Saturday, 12 April 2014

Wilderness War

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Wilderness War is a game I bought 10 years ago in Taiwan, and only recently got around to play it. Back then I had underestimated its complexity (or overestimated my capability). Later, even after I started to delve into more complex games, I still never quite found the time or will to play it, even after I bought the deluxe game board (the original game board was just thin poster paper). This year, because of my new year resolution of planning one hard-to-arrange game per month, I finally managed to bring it to the table.

Wilderness War is a card driven game, like Twilight Struggle, Paths of Glory, and Washington's War. The cards contain events which bring out much of the story, and can also be played for their operations points to execute various actions on the board. The historical backdrop is the French and Indian War in North America, i.e. the same as Martin Wallace's A Few Acres of Snow. This is a rare topic in boardgames. This period in history was a turning point for North America, when the English defeated the French to become the main colonial power. However soon after this the War of Independence occurred, and the colonies broke away to become USA.

One player plays the English, and the other the French. The objective of the game is to reach a certain victory point (VP) level, while the English can also win by capturing specific locations. VP's scored by both sides are always net off, like in Twilight Struggle, so it's a tug of war on the score track. VP's are gained mainly by winning battles, capturing or destroying fortifications, and raiding. The game comes with a few scenarios, varying between 3 to 8 hours of gameplay. Victory conditions differ slightly depending on scenario. Each scenario lasts a fixed number of years, and each year has two rounds, a round being a complete play of a hand of cards.

The board shows the French colony in the northeast and the British colony in the south. In between is a huge swath of forests and mountains. There are three main fronts in this war. In the centre both the British and the French have built fortifications along rivers, which allows them to quickly send troops to the front to fight. In the west the French has forts and allied Indian settlements in the wilderness which can be used as bases to raid the English colony. The French will want to raid, and the English needs to build fortifications to stop that, or bring the fight to the raiders. The third front is the Louisbourg front, where only the English, if they are able to draw an amphibious landing card, can attack the French port fortress of Louisbourg. If they are successful, they can further press on along the coastline to attack Quebec and even Montreal eventually. The French, having a weaker navy, has no option to launch an attack in the opposite direction.

You can say there is a fourth front in this war - the raiding game. Raiding scores points, and the French which tends to have more Red Indian friends, has much incentive to raid the English colonies which has a long border.

This is the central front at the start of the game. This is looking southwards, i.e. looking at USA from Canada (although neither country existed at the time of this war). Those boxes in the foreground are holding boxes for generals. Instead of stacking so many pieces on the board, you can place troops and subordinate generals lead by one particular general in his holding box. At this moment the English has three generals in the vicinity (red coats), and the French has two (white coats), one on the main board itself and the other in the holding box of the lead general.

This is the western front at the start of the game. The French has one general rubbing his hands greedily getting ready for raiding. The English has started putting up fortifications, but there are still gaps.

A full view of the board. Square (and rectangular) spaces are cultivated spaces, round spaces are wilderness, and triangle spaces are mountains. When regular troops move, they must stop in the next space if they pass through a wilderness space without friendly fortifications.

There are three types of troops - regulars, auxiliaries and militia. Regulars fight well in the colonies, i.e. cultivated spaces. They can besiege. They can build fortifications. However moving regular troops in the wilderness is difficult. They must stop in the next space when they move through forests, unless there is a friendly fortification. If they lose a battle in the wilderness, they must be able to retreat to a cultivated space or a friendly fortification. Else they all die. Auxiliaries (Red Indians, British rangers and French coureurs) don't suffer these penalties. They move quickly. They can raid. But they are much weaker, and they can't besiege or build fortifications. When fighting in cultivated spaces, if you don't have regular troops but your opponent does, you suffer a penalty. When fighting in the wilderness, if you don't have auxiliaries but your opponent does, you suffer a penalty too. The use of regulars and auxiliaries in this game is one of its interesting features.

Movement on the board is mostly centred around leaders. The action cost for moving regular troops individually is high, so you will need to rely on your leaders to lead armies. Some leaders can lead as many as 7 units. Auxiliaries are much cheaper to move individually, but if you intend to use them to raid, you'd better have some leaders guiding them. Without leaders, raids tend to be rather iffy.

Players use the same deck of cards. Some cards can be used by only one side as events. Drawing your opponent's event is bad in that you can only use it for operation points, but it is also good in that you have denied your opponent this event which may be quite useful to him.

