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Posted on May 2, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

“No Bull – Clash of Giants: Civil War is a Great Game!”   Board game review.

“No Bull – Clash of Giants: Civil War is a Great Game!” Board game review.

By Ray Garbee

Clash of Giants: Civil War. Board game review. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Ted Raicer. Price: $55.00

Ray Garbee

Passed Inspection: Fast playing, dynamic game. Clearly defined color counters. Attractive graphics in depicting the battlefield maps. Great examples of play in the battle book. Good replay value

Failed Basic: The double-sided map means wear and tear to the map regardless of which battle you fight. The game systems depiction of artillery support may be too abstract for some people’s taste.

There is a plethora of board games on the various battles and struggles of the American Civil War. But if you narrowed your focus, you could fill a substantial bookcase just collecting the many different games covering the battle of Gettysburg.

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In a sea of game choices, what the hobby needs are good games that ease new players into the traditional hex and counter game space. These games should be interesting, exciting and accessible. Ted S. Raicer has applied the Clash of Giants system to two significant battles of the American Civil War to produce a game that meets these criteria.

Battles during the American Civil War were often typified by chaos and confusion. General sought to bring their troops to bear on the enemy so that they could break their opponent’s units, disrupt their lines and ultimately drive them from the field.

In 2013, GMT Games produced the board game ‘Clash of Giants III: Civil War’. This game, the third entry in the Clash of Giants series, took the Clash of Giants (CoG) rules from the First World War period and shifted them back to the mid-Nineteenth Century to present two battles from the American Civil War – Second Bull Run and Gettysburg.

Cracking open the box, one of the first components I check out in a newly acquired game is the map. In the case of Clash of Giants III (CoG III), I should say maps plural as CoG III contains two battles – Second Bull Run and Gettysburg. In general, I’m a fan of the graphics that Charles Kibler has developed for the game. The sepia-tinted color maps nicely compliments the classic depiction of woods, hills, roads, towns and streams. Taken as a whole the maps weave an engaging visual representation of each battlefield that captures the feel of the period nicely.

If there is a down side to the map it’s that the game features a double-sided map. I’m not a fan of the double-sided map. Whatever game is not being played (i.e. the ‘bottom’ map) is getting wear and tear against the tabletop surface. My personal preference would be to have two separate maps, but that has to be tempered against the cost of adding another component to the game.

The rules of play come in a slim, 12-page, saddle stitch bound volume. These 12 pages include the cover, the table of contents and a page of designer’s notes. The rules lay out the basic ‘core’ rules of the Clash of Giants series. The rules are presented in a logical format that aligns with when used during a game turn.

Complementing the rule book is the Battle Book. This 24-page book (also saddle stitched) contains all the special rules specific to each battle as well as a set of detailed examples of play that will help players resolve any questions they may have after reading the rules.

The battle specific rules include a short history of each battle. Also included are the special rules for the special command markers, game set up and victory conditions associated with each battle. Some of these special rules such as ‘Pope’s Orders’ from second Bull Run or ‘Artillery Bombardment’ from the battle of Gettysburg are designed to replicate historical events. The battle book is a good reference for all the unique cases specific to each game. While there’s an efficiency in not reprinting the common rules for each battle, until you master the games, you will likely find yourself referring to both books, just to ensure that the special rules do not override the core rules.

The player charts are a well presented two-sided document. One side is a comprehensive listing of all the terrain types that exist across both battles. There is ample documentation on the effects and characteristics of each terrain type which will help reduce referring to the rulebook.

The flip side of the chart has all the relevant tables for pushing through the game turn. A sequence of play is included to guide the players through the game turn. The remainder of the page is focused on how to resolve combat – specifically how to calculate the odds, determine if a defender is flanked and how to resolve combat. There’s a little bit of a gray area in conveying the exact results of combat, but after two or three engagements, you’ll remember what to do.

There are two corps activation charts included for Gettysburg. (The charts are included as part of the map for Second Bull Run. While they help convey the corps identities and show the movement points specific to each corps, the charts take up a chunk of table space when fighting the Gettysburg battle.

The game includes two counter sheets, which roughly break down into one counter sheet per battle. (There are a handful of administrative markers on Second Bull Run counter sheet that you need for Gettysburg.) There are six types of counters: Units (the guys that do the (fighting); Command Markers (the guys that give the orders); Artillery Markers (the guys that support the other units), Special Command Markers (referred to as ’SCM’ in the rules) and administrative markers.

