Rebel Raiders on the High Seas – Boardgame Review
Rebel Raiders on the High Seas. Boardgame review. Game Designer: Mark McLaughlin. Graphics: Rodger MacGowan, Mark Simonitch, Charlie Kibler. Published by GMT Games LLC. $69.00.
Passed Muster: Entertaining, accessible game on a woefully overlooked subject, that nonetheless offers a lot of strategy. Event cards enhance the game immensely, and add to what is already a very replayable affair. The two sides require quite different strategic approaches, and the game rewards repeat play. Would make a great tournament game.
Failed Muster: Learning curve is harder than it needs to be for a relatively simple game; in addition to some vague rules, the organization of the rules could be better. Price is a bit steep for the components included.
During his multi-decade career, Mark McLaughlin has delivered a remarkable range of game designs: the two-game Civil War epic, Mr. Lincoln’s War; card-driven games, including Wellington, Kutusov and Napoleonic Wars; strategic titles such as War and Peace (which takes far less time to play than it does to read the novel); even whimsical fare like Princess Ryan’s Star Marines. So, it comes as little surprise that McLaughlin, in his restless search for eclecticism, should provide the gaming public with, of all things, a strategic-level American Civil War naval game.
Certainly, there have been Civil War naval games before, most notably Craig Taylor’s Ironclads. But these mainly dealt with ship-to-ship combat. Moreover, most classic Civil War strategic games either abstract the vast majority of the naval warfare, as with Frank Chadwick’s A House Divided, or they add so much detail on the maritime aspects that game length is seriously affected, as in Eric Lee Smith’s The Civil War.
Fortunately, McLaughlin’s latest design shakes up the status quo by abstracting Civil War land battles and focusing on what was significant during the naval campaign. Rebel Raiders on the High Seas shuns unnecessary detail, yet nonetheless manages to show how differently the two sides fought the war upon the waters.
As one might expect from a game with a subtitle of The American Civil War at Sea and on the Mississippi, there is quite the variety of things to do. The Union player must set up blockades covering thousands of miles of coastline, assault major Confederate coastal cities, and wrest control of what President Lincoln called “the Father of the Waters” — the great Mississippi River — and use it as an aquatic highway with which to invade the South.
Johnny Reb, with even fewer resources at sea than on land, cannot hope to match up with the powerful Yankee navy and so must fight back in less conventional ways. Chief among these are the Rebel raiders showcased on the box cover; indeed, much of the tension in the game comes from their attempts to break free of the blockading Union squadrons. If they succeed, there are plenty of target-rich environments to plunder on the open seas, and thereby keep the Confederacy in the game. All of which is a pretty good representation of the strategic realities of the Civil War at sea.
Lest you worry that with all these naval maneuvers, there might not be enough combat, rest assured that there are plenty of mid-19th century vessels, all armed more than adequately enough to qualify Rebel Raiders as a fully-fledged wargame. In addition to their Blockade Runners and Raiders, Confederates also have shore batteries to defend their ports. The Union player counters with screw sloops and more nimble gunboats than those of the Rebels (Yankees can enter coastal areas). Finally, of course, what Civil War naval game would be complete without those awkward, slow, often unreliable, but endlessly enticing floating gun platforms, the ironclads? Rebel Raiders divides these into “generic” ironclads and “named” ironclads, such as Virginia, Tennessee, or Monitor.
The more famous vessels are put into play through various cards played during the game. Let me be quite clear here: Rebel Raiders is not a card-driven game like 1989 or Twilight Struggle; it is a card-assisted game, because the cards enhance play rather than dictate the flow of the game. Having said that, let me also hasten to add that this type of card play mechanic adds immensely to the enjoyment of the game, as well as to its replayability.
For example, in one battle, my opponent was confident that his combination of battery, gunboat and ironclad could hold out against my gunboat-heavy force. Given that his battery and ironclad could only be hit on a 6 (the game uses standard 6-sided dice), he normally would have been right. But his sense of security fell rapidly by the wayside when I revealed that my lone ironclad was actually the USS Lehigh, whose 150-pound Parrot gun — and its +2 modifier to the die — made short work of the enemy.
