Cubes of the American Revolution

I learned how to do watermarks specifically for this review. Worship me.

It’s appropriate that Benjamin Franklin’s chopped-up snake should emblazon the box front of Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777. Historically, Franklin’s 1754 political cartoon JOIN, or DIE represented the fragmentary nature of the colonies chafing under British rule. In designer Tom Russell’s hands, the image takes on a second, more immediate meaning. It’s one of transmitting biscuits and bullets from one place to another, of connecting or severing the head from the tail, of your own winding snake and its integrity.

Here, the image communicates the need to string together your logistics. Everything in Supply Lines of the American Revolution is about the all-important distance between your supplies and the soldiers who need them. Join them together, or die. After all, as Jesus of Nazareth once uttered, “Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.”

One is nothing without the other.

Soldiers and supplies.

Before we get into anything else, let me give you an example of the sort of crisis Supply Lines of the American Revolution sees you facing at nearly every turn.

Playing as the Crown and hoping to put down this silly little insurrection before it grows out of control, you begin with tenuous command of Boston. You’ve got a good number of soldiers there, plus a leader — which means that army can actually attack — but the Patriots have significant forces in nearby Cambridge and Providence, and a leader in the wilderness west of Cambridge who might very well wheel around, gather his forces, and march straight down the throat of your one toehold in the colonies.

Worse — and thanks to this game’s focus on logistics this really is a lot worse — there’s only one wilderness spot adjacent to Boston. These are problematic for the Crown. For one thing, the Patriots can skirmish in open ground, potentially inflicting hits before disappearing into the trees, and while Crown troops are hardy they are most certainly not expendable. Better to stay dug in within the city to avoid getting bushwhacked, right? Well, it’s possible that you won’t have any choice. Without that wilderness spot next to Boston remaining either under your control or at the very least neutral, the city can’t produce supplies.

And also to be a big ugly jerk by bombarding or burning cities.

The Crown’s mobility allows them to open additional fronts.

Supplies. These are the central quandary of Supply Lines of the American Revolution, crucial to every aspect of the design. Want to march an army? That costs food. The larger the army, the more food it will eat, though plenty gets lost when the army you’re marching is too small to ration it out correctly. Under ideal circumstances, four battle groups will consume one unit of food when they move from one place to another. Three battle groups, though? Two? One? They’ll still consume that one unit of food. One can almost picture the way a handful of soldiers will gorge themselves when there isn’t anybody around to shame them into sharing. Then, once all those fighting men are in position, hope to launch an assault? That costs ammunition. If you want a fighting chance of actually overrunning a position, you may need lots and lots of it. No ammunition means no dice, which either makes attack impossible — your men aren’t stupid enough to launch an assault empty-handed — or turns a defense into a potential massacre. There’s nothing quite like holding a fort with a year’s supply of salted fish and dry beans but not even a horn of powder.

In Supply Lines, the constant pressure of keeping your soldiers’ bellies and muskets loaded is what drives the action. Every round occurs across two or three months, with winter always looming close behind. Cities will produce some food and powder, provided they have unfettered access to some open country, then both sides get a chance to shuttle their earnings along connected lines of troops. If this sounds easy, it’s anything but, with every layover representing a loss in manpower that’s sorely needed elsewhere. Worse, both sides have inherent limitations. The Crown lacks numbers, and requesting more from overseas will increase the difficulty of their victory conditions as the powers-that-be match their expectations to their investment. Meanwhile, the Patriots are absolutely wrecked by the coming of winter, tucking tail and fleeing to the warmth of hearth and home. Some of the damage can be mitigated by leaders or careful garrisoning within certain cities, but never all of it.

More than that, even regular non-winter rounds are tense affairs. The Crown and the Patriots swap actions, and it’s surprising how often even a solid move will leave your forces vulnerable elsewhere. A healthy contiguous supply line, for instance, may well leave you understaffed in vulnerable areas, while focusing on a handful of battle groups will likely leave them floundering in the middle of nowhere. In addition to the round-opening ability to move supplies very quickly, armies can carry some measure of equipment with them, but if you’re planning on doing much more than some minor shuffling, it’s entirely likely that you’ll run dry. At that point, you may find yourself frantically passing every turn to run down that round’s stockpile of passes. If they run out in time, the round is over and moves on to another supply phase. And if not, well, someone who was a bit shrewder with their wartime accounting probably just shot a bunch of cannons your direction.

Seriously, winter is hell. Everybody just goes home to sulk.

Just wait until winter, Patriots…

Part of the beauty of this whole thing is that none of it is particularly complicated. Rather, the game’s reasonably simple set of options means that every move matters and bears hefty consequences. Getting into too many scrapes may leave your opponent teetering on the back foot, but can also exhaust your supplies and leave you floundering when it comes to accomplishing an objective elsewhere. As the Crown, burning a city to the ground can rob your enemy of crucial supplies for the rest of the game, but also provides plenty of propaganda for the Patriots to capitalize on. Everything has a cost.

It helps that both sides are constantly pursuing multiple goals at once. Either player can swing the conflict in their favor by capturing all their opponent’s leaders, but the Patriots can also win enough military victories to secure the Treaty of Alliance with France while the Crown can seize enough victory cities to critically demoralize the upstarts. Nicely, this game doesn’t even attempt to replicate the entire war, instead lasting only long enough to push the conflict to a watershed where one side will be more likely to prevail than the other. For a game with so much to consider, it’s a tidy feat that the whole thing can wrap up in under three hours.

Not that every strategy feels worthwhile, and it’s here that Supply Lines of the American Revolution occasionally stumbles. The British center of power in Quebec and Montreal feels too remote to truly pose a threat, stringing a painfully long and costly thread through the forts and wilderness from the Saint Lawrence River to Albany. By the time the Crown reaches down into the heart of the colonies, their opponents are likely to be thoroughly entrenched. Better to take advantage of their naval mobility to open fronts closer to the action.

On a more irritating note, it’s possible to end in a draw, which settles the conflict with more of a wheeze than a bang. Whether by keeping a leader squirreled away in a remote location or transforming the last pair of victory cities into bunkered hellscapes, these possibilities feel inappropriately gamey compared to the richness offered elsewhere.

It's the stinging nettle in the Patriots' britches.

Early on, holding Boston is imperative for the Crown.

Despite the occasional bout of awkwardness, however, Supply Lines of the American Revolution abstracts a complicated conflict in an innovative way and batters its players with agonizing moves that gain ground in one spot while potentially relinquishing their position elsewhere. In some ways it has the same fluid tightness as a classic game like chess, forcing you to make constant sacrifices, feints, and gambles, and prizing planning and foresight above all else. The result is an imperfect game that can occasionally slow to a crawl while players measure out their moves in advance, but one that’s a fascinating take on the importance of logistics in warfare.

Posted on March 29, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Well written as always and in a thoughtful tasty way. I’ve got an unplayed copy, so I will need to get that played soon. Tom’s designs are always a little peculiar and offbeat but set in such a way it is intriguingly appealing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts sir!

  2. Before this review, I had seen the game pop up every once in a while in conversations, but never quite got what was the thing with it. Now I see
    1. what’s special and interesting about it
    2. and why I at least for now will prioritize others to try out first
    What more can a review do? Thank you for that!

    • I’m glad to hear that! I’ve always striven to write in such a way that, whether my impressions were positive or negative, my readers will be able to determine whether a particular game is for them.

      Today, at last, I found success. Now I can finally leave behind this golem of clay and be reunited with the demiurge.

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