To describe my first impressions of the game and give a reasonably detailed assessment for prospective buyers, below is a review of FoF. I've also posted it at Consimworld, for those familiar with that site.
I apologise in advance for such a long review, but I really wanted to do justice to this game. There's a lot in it and it's pretty much all good. I have a few minor gripes here and there, but overall it's a brilliant game. The first thing you realise when you start is that there's a lot of detail here. I mean a lot. The 252-page manual makes that clear. So you're looking at a pretty steep learning curve, but don't be discouraged by that. The rules are unusually readable and complete by computer wargame standards and the complexity is mitigated somewhat by the presence of Basic, Intermediate and Advanced versions of the game. So, no need to swallow that large amount of information all in one go.
I've been playing it for about two weeks now and I'm just coming to the end of the first year of the war using the Advanced rules. You can play either side against the AI; hot-seat against a human player; LAN connect against a human; or PBEM. The game uses a 'WEGO' system in that both sides give orders (moving units, setting production orders, etc.) and then both sets of orders are simultaneously acted on. (Or not if, say, a unit fails an activation check, or an enemy force suddenly pops up in the middle of your planned line of march).
The main strategic-level map is very attractively rendered and displays states (split into sub-areas called provinces), rivers, cities, forts and rail lines. The provinces have subtly-rendered terrain graphics for clear, mountain, forest and swamp. Lettering is very good and the overall impression is both very attractive and evocative of the period. One slight gripe is that the state border colours (red for CSA, blue for USA) are a bit jarringly bright for such an otherwise very pretty map. However, a tiny mod is available (just a text file) that you can drop into the right directory and tone those colours down nicely.
One rather odd idiosyncracy is in the fact that rivers are provinces in their own right. Just long, very narrow, windy ones. This works well for several aspects of the game: e.g. movement allowance is greater if travelling exclusively along a river 'province'; and there are of course numerous riverine forts. All good and historical and you don't have to faff about with extra complexity in the shape of river transport rules. However this does result in some rather counter-intuitive aspects to movement, and some initially odd-looking placement of cities. This means that, for example, to move a unit into Richmond, you move the unit to the narrow James River province and then right click on nearby Richmond to open the city pop-up box, into which you then place your units. It's a bit cumbersome at first, but you get used to it pretty quickly. It's worth the slight initial awkwardness, as it does remove clutter from the riverine warfare (and also links nicely with the arrangement of units into higher-level formations - see 'Containers', below).
Cities and Forts
Major cities of the period are shown, as are the various riverine and coastal forts. Clicking on a city and then clicking on its name bar in the control panel takes you to a city-specific view, showing various buildings, production queues, population level, etc. I only have a very small number of minor gripes about this game, so bear with me while I mention one of them: the graphics on the city view are pretty uneasy on the eye. It's all fine in terms of usability, but it could have been much prettier, I feel.
The basic military unit in the game is the brigade; either infantry, cavalry or artillery. Attributes include: number of men, quality, weaponry, disposition (organisation level & morale), current supply level and special abilities (mostly various bonuses to combat). Units are named, but the player can rename if desired. A number of units are 'legendary units', such as the Stonewall Brigade. These come with special abilities, although any unit can have abilities bought for it, or be granted them as a result of additional training or combat experience.
Units are usually recruited (at a cost), although it's also possible to raise troops by mustering and/or conscription, although the latter two options may have a political impact.
A key part of the game engine are 'Containers'. These are organisational entities into which units are placed. They include divisions, corps and armies. Although each player begins the game with numbers of these, additional ones can be raised in a similar fashion to units. They represent the associated staff organisations and are basically empty 'boxes' to which brigades and leaders are assigned. As I mentioned earlier, forts and cities are also considered containers. This is a nice touch which makes garrisoning easy.
Leaders are all generals, ranked by stars (1 to 5), with 1 star men being able to command (i.e. impart leadership benefits to) a brigade; 2 stars for a division, 3 for a corps, 4 for an army, and 5 for the overall armed forces commander (one per nation, naturally). Like units, leaders have various attributes, including: initiative, leadership, tactics, command and cavalry ratings. They also come with special abilities, although a very nice touch is to have both attributes and abilities partly unknown before combat experience reveals them. Players have the option to have purely historical leaders, activating (i.e. becoming available) at historical times and with historical skills; or to add more or less randomisation as desired.
Generals can be promoted and/or demoted, although again, this can have a political impact. Additionally, generals are always at one of four health levels. One final aspect of generals is that they can gradually impart certain abilities to the units under their command (i.e. train them up).
