Sunday, November 2, 2014

Scourge of War: Hurry Up and Wait!



Well, this is unexpected: me playing a Civil War game in late October!  I usually don't get the ACW itch until the first warm days of April (I am very much a man of "feasts and seasons").  So, for me to boot up Norbsoft's masterful real time strategy game Scourge of War this late in the year is rather unusual.  Then again, there is a big midterm election coming up in just days.  Despite the fact that World War II  continues to monopolize the military history spotlight - as with NASCAR, mostly because men get a kick out of burning vehicles - I have always believed that the American Civil War has had the most lasting impact on modern America of all wars we have experienced as a nation.  For example, it can be a startling realization that contemporary America's two dominant political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, are the same two dominant parties from the Civil War period:


And while that epic war settled the issue of slavery once and for all, race relations is still very much an issue in contemporary America.  Indeed, even the modern Democrat Party continues to struggle with issues of race:



What is more, if you recall the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush, Democrats were, once again, flirting with the idea of secession in the wake of an electoral disappointment.

Of course, this is not to say that the Republicans aren't struggling with their own Civil War baggage. The modern Republican Party came into prominence when its predecessor, the Whig Party, collapsed after making the mistake of saying one thing and doing another on the issue of stopping slavery.  This hypocrisy is now on display with the modern Republican Party, but this time the issue is one of rolling back an increasingly tyrannical, post-constitutional United States government.  This unnatural division between party principle and party action has become so obvious that Jeffrey Lord penned an article entitled "Karl Rove and the Cotton Conservatives" where he made this ominous observation:

"Just as the heated charge arose from Conscience Whigs back in the late 1840s and 1850s that in some fashion slavery and its extension were acceptable to Cotton Whigs -- so today do modern Conscience Conservatives suggest Cotton Conservatives really believe in Big Government. That their goal is to simply manage Big Government better than the other guy -- while not really opposing Big Government at all. Merely tinkering at its edges. Barry Goldwater used to call this sort of thing the “dime store New Deal” approach....Whether he realizes it or not, Mr. Rove and his donors are effectively morphing into the very symbol of what might be called the modern version of a Cotton Whig.  The Cotton Conservative."

Be that as it may, I guess this is why I have been in an ACW mood as of late.  The current political climate is nearly as divisive as it was in the years leading up to "America's Illiad."  That can only mean one thing: it is time to play Scourge of War!

Norbsoft's Scourge of War is one of those true gems of a wargame; a title that is as easy and fun to play as it is realistic and well researched.   In fact, I have always believed that when it comes to real time strategy, Scourge of War has outmaneuvered the famed Total War series.  Yes, it is that good, something I have pointed out before (here and here).

Now, one of the hallmarks of a great game is how a particular title can seem fresh with each play-through.  Scourge of War is no exception to this rule.  It seems every time I play this game it shows me something new, something that makes me really appreciate the game in a different way.  For my most recent session that something was its pacing.

As I wrote here, I am sick of the fast pace of most modern games.  These days even strategy games seem to suffer from the need to throw the player right into the thick of the action as soon as possible.  For example, in Rome 2: Total War, the two combatants are usually placed mere moments apart.  Why?  Haven't game designers heard of the timeless military maxim about soldiers needing to "hurry up and wait?"  About how combat is often about "hours of boredom and seconds of terror" (this expression has varied over the years.  The earliest mention comes from World War I's Guy's Hospital Gazette where combat is described as  “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror.")?   Apparently not.

Fortunately, Scourge of War is aware of these maxims, and the gameplay reflects this.  The game is never in a rush to throw the player into the frenetic mix of combat.  As seen in the header image of this post, Scourge of War actually starts in the most calming way possible:  with the player quietly sitting on his horse.  At this point in the game there is little to do but listen to the faint rustling of troops that are neatly arrayed behind you.  Or, if you prefer, you can focus on the wind whipped flags.  Point is: if you are expecting the cacophony of war, you will be sorely disappointed by this initially meditative experience.  This contrast between the calm present and the chaotic future is so starkly delineated that I confess to often getting butterflies in my stomach as I await my orders to head into the breach.  I don't want to leave my peaceful posting behind!

