Touring the Battle of Brooklyn at Green-Wood Cemetery

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This past Sunday a fellow member of Metropolitan Wargamers and I climbed aboard a trolley tour at historic Green-Wood Cemetery. The occasion was the cemetery’s annual Battle of Brooklyn Commemoration, fortuitously held this year on the exact date — 241 years later — of the battle on August 27, 1776.

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Leading the two-hour tour were the cemetery’s resident historian, Jeff Richman, and Barnet Schecter, historian and author of The Battle for New York. Schecter’s book is the long-held standard text on the battle, variously known as the Battle of Long Island or the Battle of Brooklyn. I’ve had a copy of his book for years and I’ve heard him lecture previously, but the tour offered a great chance to get up close with both Schecter and Richman as they spun a narrative of the battle’s events more than two centuries previous.

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Barnet Schecter presents the view toward eastern Long Island where British troops were observed landing in August 1776

One of the first stops on the tour was along a ridge affording an southeast-facing view from the cemetery out into Long Island. From this position, the historians presented with some certainty,  General George Washington and his staff were able to make their first accounting of the landing of General William Howe’s British forces at Gravesend Bay August 22nd-24th. The prospect sits atop a terminal moraine known as the Heights of Guan, the furthest point of a glacier’s advance millennia ago, and opens into a wide view across the flatlands of Brooklyn where only farms, fields and open ground stood between British and Continental forces. On the beautiful, clear morning of the tour, our view stretched to the horizon, making it easy to imagine how important the high ground had been in an era when first-hand observation was often the only information a commander had to go on in the field. From this view, Washington’s observations came to the (incorrect) conclusion the bulk of the British force would march here to his west flank and attack. The British command had other plans.

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The mausoleum of Robert Troup, lieutenant colonel of the Continental Army

Green-Wood being the final resting place of many prominent New Yorkers of the past couple hundred years, there were several stops along the tour at notable graves. One example was at the mausoleum of Robert Troup. A college roommate of Alexander Hamilton and junior officer in the Continental Army at the time of the battle, Troup was one of just five men sent to stand watch at the far east flank of Washington’s position at the Jamaica Pass on the eve of the battle. Unfortunately for the Colonials, the British secretly divided their force on the evening of August 26th and silently marched some 10,000 men, 40 guns and a long baggage train through the darkness to Jamaica Pass. In this audacious flanking maneuver, the British would capture Troup and his comrades and begin closing on an unsuspecting Washington from the east.

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The Delaware Regiment monument at Green-Wood Cemetery

Washington had thrown the bulk of his force on the west flank, led by William Alexander (aka “Lord Stirling”). Just as the British were moving in from the east, a British decoy force led by James Grant had made its way toward Stirling’s lines. Our tour traced Grant’s advance and made our next stop near the approximate site of the first clash of Stirling and Grant late on August 26th. The skirmish, now remembered in a typical mixture of fact and folklore, was recounted as being fought through near a watermelon patch at the now-vanished Red Lion Inn. This far edge of the cemetery property now houses a parking lot and maintenance sheds, so it really takes a stretch of the imagination to transport oneself to those opening shots of the battle. The one nod to the historic events there is in a relatively recent monument to the the Delaware Regiment which would play a part near this spot the following day as the Battle of Brooklyn commenced.

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Our guides for the morning, Jeff Richman (left) and Barnet Schecter (right)

It was here, Richman and Schecter both pointed out, that American troops for the first time in the war formed European-styled firing lines and exchanged volleys with British soldiers, then the most powerful military force in the world. Our tour then followed the action of the Colonial’s right flank as Stirling’s men -including the Delaware regiment and Pennsylvanians — repositioned at an angled rise, firing into Grant’s advancing troops. It was there that two distant cannon blasts, far to east, signaled the surprise advance of the main British lines that had snuck through the Jamaica Pass overnight. In one echoing report, the British had announced themselves and the Americans found themselves enveloped by a force more than twice its size.

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The statue of Minerva, placed atop Battle Hill by Charles Higgins in 1920

Following the retreat of Stirling’s troops, we made our way to our final tour stop at what became known as Battle Hill in the 20th-century. Standing before the statue of the goddess Minerva, Richman recounted the story of the monument’s placement by Charles Higgins, an Irish immigrant who made his fortune in India ink. Archival research unveiled Higgins’s original intent to have the statue face the Woolworth Building although we can be thankful today for its dramatic placement facing of the Statue of Liberty across the harbor.

