[REVIEW] IN MAGNIFICENT STYLE: PICKETT’S ON A ROLL

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“General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as anyone, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” -Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, when ordered by General Robert E. Lee to attack the center of the Union line at Gettysburg

Longstreet was as right as his beard was awesome. The Confederate assault he referred to and commanded, which came to be known as Pickett’s Charge, turned out like Midway did for the Japanese in WWII. After its failure (and the fall of Vicksburg in the west that same month), the Confederates remained on the defensive for the remainder of the war.

This charge would be a difficult and pointless action to simulate, so it’s good that designer Hermann Luttmann made no attempt to do so when creating In Magnificent Style, the first title in Victory Point Games’ Death Or Glory series. Instead he made an interesting press-your-luck system that captures the desperate feel of a suicide run but has just enough chrome to constantly remind you that this is Pickett’s Charge. There’s Emmitsburg road. There’s the Angle. There’s the stone wall and sneaky ambushes and Rebel Yells and smoke and death and miracles and glory.

In short, there is chaos, so if you demand a modicum of control from your games, close this browser window immediately. Some consider this Confederate Can’t Stop, and while it has a few basic similarities to that Sid Sackson classic there’s plenty more here for both dice game fans and Civil War buffs.

THE COMPONENTS

Normally I don’t discuss components much, but this deserves special mention. Victory Point Games has a reputation for being long on gameplay but short on production values. Opening the ziplock bags the company distributes its products in, one is confronted by unmounted maps, dull colors, ugly counters, and mediocre art that really make it hard to get other players interested in these great little games.

Fortunately for all of us, VPG just bought a new printer and a new laser cutter for its counters, and uses both to produce its new Gold Banner line. In Magnificent Style is part of that, and the quality is phenomenal. The map looks great and is clearly marked without looking cluttered. The rule book has bold colors and jet black text. And the counters. Oh, the counters. They are at least twice as thick as what you’re used to playing with and seem more like wood cutouts than paper. The only downside to the new production methods is that the laser cutter leaves scorch marks on their faces and soot on their edges. The former problem is always there (and actually seems fitting for this game), but the latter problem goes away in time. You’ve simply never seen counters like this before, and you will love them.

PLAYING THE GAME

“We all moved off in as magnificent style as I ever saw, the lines perfectly formed.”- Confederate Commander John T. Jones

In Magnificent Style takes place on a 9×9 grid, with one Confederate brigade starting in each column below the grid facing off against one Union brigade in each column above the grid. Confederate brigades start with 10 strength, and Union brigades start with 5. The Confederate brigades also get a Rally marker, which stays behind as they move forward and factors into all kinds of events, including how far a brigade retreats and how much damage they take from enemy fire. When a brigade is activated to move you can instead move its Rally marker up to its current location, which prevents the brigade from activating again that turn but solidifies their position. Deciding when to move the brigade and when to halt and let their Rally marker catch up are the main decisions you make throughout the game.

The grid is subdivided vertically into three sections with three brigades each, representing a division. Each division has one general assigned to it (Pettigrew on the left, Trimble in the center, and Pickett on the right) that can be attached to any brigade in his division, then reassigned to another brigade within that division each turn if you want to. Generals confer benefits I’ll discuss later.

The map is also divided horizontally into three sections, with a green zone at the bottom of the map, a yellow zone in the middle, and a red zone at the top nearest the Union positions. In general the green zone is safer than the yellow zone, which in turn is safer than the red zone when it comes to resolving events during the game. Some areas of the map, like Emmitsburg Road, are obstacles that slow down your troops, while others serve as cover or kill zones.

Your job, if you haven’t divined it already, is to get your brigades to the other side of the map, breach the Union line, and capture their positions. Ideally you kill the enemy before you get there. If not, it’s time to fix bayonets and pray that God is not a Yankee.

Advancing is straightforward. Each turn you can activate each of your brigades in any order you wish. After activating a brigade you roll 2d6 and compare the results to a movement chart that has 36 possible outcomes, comprised of 8 different types (some things I haven’t discussed are referenced here, but hang in there, it’ll all make sense soon):

Advance (12/36)
This is the most common result statistically (unless you’re me). The brigade advances one space (unless it is advancing into an obstacle) and then activates again.

