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The WDS Civil War Games:
A Study in Balance

By Blake Strickler

Table of Contents

... An Imbalanced War
... Fair and Balanced Games
... Creating Balance in the WDS Civil War Games

Part One: The Three Core Elements
... Unit Quality and Morale
... Leader Ratings
... Hexes

Part Two: The Five Optional Rule Balancing Elements
... Quality Fire Modifier and Quality Melee Modifier
... Density Fire Modifier

... Rout Limiting
... Mixed Organization Penalty

Conclusion: Balancing an Imbalanced War

Appendix 1: Unit Quality Ratings, Balance, and "History"

Appendix 2: Compromising over Optional Rules: Why and Why Not

Appendix 3: House Rules




An Imbalanced War

The American Civil War took place between two very unequal sides. However you choose to compare the Northern and Southern states, the Northern states had a large advantage. The South had just 29% of the nation’s railroad tracks and 13% of the nation’s banks. By 1860, 90 percent of the nation's manufacturing output came from northern states. The North produced 17 times more cotton and woolen textiles than the South, 30 times more leather goods, 20 times more pig iron, and 32 times more firearms. The Northern states produced half of the nation's corn, four-fifths of its wheat, and seven-eighths of its oats.


Northern states attracted the vast majority of the waves of European immigration through the mid-19th century. Fully seven-eighths of foreign immigrants settled in Northern states. As a consequence, the population of the states that stayed in the Union was approximately 23 million as compared to a population of 9 million in the states of the Confederacy. This translated directly into the Union having 3.5 million males of military age - 18 to 45 - as compared to 1 million for the South.


But wars are not fought on paper and there are plenty of instances through history that a larger and more powerful nation has been defeated by a smaller and weaker nation. There is no definitive answer of “how” a smaller nation might defeat a larger nation in war. But factors such as superior strategy, higher morale, effective use of terrain, and greater leadership, all play a role.


But none of these factors are easy to replicate in the make-believe world of Civil War gaming in the 21st Century. How can “superior strategy” be duplicated when it is the players who set the strategy? The digital armies we lead have no morale because they are not real armies. The more advantageous use of terrain, which might be considered “Home Field Advantage” or possibly the “Fog of War,” is also impossible to recreate in a video game for one side or the other. Our 100% accurate digital map negates that possible historical variable completely. And how can greater leadership be reproduced when, again, it is we who lead the armies and not the actual generals. We players can give all the inspirational speeches we like to our pixelated armies, and they will still not fight any harder.


With so many of the most important historical factors which allowed the “underdog” Confederacy to fight so well for so long being inapplicable in a video game, how could the game designers create a level playing field? The game designers were forced to look for as many alternate ways as possible to balance the game or the result would be one-sided domination by the larger force. If 50,000 generic soldiers were dumped onto an open field and 75,000 generic soldiers dumped onto the other side of the open field, the larger force would win every single time based on the math alone. Who would want to play that game? Luckily, the game designers did adjust certain aspects of the armies to emulate at least a part of what made each unique and different from one another.

Fair and Balanced Games

Do you want a fair game or a balanced game? The question may sound redundant at first. But the fact is that the two are not the same thing.


A “Fair Game” is defined as a game in which all players have an equal chance of winning and that does not require any skill on the part of the players. Examples of such fair games include flipping a coin in the air and calling heads or tails. Another example is Rock-paper-scissors in which each player has a 33.3% chance of winning. Betting on the roll of a die is one more example of a fair game. The probability of getting any number 1 to 6 is 16.7% each, so no player has an advantage over the other.


A “Balanced Game” is a game design concept where the strengths of each side are offset by a proportional drawback in another area to prevent the domination of one side or one gaming approach. A balanced game aims to create a fair and meaningful gameplay experience with the right amount of difficulty for each side. Examples of such games would include your classic Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter-like games. In these games each character has different strengths and weaknesses which can be used or exploited given the circumstances and their opponent. Another example would be the game Civilization. In that turn-based game, each nation has different abilities, units, and leaders that influence their culture, science, military, and diplomacy.


​Chess is often considered the most balanced and beautiful game ever created. Yet even it is not completely balanced as one side must move first. Therefore, it is safe to say that designing a perfectly balanced game is impossible. Different players may have different preferences, expectations, and opinions about the game’s balance, and the game’s balance may change over time as the game evolves or as the players discover new strategies. The balance of a game may also be thrown off by the creation of new rules which may unintentionally alter the balance of the game. There are many factors and reasons why a perfectly balanced game is impossible to create. But creating a fun, engaging, and satisfying game for most players is possible if the balance is fair enough to keep players coming back for more.


Therefore, WDS had to create balancing techniques and philosophies which would work in most instances to create a reasonably balanced game for all players to enjoy. The WDS Civil War games are not designed to be fair games – they are designed to be balanced games. Through the years WDS has released thousands of scenarios for their Civil War series - despite having only technically released fifteen titles. While the variables which make up the scenarios are never the same twice, there are common design threads which run through every scenario and which all seek to ensure a balanced experience for both side. 

