Ultimate General: Civil War: A Retrospective

Not many people know this, but Ultimate General: Civil War was the first game I wrote about back when I started as a freelancer. The piece was, admittedly, not my finest work, nor was it published, as I had submitted it as part of my initial pitch. Nevertheless, I have an immense fondness for the game as both the stepping stone that allowed me to be here on this blog and podcast, as well as for the fact that, in my opinion, the game just rules.

The Ultimate General series has roots back in the Total War games, part of the development team being Nick Thomadis, otherwise known as good ol’ Darth of the DarthMod mod series, an excellent series of enhancements to the mainline Total War games up to Shogun 2. These enhancements typically involved improving the AI, making the battles more realistic by changing unit sizes and stats, as well as adjusting the campaign AI, economy, and buildings. These were very popular mods, and the team took that experience into Ultimate General: Gettysburg, what was essentially a spiritual successor to the earlier Sid Meier’s Antietam and Gettysburg games.

General Weed in UG: Gettysburg blazing some rebs (look at the kill count I’m proud of this one).

And it was great! The AI reacted in largely intelligent ways, and had scaling difficulties and personalities you could set it to (a feature I wish more games would copy), and had fewer but more distinct unit types than its forebears, painting arrows for them to march along the battlefield. These units controlled much like the units in Total War, but in lieu of a bunch of abilities they can activate, turning battles into an APM mess (I still love you Total War), battles are much more about proper planning and placement of troops. Troops that are camped in the woods take less damage from incoming volleys, wheat fields hide units until they can see the whites of the enemies’ eyes, and river crossings slow units down and make them far more susceptible to incoming fire.

Gettysburg was a solid, if small, experience, allowing the player to go through multiple scenarios of the three day battle, with alternating paths based on how well the player fought. This formed a sort of prototype for Civil War, which said “what if we give the whole war the Gettysburg experience?” The result is an imperfect game, but its quirks make it all the more charming and have kept me returning to it over the past few years.

So, what changed from Gettysburg, other than the fact that the whole game doesn’t take place over one battle? Well for starters, individual units and officers are far more important, as Civil War features a persistent campaign. Those soldiers you start the game with improve over time with experience, becoming better sharpshooters, better melee fighters, or having better morale as they’re exposed to combat. Similarly, your officers are promoted as they survive engagements, and higher ranking officers are considered to be better at commanding their troops, leading to buffs from officers who manage to dodge bullets. This leads to a surprisingly intimate relationship with your army over time, as you want to keep those troops and officers who were with you from the beginning alive, not just for the sake of keeping your army in fighting shape, but because they’ve been with you since 1st Bull Run, and now the man who was a Captain of skirmishers lays dead at the head of his division in Gettysburg. It’s built to tell stories by telling you the names of these officers.

In between the real-time engagements, you’re return to your army’s camp, where you can bring in new recruits, create new units, and equip your men with new manners of weaponry, such as rifled muskets, 20lb cannon, or even repeaters toward the end of the campaign. Juggling what little resources you have to replace losses and upgrade your troops with better equipment is tough, and you’ll be forced to play favorites just by the nature of the game, as you want your best units (the ones that started out under your avatar’s command, likely) to have the best guns so they can kick the most ass, leaving the new corps you form with old 1842 muskets. Or at least, that’s one way to play it.

My III Corps with now-seasoned troops, but relatively poor equipment.

Here however, I must mention the faults of Civil War, beginning with the most egregious and blatant sin: it’s too damn linear. I’m not just saying that because 95% of all strategic wargames ever are American Civil War games and yes we know the whole story by now, but the campaign is structured into a series of set scenarios, which is and was disappointing. You’re basically role-playing as either the Army of the Potomac or the Army of Northern Virginia, based on which side you choose. If you, as the Army of the Potomac, decimate the rebels at Antietam, that should be it! It should be game over! But the campaign is structured to take you through a series of levels. I’m not adverse to linear design in strategy games, as I am fond of this game, as well as of Unity of Command 2 and Panzer Corps 2… but at this level, more freedom of choice would be welcome. I should get to decide on better strategies as the leader of 5 corps running around, rather than McClellan’s legendarily shitty “wait and see” approach.

