The Campaign of 1863 – Browser Game Beta Report
The Battle of Gettysburg during the hot summer of 1863 is likely the most simulated Civil War military event in the wargaming community. A quick check of the popular online shopping site named after a large river in South America turns up almost twenty Gettysburg-related video games. So what sets Mutant Entertainment’s The Campaign of 1863 apart from the rest? Let’s start with the fact that Campaign1863 is completely web-based; all you need is a standard browser and Flash version 8.0. The second is that it is not a simulation of the battle itself but of the entire Gettysburg campaign from June 22 to July 10.
Campaign1863 is multiplayer only; there is no single player campaign except for a reduced-feature demo. But you are not limited to 1-1 play; Campaign1863 allows team play of 2, 3, or 5 players on each side. Each game-day is divided into two six-hour game turns (morning and afternoon) and is played asynchronous, meaning not all players must be online at the same time. As long as your team inputs their orders before the daily (or weekly, if you choose that option) midnight deadline, all will be processed at the same time.
Players can join one ad-based game for free or buy an auto-renewing monthly subscription for $6.99, $9.99, or $19.99 that turns off the ads and allows you to join 2, 4, or 6 games at a time, respectively.
Single players will assume the role of supreme commander of their armies and control all units, Infantry, Artillery, Engineer, and Headquarters, of their faction. In 5-player team games, one will play the Army Commander and the other four players will control one of the three infantry corps or the single cavalry command of their side along with their attached divisions, brigades, etc.
Team leaders, i.e. the Army Commanders, can control any units directly attached to their armies, as well as being able to issue orders to their subordinate corps and cavalry commanders. The rest of the team will control their own corps’ combat units as well as your own headquarters. Each leader is rated for initiative and command ability that can be applied in combat if you choose to “lead from the front,” though this risks your leader to death or capture.
Combats units are displayed on the attractive, rustic-looking map in standard NATO symbols and are rated for strength, morale, effectiveness, commander (non-playable) and weapon type; the first three ratings can be enhanced by leader/commander attributes; the impact of weapons is not covered by the manual and perhaps is a goal for later versions.
Movement on the map is fairly standard. Infantry have three to five movement points available; mounted units (cavalry and HQ) have five – ten, and artillery only three. Movement along roads and turnpikes costs one-half to one-third of a Movement Point to cross, respectively. Broken terrain, woods, fords, streams, etc. cost various numbers of MPs to cross. There is no provision for rail or water movement.
At first glance, the movement point system seemed to be the same as virtually every other hex-based war game but it is not. A player was confused by why he could not seem to create a coordinated attack and posted a question on the forum. It was then revealed that Movement points are time based in order to simulate 19th-century communication difficulties. As it was described, 1 MP = approximately one hour, so if you were to attack a hex with several units that are different distances away from the target, then the units that are closer will attack first. So, in order to achieve a concentrated attack one should be sure that the units are all coming from the same distance; otherwise, you will make a piecemeal attack at unfavorable odds. This is another complicated rule that, being so unusual in a six-hour game turn, should have made it into the game’s documentation.
Each order comprises two parts, Marching Orders and Final Facing. There are 11 types of Marching Orders: Attack, Determined Attack, Defense, Resolute Defense, Barrage, Encamp, Hold and Entrench, Withdraw, Probe, Screen, and Reinforce. Each Marching Order imparts its own advantages and disadvantages that must be carefully considered based upon the situation and unit type.
Once you’ve chosen your Marching Orders, you use your keyboard’s w/e/d/x/z/a keys to move each individual unit from one hex to another. The ‘S’ key signals end of movement and is followed by setting your Final Facing. The mouse is only used for selecting hot buttons and cycling from one tactical map to another.
Final Facing impacts your unit’s zone of control radius. Units possess a zone of control consisting of three hexes. These hexes are usually in the direction of movement; however there are some orders that will change a zone of control. After a unit has stopped its planned movement, you select your final facing, which sets the zone of control for the turn. According to the manual (which still contains outdated information according to designer messages on the forum), zones of control halt movement and resolve combat. But in past forum discussions, the developers imply that commander initiative has some sort of impact on movement through ZoC, but exactly how was not addressed. When I posed a question about it, the designer’s posted that “The old engine was much more turn based than our current version, which has all units moving at the same time in 6 minute intervals. So each commander has an initiative rating that is used to help determine who gets to move first in contested areas (usually when zocs collide).”
