Shuttling back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan every day on the New York City subway system, it’s sometimes easy to forget I live and work in area surrounded by coasts. This past weekend I hopped a free mid-morning ferry from Brooklyn to Governors Island National Monument for some immersion in NYC’s coastal defense history and annual Civil War Weekend sponsored by the National Park Service.
New York Harbor Defense History
From the beginning of European settlement of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan by the Dutch in the early 1600s, the importance of New York Harbor as a gateway to a system of trade and military defense was clear. The Dutch colony’s main defense at Fort Amsterdam eventually ceded to the British who maintained fortifications on the spot until after the American Revolution. In the post-Revolution centuries, the defense of New York Harbor remained a focus of the US military against foreign and domestic would-be aggressors.
Governors Island offers a good historic overview of the development of New York’s coastal defense works from the 18th through 19th centuries. Fort Jay dates from the late 18th-century when American colonists and British troops exchanged control of the island with various earlier wood and earth forts. The existing facility is a classic European-style star fort with masonry and earthen walls is typical of the design built all over the world from the 15th through 19th centuries. Entering through elaborate gates, a visitor walks into a peacefully idyllic central courtyard surrounded by Greek Revival colonnaded buildings with welcoming porches. Several cast iron Civil War era 10 and 15 inch Rodman cannons survive on the fort’s walls, pointing toward the harbor.
The later Castle Williams was built between 1807 and 1811 as a fortification just ahead of the War of 1812. The state-of-the art, circular casemate sandstone pile was designed by Col. Jonathan Williams, at the time the chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The first fort designed by an American engineer, Castle Williams presents three tiers of gun ports from which a nearly 360-degree field of defensive fire across the harbor.
Together with Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, Fort Wood (today the base of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island), Castle Clinton at the southern tip of Manhattan and Fort Gibson at today’s Ellis Island, Fort Jay and Castle Williams served as part of the interlacing network of forts protecting New York Harbor through the 19th-century. Both Fort Jay and Castle Williams would go on to other roles as the site of a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, a US Army prison in the middle of the 20th-century and the site of a large US Coast Guard base until closing in 1996. Gone is the military use of Governors Island today, but the spaces still serve the public as place to walk amid important and usually unseen history of New York.
Civil War Weekend
Each August the National Park Service presents the only Civil War encampment of reenactors in New York City. With about a dozen tents in a small camp and more than twenty staff and volunteer reenanctors, the weekend’s events gives New Yorkers an up-close glimpse of a solder’s life during the Civil War.
Aside from an opportunity to speak with reenactors and view some typical soldier’s equipment and life in camp, demonstrations of canon firing, drilling and infantry weapons are presented. For the less militarily-minded, period music was also offered in the comfort of shaded grass and rocking chairs inside the walls of Fort Jay.
Although the use of Governors Island has primarily been military for several centuries, visiting the island today serves up multiple experiences. While the historic forts and sites under the governance of the National Park Service occupy approximately 22 acres to the north, the remaining 150 acres is now overseen by the Trust for Governors Island. The Trust has worked to create an oasis of recreational areas for picnicking, play, bike riding, strolling and relaxing among historic buildings, allays of trees, wide grassy lawns, outdoor sculpture and newly designed landscapes. Whether you are a visitor looking for a step back into American history or just unwind from the city’s usual hustle, Governors Island can give a whole new perspective on New York at the center of the harbor and world.
Late this past week, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article on game designer and CIA analyst Volke Ruhnke. Ruhnke’s games are popular at Metropolitan Wargamers, including his COIN (Counterinsurgnecy) series from GMT Games, including the two 2013 releases of Cubra Libre (Cuba) and A Distant Plain (Afghanistan). The basic mechanics of these games and other historicals like them involve simple map game boards, wooden blocks placed in area control of spaces and detailed cards driving player actions.
While Ruhke’s games from GMT focus on 20th-century insurgencies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central and South America, Academy Games has been producing games for a couple years framed in similar mechanics but focused on US history with their Birth of America series. Thus far, the series consists of 1812: The Invasion of Canada, published two years ago to conicide with the 200th-anniversary of the War of 1812, and 1775: Rebellion, an American Revolution game. Next up for Academy Games is an Underground Railroad-themed game called Freedom which was successfully funded on Kickstarter last year.
Back of the box for 1775: Rebellion showing game contents
This past weekend I had an opportunity to play 1775 for the first time, and if you’ve got a passion for board games and American history like me, you need to give this one a try yourself.
Game set up for 1775: Rebellion
The board presents a map of ther thirteen original American colonies, plus Quebec and Nova Scotia to the north, at the dawn of the War of Independence. Two to four players begin the game as American Regulars, Colonial Militia, British Redcoat Regulars and English Loyalists deployed throughout the colonies. On the western frontier are unaligned Native Americans, and throughout the game opportunities arise for Hessian and French forces to join the conflict. All forces in the game are indicated through simple color-coded cubes with American Colonists in blue and white, British in red and yellow, Native Americans in green, French in purple and Hessians in orange.
