Crossing the Rio Grande

Last night Chris Harding and I played Rio Grande: The Battle of Valverde. It was published in Strategy and Tactics 143, making it one of the early Decision Games products. We both viewed upcoming the session with a sense of trepidation. Partly it was the comment made by designer Richard Berg on BGG about his own design: [I] will say that while the map is very nice, the counters are truly dreadful. Interesting battle, mediocre system. Now he says this in order to indicate that his next on the subject is better (and that we should buy that instead of wasting our time and money looking for this one), and that is perfectly fine.

The other reason for the trepidation was reading the rulebook. It’s not an easy one to read and get a sense of how things will work. It uses his (in?)famous Turn Continuation Table. Players dice for initiative, the player winning it getting a single free action. An action can be things such as movement, combat or resupply (troops can run low on ammunition).   One that action is done, the player announces the next formation to activate, announces their (single) action and rolls 2D6. If the dice fall within a particular number range they can perform that action, otherwise the opposing player gets to roll on the TCT (and may themselves have a free action). Play continues back and forth in this manner until all formations have activated twice (or both sides pass, or a random event intervenes). A unit that wants to melee therefore has to spend an activation moving adjacent, then possibly having to weather defensive fire. Both sides will therefore tend to deploy and engage in firefights at several hexes distance.

It all seems a bit too much (a chit-pull system may work much better and require less rules verbiage). A good flow-chart would go some way to make better sense of it. However, we were both reasonably surprised. A hidden gem is certainly is not, but neither did it bark nor wag its tail. The relative smallness of the battle, and the consequent small number of units on the board meant that play didn’t feel overwhelming.

The main issues were that the rules were ambiguous in many places. It wasn’t always clear when players received a free action when a failed roll occurred. The biggest issue we had was artillery activation. They are not independent units, but it wasn’t made clear which formations they were attached to (or whether in fact they could be activated with any formation). The game was also not overly generous with its markers, and on occasion we had to remember which units in a formation had 1 or 2 actions, who was or was not dismounted, and so on. Once we got used to how things (seemed to) work though we went along at a nice clip. Ten turns (8:30 to 13:00, in half-hour turns) took a bit over two hours.

The battle itself featured a small Confererate cavalry force commanded by General Henry Silby trying to cross the Rio Grande in search of badly-needed supplies. Opposing them was a small U.S. cavalry/infantry led by General Edward Canby.

The terrain on the battlfield is largely open, but there are lot of groves (which I imagine is light bush, rather than pleasant orchards) which impede movement, and provide some cover but do not block LOS. The Confederate side of the river also features a series of sand dunes (representing the old rio Grande riverbed) which do block LOS (unless immediately adjacent, so units can set up firing positions behind them). There are also a small number of fords across the river (which both players know, so there is no need to scout for them). The Confederate side again also has a number of 2nd-level positions that overlook some of the fords (and again provide cover).

The Federals start with but a single unit on map, the Confederates with two, and both sides feed in reinforcements as the battle progresses. The Confederates are out-numbered, and the the Federals have infantry (slower, but more fire-power, and longer range). Cavalry may dismount, but the Confederates remain out-ranged even so. The Confederates however automatically gain the initiative on turn 1, so the big question for them is what to to gain an initial advantage.

Historically, the Federals drove the Confederate vanguard and pushed across the  river. The Confederates in time retreated to the old riverbed. Sibley fell ill during the course of the action and handed command over to Colonel Tom Green for a period.

The Federals moved to force the Confederates from their position, but the Confederates attacked the Union right to forestall this. This was bloodily repulsed, but a second attack on the Union centre carried the day for Sibley’s men. A Federal cavalry charge could not restore the situation and Canby ordered a retreat.

Both sides gain VPs for causing step losses, and for crossing the Rio Grande. Both sides are thus rewarded for aggression.

I played the Confederates in this game while Chris commanded the Federals. The Confederates automatically get the initiative on turn 1. By the end of the turn both units had crossed the Rio Grande at the northernmost ford (hexes 2110-2010-1909) and dismounted astride the road that follows the river northward (in groves at 1607 and 1609). The plan was to force the Federals to attack on the western bank of the Rio (where I gain the VPs) and to allow my reinforcements time to come up.

It was an excellent plan, if one did not take into account the following:

1. Union numerical superiority

2. Union entry hexes being much closer to the fords than my own

3. The old riverbed that lay between me and the current riverbed (which though an excellent defensive position also inhibits movement across it.

Chris, an ungentlemanly cad (and thus well-suited to taking the Federals) decided not to ignore the aforementioned three points and, while sending a sizeable detachment to deal with my not-so-tenable-road-striding position also began to cross the ford in numbers.

My reinforcements were able to deploy to the riverbed during turn 2 but, a Southern gentleman does not hide when the enemy is to the front! The groves in front of said of old riverbed marked where the Confederate line would be set.

It wasn’t in fact a bad position at first, and Confederate artillery soon brought the advancing Federals under fire. It was not the devestating fire that I’d hoped that it might be. However, if it can be said that a good general makes his own luck, then I would have had to make a new CRT, because I wasn’t going to cause a whole lot of damage from the range at which my men began to fire.

By turn five however things began to hot up, and a Federal unit suffered a step loss advancing towards the Confederate guns in the grove. However, being able to bring effective fire to bear also meant that the Federals were able to lay effective fire. Causig casualties also meant that ammunition began to run lowand so precious actions were spent bringing up new supplies.

Meanwhile, the Confederate units that had crossed the Rio Grande fell back before the advancing Federals and re-crossed the ford lickety-split. They had prevented a sizeable contingent of the Federal force from crossing the river too early, but needed to cause casulaties and now fell back for the sake of self-preservation.

The Confederates, gentlemanly as ever, consented to remain under Federal fire even though themselves outranged. A step-loss gave food for thought, as did the Federal force manoeuvering on the Confederate right to gain the old riverbed. Bowing finally to the contraints of military necessity the Confederates fell back towards the protection of the old Rio bed. This withdrawl took place despite the worsenin condition of the commander (one of the random events is a possible worsening of Sibley’s health, which occurred on two consecutive turns: at 11:30 am and 12:00 pm.

The imagined Union assault on the Confederate position did not materialise. Instead, the Federals consolidated their position along the high ground near the fords. The infantry formed a line and settled down comfortably for the afternoon. Seeing the  lack of movement from the Federal lines the game was called on the 13:00 turn, for what, for all the relatively bloodless nature of the battle, was a resounding Federal victory

One of the things that became apparent to us was that the Confederates need to contest the river-crossings. There is a goodly amount of higher ground close to the fords that the Confederates can use to bring fire down upon Federal reinforcements. Because both sides get VPs for crossing the river, waiting at the old river bed will be a losing strategy for the Confederates.

However, the Union troops have an advantage in numbers and should be able to force any contested fords. The Confederates will fall back to the old riverbed. So far so good. However from a historical point of view things will unravel from here. The Federals have simply to cross the river, hunker down and await the Rebs, as Chris in fact did. The Confederate attacks that took place will thus be replicated but for the wrong reasons. As the Federals will get 3 VP per unit simply for having crossed the river, they have no reason to attempt an attack on the Confederate positions as they did historically. As VPs are also gained for casualties the Federals are likely to gain an advantage here as well.

In summary, not bad, but on reflection the Federals need to be given a reason to do more than simply cross the river, both for game balance and so that becomes possible to model the historical battle.

Next up for Chris and me: Clash of Empires, which I must say I’m quite looking forward to!

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