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Posted on Dec 5, 2008 in Boardgames

The Battle of Monmouth – Boardgame Review

By Larry Levandowski

The Battle of Monmouth. Clash of Arms Games. $64.00

Passed Inspection: Miniature-like game play. Deep historical content.

Failed Basic: Requires precise counter placement; players with clumsy fingers, cats and jumping dogs will be challenged.

Players who love depth and historical accuracy won’t find a better offering in a market usually concerned with fast play and gentle learning curves.

Inside of every wargamer, there is a historian who wants to understand and live past conflicts—without getting hurt, of course. So games that go out of their way to model history, rather than just use it as a theme, hold a special place in our hearts.

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It is just these types of historically accurate boardgames that Clash of Arms Games excels at publishing. One of COA’s latest efforts is The Battle of Monmouth, the sixth game in the Battles From the Age of Reason series. This highly detailed game of the American Revolution should be high on Santa’s recommended list for veteran boardgamers.

As a subject for a wargame, the battle is an exciting choice. On a blistering hot day in June of 1778, the British under Henry Clinton clashed with George Washington’s Continental Army near Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. The British were moving in a long road column from Philadelphia to New York. Washington, seeing an opportunity to strike the enemy while they were off-balance, pushed his reluctant subordinate, Major General Charles Lee, into attacking the British rear guard. The result was a fluid battle of attack and counterattack. At one point, the British had the Americans on the run, and it took Washington’s courage and presence to stop the rout. At the end of the day, the battle saw no clear winner. But Washington could take some small comfort in that he had avoided disaster and the re-trained Continental Army had stood its ground in a toe-to-toe fight with the British.

The game Monmouth comes with the standard rules for the series, as well as a hefty supplement specific to the battle. On the surface, the game follows standard boardgame conventions. Each counter represents a regiment, battery or leader. Each turn is 20 minutes of real time, and the game is played on a giant, 3′ x 4′ map, where each hex represents 100 yards. But beyond these high level features, the rules take a path more familiar to miniature gamers.

This miniatures feel is most evident in the way units are portrayed. Each unit is rated by strength points, with one point being 50 men. As casualties are taken, strength points are removed. Also, as in a good set of miniature rules, units have a variety of formation and facing options. There are nine possible formations: line, hooked line, square, attack column, and skirmish are examples. Some of the formations like road column or line can even stretch units into more than one hex. Facing is also important in the game, but units are not much constrained by the hex grid. Units can face hexsides as well as hexlines, for a total of 12 possible directions.

Combat charts also feel like they were pulled out of a good set of black-powder mini rules. Fire combat is based on the number of troops firing, unit type, formation, and the terrain of the target unit. In the close combat charts, troop strength, terrain, flanks, morale, formation and leadership all play a vital role in determining the results. Combat is realistic since musket balls are just as good at mowing down a crack unit of grenadiers as they are at decimating loyalist militia. However, as in real life, highly trained units can fire better and retain morale and effectiveness even with heavy casualties.

Monmouth also sports an innovative command system that models the difficulty of coordinating armies in a time before portable radios. In each turn, players roll for initiative, with the winner able to move one commander and his assigned units. The players keep rolling for initiative, until all commands have moved. However, with each initiative roll, there is a chance that the turn can end early, before all commanders were able to activate. The chance of an early turn end increases as the day wears on. So, in the early hours of the battle, when troops and commanders are fresh, most units can activate without issue; however, as the day wears on, and heat saps the troops’ strength, each side becomes less active. This rule is particularly important for the British when pushing their counterattack.

Gameplay is not like the standard black powder-battle with two sides trading volleys in a long line. Instead, the battle is broken up by numerous forests and gentle slopes. Combat occurs in a series of smaller mini-fights, with a handful of regiments on each side. The battle is also very fluid. The day starts with the American attack, but unless the Americans win quickly, the main British column turns and counterattacks. At this point, the British have a real opportunity to smash Washington’s Army and avenge Saratoga. This back-and-forth combat is just the sort of exciting gameplay that great wargames always deliver.

Monmouth comes with four scenarios. The first two depict the two halves of the historic battle, while the third presents the full day of combat. The last scenario is a what-if that has Clinton pressing his counterattack into the second day.

For those who live in a wargame-opponent wasteland, Monmouth is very playable in solitaire mode. Just as important, Monmouth can be played via PBEM. Clash of Arms publishes a free Monmouth module for HPS’ Aide de Camp 2, a boardgame playing aid with a broad following. With ADC, the player plots his moves on a faithfully rendered computer screen version of the game map and then trades turns with his opponent via email. The ADC electronic game board is also great for solo players. After all, not many of us who have wives who understand why generals Washington and Clinton have to take over the dining room table for a month.

The physical version of Monmouth sports gorgeous, high-quality components. The board itself is a work of art, almost suitable for framing. Unit counters are very attractive, and each regiment has a color scheme reflective of its uniforms and facings. The two rulebooks have almost 60 packed pages between them. Also, in the grand tradition of historical games, there are 12 pages of background on the battle and design notes; there are even present day photos of the battlefield.

The biggest strengths of the game are also the source of its main problems. At almost 40 pages between two books, the rules are in-depth and organized but don’t hold the reader’s hand at all. Black-powder novices will find the learning curve to be very difficult. Also, because the game tracks so much detail, counter management is almost a game unto itself. Game set-up can easily take an hour and playing a full game can burn up a day. Precise counter placement is also critical. Players with small, furry animals or opponents who just can’t keep their die rolls off of the board are in for some frustration.

There should be no doubt that Monmouth is an advanced-level boardgame. Players who would rather learn and play a game in a few hours will want to look elsewhere for their Revolutionary War fix.

In the final evaluation, Monmouth is easy to recommend to veteran gamers. The game’s depiction of tactical combat in the Age of Reason is superb. Players who love depth and historical accuracy won’t find a better offering in a market usually concerned with fast play and gentle learning curves. So stand your ground, present arms, and wait till you see the whites of Santa’s eyes …

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