Units typically represent brigades, though some exceptionally large brigades are represented by two counters. Units contain an image depicted the class of troop (infantry or cavalry) a combat value, a troop quality rating (The ‘Tactical Efficiency Rating’ commonly abbreviated as TER) and a set up location or entry turn value. The color patterns used for the units on each side are unique to each battle, which is nice as it helps keep the counters for each game distinct when sorting out the pieces.

Command Markers are a simple counter with either a division commander (Confederate) or a Corps (Union) listed. The counter includes an image of the commander and a symbol that matches the markings of the units in that formation. The Confederate command markers are personified with familiar names such as Early, Anderson, Heth and Pender. The Union, though they have a picture of their commander are slightly more formal bearing the traditional corps name such as XI Corps or III Corps.

Artillery Markers are similar to the command markers. The carry a formation identifier and a combat strength modifier. These makers are how you manage and allocate your artillery during the game. They are the abstract representation indicating if a specific formation has artillery support available. Some markers are specific to a division or a corps, while others are available to use freely as you see fit.

Special Command Markers are a unique group of counters. These handful of counters are designed to steer the flow of the game in a historical direction by providing a way to model historical events that would not otherwise be possible under the rules. Some of the SCM can also be used to indicate the focus of combat within a turn by allowing a formation to move and attack during its activation.

Lastly, the administrative markers are used to denote various conditions such as who controls a victory point objective, where the center of a formation command is located or units that are out of command during their formations activation.

A game turn in Clash of Giants III: Civil War consists of five or six phases. In order they are the reinforcement phase, artillery/command phase, Operational phase, retreat phase, the night phase (only on night game turns) and lastly the game end turn.

On the surface the turn sequence appears pretty standard. In each turn you’ll bring in reinforcements, check for artillery support and special command availability. Move and fight, fall back, determine status and check to see if victory has been achieved. Most of these steps utilize a linear IGO/UGO format with the exception of the Operational Phase.

Most of the elements within the game turn are straight forward, so let’s focus on what makes Clash of Giants III unique – the ebb and flow of activity during the Reinforcements Phase, Operational Phase and the Retreat Phase.

In the reinforcement phase you’ll determine what units are arriving this turn. Every counter that arrives as a reinforcement has its arrival turn and location printed on it. These reflect the historical arrival times and locations for that unit. However, units arriving on their scheduled game turn check to see where they actually arrive as there is a chance that they will arrive from a slightly different direction. But wait, there’s more! You can also attempt to bring in reinforcements scheduled for the NEXT turn, as part of the current game turn. This is an important decision as if the attempt fails it will result in those units arriving a turn or two later than originally expected. You have to weigh the value of bringing in a unit early against the risk that it may be delayed for up to half a day.

You can also voluntarily choose to delay the arrival of units. Doing so earns you additional victory points, or rather makes it harder for your opponent to win as it raises the number of victory points they need to achieve in order to win. It’s a nice feature as it rewards both the player delaying they entry of a unit and their opponent who might have a chance to turn that delay to their own advantage.

The Operational Phase is where you’ll spend most of your time move units around on the map. At this time players randomly draw command chits and move the activated formation that was drawn. Remember that the chits generally represent either a Union corps or a Confederate division so you’ll be moving these units into position on the formation activation.

For each formation activated, you roll a die and consult the activation chart which tells you how many movement points the formation has for this activation phase. Roll poorly and your troops will plod along. Roll well and your troops are well handled and go dashing across the battlefield.

The fun part is that each player has only ONE general attack to use each Operational Phase. Note that this is not for each formation activation but rather for ALL friendly formations at the end of a single formations activation. What does that mean? It means that you have to do two things. First, you’ll have to move your units up into contact with the enemy you wish to attack. Second, you need to keep track of how many formations you have moved and still have to move and determine when is the optimal time to conduct your attack.

On the surface you may want to wait until the last of your formations activates, but in reality, you’ll want to conduct those attacks at the point that you have an advantage in units in contact before your opponent can react with his formations either by piling more troops into battle or by breaking off and pulling back from your line before the attack can be launched.

It’s tricky as the random nature of the chit draw and the movement die roll mean you can never be sure of what’s going to happen next or just how mobile your troops will be when they activate.

