Death Valley: Battles for the Shenandoah Review18 Jun 2020 3
Death Valley: Battles for the Shenandoah Review
Released 01 Dec 2019
Before the pandemic sent the hex and counter gaming industry into delay and cancellation mode, I was lucky enough to snag a pretty recent title that I wanted but did not get for Christmas. This was GMT Game's Death Valley, Battles for the Shenandoah (DV for this article), otherwise known as Volume VII of the late Richard Berg’s Great Battles of the American Civil War (GBACW) series.
Selling for $89.00 US, the game is a tactical level treatment covering three battles out of Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign (Kernstown, Winchester, Cross Keys – Port Republic) and five engagements from Union General Phil Sheridan’s 1864 campaign in the same area (New Market - for those who like losing their shoes in muddy fields, 2d Kernstown, 3d Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek). Given I’m retired anyway, with all the time in the world due to lockdown I figured it was high time for a review.
But then a blinding flash of the genius for which I am world famous hit me. Why not do something different and key this review to playing the Cedar Creek scenario in comparison with Volume XIII of GBACW? And what is Volume XIII you might ask? Why the original The Guns of Cedar Creek (GCC) designed by the Bergmeister and published way back in 1989 by Simulations Design Inc when TSR owned the GBACW trademark.
I won’t compare the two games a lot as regards physical components, because obviously there has been 30+ years of graphics and visual presentation progress. The only exception is the GCC map which even back then can hold its own against anything GMT can throw at it. Also, between the two there has been change in scale. Both games count 50 men or one artillery piece per strength point, but GCC had a scale of 170 yards per hex and 45-minute turns, while in DV its 145 yards and one hour. Likewise, GCC only included a single battle presented as a single scenario while DV gives you eight battles, each with multiple scenarios. Cedar Creek, for example, has four, those being the entire battle, Fight for the Turnpike, Getty’s Stand and Sheridan’s Counterattack.
This is not to say that changes to the physical components are only cosmetic, as a look at the various countersheets will attest. There are far more admin markers in DV (GMT love their admin markers -ED) and combat counters now contain the movement rate printed on them, whereas this was missing previously. For artillery, GCC divided all artillery batteries into two-gun sections but in DV this is only done in the event the battery has more than a single gun type assigned. I personally like the latter approach and quite frankly could have lived with shifting a few gun tubes around to make the four to six-gun battery the only gun formation in the game.
Otherwise, the new product has likely made GMT a target for the Earth Liberation Army and the Wilderness Society. The number of trees killed to publish DV must have been truly enormous. The game comes in a very big – and even heavier – box securing a lot of content to include two plastic trays and covers, something I rarely see these days from any company. There are seven counter sheets of 1960 one half inch counters, three 22 x 34 inch double sided map sheets, two 17 x 22 inch double sided map sheets, the newest GBACW series rule booklet, a battle booklet for the 1862 campaign, a separate battle booklet for the 1864 campaign, eight double sided Activation and Turn charts, two Combat Results charts and two Terrain Effects – Second Disorder charts. There are also two 10-sided dice.
Whipping the Yankees before the Rebs git scared
When I played the two games over the weekend, it seemed in general that the DV rules were about 80% the old GCC rules, but heavily embellished with add-ons and modifications. To be fair that missing 20% was a really BIG 20%, but I’ll look at that in just a bit. Instead you’ll find that things such as unit facing and formation rules look very familiar and in some cases rules that used to apply to special scenarios only are now standard for all games. Changes for generic and typical functions like fire or melee are reasonably simple but DV does have a few major modifications, such as the addition of unit formations tagged Extended Line, Extended Column and Open Order. All in all, these concepts provide a greater level of historical accuracy and detail, but at some expense in speed of play.
The BIG changes, that looming 20%, has to do with the sequence of play; specifically Initiative, Activation and for DV, the issuance of Orders. Again what you are getting is a more process driven turn flow to add historical depth and detail, vice a results-oriented methodology which is more the system used by GCC. Both games have similarly named phases for each turn, but they work very differently.
