Review: Civil War: 1863

By Jeff Renaud 14 Sep 2016 0

Review: Civil War: 1863

Released 21 Jun 2016

Developer: HexWar
Available from:
Steam
Direct
Reviewed on: PC

It all begins rather familiarly – which can be, as I have mentioned elsewhere, both good and bad. In the case of HexWar GamesCivil War: 1863, it’s good, primarily because, if one has played any of their Tank Battle series and presumably any of their other Civil War games (I have not played 1861, 1862, 1864, Bull Run 1861, or Gettysburg, all currently available only for Mac/iOS), it isn’t necessary to learn a whole new game. At the same time it can be bad, if they start to feel too familiar. I have also averred in these virtual pages that it will generally be up to the player to decide if they might have had enough – or not – of ‘the same’. But that is why we are here, fearless reader: We wish to help you with such agonizing decisions. To spend another $10.99, or not to spend…

Having only Tank Battle: North Africa (NA) with which to compare – recently reviewed by yours truly on Wargamer.com – the different era aside, there are some similarities beyond the interface, which is essentially indistinguishable from NA. Menus, options, and so on are simple and identical: HD graphics on/off, music, screen resolution, and the rest, all the same. Once we enter the Campaign screen, things begin to change – and not just the obvious.

Unlike NA, the player can select either a Union or Confederate ‘grand’ campaign; I use the qualifier since there are actually eight Campaigns (plus Tutorial) per side, comprised of 5-8 scenarios each. The opportunity to play both sides is a welcome change from the more restrictive Tank Battle: North Africa, but while the game’s website advertises “5 Hotseat two player scenarios”, I did not find this option. (The site also says that other DLC is available, but it seems that all are included, now; perhaps this only applies to MAC/iOS versions.) Like NA, unlocking all scenarios (from the Settings menu) will allow play in any order one wishes, but otherwise, 1863’s scenarios occur in no particular chronological sequence. Furthermore, despite the game’s webpage also proclaiming the opportunity to “Re-enact real historical battles”, that may be arguable, as is the assortment of “8 Unique Civil War Units”. More specifics regarding units later.

33rd Alabama

The 33rd Alabama Regiment leads the Rebel charge at – yes, well, somewhere…

Though frequent mention is made of historical units and battle sites such as the 33rd Alabama Regiment, Chickamauga, Oak Hill (Gettysburg Day 1; though it’s called Oak Ridge in the game), again, the seemingly random order of ‘historical’ scenarios mixed with undated, apparently generic ones, pretty much spoils any attempt at a cohesive campaign ‘storyline’ or immersive recreations. For example, choosing from left to right, the first campaign, “To Arms”, proceeds through undated battles until it concludes with one from May and then July; the next, “Stalemate”, starts with assorted undated scenarios as well as one occurring in March, then June, and finally September… Neither can I vouch for battlefield verisimilitude, or for exact OOBs. But then, all of this is generally not what attracts one to HexWar titles.

WHAT’S THE ATTRACTION, THEN?

One plays games such as 1863 for the ‘quick hit’ wargame, where the action starts within a turn or two, and is often concluded in well under an hour. There is no supply or logistics to fret over, nor much in the way of command and control intricacies, much less politics or diplomacy to administer; if one seeks such complexities all one’s wargaming, continue thy search, grognard! Even so, 1863 is not without its tactical depth. Where Tank Battle games reward flanking and feature the typical ‘rock-paper-scissors’ unit clash, 1863 is somewhat more subtle; facing isn’t as much of a consideration, whereas Formations are paramount, while it adds an element of leadership along with Morale effects.

Leaders – including lesser-known real-life figures such as Colonel Thomas T. Munford and Major General Robert H. Milroy – are present in 1863 as ‘horsemen’ attachable to a cavalry or infantry unit (not artillery). Leaders grant several bonuses to not only attached units but adjacent, e.g., in Mêlée: +2 if attached, +1 to adjacent. As for the immersive use of leaders, my interest rose when, during the “East Cavalry Field” scenario of the “Rebel Yell” campaign, I was briefed that I’d be J.E.B. Stuart facing George Custer on the third day of Gettysburg. However, no Confederate leader was present, only a unit named “Jeff Davis, Phillips”. Quite a letdown! In any case, leaders (when present and if kept alive) do help in getting ‘adjacent’ to the enemy, which is where we go next.

MELEE

Now, get in there and get busy!

Mêlée modifiers are arguably the most important element of 1863; the tactics of the time called for well-timed charges, preferably under favourable circumstances – and there’s the task for the player: manoeuvring one’s forces into position to push the enemy off objectives (not to mention, as the Confederacy, to do so more effectively than history conveys). Although one can sit back and trade volleys, timing is often a factor, and if the player fails to take advantage of an opportunity to close and occupy more favourable terrain, then one can generally expect the AI to do so; more about the AI later, though. In any event, one cannot move next to the enemy other than by Charging, so even if an objective hex is vacant, should a single enemy remain adjacent it cannot be taken by normal movement.

