Revolution is not always about the use of force. True, it is infinitely more difficult to overthrow a tyrannical government without the use of force, but it has been done. The goal of a revolution is to change something, and more often than not, in order to change something, you must first convince those that the change will affect that the change is good. Good luck with that.
The American Revolutionary War wasn’t solely about armed conflict, even though it saw plenty of that. It was more about the battle to affect the minds and hearts of the people and to convince them that breaking away from their mother country England was better for them in the end. John Adams once said, “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people…” and I believe that this statement concisely summarizes the American Revolution.
You might be asking why I am starting this review in this manner. Well, Washington’s War is not only about waging war on the battlefield with musket and cannon. This game is most definitely a wargame and has many instances of great and important battles but the game is more about waging the political war for the hearts of the people. This is replicated in the struggle between both players for the political control of various cities and colonies. You really win simply by controlling the required number of colonies when the game does finally come to an end in about 90 minutes and this can be done even when only waging very few battles on the part of the Patriots or the British.
What is Washington’s War About?
The goal of Washington’s War, designed by Mark Herman, is where the genius of the design really comes out. As mentioned above, it is a war game, make no mistake about that. But, it is virtually impossible to win the game by focusing only on the field of battle. For that to happen, the Patriots need to completely drive the British forces out of the 13 colonies or the British need to wipe the American forces off the map. Both are extremely difficult and I would be surprised if any more than 1 out of 30 games ended in such a way. Rather, the ultimate goal of the game is to have political control of the colonies. If at the end of the game the Patriots control 7 colonies, while holding the British to control of less than 5, they win. If not, the British win. Simple as that. So, you can see that battle is not the main goal but control is. And more importantly political control.
The Political Control victory condition is actually quite interesting because there are a total of 14 relevant colonies (Canada plus the original 13) and several of those colonies can be controlled by only holding 1 or 2 cities, such as Rhode Island or Connecticut. Meaning that the Patriots need not only worry about controlling seven but also must make sure that the British don’t control many either, which is surprisingly the more difficult part of the victory condition. With the various rules governing how Political Control markers can be placed, you must also worry about how you are going to get into certain colonies as they can be easily walled off by the British blocking access (a little harder for the Patriots to wall off those same colonies as the British control the seas and can simply move into those areas by ship). Whichever side has more Political Control markers in a given colony controls that colony (except for Canada which has slightly different rules).
This setup really tends to centralize the fight for political control for the smaller states of the Northeast (which is historically accurate) and leads to lots of back and forth on this section of the board, which actually is really the best part, and leads to the brutal choices which make this game so interesting and so different than I personally expected it to be. More often than not, the Patriot player will be forced to painfully decide between reinforcing his more often than not depleted forces, as they are really outgunned and outled, or trying to gain more political control. You see, military dominance is not necessary, but key victories here and there in certain instances will lead to improved political control. While totally ignoring political control will most assuredly lead to defeat.
The British have much the same horrible choice between activating their better Generals and superior forces and dominating the field or in trying for political control. In the end, victory will come to the player that finds a way to have a perfect (or nearly perfect) balance between military action and political control. To me, this was the greatest aspect of the design as a player can be victorious while losing more battles than they win. Sound odd? It does, but remember, Washington and the Patriots lost more battles than they won early in the war but excelled at simply moving around the colonies staying just a few steps ahead of the massive British forces that would surely have destroyed them in a fair fight. It all comes back to how the players manipulate those military defeats or victories into greater political control, the only thing that really matters in the end! One thing that I was very surprised by with the design was the fact that the game can come to a sudden and very unexpected end. In the deck of cards, there are several mandatory play cards, which change the date that the war comes to an end. These cards add a little bit of uncertainty to any strategy and creates a mini game within the larger game as players must make decisions about when to play these cards when they are drawn.
How is the Game Played?
Washington’s War is a Card Driven Game or CDG, and as such, relies on cards to provide to players the actions needed to play the game. The cards contain OPS Points which can be used to drive various actions, including such things are activating leaders, who in turn will then move with forces to attack, and also contain written text in the form of events. These events can be played only by the side they are intended for and if drawn and played by the opposing side, they can only be thrown away while granting a few possible actions, such as placing or removing Political Control markers.
If you are not familiar with CDGs, you might be asking the question, so how do I use the cards again? This is a common response to CDG’s and something that will take a little bit of a paradigm shift to get but is really very simple. In Washington’s War, there are several kinds of cards including:
– 1, 2 and 3 OPS cards;
– Minor and Major Campaign cards;
– Mandatory Events;
– Event cards specific to one side or the other; and
– Battle Cards
Let’s take a look at each of these types of cards a little more closely.
