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The U.S. Civil War – Welcome to a Lost Cause

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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Board Game: The U.S. Civil War

Cutting to the chase, GMT’s The U.S. Civil War is not a better game than For the People.

It certainly hews closer to the history though. In fact, The U.S. Civil War is Exhibit A in the case against getting it too right, simulation wise.

Playing TUSCW is not that far removed from reading a history book titled "The U.S. Civil War." There are no surprises here: Generals’ ratings don't matter that much and range only from 0-2, with most being a 1 (you can guess who the 2s are); events happen when they should, even battlefield deaths occurring right on schedule (even without combat); the Federals take the historical routes of advance, as there’s no reason to deviate from them; recruitment rates are fixed to the, presumably, historical rate.

Whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on what you’re looking for in an ACW game. I was looking for something a little more, well, new. The majority of rules here are direct clones from Victory Games’ The Civil War and GMT’s For the People.

From my playings of all three scenarios I can’t see the CSA ever winning any of them against competent play. That’s not enough experience for me to declare the game unbalanced, but it doesn’t matter, as even in the unlikely event we completely misplayed the Confederates I never want to play them again. Ever.

I don’t mind playing the forlorn hope if there’s at least a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel. In TUSCW the path forward is pitch black for the Rebs. Since the menu is fixed and there is no political dimension the CSA player is basically a pinsetter, setting them up so the USA player can knock them down, turn after painful turn. The game’s smooth mechanics make this sorta fun, for a time, but a little goes a long way here.

You will occasionally have a tactical or operational success as the Rebs, but the resolution mechanisms are not in themselves engaging enough to be keep you entertained for the 6-8+ hours it will take to play out a campaign. Most of this time you will find yourself being smacked around while you occasionally manage to duck a punch or even land a glancing blow against the Federals.

Though mechanically the game works and feels right for the period the operational tempo seems a tad fast. A lot can happen each turn. There are many more naval actions going down than in FtP. The Confederacy is a very leaky boat in this game and Union troops poke new holes in her every turn. Do use the advanced naval rules which are, not to be too academic, way cool. In fact all the advanced/optional rules are worthwhile.

There’s much initial love for TUSCW online and chatter that it is going be become a classic. I don’t see it and here’s why:

1. Too predictable. In FtP the random nature of the cards gives the CSA hope. The same hope I reckon the southerners had when they embarked on this doomed endeavor. In FtP you can actually gain a march on the more lethargic Union generals. Some turns your recruitment efforts really bear fruit. You can delay the Emancipation Proclamation. And every once in a blue moon even get the Europeans to intervene on side of the Confederacy. None of that happens in TUSCW.

2. Point-to-point movement really works better for the ACW. To supply any significant force you need rail or river lines and so all those hexes don’t really serve much purpose except for the cavalry raid sideshow that, while fun, doesn't amount to much.

3. The South’s only path to victory is avoiding complete extinction. This puts the CSA player in the wrong mindset right from the start. Invading the north in TUSCW is exceptionally high risk, low reward. There’s a very limited time for it to work in the early going after which the CSA switches over to full hedgehog defense. And even if you hedgehog efficiently enough to squeak out a win by holding the Federals to 59 victory points that's not at all satisfying.

The bottom line problem is that once you remove all politics, the U.S. civil war was of course grossly unbalanced. The south was not ever going to militarily occupy the north. Without the politics you truly only have a lost cause. And while there’s a certain romance to that, it does not make for an enjoyable game.

Classic games are above all else fun to play repeatedly. For me TUSCW isn’t. I’m not sorry I invested my time in it and it is a quality product; however, at my house it will spend most of its time on the shelf unless I can get one of the local southern boys to play the CSA. Smacking the rebels around is fun in an anthill-kicking sort of way.

Wa-woo-woohoo, wa-woo woohoo!

Wish that were a rebel yell kicking off a promising drive north, but sadly it's the sound of the rebel player crying every reinforcement phase.

From gallery of FinalWord

The U.S. Civil War
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