Movement is province to province and, for the most part units can travel two provinces per turn (each turn is half a month). This can be improved by moving along river provinces (four per turn) or via rail, or forced march. Rail movement is handled simply and elegantly and is dependent on a nation's current rail infrastructure level. Forced march runs the risk of the units becoming fatigued and suffering increased loss when attrition is calculated (done each turn and including such factors as disease, poor leadership, terrain, season and others).
Sea transport is also possible, although care has been taken to prevent ahistorical levels of amphibious warfare. For example, you can recreate McClellan's movement of the Army of the Potomac to the Peninsula, but you can't mount a major invasion of Texas by sea.
Within cities are buildings; some at start and others built by the player. Different buildings impart different capabilities, and include military unit production, research facilities, resource gathering, resource refinement and so on. There are something like two dozen building types, so there's plenty of detail here.
The economy runs on several resource types: money, labour, iron, horses and guns. These are produced by buildings, but can also be donated by the international community (see Politics, below) and - for the CSA - gained via the activities of blockade runners.
Politics is handled smoothly, yet effectively. State governors play a major part, being graded according to support for their national government, being pro- or anti- certain economic activities and a number of other attributes. Governor approval can be influenced by the player in several ways. For example, promoting or demoting a general has an effect on the attitude of the governor of the general's home state. Governors are also subject to regular elections (at the historical times as far as I know) and the player can influence this in a small way by boosting the governor's local popularity (keeping enemy units out, building up the infrastructure and so on). Governers also periodically pop up with requirements (e.g. build a factory in my state). Do what they ask and their approval rating goes up. Ignore them and it goes down.
The other aspect of politics is the international community. This is represented by Britain, France and 'the rest'. Players spend money in the hope of engendering greater support. This support can take the form of money, resources and - ultimately - entering the war, although only on the side of the CSA. This latter is an option which can be on or off and results in British troops and/or French ships joining the fighting, albeit controlled by the game's AI. Players can also influence international opinion by various successes in the game, such as winning major battles, emancipating the slaves and so on.
Naturally a major part of the game is combat. Players can fight battles in one of three ways: Instant Combat, in which the game system reviews the opposing forces' size, abilities, quality, etc. and simply presents an outcome at the press of a button; Quick Combat, which is a kind of simple battle board, in which the player has a certain amount of control over unit disposition and actions; and Detailed Combat, which is a full-fat grand tactical battle system.
Now in many games which attempt the latter - both computer and board - the tactical component of an otherwise strategic game is always less satisfying than it sounds. I'm sure many of us have day-dreamed of games where we can play at the strategic level, directing army groups and controlling economies, before plunging into the tactical detail and ordering units to "take that hill". However in reality this approach just doesn't work. I'm not sure why that should be, although the simplicity of most battle-board sub-systems may be a key factor. They often feel 'tacked-on' to the main game and end up being ignored. Even when they're detailed and visually stunning, as in the Total War series of computer games, after playing a few in a campaign I almost always opt for the 'resolve automatically' button. There's something about mixing the strategic and the tactical in one game that just doesn't work.
All this preamble is not to suggest that Forge of Freedom has entirely cracked the problem. But - and this is a very important but - it's so close to a perfect solution that it's streets ahead of any other game I've seen in this regard, either board or computer. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. In my current game I'm about eight months into the war. I've had about six battles and I've played all of 'em in Detailed mode. What's more, they've been as absorbing and exciting and - in one case - as nail-biting as anything else in the whole game. I don't know if I'll still be selecting the Detailed option come 1865, but so far it's been the very large cherry on an already delicious cake. Actually, that's not right: it's been as downright good as the strategic game.
So what have Matrix/WCS done to achieve this almost-complete success in tactical battles? I think it's a number of things. For a start battles aren't just a case of a tiny board with the units pretty much lined up and ready to go at it. The Detailed battle board is big, probably about a hundred hexes on a side. And the time scale for the confrontation is three whole days. With each turn being twenty minutes, what this means, is that you're not straight into the fighting. It's almost an operational-level game to start with. First you have to find the enemy in this wilderness (assuming you have the fog-of-war option on). Then, your units may start fatigued, lacking in supplies, not co-ordinated with reinforcements, or a number of things resulting from the higher-level strategic situation. This means that the wise commander won't go tearing off across the landscape until he's good and ready. Of course, the enemy may come to him in the meantime, so it's a good idea to be prepared for that. If you're the defender, by and large you get to choose the terrain where you're going to fight. And you usually have time to enjoy making a very careful selection. I don't mean before the tactical battle starts (although, as described below, you can sometimes select the general type of terrain). What I mean is, you can choose to stand where the computer places you at the start, or march cross-country to a better location. Do I place my forces on that group of hills in the distance? Or do I anchor my flanks between those two nearby lakes? If I do march any distance, will I have time to rest my troops before the enemy appears. This is a relatively simple idea, but it makes a world of difference.
