New Game Weekend: Wilderness War

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I wound up spending a fair amount of time this past year touring sites related to the French and Indian War period while feeding my gamer’s appetite for the Seven Years War period with A Few Acres of Snow. With a little research and talking with some of the members at Metropolitan Wargamers, I decided I needed to go bigger and dive into a game focused on the French and Indian War. All trails led to GMT’s Wilderness War, and I had a chance to play my first game this past weekend.

Published in 2001, Wilderness War is a game that causes a lot of the gamers I know to glaze over with wide grins. The game is designed by Volko Ruhnke and uses a card-driven mechanic much like his COIN games series also published by GMT. I have a few games of the Runke-designed Cuba Libre and Fire In The Lake under my belt, so I knew that a French and Indian War game from him was certain to be a mix of relatively simple rules wrapped up in a rich historic board game experience.

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Wilderness War game board

The gorgeous map – hardbound in the latest edition – presents the Northeastern colonial areas of North America in the mid 18th-century. As with the war itself, the game is largely defined by geography. “Cultivated” (ie settled) areas are indicated with boxes, and “wilderness” areas and Indian settlements are printed as circles. Mountainous areas are also depicted with chains spreading through western and central Pennsylvania, the Hudson Valley region and portions of central New England. Connecting these areas are roads or trails and the more important waterways which served as the superhighways of the period. Many of the larger cultivated settlements begin with heavy fortresses protecting the space, while the game set up places a series of French and British forts and stockades throughout the map.

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Sample Wilderness War game counters

Game components consist primarily of 70 cards and 271 cardboard counters. The counters generally depict movement and combat ratings, with reduced values on the flip side once a unit takes damage in battle, during a wintering period or from an event card. Command markers also carry tactics numbers, which help during combat, and a command value. Cards allow activation of units equal to the number printed or by command rating. Special events may also be played for British (red), French (blue) or either side (red/blue), and cards with a brown-red band are events which may be played at any point during either side’s actions.

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Sample Wilderness War cards

The game plays with year-long turns each containing an early and late season, each approximating about six months of time. In each season, players begin by being dealt eight cards apiece. Later events and actions may modify a player’s hand size, but in general the French and British player then take turns playing cards to move forces, engage in battle, construct defenses or play out events as depicted on the cards. With some pre-planning, each season moves relatively swiftly toward the conclusion of a year of war. At the end of each year, victory points are tallied and units are checked to see if they suffer losses during the winter period between each yearly season of fighting.

Wilderness War comes with a playbook outlining several small to mid-sized games featuring particular periods in the war or a set-up for the entire war from 1755 to 1762. For my first game, we jumped in with both feet and started from the outset of the war  with me playing as the British and my experienced opponent using the French. The French begin the game with a small force stretched across the Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River and western Pennsylvania regions. British forces start poised on three fronts along the Hudson River, stretching west toward the eastern tip of Lake Ontario at Oswego and just south of western Pennsylvania. The French are buoyed with their strong alliances with several Indian nations while the British hold enormous access to colonial, regular British troops and numerous commanding officers waiting to be called into service.

Using the swift wilderness movement and  raiding capabilities in the 1755 and 1756 turns, the French sent Indian forces into Pennsylvania, Virginia and New England to raid unprotected British cultivated areas. The British quickly moved to redeploy their meager regulars throughout these areas to build stockades and push back further raids. At the same time, the French massed their forces and captured Fort Oswego. By the end of the second year of play, the French were already sitting on six victory points.

With a string of stockaded defenses set up to the west by the beginning of 1757, the British began to land troops at their coastal port arrivals to offset negative British political effects which stymied the use of more Colonial regulars and militia units. British troops commenced the long march into the Pennsylvania mountains and the nearby target French fort at the Ohio Forks (today’s Pittsburgh). Back to the east, the French began using their new base at Oswego to launch a push to the southeast into the Hudson Valley and the ill-defended areas around Albany, Schenectady and the Oneida region. All the while, the French continued to recruit additional Indian forces to buffer their defenses at the Ohio Forks and continue raids toward the east. The 1757 late season ended with my leaving too many British marooned in the mountains of Pennsylvania in a clear rookie mistake which led to my mass of troops taking heavy losses in the winter season.

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The British stockade defenses on the western frontier lay the groundwork for a push on the French at the Ohio Forks in my first game of Wilderness War

By 1758, my British luck seemed to change a bit for the better. Drawing and playing the William Pitt event card, I was able to increase my card hand size to nine cards and gain access to more British forces. Rushing more British reinforcements west into Pennsylvania, the French fell during a siege at the fort protecting the Ohio Forks, giving the British a firm foothold on the western frontier and awarding two victory points. Additional British troops rushed up the Hudson River Valley to hold back the French push toward Albany. As the British remained engaged in fights, the French began shifting their forces along Lake Ontario and the northern frontier while also raising a large force from the Iroquois in central New York. With 1758 at an end, my British forces were safely wintering on two fronts but in a severely weakened state and still way behind on victory points.

We called the game at its midpoint, deciding to restart another time now that I had been introduced to the general game. I still hadn’t experienced some major facets of the game such as naval movement and amphibious warfare, but I had quickly come to understand some of the major drivers of how the game plays. As a beginner, here are some lessons learned from my first game of Wilderness War:

  1. Defend the frontier. Especially for the British, but for both players, keeping the frontier defended by building stockades and forts is a must. Regular troops caught in wilderness areas are easy targets for Indians and other non-regulars, so having defenses built is key to defending territory. Having a network of stockades and forts to defend from, retreat to and maintain supply line coherence is a necessity if an army is going to succeed in the wilds of North America.
  2. Don’t get caught out in the cold. Open country and mountains are a strong enemy, particularly to 18th-century European armies. Paying attention to stacking limits as each year ends is important to keeping a force at strength. When conducting operations, players need to keep in mind where their troops will all wind up as a year ends and forces settle in for the winter. Nothing is worse than spending a series of turns marching troops into position only to have a portion of them die from starvation, disease and exposure in the period following each year’s turn.
  3. Play the long game. The full game goes to eight years of warfare, so strategy needs to take a long view. The first half of the game most probably belongs to the French as they and their Indian allies sack the wide open and undefended frontier. The British simply can’t be everywhere in the early years of the war, so spending time building defenses while also waiting to get the right cards to call in reinforcements is important. Massing and moving large forces on both sides to be strong enough to siege and capture forts takes a fair amount of planning but pays off in victory points.

Wilderness War is a fantastic playable document of the French and Indian War. The shifting alliances, opportunistic events, geography of the country itself intertwine to capture the period with a realness that might be familiar to any French or British commander on the 18th-century American frontier.

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