By Mike Tomlin
When you read of Civil War battles, do you find yourself stirred by such words and phrases as ďHood deployed six brigades along the ridgeĒ; ďGeneral, shake out your men into a skirmish lineĒ; ďTake your men forward and drive the Federals from that hillĒ? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to command a Civil War army of either side, to refight the old battles, or to fight new hypothetical ones? And have you been disappointed by the AI opponent which fights in a predictable fashion and fails to satisfy you?
Do you want to organise your forces in Brigades, Divisions and Corps ,and move them with their historical Leaders across realistic maps of real battlefields. To feel the thrill of manoeuvring and surprising, or being surprised by your enemy.
If you find yourself answering Yes, then I believe the answer is to join the American Civil War Gaming Club using the Talonsoft Battleground ACW series of games and the HPS Campaign Corinth game.
The following article is intended for beginners to the Talonsoft Battleground American Civil War games, or other persons interested in the warfare of the period who have little or no wargaming experience (the HPS Campaign Corinth game is similar in operation but has significant improvements and additions Ė it is not intended to discuss this game here). It is not meant to be a detailed explanation of gameplay and complexities but rather a simple explanation of whatís available from the games to people who may have little or no wargaming experience but are interested in trying it.
Now Iíve been interested in military history all my life, and wargames and strategy games on computers since the early eighties, and have owned a variety of machines over the years including a BBC ĎBí, Amiga, and several PCís. Iíve bought just about every wargame going for each, but sadly I have to confess that many of them I didn't actually end up playing for long. Sometimes they just werenít very good, and I couldnít be bothered. More often, the games were okay but so involved and complex that I just couldnít get into them quickly, and wasnít prepared to invest the time and mental effort in trying to progress with them..
At this point it would be best to explain that despite my advanced years (53) and varied interests, I unfortunately have a very short attention span. If something doesnít grab me early on, and is simple to get into, I donít have the willpower to persist with it. Plus, I belong to the ancient order of Manuals are for Wimps. I hate reading manuals and Help files, and going through long sequenced training sessions. I need to get in quick and be up and running before the boredom sets in. Manuals are for answering questions after you know what youíre doing and know what questions to ask. I find most of them miss the right level of detail and info, and donít hit the right balance for the average user.
Of course, and hereís the rub, I donít like a game that has no holding power Ė one that you learn everything about in five minutes and never develops beyond that simple level. It has to have something to grip you and to have new levels of complexity that you can work yourself into, or not, as it takes you.
I guess Iím the developers nightmare Ė I want a game of unlimited complexity which is simple and intuitive to learn, and which I can start playing, and enjoying from Day 1 with barely a glance at the instructions. And, of course it must have atmosphere. It must have that feeling of the true battles and you should hear the noise of battle and the songs in your head as you play. (You can hear them in actuality, but I turn the sound off as it drives my wife mad! Ė especially at one in the morning) And thatís the other thing Ė no matter how tired you are, it needs to make you want to stay up for just one more move.
So the question is, have I ever found exactly what Iím looking for? Well, of course not! No game is ever perfect, and precisely what you want. Rarely are they even what the designer/programmer wants, in that you have to compromise between reality and making it a usable game, so nothing ever turns out perfect or as intended. But, I have played the Battleground ACW games, on and off, since they first came out, in 1995 I believe. And thatís a long time in computer terms. In fact, since I got more free time last year, and really threw myself into the Club, Iíve virtually stopped playing all other games, which is unknown for me.
Although Iíve been playing the games for so long that I can hardly remember first starting them, I am reasonably sure that getting to grips with the game engine was very quick and easy. Indeed the fact that I did, convinces me that this must be so. You can load up the simple scenario on any of the disks, (some have simple training scenarios) and learn the basics in really a matter of minutes. None of it is rocket science, and itís all fairly simple and intuitive. The only challenge is learning the various Menus and Icons. These look complicated, but not all are required in the average game, and you can choose to use a minimum to start with and then others as you get more expert.
