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Custer's Final Campaign: 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn» Forums » Reviews

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John New
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“Well, there he is, God damn him, he will never fight again.”
-Captain Frederick Benteen, June 27, 1876

It has been remarked, both here at BGG and elsewhere, that it's virtually impossible to create a good simulation of the June 25, 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, because no sane gamer (of which there are presumably some) or even a crazy gamer (of which there are legion) could be persuaded to divide the companies of the heavily-outnumbered 7th Cavalry into 3 groups in the face of the enemy and send two of them into the attack well out of the range of mutual support. This, however, was Custer's strategy, and how well it served the troopers of the 7th is well-known. A simulation of this disaster would be hopelessly one-sided.

However, Custer's Final Campaign: 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn (hereinafter CFC), one of Decision Games' new Mini Series games, does not, despite its title, attempt to simulate the action on the slopes of the Greasy Grass, but rather the US Army's entire 1876 campaign in Montana and neighboring states against the Lakota and their allies. CFC is a strategic game, with point-to-point movement, rather than hex or area, and covers territory from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Helena, Montana, including the Bighorn Mountains, the Yellowstone and Rosebud Rivers and, of course, the Greasy Grass site of Custer's folly. It is the strategic goal of the US Army to subdue the Native Americans (NAs) and it is the goal of the NAs to thwart their attempts and cause as much mayhem and inflict as many casualties as possible. The player representing the Army wins by avoiding heavy casualties (all of that bad press back East during the celebration of the Centennial!) while inflicting casualties on the NAs, whereas the NAs win by inflicting casualties or occupying key sites around the map. Any other result is a draw.

This is a card-driven game: the US Army units are divided into three columns (Terry, Gibbon, and Crook) and the NAs are divided into warbands (the various Lakota and Cheyenne tribal groups), NAs from the Agencies, and the Akacitas (who apparently have their own agenda). There are separate decks for the Army and NA player, and the card drawn each turn tells the player how much recruiting may be done, which units may move and how far, as well as any special events that may affect movement or battles that turn. Stacking is unlimited and terrain and the presence of enemy units may block any further movement (however, there are no zones of control in the hexboard sense). River movement by steamboat can transport a limited number of Army troops along the rivers on the map.

Battles occur when a unit moves into an enemy unit’s space and the attacker is decided by determining via die roll which side has the tactical advantage (which can be influenced by special events or the presence of elite units). Combat is resolved by rolling a number of dice equal to the combat strength of the attacking unit against the combat results table. The possible results are panic, in which a defending unit is removed from play but may be "recruited" later, and elimination, in which the unit is removed from play permanently. Attacks alternate between the unit with the tactical advantage and the defender until all combat is resolved. Victorious mounted units may pursue after combat. Additional rules provide for supply, building forts, etc.

Physically, the game presents fairly well, although I do have a few criticisms. The 11” x 17” map clearly depicts the various movement points, and their connections, however it is printed in what I would describe as a desert sand shade of color. Furthermore, the background, which depicts the various features of the region (mountains, rivers, etc.) is very faint, which I found disappointing – I think the physical features could have been more prominently depicted, without causing undue clutter, which would have provided more of an atmospheric feel to the game. As it is, the map looks more like the view when flying over the deserts of Arizona-Nevada than the high plains country of Montana and the Dakotas.

The counters (there are 40) are nicely printed, however they are not well-die cut and required the careful use of an X-acto knife to remove and separate without tearing. I felt that the dark blue background of the US Army counters made it difficult to see the depictions of cavalry, infantry, etc., but overall, the counters were serviceable when safely removed and separated. The cards are nicely done, even if the printing is a bit small for my eyes (and is it just me, or has the printing on counters shrunk since I was in my 20s?).

The rules come as a four-page set of standard rules for the game series and a single page of scenario (i.e, this game) rules. Unlike many of DG’s re-tooling of old SPI games (my prior experience with DG) the rules are clean, straightforward and easy to parse (granted, this is not a complex game) although there are a few glitches. The counters are backprinted with generic images for each side, presumably for hidden movement, although this is not mentioned in the rules (it’s not hard to improvise a rule - although if so, it would have been nice to have added a few dummy counters, given the immense territory covered by the game and the poor intelligence available to both sides).

