I've always been interested in the American Civil War and dabbled with various gaming systems that attempt to simulate it. What drew me to this title from The Gamers' 'Civil War Brigade' (CWB) series is that this family of games sets out to capture the uncertainty and chaos of command that so plagued warfare of the period. In addition, Manassas is a good starting point as it includes the first major engagement of the War - First Bull Run (July, 1861). Low counter density and a simplified command system reflect the nascent and ad hoc quality of the forces that took part in this early battle. All of this is great for introducing new players to the series.
In contrast to FAB Bulge, Manassas is at the tactical end of the scale. Infantry units represent brigades of various size, with attached artillery units in which a single strength point equates to several guns. In First Bull Run, the Union is organised into divisions, each with its own commander. CSA forces are more loosely organised, and can be activated by their own brigade commanders, or receive instructions directly from their Army Commander (Beauregard or - once he becomes active - Johnston).
In this game, players secretly write their orders down, then hope like hell that they'll be swiftly carried out. The problem is that - just like in the War itself - getting units to obey their orders is fraught with uncertainty.
A player can either attempt to get subordinate (eg brigade or divisional) leaders to exercise their own initiative, or they can have their Army Commander (eg McDowell) issue orders. Getting your brigade leaders to use their initiative is good in theory, but in practise you generally have to roll really high to succeed. For the Union, most leaders need a '12' on two dice! As you would expect, it's somewhat easier for the likes of Thomas Jackson (who would earn his famous 'Stonewall' sobriquet) on the Henry House Hill featured in the above picture) to activate, but still no cake walk.
The more likely method is to have your general issue orders - but of course it takes time for orders to travel to their intended destination, depending on the distance. Each turn in the game is half an hour, so it may take several turns for orders to be received. Then what happens next is determined by rolling the dice. If you are lucky, the orders are accepted immediately. More likely, they will be delayed (ie you need to roll a 1-2, or even a 1 in ensuing turns to get those danged orders accepted). It's also possible that your orders will be rejected!
This system certainly enhances the excitement....and helps to develop a real narrative, an aspect I highly value in games. I'll do a proper game report on this title on another date, but will make the point now that the combat system is excellent, allowing units to extend lines and either close combat or fire on units, resulting in them testing for losses, straggler and completing morale checks. Although generally larger in size, the Union brigades in particular were brittle in this battle, so it generally doesn't take long for them to reach their 'wrecked' limit. In rolling morale on two dice, one die is the '10s', and rolling in the '60s' (double six is 66 for instance) is almost bound to have your brigade rout and run for it!
I'm really enjoying this system and look forward to future scenarios and battles! Highly recommended.
If, like me, you like to enhance the gaming experience by diving into the history behind the simulation, I highly recommend what is considered one of the finest single volume histories of the American Civil War:
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson is a truly impressive tour de force in telling the story not only of the actual conflict, but in revealing the forces that in the years and decades before the opening salvos at Fort Sumter, made the War all but inevitable. If you are seeking a detailed account of the Battles of Bull Run, then this book is not it, but McPherson's weighty tome is a core reference work for the entire conflict.