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Subject: BoAR: Monmouth review, by Owen Edwards rss

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Owen Edwards
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Battles of the American Revolution Volume V: Monmouth – by Mark Miklos, GMT Games (also found at my new blog, http://britwargamereviews.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/battles-of-...)

I've played this once electronically on VASSAL (it's out of print), and I want to play it again. It was my successful test run for whether I wanted to preorder GMT's American Revolution Tri-Pack, a reprint of three early games in the same series. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it, and that's the essential conclusion here.

Let's dig deeper. This is a “hex and counter” wargame of a battle in 1778 during the American Revolution, with each side controlling armies of counters representing leaders, regiments/brigades of infantry and cavalry, and batteries of artillery, fighting on a map made up of hexagons. It's a pretty traditional game in that genre in most respects – units project a “zone of control”, making it harder for their enemy to do stuff near them; ranged and close combat are resolved by cross-referencing a chart based on the strength of the attack and the result of a ten-sided die; and so forth. There are lots of games essentially like this, so why is this worth playing?

Four essential components, which marry together well: mechanics, weight, decisions, and aesthetics.

Mechanics

This is a pretty old-fashioned hex-and-counter game, down to I-go-U-go turns and mandatory close combat. However, whilst pretending to be a staid design, this is actually quite an inventive series as a whole, with some clever twists to the specific iteration (the series has a unified core rulebook, with exclusive rules accompanying each game). Army morale, which decreases and increases over the course of the game based on combat results and special cases, affects initiative rolls at the start of each turn and modifies combat die rolls. Though players take turns moving and attacking with all their units at once – with no push-pull within the turn as in Great Battles of History with its Momentum and Trump rolls, for instance – the “passive” player is always engaged. Only the passive player's artillery fires each turn, followed by both sides having their rifle-armed units fire. This gives a sense of agency throughout, especially as successful defensive fire can be devastating to finely-tuned attacks.

Close combat is determined on an odds basis (e.g. if the attackers have a strength of 4 vs a defensive strength of 1, the odds are 4:1 and you check the 4:1 column on the Combat Results Table or CRT), but the die roll is modified by the net difference between the modifiers of the two sides – which includes leader quality, troop quality, terrain, and troop type. The CRT has a wide range of results, with a big middle ground of non-destructive effects which models the relatively bloodless field warfare of the era. For comparison, both sides combined suffered under 1000 casualties at Monmouth, which was the longest battle of the American Revolution, whilst at Pea Ridge in 1862 in the American Civil War, fought between very similarly sized armies, nearly 3500 men were killed, wounded, or missing. But Disruptions, Retreats, and Pins can all lead to counter-attacks, damage, and unit captures in future turns, as well as damage to Army Morale – and the relative bloodlessness makes the rare damage/capture results all the more important, as those give you Victory Points, which will very often determine the winner at the end, unless sudden death conditions are fulfilled first. An additional somewhat clever mechanic for close combat, which I didn't use playing solitaire, is the Tactical Matrix, where each player selects a manoeuvre in secret, and the two are compared – there's a rock-paper-scissors element to this, with certain options being good against other options, but boardstate and the presence of leaders permitting or barring some options from being chosen. This isn't actually, from what I can see, much more than a coat of paint over the creation of hidden information and a bluff microphase, but that's not a problem for me.

Finally, there are Momentum Chits, gained from outlandish results on the CRT. These allow rerolls in close combat and the manipulation of the Initiative roll at the start of each turn. A little like Tactics Chits, this isn't a terribly integral mechanic – and is marked as optional – but adds some swing and chance to the game. Chits definitely affected my game, and in a way that increased enjoyment.

The Monmouth-specific rules consist of two types: integral and historical “chrome”, which is more properly an aesthetic concern. The most important instances of the former concern the initial American commander's performance, and the extraordinary heat of the day – until George Washington relieves Charles Lee on the field, randomized American brigades are prone to freezing or retreating each turn. As the battle progresses and the day gets hotter, draws on the Initiative roll will cause the entire turn to be skipped unless someone spends a Momentum Chit, and Morale Checks are penalized. Both of these, especially the former, can really inform the flow of the game – Lee's poor-but-not-horrendous performance more or less kept the Americans in the fight in my play.