The linearity is felt in missions as well. The AI adapts pretty well at all difficulty levels, but the main battle of the campaign that you can fight are scripted. These can offer memorable experiences, but if you know exactly where and when scripted enemy forces are going to appear from your last failed attempt at a campaign, they don’t stand much of a chance against you. Similarly, if you reach one of the time milestones in battle and you’re not where the game expects you to be, things can get… weird. Take my most recent Union campaign, for example. At the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, I managed to break through Confederate lines and capture their headquarters on the first day of battle, after initial skirmishing. However, the game did not grant me a victory and let the battle end when the clock ran out. Instead, we were brought to day 2 of the battle, with the Confederates now reformed and reinforced in the woods around the point I had captured. It was irritating, to say the least, that my success had been punished in that manner. 

I enjoy beating up on the rebels regardless of the game’s quirks.

That being said, despite the fact that playing the game can feel repetitive, especially when new players will get their faces stomped in by the AI, the core gameplay is fun. The combat feels nice, directing troops feels natural, building your army can be very zen-like, managing the balances between pushing for goals in battle or just keeping your boys alive… there’s an appeal to that. Other persistent games feel very satisfying to play, but I don’t think they get the human element down as well as Ultimate General: Civil War does. Maybe I’m just a softie, but in a game where you can fight for the freedom of fellow men (or to own them, I guess), it’s nice to be as connected with your men as you are here.

-Jack Trumbull

How to Break WWI with Making History: The First World War

I thought I’d share some of the fun Jack and I are having playing through Making History: The First World War, a grand strategy game from Factus Games. There’s a lot to like in this fun little turn based simulation, but it is an indie title and that means that some bugs and strange design choices can slip through the cracks. Luckily for all of us, exploiting those choices can be just as fun as playing the game properly.

What Kind of Game is Making History: The First World War?

This is a grand strategy wargame in the same vein as the big paradox titles like Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis IV. Players can take control of a single nation across the world starting in 1912, 1914, or 1917 and lead them through the global political and military struggles surrounding the First World War.

Like Paradox games, the open nature of grand strategy means that things might not happen as they did historically, though scripted events here lend a significant hand in steering the great powers in the right direction. But sometimes the fun in these massive simulations is experiencing just how far things can fly off the rails of history.

Systems and Subsystems!

There are a lot of interlocking systems at work in Making History, and that’s generally a good thing. Players are going to have to take care to exploit their resources, build regional and city infrastructure, conduct research, train soldiers, and deal with international trade and diplomacy. The tragic thing is that there is very little in terms of documentation available for Making History: The First World War. When we started playing the game, we had no idea what we were doing. The manual is unfinished, and the included tutorial simply walks players through the UI.

This meant that we had a rough time when we started our game as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. managing the empire was difficult and some test battles against Serbia (Reloading after we saw how the mechanics worked) were drawn out affairs, hard fought and hard won.

That is, until I discovered the manual for the previous game in the series: Making History: the Great War.

Breaking Combat Over Our Knees

So here’s the play. In Making History artillery operates in a strange fashion. According to the manual, when artillery fires into a province, it has a 50% chance to hit friendly troops in that province and 50% chance to hit enemy troops. Each hit unit then rolls to save against that hit based on their defense and the defense of the terrain. But, and it’s a big but, the chance to hit friendly units can be reduced by 1% for every observation balloon stacked with the artillery, and by a further 1% for every unopposed friendly airplane flying over the target region.

So, if one were, to say, stack 50 observation balloons with a stack of artillery. And if, we also say, that that stack of artillery contains every single gun in the empire’s army, what happens?

Armies disappear in a blinding flash of righteous howitzer justice, that’s what.

There are no stacking penalties or limits in Making History. Attacking a province with engineer units reduces an enemy’s fortification defense. Attacking a province with 20 engineer units that is being shelled by the grand battery from hell ha terrifying results. Our war of aggression against the Balkan League resulted in a province falling every turn.

War Never Changes

Now, we’re embroiled in a three front war against the Ottoman Empire, Italy, and Germany. We are holding our own across all three fronts and proceeding to vaporizing the Italian Army with the Grandest Battery in existence.

Why don’t you try yourself?

Check out Making History: The First World War here. We don’t get anything if you click this link, so click away!

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Tiger Leader Review

Solitaire wargames occupy a special place in our hobby. On the one hand, being able to sit down away from the noise of modern life to escape into a tabletop game experience, whether narrative, systems focused, or even just an examination of history, can be a relaxing and almost meditative experience. On the other hand, I know plenty of wargamers who are turned off by the transparency of the randomness of a lot of solitaire games, or who don’t enjoy some of the contraints placed on players to make engaging against an artificial opponent more of a challenge.

