Wednesday, December 8, 2010

From BROG #3: A Keith Poulter Special

Here's a forgotten game...



from 3W GAMES

Two 22" x 24" maps, 300 counters; Rules Book, 1 6-sided die;  3W, POB 157, Cambria CA 93428; $25.

Reviewed by Richard H. Berg

You know, it may be unkind of me to say this, but some people laugh at Keith Poulter. I am not one of them. Oh, I have often chuckled at several of the weirder/shadier things he has done, some of which border on legend - like the Eylau Redux issue he tossed over his shoulder as he headed out the back door at S&T, bags of cash in hand. And I do not operate under the delusion that he is a tightly controlled, highly organized, business genius.  What I also do not do is underestimate him, because, unlike several people in this industry, Keith truly loves both wargames and history. He's also a very knowledgeable, observant, witty and likeable man. Just don't lend him any money .

After KP dumped the debt-ridden "Strategy & Tactics" into the laps of Clan Cummins in a deal which made any self-respecting S&L owner green with envy, instead of fading into oblivion Poulter decided to retire to his estate in the shadow of Hearst's San Simeon and continue to write that 375-volume Civil War epic novel he has been working on since about a week after Appomatox. But the lure of wargaming - and its sales - was like the Voice of the Siren. No sooner had he exited stage left as Magazine Publisher then he appeared, in the best Charles Ludlum fashion, stage right, as Boxed Game Publisher Extraordinaire.  Well, if KP does qualify as extraordinaire, the several games he had at Origins 91 - The Defense of Rorke's Drift (which included a Fisher-Faust special on the Boer War), an item entitled 2WW (I think), plus some off-the-wall science fiction disaster - were anything but. Word was that if he hadn't had the inimitable presence of La Powell selling his games, 3W's would have been The Booth That Never Was.

Was Poulter kidding? Was he really going to produce 6-8 games a year? Who would buy them, especially after the dreary debut of those first few, complete with drab 70's graphics and a visual impact something less than that of a bale of cardboard. As I said, never underestimate KP, for his next two games, if not spectacular successes, should go a long way towards dispelling the snickering.

The most intriguing of the two is Raid on Richmond, a game unlike anything I've ever seen. The subject, itself, is unusual and obscure:  the brilliantly-conceived, but cravenly aborted, Kilpatrick cavalry strike against the Confederate capital in early 1864. The city was poorly defended, even though it housed virtually all of the South's politicians and was "home" to several war prisons, including the infamous Belle Isle and Libby Prisons. That the raid never actually occurred is more a tribute to the ineptness and sheer gutlessness on the part of Kilpatrick than anything else. However, the possibilities of what might have occurred had Old "Kill Cavalry" had more backbone than a slug make for some interesting, "alternate history" gaming.

The first thing that strikes you about Raid is that the gameboard has no hexes, squares or any of the usual movement regulators. The rather large (2' x 4') map is a nicely done (by the now-ubiquitous Mark Simonitch), literal, evocative and accurate birds-eye rendering of the city of Richmond in 1864. The counters are workmanlike, but eminently readable; they also stand out nicely against the basic yellowosity of the map. Unlike the somewhat clumsy system used in S&T's Baton Rouge, city movement is by street/block and intersection; open areas use tufts of grass (I kid you not) to gauge distance. It all sounds obscure, but it works. And it works with minimal anomalies, which is more than you can say for some of the other rules.

In several places Raid is quite a creative, little game. And if you keep in mind the fact that, in spite of its overlaid historicity - the accurate map and OoB - this is truly a "game", you are in for a lot of fun. The short rules - five pages in all - start out with an unusual Sequence of Play. Essentially, there are 7 markers, each representing a command. For the Union it is either Kilpatrick's or the ill-fated Dahlgren's brigades; for the CSA it refers to units that either start on the map or come on from a specific direction. The chits are picked randomly each turn, and each "command" moves and fights before picking a new chit. Players therefore rarely know who is going to do what, when - an always interesting mechanic. And while the Union has only two command markers to the Confederate's five, the Union has the advantage of being able to move large, cohesive groups of strong units, while the CSA player is often reduced - especially in the first five or six turns - to shooting elephants with peashooters.

