BLUF: The Hill of Death – Champion Hill: A Shattered Union Series Game is an interesting new entry in the (kinda) Blind Swords system of wargames set in the American Civil War. Claims of “accessible to gamers of any skill level” might be exaggerated; even experienced Grognards may trip up on some of the rules.
Years ago I bought Rick Barber’s Summer Storm: The Battle of Gettysburg (Clash of Arms Games, 1998). It was at a time that I was really trying to get into wargaming the American Civil War (ACW) because I was living in the Mid-Atlantic region. As much as I liked the topic, the game proved a bit “heavier” than I preferred. In the years since I’ve dabbled in other ACW wargames. I like Eric Lee Smith’s Battle Hymn Vol. 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (Compass Games, 2018). The RMN Boys and myself enjoy Hold the Line: The American Civil War from Worthington Publishing (2019). That said, I am always on the lookout for a different ACW game.
Late last year, I think it was Ardwulf who pointed me to The Hill of Death – Champion Hill: A Shattered Union Series Game by Hermann Luttman and published by Tiny Battle Publishing. The ad copy certainly looked intriguing:
Heavily influenced by his popular A Most Fearful Sacrifice, Herm Luttmann’s Shattered Union series is a new line of American Civil War wargames designed to be accessible to gamers of any experience level. The series aims to provide not only a playable wargame experience in about three hours, but also to produce a realistic simulation of a 19thCentury battlefield. The Hill of Death is the first module in the Shattered Union series. The game covers the entire Battle of Champion Hill. This critical engagement was fought just outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi on May 16th, 1863, between the Union Army of the Tennessee (under Major General Ulysses S. Grant) and the Confederate Army of Vicksburg (under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton).The Hill of Death publisher’s page
What’s not in that ad copy but found elsewhere was the fact that The Hill of Death uses cards to drive unit activations. I has already experienced Eric Lee Smith’s chit-pull game mechanism in Battle Hymn and was very interested. I have heard much about the Blind Swords System that Mr. Luttmann uses. The Hill of Death apparently uses a version of (variant?) of the Blind Swords system that Flying Pig Games and Tiny Battle Publishing calls Black Swan:
The game utilizes a new ACW operating system called the Black Swan system, which is closely related to the popular Blind Swords game system first introduced in the game The Devil’s To Pay! by Tiny Battle Publishing and further modified by The Hill of Death – Champion Hill…The system emphasizes the three “FOWs” of military conflict: fog-of-war, friction-of-war and fortunes-of-war. The system mixes events with activation chits and does not guarantee that each unit on the board will be able to activate each turn or that each unit will only activate once. The system is designed to force players to make tough decisions with each chit pull.Ad copy for A Most Fearful Sacrifice 2nd Ed (Flying Pig Games)
The other selling point for me about The Hill of Death was that promise (temptation?) for a game “accessible to gamers of any skill level” and playable in about three hours. This was (maybe?) a game that can land on the gaming table for the RockyMountainNavy Weekend Game Night. So I purchased a copy.
Out of the Box
The Hill of Death is produced in what I call “publisher’s print on demand” quality. If you have purchased wargames from Hollandspiele or White Dog Games you will know of what I talk about. Mark Walker at Tiny Battle Publishing does something similar:
Many companies open folio lines for such games, but Mark felt that would confuse customers as Flying Pig Games produces boxed games with thicker, bigger counters (Big Package. BIG Fun). Tiny Battle Publishing’s games look awesome, professional and top notch, but they are printed in small quantities at an American printer in the Northeast (not that we have any problem with overseas printers). This minimizes the initial cash outlay, but also limits the die-cut counters to 38 points, and the packaging to a Ziploc bag (Small Package. BIG Fun).“About TBP”
The Hill of Death actually comes in a 1.5″ deep box. The 17″x22″ map is paper and the 189 3/4″ counters are in three sheets. More important to the game are the 45 cards. Two rule books are included; a Series Rule Book and a Game Rule Book. A Play Aid and a set of five different color d6 dice (Black, Red, White, Blue, Gray) round out the contents. If you have ever purchased a Standard Combat Series Game from Multi-Man Publishing this “content mix” should seem a bit familiar.
