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Subject: I really like For the People. Will you? rss

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Blake Neff
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I’d like to credit this review to the mysterious Santa Grogs, who requested that I write it. I am grateful he did so, as I’ve long been thinking of writing game reviews but needed the proper nudge to actually do it.

Overview

The following is a review of the 2006 edition of For the People, designed by Mark Herman and published by GMT. The game has since been reprinted, but to my knowledge there were no major changes other than the inclusion of a mounted map and a thicker box. I already own the mounted map, so I’m just missing out on the box. That is admittedly too bad because GMT’s thicker boxes are ace.

I first purchased For the People in 2013, but I only properly learned to play it in 2015. Since mastering the game’s rules, I’ve played about 30 matches. Most were played online, but I’ve played 6-7 times in person as well.

After those 30 playthroughs, I can safely say For the People is one of my favorite wargaming titles and has a well-deserved place as one of the premier strategic wargames. Still, rather than assign any kind of numerical rating, I thought it’d be better to just go through my thoughts on every aspect of the game, and let people decide for themselves how to weigh things.

The Game as Game

Mechanics: For the People is a card-driven game (CDG), meaning it relies on the popular mechanic of players possessing a hand of cards whose play drives every single action in the game. Gameplay consists of players taking turns choosing a card in their hand, then playing it for either its point value (1-3) or an event. Events serve to add a lot of chrome to the game, representing concepts like naval leaders, political intrigue, and non-U.S. actors without needing a lot of rules overhead. When played for points, cards are used to activate generals, place political control, build forts, and re-arrange generals.

Herman uses a common CDG method for activating generals, where each general has an initiative value and only a card either matching or exceeding that amount can activate them. In game terms, this gives an advantage to the South because their generals are easier to move, while the Union is bogged down by 3-initiative generals. Historically this amount of paralysis is dubious (would McClellan seriously remain immobile in D.C. as Lee marches to Philadelphia?), but in game terms it works well; while the Union always has a strong force advantage in the early game it must place its forces carefully because it could have a very hard time moving them around later. That said, every now and then the Union's hand in 1862 will be SO bad it effectively loses them the game because they simply can't move enough to contain Lee. This is rare, but an unfortunate side effect of the game's design style.

Winning the game revolves around the very fun concept of “strategic will.” Instead of having to seize a certain number of victory points or destroying the enemy’s forces, each side is trying to win by lowering the other’s strategic will, which represents their abstract willingness to continue the struggle despite immense losses and suffering. What’s cool about this is how many different things alter strategic will, creating many different paths to victory. The North doesn’t just lower SW by taking territory, but also by burning key cities, seizing the Mississippi, closing ports, taking forts, winning big battles, and more. The South, meanwhile, tries to exhaust Northern patience by raiding Northern states, winning their own big battles, and (if they get lucky) forcing Lincoln to flee Washington D.C. It’s an extremely versatile mechanic and just seems a lot better than trying to capture the same ideas with old-fashioned victory points.

The game’s combat system also deserves mention, because mastering it is probably the most important thing for grasping the game’s deeper strategy. Herman splits battles into three discrete sizes, based on the number of strength points (SPs) present in the battle for both sides. Intriguingly, these tables differ in more than just their casualty amounts. Small and large battles structurally favor the defender, but medium battles are different; they favor the attacker! I don’t know enough to comment on the historicity of this approach, but it certainly creates interesting strategic choices, with players strategizing to use favorable combat tables and set up battles to their advantage. Another notable thing is that, other than determining battle size, army size is nearly irrelevant. Lee has just as much firepower with 4 CUs as he does with 8, assuming he’s still in a medium battle. Combined with the fact that battle casualties are often nearly equal (1-1, 2-2, and 3-2 results are very common), and army size reflects staying power far more than it represents firepower. Maybe other wargames for this era are similar, but it’s pretty novel to me, and I like it.

