Review: Hold the Line

Hexwar jumped quickly on the iOS bandwagon some years ago, with a series of simple tactical games. For the first few years, the mechanics were pretty much the same regardless of the topic. but the games got more elaborate as their fan base grew. Recently, Hexwar has expanded into the PC, Mac, and Android businesses. Their American Revolutionary War game, Hold the Line, not only is available on all four platforms, but adds new twists. Playing the game on a PC and an iPad yields some interesting insights.

Crossing Platforms

The graphics of the game are nice, but not spectacular. Terrain is clearly shown as trees, streams, rivers, fords and swamps. Man-made structures include bridges, towns, forts and entrenchments. Zooming with the PC mouse wheel is easier than the two-finger spread or squeeze of an iPad. The PC’s click-and-drag method of panning the view seems easier than iOS’ swish. Left-clicking a unit with a cursor is more reliable than a finger tap as cold fingers or nails needing a manicure can not only be frustrating but also lead to unwanted actions and there’s no “undo” option.

Washington’s army is about to clean up the streets of Trenton.

Unit graphics are a mixed bag. Naturally, the dominant colors of units are red and blue. American and Tory militia look scruffier than the regulars but the developers missed a trick by not giving the Hessians their own uniforms and flag. Units available for action are marked with a blue hex overlay. Selecting such a unit bring up possible destination hexes outlined in yellow with Action Point (AP) costs, possible targets marked in orange and a picture of the unit type with flag and morale points appears in a bar at the bottom of the screen. Strength points are shown as white on the units with elite units such as light infantry designated by a gold rosette. Units and their strength points can be difficult to discern when in woods. Animation is adequate with the horses of dragoons and leaders galloping, artillery bellowing smoke and infantry leveling muskets before firing while destroyed units collapse in a heap. Combat results float above the target unit.

Information is readily at hand using period script and coloring. A toggable event log keeps score and explains that turn’s actions; its option is the familiar bar graphic showing each side’s progress toward victory. Another toggable function brings up combat analyses showing modifiers and probabilities of success. A small scroll-like box explains the effects of a selected terrain hex on movement, line of sight and defense. A pocket watch keeps track of the turns. Possible unit actions can be activated by clicking or tapping on red wax seals.

This British unit can either move a hex or fire at the unit to the north west.

Sound effects are the usual crackling of musket fire, grunts as hits strike home, booming of cannon, clopping of hooves and screams of melees. The background music is not irritating if played at a low volume. The in-game manual is fine and the seven-part tutorial teaches not only the mechanics but also tactics. Objective screens are usually correctly written but sometimes nuances like gaining victory points by evacuation are left out and come as surprises during the battle.

“Give ’em two volleys, boys, then re-form at the rear!”

Veterans of Hexwar games may at first think Hold the Line is merely “same old-same old”. This Impression is true on some levels. Most units can only move one hex at a time with elite units and dragoons moving farther. Units can either shoot or move with dragoons being able to move and shoot. Fire only extends out to two or three hexes with effectiveness increased at close range. Melee can only be initiated between adjacent units. Leaders can join combat units to improve melee odds but must start in the same hex to use any special functions.

However, such similarities belie new approaches to gameplay. Instead of a turn being over when all the player’s units have been fired or moved, the length of a turn is decided by the number of APs allotted as shown by coins in a row above the battlefield, These coins come in two types: silver ones the number of which remains constant for the side throughout the battle and gold ones where the number is decided by a die roll each turn. The highest number of total coins is seven. Firing, movement and rally can cost from one to three AP depending on the terrain and unit type. This innovation accomplishes three things. First, the number of silver coins indicates the quality of a force so that a force comprised primarily of militia will have fewer coins than one with several regular units. Secondly, the limited number of coins makes players focus on what actions are important for that turn with ramifications for the next. Lastly, an air of Clausewitzian “friction” is added as players are never sure what they will be able to do next. Another new feature is the leader rally function that adds a strength point to a wounded unit.

An understrength American dragoon has a low probability of hurting its target.

These mechanics play out in thirteen separate missions or four campaigns covering many battles of the Revolution. An option allows all missions to be unlocked; otherwise, each battle must be played in sequence. The battles have a definite historical flavor with the Americans getting more silver coins as the war progresses. Victory is primarily a function of destroying enemy units with the occasional victory hex thrown in. Militias are fragile and British regular units are big and strong. Nonetheless, inaccuracies creep in. While units can retreat before receiving a melee attack, American militia seem sturdier vis bayonet attacks instead of their historic terror of them. Flanks are ignored for attacks unlike many other games in the franchise. Important battles are missing: Saratoga, Concord/Lexington, Cowpens, Yorktown and others. These clashes may show up as DLCs later. The AI seems anxious to sacrifice weakened units to no purpose. The three difficulty levels appear just loading the dice against the player at harder levels.

Still, Hold the Line captures the ebb and flow of the war and its participants. The random availability of APs insures a high level of replay. The game is fine regardless of the platform used. Hexwar has shown its commitment to innovation and quality with this product.