In the confused and chaotic days that immediately followed the outbreak of war between the anti-secessionist Northern States and the still-forming, pro-slavery Confederate States of America in the spring of 1861, clashes between the breakaway South and the Unionist North flared up repeatedly, particularly in the states that lay between the two belligerents; however, these actions were typically limited to relatively small-scale skirmishes between opposing bands of militia. Hence, although the War Between the States had actually begun with the Rebel attack on Union forces at Charleston, there had not been another major battle between Confederate and Federal troops in the four months following the surrender of Fort Sumter by its commander, Major Robert Anderson, on the 13th of April, 1861. Neither side, however, spent this period in complete idleness: volunteers were called up and new armies began to take shape on both sides of North-South divide.
Finally, in mid-July, the 35,000 enthusiastic but poorly-trained Union troops bivouacked around Washington, D.C., stirred to action and began to lumber south. The Union commander, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, although deeply skeptical about the battle-worthiness of his freshly-minted army, had at last reluctantly succumbed to political pressure and ordered his soldiers to move against the Confederate Capital at Richmond. Barring McDowell’s path were 20,000 Confederates under the command of the same Rebel general who had accepted Fort Sumter's surrender only a few months earlier, General P. T. Beauregard.
The location and approximate strength of Beauregard's force was no mystery to McDowell; nor did its presence cause the head of the invading Federal army undue concern. Unbeknownst to the Union commander, however, an additional 12,000 Rebel soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley, under General J. E. Johnston, were already rushing to Beauregard’s aid. And by the time the slowly advancing Union troops at last encountered the first Confederate pickets, fresh reinforcements for Beauregard’s army were only miles away. The two opposing hosts — both composed mainly of green recruits and 90-day enlistees — spent the day after their initial contact with each other engaged in desultory sniping and minor skirmishing, but with no serious fighting. This brief period of relative calm did not last, however, and on 21 July, 1861, the two armies violently crashed into each other near the hamlet of Centerville, in Virginia.
The Union soldiers opened the battle with a flanking attack against the Confederate left, and for a time, Beauregard's troops were forced to give ground. Unfortunately for McDowell, Rebel reinforcements began to arrive just in time to shore up the wavering Confederate line. With the timely arrival of Johnston’s troops, the two armies were now almost evenly-matched. The Union soldiers, however, had been in almost constant action throughout the morning and were beginning to tire; gradually, the initiative shifted to Beauregard as Johnston’s fresh regiments continued to enter the fight. The seesaw battle lasted through most of the day, but by late afternoon, the battlefield belonged to Beauregard. Their unexpected defeat at Confederate hands quickly led to a breakdown in both the morale and the discipline of the green Union troops. And just as McDowell had feared, the Union retreat quickly turned into a rout. The confident, even eager, army that had marched out of Washington only a few days earlier, now fled back towards the same city largely as a disordered mob.
This action was the first real preview, for both sides of the conflict, of the true and tragic cost of the war that lay before them. Fourteen hundred and ninety-two Union troops had been killed and 1,600 taken prisoner, while the victorious Confederates’ losses numbered 1,752. Word of the outcome from the fighting at “Manassas” — also known as the “First Battle of Bull Run” — would produce rejoicing in the South, and shocked disbelief in the North. An unknown Union officer, without political connections, named William T. Sherman would first impress his military superiors with his courage and leadership during this bloody clash; while in the enemy camp, an obscure Confederate officer would, after this battle, ever after be known as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Tragically for both sides, a political argument between countrymen had become a life-and-death war between states. And although neither the officers nor the men from either army who fought at Manassas on 21 July, 1861, could have known it at the time, the fight at Centerville had been the first major battle in what would ultimately become the deadliest war in American history.
