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Posted on Jan 15, 2016 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Pea Ridge – Mac Game Review

Pea Ridge – Mac Game Review

By Jim Cobb

Publisher/Developer: Hexwar/Decision Games. $1.99 iPad/iPhone, $4.99 Mac; System iOS 9

Passed Inspection: Fine graphics, acceptable AI, neglected battle, simple interface

Failed Basic: Some historical inaccuracies, limited command and control, no multi-play yet

Called “The Gettysburg of the West”, the oft-neglected 1862 battle of Pea Ridge had consequences far beyond the number of troops involved and its obscure location in northwestern Arkansas. Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi would never again seriously threaten Missouri, thus freeing up a significant amount of men and resources for Grant’s operations in Tennessee and Mississippi. Hexwar and Decision Games have looked at this clash in Pea Ridge, an entry into their iPad/iPhone “Great Battles of the American Civil War” series. Can a simple engine capture the essence of such an important battle?

 A Spread Out Affair

The battle map, at 125 meters per hex, is huge even in the zoomed out the two-finger spread. Every field is clearly marked and names as are landmarks such as the Masonic Lodge and Elkhorn Tavern. Forests and shrub can be seen all over the field. The all-important roads are depicted and labeled. Farmhouses dot the area. Control points are shown with the national flag of the side that controls them. Fog of war exists with a vengeance as anything not in sight of a friendly unit is submerged in a dark murk. The northern half of the map is dominated by a black inverted triangle representing Big Mountain, dwarfing all other terrain features. The designers could have colored this in with grey or brown but the impact on play is clear: nobody moves onto Big Mountain. The graphics do a fine job of capturing the feel of the era and area. However, players should be aware that an errant touch can turn the beautiful graphics into a flat, dull map.

Units are regiments and batteries with infantry called at one point per fifty men, cavalry one point per twenty-five men and artillery at one point per gun. The troop sprites are clearly defined with soldiers, horses and cannon accurately depicted although the uniforms are a bit too tidy for the Trans-Mississippi theater. The zoomed-in view examines the unit’s formation in such detail the players should have no trouble in seeing columns, likes, disorder, limbered and unlimber artillery. Animation has troops marching, horses trotting and cannon going into battery. Battle graphics reveal the smoke of volleys and shot as well as the flinching of hits. Casualty numbers float in the air and remaining strength points of units are always visible. Generals with units are marked by larger than average flags. Raw and levy units have down-pointing chevrons while veteran and elite units’ chevrons point upwards. When a unit is disordered due to combat, a white check mark with a crossbar appears. A white exclamation mark denotes low ammo status.

No effort to provide players with information has been spared. When selected, the name of each unit – usually the commander’s name – is shown above the map. The same area provides the unit’s ammunition numbers, a diagram representing its formation, its weapon and if a general is present. Above this are two colored bars showing the relative strength of both sides. If the player side’s value slides below fifty percent, he loses; if the AI’s strength slips that much, the player has met a victory objective. A button will bring up a colored and captioned picture of the unit’s type. A sun or moon shows the time of day as does a pop-up at the beginning of each turn. An option allows all the modifiers for attacks to be displayed. Another buttons summons charts for morale, combat modifiers and weapon capabilities in terms of range and effectiveness, emphasizing weapon attenuation. Players aren’t able to plead ignorance if an attack goes awry.

Sound effects are loud, helpful and appropriate with the usual tramps, hoof beats, booms and yells. In lieu of a manual, eight small tutorials and a slideshow teach basics of interface, mechanics and tactics. The last tutorial is actually a short, interest and challenging battle.

Hooray, Hoorah, Mizzou, Mizzou!

As with most Hexwar games, Pea Ridge’s interface and mechanics are simple. Selecting a regiment or battery displays reachable hexes in white and possible targets on orange. Attackers can choose between fire and melee combat. Melee combat also shows yellow hexes in front of a target indicated possible charge paths. This choice plays into the flank attack function where a unit attacked from opposite sides receives more damage in the second attack. “Merge” allows two regiments similarly armed to combine. This option can save a weak unit from destruction or create a monster unit. On the other hand, merging decreases frontage and movement flexibility. Other functions are changing formations, dismounting/mounting cavalry and attaching generals to aid in melee combat. Changing formation and firing before movement consumes a unit’s turn but moving and then changing formation is possible as is moving and then firing with decreased effectiveness. Each time a unit fires, it can become low on ammo which also decreases effectiveness. Each turn provides a chance or replenishment especially if the unit has not moved or fired. These functions take place during thirty half-hour turns. Victory requires three conditions to be met by the thirtieth turn: eliminate fifty percent of the enemy’s forces, control all three victory hexes and not losing fifty percent of the player’s force – difficult terms.

The context of the battle should be explained. In a winter campaign, Samuel Curtis’ Federal forces chased Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard into northwest Arkansas. Price joined Arkansas and Texas forces under Ben McCulloch. The two commanders despised each other so Richmond appointed Earl “Buck” Van Dorn as overall commander to impose a semblance of cohesion in the Army of the West. Meanwhile, Curtis shortened his supply lines by withdrawing fifty miles and establishing a broad, southern facing front stretching from the Pea Ridge plateau to about thirty miles west. The rash Van Dorn saw this movement as a precipitant retreat and followed in four forced marches. When the western Federal force withdrew to link up with the Pea Ridge position, Van Dorn saw an opportunity for envelopment. He sent his army north around the enemy right flank and then swung east behind Big Mountain. He then split his column, sending McCulloch due south along the western side of the mountain while he accompanied Price’s force farther east before turning south. The two forces were to meet in the center of the field. Most of Curtis’ troops were in their southern field works but quick-thinking Union officers slowed and disorganized the exhausted Confederates. Curtis gathered his troops during the night and smashed the Confederate forces the next day, insuring that Missouri would remain in Union hands.

Pea Ridge follows the battle fairly well. The Confederates smash the ad hoc Union forces on both flanks but become bloodied and disorganized. Firepower becomes ineffective once the fight leaves to fields and goes into the forest where melee is king. The Federals arrive from the south and push their enemy off the field with superior weapons and organization. Two historical inaccuracies mar the game. The game has McCulloch coming on first when Price was actually engaged earlier. More importantly, the Confederates have no cavalry when, in fact, McCulloch opened with a ferocious cavalry charge. The Confederates have a chance to win if they get lucky early but the AI has more time to think on the second and third difficulty levels making play a challenge. Multi-play will be added in a update.

This game is a fascinating and enjoyable introduction to the battle. Players who want to look deeper should check out Shea and Hess’ Pea Ridge and John Tiller’s Campaign Ozark game.  In the meantime, this game will give players hours of fascination.

Armchair General Rating: 87%

About the Author

Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online. He is adjunct faculty at Cardinal Stritch University.