Review: Pea Ridge04 Dec 2015 0
If you play historical wargames on your Mac or iOS device then you are most likely familiar with HexWar and their range of games. They have created a large library of titles that share the same engine allowing you to leverage your experience with commanding the armies of the Macedonian Successor States in a game depicting Gettysburg. HexWar have even, at least on the iPad, gone so far as to patch new additions to the game engine into older titles to ensure this continuity of game experience.
With their most recent release, Pea Ridge, HexWar have joined forces with traditional war game developer Decision Games and released a digital version of the Pea Ridge wargame. This was originally released, back in the days slightly after yore, by SPI as part of their Great Battles of the American Civil War series. Not to be confused with the GMT Games series of the same name or with Decision's own Pea Ridge title. Clearly coming up with unique product names isn't the forté of the typical Civil War game developer. BoardGameGeek has a wonderful entry on the original game including a hi-res scan of the original game map that is a useful game aid and also handy to refer to when reading this review. And if anything, looking at photos of the piles of counters needed to play the cardboard version will make you appreciate the digital age even more.
The Battle of Pea Ridge (also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern) was fought between Union and Confederate forces on March 6th to 8th, 1862, at Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas. Confederate general Earl Van Dorn attempted to move from Missouri to push Union forces from Arkansas and Union general Curtis responded by bringing troops from central Arkansas. Over the course of the three days Curtis managed to push the, numerically superior, Confederate forces back into Missouri and ended any Confederate threat to the state.
HexWar brings this battle, as envisioned by the original SPI designers, to the Mac and iOS using their existing hex-based wargaming engine. It is a flexible system that, over the years, has gained the ability to gauge combat based on unit quality (Levy, Raw, Average, Veteran and Elite), type of weapon (smoothbore or rifled), ammunition levels, the appearance of leaders, terrain, visibility and formation. A unit of Raw infantry in column formation firing smoothbore weapons will, as expected, be less effective than an elite unit with rifled muskets firing with the aid of an officer. Units can change formation to affect their movement or combat and can dismount, if they are cavalry, or alternate between limbered and unlimbered in the case of cannons.
The game allows for multiple types of terrain as well as hills and other cover that break line of sight. During the AI's turn you can sometimes see units appear and disappear as they move across the map in or behind blocking terrain. This Fog of War is perhaps the one way in which a game like this is superior to its cardboard progenitor. Is your opponent splitting their forces when they near the farms at Round Top? Have the Union forces marched forward and taken positions near Oberson's Cornfield? In this version of Pea Ridge you don't know.
The underlying combat result engine also can, optionally, display the impact of the various factors in a combat to give you, the armchair general, a numeric approximation of your chances in any combat. How it comes to these values (number of attacks with a percentage chance of success per attack) isn't quantified but this level of detail, no matter how opaque, is a welcome addition to a game. If you charge uphill against an elite unit of infantry supported by a general then you really only have yourself to blame if it all turns pear-shaped.
Pea Ridge, the video wargame, is the product of a proven digital war-game engine with a tested and proven scenario and so the real test is to see if the scenario fits the HexWar engine and if the engine is up to the task of allowing a gamer to easily play the scenario as envisioned by the original developers.
The Pea Ridge game has, uniquely for a HexWar title, a single scenario that allows you to play either as Van Dorn's Confederates or Curtis' Union troops. There are multiple levels of AI opponent that you can compete against (but no multiplayer options). The scenario victory conditions are defined by controlling three victory point locations (one in the southwest at Leetown, one at Curtis' headquarters and a third in the northeast at Elkhorn Tavern) or by destroying units and reducing the opposing army below 50% strength while maintaining your own forces at more than 50%.
What makes this scenario interesting is that the Confederate and Union forces all start off-screen and the Union forces can quickly move to capture the two victory locations in the south while the Confederate forces need to dash down the forest roads to deploy and then advance to those same locations before the Union troops can build up a strong enough force to delay or even push them back. The Confederate forces have the weight of numbers but the Union player can more quickly get troops into positions to choke off the Confederate advance.
