About 6 weeks ago, I purchased a 2015 edition copy of GMT Games Wilderness War designed by Volko Ruhnke (love me the mounted map!) due to the fact that I have a real love of history (I have read Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War by Francis Parkman as well as several dozen other Revolutionary War and American Colonial books) and that I am trying to branch out from my usual gaming faire of worker placement, Euros, deck builders, etc. to experience a wider range of games. Boy, have I been glad that I did as after finally completing my first full play through of the game I have a new appreciation for the well-designed struggle that this game represents, a non-conventional 18th century foray into the wild lands of the northeastern United States and Canada.
As I mentioned, I played this game for the first time recently and it turned into a little bit of a marathon gaming session which lasted nearly 10 hours and stretched over 3 separate gaming sessions (more later on the outcome which was amazing). At the end of each evening, we would simply take pictures of the various areas troops and fortifications, separate the played cards, removed cards and available cards in the box and pack it up to wait a week to do it again on #WarGameWednesday. We initially played the 1755 Scenario which took the conflict from 1755-1759 or 5 years. I played as the French and my British (from Southampton) brother in law Alexander played as the Lobsterbacks, Limey’s or any other derogatory term I can remember to use!
As we setup the game and began looking at the cards, my first impression about the French was that they have decidedly fewer troops (their blue troops take up only one compartment in my GMT trays) as compared to the British (while the British needed 2 compartments in the tray), have less powerful regular troops (the British have these monstrosity’s called the Highlanders that are 4-4 units and have a card that allows them to deploy 4 at a time which equates to a ground shaking power of 16!) but have more access to the irregular units or Auxiliaries in the form of various Indian tribes and the Courers des bois (Runners of the Woods) being made up of trappers, hunters and frontiersman adept at Indian-style wilderness fighting. This caused me to start thinking about my plan in a less than conventional way and to start thinking as an insurgent (thanks to GMT Games COIN Series of games of which I own 4 including Fire in the Lake, Liberty or Death, soon to own A Distant Plain and Falling Sky as they ship next week!). I said “started” thinking as my very first moves were very traditionally aggressive where I moved masses of under-powered troops into position to begin assaulting forts/fortresses and causing the enemy to react in a similar manner. My first few turns didn’t go well and left me wondering how the French could ever possibly win this dramatic struggle. Then I began switching my strategy to do what it is that I believe the French are built for and intended to do, namely 1.) raid the frontier, 2.) outmaneuver the British troops causing confusion and forcing a change of plans, 3.) sporadically target and attack inferior force stacks, 4.) take strongholds when convenient and relatively easy and 5.) use cards wisely.
Raiding the Frontier
Raiding is what the Indian forces and the Courers des bois are designed to do! As I began to figure this out, I was able to begin raiding the unprotected frontier areas located to the south and east of the Ohio Forks (present day Pittsburgh, PA). I was able to build up 5 or so victory points in the years of 1756 and 1757 which began to put pressure on my opponent to change his plans and begin to look to that area to stop me by moving in forces to try and intercept my raiders. This slowed me down but I was then able to switch my focus from that frontier to the wilderness areas south of Lake Ontario and west of the Adirondack Mountains where the 2 imposing fortresses of Hudson Carry North and Hudson Carry South caused a major stalemate in the area. I raided 3 or 4 stockades destroying them and adding more victory points to my side of the ledger. This was somewhat slowed down when the British were able to recruit Cherokee Indians to the area but he was unable to effectively use them and I was eventually able to play the Cherokee Uprising card causing them to leave his stacks led by Johnson. I also was able to take out the Cherokee home spot of Canajoharie near the Adirondacks South eliminating that threat. Through the whole game, I was very effective with my raids and occasionally used one of my 1 Tactics leaders like Dumas, Villiers or Beaujeu to increase their effectiveness and success rate.
As the weaker opponent in this war, the French must remain flexible and ever vigilant, looking for that one weak spot in the armor of the British. This was something that once again, I did poorly at the outset but was much more productive at in the last 2 years of the game. One example was where I broke off from a combined large force holed up at Hudson Carry North waiting to duke it out with the British with a smaller force consisting of three 3-4 Regulars and two 1-4 Marines with Montcalm (the French’s best leader with a tactics rating of 2) and moved around to the west of Hudson Carry North to assault a weakly and mostly forgotten fortress at Albany. Due to the location of troops and an open space between us, the British were unable to do much about it as my force easily sieged and assaulted the fortress in 2 rounds with Montcalm’s bonus and took control, gaining 3 victory points for the effort. I wasn’t done with that move as I then took advantage of an open and inviting path straight to New York where I sieged the undefended fortress there and was victorious in 2 rounds as well. This gained me another 3 VP’s and caused the stubborn British to leave there initial siege of Hudson Carry North to come and take care of that problem. Here is where I made a huge blunder, I should have left a unit (possibly my lone remaining 1-4 Marine) and moved Montcalm to the west to try and siege Philadelphia but I didn’t and paid the price as I was sieged and easily defeated losing my best leader along with my sole remaining large stack. Luckily for me it was in 1759, the last year of the conflict and I was able to cause more trouble in the north with targeting smaller stacks and taking convenient strongholds.
