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.

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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.

Getting Ready For HMGS Fall In! 2015

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FALL IN!™ 2015 (Nov. 6 – 8)

Convention Theme: “Campaign of the 100 Days”

Lancaster Host Resort & Conference Center

Lancaster, PA

Less than two months from now, a number of us from Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY will be attending this year’s HMGS Fall In! convention the weekend of November 6-8, 2015 in Lancaster, PA. I, some fellow club members and my brother have a variety of games from different periods we’re presenting in several scales, and the events will be geared toward a variety of levels of gamer experience from beginner to veteran.

Here’s a rundown of our scheduled games so far which you can find along with hundreds of other games listed online in the convention’s event list.

Friday, November 6th Events

F: 351 Rivoli – 1797 – 1:00-6:00 PM

Period: Napoleonic, Scale: 10mm, Rules: TBD

Re-fight the Battle of Rivoli that crushed the first coalition and set Napoleon on a trajectory toward consulate and empire. Will 23,000 French repeat their historical victory over Alvinczi’s 28,000 Austrians? Or will Napoleon’s rise end in the fields of Piedmont? A follow-up to the truly spectacular award-winning Battle of Marengo on a custom-built terrain board from previous HMGS conventions which you can view here.

F: 257 Battle Of Waterloo 200th Anniversary – 3:00-8:00 PM

Period: Napoleonic, Scale: 15mm, Rules: Home Rules

Play one of the greatest battles in history on the 200th anniversary — Waterloo. Napoleon’s French attack the Anglo-Dutch army led by the Duke of Wellington. Time tested home rules perfect for anyone new to Napoleonics or for experienced players. Fast play for convention yet with all the detail and pageantry of the era. This game is being run by my brother who presents games of the Napoleonic Wars in 6mm, 15mm and 28mm with gorgeous hand-crafted tables and his beautifully painted figures, so this one will also be a treat.

F: 374 Barkmann’s Corner – July 17, 1944 – 4:00-6:00 PM

Period: World War II, Scale: 15mm, Rules: Flames Of War

It’s the summer of 1944. Famed German tank ace Ernst Barkmann is rolling through Normandy commanding his Panther and looking to halt the Allied advance. Amid the bocage of the French countryside, a US armored column encounters Barkmann in a showdown at a crossroads which will become legend. A great learning game for people new to FOW (including kids with adults). I’ve run this short scenario before (report and pics here) and it’s a blast to play if you like pushing tanks around the table.

F: 377 A Peaceful Exchange Of Prisoners…Hopefully. Wheeling, VA, 1777 – 6:00-10:00 PM

Period: American War for Independence, Scale: 25mm, Rules: Muskets And Tomahawks

A British/Indian delegation during the American War of Independence has arrived in wheeling to discuss a prisoner exchange. Both commanders hope the exchange goes off everything might go off without a hitch, and everyone might go home happy. But this is a wargaming convention, so don’t count on it. Winning will require negotiation, flexibility, deceit, and the element of surprise. Each player has his her own victory conditions. A club member who is a college instructor with expertise on American Colonial warfare is running this game, so it’s sure to be laced with colorful historic narrative.

 Friday (night pick-up game): Churchill’s Nightmare – 8:00-11:PM

Period: World War II, Scale: 1:200, Rules: Naval Home Rules

Can the British home fleet stop the German breakthrough into the Atlantic?

Saturday, November 7th Events

S: 376 St. Oedenrode – September 17-24, 1944 – 2:00-6:00 PM

Period: World War II, Scale: 15mm, Rules: Flames Of War

It’s the autumn of 1944. As part of Operation Market Garden, the US 502nd Parachute Infantry regiment has parachuted into Holland and seized an important bridge on the Dommel river at St. Oedenrode. Rushing to counter attack are German Fallschrimjager regiments supported by artillery and armor. Can the allies hold the bridge until reserves arrive or will the axis rush to retake the objective? A great learning game for people new to FOW (including kids with adults). This is another scenario I’ve run several times before (report and pics here), and I’m also working on some new models to bring along in time for the convention.