What happens, for the most part, is that those two, massive Union cavalry brigades come galloping into the city to loot, maim, burn, destroy and wreak havoc, all activities dear to the heart of every gamer. In addition, the Union player has to free his POW's plus as many local slaves as he can gather and escort out of town. The Confederate, blissfully unaware that any of this is about to happen, has to then try to staunch a hundred spurting arteries, seemingly at once. Eventually, he will gather enough worthwhile troops to be able to fight the federals on even terms. Unfortunately, by that time, the Union player may have blown enough of the bridges and kept moving eastward through the city fast enough to both accomplish his aims and get out of town. All of this serves to create a very fluid, very dynamic situation just made for the phrase "Beer & Pretzels". (I actually prefer Crystal Lite and Chili, or perhaps a nice, robust beaujolais nouveau with a velvety cassoulet . . . .)

The game is so easy to assimilate it will take about ten minutes to get going - and then the fun starts, in every sense of the word. The first thing you notice is that cavalry, infantry and militia - even POW's - all move at the same rate. The locals (called "white civilians" in the Politically Incorrect move of the year), when rousted from their hearth and home, seem to move at about one-fourth the military rate. Slaves do not appear to have any movement rate (or at least not one I could readily ascertain). What these folks do is follow their Federal raider brethren through the streets of Richmond in an immense conga-like line. (My opponent for this playtest, the otherwise estimable and PC-aware David Fox, whistled "Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it's off to work we go . . ." every time he had to move the slaves. Somewhat insensitive, perhaps, but visually applicable - and rather in the goofy mood we had reached by this time.)

One important group seems to have no movement allowance: Confederate politicians, here, meaning Jeff Davis, Prison-camp honcho, General Winder, and the entire Confederate Cabinet. They start the game stuck in a bunch of buildings awfully close to the in-rushing Union cavalry, with no effective military support to stop them from being grabbed in the first 3 or 4 turns. There is no rule to indicate that they would, or could, move out of harm's way. Perhaps, as someone suggested, there should be a counter for Jeff Davis' wife's wardrobe, enabling him, through cross-dressing, to attempt to escape (as he did at the end of the war). House Rules are in bad need here. Unfortunately, by the time you discover they are needed Davis and his cabinet are splattered all over the sidewalk, Winder is on his way to an appearance on America's Most Wanted, and, for all intents and purposes, the raid is over. (Unless you're an Alexander Stephens man, in which case you can declare a CSA victory.)  By the time this all happened, though,  we didn't care; we were having too much fun burning, looting and shufflin' off to Buffalo.  

Then there's the game's combat system, which is truly non compis mento .   There is no separate "fire" and "melee"; units simply "fire" at each other at a range of five MP's or less. Makes no difference whether you're cavalry or infantry, whether two hexes distant or five
. . . the result is the same (depending on how many strength points are fired, of course, and whether the target is inside, outside, on a bridge, or whatever.) The number of sheer goofball situations this produces borders on the legendary. Picture this one: 150 mounted federal  horse soldiers enter an urban building (neat trick), at which point they become totally impervious to all the one-point militia units with which the CSA player is burdened. You get this vision of about all these mounted troops, both horse and rider, relaxing in a local men's club, oblivious to the hail of shot whistling around them. Then, having repulsed the foolhardy militia attack, they all down their last shot glass, pay the tab, ride out the door, and blow away the foolish locals. All still on their horses. (To be fair, one could assume they got off their horses before they entered the building, but that assumption would not be in the true "Alphonse and Gaston" spirit the game conveys.)

There are actually LOS and facing rules, most of which we ignored - they got in the way of the fun, and nothing else in the combat system bore any resemblance to reality, so why should this aspect rear its ugly head?  There are also barricades, bucket brigades (for burning buildings), wind direction (which changes so often you'd think that all you have to do to leave town is click your red shoes together), a saloon rule (the possibilities for which are nowhere near mined in any depth) and a victory rule which insists players play with a sense of honor. (Granted, few players I have met have anything approaching this, but, it seems, in Raid on Richmond, you can't leave the sick and infirm behind, and you can't use slaves as shields - unless you're Southern, of course, in which case a set of African Armor IS a badge of honor.)

