Its always nice to get an Email from John Tiller Software (JTS) announcing a new computer wargame, and a recent message had me forking over my hard earned $39.95 faster than a Prussian musketeer could reload a musket. The game is JTSs Seven Years War, a tactical offering which covers the battles of Frederick the Great, his minions as well as various and sundry other churls such as the Duke Brunswick. Part of the company’s Musket & Pike line, SYW has a lot in common with its sister video game, The Renaissance. In fact, the Users’ Manual is The Renaissance User Manual with no change that I can find (seriously, infantry can form “Blocks” as opposed to “Squares”). The underlying code and numbers have obviously been tweaked to reflect the Lace Wars era, but the game plays almost exactly the same.
Bottom line? If you are expecting some revolutionary design change, you won’t get it. Instead a tried and true gaming engine has been tweaked to simulate a more recent period of military history. This means not only a game easy to learn due to familiarity, but one that simply works because there aren’t a lot of kinks left to fix. So, with that said, let’s take a look.
Order of the Brandenburg Black Eagle
SYW is a hex based computer game where each unit is either a battery of artillery (six or so guns), a battalion of infantry (600 men) or a squadron of cavalry (120 horse). Other units include leaders and supply wagons. Scale is 100 meters across per hex and 15 minutes per turn. The game is 2D only, although a 3D version is being worked on according to the lads over at the Scenario Design Center (SDC). There are 78 scenarios to include those where Old Fritz was present (a la Rossbach), or one of his subordinates was in command (Gross-Jaegersdorf) or an ally (Minden). Some scenarios are variants of the same battle, because honestly, I don’t know of any player stupid enough to let the Prussians pull off the flank march they did at Leuthen. OK, yes, I do, but you get my point. There also three mini campaigns one which does no more than link the battles of 1757 together, with the other two covering the period before and after a significant battle.
Otherwise the game looks and plays like a typical Tiller production. You have a game map with lots of hexes and on the top edge you have both a menu bar and an icon bar covering pretty much the same thing. On the left edge is a wide vertical bar which will display unit cards every time the player clicks on an occupied hex. The cards lists lots of good to know information, to include facing and combat status. The pictures on the card represent the formation in question and are quite accurate in terms of uniforms and flags. Units on the map are actually counters using standard NATO symbology along with a bar or arrow indicating the facing of the gaggle selected. Facing is always towards the junction of two hex sides, never the side itself. There are three levels of zoom and all sorts of options such as toggling the hex outline, allowing multi-hex attacks against a single enemy unit, target density modifiers for fire or automatic defensive fire.
The actual procedures for playing the game are seriously simple, in part because there are so few. Like most PC games of this ilk, the competitive fun isn’t mastering those physical functions, but understanding the numerical modifiers behind them to make good decisions. You click on a hex and if units are in that hex, their cards will appear in the left side info bar noted above. Click on the unit card in question and you can do things from the drop-down menus up top like unlimber guns, change facing and the like. You can likewise move the unit by clicking on its intended path one hex at a time or dragging the unit to its destination hex whereby the software will calculate the shortest distance there and move your formation as far as it will go. Ending movement next to an enemy unit will allow you to melee it, while ‘dragging and dropping’ a unit notionally into an enemy hex during the fire segment allows you to target same for shot and shell. Double clicking on a hex allows selection of all units within without the need to deal with the left info bar, and – dirty little secret here – the same goes if there is only a single unit in the hex. Otherwise the computer calculates all related modifiers for you, then renders the results.
For this review I played the Prussians in the late, Oblique-attack-about-to-commence Leuthen scenario, and found the system works quite well. However, be it known that the numbers behind the scenes have changed, so if you are a veteran of JTS The Renaissance, don’t think that what worked in that game will work here. On a related note the game also includes a nice little pdf on how the SYW was different from the Napoleonic Wars, and although the fire casualties seemed a tad heavy to me, its obvious the designer knows his history. Translation – don’t expect to see the infantry to form ‘square’ (er, I mean, ‘block’) an awful lot in the game, and deploying artillery isn’t slow, its painful.
Pour la Merite
Nevertheless, there are at least three things in this game that stood out to make it special for me. Some have already been introduced into previous JTS games, but if your only experience is with the old Talonsoft games John Tiller designed (get’s around, don’t he?), you could be in for a surprise.
