Friday, November 19, 2010

King Philip's War review

King Philip's War, an offering of Multi-man Publishing's International Games Series line is at once both a fairly ordinary cardboard chit wargame and an unusual, even extraordinary, game.

The ordinary aspect of the game is that it's a relatively low complexity, point-to-point, CRT-based wargame that uses cardboard counters and markers (154 of them), has one standard-sized map, two double-sided player aid cards, one 20-page rule book, two standard D^ and one special Event die. The MSRP is $44, so it's not exactly a bargain, although it's still in the mainstream of current wargame pricing. System-wise it doesn't really break any new ground, although there are some neat twists here and there.

The extraordinary part is the amount of attention the game received before publication and its potential to popularize a truly little-know, but important, part of American History.

King Philips' War was fought in 1675 to 1676 in southern New England in the area now occupied by the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Those three states were then colonies, with that part of modern Massachusetts that comprises Plymouth and Bristol counties and Cape Cod and the islands being the separate Plymouth Colony. I think it's safe to say that for most Americans the era between the Pilgrims stepping ashore at Plymouth and Paul Revere's ride are a blur, often covered in an afternoon in high school history courses. Growing up in Massachusetts I was exposed to more about the colonial period, but for us it was local history.

King Philip was the sachem (overall chief) of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, which lived in Southeastern New England and had had the longest and most intimate contact with the English. By 1675 the English had already been in the region for more than half a century. Despite that long contact relations between the native population and the newcomers were not smooth. While a substantial number of Indians had adopted Christianity and English ways (the so-called "Praying Indians") the majority still lived in the traditional style and considered themselves very separate people from the English. The colonists, on the other hand, seemed to regard the Indians as part of their community in some way, and not wholly separate.

Peace was mainained between the English and Indians so long as Massasoit, who was the grand sachem when the Pilgrims arrived, lived. And fortunately for the English, Massasoit lived to a ripe old age, dying in his 80s. His eldest son, Wamsutta, took over, but he died within a year, which elevated his brother Metacom, known to the English as Philip, to be sachem. The circumstances of Wamsutta's death were murky, and it appears that Philip believed that Wamsutta had been murdered. War didn't break out immediately, however, but over the next dozen years tensions rose. The final straw was the English arrest and punishment of two Indians for the murder of another Indian, which Philip regarded as a purely Indian affair. War broke out soon after.

King Philip's War was proportionately the bloodiest war in American history. While exact numbers are not available, it appears that about 1.5% of the 52.000 English colonists lost their lives and property destruction was immense. The Indians suffered even more heavily, with at least 15% of the 20,000 Indians in the involved tribes being killed and the tribal social structure being largely destroyed. Many of the surviving Indians were sold off into slavery.

It was the one chance, however, that the native people ever had to inflict a strategic defeat on the Europeans. The odds would never again be as close.

Fighting the war required the colonies to cooperate, laying the groundwork for colonial cooperation in later generations and also starting to forge an identity as Americans. The English colonist were completely on their own, getting no help from England during the war. It was fought entirely with local resources.

That there are still raw feelings about this conflict, despite the passage of more than three centuries, was revealed when an article in a Rhode Island newspaper stirred up a minor firestorm when it reported that a game about the war was being designed.

As a journalist myself, I have to say that I didn't find this story an example of good journalism. The reporter apparently contacted some tribal leaders (yes, the descendants of the tribes still live in the region) and asked them for comments. It's hard to know exactly what was said to the tribal leaders about the game. It's highly likely that they were completely unfamiliar with the concept of hobby wargames or that many other conflicts past, present and future have been depicted by them, so it's natural that they had a negative reaction upon being told that someone was making a game about the biggest tragedy in their history. They protested, they criticized and they demanded that the game be dropped. Attempts by the designer, John Poniske, to reach out to tribal officials were rebuffed. To his credit, and he credit of MMP, the project went ahead. In his designer's notes he says "The purpose for this game simulation has never changed: it has always been my hope to increase knowledge and interest in this little-know, but highly influential, chapter of our country's history."

And to do that, the game will have to be played. Fortunately Mr. Poniske has designed a very playable and enjoyable little game that provides and interesting game experience and should see better-than-average table time for a wargame.

First off, it must be said that this is not a definitive, highly detailed simulation of all aspects of the war. I'm not sure there's information available to go into great detail and it's probably too risky to try it on such an obscure topic.

Instead KPW concentrates on the big picture of overall war strategy and maneuver, with questions of diplomacy, logistics and internal politics sketchily covered and the most tragic elements inferred.

The map depicts the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth Colony, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Strewn throughout the colonies are spacces representing English settlements (red circle with a colored band for each colony) Indian villages (white circles with color bands for each tribe) and neutral spaces. linking the spaces are paths with 1, 2 or 3 "pips" that indicate the movement point cost for using that path. Normally Indian units have 6 movement points available, while the English normally have 5. Some spacesa re also linked by rivers which the Indians can always use and the English can use under special circumstances. River movement is speedy, costing just half a movement point per space.

The sequence of play is straightforward, beginning with several phases that may add new troops, followed by Indian movement and combat and then English movement and combat.