THE CIVIL WAR is primarily an army/corps level simulation of maneuver and ground combat during the war between the American North and South, 1861-65. The ground operations portion of the game, because it deals with the unique problems of a multi-year, continent-wide land war in the mid-nineteenth century, places special emphasis on what the designer perceives to be the three most important strategic challenges posed to both sides: leadership (which historical leaders command which armies where?); theater resource allocation (where will each side decide to concentrate their main effort?); and initiative (which side acts first during the Action Phase of each game-turn?). These three core game elements are both reasonable and comparatively standard fare in Civil War simulations presented on this scale. However, one aspect of the game’s design is particularly intriguing: this is the simulation’s requirement that players secretly choose a single one of the game map’s three operational theaters as the focus of their impending ground operations. This 'fog of war' aspect of the simulation can be important both to the flow and to the tempo of the game; if both players choose different theaters, for example, one player — typically the one without the 'initiative' — is very likely to find himself with serious operational problems. Thus, strategic misdirection and the lack of intelligence as to the enemy’s intentions and strength play a more significant role in this game than in many other large-scale simulations of the American Civil War.
Naval operations also play an important, if supporting, role in the long-range plans of both sides in the game. And, it should be noted, Eric Lee Smith does a nice job of keeping naval operations both interesting, exciting, and yet easy-to-perform for both players. The United States (Union), as was historically the case, has an enormous advantage over the Confederacy in the realm of sea-going and riverine combat power and capabilities. Nonetheless, naval operations are still relevant to both sides’ conduct of the war; nor is the Southern player completely helpless in the face of the powerful Union Navy. In the turn-to-turn play of THE CIVIL WAR, players will find that the naval conflict between the Confederate States of America (CSA) and the North has been highly abstracted. This part of the game concentrates on the three naval elements of greatest strategic significance to the outcome of the war: the Union sea blockade of Southern maritime commerce; the Southern effort to raid Northern shipping; and the Confederate campaign, using 'blockade runners' and 'ironclads', to break the commercial stranglehold imposed on Southern ports by the Union naval blockade.
THE CIVIL WAR, from a purely graphics’ standpoint, is attractively packaged; and the game is, on the whole, nicely presented. The title’s components are generally good to very good: the counters are a little drab, but clearly-printed, and the maps are colorful and relatively unambiguous. One minor nit regarding the game maps: the Far West map section is — in my opinion, at least — so bland as to be almost off-putting. But, on the other hand, this theater of operations was historically so unimportant to the overall outcome of the war that most players will quickly find that its inclusion in the game — unless the Union player really wants to reprise Freemont’s failed campaign in the Far West, or unless both players want to drag the Southwestern Indian tribes into 'someone else’s' war — is easily dispensed with. The back-printed charts and tables for THE CIVIL WAR are uniformly clear and easy to use. The “Rules Booklet,” on the other hand, although reasonably well-written and fairly complete, seems a little too long and awkwardly organized. For this reason, while I personally found individual rules sections to be relatively clear as to the designer’s intent, I nonetheless found it to be impossible to conduct the first read-through of the game rules without repeated references to earlier sections and rules cases. This is not a big problem, but it does mean that new players should expect to spend a bit of time acquainting themselves with both the familiar and the unorthodox elements of the game’s design architecture.
Although it was designed (and is best) as a two-player game, THE CIVIL WAR can be played by teams. Each game turn in THE CIVIL WAR is equal to two months (except for the winter game-turn) and consists of an integrated, interactive sequence of play. The game turn sequence has eight steps: the Reinforcement Phase; the Command Phase; the CSA Commerce Raider Phase; the Blockade Effects Phase; the Action Phase; the Command Point Table Use Phase; the Rally Phase; and the End Phase. Considering the scope of THE CIVIL WAR as a simulation, these various player operations are neither particularly cumbersome nor tedious. In fact, most player operations are intuitively logical and proceed fairly quickly. This relative simplicity in the game’s design platform, however, is deceptive. Thus, no individual turn phase is unduly complicated or time-consuming, and the piece count, given the simulation’s overall size, is really quite manageable; nonetheless, the game is still richly layered with detail and, because of this fact, is surprisingly difficult to play well. In short, on any given game turn there is almost always a lot going on, both at the strategic and the operational level — even when both sides appear to be relatively inactive — and for this reason, it can be frustratingly easy to make mistakes.