Another simple, but very nice feature of Detailed combat are the pre-battle options. In this, the side with the better scouting capability (generally from superior cavalry, but also from other sources) is presented with the choice of overall terrain type. It's dependent on the general province terrain, but you get to choose between half a dozen or so options, including such things as 'Heights and Open', 'Very Swampy and Fortifications', 'Deeply Wooded and Many Heights'. Scouting success can also bring other pre-battle options, this time in terms of combat situation. Some examples should give a flavour of this: "Raid Supplies – If successful, enemy units begin the battle with half the normal level of their unit supplies."; "Flanking Maneuver – If successful, the player’s startup area is expanded to include two sides of the map."; or "Interior Lines – If successful, the enemy may not call any reinforcements on the first day of battle.". Each option is shown with a percentage success level and another percentage chance of causing extra fatigue to the units involved. All in all, a very nice, very effective way of adding some very nice flavour and operational choice with a minimum of fuss.
The final main reason for the success of the Detailed battle option lies in the (ahem) detail of the combat system. And to explain why, I'll have to spend a bit of time describing that system. As in the strategic game, the basic unit is the brigade. Assignment to higher-level formations brings benefits: leaders give benefits to all units under their command, so for example a good corps-level general helps units directly assigned to him, as well as all units in divisions within his corps.
Each turn in combat is twenty minutes and, in that time, units can cover more or less ground based on the usual factors such as movement allowance, specific terrain cost and so on. The map is hexes and there are over a dozen terrain types. Units are shown as either 3D figures of men, horses, etc or - at the touch of a button - the representation can change to NATO symbols. A minor gripe here: in the 3D view, useful graphics show such things as formation affiliation, some special abilities and attached leaders. In the NATO style, which I personally prefer, this information is only available via a right mouse click on the unit.
Like everything in this game, there's an awful lot to the combat, so I'll have to summarise a bit. Basically units can be in one of several formations (column, line, skirmish, disordered, broken, et al). They have facing (to hexsides). The weaponry they've been equipped with has varying strengths and ranges; the latter usually being a max of about five hexes for small arms, longer obviously for artillery. There's fire combat of course and melee combat, flanking bonuses, morale checks, LOS, the effects of weather and smoke, supply wagons, and well...loads of stuff! I'm perhaps short-changing the game for the sake of brevity here. Let's just say the combat is richly detailed. For illustration I'm currently playing one of the SPI Great Battles of the American Civil War games and FoF's system compares very favourably.
I'm trying to be succinct, but I do have to mention one of the key features of the combat system. I should say at this point that I'm first and foremost a board wargamer. That's what I love and computer games are always going to be second choice for me. Nothing compares to the paper-and-cardboard experience. But I think I - and perhaps others - are often guilty of over-looking some of the enormously cool things that computer wargames can bring to the party. I made a comparison to the GBACW system above. I love the system, but FoF provides a roughly equivalent level of detail in a much easier-to-use way. The computer handles a lot of the 'guff' (e.g. rolling dice for morale checks, LOS questions and so on) and spares the player the hassle of all these. Don't get me wrong: I still prefer the board to the screen, but we shouldn't overlook some of the advantages of the latter. Case in point: when you click on a unit, you see the unit's movement range overlayed on the hex grid. Hexes outlined in green can be freely moved into. Hexes outlined in yellow or red require progressively tougher checks (quality, morale, leadership) to see if the unit will move there. Not because of terrain type, but because those hexes are in what the game calls 'threatened areas'. In other words they're a long way off from the rest of the friendly troops (command control issues), or they put the unit in a vulnerable situation vis a vis enemy forces (perhaps sandwiching the unit between the enemy's flank and the supporting forces sitting right behind that flank). So, via one very easy-to-view and easy-to-manage method you instantly get a system which makes ahistorical "I'll just march round the back of this huge enemy army and destroy his wagons while he sits and watches me" moves as difficult to accomplish as they were in reality.
Anyway, enough wittering about the Detailed combat option. In short: it's excellent.
Naval affairs are handled fairly abstractly. Naval combat for example is available only in the Instant and Quick modes, not Detailed. (Note: the latter is available in the other game using this engine, Crown of Glory - Emperor's Edition which is both on the Napoleonic wars...and my shopping list ).
Aside from combat, ships are used for sea transport, port blockade, blockade running and (in the case of river gun-boats) as additional artillery units in river fort sieges. All the above is fairly simply-rendered. I suppose it's a shame that the naval side isn't given as much detail as the land stuff. It would be great to have the Monitor vs Merrimac battle to play out for example, but it's not a terrible loss given the wealth of detail elsewhere.
