The US Civil War-A BoardgamingLife Review


GMT1506Author: Harvey Mossman

Designer: Mark Simonitch

Publisher: GMT games

The American Civil War remains one of the most climactic events in American history and still scars the national psyche. Whereas many other conflicts involving the United States wax and wane in interest, it is safe to say that publishing a game on this topic is usually a “sure bet” with the war gaming public.

As such, The Civil War by Victory Games, at least to my mind, was the epitome of strategic Civil War games and was a derivative of an older Strategy & Tactics magazine game called The American Civil War (also an excellent game but limited by the magazine format) so it was with baited breath that I anticipated the release of GMT’s the US Civil War. I was not disappointed!

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When I received the game and first opened the box, I was simply bedazzled by the components. That’s right… I said bedazzled! From the graphics on the box, the sturdiness of the packaging, the absolutely stunning mounted map and overall graphic design of the components, this game begs you to play it!  There are two full-color player’s aids, optional army displays, Union and Confederate set up cards for each of the scenarios and all are printed on high quality, glossy card stock . The rulebook is magazine quality. It is very well organized generously sprinkled with examples of play. So far, any errata has been more explanatory than oversight. Every wargame should strive for this production quality and I give kudos to Mark Simonitch and Roger McGowan for the excellence of their graphic design.

When I received the game and first opened the box, I was simply bedazzled by the components. That’s right… I said bedazzled!

 The Game’s the Thing

Those of you acquainted with the Victory Games design will feel immediately familiar as the mechanics, units and overall feel of the game is similar.

The Sequence of Play is fairly simple. Each game turn starts with the Reinforcement Phase where each player brings on new troops, places or upgrade forts, draws new Special Action cards and brings on naval units. This is then followed by a Strategic Movement Phase where units move long distances by rail, river, ocean and road with the Union having the greater mobility due to its superior infrastructure.

Civil War Victory GamesWhat has been removed is the preplanning process whereby players select one of the three theaters of war as their primary, secondary and tertiary emphasis. This has been replaced by Special Action cards that allow free and additional actions in each or any of the theaters. Play of a Special Action card does not cost any action points and allows players to get positive die roll modifiers on attacks, force march to extend a force’s movement, make amphibious assaults, build or upgrade fortifications, place entrenchments, provide supply for out of supply forces, and assist Union generals to cross Confederate control navigable rivers. While this design element simplifies and speeds gameplay, I think overall it eliminates what used to be some difficult decisions for the players and detracts from some of the tension. It also feels a bit gamey and seems to allow undue intervention in a given theater thereby creating ahistorical coordination of individual forces. (More on this later)

Now I know that many pundits claim that the US Civil War should be not be compared to its Victory Games’ brethren and should stand on its own merit. That may be true.   Yet I think it is fair to argue (and indeed the designer confirms in his design notes) that the game is highly derivative and it is certainly fair to compare this game to what I think is the gold standard of strategic Civil War games whether you view this as an entirely different simulation or just an updated incarnation.

Now comes the Leader Management Phase where new leaders enter the game, current leaders are promoted or transferred between forces and still others are removed from the game entirely. All of this happens on a historic schedule, unlike the older version where leaders can die in combat and historical deaths may not occur. While I understand the rationale for this, after all losing pivotal leaders like Grant or Lee prematurely can seriously hinder future success in the war, it removes some of the risk and uncertainty when fighting battles where these generals are committed. After all, the Confederates lost Stonewall Jackson and the Union lost excellent generals like John Reynolds and Nathaniel Lyon. It would be interesting to see how the war could have changed if these men survived. Moreover, what would’ve happened had Lee or Grant been severely injured or killed? I clearly understand it was a design decision to prevent the game from veering too far from history and I truly respect the designers view on this, however, for me, it removes some of the excitement.

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Finally, we come to the Action Phases of which there are four, and these are really the heart of the game. The system borrows heavily from its predecessor and players will quickly recognize the concept of winning initiative and the die roll differential driving play. Both players roll a six sided die and record the difference on a differential track with the higher die roll gaining the initiative for that Action Cycle. You can spend one Action point in any theater of your choice (except die roll differences of 1 in which case you get to spend one Action in each of the three theaters) for each point of difference in the die rolls. Actions include Moving a general, Moving strength points, Naval transport, Rally from demoralization, Transferring leaders, Entrenching, and Training troops. There are certain leaders like McClellan who are considered Cautious and take two Actions to activate if they move into a zone of influence of another enemy general or try to engage in combat.

The system borrows heavily from its predecessor and players will quickly recognize the concept of winning initiative and the die roll differential driving play.

Leaders are rated further for their offensive, defensive and movement capabilities. I especially like the fact that the designer chose to differentiate between offensive and defensive capabilities compared to the Victory Games version. It tends to give more personality to each commander and better defines their strengths and weaknesses. Movement allowances are also different so less aggressive generals only move 3 movement points, bolder generals move 5 and the more numerous average generals move 4.

