Friday, December 08, 2006

Forge of Freedom: The American Civil War 1861-1865 Review

Forge of Freedom: The American Civil War 1861-1865, developed by Western Civilization Software and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Highly customizable rules greatly lessens the learning curve, appropriate portions of the game are automated or simplified without reducing depth, potential minutiae overload due to the large map area is offset by limited city locations, realistic unit organization tools, multiple paths to victory, appropriate background music, grand strategy and tactical battles
The Not So Good: More scenarios, please, detailed battles last a really long time (but they can be skipped)
What say you? A Civil War grand strategy game with flexible complexity that’s friendly to new players while still maintaining strategic variety: 7/8

The Civil War holds a mystical place in American history, especially in certain parts of the country. The clashes between the Union and the Confederacy have been re-enacted countless times across the country, numerous movies and books have been filmed and written about those troubled times, and some people still proudly display the Confederate Navy Jack as a display of Southern pride (sure it is) on their pickup truck. There have been several notable computer games involving the War Between the States, including the semi-recent Take Command: 2nd Manassas. Most of these games have been at the tactical-level, but now Western Civilization Software brings its Crown of Glory engine to this time period, providing a grand strategy game for fans of war in the 60’s (the 1860’s, of course).

Instead of using a hex-based map like For Liberty!, Forge of Freedom uses a provincially divided map like Birth of America. The map is a combination of hand-drawn elements and computerized textures and it looks very good. Most of the objects on the map are clearly defined, and the rivers have been exaggerated in breadth so that selecting river provinces is easier. The icons are easy to understand, and the map is hardly ever cluttered, except in Maryland and northern Virginia when lots of troops are present. The map is rendered at a large enough scale to make almost everything clearly visible. The main map can’t be zoomed in or out, however, which makes locating some troops in far away places more difficult (the military overview screen shows the location of corps, divisions, and armies, but not single brigades). Still, I like the style of the game’s graphics: functional and pleasing to look at. The sound is very similar: good quality, especially for a wargame. Forge of Freedom includes an excellent selection of period music that will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the Civil War. While the sound effects are pretty bare during most of the game, they do come about during battles, although they repeat themselves too much. I do enjoy the gun loading instructions while the game starts up: that’s a nice touch. Like Crown of Glory, Forge of Freedom loves to eat up RAM, so make sure you beef up your system, as the game is more demanding than most wargames. It’s worth it, though, as Forge of Freedom looks as good as you would expect for a grand strategy game.

While most grand strategy games can prove to be overwhelming, especially to new players (see For Liberty! and Hearts of Iron II for examples), Forge of Freedom allows the player to tailor how many of the game’s rules they want to have activated. This is probably one of its greatest attributes as it changes how complicated or straightforward you want to game to function. Forge of Freedom includes three pre-set levels of difficulty, but it also allows you to customize each individual setting. Is unit attrition too annoying? Is Fog of War dumb? Don’t care about European intervention? Hate governors? Forge of Freedom allows you adjust 30 different facets of the game. This is unlike Western Civilization Software’s previous game Crown of Glory, where everything in the game was piled on top of you from the beginning. Flexibility is always a good thing in computer games as it allows a single title to appeal to a large range of people. Thus, Forge of Freedom is not just geared to grognards, but also to people who just want to order troops around and not have to worry about supply or unit attrition. Games are supposed to be fun, not a chore, and Forge of Freedom allows you to set how demanding you want the game to be. You can play against the mostly decent AI (higher difficulty levels “cheat” in its favor to compensate for some lacking intelligence), by e-mail (a wargamer’s favorite), or over a LAN or known IP address, although almost all multiplayer games will be played by e-mail, since they can take quite a while. The game ships with only three scenarios: the standard November 1861 setup, an earilier July 1861 start date, and a small setup with troops in Maryland and Virginia. I would like to have a greater variety of start dates and alternate histories avilable; starting in 1863, after a Confederate victory at Gettysburg, or even after major battles would have increased the replay value more and eliminated the repetitive feeling experienced at the beginning of each new game. Hopefully some modders will take this expansion project under their wing, as all of the scenario files are plain text files and easily changed if you know what you're doing.

