Legacy Review: Revolution Under Siege

Playing Revolution Under Siege is like finding an ancient wargame at a flea market. Once the dust is cleared away, you marvel at the exquisite pieces and the wonderful art on the map before turning to the menacingly fat rulebook. You skim the pages, taking in complicated charts and fulsome descriptions of maneuvers and dispositions thinking, “Wow, they really couldn’t get away with making this today, could they?” That’s the feeling I get from any of AGEOD’s classically unique take on wargames. They really feel like a relic of a distant age of computer gaming, and with the new, more mainstream appearance of their first ‘next gen’ title on the horizon, I thought it would be fitting to explore a series that is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, elegant and esoteric.

February 14 2019, marked the centenary of the start of the Polish-Soviet War, and to commemorate the senseless violence of another of the 20th century’s struggles, I’ll be looking at Revolution Under Siege, AGEOD’s take on the Russian Civil War and surrounding conflicts. It also happened to be my first AGEOD game back in the day, and led to my purchasing of almost their entire catalogue over the years, if that tells you anything about how I felt about the game. So what am I getting you all in to?

The maps and pieces are pretty and clear, important game info, in the black dialogue box and scrollable bottom box, can be a bit obscure.

AGEOD’s games generally share the same base system and ruleset, with changes based on period and scale. If you learn one, you learn them all. So while the initial head scratching and forum searching is a slog (the rulebooks are very vague), after you master the Adaptive Game Engine (the AGE in AGEOD) you’re free to experience a wide variety of both popular and obscure conflicts, including the American Civil War, The Great Northern War, the First World War, or even Spartacus’ revolt. That initial digging is a great deal of work though.

AGEOD games use a simultaneous WEGO system with each side inputting orders by dragging and dropping stacks of troops, provincial developments, or new recruits, at appropriate places across the map. When the next turn button is pressed, both sides attempt to carry out these orders while the engine takes variables like delays in maneuvering, officer activation, and supply issues into effect to calculate who ends up where. If two stacks of troops meet, a battle will eventually occur, with the dedication of each side impacted by numerous factors alongside Rules of Engagement you set for each stack. This part of the game is easy to understand and intuitive to play. You’ll have armies of Cossack Whites ranging across the steppe or armoured trains chugging off to the front in no time flat. That’s where the easy and intuitive part of Revolution Under Siege, or any AGEOD game, ends. It’s enough to get you playing, and maybe winning, smaller scenarios, but that’s not going to cut it in the long run.

The Siege of Minsk progresses. The dialogue box on the right can be opened to display sub-unit stats and artwork.

This is a deep simulation and that’s fantastic. Understanding brings appreciation, and you’re hard pressed to find anything that can match the minute detail and dedication found in these games. Yet the lack of clear information about how the simulation works, or what certain figures mean, or even how some mechanics function within the wider game is disappointing. Compounded with the enormity of some scenarios, this haze of confusion can lead to some frustrating experiences. Why did only half of that army engage? What are the little hearts in the combat screen? What are the numbers in the combat box? Where did all the supply go? How does troop replenishment work? Why. Won’t. Stalin. Move!? All of these questions required some intensive reading of both the rulebook and some wonderfully detailed After Action Reports on the AGEOD forum. Should one have to commit hours of research to enjoy a game? Probably not. Will it feel rewarding when you’re done, the veil is lifted, and you see how amazing these games can be? Definitely.

Some of the interesting points of the system: Territory control is handled differently from most games I’ve tried, wherein military control and population support are measured separately in each province. Effectively using scouts, deployable decisions, and positioning soldiers to ‘win over’ a local populace is key to effective play alongside ensuring active military control. Unit control is also interesting. Some unit types will drift away if you try and force them to fight too far from home, while breaking down stats and the totally hidden combat rules reveals the importance of maintaining properly proportioned armies and utilizing veterans. Blob armies are mostly useless because of a percentage of lost ability based on how far beyond an officer’s capability an army grows. Officers will activate or not depending on their stats and hidden dice rolls, meaning that a particularly inept officer could fiddle about, refusing to move, while the rest of your army attacks. I’ve had a siege be delayed for a year, forcing me to bring in a new leader, as the other just could not pass his activation and assault the city. He was placed…in reserve… after that. Supply is critical, more so than most games. I’ll never forget early in my career trying to march a force through the Pripyat Marshes and watching them disintegrate over a couple weeks of terribly slow slogging. Actual units of supply caravans exist and must be effectively used to keep soldiers and cannons fed, and these can be raided or deployed into stockpiles to smooth the flow of supplies from production centers. This is a logistics game as much as a combat game, something I cherish in a system that tries to model the Russian Civil War. There is great depth for those interested and dedicated enough to learn it.

The detailed combat report can paint an exciting picture of the battle, if you can decipher it.

The included scenarios kept me busy for quite some time. Not only is there a massive full Russian Civil War scenario and several smaller ones dedicated to different stages in the war, but there are also scenarios for the Finnish Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War, and an alternative History scenario pitting a victorious Central Powers against the emerging Soviet Union. All of which were great fun to play and present such a wealth of choice and detail that I occasionally return to it for another go.

Finally, the presentation. The artwork of the maps, of the individual uniforms, of portraits for leaders, are all wonderful. The map is huge and additional portions, like the far east and Vladivostok are modeled in off-map boxes. I have no complaints here. Yet the UI is definitely a relic, with crucial turn by turn information displayed amidst troop movements and deployments in a small scrollable box at the bottom of the screen. Each turn you’ll be checking this to make sure you don’t miss anything important. Similarly the combat screen, even the detailed combat box, is vague and investigation is required to see why you won or lost each engagement. Finally, there are some odd bugs here and there like pop up boxes sticking sometimes, especially during turn resolution, and all of the officer bios alone being exclusively in French (Not so rough for a Canadian, but still)

Our men overextended in Lwow. There was little I could do to help. Vengeance will be ours!

These are great games, and certainly of a style that will probably never be seen again as habits in PC wargaming shift and (reasonable) demands for improved UI and information gathering make something as complex as AGEOD’s style a relic. Yet there is nothing quite like them, and there remains a dedicated community of players who are all too kind and willing to help explain some of the game’s more obscure structures. The games are almost all available on Steam, which means few problems regarding installation and play. The multiplayer side, done over email, is like nothing else, and is best regarded as a wholesome cherry on top for those willing to reach out and give it a shot (and dedicate a few months to it!) There’s nothing quite like Revolution Under Siege, and there probably won’t be again. Check it out.