Review: Campaign Franklin Gold06 Mar 2019 0
Review: Campaign Franklin Gold
Released 03 Dec 2018
Remember John Tiller Software’s old Civil War Battles series? Well lo and behold, most titles have now gone through the “Gold” update (though not officially called that) process that other JTS games such as France ’40 Gold have recently received. This extensive update is actually a concoction of Wargames Design Studio for JTS, and the game in question for this column is Campaign Franklin 3.0, the first WDS release of the title, published December 2018.
It didn’t take long to realize that the WDS release was primarily about visuals. Game play hadn’t changed a smidgeon, and updates to said gameplay were few. Thus I concentrated on looks, and yes, the modifications are absolutely first rate, more realistic and more aesthetically pleasing to boot. It may not be the silky smooth painted graphics of the old Talonsoft, now Matrix, Battleground Civil War, but its getting pretty darn close.
And this a good thing? Well maybe, but then again, maybe not.
Overview and Under the Hood (John Bell, that is)
The Civil War Battle series is a tactical level set of games, with each turn representing 20 minutes, each hex measuring 125 yards with a stacking limit of 1000 troops per hex. Units are infantry or cavalry regiments (really the equivalent of European battalions for the infantry), artillery batteries or sections, plus leaders, supply trains and the like. Like most of the games, Campaign Franklin 3.0 not only includes the battle for Franklin, but also Nashville and smaller related engagements such as Spring Hill and Overall Creek, a total of 64 historical and ‘what if’ scenarios. Also included is a simple but well-done linear campaign system that allows you to link battles and make operational level decisions between each engagement. As an interesting twist, your AI opponent for the campaign can be set to act Conservatively and make optimal choices, or Recklessly and make some decisions totally at random.
For actual gameplay description, please see the author’s 2018 review of another JTS tactical gunpowder title, The Seven Years War. Yes, different era, but the mechanics are basically the same right down to the optional phase based sequence of play that looks like a direct lift from Rich Hasenauer’s Fire & Fury American Civil War miniature rules. Its an old system, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because this means that any issues have long been resolved.
Yet while Campaign Franklin 3.0 doesn’t change a whole lot in this regard, there are still a fair few tweaks to consider. These include an optional, advanced fFog of War visibility rule, Auto Defensive Fire for artillery set to Minimum and a bug with the damaged bridge crossing process now fixed. There has also been a lot of admin and housekeeping changes as well, such as the introduction of a true large 2D map rather than something achieved by magnification, in-game weapons descriptions have been reworded (and the weapons values are now standardized across all games, as is unit movement), new hot keys added and documented, new full featured logging system and redesigned folder tree implemented, font sizes changed and so on and so on ad nauseum.
Suffice it to say, the game works as advertised with nary a Hiccup (nor Toothless) to be found, giving good, overall historical results at battles end. Given how old this series is, this should surprise no one.
The big news, of course, are the visuals. And while this primarily does concern a new map landscape and unit 3D palette, that’s not the only area where graphics and color have been adjusted. There is also a new top design for both 2D maps and counters, similar to that found in The Seven Years War, though I hold the latter to be the very best I have ever seen. Likewise, the tool bar has new symbology and greatly expanded to host 70 – count ’em, 70 – function buttons. There are also new colorized images for leaders on redesigned data cards, as well as new graphics for corresponding units.
But for the main course, and while the old style map design is still available, the new 3D map is listed as “hand drawn.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the results are a definite improvement. The hand drawn map uses a much softer and less grainy palette than before, and the entire landscape looks far less like a set of common and generic hex patterns just placed wherever they are needed. Instead, things like fields flow very naturally from one adjacent hex to another as if it were a single sheet of terrain with a hex overlay dropped on top, not a bazillion individual hexes hooked together. I especially liked the new river bank style and the autumn foliage on the various individual tree sprites. Shadows are very well depicted. The urban areas are also quite well done and have a very appropriate Americana look.