This tactic is one of the most difficult to do as there will be few, if any, weaker British stacks than you’re French. This will almost always be as a result of a failed assault or a retreating force that was defeated earlier or as a result of various destructive cards such as Small Pox, Cherokee Uprising, etc. In our game, I was able to pick off a very weak force led by Johnson who had been sieging and assaulting my fort at Cataraqui for what seemed like weeks (this was one of my favorite mechanics of the game as it seems thematically accurate). He finally was tired of losing units and not making any progress so decided to retreat. This left him open to attack from a fairly sizable force led by Levis located to the east of him in Quebec. I easily won and as he had a regular unit in his stack, although it was reduced, I was able to pick up an easy late victory point. You must look for the opportunity to strike at any time or you will be unable to amass the needed points to secure victory.
This part of my strategy mainly came to bear in the last 2 seasons of 1759, which was the final year of the game. My French forces were on the ropes and I had actually exclaimed out loud that I was conceding! But after this momentary frustration, I gathered my resolve, surveyed the map for that one glaring opportunity and found it and prepared to strike. The aforementioned Levis was still well stocked with troops and after having defeated Johnson near Cataraqui, was located to the west of an advancing British force which had landed at and taken Quebec but a few rounds earlier. My Abenaki Indian allies were hidden at St. Francois and were actually able to draw those troops into a distracting fight. This left the river lane clear and open for Levis all the way to Quebec where with a Campaign card I was able to advance and begin my siege while then the next turn utilizing the Surrender! card to take that key fortress in only 2 turns, gaining me 3 badly needed VP’s. Had I been more concerned with the British force than the ultimate goal of scoring VP, especially late in the game, I would have lost due to a lack of true understanding of my goal.
Use Cards Wisely
I feel that this point in my strategy review is a given and goes without saying as the game is a card driven strategy game and relies on the cards to either take movements, attack, build forts or take the printed events. I would generally say that playing the cards wisely is a required part of both British and French strategy, but now after playing the French, feel that it is even more important for their success. The cards are so key as they give the French strategic and numeric value either by allowing the recruitment of key Indian allies or a needed host of Regulars or in allowing for defensive actions to take the momentum out of British aggression or actions. Some of the cards that I believe are so key to the French include the following: Northern Indian Alliance, Western Indian Alliance, and Iroquois Alliance. Without these cards, efforts to raid the frontier will be hampered as you are bound to take reductions due to poor rolling or attack from nearby British Light Infantry that tend to set up a defensive wall during the middle to late part of the game. The French do not have the numbers of Regulars to compete so the Indian allies are key.
I also want to talk about when to play them as sometimes you must be patient. Most of the Alliance cards give you a bonus when you have greater than 4 VP so it is imperative to hold them as long as you can to make sure you get the largest benefit of the cards. If you are under 4 VP, you only receive half of your die roll of units so even a great roll of a 4 will only net you 2 Indian units. While if you played the same card when you had more than 4 VP you would have received 4 units, a net increase of 2 units. This increase of 2 units can lead to 1-2 more successful raids over the course of the game and cannot be underestimated. As you will see in the end as I talk about the final score, 1 VP would have made the difference.
The other key cards are reactions which include the following: Foul Weather (intended to slow the progress of your enemy), Ambush! (to allow you to fire first reducing his attack strength prior to firing so that you will take less reductions), Massacre! (to get rid of his allied Cherokee units while also gaining an important VP) and Coeherns & Howitzers (to reduce his chances of success in sieges or to improve your chances). I also believe that cards like Small Pox (which reduces large forces) and Cherokee Uprising (which eliminates British Indian allies and has the added bonus of taking Regular and Provincial Units)are extremely important and need to be capitalized upon when you are fortunate enough to draw them.
While I have only played one game of Wilderness War and am still unclear about the elements and depths of strategy for each side, I believe that the 5 points I have discussed here, if followed, will improve your chances of winning with the underdog French! Now, to find out how the game ended between Alexander’s British and my French forces. It ended in a….wait for it…wait for it….a 0-0 TIE! What, you might say? Why did you play 10 hours only to tie and with 0 VP each nonetheless?!? This 10 hour marathon with this result was not disappointing but was surprisingly satisfying! To me this is the simple beauty of this particular game and this end result typifies the struggle that it truly is and was in history. In my opinion, there is no clear advantage for either side if proper strategy and tactics are used, even though the British are superior in numbers and power. This result means that this game is very well balanced, well put together and a strategic gem of the gaming world. I would highly recommend this game to anyone that loves CDG or GMT Games and there is a reason that it has sold very well over the years since its first printing in 2001. I cannot wait to play again soon, maybe this time as the powerful British!