1775: Upstarts vs. Tax-Happy Oppressors
Last month I covered a heart-wrenching title from Academy Games called Freedom: The Underground Railroad, notable for its uncanny ability to create an emotional investment over the fates of a few wooden cubes. I think I even cried at one point. Manly tears, of course. Manly abolitionist tears.
Now I’ve had a chance to try another of the titles in Academy Games’ catalog, a simple wargame by the name of 1775: Rebellion, and… well, I’ll put this delicately: stand back, because I’m about to gush like a fry cook’s neck pimple.
Not Your Average Rebellion
Okay, so by now you’ve likely deduced that 1775: Rebellion is about the American Revolution, or “The War We’re Glad We Lost Because America Is a Way Cooler Ally When Independent” if you’re English, which always sounded like a mouthful to me, but who am I to question cultural differences? They like their sentences plus-size on that side of the pond. No judgement.
What you probably didn’t know is that 1775 is hardly your standard American Revolution game. Rather than expressing the conflict as fought between two sides, the “Rights” and the “Tax-Happy Oppressors,” 1775 sees fit to cast its subject matter as a four-player team game. On the one side, you’ve got the Continental Army and the Patriot Militia (and occasionally the French, if they can be convinced to stop stuffing corn into ducks for five minutes), and on the other, the British Regulars and the Loyalist “Tory” Militia (and perhaps some Hessian Mercenaries, undoubtedly paid for with illegal and abusive stamp taxes). Oh, and both sides are also trying to con the natives into hopping aboard the revolutionary bandwagon as well.
This wealth of factions creates a compelling and unexpected asymmetry. The militias on both sides excel at attacking en masse, occasionally pulling off a successful ambush that deals massive damage, but otherwise they’re more liable to run away than stick around and die in a stand-up fight. The British Regulars are the most imposing, but they’re far from home and spread thin, and they’ll often have to rely on their naval superiority to get around. The Continental Army falls somewhere between those two extremes, hardly as professional as the British but also more numerous and generally able to mobilize more of their forces each turn. And whichever side you choose, you’re going to have to make the best of your particular alliance to take control of the American colonies and declare a truce before your opposition does — though given the seesaw nature of the conflict, it’s anyone’s guess who will be in the lead at the end of any given round.
Resources of Colonies, Movement, and Men
Rather than bogging you down with a tedious economic simulation, 1775 keeps the proceedings meaty. You might not have to worry about feeding your troops or whether you can drag enough cannons over to Boston Harbor, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be constantly fretting over your available resources. Here that means you’ll be doing your best to keep control of your colonies, manage your limited movements, and keep your men alive long enough to make an impact on the course of the war.
First up are the colonies, which play a crucial dual role. On the one hand, they’re the game’s primary victory condition, since once enough truce cards have been played, whoever controls the most colonies at the end of that round wins the game. On the other, they’re also the lynchpins of your recruitment efforts. You can only muster new soldiers into cities, but you can’t do so unless you control that entire colony. You might have dreamed up a brilliant plot to sneak some French soldiers into Quebec City with your fishing boats for a glorious return of that city’s rightful owners (surely the occupants will be very pleased), but you haven’t taken control of the entire colony — just robbed the British of their control since they still have a few troops in Montreal.
Lots of the time though, just hampering your opponent’s control is good enough. It might be nearly impossible to push the revolutionaries out of Massachusetts entirely, but pushing into the western third with your forces stationed in Albany will rid the Americans of their prized recruitment spot in Boston as surely as a costly invasion of the entire colony. Similarly, threatening those precious Canadian colonies will send the British players scrambling to consolidate their authority, possibly inflicting more long-term damage than a string of resounding military victories could.
This brings us to how scant your movement options are. 1775 is a card-driven wargame, meaning the cards you play from your hand are the orders you will resolve that turn. There are a few single-use events, stuff like “John Butler’s Rangers” for the Loyalist Militia, which lets their forces make pre-battle hit-and-run attacks that turn, but most of the cards are for movement. And scant movement at that — most consist of options like “move two armies two spaces each.” Since you can only play a single movement card per turn, and since even a long game will only go on for six or seven rounds, you’ll never get to make all the moves you’ll want to. In fact, having to choose just a couple armies to move on a turn when you have seven or eight similarly excellent options is one of the game’s highlights.
When I first learned that moving into the same territory as an unallied Native American force would instantly convince them to join your cause, I was aghast — “So there’s no diplomacy roll?” I thought. “No paying them off with glass beads and empty promises?” It was only a few rounds into our first game that I realized that the simple act of moving into a native territory was a painful decision, weighing a long-term investment of a few extra soldiers against the expense of immediately advantageous moves elsewhere.
But 1775 is like that, minimalist to the point of strategic anguish. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Choices, Choices — Even in Combat
In many dice-driven wargames, the strategy ends the instant the fighting begins, at which point the outcome is entirely up to the whims of the dice. It’s to be expected, the player charting the overall course of the war with only a minimal amount of control over the battles themselves.
Not so in 1775.
Sure, the dice have some of the usual results. You might inflict a kill, or roll a “rout” — though in this case, a rout refers to your soldiers running, which presents a future decision since anyone who runs away has just lived to fight another day, and will become available on your next turn along with your usual reinforcements.
But by far the most interesting die result is the “Command Decision” option. A Command Decision lets you decide whether to move one of your units out of the battle and into an adjacent territory. Of course, you could use this to withdraw troops from a battle that’s going poorly, but the more badass decision would be to move them behind enemy lines. Potentially (and surprisingly historically accurate), this lets you leverage even discouraging defeats into long-term advantages as you push soldiers into positions they couldn’t have reached otherwise. In one recent game, my British Regulars were marching into upper Maine from Nova Scotia with a force large enough to guarantee victory. Unfortunately, I forgot to leave a garrison behind, so when my opponent rolled a Command Decision, he pushed straight behind my lines, sparing that unit’s life and taking control of Nova Scotia in one fell swoop.
Thank goodness I was holding onto the Benedict Arnold card, transforming that single Nova Scotia occupier into one of my units, returning control of the colony to me in the process — but that’s besides the point. Every Command Decision rolled is just one more beautifully compelling decision that brings potentially game-changing consequences. Should you withdraw that troop, or would his absence lose you the fight? Should you retreat to this spot and try to keep your enemy’s colony divided, or try to defend the recruitment spot you locked down the turn before? The constant uncertainty comes to define your actions, as you burn your limited movements to leave guards to limit enemy movements and Command Decisions, or catch yourself in repeating what if loops. Even the random turn order supports this constant, lingering sense of tension. You’re never sure who’s going next, so you’re constantly trying to figure out the best possible move no matter which command cube gets drawn from that bag. Will you go first and reinforce South Carolina before the British can invade by sea, or will you go last and capitalize on the turn order?
You can’t be sure.
There might be some confusion on this point, so I’ll just come right out and say it: I love 1775: Rebellion. It’s a surprisingly tight wargame minus the hundreds of rules and exceptions that are too often a staple of the genre. While those can be fun, this is the wargame you can pull out when you literally have only ninety minutes to get through the entire Revolutionary War, and you’re willing to put up with the constant barrage of tough decisions it’s going to put you through.
Even if you’re British and still sore about getting your butt kicked at Yorktown, you should give this a try. Maybe you’ll outshine Cornwallis.
Couldn’t be too difficult.