Storytelling machines

A new Civil War game has been released in time for the holidays: among its other features, in Forge of Freedom, "each state has its own Governor and they will make demands on you and shift their attitudes according to events."

Good - we're starting to integrate the political into a Civil War narrative. I say "narrative" because games are storytelling machines that entertain the player as they unfold their plotlines.

In the age of CGA and EGA graphics, Encyclopedia Brittanica put out a very interesting Civil War game which IIRC was called "No Greater Glory." There was no way the Civil War buff was going to buy or promote the game - it was entirely about Lincoln-level (or Davis-level) war management. It was anti-tactical, the battlefield being a place far beyond the player's direct control.

First, you filled a limited number of cabinet and ambassadorial positions; when done, your appointments had to represent regional and political balances, or there would be lower recruitment and tax revenues from any slighted region and/or loss of political support from slighted Radicals or Conservatives.

Similarly, you made military appointments based on region and seniority. Appointments were made before the campaign phase began. Troops were raised and distributed each season and new troops would depress the efficiency of an older force. There was never enough transport to get men where they were needed. The result was a collection of forces (armies), sometimes far from the front, all awaiting the season's reshuffling of the high command.

With lost battles, generals would lose seniority; you might want a Butler at the bottom of the list anyway. With won battles, they would advance and the player often found himself - due to unforeseen victories - with a Banks, Butler, and McDowell (or a Polk, Pillow, and Bragg) demanding appointment to the three largest armies.

The truly inspired piece of design here was that it took momentum for the Union to win and the player had to work the angles hard to get any sort of momentum going - that means multiple victories on multiple fronts in a single campaign season. The player had minimal control over the fight, as mentioned earlier. He could deliver men and materiel to a force, appoint its commander based on seniority (or take serious political heat), issue orders, then wait. The computer resolved the campaign, informing the player of outcomes.

One charming feature of the game was commanders ignoring orders. The player, then, had the wonderfully queasy feeling of pushing things in a certain direction and hoping for the best.

With momentum, money flowed and recruitments got ever larger; units became seasoned; it became possible to raise black regiments, to emancipate the slaves; etc. Without momentum, the game stalled out in Union failure as support (enlistees, taxes) steadily dropped.

This seemed to be a game based on the Hattaway-Jones premise that Lincoln (and the politicians) perceived the best outcome of the war to be a long series of victories that translated into newspaper headlines, no matter where, no matter when, no matter connected to what war aim or strategy. This series of victories would produce enormous political bounties useful in warmaking and party building.

And so, we see a new Civil War gaming blog written by Brett Schulte's friend Doug Jackson. Perhaps Doug, new to the Civil War, will keep us up to date about new game releases, as Brett has been doing. As a new ACW reader, I expect he'll be more interested in the gaming experience itself - which is a literary experience - than in the accuracy of historical content.

Certainly, it is hard to visit his site and not see the story that games tell.