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While I really like the finer differentiation between leaders’ abilities, I find it problematical that it only takes one Action to activate a leader. Traditional wisdom suggests grand strategy in the Civil War requires the war to be won in the West where the wide open spaces and mobility provided by Union control of the numerous rivers allows Northern numbers to prevail. However, this was not necessarily the case in the games we played. The Confederates were pressed extremely hard in the Eastern theater and I attribute this to the potential for ahistorical coordination between the Union generals.

Now what do I mean by ahistorical coordination of the Union generals. Perhaps the biggest problem President Lincoln faced in the early war was simply prodding his generals to act! He was faced with a multitude of leaders more concerned about their political careers and internal squabbling than prosecuting the war effectively. He simply could not get them to move, let alone coordinate in any military sense. It wasn’t until Grant came East and was named supreme Commander that the Union forces coordinated on an operational and strategic scale.

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In this game however, that is simply not true. It only takes one Action point to activate any general, (yes the few cautious generals required 2 action points but only if they are coming into contact with the enemy, otherwise they maneuver as freely as anyone else) and you are usually free to concentrate your action point expenditure in any theater of your choice. McClellan will move almost as easily as Grant and it is not unusual for you to have three or more Action points allowing you to move multiple generals in the theater in a coordinated fashion. This is amplified by play of the Special Action cards which allows you to activate generals without Action points. Therefore, the player has unprecedented control and coordination of his various forces.

Compare this to the Victory Games approach where players have to decide ahead of time in which of the three theaters they’re going to make the primary push. This affects how many Command Points they receive in that theater. So in order to activate a general, you must have the Command Points available in that theater and a high enough die roll differential to be able to expend those command points. The more cautious generals have higher initiative ratings which translates to higher Command and Action point expenditure in order to get them moving.  This quickly uses up your “budget” for both making it less likely you can move other forces in that theater. For example, a leader like Halleck would be rated as a 4 initiative, which would require 4 Command points to be available in that theater and a 4 differential on the initiative die roll just to force him to do something!  It’s likely you would not have any Action or Command points left to coordinate his move with another general in the theater. In fact, it is not unusual in that game for you to be unable to move these generals at all simply because you have not committed enough Command Points in that theater or you simply have not rolled a big enough die roll differential. You really feel Lincoln’s frustration in getting his generals to advance.

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There is very little of that in the GMT version as most generals activate with 1 Action Point and, more often than not, you have enough Action points to move multiple generals.   You also can play a Special Action card requiring no Action point expenditure to get your general moving even if you have no action points left. This results in highly coordinated Union offensives that rapidly overwhelm the Confederacy leading to an early defeat of the South. With the mechanics mentioned above, the Victory Games version was slower to develop offensively for the Union and seems to more closely mirror the war’s historical timeline.

In many of the games played so far, our game club’s impression is that the Confederacy cannot hold out much beyond the middle of 1863 because the Union can advance with multiple forces on many fronts in an extremely coordinated fashion. Our club consists of 25+ very experienced and highly educated wargamers so I don’t feel that this is because of unnoticed defensive strategies or inbred approaches. I would like to hear from others if they found this impression to be true.

Furthermore, I respect the designer’s decision to use the Special Action cards to replace the preplanning mechanism of theater commitment. It greatly simplifies and speeds up the game, but once again, it seems to the detriment of overall historicity.

Combat is fairly similar in both games and depends on the amount of strength points and the general’s tactical ratings used as die roll modifiers. Gone is the rerolling of the dice found in the Victory Games simulation and I found this to be a big improvement as I never liked rolling the dice several times to get the best result. It just seemed “gamey”. Equally “gamey” however is the use of special action cards to give a +2 modifier to the attacker. I suppose this represents planning, heavy artillery, or focused logistics to support a particular campaign but the fact that it can be played in a given theater without any kind of preparation seems uniquely odd in a game where the designer decided to more closely mirror historical outcomes.

