ACW Rules Comparison

Our group played the Battle of Kernstown" Scenario (posted on this blog ) with Black Powder and with Rank and File. Here are our findings.

The scenario pits a small, veteran Confederate force against a larger, but inexperienced, Union force. The Confederates have better leaders and more artillery, although some of the artillery is very light.

Our first game was with Black Powder. Both sides deployed on-table as per the scenario map. Black Powder has an I-go-U-go turn sequence. Each brigade dices to see how much (if any) movement they get. Throughout the game the Union army found it difficult to move. Their best chance for success was to assault the weaker Confederate centre. Unfortunately their green and unreliable troops would not get moving and could not make contact with the Confederates.

Union forces did manage to destroy a tiny Confederate brigade on their extreme right but this proved costly and they were unable to follow up their success. Eventually the Confederates silenced the Union artillery and carried the main objective (a hill in the centre-left of the field).

Black powder has a couple of mechanisms that we found interesting. First is the Blunder. If a leader rolls double-six when ordering troops they have to take a "blunder test". In one case a unit of poorly armed, green Union cavalry were forced to charge towards the Confederate cavalry in march column, they were of course destroyed.

The second interesting mechanic is that units do not visually degrade, there is no removal of figure stands to show attrition. Eventually units are destroyed and removed as a whole.

Conclusions: Black Powder is very fast. We played with two players per side. About 20 units per side and we finished the game in two hours. The system modelled the differences between troops very well. Small Confederate units far outclassed the larger, green Union troops. The small Confederate units however did not have great staying power once they started to suffer.

The only real negative in our game was that the command and control system really punished the Union side and made it very hard for their centre to close in on the Confederates. This is probably realistic but something to look out for in scenario design. In my next scenario I will probably try to keep the abilities of the Brigade and Divisional commanders fairly uniform.

Our second game was with Rank and File, with it's ACW supplement. We used the same terrain and deployment but adjusted unit sizes slightly.

Rank and File uses a "blended" turn sequence. Both sides declare charges, both attempt rallies, then movement is handled as IGoUGo based on an initiative roll. Firing, Charges and Morale are then handled simultaneously. This system means that all players are engaged at all times. We managed to play moves where the two sides of the table worked at different speeds.

There is no real command and control in this system. There are suggestions in the ACW book but we did not use them. This meant that troops initially do what players want them to do. So in this game the Union centre did press the Confederates and part of the Stonewall brigade had to be sent to help.

However, once troops become engaged they start to get "shaken" morale results from shooting and melee. This causes them to retreat. Repeated shaken results on green troops broke up the Union attack very quickly. The morale rules are very harsh on Green troops who always need to roll six to pass tests. This totally crippled the Union army. Once they started taking casualties they really stopped moving forward. On the Union right they again destroyed the tiny (2 regiments and a gun) Confederate brigade. They were then confronted by the "Stonewall" brigade, behind a stone-wall. The Union player held back and used artillery on this position to little effect. Confederate skirmishers did menace the union batteries in the centre and they were dispersed by a charge of the awful Union cavalry. These were immediately annihilated by every Confederate gun in range.

In conclusion the rules worked and gave an enjoyable game in under three hours. The small Confederate units were effective but lacked staying power. The larger, poor quality, Union units could not pass morale tests after taking casualties.

I took pictures of both games. You can look at these if you click on the sample picture.

So what did we think of the two sets of rules ?

Overall both gave an very enjoyable game within our time-limit for evening club games (about 2-3 hours). Both modelled the period reasonably well considering the level of abstraction they work at.

I think that players preferred the combat mechanisms in Rank and File over those in Black Powder. The Rank and File morale system is very harsh on Green troops, this was seen as a negative. Having units failing to move in Black Powder had a mixed reaction among the group. I liked the fog of war realism that it adds.

I have tried to work out the criteria that are important to our group and come up with something slightly objective as a comparison. (Marks out of 10)

1. The rules must support substantial multi-player games in under three-hours.
BP:9 R&F:8 - BP was faster in our test.

2. Players must be involved as much as possible. No hanging around or missed "goes" (this is why we have rejected card systems like TCHAE).
BP:7 R&F:9 - The R&F turn sequence means no waiting around and supports running different parts of the battle-field at different rates within a turn

3. Engaging Command and Control System
BP:9 R&F:3 - R&F lacks a real CandC system. The optional set in the ACW book looks a little unwieldy, maybe we should try them

4.Combat Mechanisms
BP:7 R&F:8 - Not much to choose here as they are fairly similar. R&F removes stands which I find visually more appealing. But, the BP system does keep all of the pretty toys on the table for as long as possible.

5.Morale system
BP:7 R&F:5 - R&F is harsh, we are looking at some house rules to address this.

6.Visual Appeal - does it look right
BP:10 R&F:10 - Both games looked great, looked how we felt an ACW game should look.

7.Period Feel
BP:8 R&F:8 - R&F has an ACW supplement that covers all of the weapons and correct tactics like wave attacks and use of skirmishers. We applied special rules to BP (the system encourages this) that also gave a good period flavour. They did not score as high as a period specific set might have but very good as they are both generic horse and musket sets.

8.Playability - OK this one is subjective, so I am judging it on how well the games play from the QRS, marking them down for "lookups" in the book.
BP:9 R&F:8 - We have played more R&F than BP. But we looked in the R&F book more during the game. The R&F book is well organised but some things are hidden. Melee results are under the heading "Leader bonus in melee".

Overall BP gets 66 out of 80, R&F gets 59 out of 80.

So which will we play ? I think that the jury is still out. Next test will probably be R&F with some house rules for morale (yet to be worked out) and some sort of command and control. More on that when we get a chance to try it.


Excelletn review/comparison. This is one of the best i have seen written on the subject of black Powder. Well done.
I agree to pretty much everything said, the one addition I'd make is the feeling of control from both sets , For me BP prevents that god like ability becUse the troops don't always do what you want ( union cav maving for other sector of battle field only to turn round and charge some other cav, unlucky to be court in march column , and index could have changed into attack or even line as one of there moves. )

R&F played smooth but allowed a lot more free movement within the brigade, units breaking off , turning to flanks, gaining the advantages without the fog of war but this is of course personal taste, both sets were still great fun to play, with results in a couple of hours

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