Operations cards provide the fuel for the player to take actions. For instance, they allow a player to activate a General with a Strategy Rating less than or equal to the OPS value rating printed on the card, take Political Control actions (placing or removing PC Markers), or drafting reinforcement combat units into the game. Operations cards make up 60% of the deck, including 66/110 cards.
– Activating a General allows the piece to move up to 4 spaces (or 5 spaces for Patriot Generals due to their Mobility Advantage) and bring up to 5 CUs along with him. When a General with CUs ends their movement in a space with enemy units, a battle will ensue.
– A Political Control action consists of either adding 1 PC marker to the board, following various placement rules which are different for both sides, or flipping one of the opponents’ PC markers to your side.
– Reinforcements can also be retrieved from their Reinforcement Boxes as per the reinforcement rules and placed on the map with various conditions. British CUs must be placed in any one non-blockaded port that doesn’t contain a Patriot CU and Patriot forces must be placed together in one space that doesn’t contain British CUs.
One of my favorite parts about CDGs is the use of certain low valued cards to create a higher value later in the game through the use of an Operations Queue. This mechanism allows the “reserve” play of a low value OPS card to be queued for possible future use. This is done by playing the card in front of the player, stating that it is an Operations Queue and then placing the Operations Queue marker on top of that card. An example of this is as follows: Let’s say that a player has a 2 rating General but only has two 1 OPS value cards in their hand, which doesn’t allow that General to be activated. The Operations Queue allows the play of one of the two 1 OPS cards and in a later turn, the other, and then adding those two 1 OPS values together creating a 2 OPS value that allows for the activation of the 2 rating General. A simple, yet elegant design element, that allows for flexibility in the play of your cards.
Minor and Major Campaigns
A Minor Campaign Event Strategy card allows you to activate any two generals sequentially regardless of their Strategy Rating, and a Major Campaign card allows up to three activations. Of course, you cannot activate the same General more than once with these cards and you cannot use the card to move several Generals together into the same battle at the same time. Each activated General must completely finish their actions before you move to the next General. Great addition to the design as these cards can be used to great effect to create a very powerful offensive for the most important of military actions. I have found that if you can garner two or three forces to attack one after the other that you are almost guaranteed a significant victory. There are 4 of these cards in the game, including 1 Major and 3 Minor.
Special Events and Mandatory Events
Special Events and Mandatory Event cards must be played by the holder of the card during the Strategy Phase in which they are drawn. The cards cannot be discarded, and if drawn from the hand of an opponent due to the text of another card that states that the drawn card will be discarded, instead of being discarded its text will need to be executed at that time. Once these Special Event cards are played, they are removed from the game. There are 7 of these cards, including Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin: Minister to France and 5 copies of Lord North’s Government Falls. The latter card will actually change the date at which the game will end. These cards can change the end of the game to 1779, 1780, 1781, 1782 or 1783, depending on which one was last played into the War Ends Box. These cards are meant to regulate the end of the game and be the condition which brings the struggle to a close.
Events are cards which have text describing the use and outcome of a player using the card. These Event cards are faction aligned and can only be played by the side for which they are intended. As you can see from the picture below, the cards are identified as either British or Patriot by the flag symbol in the upper left hand corner.
If you discard an event card, either because it is your opponent’s event or you decided you didn’t want to take the event, you can do one of the following actions with that card:
– do nothing further, the card is just in the discard pile;
– place or flip one PC Marker adjacent to an existing friendly PC marker; or
– remove an enemy PC marker adjacent to a friendly PC marker, provided that targeted PC marker is not occupied by enemy CUs.
In Washington’s War, if your opponent discards one of the events aligned to your faction, you have the option to simply discard any OPS card of any value and take the discarded card into your hand before taking your turn! I really like this element of the design because it gives you some flexibility and allows you to take advantage of that great event that your opponent just threw away. Too many times in other CDGs, you can only watch as your good cards continually get thrown away and you can never benefit from them.
Battle cards are essentially Event cards that follow the same rules previously discussed above, but that have some minor but significant differences. If the Battle Cards are used in combat, they grant you a +2 DRM (Die Roll Modifier) during that combat. As an added benefit, if used in combat, you will get to draw a replacement card at the end of the active player’s turn. You can also discard regular Events to get a +1 DRM, but you won’t get to draw a replacement. These Battle Cards can be really nice added benefits to certain key battles and I feel they are highly prized. There are only 9 Battle Cards in the deck, with 5 of those being for the Patriots and only 4 for the British.
