Scourge of War: Brandy Station – PC Game Review
Scourge of War – Brandy Station. PC game review. Publisher: Slitherine/Matrix. Developer: NorbSoftDev. $19.99 boxed, $9.99 download (also included in Scourge of War Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Collection, $89.99 boxed, $79.99 download)
Passed Inspection: Great graphics, fine AI, excellent historical detail, good multiplay
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, intricate interface, a bit too bloody.
Military historians point out that cavalry was the hardest service branch to control; Wellington said his horsemen only got him into trouble. Thus, the 1863 battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle of the American Civil War and arguably the first step of the Gettysburg campaign, should pose a challenge to both gamers and developers. NorbSoftDev’s fourth addition to their Scourge of War: Gettysburg series will attract any tactical enthusiast. The question is if the engine which has its roots in the seven-year old Take Command: Second Manassas can still attract new gamers and handle all those horses.
“A Sulpherous Cloud”
The graphics of this game are fine and uniquely multi-layered. The images on the game screen are nicely detailed. Trees, foliage, rocks and folds in the ground are displayed very well. Fences—all-important in this period—are also clear but, although they slow movement, do not show the effects of a column crossing them. Buildings are good example of the nineteenth-century style but cannot be entered. Troops and weapons are shown with accuracy. Bodies are strewn across the field, but the squeamish can turn this image off. Regimental and national flags have the correct details and wave dramatically. Flags are also indicators of unit condition as they lower when a unit is in trouble. Objectives are marked by symbols hovering in the distant sky and yellow circles on the ground. Animation is great with rifles and cannon showing muzzle flashes and smoke. Smoke dissipates too fast. so battlefields are much clearer than they were during the conflict. At lower levels of difficulty, screen views can be scrolled, zoomed and rotated without limit. At higher levels, camera views are limited by varying degrees to areas around the commander; the highest of the eight difficulty levels restricts view to 360-degrees from the commander. A custom level allows changes in camera views and other details. A compass on the bottom indicates the direction players are viewing, and its borders display weather conditions and terrain type.
A map display functions like mini-maps in other games but with much more information. Roads, towns and farms are shown and named. Objectives are marked and a tool tip provides more information. A small blue triangle shows the present view and, at lower difficulty levels, double-clicking moves the screen view anywhere. The function becomes limited at tougher levels. Units are shown on this display as blobs. Although the tool tip will give the unit name and condition, the resolution is not as discreet as some players enjoy. This resolution may fit into the overall theme of limited intelligence but a zoom function here would make play easier. The developers have pointed out that the display has always been like the present image but willingness to tweak old features is a sign of a healthy franchise. Options for many other graphic functions such as tree transparencies are available.
Sound effects are flawless with movement and combat noises being clear and appropriate. The cries of men in battle add verisimilitude to play as do the bugle calls for different orders. The plodding of the signal courier horse bearing new orders can cause players to sweat. (Orders brought by courier have very good period script and style.) Sound also helps with screen navigation, as fire becomes louder closer to fighting.
This game isn’t easy to learn. However, the six interactive tutorials do a good job of teaching the interface and tactical concepts through tips given in real battle situations. The 121-page PDF manual fills in the blanks.
“In Line … Oblique Left”
Although commands can be given individually to regiments, artillery batteries and artillery sections, the highest ranking commander on the field is the hub of control for players. Officers are rated for command, control and leadership, traits that impact the troops around them. Commands to individual units and units controlled by the commander are divided into three categories: combat, movement and orders. These categories are very well described by Patrick Baker in his Armchair General review of Scourge of War: Chancellorsville. Players can easily go to the order of battle button via commanders’ “GoToMe” function. The order of battle provides a chain of command from division to brigades down to regiments. A click can send players to the unit’s position and get an update on its condition. Commands about formation and movement can be given directly at this level unless play is at the higher levels. Here, commanders are in the HITS (headquarters in the saddle) mode and must either be near the unit or write a message to be sent by couriers. Messages take a while to arrive or the courier may be intercepted. The system accurately simulates the era’s command and control problems. Watching units carry out commands can be confusing but regimental commanders usually do as they’re told eventually. The sequence of clicks required to send commands from commanders can be tedious but are well worth using in large battles. The developers may be working on simpler methods. Although most formations are common to all units, some unit types have unique orders. Cavalry can mount and dismount, while artillery can limber and unlimber. Artillery also has a choice of ammunition: exploding shell, solid shot and canister.
Brandy Station was an odd sort of meeting engagement. Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart had no idea Union troops were near and was resting his corps after a grand review the day before. Union general Alfred Pleasonton thought Stuart was planning a raid from a position some distance to the west and merely wanted to disrupt that action. When Union forward elements stumbled into rebel pickets in the predawn of June 9, 1863, both sides were surprised and uncoordinated. Over 20,000 cavalry troopers and some infantry would participate in a battle lasting almost twelve hours, ending in a draw: Stuart held the field, but the Union cavalry proved for the first time in the Eastern Theater that they were as good as their rivals.
Scourge of War – Brandy Station shows this scrum in ten scenarios with two scenarios having variants. Scenarios are ranked for players as green, experienced, historic and grognard but players can overlay their own choice of difficulty levels. Scenarios have game time limits of thirty minutes to two hours but players can speed or slow play. A pause function is provided but no orders can be issued when the game is paused. A Battle Info sub-screen is on the selection screen and can be accessed from the game screen. Information within this screen includes battlefield conditions, objectives, victory point levels, OOB and historical notes about the action and commanders. Victory points are gained and lost by holding objectives and inflicting casualties while minimizing losses.
Individual scenarios can only be played as one side. Fortunately, the scenarios are divided evenly by side and scale. Broadly speaking, battles are divided into three stages. Both defender and attackers concentrate forces at the objectives. Both then deploy, with the attacker deciding whether to lap enemy flanks or create a large reserve. Defenders decide where to post dismounted troopers; choosing dismounted formation reduces strength by 25% because of men detailed as horse holders and positioning reserves. Regimental commanders can usually be trusted, but artillery batteries should be micro-managed. After these preliminaries, the series of charges and counter-charges begin, giving the game the same confused nature that marked the battle. Key to success is watching the morale and exhaustion scales at the bottom of the screen. Even though a good charge may increase morale, afterward the horses will be tired and may not withstand a counterattack. Hence, care and preservation of reserves is extremely important. Variations of this sequence can occur with reinforcements or new orders. The AI is very good but multi-play through a lobby or IP address is the real challenge. A sandbox option lets players roll their own fights.
The tactics of the game are accurate but the battles are too bloody. This day-long battle only caused 1,500 casualties, a third of which were Union prisoners. The total dead on both sides totaled slightly over 100 and the category “wounded” is so broad that it’s no indication of savagery. However, the game reduces entire brigades to companies through combat. What is needed is a mechanism where “ole Nelly” simply takes off to the barn. Scenarios might be shortened but would be more accurate.
Despite the bloody combat results and the intricate interface, Scourge of War – Brandy Station does a yeoman-like job in dealing with a difficult engagement. American Civil War enthusiasts should give this add-on a receptive look. Brandy Station is not a stand-alone game; you must own Scourge of War: Gettysburg to play it. The Brandy Station expansion can be purchased by itself, but it is also included in the Scourge of War Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Collection, which includes all titles in the series (Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Brandy Station, and the hypothetical situation Pipe Creek).
Armchair General Rating: 84%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad.