Thursday, May 03, 2007

AGEod’s American Civil War Review

AGEod’s American Civil War, developed and published by AGEod.
The Good: Deep strategic gameplay where sheer numbers don’t necessarily win, good variety of scenarios, quality AI, gigantic massed units are no longer an issue, great graphical style, extensive tooltips
The Not So Good: Overwhelming to new players, more smaller scenarios would be welcomed, garrisoned and immovable forces show up on the minimap making it difficult to spot “useful” troops
What say you? Birth of America gets civil in this more complex, but still enjoyable, follow-up: 7/8

The Civil War is coming close to being the new World War II, as many recent games have taken this national conflict as their focus. History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided, Take Command, and Forge of Freedom have all tackled this era of internal strife. The developers of last year’s excellent Birth of America are back and they’ve taken the engine to the Civil War in the appropriately-named AGEod’s American Civil War. Will the BoA mechanics work in a slightly more recent conflict?

The graphics of AGEod’s American Civil War are eerily similar to Birth of America; this is a good thing, as this is about as good as a 2-D game on a 2-D map is going to look. The background map continues the strong attention to detail that was present in the previous title. The map looks “alive,” or as alive as a static 2-D map look. It is obvious that a large amount of attention was paid to delivering a solid visual environment for the game. This extends to the unit icons: the caricatures of each of the important generals in the game are very well done (although I personally can’t tell the difference between Bearded General #1 and Bearded General #2). This firmly puts the game in a historical context, and AGEod’s American Civil War does well in providing a convincing gaming environment. The game also includes tooltips for every icon in the game, and the user interface overall is largely unchanged from Birth of America. The game features period-appropriate background music, but it comes on randomly and only plays for a short period of time. Just when you’re getting into the tune, it turns off. AGEod’s American Civil War also had repetitive battle sounds that tend to get annoying after a while. A more constant and subdued background music, in addition to less jarring effects, would improve the sound in the game.

In AGEod’s American Civil War, you’ll be commanding either the United States or the Confederate States in the bloodiest war during the 1860’s in America. The game has two tutorials, the first of which is rather long and requires a disturbingly large amount of reading. It’s comprehensive but dry in its presentation and it becomes monotonous; dividing the tutorial into sensible bites would have been more preferable. AGEod’s American Civil War does feature a number of scenarios to play with, which is one advantage over its main competition. You can enter the war in April of 1861, July 1861, 1862, 1863, or 1864. You will be in control of both theaters, although the manual alludes to the availability of choosing the eastern or western areas of combat (future patch?). AGEod’s American Civil War also features a number of smaller, more intimate scenarios covering Bull Run, Shiloh, and Gettysburg. These are great for your first real test, but I would like to see even more smaller scenarios that highlight regional conflicts during the war, such as Antietam or Sherman’s Georgia campaign to name a few. You can play a match against the competent AI over through the wargame-standard PBEM (play by e-mail) format. Winning the war means gathering victory points by holding strategically important cities, defeating enemy troops, or gaining the most morale. National morale is affected by achieving objectives, being successful in battles, war weariness, and other things like promoting younger officers over more experienced (but less qualified) ones an Lincoln’s re-election in 1864.

The user interface in AGEod’s American Civil War generally makes it easy to combine and find units in the game: everything is done by dragging and dropping, even combining unit names in the lower informational screen. However, my biggest issue with the game is the minimap: I wish it didn’t show locked units. This makes your forces look larger than they should be, as it puts every force you own on the map, even ones you can’t do anything with. Just adding the ability to eliminate immobile units from the minimap would please me immensely. Like Birth of America (which I guess could be said for a lot of things in the game), the game map is divided into regions (counties) each with their own terrain, civilization level (for supplies), and development. Weather and climate in the game are important, as they affect movement, supply, combat, and attrition. AGEod’s American Civil War has automated supply, and supply wagons can be built for “remote” operations, but you’ll still need to keep your eye on things if you venture too far into enemy territory.

