SPI, THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN (1972)

THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is a strategic/grand-tactical simulation — based on THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR “concealed movement” Game System — of combat during the last months of the American Civil War. The game was designed by John M. Young, with graphics by Redmond Simonsen, and published in 1972 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

General Ulysses S. Grant
In early March of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was placed in charge of all Union armies in both the eastern and western theaters of war. Because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., Grant choose to accompany Meade’s Army of the Potomac and conduct the overall direction of the war while in the field. To handle the inevitable staff work that had to be done in the Union Capital, Grant dispatched the steady but ungifted General Halleck back to Washington to take over the role of Army Chief of Staff. Grant’s hands now free to direct operations against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Lincoln’s handpicked commander began planning for the Union’s next invasion of the eastern Confederacy. This latest undertaking would be no small task; in the preceding three years, one Union general after another had attempted and failed at the same mission: to lead the Army of the Potomac south across the Rapidan, beat Lee’s army, and capture the Confederate Capital at Richmond. Every previous attempt had failed. This Union campaign, however, would be different: for the first time in the war, Grant would be at the head of the invading Federal army.

During the night of 3 May, Federal Forces, 119,000 strong, moved out of their bivouacs and began to march towards the Rapidan River east of the rebel army’s main positions. Alerted almost immediately that the Union army was moving towards the lower fords east of his camps, Lee confidently ordered the Army of Northern Virginia, numbering almost 64,000 battle-hardened veterans, into motion the next day to meet the familiar and completely expected threat of a Union flanking maneuver to turn his right. The Confederate commander, while he did not discount the enemy threat, was unimpressed. He had defeated Federal armies as large as the one he now faced before — both at Fredericksburg and again at Chancellorsville — and he fully expected, as did his men, that he would do so this time, as well. Unbeknownst to General Robert E. Lee, however, he now faced — perhaps, for the very first time — an opposing general who also viewed the coming campaign with supreme confidence; U.S. Grant meant to march his army to Richmond, and he was determined that, whatever the cost, the Union soldiers that he commanded would not be turned back.

DESCRIPTION

THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is a two-player division/corps-level simulation of the decisive period — 3 May through 1 July, 1864 — during which the Army of Northern Virginia, under Robert E. Lee, battled tenaciously to block the dogged advance of the Army of the Potomac, led by Ulysses S. Grant, towards Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. This was the Civil War campaign in which the two finest generals of the opposing armies, finally — after three bloody years of war — directly confronted each other across the battlefield.

The two color hexagonal-grid game map represents the region of Northern Virginia in which the historical campaign actually took place. Each hex is 4.5 kilometers from side to side. The map terrain types that actually affect play are limited to Rough, All Sea, Coastal, River Hexsides, and Railroads. This minimalist approach to terrain certainly keeps things simple for the players, but it is a little unsettling to see that the “wilderness” (scrubby woodlands) of the game’s eponymous title actually appear nowhere on the game map. In addition to traditional types of terrain, certain locations are designated as man-made fortifications; however, because these “part terrain/part combat unit” strong points can be reduced through assault, they are — like the regular combat units in the game — further represented by fort counters of varying denominations. Lastly, along with traditional types of terrain, major military and political centers are surrounded by belts (of varying thickness) of shaded hexes which represent the “command zone” of each of these special military/political centers.

THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is played in “Igo-Ugo” game turns which are further divided into a Union and a Confederate player turn. Each game turn represents two days of real time. The Union player is always the first to act. Each player turn proceeds in the following order: the Reinforcement Phase; the Movement Phase, which is further subdivided into the “First Movement Segment”, the “Hasty Attack/Probe Segment” , and the “Second Movement Segment” (more on this later); and, last but not least, the Combat Phase. Both armies may use either regular ground movement, entrench, or move by rail. In addition, the Union player, only, may transport units by water.

