Birth of America

Next up in my Huge Pile Of Wargames is AGEOD’s Birth of America, published by Matrix Games.

Google informs me, although I find it hard to believe, that I have not written any articles on Tea Leaves that use the word “grognard." Grognard, as I’ve heard it used, is a word to describe a hardcore player of “board” wargames. The sort of person for whom a night without calculating the percentage chance that an assaulting tank will overrun dug-in infantry is like a day without sunshine.

Birth of America is a game that could have been written by a grognard, yet it’s playable by the casual gamer. That, in my mind, is a bit of an achievement.

My first exposure to grognard-style war games came in the late 1970’s, when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My dad picked up a game for me at a flea market called Battle Fleet Mars, by a company called SPI. He figured hey, Peter likes space. He likes board games. This is a space board game for two players. Maybe it’ll be fun!

The game came with a bunch of really cool boards and a ton of cardboard squares, which I eagerly punched out. I read the instructions, which began with a nicely written dramatic summary of the start of a rebellion by the Martian colonies against an Earth-based oligopoly called the Ares Corporation. After that, the game described the rules. I went to my dad and said “I don’t really understand this. How do we play?” Dad spent an hour reading the game manual, after which he put it down, looked at me, and said “I have no idea how to play either.”

That’s a pretty typical first exposure to a grognard game. Old-school grognard games weren’t really designed for fun the way you and I understand it. Some people played them because of fascination with a particular historical period, while others played them specifically because they enjoyed a particular type of “game as simulation.”

There are two things about this type of game: first, they all assume that you already know how to play war games, and they’re usually built around a unifying idea. The unifying idea behind Battle Fleet Mars was to simulate 3-dimensional ship-to-ship combat. To do that, they provided two boards with empty grids on them, one labeled “X-Y” and one labeled “X-Z”. “I’m firing a missile” you might announce. Then you’d count off impulses and every so often, based on the speed of each ship and missile, move the appropriate chits on both the X-Y and X-Z boards. In other words, the game was completely barking insane(footnote 1), and being able to figure out how to play it is more a sign of fairly well-developed mental illness, rather than an indicator of any sort of deficiency.

The arrival of computers made grognard-style games infinitely more playable, although it took a while for designers to fully adapt to the advantages that modern UIs offer. In the better designed games, the plusses of grognard-style games (attention to detail, nice maps, intriguing “what-if” scenarios) are still there, while the minuses (looking up numbers in tables, realizing you’ve lost three of the most crucial of those goddamn stupid square cardboard chits, having to smell the guy next to you) are gone.

[![Birth Of America]( content/uploads/2007/01/s339_washington.thumbnail.jpg)

I love a good map

]( “Birth Of America” )

Which brings us to Birth of America which is, as I said, a grognard game with a very non-grognard interface. The game’s unifying theme is the idea that during the period of the American Revolutionary war, great swaths of territory were being patrolled and controlled by a minimal number of military units.

This theme focuses the game in some very interesting ways. Many older computer games think of war games as being like Chris Crawford’s Eastern Front, or Gary Grigsby’s War in Russia — static battle lines of seemingly endless units reinforcing each other and slowly pushing like sumo wrestlers. Birth of America, contrariwise, is more like a game of New World Whack-A-Mole. For example, in my first crack at the French and Indian War scenario I force- marched Braddock’s army out through the Alleghenies and took Fort Duquesne by storm before the first winter, only to find that French raiders were able to burn fields all the way from Virginia to Philadelphia, unopposed except for ineffective local militia. In a more typical wargame, you would probably have had the option to recruit more units and set up a picket defense. In this game, that’s not really practical: you’re a few thousand Europeans on a huge continent, most of which consists of dangerous wilderness.

The game is strategic, rather than tactical, which is to say logistics are of significant importance. Operating in enemy-controlled territory will quickly deplete your troops of supplies. Contrariwise, taking strategic towns will impact the level of support you receive from the local populace, which will in turn affect your militia levies. Each scenario lets you play as either the British or American (or, if appropriate, French) sides, and indicates before you start which side is favored to win. Most of the scenarios are fairly evenly balanced. The British, generally, have better troops and more mobility, while the Americans have greater local support and a more consolidated position. The French can sabotage enemy forts by hiding extremely stinky cheeses in their larders.(Footnote 2)

Each turn simulates a month of real time. You issue orders to your commanders and their armies, and when you hit “end turn” each day is simulated. In addition to movement, you can order troops to maintain one of four “postures” – assault, aggressive, defensive, or passive. If two units are in the same region and at least one is in aggressive or assault posture, combat occurs. Combat is resolved automatically, and on the next turn you’ll receive a report of the result of the carnage. This is in some respects the weakest part of the game; even after playing a few full games, I have trouble interpreting the after action reports of battles. It’s never exactly clear to me why I won (or lost) a given battle. That in turn makes it hard to plan future operations.

Weather is simulated — woe betide the army that finds itself in a wilderness area in winter, when the map is covered in white — and armies will suffer more attrition when in the backcountry as opposed to the more developed areas. You will have the assistance of various native tribes in different scenarios. Since the natives aren’t idiots, they always return to their home settlement for the winter. Your regular troops aren’t quite so lucky. In addition to regulars and militia, there are also artillery, supply, and various types of naval units at your disposal.

The game ships with a straightfoward tutorial which introduces the interface, although not the strategies. The polish on the game is fairly high. There are a few unfortunate UI interactions, but for a game of this type the overall quality is satisfying.

So, should you get it? I think there are two types of people who would be entranced by this game: those who are fascinated with this period of history, and those who think the specific strategic challenge of fighting in a large area with only a few troops is interesting. For the casual gamer with no interest in early American history, Birth of America is probably a little too abstruse. For those who are interested in the colonial period (yes, re- enactors and everyone who enjoyed Colonial Williamsburg, I’m looking at you), you should definitely download the demo and check it out.

Birth of America for Windows, $39.95. Developed by AGEOD, published by Matrix Games. A free demo is available. The publisher graciously provided a review copy of this game.

Footnote 1: …and boring. Footnote 2: OK, I’m lying about that last one.