Campaign Overland Civil War Battles – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Very accurate depiction of Civil War tactics; lots of scenarios of varying size
Failed Basic: The AI is an electronic Nathaniel Banks; graphics and sound in the series haven’t changed in nearly 20 years
John Tiller Software, in one form or another, has been around for almost 20 years. Beginning with TalonSoft publishing in 1995, Tiller gave us Battleground Ardennes and Battleground Gettysburg. Now, 18 years and 60 games later, he has published Campaign Overland, his development house’s 15th Civil War–era war game. This one is a simulation of U.S. Grant’s 1864 dance of death with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
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Tiller fills a niche in the wargaming community by simulating Civil War campaigns overlooked by other developers. Besides the mainstays of Civil War battles—Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam—Tiller has also released simulations on the Corinth, Ozark, Chickamauga, Peninsula and Vicksburg campaigns, among others.
Tiller’s team of developers is not only one of the few who are creating quality Civil War games, they also publish simulations covering 18th–21st century combat. Their simulation prowess is such that they have been awarded several Defense Department contracts to provide military simulation software to officer training schools.
However, while Tiller’s game portfolio is very diverse, each game released follows a basic and, to fans, familiar format. Each game is played on a map made up of hexagons (hexes)—well-trod ground to board gamers—that represent 125 yards across. The battlefield can be viewed in various levels of zoom and viewpoints, including a “3D” isometric view that resembles a miniatures game with actual figures of infantry, artillery, etc. There are corresponding top-down views using your standard board-game tiles as well.
Tiller’s team spends a lot of time researching their subject and developing a large set of challenges for the armchair general, and the trait continues in Campaign Overland. The game contains 105 scenarios, starting in the fall of ’63 with the Mine Run Campaign, and continuing through May and June of ’64 and the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. The scenarios also range from small cavalry actions to a 1,390-turn monster covering the entire campaign on a single map spanning over 1 million hexes. The scale of play is at the regimental/battery level, and some of the smaller scenarios (12–15 turns) can be played in about an hour. The scenario choices thoroughly cover both historical and “what-if” situations and will provide hours (Days? Weeks?) of enjoyment.
You can play alone versus the computer or against a human opponent using Play-By-E-Mail or Network Play (over a Local Area Network or the Internet). Each battle is fought in one of two modes. In the default Turn-based mode, each player moves, fires, and melees using units under his control. Each battle takes place in turns representing about 20 minutes of real time, although this may vary by scenario. Under the Manual Defensive Fire Option, each turn of the battle is further divided into Phases. A Phase will be under the control of one side or the other. A complete turn contains 10 phases.
If you noticed, the terms “game” and “simulation” are used interchangeably. In its most basic form, Tiller’s games are accurate recreations of Civil War combat—but turn on some of its deeper rule sets and you’re approaching a Civil War combat simulator, not just a game.
Even without turning on optional rules, factors such as unit facing, formation, leadership, ammunition levels, combat quality, morale, weapon type, range to target, fatigue, and many others effect combat results. Here is a description of fire effect taken from the manual: “Firing effectiveness depends on the Weapon Type of the firing unit, the range from the firing unit to the target hex, the Fatigue of the firing unit, and the Quality of the firing unit.”
On morale: “Each unit is assigned a Quality value ranging from A (best) to F (worst). This Quality value is the basis for determining the unit’s current Morale. Each Leader is assigned a Leadership value ranging from A (best) to F (worst). This Leadership value determines the extent the leader will be able to affect the Morale of the units under his command.”
On fatigue, “Not tiredness, but combat fatigue caused by fire or melee effects. Detrimental to morale, melee, and fire … ”
As a Civil War historian, I am impressed by the historical accuracy of the game play (however, I could not find any rule regarding friendly fire, a common occurrence in Civil War battles) and why certain game-related factors are simulated in certain ways. Despite the game’s potential complexity, the game is easy to pick up and play and provides many tense moments. However, to realize the simulation’s true potential, you should read the manual thoroughly to understand the game system.
In the scenarios I have played for this review, the computer AI has not been particularly challenging, however, as it seems to follow the historical path too closely and fails to use all available force. As an example, in the scenario for the Mule Shoe salient at Spotsylvania, I played the Confederates and the AI controlled the Federals. Emory Upton’s 12 Union regiments moved out of the woods in column, heading for the left side of the salient. These AI-controlled Federals did not have far to go and easily penetrated the Confederate trench system, but I pushed out units on either side of the hole to hit them in their flanks and soon routed them.
