Background image is Les Dernières Cartouches (The Last Cartridges) by Alphonse de Neuville

Monday, December 21, 2015

Rebel Raiders on the High Seas: A Test Game

USN Vice Adm. David Glasgow Farragut
My friend Eric "Mr Invisible" and I started off our inaugural monthly weeknight gaming session with a trial of GMT Games' Rebel Raiders on the High Seas. We have both recently read James McPherson's War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861–1865 and were looking forward to exploring the naval portion of the American Civil War with this (relatively) new game on the subject.

We started off with dinner and some chat about work, and we had neither of us read the rules exhaustively beforehand, so we did not have time to play through the whole game at our first trial. Instead, we played the first three turns, trying out different gambits and exploring the ways that different rules provisions work. I think we'll be better prepared to  play a full game now that we've had a training session.

And play a full game I think we certainly will, as we both enjoyed the game a great deal. It has fairly simple mechanics and achieves detail through varying them in different circumstances. The same basic mechanic is used for ships trying to locate enemy ships in order to attack them, for instance; but CSA commerce raiders and be searched for in all sea and coastal areas, whereas the faster and more maneuverable blockade runners can only be found when they are in a "blockade station"--the approaches to a specific port--or in a port itself. Blockade runners being designed entirely for speed, however, are captured/destroyed if they are found, whereas the sturdier commerce raiders can give Union ships a fight for their money.

The land combat aspect of the war is highly abstracted; as the chiefs of naval operation, the players are most concerned with two main theatres: the maritime war of Southern commerce raiders and blockade runners and the Union attempt to gradually choke off their access to the sea, and the riverine warfare on the Mississippi and its tributaries. The armies appear in the form of assaults, which the Union can launch 2-4 times per turn (turns represent four months), and some supplemental card effects. The Confederates get a counterattack every so often, which can retake ground lost to the USA but cannot conquer any Union territory. Union assaults in the first year of the war are feeble stuff; over time they become more effective, as the wartime economy gears up and the ineffective generals are slowly weeded out.

U.S.S. St. Louis, Eads-built ironclad gunboat
Despite the preponderance of Union forces (as its increasingly capable armies capture more Confederate territory, the Union strips more and more of the resources the South needs to build more ships), the Confederacy wins the vast majority of games, according to player reports. This is not to say that the Confederacy wins the war and survives, but that players better the record of their historical counterparts. Though we played just the truncated year of 1861, I was certainly (as the Union player) feeling the frustration that McPherson describes as filling the Navy Department at the number of fast ships rushing in and out of Southern ports to pick up contraband in Europe and Cuba and bringing it back to Confederate shores with the Union Navy little able to respond due its woefully small numbers.

I tried an early assault on Norfolk, hoping to capture back the Navy Yard there and enable a two-track land
campaign against Richmond (hope of one of the CSA's major foundries and a big deal for naval support). But I fell at the first hurdle, as the Confederate defenses proved too much for my tiny armada. I did capture a few blockade runners and sank at least one commerce raider in the Gulf of Mexico.

Vicksburg, MS, levee and steamboats
But I also had little joy of attempts to push south in the riverine war; my attacks on Island Number 10 and on Forts Henry and Donelson achieved no progress but cost me a number of gunboats. Eric began fortifying Key West, clearly planning to use it as the base of a host of fast ships to run back and forth to Havana. I could see I'd have to turn my attention to reducing that soon, too. The early Union game feels entirely too much like a game of whack-a-mole.

Back east, things got worse, as Robert E. Lee came on the scene and prevented any land attacks in the Eastern Theatre, as the Army was too occupied defending against his wily thrusts to launch any of their own.

We stopped after the December 1861 turn for lack of time, and since it was a learning game we didn't even consider noting down all the locations of pieces for a later resumption. But I think we will get this back on the table soon. Especially if one doesn't interject any of the more specialized optional rules, RRotHS is a fast, fun, simple game that, at first glance seems to give a good impression of the naval aspects of the Civil War.

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