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Posted on Jan 6, 2021 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Hooker’s Brilliant Maneuver or Lee’s Masterpiece? “Chancellorsville 1863” Board Game Review

Hooker’s Brilliant Maneuver or Lee’s Masterpiece? “Chancellorsville 1863” Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

By Ray Garbee

Chancellorsville 1863. Publisher: Worthington Games. Designer: Maurice Suckling. Price $75.00

Passed inspection: Fantastic introductory level game that will also appeal to seasoned gamers. An innovative approach to incorporating the fog of war that is critical to capturing the mind set of the commanders. Supports solo play by either side. A fast playing, easy to set up game.

Failed basic: Units can feel almost generic when compared to a traditional board game approach. The solitaire bot for playing the Confederate player is unbalanced.

At the start of May 1863, the Union was engaged in campaigns on two fronts. In the West, Ulysses S. Grant was in the midst of his latest maneuvers to capture the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. In the East, the Army of the Potomac’s latest commander ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker was about to embark on a campaign designed to encircle Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia – the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia. With a numerical superiority, Hooker planned to ‘go around to the right’ and outflank Lee, whose army was mostly deployed at Fredericksburg, along the south bank of the Rappahannock river. Union troops deployed opposite Fredericksburg could not help but feel apprehension with still fresh memories from their recent loss in attacking the same city.

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The stage was set in the East – would Hooker win a decisive victory that could propel him into post-war politics? Or would Robert E. Lee pull another rabbit out of his hat and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? That’s the key question posed by Worthington Games recently released boardgame, Chancellorsville 1863, designed by Maurice Suckling and developed by Mark Wylie.

In Chancellorsville 1863, players take on the role of either the Union commander General Joseph Hooker or Confederate commander Robert E. Lee. The Union player is trying to capture and hold at least two of the objective spaces on the map by the end of the game. Alternatively, the Union player needs to cause three (3) Confederate units to ‘break’, thus ending the game instantly. To do so they will maneuver their formations to attack their opponent while managing their own troops cohesion levels.

But before we unleash the hogs of war, let’s spend a couple of minutes reviewing the components that make up the game.

  • The box
  • The game board
  • The units
  • Activation cards
  • Tactics cards
  • Reinforcement cards
  • Two (2) hidden movement screens
  • Assorted wooden cubes
  • Solitaire ‘bot decks for Union AND Confederates
  • Two (2) copies of the rule book
  • Nine (9) six-sided dice

The game ships in a sturdy cardboard box. The cover art is a rendering of Kurz and Allen’s “Battle of Chancellorsville” depicting the fatal wounding of Stonewall Jackson.  The back of the box does a serviceable job depicting many of the components including the game board, as well as a good description of the game.

The game board is a representation of the battle space in which the campaign occurs. The base map is a topographic sheet of the region. Overlaying this is a point-to-point network defining the key locations and the nature of how the geography impacts attacks conducted between points. Along each player’s edge of the game board is a status board depicting each of their respective formations and leaders. In this case, the Union have one leader – Joe Hooker, while the Confederates have the one-two punch of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. One end of the game board contains each side’s hidden unit display (a smaller version of the map used to track units not visible to their opponent.) along with a track for the solo bot cards and hidden movement track. Opposite that are a number of spaces designed to hold the various decks of cards and cubes used in the game.

The units are well rendered and relatively few in number. There are seven (7) blocks depicting the Union corps and five blocks depicting the Confederate divisions (which for those new to the American Civil War are similar in size to the Union corps). The blocks are wooden rectangles rendered in each side’s colors, with the name of the unit printed on one face. A nice touch is the Union units also contain their corps symbol, an identity Hooker had recently introduced as part of the reorganization implemented early in 1863.

Let’s deal out some cards! Chancellorsville has a number of decks of cards that are required to play. Central to the game are the activation cards. These cards are used to define which units may be activated in a player turn. Each card shows a major activation with a leader’s name at the top, along with one or more minor activations represented at the bottom. The cards also show the amount of momentum cubes awarded to the player. (We’ll here more about momentum later!).