Creating Balance in the WDS Civil War Games

The easiest way to create balance between two imbalanced forces is to create unique attributes which allow the weaker force to stand up to the stronger force using superior attributes. This is the main element for every video game seeking to create balance. Without this balance, the weaker force would lose most of the time to the stronger force despite any other variables. It was therefore necessary that WDS create attributes which would boost the fighting skills of the weaker armies.


In my opinion, there were three core elements designed by WDS to make these games more balanced overall: Unit Quality and Morale, Leader Ratings, and Hex Limitations. These attributes are built into the game and are used in every scenario created by WDS. Each seeks to balance out two imbalanced forces through altering the attributes of those forces or limiting their ability to use sheer numbers to achieve victory. The game designers also introduced Optional Rules which sought to allow the players the option of using additional rules to alter overall gameplay. I will argue that five of the Optional Rules were created specifically to better balance the two sides for either historical and/or gameplay reasons. I am going to discuss how all these various factors help to create a balanced Civil War gaming experience. At the end of this paper will be multiple appendixes with further information and opinions for anyone who cares to read them. In these I will point out some facts about unit Quality ratings which support my belief that Quality ratings should promote gameplay balance first and foremost. I’ll also talk about ways that the balance of the games might be altered in some cases, using the Optional Rules, to give players a better overall gaming experience.


The following opinions are my own and should not be considered definitively right by any means. They are opinions which have matured over the years based on extensive gameplay and study into what makes these games tick from multiple perspectives. What follows is my personal evaluation of the WDS Civil War games and the delicate issue of gameplay balance.

Part One: The Three Core Elements

Part 1

Unit Quality and Morale

Every unit is given a Quality value in the WDS games. That value ranges from A (best) to F (worst) and is converted to a numerical scale where A = 6 and F = 1. A unit’s Quality value is also its Morale base for when the unit goes through Morale Checks. As we progress you will begin to see how many variables branch off the Quality ratings for units. It’s important to remember that a unit’s Quality will never change during a battle – even while their morale goes up and down. For now, we will discuss how unit Morale affects the unit’s performance on the field and how that adds greater balance to the WDS games.


So, what exactly does a unit’s Morale do? There is no short or simple answer to that question. At its core, unit Morale determines the probability a unit will become routed and their ability to recover from that rout. The Quality value of a unit is used as the base Morale for the unit by converting A to 6, B to 5, and on to F to 1. Units with a higher Morale value will be harder to rout in battle because their base value will be superior to that of other units. Conversely, units with a lower Morale value will rout more frequently because of their lower base value.


If Morale values were constant over time, it would be harder for lower-quality armies to defeat higher-quality armies without some way to lower their Morale and cause them to eventually rout. It would also be hard for lower-quality units to stand up to numerous Morale Checks without some way to raise their Morale. WDS took this into consideration and created Morale Check Unit Modifiers which would alter a units Morale given numerous applicable variables. All but one of the Modifiers result in a decrease to unit Morale.


Morale Check Unit Modifiers

1) If the unit is stacked with any Leader, then 1 is added to the Morale Base.

2) If the unit is Low on or Out of Ammo, then 1 is subtracted from the Morale Base.

3) If it is a Night turn, then 2 is subtracted from the Morale Base.

4) If the unit has Medium Fatigue, then 1 is subtracted from the Morale Base.

5) If the unit has High Fatigue, then 2 is subtracted from the Morale Base.

6) If the unit has been fired upon Enfilade, then 2 is subtracted from the Morale Base.

7) If the unit is Disrupted, then 1 is subtracted from the Morale Base.

8) If Mixed Organization Penalty Optional rule is in use and the unit is in a hex with any units from other brigades, then 1 is subtracted from the Morale Base.


Only one of the Morale Check Unit Modifiers is determined by an Optional Rule. We will discuss Mixed Organization Penalty later in this paper.


Morale values determine not only if a unit routs, but also when a unit recovers from rout. At the beginning of a player’s Movement Phase Rally Checks are performed on Routed units to see if they Rally. Routed units which Rally become Disrupted and are eligible to become un-Disrupted starting with the next turn. Again, the Quality of the unit is the base value for Morale for the Rally Check. These Modifiers are applied to this value to result in the final Morale value.


Rally Check Modifiers

1) If the unit is stacked with a Leader of the same organization or a higher level of that organization as the unit and if the Leadership rating of the Leader is higher than the unit's Quality value, the Morale Base is set equal to that rating. If the Leadership rating is equal to the unit's Quality value, then 1 is added to the Morale Base.

2) If it is a Night turn, then the Morale value of the unit is divided by 2 with fractions rounded up (for example 5 becomes 3).

3) If it is a Day turn, then the Morale value may be affected by Corps and Army Leaders in adjacent hexes using the same process for Leaders in the same hex.