Although this is a fairly simple game, with a low unit count, there’s much here to delight the connoisseur of the LBH battle without seeming to be contrived or "chrome-y." Fort Abraham Lincoln, Fort Fetterman, the Steamboat "Far West," Cheyenne "dog soldiers," the Gatling guns that Terry offered to Custer, who refused them because he believed that they would impede his march, the Greasy Grass site, and the sacred Black Hills are all there. Sheridan may step in and take command at some point in the campaign, and the redoubtable (and self-serving) Nelson Miles, Gall, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull may come to influence the game as well (even Buffalo Bill Cody!). And, of course, old Yellow Hair himself.

But although the mechanics of the game rules are simple, the game presents both players with strategic choices, none of them easy. The Army has overwhelming force at its disposal but it is divided into three columns separated by vast distances at the beginning of the game. Card driven movement can make coordinated actions by the columns difficult. Infantry, of which there’s a good deal, are slow-moving. The NAs have the central position, and can strike at isolated or scattered units, but must stay mobile to avoid being overwhelmed by the concentrating Army forces. However, the nimbleness of the NAs is impeded by their lack of a strong central command structure: in some turns the NAs won’t be able to move at all, which can be disastrous when they need to avoid the closing jaws of the Army columns.

Overall, I think Joe Miranda has designed quite an elegant little game that should be quite replayable. I personally quite liked this game and look forward to exploring it further. I think the restriction on US Army casualties (which can prevent US victory) balances the game perhaps a little artificially, but given the balance of forces present, it gives the NA player a chance to at least force a draw, and imposes caution on the US player - tie into a big fight with a large concentration of NA warrior units (I’m looking at you, G.A.C.) and any possibility of victory potentially goes up in smoke. Without that restriction, I suspect that the NA forces would just be crushed by the Army’s superior numbers.

Which brings me to my first play-through of the game. I played against my older son (is there anything better than teaching one’s grown son how to play wargames? Yes, actually, there’s teaching him how to play and then beating the daylights out of him to reassert who the Big Dog really is. That, however, did not happen this night).

As the NA player I decided to strike hard at one of the columns before they could converge on me, and so launched almost the entire Sioux nation northward against Fort Ellis. Fort Ellis fell fairly quickly and the rampaging Sioux went on to attack the entire Army column in Helena, Montana. A bitter battle ensued; the NAs eventually got the upper hand, wiping out the column and occupying (and no doubt putting to the torch) Helena, but the NAs lost too many warriors in the process and found their strength hopelessly crippled. Worse, unlucky card draws prevented them from moving smartly back into the Bighorn country as Army units from Terry’s column closed in from the South, picking off isolated NA units and blocking the geographical bottleneck out of the north country. We decided here to call the game a draw; the Army had lost too many soldiers to achieve victory and the NAs too many warriors to realistically hope to achieve victory. Presumably, the surviving NAs probably either headed north to seek sanctuary in Canada or returned to their reservations. Next time, I’d try to keep my NA columns more nimble, slashing in to inflict casualties and then vanishing into the interior, rather than get caught up in a big battle (my aggressiveness got the better of me, and Helena looked just too juicy a target. I should have scarpered after taking Fort Ellis).

I’d recommend this game: it plays quickly, is well-done physically, and presents a number of strategic choices and challenges for both players that gives it a high level of replayability.
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Steve Herron
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Do you believe it would play well solitaire? Since I read The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn this year, (great book) I have been on the hunt for finding a game on the subject.
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A.T. Selvaggio
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Great review. I played twice solo and found it quite enjoyable. The randomness of cardplay (which are drawn from a hidden face down deck rather than played from a hand) and the die rolling make this a good solo game.

I was impressed enough that I an interested in ordering more games in this series.
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Bob
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Thanks for the review! thumbsup

Game is now on my wish list...
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Mark Herman
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I agree that this is a great little design. I have also played it with my 21 year old son, on a train no less, and we had a great time. I also liked Belisarius, which uses a similar system.

What I have not figured out yet is how to win with either side. All of my games so far have been draws due to losses on both sides exceeding the victory condition akin to what you describe in your review.

