Designer’s Notes Antietam

Designer’s Notes

Taking on Antietam was a daunting task. Many people say this battle can’t be gamed. This battle breaks games. The only way to make it work is to tack on McClellan Idiot rules. I hate rules like this. I call them Band-Aid rules: rules that are artificially added to a game to compensate for a fundamentally flawed model. Ideally, we prefer to allow players free reign. Both sides should be able to do whatever they want and operate under the same rules. How can you make Antietam work without Band-Aid rules? What player in their right mind would do what McClellan did?

We started play testing with 2 Band-Aids: The Federals had HQ ratings of 2, while the Confederates had 4. Jackson even had a 5. Even worse, only 1 Federal Corps began the game active: with a chit in the cup. The other Corps would be added to the cup 1 turn at a time. This got us close to a historical result but why handcuff the players like this?

We tightened up the HQ ratings, Federals: 3, Confederates: 4. That is reasonable and justifiable. The ANV had a sleeker and faster org chart. Much quicker to get orders down the line but the advantage is pretty minimal.

Modern historians have been adjusting the previously accepted numbers. The legend was always that the South overcame the odds with brilliant leadership. There is some truth to this but Federal army strengths were often exaggerated. Early reports concluded that McClellan had 100-120k men. Much of this comes from counting ALL men in the Army of the Potomac. Comparing apples to apples, by counting only Combat Effectives, like the Army of Northern V did, this number falls to 90k, 80k, even possibly 75k. This gets us closer to a solution but we are still looking at Lee being outnumbered 2:1.

Another interesting fact we found while researching the OBs, was that much of the AoP was made up of brand new volunteers: 20-25%. These were raw recruits just thrown into the field. Just days before the battle, there were reports of Federal troops having never fired their rifle, not knowing how to load and fire a rifle, not knowing how to change from road column to battle line formation.

The AoP was not the well oiled, veteran machine that the ANV was. It was just recently cobbled together from mixed Corps and many brand new regiments. Many of the officers had recently changed. Days before the battle, Wilcox sent a message up requesting to know who the other Division commanders were in his Corps. Considering this, it is a small miracle that McClellan was able to get the AoP to Antietam so quickly. That’s right. I just used ‘McClellan’ and ‘quick’ in the same sentence.

Surprisingly, this was the only change we needed to make to get Pub Battles to turn out a historical result. We dropped 25% of the Federal infantry to Green status. Not only does it make the game play like the historical battle, it also makes it more realistic and historically accurate. No McClellan Idiot rules. No handcuffs. No Band-Aids.

The only question left was the speed of development. Should the Federals be allowed to start the game with all Corps active and able to attack? Won’t they overwhelm the Confederates if they can?

The answer to this occurred to me from playing Marengo. The French player can often be lured to his own doom IF the Austrian player develops and moves slowly. Why? Because he is persuaded to think that he might be able to defend and hold the line rather than just fall back like they should. This allows the Austrians to bring their artillery advantage to bear.

This is very similar to what the Federals can do with their artillery advantage at Antietam. Sure, you can plow ahead with all guns blazing on all fronts at once with the AoP if you want. You will likely find your fragile, 25% green army quickly shattered.

Surprisingly, to do well with the Federals, you will find yourself advancing cautiously and methodically at a slow pace, much like McClellan! Falling back if things don’t immediately go your way in an assault to rally and make another attempt in a few hours. This approach allows your artillery to pound the Confederates and keeps you from taking catastrophic losses while assaulting over bridges, through the woods and up hills.

This game and Marengo are not Race-the-Clock games. We removed the active Corps restriction. They are more about finesse, maneuver and timing. Don’t worry, there is plenty of time to destroy your army when you are ready.

McClellan actually had a good battle plan. His intent was to advance on Lee’s left with I & XII Corps. Let the rest of the Army sit in reserve, hoping that Lee would commit his reserves to the left. -Which is exactly what Lee did!

With the right timing, Burnside would then launch his attack to bust across the Antietam and cut off Lee’s only route of retreat. Considering the army that McClellan had to work with, it was a good plan. This is exactly the type of plan that is more likely to succeed in Pub Battles.

Now that I’m here on the other side, looking back at what Pub Battles Antietam has become, I am greatly relieved. Antietam did not break Pub Battles. Pub Battles makes Antietam actually work as a wargame. As a designer, this confirms our model and gives us much more confidence going forward to other battles.

If Pub Battles can model Brandywine, Little Bighorn and Antietam without Band-Aids, can it explain battles like Austerlitz? Chancellorsville?

Marshall Barrington

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4 thoughts on “Designer’s Notes Antietam”

  1. Marshall, this is excellent! Just last evening I was part of a Grogcast with James Sterrett talking about learning from wargames, and how the planning process is critical. We were contrasting this with the more reactive approach many players use when playing. In particular, we talked about how a well-designed game played with forethought can illustrate how the supposedly foolish or ill-considered actions of a commander, when considered in hindsight, may have actually seemed the best or the “least bad” option at the time.

    And here you’ve gone and illustrated just that.With a game system that is quick to learn and easy to play. Pub Battles is fast becoming my preferred system to introduce new players to the hobby and to help teach more veteran players more subtle points like this!

    • Thank you! James Sterrett works with the military on professional wargaming doesn’t he? Can you give us the link for the Grogcast?

      You know, this is a feature of Pub Battles that is really interesting. The Chit Pull is very random. I didn’t like it at first. It is very distracting. I found my self just reacting to each pull one at a time. Constantly putting out fires. It is hard to keep focused on a coherent long term strategy when you have to execute it step by step with the enemy constantly interfering.

      Guess what? That’s what real command is like. A real battle field is very chaotic and distracting. It is easy to chase your tail, running from crisis to crisis. How do you stay focused on the big picture during that? What was your original strategic plan? How is that unfolding? Does it need to be altered? What is the enemy’s strategic plan based on what you know?

      Yes, Pub Battles is simple, rules wise but there is a lot going on here. It is much deeper than you think at first. There is a lot of great material here for veteran wargamers.

  2. Just placed my order. Recently purchased Brandywine. Looking forward to getting that and Antietam to the table with my father

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