I started playing a new wargame series late this winter. Well, actually, not a new series but a very old series. Great Campaigns of the American Civil War (GCACW) was first published by Avalon Hill and is now published by MMP. Battle Above the Clouds, covering the Chickamauga campaign, is the most recent release in the 8 game series. This is a series I overlooked for a long time because it seemed old fashioned in subject and gameplay. The short and sweet of it is that this is a series wargamers must play. It is now my favorite wargame series. Do not let the American Civil War subject fool you as GCACW is a very different animal than the “line up the cardboard, charge them forward up a hill to all get shot” image that probably pops into your head. GCACW is an operational (i.e. mile size hexes) look at Civil War battles. That makes it far, far more interesting than a Civil War single battle series. It features a strong narrative pacing, exceptionally entertaining maneuver elements and fantastic design and development for individual games. As an older series, it’s also a throwback in many respects, with roll and move maneuver, odds based combat and some clunky elements left over from that era. Overall, this series pays off for a narrative/story type wargamer such as myself.
Let me run you through the plusses and minuses of the series, as I see it.
The game plays out in a compelling, narrative fashion. It’s the only wargame I’ve played that resembles a good historian’s description of a battle. Each turn progresses through a series of initiatives. Both players roll a D6. The winner gets to move one unit or small group of units commanded by a leader once. The players then roll again for initiative. Rinse, repeat until both players pass, ending the day. Each unit has fatigue levels and can be moved multiple times per day.
What makes this mechanic so narrative is that it can potentially lead to long strings of won or lost initiatives. Given a number of successive initiatives, a player can enact ambitious plans. A player could maneuver around an opponent’s flank, or punch a hole in a vulnerable spot. Initiatives very rarely cooperate with player’s plans in this way, of course. A failed initiative could easily leave a unit painfully exposed or without support. Total victory or defeat is always, tantalizingly, a string of initiatives away. This leads to wonderfully tense die rolls caused by last ditch, multi-initiative plans. The kind I tend to experience in good AT games. It also means the game is interactive and players do not sit idle on the sidelines.
--Maps and Maneuver
These two strengths go right together. The carefully crafted maps make the series what it is when combined with a simple, intuitive movement system. We can see above the Chattanooga area in a PBEM game I am playing. Covering the mountain passes, the differences between woods and clear terrain and the importance of road junctions is brought home through play. Poring over wargame maps, an elemental wargame experience, is at its height in this series.
Without the movement system, however, the series would just be pretty maps. The maneuver in this game is the best I have ever played in a wargame. It is essentially roll and move with a D6, with Confederate units getting a +1 bonus. Rolling 1s leaves your units at a crawl while a 6 has you covering huge chunks of ground. But crawl or race, your units still expend the same amount of fatigue and an activation. This again leads to tense moments and dice rolls, with units barely making it to critical mountain passes or being cut off by arriving reinforcements due to ass dragging.
--Low Unit Density
For such big maps, the unit density is very low. Even in big battles, there just were not that many divisions involved in American Civil War battles. As a result, the game is very manageable. Even the biggest campaign games usually have you commanding between 15 and 25 units. Small scenarios may have you commanding 3-4 units each.
--Top Notch Design and Development
Each individual series game contain two types of scenarios. There are around 8-10 “basic” scenarios and 1-2 “advanced” campaign scenarios in each of the eight boxes. Most noteworthy is that this a hardcore wargame series that never abandoned its casual players. It has real, fun, fully tested short scenarios! They run the gamut from 1 hour or less to 3-4 hour affairs. Every recent release has at least 1 single day game perfect for learning the series. The campaign scenarios are the behemoths we’ve all come to expect from wargames, 40 day multi-gamesession affairs. Almost all of the scenarios from the last few games are tight, tense affairs with well balanced victory conditions. By contrast, older titles are less well balanced. In addition, Ed Beach, one of the best rulewriters in wargaming, is in charge of this series. Rulebooks are excellent and the series rules are rock solid.
When it comes down to the actual shooting, the game is not as brilliant. GCACW is an old fashioned series and combat especially feels that way. It has odds based combat with many modifiers. Some of the modifiers require some slightly bewildering calculations. I found the flank modifiers particularly difficult at first. Player experience internalizes combat, but it is still safe to say it is the series weakest point.
There are a number of potentially gamey elements in the GCACW series. I would not play it in tournaments. From intentionally killing your units to trying to reduce your combat strength to get on a lower CRT, there are a number of little potential irritations like this.
Low unit density does not mean low counter density. Each unit has 4 different statuses. This leads to units sitting on tons of counters that need to be examined. It can get a little irritating on the table, especially to the first time player. This combines with the importance of the map and maneuver to mean picking up big stacks of counters just to look at the map underneath. The statuses increase the richness of the rest of the experience, particularly the excellent fatigue system, but this is hard to remember when you’re looking at a stack of 8 counters in a hex representing 2 small units.
While not an introductory series by any means, it is not terribly complex. Players can choose to play games in virtually any timeframe. It also has a mature and complete ruleset. Finally, if you want a copy of a game in the series that is available, do not wait. The series is published by MMP, so once games go out of stock they are virtually never reprinted. Currently only Battle Above the Clouds is available new and it is an excellent starting place. There is nothing stopping relatively experienced wargamers from giving this series a shot. I highly recommend it. It plays like nothing else I’ve come across before.
Steve is a member of Fortress: Ameritrash.