The economy in AGEod’s American Civil War is used to recruit new troops. You don’t have to do any resource management or even build new structures (like Forge of Freedom), but you are limited to the amount of troops you can recruit based on the provinces you own. You can gain more money for troops by raising war bonds, raising taxes to extreme levels, and printing money (which unfortunately increases inflation). Blockading and raiding enemy ships can also result in some new income. Additional forces can also be gained by calling for volunteers and mobilizing forces. The units in the game run the gamut from infantry squads to field artillery, cavalry, snipers, and ships. Most units are recruited from a specified state (and appear in a semi-random county) and fight better in their home land. I like this realistic approach to recruitment, and it lends a sort of realism to the army composition in the game. Probably the biggest change from Birth of America is the elimination of big stacks of units. Now, each general has a limit to the amount of troops they can command at once (based on their star rating). This results in a much more realistic game, as the battles are much more believable in terms of scale. Troops are organized in divisions, corps (is the plural of corps “corpses?”), and armies. Armies require a three or four star general, who can grant command bonuses to any corps under their command in a large area, so corps don’t always need to be located in the same county (or even the same state) as their parent army. The special abilities from Birth of America have carried over, and having divisions and units with these 70 skills can turn the tide of a battle in your favor even if you’re outnumbered. For example, an artillerist general can give a 25% combat bonus to artillery in the stack, a partisan can give bonuses to irregular units, and a skirmisher can quickly retreat from battle. Using your units to the best of their abilities is how you win the war (much like real life).

Like combining troops, giving orders is a drag-and-drop affair. The game gives an estimate for the number of days it will take to execute the orders (AGEod’s American Civil War has two-week turns). There are some special orders you can issue, like using faster river and rail movement, synchronizing the travel of an army stack, and attacking a seiging army. Troops can also be issued posture orders; these determine whether they will storm a fort, attack enemy units, not engage unless attacked, or attempt to avoid combat altogether. When units do collide, combat is completely automated, but it uses a whole bunch of stuff to determine the winner (discipline, experience, cover, weather, special abilities, supply wagon support, entrenching, et cetera). If you lose troops (and you will), they are replaced automatically if you have spent the dough recruiting replacements beforehand.

AGEod’s American Civil War is the next logical step in AGEod’s franchise, adding meaningful embellishments to Birth of America and resulting in a similar but different gaming experience. The game is certainly on a larger scale and, subsequently, is harder to get into for new players. The tutorial could be less tedious, but the manual does a good job giving out the information without turning into a 300-page monster, eating your family in an anger-filled rage (it’s funny until it happens to you). The game’s focus on the unit composition elements of the game and effectively using special abilities makes AGEod’s American Civil War a uniquely complex gaming experience that strategy buffs will enjoy immensely. The game is a couple of small tweaks away from a perfect score, and the large number of similarities to Birth of America brings it down a bit as well (it’s not as ground-breaking or unique the second time around), but AGEod’s American Civil War is still very fun to play.

If you're familiar with strategy games, you're probably asking yourself: Forge of Freedom or AGEod’s American Civil War? AGEod’s American Civil War or Forge of Freedom? The answer is, of course, “both:” each game has its strong points and missing features. AGEod’s American Civil War has more scenarios. Forge of Freedom has tactical battles. AGEod’s American Civil War has a simplified economy that focuses on unit production. Forge of Freedom’s economy is about resource production. I feel that AGEod’s American Civil War has more complex and deeper strategic gameplay due to the limited stack sizes, special abilities, and more varied options, but the two games are really close together in terms of quality. Really, Forge of Freedom and AGEod’s American Civil War take slightly different approaches: Forge of Freedom focuses on tactical battles and overall general strategy, while AGEod’s American Civil War involves a more detailed army composition model. So, I guess I can say “both” and not feel completely bad about being so indecisive. In any event, AGEod’s American Civil War is a very good strategy game and another feather in the cap for its developers.