Monday, September 4, 2017

Wilderness Empires

Summer 1754 - The British have seriously concentrated their forces!
A couple of weeks ago Worthington Publishing ran a warehouse clearance sale, offering Wilderness Empires for $25. I'd looked at this game in the past but always felt it might be too simple to hold my interest. For $25 though, given my interest in the period it seemed worth a shot. It seemed like a nice compromise - a game with enough period focus to interest me, but also simple enough to engage my non-wargamer wife.

Braddock goes down to defeat again at Fort Duquesne
This turned out to be an excellent purchase for $25. The game includes a large, mounted map board depicting the American colonies and New France, a substantial number of red and blue wooden blocks, and both the sticker art and card art feature illustrations by noted military artist Dan Troiani. The block stickers and cards are very attractive, and I found myself often studying details of the card artwork.

Fall 1759: The French take Fort William Henry while the majority of the British army masses at Halifax for an attack on Louisberg
The rule book is a scant 12 pages. The simple system captures the resources-constrained nature of the French and Indian War in an entertaining fashion. I was pleased with both the flow of the game and the unanticipated chrome present in both the event cards and the nice detail of accurate unit names on the unit stickers. I'd thought I'd be dealing with generic units, but instead each block depicts an actual battalion, militia formation, or tribe that participated in the conflict. Finding the four battalions of the 60th (Royal American) Foot was a real treat.

Summer 1760: French forces have advanced south along the Hudson Valley, capturing Fort Edward. From there they quickly seize Albany
The sequence of play is straightforward: turns are seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, & Winter) with the game lasting from 1754 to 1762 in yearly cycles. Each  season, the British can first place reinforcements and replacements, and then have a movement and combat phase. The French then repeat the same phases, and the season is complete. The only season that is different is Winter, where there is no movement, both players refill their card hands to five cards, and militia and native units return to homeland locations. Combat boils down to simultaneous die rolls, with each side rolling one unit die for up to five units plus up to three special combat dice for things like leader superiority, fortress strength, or card events like siege weapons or defensive works.

Where the system gets interesting is in the constraints imposed by the event cards. Those who know me know my disdain for card-driven systems, and this is not one of those! The game is very much card-assisted: neither player is ever required to play a card, and all of the cards act to enhance movement and combat, or provide reinforcements or replacements. Each player may play one card during Spring, two during Summer, and one during Fall. The effect of this system is to replicate the rhythm of 18th Century warfare. Spring is for preparing and moving forces into position, Summer is for active campaigning when you can play a pair of offensively-oriented cards that will give you a combat advantage, and Fall is for consolidation and clean up.

Fall 1760: The French sweep into the Colonies, taking New York and Philadelphia. Where is the British Army?
An example: as the French player I might play the card where French priests stir up the Native Americans during Spring, granting me two strength point replacements for damaged Native units. After moving the revitalized units into place to support my regulars and militia, in the Summer I could play the "Militia Panic" card. This card causes half of the British militia units in a location to leave the location for another homeland location due to raids by Native Americans, which reduces the British units available in that location. I could then also play the card "Inspired Generalship" which increases the command rating of one of my leaders by one for the season, potentially giving my leader superiority (and an extra combat die) when I attack with units attached to that leader. After the battle, during the Fall Season, I might play the "Extra Supply" card, giving me two strength points of replacements for regular or militia units damaged during the combat.

The bulk of the army is in Halifax, preparing to assault Louisberg. Will the attack be enough to stave off French victory?
I found the results of this simple system to be surprisingly satisfying. Neither side immediately has enough combat power to do much attacking, so the game becomes one of maneuver and raids. Having a long-term plan with yearly and seasonal goals is critical. Both sides need to focus on securing achievable objectives that position them for future gains, rather than going for an immediate knockout blow.

For the British, maintaining the chain of frontier forts is essential. The towns of the interior are vulnerable. If a French army successfully penetrates the frontier and the British player is out of position or lacks reserves, the game can be over quickly. On the other hand the British have more regular units and are likely to get more reinforcements during the game, to the point where that can overwhelm the French

For the French player, his Native allies are very useful but not terribly dependable. For one, they will all return to their villages each Winter. This makes it difficult to concentrate a force of them for multi-year operations. They are best used for threatening raids and shoring up weak points. They are also prone to suffering from the "Refuse to Fight" result in combat, where during a battle they will not participate in future rounds. Militia units are equally likely to do this on both sides, but the French are far more dependent on Native units than either side is on militia.

Louisberg falls...but it is not enough. The French move quickly to take Boston and another fort, giving them enough victory points to win at the end of Fall 1761
Ultimately the the French can win just by hanging on to most of their territory (they don't have to score victory points), which nicely balances the British numerical superiority later in the game. The British must attack and capture territory; the French need to cause losses to the British while avoiding losses of their own, and hold on to New France. In a three-player game there is a Native American player, who can win by keeping the British from burning the Native villages.

While I found it a satisfying, and deeper simulation of the French & Indian War than I thought it might be, the real proof of the quality of this game was in Terri's reaction. After losing the first game in 1760, she wanted to get something to eat and then right away start another game! She said she's finding it an interesting challenge and I can tell she really wants to beat me.

Finally, this is a very good game for teaching the fundamentals of wargaming. The rules are simple, but they yield realistic results and situations. Planning and logistics are key. Remembering your long-term goal and acting every season to bring that about is vital. At the same time, combat is easy, the map and pieces are very attractive, and there aren't a lot of imposing charts and numbers. Wilderness Empires certainly isn't a study sim of the North American front of the world's first global conflict, but it is a nice, fun game with pleasing chrome, solid historical ties, and attractive components that can be played in an afternoon with both newcomers to the hobby and experienced grognards.

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