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And it was on the hill 241 years ago this past weekend where a couple hundred Americans seized the 200-foot hill and held off 2000 British troops over several attacks. Out of ammunition, the Colonials eventually surrendered but they allowed for the majority of Stirling’s men to slip toward the Gowanus Creek. There, outgunned and outnumbered, the Americans (led by the 1st Maryland Regiment) made head-on attacks British dug in at the Vechte–Cortelyou House, known today as the Old Stone House. Once again, the sacrifices and delaying actions of Stirling’s force against the British allowed the vast majority of the Americans to flee toward the East River. Two evenings later, on August 29, 1776, Washington led a nighttime evacuation to Manhattan. Not only had the young Continental Army and most of its leadership been saved, but most probably the Revolution was saved, too.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for more than twenty years and I’m an avid history fan, but sharing a morning with two passionate guides walking historic ground really brought long-ago events alive anew. New York and Brooklyn are not places that evoke the Revolution for most Americans. Boston, Lexington-Concord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga and Yorktown — those are sites of the War of Independence we all learn as children, not Brooklyn. But both Richman and Schecter hit on the importance of the Battle of Brooklyn over and over again on the tour — the first battle after the Declaration of Independence as Americans; the largest battle of the American Revolution; the first time Americans faced British in traditional open field battle; and, the event where Washington managed to snatch a victory (of sorts) out of a defeat. The war continued another seven years, but had the events in Brooklyn gone differently it may very well have ended less than two months after tAmericans had taken the radical first steps toward independence. One thing we Brooklynites are good at is promoting our local brand, but when it comes to the Battle of Brooklyn, it most certainly warrants repeated commemoration every August.

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Boardgames of the American Revolution, Part II

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I’ve been continuing to scratch a serious American War of Independence itch for months now. Last summer I took a first pass at some of my favorite games of the period in Boardgames of the American Revolution, Part I. Since then, gamers have also been blessed with the release of Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection, and it has fast become one of my all-time favorites among all the games I’ve played.

Away from the tabletop, I’ve been swept up in the fervor of Hamilton: The Musical and have been fortunate to catch the show twice on its record-setting Broadway run here in NYC. I’ve also recently revisited 1776 from 1969 and it’s 1972 movie adaptation. As luck would have it a new production will run for one weekend in early April at City Center here in the city, and yes, I’ve already got my tickets. A side note of Broadway trivia is that 1776‘s Tony Award-winning Broadway debut was in the same theater where Hamilton is currently running, and it too seems destined to sweep the awards in June.

But, back to games.

In this Part II, I take a look at more games of the Revolution I’ve managed to acquire and/or play in the past six months. Like the last time, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. Despite my best efforts there are a lot more games I have yet to touch. What this round presents is again a variety in scope, mechanics and time commitment for gaming the Revolution.

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We The People (Avalon Hill)

Avalon Hill’s We The People from 1994 is a landmark in the history of modern wargaming. In taking on the well-worn American Revolution, designer Mark Herman created a number of innovations which have provided the basis for some of the most successful games of the past two decades.

Breaking from the standard hex maps of most prior wargames, WTP’s playing board of the British colonies of North America is abstracted into a series of connected key politically important locations like Long Island, Boston, Fort Niagara and Charleston. While battles play a part in controlling these areas, it is the shifts in political control that are tracked and lead to victory.

Combat in WTP was also stripped down in a few ways. Basic troop units mark the size of forces, but their quality is modified through the presence of leaders. When forces choose to clash in the game, battle cards are used to resolve various battlefield actions steeped in the terminology and effects of 18th-century warfare.

Lastly, the newly-introduced card driven game (CDG) mechanic propel the game’s action through the play of cards, rather than the more traditional roll of dice. With each hand of cards, players have the option of using them to play historically significant events which have varying results for each side of the conflict. Long term planning and success within the game often comes down to having the right cards at the right time.

An old copy of WTP sits on a shelf of club games at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, and I recently blew the dust off it for a play. Despite its status at the time of  release, I honestly don’t find myself getting this one on the table very often. That said, I feel this game’s presence in so many games I play on a regular basis, and so its true game-changing effects on the hobby reverberate to this day.

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Washington’s War (GMT Games)

Building on the success of WTP, Herman revisited his game of the Revolution in 2010 with Washington’s War from GMT Games. Players familiar with WTP found much similarity with Herman’s original depiction of the period but with a few significant changes.

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A recent game of Washington’s War by GMT Games

The CDG mechanic was tweaked to allow for more flexible use of cards and the ability to ‘buy back’ discarded cards. WW also abandoned the battle cards for a dice-off combat resolution, making combat a quicker and more elegant part of the game. I feel the biggest change was in the more asymmetric representation of how the British and Colonial sides each play. The experienced troops of the King are strong on the coasts with their dominant naval power, and the Americans fair better inland but vie with keeping their militia in the action. Generals remain important to both sides, and the French entry to the war plays out in a way that truly captures the historical impact it had.

All the evolutions from WTP make the more recent game a quicker affair, with WW games running at about 90 minutes as opposed to the two hours or so to play WTP. The upgrades to the design and quality of the board, cards and playing pieces all brought the War of Independence into the 21st-century.