There’s one caveat to this cycle and that are the Special Command Markers (SCM) available to each side. The SCM will allow you to move a formation (sometimes more than just a single formation) AND then conduct an attack with those units that just moved. This enables you to move to contact and launch a focused attack on a specific area of the battlefield without having your opponent withdraw or feed in reinforcements. You won’t always have an SCM available and some SCM are much better than others. For example, the ‘Longstreet’ SCM allows the Confederates to launch at attack with all three divisions of Longstreet’s corps, simulating the big attacks on the 2nd and 3rd.

Combat resolution is relatively straightforward, but the Clash of Giants engine is a little different from the standard combat results table type resolution. Each unit has a combat factor which is summed into the classic odds ratio. Artillery support, outflanking your opponent and terrain can modify the total combat factors. Artillery’s best role here is as a defensive supporting arm. It rarely makes a difference to the attacking odds but can really stiffen the defense substantially. It’s a simple, abstract way of modeling artillery that gives a fairly historical result.

While you do calculate the odds, they mostly serve to define how many units must make loss checks and the die roll modifiers to those loss checks. The defender checks for losses first, followed by the attacker. It flows quickly and allows the character of the individual brigades to shine through. Units such as Gordon’s Louisiana Tigers or the Union Iron Brigade are rated as tough capable units, especially when compared to the less experienced units such as Von Gilsa’s brigade in General Howard’s XI Corps.

The last game phase that is worth discussing is the Retreat Phase. Coming after all the moving and fighting is complete for the turn, the retreat phase is where both players assess the position of their troops. Units that are in unfavorable positions – which in this case basically means at the foot of a hill occupied by your opponent – are going to fall back out of range of combat. It’s a mechanism that nicely models the ebb and flow of failed assaults – you don’t just sit there while the enemy pours fire down on you. Instead, you fall back, regroup and try to come back for another attack.

This is a neat effect. The Retreat Phase places a premium on controlling the high ground. Units that are in the open and adjacent to enemy units at higher ground are forced to withdraw at the end of each turn. This nicely models the ebb and flow of surging forward and then falling back to regroup if the attack fails. In practice, each player will orient the battlefield to their units and ask themselves the classic question, “is it good ground?”

Those are the nuts and bolts of the game. It has the good quality components you expect from GMT. It’s another game is a series of proven games leveraging a common game engine with a good appearance. But like a spiffy sports car, you don’t judge the quality of the individual parts and pieces, you review how the car handles on the road. So, let’s take Clash of Giants III for a test drive around the hills and valleys of Adams County, Pennsylvania as we refight the battle of Gettysburg.

The game places you in the position of the Army Commander on each side. An axiom of command is that you issue orders to the level below you, but you know the location of the units two levels down. For example – as the Union army commander you issue orders to your corps and you know where your divisions are located. The status of a specific brigade is beneath your level of command. In Clash of Giants III, while you wield the saber of the army commander, the execution feels like you are the wearing the hats of a multitude of Union corps or Confederate division commanders.

Each player faces similar challenges in the game. Each is trying to concentrate their army at Gettysburg and shake units out of road columns and into battle lines. The Union are outnumbered throughout much of the first half of the battle which tends to make them more defensive minded.

The terrain can strongly influence the course of any battle. This is very evident with the Battle of Gettysburg in which the ridges and open valleys strongly shape the Union defense as they seek that ‘good ground’. Holding those ridges can make a huge difference when the retreat phase rolls around at the end of the game turn.

In the case of Gettysburg, the effect of the terrain is magnified by the geographic victory point objectives. As if you didn’t already have good reasons to defend the high ground, the game conveniently stakes victory on the control of key high ground like Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge. Add in the Confederate victory point goal of existing units off the east edge of the map and the landscape and victory conditions combine to guide the players into refighting a semi-historical depiction of the battle.

The game does a nice job of capturing the command structures of the respective armies. The organization of the formations and the way that artillery is modeled help give each army a unique character. The individual counters represent brigades. The brigades have a parent division and corps listed. Only units from the same higher command may stack together. This is reinforced by the formation command range. Units outside the center of the formations command are out of command and may not move. Put these rules together and you have a simple, clean way of encouraging players to keep the units in their divisions and corps together, which is historically accurate.

The game does not play like a conventional IGO / UGO game. The use of the activation chits means the sequence of movement and combat is highly unlikely to be the same from game turn to game turn. The random order of activation coupled with the with random movement die roll provides a great deal of uncertainty to the game. You will not be formulating a scientific plan of attack unless you plan for the absolute most conservative movement rates. You need to take advantage of the opportunities that arise and be able to react to your opponent’s actions.

