Birth of America – Game Review (PC)
I think I’m a pretty discerning gamer. I started playing computer wargames with the venerable Trek on an old Apple II and can recall the heyday of SSI with their great games of yesteryear. So it is pretty rare when I get excited over a new game; most of them are "been there done that" derivatives of other original games.
Birth of America (by a small group of French developers called AGEOD) is one of those truly original games of the past ten years. It manages to hide a very detailed simulation of 18th Century warfare on the American frontier in a pretty package that is easy to learn but very hard to master.
Gameplay (60/60): I know. I’m not supposed to give a 60/60 score on gameplay without it being a truly great game.
Birth of America (BOA) earns every one of those sixty points. It is in a class by itself — a seemingly simple game that a player can jump into and suddenly discover it is now six hours later and the fate of the Colonies is still in doubt.
The game has two conflicts (the French and Indian War and the American Revolution) and uses a ‘regional’ based approach familiar to those who have played Paradox’s Hearts of Iron series or Europa Universalis. Now, don’t get me wrong, I played (and still play) those games, but I’ve always had a problem with region-based titles. Slapping a title like "Burgandy" (a darn big place) on the map and assuming that your Renaissance armies will automatically find and fight one another every time was always a bit unbelievable to me. BOA fixes this problem by adding the distinct possibility that two opposing armies will occupy the same region but be unable to find one another. From my test games, this saved my rag-tag army of Patriots from the accursed British tyrants, as Washington and his men slipped out of danger by literally marching through the British. Why? Because anyone who has ever visited northern New York or Vermont could easily tell you that the terrain there –even today– is conducive to hiding a relatively small force. This simple factor provides a depth to the game unheard of. Now, you can’t just line up the Redcoats along provinces and regions and expect to win. I tried doing that in the 1755 campaign and was unpleasantly surprised when the Native allies of the French were raiding outside Boston!
(Above, right) Zoomed out map showing loyal/Rebel control in the 1775 South. The British hold a fort at Ninety-Six and Norfolk, but a swath of population between New Bern and Charlotte are still faithful to the Crown. In addition, the mountains are solidly Loyalist, to include the Catawba tribe to the northwest. Native American tribes play a crucial role in the French and Indian War scenarios and a lesser, but important one, in the Revolution games.
The game is not a strategic nation-building game. You do not build new units, upgrade cities, etc. Instead, the scenarios are scripted to provide reinforcements when they historically arrived. I found this out the hard way in 1775 as the Patriot cause was securing the blessings of liberty, and most of New England, when the British horde appeared from the Mother Country. They even brought the Hessians along, just to make life miserable for me. I soon was running for the hills, literally, burning my forts and depots to buy time.
Units are based on companies –yes companies– which are formed into regiments. The regiment is the basic maneuver unit of the game and is reflected on screen by a counter that looks much like something you would see in a high quality boardgame. But don’t let that simple counter fool you; there is a lot of hard historical data hidden in the game engine and in the small icons at bottom of the screen which show their condition, strength, and origin (i.e., what colony or region they originate — from separate Native tribes to the Georgia militiamen to Continental Regulars). Reinforcements are automatically sent to units based on region. So if your crack 1st Virginia is down to its last company and Vermont gets two companies of reinforcements, they will go to a Vermont regiment and not the desperate Virginians.
Leadership plays a crucial role in the game. Much like the classic SPI and Avalon Hill/Victory Games American Civil War games (War of the Rebellion, The Civil War), you are often stuck with poor leaders with seniority. For every Washington, there is a Gates. However, all are often needed to command the forces you deploy; insufficient leadership means a big hit in effectiveness, attrition, and organization. Your leaders in the Revolution scenarios are also limited by region –some of the New Englanders will not leave their section to fight elsewhere and the same for Westerners and Southerners. The overall effect forces the player to find the best leaders for the region, put them in command of their own troops, and fall back on men like Washington or Nathaniel Greene to command the maneuver forces. Leaders themselves have special skills attached to them, not all of them good. Some are tagged as "Militiamen," "Partisan," "Indian Fighter," etc., which gives you specific bonuses in different situations. Francis Marion, the famous "Swamp Fox," can run rings around slow British commanders, attacking their columns from ambush and fleeing before they can hit him. This system is quite elegant and adds much to both the historical feel of the game and gameplay in general.
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