Set Up & Sequence of Play
Washington’s War begins with both players placing their starting forces and Political Control (PC) markers on the map according to the scenario instructions. Then the Patriot player adds 1 additional PC marker in each of the 13 colonies in any space that’s available. This step is referred to as the Committees of Correspondence. Then the British get to add 3 more PC markers with certain restrictions, referred to as For The King. I hate to say it but this part of the setup is way more important than you would think and I fear that new players have the potential to really booger it up. I don’t know that the game can be doomed from this initial placement, but the Patriots must place their PC Markers well to put pressure on the British from the get go if they hope to mount a true and proper effort at winning their independence. The Patriot player must be wise about their placement as they will get very few opportunities like this to gain free control (the only other opportunity is when the Declaration of Independence card is played). More experience with the game, coming after a few plays, will assist with this part but it is what it is.
Once the board is set up, play begins with the following Sequence of Play:
– Reinforcement Phase;
– Strategy Cards Phase;
– Strategy Phase;
– Winter Attrition Phase;
– French Naval Phase;
– Political Control Phase; and
– End Phase
Just a quick look at each of these Phases a little more closely.
During the Reinforcement Phase, Generals in the Captured Generals Box are moved to the Reinforcements Box, and reinforcements on the turn track are deployed on the board. The British will receive a set amount of CUs each round, which are listed on the board.
Each player is dealt 7 cards at the beginning of their turn that will be used by the end of the round or year. There are certain cards that are added into the deck when necessary and reshuffling of the main deck occurs when text appears on played cards directing that to be done.
The American player generally gets to decide who will go first in the turn, unless the British player preempts this with the play of a Major or Minor Campaign card or if Congress was dispersed in the previous turn. Players then alternate playing cards until both are out. It is possible that one player will run out of cards before their opponent due to the play of certain events that cause discard. This will give the player with remaining cards and opportunity to play their turn without their opponent having a counter, which is a pretty rare and nice thing to happen.
Winter Attrition Phase
During the Winter Attrition Phase, all units are checked for attrition and each of the different nationalities have different rules that govern whether they lose men or not. This part is really cool as it feels very thematic. Generally, the British are immune to losses if they are south of the Winter Attrition Line or are located in one of the Winter Quarters spaces. Patriots lose half their strength no matter what, unless they are stacked with General Washington (he keeps those troops in line and maintains discipline). This is the really thematic part. If the troops weren’t needed for the winter, they simply melted away into the countryside to sleep in their own beds until campaign season returned in the spring.
French Naval Phase
The Patriot player has the option to relocate the French naval unit to any blockade zone they wish.
Political Control Phase
The Patriot player returns the Continental Congress to play if it was dispersed during the previous turn (which happens more than you think) and players then get to place PC Markers under their combat units as they sit in spaces. One really cool part of the game that I enjoyed was the isolation of PC Markers. If a player can, through maneuvering and placing of their PC Markers, cut off a continual line of open PC Markers similar to supply in other wargames, then PC Markers are considered isolated and are removed. The rules for each nation’s tracing are slightly different as well and this makes for a very puzzle like part of the game as you try to isolate your opponents markers and avoid being isolated yourself.
This is simply an administrative phase as various elements are checked for, including whether the French Alliance is triggered or if an automatic victory has been scored by eliminating all CUs of your opponent from the board. Finally, unless the “Lord North’s Government Falls – War Ends” card has ended the game, or it happens to be the end of 1783, the turn marker is advanced and the turn sequence begins again.
Because I made such a big deal about battle in the introduction, I want to give a very fast overview of the battle mechanic in the game. I want to repeat my earlier sentiments though. While this is a wargame, if you think as the Patriots you are going to run rough shod all over the superior British forces and win through combat, you have another thing coming. Battle is very simple. Each side gets to roll a die (they give you these really nicely colored 6 sided dice with blue for the Patriots and red for the British) which is the combat base and then you modify that base roll by several factors including adding in all of the strength points of your CUs present in the battle, adding the Battle Rating of your Generals and then adding in the various asymmetric elements for each side.
The Patriots get to add various modifies based on whether the battle was the result of a successful Interception (+1), whether they have more Political Control Markers in the colony where the battle takes place (+1) and if attacking force is controlled by Washington and battle is initiated with the last strategy card (+2). The British also get bonuses if the British Regulars Advantage is still in play (+1), the battle is in a non-blockaded port (+1) and the same bonuses as the Patriots for Political Control and for battle cards played.
Losses are also very thematic and more attritional and is determined by a second die roll and based on a table. On a roll of 1-3, the loser will lose 1 CU, on a 4-5 they will lose 2 CUs and on a roll of 6 will lose 3 CUs. But the winner will also lose units based on a die roll and based on the Strategy Rating of the General. After battle is decided, the loser must retreat and if they cannot retreat for some reason, they are eliminated. I also really like the asymmetric element of retreat as well as the British have the ability to retreat by sea if the battle was in a non-blockaded port. This flexibility can really make it hard on the Patriots as the British will be able to continually run away to fight another day and there is not much you can do about it.