In addition to the activation cards, there are tactics cards. These cards may be purchased by each player during their turns using their accumulated momentum cubes. The cards contain specific ‘special rules’ that can be used to enhance attacks, recover cohesion or otherwise do some cool things outside the scope of the standard game.

Each side also has a deck of “reinforcement cards”. These are used to enhance the sense of the ‘fog of war’ by helping to obfuscate the exact strength of a unit that has either received reinforcements (adding cohesion) or given reinforcements (thereby losing cohesion).

There are also decks of cards for the solo bots. Depending on which side you chose to play, you’ll use the Confederate or Union bot deck.

The quality of the cards is excellent both in terms of the physical components and printing. These are durable, linen finished cards with large, easy to read print.

Rounding out the components on the map are the wooden cubes and the hidden movement screens. The cubes are used to represent accumulated ‘momentum’. You can think of them as the currency used to purchase tactics cards, but they have additional uses that can affect combat. The redoubt cubes are used to represent the defensive posture of a unit. The more cubes in a space – the more that area is ‘dug in’ and prepared to repel an attack.

The late component of the game is the rule book. The game ships with two identical copy of the rules, one for each player. This is a solid choice as it allows both players to hunt down a rule or share in reading an interpreting the text at the same time.

The rule book is a twenty (20) page soft cover, saddle-stitched booklet printed on medium weight, glossy paper. It’s got good heft and is easy to handle. The booklet in printed in color and includes generous diagrams and illustrations of the components. In addition, the text is annotated with key rules, examples of play and design notes interspersed throughout the text, with additional designers’ notes appended at the end of the booklet. The two player rules are only 12 pages. The remaining pages cover the solitaire rules, the designer’s notes and the back page being a quick reference guide to both the two-player and solitaire versions of the game. 

From a component level, this is a good looking, attractive game. As they say, “it’s very pretty, but can it fight?” Let’s take the game out for a test drive and see what happens. First, we’ll need to choose sides and set up the components and deal out the starting activation cards. This is all clearly laid out in the rulebook. In the two-player game, it’s important to set up the hidden movement screens before setting up your units as some of those units start the game hidden from your opponent’s view.

  Once you are past set up, the game flows into a series of up to fifteen (15) game turns. Each game turn consists of a Union player turn, followed by a Confederate player turn. Each player turn is identical. During the turn a player will do the following (with a little bit of paraphrasing);

  1. Select an activation card from their hand
  2. Execute the activations listed on the card one at a time
  3. Move, regroup, dig in
  4. Fight if you moved into contact with the enemy
  5. Purchase a tactics card
  6. Draw a new activation card

It’s a straight forward turn structure. I pick an activation card, which in turn defines which units can activated this turn with either a major (two actions) or minor (one action) activation. For each activation that involves movement, you’ll pay an activation cost of one (1) cohesion point from that unit’s cohesion. Alternatively, you can dig in or transfer reinforcements, which do not detract from cohesion. You may be able to play a tactics card that either defrays the action cost or allows another unit to activate in its place.

Movement is generally between adjacent areas on the map. If that are is occupied by your opponent, you attack by rolling a number of dice. Grouping the dice and consulting the combat table you’ll quickly determine how many hits you inflicted to either your enemy…or yourself! What’s interesting here is you have the ability to reroll dice by either expending a number of momentum dice, or sacrificing a cohesion point from the attacking unit. You’ll have to wrestle with how hard to push an attack in an attempt to get the die rolls you want. Sometimes it’s an easy choice – if you don’t like those four “1’s” you just rolled, spending a cohesion point to re-roll is way better than the four cohesion points you would lose accepting the result. But push too hard and your unit will be at risk of collapse and being rendered hors de combat. Some die results may generate additional momentum cubes for you, so the decision to reroll dice is not just about inflicting or taking losses, but includes building momentum!

If you can drive the enemy out of an area either through retreat or collapse, you occupy the ground, otherwise you retreat back to your starting location. (And on multiple occasions, I thought “Great, I took the ground. Why does it feel like I just stuck my head into the guillotine?”)

After all your activations, you’ll have the opportunity to purchase a tactics card from the three currently available options. You’ll need to weigh the choices against what helps you, what can hurt your opponent, possibly buying a card to deny it to your opponent and the opportunity cost of saving your momentum for a future turn.

