Boardgames of the French and Indian War

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To understand the founding of the United States, you have to understand the American Revolution, and to understand the American Revolution, you need to understand the French and Indian War. As I’ve learned more about these wars in my adult life, I’m increasingly surprised the FIW gets such short shrift in American education and the general cultural conversations of the country’s history.

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Major campaigns and battles of the French and Indian War, 1754-1763

As I’ve written about previously, I’ve spent a lot of time touring many sites where the French and British vied for control of the continent in the mid-18th-century. In that era the French held much of the country west and north of the Alleghenies while the British possessed the eastern regions of the coast. As an extension of the Seven Years War in Europe and around the globe, the French and British empires fought over territory in America during the FIW and pulled numerous native Indian tribes into complicated alliances along the way. The clash of cultures and motives among Europeans and native peoples carried ripple effects for years to come and old grudges from the period led directly to the American Revolution some two decades later.

FIWBooksSome of my recent reading on the French and Indian War

My time spent touring various sites around the company has been supplemented by a stack of books. Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War (2001) weighs in at over 900 pages and provides a super comprehensive treatment of the war in depth. The French and Indian War (2006) by Walter Borneman provides a similar overview with detail stripped way back into a more historical narrative. For a focus on how Indian peoples shaped the 18th-century European settlement and wars for the continent, Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors (2007) gives some fantastic insights which are usually breezed over in most histories. Finally, I’ve recently picked up a copy of Braddock’s Defeat (2015) by David Preston. This book provides a great bridge story on how a key campaign on the western frontier of Pennsylvania in 1755 echoed through the events of the FIW into the American Revolution and history beyond.

With many miles traveled and pages read, getting to play boardgames of the FIW — both tactically and strategically — has provided me the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and experience the wilderness roads, forts, settlements and battlefields of this fascinating period.

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Wilderness War (GMT Games)

My longtime favorite of FIW games is GMT’s Wilderness War from 2001. Designed by Volko Ruhnke, WW is not only the standout game of the period but also ranks among the best of modern wargames depicting any period. The game’s gorgeous hardbound game board defines the game as the war was fought amid the geography of the Northeast with point-to-point connections between major landmarks, cities, settlements and forts.

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Sample strategy cards from GMT’s Wilderness War

Strategy cards featuring both abstracted military actions like recruiting troops and militia, building siege works or conducting campaigns and period-specific events and personalities drive the game. Alternatively cards are played for points to activate leaders, forces stacked with a leader or individual units. Points may also be spent to construct stockades and forts to defend against attack a provide a safe haven during wintering periods.

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Wilderness War by GMT Games

For me, the three key strategies to WW are in defending the important interior frontier, remaining exceedingly mindful of troop positions as winter seasons approach and playing a long game of carefully-planned campaigns. All of these factors are incredibly well factored into a game which balances abstraction with historic events, all of which can be experienced with a solid few hours of play.

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The French and Indian War (Decision Games)

For another grand strategic experience of the FIW, Strategy & Tactics magazine issue #231 from Nov/Dec 2005 by Decision Games offers up a full campaign level game with The French and Indian War. Traditional wargamers will feel right at home with this hefty game although it does offer some unique elements.

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S&T’s FIW map and counters organized in tray

Right off the bat, experienced gamers will notice a departure with the game map laid out on a square grid instead of the more typical hex style. Past the square grid, the map itself is gorgeous with well-delineated terrain, clear colonial control boundaries and abstracted French and British home country holding areas across the Atlantic in Europe. Charts and tables for terrain effects, supply points, balance of power and colonial control displayed right around the board. The tiny cardboard playing chits likewise feature some simple and colorful art clearly differentiating units types and nationalities. In all, there’s a lot to love visually in this magazine game.

Gameplay goes a long way toward representing the build up of tensions and eventual outbreak of war between the French and British in North America. Yearly turns between 1758 and 1762 are split into four seasons each, and the results of battles occupation of cities and towns shifts the Balance of Power track which drives income, initiative, random events and negotiating strength. The relatively weak and poor British at the start of the game quickly gain strength as the Seven Years War breaks out and men, money and ships begin to arrive from Europe. For the French, they have to take some early victories and then hold key cities like Quebec through the late game. Victory in one of the three included scenarios is determined by a straight points system accumulated during the game largely by capturing cities and settlements.

Aside from the game rules themselves, the magazine holds over 20 pages of background on the FIW, major battles and quick bios on some of the conflict’s major personalities. This plus some nice maps and a short bibliography makes for a great package for those wanting a relatively comprehensive experience of the war. Being a magazine game, there are a couple discrepancies in the rules here and there, but the design and heft of the game is entirely satisfying.