A random Die Roll from 1 to 6 is compared with the resulting Morale value, and if the Die Roll is less than the Morale value, the unit becomes Disrupted.


I believe that the use of Quality to determine a units Morale base is an excellent method to help create balance in the WDS Civil War games. Without these unit variations, the game would be nearly unplayable as all units would be equal in quality but not in strength. The result would be the dominance of the numerically larger force in nearly every battle. Using Quality and Morale to also determine recovery from rout is another way to maintain gameplay balance. Higher-quality units will rally faster than low-quality units because of their higher Morale base. The Quality and Morale values are the chief method used by WDS to better balance the numerically unequal sides.

Leader Ratings

How did the Confederate States of America turn what should have been a 90-day war into one of the longest and bloodiest wars in American history? There are numerous possible answers to this question. But I think you have to start with Leadership. The Confederate armies, particularly in the east, had more competent, charismatic, and inspiring leadership than did the Union armies. These generals were able to devise better plans, motivate their men, and exploit the mistakes of their opponents. The Federal Army of the Potomac was led by a succession of bumblers from Irvin McDowell to Joseph Hooker, while the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was extremely well-led by Robert E. Lee. In the western theater, the situation was reversed. The Federal armies were eventually well-led by Ulysses S. Grant, while the Confederate armies were poorly led from start to finish.


There is no way to replicate the battlefield attributes of a historical general in a modern video game. Since we ourselves are commanding the armies and creating the tactics and strategies, whether or not Lee or Grant is present on the battlefield is inconsequential to the game because they are merely pixels on a screen. WDS, therefore, had to create some way to make the generals on the battlefield influence some aspects of the game that the player couldn’t directly control like they could strategy. WDS couldn’t just ignore the presence and power of generals on the battlefield since their actions were the chief reasons that battles were won or lost. To historically minded gamers, this would be heresy to do.


In the previous section we discussed how units become routed and how they recover from rout. In this section we will discuss the role Leaders play in the recovery of units from both disruption and routs.


WDS game designers assign a default Command and Leadership Rating to every Leader in the game ranging from A (best) to F (worst). How these are determined is up to the individual game designers. Generally, they seem to be based on the performance of the general in that particular battle as opposed to their overall performance in the Civil War.


The Command and Leadership ratings control different things within the games. Explaining and dissecting how Leadership and Command work in detail is not the purpose of this paper though. Therefore, I will give you a quick explanation and refer you to the game’s User’s Manual if you wish to learn even more. 


Command Ratings determine the ability of a unit to recover from disruption while Leadership Ratings help determine how quickly a unit can recover from a rout. The higher rated the Leaders, the more effective they will be at keeping their forces under control. It is also critically important to keep all Leaders within the Command Radius of their superior officer – and all regiments within the Command Radius of their Leaders. Leaders are only effective if they can exert their influence by being in the same area as their subordinates.


All of this creates balance in the games by rewarding armies that had superior leadership with an increased ability to control their units during combat. Units which are led by Leaders with poor ratings will be harder to control in battle and will spend more time Disrupted and Routed.


Charles S. Roberts was the founder of what would become Avalon Hill. In 1958, that company introduced “Gettysburg,” which is generally accepted as the first board game reenacting an actual historical battle. The hex-grid system was introduced in the 1961 version of the game and has become standard practice in many wargames since then. Hex-based wargames allow for the precise movement and placement of units and a multi-directional battle as each hex will have six neighboring hexes to contend with. Hexes also allow a game to be scalable, with many levels of detail possible depending on the geographical size of the hexes involved.


When the WDS games were created, it was only natural that they would adopt the hex system for their games. Each hex measures 125 yards across, the distance from the center of one hex to the center of an adjacent one is 125 yards. Each hex may include a maximum of 1,000 men or 20 Cannons or 8 combat units. Various other rules concerning how many units may enter the same hex may be found in the User’s Manual.


The hex size chosen by the WDS creators, and the units which can fit into it, has become one of the more hotly debated of all their decisions. For decades people have debated, argued, displayed images, drawn diagrams, and either supported or rejected the decision made by WDS. I am convinced that the debate will never end and so I will not state my opinion whether or not X number of men, guns, and/or horses will fit into an imaginary hex. I will instead only look at how the hexes, and their limits, affect gameplay.


Hexes, and the limits created for them, are another way in which WDS sought to create balance. If a hex had no manpower limit, then it might be possible for the larger army to mass an unstoppable force into a small area and roll over a smaller defending force with ease. Therefore, a limit had to be set. How and why WDS chose 1,000 men, 20 guns, and 8 units, specifically, is unknown to me. But the end result was a balancing of the forces through an enforced limitation of how many men, guns, and units, could fit into a certain area. A larger army can fit no more men into a five-hex arc than a smaller army can. Therefore, maneuvering and tactical skills become a necessity for both players in order to search for weaknesses in the enemy lines.


