Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tuesday Boardgame: GMT's Rebel Raiders On The High Seas

Rebel Raiders On The High Seas (I’m going to call it RR from now on) was released by GMT in 2013.  It’s a design by Mark McLaughlin, who is interviewed on the game’s development here if you’re interested.

i haven’t finished a complete game yet, but I can tell you that it’s a terrific design, that will appeal to any student of the American Civil War.

RR is a strategic game, using an area movement map and a simple combat mechanism that puts it in the lineage of classic games like Avalon Hill’s War at Sea (1976).  RR has all of the attractive art work and detailed rules that one expects of GMT.

The Union player wins by capturing the strategic Mississippi River, from Memphis down to New Orleans, by capturing ports and cities, and by establishing a blockade to choke off supplies to the Confederacy.  Units represent individual ships and squadrons, and there are three turns to a year.

The Confederacy wins by avoiding this fate, which means finding a balance between fortifying and defending key points, or by keeping the Union off balance through diverting resources to raider and blockade running ships.   Union resources spent blockading ports and chasing raiders are not available to steam into ports and duke it out with the defenders.

Combat and movement mechanisms are very simple.  The heart of the game is all about choices.   The Union player has a steadily increasing number of resources for building ships, but has to use them wisely.  Too much emphasis on capturing forts and ports leaves the raiders and blockade runners free to move and run up the score of Victory Points for the rebels towards the tipping point, while too much of an emphasis on chasing ships at sea means that a mostly undamaged Confederacy will almost certainly win the long game.

Key units for the Union are Screw Sloops (the blue water navy), and ironclads and gunboats, which are littoral/riverine capable only.   Screw sloops can hunt the sea lanes for raiders and establish an Outer Blockade, while gunboats and ironclads can maintain an inner blockade outside particular ports and fight the river war.  Confederate units include batteries for port and fort defense, gunboats and ironclads for river and coastal defence, and high seas raiders and blockade runners.  Most of these ships are generic, but cards can bring famous ships into play.  Land combat is abstract and other than batteries and a chrome rule for CSA militia, there are no land units represented.

While not a card driven game, the use of cards allows players to invoke key moments such as the Trent Affair, and key technologies, such as mines and submarines, to give the game a satisfying degree of chrome.  These cards would be a lot of fun in a two player game, but the game also works as a solitaire game.  As a two player game, I suspect it might get frustrating to the CSA player, who is restricted in his ability to strike back and mostly has to play a waiting game.

The Basic Game begins in 1861, and while there’s not a lot that either player can do until 1862, it’s a good way to learn the basics before the board starts getting crowded with ships.   The Union player has virtually no chance of successfully assaulting a port/fort until the 1862 turns begin, and even then has to choose carefully.   An unsuccessful assault on a port/fort is costly in terms of ships and VPs.  The number of assaults per turn is rationed, though later in the game the Union can be more aggressive on more fronts.  The CSA has a limited ability to counterattack, but doing so means diverting resources from shipbuilding.  Players who want to jump into the action should look at the 1862 scenario.

In the game I’m playing at the moment, it’s 1862 and things are slowly heating up.  The Union made a costly and unsuccessful assault on Louisville, which the CSA insolently seized at the start of the game, paying a small penalty to violate Kentucky neutrality.  This means that the top of the Mississippi will be a hard nut to crack, but that seems the best place to start.   The USN blockade is slowly building up, but is yielding mixed results.   In the Winter 1861 turn, 60% of the CSA blockade runners were captured, but in the Spring 1862 turn none were, and the CSA reaped quite a few VPs.   As the CSA I’ve been steadily building Raiders, and now have four operating at sea, forcing the USN to divert two precious Screw Sloops to the Pacific to defend the vital Whaling Grounds.   Raiders are tough to intercept and bring to battle, but they can’t be allowed to run around and drive up the CSA score unmolested.  However, the first US assaults on CSA ports and forts are ready to launch in the still unplayed Spring 1862 turn, so it’s still anyone’s game.

As an aside, you may remember that back in March I was musing here about what might have happened had the Trent Affair resulted in a British intervention in the ACW.   It occurs to me that with an extension of this map to include Canada and some extra counters and rules, RR would give you a way to model that what-if war.  Just a thought.

I’ll report back when my solitaire game is concluded, but I quite like this game and recommend it.  Another recommendation I’ll gladly make is the book visible in the photo, James McPherson’s War On The Waters, a cracking good book which gives you all the background you could want on this subject.





  1. This looks great. I must admit I used to love the Horus Heresy and Battle for Armageddon games that GW used to do. I must find something similar again.

    1. Hey Brummie:
      I never payed those games, always wanted to. I think I would enjoy the W40K universe more at the strategic level than at the tabletop level.

  2. Your description sounds like a successful attempt to game a very difficult topic. Mind you, history tends to disguise the real successes the CSN achieved against enormous odds. The Union's first attempt to force the mouths of the Mississippi were seen off probably too easily for the Confederacy's own good, as was the CSA victory in the Fort Pillow action (the cottonclads beat the ironclads that day). Easy (or lucky) victories led to complacency and disastrous defeats.

    It has been suggested (Hattaway and Jones, 'How the North Won') that the Mississippi, once taken all along its length, proved something of a white elephant for the Union. The barrier was no more than an inconvenience for the Confederacy, as they could effect a crossing as and when they needed to. Yet the Union still had to divert vast resources in some sort of effort to interdict that traffic.

    On the other hand, I guess it still goes hand in hand with the the remainder of Scott's Anaconda Plan (much ridiculed when suggested, but ended up how the union did strangulate the Confederacy).

    If yopu can find it, I recommend Thomas Scharf's History of the Confederate States Navy. At times it reads like 'opera bouffe' - some schemes went horribly awry - but e.g. the career of the 'Arkansas' is a jolly good read.

    1. Thanks Ion, I shall look at that book. One of the dilemmas in Rebel Raiders for the CSA is whether to divert builds away from batteries (very helpful in defending places) into ironclads, which, with supporting gunboats and batteries, must be cleaned out before the Union can assault a town/port/fort. Having a CSN navy everywhere is impossible, but having one concentrated in a few key points can make life annoying for the US player.
      I shall certainly look for the Scharf book, sounds terrific.

  3. Great review there- it has made my wants list for board games now.



    1. If you like the ACW and don't want super complexity, it's a cracking good game.


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