There is a substantial amount of asymmetry to the game which makes the two sides both very distinct and fun to play. The South has the initiative in the game’s first half thanks to better generals, and throughout the game they have the extremely important advantage of doing their strategic moves second, allowing them to surprise the Union by concentrating for an offensive just about anywhere on the map. The North, meanwhile, mostly plays defense in the first half, but gets to run wild in the second half. The Union also gets a very strong naval arm, making the game far more exciting and strategically open than a simply slog southward would be.

Balance: My roughly 25-30 games have had a roughly equal number of wins by each side, perhaps somewhat favoring the Confederacy. This appears to be the trend for top players as well, which I certainly don’t claim to be.

From my personal experience, I think the balance will shift as players learn the game. For very new players the game may favor the Confederacy, since the Union won’t know what they’re doing and won’t apply enough pressure to grind the South down in time. Once the players get a little more experience, the Union will seem unstoppable because they have so many resources and the South won’t be able to stand up to them. Then, with even more experience, players will discover the South’s less-obvious strengths and the game will become more balanced again. Basically, the game is roughly balanced, but it may take some plays to properly appreciate this.

I haven’t played any of the yearly scenarios so I can’t comment on their balance or quality.

Variety: IMO, it’s a sign of weakness in a game if just one or two strategies predominate or certain parts of the game are consistently ignored, even if the game is otherwise balanced.

Fortunately, that’s not my experience with FtP. I’ve had games decided in every possible manner I can think of. I’ve had the South capture an underdefended Washington, run roughshod over Indiana and Ohio, and eke out a hairs-breadth survival win in 1865. As the North, I’ve won by blitzing Richmond, by picking off weak states until the South hollows out, and by inundating the CSA with naval assaults until an army breaks out into the rear. Every sector of the map has viable gains for one side or the other.

The CDG mechanic, of course, is critical for allowing each game to play out differently. Skilled players tailor their strategy to suit the cards, and ensure they have the resources necessary to exploit unexpected opportunities created by chance.

The Game as History
Here I will consider something that’s very important to most wargamers, even if it has no direct bearing on the gameplay: How well the game reflects the conflict it hopes to simulate.

-The CDG mechanic itself does an excellent job incorporating the various non-military forces involved in the Civil War. Salmon Chase’s machinations, the Trent Affair, and more can all show up, making the game feel grounded in history more than a straightforward military throwdown would be.

-Similarly, the Strategic Will system makes the game organically feel more tied to history. Neither Lincoln nor Davis were trying to capture victory points, but they WERE trying to undermine the enemy's nation's will to continue while sustaining their own. In a military sim, Jefferson Davis expending resources to tour the South and rally the people means nothing and won’t be included. In a game driven by strategic will, though, that sort of action makes perfect sense, and go figure: Davis Tours the South is a nice card that boosts Southern SW.

-I am a big fan of the game’s general casualty approach. Some Civil War games have generals die on a historical timetable, which I consider totally absurd for a game hoping to achieve a degree of verisimilitude. Battles in the Civil War were deadly, for the generals just as much as for the rank and file, and when one commits to a big battle they should do so with the knowledge their generals may not emerge unscathed. If anything, I wish it were a little more dangerous. Army commanders can only die when activated by special concentration cards; this works in game terms (the player chooses whether to gamble Lee’s life for a strategic advantage) but historically makes zero sense.

It’s worth noting that in the rules, performing well in a battle makes an army more likely to lose a commander. My guess is that Herman’s research found the aggressive, audacious leadership that won battles was also very lethal for the generals who engaged in it. If that’s a real trend, it’s impressive Herman noticed it and put it in the game.

-In contrast to several other top CDGs, like Paths of Glory or Here I Stand, FtP includes all of its cards in the deck from the very beginning. This mostly works in game terms, but it does make the game more detached from history than it otherwise would be. It’s weird to see cards like Crittenden Compromise, Pre-War Treachery, or Lincoln Declares Southern Blockade get used in 1864 when they are clearly tethered to the early war period. The large deck substantially reduces the Emancipation Proclamation’s chances of happening, which can be a little odd. The EP has only happened in about half the games I’ve played, if that.