The hex limits set by WDS become important to honor because when you reduce the number of men per hex, without correspondingly adjusting the size and number of the hexes on the map, you potentially create a more static battlefield with too many units and not enough hexes to occupy. Using the classic WDS Gettysburg map as an example, the map is 154 x 161 hexes. For the Federal army to hold a line from Marsh Creek to Cemetery Hill to Two Taverns would require occupying about 150 hexes. The Federals have a total of 279 infantry units (73,375 men), 179 artillery units (356 guns), and 74 cavalry units (12,240 men). For them to hold 150 hexes, when the hex maximum is 1,000 men, would be impossible. While they could spread out their army with roughly 570 men and 2 guns in each hex, their opponents could, with a reasonable expectation of success, bring larger stacks and more guns against any single part of their line and break through. But if the hex limit was lowered to 500 men, the situation would become much different. The Federals would be able to create maximum stacks in all 150 hexes with enough men left over to form a ready reserve of over 10,000 men. It would be much more difficult for the Confederates to bring an irresistible force against any part of the Federal line as the Federals would be “max stacked” in all 150 hexes. The balance of the game would be compromised because the original 1,000-man hex limit is no longer being used as designed for the number and size of hexes on the map.


The theory behind 20 guns per hex and 8 units per hex is much the same. By limiting the number of guns and/or units per hex, you create balance between two imbalanced forces. Neither side can cram more units or guns into the same amount of space than the other side can. And the hex limit is set high enough so as not to allow either side to easily reach their max limit without draining resources from other parts of the line and thus weakening them. If either of these settings are reduced, it spreads the battle out and reduces the ability of either side to mass units and firepower where most needed.


In the specific case of artillery, the purpose of mass firepower is most often to support infantry defensively or to break the enemy infantry offensively. By reducing the number of guns per hex, you limit the ability of either side to fully use their artillery firepower to the best of its designed purposes. Infantry power must be balanced against artillery power. Messing with the balance compromises the power between the two branches and makes infantry more dominant. In short, artillery is a great balancing force in the game against the power of infantry in battle.


I believe the use of hexes by WDS was a natural and obvious thing to do as they sought to recreate the Avalon Hill games in a digital format for a new generation of gamers. Hexes, and the limits associated with them, create balance between the sides by not allowing either to present a line any stronger than their opponent over a set area – no matter how large or small their army is in total. The limits chosen by WDS for their hexes also work well in forcing the two sides to make critical decisions about where and when to reinforce specific hexes in order to achieve local superiority at the cost of weakening other parts of the line. If the hex limits are lowered, it makes it easier to max stack your forces in more places and creates a more static form of warfare with a lower probability of successful offensive action. Hex limits also work to balance the two main military branches of infantry and artillery against one another. In my opinion, the system set up for hexes by WDS is extremely effective in maintaining balance.

Part Two: The Five Optional Rule Balancing Elements

Part 2

Quality Fire Modifier and Quality Melee Modifier

As discussed earlier, every unit is given a Quality rating in the WDS games. This Quality rating acts as their Morale base and helps determine how well the unit can withstand and recover from battlefield friction. This was one of the three core methods used by the designers to create balance in the games.


One of the very first Optional Rules created by WDS sought to give an added advantage to High-Quality units in battle due to their status as veteran units. It also sought to give a disadvantage to Low-Quality units which were inexperienced at the same time. It was determined that the Optional Rules would give a 10% Fire Value and Melee Value boost to infantry and cavalry units which were rated A or B in Quality, while subjecting units rated E or F to a 10% Fire Value and Melee Value reduction.


Every new Optional Rule can fundamentally affect the balance of the game. In this instance, these Optional Rules would benefit the army on the battlefield with more High-Quality units than the other. But WDS knew that the historical argument for this Optional Rule outweighed the overall minimal affect it would have in the eventual outcome of the game. They wrote in the User’s Manual the following about this general topic:


What is the justification for the Quality Fire Modifiers Optional Rule? Are you saying that A and B units are sharpshooters?

No, this is not the intent of the rule. The rule is meant to reflect the more efficient and higher rate of fire that higher quality units were capable of, and the corresponding lower rate of fire that lower quality units generally had. Units with experience were able to keep their guns unjammed during a hot battle, even to the point of having slightly smaller caliber bullets on hand to use after their guns had become clogged from burnt gunpowder. Lower quality units could not sustain high rates of fire due to their inexperience and poor training. They also had poor habits such as sometimes inadvertently firing their ramrods at the enemy and thus reducing their ability to fire. For the same reason, higher quality units were more proficient with the use of the bayonet and thus the justification for the Quality Melee Modifiers Optional Rule.


Other historical arguments and facts will abundantly be found to support the basic idea that not all units performed equally in combat. Often veteran units performed better than inexperienced units and this fact is recreated by the usage of the Quality Modifiers Optional Rules. Because of the need to recognize the higher combat efficiency of veteran units in battle, the Optional Rule Modifiers were created. They are historically based Optional Rules with a clear purpose of affecting the combat ability of units based on their Quality. Therefore, these Optional Rules have always been amongst the most popularly used Optional Rules in the Civil War games.  