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Hold The Line (Worthington Publishing)

In 2008 Worthington Publishing released Hold The Line, a flexible game of the Revolution with a wide appeal from beginners to experienced gamers. Building on the success of their Clash For A Continent: Battles Of the American Revolution and French & Indian War game from three years before, HTL presents a blank hexagonal hardback game board which can be laid out with dozens of included double-sided terrain tiles representing streams, bridges, hills, forests, towns, fences and entrenchments. Terrain has varying effects on line of sight and movement within the game.

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Playing pieces from Hold The Line

Rectangular and square cardboard tiles represent British and Colonial elite, militia, regular and light infantry, dragoons, artillery and generic commanders. The chunky tiles are double-sided to mark losses as game battles unfold. Each turn players roll for random action points which may be spent to move, rally or fire, allowing for each commander to make choices in utilizing their troops. Additionally, the quality of troops and commander presence modify movement and fire ranges. For a simple series of rules, there’s a lot of game in HTL as even the most careful planning by one side over a series of turns can result in a foiled plan if subsequent action point rolls don’t provide enough actions to carry out a planned move or attack.

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Hold The Line Battle of Monmouth morning scenario

HTL comes with thirteen scenarios for historic battles, each with their own page of historic background, rules and guide to set up. Additional optional rules allow for specific historic leaders, rally rules and morale modifications.Once you’ve played through the included scenarios, numerous additional battle scenarios can be found online from fans of the game. Within a simple design, flexible scenarios and a short set of rules, it’s easy to see why this currently out of print game is a favorite.

 

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Battles of the American Revolution (GMT Games)

Between 1998 and 2013, GMT Games released a series of standalone games of the Battles of The American Revolution. Designed by Mark Miklos, each is a more traditional hex and counter game running three to six hours to play. For those looking to dig into eight key engagements of the War of Independence, the games offer nuances to reflect the historic events and personalities which shaped each battle wrapped in a beautiful modern design.

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In late 2015 GMT announced the re-release of the first three games in the series — Saratoga, Brandywine and Guilford — as a tri-pack available through their P500 pre-order program. Since I have never played any of the games from the series, I jumped at the chance to get in on the deal of $45 for three games. The games will get upgrades to mounted maps and a unified rulebook, and additional expansions and tweaks to components a offered in reprints over the years will also be included.

The Revolution Continues…

Having spent the better part of 12 months playing through new and old games of the American Revolution, I find myself definitely leaning toward the more modern games. In order of personal preference, here’s my Top 10:

  1. Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games)
  2. 1775: Rebellion (Academy Games)
  3. Washington’s War (GMT Games)
  4. Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-83 (Columbia Games)
  5. Hold The Line (Worthington Publishing)
  6. We The People (Avalon Hill)
  7. New York 1776 (Worthington Publishing)
  8. Trenton 1776 (Worthington Publishing)
  9. The American Revolution 1775-1783 (SPI)
  10. 1776 (Avalon Hill)

The main factors in consideration of the above for me are look, mechanic and importantly, time commitment. Some of the older games from SPI and Avalon Hill just require too much time for me at this stage in my life, and getting a quick game in with my fellow club members or my kids is a big determinant on what gets to the table these days.

What this two-part exercise has done for me is expose how such a diverse gaming experience can be pulled out of one signature conflict with a mix of maps, cardboard and cards. Playing through a span of forty years of American Revolution games, I can only wonder where some designer takes things next. Having gamed my way through the War of Independence, I’ve been spurred on to take a step backward in time to the French and Indian War and see what is revealed on the table next.

On The Trail of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign

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As I’ve written here many times before, I grew up amid the fields of great wars which shaped world history for more than two centuries hence. These conflicts of the 18th-century — the French and Indian War and the American War of Independence — partially played out in my childhood backyard of Western New York State. It was there in the 1750s-1780s where the European powers of France and England, many American indigenous civilizations and upstart Colonial settlers clashed over the continent savagely and ultimately formed the North American continent we know to this day.

A few months ago I had occasion to journey back again from my current home in Brooklyn to my original hometown in the Genesee Valley of Western New York. In doing so, I was able to partially retrace the movement of once-great alliances of armies and tribes of 1779.

Idealized images of the American War of Independence

Tracing the route of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign uncovers some of the complexity to the story of the American Revolution and the country’s creation myths. Like most Americans, my view of the War of Independence was shaped at an early age with idealistic impressions of the era, its events and its legendary personalities — the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, Colonial Minutemen firing at British Redcoats, Paul Revere’s ride, Washington crossing the Delaware River, Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag and Molly Pitcher at the Battle on Monmouth. The portrayal of history with a heroic flourishes is not uncommon for sure, but stops along the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign route boldly reveal where many of our gaps between legend and reality persist in how we interpret our history.

The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign

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Monument to the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign erected at various sites throughout the region on the 150th anniversary in 1929

By the summer of 1779, the American Revolution was at its midpoint. The surrender of the British at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777 encouraged France to join the war in 1778. Even with much-needed support flowing to the Colonies, the alliance between the Iroquois Confederacy and the British was holding the New York State frontier in the hands of England. Encouraged by British and Tory sympathizers operating from Fort Niagara across Western New York, the Iroquois harassed and killed settlers in the Mohawk Valley and also provided support to the British army in the form of food supplies.

