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Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley' from Tiny Battle Publishing   Before we start ...

Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley' Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley'

Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley'

Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley'

Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley' from Tiny Battle Publishing

  Before we start a discussion on "Conquering the Valley", let me give you some of my gaming background.

I got my first wargames over fifty years ago: Tactics II, Gettysburg (1964) edition, Waterloo, Battle of the Bulge, Gettysburg (1977) and more Avalon Hill classics. Santa's workshop must have only made AH products because that is all that I ever got. Since I still have most of those games, I would say that Gettysburg (1977), Waterloo and Battle of the Bulge got the most play.

My main gaming interest leans towards the American Civil War for two reasons; I share January 19th as a birthday with Robert E. Lee (we had a print of Lee in our house) and I went to "Washington & Lee University" for my undergraduate work. Though it may seem like I'm from the South, my mother's family is from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and my father's ancestors are from Illinois. Other than my time at Washington & Lee, I've never lived in the South and none of my ancestors served for the Confederacy.

As for the Napoleonic era, I would have to say that it is a rather distant second era of interest but I still have dabbled in those types of games. Though I have always had an interest in the Second World War, I find less and less time available for studying it so all my old Avalon Hill WWII games have been moved to the back of the game shelves.

I got started in game design/development/testing in late 2016 when I saw a GMT pre-order advertisement for "Longstreet Attacks". I signed up and noted that they mentioned a game called "Stonewall's Sword" that would be a good introduction to Hermann Luttmann's system. I went ahead, ordered the game and started to learn the "Blind Swords" system. I then got "Thunder in the Ozarks" and continued to comment about the games online (BGG & Consimworld). Roger Miller of Revolution Games mentioned that they were always looking for new designers so I asked if I could give it a try. We decided to start with "Kernstown" and that is how I first spoke with Rick Barber. While I was just starting with Kernstown, GMT released Hermann's "Longstreet Attacks" game and it ended up at Revolution Games. I managed to join with Fred Manzo and Steve Poitinger in play testing the game (which had initially caught my eye in the first place).

Longstreet Attacks Counters

Testing "Longstreet Attacks" lasted for eleven months, and it was a great introduction to game design and development. With guidance from Hermann Luttmann and Roger Miller (Revolution Games), we played, tweaked, replayed, tweaked again and then moved on to the next scenario. When we got to the final full battle scenario, we had to tweak a few more things and so we then went back and rechecked the smaller scenarios just to make sure that they still worked. It turned out to be quite an experience and I will always be thankful for being allowed to join the group.

Speaking of the group, I traveled to Gettysburg to meet with a few of the guys and that is how I actually met Rick Barber. Since I live outside of Pittsburgh, PA, I could drive over to the Harrisburg area, pick up Rick (he didn't drive) and take him down to Gettysburg. Wow what an experience that was; Rick was truly an artist and that first trip into his basement to see all of his maps was amazing. First of all, how he could do all of his great mapwork in a dark, cramped basement that looked more like a hermit's cave than an art studio was a mystery to me. Once his mother passed away, he moved everything up to a much larger, light and airy studio but that was probably only for 18 months before he passed away.

More importantly, walking the Gettysburg battlefield with Rick was truly an eye-opening experience. Instead of concentrating on monuments, statutes and cannons, Rick pointed out the lay of the land and some tips on how to read it. Right after the first controlled burn around Little Round Top and Hood's attack route, Rick and I visited the field with a last draft of the "Longstreet Attacks" map. Since the ground had just been burned two weeks before, we were able to walk and observe what Hood's men crossed as they headed for the Union forces. As I walked that ground with Rick's map in hand, I was truly amazed at how many details that Rick got exactly right. If Rick put a tree line on one side of a hex, it was there; if there was a large rock on the map, there was a large rock on the field too.

Once I started to look at the land like a cartographer, it was like I was back at Gettysburg for the first time. I still checked monuments and cannons but now I was looking at the line of sight and lay of the land issues. I changed my focus towards mapping issues and now I try to get to all the battlefields that I may use in a game. I get a much better feel for the fight because books and maps are great but little things lurk on the actual battlefield that are important for game design. Besides making for a better game, looking at a battlefield this way makes visits to familiar battlefields new again.

Using those lessons, I went to Kernstown in January of 2017 and then a number of times during the summer. I got to meet a nice group of people  (Kernstown Battlefield Association) who are working hard on preserving a smaller battlefield and doing a good job at it. I was able to apply Rick's "eye" to my observations and then report back to Rick on how his map matched the actual land. Since the core area to the west of the Valley Turnpike is still saved, Rick got that ground right. The ground to the east of the Valley Turnpike has been graded and developed so that had to be drawn from old maps; overall I like Rick's work on Kernstown.