But then you hear it: the clippity-clop of messengers delivering orders through the chain of command.  But even here the player will find himself nervously looking around as messengers come and go with no sign his orders arriving.  Let me tell you, this further delay plays hell with your nerves!  But then you spot him: YOUR messenger galloping up to YOUR position (NOTE: images have been artistically enhanced by me for the fun factor.  Also, click on the images for a bigger view):
Just to the left of the white pennant a messenger can be seen riding to my position

With eagerness, the player reads his orders and usually discovers that quite unlike many contemporary RTS titles, battle doesn't await him mere feet over the next hill but often quite the distance away, something that usually necessitates a lengthy hike!  This is exactly what happened with this sandbox battle I whipped up for a South Mountain campaign.  My orders sent me on quite the trip across half the map!  Well, best start walking then!

Marching through the pristine 19th Century countryside can be akin to a nature walk

In this particular battle I took the part of Union Colonel Leopold von Gilsa, First Brigade, First Division, Eleventh Corps:



My orders were defensive: march and occupy a key strategic location southeast of my initial position, and defend it from a Confederate attack.    After a ten minute hike through the Maryland countryside - at a little past 6:00 am no less! - we finally emerged at our destination:

Felt good to get out from under the canopy of trees!

We quickly took our defensive position alongside a major road and, unlike other RTS games, simply waited for further instructions as the enemy was nowhere to be seen.  As they say, "hurry up and wait."

Nothing happened for quite the time.  No rebs were seen, and no musketry unleashed.  It wasn't until some thirty-odd minutes later that the first boom of a cannon was heard! Thirty minutes! And, again, that was thirty odd minutes before a cannon fired in anger, not before we were engaged.  It would still be some time before my unit saw combat!

Eventually, though, combat did creep closer.  What started with a lone artillery boom slowly escalated into a steady roar of artillery and the crash of musketry in the far distance.  Unfortunately, from our position near the road, we could see little more than Union troops maneuvering hither and yon in preparation for a fight we were not yet part of.  However, after a spell, we did see a skirmish take place on a distant hill:

A regiment of Union infantry skirmishes with a regiment of Confederates

It was initially a rather minor affair, really, little more than a peculiar sideshow.  It almost seemed like these two units were fighting each other just to relieve the boredom.  Ha!  However, as is often the case in war, this little fight soon attracted the attention of the powers that be and before long, both Union and Confederate commands started funneling more and more troops into the skirmish, something that eventually inflated it into a proper battle.  I was sure this was going to involve us at some point, especially when I saw Union boys fleeing the field:

Every man for himself!

That is never a good sign.  At this point I felt a lead ball form in the pit of my stomach as I knew it was a sign that trouble was heading our way - that "hours of boredom, seconds of terror" feeling was creeping up on me!  Seeing how we've been quietly occupying this position for almost an hour(!), I figured it was long past time for us to do out part.  But it was not to be.  This fight on the flank soon stalemated;  both sides withdrew their troops with the exception of a picket line or two.  "Sorry, boys.  Not our turn yet!"  That unfortunately realistic Scourge of War pacing was at work!

The men settled down again, and the sounds of battle began to fade.  Once again we were left to enjoying the scenery while others fought the good fight.  Another fifteen or so minutes past when I observed our HQ sending some runners out, causing Union units to begin to move on our left:

In the far distance, Union brigades redeploy to confront...something

I had a hunch that something was up so I also redeployed my units without waiting for orders.  I shifted my brigade from its original northerly direction to a westerly direction.  In fact, I deployed my brigade to cut across the road as I expected control of it would prove to be important in the coming fight.

As with the previous scare, the sounds of battle got louder and louder and soon more Union troops were seen to flee across our position:

Not a good sign

Sure enough, the flags of the Rebs were seen coming up the road!

Get ready!

Looks like I deployed my troops perfectly!

We didn't have long to wait.  The Confederates burst their way through the units in front of us and then proceeded to deploy along the frontage of my brigade.  At 7:35 am, that is almost two hours since this scenario began(!), my unit, the 41st New York, is the first to fire in anger.  Their target, the 1st South Carolina (McGowan's Brigade/Pender's Division/Third Corps), felt their wrath!

