The siege of Savannah in 1779 was a notoriously one-sided affair. An ill-advised and poorly coordinated French-American assault on the city was rapidly crushed among the dense British defence lines, leaving piles of Allied dead while the British suffered only light casualties. D'Estaing proved his personal courage, but at the cost of thousands of dead and dying. Sieges don't seem like the most promising wargame topic in any case, so why play this game, let alone buy it?
The GMT AWI series reached its fourth iteration with Svannah, and the series' reputation for fast-moving, relatively straightforward mechanics is well-deserved. Mark Miklos' series rules are clear and brief, and although the pecularities of the Savannah situation come in a separate booklet of game-specific rules, they are not that numerous, and are generally easy to remember in play.
As usual with GMT, the map and counters are a visual treat. One common query is why GMT opted for a 'deluxe' cardstock map, when only the corner featuring the city of Savannah itself features much action. Personally, I prefer the harder-wearing deluxe maps to the delicate paper sometimes used by GMT, and I'm happy to pay a bit extra for the likelihood of the map lasting a few years longer. As for the area covered by the map, the approach marches are usually completed in a few turns, and the British rarely sally out of their lines early on, so those interesting stretches of terrain - salt marshes, plantations, bluffs and so on - have been criticised as mere window-dressing. However, the map as a whole does perform one valuable function, which is to provide the siege itself with the right 'feel' for the area. Without those marshes, rice fields and other features, Savannah would lose some of its historical and geographical flavour. As it is, I enjoy the sense of time and place created by the evocatively drawn map. The 'paper time machine' concept is at work here.
A common feature with AWI games is their low counter density, and this for me is a major plus: fewer units means fewer decisions, but each decision (especially in a siege) will have greater consequences. Given that Savannah has additional complications and rules not found in the previous AWI games, this helps to keep the game moving. The units themselves are a fascinating mix, emphasised by Mark Simonitch's colourful counter art: from Negro Volunteers and British Convalescents, to Dillon's ferocious Irishmen and the French Avant Garde - even the Savannah Loyalists, depicted in smart 18th century frockcoats with outsized cuffs.
There are several key mechanics in the game. Each turn features an initiative phase, in which the two sides must roll to see who has the initiative; this can result in one side getting a 'double-move', and thereby transforming even a desperate situation. Once the initiative is determined, each side in turn conducts its movement, rallies disrupted and shattered units, faces defensive artillery fire (an effective way of portraying artillery power), and then conducts close combat.
The CRT is relatively bloodless, with step losses and captured units being quite rare; however, when the better units are disrupted, they leave second-rank units exposed to combat. As the difference in troop quality between each armies' front lines increases, the chances to inflict serious casualties on the weaker units grows. Furthermore, each army's morale is tracked, and the cumulative effects of casualties, captured units, disruptions and leader losses can result in armies becoming fatigued, wavering, and ultimately breaking - an automatic victory for the other side. It is helpful to keep some leaders within reach of the rear areas, to rally high-quality units which are disrupted in combat, so that they can be brought back to the fray and lead weaker units into action.
Leaders are also useful because they allow each player to draw a wider range of tactics chits, which can have an influence on the combat differential in each close combat (close combat is calulated using both odds ratios and a long list of modifiers, which nonetheless are quite easy to remember in play). I worked out a simple, random way of using these tactics chits for solitaire play (something for which the Savannah siege is well-suited), and they do add some interest and unpredictability to the combat system.
The historical scenario is a useful introduction to the game and its underlying system: the three armies (French/American and British) are already lined up on both sides of the siege works on the day of the actual assault, and the Allies have just five turns to break through the British abatis, redoubts, revetments and finally enter the city of Savannah itself. This is a tough proposition, but not impossible, and there are enough variables to give even this simple scenario some replay value.
The real meat of the game comes with the campaign, in which the actual assault - 16 'tactical turns' - is preceded by a varying number of 'strategic turns', in which the French and Americans must march to the city, and either launch a rapid assault or settle down for a lengthy period of digging siegeworks, bombarding the city, and hoping to undermine the defenders' morale. During these turns, both sides can draw cards which offer a wide selcection of benefits or setbacks. Given that these cards offer quite a bit of extra historical feel, and improve replay value, it's a shame that they don't feature more heavily: only about a dozen of the 55 cards will be drawn in any game, and not all can be played by both sides. You would definitely have to play Savannah scores of times to see most of the variations!
An early assault has the advantage of taking on the British before all of their units have arrived, and before their defences are completed. However, the Allies will probably also be missing many units, especially artillery, and will be under heavy artillery fire as they approach the British fieldworks. As a result, most campaigns will feature the Allies digging in and trying to bombard the British first. Siege and Bombardment is s separate phase in the Campaign Game, and the results of these actions range from devastating (Savannah can be set on fire, and British morale severely weakened), to insignificant (as was the case historically). A further factor is the weather. As well as the usual sunshine, rain and fog, Savannah includes the possibility of a hurricane or heavy squalls sweeping the area. I pity the Allied commander who finds himself having to launch the assault in heavy rain after a hurricane!
Among the various lines of attack, there is one particularly interesting 'what if?' which Savannah seeks to answer: what if the Allies tried to turn the British flank, by advancing through the Yamacraw Swamp? This area is thinly defended, but also hard to penetrate. The 'Covered Way' through the swamp is easy to get lost in, and units detached along this route can be out of action for hours as they try to find their way out! However, with a bit of luck, this strategy can reap dividends, as the British are often fully occupied elsewhere by the prongs of the French-American assault. A few units making it through the swamp at the right time can create a real headache.
Victory can be achieved in different ways. The Allies' goal is to enter the city, and force a British capitulation as a result. The British must aim to demoralize one of the two opposing armies. Inbetween these over-riding targets, both sides can achieve a lesser victory by inflicting heavy casualties on the other. Given the situation, the Allies must really go all-out to break the British lines and enter the city: casualties will almost always heavily favour the defenders.
Does Savannah achieve an unlikely victory, and create a fun game out of what was a one-sided massacre? Yes: and what's more, the cards, weather, siege and bombardment mechanism, tactics chits and the variety of possible strategies all give the game far more replayability than one might expect. Having said that, this sort of game is not for everybody: the British task is far less demanding, and the Allied player needs to have a thick skin as his or her stacks of valiant soldiers will generally come to grief most of the time. As a solitaire game, Savannah makes an excellent diversion, with a great deal of narrative coming through the cards, map and counters. I already have a sheaf of 'veteran's tales' from incidents in this game, and I look forward to revisiting the banks of the Savannah river and creating many more.