Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Wargaming Revelations in 1776

I recently had a chance to play Avalon Hill’s American Revolution wargame 1776 and discovered I fulfilled several of James Dunnigan’s statements about wargamers in The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design & Find Them (revised edition). Playing the basic game revealed to me that I not only fall into what he considers the majority “favorite mode” of play – solitaire – but that I do so for one of his two major reasons (“lack of an opponent” instead of “preference to play without an opponent”) and that I particularly enjoy exploring the historical aspects of the situation in “that the player may exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played without interference from another player.”

A month or two ago I acquired a small pile of well-used but mostly complete wargames for $10 (thanks to my wife’s sharp eyes perusing Craigslist). The haul included several Avalon Hill games I was keen to try given my varied historical interests, primarily Panzer Leader and 1776 (and one of Dunnigan’s own games, Empires of the Middle Ages, from the company he founded, SPI). Most needed a bit of attention: some tape to repair the boxes, a good deal of sorting punched chits from numerous plastic bags, and some online research to find and print out some missing chart inserts. But overall these activities and my rulebook reading have rekindled an enjoyment and respect for these classic games often overlooked in today’s flashy marketplace.

So I finally sorted out the pieces for 1776, read the pleasantly brief “Basic Game Rules,” (about three pages), and sat down to play the beginner scenario, covering the last seven months of 1776 in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies of New York, New Jersey, and eastern portions of Pennsylvania. Each side began with relatively equal combat strength, the British concentrated in New York and a few outposts in Canada, with the Continental Army gathered in Morristown, NJ, and some adequate forces at West Point and Albany, and a few stray bits scattered in Philadelphia, Boston, and the Mohawk Valley. To win one side had to occupy several key locations with at least one point of combat strength to gather victory points exceeding the opponent.

Since I was playing both sides in this solitaire affair I decided beforehand to establish general strategic objectives for each side and carry them through at least the initial turns. The second and third turns would bring sizable reinforcements for the British, first in New York and then in a port of the British player’s choosing; the Patriots got about half the number of reinforcements in dribs and drabs allocated to Albany and Philadelphia. I decided the British would go for a very non-historically accurate aggressive strategy, leaving token forces in their Canadian towns and heading down Lake Champlain to take Fort Ticonderoga and then march on Albany, all while the New York forces sought to hold the Continental Army at bay and send a second force north to aid in Albany’s capture. The Patriots decided on a bold strategy to try taking New York. Both sides had aggressive agendas, but only the British had the strength to successfully undertake theirs. The British smeared the Continental Army outside New York, marched down from Canada to take Ticonderoga and West Point, then spent the rest of the game mopping up token Patriot resistance. Luckily for America the historical British were not so aggressive.

I’ve discussed Dunnigan’s book at Hobby Games Recce before; it’s helped guide me in looking at board-and-chit wargames in a new light and in examining my own gaming preferences. In reading and playing 1776 solitaire I came to a few realizations:

Basic Game Rules: These days I prefer basic rules to more complex fare. I have less time and focus to read, comprehend, and play out fully advanced games, but enjoy dabbling in ones with simplified rules that still impart some sense of the gameplay and historical context. I really like games that provide basic rules to enable newcomers to play with advanced rules to add levels of complexity later if players wish to continue (a subject I’ve covered before). I’ll admit, after trying the initial basic game scenario I’m tempted not only to try it again but to read ahead in the rulebook and incorporate more advanced rules into my gameplay.

Scenario Replay Value: 1776 comes in Avalon Hill’s famous “bookcase” game format, that sturdy two-inch-thick box that holds all the quality components...which means it’s not a cheap game to purchase new. Anytime someone pays a large price for a game – whether miniatures, board, Euro-style, or roleplaying game – they expect to get some good gameplay out of it beyond a simple game or two. 1776 provides four “scenario cards” listing the starting disposition of forces and victory conditions for several campaigns during the Revolutionary War as well as rules for the “campaign simulation game” so players can play out the entire conflict starting in January 1776. Combined with the solitaire wargamer’s urge to replay scenarios to “exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played” as Dunnigan suggests, 1776 (and probably any similarly presented board-and-chit wargame) offers a solid replay value.

Combat Resolution Table: Dunnigan summarizes the concept of a table on which each side compares its fighting strength in a ratio, then rolls to determine the exact outcome of the battle within a range of outcomes based on that ratio. Although the results 1776 primarily include elimination of all or half of the attacker and/or defender strength, other games incorporate other effects, including retreat. In gameplay I realized the limited options provided by a six-sided die roll often seemed arbitrary without overwhelming differences between combat strengths, but I understand this is a wargame-design convention of the time that also allows players to quickly transition to other wargames, particularly those from the same company. In perusing the materials for Avalon Hill’s Panzer Leader I found encouragement that the game uses a similar “combat resolution table” based on ratios of unit strength values. Along with similar design in unit counter stats (such as combat value and movement allowance points) it provides a comfortable framework to wander from one game to another. Using the “rules master” system Dunnigan described in his book – in which many companies used similar rules text templates customized to historical and situational detail – as well as similar design concepts allows players to easily port their attention from one game to another.

Small Components: Playing 1776 also helped me realize the game’s components, while nice, aren’t quite suited to the older gamer. I often fumbled the half-inch-square chits of thin cardboard across a hex map and had some difficulty interpreting place names and terrain features on the board. It started me thinking about larger “showcase” game versions of board-and-chit wargames with oversized maps and counters...something akin to Steve Jackson Games’ massively impressive (and expensively Kickstarted) OGRE Designer’s Edition (I imagine...I’ve only seen the game once at a convention).

Overall I enjoyed by brief solitaire encounter with 1776’s basic game rules; with a little more time and focus I hope to revisit the beginner scenario, quite possibly incorporating some of the advanced rules options for a deeper game experience. A more realistic strategy for the Continental Army might help, too.

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