Command and control, logistics, terrain, and manpower all play an important part in THE CIVIL WAR. However the proper use of leaders is, without doubt, the single most important consideration in the game. The Union player needs commanders like Grant and Sherman to spearhead his invasions of southern territory; the South depends on generals like Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet to move decisively during the Reaction Phase to block the invading Yankees as soon as they march into Rebel areas. This fact, however, does lead to the unrealistic player tactic of parking incompetent generals like McClellan and Butler well to the rear where they can do no real harm. Not surprisingly, long-term planning pays, but given the fluid nature of the game system, it is virtually certain that both players will suffer unexpected reversals. Of course, it can also reasonably be argued that the inevitable surprises and missteps that crop up in the course of play add a distinctly historical flavor to the simulation. Presidents Lincoln and Davis, after all, were both plagued by disobedient or incompetent subordinates, and experienced unexpected military setbacks and disappointments of their own; often because of factors completely outside of their direct control.
THE CIVIL WAR offers four basic scenarios: the 1861 Scenario; the 1862 Scenario; the 1863 Scenario; and the 1864 Scenario. Players interested in simulating the entire Civil War may opt to expand the scope of the game to include operations on the American Frontier by adding the Far West Option. In addition, the game offers a number of what-if(?) Optional Rules — for example, Jackson and Lyons aren’t killed, cavalry use in intelligence gathering, changes in restrictions on army sizes and placement, and others — from which the players can pick and choose. These additional rules options can be used either to add variety or more realism to a specific scenario, or alternatively, to adjust play-balance between unequal opponents.
The victory conditions, as might be expected, vary according to the scenario being played. They are also, thankfully, both intuitively logical and historically reasonable. As was the case in the real war, the political significance of attaining certain geographical objectives, particularly the control of the Border States are often central to both players’ plans. Play balance in THE CIVIL WAR, although far from perfect, seems to fall within acceptable bounds; which is to say that, with skillful play, either side has a decent chance of winning.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
All and all, weighing the pros against the cons, THE CIVIL WAR is a very good game. And while it certainly is not a “ground-breaking” new treatment of the war between the North and South, designer Eric Lee Smith still manages to successfully meld a number of traditional gaming concepts with a few clever design wrinkles of his own to produce a well-balanced and exciting simulation. Moreover, despite its size, it is actually, once players become comfortable with the game mechanics, surprisingly playable. Still, all that being said, most players will still want to ask: how does this title stack up against other similar Civil War games? The short answer to this question, I would argue, is probably “better than most.” However, even this answer really depends on which titles this game is being matched against. Set against games like FOR THE PEOPLE and THE WAR FOR THE UNION, Smith’s design looks pretty good, particularly if a player is biased against 'Card Driven Games' (CDG) like FOR THE PEOPLE. But there’s a rub. Because of the subject matter and scale of the game, the temptation to contrast THE CIVIL WAR with Irad Hardy’s WAR BETWEEN THE STATES (WBTS) is well-nigh unavoidable. Unfortunately, this is not an easy comparison to make: the games are simply so very different in concept and execution.
Hardy’s older (1977) WBTS design places far more emphasis on the historical problems that arose from the mobilization and organization of the manpower and economic resources of the North and South. The weekly game turns and low movement factors of the ground units, combined with the virtually perfect information available to both players about the disposition of enemy forces, means that campaigns have to be planned well in advance. Sweeping maneuvers and stunning surprises are, with the exception of rail and naval movement, almost never a factor in the game. Moreover, the combat and leadership rules for WAR BETWEEN THE STATES, although somewhat cumbersome, tend to reproduce the bloody and inconclusive battlefield results that actually characterized most of the engagements fought during the Civil War. The issue of leadership illuminates another frustrating, but historically accurate facet of WBTS: leaders are so scarce — particularly in the early phases of the war — that both sides have no choice but to place incompetent generals in positions of command. And then there is the Strategic Production Cycle that shows up every four game turns. Some players love this aspect of the game, and others just hate it. However, for those McClellan-style plodders, like me, who actually enjoy a heavy dose of administrative and organizational detail, WBTS is probably still the best strategic simulation — despite its several well-documented flaws — ever published on the War for Southern Independence.
