1864 was a year of “good news/bad news” for the Union. Sherman provided the excellent news by capturing Atlanta and marching through Georgia. The dreary tidings came from the long casualty lists of Grant’s battles in the Wilderness of northern Virginia. Although this campaign would result in victory in 1865, the bloody price depressed a war-weary North.
Hexwar.com captures this period with the turn-based Civil War 1864 coming out now for the PC, Mac and Android platforms, as well as the older iOS version. Will playing this game on this iOS platform reflect the desperation of both the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia?
Death in the Thickets
Although a few scenarios address Benjamin Butler’s movements in southern Virginia, the terrain graphics for most of the game suit the Wilderness campaign perfectly. Just as it is now, the Wilderness is a labyrinth of thick woods, hills and brush. Slopes create “dead” zones for units adjacent to them while brush and forests disrupt formations on the move. Brush also provides decent protection, blocking line of sights while providing a kind of cover since the orange target hexes often blends into the brush hexes. Roads wind and twist so much that using an overland “as the crow flies” route may be more efficient for movement than being road-bound. Bridges cross the meandering streams. The spare, infrequent farm buildings provide the Confederates with strong points along with strong field fortifications.
Units are colored with the usual blue and butternut. One more zoom level could provide unit images with better uniform and formation details. A better view of troops is available via tapping a button on the right of the screen. Column, unformed and line formations are clear and a button on the left allows changes the selected unit’s formation; moving into rough terrain changes all formations to unformed. Veteran and elite units are marked with gold chevrons while raw troops have white chevrons. Crossed weapons indicate units armed with smooth-bore muskets and cavalry have a white horse on their image. Each unit has its strength in white numerals. An abstract and sketchy view of more of the battlefield can be seen by squeezing the screen.
Animation shows infantry marching and troops volleying with accompanying smoke. Leaders can ride with units and cavalry gallop around the field. Cannon trundle along with shells blasting targets. Eliminated units fall into bloody heaps. Since most games have many units that move slowly, the ability to speed animation by double-tapping the screen is welcome as is the floating blue arrow pointing to unmoved units. Sound effects are predictable: troops tromp, hooves clop, muskets rattle and cannon roar. Charges are highlighted by yells and the clank of steel. Eliminated regiments grunt as they fall. The seven-mission tutorial and on-screen help do a fine job of explaining game mechanics although the important “flank attack” ability is only mentioned in the last tutorial.
The Butcher’s Bill
The mechanics of this game is the same as most other Hexwar games. Tapping a unit shaded blue shows accessible hexes outlined in white or green if the unit starts five hexes distant from an enemy. Targets are shaded orange and possible routes for infantry or cavalry charges are yellow tinted hexes. Enemy units have an invisible zone of control to their front prohibiting normal movement. Regular infantry in line can move one hex; in column, they can move farther especially along roads. Infantry can move and shoot or change formation in the same turn but can’t move if they do either before moving. Artillery can only move or fire. Mounted cavalry can only move and melee but dismounted “horse soldiers” function as infantry. Flank attacks occur when a unit is attacked twice from opposite directions.
The thirty-two scenarios plus a bonus one if signed up for Hexwar’s newsletter are divided into five “divisions”. The first four follow a rough chronology of the historical campaign while the fifth has more abstract clashes that could have taken place any time in 1864. While the “divisions” can be played out of sequence, the scenarios within a “division” are locked and must be played in sequence. The scenarios do not cover the entirety of major battles such as Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Rather, they depict specific stages of the action. Scenarios can last up to thirty or more turns with approximately fifteen units per side. Victory conditions are usually a combination of holding control points marked with flags, not losing captured control points and destroying all or some enemy units while not losing a certain percentage of the player’s army or his general.
Combat is turn-based with players moving first. Although the line formation is the best for firing, the brush-filled terrain dictates that most of the fighting will be done with unformed units. Columns are best for charges but even a full ten-point strength unit will take significant losses when attacking an enemy with over five strength points and most weak defending units will flee before contact is made. Charging seems like a handball match with attackers going in, taking losses and bouncing back to their starting position. This sort of melee is only productive against extremely weak targets or when multiple charges can be delivered. Calvary charges in the countryside portrayed are a waste of good horseflesh so mounted cavalry should only be used for rapid deployment or grabbing exposed control points. Firing becomes the decisive combat tool with enemies being whittled down bit by bit. Units at strength level five miss more than they hit so they can be fairly safely ignored for larger targets. This approach is best supplemented by artillery, preferably on hills with infantry support. A toggable on-screen odds window shows the chances of success with modifiers for cover, range and unit experience so that elite units even with five points can still be effective. The first goal for play should be to capture a control point; each capture triggers reinforcements. Given the gruesome nature of the fighting, these units will be needed.
While Civil War 1864 handles the campaign’s terrain, scale and combat well, historical anomalies pop up. Some Union regiments are armed with smooth-bore muskets at a time when all Union troops had been carrying rifled muskets for years and some commanders were even buying their men breech loaders. Confederate forces seem a bit too numerous. By this stage of the war, attrition and desertion had drained the Army of Northern Virginia, “grinding the seed corn of the nation” as Jefferson Davis said. The combination of better weapons and many more men was the Federals’ leverage over unfavourable ground.
While other games like Tiller’s Overland Campaign are more detailed and accurate, games like Civil War 1864 fill two essential roles for the gaming industry. First, the seemingly simple nature of play serves as an introduction to new gamers by providing them with the feel of an era and giving them insight into the mechanics of a period’s combat. For all of its “tap and go” feel, this game does a fine representation of what went on during the most bloody summer of the American Civil War. Secondly, this game genre provides relief for veteran gamers from drawn-out and detail-heavy games. We need to get back once in a while to that “just one more turn” feel. Hexwar’s games does both of these tasks in very accessible fashion. No historical gamer should fall for the trap that, just because the mechanics are the same, every Hexwar game is the same. A look at their Civil War series shows that maps and objectives are sculpted to faithfully represent the situation for each year. Given the limitation of the engine, this approach represents an accomplishment we can all appreciate.