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Posted on Aug 24, 2006 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Savannah – Boardgame Review

By Johnny L. Wilson

Card-Driven versus History-Driven

The familiar mechanic used to bring the variables of history to life is the card deck. Great Battles of the American Revolution: Volume IV: Savannah is the first in the series to use a card deck and this doesn’t mean that the game is card-driven in the sense of Paths of Glory, We the People, or Empire of the Sun. Instead, the card deck provides a small possibility of reversing history and special opportunities to reinforce history. On turns 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, and 15 (10 turns out of the 15 preceding the tactical game), the Allies draw one card (though the game can be played with three players where one takes the Continentals and one takes the French, only one card is drawn between them) and the British draw one card.


As a result, by the time the actual fighting (the tactical game) around the fortress begins on default Turn 16 (or earlier upon the declaration of the Allied player), both the British and the combined Allies will have or have had up to 10 possible events to enhance their position or diminish that of the enemy. Some of these “random events” support actual historical events. For example, Count d’Estaing actually did say, “Soldats en avant, suives moi! Vive le Roi!” and the +2 morale given to attacking French units during the turn this is played would support the historical quotation. But what if d’Estaing had not been as brave and aggressive? If the Allies do not draw the card, this doesn’t happen. On the other hand, Colonel John Maitland was able to reinforce Savannah with about 800 additional men by moving through a passage in the swamp known as Wall’s Cut. 10 Another card allows the French to cut off that potential reinforcement by playing the card to remove Trumbach and the Royal North Carolina Volunteers.

HISTORY REVERSI? The common deck of random event cards in Great Battles of the American Revolution: Volume IV: Savannah provide intriguing options for reversing or upholding the events of history as the battle converges inexorably onto the small fortress in the corner of the larger map. Though the deck is common, some cards can only be used by one side or the other.

What if the wood of the abatis had not been green and wet when Major L’Enfant attempted to clear them? One card allows the French to avoid this foul luck. What if Captain Tawes had not been killed while defending the Spring Hill Redoubt? He might survive if the Allies do not draw the card that supports the brave captain’s death (he died at the gate with his sword caught in a rebel’s body. Ironically, the rebel was from South Carolina, as was Tawes). So, the cards can either support or reverse history.

Mechanics Illustrated (Skip This If You Don’t Like Percentages)

Yet, the question remains. Is this a good mechanic? Let’s just look at the basic odds. The game uses a 55 card deck (barely larger than the standard 52 card poker deck). Of these, all but seven are unique—appearing only once in the deck. There are three “Gold and Rum” cards (usable only by the French) to reflect a bribe from d’Estaing to speed the movement of artillery, two “Intelligence Coup” cards (usable by either side) to allow the playing commander to look at the top three cards in the deck and choose one to play this turn or hold for later, and two “Commander’s Initiative” cards (usable by either side) to either double the movement points available for all units stacked with a leader or add +1 die roll modifier to all units stacked with a leader.

This means that for most cards, you have an initial base percentage chance of less than 2% of drawing a particular card (though the base chance increases slightly with each draw). The good news here is that these low odds significantly reduce the possibility of a given player having the same strategic and tactical options via the card deck on a given turn.

But let’s look closer at the deck. Some cards can only be used in the strategic game turns (1-15). There are 19 of these cards. Some can only be used in the tactical game turns (16-25). There are 17 of these cards. 16 cards can be used at any time and three must be played immediately. Note that only one of the four divisions is an even number of cards. So, you might suspect that there will not be an equal number of British to Allied cards in each division. If so, you would be partially correct. Since there are also neutral cards that can be used by either side, the total evens out over the four divisions as follows:

Immediate Use Cards (3): British Only (0), Allied Only (0), Neutral (3)

Always Available (16): British Only (4), Allied Only (5), Neutral (7)

Strategic Turns Only (19): British Only (8), Allied Only (7), Neutral (4)

Tactical Turns Only (17): British Only (7), Allied Only (7), Neutral (3).

In terms of base chances (only the first card draw, since the percentage increases slightly with each card you or your opponent do not draw the desired card), there is a base 35% chance that you will draw a card that can only be used during strategic turns (34.55% to be exact), a base 31% chance for tactical turns only, 29% for anytime use, and 5% for immediate use. So, it is clear that the designer wanted a lot of the random events to happen during the pre-tactical stage.

Most importantly, your base chance of drawing a specifically British or Allied card is 34.5% on the first card dealt, improves to 35.1% on the second card dealt (to the other player). If a British or Allied card has not yet been dealt, it jumps to almost 36% on the third (the second card in the first player’s hand) and 36.5% on the fourth (the second card in the other player’s hand). By the time you have the third card in each player’s hands, the odds have gone up to 37% and 38%, respectively (IF neither player has received a specifically British or American card). Assuming the drought continues, the fourth cards would be almost 39% and almost 40% respectively. These are not odds to assure one of optimal advantage—even though they are even for each side. It is not likely (though barely possible) that a British player will go all the way through without getting a British only card, but we have had them go five or six deep in a hand of 10 cards.

A small snapshot of the map terrain. Sample of counters.

Fortunately, the odds of getting a USEFUL card are enhanced by the addition of the 14 neutral cards plus the immediate use cards (all neutral). This means that the first card dealt has a 65.5% chance of being useful (your faction or a neutral). If your opponent does not draw one of your specific faction cards or a neutral, you have a 68% chance of getting a useful card on your second card. I don’t believe we’ve ever gone more than four deep without having a useful card.

However, there is a problem if you have to go four cards deep in a hand of ten before you get a useful card and your opponent is drawing useful cards. You are going to be on the wrong side of the abati when it’s time to make your charge. So, the first time I went deep without getting anything helpful and my opponent had a good card off the bat, I thought the game was flawed. After studying the odds, I now repent—here on the Internet in front of everyone.

The truth is that the common deck is fairer than I realized. Take this sample Allied hand that I just dealt. It has 2 neutral cards, 3 allied cards, and 5 British cards. Only half of the hand is useful for the Allies. But, when you look at the British cards in this hand, you discover that: 1) Captain Moncrief cannot complete the defenses ahead of schedule; 2) the British cannot sortie against the French sappers and cancel the Siege and Bombardment rolls for the turn; 3) the British can’t use the Last Full Measure card to rally their troops before the movement phase (allowing them to rally and attack sooner); 4) the card for the American militia to desert cannot be played; and 5) no American deserter is going to reveal the Allied Attack plans and give a +1 die roll modifier to the British. Since the Allied players holds the keys to these options, the British player cannot unlock the magazine to the particular beneficent circumstances described on the cards. As a result, the game proved more balanced than it originally felt. Just because you don’t have good cards doesn’t mean that your draw is wasted.

By the way, the British hand in that deal had four cards that couldn’t be used but kept the French from getting three events with significant die roll modifiers.

OPINION: The common deck of which I was originally skeptical is not only an excellent means of providing color and replayability, but it is significantly better balanced than I originally thought.

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