This result mirrored the historical outcome, as Upton’s attack was unsupported and, just as in this scenario, was forced to withdraw after some success. However, I wondered why Upton was left on his own in the game. In the actual battle, but for a communication foul-up, Mott’s division of the II Corps would have supported Upton’s left. Moreover, where was Warren’s corps, engaged the entire afternoon on Upton’s right? Were they unused because the AI is not very good, or fixed in place to simulate Upton’s predicament? I played the scenario again from the Union side to find out.
Once I took command of the Union forces I was struck by how many Federal regiments were available but the AI had never used them. When I had been playing the Confederates, I kept a nervous eye on Warren’s Corps near Laurel Hill and Mott’s division poised at the apex of the Mule Shoe salient. Yet, while appearing threatening, these brigades never moved, so the scenario was basically over once Upton’s 12 regiments were spent.
When I switched sides I expected to find Warren and Mott’s forces to be fixed in place, because I assumed a “rule” in the game’s algorithms enforced historical outcomes or situations. For example, the scenario rules at the beginning of the scenario “fix” many Confederate forces in the Mule Shoe in place, to simulate their surprise at being confronted by Upton’s unusual formation. Therefore, I expected to find the same situation at play on the Union side, simulating Mott’s failure to support Upton’s assault. To my surprise, Mott’s division and many of Warren’s troops were not fixed. They were indeed available to the AI but simply not used—an oversight that limits the challenge the AI can present.
With these forces at my disposal, I was able to crack the Mule Shoe open in two places—on the left with Upton and at the apex with Mott. I pushed three regiments deep into the salient and captured the McCoull House, one of the objective points, before the scenario was half over.
About this time, however, the scenario rules had “unfixed” two Confederate divisions, and the AI has taken notice of my transgressions. I do not hold out much hope for my now isolated and disrupted regiments inside the salient!
Of course I don’t really expecting world-class generalship from a computer but compared to Panzer Corps‘ AI, which never fails to punish imprudent risks, Campaign Overland‘s AI is an electronic Nathaniel Banks.
Despite respect for the level of research and accuracy depicted in the game, I have another major complaint, to go along with the lazy AI. This one is against the game engine. My first taste of a Tiller game was with two of his early Battleground series, Gettysburg (1995) and Bull Run (1997). The Overland game of 2013 uses the exact same graphics engine as those older games. Even the combat sounds—musketry, artillery, melee, etc.—are the same (or extremely similar) audio samples from the Gettysburg and Bull Run games. While this likely saves development costs and time (this is a very niche product, remember), it goes way beyond simply the engine’s “showing its age.” There are several battlefield views available, but most players will stick to the zoom 2D and 3D isometric views. But even on a 47″ monitor at 1920 x 1080 resolution, the 3D map is, quite simply, ugly. You can tell infantry and artillery apart from cavalry (when mounted at least) and supply wagons, but facing is impossible to discern simply by looking at the counters on the map. If it were not for the unit detail tile, they could be standing on their heads for all you would know. I was considering changing my system settings to 800×600 and 16-bit color to see if it would look any better; then, I found a note in the game materials mentioning that the game was in fact, optimized for 800×600 and 16 bit. Considering that (as of 2010) less than 2% of computer users were still using such a low resolution, I urge Tiller and his team to begin upgrades to their graphics. It is a disservice to their efforts to constrain their games to twenty-year-old graphic engines.
There is one advantage to adhering to an ancient engine—the game was extremely stable on my 32Bit Vista Dual-Core machine. The game never crashed or otherwise misbehaved, though there are a few audio miscues, such as seeing cannon fire but hearing no report.
Tiller’s games are not for everyone. Players of RTS and FPS games may not prefer the slower pace of a turn-by-turn system. Old board wargamers, of course, will feel right at home and likely welcome having the computer handle the entire minutia of rules, line of sight, combat odds, etc. Other than its decrepit graphics, Tiller’s Civil War games are likely the closest you can come to leading a Civil War battle.
Armchair General Rating: 76%; it would be a lot higher if the graphics and sound were brought in to the 21st century
About the Author
Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland with his wife of 32 years, too many cats, and a speedy miniature pincher aptly named “Blitz.” Mr. West volunteers at Manassas National Battlefield conducting tours and demonstrating historic weapons. He has a BA in American Military History and recently graduated from American Military University with a Master’s Degree in Military History, Civil War concentration. Neal is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com.