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Posted on May 18, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Vicksburg Is the Key. Worthington Games ‘Pemberton versus Grant: The Vicksburg Campaign 1863’ Board Game Review

Vicksburg Is the Key. Worthington Games ‘Pemberton versus Grant: The Vicksburg Campaign 1863’ Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Pemberton & Grant: Vicksburg Campaign of 1863. Publisher: Worthington Games. Designer: Sean Chick. Price $65.00 (Sale price $35.00)

Passed inspection: Color, mounted map that conveys a sense of space and place. Two player game captures the challenges facing each historical general. The use of blocks brings the fog of war and limits intelligence of opposing forces.

Failed basic: Pemberton’s starting location is missing in the set up. Depiction of the Walnuts Hills region around Vicksburg could have been depicted more clearly as to if/where the mountain terrain modifier is in effect.

I pondered the map in front of me. Confederate divisions were defending the southern avenues to Vicksburg. Off to the northeast, a lone Confederate division held the city of Jackson, Mississippi’s capital and a key rail connection for the Confederacy. The rebel troops at Port Gibson had been driven back behind the Big Black River, but the question now was how to best move forward in an effort to capture Vicksburg and Jackson as quickly as possible. Perhaps, it was best to keep the initiative and strike at Jackson, before General Johnston has the opportunity to collect his troops from points further east. Deal with that and then I could root Pemberton out of Vicksburg….

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The surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi is often defined as one of the turning points of the Civil War (especially when paired with the near simultaneous Battle of Gettysburg). With the capitulation of Port Hudson and the capture of Vicksburg the length of the Mississippi River was open to navigation by the Union. ‘The Father of rivers again goes unvexed to the sea’, said Abraham Lincoln.  The fall of the city also served to isolate the ‘Trans-Mississippi’ region from the rest of the Confederacy. The battle of Vicksburg is best remembered as a month and a half long siege, but the events leading up to that siege are often over-shadowed and forgotten.

Enter Worthington Game’s, ‘Pemberton versus Grant: Vicksburg Campaign of 1863’. This two-player game covers the events of the campaign, starting with the Union army crossing the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, Mississippi and the war of maneuver that saw the critical battle of Port Gibson, the capture of Jackson, Mississippi and the decisive battle of Champion Hill.

As the title of the game indicates, the players are cast into the roles of either Ulysses S. Grant or General John C. Pemberton. Each player attempts to marshal the available troops to achieve their goals. The Union have to cover a lot of ground and ideally capture Jackson and Vicksburg. Failing that, they need to lay siege to Vicksburg and accrue sufficient victory points for to win the game. The Confederates either need to avoid the Union victory conditions, on inflict sufficient losses on the Union for the campaign to be seen as a failure.

Unlike earlier games in the series, Pemberton versus Grant game ships in a heavyweight cardboard box. Cracking open the box, we find the following components;

  • A mounted map board
  • A rule book containing the core rules in the series
  • A four-page supplement with the rules specific to the game
  • A battle board
  • Wooden blocks for the Union and Confederate units
  • A sheet of stickers with the units and markers included in the game
  • A duplicate sheet of stickers (for when you know, you lose one, or something unfortunate happens)

The game board is nicely executed in full color. It’s reminiscent of a period map, being more a graphic representation of a space than a mathematical depiction of the cartographer’s art. That representation of place follows the same style as that used in earlier games in the series. For the most part it’s a functional approach and quite visually attractive.

The rulebook is a solid product. Given that this is game number four in the series, most of the kinks have been worked out in the earlier versions. Produced on heavyweight paper, these glossy paperback rules meet the quality level you’d find from other major game companies. The text is laid out in a logical manner and illustrated with full color examples. I expect them to hold up well with repeated use.

The game specific rules are produced at the same level, but appears as a four-page supplement. These four pages have specific rules for command action points, leadership, victory conditions as well as special terrain such as trenches and siege lines.

The battle board is a small card board sheet used to depict the status of units across the course of a battle. This is a feature of the game series and is the physical expression of the combat system. It includes sections that serve as reminders of terrain effects and the overall status of each army.

The units are represented with wooden blocks. If you’ve played a block game before, you are familiar with the concept. Blue blocks for the Union and gray blocks for the Confederacy. An adhesive sticker is attached to one face of each block and stood up so that it is visible to the owning player, but not their opponent. This introduces an element of the fog of war. The strength of the unit is depicted by which edge is at the top of the block.  Additional blocks are used as status markers for game turn and victory point purposes.

The game includes a handful of additional blocks for each side as well as a duplicate sheet of stickers in the event a piece is lost or damaged. It’s a nice feature that ensures the longevity of the game.

Game play is fairly conventional IGO – UGO mechanics. With the exception of the first turn, the Union player goes first. In their phase they move, initiate and then resolve battles.  The Confederate player then performs the same steps for their units.

