mounted Rifles
Came the day and what with Christmas cry-offs, jammed fingers and poorly pets, we managed one member (Mr David Jarvis – one of the credited professional painters in Black Powder and two invited guests – Messrs Robbie Roddiss and John Reidy, who as well known members of the Independent Wargamers, stage many a display game at shows around the country. All good men to have around in a fight! If we had the quality, we did not have the quantity and the poor turnout was obviously not enough to run the Sharp House scenario as well, so we only played the main event – the Bloody Hill scenario. Determined to still have fun, we diced for sides. Dave commanded Andrews’ and Deitzler’s brigades and John commanded that of Sturgis. Robbie commanded the Missouri State Guard Division – the brigades of Price and Rains. I took the role of McIntosh and playing umpire (with the aid of John’s amazing memory of what I had earlier told him about the game, to keep me right!) We were joined on Turn 6 by our very own “Johnny Reb” Eric Walker from Alabama, who took on Pearce’s mantle as his brigade arrived on the field. Various other curious cats crept in during the afternoon to see the game going down on their club premises.
Leaving Dave and John to discuss their tactics, Robbie and I repaired to another room where we decided that we would hold the lower slopes of Bloody Hill until Pearce could come up with his brigade. With our low command rating of 6, rising to 7 on the second turn, we knew that we would be slow off the mark and that the Federals would probably advance and seize the prime positions atop the hill. And because of this, we realised that it was no use just getting part of the army moving forward unsupported against large numbers of Federals. Caution was the watchword.
As the game got underway, it became clear that the Union players sought to dominate the hill with the majority of their army from the outset. They sent their mounted force into Ray’s cornfield and dismounted it there, as a holding force, safely hidden in the tall crop. Obviously, they had no intention of attempting to seize the Wire Road. As expected, the Confederates could make little progress. After some turns had passed with McIntosh’s men as mere spectators to the developing battle, they managed to move ahead to the fence surrounding the cornfield. In an instant they had seized control of the Wire Road which was one of the objectives. That they did this uncontested was due to the low visibility of the Union troopers in the corn.
On the Confederate left, Robbie pinned the Union front with a line of battle and slowly manoeuvred the rear columns of Missouri militia onto the flanks of the Union right. Dave had gotten his regulars a little too close to his front line regiment and could not swing them about to meet the threat and eventually he was forced to retire these stalwarts to the rear when his flank was riddled by shotgun blasts. And it was not long before this regiment gave way completely as it found itself in a cauldron of canister and buck shot and unable to regroup because of the disorder caused by the Confederate fire.
In the Union centre, Sturgis’ infantry and Deitzler’s brigade had been more than holding their own against the militia, who by now had lost a regiment from each of their brigades. Robbie had made a wild charge against Deitzler’s Kansans and had come off worse; another had been hit hard by the 1st Missouri. But now the tables were turning. “Eric the Reb” could not get his boys to move for several turns and McCulloch had had to gallop over and issue a “Follow Me!” order to get them up there and engaged.
It was Turn 12 and the battle was reaching its climax. On the Union left, any ambitions for seizing the Wire Road had long since been abandoned as the troopers in the cornfield were assailed by fire on two sides but managed to maintain their position like true professionals. On the Union right, the collapse of Dave’s right flank regiment had left his line sorely pressed and, with his Stamina level at maximum depletion, he called a do or die downhill charge on Robbie’s Rebs. He rolled. All he needed was 7 or 6 and he was in. It was so. But Robbie’s Closing Fire inflicted a couple of hits and with Dave’s unit disordered and with two excess hits over his Stamina level things did not look good for him. Robbie, reminded him that he was o the brink of winning the third ever battle in his long career as a wargamer. With some trepidation, Dave rolled his Morale Test dice – a fatal four, the last roll, some handshakes, and Dave’s third victory remains an elusive dream!
All the participants enjoyed the game and felt that the rules worked well. I too was pleased with the game as it was easy to explain and the fellows started playing it readily and it felt like how I imagine the actual battle went – slow and attritional with a similar outcome too. Initially it was difficult to get players to verbalise their orders succinctly, accurately or if at all – an idea which is both a novel and defining feature of the game. And amazingly, there were no Blunders. This is where a double six in the orders phase results in a reference to the Blunder Table. There were actually two instances – one on either side, of rolling the dice and not declaring an order at all, which should result in an automatic test on the Blunder Table but I allowed these to slide because of the players’ inexperience which I declared in more stentorian tones would not be the case henceforth if it occurred again in the game. Such merciless punishment makes folks more attentive to what they are about!
Wilson’s Creek, W.G. Piston and R.W. Hatcher, North Carolina Press, 2000
Battles & Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 1, Johnson & Buell (editors), Castle, 1983
Frontier: Guns at Gettysburg Scenarios 2, Paul D. Stevenson, Partizan Press, 2008
Wargaming in History: The American Civil War, Paul D. Stevenson, Argus, 1990