Washington’s Crossing – Boardgame Review
Washington’s Crossing: A Game of the Winter Campaign of 1776–1777. Boardgame. Publisher, Revolution Games. Designer, Roger Miller. $55.00
Passed Inspection: Brilliantly researched, high quality components, variable movement point rules remove wargamer omnipotence
Failed Basic: Long playing time, can lose track of leader activations, no artillery counters for an artillery-heavy campaign
For years, the Revolutionary War in gaming was limited to a pair of strategic overviews (1776 from Avalon Hill, The American Revolution from SPI) and a smattering of small-press releases on a few battles. But as interest in the period has grown over the last decade, so has the number of games (to include even a roleplaying game, Rivers Run Deep). One of the latest releases, Washington’s Crossing from the aptly named Revolution Games, is a great design with a few misfired muskets.
Washington’s Crossing is a two-player simulation of the entire New Jersey counterstrike that began with Washington and his ragged army crossing the Delaware on the night of December 25–26, 1776, and ending with their successful attack on Princeton, January 6. The game is gorgeous, from the classic Leutze painting on the box cover and an actual signature of Washington, to the quality of cardstock used for the counters. You get a rules book, a fantastic 22 x 34 inch map of the Pennsylvania–New Jersey borderlands (from Philadelphia in the south to Amboy in the north), two player aid cards, a scenario set-up card, two all-important Leader Cards (one British, one American), and a Combat Loss sheet with a few rules errata at the bottom. A sheet of 200 red and white counters and a blue d10 (read 0 as zero, not as 10) round out the equipment you need to fight for country or for king.
Two scenarios are provided, with the Americans starting on the other side of the Delaware (campaign game) or with the Americans already closing in on Trenton (quick-start game). (On the Revolution Games Website, a third Princeton scenario set-up is offered.) Be advised that the quick-start game does not mean a quick end; the game still takes at least six hours to play through!
Once you’ve selected a start to the game, each player sets up his leaders. Combat units are not placed directly on the map in this leader-oriented game but are instead kept track of on the Leader Tracks; an officer with 400 men has a "100 TROOPS" marker placed on the 4 box of his track. Durham boats and Pennsylvania naval vessels are the only other units placed onto the map.
Each day is composed of four Game Turns: a night turn, two day turns, and then another night turn. Each turn begins with a Weather Phase, in which you roll the d10 to determine exactly how cold it is. The weather is not completely random, depending partially upon the previous turn’s weather and the date (after January 4th, things become much harsher) in this good simulation of an East Coast winter.
Following the Weather Phase is an American Raid step. In a great design move, Revolution Games has incorporated the guerilla harassment tactics of the New Jersey campaign into a couple of die rolls. Sometimes a raid occurs, usually not. Raids generally do little direct harm to the British but their Fatigue level is increased, making them less combat ready.
Reinforcements come after the American Raids phase. (The Americans basically get a "surprise turn" to start the game on December 26th, then the British wake up and go "Hey. what’s going on?" and start getting reinforcements steadily throughout the game, beginning December 27th.) The British receive a trickle of new troops throughout the game, the bulk arriving on January 2nd (Cornwallis comes to rout the damned rebels); the Americans receive a few small detachments as reinforcements, but also begin losing their boats in this phase as the river freezes (early January). After reinforcements are placed, the game begins—told you this was a long game. The Americans get their Command Phase, followed by the British, and here is the heart of the system.
It’s a Leader Activation system with two types of leaders. All officers have an Activation Cost and Leader Rating; only Commanders have a Command Span and Command Radius. Each army receives 8 Activation Points per turn and can accumulate up to 30 points. (Accumulation is vital for the British since they can’t do very much the first few turns—but if they have 30 points when Cornwallis comes marching in, look out!). You spend Activation Points to activate a leader using his Activation Cost. If you activate a Commanding Officer, he can in turn activate a number of other leaders, equal to his Command Span, who are within his Command Radius. These activations are free (no points spent).
Once all leaders for the phasing army have been activated, movement is carried out. Leaders without troops and Washington (whose assigned troops are all considered cavalry, his Life Guard) have 13 Movement Points. Other leaders have to roll for movement points using the Leader Rating of the officer who activated them. If leaders are stacked together or adjacent to each other and were activated by the same officer, you can make one "group roll" for them. The movement roll is modified by weather and troop Fatigue levels, and the roll can yield from 0 to 10 movement points.
Movement is hex-by-hex, incurring costs for different terrain types; "Rain" weather affects movement across rivers and streams. Leaders can stack as long as there are not more than 3,000 troops in a single hex. Leaders with 400 or more troops exert a Zone Of Control into adjacent hexes; it costs enemy leaders one extra movement point to enter and leave a ZOC. After moving all activated leaders, you can roll to activate one other leader with an Activation Cost of 2 or less; roll a d10, and if the roll is less than the leader’s cost he gets a "free" activation and can move (and activate other leaders if he has a Command Span and Command Radius).