But do these Optional Rules affect the overall balance of the games and tilt the advantage to one side or the other? That is a question which has been asked, and will continue to be asked, for as long as people play these games. There is no definitive answer either which will please everyone. But my opinion is that they do not make the games unbalanced in the vast majority of scenarios. These Optional Rules could even be deemed critically necessary in maintaining the balance of the game in scenarios where a much larger lower-quality army is confronting a smaller higher-quality army. But there are also moments where these rules might actually be turned off to improve gameplay balance. In the rare cases where the larger army is also the qualitatively superior army, having these rules turned on is actually creating an imbalance in favor of one side over the other. But those are rare occurrences. (for more information see Appendix 2)

Density Fire Modifier

One of the first Optional Rules to be created after the initial set was the Density Fire Modifier Optional Rule (released with Version 1.01). The point of this rule was to discourage players from consistently placing over 2/3 the maximum number of allowed men into a single hex. Once a hex reaches that 2/3 limit (667 men in a game with 1000-man hex limits), a modifier would begin to increase the losses for the men in the hex. The modifier itself increases all the way up to 50% if an infantry stack reaches the maximum number of 1,000 men.


Overall, this Optional Rule creates another way for a smaller force to gain an advantage against a larger force in battle. This all comes back to the need for balance in the WDS Civil War games. If a larger army was able to move around the battlefield with 1,000-man stacks without any modifier against them for doing so, then they would be more likely to attempt to bludgeon their way through a smaller army’s lines. Because of the decreased ability of a smaller army to meet large stacks with their own large stacks, this seemed to offer the larger force an unfair advantage unless a Density Fire Modifier was put into place. The Density Fire Modifier would then act to increase the fire value of the smaller stack against the larger stack to make up for the inability of the smaller army to meet the enemy with equal numbers at all places. But the rule also works both ways, it equally penalizes the smaller army for overstacking men in hexes for their own purposes.


The historical justification for this rule is easy to understand. The more men crammed into a small area, the more likely it is that enemy fire would find a target. Because of the simple historical justification behind this rule, and it’s clear purpose of limiting the power of larger local forces over smaller ones when it comes to individual hex tactics, it has always been a popular one which is rarely questioned or turned off.

Rout Limiting

Not all Optional Rules seek to create balance between numerically unbalanced forces, some seek to create balance between qualitatively unbalanced forces. Rout Limiting is another of the “original” Optional Rules that WDS designed. This rule can be complicated to explain and understand. To quote the User’s Manual:


Will reduce the amount of secondary routing that occurs. The default routing rules require that units adjacent to a unit that has failed its morale check must also take a morale check. This is applied recursively if those units also fail their check. While this can result in the rout of large number of units, given normal probabilities it is “self limiting’’, that is it stops after a certain number of iterations based on the situation. When Rout Limiting is in effect, units in adjacent hexes undergoing a morale check receive a progressively larger modifier to their default morale. This modifier starts at 1 and is increased by 1 for each iteration based on a failed morale check. So, for example, if unit A fails their morale check, unit B in an adjacent hex undergoes a morale check with +1 added to their default morale. If unit B fails this test, then unit C in an adjacent hex to B undergoes a morale check with +2 added to their default morale and so on. Therefore, as these modifiers increase, a point is reached where units stop routing which, in general, will be before they would have stopped otherwise.


Essentially, it helps to reduce mass panic among lower-quality troops as a result of routing. Such an Optional Rule benefits neither the larger nor smaller army. Instead, this rule benefits the side with the lower-rated units. This is another example of balancing which is used by WDS to create a more level playing field. Without this Optional Rule being used, it would be more difficult to control a large number of low-quality units in a battle. Without the rule in place, the higher-quality units would be even more dominant on the battlefield. This is a very common rule to use in the Civil War games despite having questionable historical justification. But from a “balancing” perspective, it works well and accomplishes its goal.

Mixed Organization Penalty

Released with Version 2.0, Mixed Organization Penalty has been generally accepted by most Civil War gamers as another balancing tool for the imbalanced forces. The rule states that:


Adds a -1 morale modifier applied to units in the same hex with units from different brigades for Morale Checks, any unit other than an officer that is not part of a unit's brigade will result in this modifier being applied.


But this rule has met with more criticism than most Optional Rules because it affects the Morale base of units for being “mixed” with other units (as defined by WDS). Does being “disorganized,” or “mixed,” with other units actually cause a drop in morale? Probably not. But there is plenty of historical justification to say that units which are intermixed in battle with other units lose unit cohesion and are harder, if not impossible, to control. They ceased to be meaningful tactical units.