Alas, production quality is a bit mixed in The Hill of Death. It was a very good thing the countersheets were shipped in a ziplock bag because many had fallen off the tree in transit. Most of the rest separated fairly easily from the tree when needed, but a few were very hard to separate. What I need to do at those times is step away, go get the hobby board and X-Acto knife, and carefully cut the temperamental ones away. But no…I go ahead and force them which leads to some ragged edges on those counters. Sigh…
The other production issue that I eventually discovered with The Hill of Death is the box wraparound is not glued on very well. Actually, it’s not glued but a sticker…and it doesn’t want to stick. I tried compressing the edges but it keeps unsticking. Maybe TBP was right to “stick with” folio games.
Dealing with Shattered Union
The rules for The Hill of Death come in two rule books. The Shattered Union Series Rulebook is 16 color pages. Subtracting the covers and Table of Contents, the rules actually are covered in 13 pages of double column print. The font used and color layout (different background colors and the like) as well as the illustrations are helpful. The rules use a modified SPI-case numbering system; no “conversational” rules here only Grognardia talk. The Game Rulebook for The Hill of Death is 12 pages with eight (8) pages of actual rules, one page of for combat tables, and covers.
I think it is important to clarify that unlike the ad copy above, the version of the Black Swan system in this first Shattered Union Series game, The Hill of Death, uses CARDS—not chits—for unit activation. Which means the heart of the Shattered Union Series game engine in The Hill of Death are those cards. There are four different types of cards; Formation Activation, Event, CIC [Commander-in-Chief, the Commanding General] and Wild. In a turn of a Shattered Union Series game players execute a Command Decision Phase where they will “seed” an Activation Deck with Formation Activation, CIC, and Event Cards. Once both players seed their decks, the two player decks are combined with the Wild cards and shuffled to form the Activation Deck for the turn.
While the basics of seeding an Activation Deck in The Hill of Death seems straightforward, there are actually many decisions to make. Every turn the scenario tells the players how many and of what type cards can be seeded. For example, in the first scenario on Game Turn #1 the Union player can seed one Formation card for each of two different Corps. The player also adds a CIC card and chooses two Event cards. A third event card is then randomly added to the deck for a total of six Union cards. The Confederate player on Game Turn #1 gets only a single Formation Activation card, a CIC card, and selects one Event card. At this point a further two Event cards are randomly added to the deck (now a total of five cards) which is then shuffled with the Union deck and two Wild cards. The result is a 13 card deck that will be used for Game Turn #1.
If those are not enough decisions for you in The Hill of Death, every formation has at least three Formation Activation cards. There is usually an “offense” card, a “defense” card, and a “maneuverer” cards. I say “usually” because different formations may have a slightly different mix. For instance, McPhereson has five cards: 2x Maneuver, 2x Defend, and only a single Attack. As the Union commander, getting McPherson to attack will be a challenge! Other Formation Activation cards will activate a single Brigade as usual, but with a chance of activating the entire Division. Go Johnny Reb! The whole point of the cards are to enable you, the commander, to “plan” what you want to do but demand you “react” to the situation as it unfolds (cards are turned). While card play in the Shattered Union Series game rules are more than just what I covered here you hopefully get my point and see the decision challenges created by the cards.
Another Shattered Union Game Series rule in The Hill of Death that might surprise you is that Fire Combat happens BEFORE Movement. This forces players to position their units in advance if they want them to fire. It’s a small rules wrinkle but it forces interesting and challenging decisions onto players.
All Skill Levels?
While The Hill of Death attempts to lure new players with an offer of a game “accessible to gamers of any skill level” the truth is you probably have to be a bit of a Grognard to deal with the full Fire Combat system. While units are rated with Strength Points and Cohesion Points, the actual Fire Combat process is a not exactly straight-forward. Mind you, it’s not unnecessarily complicated, it just mixes several game mechanisms together in a manner that requires maybe a bit more attention to process than “lesser skill level” gamers may have. For example:
- Line of Sight: The distinction between Obscured and Blocked Line of Sight is not immediately clear (no pun intended); one stops Fire Combat while the other is a modifier
- Units of different types (artillery, infantry, and calvary?) cannot combine their attacks against the same hex; very important and counterintuitive enough that it gets a call-out text box (kinda) clarification
- Ammo Problems: It took me several passes though the rules to understand that “advantage” in this case is a column shift to the left (less Strength Points when firing), i.e the firing unit has ammo problems which gives an advantage to the target unit—though the firing unit rolls the die to see if the other side gets the advantage (huh?); notice also that a Union target hex has an 18% better chance of having the “advantage” in the other player’s firing turn.
