The Plan’s a good ‘un … So’s the Game!

[Mike Willner is fast becoming a regular contributor here, today he presents us with his detailed thoughts on 7 Pines which just so happens to be on sale for a few days over @ Hollandspiele site. I hope you enjoy Mikes write up. Let him know in the comments!]

7 Pines or Fair Oaks

Joe Johnston had a grand idea when he launched his counteroffensive against the Union forces near Richmond at Fair Oaks Station; Two converging columns, moving under the cover in the woods, trap and crush two isolated Union divisions. Instead, opening battle of the Seven Days campaign saw confusion, lost formations, and delay.

One Confederate division under D.H. Hill took on the Federals alone for much of the day. Facing a steady stream of Union reinforcements, they got worn down, and pretty much run out of steam by the time the rest of the Rebel army showed up. Never the less, the battered Union army withdraws from Fair Oak, starting the general retreat that ended seven days later at Malvern Hill. And “the best shot ever fired for the Confederacy” (according to Joe Johnston) struck Johnston down and passed the army’s leadership to R.E. Lee.

I was pleased and surprised when I played through the historical scenario of Hollandspiele’s “Seven Pines; or, Fair Oaks”. Better than many big, complex, rule-bound “simulations”, the confusion, desperation and sheer heroics of this battle came shining through a relatively simple game system with a small map, brief rules, and low counter density. Intrigued, I went on to play the “Johnston’s Plan” scenario. Here, here all the Confederate formations show up where and when they’re supposed to … don’t play this one as the Union unless you’re a bit of a masochist! Turns out, the plan’s a good ‘un! The game is like a history lesson, showing how the unprepared, green, and tardy Union forces would have been crushed.

Before we delve into the game, it’s worth mentioning the publisher, Hollandspiele.

Tom Russell and his wife, Mary Holland-Russell, have created a game publishing company that offers a steady stream of interesting games on various topics. It’s a small company, obviously a labor of love as well as commerce.

The care and attention paid to curating games they publish shows. Interestingly, the games are ‘print on demand’ so you get a nice, newly minted copy of every game you buy. They live the dream of every gamer … combining their love of the hobby with their livelihood. If you’ve not done so already you need to go check out their website, view some of the YouTube videos they post about their games, and order a title or two that interest you.

Let’s have a look at this little gem that delivers so big.

Components:

The game components are sturdy and attractive. The counters are quite thick and laser cut, clearly printed and very functional. (A note to my fellow counter nippers: Forget it. The counters are too thick, and the raw cardboard exposed is unattractive.) Counters fall out of the sprues easily with little to no flash. They are clearly printed and formations are distinguished by both color, which presents a bit of a color-blind challenge for a couple of divisions. However, there are also printed corps and division designation which assures there are no problems telling which units belong to which formation.

In addition, there are a slew of step loss counters (each infantry unit typically has three step loss counters so there are a LOT of these). Add in the intrenchment, charge, and Elan markers which are functional and clear.

The 17″ x 22″ map is clear and playable. The features are readable, elevations and such are very easy to distinguish, with the hex numbers somewhat small and faint so as to keep the map from looking like a spreadsheet. The hexes are plenty big for the largish counters. Rounding out the kit are the play aid card which covers most of the important game information, the 16 page series rules, and 8 page game specific rules.

Game System:

Seven Pines is based on Tom’s Shot and Shell (S&S) system, which he’s been tinkering with and improving for some time. At this point it seems pretty mature, though you never know what upgrades may come.

In S&S the main unit of command is a Formation, typically a Division, which consists of several individual combat units (in Seven Pines the Divisions range from three to seven brigade-sized units). Infantry, cavalry, artillery are represented (with a specialized infantry type of sharpshooter).

The basic mechanic is pretty simple: each side has a number of Formations on the map or joining as reinforcements. The side with Initiative selects a Formation to Activate, and the players alternate from there. Sooner or later the sides run out of Formations to Activate (or choose not to) and that ends the turn. Of course, there are a bunch of interesting nuances to this, but you’ll find them out when you play the game. But suffice it to say, Formation Activation management and planning is a core activity in the game.

Activations are regulated by the Activation Track, the design master-stroke of this system. Each Formation has an Activation Marker that represents the Division on the Activation Track. This track is 9 spaces in a row, numbered 0 through 8. The Formation marker starts at a pre-defined numbered spot (higher is better) and each time the Formation is activated it slides down one spot, sometimes two for special activations. Losing a unit knocks you down one tick as well.

The more you press with a Formation, the faster the Formation marker slides to 0. I think you get the idea; when you hit 0 the Formation is Retired. Not only does this temporarily take the Formation out of the game (they can’t activate until they Rally), but most scenarios in Seven Pines trigger end of game when a certain number of Formations are Retired. The Track is also color banded (higher, better numbers are Green, middling are Amber, lowest are Red). Traversing color bands starts to create limitations on the Formation’s ability to cooperate in attacking and recovery on the Track. So, simple, but so powerful.

Activating a Formation gives the choice of things to do: Move, Charge, Intrench (sic … this is apparently the period spelling), or Recover.

Movement? Dead simple, just a few terrain types and generally everything is either 1 or 2 MP with some +1 MP costs for crossing, climbing, etc. Stacking? No stacking. Move through but you can’t retreat through other units (a VERY important point to consider when deploying). ZOCs behave pretty much as you expect, they stop your move and influence combat and retreats.

Charging involves designating the charging unit and moving it adjacent to its target. The Charge combat resolves later.