-Some people have criticized Herman for making it relatively easy for armies to penetrate deep into the enemy interior without necessarily having a supply line. Herman quite reasonably points toward Sherman’s historical March to the Sea, which any good ACW game must be able to simulate. Sherman’s feat, he argues, could probably have been imitated by any general on either side; there merely had to be a daring leader willing to make the doctrinal chances necessary to attempt it.

This is an entirely reasonable argument, but I’m not sure it fully exonerates the feats possible in For the People. For example, suppose a corps led by Stonewall Jackson has taken Harper’s Ferry. On his next move, it’s entirely possible for Jackson to activate and move 8 spaces up into Pennsylvania, westward into Ohio and down to Cincinnati, without any Union force being able to do anything to intercept or stop him. To say the least, such a maneuver is totally ridiculous, yet it’s quite feasible in FtP because corps can more so quickly.

-The game’s balance clearly relies on the South launching invasions in 1862 and causing enough damage to either win outright or make it hard for the Union to crush the South by 1865. Fighting a purely defensive struggle from the outset is almost certain to fail unless the South is blessed with the right cards. In terms of encouraging the Southern player to attempt what the real CSA did, FtP clearly succeeds. But in a greater sense, I don’t think this extremely pro-invasion assessment of the South’s situation can be justified. The Civil War was fought at a high point for defensive warfare and I think it’s very easy to argue that if the South hadn’t wasted so many resources on disastrous offensives (Perryville, Antietam, Gettysburg) they would have been in a strong enough position to prevent catastrophes like Vicksburg or Atlanta and, conceivably, bring the Union to terms. So, on one level, FtP’s design pushes the player towards imitating the Southern strategy, but on another level, it may unjustifiably discourage an alternative strategy that could have easily been attempted (and was urged by some Southern figures).

-The heavy penalties for firing generals mean the players almost certainly won't be firing and replacing their generals at the pace which occurred in real life, especially with the Army of the Potomac.

-I love the random placement of generals when they arrive to reflect the lack of knowledge about general skill early in the war.

The Game as Product

Components: Like most GMT mounted maps, the board is of good quality.

In contrast to some other GMT games, FtP does a very good job including relevant information on the map itself. The combat table is right on the map, as are the generals who arrive each turn, the reinforcement schedule, and more. The map also includes holding boxes for army generals and a tracker for army size, protecting the player from awkward superstacks of counters.

The counters are standard GMT fare. The artwork is fine and relatively utilitarian. There are no extra-thick counters like those in the more recent Twilight Struggle editions, but that’s no biggie and thick counters would be a bother in a game where stacks of 4-5 pieces are very possible.

The cards are fine. Nothing special, nothing terrible.

Rules: For the People isn’t really an easy game to learn. I’d say it’s comparable in complexity to Paths of Glory, but Paths of Glory is definitely an easier game to learn (and teach). I can’t really blame any particular aspect of the rules for that, but it’s possible a different approach may have made the game easier to understand for a beginner. Or maybe I’m just talking out my ass, and FtP is hard to learn because it’s a complex game and that’s just how life is.

In any case, once you do understand the game, the rulebook is very good. I’ve read quite a bit of the Consimworld page for FtP, and one thing I’ve noticed is that for just about every rules question, the most obvious answer from reading the rulebook is the correct one. The rulebook includes several helpful examples for finicky concepts like amphibious assaults and river crossings, there’s a robust sample of play, and there are even some nifty design notes where Herman explains what historical idea a rule embodies.

The river rules (governing when Union and CSA armies can cross major rivers) are famously opaque, although I’ve personally never found them that rough. That said, understanding the rivers is critical to playing properly, so you do have to get the rules down or you’ll be playing some different game that only resembles For the People.

