I am far from qualified to evaluate the relative merits of any deep strategy game, no more the man for the job than I am to critique the existentialist themes of Sartre in its original French. Like French Existentialism though, the problem with grand strategy gaming is that I can understand perhaps the basic concepts, but the rabbit hole runs deep and I’ve only the faculties to reach in up to my elbow.
As my first Horizon’s Broadening Project game, Birth of America II may have seemed unapproachable at first, but was in fact an experience that scaled well. It did what I hoped — taught me something about the way I play.
I think the key concept here is also the cornerstone of Birth of America’s setting — the monumental improbability of a disorganized and poorly equipped militia successfully routing the world’s most powerful military force. Many of the battles that the game seeks to recreate lack the traditional symmetry of a Company of Heroes or Command & Conquer. In those games, even against what seems to be impossible odds, you have a certainty that victory is only a matter of properly organizing the tools you are given. You know the developers won’t give you a scenario where victory only comes with some degree of luck.
In Birth of America II however you may eventually come to a W.O.P.R.-like epiphany: sometimes the only way to win is not to play. So what do you do? You redefine the meaning of the word “play”.
In the scope of the colonial wars this title covers, whether the American Revolution, French & Indian Wars or the War of 1812, the fate of forces is inextricably tied to a component of luck. Overwhelming odds and a near certainty of defeat are sometimes simply par for the course, just as they were in the eighteenth century. Conversely, depending on which side you play, some of the simpler scenarios require nary a pulse to achieve victory.
In at least one session, I was barely able to lose even with a concentrated effort to do so. I might well have marched my divisions of British Regulars into the frozen North Atlantic and even then might still have held strong against my ill equipped and hapless opponent. My first reaction was, of course, to think what a pointless exercise, but that’s thinking in terms of symmetrical and traditional games thinking.
What was I to take away from the scenario? Was it simply an exercise, or was it a description? A virtual recreation? The more I modified my perspective, the more I took from it.
I didn’t realize this until I managed to eek out at least a draw in one of those Kobayashi Maru scenarios. To win the no-win situation, even if it has a component of blind luck because enemy forces were slowed and weakened by raging weather, and my forces bizarrely took a strategic location while outnumbered, is to understand what this game is showing you.
My time playing Birth of America II was not nearly as much about whether I won or lost the scenario I was playing, but how the events played themselves out. This game was a constant reminder of how fate can play such a strong role in the best laid plans of mice and men. Execute a genius strategy designed to intercept an army’s exposed flank while marching toward Albany, and the entire thing can hinge on the turn of the weather or the failure of the forces to encounter one another.
I saw grand armies wither against the entrenched efforts of far smaller forces in ragged towns with little supply. I watched my men succeed despite my failings as a commander, beating back the odds and surprise attacks I should have seen coming a mile away. I sat in frustration as commanders stayed firmly entrenched in even mild conditions. I saw garrisons a thousand men strong falter under sustained efforts by young commanders, and in every case I could imagine the urgency and uncertainty of the scenes. I realized the real game was not about these events, exactly, but how I reacted and adapted to them.
What Birth of America II may have failed to show me about the grizzly violence of war, it made up for by presenting an improbable and often unpredictable battlefield that seemed genuine. It reminded me that planning was a necessity, and that I must consider supply, morale, weather, leadership, position and timing to execute a successful campaign even in the smallest theaters, but that I must also be prepared to revise or completely abandon even the best strategy if the fates collaborated against me.
To be fair, this doesn’t always make for satisfying gaming.
There is no mentor to tell you that you did everything right, and that there was nothing you could have done to avoid an inevitable defeat, and I was surprised to find I spent significant time after scenarios thinking about how I might have improved and more importantly reacted. Birth of America II offers you more detail than mortal man is prepared to soak up, and some sort of advanced alien math under the hood to calculate everything. I don’t think I once executed a turn where I was confident that I had considered every contingency, every piece of vital information.
Even after a month, I was never fully equipped to fight a full campaign. The scenarios, sometimes only 8 turns long, were more than enough to gnaw on. In the full conflict of a revolutionary war, the truth is that a dedicated player could spend a day between each turn carefully considering the garrisoning of crucial towns, the marching of divisions through hostile environments, the supply of large armies, the morale of ten thousand men, the way that the enemy might react and expose an unseen weakeness, the resupply of diminished forces and a thousand other questions. Like an ocean, the further out you push, the deeper the water.
Merely wading in the warm tide pools where minnows pick at your toes belies the great depths and perils waiting further out. Yes, I could play a quick 8 turns, barely awake, and have the reward of a brief victory. That’s not the game; that’s the bait designed to lull you into the false confidence that you have the fortitude wade let the riptide wash around your ankles. That’s the illusion that the waves won’t drown you.
And make no mistake, they will drown you. Whether you will fight it is up to you.
February’s Horizon’s Broadening Project Game – The Witcher