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Posted on Jul 8, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Learning to Live with Fog and Friction on the Battlefields of the American Civil War. Revolution Games ‘Kernstown’ Board Game Review

Learning to Live with Fog and Friction on the Battlefields of the American Civil War. Revolution Games ‘Kernstown’ Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Kernstown. Publisher: Revolution Games. Designer: Claude Whalen. Artists: Rick Barber and Charlie Kibler.  Price: $ 55.00 (zip lock bag) or $ 65.00 (boxed)

Passed inspection: Gorgeous artwork on the board evokes a sense of the period and enhances game play. Dynamic game engine creates uncertainty, fosters friction, instills chaos and a lack of control that makes each game a unique experience.

Failed basic: Counter durability – some chits were getting scuffed from just two games.

“You ever been in a war, Councilman? In a firefight? Did you feel an overabundance of control?”

  • Nick Fury, ‘The Avengers’

Three turns into my first game of Kernstown, Nick Fury’s words rang in my ears. Col. Tyler’s brigade attack had stalled. The Union’s regiments just sat there on the wooded slopes as General Jackson moved his regiments into place along a stone wall. ‘No’, I thought, ‘I’m most definitely *not* experiencing an overabundance of control. C’mon boys, daylights wasting!’ Frustrating as it was, this was actually a good thing, as a lack of control is a hallmark feature of the ‘Blind Swords’ game system.

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In 2019 Revolution Games released Kernstown.  Designed by Claude Whalen, Kernstown is one of ‘Blind Swords’ series of games. The series contains other games on the American Civil War such as ‘Longstreet Attacks’, but includes non-ACW games such as Hermann Luttmann’s game on the Franco-Prussian War ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’. The series emphasizes the ‘three F’s’; friction of war, fog of war and fortunes of war. These factors go a long way toward ensuring that you will never feel an overabundance of control during the game.

Kernstown is a small village located in the Shenandoah Valley, just south of Winchester, Virginia. The village sits astride the valley turnpike, which was the ‘main road’ along the valley floor. The turnpike connected the lower valley town of Winchester with the upper valley towns of Stanton and Lexington. This was the primary route used as armies moved up and down the valley over the course of the war. The landscape features a large hill just northwest of the village and an even larger ridge beyond that. East of town, the Bull Lick Run cut a deep ravine through the countryside that would complicate troop movements.  A rural setting, its location made it a recurring stage for clashes between the Union and Confederacy.

Kernstown is two battles in one box. You get two complete battles-First and Second Kernstown. While both battles feature the troops of Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson, each game is quite different, showing the Union forces on a good day at 1st Kernstown and delivering a much worse performance at 2nd Kernstown where General Crook’s command faced a numerically larger Confederate force. The game is available either in a box, or in a plastic bag. Regardless of the storage medium, the contents of each box are the same. The game consists of the following components:

  • Map/gameboard
  • Rulebook
  • Turn chart / broken unit tracking table
  • Player aid charts
  • Combat resolution charts
  • Two (2) counter sheets

The gameboard is an exquisite work of art.  Rendered by Rick Barber and Charles Kibler, the map conveys a sense of period as well as communicating the terrain, including elevation. The map conveys this information while seamlessly integrating the artfully portraying the landscape. It was reminiscent of the gameboards in GMT’s ‘The Last Hundred Yards’. This should not be surprising as Charles Kibler also worked on that project. A grid of hexagons is superimposed over the landscape to regulate movement and measure range. The hex grid is not intrusive and at times, the hex numbers fade into the terrain.

The rulebook is a 28-page paperback booklet. Rendered in black and white, it has a minimal amount of illustration. The rules are covered in the first 19 pages with the last nine pages dedicated to the six scenarios covering the two battles. The rules of gameplay are laid out in a format that follows the turn sequence. The text is clean, clearly laid out and well organized. It’s easy to digest the information.

The turn chart is a workman like table that facilitates tracking the game turn. It includes useful notes such as the start and end times for the various scenarios. In addition to tracking the game turn, this chart also includes tables for tracking broken and eliminated units as well as a victory point track.

There are two (2) player aid charts, one for each player. They are not interchangeable, as one side of each chart contains the details of the various event chits for each side. The charts do share a common side for terrain effects, brigade activation and movement, and the fog of war table. Including the details of the unique events on a player chart is a great idea that saves a lot time looking up events in the rules.