A definate buy if you have any interest in this campaign.
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Christian Tryon
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I haven't played this one but the companion game (Khyber Rifles) using the same system plays quite well solitaire (I've played 3 games this way so far). The card draw system defines what each side can do in a given turn, and this ranges from essentially nothing to an awful lot. All this means that grand strategies requiring multiple turns aren't really possible. Also, again, in Khyber Rifles, the Afghan side can plop reinforcements pretty much anywhere, so each turn is often a reaction to the preceding one, which keeps it exciting when played solitaire. There is some fog of war in terms of counter identity, but I haven't found this to be a problem (fog of mind happens naturally).
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John New
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sherron wrote:
Do you believe it would play well solitaire? Since I read The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn this year, (great book) I have been on the hunt for finding a game on the subject.


I agree with the commenters above that this would probably be a good game for solitaire - the randomness concerning which units may move on a gven turn, as well as when special events occur, would make it very "solitaire enabled." I certainly intend to give it a few solitaire trys!
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Darin Leviloff
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Works very well solitaire due to the cards determining action. A nice playable design. Only nit is I would have liked a "Custer" counter, despite the scale.
 
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Mark Walker
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>What I have not figured out yet is how to win with either side. All of my games so far have been draws due to losses on both sides exceeding the victory condition akin to what you describe in your review.

Me too, Mark. I played it twice. Both times the loses exceeded the victory conditions in less than five turns. I'm either doing something wrong (always a possibility), or the game has a problem.
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I agree with Mark, there seems to be no way to avoid a draw, because any large battle results in losses on both sides exceeding the allowable strategic unit losses. Unless like Mark, I am playing it wrong, which is always a possibility.

If we are playing it right then IMHO the game may be broken, as who wants to play a game that one has no chance of winning?

Perhaps the game designer will come onto this thread and let us know how he believes the game should work, so he can tell us what we are doing wrong and therefore allow us all to take pleasure in our investment!

Also - the battle system, whilst more involved that a straight odds based CRT, seems a little odd in that the targeted player always get to choose the unit(s) effected by the targeting player, who will therefore always naturally choose the weakest (non-supply) unit available. This further makes me wonder whether I am doing it right?
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Excellent Review. Nothing to add except to enjoy further play. The balance of the game has swung to the NA here but I expect it will swing back.
There are no fool-proof solutions - one of the beauties of card driven games. Thanks.
Rockymount
 
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Rod Bauer
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pjn789 wrote:
I agree with Mark, there seems to be no way to avoid a draw, because any large battle results in losses on both sides exceeding the allowable strategic unit losses. Unless like Mark, I am playing it wrong, which is always a possibility.


I KNOW that I AM playing it wrong. But what I did at least results in one side winning. I decided to end the game as soon as one side inflicted enough casualties on the other side to make it impossible for that side to win. Indians wiped out Custer's 7th Cavalry on first June turn making it the 4th lost US Army unit while the Indians had only 5 loses. So I ended it there with an Indian victory. Custer's disaster at Little Bighorn historically occurred on what would be the second June turn, so even the timing was OK. I had the 7th Cavalry unit plus and infantry unit attack the turn before in an attempt to get the 6th Indian unit destroyed (Panic instead)and it left Indians with 5 in deadpile to 3 for US Army. Then on the Indian move here came the Oglala and Hunkpapa storming in to destroy Custer and "win" the game. It is less than satisfying because I didn't complete the whole campaign which the game is designed to do, but it most certainly was CUSTER'S FINAL CAMPAIGN!

 
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Eric Boeschenstein
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Here some geekgold for your excellent work!

Thanks for the review!
 
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Jimmy Shaftoe
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I've only played this game once and that was solo. However, it has given me much food for thought.....There has been much discussion regarding victory conditions. I'm wondering if the NA have the best chance of victory: if they can attack a single column with a stack including the units that start the game in reserve that have the ability to be recruited again after elimination rather than go in the deadpiled ; judicious use of the breakoff ability of war bands ; keeping away from the other US columns until the end of the game , they could inflict enough loses to win without going over their own loss limit....maybe.
Anyway I shall employ this tactic tonight to see if it is possible!

Fun game!

 
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Mark Stevens
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Played his for the first time with a friend today, we're both experienced gamers, and sorry to say that I have to agree with the comments about the victory conditions. It is virtually inevitable that the US Army will lose (at least) four units and the NAs six, just by virtue of the combat system and the replacement limitations. It does give the impression of a game that wasn't playtested properly.

Huge pity as the units, map and cards are very nicely done, and this is from the same minigames stable as Caesar and Belisarius, which are both excellent (and seem well-balanced).

