Sunday, February 3, 2013

Product Review and Game Report: Wilderness War

When I joined the military, I quickly learned to tell people I was from "Upstate New York," when asked where I'm from.  If I merely said "New York," they'd assume I grew up in the concrete jungle of New York City.  And despite my clarification, some folks still believed the entire State of New York is one giant, urban sprawl. 

It's not. 


In fact, Lake George, pictured above, was a contested piece of real estate during the French and Indian War and the setting for James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans.  I remember at least two family trips to the lake, which included visits to Fort William Henry and  Fort Ticonderoga

While in high school, I made two trips to Quebec with the French Club.  By day we'd tour the old city and surrounding countryside, practicing our execrable French, while at night we'd dodge our chaperons and hit the discotheques. (Don't judge--it was the 70s).

But I digress...

These nostalgic locales (minus the discotheques) once again, became contested pieces of real estate during a game of Wilderness War my friend Joe and I played last weekend.  Unfortunately on game day, I was running late and I forgot my camera.  So this blogpost will be a general overview of the game system and our particular session.

I did manage to bring my Last of the Mohicans CD for appropriate "mood music," while we played.  (Here's a sample you can listen to while reading this post).

Wilderness War is part of a family of Card Driven Games (CDGs) that started to emerge almost ten years ago.  What I like about CDGs is that it imposes on both players events and/or situations neither player can fully control--much like real life. 

In addition to cards, the game employs a Point-to-Point Movement Mechanic (PtP) instead of the traditional square, or hexagonal grid map.  When these games first came out, I thought the PtP system was a too abstract.  But after playing a few of them, I realized this was an efficient way to streamline movement and decision making.  If designed correctly, a PtP game's easiest transit lines will correspond to "traditional invasion routes."  Meaning, it is difficult to move and supply armies in adverse terrain, like mountains and deserts, so traveling  across such features can be costly--even deadly.  (Hannibal lost nearly half his troops and almost all his elephants crossing the Alps). 

By the 1750s forests and mountains separated New England from New France.  Which in game terms, means the area of operations looks like this:

The different shapes on the map correspond to cultivated areas (white squares), wilderness (green circles) and mountainous (the brown triangle-ish shapes).  The unit counters, or playing pieces, also come in a variety of shapes.  Units representing Drilled Troops are square; while Auxiliaries, such as Indians, Rangers and Coureur des bois are round. 

Leaders are represented by stand-up counters and can command a force of several units, which is a cost-effective way of moving a bunch of units simultaneously.  It is often best that a force be comprised of both Drilled Troops and Auxiliaries in order to take advantage of each other's strengths while moving and fighting in cultivated and wilderness areas, respectively.

Each turn represents part of a year and is divided into an Early Campaign Season (Spring--Summer) and Late Campaign Season (Summer--Autumn).  Since Joe selected the Annus Mirabilis (Year of Miracles) Scenario (1757-1759) for our game, we only had six turns to pull off a table-top "mirabilis" of our own.

There are two basic strategies for winning the game:  Waging a border war, or conducting a conventional campaign.  The former means achieving victory in half-point increments by launching raids against stockades and cultivated areas.  While a conventional campaign involves marshaling Drilled Troops and striking directly at the centers of military power--the forts and fortresses of the enemy. 

The cards themselves could be played as Events (historical or situational occurrences), Activations (the ability to move Leaders and their forces, or individual units), or Construction (building fortifications).

Since I don't have any photos to provide a more focused narrative, here are my general impressions of how Joe and I waged our Wilderness War:

Joe chose to play the French under King Louis XV, leaving me to lead the forces of His Majesty King George II

This was a lucky break for me, because the hand I was dealt included:  One Campaign (where I could activate two leaders instead of one), one Amphibious Landing and a Surrender Card.  With large forces of Drilled Troops mustered at Halifax, Albany, Fort Edward and Fort William Henry, I felt I had an early advantage in conducting a series of conventional attacks against Joe.  The Amphibious Landing card would allow me to attack Louisbourg, while the Surrender Card would force it's garrison to vacate the fortress more quickly than normal--in theory.  I think I also received the Quiberon Bay card at this time.  If not, I got it shortly thereafter, which was another determining factor in pursuing a conventional strategy.

Joe on the otherhand, leaned more toward a border war strategy.  He dispatched war parties of his Indians to cause mayhem in my cultivated areas.  I was determined not to become distracted by these pesky raids.

While Louisbourg fell rather quickly, my campaign up the Hudson River-Lake Champlain avenue began to stall when Joe played a Small Pox Card.  The largest concentration of units turned out to be in Albany, so over half the troops there died without a shot being fired.  (Prior to modern medical advances, often more troops perished off, rather than on the battlefield).  This was followed up by a Stingy Provincial Assembly card, which reduced the amount of militia to counter Indian raids.  I tried countering with a Blockhouses Card, to strengthen my border fortifications, but Joe merely attacked my stockades instead. 

Then I had trouble prodding my leaders into action.  Loudon and Abercromby (I think), both needed high activation cards to get them moving.  More often than not, I had low-value cards, or needed the high-value ones for my non-discotheque adventures in Canada.