Kernstown Map

My next game was "Thunder at Dawn" (Wilson's Creek) and that ended up being the last map that Rick Barber worked on. He sent the final copy in to Revolution Games two weeks before he died. While that was going on, I worked with Hexasim on Quatre Bras and their combined game that included Ligny. In addition, I worked on "Fire on the Mountain" with John Poniske and Legion Games. Finally, I continued to work with Hermann Luttmann on "The Devil To Pay" with Tiny Battles and "A Most Fearful Sacrifice" with Flying Pig Games.

"A Most Fearful Sacrifice" was another 11-month monster project and it included Rick Barber's last map on Gettysburg. Though it took forever to complete, Rick hand drew and colored the 60" x 41" map and he really created a masterpiece. As for the process, Mark Walker was extremely generous in allowing us to do pretty much whatever we wanted. If we wanted different hats for the Iron Brigade, "sure". Add dog mascots to the appropriate counters, "why not". Tweak the uniforms for various units, "let's do it". The graphics for the game really deserved their CSR Award.

As for the switch from chits to cards, it was really very simple. We started out with chits but by the time that we realized that there were over 30 chits in the cup for day one alone, it was time to do something different. Hermann wanted to do cards and so we made the switch. As it worked out, it was one of the best changes that we made to the original "Blind Swords" system. After the numerous changes, we decided to change the game system name to something based on "BS". Since Dan Sickles' unusual move was something totally unexpected, we went with "Black Swan" for those utterly irrational events that just seem to crop up throughout history. As we kept testing the scenarios over the 11-month period, we kept raving over how much we liked the game. Though there was more than one comment that we "were preaching to the choir", the CSR Awards were a nice affirmation that we indeed created a great game.

Both Beautiful and Big!

After "A Most Fearful Sacrifice" was finished, Mark Walker asked Hermann if he wanted to do a simpler series of games for Tiny Battles Publishing and Hermann was kind enough to ask me to join in; hence the "Shattered Union" series was born. Trying to use some of the key parts of the "Black Swan" system, these games are supposed to be faster playing battles at a lower price point. Hence, they lack a mounted map board or extravagantly detailed counters but they should be fairly easy to understand if you are familiar with the "Black Swan" system. Hermann's "Champion Hill" was the first game and he also took Fredericksburg. I got "Conquering the Valley" and Gettysburg-July 4th. After some discussion, the Gettysburg-July 4th game became another scenario for the second printing of "A Most Fearful Sacrifice" and I decided to do Brawner Farm (2nd Manassas) on a demi company scale.

Using Rick Barber's cartography lessons from Gettysburg, I surveyed the ground at Brawner's Farm for two days. I spent two days walking the ground at Fredericksburg and bothering Frank O'Reilly with detailed questions about the ground there. He was extremely helpful and I passed my notes onto Hermann. Finally, Rick Barber gave me a name of one of his contacts who lived in Port Republic and so I traveled down there in August of 2017. Rick's associate was both a gamer and a very knowledgeable resident so I got a VERY detailed tour of the grounds. After his day tour, I spent the next day re-walking the ground and taking a few hundred pictures of the lay of the land. Since it took five years to finally get the game published, I am glad that I took those pictures to remind me of certain quirks on both battlefields.

Though Port Republic is the final battle of Jackson's Valley Campaign, Cross Keys is really more than just a prelude to the key battle. If the bridge over the North River is burned, Jackson's force is in serious trouble and even if they win, they probably cannot get to Richmond in time to help Lee during "The Seven Days". Union General Fremont was very aggressive in his pursuit of Jackson but once Jackson turns to fight, Fremont suddenly becomes very cautious. If he had been much more aggressive at Cross Keys and damaged Ewell's forces there (especially the "Louisiana Tigers"), Jackson may not have had enough fresh troops to defeat Tyler at Port Republic. With that being said, Cross Keys is more than an afterthought and is a battle worth fighting.

From my field survey at Cross Keys, there were a few things that stuck out. If you don't have a local guide, you probably would not find Trimble's ambush position for the 8th NY Infantry. It is just rolling farmland like many fields that you see driving through the Shenandoah Valley and if it wasn't for a small set of markers at the fence line Trimble occupied, you would never know that anything of any importance happened there. Another thing that stuck out was that Ewell's position above Mill Creek was VERY, VERY strong. Using Rick's "eye" training, it is very clear that Ewell's left flank is a much easier route to attack. The only problem with this route is that it is the furthest point from the North River bridge and even if you push Ewell back, he will just retreat towards that bridge anyway.