In retaliation, General George Washington set his eyes on crushing the Iroquois alliance to “war upon them in their own style; penetrate their country, lay waste their villages and settlements.” The task was assigned to Major General John Sullivan with Brigadier General James Clinton acting as second in command. Sullivan set off northwest from Easton, PA and joined Clinton at Tioga near present day Athens, PA at the New York border in August 1779. Against military tradition, Washington assigned a major portion of the Continental Army (four brigades of over 4500 men) away from the front against the British. Committing such a sizable amount of men and supplies to the back country campaign points to the importance Washington placed on the mission.

Newtown Battlefield

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Setting out from their encampment on August 26, 1779, the well-supplied columns of the Clinton-Sullivan force marched along the Chemung River. Three days later, the expedition encountered Royalist forces comprised of a handful of British regulars, a couple hundred Tory militia and perhaps 1000 Iroquois warriors lying in wait in well-hidden earthworks.

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A view from atop the Newton Battlefield park

The militia at the Battle of Newtown were the famed Butler’s Rangers, commanded by Loyalist John Butler. Butler’s relationship with the British stretched back to the French and Indian War with his irregular troops participating in a number of key battles in Upstate New York and the Northeast region. Known for their green jackets and tactics which departed from standard 18th-century European line fighting, Butler’s Rangers were well-adapted to fighting in the thick woods of the American frontier. Leading the Iroquois at Newtown was Joseph Brant, a Mohawk who had likewise begun his military career fighting alongside British forces in the French and Indian War.

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Monuments to John Sullivan and the battle at Newtown Battlefield

Despite their dug in positions, Loyalist forces were greatly outnumbered at Newtown and a plan was quickly devised by Sullivan once the enemy’s presence was revealed. With Colonial cannon fire pouring into Loyalist positions, flanking troops were sent east and west. Despite relatively low casualties on both sides, the Loyalist forces ceded the field. The Battle of Newtown, the largest engagement of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign, left a lasting impression on the Iroquois in particular who retreated from the Colonial’s guns and superior numbers.

Groveland Ambuscade

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 Map of the Genesee Valley and the site of the ambush of the Boyd-Parker expedition on September 13, 1779

After Newtown, Sullivan and Clinton continued marching northwest. With the Iroquois on the run westward, the Colonials cut a swath of destruction against largely civilian tribes people. Fields of crops were cut down and dozens of villages were burned. What we would deem today as atrocities were meted out on the Iroquois population of the Finger Lakes Region with Washington’s orders of a scorched-earth mission delivered mercilessly.

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Roadside sign to the Groveland Ambuscade

By mid-September 1779, the Sullivan-Clinton expedition had reached up through the Genesee Valley. In the dense terrain differing from the wider fields of Newtown a month prior, the Colonials were slowed and at a disadvantage without opportunities to use their cannon effectively. On September 12, Clinton assigned Lt. Thomas Boyd, Sergeant Michael Parker and just over 20 men to find the Iroquois village of Little Beard’s Town. Lying again in ambush were Butler’s men and hundreds of Senecas.

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Me, my father and sons at the Groveland Ambuscade monument

The following morning on September 13, 1779, Boyd’s scouting party engaged in a brief gunfight with a half-dozen Senecas near Conesus Lake and present-day Groveland. Against the advisement of his guide, Boyd pursued the Indians into a trap where they were quickly surrounded by Butler and Brant’s large force. In the ensuing ambush, about a dozen of Boyd’s men were killed. As the smoke cleared, another twelve men were captured along with Boyd and Parker themselves. Today, the Groveland Ambuscade park and monument marks the place of this quick and yet bloody skirmish.

Boyd-Parker Park

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Historical marker at the Boyd-Parker “torture tree” site in Cuylerville, NY

The captured Colonials were led to nearby Little Beard’s Town some five miles west of the ambush near present day Cuylerville, NY. After enduring a summer of unrelenting viciousness at the hands of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign, Brant was anxious to confront his now-imprisoned enemies face to face. With his questioning over, Brant left the men to the Senecas who tortured and killed Boyd, Parker and all but one of their men.

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My wife and son at the Boyd-Parker “torture tree”

The centerpiece of the present day Boyd-Parker Park is the infamous “torture tree.” Soaring over 70 feet high and some 24 feet in circumference, the 250-year-old bur oak tree is a direct living link to the past events of the valley centuries ago. While legend has it the tree is the actual spot where Boyd and Parker met their end through horrendous acts of torture, the name is dubious since no actual documentation exists to prove the exact tree’s location.Two days after the deaths of the Boyd and Parker’s group, Sullivan’s main force arrived to destroy Little Beard’s Town and bury their comrades.

