Friday, August 29, 2008

Forged in Fire -- quick review

The first block wargame was Quebec 1759 way back in 1972, so the type isn't much younger than the hex-and-counter style of wargame. But for a long time block wargames were pretty much the exclusive domain of its originator, eventually known as Columbia Games. In fact. it's really only since the rise of the Eurogames in 1995 that other game makers seemed to take a fresh look at the potential of block wargames and in the last decade or so Columbia has finally gotten some company.

Most of the other publishers who have experimented with the block games have tried to put their own stamp on the genre, so their games, while bearing some resemblance to Columbia's line have also developed some distinctive elements. Examples include GMT's Europe Engulfed and Simmons Games' Bonaparte at Marengo.

One company that has done both is Worthington Games, which has some wooden block designs that owe little to the typical Columbia game such as Clash of a Continent, but has also been willing to publish some titles that are classic Columbia. One of these is Forged in Fire, a strategic-level game that depicts the Peninsular Campaign of the American Civil War.

The game even resembles the usual Columbia physical presentation, with stickers on wooden blocks, heavy card-stock maps and a plain, but sturdy corrugated box with a sleeve.

The game play also strongly resembles the traditional Columbia approach for black powder era subjects, with point-to-point movement and a tactical battle board for resolving battles, which are fought over multiple rounds. The game system makes functional distinctions between infantry, cavalry and artillery. Instead of dividing the tactical battlefield into a left, center and right Forged in Fire's battle is divided into four sectors, a right center and left center with flanks on either side. Infantry units and leaders can use the flanking sectors in an attempt to game a favorable position against the center positions.

Like most block games, the number of units that can be moved in a turn is limited by the rules. In this case, activating a corps or independent unit costs a command point or two, depending on the kind of move. Each side is guaranteed three commands and can roll for a fourth, with success depending on the quality of the overall commander. Generally the CSA has the edge here, with Johnston better than McClellan and Lee better than both.

The game includes some atypical and special rules to reflect the particular situation. Supply plays an important role, especially for the federal army. Cavalry units have some special screening and scouting powers, but can't take part in ordinary battles. The CSS Virginia is represented and complicates Union amphibious movement until it's sunk or Norfolk is captured. The Union forces have a powerful tool with amphibious movement, which makes it impossible for the Rebels to make a permanent stand anyplace short of the fortified lines of Richmond.

The key to the game is the McClellan Confidence track, which represents Little Mac's own confidence and the confidence that Lincoln had in the American Napoleon. Success, represented by winning battles and closing on Richmond increases Mac' confidence and makes it easier for him to roll to increase the number of commands he has available. If successful enough he can be better than Lee. On the other hand, reverses tend to depress Mac's confidence, and, being Mac, it's easier to depress him than cheer him up.

Victory conditions depend on capturing Richmond and/or pushing Mac's confidence level up or down to specific levels.

Besides a grand campaign game, there are three shorter scenarios covering the initial Union advance, Johnston's attack at Fair Oaks and the start of Lee's Seven Days Battles campaign that finally drove the Union army away from Richmond.

Overall, if you like Columbia's block games you're going to like Forged in Fire. It's very similar in style and approach, but deals with a topic at a scale that Columbia hasn't tried yet, so it still breaks some new ground.

It's worth nothing that the last couple of games from Worthington have taken a more Euro style of presentation, so the company may be leaving its Columbia-inspired style behind.

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