Entry 20: The Unplayable 1864

Civil War Generals 2: Grant, Lee, Sherman. Designed by  Douglas Gonya.

Release Date: October 31, 1997.

Available Here

There are a lot of Civil War games out there. I’ve only played a few but I spent an enormous amount of time with one of the best: Civil War Generals 2: Grant, Lee, Sherman. When I discovered this game, I was at the height of my love affair with the epic military narrative I described in my last post, so being able to lead my forces through almost all of the war’s major engagements certainly scratched the right itch. But that’s not really what I want to talk about here, nor do I want to discuss how it possesses many of the same historical and moral problems I covered in my review of Ultimate General: Gettysburg. Revisiting CWG2 for this blog, one aspect stood out like a sore thumb: the strange way it ends.

First, a quick overview: CWG2 allows you to play through an impressively large number of Civil War battles either individually, or as part of a larger campaign. As the title indicates, the battles are restricted to those in which Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and/or William T. Sherman participated (its predecessor only included most of Lee’s major battles). If you play one of the larger campaigns, your performance in each battle will affect the next one–providing you with better resources or sometimes changing the battle itself. This is similar to the leading hex-grid turn-based historical strategy game of the day, Panzer General, but despite its World War II DNA, CWG2 does surprisingly well simulating Civil War tactics. Topography, artillery, and massed fire are all well-rendered, although supply lines never really work like they should. If you do really well or really badly, the game might end early or generate a fictional scenario, such as a Confederate assault on Washington. However, most of the time the war follows its usual course, pushing you through 1862 and 1863. Once you get into 1864, you’ve probably logged a lot of hours honing your tactics and building your armies, generating a sense of anticipation for the war’s final year. But, instead, something weird happens:

Spoiler Alert!!

The game just stops.

Yep, after lovingly rendering numerous battlefields from 1862 and 1863, the designers apparently just called it a day. Your first reaction might be to suspect laziness or even software error, but the answer is rooted in the war’s actual history. In short, 1864 ushered in a different kind of war and any game engine designed to simulate 1862 and 1863 is going to have trouble adjusting.

The Battle of the Wilderness as rendered in Civil War Generals 2

This is most jarring if you play the eastern theater. As with Ultimate General: Gettysburg, I tended to play CWG2 as the Confederates because it’s harder. I’d struggle and plan my way through campaigns in Virginia and Maryland before the climactic–and often exceptionally difficult–fight at Gettysburg. Usually satisfied with a draw in Pennsylvania or elated by a victory, I’d dive into the next battle: The Wilderness. This naturally proved to be an easier fight, since the Confederates did relatively better there, and I’d usually follow Lee’s example by fending off Grant’s first blow. Except, in CWG2, this isn’t Grant’s first strike at Lee, it’s his last. Having pushed back the Yankees, the game would declare the South independent. If Grant won, the opposite would occur–no Overland Campaign, no Petersburg, and no Appomattox. The West was only slightly better–taking you through a handful of Sherman’s battles north of Atlanta before similarly waving the white flag and refusing to simulate the rest of the war.

So, what’s the deal here? Well, in a sense, this is a pretty accurate–if unintentional–way to convey what actually happened when Grant assumed control of the Union war effort. Instead of one more year of playing Chess on the Virginia and Georgia countryside, Grant served up something different. He made Lee’s Army his primary target and repeatedly assaulted it on the battlefield while aggressively disrupting the Deep South’s ability to support the war effort. Static, brutal combat became the norm, while desertion and supply disruption played increasingly important roles. This was a slap in the face to many of the North and South’s military and political leaders, and apparently still is for strategy game programmers. What was “fun” about the earlier war–the maneuvering, the dashing charges, the competing personalities–became something different and less easy or enjoyable to simulate in a video game.

CWG2 makes all of us into Lee; resenting Grant for not playing by the traditional rules. In so doing, it effectively–if, again, unintentionally–makes another good argument about the Civil War: the war of maneuvers benefited the South much more than it did the North, especially in Virginia. Programmers could effectively render 1861-1863 as a game because it really was a sort of game. Certainly, this is true of all warfare, but it seems especially true of the strategy and tactics that dominated most of the nineteenth century. Once that changed and attrition and civilian morale came to have larger roles, war became less about battlefield tactics and more about the bigger picture. It also became more horrific and that, more than anything, doesn’t lend itself to play.

Additional Dispatches:

  • Sorry for taking so long between posts. Things have been a little crazy lately but I’m trying to get back on schedule.
  • The game’s least successful aspect is probably its attempt to incorporate live action cut-scenes. Every time two units clash, a short clip of reenactors plays. I’d probably find this annoying regardless, but it becomes tiresome very quickly because there really isn’t much variety and you have to watch the same shots over and over again. Thankfully, you can disable them.
  • The music is pretty solid. However, it also lacks variety and even I don’t play the game with it on anymore.
  • Does it mention slavery? Not at all. This is purely a tactical simulator and barely pretends to be anything more. Of course, this presents a vast set of problems for understanding the Civil War and its outcome. These armies exist in a socio-political vacuum, allowing players to focus only on strategy and tactics without considering why these armies are fighting or what the outcome of victory might be.
  • Housekeeping note: For those of you wanting to catch up with the blog, I’ve added a new tab to the menu on the upper left called “The List So Far,” which catalogs every review entry I’ve done. I’ll update it regularly.

Next Entry: The Conspirator


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