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Wargame Review: Bobby Lee: The Civil War in Virginia 1861-1865 by Captain William Allred, USMC


The Battleboard in Bobby Lee

Credit: MarcoOmnigamer, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=APGIZslPYmQ

Overview Bobby Lee (publisher: Columbia Games) is an operational and tactical-level historical wargame depicting the face-off between the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Its use of Stratego-style blocks for playing pieces adds uncertainty to the players' knowledge of enemy dispositions. Its combat system is both intriguing (each operational-level encounter between opposing forces gets resolved on a separate tactical-level "battleboard") and historically compelling. The ability for players to entrench leads the war to favor defenders increasingly. Its emphasis on logistics and supply lines makes the game a phenomenal tool for leaders attempting to teach the complex relationship between maneuver and attrition as described in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication Warfighting (MCDP-1) and Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-3 Tactics (MCDP 1-3). Leaders should note that the time it takes to teach the rules and the length of each game favors multiple playing sessions over a “one and done” session.


Components Bobby Lee contains 96 wooden blocks representing headquarters, infantry, cavalry, and artillery units, a hex-based operational map board stretching from Pennsylvania to Virginia, a battleboard on which engagements are resolved, dice, and a rulebook.


Bobby Lee's Operational Map Board

Gameplay Each turn in Bobby Lee represents three months of the war. Players take turns expending “Replacement Points” (RPs) via their headquarters units to maneuver and fight their armies. The board is divided into hexes and crisscrossed with roads, railways, rivers, and ports that facilitate movement. When opposing armies enter the same hex, players move them to the battleboard. From here, units are assigned to their respective armies’ center positions and flanks and fight to achieve a breakthrough in the enemy line. Cavalry charges, artillery bombardments, entrenchments, terrain effects, and the unique status of “fortress” cities add historical flavor and suspense to these battles. Inevitably, units sustain casualties, and headquarters expend supplies. These are replenished over road, rail, and sea supply lines via RPs. The Union has abundant supply lines, while the Confederacy has few. This logistics disparity creates a chronic resource shortage for the Confederate player. On the other hand, the game's victory point system, where both players gain points by capturing cities and the Confederate player scores by running out the game clock, creates a sense of urgency for the Union to gain the advantage before the presidential election of 1864. At that point, if the Union does not have the upper hand, it will cede independence to the South due to war weariness. The level of victory players attain depends on the speed with which they reach their victory point threshold. Historical nuances such as Confederate “foot cavalry” with movement advantages, risky calls for draftees, superior Union artillery, and the profoundly influential decision for the Union player to issue the Emancipation Proclamation make this game a real treat for Civil War history buffs.


Confederate Forces Retreat South in Virginia.


Considerations for Leaders

The real brilliance of Bobby Lee is its artistic treatment of the relationship between maneuver and attrition. Readers of MCDP-1 and MCDP 1-3 could be forgiven for the simplistic impression that maneuver is good and attrition is bad. But the Confederacy fought at such a profound numerical inferiority compared to the Union - especially in the later years of the war - that Robert E. Lee and his generals had to account for attrition in their planning. If they lost men and materiel at the same rate as the Army of the Potomac, they would quickly bleed out and fail. Ulysses S. Grant understood the situation all too well. He relied on his numerical superiority to engage the Army of Northern Virginia as frequently as possible to inflict losses, as he knew he could recoup combat power faster than Lee could.


In this strategic context, maneuver and attrition supported each other in complex ways. Maneuver allows armies to command key terrain, where they can inflict attrition on the opposing army at favorable exchange rates, and armies race to occupy positions that force their opponents into an unfavorable (i.e., highly attritional) offense. Therefore, in a war of attrition, the importance of supply lines makes maneuver critically important, especially in interdicting and defending those lines. Historically, such considerations forced bloody battles in and around Chancellorsville and The Wilderness because the respective armies could not bypass these areas without risking interdiction of their supplies.


However, maneuver warfare, including identifying an enemy’s critical vulnerability and exploiting it ruthlessly, is still just as relevant in this game. Bobby Lee reminds players that the inability to replenish combat losses as quickly as an opponent could be a critical vulnerability in and of itself. It can be brutally maneuvered against and exploited by a force determined to accept a higher threshold of attrition. These lessons may have sobering relevance for Marines, soldiers, and sailors preparing to fight in the Pacific against an adversary whose population and industrial production capacity vastly outstrip the United States.


Drawbacks

As with many board wargames, the most significant drawback for leaders looking to incorporate Bobby Lee into unit professional military education (PME) is the time required to learn and teach the rules. Additionally, the estimated playing time for a full game is four hours. Leaders can alleviate these challenges by:


• Selecting relatively mature players.

• Providing them with the rules in advance.

• Playing small scenarios (included in the game), which require less playing time.

• Dedicating multiple sessions to Bobby Lee.


In addition, the disparity in resources between the Union and the Confederacy ahistorically forces the Confederate player into a defensive posture early in the war. This limits the viability of Southern invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania, which should be feasible for Confederate players to execute.


Lastly, history buffs may be somewhat disappointed with the game’s treatment of the Emancipation Proclamation. In Bobby Lee, emancipation may be declared when the Union has the strategic upper hand in the war for an immediate boost of 3 victory points. Some historians assert that there was a relationship between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union’s desire to dissuade foreign nations from intervening in the war on behalf of the Confederacy. Consequently, some players may find the game’s treatment of emancipation overly simplistic and will likely be disappointed that it fails to model the Union’s strategic imperative to prevent such intervention.


Columbia Games Block System

Bobby Lee has a companion game called Sam Grant: The Civil War in the West 1862-1864. Sam Grant uses the same general system as Bobby Lee, and the two can be combined into a single monster game simulating both major theaters of the war simultaneously. The same system is employed in several other wargames by Columbia Games, spanning from the Peloponnesian War to World War II. Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign notably uses a “double-blind” system wherein players have their own board and cannot see each other’s blocks until engaged, further increasing fog and friction.


Conclusion

Bobby Lee is a fun and effective tool for teaching the concepts of maneuver and attrition and about the American Civil War. Leaders must invest time to get maximum benefit from it. Still, any such investment will be richly rewarded when players regroup after a match to discuss how the concepts in MCDP-1 and MCDP 1-3 apply to their experiences.


You can purchase the game directly from Columbia Games here.

Author Bio

William Allred served as a company commander at Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry-East. Before that, he served as a rifle platoon commander in 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. He started playing wargames with his brothers as a child and credits Axis and Allies: D-Day with sparking his interest in military history and leading him to serve in the Marine Corps.

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Gratifying to see this particular board wargame reviewed for a military practitioner audience. This and SAM GRANT were favorites of mine for years, at a time when there were few other titles on Civil War campaign-level explorations. Those that did exist tended to be fairly complex and slow to play. But even today, with a greater variety of wargames to choose from that claim to do this, the Columbia block games still hold their own quite well. For those that want to use the game for PME, coming up with home-grown rules to adjudicate battles instead of using the battleboard system should speed up play considerably. I've done the same in other block games used for PME as ha…

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