Monday, July 28, 2008

Gary Grigsby's War Between The States Review

Gary Grigsby's War Between The States, developed by 2by3 Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Streamlined unit management, a lot of the minutiae is automated, good AI opponent, robust rules options
The Not So Good: Overwhelmingly complex for novices, only three scenarios, inadequate interactive tutorials
What say you? Strategy buffs will enjoy this thorough take on the Civil War: 6/8

The American Civil War is the new World War II. Simply look at the flood of games addressing our new favorite time period: AGEod’s American Civil War, Forge of Freedom, Take Command: 2nd Manassas, plus a bunch of crappy titles I didn't even mention. Yes sir, the eternal struggle between the North and the South is popular, and it has been renewed once again in the form of Gary Grigsby's War Between The States. Obviously taking a Southern slant on the conflict, the folks at 2by3 Games, responsible for World at War and War in the Pacific, two titles known for their unflinching complexity. How will their approach affect action in the mid-1800s?

War Between The States is not one of the most visually impressive grand strategy games, especially when you consider it against the fleet of AGEod titles. You can adjust the window size from the default 1024x768 to fill up more of the screen and display more of the map. The map lacks the flair of other 2-D maps with just a passable level of detail. Battles are conducted using simple bar graphs instead of at least some animation. Obviously, War Between The States isn’t going to win any prizes for graphical excellence. On the sound front, the game is not impressive here either: you get basic movement effects and period-specific background music that’s more understated than other games in the genre. A top-notch presentation is certainly not a requirement for a grand strategy game, especially one with wargame-like pedigree, but it would be a nice feature.

Gary Grigsby's War Between The States lets you control either the Union or Confederate side during the American Civil War. You can play the game against the AI or undergo a play-by-e-mail contest against another player. In addition, you can have the computer manage production if you'd like a more simplified game. Games can be customized by altering the difficulty level (which affects bonuses, positive and negative, to the players) and introducing advanced or additional rules like fog of war, leader ability randomization, and command point recovery. You can also adjust message delays, so you don't have to sit through five-minute-long computer turns. War Between The States comes with four in-game tutorials that only cover the basics and are not enough to understand what the heck is going on. Instead, you'll have to devote some time to watching the video tutorials and (gasp!) reading the manual. The game only comes with three scenarios with different start dates; War Between The States lacks ahistorical what-if missions or smaller map areas that only deal with, say, the western campaign. The lack of campaign variety does certainly limit replay value somewhat.

Wargames aren't exactly known for inviting user interfaces, but War Between The States takes some steps in the right direction. It is very easy to combine units: all of the units in a particular region are listed along the top of the screen, and a simple double-click will assign an independent militia force to a commander. In addition, using control-F will gather nearby units to the selected commander, bringing newly spawned forces to the frontlines with a simple press of a button: that's really cool and unquestionably helpful. Unit types are simplified, with straightforward types like “infantry,” “cavalry,” and “heavy artillery.” This means you don't have to worry about upgrading units with new weapons or any of that stuff your subordinates should be in charge of. Leaders, obviously, are an important aspect of your military force. Each leader is rated in a number of areas (speed, rank, command rating, attack, defense, infantry, cavalry, artillery, naval, administration, training, mortality) that should be noted in order to maximize their effectiveness. Leaders are activated over time: each has a probability of appearing during each turn (month), and you can attempt to activate two leaders each turn (there are no options to automate this process, surprisingly). Leaders will automatically advance in rank through combat experience or troop training, and superior leaders can be appointed theatre or army commanders. Unit training is also done automatically (see a trend forming?), turning sub-standard militia into effective infantry. You can also morph (It's Morphin' Time!) infantry units into mounted ones if you have enough supplies.

Each turn (with represents a month) essentially consists of two phases, although there are a lot of things automated in the background: movement and production. You can also react to an enemy offensive during the appropriately-named reaction phase on occasion. Movement may be conducted in two ways: tactical (marching) or strategic (using railroads or transport ships). There are a lot of restrictions on movement, I suppose to represent strategic options that aren't available, but not allowing large stacks of units to move into an adjacent province even if they haven't done anything this turn is annoying. You can initiate cavalry scouting or raids in addition to the typical military operation. If the enemy forces are outnumbered 6:1 (or more), you will automatically win by overrun; otherwise, it's time for combat. Combat is a complex operation that is thankfully performed in the background (albeit slowly). There is a “whole bunch” (technical term) of variables used to compute the winner: committed units, combat modifiers, critical hits, attrition, and casualty checks, to name a few. After the bar graph display ends, damaged and captured units are calculated, units retreat, and experience is gained. Militia is automatically mobilized in invaded territory, but it will obviously not stand a chance against any organized force.

Since militia is automatically (there's that word again) created, production simply concerns making large, metallic units like artillery and ships. Each state has a number of factories that can produce things, and you can go through each city and queue up some orders. All additional production points can be used to make supplies by selecting an icon, a useful feature that doesn't make you scroll through each city. Supply is, again, automated, but you can make depots to bring things closer to the frontlines. Forts can also be quickly (a bit too quickly, in my opinion) constructed for defensive purposes. The naval aspect of War Between The States shouldn't be ignored, as a robust navy is important for blockades, amphibious transport, and raiding the aforementioned supplies.

So, how do you win? War Between The States uses political points (which are also used to determine the population needed for new militia units, the Presidential election, and the Emancipation Proclamation): first one to 0 loses. The Union can also lose if you don't win the 1864 Presidential election (which is tied to political points, so you probably would have lost anyway) or if the game lasts until July 1865. The AI seems to be a good opponent, using appropriate strategies that appear to be varied in successive games. There is some weird bug with tons of leaders appearing in each province, but I haven't seen this impact the gameplay much.

Gary Grigsby's War Between The States is designed with the strategy veteran in mind. The game is more approachable than previous 2by3 titles (War in the Pacific, specifically), but I still think it will ultimately appeal to players accustomed with these kinds of games. I definitely like how many things are automated in the game: unit training, leader advancement, supply, combat, militia recruitment. This makes it easier to control your side during the war. The game is also produces some accurate results, and the strategic value of the title can't be disputed. The video tutorials are almost exhaustive, if a bit dry to watch, but reading the manual is still, unfortunately, a must. The lack of scenario variety (only three historical campaigns) and the high level of complexity will turn some new players away. In the end, I like Forge of Freedom and AGEod’s American Civil War more, but War Between The States is still a generally solid title that will appease fans of the time period and genre.