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One of many plaques at the Boyd-Parker park

In the weeks following the events in the Genesee Valley toward the end of September 1779, Sullivan and Clinton’s expedition force began to disband to winter quarters. While a decisive blow had not been dealt to the Iroquois, thousands of Indians were dispersed throughout Western New York and into Canada as winter set in with starvation and disease devastating the already weakened population.

Memory of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign

Touring the landscapes and monuments of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign in the Genesee Valley is a remarkable experience. Attempting to place yourself back in a time of a region dotted with large Indian towns, large fields of mature agriculture and scattered white settlers takes a great leap of imagination. The modern plaques and signage along roadsides and memorial parks document the events of 1779 with words like “hostile” and “aggression” applied repeatedly to the Iroquois who peacefully lived their lives for centuries before becoming embroiled in the wars of Europeans and American colonists. On the flip side, the upstart Colonials who set on a single-minded destructive campaign against the locals are portrayed heroically as “undaunted” and sacrificially giving their blood for “American freedom.” Following the trail of history today leads to ongoing battles of a different sort — battles to square the nation’s history myths with the realities of the events of over two centuries ago.

New Game Weekend: Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection

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A package containing my most highly-anticipated game of early 2016 arrived a couple weeks ago, and I finally unpacked and played all the glory that is Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection by GMT Games.

Designed by Harold Buchanan in consultation with the creators of of GMT’s COIN series of  games (including Volko Ruhnke), LoD places the American Revolution within the context of an 18th-century counterinsurgency on the American continent. Buchanan is a true inspiration as a first time game designer at midlife putting his passion for the period to work on the tabletop. Interviews at The Tattered Board podcast and Grogheads reveal Buchanan’s story of a lifelong gamer (with a degree from MIT in Finance and Game Theory) whose kids have grown up and out of the house, allowing him the time to pursue game design. His love of the Revolution and gaming has truly paid off with LoD.

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GMT’s Liberty Or Death hits the table for the first time

I’ve played multiple games of Cuba Libre and Fire and In The Lake from the COIN series over the past couple years, and those familiar with the mechanics of these games will find much familiarity and a few new differences in LoD. The game presents the American Revolution as one among four factions — British, Colonial, French and Indian — each vying for their own victory conditions. The British control both Regular (red cubes) and irregular Tory (green cubes) forces, the Colonials play with Continentals (blue cubes) and irregular Patriot Militia (blue cylinders), the French use Regular (white cubes) troops and the Indians field irregular War Parties (tan cylinders). Two loose alliances of British/Indian and Colonial/French work in concert to move and occupy city and Colony territory while battling, building forts and settlements and controlling political dissent.

The British press the war in New York

As in the other COIN games, LoD action is driven through a set of beautifully-designed cards. Cards provide varying turn order with depictions of historical events a player may choose to play or not play according to their force’s (or their ally’s) advantage. Alternatively, players may opt to perform a series of other combinations of actions specific to their nationality to move, battle, skirmish or raid, muster forces, build forts and villages, manage coastal blockades, promote propaganda or share in economic support and trade. An active card is in play with a look ahead also granted to the next card to be played, giving the game a true campaign feel as future moves are plotted, executed or thwarted.

Once a series of cards are played through, a season ends with the draw of a random “Winter Quarters” card. These cards, each with their own individual effect, create a round of actions where victory conditions are checked, resources are gained or spent, forces redeploy or are removed from the game and leaders may change. The variable combinations of turn order, events and actions contribute to the significant replay value of LoD, as even similar periods of campaigns may play out very differently in each sitting.

The French arrive to support the Colonists in Massachusetts

One of my favorite aspects that sets LoD apart from many games is the relative non-involvement of the French early in the game. The French player does not start on the board at all, but instead spends the early game offering monetary support to their Colonial allies. Once certain conditions are met in terms of Colonial victories over the British, the French enter the game by landing troops and offering naval support and blockades of coastal city ports. A French victory is achieved through the accumulation of British casualties and opposition to British rule.

The Indians are likewise an interesting faction with their main concern of building villages in territories while helping the British maintaining their hold on the hearts and minds of the colonies. Indian war parties assist the British through harmful raids which reduce the effectiveness of the Colonials while also advancing their tribal territorial expansion. Victory for the Colonists comes through the British casualties and holding the growth of Indian villages to a minimum against the construction of Colonial forts. A British win arrives with the accumulation of Colonial casualties and support for the King.

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Historic leaders are a new mechanic in LoD

Another way LoD differs from other COIN games is the insertion of leaders to each force, such as Gage, Washington, Rochambau or the Indian chief Cornplanter. As the game goes on, some leaders may randomly swap out for others, making it yet another variable for players to manage. With each leader holding their own set of unique abilities and modifiers, players need to work effectively to utilize them knowing full well they may be replaced in future turns.