As units move, combats such as actions, skirmishes, engagements, assaults and battles can occur. The category of a particular combat is determined by the size of the defending force. All combat results take effect immediately regardless of what point in the turn they may occur. Leaders may participate directly in combat by leading from the front, although this is risky.
As mentioned before when discussing movement, combat is difficult to plan and conduct. Units, even those stacked together (four unit limit), have different movement, i.e. timing, rates. According to forum posts, this means that attacks by a stack of combined arms: infantry, cavalry, and artillery, are liable to be piecemeal affairs—especially in rough terrain as cavalry, being faster, will cross rough terrain quicker and reach the target hex first followed by infantry and artillery. The developers indicated that this is to simulate the difficulty of coordinating assaults in an era without simultaneous communications. This could be a valid argument in a game with an hour time-scale; even a Civil War commander should have been able to coordinate a combined arms attack within a six hour window.
There are other unknowns regarding combat. Weapons’ effect is one, as is the effect of artillery. Unit stats will list different weapon types but there is nothing in the game documentation. A player questioned the effect of artillery in the summer of 2011 and was told that it really had none – the artillerymen were simply added to the troop totals and that this would be corrected in future releases. I requested an update in the forum (Feb. 2013) and was told that while infantry-weapons type do have an effect (what effect was not clarified), artillery still does not.
Historically the Confederate objectives for The Campaign of 1863 were general, some might even say vague. For their part the Federals found themselves reacting to Confederate movements, rumored movements and hysteria (the latter coming both from governments and the local populations). In Campaign1863, assigning victory points to potential objectives simulates these factors. The Confederates gain major victory points—enough in most games for an outright win—for occupying any hex in Washington. Other major point-producers are Harrisburg, Baltimore, Alexandria, Columbia, and York. Lesser points are awarded for other towns sprinkled about on the game map. The Federals can gain ten points each by taking Winchester, Harpers Ferry, and Culpeper, but their primary job is to destroy Lee’s army; they receive 2.5 points for every 10 casualties inflicted.
On the evening turn of July 10th, the Confederate and Union victory points are compared. If the ratio is 0.9 or less it’s a major US victory; greater than 1.489 in favor of Lee and it’s a major CSA victory.
Campaign1863 is a small two-man operation and has been in beta for quite a while; upwards of four years judging by the dates in their forums. And while its basic functions work well and the project has promise, its current version is plagued in with several issues besides those mentioned earlier.
In my testing, the most problematic is the map. Aesthetically, the map, which ranges from Culpeper and Winchester in the south and west, to York, Pennsylvania, and Washington City in the north and east, faithfully recreates the look of hand-drawn maps you might find in the Library of Congress. But the problem lies with the how the game map is divided into “tactical maps” or tiles. The entire “seat of war” is separated into 45 of these tactical maps; each is 13×12 hexes and is about the size of a standard browser window.
The major issue with these tiles is how the tactical maps join with one another. In too many cases, the maps join at major objective points: for example, the area around Harpers Ferry spans two sections while Washington City’s hexes are split between four maps. This makes force emplacement and concentration confusing and time consuming. Each time a unit moves from one tactical map to another, the map does not scroll. The window refreshes to display the new map and you lose visibility of where you just moved from and where you are going. Ideally, the new tactical map would center on your unit, but in Campaign1863, the tactical maps are hardwired in place and, in too many cases, do not mesh logically with each other. Let’s look at how this works in practice.
In the map above, imagine that you are moving a unit from White Plains northward to Ashby’s Gap. The red lines indicate the borders of the tactical map tiles. The unit’s route of march is traced in green. Note how the road transits three different border tiles. As your unit crosses each border the screen refreshes to display only the tile the unit is in. In this case, this means six separate refreshes as your unit crosses from one tile to another. This isn’t too much of an issue if you have enough MP to make the entire journey and/or have a thorough knowledge of the geography. Often, though, you’ll find yourself on a hex (# 4, for example, below) with a section of road disappearing to the North and South. You’ll have to take time to jump between the map tiles and regain your bearings. Frankly, it’s tedious.
In a conventional game (i.e. not browser-based) you could leave your unit in mid-move and perhaps pull up a strategic map to get your bearings. Not here. You have to end your move and choose a facing before pulling up a strategic map in-browser. Not that this map will do you much good because it only displays if there are units in a particular tactical map. It does not tell you where in the map the units are or what they are. There is a mini-map in the bottom right of your movement screen, but it is too small to discern landmarks and it, too, does not display unit markers.