While I appreciate the multiple d6 of different colors in The Hill of Death, the fact you roll all five but read them differently is confusing.
- Ammo Problems uses a single black d6 (reading it as 1-6) which may result in that “advantage” that negatively shifts the column used on the Combat Results Table.
- Players then roll 4d6 (Red, White, Blue, Gray)
- Players first read the Red/White die as d66 (11-66) to find the type of Cohesion Test
- Players then use the Blue/Gray as differential dice (+5 to -5) with the differential modified by the differential between Cohesion Ratings of the units in combat cross-referenced to the column of the Cohesion Test derived from the d66 from the previous step previously adjusted by the d6 Ammo Problems roll.
That’s five, six-sided dice rolled two different times, read three different ways in the one game of The Hill of Death. While these rules are not impossible to figure out, I think the word “accessible” is getting stretched really thin here.
This is probably a good time to mention that the terminology used in The Hill of Death can be confusing. In particular, in Fire Combat I found the use of the phrase “target hex” created some confusion; why not just call it the defender? [Wait, in Close Combat the distinction between attacker and defender is important and called out. Is this a case of where in an effort to be precise and avoid confusion creates confusion? Sigh…]
Determining the results of Fire Combat in The Hill of Death now requires deciphering a table of abbreviations. For example, after all the die rolls and table cross-references the result you get reads, “SH(SK1).” The “SH” indicates that all units in the target hex are given a “Shaken” chit (unless they are already Shaken in which case they get a “Disrupted” but if already Disrupted they are flipped to their “Battleworn” side and if already Battleworn must take a “Break Test”). The parentheses around the “SK1” result indicate the unit MAY “Skedaddle”—a nice thematic way of saying “retreat.” Note the emphasis on “may.” Results in parentheses are at the choice of the owning player. If units stand their ground (don’t Skedaddle) a Firefight may be triggered which can draw in units not initially part of the Fire Combat.
I won’t go into it in depth here, but the Close Combat system in The Hill of Death plays out very much akin to the Fire Combat systems. The movement rules are not onerous either. Fortunately, extra “chrome” rules are few meaning there are less “rules for exceptions.” That’s a good thing to have in an accessible game; too many “rules by exception” make teaching the game that much more challenging.
In summary, there are no rules in The Hill of Death that impossible to parse out but in a game that is supposed to be playable by “any skill level” I have some doubt that early Grogs are going to catch all the nuances and subtleties of the rules.
Not Going to Die on This Hill
Less you think that I totally dislike The Hill of Death, I am very happy to see that it lives up to its promise to provide, “a playable wargame expereince in about three hours.” While I am not a dyed-in-the-blue (or gray) ACW historian, I do feel the Black Swan game system, taken as a whole, presents a reasonably “realistic simulation of the 19th Century battlefield.” I especially enjoy the decision challenges the Activation Cards in the Black Swan system present.
The Hill of Death – Champion Hill comes with two scenarios. The first, “The Bloody Hill,” depicts the climax of the battle and is six (6) turns long. The Game Module Rules point out this is a good tutorial or limited play time. The second scenario, “The Road to Vicksburg,” is 14 turns long. I found designer was correct in saying the first scenario is good for learning. I was also able to work my way through the complete scenario in just a little over 3 hours—slightly more than the designer claims but understandable as I was still learning the game. When I debut this title for Game Night I will almost certainly use the shorter “The Bloody Hill” scenario.
Now that I understand the Black Swan game system in The Hill of Death I can roll it out for Game Night. I am very happy that I decided to do a personal, solo deep dive of the rules first. While one could argue that the rules are not too difficult, thereby making the game”accessible” to players of any skill level, the enjoyment in play will almost certainly be increased if at least one player has better-than-fair familiarity with the game and can (clearly?) teach it to the others.
Feature image courtesy RMN