Sunday, 5 June 2016

Wilderness War is probably the best CDG (review)

One attribute of a good war game is that it opens up rather than narrows down the more you play it. Each time you play you see there is more strategic depth than you thought there was. When I first started playing Wilderness War, a card driven wargame design (CDG) on the French Indian War by Volko Runke, I thought it was simply a case of the British building a large kill stack and marching it up the Hudson and the French trying to get enough victory points (vps) from raiding to win before the inevitable. The outcome would likely be decided by card play and who got the reinforcement cards when they needed them.

The game is afoot. 

Four games later I have realised that this is not the case. Yes the British will sometimes win by marching a big army up the Hudson and sieging out Montreal, but a lot of the time things will play out quite differently. Maybe the French strike first, perhaps the British realise that going up the Hudson is going to be a slog try another route. Either way the players of both sides start looking around the board for things beyond the obvious. I think it was in our third game that we realized that the French could grab about half or more the VPs they need by capturing or destroying the border forts and stockades on the oft poorly defended Maryland and Virginia frontier. Suddenly using your irregular troops as an actual independent military force starts to look like it's not such a bad idea.
Native American allies of the French pour across the frontier

At this stage the options for both sides in this game feel greater than ever, there are more ways to thrust and counter thrust than I thought possible. The game also overcomes the key card deck issues I have had with CDGs in the past. The card deck does not tell you where to go. In Empire of the Sun if you draw an event card for the Invasion of New Guinea you should probably postpone your planning invasion of Burma and do what the cards tell you. This is a brilliant way of simulating the over bearing hand of superiors and subordinates on Pacific command but it can give you the impression that the game is playing you rather than vice versa. In Wilderness War the cards simply determine your resources. They limit your troops, marching resources, Indians (Native Americans), combat bonuses and commander availability. Actual historical events are limited to a few naval actions and the ability to attack Louisburg. The game also avoids the Twilight Struggle pitfall of making the player choose between history and not history at ever card.

Finally the game has about the right amount of randomness in it. It is not like Hannibal Rome vs Carthage where a single bad die roll can put you at the pointy end of the spear neither does it quite feel like Amateurs to Arms which often forces you into long odds or attrition combats. The combat can be random and rather cruel but you are rarely quite out of it and often in with a better chance than you might think. Equally I am convinced this game has a relative low amount of luck in the card draw. Reinforcement cards are not the panacea many might think. If they are not in your hand something else that might be more useful will be. This is a game that requires a bit of creative thought and the willingness to take some risks.

The assault on Louisburg stalls

It passes the history test too. I have only read one book on the subject, The Battle for Quebeck 1759 by Matthew C. Ward (recommended). Within the frame work of a medium complexity CDG it does a good job of simulating the kind of conflict described in the book without being overly reliant on event cards to tell the story. The sloth of some of the senior British commanders, the vagaries of French support for the war and the harshness of the winter and the pox are all in there, It certainly does a better job of the interesting yet not entirely convincing A Few Acres of Snow ( a game by Martin Wallace).
My opponent celebrates after my pincer movement through the Lakes and Louisburg falls but inches short on each front.

If you are a fan of CDGs I recommend picking this up and If you are looking for an entry into the genre or even wargames as a whole this isn't a bad starting point. We play the short scenario and it takes us about two the two and  half ours in the pub with a beer. The rules are marginally more complex than Hannibal Rome vs Carthage. This would be a step up from some games usually recommended to new wargamers but its not insurmountable.