Campaign Shenandoah Review06 Nov 2019 1
Campaign Shenandoah Review
Released 24 Oct 2019
WDS (Wargame Design Studio) has recently done a massive graphics flip with the John Tiller line of tactical American Civil War (ACW) computer games. Seriously, the firm upgraded every package on the shelf. However, that hasn’t stopped the lads from punching out completely new games featuring ACW battles yet to be covered, and that means Campaign Shenandoah, running $39.95 US. It’s the 14th product of the series, and if you are wondering if its worth your shekels, the answer is a resounding “YES,” but perhaps not for the reason you’d expect. Read on, MacDuff.
Under the Hood (John Bell, that is)
Well, really, not much has changed, not necessarily a terrible thing since this means that if you’ve ever played another game in the series, you’ll have no problem playing Campaign Shenandoah. Also, the longevity of the series means that software bugs and gameplay problems are pretty much no-shows.
The “not much” comes down to three areas. The first is an extreme Fog of War option, while the second continues the concept of scenarios specifically designed for AI play. Yes, you can play any scenario against the AI, either side, but WDS built these to offer the human player even greater challenges than normal. The final change is the assigning of Victory-ish Points for the control of geographic objectives. The two neat twists with this revision are that the number of points awarded depends on both how long the objective is held and how important its possession is to each side. Thus, control by the Union may award a certain number of points, while control by the Rebs may result in an entirely different number of points.
Otherwise, the game plays as advertised and comes with a mini campaign system to link various battles together. For those unfamiliar with said gameplay nuts and bolts, please refer to my review of the firm’s game featuring battles from the Seven Years War. It’s a different era to be sure, but the mechanics are near identical and their similarity to Rich Hasenauer’s uber popular Fire & Fury ACW miniature rules is easily recognizable. Scale remains 125 yards to the hex, 20 minutes real time per turn with units ACW regiments or artillery batteries.
Rally Round the Flag
And the flags are spiffy looking. This is because WDS designed Campaign Shenandoah from the ground up using the so called 'Gold' graphics suit that upgraded all its 13 sister games. You’ll see the impact of this in two areas, the first being the presentation of the military units on the table, and the second the terrain over which they march and charge.
Here the actual size of the sprites within each formation is physically larger than in the past, while the unit itself has more soldiers represented, to include officer, drummer, and standard bearer. No, this is not like the old Talonsoft based ACW series where each stand boasted a pitiful four infantry to represent a regiment. These new regiments have more muskets displayed, all in regulation close order.
WDS has also redesigned the uniforms and not only sketched them better but did so accurately on a per unit basis. This means that the Louisiana Tigers are resplendent in their distinctive Zouave garb while the 33d Virginia of Stonewall Brigade fame steps out in their regulation dark blue uniforms in the early scenarios of 1862. Likewise, as the timeline progresses, the Confederates become more “Raggedy Reb” in appearance, with soldiers sporting grey, butternut, and brown in various combinations. Flags are also correct as regards whether the unit flew the Stars and Bars or Battle Flag at a particular battle or not. Their Union foes are no less notable, with proper regimental attire and correctly drawn state flags to lead the boys in blue forward.
The terrain is a joy as well. The game now comes with a hand-drawn 3D battle maps as the default setting. Yes, you can flip back to the older garish and grainier style (not so with the units above, however), but I have no idea why one would want to. Having lived and served in the real estate represented, I can truthfully say this new style if much more faithful to what is actually on the ground now, and likely back then. The color palette is softer and more subdued, with trees and buildings much closer to real life.
The only changes I might suggest is, first, straightening out linear obstacles such as fences or streams just a bit, rather than conforming exactly the edges of the hexagons they border. It doesn’t look right and after reviewing a few board games this weekend, I think this could be changed and still convey the hex border as terrain boundary. Also, larger units in line still couldn’t historically fit in the hexes given the scale, so I wonder if units that span two hexes might be an option.
Rally on the Virginians!
Yet none of this is what makes Campaign Shenandoah a must buy. Rather, it’s the subject matter of the game that really sets it apart from the crowd and makes it, IMHO, the best product in the entire series. Not only is the collection of battles unique, but it also promotes a different style of game play than with previous games involving larger battles such as Gettysburg.
First, while most people see the word “Shenandoah” and immediately think “Stonewall Jackson,” this game reminds us there were equally important campaigns in 1864 involving such notables as the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute and the Union’s hard charging Phil Sheridan. Campaign Shenandoah covers them all with 174 (count ‘em, 174) scenarios, from the battle Kernstown (23 March 1862) at start and ending with the almost Confederate victory at Cedar Creek (19 October 1864). No, this is not a game about a single battle, or possibly two, but one providing 27 different engagements, each with variants to account for weather and a more rugged AI opponent. Surprisingly, the majority fall into the several 1864 campaigns, not General Jackson’s romp, and this means vastly different situations across dissimilar terrain.
Also, these battles are small, and in some cases, real small. Consider the biggie of this game, 3d Winchester, where Sheridan fielded somewhere around 40,000 men, as opposed to the Union army at Gettysburg with 104,000. Now consider the 9 June 1862 battle of Port Republic where Union General Erastus B Tyler led 3500 Yanks into battle. Sure, games on larger battles will have smaller scenarios covering a different section of the same clash, but for most gamers this is not going to be enough. I’ve been in this hobby for over... well, an awful long time... and all the players I know want to command the entire army while simultaneously picking the type of round a certain cannon type will fire this turn. They want to be Robert E Lee and one of his artillery battery commanders at the same time. That’s tough to do at Chickamauga, but these battles are so small you can actually play out this fantasy til your heart’s desire.
And because these battles are so small, this means a paucity of combat units marching around huge expanses of real estate. The constraints are off so the possibilities for sweeping maneuver are enormous. Oh yes, this kind of fighting is tough to pull off, especially against a smart AI, but at least here you have the option to give the concept a whirl. It often results in a more free-wheeling sort of battle where reacting to the unexpected and controlling chaos is more important than planning, but it is caisson’s full of fun.
However, be careful. One of the other things I noticed about the battles in this game is how increasingly brittle units are depending upon whether the year is 1862 or 1864. None of the units in the game come even close to the regulation paper strength of 1100 men, and in fact the strongest I’ve found so far is one Union regiment with 525 men answering the rolls. This was in 1862 and it makes sense that as the war progressed the ability to replace losses would become more difficult and unit strength would continually shrink, especially for the Confederacy with its lower resource pool. Thus, at Cedar Creek we’re talking the 2d Virginia Infantry with 40 (not a typo, not 400, but 40) men in the entire regiment. For those so mathematically inclined, that is a regiment at less than 4% authorized strength. By this time, the Confederacy was forced to take chances far beyond what even a Lee would entertain, but given strength ratios like this, the results could be catastrophic if you guess wrong.
Sweeping maneuver countered by depleted units as the everyday norm; it simply does not get better than this.
Absolutely recommended, very much so. Campaign Shenandoah is based on a tried and true software system that continues to work well, despite its age, and the small size of the battles included are perfect for a beginner. When combined with the points noted above, it’s the best ACW title WDS has produced so far from my perspective, not to mention cost-effective as a bonus.
How? Well, you could opt for Death Valley: Battles for the Shenandoah, the carboard counter version on the subject by GMT Games. Of course, then you would get only eight different battles or engagements, no readily available AI to challenge you in lieu of humans, all for $ 89.00 US. That’s $50.00 more for a lot less, folks. Sound like a plan? Nope, not to me either.