The basic game mechanics for THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN — particularly for those players who are unfamiliar with THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR (1972) or LEE MOVES NORTH (1973) — are unusual enough to be interesting. Zones of control (ZOCs) are “rigid” but only “semi-sticky”; that is to say: units may not move directly through enemy ZOCs, but may enter and exit enemy ZOCs by paying a movement penalty. In addition, since ZOCs do not extend into friendly-occupied hexes, phasing units may gradually ooze through a gap in an enemy line by stacking and then unstacking while adjacent to an enemy unit or stack. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the game is that, except for leader and fortification counters, all of the units (including dummy and cavalry counters) are inverted unless revealed either by an enemy cavalry probe or as a result of an enemy attack; hence, the importance of the aforementioned “Hasty Attack/Probe Segment”. Cavalry, it should be noted, represents a special case: these weak but flexible units, when inverted, are treated just like infantry for command and control purposes; but, if deployed on the map face-up, they are allowed to operate independently of a friendly leader. In any case, the inevitable effect of the game’s “inverted counter” mechanic is to insure that, unlike most of the other games produced during this period, limited intelligence and misdirection heavily influence the turn-by-turn decision-making of both players.

As is the case with LEE MOVES NORTH, the combat forces for both armies are represented by only two types of units: infantry and cavalry; artillery is assumed to be factored into the combat strengths of the other two types of combat units. Individual Union infantry units are represented as corps; Confederate infantry are divisions. While this design choice makes perfect sense from a playability standpoint, it does prevent the Union player from using his numerical advantage — as Grant actually did during the long siege of Petersburg and Richmond — to thin Lee’s line by continually extending both flanks. Stacking in THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN, because of the game’s scale, is unlimited; however, individual combat units must still pay a movement penalty to stack or unstack when entering or exiting a hex with other friendly units. One final fact regarding the game’s inventory of counters should be noted: because casualties (whether due to combat or isolation) are incremental in nature, multiple counters are included for each historical unit (somewhat like currency denominations) so that “step-losses”, represented by reduced-strength versions of the affected units, can be depicted on the map as soon as they occur.

Supply, given the historical period being simulated, plays its expected critical role in THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN: “unsupplied” units are halved when attacking, and “isolated” units are both limited in combat AND lose a strength point during each game turn that they are isolated. Command and control, as was the case historically, is just as essential as supply to the conduct of combat operations. To move normally and attack, infantry units must be within the “command span” of the appropriate leader. Federal units within two hexes of Grant, and Confederate units within two hexes of Lee may move normally. In addition, units within certain geographical areas on the game map (the “command zones” previously noted), and "face-up" cavalry units may move without leadership, and a single Confederate unit may receive command from Early if it is stacked with the Confederate general at the beginning of the movement phase. No infantry unit may attack unless adjacent to or stacked with the appropriate leader. Units defend normally, however, even if outside of the command span of a friendly leader.


General Robert E. Lee,
painting by Mort Kunstler
Combat between adjacent enemy units in THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is voluntary; however, an attacking unit or stack may only attack ONE adjacent enemy hex during any “regular” Combat Phase. Moreover, when battles between adjacent opposing forces occur, they are resolved using one of several different “Split Result” odds-differential Combat Results Tables (CRTs). Interestingly, as is the case with another SPI game, THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR, the specific CRT used for each individual engagement is determined by the combat strength of the defending unit involved in the battle. The actual results of combat, in keeping with the historical events being simulated in the game, are attritional in nature; what this means is that the attacker and the defender — except at very high or very low odds — will both suffer strength losses (that’s where the “split result” part comes in). These battlefield casualties, as was noted earlier, are taken as “step-losses”; and regular toe-to-toe slugging matches — just like in the battles that punctuated the actual campaign — will almost always be both bloody and inconclusive.

Victory in THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is determined, on the basis of the opposing players’ final victory points tallies, at the conclusion of the last game turn. Because of the different strategic objectives of the two sides, these points can be amassed through the capture or occupation of geographical objectives, and through the destruction of enemy combat strength points. Like John Young’s other Civil war title, LEE MOVES NORTH, victory in this game comes in several different “flavors”; hence, different levels of victory ranging from Marginal to Decisive are all potential outcomes. Finally, I feel compelled to note that the game’s victory conditions seem — at least, based on my experience — to be skewed somewhat in favor of the South. This last is not really a fatal defect, but it does lead to a peculiar game anomaly; that is: based purely on the game’s victory conditions, Grant actually lost to Lee in the historical campaign.

THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN offers three different game situations: the Wilderness to Cold Harbor game; the Cold Harbor to Petersburg game; and the complete Campaign game which ties the two shorter games together. In addition, the designer has included a number of what if? scenarios that can, at the discretion of the players, be applied to the various games to vary play or to adjust play- balance. There are no other “optional rules.”

A PERSONAL OBSERVATION

Battle of Cold Harbor
SPI’s THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN, as the preceding commentary suggests, had its genesis in the designs of several earlier simulations of nineteenth century military campaigns. Jim Dunnigan’s design choices for THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR represented a natural, but interesting evolution of the earlier work that he had done on the Napoleonic Wars with LEIPZIG. The introduction of limited intelligence (inverted and dummy counters), and rail movement; as well as step-reduction (both for combat units and for fortifications) added both a greater degree of strategic uncertainty and a much better historical “feel” by more realistically representing the indecisiveness of both operational maneuvers and combat during this early example of “modern” industrialized warfare. However, ingenious though they were, these innovations were only the start for SPI. This new strategic/grand-tactical game system was further modified — in this and the other John Young Civil War title that very quickly followed in the wake of THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR — to include command and control, cavalry, fieldworks, and even sea and riverine movement. Seen in this light, THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN, like its cousin LEE MOVES NORTH, is both an obvious descendant and an interesting improvement over its predecessor. Nonetheless, despite the important changes that have been made to Dunnigan’s original design in order to capture the peculiarities of the 1864 campaign, the basic flavor and built-in suspense of THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR Game System has survived unaltered. Thus, gamers will find that playing THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN — or any of the other titles in this series, for that matter — is often a nerve-racking test of cunning, nerve, and intuition. And the player who is predictable and overly-cautious will quite often find himself at the mercy of a more intuitive and audacious opponent.

General Grant in the Wilderness Campaign,
May 5, 1864 painting by
Henry Alexander Ogden 
THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN is certainly far from perfect: besides the already-mentioned issues with the game map, there are also problems (from a historical standpoint) with the starting positions of some of the Confederate units in the Wilderness to Cold Harbor Scenario. Nonetheless, all in all, I still like the game, a lot. This endorsement on my part, however, does not mean that I would wholeheartedly recommend this title to everyone; quite the contrary: the graphics are bland to the point of outright drabness and the combat system, although generally realistic in its historical “feel”, nonetheless often comes across as simply bloody and inconclusive. That being said, the game does a few things very well. For instance, John Young’s design convincingly demonstrates the critical importance of accurate intelligence, leadership, and logistics for both offensive and defensive operations; it also illustrates the formidable defensive power of entrenchments and fortifications, even if, somewhat perversely, the rules largely undercut the defensive value of rivers by blocking ZOCs through river hexsides. One aspect of the design that, I suspect, will probably disappoint some players is that there are really not a lot of opportunities in the game for genuine strategic cleverness for either side: tactical cleverness, yes; strategic, no. What this all means is that the Union, competently played, will usually move to outflank the Confederate right, and, although “Marse Robert” can send a small raiding force into the Shenandoah in hopes of diverting Union forces away from Richmond, both armies will probably end up arriving on the “Petersburg Line” pretty much on historical schedule. In short, while Grant clearly has both the numbers and the initiative, he will probably not win the game by outgeneraling Lee; instead, his best path to victory will almost always be to use his significant numerical advantage to methodically push his way south and, in the process, grind the Army of Northern Virginia down through one attrition battle after another. Needless-to-say, this game dynamic — accurate though it may be — can be a little disconcerting. Still, it pays to remember that the last year of the war was one of the bloodiest of the entire conflict; and in that sense, I think that THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN, whatever its flaws, does a pretty good job of modeling the essential features of the historical campaign.

