22 November 2014

PC Game Review: Gary Grigsby's War Between The States

There is a reason why Gary Grigsby's name is the first part of the title. The man has created some classics of wargaming. Steve Stafford is here to inform you that he has made another.

Published on 7 APR 2009 8:44am by Scott Parrino
  1. 2 By 3 Games
  2. Matrix Games
  3. american civil war, ground combat, turn-based, north america, strategic, online or multi-player, single-player

Author:  Steve Stafford

There is a reason why Gary Grigsby's name is the first part of the title. The man has created some classics of wargaming. I am here to inform you that he has made another.

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            The American Civil War was a turning point in history: it was, so to speak, a Janus figure in the history of warfare: looking back on the 19th century's artillery-centered, Napoleonic combat and looking forward to the First World War's trenches, brutality  and innovativeness. It witnessed the last great cavalry charges in military history, infamous cruelty and scorched-Earth tactics. The Civil War was the first of the great modern “Total Wars:” it would be decided by unconditional surrender and nothing less.

            Its uniqueness has made for a deep well of inspiration for game designers. Indeed, there is already a long line of good Civil War PC games. You might say we have enough already. Well, the line just got longer. Matrix Games’ new release, Gary Grigsby's War Between the States continues Grigsby's hot streak and reinforces Matrix's already strong reputation as a consistently competitive supplier of highly cerebral, demanding strategy games. Grigsby manages to harmonize the forces of history at work with artistry: a special interest in artillery and cavalry, as well as the nascent technological sophistications of naval bombardment and trench warfare.

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            The game has already won The Gamer's Hall Gold Award, and a bronze at UseNet’s War-Historical Wargame of the Year Awards. These are not small feats. But what makes the game so good? That it is everything it is supposed to be and nothing else. Allow me to explain.

            The game has the feel of some of the classics of wargaming: think Robert E. Lee Civil War General with the look of a Hearts of Iron, or Axis v. Allies. By doing so, it works on an intuitive level, something priceless in any game, but especially in the strategy genre, where a modicum of brain power is required even to play. Strategy nerds don't have the time or patience to struggle with logistics. So, the game builds off of your previous gaming experiences and biases, using familiar form for unfamiliar substance.

            The system requirements are relatively modest. Players can alt-tab in and out of the game. It is turn-based, divided into movement and supply/production phases: the PC equivalent of chess:; slow, ruminative by design. That may not be your cup of tea for a game, butin terms of memory and hard drive space, this is an affordable game, so to speak.It is easy to get working; the game makes no extreme requirements of the player's system: you get a lot of bang for your byte.

            The player is commander in chief of either the Confederate or Union forces, in the roles of, say, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln. The objective, of course, is to win a total victory: it is not to take a certain plot of land, win points, or even get an agreeable peace.

            In terms of looks, War Between the States reminds me of a PBS documentary. The music is pleasant and epoch-appropriate, despite the few clunking clichés of “Dixie,”  “Glory, Glory, Alleluia,” and the introduction featuring a reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. For historical accuracy nerds, however, cliché is not a problem: things become cliché by being good. This demonstrates that the target audience of the game is the hardcore wargamer, the history nerd, the History Channel viewer: violence and death are presented abstractly. The player sees numbers, not bloodshed. The game respects the player enough to leave moral decisions entirely in his or her hands: you have, for example, the option of emancipating the slaves. You also, since it is merely an option, can choose not to do so. The characters are more like chess pieces than people, but that is only because the player is in total command at all times, which is by far the most gratifying kind of game.

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            The game starts right at the beginning of the war. Sumter has happened; Manassas has not. Starting the game there, the player is able to veer quite far into potential alternative histories: Confederate conquest of the North, the quick victory that the Union leaders expected in the first place, or other, more nuanced changes to the historical narrative.

            The game's emphasis on leadership is not without precedent, but it is still innovative. Some might say this aspect of the game makes it more realistic than a game without it. Units train and function based upon the quality of their leader; players can strategically place leaders to maximize their effectiveness. Likewise, the enemy's leadership is always among the top things to take into consideration. Why is this a good thing to have? For one thing, it gives the player more control over battle outcomes than he or she would otherwise have. It allows you to do what it is that presidents do, making it feel less like a game. It is far less abstract to win at this game than at others.

            The game's website says, “Play on the edge of your seat with a suspenseful battle resolution system – Watch the push and pull of forces as the battle unfolds that will make or break your plans resolve.” This is not much of an innovation: the system is well-precedented. Despite what the company says, this game is about strategy. It is not about graphics or lowest-common-denominator-neuron-firing-entertainment. Take their description of battles with at least one grain of salt, bearing in mind also that most gamers probably are not looking to play on the edge of their seats. Indeed, it detracts from the game not one jot that there is no blood-splattering. Strategy is indeed the end and therefore strength of the game. The battles are decided on a wide variety of criteria: leadership, numbers, landscape, morale, to name a few. In terms of strategy gaming, the more the better.