Mixed Organization Penalty prevents armies from stacking multiple units into a hex from various organizations and moving ahistorically around the map with perfect cohesion and morale. Getting hundreds of soldiers in the same unit, even with months of training, to move together on a drill field is very hard. Merging multiple units unknown to each other, from various brigades in the army, into a confined area on a chaotic battlefield and expecting them to move like a well-oiled machine is absurd. Without this rule, organization integrity would be meaningless. In 19th Century warfare, organizational integrity was essential in order to efficiently command and move troops in battle.


Because the designers could not allow “mixed” units to move in such a confined hex-space with perfect synchronization, they had, in my opinion, two options. They could either cause the units to become “Disrupted” upon entering the same hex as each other, or create a morale penalty for units from different commands sharing the same hex. Why they chose one over the other is not for me to hypothesize. But they chose what they chose and it serves its purpose as well as the other might have. The Mixed Organization Penalty is yet another example of the Optional Rules being used to create balance between imbalanced forces. In this instance, it is between armies with high organizational integrity, and those without it.  

Conclusion: Balancing an Imbalanced War


The WDS Civil War games present a very well-balanced gaming experience. Their Three Core Balancing Elements, coupled with numerous balancing Optional Rules, have combined to form a very challenging and perpetually amusing brand of gaming. In fact, in the nearly 20,000 recorded battles in the ACWGC’s Department of Records, the two sides have a win/loss record that is separated by just 124 games. For any game series to be played 20,000 times, and have results which are that close, is a tribute to the design decisions of the game creators.


Because many historical balancing methods were impossible to fully recreate (such as superior strategy, higher morale, effective use of terrain, and greater leadership), they opted to create core elements which affected Quality/Morale, Leader Ratings, and Hex limitations.


These core elements sought to balance three different parts of the game –

Unit Quality and Morale: This balances the ability of a larger force to dominate a smaller force by giving the smaller force superior fighting skills.

Leader Ratings: This creates variations in leadership abilities between historical commanders and allows forces with superior leadership to fight longer and steadier against forces led by inferior commanders.

Hex Limitations: This limits the abilities of armies to achieve overwhelming local superiority by restricting the number of men, units, and guns, they can move into a single hex. Essentially, this forces each side to use the hexes in the same manner – regardless of the overall sizes of the two armies.


While these core elements balanced the games well, it was felt that Optional Rules might balance them even better and create a more historical game overall. Players could adopt these Optional Rules or not based on their own preferences. But the five Optional Rules which most directly dealt with balance all reinforced the core elements listed above.


Unit Quality Modifiers: These sought to further differentiate between veteran units and untried units on the field of battle. This better balanced the often more experienced and smaller veteran units versus the often larger and less experienced units.

Density Fire Modifier: This rule addressed hex limitation issues which allowed players to create large stacks in hexes without any penalty for placing men many ranks deep. This balanced the small and large stacks by increasing the modifiers against larger stacks.

Rout Limiting: This Optional Rule sought to limit the influence that Morale and Quality would have on the ability of low-quality units to fight a sustained battle. This balanced the ability of low-quality and high-quality units by making it easier for low-quality units to hold the line of battle in a crisis.

Mixed Organization Penalty: This rule also tweaks the mechanics of hex management as it creates a morale penalty for mixing units from various commands within a single hex. This balances the game by penalizing players for the ahistorical mixing of commands and creates incentives for properly managing your forces based on the 19th Century style of linear warfare which necessitated command cohesion.


When all these different balancing forces are combined, you begin to see all the many ways in which WDS creates numerous checks and balances to prevent any one strategy or approach to the games from being applicable in every situation. This has caused the games to be constantly challenging to all players as the same approach will never work two times in a row in any game – even when playing the same opponent. All of the game’s variables are impossible to ever account for and any attempt to “master” the game is futile.


When players play the WDS Civil War games, they often attribute the events which occur in them to either good or bad “luck.” There is no such thing in these games. Every outcome is the result of countless mathematical calculations going on behind the scenes that have nothing to do with luck. It is believed that the Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Whether he did or didn’t, George Patton certainly agreed with him. Patton was quoted repeating the phrase as “There is no such thing as luck, merely opportunity meeting preparedness.” The best strategy for any player who wishes to improve their abilities in these games is to study the user’s manual and be prepared for any battlefield situation which comes your way. Knowing all the rules, and how outcomes are determined, will help you to make informed decisions with the highest probabilities of success. At that point, whether you win or lose, life goes on, and it is only a game.

Appendix 1: Unit Quality Ratings, Balance, and "History"


All Quality Ratings are subjective. There are no “official” ratings for Civil War units determined by a panel of qualified historians weighing hundreds of variables, even if there was, arguments would continue. Instead, WDS unit ratings were created by game designers who were trying to balance numerous factors in order to present a good scenario with a high and enjoyable playability rate. While some combat units have well-known historical reputations for excellence, the majority were of average quality. The greater factor differentiating the two armies was more often in leadership and strategy than it was in training or unit quality. But as mentioned earlier, leadership and strategy are impossible to replicate in a video game. Therefore, Quality Ratings alone would have to replicate some part of those missing battlefield elements. Quality Ratings are also the most popular and easiest way to balance two imbalanced forces when it comes to the overall size of the armies. The more extreme the difference in the size of the forces on the battlefield, usually the more extreme the difference in Quality Ratings become, and the less “historical” it all feels. But it is absolutely essential for scenario balance that this occurs no matter how strange it might be when you review the ratings as a whole.