Movement is straight forward and simple. There are no real terrain effects on movement. The environmental effects of weather can impact play. If there is rain, units will slow down. If there is a prolonged period of rain (2 turns or more of rain back to back), then movement will grind to a crawl considerably like trying to run in molasses.  Fortunately, a period of heavy rain requires some truly poor weather dice, so it’s unlikely to happen often in any given game. It’s nice to see this included in the game as the effects of rain did impact the historical campaign, notably in the lead up to the battle of Champion Hill.

Lack of supply can also impact unit’s ability to move. In addition, there’s a chance that units will suffer attrition and lose combat power from lack of supply. While the Union player is exempt from the supply rules early in the game, the effects of being out of supply are certainly a motivator to get things done quickly. 

Combat resolution is straight forward. This is a block game and like many other block games, you are rolling dice for a specific number (often a ‘6’) and taking step losses to your blocks. A feature of Worthington’s Civil War series is that units can have multiple blocks. Only one block is in play at any given time, but as you take losses, the unit’s performance (both in firepower and morale) can decrease.

During a battle, each player has the opportunity to reinforce a battle from an adjacent location. This is a nice process as it rewards keeping your troops in supporting distance while at the same time reflecting the relative effects of each general’s leadership and management skills. Confederate players may grow frustrated with Pemberton’s relatively poor ability to concentrate his army compared to Grant. But that frustration is a key feature of the historical campaign.

Battle is often ended when all of one side’s units have failed morale and the army retreats. Also, a player can voluntarily retreat. It’s a useful feature that requires a player – to paraphrase Kenny Rogers – know when to hold them and know when to fold ‘em. An effective delaying campaign can be waged by fighting a series of short actions and falling back. You just hope you don’t get hammered in the mandatory battle round and rout off the battlefield.

I greatly enjoyed playing Pemberton versus Grant. The mechanics did a good job of capturing the period. The game board provides a good overview of the geography of the region south and east of Vicksburg. The block system imparts limited intelligence regarding the composition of your enemy. This allows you to use cavalry in its historical role of raiding and screening.

The limited number of pieces results in a fast playing game. Combat may seem simple, but the process allows for modeling troop quality dimensions that cover combat effectiveness, robustness and unit morale. It’s not just how many men you bring to the battle, but how well they’ll fight and as importantly – can you expect them to stand in the face of the enemy?

The army level command ratings provide the ability to coordinate dispersed units and concentrate units as reinforcements in battle. This is a double-edged sword as those same ratings reflect Grant at the top of his game while Pemberton and Johnston are just not as good at getting things done. This variance in quality does reflect the challenges and difficulties that existed during the campaign. Pemberton by nature was a cautious man more comfortable on the defensive. The orders posting him to the west specifically stated he was to report to Jefferson Davis and not his nominal theater commander – Joe Johnston. Further complicating matters was the poor relationship between Johnston and Davis. Taken together, the coordination between the two generals can be described as dysfunctional. That dysfunction drives the command ratings in the game.

The game has a lot going for it, but it’s not perfect. Rather, let’s say it may not deliver the experience you are seeking. This is an army– level game of maneuver at the corps (for the Union) and division (for the Confederacy). There is no ability to break down those corps and divisions into smaller units. You cannot detach a division in an attempt to outflank your opponent, nor can you detach troops to picket a river crossing. You would be hard pressed to model Pemberton’s reactive defense where he spread out troops along the Big Black River to block the major crossings. I should say you’ll be hard pressed to do that AND retain much of a mobile field army. Then again, so was General Pemberton!

The map art while visually pleasing and generally easy to read is unclear with depiction of the roads crossing the Walnut Hills area surrounding Vicksburg. The example of mountains/rough terrain in the rules is clear cut, but the depiction on the game board could be open to interpretation. Are these considered mountains for combat purposes or not?  It’s a visually attractive approach and artistically rendered, but it caused some confusion as to when the mountain/hill modifier was applicable in this game. Accounts of the battle and siege of Vicksburg speak of the rolling terrain with steep sided ravines. Treating them as mountains would be in keeping with the nature of the ground and add to the defensive terrain of ‘Fortress Vicksburg’.

Another item of confusion is the set-up instructions. The starting Confederate general – Pemberton – is omitted from the set up published in the game specific rules. While at the start of the historical campaign Pemberton was nominally in Jackson, Mississippi, he was in the process of relocating his headquarters to Vicksburg later that day. The Quick Play Sheet available from the files at Board Game Geek starts Pemberton in Vicksburg. This is a reasonable solution. I worry that it might get him in the field with an army a little faster than was the case historically. On the other hand, starting Pemberton in Vicksburg helps focus the players gaze on the city from the start of the game.

On the unit sticker sheet, the Confederates have a VP tracking marker, but the rules specifically state that only the Union earns VP. I suppose you could track the number of eliminated Union blocks with the VP token.