Finally, I should also note that THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN was designed by one of my favorite SPI game designers: John Michael Young. This title is only one example of the many games designed by John Young during his relatively short career at SPI. As evidence of John’s versatility, his many designs dealt with historical topics as varied as ancient Rome, the first wide-spread individual use of firearms, the wars of Napoleon, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and all the way up to, and including, the Second World War and beyond. I confess that — even after all these years — I am still a big fan of almost all of Young’s many games for the simple reason that his designs are usually innovative, interesting, playable, and fun. Thus, in spite of his tragic and untimely death many years ago, John Young has left behind a library of some of the best game designs that, in my opinion, SPI ever published.
.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: two days per game turn
  • Map Scale: 4.5 kilometers per hex
  • Unit Size: corps/divisions
  • Unit Types: leader, infantry, cavalry, fortress, railroad, dummy, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: below average
  • Average Playing Time: 2-3+ hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 28” hexagonal grid Map Sheet
  • 255 ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 6” x 11½” map-fold style Rules Booklet
  • Two 11” x 14” identical copies of a back-printed, combined Scenario Set-up Sheet, Combat Results Table, and Supply Effects Chart
  • One 6” x 10” Turn Record/Reinforcement Track
  • One 6” x 12½” Terrain Effects Chart
  • One 4” x 8½” SPI Order Form
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat-pack style 24 compartment plastic Game Box with clear compartment tray covers and Cover Sheet

Related Blog Posts

SPI, LEE MOVES NORTH, (1973)
SPI, THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR, (1972)

Recommended Reading

See 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 Artwork

Buy at Art.com
General Grant in the Wild...
Henry Alexander Ogden
18x24 Gicl...
Buy From Art.com
Buy at Art.com
Battle of the Wilderness - Civil War ...
12x16
Buy From Art.com

22 comments:

  • Very nice review as always. I might disagree with one thing your historical analysis seems to imply. I don't believe that, like prior Federal commanders, Grant thought that marching to and taking Richmond was all that important compared to destroying the Army of Northern Virginia in the field. Grant probably knew that Lee would be, to some extent, tied to his Capitol's defense, but Grant's (and Lincoln's) main and unwavering objective in the last year of the war was the annihilation of the ANV. And consequently, the fall of Richmond was secondary to Grant's unrelenting offensive right up until Appomattox

  • Greetings John:

    Thanks, as always for commenting; especially, as you raise a very interesting point.

    On the whole, I am disposed to agree with your view that Grant's overriding goal was, from the first day of the campaign, the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia. However, I also believe that the Union commander was thoroughly convinced that, although Lee might have been prepared to abandon the Confederate Capitol for military reasons, both public and political pressure within the South would pretty much tie his army to the defense of the seat of the tottering Confederacy for as long as his conscience and sense of personal honor would allow.

    When it comes to Lincoln, on the other hand, I am inclined to believe that he considered it to be crucial -- purely from a political standpoint -- that Grant's army not be turned back in its drive on Richmond during this, the fourth year of the war. In this calculation, history proved Lincoln to be correct: the Republican President at last got the headlines in Northern newspapers that he felt needed to win election in 1864, thanks to the military successes (bloody though they may have been) of Sherman in the west and Grant in the east.

    Thanks again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Nice review Joe as always.

    I liked The Wilderness Campaign when it came out but the last few decades the glug of titles has pushed this diamond in the rough to the far background which is a shame. Matter of fact I even dug it out while reading your peice.

    John Young was a favorite designer of mine also from the SPI stable.He didn't really have and huge bad games except Fall of Rome.

    I'll play this now again once some desgn projects clear up I'm knee deep in right now.

  • Greetings Kim:

    Thanks, as always, for your kind words.

    It's odd but, 'LEE MOVES NORTH' and 'THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN' occupy a largely ignored niche when it comes to Civil War games. This is not to say that good Civil War titles do not abound, because they do. For instance, there are excellent titles that deal with individual battles (the "Great Battles" series being one obvious example) and there are excellent strategic-level games (VG's 'THE CIVIL WAR' and SPI's 'WBTS', just to mention two of my favorites) but, so far as I am concerned, there are actually precious few titles that concentrate exclusively on the 1862, '63, or '64 campaigns at any level other than as a "scenario" from a larger-scale strategic game. It's too bad because, speaking for myself, I still think that these campaigns are interesting enough, in the problems that they present to both sides, to warrant their being approached strictly as "stand-alone" designs.

