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Posted on Jun 30, 2010 in Boardgames

Washington’s War – Boardgame Review

By Terry Lee Coleman

Washington’s War. Card-Driven Boardgame. GMT Games. $59.99.

Passed Inspection: The boardgame that launched the card-driven strategy genre— We the People—is improved in almost every way imaginable in this redesign. Fast playing, simple and fun, with more strategy and historicity than you might expect. New components are a joy to behold, especially the mounted board.

Failed Inspection: If you aren’t a fan of card-driven war games, this may not change your mind. Fans of the original We the People might miss their Battle Decks, too.

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Like many gamers, I have far more boardgames on my shelves than I can possibly find time to play. New games have a tough enough time catching my fancy, and remakes of classic games are often the last thing I need to enlarge my far-too-comprehensive collection.

And yet, I have to admit, I was intrigued by GMT Games’ Washington’s War. Its progenitor, We the People (WTP), released in 1994, was one of the best simple war games made by the venerable Avalon Hill—which is saying a lot, given the number of excellent boardgame titles that company produced over four decades. WTP was also significant in that it single-handedly launched the now-common "card-driven" genre of war games, wherein the events that occurred in a particular conflict are as important in the game as the battles and campaigns.

For a number of years, designer Mark Herman had wanted to remake WTP: a bit of a gamble, actually, given the popularity of the original. Adding a bit of controversy, the Battle Decks from WTP—your opponent would play a Flank card, and you would have to respond with a Flank Refuse card, and so forth—were dropped in Washington’s War. So, I was concerned that the new battle method might intimidate a novice gamer in a way that the approachable card battles did not. But I need not have worried: everyone to whom I taught the game picked up the combat system very quickly. Moreover, the amount of time you save by not shuffling, dealing and playing cards for every battle is enormous; this change alone cuts at least 45 minutes of playing time when compared to WTP.

The new Washington’s War battle system also offers more tactical choices. An army with a strength of 4 or 5 (the most one can move about the board with a single leader), for example, may now overrun a lone enemy combat unit (CU) and continue to move. This tends to stop (or at least reduce) one of the most annoying tactics from WTP, where single CUs were scattered about the board to artificially hinder enemy movement.

Additionally, you can never be sure how effective your generals might be in combat. They have a 50-50 chance of being either fully competent, or only half, which is determined only after committing to battle. Some may find this a bit too chaos-theory for their tastes, but I really enjoyed the element of risk involved. It reminded me of what Jim Dunnigan tried to simulate in his venerable American Revolution game for SPI, which had rules for the English "idiocy factor" that contributed to their sometimes poor decision making—although Washington’s War manages to create this aura of uncertainty for both sides, and in a way that fits easily within the game’s overall framework.

Combat isn’t the only thing changed dramatically in Washington’s War. All British-held ports are considered adjacent, which helps immensely with their supply. Americans have a slight movement advantage when not entering into combat. The French fleet, once acquired, now covers coastal zones, instead of individual ports. And the French entry into the war, instead of happening via a single event card (as in WTP), now occurs through a clever series of actions that move the Americans down the French Alliance Track. While some of these actions are still event card-driven, the Americans are rewarded for winning battles, etc. As such, French entry becomes part of a larger American strategy, which is as it should be. Finally, players who prefer the American side may have reason to reconsider when they see the new Winter rules, where only George Washington’s command may benefit from Winter Quarters, and other American forces take severe losses. Valley Forge, indeed …

Appropriate for a revolution where the political campaigning was as important as the military, the event cards cover everything you remember from civics class … and then some. Nathan Hale, John Paul Jones, the Declaration of Independence, and Benjamin Franklin all make an appearance, of course, but the game doesn’t shy away from Tarleton’s Massacre, Continental line mutinies, or Jane McCrea Indian atrocities, either. A nice touch is that the battle events, such as the Hessian Bayonet Charge, when played allow you to draw a replacement card. This ensures that most of the battle events will in fact be played, unlike in WTP. Additionally, players may discard events which favor the opponent, in order to gain a small battle advantage, or to place a political control marker. (Political control of colonies is the key to victory in Washington’s War.)

All in all, the events do a nice job of conveying the significant events of the American Revolution in their proper historical context, but with a refreshing lack of complex rules.

And in the end, what makes this more than just a rehash, despite the changes to a particular sub-system or combat routine, is that Washington’s War retains the simplicity and the addictive nature of its parent game. My first four games—admittedly against four different opponents—played quite differently in terms of strategies employed by the participants. All of them, however, were tense, and tremendously entertaining, with the outcome in doubt until the very last turn. There isn’t much more you can ask for in a game than that.

I would be remiss if I did not comment on the gorgeous components. GMT has moved into mounted game boards in a big way, and this one far outshines even their excellent Twilight Struggle Deluxe board. Washington’s War is quite simply one of the most stunning game boards I’ve ever played upon, both beautiful and functional. The thick cardboard counters are of high quality, and the plastic stands for the leaders work well (there are smaller pieces included for the leaders as well, for those who want them to lie flat on the board in more "wargame-y" fashion). In a nod to the old Avalon Hill classics, the rules are divided into a Rulebook that describes the mechanics, and a Playbook that contains excellent examples of play, numerous tips, and design notes.

All in all, this is a tremendous package that would make an excellent gift for anyone remotely interested in strategy games. The results justify all of the risks taken by designer Mark Herman and the GMT development team. Washington’s War is quite simply one of the most enjoyable—and endlessly re-playable—strategy games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. If GMT does more remakes like this one, I’ll definitely have to add some shelf space.

Terry Lee Coleman is former Senior Reviews Editor of Computer Gaming World magazine. He has written about board and card games for several years in such publications as Fire & Movement, Armchair General and others. Despite several tries, he has yet to neatly divide his life into Rulebook and Playbook, but he hasn’t quite given up.

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