Saturday (night pick-up game): Engagement in the Mediterranean – 8:00-11:PM

Period: World War II, Scale: 1:200, Rules: Naval Home Rules

Can the British Mediterranean fleet stop the Italian fleet?

Come to Fall In! and meet the Members of Metropolitan Wargamers

We’ll also be planning to run other games including two games based on the 1980s movie classics Mad Max and Red Dawn. You will be able to spot the members of Metropolitan Wargamers wearing our new club shirts celebrating over three decades of gaming in New York City. We’re certain to have a some other surprises at the convention, so sign up for Fall In! and we’ll see you in Lancaster in November.

Boardgames of the American Revolution, Part I

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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.

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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.

AmRevSPIgameSPI’s The American Revolution 1775-1783

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.

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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.

IMG_6370Avalon Hill’s 1776

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

NY1776gameplayWorthington Publishing’s New York 1776

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.

IMG_6368Worthington Publishing’s Trenton 1776

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.

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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.”

The Ratzer Maps At The Brooklyn Historical Society

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Now in its final weeks at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the tiny second floor exhibition Unlocking Two Revolutionary War Maps: The Ratzer Maps at BHS showcases two incredibly important maps of the American War of Independence and the 1776 Battle of Long Island in particular. Alternately known as the Battle of New York and the now-popular Battle of Brooklyn, the Battle of Long Island was the first of the new nation after announcing its independence on July 4, 1776 and the largest of the entire war. For anyone with an interest in the American Revolution or 18th-century New York history, these maps unlock a close-up view of the ground fought over between the British Empire and the upstart Colonials nearly 240 years ago.

IMG_5426The “Percy Map” used during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 (left) and the restored 1770 “Ratzer Map” (right) at the Brooklyn Historical Society

Drawn by British cartographer Bernard Ratzer in 1766-1767, the Ratzer Map is one of the seminal documents of early New York. The BHS copy of the full 1770 edition of the Ratzer Map is only one of four in known existence and showcases an early snapshot of Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn in their early days where farms and rural roads still dominated the landscape. The smaller map on display, showing only the lower portion of the Ratzer Map, was carried by British General Hugh Percy during the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. The Percy Map is now co-owned by the BHS and nearby Green-Wood Cemetery, the high ground for much of the battle, and was first put on public view in the summer on 2014 at the cemetery. The current exhibit of these maps at the BHS after a restoration of the full Ratzer map in 2011 is a wonder of 18th-century map making and 21st-century preservation.

schecterbfnyBarnet Schecter’s classic “The Battle For New York” from 2002

The exhibit features text from BHS President Deborah Schwartz and historian Barnet Schecter whose compellingly-detailed The Battle For New York: The City At the Heart Of The American Revolution has become the standard narrative of the battle. Additionally, the BHS has produced a free educational resource entitled Exploring Pre-Revolutionary New York: The Ratzer Map which digs into much of the historical detail found in the map including panoramic views of the shoreline and major landmarks of the era.

History can feel so large and abstract, buried in long ago events which are difficult to square with the present day. The Ratzer Maps at the BHS bring history remarkably into the present and allow a modern viewer to trace pivotal events along lines carefully set down on paper and battlefields more than two centuries ago.

New York Harbor Defense History and Civil War Weekend at Governors Island

CastlewilliamsgiShuttling back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan every day on the New York City subway system, it’s sometimes easy to forget I live and work in area surrounded by coasts. This past weekend I hopped a free mid-morning ferry from Brooklyn to Governors Island National Monument for some immersion in NYC’s coastal defense history and annual Civil War Weekend sponsored by the National Park Service.

New York Harbor Defense History

From the beginning of European settlement of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan by the Dutch in the early 1600s, the importance of New York Harbor as a gateway to a system of  trade and military defense was clear. The Dutch colony’s main defense at Fort Amsterdam eventually ceded to the British who maintained fortifications on the spot until after the American Revolution. In the post-Revolution centuries, the defense of New York Harbor remained a focus of the US military against foreign and domestic would-be aggressors.