I do have some reservation regardind an aspect of the game. It feels like the combination of the level of representation combined with command and control restrictions on the Confederate player push that player dangerously close to being bound by what I call the ‘idiot rule’. This is when a game constrains a player’s responses into a small box of allowable choices as a way of keeping the game ‘historical’.  In the case of Pemberton versus Grant, the limited Confederate Command Action Points (CAP) and the command rating for Pemberton are designed to bind a player into a straight-jacket that emulates Pemberton’s tendency towards passivity and vacillating decision-making. It also captures Johnston’s less than stellar support and the dysfunction amongst the leaders within Pemberton’s army. The net effect of these factors works to guide the player into a passive defensive of Vicksburg. It’s not the only game to have ever done this. GMT’s Clash of Giant’s II springs to mind with its special rules simulating General Pope’s decision-making at the Second Bull Run. In that case it’s specifically designed to ‘keep the game competitive’. A similar argument can be made about Pemberton versus Grant.

Don’t take this to mean that it’s a failing of the game.  As the Confederate player, you’ll get good insights into the challenges facing Pemberton and Johnston. You can fight Grant in the field with what forces you can muster, or you can defend Vicksburg and Jackson. Doing both at the same time is going to be hard. The reinforcement die rolls will capture the frustration Pemberton must have felt waiting on Johnston and his troops to join the battle. 

If you find this too frustrating you can of course tweak the game either by increasing the number of Confederate CAP’s, or modifying the generalship (command) ratings of Pemberton and/or Johnston. While the rules don’t give you any guidance on this, some subtle tweaks will allow you to explore the ‘what if’s’ surrounding the campaign.

One minor quibble is that the scope of the game defines the battlefield space, but the game does not provide much context regarding how Grant reached having a corps in Bruinsburg. You would never know of the prior failed attempts to reach Vicksburg – Steele’s Bayou, the Yazoo River, or Chickasaw Bluffs. All of these are out of scope and out of mind with the game. Also, there is no mention of how Grierson’s raid and the Mule March in Tennessee both contributed to setting the stage for the campaign and pulled Confederate troops – most importantly their cavalry – out of position. These were elements of the larger Union effort that obscured the specific Union goal and allowed Grant to cross the Mississippi River almost unimpeded.  

The lack of background context doesn’t directly impact game play, but I felt like I was missing a bit of the historical background as to why the campaign was happening here. The product of these historical efforts resulted in a case of classic misdirection that affected Confederate deployments prior to the campaign. It sowed confusion in Pemberton’s mind as to what the Union army’s next move was going to be. With this game, you won’t experience that confusion. When the curtain is pulled back and the game starts, you know exactly where the Union army is and you know the goals it needs to achieve to win the game. 

These are admittedly relatively minor gripes regarding the game. With the exception of omitting Pemberton’s starting location, none of these prevent you from playing or enjoying the game.

An important feature in board gaming is the suitability of a game for solitaire play. Pemberton versus Grant is designed as a two-player game. The game does not include rules for automating one side – commonly referred to as a ‘bot’.  Given that restriction it is possible to play this as a solitaire game with that one person playing both sides. I’d like to think that the blocks still add a degree of the ‘fog of war’ to the game, so when swapping from seat to seat you may forget the details of each side’s specific deployments. But with the relatively few blocks on each side, it’s unlike to cause any operational surprises.  The experience still provides a compelling game as there are unpredictable events such as additional command action points, the outcome of reinforcement and supply die rolls and the uncertainty inherent in any battle.

‘Pemberton versus Grant’ does do a nice job of modeling the (off-board) siege of Port Hudson. While a bit of a side show that’s rarely covered as its own stand-alone game, the representation here captures nicely how the Confederate effort tied down a Union Corps and denied Grant the ability to use of the river ports south of Vicksburg to supply his army. Having pulled out of Port Hudson early in one game, it became clear that continuing to resist the Federals at Port Hudson was an important element in the overall Confederate defense of Vicksburg.

At the end of the day, I’m left with a positive experience from playing the game. This is a fast playing game. Even games that go the full 20 turns will take at most three hours. The game definitely captures the feel of executing Grant’s gamble and the frustration and challenges facing Pemberton.

The game hits a nice sweet spot between offering an engaging experience to the players without becoming bogged down in the complex minutiae of complicated rules. The relatively short rulebook means that this is an excellent introduction to wargaming as well as a good overview of the Vicksburg campaign. Players of previous entries in the series will be right at home with the core rules.  I enjoyed my repeated play-throughs of the game enough to go track down some of the other entries in the series.

While the list price for Pemberton versus Grant is $65.00, its current sale price of $35.00 makes this an excellent selection with good bang for the buck. Even at list price, the quality of the components makes this a solid choice with good replay value. If you are aficionado of games covering the American Civil War, you’ll enjoy this game and if you are new to the period or new to wargaming, you’ll find this a good introduction to a key campaign in the American Civil War.

Armchair General Score: 90%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  2

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 Art
battle board
Game Board
The Union approach Vicksburg

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