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Hold The Line: French and Indian War (Worthington Publishing)

The 2008 French and Indian War Expansion Set for the popular Hold The Line series by Worthington Publishing downshifts into a more tactical presentation of the war without sacrificing the flavor of the era.

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Scenario set-up for the Battle of Snowshoes for the HTL FIW expansion

Adding to the HTL base game components,  the FIW expansion comes with Indian, Ranger and French unit tiles to be played with using the British and Militia pieces in the original. Additional terrain hex tiles  are included to represent lakes, boats forts and Indian villages, all of which played important roles in the wilderness battleground of the FIW. Five historic scenarios round out gameplay which will be any lover of the original HTL.

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The 2016 remastered HTL French and Indian War game

The HTL series has been remastered in 2016 with a successfully funded recent Kickstarter campaign. The new version has some serious upgrades with plastic miniatures from the Plastic Soldier Company and redesigned board and tile artwork. For both the American Revolution and FIW sets there were a bunch of extra scenarios and options to buy add-on miniatures. The new game looks fantastic and breathes new life into an already immensely enjoyable game on the era of 18th-century American colonial conflict.

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A Few Acres of Snow (Treefrog Games)

A Few Acres of Snow, designed by Martin Wallace and published in 2011 by Treefrog Games, is my other go-to game on the period. While not strictly a game confined to the FIW, AFAOS takes two players through the broader French-British colonial period in North America.

Playable in just over an hour, AFAOS is an area control deck-building game where British and French players draft cards into and out of their hands in order to move, settle, construct, skirmish and conduct sieges. Managing cards gives the game a campaign feel as several turns may be taken up getting all the right cards in place before executing a plan. The British player generally has more financial and naval strength while the French are much more agile and open to trade opportunities in the wilderness interior. Essentially, the game captures the overall character of the opposing forces and provides for a ton of strategic play within a simple, gorgeous design.

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A recent game of  A Few Acres of Snow by Treefrog Games

The major downside to AFAOS that many critics will bring up is a broken mechanic within the game where one side can all but sew up a victory through a specific series of opening moves. I’m not going to provide any details since players agreeing to play fairly and ignoring this one issue with an otherwise perfect and wildly popular game is how I choose to play the game. The look and flow of AFAOS makes it what I consider to be the best at introducing even inexperienced gamers to the period.

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Struggle For New France (Schutze Games)

I picked up a copy of 2013’s Struggle For New France designed by Bill Molyneaux and published by Schutze Games in a charity auction at HMGS Fall In! 2015. It’s a super simple beginner’s game playable in about 90 minutes with event cards and point to point movement. With just a few pages of rules, including a solo game option, SFNF is a lean game designed for swift play while still reflecting the basic character of the war.

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Set-up for a play through Struggle For New France by Schutze Games

The relatively inexpensive game has a compact yet beautiful 11″ x 17″ color map, over 60 cards and over 175 small printed wooden tiles. Play is quick with a hand of five cards for each player, of which one can be played per season. In a season, both sides move and battle using standardized movement for regulars and Indians plus bonuses for having a leader stacked with a force. Forts, fortresses and Indian villages give defensive modifiers in battle along with leaders present and any cards added to the battle modifiers. Areas won or lost provide victory points, all tracked on either side of the map. After four seasons of play, cards are refreshed and the next turn year begins. Playing from the entire course of the war, British win at 50 points and taking Quebec, Montreal and Louisburg, and the French win with 45 points. While by no means as rich an experience as the offerings from GMT and Decision Games, SFNF achieves a remarkable amount in strategic experience of the FIW.

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French & Indian War Battle Collection (Two Buck Games)

Another charity auction win at Fall In last year was 2014’s French & Indian War Battle Collection by Two Buck Games. The game makes a nice companion to SFNF and is also designed by Molyneaux. Like SFNF, this is an easy game but with a pack of twelve major battles and engagements of the war instead of a grand campaign style of play. Each scenario is playable in anywhere from well under an hour to maybe two hours maximum. While not big on design, the game does allow a player to get down to the tactical level in some very small engagements including some personal favorites like Jumonville Glen, Fort Necessity and the Mary Jeminson Raid.

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The Fort Necessity scenario from The French & Indian War Battle Collection

A brief set of rules is supplemented with specific scenario outlines for set-up and play. Maps for each scenario are printed front and back on card stock, and 88 counters come with generic information to make for flexible use representing a variety of regular and irregular French, British and Indian units at each battle or skirmish. As this is a tactical game, units move just one hex and may only by stacked alone or with an officer. Leaders die easily in combat, Indians are dangerously flexible on the attack and terrain can play a big role in a game’s outcome. All these factors make planning an attack or defense finicky down at the ground level and FIBWBC goes a long way toward mimicking the feel of up-close engagements during the period.

