Early control of Missouri was vital to the Union in the American Civil War. Without it, the campaigns to control the Mississippi would have been set back by at least a year. This control was sealed in 1862 at Pea Ridge in northern Arkansas but 1861 saw Federal hopes shaken at Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri. Hexwar and Decision Games have attempted to re-create the earlier battle with Wilson’s Creek for iOS platforms.
An Overreaching Desire
The battle of Wilson’s Creek could have been avoided altogether – to the Union’s benefit- had it not been for General Nathanial Lyon’s almost pathological desire to “punish the rebels,” although most Missourians just wanted to be left alone. His actions in St. Louis swelled the ranks of the heretofore nascent Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price, himself no military wonder as he would prove in 1864. Ignoring that he had been succeeded in command of the theater by General John Fremont, Lyons continued southwest beyond his logistical railhead at Rolla to Springfield with a polyglot army of Iowans, Kansans, loyal Missourians and Franz Sigel’s St. Louis Germans. Meanwhile, Price took his rag-tag troopers into northern Arkansas to link up with Confederate troops under General Ben McCulloch. Seeing Lyon’s overstretching, the Southern forces ambled toward Springfield, setting the stage for the second largest battle after First Bull Run to date.
The battlefield was the usual Ozark terrain, mostly thick scrub with scattered small homesteads, dirt paths, fences, small creeks and ridges. The two most significant features was a mound soon to be called Bloody Hill and Wilson’s Creek itself. The games graphics does a good job of portraying these features both in 2D and 3D modes.
Units are regiments and artillery sections with infantry rated at one point per fifty men, cavalry one point per twenty-five men and artillery at one point per gun. The troop sprites are perhaps too homogeneous with soldiers, horses and cannon in typical blue or gray. An effort to show the wildly varied uniforms would have been appreciated. The zoomed-in view illustrates units’ formation of columns, lines, disorder, limbered and unlimbered 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 inverted chevrons while veteran and elite units’ chevrons point up. When a unit is disordered due to combat, a white check mark with a crossbar appears. A white exclamation mark denotes low ammo status.
Players have all the information needed. When selected, the name of each unit 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 sixty 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.
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, interesting battle.
Wilson’s Creek’s interface and mechanics are simple. Selecting a regiment or battery displays reachable hexes in white and possible targets in 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. 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. Victory requires two conditions to be met by the sixteenth turn: eliminate sixty percent of the enemy’s forces and control both victory hexes.
Battle before Coffee
Although outnumbered and ignoring the advice of most of his senior subordinates, Lyon advanced from Springfield to launch a pre-dawn attack on the Southern camp. General Franz Sigel, fresh from defeat in the German Revolution of 1848, convinced Lyon to forget what he learned at West Point and divide his small force to execute a pincer attack in the dark with raw troops. Sigel took a detachment around to attack from the south while Lyon led the main force from the north. Predictably, coordination disappeared and both Union forces were late in moving out. Most of the rebels were surprised at breakfast but several troopers were foraging outside camp, saw the enemy and roused the comrades. Sigel’s small force was halted and forced to retreat fairly quickly. Lyon’s force took Bloody Hill and held off Southern troops for hours while waiting for Sigel. In the afternoon, Lyon was killed, becoming the highest ranking Union officer to die in the war to date. Cooler heads pulled the Federal forces back to the Rolla railhead and the Missouri State Guard entered Springfield. McCulloch’s Confederate troops went back to Arkansas.
Wilson’s Creek depicts these events with a mixed bag of innovations, accuracies and inaccuracies. The game nails the importance of the creek itself. Running north-south, it separated the two objective hexes, making the bridges over it points for defense and traffic control; just firing across it insures defeat for both sides. Replay is garnered by random Union entry points and differing strengths per pincer each new game. The Southern player never knows where the main thrust will hit. On the other hand, the Southern side moves first which is odd since they were surprised. Their cavalry can quickly block bridges before the Yankees enter the map. Also, each side has too many veteran and elite units. Only a few US regular troops and Texas Rangers could be called veteran this early in the war. Many of the troops were virtually untrained. The developers may have done this to make play more exciting but it is still wrong.
With Wilson’s Creek and their earlier Pea Ridge, Hexwar and Decision Games have done a very credible job in making accessible games of the two battles deciding Missouri’s fate. HPS/John Tiller’s Campaign Ozark may be more comprehensive and accurate but the two iOS games open this understudied topic to a broader audience. Combined with the fun factor, this series, which includes other neglected American Civil War battles, is most laudable.