ACW House Rules

This page describes our ACW house rules.


Picture, Game Reports, etc.

Designer notes

These rules are written in the tradition of providing a fast and fun game using toy soldiers, rather than a more elaborate recreation of historical ACW tactics.

Some preliminary remarks:

  • We play the game on a hex-gridded battlefield.
  • Currently, we use Kallistra hexes (~10cm across). See the optional rules for using these rules without a hex-grid.
  • We use 28mm figures.


In our gaming group, we have been developing our ACW rules for many years. I am a strong proponent of the idea that developing your own rules is an integral part of the wargaming hobby, and it allows you to try out many experimental rules mechanisms that otherwise would probably never be used on the gaming table.

We started developing this ACW ruleset somewhere around 2006. Before that, we used very often the Brother against Brother rules, published by HG Walls. This is a rather simple ruleset, originally designed for fast convention games. The basic unit is designated a squad. Squads were activated by drawing cards, and combat strength for each unit was directly proportional to the number of figures. We still call our rules sometimes "Brother against Brother" - we should probably change that sooner or later.

However, to our tastes, Brother against Brother was a bit too simplistic and too much geared towards 'fast effects'. So we started to tweak the rules over the years. One of the first things was to streamline the morale system, and we replaced the morale cards with three different tables depending on the situation in which a unit finds itself. Roll a D20 and you see the result.

Another major change was the activation system. Drawing a card every turn to indicate what unit can move is all well for games in open fields, but that mechanic can create choke points during movement, and it is difficult to coordinate multi-unit manoeuvres. We experimented with a Piquet-like activation system; also with written orders; but finally settled on an activation sequence similar to Black Powder / Warmaster / Blitzkrieg Commander. It has served us for many years, and now forms the heart of the rules.

Unit sizes are not specified. Sometimes our scenarios have the feel of skirmish games, sometimes they are closer to big battles. It strongly depends on the scenario setup. In this respect, our rules are similar to the philosophy in games like Black Powder or Hail Caesar, two rulesets we also happen to play quite often.

Other changes made over they years are the elimination of many modifiers in the combat resolution procedures. I strongly believe in the idea that wargame rules should be as simple as possible (but not simpler :-)). There is no challenge in writing a ruleset with plenty of complicated rules, plenty of die roll modifiers, separate procedures for all sorts of actions. Anyone can do that. It’s much more challenging designing a ruleset that is as simple as possible, but still creates the look-and-feel of the period in question, and provides enough decision points for players to be in control.

Is this ruleset able to recreate ACW actions in a plausible manner? Honestly, I do not have a clue. It is probably too simple for connoisseurs of the period. But for all the players in my gaming group, which are well versed in military history (being European, ACW is just not one of our fortes), it is an acceptable, fun, and reliable ruleset. It allows us to finish a game with 10-20 units on each side within a single evening, a VERY important advantage. And we are having fun. In the end, that is what really counts.


The basic element in each army is a unit, which can visually be represented by any group of figures. We use 28mm figures, and combined with the size of our hexes, this means a unit is either:

  • 10-12 infantry figures, or 5-6 for light infantry units
  • 4 -6 cavalry figures
  • 1 gun and crew

The actual representation of the unit in figures is not terribly important, since we track the Combat Strength (Str) of each unit using a number dial placed next to each unit. In the past, we used the number of figures in a unit as a measure of its Combat Strength, but we abandoned this practice, since it is visually less attractive to see units on the table having only 1 or 2 figures left. Moreover, I want to see the painted figures on the table, not next to the table in the casualty area. Also, by eliminating the practice of removing figures from the table, game-playing itself becomes more practical.

Officers are represented by single figures (often mounted), and act as the focal point for giving orders to units. We use an average of 1 officer per brigade (4 to 6 units). The number of officers should scale with the number of units, such that the expected amount of successfull orders given also scales with the number of units in an army (see How Many Units Can I Activate for a discussion on this topic).

A maximum of 1 unit can be placed in a hex. Units must stop when they move adjacent to an enemy unit. We used to have rules stating that units could be spread out over several adjacent hexes, but we never used this much, so we ditched it. Rules that never or rarely get used should be done away with - it allows for the total game engine to become more streamlined.

Sequence of Play

The activation system is very much inspired by the Black Powder / Blitzkrieg Commander / Warmaster system.

Since we originally started playing ACW using the Brother against Brother rules (HG Walls), we used a card activation mechanism, with each card designating a specific unit that could be activated. However, this soon became problematic. Such a system works well for big open battles, but for scenarios involving choke points or narrow passages such as bridges, it can be very frustrating. Moreover, it takes away an important aspect of control that the player wishes to exert over his troops. We also experimented with a system inspired by Piquet - cards were turned up listing what types of action could be performed, and the player had a number of activation points at his disposal.

We ended up with the system in which a 2D6 is rolled against the command rating of a commander. We did away with most modifiers except distance. Originally, we still had modifiers such as a -1 for each successive order, but it was too hard to remember how many orders were already given. And, sooner or later you will fail a command roll anyway. The current version of the rules put the success factor for an activation at 7+, but with modifiers if the unit is within the command range of the commander and depending on type of order or type of unit. When activating a unit outside the command range, there's a penalty.


A unit can only do one thing during the turn. We call this one action “an order”. Originally, any order had to be rolled for against the command rating of a general, but we decided to make a few orders “automatic”, i.e. orders which you do not need to roll for. The main reason is to make the game go more smoothly once troops get within contact or close range.

