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Posted on Jul 6, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Better Run Through the Forest! Compass Games ‘Blood on the Ohio’ Board Game Review.

Better Run Through the Forest! Compass Games ‘Blood on the Ohio’ Board Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

Blood on the Ohio: Washington’s Indian War 1789-1794. Publisher: Compass Games. Game Designer: John Poniske Price $ 59.00

Ray Garbee

Passed inspection: Attractive, unmounted color map board depicting the landscape of northern Kentucky and a portion of the ‘Northwest Territory’. Large four-color counters that cleanly depict information. Well defined combat mechanism for resolving ambushes, battles and raids.

Failed basic: Rules could be more explicit or included additional detailed examples of play that would have helped resolve some of the ambiguities in text.

Mention the phrase ‘Indian Wars’ and you’ll likely conjure up images of Custer and Sheridan battling the Sioux and Cheyenne across the western plains of North America. But in last decade of the 18th Century the space that would soon become Ohio, Indiana and Michigan was the setting for a series of American military expeditions designed to forcibly push the Native American inhabitants off the land and out of the region opening the land to American settlers from the East. Compass Games, Blood on the Ohio: Washington’s Indian War 1789-1794, is a board game that represents those events as a struggle between the army of the United States of America with its local militia against the warriors and leaders of the nations of the Western Confederacy – the 10 native peoples (tribes) inhabiting the region.


The game consists of a four-color unmounted carboard map, a 40-page rulebook, two counter sheets and three player aid cards. Oh, there’s also 1 blue d6, 1 green d6 and a special d6 used for special events (more on that later).

The map board is a single sheet that depicts the space from the southern shore of Lake Erie into the lands along the southern bank of the Ohio river. The southern edge, south of the Ohio, represents Kentucky country, which starts the game as part of Virginia, but achieved statehood in 1792. North of the Ohio are the lands associated with the various nations of the Western Confederacy.

The map is a point to point network with each nation’s lands depicted in a different color. The map shows two major (i.e. permanent) US forts – Harmar and Washington, as well as the principal villages of the major nations of the Western Confederacy. The network depicts connections that represent either trails or rivers. Moving to a river has a higher cost, but you get a free move off the river at the end of your move. It’s an interesting way of representing the barrier rivers pose to marching across the land while retaining the flexibility of sometimes moving by water. The map is a reasonable representation of these two transportation methods, but it’s not an exact mapping of space such as you’d find with the use of overlaid hexes, a grid or even an area map.

The counters are colorful and attractive. There’s a minimal amount of data presented – usually the nationality of the unit, the type of unit, along with a value depicting either a tactical leadership value or a combat value. There are four types of counters – leaders, fighting men, structures and administrative counters.

Leaders are what you build forces around – referred to as ‘stacks’ in the game. Principal leaders have larger forces than the secondary leaders. Put them together and you can field an ‘army’ of about 800 men. Most of the historical leaders from the war are represented in the game. Leaders are assigned a tactical or firepower value that gives some flavor to their abilities and/or competence.

Warriors are the fighting men on both sides. You’ve got the usual suspects here – Native American warbands, US regulars and militia in both infantry and cavalry form with a smattering of artillery. All are represented the same way with a firepower value and step losses on the front/back of the counter.

Villages and settlements are a big part of the counter mix representing the human settlements for both sides. These are often key features as they are victory point objectives as well as representing the Western Confederacy’s will to fight. Lose all your villages and the warriors will pack up and leave. Beyond this, the US player can construct some additional minor forts that model the historical need to extend the supply lines supporting operations as well as extend government control further into the Northwest Territory.

The admin counters help track events during the game turn and the status of the various spaces. The most common marker is the ‘razed’ counter, which is placed in a space whenever a village of settlement is reduced by it’s opponent. In addition, you have markers representing British firearms that enhance the firepower of the Native American units.

The rules are presented in a 40-page four color saddle stitch bound booklet. Of those 40 pages, 22 pages represent the rules of play, while the remainder cover the scenarios and designer’s notes. Overall the rules are well presented. The one omission to this would be the rules for reducing villages and settlements border on being implied and not as explicitly stated as you might want. You will find the information through careful reading but be prepared for a little puzzlement on the path to understanding.

