Joseph M. Balkoski.
Boring as it must appear to the many merely competent designers out there, Joe Balkoski has turned in another goody. I have commented before on his consistently excellent work in an area often plagued by mediocrity and this is another highly playable, interesting and thought provoking game from my current favourite designer. I suspect it is also historically accurate - unfortunately the ACW is not an area on which I have read extensively, which many would argue precludes me from reviewing this game. For the reasons below I would at least contest this, so here goes anyway.
Lee vs Grant covers the wilderness campaign of 1864. The box contains a single large map, 520 nicely printed counters, charts, counter tray and one rules booklet. All the components are up to the usual high Victory standards. The game is strategic in scope, units are divisions and corps and the turns represent five days. The map is heavily geared to railroads and the road network which link the all important crossroads and towns. The game is about gaining objectives and the nature of ACW combat allows for plenty of scope in this aim. The cavalry bombs around at speed grabbing vital points on the map and the slow but sure infantry trudges up behind to hold them. Outflanking, Mosby-style raiding and fluid play are the order of the day.
The core of the game is the leader counter. These are named and have a small image of the commander concerned. Each leader, both cavalry and infantry, is rated for his command value which affects movement allowance but not combat. The troops under each command are shown as strength markers which can be stacked under the leaders or held off map in holding boxes. I found this a little unclear, not that it matters greatly. The strength markers have two sides, organised and disorganised. Both sides show the 'manpower' factor which is the actual number of troops present (each factor representing one brigade or 2,500 men) and also the combat factor which is roughly 50% of the manpower strength if disorganised.
Most of the basic scenarios have only one turn but these are split into three action phases of movement and combat. Combat is performed as a part of movement, as is the all important burning of railroad stations - both of these actions cost additional movement points. Movement point allowances are determined by the roll of dice plus the leader's command rating. Cavalry roll two dice and infantry one. Both can force march, allowing further movement points, but this results in disorganised troops at the end of the phase who then fight at reduced strength but retain full movement powers. When a commander has moved, he is flipped to his fatigued side which remains until the end of the phase. The choice then is to either un-fatigue the leader allowing movement in the following phase or to re-organise his troops back to full strength. Commanders who do not move and are not fatigued can entrench. There are slightly unconventional rules for Zones of Control with larger forces having stronger zones than small detachments and the presence of roads also plays a part.
The main feature of the game, designed to simulate the unpredictable nature of Civil War combat, is the initiative system. It is also what gives the game its highly interactive nature - neither player sits idle for long because initiative is by unit rather than side. The Confederates normally get the first initiative from scenario rules but after that the players roll to determine which unit will move next. Thus it is possible for most of the enemy to move before you or vice-versa and like 6th Fleet it encourages one to choose the most pressing unit to activate. The result is a fast, attack/counter-attack type of game with unpredictable events which I find to my liking. Combat initiation is only possible by the active unit though die modifiers are available from supporting, adjacent leaders. The system is straightforward comparing the two combat strengths to produce a ratio which is adjusted with die roll modifiers. The Union advantage in artillery is neatly factored in by allowing bonuses for Rebs fighting in forests and reductions in clear terrain. Cavalry holding a position are no match for an infantry force and have an option to execute fighting withdrawals. Advanced rules cover, amongst other subjects, supply, reinforcements, random events and loss of leaders all of which, as usual, add to the flavour and time required.
There are six basic game scenarios ranging from the small introductory to the substantial. In addition there are three advanced game scenarios that combine for the full campaign game. The mixture is good with some scenarios suited to a quick hour-long game while others offer larger strategic problems. My only other comment about the scenarios is related to something I noticed in the 6th Fleet series of games. It seems that Mr Balkoski, on small scenarios, is falling into a technique that is a little odd, though I may have worked out the answer. Some of you will be familiar with the scenario restriction in 2nd Fleet where a start hex and game length are given which dictate that a convoy or taskforce has to make a beeline for its objective and just makes it in time using maximum speed in a straight line? This strikes me as odd and it is replicated occasionally in Lee/Grant where you think you have an interesting strategic problem, only to find two of your corps having to charge straight down roads or similar. This doesn't apply to the campaign of course but not everyone gets to play that. The only reason I can think of for this design trick is that the corps or convoys in question had strict orders to proceed with all speed or that their commanders were singularly uninspired in the actual campaign. If not, it does seem a rather artificial constraint for the sake of an extra turn or two.
In MilMod, Mr Vasey terms the game a 'third generation' boardgame, in that you get both playability and historical accuracy for your pennies whereas before you got one or t'other. This is very true, but for me it is also in the presentation of that history that the game scores highly. The rules are laid out very carefully and nearby have examples and relevant designer's notes which often contain a concise historical note. The rulebook is thus large for the size of the basic rules themselves, but the effect is to make reading those rules an enjoyable educational exercise. Not only can you see how a rule operates but also why. I came away knowing as much about the wilderness campaign as I needed to appreciate why the campaign was important, and probably a little more as well. The brief comments are amply backed up by full historical and geographical notes at the back of the booklet. The only assumption one needs to make is that Balkoski's history is well researched and therefore that the ground work is done for you. With Balkoski's track record I am willing to take that small chance. Moreover, it made me want to read more and it is a while since a game has prompted that.
I acknowledge that the approach could be regarded as 'instant history for the lazy' but it offers so much more than the average game that I will take this approach over the stodgy history articles of S&T anyday. The idea must also be eminently suited to the more obscure game subjects which, I suggest, would make them much more accessible. Something like the Indian Mutiny or the Boer War would benefit from just such an approach, we will see how SPI/WWW handle it in their upcoming games on these subjects. Life is too short to read about every period, but that doesn't make them less interesting and many gems will inevitably be missed. The negative side is that I will expect these standards in future games and not many will deliver anything close.
You will have gathered that I like this game. Some of the game systems may be a trifle unusual but overall it is a fresh, vital treatment of an area that has formerly held little interest for me. It plays quickly, the counter density is low and has high player interaction like its cousin Sixth Fleet. It also offers plenty of decision making and, unusually for a historical game, educates as it goes. It is also admirably suited to solitaire play if that is your bag. My only complaint, and it is minor, is that I would have welcomed some easy way of having actual unit names (eg Louisiana Zouaves) instead of the simple manpower factors - I am a sucker for chrome like this even if it slows the game down a tad. In addition, as suggested by Charles Vasey, the system would work admirably for the Franco-Prussian war. Now that would be interesting.
Mike Siggins. 29/7/88.
Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information