First, the game uses a unique, highly integrated sequence of play with opposing players alternating phases, not turns. While a turn-based sequence is available, it is NOT turned on by default. The phase system works like this:
If this looks familiar to all you pewter pushers out there, it should. Its an exact duplicate of the sequence of play found in Rich Hasenauer’s Fire & Fury American Civil War miniature rules. I have no idea whether this was lifted, or simply derived at independently, but the methodology works really, REALLY well for SYW and made the game a much more realistic contest to play, certainly more challenging and a lot more fun to boot.
The second thing of note for me was the maps. The maps are YUGE and this was absolutely done on purpose. How big? Well, take the Leuthen scenario and bring up the main battle area which is pretty darn large to begin with. Now add another, adjoining map sheet the same size to its left, and add a second like map to the right of the main battle map. Now you have a Leuthen battle scenario covering three times the real estate you’ll find in history books, not to mention all the nifty pubs published by Imperial Germany’s Grosser Generalstab Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung II. The idea is that doing so not only allowed for alternative scenarios to be published within the game itself, but also allows players to build their own unique scenarios using turf not normally seen. Let’s face it, there are only so many times a French player can get spanked at Rossbach before he starts poisoning the Vichyssoise. Thus, on the Leuthen map, upper left corner one will find the rather sizable town of Neumarkt. Remember that one? I thought so. Neither did I and that’s the point.
And speaking of maps, the graphics for the 2D maps in SYW seem to have been redone, or they sure look so when compared to The Renaissance game. The texture is smoother and the terrain far less patterned and thus more natural. In fact, the top down view portrayed reminds me a lot of the look provided by my own favorite map software, Campaign Cartographer 3, especially the forests and villages. SDC is working on a 3D upgrade, and there are some sample maps on Facebook now, but I actually hope they table the effort. Right now, the graphics are perfect for the game, exuding a perspective of high professionalism, that this is a well-researched, serious computer wargame made for well read, serious wargamers. Despite recent improvements, the current Tiller 3D palette seems to me to be grainy in an almost cookie cutter way. With competition for this type of presentation from games like Matrix’s Pike & Shot Campaigns, it makes a solid game look a little quaint. This is only my opinion and not fact, of course, and be it known I’m not a fan of the icon style in games like Panzer Corps (Gold) either. Others may well love the look.
My final word? Well the game is not perfect and things I would like to see are the ability to move and fight with entire commands as opposed to one hex at a time, as well as a little tightening up on the conversion from The Renaissance to SYW. The users’ guide still has illustrations of Landsknechts and similar, and some of the entries on the pull-down menus refer to things not yet present, such as turning non-existent flags on or off. Even the game startup icon is from the former game, not SYW.
But the only actual design issue I have is not unique to SYW and may well be in the too hard to box for all such products. The military formations are simply much too flexible and maneuverable, allowing movement as if the Pomeranian Grenadiers were driving Maserati’s. Now I find a relaxing evening of light reading includes King Frederick Williams Regulations for the Prussian Infantry – in German – so I know technically the units could in theory move this way. But the 18th Century mindset of your typical general simply wouldn’t allow it. In particular, order and alignment were crucial back then so rather than having battalions break formation and sashay as far as the game will let them, commanders would maintain alignment by reducing march rates to the slowest unit in formation. SYW, like nearly every game out there, unfortunately hasn’t figured out a way to force a 21st Century player to think like an 18th Century commander. Perhaps that’s a good thing, however, as most assuredly the fun factor would drop.
Nevertheless, I have to give the game two thumbs up. I found the game fun to play very much in an “easy to learn but hard to win” fashion. The game AI was challenging, and the system does reward historical tactics and does produce realistic, 18th Century results overall. I think everybody, but especially miniaturists, will like the sequence of play overlaid on the oversized maps. As an additional bonus, lead heads now have a complete set of hyper detailed cartography and uber accurate orders of battle for their own scenarios at a cost less than $40 US. So, for those who cringe at perusing Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen because you don’t know Fraktur from an Umlaut, salvation is at hand.
Another exceptional effort from a well-respected leader in the hobby and highly recommended. Just add Schnapps und Schnitzel, bellow Vorwarts to your soldiers and have a blast.