Governorsislandplan1908 US Army Corps of Engineers map of Governors Island with Fort Jay (center) and Castle Williams (left)

Governors Island offers a good historic overview of the development of New York’s coastal defense works from the 18th through 19th centuries. Fort Jay dates from the late 18th-century when American colonists and British troops exchanged control of the island with various earlier wood and earth forts. The existing facility is a classic European-style star fort with masonry and earthen walls is typical of the design built all over the world from the 15th through 19th centuries. Entering through elaborate gates, a visitor walks into a peacefully idyllic central courtyard surrounded by Greek Revival colonnaded buildings with welcoming porches. Several cast iron Civil War era 10 and 15 inch Rodman cannons survive on the fort’s walls, pointing toward the harbor.

IMG_4073Guns overlook New York Harbor from Fort Jay

The later Castle Williams was built between 1807 and 1811 as a fortification just ahead of the War of 1812. The state-of-the art, circular casemate sandstone pile was designed by Col. Jonathan Williams, at the time the chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The first fort designed by an American engineer, Castle Williams presents three tiers of gun ports from which a nearly 360-degree field of defensive fire across the harbor.

IMG_4074The imposing walls of Castle Williams

Together with Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, Fort Wood (today the base of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island), Castle Clinton at the southern tip of Manhattan and Fort Gibson at today’s Ellis Island, Fort Jay and Castle Williams served as part of the interlacing network of forts protecting New York Harbor through the 19th-century. Both Fort Jay and Castle Williams would go on to other roles as the site of a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, a US Army prison in the middle of the 20th-century and the site of a large US Coast Guard base until closing in 1996. Gone is the military use of Governors Island today, but the spaces still serve the public as place to walk amid important and usually unseen history of New York.

Civil War Weekend

Each August the National Park Service presents the only Civil War encampment of reenactors in New York City. With about a dozen tents in a small camp and more than twenty staff and volunteer reenanctors, the weekend’s events gives New Yorkers an up-close glimpse of a solder’s life during the Civil War.

IMG_4068Reenactors encamped at Governors Island

IMG_4076A Civil War era soldier’s equipment sits at the ready in camp

IMG_4072A reenactor discusses a Civil War soldier’s life with visitors to Governors Island

IMG_4075An officer reenactor speaks with with visitors to Governors Island

Aside from an opportunity to speak with reenactors and view some typical soldier’s equipment and life in camp, demonstrations of canon firing, drilling and infantry weapons are presented. For the less militarily-minded, period music was also offered in the comfort of shaded grass and rocking chairs inside the walls of Fort Jay.

IMG_4069Officer inspection of the troops at Governors Island

IMG_4070Canon firing demonstration during Civil war Weekend at Governors Island

IMG_4071Civil War era cannon shot, canister and ordinance loads

Although the use of Governors Island has primarily been military for several centuries, visiting the island today serves up multiple experiences. While the historic forts and sites under the governance of the National Park Service occupy approximately 22 acres to the north, the remaining 150 acres is now overseen by the Trust for Governors Island. The Trust has worked to create an oasis of recreational areas for picnicking, play, bike riding, strolling and relaxing among historic buildings, allays of trees, wide grassy lawns, outdoor sculpture and newly designed landscapes. Whether you are a visitor looking for a step back into American history or just unwind from the city’s usual hustle, Governors Island can give a whole new perspective on New York at the center of the harbor and world.

Downloading: Mapping the World at the New York Public Library

britishcolonies

As a lifelong gamer, I’ve spent many, many hours staring at maps or drawing my own. Most board games provide maps of sorts that define movement and area control. For players of Dungeons & Dragons and the like, adventure maps create much of the framework for how campaigns and role-played stories evolve. Miniature wargames, from ancients and historicals to fantasy and sci-fi, utilize three-dimensional set-ups driven by maps and the relationship of various features on the tabletop.

Late last month, the New York Public Library announced the availability of some 20,000 high resolution downloadable maps. The collection is an enormous resource for hardcore historians and hobbyists alike. Well over half the online collection naturally focuses on New York City, New York State and the surrounding areas. Beyond the New York area, the cartography goldmine grants access to hundreds of years of maps from around the world which can be viewed singly or within the context of their original books, atlases or folios.