When it comes to reviewing a solitaire only game I try to come at it from at least three angles. First, will solitaire wargamers like this? Second, will this do anything to change the minds of those who dont? Finally, what about those who have never tried one? Is it friendly enough to newcomers?

Tiger Leader, from Dan Verssen Games, is my first exposure to the ‘Leader’ system of solitaire wargames and is definitely a good first impression, even if there are some systemic foibles and strange errors that irked me as I played. But what of the three types of gamers above? Who is Tiger Leader for? Let’s dig in, shall we?

What Kind of Game is Tiger Leader?

Tiger Leader is a solitaire wargame in which the player takes control of a Wehrmacht kampfgruppe and leads them through a campaign of World War Two. After selecting a campaign and performing some initial set up, the gameplay loop of Tiger Leader sees players building a kamfgruppe including infantry, AFVs, and artillery, recruiting officers to lead these units, and then committing them to battles on a weekly basis to overcome enemy brigades. After the set number of weeks, the campaign ends (barring an auto fail) and the total score of the player’s victories are added up to see how well they’ve done.

Throughout the weeks of a campaign players will have to manage the spending of campaign points, deal with the abstract movements of enemy units, fight tactical battles on a hexagonal map, and manage the stress and experience points of officers. It’s a detailed system without being overwhelming, and it keeps players on their toes from start to finish. I quickly became fond of how the different systems of combat and management come together to offer an entertaining roleplaying wargame experience.

To break it down, the real focus of the game is managing your kampfgruppe. After selecting the campaign and mission(setting the parameters for the battles of that campaign) players are given a set of resource points to spend on officers, units, and extras like trucks and scouting capabilities. There are a ton a vehicles in the base game, so I always felt like I was spoiled for choice. Playing through the Poland campaign for instance, I was happy to be able to choose a 38(t), a Panzer II, and a Stug to support my infantry.

Each unit has its own stats for anti-personnel and anti-armour attacks, defense, movement, special rules governing movement, attacking, and stress. These stats interact with the stats of the officers that lead them. Officers begin with different skill levels ranging from recruit to legendary. Each level has different modifiers for firing, speed of action, stress thresholds, and special rules (more on those later).

Each week players divide their forces into smaller groups to attack some number of enemy brigades. Resources will be stretched very thin, and more often than not players will have to throw their units against numerically superior forces. You are the tip of the spear after all. Battles are time limited, and victory only really comes from destroying the enemy brigade.

COMBAT! and MANAGEMENT!

During Each week’s battles, a randomized set of terrain hexes are laid out to represent the battlefield. In the base game these tiles are either clear or contain soft or hard cover. There is a lot of variety, with different tiles representing Europe, north Africa, or the Russian winter. I appreciate that battles can have wildly different layouts that will obviously impact tactics as players are going to be spending a lot of time on these maps. An issue I encountered was that the manual indicated that terrain should have a visual indicator as to which level of cover a hex provides, but none of that existed on my hexes. I decided to go with ‘forests’ as light cover and ‘built up areas’ as heavy cover.

Combat itself is an interesting puzzle. Players only have five turns (unless scouts are purchased to add a turn) to destroy enough enemy units to remove the brigade from the campaign. Enemy Brigades have a threshold of damage they can take before they become understrength, offering up some victory points and reducing their capabilities. A second threshold, denoting a destroyed status, gives up the rest of the points and eliminates them from the game. Making sure your forces can do enough damage in five turns to reduce or destroy a brigade is a difficult prospect, as each brigade will have its own spread of units and its own special rules, and players will have to take on multiple brigades a week to keep up with the campaign’s demands.

Combat basics involve getting in range, rolling dice, and inflicting casualties when hits are scored and defenses overcome. Player forces will be overwhelmed, but this is balanced somewhat by how damage is modeled. Every time a friendly unit takes a hit, a random chit is pulled from a cup with some type of damage (or rarely, a miss) printed on it. Enemies go down in one successful hit. The damage that friendly units receive persist and must be taken care of in between battles by spending points or using officer abilities.

Enemies act according to a chart that breaks down units into groups and has them move according to a die roll and their options. Tanks are more likely to charge forward into combat range while mortars are content to stay back and support with indirect fire. I found the system believable and fun. A good enemy roll would see them aggressively take ground, but after they had suffered significant damage, the dice were more likely to force a cautious withdrawal to covered positions. Being able to model this with one dice roll is great, as anything that reduces overhead while playing solitaire is good in my books.

