19th century · 6mm · ACW · Reviews

First impressions: Altar of Freedom

Updates around here are far and few between these days, as I’m still a bit occupied on the domestic/wage earning front and don’t really have time for important stuff like playing with toy soldiers. But this doesn’t mean that my thoughts ever stray very far from future glory on minuscule battlefields. Quite the contrary in fact – the less I get to paint and game, the more I’m thinking about painting and gaming!

For example, since our epic club game a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the American Civil War. Now this is a conflict that I’ve never been too keen on previously; somehow the image of blue-clad soldiers fighting grey-clad soldiers has failed to tickle the imagination as well as the old painting nerve. But after having had such a good time with the Fort Donelson scenario at club I suffered one of those infamous Hobby Inspiration Seizures – the kind that opens your eyes to new vistas, but also drives you into uncontrollable fits of irrational consumerism in the small hours of night.

Funny how these things go. Suddenly, the idea of painting and playing with lots of little blue and grey soldiers seemed like an absolutely brilliant idea.

Picture

And historically speaking, there’s no denying that the American Civil War was an interesting conflict. Not only because it shaped the modern USA and still resounds in that particular nation’s collective memory to this day, but also because it was the first truly “modern” war in several ways. The scale on which the war was fought and the sheer amount of troops involved presented enormous strategical and tactical challenges to the relatively inexperienced commanders on both sides, something which also makes it interesting from a wargamer’s perspective.

 

*

Speaking of scale: my intention is to do this period in 6mm, as I believe that this scale is best suited for truly massive battles  (not to mention the other benefits of micro scale wargaming).

My first choice when it comes to 6mm miniatures is of course Baccus. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite miniatures companies; their range is enormous and the quality of the sculpts generally amazing. Also, they’ve now got pictures of every single article in their webstore – an impressive feat and certainly an exception from the rule when it comes to independent miniature companies. In my opinion it goes a long way to show commitment to their products and respect for their customers.

In short: the Baccus ACW army box is high on my shopping list. But since my current painting project is a really large bunch of really small guys from the same company, but from a totally different period (hint: they will eventually try to invade Ancient Greece), I haven’t gotten around to purchasing it just yet. Instead I’ve been frantically browsing the web, looking for the ultimate ACW ruleset.

There’s a plethora of choice available, but since I’m hoping to play mainly large-scale battles there are at least a couple of strong contenders. Baccus’ own Polemos rules are obviously designed with 6mm gaming in mind, but there’s also a (relatively) new kid on the block: Altar of Freedom.

Written by Greg Wagman, these rules for “grand tactical battles in the American Civil War” were published in 2013 and are mainly focusing on the 6mm side of things. They can also be played in 10mm and perhaps even 15mm, but since their general scope are the epic battles of the Civil War, where the player steps “into the boots of a corps or army general” and the smallest unit is a brigade, 6mm is probably a better match.

Given its focus on army-sized conflicts, Altar of Freedom rapidly entered my list of interest when I started looking around for ACW rulesets. So when my clubmate and fellow 6mm enthusiast Mark (who is also an avid ACW gamer) heartily recommended it I just had to take a closer look. And after quickly glancing at the rules and the awesome website I promptly purchased them, since they seem to be exactly what I’m looking for.

*

So what did I get for my money? Well, currently only the $15 pdf version of the rules is available, the $25 printed version being out of print. This is a bit of a shame, since I normally prefer to own a physical copy of rules that I buy. Hopefully the author will produce a second printing some time in the future.

The pdf is a 71-page document, written in clear, comprehensive prose and packed with atmospheric period pictures, helpful diagrams and color photos of 6mm models (mainly from the Baccus range as far as I can tell). The rules themselves are very straightforward and only take up about 20 pages; the rest of the document features several meaty appendices (including optional rules, scale conversion guidelines and some interesting notes regarding game design philosophy) plus four starter scenarios and some quick reference charts.

The type of scene a 6mm ACW game might present (image taken from the author’s website).