The mainstay for each side are counters depicting small groups of warriors (Indians) and soldiers (English) worth 2 Strength Points (SP) each at full strength and 1 SP when reduced. Each side's villages (Indian) and settlements (English) have an inherent defense of 1 SP, while the two forts on each side have a strength of 2. There are two "key leaders" on each side who also have a strength of 1, and the Indians have some musket counters that give a 1 SP bonus to the warrior carrying it.

Combat is conducted by rolling three dice, 1 green D6 for the Indians and one red D6 for the English and a special Event die, which I'll discuss in a moment. Generally the D^ roll for each side is cross referenced on the CRT with the number of SP in the respective force to determine a result expressed in SPs lost. For example, a full strength Indian warband with a musket (3SP) attacking an undefended English settlement will miss entirely on a 1 or 2, will cause 1 hit on a 3-5 and 2 hits on a 6. In return, the English settlement, with it's inherent 1SP, will miss on a 1-4 and inflict 1 SP loss on a 5 or 6. The first SP loss on the settlement permanently eliminates the garrison and it's marked with a "raided" counter. If another hit is inflicted then the settlement is "razed" and considered completely destroyed for all game purposes and awards a victory point tot he Indians. The English can do the same to Indian villages. Victory points are also scored for eliminating units and leaders.

The twist in the combat system is that third die, which is an "Event" die. To determine which player is affected by the die, you total the red adn green dice. If the total is odd, then the Indians are affected, even it's the British. If there's a tie then there's no battle at all (due to bad weather, getting lost, etc.).

Three of the results Panic, Ambush and Emergency Reinforcements aid one side or the other in the current battle, while the other three (spy, guide, massacre) potentially add counters for later use to one side.

Leaders are vital for both sides. Without a leader only two combat units can occupy the same space. A leader can stack up to three combat units, aids in evading combat and intercepting enemy units. Leaders can have guides attached to them to speed their movement and can have spys attached that hinder their movement. Each of the English colonies has one "captain" to lead their "companies" (stacks) Each Indian tribe has a sachem to lead their "warband." The Indians have more leaders overall, as there are nine tribes and just four colonies.

Each side also has two "Key Leaders," one at start and one that comes as a reinforcement. Key Leaders have all the powers of other leaders, plus they add one SP to a stack, allow units from different tribes to stack and they often have other special abilities.

For the Indian side the most important leader is King Philip, who starts on the map. Besides leading troops, King Philip can conduct "diplomacy" at the beginning of the turn. Depending upon how many English settlements have been razed, other tribes may join the three Wampanoag tribes in the war. For example, after 2 settlements ahve been razed, the powerful Narragansetts on the Connecticut-Rhode Island border will join if Philip conducts the necessary "diplomacy" to do so, which in game terms is simply picking Philip up from wherever he is and placing him on a village belonging to that tribe. Basically Philip can bring in one new tribe a turn so long as the Indians are burning settlements. On the other hand, if the English burn enough Indian villages then some tribes start surrendering and dropping out of the war.

The Narragansetts bring in the other Key Leader for the Indians, Canonchet, who doesn't have any special powers. The English start with one Key Leader on the map, John Winslow, who like Cononchet doesn't have any special powers other than the general leader/key leader ones.

The other key leader is a literal game changer, Benjamin Church. Historically Church was largely responsible for turning the tide after the initial Indian successes as he employed allied Inidans and used Indian-style tactics to fight the Indians instead of the less-effective European tactics.

In the game Church has a tremendous impact. Before he arrives the English can't use paths that cost more than 1 pip, they can only move three stacks and fight three battles, and they can't use river movement. After he arrives the English can use any path, they can move and fight with five stacks and stacks with Church and Indian Allies can use river moves. Once Church arrives the English can roll to receive Indian allies, which are 2 SP units that can arrive almost anywhere. The Indian movement/combat limit is five stacks all game.

Both sides have the dilemma of more things needing doing than stacks able to do it, so managing resources as well as strategy is vital. The Indian side starts with the initiative and Philip needs to do as much damage as he can to bring in allied tribes before Church arrives and evens things up between the two sides. The standard rule is for Church to enter on a die roll, but this does add a big luck element to the game and there's an optional rule that has Church arrive automatically on Turn 3. I'd recommend this for competitive play.

Both sides are to choose between trying to burn villages and eliminating combat units. Razing settlements/villages is important for tribal recruitment/surrender, a direct source of victory points and they're easier targets than stacks of troops. On the other hand, eliminating the enemy's troops can really crimp their ability to raze YOUR villages and can also generate victory point awards.

Overall victory is determined by accumulated victory points. If either side reaches 30 VP then they win immediately, otherwise whoever has the most VP at the end of Turn 9 is the winner. There are also sudden death victory conditions. If both Philip and Canonchet are eliminated then the Indians lose instantly. If both English forts (Boston and Plymouth) are razed then the Indians win instantly.

With both sides intermixed and evenly matched overall, King Philip's War is a game of opportunism and nerve. There's a pretty high chaos factor between the Event roll, Church entry, CRT results and the 1-in-6 chance a planned battle won't happen at all, so this is definitely not a game for those who hate too much luck. On the other hand it's a wild and woolly ride for players who have the nerve to try it and it should be an entertaining -- and educational -- time, win or lose.

KPW take about 2-3 hours to play, so a two-game match is doable in an evening's gaming. Set up time is minimal.

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