Last month, Quartz published a crowd-sourced online survey of how the rest of the world learns about the American Revolution in school. For most outside the US, the war is variably seen as a sideshow to other 18th-century European conflicts, an extension of the Enlightenment or ignored altogether. Children in the United States itself often leave school and march into adult citizenship with only the broadest mythic stories and American patriotic heroes of the war under their belts.
My interest in the American War of Independence has fluctuated over time since growing up as a kid amid the United States Bicentennial fervor of the mid-1970s. Having been in Brooklyn for almost two decades now, I’ve developed a growing interest in the war as I live and commute daily through the ground fought over during the Battle of Brooklyn and Battle of New York in 1776. Over the past year or two I’ve also been working through a minor obsession with boardgames of the American War of Independence. I’ve played many and collected a few ranging from classics of the early 1970s to modern games varied in scope and mechanics.
Presented here is by no means a complete list of games themed on America’s defining early conflict, but an overview of the ones I’ve played or chosen to add to my inventory of wargames. Style, scope and time commitments vary with these games, offering interested gamers – both new and experienced – an opportunity to play and learn about the American Revolution anew with each tabletop session.
The American Revolution 1775-1783 (SPI)
Simulation Publications Inc (SPI) rolled out The American Revolution 1775-1783 in 1972 a few years ahead of the Bicentennial celebration, and launched some revolutionary new aspects to wargaming along with it. Breaking from the tradition of a hex-based wargame map of the time, SPI’s game is laid out in a graphic abstract series of areas and regions with their own victory point values. Rules for the game are slim, and reference charts for turn sequence, movement, winter attrition, combat and reinforcements by turn season and year are all printed right on the map. The overall design, from the slick Helvetica font on the plain white box edition to the map itself has a great retro feel that sets it apart from other games of the early 70s. I’ve played In short, the game feels very ‘modern’ despite being more than forty years old.
Cardboard chits with simple iconic graphics display force strength for the two main sides of the war, and movement is standardized in terrain marked simply as either as wilderness or open. Colonial forces move more effectively in wilderness areas than the British, making it easier for them to evade confrontation with the superior English troops. Staying away from the British until enough Colonial forces can be raised is key to any success for the Revolution.
The arrival of additional British troops into ports is scheduled specifically according to the year and season of the game outlined at the edge of the board, and Colonial forces are raised and deployed through a random die roll levy. The mechanics whereby Colonial Militia and Tory forces deploy I find to be pretty accurately reflective of the regional politics of the era. Tories appear only once when British Regulars enter a region, and Colonial Militia take up arms against the British when they first enter a region they do not control and each time the British lose control. French forces arrive after a ‘major success’ (five or more losses by the British) in combat by the Colonials. All these well-thought deployment mechanisms stand out as big historical differentiators for me with this game.
Combat is resolved through a die roll check on a simple table in a corner of the board which can result in very bloody losses to both sides as they meet in battle. First losses in battle always go to Tories of Militia forces which historically often left battlefields when the going got tough. Sieges are pretty simple with forces defending in forts getting triple their combat strength and attackers outside the fort doubling their value when counter-attacked by the fortified foes. Victory for the British comes by controlling a value of 51 victory points on the board, and the Colonials can win with three ‘major success’ battles. In all its abstract area movement and control, SPI’s game offers a slick game that captures just enough of the nuanced history of the period to more than satisfy.
1776 (Avalon Hill)
The other big game to come out before the Bicentennial was Avalon Hill’s 1776 from 1974. With rules running almost three times as long as those in SPI’s game, 1776 is often viewed as the more detailed play experience of the two. Some 400 counters represent infantry, artillery and dragoons for the Continental Army, British Regulars, Colonial and Tory Militia, French Regulars, Indians, and British and French naval units. The large mounted hex maps are filled with detailed terrain with each feature effecting movement and combat in different ways. Other tables for combat and turn sequence are contained on a series of additional reference charts, and tactical cards and scenario sheets round out the components in the hefty box.
