There are several card driven games that are good and some that are outstanding. Then there are those that have obtained status of a classic. Some time ago, Wilderness War – GMT’s old classic got through a 3rd reprint, and not a moment too soon because I had planned to get a copy for quite some time.
I am very fond of games where situation is completely different for both sides – even down to a point of desperation. My all time favorite in card driven games has been Hannibal, Rome vs. Carhage because of obvious reasons (Carthage, Hannibal, Elephants and crossing the alps, political struggle to gain support to name a few). Unlike in Hannibal, Wilderness War does not have major element of shifting political control and allegiances, yet in weird way it is wargame that does not include whole lot of war but does include quite lot of politics. So, the premises are good, disparity of forces (leaders, armies and all the tweaks in politics), relatively fast, interesting topic (seven years war) and very interesting geographical challenges.
Wilderness war is now going through 3rd reprint so it is not really a game that has diminished in time. In fact, I could argue from that fact alone that it is one which will stand the the test of time in far future.
Components of the third reprint are good GMT standard – and there are no changes to the previous print. Solid cardboard counters in two sheets (considering the variety in the game, the quatity of counters is not overwhelming), very nice and clear mounted map and leader stands that do not break nor destroy the counters. Game box does not perhaps have the most attractive cover art, but it is heavy, and by weight the game is very much worth the money.
There is a rulebook and playbook that contains scenarios and extended example of play. At this point, after reading several card driven games, and read through number of rulesets, I have to say that I am positively surprised. For a long time I thought that rules of Hannibal are intuitive and straight forward, but Wilderness War far exceeds that. There are only one rule that is a bit counterintuitive and that is the famous supply rule that could have been a bit clearer. If one has played games such as Hannibal, or Washington’s war before, most of the rules are easy to adopt. If not, the rulebook is short and rules are organized in fluent manner. Seemingly large quantity of unit types, terrains etc. may be broadly simplified to following: “Round units cannot advance in cultivated regions, and square cannot advance in wilderness – unless accompanied by unit of other type. Everyone stops at mountains“. Luckily, there is a help for those not familiar with card driven games. Extended example of play in the playbook does clear any remaining issues one may have.
Setting up the game – if ignoring the historical unit designations – is relatively quick, albeit a bit longer than, say in Hannibal. Playbook has several scenarios to choose from, and probably the most common – and most balanced one is also the shortest. Each year of gameplay is divided in two seasons, early and late – and for each season a set of cards is dealt (number of cards may change during the gameplay when certain events occur). After the two campaigning seasons, winter follows along with it certain special actions (attrition, raiding VP count etc.) that need to be observed.
Each card can be played for three functions. These are construction, event and ops. Construction allows player to construct stockades and fortifications. Each card has event that can be played by one player or other. Some events can be played by both sides and some of them are reactions that can be played during opposing player turn, or during combat. Ops number allows units to be activated individually, or under leader command (difference to for example Hannibal is that individual units without leader can be activated with a cost of 1 each, or 1/2 if Indians. Additionally, you can activate leader and with remaining points individuals etc). Unlike in Hannibal, a leader that is stacked with other officers allows whole stack to be activated by activating the superior officer – and, each officer can take with it number of units designated in the counter. This means that in theory, player can create super stacks that contain multiple officers and very large amounts of troops. While possible theoretically, practical implications are somewhat scarce.
Massive stacks of troops and no practical staking limit of course was a gateway to bit in the game that is essential, and quite severe – winter attrition. Wilderness War is not a game that artificially restricts the amount of troops that you can place in space at any point of time. Admittedly it is a handy feature in the narrow pathways for advance and when planning and preparing supply routes by building fortifications and stockades but it does require quite bit of planning if one wishes to avoid being trapped in a wrong place at wrong time.
One of the games principle is to play stockades and fortifications. They are needed for various reasons, and not all of them are defensive in nature. Especially English regular army, in order to progress anywhere deep into enemy territory, they have to maintain supply route and building that route in a form of forts and stockades is a certain giveaway to French about the English offensive planning. There are ways around, but the principle remains same, for largish regular armies to be able to move about, and to be effective, they need to be supplied, and retreat routes need to be secured. Failure to do so will have devastating consequences.
Then, there is concept of raiding. Players have auxiliary troops that can be used to infiltrate and raid enemy cultivated spaces, Indian home spaces and stockades. Doing so will produce victory points, but also cause other troubles for the opponent. Raiding is one method to be extremely annoying, because you can only be in limited number of spaces at one with substantial force. Dividing the forces to deal with the raiders, you may end up nothing up your great plan to assault elsewhere in force.
Let’s face it, France with relatively abundant Indian allies, can actually win the tournament scenario by being annoying to the extreme. A bit like Hannibal, but with a bit more options. Then there is more. Once raiding and being just undiluted annoyance, France can start to delay, and make the British advance bog down in every corner. Then there is tiny little detail – unit not in supply cannot continue siege – one of the beautiful gems of the game.
Wilderness War is strategic but does have political aspect as well as requirement for tactical decision making. There are number of unit types that act differently, and it is probably the time combined arms were more or less first time introduced in the battlefield. It is not balanced as some games, disparity of forces, and way that each side plays is completely different. It may be hard for someone who is not enticed by subtle French annoyance tactics or for English player to feel that he is being constantly stalled.
Like it’s brethren, first thing in Wilderness War is most likely overwhelming question after setup -“What now?” to be followed by “Where are the avenues of advance?” and “How do I progress and press enemy hard enough with the insufficient resources?”. It means that to appreciate Wilderness War fully, you will inevitably need to play it a few times, yet do not take it as a fault. Yes, it has simple and straight forward rules, map layout that gives seemingly limited avenues to advance and appears as one-sided but it is not. Wilderness war is not a war-game where war is the operative word.
So, where all that leaves us?
Wilderness War forces one to think differently. First, it is not a historical simulation, but draws from historical background and incorporates unique strategic dilemma that commanders of the period faced. I would not attempt to learn about the conflict, the background or follow it to conclusion through the game (I would not do that for Hannibal either, and yet it does not make the game any less). What Wilderness War does do though, it ignites keen interest in that particular conflict and period.
In a way, Wilderness War conveys the English frustration when facing the French already adopted to guerrilla tactics, raiding and heavy reliance on Indian irregulars. English need to lure the French to engage in attrition war they cannot win. On the other side game conveys quite well the French constant and pressing desperation for manpower. For French, focus need to be shifted where the English are not – and if they are, the battles need to be decisive to keep limited army in operational state.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Wilderness War.