Raiders & Partisans
These are CSA military units which don't participate in battles, but can cause infrastructure and/or economic damage to the province they're operating in. As with the pre-battle options there's one percent chance for success and another for damage to the raiding unit. By the way, Raiders are mounted (move faster, more expensive) and partisans aren't.
Victory in the game relies on victory points. These are granted for a variety of things, as you'd expect, including winning battles, capturing cities, national will level (goes up and down with the fortunes of war) and others. Again there are some lovely touches here. For example, the VPs for battles gradually diminish as the battle recedes into the past. So, recent victories count more than earlier ones. Nice. And the USA gets bonus points for the level of coastal blockade maintained, a la compliance with the Anaconda Plan.
You don't get lots, but there's enough: whole war starting in June 1861; whole thing starting in November '61; both the preceding with an enhanced CSA economy (for balance); and a short war scenario. Apologies, but I don't know the details of the latter.
Preferences and Game Options
Another area where the game scores highly. If you've read this far, you'll have gathered that the game is very detailed. But most of that detail can be switched on or off at the player's whim. Is buying improved weapons for individual brigades a detail too far? No problem, switch that bit off. Can't be bothered with marching around a large battle-board before engaging the enemy? Easy. Change the option to 'Close Battles' and you start only a few hexes away from each other. This section of the review may be brief, but the feature described is far-reaching and brilliant.
The strategic map is particularly good and the Detailed battle maps are also well-done. I've mentioned one gripe about the cities above, and both the game box and map do have a couple of decidely ill-advised drawings of a USA and a CSA soldier (who look to have escaped from the Village People Blue and Gray Tribute Band), but in general the graphics are good. Some of the control panels and pop-ups are a little old-fashioned looking perhaps, but they work fine, so I'm not bothered. If you want state of the art flashy stuff, whizzing and spinning around the screen, you've come to the wrong place.
Fine, without being amazing. You have period music, sound effects and voices (accompanying certain game actions), all of which can be switched off if required.
Okay so far. It doesn't look fiendish, it doesn't look stupid. Anyway, as exerienced players in the forum have stated, the AI's for practice and learning. It's in the two-player game that it really gets fun. Mind you, I've been playing the AI and, so far, enjoying it thoroughly.
One or two minor issues here. No show-stoppers so far in my own playing. The graphics occasionally 'crack' slightly during fire combat resolution in Detailed combat. It's a little annoying perhaps, but nothing major, and it only lasts for a second before resetting normally. I've had a semi-crash a few times in Detailed combat when I've attempted to click on one of my units while the AI units were moving/firing. The game didn't fail, but I had to CTRL-TAB to desktop and back to get it to unfreeze.
I'm by no means an expert on the war, but it looks on the money in this regard. I've seen mods on the forum apparently correcting names on starting units, but I don't know how serious that is. You can rename every unit/formation in the game, so I've not seen it as a problem. Obviously, I haven't played a full campaign scenario yet, so maybe the accuracy goes off the rails after a few game years, but I've seen nothing in the forum to suggest that's the case. It looks and feels like the American Civil War to me and the all-important game flow seems to hit the sweet spot between accuracy and plausible divergence from the strict historical 'script'.
Good. The game's designer still pops into the forum (and, let's not forget, this is a game that came out in 2006!), there are still knowledgable and helpful people playing and contributing to the forum, albeit only a handful. There is a small cluster of mods and a couple of patches. Pretty good for a five year old game!
Well, let me take a deep breath and see if I can summarise the game without extending this already long review. As you'll have gathered, I like it. A lot. It looks good, it plays well (saving a couple of slightly clunky aspects, that you get used to pretty quickly), it has a wealth of detail that's superbly managed and handled by some well-thought out controls and systems and it seems to have pretty much solved the joint strategic/tactical approach way better than any other game I've played, either board or computer.
In case I've not made it clear above, all the cool features I've outlined are pretty much all influenced by player decisions. For example, all those pre-battle scouting options that I mentioned: you only get those if you've got cavalry superiority in the province. And that only happens if you've managed your economy sufficiently well that you have enough horses and money to raise and equip enough cavalry brigades...and you've got a decent cavalry leader assigned to the units...and you've managed the supply chain to keep them supplied...and their disposition isn't too low because they're too far from a hospital...and...well, and so on. That's ultimately what makes this a great game: you have to master the system and play well to get the most out of your forces. Plus, doing so is an absorbing, enjoyable and period-evocative process.
And, even with all this waffling from me, there's still stuff I haven't covered: event reports, captured weaponry, multiple siege options, disease and hospitals, strategic control of supply, staff ratings for formations...and...well, loads of stuff now I come to think of it. Basically Forge of Freedom is good. Seriously good.