My copy only includes one player aid; I wish there were two so each player could have one (of course, if you have a printer this is easily fixed). The aid itself is good and includes most important turn-to-turn info.

Extras: Sadly, unlike some wargame titles, the game comes with no substantial extra content concerning history, the game’s design, or player strategy tips. Instead, there’s just some very short commentary by Herman at the back of the rulebook. I can’t imagine the lack of such material is a difference-maker for anybody, but since I’m being pretty thorough here I thought it worthy of mention.

Conclusion
For the People is a pretty good game. I’ve already been rambling for 2500 words so I’ll leave it at that.
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Jacovis
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Great review! I found that Mark Herman's videos of the game were paramount in my ability to grok the game mechanisms and card impacts.

I think I will have to bump FtP up on my playlist after reading this! Thanks! (And thanks to your santa too for encouraging it!)
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Mark Riley
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Superb review.

One question for you on the point about a single deck resulting in card events arriving way out of historical sequence. Do you think it would be feasible to divide the deck into say 3 decks as is done in Twilight Struggle? Some time ago I downloaded the excel spreadsheet in the Files section posted by someone who had tried it and claimed to have successfully play tested it.
 
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Kris Van Beurden
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goatleaf wrote:
Superb review.

One question for you on the point about a single deck resulting in card events arriving way out of historical sequence. Do you think it would be feasible to divide the deck into say 3 decks as is done in Twilight Struggle? Some time ago I downloaded the excel spreadsheet in the Files section posted by someone who had tried it and claimed to have successfully play tested it.


This is a pretty interesting question ... my FTP playing partner and me love this game, but find it a bit imbalanced if the Union gets early campaign cards (as the Union is really hamstrung with '3' SR generals, getting campaigns as the Union is quite strong). Making an early, middle and late deck (with no campaigns in the early deck) would make sense...
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Blake Neff
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goatleaf wrote:
Superb review.

One question for you on the point about a single deck resulting in card events arriving way out of historical sequence. Do you think it would be feasible to divide the deck into say 3 decks as is done in Twilight Struggle? Some time ago I downloaded the excel spreadsheet in the Files section posted by someone who had tried it and claimed to have successfully play tested it.


I've noticed that file, but I've never tried it out myself. Superficially, it seems workable; the game's deck is very large so splitting it into 40-card chunks would better "periodize" its events without making things too predictable. The EP and Foreign Intervention cards could perhaps be shuffled back into the deck alone rather than causing the whole discard pile to re-shuffle.

I'm not sure I agree with holding back campaign cards until 1862 or later, though. The Union is pretty immobile as-is; taking out an entire class of cards would perhaps make it too easy for the South to run roughshod even with marginal generals like Johnston and Beauregard.

Perhaps removing Major Campaigns until the late game would be a suitable compromise.
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Robert Champer
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Events occurring out of chronological order
I believe while most of the cards refer to specific historical events, I think this is mostly done for "flavor". Not the case for Emancipation or European Intervention, but otherwise I understood the text to reflect an example of the generic event the card describes. There was a similar discussion regarding the cards in Empire of the Sun, and that was the conclusion I took from that discussion. I think relating a card to a specific historical event along with the period-styled illustrations is one of the many ingredients that in total make this yet another Herman masterpiece.

Now if I could just win a game......
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Mark Herman
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Thank you for your thoughtful review. I particularly like this quote:

From my personal experience, I think the balance will shift as players learn the game. For very new players the game may favor the Confederacy, since the Union won’t know what they’re doing and won’t apply enough pressure to grind the South down in time. Once the players get a little more experience, the Union will seem unstoppable because they have so many resources and the South won’t be able to stand up to them. Then, with even more experience, players will discover the South’s less-obvious strengths and the game will become more balanced again. Basically, the game is roughly balanced, but it may take some plays to properly appreciate this.

I think this is exactly right and mirrors what I have broadly seen since 1999.

Mark
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