Heavy Fire (8/36)
This is bad. The brigade can either take hits equal to half the distance to its Rally marker (rounded up), stay put, and activate again, or it can fall back to its Rally marker (taking no hits) and not activate again. Either way, you must also draw and resolve a Union Event marker.

C’mon Boys! (8/36)
Now we’re talkin’! The brigade moves forward one space, even if there is an obstacle in their path, you get to draw and resolve one Confederate Event marker, and the brigade activates again.

Light Fire (2/36)
Bad news. The brigade takes one hit, doesn’t move, and activates again.

Determined Advance (2/36)
Here you get a choice. The brigade can advance two spaces (one if it is moving into an obstacle) and activate again, or you can move all three brigades in the division one space (as long as they aren’t moving into an obstacle) and activate the brigade again. Both these options are much more valuable than they sound on paper.

Against The Wind (2/36)
A mixed bag. The brigade takes one hit, moves one space forward (taking a second hit if its moving into an obstacle), and you draw and resolve one Union Event marker and one Confederate Event marker. Then the brigade activates again.

Rout! (1/36)
Snake eyes. An unmitigated disaster. The brigade takes hits equal to half its distance from its Rally marker, and then both it and the Rally marker are moved back to their start space. The brigade does not activate again, and you must draw and resolve one Union Event marker. This will make you cry if it happens when you are on the verge of breaching the Union line.

On To Washington! (1/36)
Boxcars, baby! This is fireworks and beer and donuts and sports cars and various other hedonistic things best not mentioned on the Geek. You get two choices. One is to move two spaces (one if advancing into an obstacle), move the Rally marker up to the brigade, draw and resolve a Confederate Event marker, and activate again. The second is to move all three brigades in the division one space (unless they move into an obstacle), move all their Rally markers up to them, draw and resolve a Confederate Event marker, and activate the brigade again. Moving the Rally marker up like that during a turn provides a tremendous advantage because it mitigates the effects of bad movement rolls and bad Event markers. This is especially true if the brigade moved several spaces before rolling this result.

This is already a neat system, but there’s more.

THE CHROME

“Looking up the valley towards Gettysburg, the hills on either side were capped with crowns of flame and smoke, as 300 guns, about equally divided between the two ridges, vomited their iron hail upon each other.” -Confederate Brigadier General Evander M. Law

Civil War battles were chaotic, and this action was particularly so. A massive pre-charge artillery bombardment by both sides covered the battlefield in swirling smoke, and was fought at long enough distance that the Confederates had no idea how successful their effort had been (it was wholly ineffectual, even though they were chewed up by the Union guns during the exchange). Advancing troops fired almost blindly in the general direction of the Union line, ignorant to where their bullets struck.

This confusion is elegantly conveyed in the game by placing face-up Fire markers on Union positions hit by artillery or infantry attacks. The strength of Union brigades is reduced by one for each fire marker on it, which reduces the amount of hits they dish out when certain Event markers are pulled. As the Confederate troops advance the markers are revealed (one by one if the advancing force is in the middle of the map, or all at once if it is close to its objective), and their effects are applied. Sometimes they result in hits, permanently reducing the strength of the Union brigade, but often they resolve as heartbreaking misses that have no effect. A few Fire markers also have special effects that suppress or otherwise hinder a Union brigade for the remainder of the turn.

I don’t know if any other game uses this system, but it is perfect for a Civil War fight where troops might lay down enough fire to keep their opponent’s heads down but not actually kill many of them. It models suppression and the general inaccuracy of Civil War equipment surprisingly well for being so simple and easy to track.

The Event markers referenced above also add a lot of flavor to the proceedings. They are large counters with Union-related events on one side and Confederate-related events on the other. Drawing a Union Event marker may trigger an artillery bombardment in one section of the grid, cause Union troops to fire, kill Confederate generals, or even model historical events that happened during the actual fight. Confederate events generally do favorable things for your side, including letting you move brigades, fire at a Union position, attack with artillery, use smoke for cover, and call in reinforcements. There is a huge pile of these counters, and they are just what the game needs to increase verisimilitude without increasing complexity.

Finally, there are the General markers. As mentioned, each division has one general that can be attached to any of its three brigades, and on your turn you can flip the general to his Used side to get an advantage. They can add Fire markers to attacks, help get more reserves, provide a bonus in bayonet combat, and reduce the effects of Morale Checks caused by some Union Event markers.