The combat resolution charts are well done. One chart gives you all the information needed to determine if a target unit was impacted. Flip the page over and you’ll quickly determine the effects of the impact. The charts are cleanly laid out and easy to use. (If you plan on playing the game a lot, you should invest in plastic page protectors for these charts as you’ll be doing a lot of column/row cross indexing during the game.)

Lastly are the two counter sheets for the game. Rick and Charles did solid work with the counters. They are distinctive and easy to read. The relevant combat and quality factors are easy to read, while the unit’s identity and parent formation are both clearly expressed. Most counters have front and back values, though some counters that represent small, brittle formations only have one side. These small units will fold quickly when they take casualties.

A game turn in Kernstown is both structured and chaotic. One the structured side, there is a turn sequence that governs the order of some events. For example, in each turn you’ll create the pool of chits to be drawn and conduct artillery fire for both sides. Once these formalities are out of the way, you’ll dive into the meat of the turn – the chit draw and brigade activation phases. The chits for the turn are sequentially pulled and administered. Some event chits may be held for later use by a player, but the divisional/ brigade chits signify it’s time to use a specific brigade. Use may be too strong a word as the first thing you do is make an activation test against the formation leaders command rating.  If you pass the test, you can elect to choose how to maneuver the brigade. If you fail the test, you can have your regiments shoot at the enemy, but that’s all you can do. This nicely captures the sense of a formation’s leadership as well as allowing you to gauge how reliable the unit will be in carrying out your orders.

Once you’ve worked your way through all the activation and event chits, its time for the end turn phase. This is where you’ll count victory points and do some administrative clean up in preparation of the next game turn. Broken units might become available to regroup back into play. If it’s the last game turn, you’ll determine the winner of the game.

Sounds sort of dry and clinical, eh? Nothing could be further from the truth. The chit pull system solves a problem common to all too many games. As players, board games typically allow too much control by a general who has near perfect visibility of the battlefield. The Blind Swords game engine goes a long way towards negating that control. The game’s design goals of incorporating the fog and friction of war have been achieved. You’ll have an idea of what you want to do, and maybe even how you might be able to do it. But whether you can try to do it and if you do it successfully are a horse of a different color. A lot of this comes from a small number of chits – the fog of war, the fortunes of war and the command confusion chits. These have effects ranging from units not acting at all during a game turn (surprise!), to random events that include units moving out of position, leader casualties or brigades responding in ways you would not have chosen if given the choice.

Kernstown excels as an exercise in exploring the various dimensions of a battle.  Through the various unit and leader ratings and the dynamic assortment of event and activation chits, the game does an excellent job modeling asymmetrical OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loops. Each side is presented with differing abilities and options and will face different obstacles. It’s asymmetrical as these options vary both between the Union and Confederate sides within a game turn, but also within each side’s options across multiple game turns. Each player has to recognize the respective strengths and weaknesses of their command and understand what they can do to maximize their potential. At the same time, they’ll need to understand how they can best limit the options of their opponent.

The game does an excellent job of representing the ability to both get inside your opponent’s decision-making cycle as well as occasionally toss a wrench into their best laid plans.  Modeling command through the presence or absence of divisional general chits and the quantitative quality rating of individual brigade commanders nicely captures each sides ability to ‘turn inside’ their opponents decision making loop.

That Kernstown does this while delivering engaging game play is a testament to the success of the core game engine and the work of the design and development team. The anticipation of the chit draw system is superb for keeping both the players anxious, engaged and attentive across the entire game turn. You never know what chit is coming up next. Plans are constantly being mulled over, revised or tossed out when a new opportunity presents itself.

Kernstown is a solid tabletop game. It provides a good, modern experience of the chaos of battle. This game is most definitely NOT an IGOUGO model where each side lurches forward in lockstep to fire and charge. But that very chaos, capturing the friction and fog of war, can be a maddening turn off. Players that are used to being able to maneuver every unit optimally and maximize their firepower at every turn will likely find Kernstown (and the other games in the Blind Sword series) to be a rage-inducing exercise in frustration. Players must realize going into the game that a big part of the game play is not always maximizing your capabilities, but instead degrading the abilities of your opponent. You are getting inside *their* decision cycle and messing with *their* ability to execute their plans. As a selected unit may always fire, the key is to maneuver your troops to make the best use of the available firepower, and failing that, to minimize your opponent’s opportunity to do the same to you.