            The gameplay, in general, is slow-paced and methodical. This may be frustrating for the weak in attention. It may seem like a silly point to bring up, but it actually is a serious point of concern. The player, in 2009, has been conditioned so thoroughly to accept immediate gratification that this game may seem an affront to convention. It has the pace of a board game, that outmoded ancestor of the PC wargame. The manual is thick and thorough: understanding the game is not so much a problem as acquiring a taste for detail. It may be difficult at first to keep track of all that is going on, but that is only because the player has unique capabilities in the game.

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            Since with any real strategy game it cannot be appreciated until it is understood, tutorials are important in judging the game's accessibility, and therefore how enjoyable it is. Because of the familiar look of the game, it is relatively intuitive. That's a very good thing. The tutorials are very helpful, forcing you to play the game step-by-step. They are, like the rest of the game, thorough.

            There are three difficulty settings: easy, medium and hard. I confess that I played it on easy and found myself sufficiently challenged. I don't dare imagine what “hard” must be like. The AI does not cheat, like in so many games, but it is relentlessly organized. The player must always be thinking on two levels: short-term and long-term. The computer will not forgive your negligence in long-term strategy, no matter how well or how hard you concentrate on short-term victories. It is almost as if the player needs to think about several things at once: one part of his brain working on production, one part on movement, one part on leadership.

I find this nearly impossible, and I only say “nearly” because I still have the chance to try again. As the Union, I won a battle at Manassas in 1861: a shocking reversal of history. However, to do so, I had deployed an unwise amount of troops that I then lacked in the Old Northwest. No doubt my top priority should have Northern Virginia, but I had failed to plan my local moves in consideration of grand strategy. As the Latin saying goes, to blunder twice is not allowed in war. In wargaming, to blunder once is difficult to recover from.

But planning on microscopic and macroscopic levels simultaneously is the very thing that presidents must do, and the game’s insistence on mental multitasking is but realism. Failure at any one of the phases of the game (movement, production, supply) in particular is enough to undo successes at the others; this is not a game you can play in pieces, five or ten minutes at a time. Indeed, it is hard enough to plan movement wisely; it is harder by the power of ten to plan several other things at once.

The difficulty of grand-strategy is not the sum of its parts, i.e. movement + strategy. It is more like movement x strategy. Such is why War Between the States demands an hour or two from you, and all of your energy and concentration within that span of time.

            There are a handful of scenarios that can be played, set up like in the Europa Universalis series. Some might ask, why bother? It's the same war between the same two belligerents. However, it is a strength. As a chaos theorist might add, initial conditions determine more of outcomes than we might imagine. In other words, where you start largely decides where you end up. Try all of the scenarios: they all test different parts of the gamer's brain.

            One great innovation, however, is the “Political Status” screen. This may sound like crude or simple button-pushing or lever-pulling, something like the game Democracy. However, War Between the States bridges the gap between historical fact and speculative history, which, by the way, should be the goal of all historical games. The Union player has the option of emancipating the slaves, conscripting blacks for the army, and declaring a draft, all with political and therefore military consequences. Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the Union player has the option not to do these things. It is the number and variety of potential outcomes that make the game valuable.

            Although the complexity of the game is what will give it longevity in the gaming world, players have the option, a la Madden, to automate or simulate certain micromanagerial aspects of the game (i.e. supply, or production, turning off Fog of War). That's especially useful for players like me who just want to get to the good stuff: you know, the killing, the pillaging, etc.

            It deserves mention that the game is one of the first Civil War games to have realistic naval battles. However, the reason why no one had really allowed for this option is because naval battles just weren't that common or spectacular. The Union's advantage in this dimension of warfare was simple so overwhelming that it was a given. Of course, no one denies how important that was in the ultimate outcome of the conflict. But how many Confederate players are really even going to try to engage the Union on the high seas? It is cool, however, that as the Union I can bombard Confederate fortresses along the coasts.

            My overall impression of the game is that it is sophisticated, and was diligently crafted. Complexity is what makes a game valuable in the long term: there have to be multiple ways of winning or losing, and a lifelike balance between what you can control and what you cannot. This game achieves everything necessary for strategy gaming greatness. I intend to play this game for quite some time.

9/10

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About the Author:

Steven James Stafford is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. When he is not pwning noobs or wearing out his third copy of Age of Empires II, he writes for The Somerville News.

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