Digital Wishlist: Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection

21 Mar 2016 0

Dave has recently chronicled [with Day 2 coming later this week -ed.] a tabletop extravaganza of a weekend which not only induced envy, but also gave him some insight into a variety of appealing games to bring to our devices. I have, instead, been learning a single new game alone, but it’s been GMT’s latest COIN game, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, so maybe I win. Okay, I don’t win, but LoD is pretty great. I’ll give you an outsider’s view of this extremely well-received exploration of the broad strategy of the American Revolution for 1-4 players.

First, some personal abasement: I came into the game knowing shockingly little about the topic, with no prior experience of counterinsurgency wargaming of any kind, much less Volko Ruhnke’s series on the topic, and really with relatively limited wargame experience at all. I grew up near the Thaddeus Kosciusko bridge over the Mohawk River, so I remember hearing that he was a talented Polish engineer who helped found the Army Corps of Engineers on my one visit to West Point. But I didn’t actually realize that the war started long before the Declaration of Independence, had no knowledge of any involvement of Native Americans, and couldn’t even have told you how long the war lasted. I wasn’t quite at Ted Logan levels of ignorance, but I definitely lacked insight into what George Washington would have thought of 1989 San Dimas, CA.

Fortunately, the game comes with historical notes from various folks involved in the design, as well as specific information about the events which inspired every event card in the game. In addition, I was in the extremely rare position (for me) of making a long drive alone around this time, so I picked up the audio version of David McCullough’s 1776 and donned my learning boots. Thus did I hear of an absolutely marvelous series of events from the siege of Boston, which so impressed me that I’m going to describe it now on the thinnest of excuses.

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Our thanks to the Wikimedia foundation for this image of the site of a totally rad story about the Revolutionary War.

Two young men, the keeper of a bookshop and one of his customers, discovered a shared interest in military history and theory, and later joined what would become Washington’s Continental Army. Having besieged a strong British force in Boston early in the war, Washington’s forces dug in well enough that they could not easily be dislodged, but, without artillery, they were unable to mount a plausible attack, either. So, long before the Eisenhower Interstate System, Henry Knox, the aforementioned bookseller, proposed going to the abandoned Fort Ticonderoga and retrieving its cannons during a punishing New England winter. Long, impressive story short: he did. At this point, the strategic position of Dorchester Heights finally had some value for the rebels, as cannons atop it could reach the town and even threaten ships in Boston Harbor, but the British had only left the heights unoccupied because any move to take them would leave the rebels highly vulnerable to a sortie. On the morning of March 6, 1776, the British awoke to discover that, during the night, the previously unoccupied heights had been fortified with two redoubts, complete with cannons Washington didn’t even have less than a week prior. The fortifications had been built beforehand and brought up and assembled during a single night. Weather prevented a now much less promising sortie, and the British fled to Nova Scotia. Nathaniel Greene, the asthmatic, limping friend of the bookseller, whose military knowledge had come entirely from those books, went on to become one of Washington’s most effective generals.

The basic structure of the game is approachable and well-introduced by the tutorial (a marvelous inclusion). The four playable factions are roughly divided into two sides: the Patriots have aims which overlap with the French, and the British are loosely allied with most of the Native American tribes, for whom the game uses the historically-appropriate inaccuracy “Indians”. Each turn, you turn over an event card, which determines the turn order. Whichever faction acts first may choose to execute the event, or use one of the Commands (perhaps with a Special Action) which are always available to that faction--these allow you built support, collect resources, move troops, start fights, dominate the seas, and so forth. Which choice the first faction makes changes the options available to the second, which introduces a balance between choosing the option which is best for yourself while limiting the damage others can do. Though only two factions can act per turn, the upcoming event is always face-up on top of the deck, which gives you a second factor to balance: do you take an action now, or pass so that you’ll be eligible to use (or block) the powerful event coming up? This lets you trade off immediacy and more actions over greater flexibility in which actions you take and their timing.

The COIN series has long been lauded for making the surprising realities of insurgencies comprehensible. LoD captures this partly through its contrasts between the factions. The British want to win: they want the country on their side, and they want to kill more rebels than they lose. The Patriots are quite willing to die for their country and they don’t mind about casualties, but they want to win the hearts and minds of their fellows and defend them against the challenge posed by native tribes with whom they expect continued friction after the war is over. These are pretty traditional aims, but the Patriots have more indirect tricks, while the British have more direct access to the seas and the ability to reinforce coastal cities. The natives aren’t looking for a contest of armies on a traditional battlefield at all, a fact made quite humorously clear to me during my first game, in which I managed to collect the war parties of seven of the first nations under one banner in South Carolina. Without British troops to form the lines of battle, they couldn’t really do much openly. Cornplanter decided to set down some roots and found a village. Meanwhile, the French just want to weaken the British, and will happily lend their navy to the task of cutting off that crucial support to the cities and troops to the noble goal of keeping as many British regulars on, and preferably in, American soil. In most scenarios, they have to be convinced to enter the war directly, and the quickest way the Patriots have of doing so is causing those casualties with which they aren’t otherwise concerned.

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Not only does it turn out not to be so useful to have a massive army of war parties, but it’s also not technically possible to have Royalist control without British pieces present. Oops.

All of that’s basically fantastic. There are more complicated rules for what happens when winter comes, but there, as in most other circumstances, there are excellent player aids guiding you through the process. My only real problem with the rules is that they’re written with a degree of disregard for the peculiar limitations of human memory in two striking ways: exceptions and distinctness. The rules often involve exceptions, and sometimes even exceptions to the exceptions. An equally complicated rule which used more positive language would generally be easier to comprehend and recall. For example, rather than “Do X in a city (but not a blockaded city)”, the rules could define a city as open if not blockaded, and then write, “Do X in an open city”.

The second problem is that we have a much easier time remembering two things if they are easily distinguished. The more similar two ideas are, the harder it is to remember their differences. This is aggravatingly notable in the case of battle, in which you must first calculate your force, which is usually cubes plus half of militia/war parties. That gets divided by three to determine the number of dice rolled. Then you calculate losses, in which cubes and forts count as two and militia, war parties, and Tories count as one. Then the winner gets to affect public opinion based on half the number of losses by the loser. It’s very easy to forget which number you divide by two and which by three, or confuse the circumstance in which you double some units with the one in which you halve others, especially since only one unit switches sides between them. It’s not that anything the rules want you do is inherently too complicated, it’s just that they’re written in ways which seem tougher on the brain than is necessary to accomplish the gameplay goals. Even still, it’s quite tractable to anyone used to reasonably complicated games in other genres, roughly comparable to Arkham Horror, it’s just frustrating to be removed from the pure joy of the rest of the game to twiddle some numbers.

That’s why I would be so enthusiastic about a digital version of this game. The options available to any particular player are quite manageable, and the system usually makes the dynamics of the conflict accessible to your mind without overly bogging you down with details of the game system. But executing the rules during battles and winters is just a bit more of a chore than it seems like it ought to be, and it would be so nice to be able to just get right back into the real decision-making. The AIs for the game are already written--half the rulebook is simply instructions on how to run them by hand--and the difficulty in the rules comes from our stupid brains, not the rules themselves. A solid port of Liberty or Death would be the sort of boon to humanity which makes me proud to contribute to a publication which fosters a market for such products.

A version of this story appeared at Pocket Tactics.

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