Each faction also receives a “Brilliant Stroke” card for one-time use in the game to trump another player’s turn and perform an extra series of free actions. Additionally, the French’s entry comes with the achievement of game prerequisites and play of their unique “Treaty of Alliance” card. Figuring out the exact moment to deliver a big, often game-changing, play with one of these special “Brilliant Stroke” cards looms large in the mix of decision making throughout the game.

Examples of LoD cards featuring key personalities and events of the war

The entire design of the LoD is wonderful, with a rich playing board hinting at design elements of 18th-century maps without any compromise to game play. The cards are likewise rich in their look and content, each summarizing an aspect of the war or its politics in just a few lines of text and game effects. The rules and playbook are well done, and the designers notes by Buchanan and Ruhnke are well-worth a read for historical background and tips to playing to the strengths of each faction.

“The British Return To New York” scenario at Metropolitan Wargamers

A game of LoD may be played in one of three campaigns of varying length. A short late war game from 1778-1780 is outlined in “The Southern Campaign,” and a mid-length “British Return to New York” scenario runs in the early war of 1776-1779. Players wishing to roll up their sleeves for a long game can tackle most of the war in the  1775-1780 period with “A People Numerous and Armed.” Each scenario provides specific starting situational set-ups as well a guide to creating decks of cards for the campaign seasons with the game. A brief guided intro scenario also makes a first-time walk through of the game time well spent.

Since receiving the game, I’ve run through the introductory scenario plus multiple plays through both he the Southern and New York campaign scenarios. In a most recent game with some players both new and experienced with the COIN series at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, the Indians had the frontier ablaze and my French were far too late to the action except for dumping money into the rebellion. The British forces had much of the East Coast and South locked down without much trouble from my tardy French navy. Ultimately, the Colonials squeaked out a minor victory and had some very lucky battle results in upstate New York.

With my life split between growing up in Western New York and living in New York City for the past 20 years, the American Revolution was been a near-constant presence in my life for decades. As a run-up to the release of LoD I threw myself into classic and contemporary games of the American Revolution, playing the period in a variety of mechanics and design. With a few games of Liberty of Death under my belt, I’m thrilled to have the period refreshed anew, and the game will be very much at home with my other American Revolution games.

Rapping The Revolution At “Hamilton”

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There were some constants in my childhood — playing games, learning about American history and theater. My parents were active in local community theater building sets, gathering up props, costuming, running patron sponsorship and all the random tasks which come with a volunteer stage group. Life at home had a pattern for years with dramas or comedies over the winter and larger scale musicals over the summer. As I grew older, I also got involved with school musicals, and I’ve got a ton of great memories onstage and backstage from my teen years. All through my life, musicals have formed a soundtrack, from the piles of records by my parents’ stereo to the CDs I carted with me to college to the cast recordings I stream in my apartment today.

HamiltonSoldiers“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast

Living in Brooklyn for the past 20 years has granted me access to some of the best theater in the world, and this past week I had the opportunity to catch one of the most lauded American theater events of the century so far — Hamilton. Based on Ron Chernow’s bestselling 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, much has been written already about this remarkable work by Lin-Manuel Miranda, but for me, it just hits so many notes of my life past and present.

The musical jumps to a start with a quickly-sung early biography of Alexander Hamilton’s orphaned boyhood in the Caribbean and arrival in British-ruled New York City in 1773. The city itself is a main character in the story, staged as a place full of immigrants, wealthy families, big ideas, life-changing opportunities, celebrity scandals, an unforgiving press and power struggles intersecting in taverns, parlors and streets which very much resembles New York to this day. Hamilton sees only opportunity, the ensemble lyric repeating again and again –“In New York you can be a new man.”

The play goes a long way in showing how the American Revolution was fought over drinks, bedroom liaisons, spies and backroom deals as much as it was — or perhaps more so — on the battlefield. The “rooms where it happen” are where Hamilton, his rival Aaron Burr and his allies — the French upstart Marquis De Lafayette, tailor and spy Hercules Mulligan and early abolitionist John Laurens — meet, argue and scheme. These rooms are also where begins the arc of Hamilton’s relationship with the daughters of Philip SchuyluerElizabeth, Angelica and Peggy — who he charms and eventually betrays. Hamilton joins General George Washington as his aid with “Right Hand Man” and brings his friends in tow. The web of influences these characters have on one another in shaping the course of the war and the founding of the United States are delivered through alternately rousing and deeply emotional songs, rapped and soulfully sung.

HamiltonandWashingtonLin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Christopher Jackson as George Washington

On top of the personal dramas, there’s a ton of real real history (and military history) that rips and raps by in Hamilton. The arrival of British forces en masse in New York Harbor and the New York and New Jersey campaign of 1776-1777 is covered quickly with shock to the overwhelmed colonials forced into retreat. Washington’s cautiousness during the Revolution is chalked up to quick references to his early experience as a British officer during which he experienced death first hand. The historically-savvy will note this as an allusion to the slaughter at Jumonville Glen, Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity and the death of his mentor British General Edward Braddock.