Weight
But despite all those complex things above, this is a surprisingly easy game to learn, and will, I think, be alright to teach. It's not an absolute beginner's game, but I'm confident of teaching the Tri-Pack when it arrives from GMT to some of my “lighter” gamer friends. The simple core of all hex-and-counter games is here – move your Movement Points somewhere you want to go, attack if that makes sense, use your artillery to break up the enemy. But the rules “on top” of that never feel onerous. Some flirt with beer-and-pretzels mechanics, such as Momentum Chits, but that's frankly a selling point to someone wanting a more lively game. Some are actually quite finely balanced and designed without being too onerous, such as the CRT (especially the delicate agony of the PIN result). The passive player is kept engaged both via the Fire Phases and via the Tactical Chit mechanic in close combat, and though both add complexity, neither is really heavy at all.

The comparison to other modern hex-and-counter games series is useful. This isn't as simple as Decision Games' Folio Series, not by a margin; but it's equally simpler by a good clip than any of the Great Battles of History entries, and simpler even than Musket and Pike. Some of this is due to elision of favoured concepts encountered elsewhere in the particular design tradition, such as facing – but only a little granularity is lost via this, replaced by a close combat penalty for being Surrounded combined with the well-tried mechanic of not being able to ignore multiple adjacent enemy stacks when attacking (i.e. not being allowed to bully one stack in the face of the others!). The rules are also genuinely well written, and the separation of series rules from module rules has its advantages, keeping the core rules to a svelte 13 pages including cover, sequence of play, and plenty of example pictures.

Decisions
The game has good mechanics without being too heavy, and this allows the key element of any wargame to shine: interesting decisions. The battle can develop along historic lines, or it can lead to entirely different conclusions. Some of this is down to specific design elements of the module – some reinforcements being luck-based (but manipulable by Momentum Chits), Heat Turns, Charles Lee's Command and Control problems. Some of it is down to the dynamic of an essentially meeting engagement which can spread in multiple directions to multiple natural lines of defence – between Monmouth and Overlook Hill, for instance, stretching to the north-west and south-east in a curve; well to the west where the historic denouement happened; or even distinctly north or south of Monmouth, if either army manoeuvres in strength and with determination. It's also down to a fine balance between the sides. The constant flow of reinforcements for both sides and the interesting terrain make it viable for either side to turn the tide til the very end, which makes it different from that other classic meeting engagement, Gettysburg.

Aesthetics
Finally, these decisions seems to matter all the more because the game is winsome. Its theme communicates. This is not some interesting engine for calculating moves on a hexagonal chess board. Nor is it even just a convincing simulation of 18th century civil war amongst English-speaking peoples. It is a beautiful game, even on VASSAL – Mark Simonitch's map is right up there with his best. The game itself pre-empts Hamilton's take on Lee's malign influence (“Attack! Retreat!”), there are delightful touches thrown in that are nearly entirely thematic (“Molly Pitcher” auto-rallying an American artillery unit once per game, for instance), and the mechanics lend themselves to storytelling, especially in the to-and-fro interspersed with decisive moments. In my game Charles Lee became a casualty to artillery fire, whilst the Hessian mounted riflemen dispersed Washington's Life Guard in the very last breaths of the game – but not before Washington had relieved Lee and stabilized the American line at Overlook Hill, and not before a lot of the combatants had fought their last in the shaded, humid woods north and west of Monmouth, where the bulk of the fighting occurred.

Brief Conclusion
I would love to play this again, and would certainly buy it if reprinted. It's good at what it does; if you like that sort of thing, you will like this.
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Todd Carter
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Nice review! This was the first BOAR game I played and it's my favorite. So, it's good to see it get a little attention.
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Owen Edwards
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plainscape wrote:
Nice review! This was the first BOAR game I played and it's my favorite. So, it's good to see it get a little attention.


Thanks! It's a great game. Just started playing Germantown on VASSAL, and I'm looking forward to it!
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