The Play

On 4 Apr Allen and I had our first outing with Wilderness War. Since this is a game about British ascendency and French demise, I let him play the British.

We played the shortest scenario, 1757 - 1759, so there were only six rounds, i.e. six hands of cards to play. The scenario started off with many troops already near the central front. We further escalated that by consolidating troops there and combining them into two huge stacks. The situation remained so for the whole game. We had some battles, and we continued to send reinforcements. It was an escalation that neither of us were able to back down from. As the French I had to commit all my resources here, because I received fewer new troops than the English did. As the English, Allen could afford to send some new troops to other fronts. Thankfully the French was still strong in the early game, and I managed to win some battles and even capture a fort. However I did not really break through that front, and we more or less maintained a nervous stalemate on this front throughout the game.

In scenarios starting in 1757, armies at the central front are already on the brink of battle.

To simplify the situation at the central front, we kept the army commanders (i.e. the lead generals) on the board, while we moved the subordinate generals to the holding boxes of the commanders. I moved my units there too. Round units are auxiliaries, square units are regulars. These match the shapes of locations on the map.

To make things even easier to see, I spread out my units, so that I could more easily add up their combat values. The four on the upper left are Red Indians of various tribes. The two on the upper right are coureurs, French soldiers adept at fighting in the wilderness. The top numbers on them are their combat values. The bottom numbers are their movement values. The square units at the bottom are regular troops. The numbers on the left are the combat values, and those on the right are movement values. When injured, a unit is flipped over to show the weakened side with a diminished combat value on a white background.

Allen's English army. Those with a red background are Englishmen. Those with a green background are provincial troops.

The situation at the central front kept escalating. We were both sending more and more troops here. In hindsight, this might not be a good idea. In the deck there is one Smallpox card which hurts many units at one go, especially when played on a crowded spot.

At the end of every year (i.e. every two rounds), there is a wintering phase. Regular troops need to return to civilisation (i.e. cultivated spaces), or suffer heavy attrition. Forts and stockades in the wilderness can accommodate some regular troops, but they have limited capacity. This photo shows the end of autumn, so troops at the central front have now all temporarily retreated.

I was very lucky with the Louisbourg front. In early 1757 I played a French Squadron card which prevented the English from making an amphibious assault on Louisbourg for the rest of the year. This meant I could ignore defending Louisbourg, at least for the short term. That was only the start of my good luck. Throughout the whole game, Allen did not draw a single Amphibious Assault card! There are three in the deck, and the cards get reshuffled not only when they are exhausted but also when a specific card is played. In one of the rounds I drew all three of them! No Amphibious Assault meant Allen could not attack Louisbourg at all. He had two good generals there waiting to pounce, and he had also deployed troops there to be ready to launch an attack. Those were all wasted.

The Louisbourg front was uneventful.

On the western front, I eagerly did some raiding, and found out the hard way that it wasn't exactly a piece of cake. The chances of successfully raiding were not exactly high, and the risk of injuring my auxiliary units was high. I realised I really needed leaders to help improve my odds. I did manage to do some raids, but later on Allen assembled a strike force and came after me. I only had weak units which were no match at all, so I had to keep retreating, burning stockades as I abandoned them, so that Allen didn't get the pleasure of scoring points when he captured them. I kept retreating until I reached Niagara. One of the winning conditions for the English was capturing both Ohio Forks and Niagara. Ohio Forks was near the English colony and had already fallen. I could not allow Niagara to fall too. His western army was fast approaching. Niagara was not too far from my French colony, so I could quickly redeploy troops there, but I needed troops in the central front too.

This is the western front. I succeeded in making some raids. Upon completion of any raid attempt, regardless of success or failure, the raiding party escapes (teleports) back to the nearest fortification or Red Indian settlement. This makes raiders hard to catch. This is guerilla warfare. The location where that French general is standing is Ohio Forks, one of the victory objectives of the English. Allen had amassed strong English regular troops and was coming to get me. I did not have French troops to spare to help out here. I could at best do an organised retreat, burning stockades as I went to prevent them from falling into English hands.

The French started the scenario with 4VP. Throughout the game I managed to score more than Allen due to battles and raids, and my score was approaching the 11VP required for a sudden death victory. In case no other victory conditions were met by the end of the scenario, I would win by simply having VP's. So the pressure was on Allen to capture Niagara, which was his only realistic option by then, because it would be much harder to take away my 11VP within the little time remaining. I did a gamble. I sent more troops to the central front, threatening to defeat Allen's army for that last 1VP I needed to reach 11VP. This was just trickery, and it worked. Allen quickly consolidated his troops in one spot in anticipation for the battle. Then on my next turn, I took the chicken way - I captured an English stockade which Allen had left undefended. That was worth 1VP too, and I reached 11VP to win.