Eric Lee Smith’s 1983 design, THE CIVIL WAR, takes a very different approach to America’s bloodiest conflict from that of Irad Hardy’s WAR BETWEEN THE STATES. The two-month game turns and limited intelligence baked into THE CIVIL WAR game system makes for a much more dynamic and free-wheeling (read: nerve-racking) gaming experience. Major surprises are almost nonexistent in SPI’s WBTS; they seem to be almost commonplace in Smith’s newer simulation. By the way, one nice little historical touch in THE CIVIL WAR that is usually absent from games on this subject is that, as the war progresses and the Union naval blockade really starts to bite, Confederate rail capacity steadily deteriorates. This is a little detail, but it is one of many that give Smith’s design its unique flavor. On the down-side, several of the subroutines in THE CIVIL WAR seem almost too simple; and the outcomes of battles, although bloody enough, seem somewhat more decisive than was the case historically. That being said, Smith’s Victory Games design will probably appeal more to the R.E. Lee or Grant-style gamer than WBTS would. THE CIVIL WAR may not have the historical simulation chops that WBTS does, but it is still a richly-textured and challenging treatment of America’s costliest war.
So where does all this leave us? I suppose that one way to put it is that, if I, personally, could only own one Civil War monster game, then, hands down, that game would have to be WBTS; if, on the other hand, I could add one more Civil War monster to my collection, then that second game would probably be THE CIVIL WAR. This is not to say that the Victory Games title is for everyone. This is not a simple game; and learning its game system, even for experienced players, takes a bit of work. For this reason, while THE CIVIL WAR is a good choice for those seasoned players interested in a detailed treatment of this tragic page from American history; given the sheer scope and complexity of its design, this title is probably a very poor choice for the inexperienced or casual gamer.
Alternatively, for those novice or casual players who would like to own a smaller, more manageable (read: non-monster) game that still covers the entire Civil War, and not just a single battle — and for experienced players looking for a great 'beer and pretzels' game, as well — I strongly recommend GDW’s little gem of a game, A HOUSE DIVIDED, in any of its several versions. This title is an excellent game in its own right; it is also a challenging, fun, and very playable alternative to the other more complex simulations discussed in this profile.
- Time Scale: two months per game turn (except for winter game-turns which represent four months of real time)
- Map Scale: 40 kilometers per hex (estimated)
- Unit Size: strength points (each infantry strength point equals approximately 5,000 men; each naval counter, depending on type, equals one or more ships)
- Unit Types: Union and CSA infantry strength points, Union naval units, CSA ironclads, Union and CSA leaders, forts, Union depots, Far West Scenario counters, and information markers
- Number of Players: 2 (viable candidate for team play)
- Complexity: above average
- Solitaire Suitability: above average
- Average Playing Time: 3-25 + hours (depending on scenarios, and whether the Far West Option is being used)
- Two 22” x 32” hexagonal grid Map Sheets (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Tracks, Terrain Key, Union and Confederate Command Tracks, Resource Allocation Track, Army Tracks, General Records Track, and Port Boxes incorporated)
- 520 back-printed ½” cardboard Counters
- One 8” x 11” Rules Booklet (with Scenario Instructions incorporated)
- Two 11” x 16” back-printed Player Aid Cards (each with a Terrain Effects Chart, Ground Combat Results Table, Combat Differential Table, Leader Loss Table, Command Points Table, Naval Combat Results Table, Blockade Table, Confederate Supply Loss Table, Indian Raid Table, and Massacre Table)
- One 8¼” x 11¼” x ¾” clear plastic Counter Tray with Cover
- Four six-sided Dice
- One 7½” x 11” Avalon Hill Game/Parts Order Form
- One 3½” x 7½” Avalon Hill Customer Response Card
- One 8½” x 11½” x 2” bookcase style cardboard Game Box
Recommended ReadingSee my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.
THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU .
Also see my blog post Book Review of this definitive three volume work on the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia by Douglas S. Freeman.
Also, for those interested in battlefield maps, the "museum book" collection of historical Civil War maps by William J. Miller, released in 2004, or the atlas compiled by Stephen Hyslop in 2009 of Civil war battlefields are worth collecting.
Recommended ArtworkThis Giclee print of a map of the Battle of Gettysburg is suitable for framing and makes a nice wall decoration for a game room with a Civil War theme.