The following are some of the basic concepts explained (hopefully) in simple terms.
The game is played on the Battle Map, which is made up of a series of interlocking boxes with six sides, known as Hexes (from their hexagonal shape), and is often larger than can actually be viewed on the screen at one time. Each Hex denotes a piece of ground which will have a height, a terrain type (e.g. forest, field, buildings etc.), and may be crossed by a variety of roads and tracks. There may also be waterways such as streams, creeks, rivers, lakes etc., and these may be crossable either by wading, Ford, Bridge or impassable depending on type. The really clever part of the Map, is that although all of it is visible to you on screen (even if requiring some scrolling) the computer can determine from the relative heights of hexes, and any ground intervening between, whether one Hex is visible from any other on the map. This is very similar to real life and means that you can only view things that are openly visible and not blocked by solid objects Ė e.g. hills, ridges, woods etc. However, in your role of Commander, you get the sum total view of all your forces, so in addition to seeing all your own units, if any unit of yours can see an enemy unit then it is visible on the map. But only units that can see an enemy unit that is in range of its weapons can fire at them during a Turn.
The Map can be viewed in one of two ways.
2 Dimensional : This is a typical flat map such as you might see in any atlas or road map. Units are displayed on this as Icons, and where more than one is present in the same Hex, the top unit will be displayed with the image of a stack of others below it. The Unit symbols take a little getting used to, but the advantage is that much more ground can be seen on screen in this mode.
3 Dimensional : This is a simplified representation of the map from which you can see in 3 dimensions the relative heights of adjoining hexes, the actual terrain type (i.e. you see trees, buildings etc.), plus Units appear as tiny soldiers, horsemen, etc.
Both types of view have two zoom modes so that you can go in or out in view, allowing more of the total map to be viewed. Individuals favour different views Ė some go for 3D, some 2D. Myself, I vary it depending on whatís going on at the time.
Below the map is an area of screen which displays in simple form, details of the terrain of the currently selected hex on the map, and any units occupying it.
ACW forces are composed of five basic types :
Leaders Ė Named historic commanders of Brigades up to Armies
Infantry - Each Unit is a Regiment composed of between 25 and 1000 men
Cavalry - Each Unit is a Regiment composed of between 25 and 1000 men
Artillery Ė Each Unit is Battery of from 1 to 6 guns, each battery being made up of a single type of historic cannon
Supply Wagons Ė these contain ammunition enough to re-supply a maximum of 6 units of Infantry or cavalry (artillery ammo is dealt with differently)
The computer keeps track of the status of each unit, although you can view this by moving the cursor to the hex concerned, and this includes its strength (current number of men in multiples of 25, or number of cannon); range of its weapons; movement points (points are assigned each turn, and each type of terrain hex, road etc, requires a specified number of points to transit Ė a road requires less than climbing a steep hill); quality Ė this reflects the fact that units ranged from determined veterans to half trained boys who would run at the first bang; fatigue Ė fatigue points accumulate as a unit suffers fire.
The game is Turn Based, which is to say that each player (Human or AI) gets to act in Turn. A Turn is composed of several Phases which are simple and logical in essence :
Firstly is the Movement Phase for Side A :
Here Player A decides to move whichever of his Units he wishes, and also if necessary change their Formation as well. Each Unit can change the direction it is facing, move in a particular direction, or change formation Ė e.g. Cavalry can dismount, Infantry change from marching column to defensive line.
When the Player has completed moving all his units he signifies this by moving to the next Phase.
Secondly is the Defensive Fire Phase for Side B
Player B, having seen his opponent move, or more accurately that part of it which is visible from any/all his Units, is allowed to fire at any visible enemy unit in range, and casualties will be determined according to complex and frankly boring criteria, including a random luck element. Suffice it to say that bigger, fitter units on higher ground will generally be able to inflict more casualties than smaller exhausted units firing uphill.