Digging into the archive, there’s a fair amount of material certain to be of interest for gamers. Maps of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas portray the development of civilizations and empires over the centuries. A fair amount of material is available on the American War of Independence, particularly in the areas around New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Aside from maps, there are also some engraved plates of native societies encountered by European colonists, renderings of forts and some naval views.

The entire online collection is searchable here, but here are a few highlights I’ve come across on my digital travels.

New York

newamsterdam

New Amsterdam

navy yard

Brooklyn Navy Yard

American War of Independence

battleLI

Battle of Long Island

saratoga

Saratoga

Forts

westpoint2

West Point

fortalbany

Fort Albany

Naval History

dutchportships

Dutch and Portugese Ships

british1671

Ships in the British West Indies

Europe

ancientgreece

Ancient Greece

romanempire

Roman Empire

prussia1860

Prussia

 

New Game Weekend: 1775 Rebellion

1775box

Late this past week, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article on game designer and CIA analyst Volke Ruhnke. Ruhnke’s games are popular at Metropolitan Wargamers, including his COIN (Counterinsurgnecy) series from GMT Games, including the two 2013 releases of  Cubra Libre (Cuba) and A Distant Plain (Afghanistan). The basic mechanics of these games and other historicals like them involve simple map game boards, wooden blocks placed in area control of spaces and detailed cards driving player actions.

While Ruhke’s games from GMT focus on 20th-century insurgencies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central and South America, Academy Games has been producing games for a couple years framed in similar mechanics but focused on US history with their Birth of America series. Thus far, the series consists of  1812: The Invasion of Canada, published two years ago  to conicide with the 200th-anniversary of the War of 1812, and 1775: Rebellion, an American Revolution game. Next up for Academy Games is an Underground Railroad-themed game called Freedom which was successfully funded on Kickstarter last year.

1775backbox

Back of the box for 1775: Rebellion showing game contents

This past weekend I had an opportunity to play 1775 for the first time, and if you’ve got a passion for board games and American history like me, you need to give this one a try yourself.

IMG_2754

Game set up for 1775: Rebellion

The board presents a map of ther thirteen original American colonies, plus Quebec and Nova Scotia to the north, at the dawn of the War of Independence. Two to four players begin the game as American Regulars, Colonial Militia, British Redcoat Regulars and English Loyalists deployed throughout the colonies. On the western frontier are unaligned Native Americans, and throughout the game opportunities arise for Hessian and French forces to join the conflict. All forces in the game are indicated through simple color-coded cubes with American Colonists in blue and white, British in red and yellow, Native Americans in green, French in purple and Hessians in orange.

1775movementcards

Sample movement cards from 1775: Rebellion

The action of the game is propelled by movement and event cards. Each player draws three cards to their hand and may play one movement and up to two event cards during their turn. Movement cards indicate one or more allied army’s movement from one to three spaces in a turn. Native American, Hessian and French forces cannot move until another force moves to their space and joins in alliance with them. Moving forces cannot move through enemy-occupied areas, and movement to a space containing enemy forces results in a battle.

1775cards

Sample event cards from 1775: Rebellion

Event cards depict historic personalities such as generals or statesmen and other occurences from the Revolutionary period like Paul Revere’s Ride, signing of the Declaration of Independence or the creation of the American flag by Betsy Ross. Each event card allows for things like additional forces to arrive or extra movement.

 

IMG_2755

Turn 1 with the Americans moving on British-occupied Boston

Combat is resolved with dice color-coded to each force. Dice faces show hits, blank sides and flee indicators. Defending forces roll first in a combat. Hits destroy an enemy unit, returning it to the reinforcement pool. A blank result allows the option for a unit to retreat to a neighboring allied-controlled space. A flee roll removes a unit to the flee space to be replaced at the beginning of that player’s next turm. Dice for each force are weighted differently, so British Redcoats don’t hit as often but never flee while Hessians hit more frequently but flee more readily.

1775trucecards

Truce cards from 1775: Rebelllion

The game proceeds in random turn order each round with players deploying reinfocements into occupied cities and retrieving fled units. The object of the game is to control the most colonies before the game ends after turn three with the play of two truce cards on each side. Colonies are only controlled when every space in the colony is controlled by allied forces.

