Review: Campaign Petersburg

All good things end. Using John Tiller’s engine with first HPS and then John Tiller Software as publishers, Richard Walker and his team spent seven years documenting the military history of the American Civil War through rigorously detailed games. Campaign Petersburg, the seventh and last entry of Walker’s series, deals with the last nine months of the war in northern Virginia. How will this last hurrah sound over the quiet at Appomattox?

A Brighter Land

Campaign Petersburg sports the latest iteration of Tiller graphics. Terrain features and the map as a whole seem brighter and crisper. Buildings and trees have more details than before while roads are more clearly differentiated from trails when zoomed in. Important to this particular game are defensive attributes such as fences, trenches and abatises. New to this game are lunettes, artillery emplacements made of stone and timber. Flags mark objective hexes and, when zoomed out, forests, cities and towns are clearly seen and labeled. Hexes can be shaded or raised. Contours can be illustrated in different ways while elevation numbers can be superimposed on the map. These viewing alternatives aid in plotting movement and checking line of sight or visibility. The most notable terrain feature is The Crater, a two-hex (250 yards) chasm blown in the Confederate lines by a huge mine. Rimed with displaced earth like a parapet, the ensuing charge proved to be a massacre of Union troops instead of the breakthrough it could have been.

The gaping Crater awaits Federal troops to come in so the Rebels lining the cusp can shoot fish in a barrel.

The newest on-screen innovation is the “standard” toolbar presenting all the game functions with stylized symbols. Replacing the old, more graphic toolbar, these symbols are grouped by color and function, i.e. facing and formation changes, melee orders, file management and so forth. Never fear, old timers; the “classic” toolbar remains an option. Another functional innovation is to do everything in the toolbar and most things in the menu by hotkeys.

Unit graphics are also improved. The zoomed-in images of regiments, batteries and commanders appear slightly more detailed than before. Groups of units with commanders among them now have regimental flags in their midst. An extremely useful option for coordination of movement and attacks is to have the unit bases colored by brigade. The zoomed-out unit view is also better with bigger and brighter symbols showing the units’ type formation and facing. Attacking troops’ advances are often marked by orange arrows and a trail of bodies. The info screen on the left shows a close up of the units with information on their weapon, range, quality, strength, fatigue level and formation. A right click flips the bar to show units’ chain of command, useful for cohesion and morale features. Commanders’ historical portraits are accompanied by their ability value and command range although command range can be toggled on the map. As an aside, the detail that went into the images of United States Colored Troops regiments is much appreciated, given their important role in this stage of the war.

Animation is limited to smoke from rifle fire and the bursts of artillery shells. Sounds are the familiar trudging, galloping, creak of the caissons, rattle, booms and yells. The background music is the lovely but plaintive period music performed by Thomas Hook. As always, a spate of documentation in the form of manuals, tutorials and scenario parameters is available.

A zoomed-out view shows the new symbols as Union troops advance through abatises on entrenched Confederate militia.

Turns have two phases: movement/fire and melee if the optional Manual Defensive Fire rule is not selected. Orders are given with clicks, mouse drags, menus, toolbars and hotkeys. Infantry formations include column, line and skirmishers. Artillery can limber and unlimber while cavalry can dismount to fight as infantry. Combat results can be loss of men, fatigue, disruptpon, low ammo or rout. Units with low ammo can be re-supplied from supply wagons. Important new optional rules, Proportional Opportunity Fire and Density Fire Modifier, rationalize Opportunity Fire for defenders. Other new rules include re-crewing or spiking cannon.

The Last Gasp

Play is unusual for this series. Earlier games had opposing sides at approximately equal numbers of units leading to large battles. Here, the Army of Northern Virginia has been worn down to a nub while the Union armies have been swollen so battles tended to be large-scale skirmishes. The 195 scenarios reflect this discrepancy with most scenarios lasting around fifteen turns with a range of eight to sixty turns. The large number of scenarios represents variants of the same battles and some made specifically to be played by one side or by multi-play.


All these battles come together in three campaigns. Players can choose which battles to fight and if the AI is reckless or conservative with losses carried over to a branching tree depending on the level of defeat or victory. For gamers in a hurry, results of a battle can be seen using “Expected Results” without fighting the battles. This system provides a quick lesson about the doggedness of Southern resistance.

With the Confederate paucity of force and the overwhelming Union might, the battles should be Union walkovers yet the opposite is true for several reasons. The number of Union regiments is large because Grant emptied out the garrisons near the theater of operation. These units may have been big but, after years of soft duty, commanders and men alike were of below average quality. Also, the Union made up its horrendous losses by forming new regiments instead of reinforcing old ones that had a cadre of experiences and proven men. The mere size of the regiments made them clumsy, shown by the fact that most of them are rated as 400-500+ men and the stacking limit is 1000. Thus, attacks from two or more hex sides may require a division instead of a brigade. Moving these brigades is a laborious exercise in traffic control and eats valuable time. The outright Union advantages came in artillery and well-foddered cavalry horses.

Several Union brigades sit around in the woods while other units slowly move past and create a traffic jam.

The rebels also had several surprising elements going for them. Although their regiments were understrength, many had a fair numbers of dedicated veterans because the Confederacy reinforced existing units. Thus, the average unit quality was fairly high. The Rebs were also on the defensive with good fields of fire, obstacles to impede enemy movement and very good protection. Where cover did not exist, units can entrench.  Slowed by abatises, fences and entrenchments that disrupt them, Federal units are exposed to as many as four volleys before closing with their foe. Even then, they are usually disrupted so they cannot melee – their trump card – for a turn. The Confederates can use interior lines for ripostes to stall the Yankees. These factors allow less than two hundred Confederates to stymie a Union cavalry division in the Jerusalem Plank scenario.

The men in blue will eventually capture victory objectives and scatter the opposing forces.  However, they may not win the battle in game terms. Victory levels are determined by objectives gained and a ratio in points of casualties inflicted by a side and the corresponding casualty point loss. A bloody battle with the Union sweeping the field could result in a Union minor victory, draw or even minor defeat if the South made it bleed. The brevity of many scenarios puts the onus of playing well on the Union player, a task made harder by a good AI.

Campaign Petersburg is a fine and fitting end to a great series although we hope Mr. Walker will do small one-off studies of the battles along the Red River and in the Southwest. This series rises above a mere collection of battles, scenarios and variants. The market is filled with many strategic and operational American Civil War games and a few tactical ones. None of them go into the detail with the academic discipline of Mr. Walker’s games. These products show better than other games what Billy Yank and Johnny Reb went through during 1861-1865. All students of that most bloody conflict should collect all of the series.


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