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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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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New Game Weekend: Wilderness War

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I wound up spending a fair amount of time this past year touring sites related to the French and Indian War period while feeding my gamer’s appetite for the Seven Years War period with A Few Acres of Snow. With a little research and talking with some of the members at Metropolitan Wargamers, I decided I needed to go bigger and dive into a game focused on the French and Indian War. All trails led to GMT’s Wilderness War, and I had a chance to play my first game this past weekend.

Published in 2001, Wilderness War is a game that causes a lot of the gamers I know to glaze over with wide grins. The game is designed by Volko Ruhnke and uses a card-driven mechanic much like his COIN games series also published by GMT. I have a few games of the Runke-designed Cuba Libre and Fire In The Lake under my belt, so I knew that a French and Indian War game from him was certain to be a mix of relatively simple rules wrapped up in a rich historic board game experience.

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Wilderness War game board

The gorgeous map – hardbound in the latest edition – presents the Northeastern colonial areas of North America in the mid 18th-century. As with the war itself, the game is largely defined by geography. “Cultivated” (ie settled) areas are indicated with boxes, and “wilderness” areas and Indian settlements are printed as circles. Mountainous areas are also depicted with chains spreading through western and central Pennsylvania, the Hudson Valley region and portions of central New England. Connecting these areas are roads or trails and the more important waterways which served as the superhighways of the period. Many of the larger cultivated settlements begin with heavy fortresses protecting the space, while the game set up places a series of French and British forts and stockades throughout the map.

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Sample Wilderness War game counters

Game components consist primarily of 70 cards and 271 cardboard counters. The counters generally depict movement and combat ratings, with reduced values on the flip side once a unit takes damage in battle, during a wintering period or from an event card. Command markers also carry tactics numbers, which help during combat, and a command value. Cards allow activation of units equal to the number printed or by command rating. Special events may also be played for British (red), French (blue) or either side (red/blue), and cards with a brown-red band are events which may be played at any point during either side’s actions.

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Sample Wilderness War cards

The game plays with year-long turns each containing an early and late season, each approximating about six months of time. In each season, players begin by being dealt eight cards apiece. Later events and actions may modify a player’s hand size, but in general the French and British player then take turns playing cards to move forces, engage in battle, construct defenses or play out events as depicted on the cards. With some pre-planning, each season moves relatively swiftly toward the conclusion of a year of war. At the end of each year, victory points are tallied and units are checked to see if they suffer losses during the winter period between each yearly season of fighting.

Wilderness War comes with a playbook outlining several small to mid-sized games featuring particular periods in the war or a set-up for the entire war from 1755 to 1762. For my first game, we jumped in with both feet and started from the outset of the war  with me playing as the British and my experienced opponent using the French. The French begin the game with a small force stretched across the Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River and western Pennsylvania regions. British forces start poised on three fronts along the Hudson River, stretching west toward the eastern tip of Lake Ontario at Oswego and just south of western Pennsylvania. The French are buoyed with their strong alliances with several Indian nations while the British hold enormous access to colonial, regular British troops and numerous commanding officers waiting to be called into service.

Using the swift wilderness movement and  raiding capabilities in the 1755 and 1756 turns, the French sent Indian forces into Pennsylvania, Virginia and New England to raid unprotected British cultivated areas. The British quickly moved to redeploy their meager regulars throughout these areas to build stockades and push back further raids. At the same time, the French massed their forces and captured Fort Oswego. By the end of the second year of play, the French were already sitting on six victory points.

With a string of stockaded defenses set up to the west by the beginning of 1757, the British began to land troops at their coastal port arrivals to offset negative British political effects which stymied the use of more Colonial regulars and militia units. British troops commenced the long march into the Pennsylvania mountains and the nearby target French fort at the Ohio Forks (today’s Pittsburgh). Back to the east, the French began using their new base at Oswego to launch a push to the southeast into the Hudson Valley and the ill-defended areas around Albany, Schenectady and the Oneida region. All the while, the French continued to recruit additional Indian forces to buffer their defenses at the Ohio Forks and continue raids toward the east. The 1757 late season ended with my leaving too many British marooned in the mountains of Pennsylvania in a clear rookie mistake which led to my mass of troops taking heavy losses in the winter season.

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The British stockade defenses on the western frontier lay the groundwork for a push on the French at the Ohio Forks in my first game of Wilderness War

By 1758, my British luck seemed to change a bit for the better. Drawing and playing the William Pitt event card, I was able to increase my card hand size to nine cards and gain access to more British forces. Rushing more British reinforcements west into Pennsylvania, the French fell during a siege at the fort protecting the Ohio Forks, giving the British a firm foothold on the western frontier and awarding two victory points. Additional British troops rushed up the Hudson River Valley to hold back the French push toward Albany. As the British remained engaged in fights, the French began shifting their forces along Lake Ontario and the northern frontier while also raising a large force from the Iroquois in central New York. With 1758 at an end, my British forces were safely wintering on two fronts but in a severely weakened state and still way behind on victory points.

We called the game at its midpoint, deciding to restart another time now that I had been introduced to the general game. I still hadn’t experienced some major facets of the game such as naval movement and amphibious warfare, but I had quickly come to understand some of the major drivers of how the game plays. As a beginner, here are some lessons learned from my first game of Wilderness War:

  1. Defend the frontier. Especially for the British, but for both players, keeping the frontier defended by building stockades and forts is a must. Regular troops caught in wilderness areas are easy targets for Indians and other non-regulars, so having defenses built is key to defending territory. Having a network of stockades and forts to defend from, retreat to and maintain supply line coherence is a necessity if an army is going to succeed in the wilds of North America.
  2. Don’t get caught out in the cold. Open country and mountains are a strong enemy, particularly to 18th-century European armies. Paying attention to stacking limits as each year ends is important to keeping a force at strength. When conducting operations, players need to keep in mind where their troops will all wind up as a year ends and forces settle in for the winter. Nothing is worse than spending a series of turns marching troops into position only to have a portion of them die from starvation, disease and exposure in the period following each year’s turn.
  3. Play the long game. The full game goes to eight years of warfare, so strategy needs to take a long view. The first half of the game most probably belongs to the French as they and their Indian allies sack the wide open and undefended frontier. The British simply can’t be everywhere in the early years of the war, so spending time building defenses while also waiting to get the right cards to call in reinforcements is important. Massing and moving large forces on both sides to be strong enough to siege and capture forts takes a fair amount of planning but pays off in victory points.

Wilderness War is a fantastic playable document of the French and Indian War. The shifting alliances, opportunistic events, geography of the country itself intertwine to capture the period with a realness that might be familiar to any French or British commander on the 18th-century American frontier.

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