The cards thus offer a lot of tactical and strategic options, reason enough for them to be included. But they also add a ton of historical flavor, which helps to flesh out a fairly abstract game. I learned more about Civil War naval warfare in a handful of Rebel Raiders games than I did in years of reading about Civil War campaigns. Best of all, during each game, you can create your own naval exploits with that “Unsinkable Screw Sloop” the USS Brooklyn, defend Mobile with the Mosquito Fleet, sink blockading vessels with the famous CSS Hunley submarine, and of course, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” with Admiral Farragut. All of the events one would expect are included, such as the Trent Affair, the Union’s lucky finding of Lee’s invasion plans (Three Cigars), the Red River fiasco, and the effects that Matthew Brady’s groundbreaking photography of the aftermath of battle had on the war.
But what makes Rebel Raiders special are the finer details: How Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, commandeered materiel to secretly build an ironclad; the wide range of creative Union ship designs, from the “Pook’s Turtle” to the triple turrets of the USS Roanoke; the variety of ways that the South got around the blockade, from buying European ships to bribing corrupt Union businessmen. When you throw in cards for Yankee and Rebel spies, the possibility of European intervention, great leaders like Lee, Porter and Grant, siege trains, engine breakdowns, “Infernal Machines” and even the forces of nature, you can insure that no two games should play quite the same way. And if that isn’t enough detail for you, Rebel Raiders will also work with GMT’s Iron and Oak game, which allows you to play out the battles in all their ship-to-ship glory. (Click to read Armchair General’s review of Iron and Oak.) http://www.armchairgeneral.com/iron-and-oak-boardgame-review.htm
Despite the variety—and, I would argue, at least partially because of it—the game actually does reward repeat play. Since you rarely can depend on getting certain cards (the game isn’t as scripted as some card-driven games), you have to think on your feet (or your sea legs), and constantly be ready to revise your strategy, which is always a good thing for a wargame and is particularly well suited to this one. The Confederate and Union sides play very differently as well, and after several games, I have yet to find that the game favors one side over the other. My feeling is that it would make a very fine tournament game, especially given the briskness with which it plays.
I will note that your first game will almost certainly take longer than necessary, because of some unfortunate vagueness in some sections of the rules. Land assaults, in particular, are harder than they should be to figure out for novice players—ironic, given how abstracted the land combat is for what is first and foremost a naval game. And overall, the organization of the rules could be better; it’s sometimes hard to find the exact rule you need quickly. These issues are mitigated somewhat by the helpful Playbook, which offers examples of play and context. Still, this is a game that would appeal to folks who would normally not go near a Civil War game, and GMT has a certain standard of quality that they should have met more fully here. Similarly, the price is a bit steep at $69.00. To be fair, there are a lot of cardboard counters, but while serviceable, they are not up to the high standard of say, Twilight Struggle or Washington’s War, two other games that also have appeal beyond the usual wargame suspects. The cards are fine, however, and the map, though not mounted, is attractive and functional.
The rules are already being addressed, it seems, online. In any case, my opponent and I were able to figure things out and play fairly accurately our first time out, so this is more an annoyance than a real problem. Also, the game is available at various merchants for well below the list price, and I’d advise you to take the plunge, if you have any interest in the time period at all. Because, despite its minor faults, Rebel Raiders is one of the freshest wargames to hit the scene in a long time. Not only does it shed light on a sorely neglected aspect of a significant conflict, it does so with verve and insight. Whether you’re slipping through blockades, dashing past the mines at New Orleans, or pitting a lone ironclad against a group of angry gunboats, you’ll rarely be at a loss for things to do in Rebel Raiders. More importantly, you will very likely want to play the game again and again to try some new strategy for winning the Civil War on the waters. I wish you good sailing.
Armchair General Rating: 88 %
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 3
About the Author
Terry Lee Coleman is former Senior Reviews Editor of Computer Gaming World magazine. He has written about board and card games for several years in such publications as Fire & Movement, The General, Undefeated, and of course, ArmchairGeneral.com. While Terry admires the sheer power of most ironclads, he would gladly trade the armor plating for a fast screw-propelled blockade runner like the Don, and a tasty adult beverage.