    So far as John Young is concerned, 'THE FALL OF ROME' has to be one of the great disappointments, along with Frank Davis' 'WORLD WAR I: (WIE) Module 1', that I have encountered since I have been in the hobby. I had, based on my previous experience with his other designs, very high expectations for Young's game on Ancient Rome -- but boy, was it ever a major (and virtually unplayable) letdown. I guess nobody gets a hit every time they go up to bat.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • I wonder if Fall of Rome just wasn't rushed to meet the S&T deadline and they didn't want to put more development time into it.They HAD to know it had huge problems,hence the large errata.

  • Greetings Again Kim:

    I tend to think that the decision to design 'THE FALL OF ROME' as a solitaire game may have been Young's undoing. Certainly, such a design can work (see 'OPERATION OLYMPIC', for example), but I suspect -- much as you do -- that a lot depends on the "developer" in these types of games. I don't recall who had the development chore with the original 'THE FALL OF ROME', but, whoever it was, he certainly let the designer down.

    As you no doubt recall, Joe Miranda took a swing at cleaning the game up and republishing 'THE FALL OF ROME' as an SPI magazine game in the late '90s; but I confess that, except for looking over the nicer counters and map, I never really gave the second edition a try. How about you; did you ever check Joe's version out?

    Best Regards, Joe

  • You missed a crucial aspect, the Union get to select one corps to be in command outside of the range of Grant. This is in contrast to the Early leader, who does not get to jump around the map like the Union can.

    This is one of my fav campaign games, altho I agree it is strange to have no wilderness hexes at all.

    There is some strategic stuff, the Union must hold DC, if they lose that they lose the game regardless of what else is happening, so the South can threaten it to scare them back.

    And the Shenandoah is actually a very nice little mini-game all by itself, with just a few counters.

    But the main action will be Grant versus Lee and it is here that the South can go on a strategic offensive but with a tactical defensive posture by trying to cut off the Feds from supply. This is using their army as swarming ants to bring down those gigantic corps.

  • Greetings Don:

    Thanks, as always, for visiting.

    I'm glad that you mentioned the independent Union corps! Originally, I had written a short description of the interesting opportunities offered by a Shenandoah campaign. Unfortunately, in the interests of both brevity and clarity, I decided to edit out the whole discussion; and naturally, when I did, I also inadvertently cut out the mention of the Federal "independent" corps as well.

    The other aspects of the game that, if I were to redo this profile, I would probably spend a little more time on would be the very real threat posed to the Confederates by the Union naval rules; and also, the intriguing opportunities created by the weak, but nimble cavalry units.

    All in all, 'THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN' is one of those forgotten little gems -- and, alas, there are far too many -- that just never received the play that I think it really deserved.

    Thanks agian for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Yes, the Union forces moving by sea is a big advantage for them. And the cav seem almost next to useless, so finding a good use for them is part of the game.

    In FPW, the Prussians are the ones with the more numerous but weaker units and the Prussians can run rings around the French if they French let them, and similarly here with the South having more numerous but weaker units.

    I fondly recall a game of this with one of my professors in college.

  • Greetings Again Don:

    Revisiting this old series of SPI games, I confess, really makes me a bit nostalgic. As I noted in a previous exchange with Kim Meints, there just aren't many titles that deal with the 1862, '63, or '64 campaigns in the same way as these old games did. Unfortunately, if they were to be redesigned today, they would all probably be done as Card-Driven Games; a treatment that, I'm sorry to say, actually spoiled Kevin Zucker's 'HIGHWAY TO THE KREMLIN' for me. This was a game, by the way, that -- because of my interest in the 1812 Campaign and my fondness for a number of Kevin's other designs -- I really had high hopes for!

    Maybe its just me, but I'm getting a little tired of "random events cards", "chit draws", and constant die-rolling to establish "receipt of orders" and "initiative". For all of their many flaws, at least with these simple old SPI titles, the players were allowed to focus on the larger strategic problems and were not constantly weighed down by the intrusive and cumbersome mechanics that most designers feel compelled to put into their games, nowadays.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • I see a trend towards ever increasing complexification in wargames as a kind of quest for the holy grail. I have found that there is a level of complexity such that it is simply no fun for me anymore, when a game reaches that I surrender.