The terrain in and around Pea Ridge is heavily wooded and broken by farms and fields surrounded by and subdivided by fencing. This provides the largest areas of open space and often the most heavily contested areas in the game. The map art and the unit models can combine to create some very effective and pleasing visuals and create a very immersive sense of the scale of the battle.
The entire battle resolves itself over a map that is two or three times the size of maps in previous HexWar titles and this is where the engine starts to have issues. There is no "Next Unit" button as you would find in most similar games and so traversing the map to move from units on the far left at the Masonic Lodge and then across to the right near the Elkhorn Tavern is needlessly annoying especially in a game that plays over the course of 30 turns. The game provides a helpful blue arrow to indicate the direction where you have units that haven't been ordered yet but sadly nothing in the interface to rapidly jump to any of those units. This isn't as much of an issue on the Mac version of the game where traversing the map with the trackpad is actually quite simple.
The game offers three levels of magnification to zoom out and allow you to view the entire field of battle at once. The game still functions fully in these zoom modes so you can actually give orders, see the location of your, and your opponent's, leaders and also see the blue overlay indicating units that can still be issued orders. This is often the quickest way to move to units awaiting orders when using the iOS version.
The interface for the game is rather minimal but can sometimes be confusing. Some of the icons (such as limber and unlimber) are quite similar and the formation icons for dismounted cavalry are the same as infantry and there is no distinct "mount' button in the UI. Even more puzzling, the icon used to dismount cavalry is actually a mounted cavalry figure. These aren't debilitating problems but they can cause some frustrations from time to time. Oddly there aren't any tooltips for the icons on the Mac version of the game. Its an understandable omission under iOS but seems strange when playing on a laptop.
A more major issue is that the game doesn't label the save game slots. There are four iCloud and four local save slots (on both platforms) but there is no indication of what the game state of a save was or even that a slot contained a save game. This means that you often have to remember which save slot you saved a particular game in and given that there are eight possible slots to choose from and no way to know where it was saved this seems particularly poor.
The game gives the appearance of being rushed. Text in some of the help windows is outside the bounds of the help window. The Help system has a very extensive list of unit descriptions including weapon ranges but the font choices make the text a bit difficult to read for long periods. The interface seems to have been put together without a lot of subsequent user testing, as mentioned earlier, and isn't really up the same standards as previous HexWar titles. While the UI has its issues, the in-game graphics are excellent and easy to understand. The individual figures that are used to create a unit on screen can be moved to indicate the formation and if the unit is disordered or not. Rank, ammunition status and unit strength are also easily distinguished when playing.
On the Mac the game is silky smooth and runs very quickly. It has a windowed as well as full-screen mode and even when being used in full-screen mode it quickly lets you switch to other apps (such as the word processor used for this review) quickly and without any issues. Performance was very good on the iPad 2 used to test the iOS version of the game. And due to the minimal interface the game was even quite playable on my iPhone 4s. Animations are slightly slow with no options to speed them up but clicking on the screen after ordering a unit (or just clicking while the AI is playing) will cause the animations to speed up considerably.
The two major issues with the game surround the scenario itself. The first six turns of the game can often be a bit uninteresting and in subsequent replays involve you moving the same units in the same order and in the same manner for several turns. This is more a problem when playing as the Confederates who spend several turns running down two forest roads. There is also the question of replayability. Even with the three levels of AI opponent the game only offers a single scenario. This sadly isn't 1980 when the original title was published and gamers, especially fans of HexWar titles, have grown used to wargame titles offering multiple scenarios. It does though cover a Civil War battle that most publishers haven't explored and while it lacks a wide range of scenarios, the one on offer does pose quite a few challenges for the player.
Pea Ridge by HexWar has some blemishes but it offers an interesting gameplay experience with different problems for the Union and Confederate player. The AI is quite good and the in-game graphics create a great looking Civil War experience. If you are a fan of Civil War games or just a fan of interesting, and overlooked, battles then the price for this title makes it an easy purchase to recommend.
Pea Ridge was played on an iPad 2, an iPhone 4S, and a MacBook for this review.