The French & Indian War has always been an interesting subject to me, mainly due to the fact that it contributed to my favorite period of history in the American Revolutionary War. There are not a glut of games on the subject out there but the period is better represented than you might think. Games such as the well regarded Wilderness War from GMT Games, A Few Acres of Snow from Tree Frog Games, 1754 Conquest from Academy Games and Bloody Mohawk from Lock ‘n Load Publishing just to name a few. They all represent the game in their own unique way but there are a few elements that they have in common due to the history of the conflict and the fierce wilderness of the North American continent.
Every time I play one of these French & Indian War games I always try to look for how they represent matters like terrain and movement, seaborne operations, sieges, fortifications, especially for the French and their bastion at Louisbourg, Indian raiding, Indian tribes and their fickle loyalty and Colonial enlistments. If these elements are not modeled into a French & Indian War game, then it really isn’t about that period.
The Fierce Wilderness is Modeled Well
In the 1700’s, the North American wilderness was very remote and full of extremely difficult terrain to attempt to cross, or even to scratch out a living on for the new settlers to the area. Rivers, mountains and thick untouched forests covered the land and made travel back and forth nearly impossible as there were no good system of roads and really only game trails that could be traversed on foot. This was some of the most untouched wilderness in the world and was very abundant and filled with game, including bear, deer, elk and bison among others. Many fur bearing creatures were not desired for their meat but for their furs including bobcat, badger, muskrat, raccoon, river otter, coyotes, fox and the very valuable beaver. This overabundance of game led to the colonial powers desire for this fur for sale in the Old World and led to the main export from North America being fur.
But even with this valuable industry it was easier to trap and then transport the furs by boat up and down the major rivers and connecting lakes. In the game, you can see the general impassability of the wilderness by the lack of major roads. There are three different types of connections between the various points on the map that represent Wilderness Spaces, Outposts, Settled Spaces and British and French bases and forts. These connections include Highways, Paths and Roads and each has their movement restrictions on the game’s units.
Highways are the thick solid white lines and these allow for any type of units to move along them. Paths are more restrictive and are represented by dotted lines that only allow for Light units to use them; no regulars or cannon. Roads are an improvement of a path and are represented by a marker that is placed on a dotted line to upgrade it to allow for any units to move along as if the Path was a Highway. These are expensive to build and will require two activations in two consecutive activations to complete.
Let’s take a look at the map and identify the areas where the wilderness is well represented in this game. On the northern portion of the board, in the area south of Acadie and Nova Scotia and to the east of Québec, you will notice that there are no major Highways that cross this section of the wilderness. There is one Highway that is built from York that connects to St. George along the coast and then to Taconnet near the Kenebec River. This means that no Brigade units can reach Quebec to the west and will require the British to attempt to move only Light units through this area or get busy trying to build that Highway from Taconnet to connect to the west. This makes Québec pretty inaccessible and protects it during the first few years of the war. The British will be able to reach Québec by use of their Fleets after Louisbourg falls but not until then as it protects access to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In the center of the map is where most of the action will take place as their is a major Highway connecting Albany with Montreal through a few Outposts located on Lake Champlain in Lake George (British), Ticonderoga (French) and Isle aux Noix. There is a also a major north-south Highway connecting Quebec to the north with Le Detroit in the south and going through various Settled Spaces including Baye de Cataracouy, Oswego, Niagara and Toronto. This Highway allows for the quick and efficient movement of French Brigades and Artillery to stop major British advances into the area. This section of the map is the most populated area and is shown by the number of developed routes through the area. The French will want to place a fort (Fort Carillon) at Ticonderoga as quickly as possible and station at a least a few Brigades, Light units and Artillery there to hold off the advancing British. I also recommend that the French take Oswego early in the game and build a fort there as well to stem the flow of men and materiel from Albany.
Finally in the south, we come back to generally unsettled and wild area as there is no major Highway connecting New York and Carlisle to the west. There are plenty of Paths but they all move through the Iroquois Confederacy territory and their Indian units and the fort that is placed at Forks of the Ohio. The British can tame this section of the continent by focusing on building a Road from Wills Creek in Virginia through Mekekasink and then onto Forks of the Ohio. This will allow the British to move Colonial Brigades along this Road and put pressure on the southern flank of the French Empire in North America.
As you can see, the designer really studied the area and placed the Highways and Paths of the time on the map that cause the same difficult choices for the players as were created for the commanders in the 1750’s. This is one of my most favorite parts of the game and it really creates opportunities but also provides some natural deterrents and road blocks that the French can use to hold off the British.
To Build a Road or Not…That is the Question!
