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Board Game: Jeff Davis: The Confederacy at War
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Christian van Someren
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The Setting
In the solitaire game Jeff Davis, you take on the role of the titular president of the Confederate States of America, fighting for Southern independence. As is typical with games by Ben Madison, you play the “villain” of this story rather than then “hero”, which gives the game an interesting and nuanced perspective.

In the game, you must manage your military, economic assets (factories, railroads and plantations), political relations (both within your own government and abroad) and of course your slaves…

The Slavery Question
As with any media surrounding the US Civil War, the slavery question is always contentious and difficult to address. In Jeff Davis, Ben Madison pulls no punches: Slaves are a valuable economic resource for the South, but their use has far-ranging political impacts. One might question the depiction of slaves as “resources”, but it is important to remember the context of the period: At a time when people were considered to be property, it is arguably thematic of the times to depict slaves as another mere resource.

The inclusion of slavery, especially when you are playing as the slave-owner, is an especially bold move. Many games would skirt this issue and focus only on the combat and/or politics of the era. But such an approach does history an injustice. Whatever the narratives about “state’s rights”, it is indisputable that slavery played a key role in the war and formed the backbone of the southern economy and way of life (according to the rule book, slaves accounted for the majority of the South’s agricultural production and wealth). By forcing the player to confront the use of slaves head-on, Mr. Madison reminds us of the reality of slavery at the time and what a southern “victory” would entail.

The Gameplay
Jeff Davis is an interesting evolution of Mr. Madison's previous designs. I would describe it as a mixture of his States of Siege style of games such as Nubia, with his British War trilogy, taking the best of both designs to create something new yet familiar.

On your turn, you draw an event chit from a cup. This results in various Union armies advancing towards their objectives, economic crises occurring and other random events. This leads to my one 'criticism' of the game: While I do find the chit pull system to be more elegant than the card-driven play typical of most of these styles of game, I do miss the historical flavor text which the cards contain. A minor gripe to be sure.

After the damage is done, you get to spend your precious few resources in order to fight back. You are able to send out blockade runners to bring in some much-needed funds, attack enemy armies to push your way towards your own political objectives, manage your political relations (both internally and externally), and rebuild your infrastructure giving you access to better defenses and supply for your armies.

Rinse and repeat until your confederation falls apart or you are able to prolong the stalemate long enough that Lincoln loses the 1864 election and a truce is declared.

Food for Thought
As with all designs by Mr. Madison, I find this game to be both straightforward and deep. The rules are not difficult and the exceptions are few. The decisions are limited, but they are impactful – you play the game, the game doesn’t play you.

And finally, what I value most in any wargame, Jeff Davis provides interesting new insight into the US Civil War. Despite its apparent simplicity, this is no mere counter pusher. Political power is limited, as are economic resources and slaves. “Spending” slaves and politicians hurts you politically and destabilizes the Confederacy. Not spending them can lead to economic or military ruin. The choices and trade-offs in this game form an intricate web which must be carefully managed to stave off disaster, which is always on your doorstep. You are not going to win the war, and even a truce will be difficult to pull off. But you will nevertheless find an insightful and fun experience which you will want to play again and again.

I wholeheartedly recommend picking up Jeff Davis if you’re a solo gamer with an interest in history (and even if you don’t, this game might change that). Jeff Davis is another gem in Ben Madison’s growing library of interesting titles.
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W.W. H.
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Quote:
One might question the depiction of slaves as “resources”, but it is important to remember the context of the period: At a time when people were considered to be property, it is arguably thematic of the times to depict slaves as another mere resource.

The inclusion of slavery, especially when you are playing as the slave-owner, is an especially bold move. Many games would skirt this issue and focus only on the combat and/or politics of the era. But such an approach does history an injustice.
thumbsupthumbsup this, although I wouldn't say the game treats slaves as a "mere" resource. From the player's perspective, those slaves will become active agents of your precious Confederacy's destruction. There's a great quote about Civil War historiography in Ben Madison's rulebook notes: come for the bravery, stay for the slavery. The way this game handles slavery is commendable, as is its emphasis on the impact that the incorporation of freedmen into the Union Army had on the war. I read S.C. Gwynne's excellent book Hymns of the Republic around the same time I learned this game, and I think Madison nailed it. I get the same feeling from Jeff Davis that I get from playing The Barbarossa Campaign (where you play the Axis); even when I lose, it still feels right.
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Robert Madison
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Thank you both for the positive reviews and the commentary. I didn't want to make a game 'about' slavery, but at the same time I was put off by the fact so many Civil War games ignore the topic completely. I wasn't trying to get on a political soapbox either, I just thought such a major part of the Southern economy, and of the Southern rationale for seceding in the first place (c.f. Confederate VP Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone Speech") belonged in the game.

Giving slavery both an economic and a political aspect looked like the right way to approach it, and the "Plantation" counters fit quite nicely with the economic infrastructure model (railways and factories) that I was already developing. You control territory for economic reasons, not just -- as in most Leviloff Tower Defense games -- for added strategic depth. (That's the Marxist in me talking. ;-)

I didn't want to beat anybody over the head with an anti-slavery diatribe, I just wanted to put the player in a realistic situation. From your comments, and others', I appear to have succeeded and I'm grateful for that.

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Robert Madison
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Christianv wrote:
As is typical with games by Ben Madison, you play the “villain” of this story rather than then “hero”, which gives the game an interesting and nuanced perspective.
From the feedback I've had on Mrs Thatcher's War, British players of that game get to play a hero and villain simultaneously!
 
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Robert Madison
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Quote:
While I do find the chit pull system to be more elegant than the card-driven play typical of most of these styles of game, I do miss the historical flavor text which the cards contain. A minor gripe to be sure.
Just to add: We used chits instead of cards largely for production and logistical reasons, but an added reason was that I really didn't think I had much to add in terms of historical interpretation. Most Civil War gamers are very familiar with the Civil War as a historical event, and I couldn't really see myself as "educating" Civil War buffs on a topic they already know so well.
 
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