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.

GMTAmRevTriPackP500

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.

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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.