Monday, April 15, 2013

For Shame!


"Are these things real?...Did I see those brave and noble countrymen of mine laid low in death and weltering in their blood?  Did I see our country laid waste and in ruins?  Did I see soldiers marching, the earth trembling and jarring beneath their measured tread?  Did I see the ruins of smouldering cities and deserted homes?...Surely they are but the vagaries of mine own imagination."
  - CSA Pvt. Sam Watkins, 1st Tenn. Infantry



For shame, game devs!  For shame!  Do you not know that America is currently in the mid-point of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial celebration (i.e., 150th Anniversary)?  Where are all the new ACW games?!?

It really grieves my heart to see how "America's Iliad" has been overlooked by gamers over the last decade.  I mean, we have so many World War II games being published on a regular basis that one can hardly throw a stone without striking a fascist stahlhelm.  Yet America's greatest struggle, one that consumed over 600,000 lives (World War II "only" consumed 405,000), is largely ignored.

This is so inexplicable to me.  While World War II is done and settled, the issues of the America Civil War are still with us today:  issues of race, federalism, states' rights, the extent of the 9th and 10th Amendments, and more.  To explore the ACW is to explore the political present.

In addition to the politics, it is also a period filled with iconic dramatis person√¶Lincoln, Davis, Grant, Sherman, Lee, Jackson, Douglas, Greely, and so many more.  When are they going to get their due in pixelated form?  

Then there are the battlefields:  unlike the distant shores of Normandy, the furthest reaches of Russia, or the island specks of the Pacific, ACW battlefields are within easy reach of almost every American.  Indeed, it was my (unplanned) trip to Gettysburg that made me the ACW enthusiast that I am today!  In fact, I've always been surprised that the handful of ACW wargame devs haven't done more to link their efforts with battlefield preservation since the popularity of one can only feed into the popularity of the other.  Regardless, the ACW is much more of a tangible reality than the vast majority of World War II ever will be to most Americans.

Lastly: the military history aspect.  Practically speaking (so let's not argue this to death), the ACW was the last gasp of Napoleonic tactics, and the end of the musket and Minie ball.  No longer would soldiers march into combat shoulder to shoulder, often led by an officer on horseback - and I do mean "led" as this was the last gasp of true battlefield charisma where force of personality could turn the tide of any battle.  Instead, from here on out, it would be more about cold, industrial-scale warfare where soldiers only see their opponents as distant, camouflaged specks scattered across a battlefield, and where ultra-long range weapons would decimate their enemies with the cold indifference of great reach. In other words, ACW warfare has a unique and thoroughly anti-modern feeling to it, something that makes it feel ironically fresh.  What is more, ACW warfare has an almost chess-like pacing, too.  I would think this last point alone would serve to make the ACW far more agreeable to a strategy game conversion than the rush-fest that is the mobile, high intensity warfare of WWII (why do you think so many WWII games are of the RTS genre?). And the former point might serve to entice more players, especially those well and truly fatigued by non-stop WWII recreations.

I could go on and on.  And, yes, I understand that ultimately my passion for the ACW is no greater, nor more legitimate, than those who devour World War II (or any other period of military history for that matter).  But that is my point:  it's all good.  So why do we get non-stop WWII documentaries on the History and Military channels, and non-stop WWII games on the PC, while the ACW is left to wither on the vine?

I do sort of understand the attraction of WWII for the big game developers - World War II, being a "World War", ensures a global audience.  The American Civil War, being an "American" phenomenon...not so much.  But this does not excuse the indie wargame community, one that prides itself on its "niche audience" subject matter.  Instead of trying to cram one more East Front wargame into the dangerously bloated WWII genre, what about tackling something closer to home for a change?

I also think that another cause for the paucity of ACW wargames is the decided lack of tanks in that war.  Seriously.  I have come to notice that when it comes to WWII wargaming, the vast majority of titles deal with mechanized warfare in the European Theater of Operations, while the Pacific theater is largely ignored.  Some like to claim that this is due to the fact that it is inherently difficult to make a balanced game when the Imperial Japanese lacked many of the modern implements of war that the US would bring to the fight, such as automatic weapons.  Indeed, that is true.  But I also think that if the IJA had a more advanced tank corps, this impediment would have been resolved a long time ago.  This notion is further reinforced by the anecdotal evidence that when Radioactive Entertainment decided to make a mainstream ACW strategy game, they entitled it Gettysburg: Armored Warfare (something that required, of course, an alternative history approach)!  What more needs to be said?  If the CSA or USA were advanced motorheads in the 1860s, I suspect we would have far more ACW wargames today....

