Sunday, February 26, 2006

Birth of America Review

Birth of America, developed and published by Ageod.
The Good: Engrossing strategic play, no resource/economy management, good user interface (once you get used to it), terrific scenario variety (in both length and difficulty), supply and reinforcements are automatic, good AI, weather and terrain are extremely important, unique time period, I love the French!
The Not So Good: No online multiplayer
What say you? Probably the best grand strategy game out there: 8/8

I normally don’t write previews of games before they are released to the general public, mainly because I don’t like writing about a single game more than once. I made an exception for Birth of America, the latest grand strategy game from the mind behind Europa Universalis. The problem is I wasted all my good (well, good for me) jokes on the preview, leaving little left for this full-fledged review. So, please, read over the preview and then come back and see what’s changed (not much) now that I have the release version of Birth of America. Some stuff will be repeated from the preview, mostly to make the review longer. I am so sneaky!

Once I became accustomed to it, I found that the user interface in Birth of America is quite good. Unlike some games that bury important information deep within different menus and spreadsheets, Birth of America tries (and succeeds) to display most of the information on the main map, in the form of icons. Each stack of units is represented by a single sprite, the number of units is indicated by a series of dots, and current orders and postures are shown graphically. This removes most of the clutter associated with other games and makes navigating the map fairly easy. The playing map itself definitely has a hand-drawn style, which fits the mood of the game well. Each city has a color-coded background that indicates who owns it and its importance to the scenario. Units that are garrisoned within cities are removed the map, shown by a small numerical indicator as to the quantity of forces protecting a settlement. There are also numerous filters that can color code the map with important information such as territory ownership and geographic boundaries. With a game of this scale, I feel the developers of Birth of America did an excellent job providing an easy to navigate interface. The sound in Birth of America is very basic, consisting of only 20 sounds plus appropriate background music. Honestly, sound is not an important aspect of this kind of game, so I’m willing to let it slide. The sounds of battle and marching armies are all we really need playing from a grand perspective, so in that aspect, Birth of America delivers.

Birth of America is a turn-based grand strategy game that covers two major North American wars during the 18th Century: the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War. The game features a good selection of 14 different scenarios, each with varying length (from 3 turns to 96 turns) and difficulty. Since a lot of conflicts in history are unbalanced, some of the scenarios in the game are as well; sometimes, the goal of a side is just to survive until a set amount of time or until reinforcements arrive. The 1775 Canada scenario is a good example of this: all the British need to do is defend Quebec and slow down the American advance, and the Americans need to reach Quebec as quickly as possible because of how short the time limit is. Birth of America caters to all skill levels: beginners can try out the smaller scenarios, while veteran players can tackle the entire war. There is a tutorial (essentially a guided version of the Carolinas scenario) that does an adequate job of teaching the game, although there are some very small features that are left out (but they are covered in the manual). The longer scenarios are usually more difficult, because they entail managing many more units over a larger area. The shorter scenarios (under 15 turns) go by very quickly (almost too quickly, I want to play more!): I remember playing a seven turn scenario and being surprised that it was over already, taking around 15 minutes to complete. Each scenario can be won two different ways: by controlling all of the required objective cities or by accumulating the most victory points. No scenario ends before time is up even if you control all of the objective cities, giving the loser time to mount a surprise attack and foil your plans. By accessing the ledger (by clicking on the globe), the game clearly lists all of your objectives and which side currently owns them, which makes it easy to plan your next course of action. After a scenario is over, you can continue to play as long as you’d like so that you can completely annihilate the competition. Overall, I am pleased with the variety of available scenarios in the game (and if they aren’t enough, a scenario editor will be released in a patch, and basic things such as scenario length can be easily edited outside of the game). Birth of America does not have online multiplayer, but does support play by e-mail, a staple of wargames for quite a long time. This is probably the most glaring omission from the game, but it’s not a huge problem since the AI plays well.

All of the action takes place on the strategic map, a representation of the American colonies and surrounding areas during the late 18th century. Some of the place names are different, but if you’re familiar with the geography of the United States, navigating around should be easy enough. The map is divided into regions (akin to large counties) and sea zones, which comprise the each of the colonies. Controlling states results in automatically drafting new recruits to your armed forces. Each of the regions is rated according to its level of development, from wild to civilized. This rating affects movement rate and supply (which is handled automatically, thank goodness). Units that are low on supplies can loot enemy territory for rations. Each region also has a terrain type (clear, forest, mountain, swamp, and more) that affects movement and combat. Obviously, the adept field general will use the terrain to his advantage. Each region also has an allegiance to one of the sides, which provides information about enemy forces in the region. You can slowly swing the allegiance of a region by occupying the area (muskets are good at persuasion). A region may contain a permanent city, depot (to provide supplies), fort (for defense), or port (for ships). If a prized region is in need of some extra defense, depots and forts can be built by your troops.