Let 'em have it!

The "seconds of terror" arrived as the battle quickly became  ferocious, with my entire brigade being engaged at multiple points.  For the most part our casualties were few, something that made me confident we could hold the rebs.  But then the boys from the South brought in their artillery and started blowing holes in my line!

The 54th New York just took 14 casualties from a 12lb Napoleon

The 54th would get revenge, though, as some of the sharp shooters in its ranks would fell more than a few reb artillerymen that deployed too close to our lines!

After our nearly two hour leisurely sojourn in the Maryland countryside, we were definitely in the thick of it now!


The carnage was staggering!  Definitely "seconds of terror" here!

Initially my men performed well, but the enemy numbers soon proved to be overwhelming.  I reluctantly signaled the men to fallback.

No shame in giving ground

By this point in the battle, just short of 8:00 am, my unit had suffered 227 casualties.  911 men were still combat ready, though.

My unit needed help if it was going to avoid collapse and surrender to the rebels.  Fortunately, my AI commander must have recognized this fact as well as it sent the 107th Ohio, from 2nd Brigade, to link arms (well, but for the fence that divided us) with my 68th New York:

The 107th Ohio is on the left of my 68th New York

It was a big help!  We actually stopped the Confederate advance on our left flank!  Unfortunately, the rebs kept pushing down the center road...and hard.  Eventually, one of my units needed to quickly fall back so as to prevent being overwhelmed!

My 54th New York seeking safety behind their comrades

In order to stabilize the center-right, the army commander sent over some dismounted cavalry to link up with my hard-pressed 153rd Pennsylvania,  a unit that already suffered 229 casualties.  I was amazed that their morale remained so good!  Tigers! This reinforcement nicely extended our line far to the right:

That's one heck of a brave reb general!  The audacity of the man!

Nonetheless, it still proved to be too much for some of my units.  After taking a battering, my 41st New York, which was down to its last 78 men, routed off the field:

No shame, boys

Then my 54th New York commander decided that he had had enough.  While he kept control of his unit and didn't allow them to rout, he did bring his men way behind the lines and hugged the dirt so as to avoid the incoming artillery.

The reb arty did them in

But it was only a brief reprieve.  All it took were a few more artillery shells to land in their midst and they ran for good.

Mounted cavalry watch them rout from the carnage of the field

By this time, around 8:20 am, the situation looked very grim.  My brigade was in tatters, and those of my fellow commanders were falling back all across the battlefield.  There were just too many rebs hitting us from every direction!  Not only that, but the reb artillery was giving us a pasting as well.  They seemed to have brought every gun in Virginia with them while the Union artillery was nowhere to be found (I never saw more than three guns during the whole fight!).  It was a nearly hopeless situation...that became outright hopeless when our corps' right flank collapsed and suddenly we had Confederates coming up from behind us!  I immediately ordered my last two regiments to redeploy to face them, coincidentally at almost the exact spot we deployed earlier in the morning!

Deja vu!

The fight was joined quickly...and was over quickly.  Despite receiving a bit of help from a decimated cavalry unit (the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry), my 68th New York couldn't take any more and fled the field, leaving the unbowed 153rd New York alone.

See ya back at camp!

The writing was on the wall.  With a mess of rebs closing in for the kill,  I sounded the retreat.  I personally led my last unit off the field in good order, despite the Confederates nipping at our heels:

Never let them see you sweat!

By just after 8:30 am, my part in the battle was over as my unit was shattered - we suffered 655 casualties with only 239 men fit for duty. The battle was clearly lost, and the CSA captured the objective shortly thereafter.  I blame the lack of Union artillery!

And that concluded my latest Scourge of War experience.  As I mentioned above, I think you can see what I mean by the excellent and believable pacing of this game.  Unlike so many other RTS titles, Scourge of War has so many organic lows and highs that it never feels artificially frenetic like so many other games.  This aspect alone makes it a "must play" title for strategy gamers everywhere.  With that in mind, I do hope we get to see it come to Steam one day. Seeing how the hardcore 4X game Distant Worlds: Universe has been so warmly received, I have no doubt Scourge of War would do well too!


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