What I Liked About Washington’s War
Asymmetry – I know gamers talk about asymmetry a lot and how great it is, but I really like the way the two sides were differentiated in this design. I can actually see the thematic choices used for the Patriots (such as the Winter Attrition rule) and the British (reinforcements being able to be placed in any port). When I play a period game from history, I want to be able to experience the troubles that plagued those leaders and Washington’s War really hits the mark in this aspect. Asymmetry also leads to players watching their opponent and saying, “I wish I could do that”. I love that part.
Flow of Play – This game really flows well. The phases are sensible, work well together and in general the game is very intuitive and is simply smooth. Just because it is simple thought, doesn’t mean that there are not lots of very interesting decision points for each side. I love that each side really has to decide how they will fight the war. As I have mentioned, the Patriots are not militarily powerful but do have maneuverability and can bring really cool tactics like interception of British forces, tactical retreats, etc. to bear.
CDG Elements – Each CDG has its own take on the genre and adds little elements here and there to differentiate themselves from the crowd. One aspect I really liked was the ability to retrieve event cards that are discarded by your opponent in exchange for OPS cards. It made me pay a lot more attention to what cards were being discarded by my opponent.
Operations Queue – The ability to build up an operations queue is also a nice way to plan ahead and possibly make up for a bad hand. CDGs are about hand management and this element adds more depth to that task.
Political Control Markers and Isolation – I really liked the tug of war present in the struggle for Political Control of the colonies. This back and forth element felt surprisingly similar to Twilight Struggle and I really enjoy being frustrated upon seeing my hard work being undone by my opponent. That element of “battle” is very satisfying and I always say that the first player to blink and give up on an hotly contested territory has lost. The aspect of isolation of PC Markers is also a very well designed element that lends itself to a lot of planning and long range thinking that wouldn’t necessarily be present in a game like this otherwise.
Components – As is generally the case with all GMT Games, the components in Washington’s War are top notch. The map is beautiful and very functional with reminders about certain movement restrictions, clearly marked colony boundaries and the grand control schematic prominently shown. The cards are thick and durable, albeit a little bit unimaginative as the OPS Cards have the same art on each of the 66 cards. Maybe a little bit of a missed opportunity? The counters are really nice and thick as well and are not simply the normal square type but are hexagonal. Really cool looking PC Markers.
What I Didn’t Like About Washington’s War
Lack of a Sequence of Play on the Player Aid Cards – I own a 2nd Printing copy and the game came with some really amazing Player Aid cards produced by C3i Magazine. The only problem was that there is a very important element that was missing; the Sequence of Play. I know that the Sequence of Play is not overly complex or difficult but this was a missed opportunity to have it printed on these gorgeous Player Aid cards or even on the game board itself. Having to continually refer to the rulebook during our first play to keep us on track was a little bothersome.
Mandatory Game Ending Events – There are five North’s Government Falls – War Ends Special Event strategy cards in the deck, each with a different year on the card ranging from 1779-1783. As previously mentioned, when drawn these cards must be played and can bring the game to an early end. In fact, it can end as early as 1779 which is only 3 years into the game. Too early and these cards always seem to come up in bunches in our games which really changes things. In a game like this, I have to be able to plan for the long haul as the process of changing the “minds and hearts of the people” takes time. I know that this adds a certain element of the unknown to the game and brings tension, but I just feel there are too many of these cards and games we have played end up coming to an end prematurely. We have even house ruled these cards and it has been a good change.
Minimal French Role – Maybe I am playing the game wrong or not doing the things that need to be done, but I have yet to see the French really have a major impact on the game. First off, it is more difficult for the Patriots to meet the requirements for French entry than you would think as you must win several major battles. Also, I felt as if I have spent a lot of my precious resources in worrying about trying to get the French involved where I could have maybe used those resources to influence more cities to gain Political Control. I need to practice my approach with the French and see if I can get a different result. Any suggestions?
What a joy to play! As a self professed lover of the CDG mechanic, I really like this implementation of that system and must now say that Washington’s War has crept into my Top 5 CDG games. The fact that this game is well designed and implements the CDG mechanic well should come as no surprise though, as it’s designer, Mark Herman, is the Godfather of CDGs. This game is really solid with low complexity and a relatively quick play time, but offers players with deep and meaningful choices about how to wage the war for the “minds and hearts of the people”. I would not be surprised to see this game have the longevity that is the hallmark of great design and to see it still relevant in 20 years time. I have no reservation in recommending this game to anyone that enjoys CDGs, the Revolutionary War period or a game of political tug of war.