Due to a recent back injury, I finally had time to extensively play ACW after owning the game for some time.
My background is a semi-retired computer wargamer, now focused mostly on board wargaming. I consider VG Civil War to be one of the best wargames, and certainly the best Civil War strategy game to date.
So, after two games against the AI as both the Union (victory in mid-1863) and the Confederates (victory in about 10 turns), I would say that I am very impressed with most of the game. However, there are a number of issues that would make me not likely to play it again in it's current form. I am hopeful that some of the criticism below could make it into a future patch and I could revise my opinion.
The game is clearly too complex for even a gifted AI to understand. A few points:
1. As the Confederates, desparate economic actions were initiated from the beginning (full mobilization, inflationary actions, etc.). By 1863, the AI didn't seem to be able to build troops any further. The Union AI seemed to do the same thing, although this game was much shorter so I don't know what impact it would have had. The AI selection of inflationary items should be the result of setbacks, not plan #1.
2. As both sides, the AI is constantly making deep raids into enemy territory. As done by the Confederates, it was somewhat effective until I figured out a solid militia/cavalry countermeasure. From that point, it was merely a nuissance to keep chasing units on their way to Chicago and fix the railroads. At several points, however, the Confederate strategy ended with very large armies backed into corners with massive losses. This was without putting the AI on aggressive. As the Union, the AI was a complete game-breaker. Seemingly every Union leader made a charge for Atlanta as soon as possible - Lyon was surrounded and killed around Memphis, all of the western units dove on Texas, etc. The main failure was when the entire Army of the Potomac decided to advance partway down the Shenandoah and then stop. A simple assualt on Washington ended the game. The AI needs some force preservation instincts.
3. As the Confederates, the AI finally lost in 1863 when a single division marched from Fort Monroe to Richmond basically unmolested. This was with numerous stops by Halleck due to inactivation.
4. Teleporting Commands: You really should be able to make the computer have zero of the instant relocations. This really makes a joke out of planning an offensive based on where enemy forces are. I think I fought AS Johnston and EK Smith on every single front, every other turn.
So, the Confederate AI can put up a fight, but is pretty easily lured into countless traps that will bleed it to death by the middle of the war. The Union AI, on the other hand, doesn't seem able to make any coodinated attacks that would actually threaten the Confederates, and has little, if any, skill to prevent the loss of Washington.
Okay, so the AI is just to learn the game, why don't I just PBEM the game? There are actually several issues that I think could be easily changed. If the game was shorter or simpler, I wouldn't consider these to be major issues. As a game that will take dozens and dozens of hours to play, these items become game breakers:
1. Activation: Yes, this can be turned off, and I would have to do so. The idea is that non-activated leaders move slower and fight badly. This is not a bad thing. As it works though, it becomes a very gamey item as you just have to reshuffle commanders to get want you want done, esp. in 1862+ once you have extra leaders. A worse aspect of this is that inactivated leaders can't choose an offensive stance - not bad on the surface until you realize that a defensive army will let the other army pass - quite the easy way to lose Washington, even though you had the whole AoP in between the Confederates and Washington. I also don't understand why you need activated leaders to build forts or form divisions - this is just a pain. McClellan, the poster-child for inactivity, seems to have been able to form divisions and dig in just fine.
2. Promotions: This is a more serious issue. As I understand this, you must promote the leader the turn he is due for promotion or you lose it. In a game that you have dozens of things to do every turn, adding this little micro-managment item is silly. It goes beyond silly when you have to move the leader out of his current command to promote him, or you take a huge VP loss because you promoted someone with less seniority. This is carrying the whole seniority bit too far. For army commands, this is understandable - you only have a limited set of army commands and the stakes are high. For lower-level generals, the level of managment it would take to try to get certain generals into combat ahead of certain others is impossible, esp. with only a one-turn window for each promotion. Suggestion: Make all of the promotions automatic, as in the VG boardgame. When a general is due for promotion, he gets promoted without any player input. Or, if players still want management of this, have a pop-up that asks Y/N on each promotion that is due - without VP costs for promotion ahead of seniority.
3. Army change of Command: This mostly works, although I question if McClellan is really worth 300 VP when high taxation is only 25 VP. If the player replaced every general that Lincoln actually replaced, I think you would end up with negative VP. The main problem is this; say you replace McClellan with Grant as Grant now has higher seniority - cool, no VP cost. However, now McClellan is still in the game, so every army command change you make must always consider McClellan first. Again the suggestion is follow the board game - when you remove a general's command, you have the option to remove him from the game completetly. I think once you have a passed a general over, the political cost has been payed, it shouldn't come up again.
4. Naval Cohesion: Even though I checked the option to have naval units not lose cohesion, they still seemed to keep losing it - does this feature work?
5. River Forces: While I made many attempts, I could never enforce a naval blockade on the rivers. The computer is always able to cross rivers at will; I don't know if I didn't have enough ships in enough areas, or if it was confederate ships moving in and out of the spaces, but the Confederates constantly slipped units into Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana. There really should be a way to easily blockade a river and prevent this.
The above items are the ones that would prevent me from wanting to PBEM the game. Considering the dozens of hours I played, I also found several elements of the game were not worth the 'mental overhead' to deal with. Maybe I missed something, but in a boardgame, I would consider removing or abstracting several things:
1. Loyalty screen - losing VP to get martial law of dubious impact?
2. Economics screen - Aside from building trains and river transport, didn't see the point - I didn't industrialize the North and yet never had any serious issues with supplies of any kind.
3. Political Options - most of these seem to be no-brainers (emancipation, blockade) or never used (territorial concession).
4 Unit purchases - this could really get streamlined - does it really matter if you have 10lb or 12lb cannons at this scale? Why does the North need to purchase brigs or armored frigates; the blockade flotillas and normal frigates seeem to be all you need. Support units; can't you assume the North probably has these (field hospital, signals, etc.) and the South doesn't and just factor it into the army HQ?
5. Blockade - I never bothered with the brown-water blockade due to the micro-management and lack of feedback. How can you judge if closing of a port is woth the cost of the ships? Is it really worth it for the North to put transports at sea (and escort them) when they have plenty of supplies? This would be a much more interesting area if you had some charts or something that would tell you what you are accomplishing.