In GCC there are three phases – Initiative, Action and Recovery. DV also uses Initiative and Actions, but they don’t function the same way, and an Orders function has been added that did not exist in CGG. All brigades must be under one of three Orders in the game. They are March, Advance and Attack. The type of order determines speed, stacking limit and what type of function brigade units might undertake during the turn. For example, infantry stacking under Advance is 15 points but under March only seven. Likewise, units in a brigade under Advance orders may initiate construction, but those under March or Attack may not.
The first formal phase, Initiative, acts pretty much the same as in GCC, but in DV the phasing playermust proceed and cannot pass to the enemy player. The next phase concerns Orders and here the player blindly picks an Efficiency Counter for each friendly corps that tells him how many times this unit, and the units assigned to it, may activate this turn from one to four times. This determines how many Activation Markers (AMs) the corps gets. As an example, if the Union player draws an Efficiency Counter for his II Corps and the counter reads “two”, then two II Corps AMs are set aside for play. In some cases, an appropriate leader’s command rating may modify the final number, and the player winning the Initiative always gets to choose one AM free to start the turn.
Otherwise all AMs fromboth sides are placed in an opaque cup and the opposing players alternate blindly drawing an AM, each selection allowing the player to use that formation’s units immediately under whatever restriction their Orders demand. This means the player can attempt to change brigade Orders, attempt to activate all brigades within a formation simultaneously or perform various Actions such as move and shoot with the units from a single brigade. Remember that Union II Corps. Because it has two AMs in the cup, it gets to perform all this activity twice, whenever its AM is picked, but when that happens is subject to chance. Once all AMs have been drawn for both sides and the units thereof manipulated, the turn ends.
It works. The process not only integrates the chaos and frustration of war into the game, but does so very realistically and in much more granular detail than GCC. Both games arrive at the same gameplay solution as regards Clausewitz’s famous “friction”, but DV does a bit better job IMHO of showing the player exactly what is going on. This denies the player full control over his units, but in a quirky, ironic sort of way, perhaps not to the extent it should. Unfortunately, even DV can’t force a player to think like a 19th Century commander. DV still allows players to go off willy-nilly in pursuit of broken units and so on, contrary to the military thinking of the time. In my two games (and BTW, “ole Jube” managed to get his boots polished in the White House as a result both times) it was possible to see the engagement develop into a bar room brawl quite easily. Part of my military career was as a school trained and certified Staff Ride Instructor for the US Army War College covering Gettysburg, Antietam and Manassas. Based on actual field reports it seems evident that keeping battlelines dressed and flanks secured was almost an obsession whether winning or not. This is more of a concern of the rules design overall, not of DV.
Johnny comes marching home
To be honest, my personal preference would be to graft the Initiative/Action system of GCC into DV. But regardless, DV is in my opinion the best GBAC game produced by GMT to date and possibly the best ever done since Terrible Swift Sword was a twinkle in someone’s eye. Yes, this is a Grognard level game, but based on an excellent foundation that has evolved over time to be even better. And given the fact that the battles in DV are pretty small for the most part, the complexity of the product line has a counterbalance increasing playability, especially for solo play. The numbers of battles and scenarios included is another big plus because during a time when “lockdown” is fast becoming the word of the year, wargaming shut-ins are looking for good competition to prevent them going batshit crazy - high replay value becomes King. The price of $89.00 is another factor, particularly in comparison with other games that provide the customer with half an oak’s worth of paper for his shekels. It's really an excellent price.
Now some might counter with digital war game Campaign Shenandoah from JTS, sporting new graphics, five more battles and 170+ scenarios as stiff competition, particularly as it sells for $50.00 less. This time around, however, I think I gotta give the edge to the cardboard and paper folks. The computer game’s command system and its AI remain simplistic and too predictable. It does not cultivate the very real chaos of war in a black powder environment where messengers were the only way to communicate. DV does a much better job here and for me, at least, that’s far more important than value.
Wherever Richard H Berg is now, I know he’s pleased.