Thirdly is the Offensive Fire Phase for Side A
Player A is then able to similarly fire at any visible enemy units in range.
Finally is the Melee Phase for Side A
This is very simple in that once all the firing has died down and casualties have been assessed, if Player A has any units adjoining enemy units and they are facing in the right direction, he may carry out a charge on them Ė i.e. bayonet in the case of infantry or dismounted cavalry, or an actual cavalry charge if by mounted cavalry. Hand to hand fighting ensues which the computer will evaluate according to complex factors and formulae, which may result in one side of the other being victorious. If the attacker wins, the defender is forced out of the hex, if he has room to move, or is destroyed if not.
Completion of this Phase results in the computer assessing the status of all Side B units and then hands control over to Player B who goes through all the above phases. This sounds complicated, but in fact the computer handles all the worrying bits, you simply have to move, shoot and charge as desired.
An important aspect of the game is the use of the various Leaders of Brigades, Divisions, Corps and Armies. All the historical participants are present and have a true impact on the game. Their presence makes units fight harder and recover quicker. Leaders killed or wounded are replaced by Unknowns who have less beneficial effects, and points accumulate against for such losses.
Additionally, Regiments are present in their historical brigades, divisions etc, and I can tell you there is a certain thrill from moving and fighting units in formation and from concentrating your forces ready for an attack or to defend a position. This is not just aimless moving of computer units that mean nothing. This is Pickettís full Division getting ready to charge Cemetary Ridge, the Iron Brigade fighting toe to toe with Jackson at Briceís Crossroads. I still enjoy the movement and deployment aspects as much as I did as a child with my toy soldiers Ė probably more so if the truth be told!
There are many Options that can be set in each game, and I donít propose to go into these here, although they are worth studying and assessing when you have gained more experience. The one I think is really important is the Fog of War Option (FOW). If you wish, visibility issues aside, you can play the game in such away that you have total god-like vision across the battlefield. You will then see every enemy unit, and details of itís organisation and status and cannot then be surprised by any manoeuvres that the computer carries out. This is the easiest way to play, and certainly is a good idea when learning how to play. However, it presents little real challenge or fun. If you select FOW you will not be able to see enemy units until they are actually visible to one of your units, and not detect their strength until contact is made. As to the other status details such as current fatigue you will not see these at all. As a result, you have to keep your eyes open, try to second guess your opponent, and always watch your flanks. This is where real generalship, and the fun, starts.
Itís worth also discussing the objective of the game. This is simple Ė either to win, or to avoid defeat. In some scenarios you will be so outnumbered perhaps that victory is not a real possibility, so avoidance of defeat becomes the target. Some players I know fight merely for the challenge of tackling a difficult situation, but personally Iíve never favoured scenarios where I knew I was definitely going to lose! Call me old fashioned, but I like to have a chance.
Victory, or defeat is assessed by the computer by means of Points. These are assessed on casualties (different units have different points Ė generally cavalry losses cost more than infantry, man for man, and artillery and leader losses can be higher still) and also on Map Objectives Ė i.e. possession of certain important hexes. However, I would caution against reckless holding of ground that carries points, at the cost of excessive and costly casualties. My own personal view is that destroying the enemyís forces is the aim of any general rather than mere possession of territory. Do not hold onto a particular hill, however many points it carries, at the risk of ruining your army. I always like to think that I will have to fight another day, and that inflicting more casualties than I suffer is my true target.
Now donít get me wrong when I disparage all the complex tables, factors and options Ė this is a very detailed and complicated game where everything has an impact on the results of combat. There are literally dozens of complex tables showing the cost/impact/odds etc. of every action, terrain type, formation, unit status and the combinations thereof. They are viewable in special Help files, and will certainly improve your overall gameplay if you understand them fully. Frankly, I donít! I have a basic grasp of some, but a lot of them I donít, and donít intend to try to. Other colleagues in the Club are really into this sort of thing, and you should see some of the debates that go on on the Message Boards about this sort of detail,. But to me, this is for Nerds! (Quick apologies here Ė some of my best friends in the Club are very keen on this sort of stuff. Anyway, letís face it, if youíre that interested in military history that you play wargames on a computer with other like minded people around the world, youíre a Nerd yourself in somebodyís book!)