These scenarios are not just some extra fluff thrown in there for good measure though; they are detailed blueprints for recreating historical battles, and as such reflect what seems to be a major design goal of AoF. Yes, this is a game which is unashamedly built around scenario play, not “balanced” pick-up style games (the author has very kindly included a point system for those who want it, but not without very explicitly voicing his woes about doing so).

More about the scenarios later on. Suffice to say, it’s always nice with a set of rules that makes it clear from the start what it attempts to do and what type of games (and gamers) it is made for, instead of going the “generic” route and trying to please everyone. Personally I’m all about scenarios and asymmetrical games in general, so for me this aspect is a huge selling point.

*

So what sets these rules apart then, from a strictly technical, gameplay point of view? Well, since I’m a total newbie as far as ACW goes I’m not able do a fair comparison with other rulesets for this period, but I still recognize innovative mechanics when I see them. And AoF has at least one rather unique feature: the Turn Clock.

No, it doesn’t look like this. 

Basically, this is a die – most commonly a d10 – which specifies how long a given turn is (like the number of turns, this may vary between scenarios). Depending on how the game plays out and how the players chose to prioritize, the clock may be manipulated – one turn could potentially end very quickly while the next turn could last a lot longer, something which obviously has an enormous tactical impact.

The idea behind this is that a “turn”, albeit a useful compromise for playability’s sake, is a totally artificial concept which in no way reflects how time actually works during a battle. The Turn Clock is a clever way of simulating commanders, operating under uncontrollable and unforeseeable circumstances, constantly have to “seize the initiative” by prioritizing and re-prioritizing on a continuously changing battlefield.

So how do you prioritize, exactly? This ties in with another of AoF’s innovative features: Priority Points and the bidding of them. PPs are the hard currency of army initiative, and they are a precious resource indeed. Depending on your generals’ abilities and experience (as detailed by the scenario you’re playing) you will have a set number of PPs available each turn. At the start of the turn, these points are secretly bid and then used to either maneuver divisions around, try and seize control of the Turn Clock, or perform actions at the end of the turn (referred to as saving PPs).

Another epic 6mm battefield. Image taken from the author’s website.

These mechanics are pretty straightforward: after the secret bidding is completed, bids are called out and the division with the highest PP bid gets to move first. Ties are determined by who controls the Turn Clock.

This is all well and good and not very unconventional. However, things are about to get a lot more complex and interesting; as soon as one bid is finished and it’s time for the next one, time is subtracted from the Turn Clock. How much is decided by a combination of chance and tactics – both sides roll a d6, and then the player who controls the Turn Clock decides which of the numbers rolled will be subtracted.

As game mechanics go, I think this system is absolutely brilliant, as it opens up for a multitude of tactical decisions that all interweave in a very dynamic and fluid way: how many PPs do I spend on maneuvers? Which divisions should do what, and when? How many PPs will I use to try and control the Turn Clock? How long do I want this turn to last? And so on.

Also, it eliminates the need for the randomness of dice or cards to create that uncontrollable “chaos factor” that wargames need to be interesting. Instead, it gives the players a certain influence over this factor, making for a much more interactive experience.

Since bidding is secret, a huge part of the game consists in trying to guess what your opponent is planning to do, as well as to keep your own plans from being too obvious. And since nothing will ever pan out the way you’ve planned, you’ll have to constantly re-think your tactical approach and your priorities.

Failing to recognize how priorities must change during battle might have even more dire results than poor dice rolling.

The actual combat mechanics are very simple and only require one single d6 to be rolled. Apart from some special rules, shooting and close combat are resolved through the same basic principles.

Generally you’ll be moving entire divisions around, but combat is fought between brigades. You basically roll a d6, apply modifiers (terrain, flanking, unit traits and status, and so on) and consult a “to hit” table. Units are not wounded per se but fatigued (representing wavering morale and disorder as well as casualties) and eventually broken.