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Furthermore, I have some reservations about the combat system.  Simply put, a force of 5 or 6 strength points appears to be at no significant disadvantage against a larger enemy force because of the way the combat tables are constructed. Now I am a physician by profession and not a mathematician, (dammit Jim I’m a doctor not a statistician!) but looking at the structure of the 1 leader combat results table compared to the 2 leader table, there appears to be a slight advantage (or at least no disadvantage) to the lesser number of troops. After all, a +1 modifier allows a linear increase in the possible results on the 1 leader table as opposed to the 2 leader table where 2 dice naturally yields a bell-shaped curve around an average die roll of 7. The average results respectively are 1 step loss for the 1 leader table and a 1 diamond for the 2 leaders table. Now let’s apply some modifiers on the 1 leader table. A +1 modifier gives you a 50-50 chance of getting a result of 1*. This is also true on the 2 leader table. However, on this table, you are using two leaders and are likely to have a +2 modifier and perhaps even a +3.   The tendency of two dice is to yield an average role of 7 and the rows of results now have a range of 2 die results such as 9, 10, yielding a likely result of 1*. Therefore a small force on defense is, on average,  equal to a larger force. Now let’s look at what happens when the 1 leader force has a +2 modifier. He has a one third chance of inflicting 2 step losses on his opponent. When we use the 2 leader table with a +2 or even a +3 modifier (presuming the two generals have modifiers of totaling +3) we end up with a 1*result. The small force actually has an advantage over the bigger force particularly on defense where ties go to the defender. It is only when you reach 9-12 strength points with a +3 modifier on the 2 leader table that your chances of inflicting 2 step losses equal the 1 leader table with a +2 modifier. This still means that the larger force would be defeated if it were attacking.

Now I am certainly aware that the range of results are different as the 1 leader table offers a minimal result of an “*” while the 2 leader minimal result is 1 and the highest result on the tables are 2 and 3 respectively.   Nevertheless, these are extreme results that rarely happen and the average results are much more likely to occur. However, I would love to see a statistical breakdown on the possible outcomes done by those who paid better attention in math class to really determine where the true advantage lies.

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If we accept this quirk of nonlinear increases in the chance for more severe results between the three tables, we can see how this might be used to great advantage in the Eastern theater as smaller, well-coordinated forces can constantly prevent a well led, much larger Confederate force from making any push back to the Potomac River. By using multiple small forces over land and invading from the sea, is all too easy for the Union to present multiple, highly coordinated threats to Confederate Resource Point spaces and supply lines, greatly complicating the defense of the Eastern theater.

By The Sea, By The Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

Union maneuvers against the supply lines in northern Virginia are aided by the ease with which the Union Army can make amphibious assaults. Out of the 15 Union Special Action cards there are five cards that allow an amphibious assault. Since you can hold cards from turn to turn, your hand size usually averages 3-4 and, with one third of the cards allowing an amphibious assault, you are often able to do at least one naval landing each turn. Additionally, when the initiative die roll is tied, you draw an extra card which increases your chances of having a card allowing an amphibious assault.

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I suggest the Union not use these naval landings to go after Blockade ports guarded by fortifications, instead try landing in unfortified ports along the eastern coast particularly along the area of Aquia Station, Urbanna, West Point, Hampton Roads etc. If these are not defended by the Confederate player, the Union forces land easily and immediately take control of the port allowing them to transport more strength points down with another Special Action card play. The Confederates are suddenly faced with a force of 6 strength points astride their few rail lines leading back to Virginia. Threatened in the north from the area of Fredericksburg by multiple small Union forces and with their line of communications at risk from amphibious landings along the eastern seaboard, the Confederacy usually starts to crumble.

As far as I can see, this strategy forces the Confederates to fortify every single port along the eastern seaboard and man it adequately against an amphibious assault. However, this is likely to leave precious little to fend off the Northern thrust that comes out of Maryland. Simply put, the Eastern theater can be put in a vice grip with steady pressure from a very ahistorical coordinated Union offensive.

Final Thoughts

Now I know that many pundits claim that the US Civil War should be not be compared to its Victory Games’ brethren and should stand on its own merit. That may be true.   Yet I think it is fair to argue (and indeed the designer confirms in his design notes) that the game is highly derivative and it is certainly fair to compare this game to what I think is the gold standard of strategic Civil War games whether you view this as an entirely different simulation or just an updated incarnation.

Having said all of this, please don’t misconstrue my comments as a damnation of this game.  I simply make my points to see if other players are having the same experience.  This game is beautifully produced, meticulously researched and crafted and has many design elements that I like. When you open the box, the quality of the components and the graphic design make you want to play this game. There are few games that I have come back to so repeatedly and spent so much time analyzing so this game has certainly captured me. There is much to appreciate here and despite my reservations about the historical gameplay, I have never come away from playing the game feeling cheated of an entertaining experience. But if a simulation promotes unrealistic strategies and produces ahistorical results consistently, it certainly provokes questions as to why. I will leave it up to you to decide and would certainly like to hear your thoughts on the matter…..

 About the Author

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Harvey Mossman has been playing wargames since the age of 13.  While earning his degree in Medicine,  he continued to write historical articles, lecture on military history, design wargames and amass a truly staggering collection of conflict simulations.  He is one of the editors of TheBoardgamingLife website and runs an annual wargaming convention on Long Island New York on the Friday after Thanksgiving affectionately known as FaTDoG (Friday After Thanksgiving Day of Gaming).  He is also a regular contributor to Grognard.com, a renowned wargaming website.

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