You also get to invoke the power of General Lee once per game and call on Longstreet twice per game. The Lee marker prevents all brigades from retreating during an entire turn, and provides a potentially game-changing advantage if you manage to save it until your brigades are on the verge of overrunning the Union positions. Longstreet lets you transfer strength points between two units in the same division and is great for shoring up a weak brigade before a final assault (or creating a brigade if one is shattered completely).

The problem with using either of these generals is that on the turn they are on the board they are vulnerable to Union Event markers that kill generals, and losing either of them immediately negates their bonus and costs you dearly during final scoring. (Take it from me, the guy who watched Lee prevent a brigade from routing at a critical moment just before Lee took a minie ball between the eyes.)

WINNING THE GAME

“General, I have no division.” -Confederate Major General George Pickett, responding to General Lee’s request to position his division to repel a feared Union counterattack after Pickett’s Charge

If you somehow manage to get one of your ragged brigades to the Union lines and then roll well enough to get them onto a Union position (which are considered obstacles), bayonet combat begins. This is determined by a dice roll modified by relative brigade strengths and other variables, and is as bloody, brutal, and decisive as it bayonet combat historically was. You only have five turns to get as many of your brigades on Union positions as you can, and then you get victory points based on their remaining strength and any generals you have left. If you manage to take four or five consecutive Union positions you get a big Breach bonus, and if you can get six you get an even bigger Breakthrough bonus. I would wish you luck, but I don’t like to waste wishes on lost causes.

IS IT WORTH YOUR TIME?

I look for three main things in my games:

ARE THE DECISIONS INTERESTING?
They are agonizing, but not necessarily interesting. This is a reactive system where you are forced to roll with the punches instead of a proactive system where you can plan and strategize, ao actual decision making is simple. Should you keep pushing the brigade, or stop and regroup? Do you want to concentrate an artillery bombardment or spread it around? Is it best to shore up a single brigade to increase its odds dramatically in bayonet combat, or leave things as they are and hope that two brigades eke out a victory? Is it time to bust out Lee or Longstreet? Random dice rolls make the outcome of all of these choices a crapshoot, so ultimately the results of your decisions are more interesting than the decisions themselves.

Some people won’t like that, and I’m normally one of them, but here it works. It arguably does a better job of simulating what it’s like to be a general than games with thick rulebooks and meticulous detail accomplish. Generals play the odds until they are forced (by circumstances, orders, or ego) to gamble and hope they don’t crap out. That’s this game in a nutshell.

IS THERE A CLEAR SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT OR FAILURE?
There are several paragraphs in the back of the rule book that let you know how you did based on what score you achieved. This adds a nice bit of closure, but the game is so random that I never feel I deserve much credit for the victories I achieve. Oddly enough, I take full personal responsibility for my many, many failures. I give this game props for providing some insight into why Lee and many other great generals also felt this way.

IF THERE IS A THEME, IS IT TIGHTLY INTEGRATED WITH THE DESIGN?

As tightly as it can be for such a light game. The Event and General markers do a good job of presenting the particulars of this battle, and they dovetail with the surprisingly good combat model to help make you feel like you’re commanding Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg instead of A Random Assault on a Generic Location.

THE VERDICT

I was really worried when I bought this that it would be far too simplistic and random to hold my interest. Instead its simplicity made it easy to learn and play, and its randomness served the theme far better than I thought was possible. It seems indefensible as a game, because really all you do is roll dice and pull a lot of random event chits. But I dare you to try it and not cheer your brigades on, feel crestfallen when they are pummeled, and be elated when they manage to punch through the Union lines against all odds. I triple dog dare you.

The only thing I fear for is replayabilty. There’s a lot of randomness, just as there is with Victory Point Games’ States Of Siege line, but playing those is like experiencing an epic book while In Magnificent Style plays out more like a brief excerpt. It’s not like you can make new plans or try out new strategies since everything is so tactical and dice-driven. I’m having a blast with it now, but wonder how many times I can watch the same units march straight into the jaws of death before it gets stale.

I suppose there’s only one way to find out. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

“Well, it is all over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying. Your Soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather, a million times rather, be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.” – Confederate Major General,George Pickett, in a letter to his fiancee written after Pickett’s Charge