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Empires In America (Victory Point Games)

My latest addition to my FIW games is the recent second edition reprint of Empires In America from the States of Siege series by Victory Point Games. This one stands apart from the others here as a purely solo game with the player’s French and Indian allies pitted against the game’s British and their allied Indian forces.

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My first try at the re-issue of Empires In America by Victory Point Games

It took me a few times to get a handle on the single player flow of the game and I was beaten by the non-player AI in my first two games. Having played through it about a half dozen times now, I’ve finally got the hang of it with quick play and a fairly rich experience. Leaders wind up being key in winning the game much as leadership could make the difference during battles during the war.

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Photo from my visit to Fort Necessity in the summer of 2014

So where to start with the French and Indian War?

The 21st-century has already given us a bunch of fantastic games to take us back to the forest, rivers and battles of the French and Indian War of some 260 years ago. Despite having a half-dozen of the recent FIW games under my belt, there area always more games to play. Wilderness Empires, also by Worthington Publishing, puts the war in a block game format with beautifully-illustrated event cards and game board. Columbia Games re-released its 1972 classic block game of Quebec 1759 in 2009, and the game still stands as probably the best way to experience this pivotal siege of the war.

For me, Wilderness War sits at the top of the list for its design and depth, not only for the FIW but among all the games I play. A Few Acres of Snow, Empires In America and Hold The Line likewise win big design points for me, and their speed of play sacrifices nothing in telling the story of the period. A gamer wishing to get into the FIW with a couple very different yet always rewarding gaming sessions could hardly do better by starting with these games.

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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.

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.”

New Game Weekend: Fire In The Lake

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I sometimes forget that I was born during the Vietnam War, one of the more complicated military conflicts in American history. In April 2015 we’ll be sitting 40 years after the fall of Saigon and the pullout of American involvement in the region’s conflict which began in the mid-1950s. To mark the occasion, the US government has quietly launched a special 50th anniversary Vietnam War Commemoration website this past year. Decades later, the complicated legacy of Vietnam continues to reverberate as even the website has proven to be controversial.

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Game set-up for the Fire In The Lake 1965-67 beginner’s scenario

Having played a few games of Cuba Libre over the past year, I’ve finally had a chance to dive into another in the COIN Series from GMT Games this fall with the Vietnam War themed Fire In The Lake. The counterinsurgency (COIN) games focusing on modern conflicts have fast become new favorites among a lot of us at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, and since the summer a core group at the club have been working through multiple games of FITL and getting a decent handle of this richly complex game.

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Sample cards from Fire In The Lake

Like other games in the series, FITL uses a card-activation mechanic to drive the game among the competing factions of US forces and US-allied South Vietnamese ARVN counterinsurgency and the insurgent northern NVA and Viet Cong guerrillas and regulars. Cards provide turn order at the top of each with a symbol for each faction. Each player chooses to use the Event on a drawn active card, conduct an Operation and/or possibly also conduct a Special Activity related to the Operation. Operations include such things as Rally or Train (recruiting troops, irregulars and/or building bases); March, Patrol or Sweep (to move and expose and/or remove guerillas), Assault or Attack (to remove enemies); and, Terror (to effect support and opposition). Adding in Special Activities such as the VC’s Tax and Subvert, the devastating Air Strike from the US, Ambush and Infiltrate from the NVA and the ARVN’s Govern and Raid makes for a powerful set of player actions.

The card text contains effects beneficial to the US and ARVN COIN players at the top and NVA and VC events in a shaded box at the bottom. Events can produce either immediate benefit to the player using the card or a negative result to another player, so a player might choose to act on a card’s Event merely to prevent another player from using the Event. Keeping an eye on turn order and the next available card also drives decisions, as one player’s choice can limit or enable the next choice available to the following players. Every nine cards contains a random Coup card which pauses play for a round of faction-specific series of phases whereby resources are gained, troops are redeployed, pieces are reset and victory conditions are checked.
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FITL Support/Opposition, Control and US, NVA, ARVN and VC Victory track markers

Each of the four groups has their own path to winning the game with victory points scored at the edges of the board on a track that also marks Resources, Aid and Patronage levels. The VC score by shifting the population of provinces toward opposition and constructing bases while the somewhat allied NVA win through gaining population control and creating bases. The ARVN player gains points through population control and earning patronage from the population of the cities and provinces. The United States wins through shifting support and building up the number of available bases and troops (reflecting a victorious withdrawal of the military from Vietnam).

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Another FITL game in progress this week

The combination of random turn order, Events, Operations and Special Activities creates a dizzying amount of variation to how a FITL game plays out over a few hours. With many interdependent actions and victory conditions, an unpredictable stack of Event cards and uncertainly timed Coup scoring rounds, Fire In The Lake makes returning to Vietnam again and again a most worthy choice.
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