Fatigue markers are needed, as well as an HQ were broken units regroup and are (hopefully) rallied. This is a very neat way of simulating the waves of battle pulsating forwards and backwards across the battlefield, as fatigued or broken units are pushed back and then replaced by fresh ones.

Ulysses S. Grant probably knew a lot about Turn Clock management – at Shilo he apparently had a whopping 20 Priority Points to spend!

The amount Priority Points at your disposal all depends on your Generals. As the author points out, much of the “period flavor” of the American Civil War doesn’t stem from flamboyant uniforms, outstandingly bold tactics or any great variation in troop types, but rather from the key individuals who were in command.

Consequently, Altar of Freedom puts a lot of focus on these colorful personalities; not only are they your only source of PP, they also have traits which reflect their individual capacities as commanders. A given general might be energetic, for example, or insubordinate. He might be a quartermaster or a reckless attacker, or possess any of the other 26 traits which all influence the game in different ways. A great way of adding character and color to the game, if you ask me.

  *

As already mentioned, Altar of Freedom is a ruleset that aims at recreating actual, historical battles rather than “balanced” fights between equal forces. Like in most systems of this type, scenarios make up the backbone of how a typical game is set up. A hefty part of the rulebook – almost 35 pages – is taken up by the four starter scenarios. More scenarios can be found on the author’s website and also in the two meaty supplements that are available for purchase (dealing with Western and Eastern theaters respectively).

Each scenario is based on an actual battle and includes historical background, detailed OOBs (including photos of the generals and printable base labels for individual units, which is very nice to have in these huge battles), a color map, and of course all the information pertaining to deployment, number of turns, Turn Clock size, victory conditions, and so on. As with the rest of the ruleboook, these sections are clearly laid out and easy to read.

*

So what is my opinion on these rules after an initial read-through? Well, as you’ve probably gathered by now, it’s very positive. The rules are concise and clear, with a nice layout and just enough photos to make for an inspirational yet functional read. They are doubtless written by a gamer, for other gamers, and the author is very open about what type of gaming philosophy he adheres to (as well as what type of games the rules are not suited for, which is just as important). Some typos are to be found here and there, but nothing really serious.

The system itself is innovative in several ways, but the core concepts are pretty simple and easy to grasp. The whole idea behind secret bids and the Turn Clock is just brilliant and I can’t wait to see how it plays out. There is a certain amount of record keeping involved though, which could prove to be a bit cumbersome. It remains to be seen how it works in practice, so the jury’s still out as far as that aspect is concerned.

Another awesome thing about these rules is the fact that the author is a dedicated hobbyist, who is more than willing to share tips and techniques for creating good-looking battlefields. The book itself contains some general pointers for those new to micro scale gaming, and the website is full of useful guides and tutorials for building forests, roads, rivers, and just about anything else you might need to make your gaming table visually pleasing. It even provides free, downloadable paper buildings. What’s not to like?

All in all this seems to be an awesome set of rules and I can’t wait to try them out for real. And as soon as I do I’ll be sure to document everything and post it here on Hook Island, so stay tuned!

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “First impressions: Altar of Freedom

  1. Great Review! I agree the game is going to be very good! I hope to have the troops and buildings ready to do 1st Bull Run by May. Lets see if I can get every thing done in time……

    Like

  2. Excellent review! I stumbled upon it while looking for online reviews, and I could not have been better served. They certainly look like a very interesting set; might be just the right fit for the bunch of 10mm Perrins that have been resting in a dark cupboard for far too long. Although I am a big fan of 6mm and Baccus. Probably best not to be tempted going online in the small hours of night 😉. Thanks!

    Like

    1. Thank you! 🙂

      I’m glad that you found it useful. I have yet to try these rules out on the table, but I do agree – they’re probably a perfect fit for large battle ACW games.

      While the author is rather outspoken about the fact that the games are written with 6mm in mind, I’m sure that 10mm will work just fine.

      Best of luck with future projects and happy gaming!

      Like

Leave a Reply - no registration needed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s