Given that it's too onerous to change the map, cards and units, someone who knows about the historical campaign and is an experienced gamer needs to rewrite the victory conditions.

Did both sides really just want to kill as many of the enemy as possible? I thought that the Army's intention was to disperse what it considered a dangerous concentration of NAs. Some sort of conditions about targeting the NA lodges might be more appropriate.

Also didn't like the unlimited stacking with no ill effects for units in supply. It's this feature that tends to make large battles inevitable, and trigger the 'both lose' result.

Pity.

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Rod Bauer
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After almost a dozen games, I finally had one that did not end in a tie! US Army lost only 3 units while destroying 8 Indian units thanks to timely card draws and amazing die rolls! I guess I like the game more than I thought I did, or I would not have suffered through those first 10 or 11 draws before finally getting a victory result for one side or the other.
 
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Rod Bauer
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Crassus wrote:
Works very well solitaire due to the cards determining action. A nice playable design. Only nit is I would have liked a "Custer" counter, despite the scale.


I don't mind that there is no "Custer" counter. I don't even mind that the direction icon is pointing "west" and calling it "north." What I am having trouble getting used to is the supply counters with the Locomotive icon on them. It would have been much better using a wagon icon or even pack mules. The train engine seems way out of place.
 
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Kim Meints
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Yeah,Thats sort of throwing me off also
 
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pjn789 wrote:
I agree with Mark, there seems to be no way to avoid a draw, because any large battle results in losses on both sides exceeding the allowable strategic unit losses. Unless like Mark, I am playing it wrong, which is always a possibility.

If we are playing it right then IMHO the game may be broken, as who wants to play a game that one has no chance of winning?

Perhaps the game designer will come onto this thread and let us know how he believes the game should work, so he can tell us what we are doing wrong and therefore allow us all to take pleasure in our investment!

Also - the battle system, whilst more involved that a straight odds based CRT, seems a little odd in that the targeted player always get to choose the unit(s) effected by the targeting player, who will therefore always naturally choose the weakest (non-supply) unit available. This further makes me wonder whether I am doing it right?


? Played twice. 2/3 of the NA player & 1/2 the US units can avoid big battles by retreating. First round casualties are low (3 dice=16% kill)
so players can break off most battles if they want.
My 2nd game I surrounded the NA to prevent retreats. Always bring a crud unit to take the first round hits. Late in the game I killed supply units. Deliberate design like the Gaul game. Needs a few tweaks.
 
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Steve Shockley
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davedanger wrote:
pjn789 wrote:
I agree with Mark, there seems to be no way to avoid a draw, because any large battle results in losses on both sides exceeding the allowable strategic unit losses. Unless like Mark, I am playing it wrong, which is always a possibility.

If we are playing it right then IMHO the game may be broken, as who wants to play a game that one has no chance of winning?

Perhaps the game designer will come onto this thread and let us know how he believes the game should work, so he can tell us what we are doing wrong and therefore allow us all to take pleasure in our investment!

Also - the battle system, whilst more involved that a straight odds based CRT, seems a little odd in that the targeted player always get to choose the unit(s) effected by the targeting player, who will therefore always naturally choose the weakest (non-supply) unit available. This further makes me wonder whether I am doing it right?


? Played twice. 2/3 of the NA player & 1/2 the US units can avoid big battles by retreating. First round casualties are low (3 dice=16% kill)
so players can break off most battles if they want.
My 2nd game I surrounded the NA to prevent retreats. Always bring a crud unit to take the first round hits. Late in the game I killed supply units. Deliberate design like the Gaul game. Needs a few tweaks.


The rules state that cavalry and irregular cavalry can break off, but only US mounted units are defined as cavalry. NA mounted units are described as "warbands". Whether this means that NA units cannot break off, I cannot say. There is a place in the scenario specific rules where NA units are described as "Indian cavalry", so I suspect that the intention is that all mounted units can break off, but this is certainly open to interpretation.

Can the Akacita break off? I suppose not, as they are depicted as being an infantry foot unit.

Despite the rules ambiguities and inadequacy of the winning conditions, there is a good game here with some adjustment. My preferred method is currently to award each side 1 VP per eliminated unit, and to award the US player 1 VP per VP space devoid of NA units. This means the max score for each side is 14 (if you discount the US fleet.)

 
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