Birth of America has an accurate collection of units for the time period. Units are initially placed on the map by the scenario designer and new militias are raised automatically as time advances in regions and states you control. Unlike most strategy games, you are not charged with building new units, decreasing the amount of micromanagement in the game (which I consider a good thing). Typically, an army consists of many individual units that behave as one large stack, moving as one unit and fighting together. You can merge and split units to your liking, but maintaining a couple large battalions and smaller forces as defenders is usually the best plan. During combat, only the attributes of the highest-ranking officer are used, although special abilities of other officers may come in play. The units in Birth of America are based on real-life forces engaged in battle and also use real commanders from the two wars. Not many people will notice this, but aficionados of the Revolutionary War will appreciate being able to control Washington’s Continental Army. Moving pieces is very easy, just drag and drop, and the game calculates the quickest path to the destination. You can also customize the path, in case you’d like to capture some cities along the way. Since the game’s turns are so long (one turn is one month), you will probably want to accomplish more than one goal per turn. Each unit has a stance or attitude that determines how willing they are to engage the enemy. Assaulting units will attack at all costs, aggressive units will siege enemy cities, defensive units can use the bonuses of surrounding terrain and will ignore enemy units unless attacked, and passive units can retreat. The postures add an interesting aspect of Birth of America: enemy units can occupy the same region without attacking each other. In every other strategy game (that I can remember), opposing units always fought if they were in the same area, whether you wanted them to or not. Sometimes, you want to hold your ground but wait for supplies or better weather, an important consideration in 18th century warfare. I’m glad that Birth of America supports this, adding to the realism of the game. As I mentioned before, you can also order your units to build forts and depots, entrench (for a greater defensive bonus), or attack besieging forces outside the city walls.

Birth of America features some very intriguing concepts while you play the game, which results in one of the most rewarding experiences in a wargame. Birth of America gives some advantages to the sneaky nature of the Indians, making them invisible to enemy units (even in the same region) and leaving the opposition open for an ambush attack. Moving or fighting during winter is strongly discouraged, as high attrition rates will result. This is pretty realistic; most of the battles of the Revolutionary War (and even the Civil War) took place between the Spring and Fall (except for that whole surprise attack thing Washington did). Waiting for fair weather is recommended if you want to stay alive. The combat is also handled automatically, simulated as a series of calculations weighing the different bonuses available to each side. There is a whole list of things that goes into determining the winner of a particular battle (leader bonuses, rate of fire, terrain, weather, supply, range, morale, posture, and luck) and I haven’t encountered any anomalies in the results that would discourage players of the game. You will mostly be playing the game against the AI, which is a formidable foe. Although the game is pretty easy (at least for me) on the default AI skill level, the AI plays well on higher difficulty levels, exploiting holes in your defense, attacking with combined forces, and in general playing like a fairly decent human opponent. As the game plays out, there is a good ebb and flow to the contest, as units fight over strategically important locations in a struggle for dominance, employing different strategies and waiting for just the right time to strike. Typically, you move a strong stack of units to an enemy city and wait outside the city walls until you are ready to attack. You can either besiege the city for several months or assault the fort; assaulting is only justified if you vastly outnumber the forces inside the city, otherwise the number of losses incurred by assaulting a fort head-on will become too great. Also, it is sometimes better to wait for optimum conditions in Birth of America, as opposed to a lot of real time strategy games, where you just throw a whole bunch of units at the enemy and hope for the best. The side with the least amount of forces can win a battle in Birth of America, if good tactics and overall strategy is used (albeit through defensive techniques).

Birth of America has many different elements that come together quite nicely to deliver a very satisfying game. For a game that features a lot of advanced concepts (weather, attrition, postures, supply, terrain, combat bonuses), it is surprisingly easy to play and is much easier to handle than other grand strategy games, including Europa Universalis. A lot of this results from the fact that the game runs a lot of the background tasks for you (such as drafting new units and supply). Still, it never feels like the game is playing itself and you’re just a bystander, unlike some other titles that have removed most of the micromanagement. Birth of America has historically accurate combat and units to satisfying even the most discernable war junkie. The game could have used a multiplayer mode, but you won’t even really notice as you engage the capable AI. It is much more fun to play as an attacker than a defender, however, as successfully defending cities is not much more than stockpiling units and having them entrench. Luckily, most of the longer scenarios provide opportunities for both sides to play both offense and defense, and positioning your forces to best guard your important cities does take some skill. The shorter scenarios finished quickly (especially when I am used to hour long strategy games); whether you like fast games is more of a personal preference, but when the scenario ended, I always wanted more. Overall, Birth of America features the best grand strategic gameplay I’ve seen since Europa Universalis, and I actually enjoy Birth of America more because of the removal of economic management and diplomacy, leaving just the tasty core of wholesome strategy. Any self-respecting fan of strategy and war games should pick up Birth of America, as it delivers the whole package strategy fans desire.