Forge of Freedom has all of the states that were present during the Civil War, and each state is divided into several provinces (except for the smaller, insignificant New England states that are so insignificant that they don’t warrant multiple provinces due to their insignificant-ness). Forge of Freedom puts a great emphasis on major rivers: the game gives them their own provinces, which makes sense when you consider their historical strategic value. Some provinces contain cities, which are the only locations that can produce new buildings and units (“rural” provinces only produce resources). This cuts down on the micromanagement greatly, as the number of cities is usually small and definitely manageable. You must control a city and all of the forts in a province to control it (this is done by siege, an automated process once you give the order), and controlling a province in a state where you do not control the capital will cut the income in half. Newly “acquired” provinces only provide half of their resources until unrest is beat down with a stick. Each of your cities can produce money or labor and iron or horses; typically, a city will produce more money or more labor, and you will generally choose the one that produces the most resources. Constructing buildings, which also allow for more units and other bonuses, can increase resource levels. You can also gain a temporary boost in resources by mustering, conscripting, or impressing, but each of these actions has a negative impact on that region’s governor. Runners can also be used by the CSA to intercept naval supply chains. If you choose the more advanced rules, you also have to worry about supply, unit upkeep, upgrades, and unit attrition. Outside influences can also be a concern: governors can request certain structures and even leave your cause if relations become bad enough, and the European powers can supply resources and even fight on your side if you commit enough money to improve diplomatic matters. All of this economic information is well summarized in the game’s numerous reports, and you can perform many of the game’s tasks from these data tables. I like how Forge of Freedom gives the player many options in directing their economy without being uncontrollable, mostly due to the decreased number of unit producing cities.

Of course, what would any war be without military units? For ground forces, Forge of Freedom lets you raise infantry, cavalry, and artillery brigades. These brigades can be organized into divisions, corps, or armies, which are also constructed units in the game. In addition to being realistic, these container units are a good way of organizing your troops for battle. This eliminates 30-unit stacks that are present in most wargames: an army is essentially a 30-unit stack, but it’s treated as one single unit and organized how you see fit, placing your generals (the game has over 1,000)  in appropriate levels of command. I like it. Fleets at sea are organized in the same general fashion, as they contain frigates, ironclads, and gunboats. And the fact that there are only three basic kinds of infantry and three basic kinds of ships (there are other specialized units as well, but they are normally independent) makes producing units so much less complicated and lets you spend more time on the overall strategic picture and less time worry about whether to use infantry with Springfield or Henry rifles (unless, of course, you want to, as you can turn the weapon upgrades rule on). Units are issued movement orders, which may or may not be completed, depending on weather conditions. Rail movement is a little bit more reliable (and faster), but each side only has a limited number of rail movement points per turn. Your units can also be rated (if you choose advanced rules) for staff quality, special abilities, disposition (decreased by illness), and other attributes. When two units of opposing sides enter the same province, unless they are both given “avoid battle” orders, it’s time for MORTAL KOMBAT (cue the music). You can opt for instant, quick, or detailed combat. Quick combat involves giving each of your units charge, attack, or defend orders on a kind of chessboard. The game then automates the battle and whoever routs first loses. Detailed combat uses a more traditional wargame hex-based map approach to the game, which should be familiar to anyone who has played a hex-based wargame. It has all of the options you’d want: morale, supply, facing, formations, charging, special abilities, fatigue, and more. It’s a nice addition to Forge of Freedom, and the detailed combat is like a complete game within a game. However, detailed battles last a long time (15-90 minutes), although you can save it and come back to it later. Like most everything else in Forge of Freedom, detailed combat can be skipped if you want to worry about strategic operations more, or you can spend your time ordering around troops at a tactical level. As with all wars, there eventually has to be a victor (right, President Bush?). Victory in Forge of Freedom is calculated from national will (winning and losing large battles), captured enemy cities and capitals, lasting past December 1864 for the CSA, or successfully executing the Anaconda Plan for the USA.

Forge of Freedom offers the historical accuracy and solid strategic and tactical gameplay that you would expect in a quality grand strategy game. In addition, the rules options grant an excellent reduction to the learning curve and allows the player to adjust the complexity of the game, instead of a game developer making decisions for you. Unlike For Liberty!, which I feel throws too much at the player, Forge of Freedom is much easier to handle, especially for new players, due to the ability to select the rules you’d like in your particular game. While I did not particularly care for Crown of Glory, I enjoy Forge of Freedom a heck of a lot more. Maybe it’s because I am more familiar with the Civil War than Napoleon times, but I feel that Forge of Freedom is a more flexible and complete game. Between Forge of Freedom and the soon-to-be-released Europa Universalis III, this is a great time to be a fan of grand strategy games. The combination of grand strategy and classic detailed tactical battles gives Forge of Freedom a leg up on most of the competition in terms of game features. Forge of Freedom is a highly enjoyable title that’s recommended to anyone who wants to take his or her shot at commanding the Civil War.