Sample movement cards from 1775: Rebellion
The action of the game is propelled by movement and event cards. Each player draws three cards to their hand and may play one movement and up to two event cards during their turn. Movement cards indicate one or more allied army’s movement from one to three spaces in a turn. Native American, Hessian and French forces cannot move until another force moves to their space and joins in alliance with them. Moving forces cannot move through enemy-occupied areas, and movement to a space containing enemy forces results in a battle.
Sample event cards from 1775: Rebellion
Event cards depict historic personalities such as generals or statesmen and other occurences from the Revolutionary period like Paul Revere’s Ride, signing of the Declaration of Independence or the creation of the American flag by Betsy Ross. Each event card allows for things like additional forces to arrive or extra movement.
Turn 1 with the Americans moving on British-occupied Boston
Combat is resolved with dice color-coded to each force. Dice faces show hits, blank sides and flee indicators. Defending forces roll first in a combat. Hits destroy an enemy unit, returning it to the reinforcement pool. A blank result allows the option for a unit to retreat to a neighboring allied-controlled space. A flee roll removes a unit to the flee space to be replaced at the beginning of that player’s next turm. Dice for each force are weighted differently, so British Redcoats don’t hit as often but never flee while Hessians hit more frequently but flee more readily.
Truce cards from 1775: Rebelllion
The game proceeds in random turn order each round with players deploying reinfocements into occupied cities and retrieving fled units. The object of the game is to control the most colonies before the game ends after turn three with the play of two truce cards on each side. Colonies are only controlled when every space in the colony is controlled by allied forces.
Turn 3 with the American truce card played and British advancing from the north
In our four-player game this past weekend, my team’s Colonists initially attempted to oust the British from Boston but were repelled. The British advanced from Canada into northern New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Colonists picked up Native American allies in Western Pennsylvania and took control of the colony while a stalemate resulted in New England. With a mass of British-allied reinforcements to the north, the Colonists recieved French reinforcements in turn three and quickly took control of two colonies to the south. Colonists quickly played their second truce card and ended the game with more colonies in our control.
Although our intro game was a quick one, I’m very much looking forward to trying 1775: Rebellion again using different paths to victory. The game’s rules are short and the components simple, but there’s a lot of strategic heft to the game. For adults, or even smart kids, with a thing for early American history, I can’t recommend 1775: Rebellion enough.
These days it seems like a month doesn’t go by that some Kickstarter horror story makes the rounds. Projects vanish, people lose money to scams or entrepreneurs running Kickstarters go belly-up with their success. This past week, the owner of a successfully-Kickstarted game called Corporate America wrote about his experience. The piece gives a solid, balanced look at the real economics behind running a Kickstarter game campaign. It’s a good read and worth bearing in mind while taking a look through the game campaigns I’ll be watching this month.
A Duel Betwixt Us: This two-player card game pits two 19th-century gentleman in a game of manly combat. By using their workers, each player is able to mine for ingots used to create weaponry and armor for combat. Once ready, a player selects a duel and then brings their arms, armor and stack of dirty tricks to the fight. The very Victorian artwork reveals a hilarious game of codpieces, drunken miners, oddball weaponry and double-crossing at every turn in the quest of woman’s favor.
Incursion: Released by Grindhouse Games in 2009, Incursion is yet another take on an alternative post-WWII world where Nazis and Allied forces persist in protracted combat as a Doomsday Device threatens world destruction for all. This sci-fi-fuelled game is full of fantastic weapons, evil scientists, daring heroes plus zombie Nazis and combat gorillas. This second edition and expansion of the game adds all sorts of plastic miniatures to the game, new missions and rules for three players.
Freedom – The Underground Railroad: I grew up in Western New York, a hotbed of the Abolitionist movement and gateway to Canada for escaping slaves. Academy Games is adding the story of the Underground Railroad to their Birth of America Series of games that has already covered the American War of Independence and the War of 1812. There’s a lot of real history packed into this intense strategy game as players take on the role of allied abolitionists alluding slave trackers while escorting escaped slaves north to Canada along eight routes. Historical events and people shape the game along the way, making this game a really fascinating vehicle for retelling the story of the Underground Railroad.
Templar – The Secret Treasures: I’m a fan of a number of the Eurogames produced by Queen Games, and Templar looks to be another fun hit. The game plays on two boards, a “harbor board” of warehouses and the other a detailed floorplan “abbey board.” Moving between the boards, players seek to find and hide treasure relics throughout the abbey by playing different character cards. Characters like the Prior, Abbot or Spy act to either aid or foil the Templar’s plans.
Zero Hour – Survivor Horror Card Game: Aside from the occasional run-in with some zombies, I’m not generally a horror gamer. Zero Hour could change that. Play begins with 30 children stranded in the woods after their bus driver dies. Soon, weird things begin to happen in the woods, pushing each child closer and closer to insanity. Somehow, the children have to survive the night until the zero hour at dawn. The gothic design and theme of the entire game makes this look to be creepily attractive. A bonus part of the campaign is a tall plush Slenderman doll, certain to please the darkest child within you.