Yet another issue with the maps is lack of indicators of the objective points. The status map gives a list of these important cities and towns but no indication of where they are. The tactical maps also do not indicate if a town is an objective point or not. Oddly, the strategic map, which shows the tactical maps in which enemy units have been detected, only marks three of the twenty-three objective cities and towns. You are left to your own knowledge of the Eastern Theater to find the other objectives. While most players might not have a problem finding Winchester or Harpers Ferry, locating “Elk Ridge Landing” or “Offutt’s Crossroads” could pose a problem. It would help if there were some type of coordinate system in-game to link the objective list and their location on the tactical map tiles.
The Campaign of 1863 has made slow progress through the years. It looks great, runs smoothly, and is available to anyone on the Internet. But, as noted throughout this beta review, it has issues. Some functions—weapon effects and artillery impact—are undocumented or missing. Zone of control rules are vague, as is the ability of commander initiative scores to overcome them. Basing a unit’s arrival into a combat hex based on the unit’s movement rates is, I believe, too restrictive based on the game’s six-hour turn scale.
The tactical map/tile system does not mesh well and the lack of scrolling disrupts the ability to see the “big picture” without tedious bouncing from one tile to another. Using the keyboard for movement complicates matters. You have to watch the screen to keep track of your unit as it jumps from one tactical tile to another and it becomes frustratingly common to accidentally hit the ‘S’ button and end its movement. To correct this you have to first select a Final Facing, select the unit again, and select a marching order again to continue to your destination. That is too many steps. Multiply that by dozens of regiments, brigades, divisions, HQs and it can take more than an hour to cycle through all your units. One suggestion for the designers: eliminate the independent artillery units. Not only have you posted that the big guns have a negligible impact on combat, it would be historically acceptable as each side reassigned their artillery battalions from brigades to divisions in the spring of 1863. Incorporating the artillerymen into the infantry division manpower would reduce map clutter and help speed up play.
The map system also creates blind spots around the big objective cities that, combined with the undocumented and vague ZoC rules, movement timing, and initiative rules, appears to be readily exploited by experienced Campaign 63 players. Indeed, a look at the leaderboard shows the top five–rated commanders have won a combined 78 percent (402 wins – 90 losses) of their games. Several players have voiced complaints on the Campaign 63 forums about map exploitation, especially by Confederate cavalry that dashes between Federal ZoCs to capture city hexes. These complaints have been greeted by experienced players with variations of “guard your cities better”—a valid, though snarky, answer and hard to justify when ZoC and movement rules are not documented for newcomers. Casual players are liable to get the unfortunate impression that old-timers are taking an unfair advantage of noobs in order to pad their victory totals. The leaderboard does not break down wins by Union/Confederate so I can’t say for certain if the majority of those 402 wins were Confederate victories, but based on the forum complaints, I would not be surprised if they were.
I played a full game each as the Union and Confederate against top-tier players and lost each one. Playing Union, I fell prey to the map/ZoC exploit when unseen Confederate units slipped through the ZoC of my screen, captured a corner city hex (meaning it was the only city hex on the entire 13×12 tile), and slipped out again without being spotted. Since the Confederate gain 10,000 victory points just for taking—not holding—a Washington City hex, the game was lost at that point.
Playing as the Confederate, there really was little chance of winning against Northern power without taking a big objective city hex, which is almost impossible against a player who is familiar with the map and has knowledge of the game engine’s holes. Conversely, the Union player should win if he can both guard his cities and cause enough casualties against Lee.
The Campaign of 1863 is a very nice accomplishment for this part-time team of designers and I have hopes that much-needed refinements will gain them great success in the future. Fixing the map system is a long-term project, as I understand it. Fixing the manual, however, is not only the easiest fix but the most important. I started the game expecting a standard war game with well-established game mechanics but Campaign 63 has many quirks and unusual design decisions. It was only after experiencing first-hand the map exploit did I realize how un-standard the game was. Having such an outdated and incomplete manual will undoubtedly drive off many of the casual gamers that Mutant is attempting to reach.
I have reached out to Mutant with some of my concerns. Some were answered in time and included in this article; others will be posted as comments below the main article as they come in.
About the Author
Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland with his wife of 32 years, too many cats, and a speedy miniature pincher aptly named “Blitz.” Mr. West volunteers at Manassas National Battlefield where he conducts tours and demonstrates historic weapons. He is a graduate of American Military University degrees in American Military History and Civil War Military History. Neal is also proprietor of AnotherBullRun.com, a site dedicated to the Second Battle of Manassas.