    On CDGs, I really appreciate Mark Herman's efforts in trying to do a new thing with cards BUT I find it has very limited application. Do I really want my strategy to be essentially limited and dictates by cards? Most of the time, no.

    So I really appreciate games that are simple, so that they can be played.

  • Greetings Don:

    Yes, I see the same trend although I tend to view it somewhat differently; which is to say: I have no problem with complexity as long as it contributes something worthwhile to the gaming experience. The tendency, of late, for game systems to require lots of secondary, non-combat related die rolls (or chit draws or card pulls) just to move the game along, I find utterly tedious and, more importantly, largely unconvincing as a means of improving the simulation value of a game's historical narrative.

    In this vein, I remember a conversation that I had with Don Greenwood, many years ago, on the inevitable design tension between historical realism (whatever that really means) versus playability. One of Don's observations stuck with me: when it comes to creating a workable game system, it is just as reasonable to assume that the "friction" that influences events on a battlefield will probably affect both sides equally enough to cancel itself out, as it is to add a buch of extra rules just to account for those relatively rare instances when a subordinant commander, for example, completely "blows it".

    From my own perspective, this means that I have no problem with units undergoing "Morale Checks" in games like 'WELLINGTON'S VICTORY'; however, I do have a problem with drawing chits to see which of my units are under orders and then rolling to see if my commanders actually lead their troops forward into an attack. All this extra detail may give the illusion of greater "realism", but if it slows down play so much as to make the game uninteresting, then I think that, plausible or not, the game's mechanics have taken the control over the play of the game away from the players. In short: the designer, instead of being a creative referee, has become a "silent" third player.

    Best Regards, Joe

    P.S. It's interesting that you mention Mark Herman, as I actually do like a number of his designs. On the other hand, given my druthers, I will virtually always play 'WBTS' or 'THE CIVIL WAR' instead of 'FOR THE PEOPLE' if I'm given my choice. Nothing wrong with Mark's take on the Civil War, it's just that the other two games work better for me.

  • I can see where a designer decides morale was important for a specific battle or war but to decide it is important to simulate just because one can is a loser. It is as important to decide what to leave out as well as what to put in.

  • Greetings Don:

    Amen to that! Too often, our contemporary designers confuse "more" with "better".

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Joe, greetings from Japan (I'm here doing business for two weeks) and thoroughly enjoyed the in-depth discussion of this particular game. Got quite a bit of strong nostalgia from it.

    Both this game and LEE MOVES NORTH were my first real exposure to SPI games. I had just gotten into wargaming with a few Avalon Hill titles but my usual opponent had one of the games (actually his brother had it) and WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN was a game I saw in school, carted there by a classmate. I got a little time to play both.

    For someone brought up on MIDWAY, PANZERBLITZ, and RICHTHOFEN'S WAR as I was, these two SPI titles really seemed to breathe the "simulation" in Simulations Publications Incorporated. I knew nothing of the Civil War when I played both of these SPI titles, but I was instantly impressed by the depth of thought in the designs, as well as the engrossing play experience. Sadly, I was a bit scared off at the time--it seemed these games were for "older people" and not neophytes like I was at the time. Too bad; I wish I had gotten those games and played them more. My next foray was FAST CARRIERS and MOSCOW CAMPAIGN and I was more experienced in wargaming to appreciate them, particularly the former (given the huge amount of detail it had at the time).

    Definitely SPI was breaking ground in providing serious studies of campaigns not well known or understood at the time. Your examination is, as all of them are, to be praised for such an even-handed treatment; acknowledging the weaknesses of the design but highlighting the strengths and the proper place of the title in the development of wargame design theory. Games like this one certainly educated the players, both in the subject but also in the systems used to simulate the situations...made us clamor for more nuanced designs. If you look back at the operational games AH was making at the time, they just didn't compare. SPI's efforts are what finally led to better operational treatments than those older games in the 1960s...while they weren't always successful at first (ANZIO immediately comes to mind), SPI was pushing the ball and everyone else was running after it.