IMG_2757

Turn 3 with the American truce card played and British advancing from the north

In our four-player game this past weekend, my team’s Colonists initially attempted to oust the British from Boston but were repelled. The British advanced from Canada into northern New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Colonists picked up Native American allies in Western Pennsylvania and took control of the colony while a stalemate resulted in New England. With a mass of British-allied reinforcements to the north, the Colonists recieved French reinforcements in turn three and quickly took control of two colonies to the south. Colonists quickly played their second truce card and ended the game with more colonies in our control.

Although our intro game was a quick one, I’m very much looking forward to trying 1775: Rebellion again using different paths to victory. The game’s rules are short and the components simple, but there’s a lot of strategic heft to the game. For adults, or even smart kids, with a thing for early American history, I can’t recommend 1775: Rebellion enough.

Tis The Season For Toy Soldiers

tsc

Thanksgiving is upon us which means the annual run to holiday gift shopping is nigh. By some estimates, upwards to 40% of toy sales occur around the holidays which fits squarely with my memories of the plastic bounty of Christmas past. The arrival of store Christmas displays and holiday catalogs sent my childhood mind reeling. Before the arrival of electronic games in the late 1970s and early 80s, my dreams of toys stacked under the Christmas tree were filled with action figures, playsets, games and toy soldiers.

So, with visions of Christmas toys past dancing through my head, I find myself paging through the glorious selection from the recently-relaunched website from I The Toy Soldier Company. For almost 30 years this New Jersey-based company has been keeping plastic and metal toy soldier fandom alive with an enormous catalog of toys in all scales and hand-crafted playsets which harken back to the glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

With so much play now relegated to screens and virtual fun, there is still nothing like seeing a kid moving dozens (or hundreds) of little plastic figures around the floor. These toys not only make for hours of fun across generations, but they can also open young minds to burgeoning interests in history and maybe some eventual wargaming. Going a step further and combining some toy soldiers with books, movies, documentaries and family outings that highlight the period is another great way to make up a fun and educational gift package for the holidays.

Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome

Kids are fascinated by the ancient eras of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and a lot of elementary school curriculums focus on these periods, their culture, arts and the gods they worshipped. Books and films full of pyramids, temples, gladiators and chariots dazzle young minds.  Mid-century film classics Ben Hur, Spartacus and even The Ten Commandments are thrilling, family-appropriate entertainment to this day. From one-on-one arena battles between tiny gladiators to epic plastic battles on the sands and plains of the Mediterranean region will enliven the imagination for these ancient cultures.

Ancient Era playsets and toy soldiers

 American Revolution

Living here in the Northeast United States, I’m surrounded by history of the American War of Independence, inlcuding the Battle of Brooklyn fought right over ground I cover on the way to work every day. With forts, museums, battlefields and museums dedicated to the period dotting the countryside, the formative conflict of the nation is all around us. The classic 1943 children’s novel Johnny Tremain and Disney’s 1957 movie adaptation have been the hook for kids for years. There’s so much color and mythic personality to this period in early American history, and some plastic soldiers armed with muskets and cannons will easily spark interest in any wee patriot.

American Revolution playsets and toy soldiers

American Civil War

We’re right in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, so the time is ripe to get burgeoning historians interested in the period. With the release of Lincoln last year and many past offerings available like 1989’s Glory and Ken Burns’ epic 1990 The Civil War, the War Between The States maintains its cinematic hold on the American narrative. The seminal book on the war in many ways remains Red Badge of Courage which is still a rite of passage for many a young reader . Spending the holidays learning about the Civil War might kick off some family visits to battlefields and historic sites when winter breaks to spring, but getting some blue and gray toy soldiers out on the floor now can make for a very timely history lesson through play.