Fortunately, there are a few wargame devs out there committed to fighting the good ACW fight - I even put together a good list here.  So there are some options for ACW enthusiasts...but far too few, in my opinion.

Of that list, my current favorite is NorbSoft's Scourge of War. This is the intellectual heir to the 1998 Sid Meir classic Gettysburg! & 1999's Antietam!  Originally, this series began as part of The History Channel's Take Command franchise (2003), but after a tumultuous period that involved the dissolution of the original studio (MadMinute Games), it has since been reborn as Scourge of War by NorbSoftDevFundamentally, this incarnation remains largely the same:  a sprite-based, real time ACW wargame with a load of historical detail, moddability and sandbox replayability - old school wargaming at its best!  However, while the fundamentals are largely unchanged, the scope of the game has expanded to include some much requested features, such as a multiplayer component and a slew of fixes and feature enhancements.  Even better, NorbSoftDev has since signed a publishing agreement with Matrix Games, one of the solid pillars of the wargaming community.  Since this announcement, Scourge of War: Gettysburg, the original NorbSoft title, has been joined by the Pipe Creek & Antietam expansions, and the Chancellorsville stand-alone expansion.  Not bad for a very small studio (that is starting to expand)!  See?  When you have the courage to tread the less traveled path, you are often rewarded for your efforts. 

To end this (rambling & ranting) post, I would like to post a recap of a recent sandbox skirmish I enjoyed in SoW: Gettysburg.  It was a single-player sandbox battle:  division vs division.  I took the command of Edmund L.Dana's Second Brigade for the Federals.  Here's what happened....

[NOTICE: because the sprite-based graphics of this game aren't all that spectacular to look at, I decided to put all my screenshots through an "ink sketch" filter to give them that 1860's hand drawn look.  I think it makes for an interesting presentation.  In fact, I have to ask whether such an artistic approach might serve SoW better since it cannot match the slick, HD graphics of mainstream games anyway.]

Upon arriving on the battlefield, I am ordered to march about a mile or so north and take position on Ol' McDonald's Farm (I just made that up.  As I was using a non-historic map for this skirmish, I needed to invent a name).  Upon arriving, I see that the rest of my parent unit, Third Division, has already entered the fight against the CSA:


I immediately deploy my three regiments into the plowed field to the west of the road so as to engage a regiment of CSA troops that have formed up there:


Let'em have it, boys!

Eventually, and with few casualties, we drove that original enemy unit off the field.  But the CSA command took note of our performance and sent in reinforcements. The battle got even harder, with one of my units, the 150th Pennsylvania, being forced slightly out of position (the rightmost unit):


The CSA even called in some artillery.  Here, you can see two shells airbursting overhead - they did more than a little damage to my men:


Nonetheless, my brigade held...and left more than a few CSA bodies on the field:


No breaks for us, though.  The enemy reformed and counter-attacked.  It got so bad that I had to pull the 143rd Pennsylvania out of line on the right flank and rush them to the left to repel a fresh attack:


While my left flank was strengthened, my right weakened.  Ultimately, the 150th Pennsylvania broke and retreated from the front line, back to Ol' McDonald's farmhouse.  While annoying, it didn't prove fatal:


The battle raged on and on.  By the time it was 2/3's over, my brigade had sidestepped to the left quite a bit from its original position:


But those rebs...they kept on pushing.  Another unit, 149th Pennsylvania, broke next:


Fortunately, the 14th Tennessee of Fry's Brigde, our primary foe during this stage of the battle, finally threw in the towel.  Here you can see the 149th returning to its position...conveniently after the enemy had begun to run away (that's them streaming off the left):


It was over.  My men, exhausted, bloodied, and battered, pulled off the field and resupplied at a nearby ordinance wagon near McDonald's farmhouse:


Refreshed, we prepared for the next action.   But there wouldn't be another action this day as neither side had the strength left to seize control of area.  With the exception of an occasional artillery shell,  the remaining units on both sides just held their positions and glowered at each other. 

Final view:


My Second Brigade suffered 174 casualties.  But we held Ol' McDonald's farm.


I hope you enjoyed this little war story.  And more to the point, I hope that if you are one of those video game-shy adults who have never gamed before, this little story will show you that gaming is - all together now! - "no longer kid stuff, you know!"  It might actually teach you a thing or two, even about something as obscure as the battlefield realities of the American Civil War!

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