If you understand all of these factors and their impact, then you will undoubtedly move better and faster, and succeed more in your firing and melees. A knowledgeable opponent can play the engine Ė i.e. he can ensure that, even if unrealistic, the rules of the game are best used to his advantage as much as possible. But in doing so you can lose sight of the fact youíre playing for enjoyment. If it ainít giving you fun, why are you doing it? Some get their excitement from understanding all the complexities, others are just looking for a game - so find the level of understanding thatís right for you.
There are things you learn to do, and others you learn not to do. But thatís my point! You learn these things, you donít actually need to know them when you start to play. As soon as you understand the unit types and have gone through the Phases several times, you are fully capable of playing a whole game, and I believe, enjoying it. You will certainly be able to play the AI Ė Artificial Intelligence i.e. the computer. As part of the set-up of each scenario the designers have incorporated instructions to the computer as to how aggressive/defensive to be, and in general terms which areas to attack through to achieve the objective of winning. You choose which side to play, and make the decisions for that side, and the computer will play according to its inbuilt instructions. This means it will generally play the same way each time in the same scenario. A computer isnít going to come up with anything startling or new. (Having said that, the designers worked hard and long to ensure the computer is no fool Ė it plays a challenging game for the beginner) The true challenge and the really good fun, comes from playing a human opponent.
A human opponent can make either stupid mistakes (who doesnít want to fight Pope or McClellan?) or can surprise you with something totally unexpected (donít you want to see if you could defeat a Lee or a Jackson?). You get to read your opponent and learn his strengths and weaknesses. Tactics that won for you against one opponent may be disastrous against another. Also, itís fun to play the same battle against different opponents using new strategies each time. I canít tell you how many times Iíve fought at Gettysburg, and I never seem to tire of it. Often, in the ACW Club you will find that players like to fight several consecutive battles against each other, exploiting known weaknesses or struggling to find that win. Playing by Email (PBEM) offers the additional advantage that games although played over long periods, can be fitted into odd hour/half hours in the evenings, so avoiding the need to have long periods of free time which most of us find difficult. Also, you can play several games at once, as opponents do not all respond within the same timeframe Ė I myself am currently playing about ten.
The technicalities of swapping game files via the Internet are very very simple, and can be mastered very quickly. The Club offers support, assistance and training to members of all experience levels, and provides a Forum and atmosphere to get the most out of the games. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone with any kind of interest in the period or wargames generally Ė and this from a man who is an inveterate non-joiner of any kind of organisation. Iíve made a lot of friends around the world through the club, of many nationalities, and have found this not the least of the joys to be gained from playing.
Additionally, there are lots of dedicated members, and others out there on the net, who spend considerable time dreaming up and creating new scenarios so thatís thereís always something fresh to play. Iíve lost count of all the new stuff, but Iíve played many and enjoyed them all. I particularly enjoy the so called Blind scenarios, where you get a map and pre-arranged forces, but have no idea where your opponent is or what his strength is. Makes for some really good fun. And thereís lots of tournaments and the like.
We tend to Role play a bit Ė i.e. we talk to each other often as though weíre 19th Century Americans, and swap all sorts of insults (I did explain about Nerds, didnít I?) but this really adds to the fun. Itís just a question of how much you want to get into the thing. And thatís the whole point Iím trying to make really! These games, and the Club, are open to rank beginners through to experienced gamers, and you decide how much effort you want to put into it. Iíve been playing these games for over 6 years and Iím still learning new things about them, and improving, but Iím learning the fun way, by experience and advice from friends. Not by pouring over manuals trying to work out really complicated issues.
So, itís up to you. If it sounds interesting, get yourself one of the CDís and walk on over to the Club Ė weíd love to have you.