The decision to build a Road will create lots of hand wringing and deep thought about how best to go about conquering New France for the British but it will require decisive action that starts early as it will take some investment to get the Roads created that are needed. Remember, that each Road segment you build will take two of your activations of Brigade units and this investment makes this such a tough choice. The British have more activations than do the French, we will discuss this later in the post, but it still is hard to give two up to build a Road. We already talked a bit about this but there are two places that building a Road seems to make the most sense. The first of these is to connect Number Four, located to the west of Albany, with Ticonderoga, to give the British a more northern outlet for their troops. This is not one that I would always do but it only requires one Road segment to be built and can provide another avenue from which to vex the British.
Also in this central section of the map is the option of building a Road from Taconnet to connect to the west. This is a major investment as it will take a total of three Road segments to get to Quebec so this is the toughest choice but is a very good option as the British can move their forces from the northern colonies along this Highway to assault the Bastion at Québec. This Road really is the best option to actually reach this goal and also to keep a steady and consistent force of units moving along it to attack.
The final tough choice is to connect a Road to Forks of the Ohio or to come at that fort from two different directions and thereby create some really interesting pressure that the French player will have to deal with. This is one of the things that I really like about this design as there are really meaningful choices throughout and it makes it a really tense and tough play. Anytime a player has lots of tactical choices about how to go about the destruction of their opponent, this shows a thoughtful and well done design process.
Roads are an investment and take a commitment to complete. Players should not mess around with them if they don’t plan to use them as there are such limited activations, particularly for the French, that it can be really expensive and take time. You will notice that I didn’t recommend any roads to be built by the French but there are some choices for them as well and the French player must consider them carefully.
Louisbourg is the Key to Canada
Historically, Louisbourg was the key to the British winning the battle for control over North America. It sat in a spot that commanded the view of the Atlantic Ocean as traffic would come into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The British realized that with the Fortress of Louisbourg under French control, the Royal Navy could not sail up the St. Lawrence River for an attack on Québec. After a failed expedition against Louisbourg in 1757, the British attempted it again a year later. So we must ask how this aspect in modeled in the game? I would say that it is true to history accurate and for the British to even have a chance to win they must take Louisbourg.
In the picture above, you will notice that the fortress has two Bastion spaces to the left that provide additional defenses to the French and also allow for them to ignore retreat results during sieges. These Bastions will take hits from the British Artillery but will take several attempts to get through and destroy. At the start of the game, the French don’t have any units stationed in Louisbourg and this is something that they must rectify as soon as possible. The problem is that they cannot gain their Fleets until the round progresses into the 4th activation. Don’t worry as this works to the French advantage as the British don’t have access to theirs either and will have to build two segments of Roads to attempt to get up the Coastal Highway to begin the siege. This just isn’t practical at the start of the game though and you will have an opportunity to get defenders stationed in the fort. But, you must do this the moment that the French have access to their Fleets. I recommend garrisoning it with 3 Brigades and at least 1 Artillery. The inherent Militia printed on the board will help the French and provide additional body bags that will regenerate each round of battle.
The British must attack Louisbourg as early as they possibly can as we have seen this take the better part of two seasons to accomplish, depending on how friendly the dice are. We have seen the French hold out and win the game at the end of 1757 but also have seen it fall and the British then quickly are able to overrun Québec. I am pleased with the way this part of the history works in the game and really want to try out some different strategies with how the British attack and how the French defend.
Card Play is Chaotic and Asymmetric
The design has a very interesting method to give players activations that can be used to take various actions like move, attack, raid, build a road, etc. The first thing you need to understand is that the cards will have a number of unit symbols on them that allow for the activation of those type of units. Squares and Triangles is what you have to know. Squares can be used to activate one stack of Brigade units or can be used to activate Light units. The Triangles are used to only activate Light units. That’s pretty much the gist. There are sometimes symbols in the Squares and Triangles that give extra abilities such as an anchor that allows for naval movement and a special 2x that allows that type of unit to move twice.
Each card can also have an effect which is mandatory and always goes off. These events replicate historic happenings such as smallpox epidemics, changing of Indian alliances, special Battle bonuses and other cool effects. But you never know when they are going to come out as the deck is not seeded and when you draw cards is totally random.
There are actually three decks; one for the British, one for the French and then the Indians also have their own deck. The French player uses their own deck and the Indian deck each round which is very cool and gives them a few more activations, although the Indian cards can only be used to activate Indian units.
The next thing you need to keep in mind about each of the nation’s unique decks is that they are very different. Different in the number of activations they provide, different in the type of events and different in the number and instance of the special symbols. I have not done a deep dive into a comparison of the decks but plan to as I am going to write a series of Action Point posts to give you some of the details. But, with that being said, the French generally gain 2-4 unit activations, the Indians gain 1-3 (and have a card that provides no activations) and the British get 3-4 unit activations with 3 cards that grant 5 such activations.
