The U.S. Civil War was released way back in 2015. At the time, I tinkered around with it and remembered enjoying it quite a bit. The game felt like the spiritual successor of Victory Games’ The Civil War title from the 80’s. Since that’s how the game was billed…mission accomplished. Fast forward a few years, GMT Games released a new rulebook and player aid card for the game and I realized just how wrong I was playing the game and how poorly constructed the original manual was for learning the game! I read a few pages, but the new shiny objects of 2017 had already stolen my gaze. The U.S. Civil War occupies a shelf next to my computer and so I see it every time I go to do something other than play boardgames at the computer. It’s been there like the non-For the People siren song of strategic American Civil War gaming for YEARS.
This winter, ConSimWorld’s John Krantz opened up the new “Community” section of his site. I asked if I could start the North Carolina Wargamers group and he set it up for me. The prior “Social” site that John had built a little following locally, but it was split between the Greensboro (Triad) and Raleigh (Triangle) regions. This was an attempt to close the gaps between the two. As I launched that group, I asked the simple question of what everyone was playing and what they hoped to get to the table this year. A local guy named Don, with whom I have previously shared a wargaming table, responded he was keen to try out The U.S. Civil War and it was off to the races.
We played our first game in late February, but it was a bit of a slog through the rules (as most initial gaming sessions are!) and we committed to getting back together soon.
What follows is a rough run-down of that second session where we continued our play of the basic game’s 1862 scenario.
General Robert E. Lee Historical Try-Hard
I played as the Confederates, much to my Union army fighting ancestor’s chagrin. In the first session, I was unable to take Harper’s Ferry, and I was still keen to ensure that the entire Shenandoah Valley was mine for future excursions north and to free up Jackson before he meets his scheduled demise in the game. Try as Robert E. Lee might, the game is just a punishing war of attrition and battles are only rarely as clean as you’d hope. In the case of Robert E. Lee though, he managed to lose handily and get chased out of the Shenandoah leaving behind a demoralized Stonewall Jackson to get mopped up on a later turn by Union reinforcements that had streamed into the valley. This failure was not in a single battle, but in a sequence of three battles across two turns wherein the Union lost 3 SPs and the Confederates managed to lose 5 from their meager and nigh irreplaceable forces. The historical Maryland campaign of August and September of 1862 was shut down right at Harper’s Ferry.
Grant Fails in the West
As Lee failed to live up to his successes in the eastern theater, Grant failed to live up to his successes in the western theater. The fort at Columbus proved unassailable across two separate attempts to relieve it. Again, the attrition of combat and the zone of influence for river control proved to be useful tools for the Confederate player. Even with a nearly 2:1 advantage AND using a card against the level 1 fort, there was virtually nothing that Grant could throw at the fort to dislodge the defenders who continued to eek out tie results at the worst.
Kentucky will fall in the summer turn of 1862 though with Buell challenging Bowling Green in a significant way. It lured Kirby Smith out of the mountains to demonstrate against the supply lines of Buell, but ultimately Kentucky will be lost. Ambrose Burnside moves against Florida and then on to Louisiana controlling the mouth of the Mississippi delta south of New Orleans. This move, and the fact that the Mississippi river cuts off New Orleans from the forts St. Phillip and Jackson means that once that fort is lost, there’s essentially nothing the Confederates can do to take it back. Bragg was re-positioned from Mobile to New Orleans, but that leaves a very soft underbelly in Alabama for the Union to exploit.
The game is as fun as I remembered. It’s FRUSTRATING, but what the game does so well in the 1862 scenario is demonstrate how precarious both the Union and Confederate positions actually are. The Union is rich in forces and generals, but they lack quality generals in the east to take advantage of the massive imbalance in power. If the “On to Richmond” event occurs they can simply demonstrate in the Shenandoah Valley and remain in compliance rather than doing the historical route to the Peninsula campaign. That wouldn’t REALLY matter though because a substantial force has to remain north of Manassas Junction or the Confederates can come out of the valley and threaten Washington as they did historically before 2nd Manassas.
The Confederates, on the other hand, have strong generals and a clear defensive perimeter. But…that perimeter is a mile wide and an inch deep. Any incursions create the opportunity for Union generals to run rampant collecting resource hexes and arsenals from the Confederacy. The lack of a naval strategy for the confederacy other than the degrading blockade feels right. The anaconda plan is in full effect here and the game rules ensure that the Union player follows those directives to a T or they suffer.
I would say that’s my only major critique of the game. The game’s rules are built less as an American Civil War sandbox, but more as a means through which players can appreciate how strong the Union position actually was even in moments of seeming weakness. Without the political threat of losing congress in 1862, or the potential for a Democratic challenger in 1864 through some kind of political component to the game, you really get a sense of just how little the Confederates could ever have hoped to accomplish. Combat results seem “right” even when they go wrong…as was the case in our last turn and a half. The action phase process is well balanced and seems like the adequate way to handle things although in a single year scenario the Union player is far too punished by close die rolls that result in 1 or 2 action points per action phase. The Union has an aggressive schedule to keep with capturing resources points, cities, and arsenals, so those delays and a timid general make the 1862 scenario wildly difficult for the Union.