Formations also key into the combat equation: Line is better for shooting; Column, as expected, for marching, but also in mêlée, surprisingly. ‘Unformed’ occurs automatically as a result of entering (and involuntarily stopping in) certain terrain – woods, rough, buildings – as well as failing Morale checks, which can happen when shot at or charged (shocking, I know!). This is a primary tactic for 1863: Breaking an enemy’s formation leaves them both more vulnerable and less effective, because reforming takes a turn. A unit can move and then change formation, but cannot attack after changing, even if forced by terrain as mentioned above. However, the AI doesn’t seem to get this – but again, more about that in a bit.

Concluding the subject of Formations, cavalry can be Mounted or Dismounted; when in the latter mode they act as infantry, albeit carrying carbines and sabres more suitable for engaging up close than volleying. Their strength is the charge, and mounted in the open is of course better. Yet, here’s where I have a bit of an issue with the ‘unique’ units claim: Are mounted and dismounted cavalry each unique? Similarly, can Civil War infantry with smooth-bore muskets be considered unique in respect of those with rifled weapons? Are waggons ‘unique’ – even Civil War waggons? Or ‘Generals’, for that matter? 

Gettysburg

Gettysburg – NOT!

Nevertheless, except for the smooth-bore versus rifled just mentioned, weapon types aren’t as much of a factor in 1863 as in Tank Battle: NA; the latter have much better range: 3 hexes vice 2, and are more effective (accurate). Generic artillery appears as well as naval artillery, both with a range of 5. Charts are available in Help to review all stats, including ‘shooting’ modifiers, percentages ‘to hit’, in addition to terrain effects, although much information is available on the toggle-able in-game Combat Analysis.

DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO GETTYSBURG?

In my travels across Civil War: 1863’s virtual battlefields, the graphics did not impress me as much as in Tank Battle: NA – but perhaps I just like tanks better than ironclads. The terrain seems a bit ‘washed out’; perhaps that’s the intended effect – i.e., the sepia toned photography of the era – though it’s more pastel watercolour than brownish sepia. And perhaps my eyes aren’t what they used to be, but even with HD graphics zoomed in @ 2560x1080, I could just make out Confederate caps and brass-hilted cavalry sabres, albeit bedrolls on mounted units are noticeable (did they carry them into battle?). While flags contrast well, Union blue appears much too pale, Confederate grey too… brown. Animations of soldiers marching and riding are acceptable; firing and reloading are better. I would have like to see something more than a dash-and-flee when a Charge is ordered, but perhaps that’s too much to expect. Beyond that, targeted units flinch when shot at, and die suitably.

Dying is something the AI does well. I did not have time to test all scenarios at all difficulties for both sides, but it I lost only once, when I forgot the time limit, on Standard difficulty (which is braced by Casual and Hard). I re-fought a couple of battles on Hard to see if the AI was any better at assaulting an entrenched position. It was not. Though I don’t claim to be an expert on these types of games, I easily won each time, with several turns to spare, as the enemy stood before my forts, content to trade volleys while their corpses cluttered up my doorstep; not one single charge! I have to say that Hard had better provide more of a challenge in other scenarios, or even the decent number in 1863 will be quickly consumed. Nor did the default order in which they’re played seem to commensurately increase the difficulty. Finally, I also found what is probably an exploit, but may be WAD: If a leader is attached into a unit that has already changed formation and is otherwise done for the turn, it enables an attack.

Campaign

Choose your side and draw sabres! CHARGE!

WHATEVER ARE WE TO MAKE OF YOU?

The scale of the game seems suitable; similar to NA, battlefields are usually quite small, seldom reaching 12x18 hexes and more than a couple dozen units. The units themselves seem to represent roughly a brigade, made up of from two to four regiments. Also like NA, Raw, Veteran, and Elite units get modifiers for shooting and in close combat, as well as when under assault (charged). Raw units, for example, may refuse to charge, and will hit less often. All units frequently start or enter a scenario understrength – at less than ten ‘hit points’ – which creates a challenge in itself, as they’re increasingly brittle, morale-wise, as they lose strength. Plus, keeping at least one strength point means it doesn’t count as destroyed, a frequent victory (or defeat) condition.

Objectives are delivered as parts of a “Mission Status” briefing, often having at least three or more, including taking ‘control points’ and/or destroying ##% of the enemy while not losing ##% of your own. Once in a while a break interrupts the normal attack/defend prescription to take out a certain unit or escort waggons. One more minor quibble I need to bring up is that the player is addressed as “Commander”; ‘General’ or even ‘Colonel’ would have been more immersive, as this is not a naval game (despite the occasional ironclad)!

Whatever else Civil War: 1863 is it delivers the aforementioned quick wargaming fix in a way that is mostly engaging and challenging. Even if it fails to cough up more on higher difficulty and later, presumably more complex scenarios, is it worth $10.99 to find out? I would say so.

Review: Civil War: 1863

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