Your own units are interesting to manage. Often less skilled units will have penalties to defense, or add significant stress when forced to move and fire. Deciding when to take these hits to do an aggressive push of your own is a fun challenge. But exposing troops to enemy fire can be deadly, especially for officers.

Officers are a core part of the game’s strategy. They add special rules to the units they lead, add modifiers, and sometimes allow units to move before the enemy. They can be wounded, killed, or acquire stress as the result of enemy hits, but making it through a mission also offers experience points that see your officers grow from mission to mission, leveling up and changing their stats. It’s a great bit of progression that makes the campaigns come alive, and make it hurt even more when an officer dies to a single hit, forcing you to cross out their names on the ledger and bring in a low level replacement. Such is war.

It’s not perfect though, some officers have literally useless skills. An infantry officer that gives indirect fire to a unit will never be applicable, as the only infantry unit with more than one hex firing range already has an indirect fire rule, for example. It’s little things like this that make me think a bit more playtesting and proofreading should have gone into Tiger Leader.

Final Thoughts

Tiger Leader is fun. A lot of fun, actually. It manages to cram a lot of interesting decisions into almost every segment of a campaign’s gameplay, from spending on units, assigning forces to combats, carrying out those combats, and how to spend precious resources to recoup after combat. There’s enough content and different campaigns, missions, special events, and units to offer plenty of replayability. The core system is easy to learn, and the game doesn’t take up too much tablespace.

Component quality is also quite nice, with the map, cards, counters and hex map pieces all sturdy, easy to read, and easy to organize. Once a campaign is up and running, there is very little overhead, and I love that.

That being said. It’s not perfect. There are a lot of little errors here and there in the manual and in how units and officers interact. A lot more playtesting and proofreading could have done away with these issues. Tiger Leader is also not a simulation, as I hope you gathered from the above descriptions. It is much more a puzzle and narrative experience wrapped in a fun military setting. You’ll have a lot more fun charting the progress of your officers, repairing vehicles, watching infantry upgrade from raw to veteran, and seeing how the game reacts to your decisions than you will trying to properly replicate blitzkrieg actions. I feel solitaire wargamers will appreciate the way the systems interact to provide a engaging experience, but I’m not sure it will win over players who aren’t into the idea of a solitaire game. I would encourage those who haven’t tried solitaire games to give this one a go. It was much easier to get into than some others I’ve played.

What About Solitaire?

I said I would include these sections for every game, but yes, Tiger Leader is a pretty great solitaire experience. I bet if would even work coop, if the player spending is divided and two players each build up a portion of the kampfgruppe to send into actions. In fact, I might try to do a game like that with my wife at some point.

Will Tiger Leader Stay On My Shelf?

Yes! The problems I had with the game rarely detract from the actual play of it, and I find it creates the sort of narrative solitaire experiences I like. While I will dig out GMT’s Fields of Fire periodically, I see Tiger Leader getting more table time because it manages to deliver narratively without being quite so involved. It’s the action movie, not the documentary.

When deciding if Tiger Leader will be something you’re interested in, you’ll have to understand that it isn’t perfect, isn’t a simulation, and has some sloppy editing and playtesting. But beyond those issues, Tiger leader is a fun, easy going, narrative puzzle game that will see you sighing in relief as your favourite officer gets off with only a wound, and cursing as your Panzer IV goes up in smoke after a single lucky shell.

THANK YOU to DVG for sending Let’s Talk About Wargames a copy of Tiger Leader for review!

Check out Tiger Leader here. We don’t get anything if you click this link, so click away!

Let’s Talk About Wargames has a podcast! We talk about wargames, history, and the community.

Let’s Talk About Wargames has a patreon! Help us acquire digital and tabletop wargames to review, discuss, and let’s play.

Mystery Teaser From Relic’s Twitch

Well, that’s something. Relic, the makers of Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, and the new Age of Empires game, are teasing something on their Twitch stream. What we see is a map of Italy with the occasional overlay of 40s war propaganda films, so it’s safe to say that this is an expansion for Dawn of War 3, best game ever this is related to Company of Heroes somehow, though whether this is a new game entirely or a DLC a whole 8 years after release isn’t certain.

Here’s what we’re seeing.

If you want to sit in on the stream with us and find out what the reveal’s about, you can get to it here: https://www.twitch.tv/relicentertainment.

-Jack Trumbull