    Thanks again for such an insightful blog piece and I look forward--always--to more....

    Warm regards,
    Eric

  • Greetings Eric:

    Thank you for your kind words; I only hope that your trip to Japan is uneventful.

    Oddly enough, 'THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN' was not, at least initially, particularly popular with my early group of college-age gamers. Instead, we devoted most of our table time with this paricular game system to either 'FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR' or 'LEE MOVES NORTH'. In all honesty, the prospect of refighting the 'Battle of the Wilderness' or 'Cold Harbor' or laying siege to Petersburg just didn't appeal to any of us all that much, at least not when the game first came out. It was only later -- actually, several years later -- that a few of us finally decided to give this game a serious look. When we did, we were uniformly surprised and pleased: the game, it turned out, had a lot more going for it than the gloomy historical situation might otherwise suggest. In retrospect, I think that it offered that all too rare combination of useful "historical narrative" and fascinating "gaming challenge"; as a result, we ended up playing the game quite a lot.

    I don't want to make too much of another idea I have about the game, but, in some ways, I think that Young's treatment of the 1864 Campaign really captures the essence of the American Civil War: the South can win battles; in fact, it can even win most of the battles; but against an implacable and determined enemy with superior material resources and a seemingly bottomless well of manpower, only a strategic blunder of truly epic proportions on the part of the foe can really reverse the historical outcome.

    And now for something completely different ...

    Since it has been awhile since we discussed it, you may be beginning to wonder whatever happened to my planned "Connections" essay on the unlikely history of wargames and wargaming. Be assured that I haven't given up. Unfortunately, like most of my projects, it continues to grow like "Topsie", but progress, although slow, is ongoing. Right now, I am covering the period following the Plague of Justinian (don't ask) and the Moslem invasion and conquest of Hispania, approximately 711-730 A.D. The only reason, by the way, that this whole episode warrants discussion in an essay on games is that, besides bringing Islam, the Arabian horse, Damascus steel, and Arabic numerals into southern Europe, the invading Moslems also brought Chess with them as well.

    Once I have gotten a few more historical odds and ends out of the way (the Battle of Poitiers, the travels of Marco Polo, etc.), it will be time for me to discuss the Chinese origin of playing cards, and their arrival in Europe sometime around 1370. Needless-to-say, I still have a ways to go before I get up to the First and Second Industrial Revolution, but I'll just continue to plug away at it until the piece is finally finished.

    Thanks again for visiting and
    Best Regards, Joe

  • Nice presentation of an SPI title!

  • Greetings Rob:

    Thank you for your kind words; I sincerely appreciate your interest.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • I need to let you know that I have nominated you for the "Stylish Blogger Award". You make me younger, describing the games with which make me and my friends happy for long nights of gaming, drinking, chatting and feeling well under the starred sky..

    Thanks,

    Fabrizio

  • Greetings Fabrizio:

    It's always nice to hear from you.

    I don't know how stylish my blog is, but I'm glad, nonetheless, that my posts occasionally remind you of pleasant times with gaming friends, whether past or present.

    Thanks again for visiting and
    Best Regards, Joe

  • Joe - an excellent examination of a game that I remember opening a new level of understanding for me in the later war battles, and a new appreciation of the art of game design.

    As we've discussed in the past, I felt this and a few other titles were the high water mark for capturing a combination of fog of war in the more ‘tactical’ situations. Much as I love the TSS/GBACW series, they suffer from precisely what this game system overcame - detailed knowledge of your enemy's positions, objectives and order of battle. Later games would ignore these design features, and offer we would-be generals better intel than satellites would offer commanders over 100 years later!

    With such knowledge, wargames can deliver a great game, but I think they can also rob you of some of the deeper understanding of the realities of combat. We cannot understand why the battles occurred when and where they did; why the generals would ever accept a battle in that location; or why the winners sometimes quit the field rather than pressing their successes home.