American Civil War playsets and toy soldiers

World War I

Europe is in the midst of the 100th anniversary of World War I, and next year America’s involvement in “the war to end all wars” will be quietly memorialized. The US came to the war late and it’s effects on our country were nowhere near those on the European continent, so learning about this conflict is a great way to broaden young minds to 20th-centtury history beyond our usual American-focused history education. My oldest son read All Quiet On The Western Front this past year, and the adaptation of that classic novel as well as films like Paths of Glory and Gallipoli are engaging ways to get a view inside the troubling politics and tactics of the war. Lining up multinational plastic armies bridging the gap of 19th to 20th-century warfare makes for a great intro to the period.

World War I playsets and toy soldiers

World War II

Perhaps more than just about any other war, World War II remains an enormous part of historical and popular culture through countless books, movies, TV shows and documentaries, both factual and fiction. From The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far to modern classics like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers, Hollywood continues to crank out epic stories from the war. Aside from books and movies, their are some amazing WWII games from the likes of Axis & Allies to Flames of War. To me, WWII is the period to watch, game and play in, no matter your age.

World War II playsets and toy soldiers

The above are just a few of my favorite periods in which I think kids could easily establish a lifelong interest. Through a combination of books, films, field trips, games and plastic soldiers from the likes of the Toy Soldier Company, you can make this holiday season a bit fun, a bit unique and maybe your kids or grandchildren will even learn a little something in one of the most time-tested ways: play.

Memorial Day 2013 in Brooklyn

Memorial Day in Brooklyn saw a crowd of the guys gaming and grilling at Metropolitan Wargamers, but I chose to spend the sunny day with my youngest son retracing the historic military past in my own backyard.

I live about a 15-minute walk from Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. The cemetery occupies a 478 acre hilly, picturesque landscape traced with winding roads and paths. It is a who’s who of New York City and American history, and the design of its entry gates, grave markers and mausoleums provides a visual history of how Americans have celebrated themselves in the afterlife across three centuries.

What we celebrate today as Memorial Day began as Decoration Day when freed slaves decorated the graves of Union dead following the American Civil War. Green-Wood’s marking of the war is found with 1869’s Civil War Soldiers’ Monument (photos below). The pillared monument ringed with four bronze statues was restored and re-dedicated in 2002. The re-dedication kicked off interest in documenting and marking the Civil War dead interred at Green-Wood, and to-date the Civil War Project has identified some 3,300 residing for eternity in the cemetery.

    

    

The Civil War Soldiers’ Monument sits along Battle Avenue and atop Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn. The hill won its name for its important strategic role in 1776’s Battle of Long Island as Colonial forces held off multiple attacks on the far left of the invading British line. Standing on the hill today, you can clearly see the military importance of the hill with its broad views of the sloping land down to New York Harbor to the west and the island of Manhattan to the north. The battle is marked with the Altar of Liberty (photo at right), a 1920 monument installed as part of the plot of Brooklyn India ink magnate Charles Higgins. The bronze statue of Minerva raises her arm to the Statue of Liberty standing in the distant harbor, making the view from Battle Hill on a clear, sunny day one of the most breathtaking vistas in the city.

Next, we wound our way toward the center of the cemetery and to the family plot of Abram Duryée (photos of Duryee and his monument below). I’m a fan of Duryee and his command of the 5th NY Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. Known as “Duryee’s Zouaves,” these Manhattan men saw action throughout the war at such battles as Second Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. I’ve made the 5th NY with their baggy red chasseur trousers, dark blue jackets with red braiding and fezzes with yellow tassels a big part of my 28mm American Civil War painting project this past year, so it was great to stop and pay tribute to him at his final resting place.

    

Our final destination of the afternoon was to the grave of General Henry Wager Halleck, a relative of mine (photos of Halleck and his monument below). Halleck served as General-In-Chief of Union forces for about two years of the Civil War before being replaced by the much more famous General Ulysses S. Grant. Known more for his intellect than his military exploits, Halleck was nicknamed “Old Brains” during the war and spent his years after the war as a lawyer and author. While by no means a household name, I was glad to have the opportunity to visit his grave again after many years.

    

As a wargamer, my hobby wouldn’t exist without wars and the men and women who fight and die in them to this day. On this Memorial Day, it was a good change of pace to put down my dice, step away from the tabletop and venture out for a few hours visiting the monuments to those who have paid the ultimate price throughout American history.