There are three charts – one for each player and a combat resolution chart. The player charts are customized to each player, showing their specific special actions and operations. The Combat chart is a step by step of resolving combat and helps streamline the process immensely.

The gameplay is straightforward. Each turn represents a season (Spring/Summer or Fall/Winter) with three movement impulses roughly corresponding to two months. The move rates seem a bit low but can be aggregated as due to the ‘friction’ of moving forces in a landscape that lacks developed infrastructure.

In each turn, the sides run through the steps of conducting special actions, US movement/combat, Western Confederacy move/combat with an end of turn phase covering supply and wintering forces. Sprinkled through these phases are various checks to determine if the Western Confederacy (hereinafter “WC”) nations pull out of the conflict, if US expeditions are defeated and withdraw, and to check the health of wounded leaders.

One of the special actions allows the US to place new settlements and forts in the Indian lands. It’s a good way of representing the encroaching wave of American settlers and the ability to build forts that extend the reach of government control and supply lines.

The game captures the feel of the period and the nature of the conflict. The WC forces have slightly better movement rates depicting their intimate familiarity with the terrain and generally move nimble tactical methods than the US forces. The US player faces many of the same challenges faced by the historical US commanders. You can disperse your forces and garrison the settlements to reduce their vulnerability to attack but doing so reduces your offensive punch with the main army. You want that large main army as it reduces the risks from ambush, but it leaves the settlements open to raids by the WC.

For the Western Confederacy, your balancing the needs to demonstrate victory by accumulating victory points, mostly through raids and nibbling at the main US forces through ambush. At the same time, you need to defend your villages and recruit more warriors to the cause. Winning early and often is key to the WC strategy as it unlocks access to British support and helps drive those expedition failure checks.

The game has a good asymmetrical feel with the Western Confederacy relying on raids and ambushes to slowly garner victory points while the US must seize ground (villages), create new settlements and forts and attempt to bring the WC to battle on favorable terms.

Ambush is an important part of the game and should not be overlooked by either player, but especially the WC player. Done effectively, ambush starts to feel like being nibbled to death by ducks. Every time you move adjacent to or into a space with the enemy, they may try and ambush you. This has the effect of deflecting a lot of the combat action from the actual battle phase into each stack’s movement phase.

The mechanics for resolving the formal battles is done nicely. The flow of battle resolution is clearly defined. The use of the ‘fate die’ can derail the best laid plans and help snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The battle process nicely models the unreliable nature of the US militia as well as the value of cavalry in the pursuit phase of a battle. And terrain matters! At least it matters where you are in relation to a river matters, as it’s a combat modifier for attacking across the river and a casualty multiplier for retreating across a river.

The process assumes that the WC forces win all ties, giving a real “if you’re not first, you’re last” feel to the outcome. It’s a nice approach as this offsets the generally weaker position of the Western Confederacy in a stand-up fight with the need for the US to win decisively.

The game does not have dedicated solo rules, so the solitaire enthusiast is forced to wear two hats and play both sides to experience the game. It can be done, but the Western Confederacy comes off as feeling very monolithic – which is a weird thing to say as this is intended as a two-player game.

Conversely, the game might lend itself well to a multi-player approach as the Western Confederacy can be divided up by nations into two or more factions allowing the various nations to entreat with the United States (and each other) adding an interesting political dynamic to the game. You have to balance that against the fact that some of the factions (like the Mingo) would not be rewarding for a single player. As the game does not support multi-player, the preceding is more of a thought on possible ways to play than a critique of the final game.

There’s a lot of nice stuff going on in Blood on the Ohio. But there are a few things that were disappointing with the game. For starters, the rules are a bit vague on how villages and settlements can be reduced outside of raid or overrun. The answers are in there, but the information could have been better defined, either as a separate rules section, as explicit examples of play, or a sidebar within the rules text.

It feels like the game has a play balance issue. If the Native Americans get too far behind in victory points, the game seems to swing decisively in favor of the US. Maybe we needed more play throughs to determine if it’s a real problem or was just an aberration of a couple of games from a small sample size. Some of that might have been due to our poor utilization of ambush in the early games. If the WC player stays focused on the slow, steady accumulation of VP, they should be able to avoid falling into this trap.