The March Column rule was introduced to make it easier to have scenarios in which a body of troops is entering or traversing the battlefield in a long column (whether as reinforcements, a convoy, …). A activation system makes it difficult to keep coherent control over such a body of troops. If you would have to roll for each unit separately, the column would immediately break up in a number of clusters, and traffic jams would occur. So, we decided that marching columns, depending on scenario, would move automatically 1 or 2 hexes. The player can always give an order to a unit in the column, but once this is done, the unit no longer belongs to the column and should be ordered separately from that point on.

A few years ago, we also still had orders for units reloading after firing, but we got rid of them. It was more of a nuisance to keep track of what units needed to reload (we used cotton wool as firing markers), and so we decided to halve fire effectiveness instead. In our current version of the rules, units can fire without the need to reload.



The most remarkable feature of the movement is the variability of the distance moved (measured in hexes). This might seem a bit strange, since one already has to roll in order to activate a unit, and once activated, its movement is also variable. However, this seem to result in interesting tactical decisions to be made. By varying movement distances, the player has to anticipate unforeseen circumstances, and that is what makes the game fun to play.

In order to make these variable movements workable, a few special rules have been introduced. The first is that a unit can always move one hex, no matter the terrain. A second rule is that units of the same type can be activated as a group, and they roll a single die. That way, it is easier to keep units together during a coordinated attack. The opposite was causing big headaches.

The rules for (dis)mounting and (un)limbering have been simplified over several iterations. At one point, we required a full turn for these actions, but then, they were never used. Even reducing them to a single movement point seemed too much trouble. So we made them free, but limited to once per turn. This ensures that an artillery unit cannot limber, move and unlimber all in the same turn.

When a cavalry unit dismounts, or when an artillery units unlimbers, the horses (and horseholders), or artillery wagons are often neglected in many wargaming rules. We do the same. In the past, we have experimented with horseholders, who in turn could also get involved in combat, but over time, we found that these do not add much to the game, but do complicate the rules. Therefore, we do not provide rules for them. However, we might represent them with proper miniatures, but this is then only for visual and aesthetic purposes, or for specific scenario requirements. In the current version of the rules, we do not even have a provision for dismounting cavalry, since it never was used (or forgotten) in most of our games.


Charge and melee

The close combat system (2 units meeting each other in the same hex), also underwent some radical changes over the years. We want close combat to be deadly - but not that deadly that units have no way to recover, or that the numerically superior force always wins.

We use a system in which both players roll several dice, rank them from highest to lowest, and do a pairwise comparison. Numerical advantage is a real advantage, but it still happens that an inferior force can beat a superior force.

We also gradually weeded out a lot of modifiers. We noticed that we couldn’t keep track of most of them, and decided that only a few that seemed relevant and tied to real decisions made by the players. That is also the reason why we do not distinguish between differences in troop quality (veterans, greens, …). And after all, such differences should be modeled in the Combat Strength of a unit.


Firing is pretty straightforward: roll a number of dice (D10s), and see how much damage you inflict on the opponent. Each hit or damage point results in a reduction of the Strength of the target unit by 1.

However, line of sight and orientation of troops is always a bit of a hassle when working with a hex-gridded battlefield. E.g., do you choose to have continuous orientation of troops, or only 6 degrees, or 12 degrees of orientation? In the end, we did away with orientation and firing arcs, only stipulating that all fire of a unit should be in a concentrated arc of 120 degrees.

Muskets and Carbines

In my view, firing ranges do not exist independently from movement ranges. Also, since our system allows a unit to move OR fire during a turn, firing distances are a big determining factor in adjusting play balance. This is especially noticeable in attack/defence scenarios, in which one side can remain quasi-static, while the other side has to move and try to fire as well.

As an example, let’s take 3 infantry units that wish to charge an enemy position, also held by an infantry unit. If the attackers would start just outside firing range (8 hexes), activate every turn, and would have an average movement of 2.5 hexes, it would take 3 or 4 turns to charge and get into contact. That means the defender can fire 3 or 4 times - starting at long range. Of course, this is an extreme example, ignoring line of fire etc., but such simple exercises give a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much casualties the attacker can expect.

The modifiers originally were more extensive, but we stripped them down over the years.


The distinction between 2 different types of ammunition for artillery is a left-over from Brother against Brother. Shot is meant for long-range, low damage fire, and cannister for short-range, high damage. The current rules for artillery are written with playability and play balance in mind, rather than the historical record for inflicting casualties.

Again, modifiers have been deliberately kept to a minimum.

The range “unlimited” for shot is in function of the size of our playing table. We also tend to use quite a lot of scenery that blocks line-of-sight, such that it is often impossible just to shoot from one end of the table to the other.


Morale and Charge responses

The morale tables are an important aspect of our rules. Units that take hits have their Str reduced during the fire resolution phase, but more importantly, this also triggers a morale test that might have even more dire consequences. The most general result of a morale effect is a further reduction in CS, but other effects (sometimes beneficial), might happen as well. In most cases, the unit can still continue its intended actions. E.g. if a unit loses 1 or 2 combat strength, this does not prevent the unit from moving or firing in the turn.

The morale effects do provide a tense atmosphere to the battle, and is often the source of very heroic or narrative actions. E.g. in one game, the Confederates held a pretty tight line, till suddenly one of the units decided it was time to charge forwards. Frustrating to the player at the time, but it provided an interesting twist in the tactical situation.


  1. Great rules! Thanks! Are the charge response effects (+1 Str, etc.) permanent or just for the current charge?

    1. Yes, they are permanent. There's only 1 statistic per unit, its Strength, and that's the only number that is tracked throughout the game. A bonus die for the attack only counts for that attack.

      Thanks for checking out the rules!