Intrenching involves … intrenching. For existing heaving intrenchments you spend an activation to climb in and you’re done. For light or field intrenchments you spend a turn digging (shovel side up on the marker) then a turn climbing in (flip the marker to the squiggly line side). There are defensive benefits to intrenchment, but they are not the all-powerful hedgehogs of later-day wargames … go get ’em boys, one strong push and they’ll run off!

Recovery involves sitting and doing nothing (with some restrictions, like you can’t be in a EZOC) and then sliding back up one notch on the Activation Track. Here the color bands come into play … once you descend into a color band you cannot rise back up. You can’t Recover out of your current color band.

After your unit does one of the Activation choices comes Fire combat. Infantry fires 2 hexes (Sharpshooters 3, which is cool because regular Infantry can’t return fire), and Artillery 5 hexes. Fire combat results can range from step reduction for the target, Disruption of the target, Nil (nothing) and, Return Fire … this is a particularly clever design element, since smaller units taking “bad” pot shots are much more likely to get hit with Return Fire. This can be devastating, and limits the “What the hell, I’ll take a shot” syndrome that impacts almost every wargame.

Overall, combat resolution (including Fire combat) is pretty simple and intuitive. The fact that there are a bunch of combat types (Fire, Defensive Fire, Charge Combat, Counter-Charge, Close Combat, etc.) doesn’t really complicate things; they’re all resolved in the same basic way.

A number of factors determine the Attack strength; unit size (number of steps) and quality (star rating on the unit) plus situational factors (attacker is larger, attacking downhill, the defender is disrupted, etc.) along with combat-type specific factors (inherent artillery for Fire Combat, charge bonus, etc.). The Defender takes the unit size plus a die roll (one d6 normally, but 2d6 if in favorable terrain, intrenched, etc.) to determine Defense strength. Get the differential and you get your combat result from the Fire or Close Combat table, as appropriate. It gets to be very easy as the factors become familiar, and flows quickly.

After Fire Combat comes Charge Resolution … basically Charging units undergo Defensive Fire (resolved as above) and may take step losses or even Disrupt and have to halt the attack. Next, comes Charge resolution, again resolved as other combats. Finally, adjacent units that didn’t charge resolve Close Combat (you guessed it, resolved the same way).

Finally, we have End of Turn, which basically involves housekeeping and then, start the next turn.

Of course, there are a number of special cases, additional specific rules, etc. but this is the gist. It’s a simple, elegant rule system that results in a fun, tense, decision-filled game experience.

The system rules are augmented by game-specific rules. My basic measure is “The fewer the game-specific rules, the better the design”. In this case, the GSRs take on one column on one page of the Severn Pines rule book! Each scenario introduces a paragraph or three of special rule qualifications. But, basically, once you “grok” (look it up, young ‘uns, look it up!) the system rules you have the game well in hand.

The Game

Seven Pines provides four scenarios; Historical (re-read the first paragraph of this review), Johnston’s Plan (if things had gone as Joe J. wanted them to), You’re in Command (a more-or-less free set up) and scenario that covers the last part of the battle.

If nothing else, get this game to play the Historical then Johnston’s Plan scenarios. They are SO good at presenting both sides with the challenges, opportunities, frustrations, and disappointments that must have confronted the commanders of the day. Somehow this small game packs more simulation value into those compact scenarios then many a sprawling, complex monster I’ve played.

Generally, VPs are awarded for holding the victory hexes, eliminating enemy units, keeping reinforcements off the board (i.e. the Rebels give up points for each unit deployed). There are turn length limits but end-game conditions are triggered when a number of Formations (2 or 4) are Retired and one time.

In the Historical scenario, the two Union divisions (Casey and Couch) await the Confederates. Casey is a low-quality division and the rules will have him recoiling back when the Rebels hit home. Couch is on the map but inactive, and won’t move or react until numerous activations have been spent to trigger him, or the Confederates get too close (which they will avoid). Hill’s division is superb and easily overpowers Casey but there are no Confederate supporting Formations coming for at least 6 turns.

Over these turns, the Union is spending Activations to trigger the several reinforcing Formations which start to straggle onto the map. It becomes a tense race as the Rebels run out of steam (the Formations wear down by step losses as well as Activation Track limitations). Can the Confederates drive home before the Unions army assembles and stabilizes?

And then … there’s the Johnston’s Plan. Here, the Confederate forces flow in from two directions, catching Casey and Couch’s divisions between them and usually crushing them. Then, as the rest of the Union army struggles to arrive and deploy they are shattered piecemeal. Ah … the Confederate General’s dream. Interestingly enough, the victory conditions are such that the Union has a chance to win even if they get badly beaten up. But that being said, the scenario shows just how good the plan was … and just how hard it would have been to actually pull off.

This is a game that you can get played in 2 – 3 hours with an opponent who knows the rules as well. This means you’ll be able to get in a few games of this (trying out several scenarios or trying your hand at perfecting your plan at one). Also, it has very high solitaire playability. You’ll appreciate the simulation value as well as the game enjoyment. And, based on my experience, I think you’ll find yourself motivated to play this repeatedly. The game’s a good ‘un.

4 thoughts on “The Plan’s a good ‘un … So’s the Game!

  1. Nope. What I will do next time is break it up into two posts. But due to the limited # of images I had I felt it worthwhile to include all of it. I’ll track reading stats. Its fine, I broke up some of the paragraphs to aid reading.

  2. Appreciate the long review – I am very happy with Revolution’s ‘Blind Swords’ ACW system, but this release (launching the S&S series) just sounds too cool. Hollandspiele has yet to let me down, I really enjoy their games!

    1. I think your investment of gaming time will be well rewarded. Also, we just kind have to support Tom and Mary’s nifty little game company! 😉

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