Attack on Philiadelphia
Attacks are made against adjacent enemy leaders who have troops, paying a movement point cost as if entering the defender’s hex. Roll a d10, modify the heck out of it—modifiers for weather, surprise, fatigue, and outflanking all apply, along with modifications based on attacker to defender ratio (2:1 odds gets +2, 5:1 is +5, and so on)—and compare the final result to a Combat Results Table. The CRT used depends on the Leader Rating of the attacking leader. Results are expressed as a percentage loss of the attacking and/or defending force, with extra results (retreat, disordered, etc.) possible at the higher and lower rolls.
The game is played for Victory Points. At the start of each turn beginning with December 27th, both sides gain VPs for holding specific towns with 400 or more troops. Victory Points are also gained by winning battles, with the number of casualties inflicted determining the VP total gained. (In a great game rule, you can actually choose to surrender rather than lose a battle; you lose the troops as POWs, but your opponent gets no Victory Points for the win! Brilliant!) And at the very end of the game, you get points for controlling specific towns. The highest VP wins.
The game design is a wonderful old-school throwback to the heyday of wargaming. The CRT has a meaty feel to it, with calculations needed for combat losses (rounded to the nearest tens, so 470 troops losing 10% drops to 420). The designer was kind enough to put in a percentage loss calculation sheet so that those of us who are mathematically challenged do not have to game with a calculator at the table.
The game has a phenomenal depth of historical research. The starting strengths and positions of each side and the arriving reinforcements are accurate, and the various in-game events and effects such as the Continental Army enlistments expiring are spot on, making for a great simulation.
Some players hate variable movement systems. I think it’s beautiful to remove the omnipotence from a wargame. Yes, your troops are only six movement points away from taking Amboy, but will you get those six points? Only if you have a decent leader in command. Being able to roll for a group of adjacent leaders means that a compact force will move more surely than a spread-out army, which is exactly how it should be.
The rules, though comprehensive, are not overburdening. The American Raid rules provide nice flavor and have some impact on the British. Add in Reaction Movement and Forced March, the results of fatigue being modifiers to movement and combat, and the surrender option in battles along with other minor touches on top of a great looking map, and you have a fantastic game design.
But not a perfect one. All of the troops are infantry. Makes sense for the simulation; there were not large numbers of cavalry racing across the frozen tundra that was New Jersey. But where is the artillery? One of the main reasons the Continentals were able to succeed in First Trenton and Princeton was because of their overwhelming preponderance of guns. A few artillery markers to be placed on the leader tracks to keep track of individual guns, along with some rules on movement (the whole unit is slowed) and modifiers to combat (either increases to the attack die roll or an increase in casualties inflicted) is absolutely necessary to accurately replay the Winter 1776 counterstrike.
Why is there no artillery?
I am not sold on the rules that you use the Leader Rating of the activating leader when rolling for movement points. Just because Nathanael Greene is a tactical genius doesn’t mean Thomas Mifflin becomes one when activated by Greene. I think you should use the moving leader’s own Leader Rating when rolling for movement points unless he is stacked in the same hex with his commander.
The big problem is at the heart of the system, a key feature so important and otherwise good that its shortfall is glaring. The leader activations, as explained, can cascade. Activate Washington, who activates Greene, who activates Cadwallader, who activates Mifflin. Okay, then Greene can activate Glover, and Cadwallader can activate Griffin, and … um, wait, how many leaders did Greene activate? How many activations does Washington have left? And when rolling for movement points for Glover, who activated him, Greene or Cadwallader? No, wait, Cadwallader activated Mifflin, or was it Griffin … Yeah that’s what the game can be like. If your troops are scattered around it’s easy to keep track of which leader controls what other leaders, but if you keep your leaders grouped together you can lose track of who activated whom in this dozens-of-officers-on-the-map game. (Advice to Revolution Games: using the moving leader’s Leader Rating for movement mitigates this confusion greatly!)
Revolution Games does promise more titles in this series, including the perfect "bookends" to this game, New York 1776 (before) and Philadelphia 1777 (after). They have a really good design in hand, an absolute must-have for any student of the American Revolution and every hardcore wargamer. The game will not do well among more casual gamers because of its "crunchiness," and the long playing time (six hours at least; one game I played took nearly thirteen) can scare off even the most hardened veterans of cardboard warfare. But Washington’s Crossing is a great game, and doubly impressive as it comes from a new kid on the block. Keep up the good work, Revolution Games. Help us keep track of those leader activations, and you’ve got a bright future ahead.
Armchair General rating: 85
Solitaire Suitability: 3 out of 5 (part of the system is limited intelligence, not knowing exactly how many troops a commander has until he’s right on top of you)
About the Author
Sean Stevenson has been gaming since the SPI days of the late ’70s. His gaming collection now includes over 1700 games. He has recently opened a gaming shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.