The first card-driven game that I ever played was Twilight Struggle. I fell totally in love with the card driven mechanic from the outset, but I rapidly became keen to know how the fantastic decision making and hand management aspects of card-driven designs would integrate with a game that offered true maneuver warfare rather than the gradual point-to-point expansion offered by Twilight Struggle. All the card-driven games I’ve tried since have come up short in some regard or other - too long or complex, too random, too little emphasis on the hand management side, but I keep looking. And the latest title to step up to the block to see if it could make the grade is GMT’s Washington’s War.
Washington’s War is a redesign of We the People, the game that invented the entire card-driven genre. It’s a re-telling of the American revolutionary war with one side commanding George Washington and the American patriots and the other the Imperial British trying to hang on to their colonies. Whilst ostensibly a wargame, it’s perhaps better understood as a political game in which the use of force is often necessary: players play operations cards to advance the spread of their political influence across the map and, when the boundaries between influence meet and can no longer spread, those same operations cards can send in the troops to try and impose political discipline on the recalcitrant populace. And of course your opponent will be trying to do the same thing, including trying to beat your troops in combat and send them back to where they came from. Mixed in with the operations cards are event cards for one side and the other that are designed to mimic specific historical events from the conflict and battle cards which help you in combat.
This split between card types is unusual to the seasoned card-driven gamer because whilst it was a feature of the original We the People nearly all modern designs have instead tried to improve on the basic principle by tying them together: cards have both an operations value and an event and the player can choose one or the other. The sole exception is the English Civil War game Unhappy King Charles in which the designer justified his decision by pointing to the relatively limited powers that the high commands of the factions in the war actually had over their troops and putative supporters. The same justification is offered here in a conflict which happened nearly 150 years later and involved one side with a fully professional army. I don’t know enough of the history of the revolutionary war to pass further comment on its validity as a simulation but I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a mistake mechanically. It deprecates the hand management side of the game, necessitates some odd and unintuitive rules regarding discarding any of your opponents’ event cards that you may happen to get and means that mandatory events - especially the “war ends” cards which change when the final game turn will be but have no other effect - can be a massive hindrance to the player who picks them up, especially if they get more than one. I was also disappointed by the range of events included in the game - there aren’t that many (27 non-battle, non-mandatory events in a deck of 110 cards) and a lot of them seem to mimic each other’s effects. An awful lot of cards, for example, seem to follow the formula of allowing one player or the other to remove two political control markers from some region or another.
Given these unfortunate limitations it is therefore a testament to just how good the rest of the design is that the game still does manage to leave the players puzzling over how best to use the cards in their hands. You might no longer be interested whether you’re going to use something as an event or an operations cards but the question of what to do with your operations, and indeed when to do it is rather more vexing than it is with any other card-driven game I’ve played. You might want to use a card to recruit some troops, for example, but you don’t want to do it too early and give away your intentions as to where you’re going to use them. But in the meantime, what if you run out of useful space to put political control markers? For that matter even if you’ve got places to spread your influence, are you going to try and get into valuable areas ahead of your opponent, or are you going to take a lower-risk strategy and keep them away from where he has generals or troops stationed? Do you keep high-value events as a nasty surprise for the last card or fire them off now to give yourself some breathing space? Do you do your low-utility discarding of your opponent’s events early to get them out of the way or is there a pressing need to get important stuff done right away, requiring lots of operations? There’s a what-if timing element to virtually all the decisions in the game, and because of that it’s not only a right royal head-scratcher in the strategy department but manages to force a modicum of hand management choice out of a game with one use cards. The game also walks a nice line in slippery state: things can change fast enough to leave you having to re-evaluate your carefully laid plans but, unlike in some other card-driven games, there are no one-card game changers that turn everything upside-down and leave your strategy in ashes.