This was the end of our game. That stockade in the centre had been captured and turned into a French (blue) stockade.

After the game, I rechecked and reread the rules, and found out that I had taken advantage of Allen in more ways than one. I had incorrectly interpreted that sudden death meant the game ended immediately when one side reached 11VP. The correct way is to check for this condition only at the end of a year. So we should not have ended the game where we did, and my devious plan might not have been feasible at all because I had left Niagara poorly defended. Another mistake I made was regarding the French Squadron card. I played it in 1757, and it was removed from the game. Upon removal of this card, the French was not allowed to make any more naval moves. I had forgotten about that and in 1759 had redeployed some troops from Louisbourg via a naval move to reinforce the central front.

There was a third way I gained an advantage. There is a Massacre card which kills all Red Indians present when the enemy successfully assaults a fort or fortress. Allen played it on me, but he played it as a regular event, instead of as a response event when I captured his fortification. He had to take it back, and since I knew he had that card, I delayed my attack on his fort until he used the card for operations points. If he had played it at the right moment, it would have been a devastating blow to me because I had many Red Indians in my army.

I think we should do a rematch. :-)

The Thoughts

I find Wilderness War a game that gives me a lot of "feel". Perhaps it is because it has a rarely-used setting. The game feels unique. It has a strong character. The event cards really bring out the story. Much of your strategic manoeuvring has dependency on the event cards you draw, so to a certain extent you are at the mercy of fate. In most cases you will eventually draw the card you need, but the question is when. You need to make the most of what you are dealt. You grab an opportunity that arises. You try to do damage control when you get a poor hand, or when your opponent has a powerful hand. Every fresh hand of cards is exciting because you need to consider all the possibilities it offers you, how it can support your current strategy on the board, and whether you need to switch tactics on some fronts. Knowledge of the card deck is important. There are some powerful events you need to watch out for, e.g. the Massacre and Smallpox cards mentioned above. You need to anticipate event cards that your opponent may play, and prepare for them. If you happen to draw these cards, even though you can't use them as events, the fact that you are holding the cards means you know opponent won't have these options this round. So you can discount these threats when you plan your round. I find it an interesting design to have players share the same deck of cards.

The execution details like leaders, movement, battles and sieges are nothing particularly noteworthy. They work. What I do like is the additional touches that give the game some character, e.g. regulars vs auxiliaries.

Compared to A Few Acres of Snow, Wilderness War is more detailed, more complex and requires more effort. A Few Acres of Snow uses an abstract way to represent armies and battles. They are represented by cards and there are no actual units on the board. Before I played Wilderness War I wondered whether I would like it more than A Few Acres of Snow because it is more detailed. Now that I have played it, I find that it doesn't diminish what I think of A Few Acres of Snow. Not having detailed control over armies is not really an issue. In fact sometimes micromanaging armies can feel tedious. In A Few Acres of Snow, you decide what cards to buy to augment your personal deck. You are at the mercy of the order of cards being drawn from your deck, but what cards get added to your deck is completely under your control. In Wilderness War, the uncertainty is not only in the timing of cards appearing, but also whether the cards are being drawn by the "right" player. In A Few Acres of Snow, the difficulty is your deck grows to become more and more unwieldy, and it becomes harder and harder to draw what you need when you need it. In Wilderness War, the shared card deck presents the players different hands every round, and the challenge is making your hand work for you, not just for that round, but also for the longer term. At the tactical level, i.e. where you spend cards as operations points, you are restricted by whether you draw high numbered cards. At the strategic level, where events dictate reinforcements, allow amphibious assaults and trigger many other powerful effects, you need to puzzle out how to best use the events and the order of their appearance. A lot of excitement comes from seeing what hand you are dealt next, and whether a carefully planned event card play will work out. These two games are very different, despite trying to simulate the same difficulties faced by the two colonial powers in this war.


Mark D. said...

Really enjoyed this review/replay Hiew, and added a link to it on the front page of Thanks for taking the time to give this old game some renewed attention. I haven't played it in years, but I always liked it. Now I'm going to have to dust it off and play...

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thank you Mark. I look forward to playing Wilderness War again, and hopefully without making any rules mistakes this time. :-)