During the last week I have been getting to grips with a small game called Gaines’s Mill.
Designed by Tom Russell and published by Tiny Battle Publishing, Gaines’s Mill is the first in a series of 5 games called Blood Before Richmond that examines the ‘Seven Days’ battles of the American Civil War.
I am no expert on the history of these battles or the American Civil War. Being relatively new to the genre, I don’t even consider myself that well versed in hex and counter historical simulations generally.
Nonetheless, I wanted to look at Gaines’s Mill in more detail as there are a handful of interesting elements that I haven’t come across in my war game dabbling’s to date.
First though, let’s take a look at what Gaines’s Mill is about.
A Brief History of the Battle of Gaines’s Mill
The day after winning a victory at Beaver Dam Creek, the Union Vth Corps, led by General McClellan, are caught by the advancing Confederate army, led by General Lee.
The Union take a strong defensive position and await the Confederate attack.
However, Lee’s command is hindered by poor co-ordination and the late arrival of Confederate forces to the right flank.
The Union were not with out problems of their own. McClellan’s caution meaning the order to reinforce the 5th Corps did not come until late in the battle.
The battle ended when Lee personally co-ordinated one final Confederate assault that finally broke the Union line.
Blood Before Richmond: Gaines’s Mill begins with the Confederate advance on the Union position from the left and ends with the final assault at dusk
Three Cool Things
Gaines’s Mill has an I-GO-U-GO turn order with one side fully completing the activations of their units before the next player’s turn.
However, the unit activation system varies depending upon which side you are playing.
Union troops are reliable but only two divisions can be activated in any one turn. Also, one of their four divisions does not come fully into play as reinforcements until Turn 5.
With just 6 turns in the game, and the 6th turn being a Confederate close assault turn, this means that the Union player must hold their defensive position as best they can for a long time. When they do arrive, the Union reinforcements have an awful lot to do in a short space of time.
Confederate activation meanwhile could see up to 4 divisions act in a turn. The army, however, is fractured, and communication poor. Given the need for an aggressive strategy a poor activation could be disastrous.
Activation here is dependent upon a dice roll. Three divisions can be activated by a roll equal to or below their activation number.
For the most reliable divisions these activation numbers are 12, 7 and 6. Even among these dependable divisions, only one division can be guaranteed to activate in a turn.
The other three divisions will only be activated on a natural roll of 3, 4, or 5 using two D6. Unreliable indeed.
This asymmetry, according to the background info in the rule book, reflects the historical position of the two sides.
From a gameplay point of view, it shakes the I-GO-U-GO system into something far more unpredictable.
The Union player has a stark choice: defend the left flank or the right. At times, neither option is ideal. This is particularly true when the Confederates are close to breaking the defensive line and reinforcements could be used…if only there was one more activation!
First though, the Confederate player must reach that Union line. It’s entirely possible that fully half the available Confederate Divisions will never come into play. Or, arguably worse, will activate early and then cause congestion for the remainder of the game as they sit waiting to be shot.
To win, the Confederate player must lean heavily on the reliable divisions positioned on the left flank. Even though those divisions sit in clear terrain and within range of Union Artillery.
Speaking of artillery…
While artillery units on both sides are effective, much more so than in some other games I have played, the Union’s artillery is just…brutal.
The artillery can activate in the Fire Combat phase, including when adjacent (not normally allowed for ranged units), during the Reactive Fire phase against charging Confederate infantry and during the Close Combat phase.
As if this isn’t enough, they can activate during the Fire Phase even when their Division is inactive. Artillery also projects a Zone of Control that can only be entered by the enemy when charging or if moving into the ZOC is the result of a single hex move.
Their combat factors are high, sometimes as high as an 8 or 9 before modifiers.
And they ignore retreats.
But they cannot generally move and shoot in the same turn.
I imagine that to be a small comfort to the Confederate units that fall in droves as they charge the Union line.
Stack’s of Steps
Two years into my war game journey, I am now quite used to the varying states of being a Unit can endure during a hex and counter game.
Disrupted, disordered, reduced, paralysed: taking a step loss is becoming as normal as taking milk and sugar in tea.
As is the idea that units are rarely fully eliminated. Instead the player can usually rebuild units in some form during the game. Often sacrificing another action to do so.
This is true of Gaines’s Mill too. The Disrupted and Disorder results optionally negated each turn if a unit is not in an enemy ZOC.
The part that I have been unfamiliar with until now is the idea of step loss being represented as the literal loss of a counter from underneath a unit.
Infantry unit identification counters are stacked with generic step counters in addition to their usual Full and Reduced strength sides. Usually units have 1 or 2 additional counters, although it can be higher or lower depending on the unit.
A poor result in combat can lead to the removal of one or more of these steps. Once lost, step counters are unrecoverable and a truly poor result, particularly in close combat, can lead to the removal of three steps.
That 4 counter, 5 step unit is suddenly reduced to tatters by withering artillery fire in a far more visual way than the usual ‘flip your counter’ methods.
The ‘stack of steps’ is not only used for visualising damage; it has a significant practical role too. Combat strength, both attacking and defensive, is based on a units’ step count.
Although modified by a range of factors, more steps are generally better and the attritional nature of combat rapidly weakens units through the loss of step counters. Players can literally see units becoming less effective the longer the battle rages.
So, there we are. Three things I really enjoyed about Gaines’s Mill.
Plus it fits on my coffee table and plays, even at my snail’s pace, in a few hours or over a couple of evenings. Both of which are a firm tick in the positive column for me.
At the time of writing, I have not played other games in the series, although they are now firmly in my wishlist.
There doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of content out there about this series, which seems both odd and a crying shame.
I’ll try to do my part to remedy this by filming an overview at some point in the near future and link here when done.
In the meantime, if you have played them, let me know your thoughts. I would be keen to hear how they differ across the series.
Editor’s note: I played solo with PnP components