Scourge of War: Chancellorsville – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Superlative graphics, high level of realism and historical accuracy, innovative game play, high replay value.
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve (reading the manual and playing the tutorials are a must), path-finding and position “snapping” needs some work.
Scourge of War: Chancellorsville (SoW: C) is, hands down, the best strategy game, either real-time or turn-based, I have ever played. The game play is intense and involving. It is so realistic you can almost smell the gunpowder smoke and feel the cannonballs hurtling by.
Chancellorsville is the latest in the Scourge of War series from Norb Development Software. The first game in the series was about the Battle of Gettysburg and received rave reviews (including a 95% rating on Armchair General; click link to read review). SoW: C is both an expansion pack to the first game and a stand-alone game. This dual role of the game is a great feature, making the game accessible for the old hands of the system and newcomers as well.
Battle of Chancellorsville, Historical Context
The Battle of Chancellorsville, fought in early May 1863, is considered Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s offensive masterpiece, his “perfect battle.”
Union general Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, upon taking command of the Union Army of the Potomac, determined on a bold course of action. He would try a classic double envelopment of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia encamped near Fredericksburg, south of the Rappahannock River. Leaving one corps at Fredericksburg, Hooker moved the rest of his army west and crossed the river to Lee’s rear. Defying all military convention, Lee split his much smaller force, taking 80% of his men west to confront the Federal forces. Faced with an unexpected Confederate army, Hooker went on the defensive near a mansion ostentatiously named Chancellorsville, conceding the initiative to Lee. Lee split his force again, sending General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps on a long flanking move to the left that surprised a Union corps in their camps and routed them. Jackson’s attack had gotten a late start, however, and he considered a night assault. While he was scouting between the lines with his staff, Confederate pickets mistook the group for Federal cavalry, and Jackson fell wounded, a victim of friendly fire. (He lost his arm and died a few days later of pneumonia). Lee continued his relentless attacks all along the front, until Hooker’s nerve broke and he ordered a complete Union withdrawal back across the Rappahannock.
The battle was exceptionally bloody even for the Civil War. Out of 60,000 men engaged, the South lost some 13,000 killed, wounded or missing. While the North, with 133,000 men engaged, had a total loss of about 17,000. Besides suffering over 20% causalities, Lee lost “his right arm” when his most effective field commander, “Stonewall” Jackson, was killed.
Scourge of War: Chancellorsville—The Game
The game’s graphics are just gorgeous. The colors are bright and clear. The individual details are impressive, right down to the uniforms on the men. Even the smoke produced when the weapons fire is strikingly authentic. After trying to see the enemy through the veil of black-powder smoke that covers the battlefield after just a few volleys, players will develop a new appreciation for what an improvement smokeless powder was. The sound design is excellent as well, from the clip-clap of the horse’s hooves, to the snapping of the flags, to the rattle of musketry it is all there, clear and distinct.
SoW: C was plainly designed with the military historian in mind. Seemly every wall, fence, ditch and road has been modeled and reproduced in the game, all with excruciating attention to historical detail. The game could easily be used for a virtual terrain walk of the battlefield. Weapon ranges, ballistics and effects have also been modeled in detail, as have units’ morale and fatigue factors. The game could very easily be used in an advanced military history class to teach about the Civil War. However, none of this attention to detail takes anything away from the sheer enjoyment of playing the game; instead, it adds to the experience.
For a player new to the game system the four tutorials are a must, as is a thorough reading of the game manual. The tutorials are well done and very informative and provide the player as long as he want to experiment with the system.
In SoW: C the basic infantry and cavalry unit is a regiment formed with other regiments into a brigade. Two or more brigades form a division. Two or more divisions make a corps and two or more corps make an army. Artillery is formed in batteries of four guns (for the South) or six guns (for the North). There are also supply-wagon trains.
The game has twenty scenarios, played in real-time, that represent different times and places in the overall battle. Each of the scenarios can only be played from one side; for example “The Open Clash: May 1st 11:30AM” can only be played as the South, whereas “A Perilous Situation: May 1st, 1:15PM” can only be played from the Union side. There are ten scenarios that are played as the North and ten that are played as the South. Three battles are at the brigade level, eleven are at the division level, five are at the corps level and one is at the army level (“A Cavalcade of Triumph Awaits: May 3rd, 9:00AM.” The player commands the Army of Northern Virginia in this one). If the player wants to slip the bonds of history, then the sandbox option allows for building and playing custom battles.
Depending on the level of difficulty, the player can move the camera around at will to get a top-down view of the battle and give his units orders with no reference to the chain of command or distance. This playing mode is similar to battles in the Total War and other RTS series, where all commands are communicated instantly and instantly obeyed.
However, as the player dials up the difficulty level, the innovation of the game system comes in.
Higher levels of difficulty present greater historical accuracy, as the player’s camera view is locked on to his leader’s (the player’s avatar in the game) viewpoint, and the leader must either be present with a unit to give an order or must send a courier to give one. This aspect is the most innovative of the game. Now the player is forced to stand in the shoes of his historical counterpart and see only what that person could have seen and must rely on the very limited message delivery system of the 19th-century battlefield to communicate.
Couriers take time to reach subordinate units. They sometimes get lost and even killed. In fact, one of my two bones to pick with this game is the pathfinding of the couriers. Couriers of both sides ride haphazardly around the battlefield. In some cases I have seen messengers ride right through an enemy regiment without a scratch and yet other times riders, all alone in the open, get shot out of the blue (or the gray). Also it would have been nice to have a courier “feedback” system, where a messenger arrives and lets the player know that his orders were being obeyed.
In the tactical combat the player is not required to micromanage the units, although he certainly can if he wants. Instead, the player gives general orders: move to a position, form a line, and so forth. The unit, through the AI, takes care of the rest. This includes engaging the closest enemy, changing fronts as required and so on. Independent action like this is very realistic and helps avoid the “click-fest” curse of many RTS games. However, this is where my second bone to pick comes in—the units will not “snap to” the terrain. For example, an infantry regiment is supposed to be sheltering behind a wooden fence or stone wall; instead, it seems to be just standing around it, some men in front and others behind. The regiment’s status says it is receiving the defensive bonus, but it would have been much nicer to have the men hunkering down behind the wall and also much clearer to the player that, in fact, the men were behind the obstacle and receiving the bonus.
During solo play the AI is a worthy opponent. No scenario is a cakewalk in this game. The player must be a good tactician, have a good plan, monitor his units and keep a reserve. The inattentive player will soon have an enemy brigade breaking his line because his regiments are tired, broken or out of ammo. The AI is relentless in seeking to flank and turn the player’s line. The online multiple player mode is robust and well-populated; depending on the opponent, it can be the best test of the player’s skills
The Bottom Line
I recommend this game in the possible highest terms. The new gamer, the old grognard, the student of Civil War history will find playing and replaying Scourge of War: Chancellorsville to be an engaging, interesting and satisfying experience.
Armchair General Score: 98%
About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee working on games and simulations for training. He cut his wargaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He has Bachelors’ degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He just earned his Masters in European History and has decided to use all his education to play more games and bore his family.