Washington’s challenges in managing a barely-equipped army while surrounded by strivers like Charles Lee (who had served with Washington under Braddock during the French and Indian War) are covered through the middle of the first act. Lee’s disastrous decisions at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and the rise of Lafayette’s military importance in partnership with Washington and Hamilton comes midway in the first act with “Stay Alive” and begins to point toward how the colonists may win the war through the intervention of the French with the song “Guns and Ships.”

Battles are covered by the ensemble cast quickly swapping blue and red coats, dancing with rifles and booming and flashing stage effects. The victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, sung by Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” presents the true shock felt by the British in the aftermath eventually leading to the end of the war in 1783.

HamDebateDaveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson, Jackson as Washington and Miranda as Hamilton in an Act II Cabinet debate

The second act moves from insurrection to nation-building with the arrival of Thomas Jefferson back from France in 1789, the creation of the first US Cabinet under Washington and the ongoing political battles through the administration of John Adams and the election of Jefferson in 1800. Four years later, lifelong rivals Burr and Hamilton meet in their fateful duel, and the legacy of both is written. The play closes with the company singing “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” with a gut-wrenching meditation on the nature of history itself.

IMG_7365The American Revolution stacks up in my apartment these days…

There is so much I love in Hamilton. The history is rich with complex events and relationships referenced in nearly every rhymed line. There are too many to recount, but everything from The Federalist Papers and the Compromise of 1790 to the Whiskey Rebellion and the dire illness of King George III late in his life are covered. If you’re up on the story of America in the last decades of the 18th-century, there is much to savor, and for the less knowledgeable, there is a lot of inspiration to dance out of the theater and learn more. The cast recording has played non-stop in my house since its release, and my wife, kids and I have talked more about the American Revolution than I think any of us have in our entire lives before.

But the discussion of history is only as good as it is relevant to the present, and again, Hamilton nails this. The use of pamphlets, papers and public oratory in the colonies was the social media of its day, used to build up one’s cause and take down rivals. The political infighting and quest for power of the period makes today’s national government look downright cooperative. Prominently, the rapping from a largely black and Hispanic cast in Hamilton alludes to the United States as a place only as strong as new arrivals and new ideas, no matter the race or country of origin. In all, the musical creates an overwhelming thrill and pride in being a citizen of a country like the United States which was founded and continues to be great, often despite itself.

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…as do games of the American Revolution on my shelf

And finally, as this is a gaming blog, Hamilton offers me yet another boost to get more time on the table with games of the period. In my post from last summer, Boardgames of the American Revolution, I talked about some of my faves and I am anxiously awaiting Liberty Or Death from GMT Games in the coming months. No doubt, there will be a fair amount gaming the American War of Independence for me this year, and Hamilton will be the soundtrack.

Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette In The Somewhat United States”

WashingtonLafayetteIn today’s unrelenting 24/7 news cycle of domestic political squabbling, international insurgencies and terrorism, and crushing economic conditions, it’s easy for most Americans to lament the early 21st-century as a period where the world has simply lost its collective mind. Taking a step back a couple hundred years to the late 18th-century in Sarah Vowell’s wildly entertaining Lafayette In The Somewhat United States, readers are easily transported to a period where the citizens of Europe and the American Colonies could have easily drawn the same conclusion in an era where broadsheets stood in for the Drudge Report, Politico, CNN and Fox News.

SVBooksSarah Vowell’s previous books offer unique journeys through American history

NPR, Daily Show and history nerd darling Vowell has made a career mining US history for the formative stories and personalities which have shaped us into the frustrating and wonderful mess we Americans are today. In her previous works, Presidential assassinations, dogmatic religious zeal, patriotism, colonizing of native peoples and other complicated parts of our centuries of experience have all been covered through travelogues and overviews of writings which all contribute to our American experience through the modern day. It is only fitting then that Vowell has eventually arrived at the very origin story of the United States with the period of the American War of Independence. As always though, Vowell has chosen to come at this era through the not-so-likely lens of an enlightened and angry fatherless teenage French aristocratic immigrant who is often ignored in most of our modern memory: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, or the Marquis de Lafayette.

SVLafayette

Vowell’s book provides an overview of the period with Lafayette as its star and a supporting cast of European and American aristocrats, playwrights, arms dealers, politicians, farmers, artisans, militarists, merchants, wives and strivers of the idealistic and violent era. Lafayette is portrayed as a young guy of the Enlightenment seeking personal glory, riches and yes, some political change on a worldwide stage. From the letters, diary entries and articles of the day quoted heavily throughout the book, Lafayette and these other folks are largely represented from their educated, wealthy one-percenter status which allowed them to reshape history. Although gunpowder and battlefields loom large in the story, Vowell shows it was in lavish dinner party conversations, drunken alehouse arguments and heady congressional debates where the real work of Revolution got done.

12045330_10206929315365760_4299028010311909902_oSarah Vowell at her reading and book signing at Book Court in Brooklyn, NY on October 20, 2010

Vowell’s journey takes her to out-of-the-way field trips in Europe, oddball artifacts displayed under glass and Revolution-era National Park Service sites stateside. In this she also brings her book, as she does in all her work, into the present during the government shutdown of said National Park Service sites in our modern political era of dysfunction. Like all good history, Vowell’s connection between past and present paints the picture of how our hundreds of years of squabbling and infighting sits at the American core. This is ground Vowell has covered in all her books, showing what a mess we are, how we never really learn our lesson and that we always manage to survive and get things done. Depending on your leanings and perspective, this might be a comfort or a challenge to your own experience.

That a bunch of talc-wigged guys (and women) would grow a cohort of “self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists” warring against the British monarchy into “state sponsored terrorists” backed by the French monarchy is a truly weird American story. By the time we get to the Battle of Yorktown, the War of Independence is effectively won by Lafayette, Rochambeau and their French forces, cementing the remarkable patriotic American tale into world history largely with a French accent. Lafayette In The Somewhat United States is also a tale perfect for Sarah Vowell’s smart voice.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

NathanHalesHazardousTalesAs a young fan of history in 1970s and 80s, my bookshelves were brimming with illustrated history books. Classics Illustrated comics, David Macaulay’s books and Dover history coloring books were all favorites. In my teen and college years of comic book fandom, I was introduced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. Decades later, I loaded up my own boys’ shelves with beautiful books from Dorling Kindersley on such subjects as ancient history, the American Civil War and World War II. Now, as the kids have grown, they’ve made their own reading discoveries and turned me on to newer series. One of my current favorites is Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.

Nathan Hale is the actual name of the Utah-based author and artist of a variety of best-selling children’s graphic novels. His Hazardous Tales series focuses on US history with a wit and flair aimed at engaging kids in wonderful little vignettes of the past. His war-themed books include looks at the American War of Independence (One Dead Spy (2012)) the American Civil War (Big Bad Ironclad! (2012)) and World War I (Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood (2014)). He’s also taken on non-war subjects with the doomed Western settlers of the Donner Dinner Party (2013) and the story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in The Underground Abductor (2015).

NHSpyPageFamed American spy Nathan Hale is introduced in “One Dead Spy”

Hale’s three war books introduce children to three different conflicts from three centuries of the American story. One Dead Spy outlines the American Revolution through the lens of famed Colonial spy Nathan Hale, his exploits, capture and martyred execution in September 1776. The first half of the book moves from Hale’s years at Yale to the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Siege of Boston. In the second half, the story shifts to the war in and around New York City and Long Island, making it of particular interest for my sons living amid the ground covered by the Battle of Brooklyn. Other historical characters including George Washington (naturally), Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and the colorfully-written Henry Knox all make cameos, each adding to the overall narrative which ends with Hale’s hanging just as the war was gearing up into its later years and eventual victory for the American colonists.

NHIroncladsPageCivil War naval combat from “Big Bad Ironclad!”

The American Civil War gets its treatment in Big Bad Ironclad which tells the story of the nation-defining conflict through the epic development and battle of the first US ironclad ships in March 1862. With so many stories to be told from the Civil War, this book’s focus on the relatively ignored naval side of the conflict makes for another interesting tale. A colorful cast of well-known and marginal characters, including Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Swedish immigrant inventor John Ericcsson and US naval hero William Cushing, frame the story. Drawn in blues, grays and blacks, the historic figures and events helps to place this sideshow to the American Civil War as a not-to-be-forgotten part of American history.

NHTrenchesPageEuropean alliances explained in “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood”

My favorite of Hale’s three war books is Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood which does an amazing job of explaining the complex causes and series of alliances which contributed to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. The story begins in the obvious place with assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the somewhat hapless Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in June 1914. After the entertaining opening act, the book moves to outline the intricacies of the allied European nations. Using the cartoon and comic book convention of animals as characters, each country is cast as a different creature — UK (bulldog), Russia (bear), France (rooster), Austria-Hungary (owl), Germany (eagle). You might think explaining geopolitical politics would be a yawn in a children’s book, but Hale carries it off such that even adults would benefit from the World war II overview.

The story marches onward to 1914, erupting in the war depicted in a dramatic double-page spread of assembly line of manpower grinding to battle with the Greek god of war Ares overseeing the entire coming slaughter. Weapons, the introduction of tanks and trench warfare all get their due in the second half of the book, but it’s the pre-war framing of European empires in conflict which makes this book a standout intro to the war for all ages.

AlamoThe forthcoming “Alamo All Stars”

The upcoming sixth book in the series, Alamo All Stars, will appeal to Texans and Texans at heart with the tale of the heroic defense of the Alamo in 1836. With the school year just under way, all of Hale’s Hazardous Tales are worthy of reading lists, no matter the age. Each book also contains a bibliography and more factual information at the back of the book, making all these books a great jumping-off place for budding historians and maybe some future wargamers, too.