Except . . . In a potential ‘tip of the hat’ to Field of Glory II, JTS has also decided to adopt Hobbit Hovels for their terrain design. Yes, there is a chance that historical height minimums for Union and Confederate recruits was 15 feet tall and not a fraction less, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I haven’t given up on my crusade to fix this, but I do admit the bones are getting weary.
Unit visuals have similarly been improved, actually radically changed. In older releases we basically see Talonsoft regiments, with infantry deployed in single rank, skirmish order attired in generic Rebel or Yankee uniforms, with some, but not a lot of, variation. No more. Using infantry regiments as our test case, the formations are now two ranks deep with troops shoulder to shoulder, an officer on the end to lead the lads forward. Uniform variations abound, even for the Union army as those red legged devils, the Zouaves, make a long overdue appearance. Slouch hats as well as kepis are in existence, and artilleryman sport their distinctive red head gear as well. For the Confederates, the variation is even more pronounced. Some formations wear the regulation grey with powder blue appointments, other entirely in butternut, but most in a variety of dress, to include regulation, civilian or just raggedy whatever was available, with the same duller, less grainy appearance as the terrain they’re fighting over. Given artillery seems to be deployed in 2 gun sections, seeing two of the latter from the same battery side by side in the same hex is really snazzy.
And then there are the flags. Again, using the infantry as the model, there are a plethora of different colors gracing the armies at Franklin and Nashville. In the Union army, some regiments carry their state flags (such as Indiana, and all states carry the flag back then, not the current model) while the Stars and Stripes can be found with gold fringe or without, stars arranged in a square within the canton, or in an oval. Many units also carry the dark blue Union regimental with eagle. For the Johnnies one counts state flags to be sure, but also Bonnie Blues, Stars and Bars and several different patterns of Battle Flags to include a particularly striking example with an orange fringe. My impression is that the type of flag drawn may well be keyed to that flown by the regiment for real, as in at least one example the little red flag with St Andrews cross actually sports battle honors.
It’s a substantial improvement over previous iterations and it looks great. It just doesn’t look right.
My Two Shekels Worth
It seems all tactical computer wargames have a deep seeded desire to become true miniature games on a screen, and thus the look of tabletop battles in pewter is the mimic du jour. This includes turn based games with some sort of grid overlay and so it is with Campaign Franklin 3.0. The problem is that miniatures base unit size, movement, location, direction, et al, on actual ground or table measurements, without the constraints of hexagonal regulators. If a unit had an historical frontage of 800 yards and the miniatures game scale is one inch equals 200 yards, then on the table the formation if four inches wide.
Not so with hexes because if a unit theoretically fits within said hex somehow, its size or actual location within the hexagon is irrelevant, and so is its visual depiction onscreen. The same unit image can also be used for a regiment whether it is 200 or 800 bayonets strong. Thus in the game at Franklin the Union 124th Indiana and 65th Illinois occupy a single 125 yard hex, visually looking like two formations fused into an attack column. Historically they stood side by side in two rank battle lines stretching 253 yards (and in some game examples individual units would not fit inside a single hex so deployed) but given hex grid and the game engine behind it, this is what works. Likewise, the six sided regulating grids with its askew pattern can force what were wide linear combat formations of brigades, divisions and corps into something that looks similar to a checkerboard deployed Roman Legion.
Games such as Pike & Shot Campaigns or Field of Glory II compensate admirably with grid tiles large enough to hold the units deployed, little to no stacking and the use of squares to give eight points of direction (counting the corners; I always thought that ingenious). But here there is a different game engine to make it all work.
So while this “Gold” update makes a solid game look even better (and the update is free for current owners, so get it), perhaps it’s better to end this article with a question or few. If mimicking tabletop games is the future, could this JTS series reimage itself to more accurately depict the actual battle or at least what a modern reenactment of it might look like? With proper scale and formations? Or an even better question, could the current game engine handle such an adaptation? The answer might be that given its age, perhaps its time for a change.
This is all personal preference of course, but until then and like their excellent Seven Years War product, I prefer the overhead 2D presentation. Yes, its more abstract, but I know this from the start, so my expectations are fully satisfied. For me the gameplay and subject of the game remain a far greater selling point than the new, admittedly excellent, graphics.