The map bothered me a bit. The artwork is serviceable. Bill Morgal delivers a clean interface that conveys the primary data of a point to point system. Aside from rivers, the landscape has a boring sameness without discernable terrain effects. The wooded hills of Appalachia are as good a battleground as the open prairie of western Ohio. While this might be an abstraction representing the presence of good battlefields scattered throughout each area, the generalization felt like it diminished the role of geography in combat. For the period specialist, the thing that will jump out is that the location for the Battle of Fallen Timbers is in the wrong place. Astute fans of the period will pick up on that right away, but let’s be clear that it has absolutely zero impact on game play. Otherwise, it’s a solid effort at creating a game board. If it fails, it fails on the level of creating a game space that immerses you in the experience. Some of this might be due to your reviewer living within the space displayed on the map and struggling to reconcile the depiction of space and travel costs on the map with his own sense of space and place in the region. Putting that aside, it’s a good board for the play of the game.

The counters look like they were printed just a tad off center. No information is lost, but the final product felt like the graphics are slightly out of position but it made it past quality control as ‘acceptable’. Again, it does not impact the flow of gameplay, but it has an intangible effect on the reviewer’s perception of the game’s quality. It’s a shame as otherwise the counters are nicely done.

It seemed like there are a few forts missing from the counter mix. Most notably was Fort Jefferson, in what is now western Ohio. Admittedly, Fort Jefferson was a small outpost that was later overshadowed by the much larger Fort Greeneville. It likely boiled down to a decision by Mr. Poniske as to when representation of a fort was warranted versus when it’s too small, but Fort Jefferson, though admittedly small, was a vital link in St. Clair’s campaign and a key frontier outpost for much of the conflict.

Beyond that, the rules have a few typos and errors that can confound you. Playing the tutorial campaigns, I thought I’d lost a counter, only to discover that the order of battle published in the rules was wrong. You can address this by downloading the current living rules from the Compass Games website which have the changes highlighted.

It may feel minor – indeed it may be minor – but, the game does not differentiate between the fighting abilities of Wayne’s Legion from that of other US regulars using in the other expedition. A quick survey of local historical gamers knowledge on the conflict suggests that the time spent by Wayne training and drilling his troops prior to the campaign resulted in a better caliber of regular solider than seen in the prior expeditions. It would be tough to represent with the model, but we toyed with an optional rule that gives the Legion a +1-die roll modifier to combat resolution. Another option might be assigning tactical points to reflect the prowess of the legion based on the quantity of legion counters in a stack. If you feel it’s an omission, you’ve got a couple of ways to remedy that – but you’ll want to playtest those a bit to determine the impact on play balance. Alternatively, popular perception might be due to hagiography of Wayne’s efforts in the war and the Legion fought as effectively as the earlier First US Regiment, in which case just play the game as is.

In some ways, Blood on the Ohio is reminiscent of GMT’s Colonial Twilight. Both games depict two cultures clashing over control of space and utilizing violent, savage means to strike at the civil infrastructure. This is a game in which you focus on burning settlements and razing villages in pursuit of victory. Blood on the Ohio is an apt title for the game as both sides must resort to tactics that are reviled by modern standards. The game delivers an educational experience of what happened without delving into the greater context behind why the conflict happened. If you want that background, pick up a copy of R. Douglas Hurt’s book ‘The Ohio Frontier’. It’s a good starting place for gaining an understanding of the drivers that led to Washington’s Indian Wars.

Washington’s wars that are depicted in the game marked a new phase in the history of the United States. For the next century the United States would be engaged in what Theodore Roosevelt branded as the “Winning of the West” as it expanded across the continent to the Pacific Coast. Under the banner of ‘Manifest Destiny’ the Americans would wage a series of wars against the native peoples, continually displacing them from their lands. Blood on the Ohio puts you on the starting line of these events and provides a view into the shape of things to come. March over to your local game store and capture your copy when it arrives!

Armchair General Score: 93%

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.