Another first that I found with Washington’s War is the complete lack of a scripted opening, a minor issue that befalls every other point-to-point wargame I’ve ever played. But while games of Washington’s War inevitably seem to open with a race by the US player to cut off the spread of British influence as rapidly as possible, this involves tough choices and the implementation of a coherent strategy from the outset, and once the military aspect of the game starts kicking in when the British have been ring-fenced the game blossoms into a myriad of potential possibilities. The British are always on the offensive in this game since they need to have control of the majority of spaces in six states in order to win, and they start with only one (Canada), while the US player will generally gain a majority in the rest pretty quickly. But there’s no simple approach to getting more. In the north there are a number of states with one or two spaces that are easy to wrest from the Americans, but in the north the British need to worry about supply and attrition wearing down their troops. In the south supply isn’t an issue but you need to cover a lot more ground. Plus, you’ve only got four or five generals to work with. So what do you do - focus on one or the other - and if so why make that choice - or split? That’s just basic, high level strategic choice for one of the two sides in the game and I offer it simply to give you a flavour of just how much tactical and strategic options there are on the table for both sides.
If that’s not enough for you to explore, that taster paragraph should also have given you a hint about the asymmetry in the game. Asymmetry is pretty much built in to historical wargames through starting positions if nothing else, but in a lot of card-driven games more asymmetry and historical flavour is enforced through the event cards. Washington’s War eschews this approach in favour of building in asymmetry through the rules. This necessitates a fairly challenging rulebook: when I first tackled it, familiar though I was with the genre I struggled to understand how aspects of the game worked and I was surprised that this game is often touted as being easier to learn than most others in the genre. The two sides do virtually everything differently: American generals move further than British ones, Americans generate re-enforcements where they like while the British have to ship them in to ports from a limited pool, Americans can drop control markers anywhere while the British have to join theirs up and so on. The result is that the rulebook actually ends up repeating itself a whole lot and being very confusing when in fact the game is relatively simple to learn and play, especially for someone who has played other card-driven games. One of the several fan-created play aids you can download for the game will help you a whole lot here. But the payoff is that the two sides play almost completely differently, offering you a whole new set of challenges each time you swap sides and adding yet further replay value to a game already so bursting with strategic possibilities that it threatens to burst out of even one of GMT’s legendarily hard-wearing boxes.
I have never played the predecessor game, We the People but it’s clear from discussion on the internet that one of the big changes between that and Washington’s War was the substition of the card-based combat system for a dice-based one. I had a real love-hate relationship with that card combat mechanic which made a re-apperance in Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. I love the narrative that it generates and its given me some of the most excruciatingly tense moments in gaming that I’ve ever had, but it’s maddeningly unpredictable and seems to allow the weaker force to win an uncomfortably high amount of times. It’s also slow to resolve. The dice based system here involves throwing a dice to see if your general is operating at full or half strategic value, then adding that value to the number of troops he’s commanding and then adding the value of another dice and possibly a couple of other modifiers as well. It resolves quickly and still leaves a meaningful chance of the weaker side winning whilst retaining a statistically sensible frequency of stronger force wins and can be almost as excruciating (albeit for a shorter time!) as the battle cards. I’m wholly in favour of the change.
The fact that the game is shorter than other card-driven games is worth noting because by the standard of most wargames it’s quite insanely quick: 90-120 minutes to completion is entirely realistic. Because the game is so quick some of the issues that I’ve found irritating in other card-driven games such as over-randomness and the occasional excessively powerful event are non-issues here. If your game is careering rapidly downhill due to little or nothing but back luck, it doesn’t feel like any great loss to throw in the towel and start again. The random end turn determined by the play of “war ends” event cards helps a lot too. In yet another first this is probably the only game I’ve played where a random end turn mechanic not only feels entirely appropriate thematically but works really well mechanically too. The end turn can change even in the final turn which can lead to really thrilling conclusions and at no point have I ever felt that I lost a game of this purely due to a premature conclusion being forced on me.
I still haven’t found a maneuver based card-driven game that matches the delights of Twilight Struggle but Washington’s War comes very close. If it fixed even some of those niggling issues with the card deck and offered a greater variety of events or combined operations and event cards together then it might actually have made the grade, but even as it stands it’s an excellent game which will by turns put you in horrible mental headlocks over strategy before stretching you out gleefully on the rack of anxiety over the dice and cards. The fact that it manages to do all this quickly enough to fit two or even three games into an evening, and furthermore gives me the chance to replay British history so that we get to keep the colonies after all is just the icing on the cake.