Kernstown is a game of tactical warfare that conveys the qualities and capabilities of the troops’ leaders and terrain that make up the elements of the combat. As the players provide most of the decision-making you may get a glimmer of insight into the challenges faced by the historical commanders and their troops. But at the end of the day, it’s strictly a tactical game. The broader and deeper philosophical strategic debates surrounding the American Civil War are out of scope for the experience this game provides.

An important question for many gamers – is the game suitable for solitaire play? The short answer is yes. While the game does not include dedicated rules for automating the play of either side, the core processes do a good job of presenting the solitaire player with sequential actions to resolve during the game turn.  I played multiple games by myself and found the experience quite satisfying. The chit draw and die roll activation system create a randomized process that works well for solitaire play. You really have no idea what is going to happen next from an activation standpoint and must plan your actions and reactions in the most general fashion. Likewise, you’ll reach a point where you want to launch your attack for the turn before the enemy brings up reserves or pulls back from the impending assault. Kernstown creates an engaging narrative that will keep the solitaire player engaged across the game. If solitaire play has a weakness it’s that you have knowledge of the chits you selected for both sides, but those are often obvious choices and not a major impediment to a solo game.

Should you spend your hard-earned dollars on Kernstown? Absolutely! Here’s a game with solid components and a gorgeous map by Richard Barker and Charles Kibler.  A good historical game is like a good book – it informs and educates the players about historical persons and the actions they took over the events depicted by the game. While a game won’t make you as smart as Stonewall Jackson, Kernstown can impart a lot of information regarding these battles. You’ll see how terrain can influence decision-making. The game showcases the caliber and quality of the leaders and soldiers that fought in battle around Kernstown. Also, Kernstown captures a quite a bit of that fog of war that prompts anxiety in senior leaders. You’ll often be wondering what to do and weighing the opportunity cost of one action over those other actions that were not taken.

The Blind Sword system is very useful for well-known battles, or battles in which it’s obvious to the historical observer that someone made a serious blunder. By removing the certainty of knowledge regarding ‘how things were’, the game makes those well-known battles engaging and unpredictable while still preserving the historical feel of the event. Kernstown denies you perfect knowledge and absolute operational control. This in turn allows for historical missteps to be recreated in a way that feels organic to the game and not imposed by arbitrary, artificial rules.

Do you like games that present specific tactical battles of the American Civil War? Do you like exciting, dynamic game play? Then what are you waiting for – saddle up and go buy a copy of Kernstown!

Armchair General Score: 93%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  4

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

Box front
Components unboxed
player charts
Tyler on the attack
Tylers Brigade ready to advance
Don’t try this at home

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for the honest review. Working on Kernstown was truly fascinating and we managed to come up with two different games in one package.

    1st Kernstown was a loss for Jackson but he does have a good chance to win with an aggressive strategy. I feel that this is going to be the most popular game of the two fights.

    2nd Kernstown is a tough battle for the Union but I still find it to be a challenging game. Few games focus on one side conducting a proper fighting withdrawal so I found this to be quite a challenge to master.

    The Blind Swords system is ideal for smaller sized battles, especially for lesser known ones. You are not subconsciously following what you know about the fight so you are treading new ground.

    Since I usually play solo, I tried my best to make this as solo friendly as possible. Once again, the Blind Swords system really helps make these battles solo friendly.

    If you ever get down to the battlefield, take Rick’s map along. He really did get the lay of the land. I went there four times and though the land to the east of the Valley Turnpike has been developed, you can stand on Pritchard’s Hill and Rick’s map just lays it out for you.

  2. Claude,

    Thank you for the kind words! The value of the game is only increased due to the current sale price at Revolution Games website!

    I definitely learned a lot about both battles at Kernstown and I can say that you game has sparked an interest to learn more about the other battles in the valley and the broader valley campaigns on both sides.

    It’s also got me thinking I should grab a copy of Stonewall’s Sword or Thunder in the Ozarks to experience some more of the ‘Blind Swords’ system.

    Thanks again!

  3. Though it may not come to fruition in the near future, I scouted the Cross Keys/Port Republic battlefield two years ago. Talk about a place frozen in time. It is a very underdeveloped battlefield but you get the feeling that the battle could have been fought the day before. Other projects call, yet I would like to do this forgotten gem.

  4. Thanks, Ray, for the review!

    • Riverine warfare player. What are the game titles? Please respond.

      • Hello E. Marney!

        Are you looking for board games that cover riverine warfare during the American Civil War? Or are you looking for tabletop miniature rules for ACW riverine warfare?

        Thanks!

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