It is September 19, 1777. In all the spectacle of war there has seldom been a sight the equal of British General Burgoyne’s campaign. The purpose of the campaign is nothing short of an end to the American Rebellion. The Americans will attempt to stop the British on Bemis Heights, a mound of bluffs over 100 feet high bordered by water. Both armies are determined to conquer or die. For the next six hours, the fate of a fledgling nation and the future course of world history are in the balance.
A complete game of Saratoga contains one 22" x 34" map, 176 5/8" full-color counters, Series rulebook and Saratoga rulebook, two player aid cards, an ammo depletion chart and a 10-sided die.
The map is by Joe Youst, an award-winning wargame cartographer. It is mostly covered in forest, which makes it hard to read at first glance. Once players orient themselves, it is not difficult to interpret. It has a terrain key as well as charts to track game turn and initiative built into the map.
The counters are well-drawn, colorful and easy to read. They have the entry turn printed on them as well as unit morale, strength and movement allowance. The only complaint about the components is the removal of the units. The die-cut units preferred to rip rather than punch their way out of the cardboard back, leaving several units frayed and peeled. Some game purists prefer to manually cut the chits out, but most amateur enthusiasts will punch them and this approach may be problematic.
There are two rulebooks, one for the series-Battles of the American Revolution, of which Saratoga is the first game-and one specific for the Saratoga campaign. The rules are divided into basic and advanced with optional rules also available.
Each game consists of two player turns divided into four segments: Initiative Determination, Initiative Player, Second Player and End-of-Turn. The initiative is determined by a die roll. Each player adds their Army Morale Initiative. The higher score wins initiative.
The players then perform their actions in the following order: movement, rally, defensive artillery fire, rifle fire and close combat. It is worth mention that the rifle fire phase occurs simultaneously. After both players have completed their turn, victory conditions are checked. If they are not met, the game continues.
The crux of the mechanics are very familiar to experienced wargamers. Zones of control, combat resolution table, strength ratios and morale checks. The main distinguishing feature of the game is the momentum chit system. Players accumulate Momentum Chits during the game that can turn the tide of battle. Certain chits, for example, allow for a re-roll during close combat or grant a bonus to initiative. They can be earned and lost during the course of the game. This adds a certain element of variability and strategy to the game that makes it very appealing.
The Saratoga manual includes a detailed narrative by the game designer, Mark Miklos, of the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the basis for this game. Roughly six and a half pages in length, this provides an excellent background of the events leading up to the battle as well as the resultant effects.
My first attempt at this game was a solitaire session. The box states that the game can be set up in five minutes and completed in two hours. That’s a close approximation, but the first game took about three and a half hours as I referenced the rules throughout much of the game. The second game was against a real opponent and the game flowed much more smoothly and was completed in just over two hours.
The game was fast-paced and fun. It was my first foray into the American Revolutionary War genre and while I feared the lack of movement and offensive artillery would be a drawback, it certainly gave me a respect for the state of warfare at that period in history.
Both games resulted in a victory for the British but the second game was a much closer affair.
Saratoga is a solid game with beautiful components, simple rules and a challenging scenario. If, like me, you have never tried a game set in the American Revolution, this is a great way to introduce yourself to the tactics and strategies of that period.