Once Louisbourg was secured, I tried advancing up the Saint Lawrence River only to be pushed back by a sizable force of French regulars.  At some point I played a Governor Vaudreuil Interferes card, in order to displace his best leader, the Marquis de Montcalm.  The effect was only temporary however, since Montcalm was able to utilize river movement and go back to where Joe wanted him in the first place.  (Before the invention of steam engines and railroads, rivers and lakes were the fastest means of transportation).

I did manage to take a French fort and tried besieging Ticonderoga, but was pushed back by a counter attack led by Montcalm.  This turned out to be something of a blessing.  The campaign season was over and Montcalm's victorious forces were decimated by the frigid forces of nature (Winter Attrition).

The next couple of turns were a blur of Joe's Indian raids vs my slogging up Lake Champlain and the Saint Lawrence.  Neither of us devoted much resources into building new fortifications.  I think I built a stockade to replace one Joe's Indians burned and I can't remember if Joe built any at all.  We needed our cards to keep our respective campaigns going, rather than diverting them to construction projects. 

We were also running out of troops--fast.  While small in comparison to the fighting going in Europe at this time, wilderness battles were vicious affairs. 

Receiving replacements and reinforcements, along with additional leaders, was only possible by playing the proper cards as Events.  So applying concept of "choosing one's battles wisely" was not merely a good idea, but a matter of strategic survival.  More often than not, both of us had cards the other needed.  In this respect, I was luckier than Joe.  I managed to augment my Rangers and regulars, while beefing up my forces with Highlander battalions.  Meanwhile, the availability of Drilled Troops for New France continued to dwindle.

By this time, Joe attempted to break the tightening Champlain-Saint Lawrence Vice and dispatched several auxiliary forces to threaten my western theater and Albany--which was still only garrisoned by the remnants of two pox-ridden battalions. 

My Indian Agent-in-Chief Sir William Johnson, couldn't convince any of the Iroquois Nations to go on the warpath for me, so he became my "fire brigade leader."  Immediately dubbed "Big Johnson," he thwarted one spoiling attack after another.  (Yes, here's where things went downhill as phallic innuendos popped up).

First, Big Johnson saved the Albany Small Pox Colony from a French attack.  (I never managed to move the afflicted survivors of the initial outbreak).  Then, when Montcalm slipped through the woods and laid seige to Boston, Big Johnson had the situation in hand as he mustered a relief force in New York City.  After a long, hard march against stiff opposition, Big Johnson annihilated the French force at the gates of Bean Town.  Montcalm survived the debacle and made his way back to Ticonderoga. 

I acquired another Surrender Card, along with a Coehorns & Howitzers Card (artillery) and had Loudon and Ambercromby evict the Marquis before he could settle back in to his old command post. 
As it turned out though, Ticonderoga became an icy death trap for the second time.  The campaign season of 1758 was over and winter was upon us.  I shot my wad keeping Big Johnson employed, so I couldn't disperse the force that just seized Ticonderoga.  Over half of the troops occupying the fort froze to death.

Once the 1759 campaign season opened, English troops made it to the gates of Quebec and Montcalm's forces retreated up Lake Champlain.  As the 1759 campaign season drew to a close, Joe and I had one card remaining in our respective hands.  My last card was Call Out Militias.
Normally, I'm rather methodical, almost to the point of caution.  I would have chosen this as an Event if we were playing the Late War or Full Campaign (both ending in 1762), since Joe's pesky Indians continued to harass my cultivated areas. 
But since this was the very last turn I threw caution to the wind, activated Ambercromby and pursued Montcalm.  I reaped the whirlwind as a result.
Joe played his last card--Ambush! 
Normally, combat is "simultaneous."  Even though one side inflicts casualties first, the opponent gets to fight back at his pre-casualty strength.  That is, unless someone plays an Ambush Card.  To pull off a successful ambush, the bushwhackers need to have more Auxiliaries than the bushwhackees.  (Joe did).  An ambush also effectively doubles the bushwhacker's attack strength.  After the butchery, the defender can only fight back with the force he has left--if any.
In Ambercromby's case, enough fugitives survived the carnage and fled back to Ticonderoga. 
Despite this ignominious retreat down Lake Champlain, the English by now, had a preponderance of troops and were poised to seize New France's capital, Montreal, within a campaign season.  My Annus Mirabilis was about a year or so behind schedule.
Final Notes
Due to our work schedules, its a rare moment when Joe and I can get together.  Its rarer still, when we can actually finish a game.  Since this was our first time playing Wilderness War, some mistakes were made regarding movement and raiding, along with getting use to other mechanics.  After a couple of turns though, we both got the hang of the game and felt the game provided an accurate, strategic feel of the French and Indian War.  The card play is both fun and frustrating.
While Wilderness War comes with the necessary playing aids, we used the cool charts Joe downloaded and printed out from the Boardgamegeek File Section
Overall, the game is rated 7.75 stars out of 10 and comes in at #28 among the wargames currently being played.


Daryl N said...

Thank you for the detailed write up here. I bought this game a while back and looking forward to giving it go, especially after reading this review.

Ted Henkle said...

Thanks Daryl! It took us about 4 hours to play the Annus Mirabilis Scenario. But it was also our first time playing, so a game involving experienced gamers may go quicker.