I’ve only recently picked up a copy of 1776 and I’m not certain when I’m going to be able to find an opponent to give this one a proper play. A read through the lengthy rules outline the game from a quick beginner’s experience to specific historic scenarios within the war to a full campaign mode covering the entire war. Advanced rules go deep in simulating the role of supply, forts, entrenchments, naval movement and combat, river movement by bateaux, wintering effects, French entrance to the war and the arrival of additional troops throughout the chosen game. Combat is achieved by a ratio of force size and a die roll modified by factors of supply, defense from forts and trenches and presence of artillery. Control of specific locations within a region is the key factor to the game, creating an interestingly complex dynamic for the raising additional forces as well as a path of victory. Aside from the game itself, the splendid designer notes offer a great general meditation on the trade-offs inherent to historic war simulation balanced with playability. For the gamer really wanting to roll their sleeves up with the intricacies of the American Revolution, 1776 is probably the game.
Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-83 (Columbia Games)
Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-1783, published by Columbia Games in 2003, bridges the gap from traditional wargames to the present with relatively swift play, wooden blocks to represent British, Colonial, French and Native American forces, and simple cards driving force activation and supply during each game turn. The long game map consists of large hexes with forest, swamp and river terrain features which affect movement as well as geographic supply towns and key victory point locations. British and French West Indies ports allow for additional options in naval movement and combat. The game strikes a balance between simple rules and rich re-playability, and my time with the game has seen victories for either side depending on the session.
Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-83 by Columbia Games
In each year of the game, a hand of five dealt cards activate forces and re-supply existing forces which have taken step losses in previous turns. Actions may either move forces already on the map or bring new units onto the board by selecting from a random pool of blocks. A limited number of Native American blocks are allied with the British player only, and French forces may arrive randomly after the first turn beginning in 1776. Colonial forces arrive in controlled supply areas, British and French forces arrive by sea to available ports and Tory Militia rise from British-controlled supply areas. When opposing forces move into contact, combat is resolved by simple die rolls depending on the quality and strength of the blocks available. Blocks are reduced in strength and then eliminated as ‘prisoners’ which may be exchanged at the end of the turn and returned to each player’s pool of available forces. At the end of combat, forces may have the option to withdraw or stay in the fight. Weather plays a random role in the game, potentially limiting combat during a turn year, and troops may be also eliminated in a wintering phase at the end of turn. Victory is tallied at the end of each hand of cards and year with the British winning with 30 supply points and the Colonials by driving the British to under 12 supply points.
1775: Rebellion (Academy Games)
I’ve written previously in detail about 2013’s 1775: Rebellion from the Birth of America series from Academy Games, one of my favorite quick-playing boardgames of the American Revolution. The game plays different from most in the period with two to four players able to command the American Continental Army, Patriot Militia, British Army and Loyalist forces in a game driven by card activation and randomized turn order.
1775: Rebellion from Academy Games
The four main forces plus French, Hessian and Native American allies are all represented by simple colored cubes moving and warring over a gorgeous game board representing the the colonies, territories and Canadian provinces of the northeastern American continent of the late 18th-century. Cards drive the action with movement, period-specific events and personalities, and special color-coded dice resolve combat as forces are either destroyed or flee to return in later turns. Areas flip to British or American control as combat is resolved. When two special Treaty of Paris cards are played, the game ends with victory rewarded to the player holding the most control of the board. If I’m going to play the American Revolution with a relatively inexperienced player or non-gamer, this is my go-to game for the period.
New York 1776 and Trenton 1776 (Worthington Publishing)
In 2014, Worthington Publishing launched their ambitious Campaigns of the American Revolution series with New York 1776 followed by Trenton 1776 in 2015. These strategic block games, funded through popular Kickstarter campaigns I backed, take players through specific stages of the war beginning with the action on Long Island and in and around New York City in the summer and fall of 1776 and continuing the conflict into New Jersey in the winter of 1776 and 1777.