Lastly, you’ll draw a new activation card to replenish your hand, and with that – it becomes the next player turn.

Play continues until either an automatic victory has been achieved, or each player has played all fifteen activation cards in their decks. That is either one side has three units break and leave the game, or all the activation cards have been played. In the case of the later scenario, you’ll determine victory based on the number of objectives the Union player controls. It’s a straight forward game that is easy to pick up.

This is not your father’s board game (or in my case, the board games of my youth!). Worthington bills itself as ‘old school wargames’ but in this case Chancellorsville 1863 is decidedly modern in its approach to design decisions and components. The game challenged a lot of my preconceptions that define what constitutes a war game. Now that’s by not a bad thing, but if you are expecting a game along the lines of other Worthington titles on the American Civil War such as Shiloh or Antietam you are going to be surprised. Building off the base game engine presented in Freeman’s Farm 1777, designer Maurice Suckling has created an engaging game that’s a bit of a different experience than your traditional wargame.

Here’s an example of that. During set up I searched the board looking for a turn record track. Got to have one, right. I mean you can’t expect me to remember the turn number without a track, right?  Wrong. There is no turn record track. Instead, the activation card deck functions as the turn record track, when both sides are out of cards – that’s the end of the game! There was a bit of a “eureka” moment when I grasped how this worked.

Another example is that the units feel almost generic when compared to a traditional board game. At the start of the game a unit is a unit is a unit. Almost every unit on both sides has the same firepower (i.e., attack dice) and cohesion rating. Now some of that we can attribute to Hooker’s efforts at reorganizing his army into standardized corps, but it still felt odd coming from a perspective of rating multiple dimensions of leadership, manpower, troop quality, experience and morale. It took actually playing the game for the traits of each unit to surface.

Some of a unit’s character is baked into the activation deck. What I’ll refer to as ‘better’ units have more activation opportunities while ‘greener’ units have fewer opportunities. Compare Meade’s formation with Howard’s formation and you’ll see that you have substantial more opportunities – with the cards – to activate Meade’s corps. In a way, the tactics deck adds another big component of differentiation between units as players can choose to utilize certain tactics cards to improve the performance of certain formations.

Slocum’s XII Corps attacks AP Hill’s division, taking losses, but carrying the position thanks to the use of the “elite brigades” tactics card.

One Confederate unit – A. P. Hill’s division has a higher firepower rating than all other units in the game. Reading the design notes you’ll learn that this represents the troops of General Robert E. Rodes that have been folded into A.P. Hill’s formation.

The game reflects the ability of the senior leaders on each side to influence the course of the battle. This is done by using your General’s abilities as an activation. Doing so allows you to replace the activations listed on a card with one major activation (supported with artillery) and a minor activation using formations of your choosing. Remember how Howard has substantially fewer activations than Meade? Here’s a way to redress that imbalance, albeit at the cost of another formation’s activation.  In addition to Lee and Hooker, Thomas Jackson is also present with the ability to hustle A.P. Hill’s division around the battlefield, reflecting the historical exertions performed by Hill’s division during the battle.

Chancellorsville 1863 is a fun, engaging game. It’s also very different than almost every other game on the American Civil War that I’ve played. Now full disclosure – I’ve not played Freeman’s Farm 1777, so Chancellorsville 1863 is my first exposure to Worthington’s ‘battle formations’ series of games. I’ve played a fair number of civil war games over the years and like to think I know a little bit about a lot of aspects of the Civil War.

Having said that, I felt I had to ‘unlearn’ many of my preconceptions regarding a tabletop game in the process of learning to play Chancellorsville. The activation cards felt like a double-edged sword. The cards define which units you may activate and how often those same units may activate over the course of the game. The constraints are designed to replicate ‘Von Clausewitz’s concept of friction inherent to military operations. You can’t get everyone moving all at once and your orders may be mis-understood even if delivered. We could look at the case of Oliver Howard’s XI Corps. Even though Hooker warned Howard of A.P. Hill’s rapid march, Howard discounted the reports, thus leaving his flank open to attack. The Thomas Jackson general abilities reward a player for adhering to broad historical strategy if they want to redeploy a unit quickly.