The key to the whole fight was the ridge that Ewell occupied behind Mill Creek. Here actually walking the ground and remembering Rick's guidance really paid off. Ewell's line was perched along a ridge that rose up from Mill Creek. The ridge is VERY steep and you needed to put your hand on the ground in order to balance yourself as you scrambled up the slope. It had to be nearly impossible to load and fire a rifle while making the climb. As it turned out, there was a small logging trail that started at the base of the ridge on Ewell's right front and it then rose up the slope and finally reached the top of the ridge on Ewell's left. Though the Rebel skirmishers could run up the slope in order to get back to the safety of their line, any Union troops couldn't have maintained a line of battle as they went up the slope two by two. They also would have exposed their left flank to any Rebel infantry on top of the slope.

Picture from Conquering the Valley

One final problem faced the Union at Mill Creek, as they approached the creek, the ground sloped down towards the water which made it even harder for them to fire at troops on the top of the ridge. After actually looking at the lay of the land, you understand why the Union troops only attempted a half-hearted frontal attack. Looking at a map never would have shown these problems to a game designer.

Moving onto the Port Republic battlefield, the first problem that both sides faced was the issues presented by the North River, South River and the South Fork of the Shenandoah. It had been a wet spring so all three rivers were running higher than normal. The North River and the South Fork of the Shenandoah were impassable without proper bridging and looking at the actual rivers, it was clear that they were substantial barriers. The bridge over the North River was the only reliable way to cross and it turned out to be a key to the battle. On the other hand, the South River was a river in name only. When I actually saw it, I thought that Antietam Creek was more of a barrier. Rain swollen at the time of the battle, it was more of a problem so Jackson had a bridge made from wagons and his troops crossed that way. Still, it was a "wagon-bridge" and it became a choke point for the Confederate troops, which caused them to trickle into the battle against Tyler's Union forces.

Though Jackson burned the bridge over the North River around 10:30am and thus prevented Fremont's troops from linking up with Tyler's force, things could have been much different. Turner Ashby was killed a few days before the battle and so the Confederate cavalry was in disarray at the time of the battle. Some Union cavalry were able to ride into Port Republic on a surprise raid, captured some of Jackson's staff and almost snagged Jackson himself. They also had a chance to destroy Jackson's ammunition supply. Though their orders were to NOT burn the bridge, the cavalry captured the North River bridge and positioned their one cannon at the south end of the bridge. All Rebel forces were on the north (Cross Keys) side of the bridge and were cut off from their ammunition. Faced with advancing Rebel infantry, the Union cavalry decided to burn the bridge. The Rebel infantry charged into the covered bridge and somehow the Union gun managed to MISS the Rebels as they came onto the north edge of the bridge. The Rebels chased the Union cavalry off, put out the fire and saved their ammunition train. The "what If" scenario came very close to being the actual Battle of Cross Keys.

The final two points about the Port Republic battlefield would not be noted unless you actually walked the field; maps wouldn't have shown these key points. The first point is that there is a ridge running down the middle of the cornfield. Since the North River makes a hard left-hand turn when it merges to become the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, this ridge was obviously an ancient river bank. When we drove down Lewiston Lane, the road cut through this ridge and it became clear that this ridge was a substantial ground feature (easily 15 to 20 feet deep where the Lane cut through it). Add on any crops growing on it at the time of the battle and it clearly would have blocked Line-of-Sight from one side of the valley to the other. Hence for the infantry on the floor of the valley, they couldn't see the entire field. Once you were up on the Union artillery platform on "The Coaling", the ridge DIDN'T conceal troops or limit the artillery Line of Sight. Though high ground is always important, this Line-of-Sight feature made "The Coaling" the dominant, key position of the battle. Possess it and you could control most of the battlefield.

Close-up from Conquering the Valley

The last point was the actual size of "The Coaling". Though the modern woods may have encroached on the site, it still is a remarkably small ledge. There is room for guns but not much else. Also, the Louisiana Tigers route of attack is tough terrain, heavily wooded and a sloped hillside. The only advantage that they would have had is that once they came out of the woods, they would be able to rapidly close on the Union guns. It is all very interesting ground and if I hadn't actually walked and climbed it, no map would have been able to show me what was actually there.

It is an interesting set of battles and I feel that the game gives you a good idea of what all three armies faced during those two days in June of 1862. Ewell had the easiest job, just hold the Union off. On the other hand, Jackson had to manage getting his troops over the North River Bridge and to safety while also getting enough troops up the valley to win the fight against Tyler's Union force. I found it fun and enjoyable to create this game and hopefully others will find it enjoyable to play. Now on to Brawner Farm!


Tiny Battle Publishing:

Tiny Battle Publishing

Conquering the Valley:

Conquering the Valley | Tiny Battle Publishing