Let’s begin by admitting what we all know and are thinking – Quality Ratings are set artificially high for the Confederate forces in many scenarios, especially those dealing with the 1864 and 1865 campaigns. One need only examine the Battle of Bentonville for indisputable proof of this fact. The Confederate Army of Tennessee, beaten, demoralized, crumbling apart, and missing nearly half its officer corps, is given a record-high rating of 5.67 in the battle for its infantry. In no other battle, and I have examined many, does any army surpass this mark in quality (not even Lee’s veterans). Meanwhile, the Federal Army of the Tennessee infantry, victorious and well-led, is rated a paltry 4.28. To those passionately arguing that the only way any significantly inferior force can stand up to a larger one is through Quality manipulation, I agree. Bentonville is the most sterling example of just that design and balancing principle in action. But there is zero historical justification for rating the 1865 Army of Tennessee infantry higher than any force fielded throughout the entire Civil War on either side, is there? The decision to do so was a gameplay one and disconnected from real history. But the right one to make from a strictly gaming viewpoint.


This same principle is used elsewhere throughout the WDS series in order to make a numerically inferior force of infantry have a greater ability to stand up to a larger force. Whether or not the force being artificially aided was historically the “better” force is irrelevant in many of these decisions. I believe the above Bentonville example is the most definitive example I can give of that principle in practice. But you can also point to the Battle of Shiloh for further proof. Roughly half of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee were combat veterans by the Battle of Shiloh, having seen action at Forts Henry and Donelson. The Confederate army contained extremely few experienced units and just as few experienced leaders. Grant and his officers had already captured one Confederate army in battle while Johnston had abandoned Kentucky and Tennessee to the victorious Federals. Yet, the scenario balance would be badly off if the Confederate infantry were rated lower than the Federal infantry while also being outnumbered. This would make the scenario extremely difficult, if not unwinnable, from the Confederate viewpoint. Therefore, the Confederate infantry is artificially boosted in Quality and rated higher than the Federal infantry. Just as with Bentonville, this is disconnected from real history.


One other example might be the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. In this small battle, the Federal forces are outnumbered more than 2 to 1 by the Confederates in Missouri. Both sides have largely militia or newly raised volunteer forces of dubious battlefield value. We often forget this battle occurred just three weeks after the First Battle of Bull Run. “You are all green alike,” Lincoln told McDowell before that pivotal battle, and the same would theoretically hold true in Missouri. But, because the Federals are so badly outnumbered, they have an advantage in infantry quality of over of over a full grade – 4.05 vs. 2.85. Without this advantage, the scenario would be imbalanced and practically unplayable.


The above examples are all ways in which video game balancing techniques can be manipulated to aid one side or the other in order to make a scenario more enjoyable and playable for both sides. Without these obvious manipulations of Quality, the above scenarios would be imbalanced, and the game would suffer for it. In all three cases above, the larger army was purposefully given a lower Quality rating because of the necessity to give the smaller army an opportunity to win the scenario. Even when historical facts and commonsense would dictate otherwise, such as at Shiloh and Bentonville, this technique was followed.


My opinion, which seems to be supported by the design of WDS scenarios, is that Unit Quality Ratings should be more about achieving gameplay balance and less about honoring an arbitrary rating of military units.

Appendix 2: Compromising over Optional Rules: Why and Why Not


I feel that a growing trend that I see in recent years is people pinpointing a singular thing, or rule, that they do not like about the WDS games and strenuously objecting to it. While all people are entitled to their opinions, I often wonder if they understand that blindly objecting to any single balancing point threatens to unbalance other aspects of the game.  


The WDS games are very complex and work on numerous levels. By objecting to one of the key ways in which the games are balanced, you risk unbalancing the game by allowing a certain tactic or approach to be more successful than another because of the game mechanics being skewed.


Without the Quality Modifiers, the larger army would find it easier to engage in fire combat and dole out equal or greater losses to their opponents and bully their way across the map. With the rules, the smaller army can inflict equal or greater losses on their opponents despite having fewer men because of their higher quality and fire values.


Without the Mixed Organization Penalty, armies with more units would be able to more easily mix random stacks of units without any loss of unit cohesion or effectiveness. But with the rule, armies are forced to pay very close attention to how they are organized and the manner in which they mix stacks and move their forces.


The WDS games work best when all of their balancing elements are working in harmony together. There were clear and obvious reasons for designing the three core elements of the games the way that they did. There are equally compelling reasons why they designed the five balancing Optional Rules in the manner that they did. Without an overwhelming reason to turn off one of these Optional Rules, you really shouldn’t. And, simply saying, “you don’t like it,” likely isn’t a good enough reason to convince any educated opponent to do so. Because, chances are, what you don’t like is the very thing that they do like because they feel it balances the game fairly.


