We the People
Mark Herman, Avalon Hill, 1994
AASGC Game Review
Tim Smith, Annapolis-Area Strategy Gaming Club
‘We the People’ (‘WtP’) is a relatively simple but subtle strategic treatment of the American Revolutionary War that provides a ‘history lesson in a box’. It is a Card-Driven Game (CDG) that employs point-to-point (PtP) movement. In AASGC’s argot, it is a ‘low-resolution, historically/scientifically accurate simulation model’. In other words, although structurally simple, its game engine and mechanics validly reflect enough sufficiently important truths about the topic to make it a useful tool for ‘history lab’ as a complement to high-school or college-level lecture and readings. While middle-schoolers with extensive gaming experience can be coached through it, its approach is sufficiently novel to challenge experienced high-schoolers, while novice college students will require no less coaching. Moreover, Mark Herman wrote up a detailed Historical Commentary and Example of Play that together elevate the game to a higher plane of historical achievement and pedagogical value. (By the way, much of the following presumably applies equally to its WtP’s reissuance, ‘Washington’s War’, although I have yet to play that version.)
WtP offers an interesting treatment of the War for Independence that emphasizes generalship, the role of the French, and the decisive underlying factor of popular adherence to the respective causes of the Patriots and Tories. The cards provide detailed historical events and factors the students will study for purposes of play but with the main benefit of learning some of the history. The game as a whole presents the campaign challenge commanders on both sides faced when weighing whether to seek battle or challenge the other’s control of territory and population at the risk of jeopardizing areas one controls but must abandon when seeking to expand. The game de-emphasizes the historical role of seapower, the wider grand-strategic context, and the American population(s) and militias, including the ‘Indians’.
Within the constraints of its low-resolution focus, WtP accurately conveys the strengths and weaknesses of the three armies and their commanders, with the cards depicting interesting details and potential events, including the viability of Lord North’s ministry and Parliamentary control and tactical maneuvers battlefield commanders could employ to win battles (but it is not a technical, tactical game).
The game offers valid insights into many aspects of theater campaigning, including lines of communication (by land and, for the Brits and French, by sea) and winter quarters. As a PtP/CDG, the overall ‘feel’ of the game’s movement and combat mechanics convey a sense of artificiality; however, as play unfolds one can see the game capturing valid operational dynamics characteristic of a war of maneuver with small armies across a vast and highly politicized landscape. Although allowing the British and sometimes the French to move by sea, the game down-plays the role of naval operations in the war.
The Design as a Game
WtP will challenge any gamer, from novice to grognard, at least until the player has become ‘acclimatized’ to what the historical contemporaries recognized as a highly novel warfare environment: a war over political sovereignty in which the people were almost entirely ‘middle class’, vice cowed but largely apolitical peasants, and deemed themselves sovereign. As noted, WtP is suitable largely for high-school and college students.
The game’s historical subject, knotty problems, and card-driven unpredictability draw students in quite effectively (its status as a perennial at the World Boardgaming Championships is a testament to its appeal).
WtP offers many exciting moments, especially, for instance, when one takes a risk to enter hostile territory, albeit with a strong battle hand, and witnesses a powerful enemy army take a sea move (or a double move), attack from your rear, and happen somehow to have enough of the only card in which you are a little weak so as to force you to retreat into enemy-held territory, which, being prohibited, results in the complete destruction of your army.
The rules are reasonably well-organized, clear and complete, albeit not without gaps and ambiguities. They’re not up to SPI standards, but satisfactory. Some important questions are obscure at first, but the superb, extended Example of Play generally answers these. The rules are unified but lack the coherence provided by SPI’s old practice of cross-referencing rules to all related rules.
These critiques pale to insignificance, however, next to the value provided by Mark Herman’s Historical Commentary, which also is superb, especially when used along with the Example of Play, which clarifies the complete flow and mechanics of the game for all who take the time to use it.
WtP provides sound insight into the overall sweep of the American Revolutionary War, its theater-level operations and constraints and the risks commanders faced in pursuing objectives. It challenges players’ ability to conceptualize the overall theater-wide politico-military problem of the AmRev and to pursue opportunity while minimizing risk in a simultaneously wide-open but constrained environment. The game does an excellent job of conveying an historical feel for the era. The cards are especially evocative in that regard, and make reference to problems, events and personalities students will have learned about in their studies or will want to, having encountered them here.
WtP is an excellent teaching tool for more than just these reasons, however. In addition to the cards (which kids love to read), the Historical Commentary and the Example of Play provide tremendous learning enrichment and relate the game to the history vividly. Together these convert the game package into a learning laboratory of tremendous value for teachers and students (this is why I give the game a 10 in the ratings section notwithstanding the minor dings that would usually require an 8 or 9 rating). Not only do they deepen the historical learning value, they help show students how logic and quantification can be employed to ‘process’ the raw ‘material’ of historical fact into a rules-based simulation model, a form of conceptualization (Piagetian ‘formal operations’) that American public education tends not to instill (in teachers or students!).
This being said, WtP’s choice of major factors to include and exclude suggests that for ‘history lab’ in the study of the war, another strategic treatment should accompany it if instructional time allows. For high-schoolers, we in the AASGC use Academy Games’ ‘1775: Rebellion’, which is easy to learn, plays as quickly, and conveniently emphasizes elements WtP de-emphasizes (militias, Indians, and some operational dynamics). (For more advanced students, DG’s ‘The American Revolution: Decision in North America’ (S&T270) provides an excellent grand strategic overview that emphasizes seapower, European rivalries, and the West Indies.)
Physical/ Artistic Quality
WtP dates from the 1990s, predating today’s era of graphic splendor. Given that, its counters and markers are excellent, especially the stand-up ‘figurines’ for the generals (art by McGowan). The map is good, colorful, clear, and serviceable. Not a master-piece, but not unattractive. The cards are excellent. Newer games have even better graphics, but these depict period art (often engravings) that convey the look and feel of the era. The box is excellent. The painting of Washington and troops at Valley Forge is beautiful and highly evocative. Finally, the game’s name is perfect, especially as a complement to the name of Herman’s Civil War PtP CDG, ‘For the People’.
Rumour has it that Mark Herman wants you to play a replacement to this game? Or is AH going to put it on their P500?