I take it as a good sign when both players in a game feel they don’t have the resources they need to win. The play balance in Clash of Giants: Civil War is very tight for the first half of the game. In some of the play throughs the Union hang on barely, but the victory point track shows that if you’ve withstood the worst, you can likely hang on to the end which will keep both players engaged until the end of the game.

Sounds good so far, right? This is a fast playing game that does not get bogged down in overly complex rules or the minutiae of moving and tracking individual regiments. Even so. there were several elements of the game that detracted from my enjoyment of the game.

Foremost would be that the special command marker (SCM) for ‘Pope’s Orders’ turns me off. ‘Pope’s Orders’ forces the Union troops to replicate some of uncertainty and vacillation from Pope’s ineffective command. If you are not a fan of having your activities dictated by a rule to recreate historical ineptitude, you might find this dissatisfying. I get why it exists – General Pope’s perception played a big role in how the battle unfolded and without it the game becomes seriously unbalanced. You have to balance that play balance need against why we play these games need. But a key reason for playing the game is to see how things could have been different. I don’t object to the concept of what Ted Raicer is trying to achieve here, but I do mind being forced to do it. It drags me out of the immersion of the game and makes me fight ‘the system’ and not my opponent.

As mentioned previously, while the map art is gorgeous, the decision to have a double-sided map sheet means that the map of each battle will see wear and tear, regardless of which battle you fight. You can work to mitigate this wear, but that’s a little more work for you.

While there is an errata sheet for the game, it’s not all that long and it seems to identify most issues with the game. In the case of Gettysburg, the biggest fault the errata details are the way that the ‘sunken’ road is displayed on the map in a way that suggests a strong defensive work for the Union, when the intent was to depict a feature more likely to benefit the Confederate player.

Even with the errata, there were some items I found confusing. The rules suggest that every counter includes either a setup hex number or a number indicating the turn it enters play. However, there is at least one counter that lacks either value (a brigade of Heth’s division). A spot ruling had it enter play with the rest of its division on turn 1, which makes sense given that the game starts with only Archer and Davis’ brigades on the map.

While there are relatively few rules, the Clash of Giants III rules need to be read carefully. This is mostly because of the unique way that combat generally happens once (or twice) during a player’s turn but movement happens on a corps by corps basis. It took a bit of practice to wrap my head around the approach and even more practice to master the tactical subtleties of choosing exactly when was the right time within the turn to resolve combat.

Far outweighing these issues are the things I liked about the game. The way that the division/corps command structure is depicted is nicely done with shades of colors separating Confederate divisions within corp’s while the Union corps are emblazoned with their historical heraldry.

Beyond appearance, the synergy of the formation movement rates and individual brigade ratings let the game nicely model the distinctive characteristics of the various formations. You’ll see clear differences in how the various units perform and these differences will influence how you’ll employ your units – is the same way it influenced the decision making of your historical counterpart.

The game plays fast and moves along nicely. You rarely feel bogged down as moving the individual formations does not take much time.

An important question for many gamers – is the game suitable for solitaire play? The short answer is yes, with a but. The game does not include rules for automating the play of one side, commonly referred to as having a ‘bot’. However, I played two games by myself and found the experience satisfying. The chit and die roll activation system mean that they random nature of the movement works well for solitaire play. You really have no idea what is going to happen next from an activation standpoint and must plan your actions and reactions. Likewise, you’ll reach a point where you want to launch your attack for the turn before the enemy brings up reserves or pulls back from the impending assault.

I found Clash of Giants: Civil War an enjoyable game. For the most part the command and control and combat resolution were a fresh update of very well know historical battles. The inclusion of Second Bull Run was a bold choice, but a good choice as the CoG rules engine does a nice job for these large battles.

The game does a great job of modeling the friction of war through the variable entry of troops, the simple random movement variation and the activation order of units. While playing the game, what came to mind was the classic quote from Carl Von Clausewitz, ‘Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.’ Getting the right units in the right place at the right time will provide quite difficult.

CoG: Civil War is a fun game. Enough so that I would like to see the engine applied to other battles of the American Civil War such as Chickamauga, Antietam of Shiloh or even something ambitious such as the Seven Days Campaign. If you are looking to refight an epic battle of the American Civil War in an afternoon, march down to the local game store and requisition a copy.

Armchair General Score: 95%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play): 4

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

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