    The Wilderness Campaign helped me understand that – but few games followed these great leads. And games nearly a decade later would instead take the control completely out of your hands, and put it all on luck of the die (or chit draw, or card pull) to see if the opposing player manages to drive the orders home. This robs the player/would-be-historian as well, since it diminishes the value of the understanding many of us were looking for in the simulation, while not increasing its value as a game since it is too obvious it would be hard to counter ‘great luck’ and too hard to bring yourself to risk your army betting ‘against’ the pat situation.

    My question is: at the time this was published, was the level of detail in the design too much for most players? (Hidden / flipped chits are a pain for BOTH players – you spend a lot of time remember which chit is which unit, which can slow the game.)

    Or was the design advances simply ignored because far too many of us played these games solitaire at the time? (Thus could not really utilize the game design to its fullest extent….)

    Or could it be that at the moment this game appeared, we had a wealth of games to choose from, and we just could not allot the time to a game that was going to take ‘more’ to 'master' – and we had many other choices to play with.

    I ask, because I, too, experienced the ‘put it on the shelf’ syndrome – and in it stayed there a long time! Then with the advent of the beautiful graphics and easy to play feel of TSS, this seemed like a dowdy aunt next to a Playboy model….

    Yet I always felt if I could somehow get the rules for cavalry and their probes to work with TSS, the result would be INCREDIBLE!

    Thanks again for a GREAT review and reminder!
    ---Russ

  • Greetings Russ:

    In one sense, I suppose that 'THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN' and, to a lesser extent, 'LEE MOVES NORTH', and 'THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR' may have suffered both because of their somewhat dowdy graphics and because of the rapid proliferation of other new titles. For my own part, however, I think that the main reason that they never achieved the kind of wide acceptance that I believe that they deserved was because they were, as one of my regular opponents noted, really difficult to play well. Or, as he put it: "These games are just HARD!"

    What I think he meant by this was that, while the "hidden movement" game system was a little cumbersome to play with (all that checking to see just who was who, and where your dummy counters were), the most distressing aspect of the system, for many players, was that it was easy to make both operational and strategic mistakes (and BIG ones, at that). We may both agree, for example, that Dick Ewell should have pressed the attack against the Union right on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, but our opinions are based on a perfect knowledge of the actual battlefield situation, then and later. From Ewell's standpoint, his men were exhausted and running short of both water and ammunition; moreover, having pushed the Federals back, he probably saw no benefit in launching another bloody assault against a retiring enemy, particularly when it was quite possible that the Union would abandon the field under cover of darkness without further serious fighting.

    Dick Ewell's lapse at Gettysburg (something that Jackson, had he been alive and in command, would never have done) is exactly the kind of mistake that gamers typically beleive that they, themselves, would never personally make. Unfortunately, "hidden movement" games like 'THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN' tend to puncture that little bubble of "self-satisfied" confidence. Stated differently: it has been my experience that, while many players (and designers, alas) are quick to heap scorn on the mistakes of real-life historical commanders (the ubiquitous and over-used idea of the "idiocy factor" comes immediately to mind), they really don't like commiting major errors when it comes to their own play. And these old SPI games, because of their emphasis on the "fog of war" have a real tendency to make what seems, at the outset, to be an intelligent move, look stupid once one's opponent has done something both clever and unexpected as a riposte.

    And, as your comments illustrate, there are very likely other factors at play here as well.

    The matter of 'solitaire' playability, for example, may indeed be another important issue when it comes to these games' lack of a popular following. Thus, I think that your comment that these titles do not lend themselves well to solitaire play is a valid one. It may also explain why designers like Miranda, Bomba, Zucker, and Herman have incorporated more and more random elements (the dreaded cards, chits, and extra die-rolls) into their more recent game designs: these mechanics may be nothing more than a means of appealing to the preferences of the "solitaire" gamer. Of course, I could always be wrong, but that increasingly is how this combination of trends seems to me.

    In the end, of course, there may be no single answer as to why certain game systems catch on with large numbers of players, and other (seemingly) more challenging and interesting platforms languish unnoticed by anyone but a few "die-hards" like you and I. Both of us may have our theories, but that is really all they are.

    Best Regards, Joe

Post a Comment