Speaking of victory, the somewhat artificial conditions imposed on the players bear only passing resemblance to reality.  If the raiders kill Davis and a slew of local politicos, grab Winder for trial, and steal all the Confederate records - all relatively easy feats given the rules in their present state - but they don't burn any buildings or otherwise create any picturesque havoc, they lose! However, in purely "gaming" terms, RoR's victory requirements do make for one exciting race to the finish. I wasn't quite sure why the Union player doesn't get any points for escorting the cast of The Chorus Line off the map before turn 17, but that rather arbitrary restriction didn't seem any stranger than a lot of the other rules.  I was also somewhat disappointed that you couldn't (purposely) allow people trapped in burning buildings to become Rye Krisp. (I tried that in Blackbeard, too, but those Grundy-like Bowdlerizers in Baltimore excised that gleeful bit of grand guignol. "Such blatant cruelty has no place in a family-oriented game," they said. Whereas, machine-gunning Banzai-shouting Japanese does, I suppose.) I mean, gimme a break . . . according to the rules, the Confederate player, if forced to choose between a Union target and a group of slaves, has to fire on the slaves. Why can't he just shove them into the nearest barbecue? 

About two-thirds through the game we realized we had uttered the phrase, "Is He Kidding?", about a dozen times. We realized he wasn't - and, perhaps, he was, all at the same time. And that's when the fun really began.

Raid on Richmond is a game that must be approached with a rather expansive sense of humor. It exudes a high level of gutsy, albeit demented, creativity. It also has not benefitted from anything even remotely approaching "development"; in other words, a quintessential Poulter product. It's also like one of those ads for what you immediately know will be a Grade-Q movie; you know, the ones where they show you a row of pictures of the "stars" (usually someone who gets fifth billing in "Matlock") with subtitles like "The Killer; he killed in vain", "The Dentist; he drilled in vein", "The Agent; he shilled in vain", etc. The ads then go on with copy like, "You'll Laugh! You'll Cry! You'll Shout With Glee!" (I always wondered, what if "Glee" wasn't there?). Well, you get to do all those egregious things with Raid on Richmond. Somewhat tangentially, you also get at least some insight into a pretty-much forgotten incident. And I'll say one thing, I had a ball playing it. I haven't laughed so hard in years - at least not since Decision Games sent me their last contract offer.


Physical Quality:  Good. Interesting, unusual and well-executed - albeit colorless -  map, with readable, if unspectacular, counters.

Playability:  Easy to get into, lot's of fun to get through. Don't waste time looking up rules which are probably not there. Just go with the flow. It's playable solitaire, with some minor adjustments, but it's really meant to be played face-to-face.

Historicity:  Lots of historicity, very little realism.

Playing Time:  Easy one-evening, four-hour special.

Comparisons:  S&T's recent Baton Rouge had street-fighting (and a great map), but the approach was different, more serious (it's a GBACW game) and not as efficacious. The recent, Rob Markham/XTR Wahoo is the reverse-mirror image of RoR: there we have a fictitious attack on Washington by Lee's ANV, victorious at Gettsysburg. Wahoo is rather more coherent, in terms of rules, with a somewhat larger scale. (All in all, it's rather a nice little game!) Both are lots of fun to play - although RoR is unwittingly funnier (Wahoo tries too hard in that department) and a bit more creative - and if you enjoyed one you'll like the other.

Overall:  Truly one of the loopiest - and daring -  designs in past memory. Long on bravura, short on execution. But, if you don't approach it as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls, and if you're looking for a lot of laughs (and a tough game to win), this is a worthwhile purchase. As my opponent commented while executing the Roots Rumba down Broad Street, "You know, this is the type of game Avalon Hill used to do. Wonder why they don't do this stuff any more?" Interesting point.

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