Ah yes, the good ol’ American Civil War. You can’t walk 5 feet in the wargaming sphere without tripping over 500 games set in the period. For good reason, as the war marked an evolution in tactics and strategy from the old Napoleonic style to the industrialized meat-grinders of the Russo-Japanese war and World War 1, so there’s a lot of interesting parts of the war to take a look at. The question is though, can a new game bring enough to the table to justify crowding further an already over-crowded setting? Well in the case of Grand Tactician, that answer is easily a resounding yes.
THE WAR OF SOUTHERN AGGRESSION
First off, I want to say: boy, this game is gorgeous. It is easily the best-looking grognard game I’ve seen, with the battle maps and the overall map of the US being very detailed, coupled with a nifty transition from paper map to actual view as you zoom in and out. The cutscenes also feature live-action reenactments of Civil War battles, which adds a fun bit of extra production to the game. It can feel like you’re playing a Ken Burns documentary at times, and I mean that in a good way.
Grand Tactician is also absurdly detailed in many ways, with bridges and passes on the map being open for inspection, letting you see how many tons of food, metal, guns, ammo, etc. are transported through there in a timeframe. You can also see individual manufactories, what supplies they use, and what they produce. This information will almost never be relevant to the player, but it’s there, and the simple fact that it’s modeled certainly is something special.
Grand Tactician places the player in the vague shoes of commander of the military of the Union/ Confederacy, but also gives the player a fair amount of control over things like political policies and finances for the state. The focus of the player will always be first and foremost winning the war, and handily allows some AI control over most non-military matters to keep your tunnel vision on the task at hand.
The game plays out over a broad map of the eastern part of the US to the Midwest, cutting off around Oklahoma. The game is, shockingly, an RTS, something that scared the hell out of me the first time I booted it up. “You want me to control multiple armies over this vast expanse of country?” I said to my monitor, which didn’t answer. It’s a very daunting task, but your opponent is put in the same predicament as you, having to build armies (brigades at a time, so you can be very specific as to your army composition) and order them around the map, keeping in mind such obstacles as supplies, the support level of the state, the weapons the units are equipped with, the personalities of the officers in charge of the men, etc.
There’s a lot to keep track of, but the game does an overall pretty good job of teaching you. There is an extensive in-game manual that is very helpful, though I did have to learn some things for myself, such as how to send units to a destination by rail, or how to order special move-orders to units otherwise (hover over the orange symbol that appears after you give an order, a sub-menu appears). That all being said, things got far more interesting once I was able to muster my armies in the Spring of 1861 and finally get a look at how Grand Tactician handles battles.
WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
The battle mechanics aren’t quite like any other game I’ve played. There are echoes of Total War and the Scourge of War games, but Grand Tactician has its own thing going. Each division is tied to the divisional commander, and while these units can operate independently, there are order delays, as any orders on the battlefield must be issued from the commanding general down to the divisional commanders, and from there to the individual units. This means that long marches down roads to an occupied town can result in disasters as new enemies appear but the courier is still on the way to dispatch new orders to your lead brigade, which has now been caught in a blistering crossfire. However, the AI has to play by these rules as well; it’s quite satisfying to watch little models of couriers scurry from the enemy commander when you do something they don’t like.
The act of fighting itself should be familiar to players of Empire: Total War, or the Scourge of War games. Your guys have guns, point them at the enemy, eventually someone will run. There are a lot of additional factors to consider in this formula however, including such things as the officers’ traits, the range of the combat, any cover, how experienced the units are/ if they have any specializations, or even if smoke from other fighting could potentially obscure your lines, making firing less accurate. It’s definitely a game, but it’s a hell of a simulation as well. I always feel accomplished when I manage to outflank the enemy, but never feel that it’s unfair when my own units cut and run from combat in these cases rather than their units running. Green units don’t like to stick around in combat, even if they’re winning handily.
NOTHING BUT TOMBS
I can talk for a very long time about all the positives of Grand Tactician, because it is a very good game, and if you are interested in the period or in wargaming in general, you should definitely give it a try. That being said, there are some caveats I want to mention in advance. To start with, the AI can sometimes be a bit thickheaded. It’s rarely outright dumb, but it can be a bit slow to react at times. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is no multiplayer option, meaning that you can’t boot up a campaign against your old buddy you used to play co-op Total War campaigns with. The game sorely needs multiplayer, in my opinion.
Additionally, while the devs have done a great deal to make such a detailed game accessible, there are still elements of the UI or game concepts that are still difficult to parse, or, in some cases, just completely imperceptible. The economic arm of the game is one such example: I left the economy in the hands of the AI in my first campaign and ended up being millions of dollars in debt and having terrible credit, which affected my ability to recruit new units or build new ships. I tried to assert my dominance over the game systems by learning how to make the economy work to my favor, but there’s really no explanation as to how you can do anything about it, other than maybe investing in industrial subsidies in early 1861.
But at the end of the day, why should you care so much about industrial subsidies when the act of striking blows against your opponent in combat is so much fun? Because it is fun, and even thrilling at times, which is more than I can say of many of Grand Tactician’s contemporaries. I am following the future updates to Grand Tactician and the further games from this team with great interest.