While the games do not directly connect to each other in a grand campaign, each two-hour game is well-scaled to the strategy inherent to each series of battles in the early years of the war. Randomized turn order, variable numbers of turn actions and the block components provide a fog of war mechanic to the game as forces move by themselves or as groups under the command of the many leaders present on each side. Movement is broadly point-to-point on game boards simply illustrated with towns, ports, forts or other key geographic points of control. Combat goes off as forces meet on the map with infantry, artillery, leaders and fortified positions playing into results that can include withdrawals, retreats, fleeing Militia and follow up attacks. Command plays several roles in these games, including being able to move groups of forces and other scenario-specific special rules in battle, deployment and victory conditions.
New York 1776 presents the largest meeting of troops during the American Revolution with the professional British army and navy, along with their hired Hessian allies, looking to halt the uprising of the new American Colonial army and Militia in the early months of the war. Controlling the waterways and supply routes around New York with the British navy plays a big part in the British player’s path to either capturing Washington or controlling New York by game’s end. For the Colonial player, the game is largely one of avoiding the mass of better rated British troops, preventing their control of New York or reducing the superior British army by 20 points.
In Trenton 1776, the action moves to smaller scale engagements in New Jersey as the British looked to smash the Colonial army and Militia retreating from their defeat in New York. With Washington in command, he risks bold counterattacks to push the British back out of southern New Jersey or simply moving to safety south of the Delaware. Howe’s pursuing British army must mass its forces against the rebel army at key towns and river crossings and hopefully push to seize Philadelphia as the icy winter settles in. With similar rules but at a smaller scale than New York 1776, multiple plays of Trenton 1776 can really show players how cautious or aggressive decisions can make or break a campaign.
Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games)
I’m really looking forward to the release of Liberty Or Death: The American Resurrection, due out late this year. The sixth game in the counterinsurgency (COIN) series from GMT Games, I’ve had this one on pre-order based on my love for the other COIN games. Playing from solo to four players, Liberty Or Death will present the war as one of insurgent and counterinsurgency forces of American Colonials, British, French and Native Americans warring for control of the North American continent. As in the other COIN games, shifting alliances, varied turn order, separate victory conditions, irregular forces and historically-themed event cards will each play into a game which will greatly expand beyond the typical presentation of the war as one between just two opposing nations. Early reports from game tests and some sneak looks at artwork make this my personally most anticipated game of the year, and I’ll surely be back with a full report in the coming months.
So where to start with the American Revolution?
The 1970s era SPI and Avalon Hill games will appeal the most to experienced strategy players looking to really dig into hours of the broad complexity of some or all the war within a very traditional wargame. On the flipside, the Worthington Publishing games provide short but replayable intros to gaming the period for younger players or those just getting into block games. The Columbia Games take on the war splits the difference by offering up relatively simple mechanics of a card-activated block game representing the entire war over a couple hours of play. The Academy Games game expands play to four players and allied forces in an abstracted area control strategy game that likewise covers the entire war in mix of card and dice action. The forthcoming game from GMT Games will reinvent the conflict anew within the context of four separate interests vying for victory.
Players wishing to play through advanced strategic simulation of 18th-century warfare will be rewarded by time invested in the Avalon Hill and SPI games. The Columbia Games and Worthington Publishing games will also provide a satisfying combat simulation albeit at a much simplified level. To experience more abstracted combat as well as the interplay of politics, alliances and events within the period of the war, the Academy Games and GMT Games games provide both relatively fast play as well as more of a learning experience about broader aspects of the American Revolution.
Each game above paints the American Revolution large or small, and together they are a fine reflection of the evolving mechanics of wargaming over the past forty years. There are numerous additional games of the American Revolution, some focusing on specific regional campaigns and many others presenting the full war. Games still on my shortlist to try include 2010’s Washington’s War from GMT Games and its 1994 predecessor We The People by Avalon Hill which helped launch the modern trend in card-driven wargaming.
There’s a point of entry for gamers of every type to get in on the War of Independence and relive what Thomas Paine famously called, “the times that try men’s souls.”