This difference in the decks is fine as I know that the designer is trying to show the differences in the two nations and their fighting forces and size. But, it makes for a very interesting strategic situation for the French. The French have to be more judicious with their moves and have to be a bit less on the offensive as they will not be able to activate enough units to take it to the British round after round. Plus they have more Raiding opportunities with their Light units and the Indian units and have to use these often to gain Raid Points that ultimately lead to Victory Points. The British on the other hand have got to get their troops moving, building Roads and assaulting key strong holds as they make their way to Louisbourg, Montreal and Québec. The cards are very well done and while not a traditional card driven game creates a unique and interesting experience that fits the struggle well.
Love the Connection of Symbols and Unit Types and Dice Results
The game uses custom dice that are connected to the symbols for the various units. Remember, Squares for Brigades, Triangles for Light units and now Circles for Artillery/Fleets. There are also a few other symbols, including a crossed bayonet and tomahawk that typically means success on a Raid action or a hit for certain units and a flag which means a morale hit and can lead to forced retreats. Frankly, while the symbology is very easy to understand for the units, the battle system was the biggest challenge that we had with the design. It is not bad, it is just a bit more complex and requires the players to use the player aid and the rulebook for all battles as it is just too difficult to follow and remember, even after a few plays. It works very well and is coupled with a very interesting Battle Track that tracks hits and morale losses and when the battle is over, the victor will be the player with their Battle Track Marker higher than the other player. The loser will have to retreat and this is very important and really creates some tension as the process unfolds. Having to retreat out of a fort that you just built doesn’t feel great but happens sometimes. Don’t worry though, you can scuttle the fort so that your enemy cannot use it against you until they build their own.
French or British….Which Do I Prefer?
This is always the quintessential question with French & Indian War games…or at least it is in my mind! Each of the combatants is so different that it really makes for a different experience each time. From the discussed asymmetry in the activation deck makeup above to the general difference in forces available. You really cannot compare the two straight up but have to examine their strategy separately to make a decision about what you prefer to play. For me, the French are not militarily powerful and cannot stand toe to toe with the British and hope to win. They have to maneuver their limited troops around the board to create chaos and force decisions by the British player. They also must stay on Raiding and not give up, even when it gets more difficult as the Colonial Brigades will be setup on the 2 and 3 Raid Point Settled Spaces and be able to intercept those Raids. But their most important decision is how many troops and resources to place in the defense of Louisbourg as if it falls too early, it will definitely spell disaster and if it holds out for a few more turns, and bloodies the British, it will be worth every lost Brigade and each destroyed Artillery.
The British are the kings of the continent and have nearly double the units than the French. Moreover, they have nearly 30% more activations with each card and should be the aggressor. They need to push against Louisbourg first and cannot wait on this because each round that the French hold out is one round closer to losing. Once it falls, they have to mobilize their Fleets to transport troops to siege Québec while simultaneously moving across the wilderness, via the Roads they have invested in throughout the game, to begin bringing forces against the other Victory Spaces of New France to control as much as possible. They have to keep the pressure up and cannot wait or they will fritter their advantage away. The longer the French hold onto spaces, the better for them as they just have to defend and don’t have to go on the offensive.
So in answer to my own question of which is the best to play, the answer is it depends. It depends on what type of player you are and what you like to do. Are you the aggressive type and continually push your advantage no matter the situation? Then maybe the British are for you. Or are you the maneuvering type and like to fill gaps and hold your defenses as long as possible while planning your retreat? You might just like the French better then. But, both sides do what they do well and will be a good experience no matter what your inclination is.
Bayonets & Tomahawks is a special game and frankly was the most enjoyable wargame that I have played thus far in 2021. What it tries to do, it does very well and creates a very engaging and interesting simulation of this titanic struggle for the future of the continent. The game’s production is also off the charts. From the beautiful map, to the very cool custom dice, to the interesting use of squares, triangles and circles to represent different unit types. It is a beautiful game! But, it is more than a pretty face and creates a very rewarding experience that is sure to be enjoyed for many, many plays and years to come because you cannot possibly get it all in just a few plays.
Here is a look at our initial thoughts video to give you an idea about how the game plays:
We have now played the game twice, and are working on our final video review, but we have lots more to discover. I really want to give this one a few months to marinate and then come back to it to see how my thoughts have changed. But don’t misunderstand, this game is a winner and the designer Marc Rodrigue should be very proud of his effort here.