Cohesion was another concept that took a bit to wrap my head around. Mostly the wall I kept banging my head against was the way that every formation starts with the same cohesion value of 14. It just felt incredibly generic. “There’s no way that XI Corps was as effective (i.e., cohesive) as Sickles Corp or Early’s division”, I thought to myself. It took a couple of plays before the way cohesion worked started to click in my head. The value of 14 is not arbitrary, but ties to the number of game turns. And that value is less an absolute quantitative metric than a softer qualitative representation of the unit’s battlefield endurance over the course of the campaign.

It took me time to recognize how cohesion was working, in part as I’ve been conditioned by the quantitative nature of a lot of old school games. That includes miniatures games like Fire and Fury rate each brigade of a formation for quality and status. Frank Chadwick’s Volley and Bayonet is a bit less quantitative and closer to the effect achieved in Chancellorsville 1863, with the exception that units do not generally suffer losses from just marching about the battlefield. Maurice makes it clear in the designer’s notes that he is in the camp that suggests friction happens even if you are just marching up and down the square. Shoes are wearing out. Troops are getting tired or injured and your awareness of the big picture is slowly getting cloudy. To paraphrase Clausewitz – everything in war may be easy, but the easy stuff is very hard. Every action has a cost.

When the game was announced, I was looking forward to Chancellorsville 1863 as I’ve not seen many games covering the battle of Chancellorsville. Yes, there are games out there that cover the battle. But covering the battle and covering the battle while capturing the sense of uncertainty and surprise that were hallmarks of that battle are two different things! I find myself impressed with Chancellorsville 1863.  I found that this game excels at conveying the elements of uncertainty and surprise without needing a horde of special rules or double-sided counters. The elements of activation and cohesion, coupled with an easy-to-use combat system work well in projecting you into the position of a leader who has to determine just how hard to push in the face of an uncertain situation.

No review would be complete without an assessment of a game’s suitability for solitaire play. The great news here is that Chancellorsville 1863 is an excellent candidate for solitaire play. The game includes two ‘bots that are used to automate the play of either the Union or Confederate side, enabling you to play either side in the game.

Each bot is a set of cards that are randomly drawn. Each card is a mini-decision tree for that non-player faction. You read down each card and apply the stated effects. The cards do a good job of driving your opponent into action and even allow for the element of surprise with hidden movement units popping up and hitting your units. That degree of hidden movement reminded me of John Southard’s game “Carrier” (Victory Games) in that you don’t know where your opponent’s troops are until they appear, based on the bot’s directions.

 I won’t say that the ‘bot’s attack is unexpected. You clearly see the hidden movement units getting more likely to appear, but the ‘bot still manages to convey a sense of uncertainty regarding when and where the hidden units may strike. And the ‘bots have their own combat table that’s a bit bloodier than the standard combat table. You may find the ‘bot ripping up your units quickly unless you use the terrain wisely and exercise caution.

The ‘bot rules give a good game from the Union side. I’ve had the Union win, but take a beating in the process. From the Confederate side, I’ve seen reports that the Union bot can be rolled up in short order under certain circumstances. My own experience bears that out. I leave it to you to explore those options and experiences as where’s the fun in us telling you how to win? But in either case, the ‘bot rules are simple, clear and easy to use.

So, we’ve got a fun, fast playing game complete with solo rules. It’s a good package. Chancellorsville 1863 reminds me of Memoir ’44 or other games in the Command and Colors series. It’s well positioned as a good introductory game for those new to tabletop wargaming or those looking for a quick ‘lighter’ game for an hour or two. The use of the cards gives the game enough structure that new players will not be overwhelmed and veteran players will be challenged by the constraints. I envision this getting a lot of time on the table due to it’s exciting nature and short playing time. Kudos to the team at Worthington for their work on this game!

The elements of activation and cohesion work well in putting you in the position of a leader who has to determine just how hard to push in the face of an uncertain situation. Historically, Joe Hooker balked in the face of this uncertainty. Will you do better?

Armchair General Score: 96%

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

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 hobby magazines.

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