But there are times when any Optional Rule, including Quality Modifiers and Mixed Organization Penalty, can be turned off without affecting the game balance to any great degree. And there are even cases where they probably should be turned off as a way to better balance the game. Not all scenarios were designed perfectly and sometimes they need some tweaking in order to play more competitively. In other instances, the scenarios are so well designed, and the armies so evenly matched, that the usage of some of the Optional Rules likely won’t affect one side more than other and so they can be turned on or off to suit the players involved. But what are some examples, to me, where turning off Optional Rules is advisable or preferable?


As a general rule, in games where the two sides are roughly even in number and quality, you can, and should, be comfortable with playing without the added Optional Rules for Quality Modifiers. This is because neither side “needs” the advantage of higher fire values since the two armies are nearly equal anyways. In a battle like Chickamauga, it is actually probably a good idea to turn them off. Otherwise the Confederate side would have the double-advantage of having more men and better quality on the battlefield. If you are the Confederate player and do not care for that idea, you might suggest also turning off the Mixed Organization Penalty as your army contains more small units. Here is an example where turning off a few Optional Rules might actually benefit both sides.


Another argument can be made to turn off Mixed Organization Penalty for scenarios like Antietam. Here the Confederates are already outnumbered and outgunned, and likely will need to mix stacks in order to most effectively fight the battle. Turning off that Optional Rule will better balance this particular scenario.


With the Density Fire Modifier, you shouldn’t be afraid to turn it off for scenarios like First Bull Run, Shiloh, or the Seven Days battles. In these encounters, both sides have a large number of units with more than 500 men. The balancing effects of the Density Fire Modifier, to prevent one side with more large units from dominating the side with more small units, is not really needed in these scenarios. All it does it run up the casualties faster as both sides can hardly avoid passing the 667-man limit where the rule takes effect.


Turning off Rout Limiting might be a harder sell to a player whose army has a larger number of low-quality units than his opponent. But when both armies are roughly equal in quality, this is an acceptable, and perhaps preferable, rule to turn off. It will create more chaos on the battlefield for the player who fails to more effectively use his command and control. It would also be a good one to turn off for battles which historically occurred with an element of surprise. Turning off Rout Limiting for scenarios at Shiloh or Chancellorsville, or even in the Wilderness or Spotsylvania, could add a greater degree of realism to the battle and benefit the army who is attacking.


No single Optional Rule, or set of Optional Rules, is ideal for every scenario in the WDS library because all scenarios were created with varying degrees of balance. In short, don’t be so entrenched around what you perceive as the “correct” Optional Rules that you become blind to how they affect the gameplay overall and refuse to consider other viewpoints. Hopefully you and your opponent can have an intelligent discussion about the type of battle you are hoping to play and how the Optional Rules might be altered to better make that a reality. With luck you can reach an accord and play your game in an agreeable manner to both parties. Just as there is no single strategy to win every scenario, there is no single Optional Rule setup which best suits every scenario. Think about it.

Appendix 3: House Rules


House Rules are tricky things. These self-imposed “optional rules” are rules created by the players themselves to address an issue they collectively feel needs to be changed. These are meant to benefit both sides equally and address an issue which presents a potential problem for both parties.


The most classic example, in my mind, of a perfectly fair House Rule, is the one written into our Club Rules as Rule Players will not use officers not stacked with a cavalry, artillery, or infantry unit as scouts in front of friendly lines. The purpose of this House Rule is to prevent either side from scouting ahead with officers in order to uncover enemy positions (making the fog of war harder for both players). But is this historical at all? No. There are countless, and sometimes fatal, examples of officers riding ahead of their front lines to scout enemy positions before or during a battle. How else could a general really know the ground he was to fight on unless he saw it himself? This was especially true in an era with few reliable maps. But this particular House Rule “cuts both ways” and puts neither side at a disadvantage. It is an example of a truly fair House Rule.  


Any proposed House Rule needs to be fully considered for how it will affect gameplay and game balance. If any House Rule definitively improved gameplay for both sides equally, it stands to reason that WDS would have adopted it as either an Optional Rule or a Core Element and used it themselves. Therefore, you have to at least question what any proposed House Rule will do to the balance of gameplay before agreeing to it.


Remember, these are video games. WDS often chooses to prioritize gameplay balance over historical veracity to achieve a better overall gaming experience for the players. Any House Rules should be looked at, first and foremost, within the context of how it affects gameplay balance before the question of historical veracity is even considered. If you do prioritize historical veracity over gameplay balance, there is nothing wrong with that approach so long as you can find others who agree with you and are willing to play by those rules.


In the end, it is up to the individual players to decide how, or if, they wish to play the game with any rules other than those set forth by WDS.

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